The Medal of Honor. It’s the highest military decoration awarded by U.S. government, often awarded after death. It’s a symbol of patriotism and bravery, and it’s a gift of honor and appreciation. It was also one of many items at a garage sale 43 years ago that no one bothered to buy. But today, that same medal belongs to someone who values it entirely too much to ever put a price a tag on it.
“It was like providence, it was just so bizarre of a story,” said Dave Downing.
Mr. Downing says his interest in history dates back to when he was 10. He and his family drove through Gettysburg on their way back from Washington D.C. “It happened to be the weekend of the 100th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg,” he said.
He raved about the celebration to everyone. But, when news traveled to his grandma, it turned out she had a better story to tell.
“My grandma told me we had an ancestor who fought in Gettysburg,” he said. “He was awarded the Medal of Honor.”
Mr. Downing dedicated a few years to doing research on his ancestor, Walter Mundale. His interest in the Civil War continued to grow the more he found out. In 1983, Mr. Downing joined the 7th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Company B and has remained a member for 25 years. This Civil War reenactment group is based on an actual Mason militia, which entered the war in 1861.
Before the Civil War, several states had local militias organized, prepared to fight in the event of an attack. “It was mostly a social thing,” said Downing. The men would act out the drills and afterward their families would have picnics together and go home. But, when the war broke out, a lot of these groups would go in as a company since they were already cohesive military units.
One of Downing’s co-workers, Tyler Young, said he doesn’t talk about the reenactment group often. However, Young went to one of the events and said it was quite impressive. “The way he would talk about what was realistic and what wasn’t made me realize how much he really knew about the time period and how passionate he really was about it,” he said.
Downing’s daughter, Amanda, agrees with Young. She said he doesn’t talk about it much at home unless there’s an event soon, but he is undoubtedly dedicated to it. When she was a child, Downing forced her to attend events so she didn’t appreciate them as much, said Amanda. “Now that I am older I respect him for doing it and sticking with it,” she said.
According to Downing, members drop out frequently. “This is a hobby and people’s lives change and things happen. You do what you can,” he said.
“I joined the club 11 years ago and found Dave there. We went to high school together many, many years ago, so that was pretty interesting,” said Mark Lynch. “He’s always been passionate about the Civil War, even when he was a small child. And I think that passion just grew over the years, and that’s why he’s as involved in the club as he is,” said Lynch.
Throughout the years, Downing has reenacted several military rankings. “He was corporal for a while and he got promoted to adjutant, which is second in command for the union troops,” Amanda said. Corporals are out on the fields following orders for battle, and adjutants are the ones giving the orders. Now, because his knees are bad, and he can’t move around as easily, Downing’s an announcer, said Amanda. This means he remains stationary, while providing the audience with information about the battle.
“Generally what we’re trying to do at events is portray what life was like for the average person: both the soldiers and the civilians,” said Downing.
The 7th Michigan hosts one of the largest events in the Midwest, called Civil War Muster. It takes place at the Cascades in Jackson, Mich. “We have about 2000 reenactors show up, and a typical event has 200-400 people,” he said.
More people participate in this event because it’s so huge. For some people, especially people who used to be involved a lot, the Muster is the only event they will participate in each year. Lynch said he’s not as involved in the group as he used to be. “You get to a point where you get a little burnt out,” he said.
Not for Mr. Downing though. “This is what I love,” he said.
Two years after he visited Gettysburg, he tracked down a cousin who remembered his great-great-grandfather, and his parents invited her over for dinner. She brought over the Medal of Honor she had tried to sell when she came. “She was older, and she was moving into assisted living and needed to get rid of some things,” said Downing. “It had a price tag on it,” he said, and as he remembered, he looked down and chuckled in disbelief. “It was just fate I guess.”