Dying is no exception. Many reenactors go to great pains to portray the, uh, great pains and suffering of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell in battle. They study photographs of Civil War dead for guidance about the grotesque positions assumed by men who’ve “taken a hit” from rifles and cannons. A few — the truly hard-core — go so far as to simulate the bloating of a newly dead body.
One of the big issues in any reenactment is deciding who lives and who dies.
As a rule, reenactors prefer not to. Or at least, they prefer not to die too soon in a restaging that could last 90 minutes or more.
“No one wants to drive hours on end to go to an event and then march out onto the field, fire several rounds and then take a hit and lay on the field for the rest of the battle,” said Michael Cheaves, who reenacts with the 1st Tennessee Cavalry in Jefferson City. “It kind of defeats the purpose.”
So, tough choices have to be made.
Organizers typically brief reenactors about the approximate number of casualties involved in a battle and who will “win” the day’s fight. But if not enough men are falling when the historical circumstances demand it, field commanders will quietly start encouraging more to die.
At the Manassas reenactment, Jonathan Novak knows his unit, the Confederate 4th Alabama, will take massive casualties. The 4th held out against overwhelming Union numbers 150 years ago, buying time for reinforcements to arrive. It lost almost a third of its number during this first major battle of the war.
“I personally am of the frame of mind that everything we do as reenactors should be done right, otherwise there is little point in doing it,” said Novak, who lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (He draws a line at eating raw salt pork, a common field ration, but you get the idea.)
The “when” and “how” of dying during a reenactment present their own challenges.
The standard is common sense. If you’re in a position to “take a hit,” the honorable thing to do is take it, said Donald Treco, who commands Company F of the 2nd California Cavalry, a Union outfit out of Sacramento.
“The audience member today is sophisticated enough to know when a shot should have scored a casualty, and when no one falls, it can be met with laughter from the audience,” Treco said. “Just as in Hollywood, the suspension of disbelief. . . is the overall goal.”