From steamboats to vintage baseball and the Civil War, Jason Constantine D'06 brings the past alive
It is dusk on a summer evening in 1864, and the 26th North Carolina Regiment is bivouacked across a huge field in southern Virginia. Clusters of tired men gather in front of heavy canvas tents, standing or sitting around dozens of small campfires that pierce the darkening land.
As the evening’s ration of hardtack rumbles in their stomachs, the men complain of sore legs and backs, still aching from the long day’s hike. A few break out pipes and small bags of tobacco and light up a restful smoke. Around one of the fires, a fiddler plays a song about home, mournful notes wafting across the field.
Off to the side, the Rev. Jason Constantine, a young Methodist chaplain making rounds from campfire to campfire, stops for a moment and takes it all in. Born in 1838 in Wilmington, N.C., he’s the son of a harbor pilot and German immigrant woman. Before his call to ministry, he, like his father, piloted a steamboat. Not long before the war broke out, he was a circuit rider in the mountains of western North Carolina.
It’s an extraordinary sight, an army at rest, he thinks to himself.
But then, high overhead, a Boeing 737 roars through the sky, heading south out of Richmond to Atlanta. The spell is broken. The illusion shattered.
For a brief while, it was pretty close to the real thing, at least as close as you can get this side of a time machine.
As the jet streaks above, Jason Constantine, the Civil War chaplain, is once again Jason Constantine, the Duke Divinity School student, who remembers that he’s got a paper due next week. Fortunately, as the plane passes, so too do thoughts of divinity school, and he is once again back in 1864.
A self-described “history nerd” (he still talks wistfully about his 12th birthday party, held at a local history museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.), Constantine is an avid “historical re-enactor,” or “living history enthusiast.” For him, such moments of verisimilitude are treasures. They are the quarry he hunts, brief episodes that help flesh out the tales told in books.
Civil War re-enacting isn’t a bunch of overgrown boys playing army, says Constantine. It’s not maudlin celebrations of “The Lost Cause” by unreconstructed Confederates. (Actually from Michigan, Constantine’s sympathies tend to be with the other side, and when Union re-enactors are short-staffed, he and his unit sometimes “cross dress” as the 24th Michigan).
“It’s all about the history,” he says. “It’s living history, a history museum without walls. We’re not reliving the war, but bringing it to life.”
The Civil War gig is only the most recent in a long line of “living history” experiences for Constantine. It’s an avocation—“hobby” seems too frivolous a word—he picked up during college and graduate school at Central Michigan University. There, he earned bachelor and master degrees in history and was heading for a career in museum administration before being called to ministry. While at Central Michigan, Constantine spent his summers working at museums and participating in their living history programs, initially at Greenfield Village— a sort of “18th- and early-19th century Williamsburg,” established by Henry Ford—and later at the Midland County Historical Society in Midland, Mich.
At Greenfield Village, Constantine piloted the Suwanee, a replica of a coal-burning steamboat once chartered by Thomas Edison for his vacations in Fort Meyers, Fla. Besides being a pastor, or at least an aspiring pastor, that’s the only part of Constantine’s Civil War persona that’s real—he really does know how to pilot a steamboat. In his off-hours, he also played two seasons on the Greenfield Lah De Dahs, a vintage baseball team that plays by the 1861 Knickerbocker rules.
Later, while serving as the collections assistant at the Midland Historical Society, Constantine started a vintage baseball team, the Mighty River Hogs of Midland County. Named for the workers who floated logs downriver to sawmills, the River Hogs are now one of 16 vintage baseball teams in Michigan and play teams from throughout the upper Midwest.
In addition to vintage baseball, Constantine also plays yet another predecessor of modern baseball: cricket. He learned while in college from a group of Pakistani students and now plays with the Duke cricket club.
Civil War reenactments entered his repertoire only a couple of years ago, when, after entering divinity school in the fall of 2003, he missed taking part in living history programs. After promising his wife, Cathy, that he wouldn’t start another vintage baseball team, Constantine researched the Web and soon found and joined the 26th N.C. regiment. With more than 400 members, it’s one of the largest Civil War reenacting groups in the country and prides itself on historical accuracy.
Gathering monthly at historic battlegrounds throughout the Southeast or for living history sessions at schools or parks, the 26th has given Constantine opportunities not only for history, but also for ministry. He serves as the regimental chaplain, meeting and talking with his fellow re-enactors and preaching on Sunday mornings.
As an aspiring U.S. Navy chaplain, most likely in the Navy Reserve, Constantine has found the experience invaluable. While the encampments are “only” reenactments, his Civil War chaplaincy is much like a military ministry, he says.
“Most of it isn’t in worship, but in the fields, around the campfire, or on a march,” says Constantine. “Like any chaplaincy, it’s a ministry of service, caring and presence.”
Several of the regiment’s members tell Constantine they consider him their pastor, and his Sunday services, their church.
“Though it’s only one weekend a month, I’m finding that I can still develop meaningful relationships,” says Constantine. “These are people who have the same problems anybody has: problems at home or at work, fears, worries, and issues of identity—questions about who you are and who you’re called to be.”
Since joining the 26th, Constantine has managed to contribute one more element of historical accuracy to their gatherings. While he has kept his promise to his wife not to start another team, he has introduced vintage baseball to the 26th, and now the soldiers routinely play the game while in camp. Like everything else in the regiment—from clothes to firearms to military drills—the game is a historically accurate addition. After the end of the war, baseball actually helped bind the nation’s wounds. In the week following the surrender at Appomattox, as the Confederates awaited their paroles, they played baseball with the Union troops.
For Constantine, history isn’t a game he and others do for fun on a weekend, or a book to be read, or a stuffy play to be acted out. History is all around us, he says. As Faulkner put it, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” History is inescapable, always shaping us.
Whether baseball, steamboats, the Civil War, or theology, history is about our story, says Constantine.
“If we don’t know our story, how do we know who we are?” he asks.
For more reading on the Web:
The Mighty River Hogs of Midland County
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