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A House Divided
Posted at 04:31 PM ET, 07/22/2011

An initiation into a reenactment ‘family’

By mid-day yesterday I had my doubts that I would ever make a great Civil War reenactor. I was enjoying myself, but I have far too perky a disposition to impress grim-faced men about to enter combat.

I was gallivanting through camp when a Union cavalry officer nodded at me, “Good evening.”

“Hi! How are you!” I piped, my excitement gushing forth like shaken soda.

His lip got very thin and he turned his attention to his chestnut horse.

That went well. Maybe it was a lingo thing. So when I passed a young belle, I tipped my hap: “Ma’am.”

She curtsied. “Sir.”

That was a good step.

But my doubts about my reenactment skills grew worse when I was looking for my campsite with Confederate cavalry in the dark.

I ended up in Union lines. Rather than arrest or shoot me, however, they directed me across the field to the Rebel encampment.

When I got to the Confederate camp I found a black bearded man in black slacks and a young woman in a light dress.

“Do you two know Wardawg,” I asked. Wardawg was the regiment’s major and I would be tenting up with him.

“He’s out at Hooters,” the woman said.

“We’ll, my name’s Tim Smith and I’m camping out here to night…apparently.”

“Oh yeah! We’ve got you a dog tent set up.” She showed me to a low-slung tent. A cotton shirt and a saber hung from a stake at the entrance; outside was a bale of hay for a sofa. My quarters.

I threw down some of my gear and then sat around chatting with them.

“Here, take this,” the woman said. Her name was Augusta May, she was a deputy provost marshal. I sipped — it was butterscotch schnapps.

“Now you’re one of us,” she said.

The schnapps is a long-standing tradition for the regiment, started by its first sergeant, Mark Chips. Every night they pass the bottle around. It is a sign of inclusion. When I took a sip I entered the regiment.

They regaled me with stories. Their provost marshal, Dusty Rhodes, fought his first reenactment fifty years ago, on July 21, 1961 at Bull Run. At Gettysburg a few weeks ago most had gotten soaked in a bad rainstorm that tonight some wished would return. They kept up a constant rhythm of inside jokes, regimental slang (“Yankee brains” are the apples they feed the animals). They talked as if they were all family.

That wasn’t so far off the mark.

“Read the Bible,” said Augusta May, “it says if you don’t have a family, you can always find one.”

The men seated around her were her family. She kept calling Kenny Davidson, a 17-year-old private, her brother. They weren’t remotely related, but that didn’t matter.

Some people think Civil War reenactors are crazy or fanatics or stuck in the past. I never found that to be the case. They all started for different reasons. But, in this Virginia company, they all come back for one reason.

“All it takes is for someone to come the first time,” Rhodes said. “Then you get caught up in the camps. Get to know the people. Then you get addicted.”

Then the family begins to form.

There is an old term for this companionship. Men in war become a band of brothers — it turns out it’s also true in reenactments.

By Timothy R. Smith  |  04:31 PM ET, 07/22/2011

 
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