The enemy stood at the other edge of a rain-soaked field, a misshapen line of Johnny Rebs marching into battle.
We waited until they stopped, their front line sizing up our front line of blue uniforms across the grass. Our commander, Union Army Lt. Jefferson Spilman, drew his sword and ordered us to advance with a loud Billy Yank "Hooray."
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Our boots and sneakers slogged through the field, as the soldiers in front pulled their forage caps lower and steadied their weapons.
I could think of only one thing: Man, this gun was freakin' heavy. I was carrying a model nine-pound .57-caliber Enfield musket that was almost as tall as I. Held properly, the weight of the musket rested almost solely on the index and middle finger of my right hand, which throbbed with pain.
Spilman yanked me mentally back to the battlefield with another barking command to load muskets. I had marked my man earlier, and now I aimed just above his gray cap. He was probably about 10, didn't like to follow orders and darted around using his wooden musket like a sword. And he wouldn't settle down after taps last night.
In Civil War parlance, this Sunday boy, this butternut, was mine.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
We shouted our shots in a pretend fury, as the soldiers across the field fixed their muskets on us and began to shoot back. Each time we fired we had to reload our pretend ammunition. A good soldier could get off three shots in a minute, we were told.
I came to Civil War Adventure Camp last week in Petersburg, Va., with a greater-than-average appreciation of the war and American history. I had memorized the Gettysburg Address as a child, and as an adult had occasionally stopped at Civil War historical sites. But I wasn't a die-hard. I have never been to a reenactment. I was a little fuzzy on my dates and numbers.
This was a unique chance to check out of modern life for 18 hours and live as a common soldier at the Pamplin Historical Park, a 422-acre historical site about 21/2 hours south of Washington. Okay, it seemed a little hokey. But I figured at least I'd get a chance to work through my post-traumatic stress disorder. I had just returned home from a nine-month reporting assignment in Iraq, and the sound of the toaster popping still made me jump.
Fortunately, what is often described as the world's first modern war was, in 1861, nothing like modern warfare in 2005. In some ways, the Civil War seemed far worse. Your chance of dying was greater. You often went without food, particularly if you were a Confederate soldier. And your enlistment, if you survived the diseases that claimed more lives than battle wounds, could last three years. It was a messy, ugly, uncomfortable war, and that is precisely the message the visionaries behind the Civil War Adventure Camp want to stress.
To complete the experience, we were issued reproduction uniforms. (I honored my Illinois heritage and fought for the North). We were given a jacket, cap, canteen and haversack. The heat and humidity were unbearable so, with the blessing of the organizers, I stayed in my Marine-green shorts, though they were hardly of the period.
Otherwise were not supposed to bring any creature comforts of the 21st century. That meant no wristwatches, no computers, no mobile phones, no video games, no cameras and, sacrifice of all sacrifices, no iPods. We could not bring our own snacks and our haversacks could be searched at any time.
If you're really into the Civil War, this is totally your thing. If you can be a sport even if it isn't, you can still have a great time and learn something.
This is the first year Pamplin has put on the Civil War camp, which costs $70 per person. Individuals and families can register for general recruitment sessions like the one I attended, which starts at 4 in the afternoon and ends around 10 a.m. the next day, when campers are formally discharged. Groups of 20 or more can register as a platoon for their own private session. Campers must be at least 8 years old and should be instructed well in advance that complaining about the elements or demanding to go to the bathroom in the middle of a drill is really not cool. After all, this was war.
My fellow recruits were an eclectic mix of kids and adults. Around the campfire, 10-year-old Jake Walker, of Mechanicsville, Va., rattled off statistics about the war and patiently explained the difference between field officers and general officers.
"I think it's awesome," said Jake, wearing a Union uniform. Asked why he chose to fight for the North, he explained, "Well, I'm a southern boy, but I just don't think war is the way to solve things. The war wasn't even declared properly."
With just 18 hours to get a feel for life as a soldier, there isn't much time for sitting around. You march. You drill. You learn how to use flags to signal the cavalry to retreat.
You eat a Civil War-era supper of beef (or vegetarian) stew and dried hardtack biscuit. You even have to pull guard duty.
As the light faded into night, I found myself pacing back and forth across a mowed path on the perimeter of camp. Theresa Layman, 50, a resource manager for Virginia State Parks, brought her 13-year-old daughter, Tory Dandridge. Layman guarded a 100-foot stretch on one side of me. Earlier, we had muddled through a musket drill. "I never would have survived the first battle," she observed with a laugh.
It was quiet, and while there wasn't really anything to guard, I imagined myself back in time, a young farmer who had never seen war up close, now facing it head-on.
On April 2, 1865, Union forces assaulted the Confederate line here, overpowering the weakened Southern troops. Seven days later, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
I was giving this all a good ponder when Spilman appeared from the shadows. "What are you supposed to say, Private?" he demanded.
"Oh, yeah. Halt. Who goes there?"
"The commander of the watch," he barked.
At this rate, I was never going to be promoted past private.
Spilman was the perfect leader for Civil War camp. A former Marine, he knew how to keep us in line. He was tough, but we were paying customers, so he was not rigid. Because it was so hot, he allowed us to ditch our wool uniforms if we got overheated. I kept mine on through dinner and then chucked it, as most of my fellow campers did.
We bunked down later that night in a combination of reproduction tents and more modern wooden huts and lodges. As I tried to make myself comfortable in the stale, hot air of the tent, I could hear someone whistling "Oh, Susannah" outside the tent, the tune broken up by the chatter of camp:
"Come on, guys, settle down!"
"I am too a Yankee!"
The next morning, the bugle sounded at 5:45. As a cloudburst sent sheets of rain down on us, we dragged ourselves to a row of straw bales, waiting to line up for battle.
"Worst night of sleep I've had in years," a man grumbled.
"Those wool blankets," someone added.
"Can you imagine these guys doing this for four or five years?" said a man. "They're lice-ridden and tick-ridden living outside like this. That must have been really tough."
Civil War camp, mission accomplished.