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The Ohio Civil War & Artillery Show: An Annual Event Like Nothing Else [VISIT]

There’s no doubt that the American Civil War remains a “hot-button” issue after more than 160 years. The war truly pitted brother against brother and tore the nation apart. Some of the wounds haven’t healed to this day, while others have been freshly reopened — so much so that many Confederate memorials have been removed across the country, while U.S. Army installations and even U.S. Navy vessels have been renamed.

Critics contend that those efforts are meant to wash away our nation’s history, and rather than bridging the divide some argue that it’s making things worse.

At the same time, our great nation has sadly never been more divided politically, and some have even suggested we may be on the verge of yet another American Civil War. That irony may not be lost on those who attend the annual Ohio Civil War & Artillery Show at the Richland County Fairgrounds in Mansfield, Ohio, each May.

The Ohio Civil War Show director Teresa Williams Drushel with Honest Abe.

It now regularly attracts thousands, including hundreds of reenactors, militaria dealers, and collectors. The 2023 show saw attendees come from 44 different states and as far away as Hawaii. It’s now a weekend-long event that’s part living history expo, temporary museum, historic vehicle show, and multi-building collectibles market.

It has also grown into much more than just about the American Civil War. 

Throughout the seven buildings and sprawling fields, reenactors from a plethora of time periods come out. In many ways, the Ohio Civil War Show is now a military history “comic con” style event for those who prefer the exploits of real heroes to fictional ones in goofy costumes.

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Just as the now famous San Diego Comic-Con International began with a few tables in the 1970s, where there was much skepticism that fans would come out, the Ohio Civil War Show had its detractors.

It was started more than four decades ago in 1977 by Don Williams with just 60 tables and a handful of reenactors. Held at the Ashland Armory, the show was a sellout by its second year and moved to the Convocation Center at Ashland University in Central Ohio. But even that proved insufficient for the growing event, and by 1992, it moved to its current home at the Richland County Fairgrounds.

Not everything is for sale at the Ohio Civil War & Artillery Show. Each year, there are impressive historic firearms-related displays including this one on the Winchester lever-action rifle.

Though it meant that the indoor exhibits were spread across multiple buildings, it actually offered a new opportunity — namely that cannon collectors could literally bring out their “big guns,” and thus was born the Artillery Show to complement the Civil War Show. Since the passing of Don in 2009, the annual spring event has carried on and is now run by his three children.

“My father always heard the show would never make it, but clearly he proved the naysayers wrong,” said Teresa Williams Drushel, daughter of Don Williams and director of the Ohio Civil War Show, which she runs with her brothers Greg and Wayne. “We’re still going strong; while we’ve expanded to include artifacts from World War I and World War II, the roots are still in the Civil War.”

Displays such as this one on the 1816 musket truly make the show feel like a temporary museum.

For Drushel, it’s more than just a show for Civil War and history buffs to add to their collections. Throughout the weekend, it’s an event that’s focused on a love of the past, noted in the numerous displays and the presence of dozens of reenactors.

“We’ve heard from families that really appreciate how it is something kids can really enjoy,” added Drushel. “We like to think we’re helping keep history alive.”

Some of the cannons that were offered for sale at a past Artillery Show — an Indian rifled cannon (left) from the 19th century, an 18th-century deck gun (center), and a Southeast Asian “lantaka,” a swivel cannon used on small boats.

It certainly has become an event for “children of all ages” who come out and share their love of history.

AN ANTIQUE ARMS SHOW

For collectors, the Ohio Civil War & Artillery Show is now among the largest antique arms shows in the country — eclipsed in size only by the annual events in Baltimore and Las Vegas. Spread across the five buildings are around 750 tables, with 90 percent devoted to sales, while the remainder is “displays” that typically rival anything that might be seen even in some of the nation’s best firearms museums.

In addition to small arms, military memorabilia from 1775 through 1945 is offered for sale, trade, and display. 

A variety of Civil War ordnance highlights the great progress that occurred in the second half of the 19th century.

Related items typically include books, photographs, paper goods, and uniforms. It’s easy to see why the Ohio Civil War Show has been described as one of the best temporary Civil War museums in the country, and where most everything is for sale — provided you have deep enough pockets. And as a “gun show,” it’s one where you could even go home with a cannon, as there are always a few offered for sale.

A display of German World War II machine guns was presented by collector Kevin Kinney.

For those who prefer to look rather than own, the Artillery Show also features cannon firing demonstrations that take place on Saturday and Sunday each year.

A LIVING HISTORY EVENT

The Ohio Civil War Show unfortunately doesn’t feature a full reenactment. Yet, it does offer a number of other annual activities. These have included various firearms demonstrations, a field hospital that has included mock amputations, period music from Civil War bands, and the crowd-favorite Gettysburg Address that’s provided by a professional Abraham Lincoln reenactor.

This German First World War “MinenWerfer M/1916” was among the rarer artillery pieces to be seen at a past Ohio Civil War Show.

As noted, despite being named for the American Civil War, the event now attracts a significant number of World War II reenactors who camp out throughout the weekend, bringing a variety of bicycles, motorcycles, Jeeps, Kubelwagens, and other historic vehicles. There are also a number of weapons displays, and exhibitors are more than happy to share their knowledge of the various items.

For years, the event saw mostly German and American World War II encampments, but increasingly there have been more Soviet Red Army reenactors present. And like any comic-con large or small, fans come out dressed to the nines to represent their favorite warfighters from history.

A variety of sidearms and handguns offered for sale at the annual show.

The show has managed to avoid the controversy that has been seen related to the Confederacy, even if there have been fewer “Johnny Rebs” in recent years. But the Williams family has said the community understands that whether it’s a reenactor in Confederate gray or German Army feldgrau (field-gray), it isn’t meant as a glorification but really an appreciation for history.

Presented at a recent Ohio Civil War Show was this display of unique M1 carbine rifles.

“We thought there could be backlash,” said Wayne Williams. “But nothing really transpired. This show is about history, not controversy. I was asked if we’d fly the Confederate flag at the show, and my answer was ‘darn right,’ because we’re about the history.” 

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