If you'd like to see for yourself, here are some upcoming Civil War events: Sept. 13-14 -- a reenactment of the Battle of South Mountain, Crampton's Gap State Park, near Burkittsville, Md.; Sept. 20-21 -- battle reenactment at Glassboro, N.J.; Oct. 19 -- an encampment and living history demonstration Colvin Run Mill Park, Fairfax, Va. For further information write Zouave Gazette, 144 Stave Mill Rd., Bridgeton, N.J. 08302.
Shortly after nine on a sultry Sunday morning I was arrested on suspicion of being a secessionist spy posing as a journalist.
The letter leading to my arrest was signed by Alan Pinkerton, "Chief of Detectives," and dated 1862. The return address was "War Department, Washington, D.C."
I was summarily brought before a board of inquiry, where my patriotism was questioned, my background probed and, worst of all, by notes seized and scrutinized. "Hmmm," said the sergeant, "he seems to have a lot of personal information about the men and considerable detail about troop movements."
After a few tense moments, Capt. T. L. Daley ruled the evidence inconclusive. I was free to go about my business, which in this case was covering a Civil War reenactment in which I, some 80 other men, a few women and many vintagelooking pieces of equipment were mere props. The stage was a pretty peninsula pointing eastward from Baltimore into Chesapeake Bay. At the point itself was a small cove and woodland. Further inland was Ballestone Mansion, named after the original 1659 land-grant holder and built in the late 1700s. Adjoining the old house is a modern county-run golf course. A fitting place for shifting back and forth from era to era.
Ballestone, an annual event, began, for the participants, on a Friday night with the public invited to the county park Saturday and Sunday. There would be a flea market, homemade food for sale and a battle each day.
This reporter arrived early Saturday and quickly changed into Civil War-era civilian clothes provided by Brian Pohanka, a 25-year-old Time-Life Books researcher and proponent of all things authentic.There ensued an identity conflict never completely resolved. I had no trouble assuming 19th-century role but from there it got complicated.
The Washington Post did not exist until 1877, a full 15 years after the war. It was tempting to be Sam Wilkeson, who worked for the New York Tribune and was, according to one account, "warm, vibrant, intelligent . . . above all a newspaperman." But Wilkeson had gotten mixed up after the war with shady financier Jay Gould and flacked for the railroads. Sylvanus Cadwallader, on the other hand, the New York Herald's correspondent, had spent the postwar years sheepherding in Montana, which sounded more upright.Further confusing the issue, the Pinkerton letter ordered the immediate arrest of "one Eugene Meyer."
Reenacting the Civil War is a little like participating in a Pirandello play within a play. A fine line seems to separate reality and make-believe.
"Are we out of character?" the players ask before, as they say, "breaking first person" to emerge from their time capsule into the present.
"You can't do [first person] the whole weekend," explained Maurice Whitlock, the 31-year old Rebel-in-charge at Ballestone. "We're 20-century people. You can come unstuck in time for a few minutes.But you have people so authentic, if your socks and underwear are not right, they don't want to have anything to do with you. Then, it's no fun anymore."
It is not suprising that conflicts occur in a hobby which, after all, arises from the central conflict in American history. The weekend warriors often engage in factional feuding that transcends sectional boundaries. Authentics are accused of having a holier-than-thou attitude, while their opposites are derided as "farbs," a word of uncertain origin denoting those who wear polyester pants and cowboy hats and make a mockery of history. A "farbfest," to the faithful, is a reenactment dominated by farbs who retreat from their John Wayne ways on the battlefield to their camper ice chests.
The Washington area, by accident of history, happens to be close to much of the reenaction -- authentic and farb -- and there are people who actually move here to become part of it. From the early spring to the late fall, they spend their money and their weekends reliving the past.
In the hobby's early days, about 15 years ago at the height of the Civil War Centennial, just about every event was a farbfest, by all accounts, but some events have grow increasingly authentic. And, as a rule authenticity does not come cheap. It can easily cost $500 or more to acquire the accouterments, which include a uniform, rifle and bayonet, shoes and even eyeglasses fit in an antique frame. One hobbyist, John Grim of Alexandria, has invested $7,500 in a Civil War cannon and ammunition wagon made from both original and reproduced parts.
Supplying the Civil War reenactor has become an industry in itself that spans the globe. Canvas tents, for example, are made in Yakima, Wash, while rifles come from Japan, bayonets from India and insigni patches from Pakistan. "If you do civilian impressions, you have to have a whole town," said Confederate commander Whitlock, looking at the bright side.
Modern-day inflation has added to the expense of recreating the 19th century. The price of wall tents has soared from $79 to $120 in two years, and the rising cost g gasoline has held attendance at many events to those within, say, a day's drive. Which, in a sense, adds an unexpected element of authenticity since troop movements of the 1860s were likewise limited.
