The War at Home: Civil War Buffs Stage First Battle of Bull Run

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When Robert Lee Hodge meets someone new, he might mention his interest in the Civil War. His impressive beard is the first clue that this an understatement.

This weekend, Hodge (and his beard) will join 8,700 other participants at historic Manassas National Battlefield Park for a full-scale re-enactment of the First Battle of Bull Run — the first near the battle’s actual site in 50 years. The program is part of a monthlong series of events in Northern Virginia marking the 150th anniversary of the first major battle of the Civil War.

Hodge, below right, prefers to be called a “historical interpreter.” He’s been doing re-enactments for 30 years, as both a Union and a Confederate soldier. Like many re-enactors, he’s in the game less for the politics and more for the rush of maintaining historical accuracy. At 44, he makes his living from the Civil War — as a filmmaker, writer, researcher and tour guide.

Hodge — who will portray a Confederate soldier in this weekend’s battle — is what’s known in re-enactor circles as a “hardcore.” He haunts the Library of Congress and National Archives for primary sources that tell him what it was like to be a soldier in the 1860s. He especially prizes the hi-res scans of historical battle photography, as they give him a better view of the stitching on the soldiers’ coats.

Any re-enactment involving so many people is bound to include some with a looser commitment to history than Hodge’s. Re-enactors who value the dramatic over the accurate get the label “farb” — no one is sure of its etymology — for such cheap tricks as fake blood or modern-day cheats like using sunscreen and bug spray for a day of lying “dead” on the field.

Hodge is willing to cut those guys a break. “[You get thousands of] people dressed up, and of course they vary in quality of uniform,” he says. “But at a distance, you get to see that motion, humanity moving. And although it isn’t perfect, it looks pretty cool.”

Backstory
On July 21, 1861, the First Battle of Bull Run — or, the First Battle of Manassas to Confederate forces — became the first major clash of the Civil War. The battle was a Confederate win and set the stage for the four years of increasingly vicious bloodshed that were to follow, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, in 1862. The traffic and organizational logistics of 1961′s 100th anniversary Bull Run re-enactment at Manassas National Battlefield Park (the site of the actual battle) were so overwhelming that the National Park Service banned re-enactments on Park Service land — part of the reason this one will take place on nearby private property at Pageland Farm. F.Z.

Know Before You Go
Where to go: Bleacher ($40, $31 for kids) and standing-room ($24, $15 for kids) tickets get you close to the action at Pageland Farm — but not into the fight. (Registration is closed for participation in the re-enactment itself.) Gates open at 6:30 a.m. for spectators and, after the battle, “living history” programs about Civil War medicine and photography continue until the site closes at 2 p.m.

Other events: Nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park (12521 Lee Highway, Manassas, Va., 703-361-1339) is hosting related events all weekend, including walking tours, lectures and a performance by the Quantico Marine Corps Band Saturday night. Go to Nps.gov/mana for a full schedule.

Download: The free, GPS-enabled Bull Run Battle iPhone app — a project of the Civil War Trust and the commonwealth of Virginia — offers video, audio, historical photos and maps of the battleground site to enrich your experience.

Civil War Event Etiquette
Spectators are welcome at Bull Run, but it’s important to remember that this is a serious affair. We asked Ann Marie Maher, executive director for Discover Prince William and Manassas, which hosts the event, for some etiquette tips. F.Z.

Are the guys in costumes going to talk like they’re from 1861?
“If it’s a formal program, they speak [in character] in the first person,” Maher says. “If they’re wandering through the camps, they’ll answer questions in present-day terms.”
So can I ask them about modern race issues or politics as they relate to the Civil War?
“There’s rules against them spreading propaganda or being on soapboxes,” Maher says. Check out the living-history tent for info on those topics.

Can I take pictures with them? Can I touch their hats?
Most re-enactors will be happy to take pictures with you, Maher says, but you should ask. “If you’re approaching someone on a horse, you’d naturally ask, ‘Is it OK to pet your horse?’ or ‘Can I touch your saber?’”

» Pageland Farm, Gainesville, Va.; parking opens 6 a.m. at Jiffy Lube Live, 7800 Cellar Door Drive, Bristow, Va.; Sat. & Sun., site opens 6:30 a.m., battle 9 a.m.-noon, site closes 2 p.m., parking shuttle stops at 3 p.m., $24-$40 or $75 for a two-day pass; 703-396-7130, Manassasbullrun.com.

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