Bob Dispenza has been in uniform for a lot of Civil War re-enactments. But most people don't recognize the branch of military service he portrays.
“One of the first questions we get is, 'What Navy?'" the local resident said.
The nation takes time today to honor military personnel who have given their lives to preserve freedom, but Dispenza and a small group of other Civil War Navy re-enactors work all year to save the memory of men whose military service has been all but forgotten.
Dispenza, park and education manager at the Allen County Parks Department's Metea Park, has been interested in Civil War history for a long time. Working in the parks and recreation field, however, he had to work most weekends and didn't have time to get involved in re-enactments.
That changed when he started his job in 2001 at Allen County Parks, which included some weekends off, he said.
His father served in the Navy during World War II, so Dispenza already had an interest in that branch of service. But when he went to Civil War re-enactments, he didn't see any Navy people.
“There are thousands of people who are not being represented at all,” he said.
Dispenza said the Navy had four main responsibilities during the Civil War:
– Hunt down Confederate ships conducting raids on Union shipping on the ocean.
– Blockade arms and equipment from getting to the Confederacy by water and prevent the Confederacy from shipping out cotton for sale.
– Keep rivers open to allow Union troop movement and to maintain supply lines.
– Fight the Confederate Army, in part because the Confederacy had few naval vessels.
Only 2,130 Hoosiers served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Dispenza said. That represents a fraction of the 208,367 Indiana residents who served in the Army during the conflict.
During the Civil War, most Indiana men who enlisted in the Navy ended up at the river naval base at Cairo, Ill., he said. They then would serve on gunboats patrolling major rivers, such as the Mississippi and Ohio.
One of those men, Lt. Cmdr. LeRoy Fitch, who grew up in Logansport, is credited with using ships in his command to prevent John Hunt Morgan from crossing back over the Ohio River to Kentucky after his famous “Morgan's Raid” into southern Indiana and Ohio, Dispenza said.
Why doesn't the Navy have a more prominent place in Civil War history?
Dispenza says one reason is that large numbers of men from a community could enlist together and serve in the same Army unit, while sailors typically entered military service as individuals and were assigned wherever the Navy needed them.
Many sailors kept to themselves and didn't write about their war experiences or hold big reunions after the war ended, Dispenza said. Many Army soldiers also viewed Navy sailors as slackers.
There were advantages to serving in the Navy during the Civil War.
Sailors had a higher survival rate than soldiers, in part because disease could be quarantined to one ship's crew rather than allowed to spread throughout an Army camp, Dispenza said.
On the steam-powered Navy ships commonly used on rivers — uncertain winds made sails unreliable — sailors typically poured off drinking water from the steam condenser, he said. The boiler process killed bacteria in that water.
Sailors typically ate better than soldiers because they rarely outran their supply line, Dispenza said. If the crew needed food, they could go ashore and buy, steal or hunt what they needed.
The Civil War Navy also was racially integrated, Dispenza added. Slaves were considered illegally held by the South, so many surrendered to Union gunboats and served as enlisted sailors.
“As the war went on, there were black petty officers giving orders to white sailors,” Dispenza said, noting “that would not happen in the Army.”
The Navy returned to being racially segregated after the war, he said.
Dispenza tries to keep the Navy's Civil War history alive by serving as a guest lecturer at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
He and his sons, Paul Ben, 9, and Justinian, 22, frequently present the Navy's story at Civil War re-enactments.
“Never have I ever had anyone say, “Oh, I've heard that before,” Justinian said.
“I like the weapons and playing,” Paul Ben said. “Some of my friends usually are there, and I play Civil War with them.”
Bob Dispenza guesses there are fewer than 100 Civil War Navy re-enactors nationwide. Despite being overshadowed by thousands of Union and Confederate army re-enactors, Dispenza holds steady on their course.
“There is a whole section of people out there who sacrificed during the war, and they are completely forgotten,” he said. “We can't allow that to happen.”