Reenactors Revive Civil War Struggle
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Exactly 45 years ago, on a similarly muggy weekend in July, 2,500 "soldiers" marched on Manassas National Battlefield Park to mark the centennial of the Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run). Dressed in cheap blue and gray work shirts purchased at Sears, they ran and hollered and fired blanks at one another.
The park's monument to Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson had been concealed under camouflage netting that weekend. Stuffed dummies were positioned to look like corpses. There were 50,000 spectators, and the hobby of Civil War reenacting was born.
The crowd took a heavy toll on the park, and that was the last time the National Park Service let reenactors use the battlefield. But the hobby has grown and so has the near-fanatical dedication to material authenticity among its devotees, who refer to themselves as "living historians."
"It's one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the country," said Ed Hooper, editor of Camp Chase Gazette, a monthly magazine for Civil War Buffs. Hooper estimates there are 150,000 Civil War reenactors nationwide.
By yesterday morning, thousands of troops had invaded the quiet Shenandoah Valley community of Middletown, Va., for the 145th anniversary reenactment of the battle. Event organizers were expecting 10,000 spectators and 7,000 reenactors.
Unlike Gettysburg, Cedar Creek and other annually-staged clashes, Bull Run is recreated once every five years, giving it special significance -- particularly for Confederate partisans who celebrate it as a victory.
With the real battlefield in Manassas off-limits, this year's two-day engagement is being held on the privately owned Cedar Creek Battlefield, just south of Middletown. In 1861, troops marched, rode trains or horses to the front lines; many of yesterday's fighters came in sport utility vehicles and trucks, which they used as message boards.
"Going to Manassas to fight Yankees!" had been smudged onto the rear windshield of a minivan carrying members of the 1st Arkansas Infantry. In another lot, a pickup truck with a decal of the Confederate flag and the phrase "I'd rather be historically accurate than politically correct" sat beside a Suzuki with a "treehugger" bumper sticker.
But many participants seemed willing to overlook inauthenticities, such as the presence of the rebel battle flag, which had not been adopted in 1861. There also were no African American troops visible on either side.
During the actual conflict, Civil War armies often were followed by traveling salesmen, or sutlers, who sold food, clothing and other provisions to soldiers. This weekend's events drew vendors selling historical reproductions of everything from muskets to muslin shirts to bayonets. And their profits come from a growing desire for historical accuracy.
"The authenticity has improved immensely," said George Lomas, who was 19 at the 1961 reenactment. Today he and his wife, Mary, run The Regimental Quartermaster -- one of the nation's largest sutleries -- in Gettysburg, Pa.
In 1861, soldier arrived in their states' militia uniforms; some Yankees in gray cadet uniforms, Virginians in blue. Today, a new recruit can expect to spend $1,500 on his uniform if he doesn't want to be laughed off the battlefield for being a farb -- "far be it from authentic." And technology continues to raise standards -- and stakes.
"EBay helped us build our name and determine the market for our products," said Scott Hanes, owner of Richmond Depot Inc., which supplies hand-made Confederate clothing to the hobby's most demanding impressionists, sometimes derided as "stitch counters." He and his wife, Fenny, say that 70 percent of their customers purchase their custom-made garments online.
At the first battle, many wealthy Washingtonians rode carriages to the 1861 battle, expecting to see a Union victory while they picnicked in the shade. Instead, the carnage was shocking, and they fled in the chaos of the Union retreat.
Modern reenactments are highly choreographed for the safety of spectators and participants. Union and Confederate armies were in camps at opposite ends of the battlefield and spent most of the day lounging in white, canvas tents. Some bought corn dogs and cheese steaks from 21st-century food vendors; hard-core soldiers dined on greasy hunks of slab bacon and hard-tack biscuits.
"This war really did define the republic, and in some ways we're still fighting over the same issues," said Paul Hilts, a writer from Tucson, dressed in a bright red shirt and matching cap. Hilts was one of some 50 reenactors depicting the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry "Fire Zouaves," who wore fancy leggings and feathered hats in the style of elite French soldiers.
Saturday's hostilities began right on schedule, with crackling volleys of musket fire and a distant rebel yell. Spectators watched from safety, startled when the first cannons boomed.
Half an hour later, the clouds broke, dousing the event with rain, and the crowd retreated.
The reenactors held their ground, but as the firing continued, some crumpled to the ground, watching the battle carry on around them.