(Perciavalle (far right, middle, holding rifle) fires a shot during the re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg. Photo courtesy Mark Makela: http://www.markmakela.com/)
During the week, you’re most likely to find Brad Perciavalle ’12 hunkered behind his desk at Fifth Avenue Place in downtown Pittsburgh. But on the weekends, there’s a good chance he’ll be sitting around a campfire gnawing on a piece of hardtack.
By day Perciavalle crunches numbers and calculates risk as an actuarial analyst for healthcare giant Highmark. “I look into cost and quality and try to figure out how we can make it more efficient,” says Perciavalle, who graduated from RMU’s nationally recognized actuarial science program.
When he’s not behind a computer, however, this Ambridge native enjoys reliving history as a Civil War reenactor. Recently he got to take part in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Blue Gray Alliance event.
“It was an amazing experience,” says Perciavalle, a member of the 63rd PA Vol. Infantry, Co. C., reenactment group. “We got to be the Irish Brigade, and one guy even portrayed the Rev. William Corby, their famous chaplain. We could hear the gunfire in the background as he blessing us before going into battle. What made it even cooler was the fact that the guy was an actual priest, which made it all the more real. It was one of those moments you get into this for.”
Perciavalle first discovered reenacting in the summer of 2011. At the time he was volunteering at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, where he exposed to that type of living history. There he met Scot Buffington, an avid Civil War and WWII reenactor, whose wife, Sarah, serves as the village curator. Scot introduced him to the 63rd PA, and the rest, as they say, was…well…history. “Scot is a walking treasure-trove of information about the Civil War,” says Perciavalle, “and he really sparked my interest in reenacting.”
Not long after that, Perciavalle wrote a paper for his Intercultural Communication class, taught by Julianne M. Michalenko, lecturer of communications skills at RMU. “We had to write about a subculture that we weren’t a part of. So I did some research on the Civil War and interviewed Scot about reenacting. It was fun getting to research the social dynamic beforehand and then actually becoming a part of it myself.”
Perciavalle’s first reenactment experience was, appropriately, the first major engagement of the Civil War – First Bull Run (or First Manassas, depending on what side of the Mason-Dixon Line you’re from). “Starting at Bull Run allowed me to experience the Civil War in real time, chronologically speaking,” he says.
Since then, he’s taken part in reenactments of several other battles, including Balls Bluff and Carnifex Ferry (1861); Antietam, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, and Fredericksburg (1862); Chancellorsville, and, most recently, Gettysburg (1863).
One of Perciavalle’s favorite memories took place at the reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, when the Army Corps of Engineers brought in a pontoon bridge to cross the frigid Rappahannock, and the bridge ended up being six feet too short. As a result, Perciavalle and his companions had to wade waist high in the river, and he ended up having soggy shoes for the entire battle reenactment. “It’s always miserable when it’s happening,” he says, “but afterwards you’re like ‘That was pretty cool!’”
At the “Maryland, My Maryland” 150th reenactment of the Battle of Antietam in 2012, Perciavalle again got to play a member of the famed Irish Brigade, this time in the infamous Wheatfield. This time, however, there were no spectators, and units were already engaged when they got involved in the early morning. “We did a five-mile march, in full gear, starting at 5 a.m., carrying wet canvas and packs from the previous night’s rain. The fog was rising, and with all the black powder and smoke, it completely blocked out the sun. It was surreal.”
At Gettysburg this past July, Perciavalle joined approximately 10,000 reenactors from many different states and countries for the 150th anniversary festivities. There he met people from England, Germany, and as far away as Australia. “The people who do this come from all walks of life,” he says. “Blue- and white-collar, history lovers, computer programmers, tradesmen, actuaries… People are just drawn to it. It’s a romanticized era that they connect to for one reason or another.”
Perciavalle says he first learned about actuarial science in junior high. He chose RMU after finding out about its nationally recognized program. In fact, it was the only university he applied to. “Robert Morris just seemed like the right fit,” he says. He also thought the school’s size was just right. “I would’ve been lost at a bigger school. At RMU I was able to make real, personal connections, and it made me feel like I mattered.”
Perciavalle also liked all the opportunities RMU provided. As an undergrad, he took part in the marching band, pep band, jazz band, and choir. He even served as an R.A. As a senior, he took part in the Civil War Study Tour, led by history professor Daniel Barr, Ph.D.
As for his reenacting bucket list, Perciavalle hopes maybe someday portray a Confederate soldier or a sailor in the Federal Navy. In the near future, he’s planning on taking part in the Battle of Bull Town event in Braxton County, W. Va. For him, reenacting isn’t about playing make-believe. It’s about escaping to a simpler, quieter time and learning something important in the process.
“I feel like a lot of people would be skeptical to call this hobby a vacation,” he says. “But I’ve learned so much doing it. Plus, it’s so relaxing to be able to escape emails, cell phones, and Facebook for a weekend. It really helps you to realize just how connected our present is to our past.”
Written by Valentine J. Brkich