On April 5, 1987, Thompson got his first taste of bringing history to life as one of more than 5,000 reenactors participating in the 125th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh. As his unit of Union soldiers crossed the Sunken Road he saw the Confederate forces massed against them and witnessed history unfolding before his eyes – he “saw the elephant” as Civil War soldiers referred to the first taste of combat.
“I thought for a second I was really there. I forgot it wasn’t real,” he said.
That first glimpse of history come to life hooked the lifelong history buff and sparked a passion for bringing the stories of America’s soldiers into vivid reality that continues to drive him today.
Since his first Civil War reenactment the Corinth resident and employee of Mississippi Polymers has expanded his interests and now takes part in recreations and living history demonstrations of not only the Civil War but World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War.
He maintains an extensive collection of artifacts from all the conflicts including full uniforms and equipment sets for each, a fully restored World War II-era 1943 Ford Jeep and much more and is always ready to share his knowledge and experiences with school groups and anyone else who wants to learn.
Experiencing the conflict through the eyes of those who lived it and bringing his own experience as close as possible to that of the actual participants is a big part of what drives him as a reenactor.
“I always think, how can I put myself in that person’s place,” he said.
A passion for history comes naturally to the Ripley native. His father loved the subject and they would often take family vacations to historic sites across the country. His mother was a librarian in Ripley for many years and he would constantly immerse himself in books about American history and especially it’s military experiences.
He said history was a common topic in his family, which came as a surprise the first time his now-wife, DuJuanna Frazier Thompson, first visited for dinner. He recalled her commenting after the meal that the dinner table conversation focused on some obscure topic of history instead of the usual day-to-day events.
An Eagle Scout and a former member of the Mississippi National Guard, Thompson has a love for the military and the outdoors and in 1987 he got caught up in the excitement of the Shiloh anniversary and scraped and saved every penny he could to put together his first set of reenacting gear. That first experience as a Union soldier sparked a passion that continues to burn bright and he’s expanded to portraying both Union and Confederate soldiers as well as soldiers in the more recent conflicts.
While the actual battles are thrilling, Thompson finds as much joy in the careful research that goes into preparing to depict history in action. Reenactors are a special breed who love delving deep into the stories of the units they portray and working to make sure everything they do is as authentic as possible.
When he’s on a battlefield experiencing some of the same hardships his forefathers felt he feels closer to them and gains a unique understanding of the sacrifices they made.
Thompson feels a special responsibility as a World War II reenactor to help preserve the history of these veterans who are slowly dying off. One of the unique aspects of depicting the more modern conflicts is the opportunity to talk first hand to those who served and learn the details of what they saw , did and felt from their own mouths.
He often takes his Jeep to Dogwood Plantation Assisted Living, which he and his wife own, and visits with the veterans there and he treasures the time spent with them.
He said everything he does in all of his pursuits is about honoring those who sacrificed for their country to serve.
“It’s all about the veterans,” he said. “We want to let the public know what these guys went through.”
He speaks regularly to schools and other groups and also participates in events at Shiloh including the annual living history demonstrations on Memorial Day where he has portrayed both Korean War-era and Vietnam-era soldiers.
Thompson recently joined several other local reenactors to travel to Gettysburg where they participated in the 150th anniversary reenactment of the battle. The scale of the reenactment was unlike anything he had ever seen with more than 15,000 reenactors taking part.
“It looked just like a real battle. It was just like we were there,” he said.
Enormous grandstands borrowed from the PGA tour provided seating for a crowd of spectators estimated at more than 235,000 who gathered to see the battle come to life.
On the way to Gettysburg the group stopped to visit several key Civil War sites including Appomattox Courthouse where Lee formally surrendered and the Antietam battlefield, which was the site of the single bloodiest day in the history of the war.
Thompson said he continues to learn more each day about the history he loves and he welcomes any opportunity to share his knowledge. He’s always available to speak to school groups or join in any living history demonstration where he can share the stories and help new generations understand the enormous sacrifices of those who went before them.