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Winning battles, fighting the war

Mike Church wakes up every weekday at 5:55 a.m. to head to work in his living room chair at 6 a.m. Mike has been an operations services manager for the U.S. Department of the Treasury for 30 years, where he oversees everything from liquor permits to taxes for businesses for the federal government. He also owns a 109-acre farm and is the colonel of the United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment of Civil War re-enacters.

Mike Church wakes up on a battlefield, puts on his Civil War-era Federal army uniform and saddles his horse.

For the past 30 years, Mike has led the United States Volunteer Federal  Regiment. When Mike puts on his colonel’s uniform for a re-enactment, he becomes a different man. He’s ready for battle.

“You can win a battle sometimes by retreating," Mike says. "You can win a battle by being a super aggressive guy and punching them in the face. You gotta know when to do what.”

Mike learned when to do what from both personal battles and from re-enacting Civil War battles. After his first wife of 23 years battled a neurological disease for more than five years before dying, he fought his loss by starting a new life. He randomly put his finger on a map, landed on Cynthiana, and bought a farm in Harrison County where Civil War history is rich and abundant.  The Battle of Cynthiana was fought here in 1864.

Since moving to Cynthiana in 2011, he’s been preserving history through the cavalry while rewriting his own, whether it’s on his 109-acre farm or on the battlefield.

"I'm all in or I'm all out," Mike says.  "There is no halfway with me. You know, it's not two animals on the farm, it's 85 animals on the farm; it's not one dog in the house, it's five dogs in the house."

Most of the time, Mike approaches life head-on. He works full-time for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, manages the farm without any employees, and according to his second wife, Kristin, whom he met through Civil War re-enacting, they're hardly home. Whether it's a monthly re-enactment, restoring a historic hotel in downtown Cynthiana or hanging out with his friends and family, Mike is fighting to help others.

“I like to be a person that can fix things, that can make people happy. . . I like to be the white knight, you know, coming in and saving the day. And again that’s an arrogance thing, and it’s not real attractive to admit, but it’s the truth.”

On the battlefield this weekend, Mike moves through the camp chatting with his "cav fam" and catching up on the month they've spent away from each other, barking orders and giving hugs along the way. He's the man who approves every request, from who will picket the horses to who needs extra hay to keep warm at night. Still, he has a different fight on his mind.

"I think I’ve had some wins and I think I’ve had some losses," Mike says. "You know my parents are both in really bad health and when I lose them, it’s going to be really tough. I don’t know how I’m going to take that actually."

Moments later he trots his horse onto the battlefield with unwavering confidence to strategize how the cavalry will defeat the Confederates the next day. 

Mike shares his lunch with three of his five dogs, nicknamed "Daddy's girls," in the midst of a busy day preparing for a Civil War re-enactment. All of the dogs were rescued and are treated like members of the family.
Mike heads out to his barn in the morning to feed his animals in between answering emails and phone calls for work. He cares for more than 80 animals, including cattle, horses, llamas, goats, chickens and dogs. Mike names all of his heifers and calves with names like Haiku, Daisy and Bedford. Even with a family, farm, full-time job and several hobbies, his checklist lives only in his head.
Mike chats with his farrier, Austen Nettleship, in his barn after getting two of his horses shod for an upcoming re-enactment. Preparations also include packing a Civil-War-style, over-the-fire kitchen and planning logistics for other re-enacters.
Historical memorabilia fills a closet inside the "Civil War room" at Mike's house, including a specially made action figure of himself as Capt. Maddox that his brother gave him. "Honestly, the favorite thing I like to do is sit down and read a history book," Mike says. "Re-enacting is a way to walk in the pages of that history book."
Meeting the re-enactors on their Somerset battlefield, 1.500 students took field trips to the site to learn about Civil War history. Mike says educating kids is one of the most important parts of his role in preserving history. "You hope that they go back home and want to look something up," Mike says, "want to have a conversation with grandpa."
Mike salutes a fellow re-enactor as they pull their trailer into the cavalry camp. The participants, who came from six states and two countries to Kentucky for this re-enactment, all see each other about once a month. They catch up on family and friends as they care for horses, clean rifles or cook over an open fire.
The harness for Mike's horse Prince lies on a bail of hay. The buckle reads "e pluribus unum," a Latin motto of the United States. Many of the re-enactors have been members of the armed services, according to Mike. He says they understand "commander's intent" on the battlefield, making his job as a leader much easier.
J.J. Hoover (left) and Mike head toward their horses near Mill Springs Battlefield in Somerset. J.J. stayed at Mike's house the night before the battle with his 13-year-old daughter, Reece, whom he introduced to re-enacting this year. "Go camping, shoot guns, hang out with friends," J.J. says. "It's the most miserable fun you'll ever have." Mike says "miserable fun" is the cavalry's motto.
Confederate Cavalry Cmdr. Michael Brown (foreground) rides as Mike follows on his horse Prince in the background. The two will be in meetings all day strategizing how to beat each other in battle. Mike designed and won the last battle.
Mike leads the cavalry back to camp from the battlefield. As colonel, he is the person everyone goes to for answers at the re-enactment. "That's the whole deal with leadership," Mike says. "People want you to make a decision. They don't want you to waver or think about it. They want an answer, so give them an answer, cause you can always fix it if you give them the wrong one."
Mike rides away from a battle strategy meeting with his deputies by his side. They will return to cavalry camp for an evening of food, fun and camaraderie. Some will sleep on their saddles outside on the ground, waking in the morning for a day of battle.