Ballestone seemed to strike a middle ground this year. Last time around, some participants complained it was to strict: Troops left their encampment only to fight battles, guards demanded to see enlistment papers and women were allowed in camp only with an excort. In 1980, the costumes and camaraderie seemed authentic, but picket duty was a sometime thing, beer was served on Saturday night and Union and Rebel forces, breaking first person, entered each other's camps. For some, entirely too laid-back.
"Totally lax," complained one Union reenactor. "You can't get into the feel of it this year."
Brian Pohanka is the regimental historian for the 5th New York Zouaves. Pohanka admittedly began as a farb but is proud to have "grown" in the hobby. His idea of an authentic's dream come true occurred during a reenactment of a 12-mile march along back roads near Emmitsburg, Md., earlier this year. "The only spectators were civilian residents who came out of their houses and stared with their mouths open as 100 men marched," Pohanka reported in his regimental newletter, "Zouave Gazette."
It was drizzling when Capt. Terry Daley, in the colorful Zouave uniform, rode his horse up a long dirt driveway to a farmhouse to ask directions. "It looked like something out of Gone With the Wind, " Pohanka marveled. "As he reigned in, he tipped his hat. It was beautiful."
But Rebecca Peek, who lives with Pohanka, prefers the role of weekend war window to that of Scarlett O'Hara, or to the roles of camp follower or "vivondierre," a kind of Civil War-era USO hostess, portrayed by some of the wives and girlfriends.
At last year's Christmas mistletoe party, Peek says, "The women weren't allowed to drink, and that's not my idea of a party. For the most part, they would congregate together and talk about the latest [1860s] fashions from Paris. I was drinking Brian's beer. I guess they didn't like it. At that point, I didn't care."
To prepare for the party, held at an atmospheric Gettysburg inn, Peek paid nearly $200 to have a period dress made. "One couple came, the woman wore a regular long dress. She was totally ostracized," she remembers.
Sometimes, though, role-playing serves a useful purpose. On Sunday at Ballstone, a Union soldier was found dead in his tent during inspection. "Sergeant, have this man buried," Capt. Daley ordered. The cadaver was carried into the woods by six uniformed soldiers and never seen again. Actually, the reenactor had a hangover and a sinus condition and wanted out.
Saturday's battle did not go well for the Army of the Potomac. The Union troops advanced from behind their earthworks to be sniped at by the smaller force of Rebels.
"We have attacks from two sides and the sergeant major's been hit," said Capt. Daley.
"Want us to go out and retrieve the body?" a cavalry sergeant asked.
"Do you want to stay here?" Daley replied.
"I wanna get shot," the soldier said.
"You go to a farbfest to get your head blown off," said Daley. Request denied.
Across the battlefield, civilian spectators were encroaching on the Confederate positions.
"Can y'all move away, please?" asked Pvt. Richard Holt, of the 23re Virginia sharpshooters. "Can y'all leave kindly? Can y'all just go back where you came from?"
After the battle, in which Union forces fell like dominoes, Confederate Comdr. Whitlock noted in his official report, "The Federals have just been repulsed in a first attempt to ascertain the disposition and strength of our positions. They were permitted to remove their slain from the approaches."
In the Union camp, the consensus was that it had been a pretty good battle. "Except the Confederates refused to die again," said Zouave Rich Canouse, a college student from Wilmington, Del. "You cannot be a Confederate unless you're immortal," said Brian Scace, a Montgomery County, Md., truckdriver. "One thing we're really good at is dying," Canouse added.
Saturday night was a time for reflection in both camps. "Sometimes, I enjoy a smaller event like this where you don't have all the factions and cliques," said Whitlock. "All the time, there are political struggles and counter-struggles."
The Union forces, a loose confederation of five units, met to discuss entering into a more formal arrangement for the common good. The larger body would be called the Warren Brigade, after a New York general of some reknown.
They could have been a bunch of Rebels defending states' rights, so great was their fear of flying together. "If you have elections, you're gonna get into politics, man," warned Brain Scace.
They would unite, it was finally agreed, if only to cooperate in a Natinal Park Service film for Antietam National Battlefield. Their reward: two meals and $10 each and a common keg of beer.
Beer flowed freely at the Union camp Saturday night as the troops sang "Goober Peas," "Marching Through Georgia" and "the Battle Hymn of the Republic." Four members of the Maryland Light Artillery closed the bar -- actually a tent -- at a late hour.
The second day's battle was to begin at 2 p.m. but, while Federal forces struck their tents the Rebels raided the Union camp. "Hey, we're not done," Scace shouted. "Does this mean we don't have to fight the battle and we can go home?" asked Sgt. Jerry Seager, of the 5th N.Y. Zouaves.
Of course, it didn't.But today the Union forces routed the Rebels, who attempted to charge the Federal defenses. This time, the Confederates fell. "Are they dying for real?" asked a little boy on the sidelines.
The smoke cleared. The battle was over. The Rebels limped off the field, consoled only by one irrefutable fact.
The South would rise again, some other weekend.