Civil War reenactment etiquette: How — and when — to die on the battlefield

July 15, 2011

There’s no shame or glory in “dying” while reenacting a Civil War battle. There are, however, a few hazards in it. You might get stepped on by advancing infantry, or become seriously dehydrated while lying motionless in the summer sun. And make sure you don’t die on top of an anthill or a cow patty.

For many of the 10,000 or so reenactors who will participate in a dramatic restaging of the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run on Saturday and Sunday, authenticity is almost everything. From the proper uniform to the right arms to the appropriate facial hair, the goal is to avoid all things “farby,” the derisive term for anything not quite out of mid-19th-century America.

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.”

Some meticulous organizers have created clever ways of enforcing the timing of hits. At some events, they’ll assign “fate cards” to units to replicate the actual killed-wounded ratios. If the unit has enough members to match the number that fought, each reenactor may portray an actual historical person whose fate is literally in the cards.

Others will place red or specially marked blank cartridges in soldiers’ cartridge boxes. When the soldier gets to one of these cartridges, the jig is up. Time to die.

“There’s a lot of ‘I got you!’ ‘No, I got you!’ at the usual reenactment,” said Jerry Todd, who has participated in Civil War events for 36 years, most recently as first sergeant of the Federal 1st Maine Cavalry. “There are some that will never take a hit, and others you can hardly keep standing up. I’ve seen whole units drop dead when a single musket was fired, and exactly the reverse.”

Some would-be Federals and Rebs play out their death throes with agonized wails and rending of uniforms. (This is not overacting; gut-shot Civil War soldiers often tore at their uniforms to find their wounds.) Dying is also trickier if you happen to be portraying cavalry; falling off a horse is far more dangerous than falling off your feet.

Since a dead reenactor might have to remain still for the better part of an hour, the smart ones will tip their caps over their faces once they drop, said Rick Lieb, who reenacts with the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a Federal unit in Youngstown. A disproportionate number seem to end up dying in the shade.

“Hard-cores” will stay facedown so spectators can’t see their chests rising and falling as they breathe. Some will spatter fake blood. A few less rigorous types, however, have been known to sneak a camera onto the field and snap a photo or two of the action unfolding around them. (So farby!)

Novak points out that Civil War soldiers were more likely to be wounded than killed in battle and more likely to die from infection or disease after it than during it. Even so, when he takes a bullet, he tries to make it look right.

“I think of where I was hit, how my mind and body would react to such a wound, and if I would survive it,” Novak said. “. . . I try my utmost to avoid it all looking like a scene out of a B movie.”

At smaller events, where manpower is in short supply, dead soldiers often make miraculous recoveries and rejoin the ranks again and again.

At Manassas, the dead will be expected to remain that way until the event concludes, with the bugling of taps or church call and the order to “rise up.”

That is, of course, one of the beautiful things about a reenactment. Unlike the real conflict, with its horrifying carnage and destruction, no one sustains much worse than a bad sunburn at these battles.

As Jerry Todd put it, “Reenacting, for the most part, is kids playing army.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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