"I died at New Market over Mother's Day weekend, and at Saylor's Creek in Farmville, Virginia," said David Morse, a 34-year old Lanham, Md. photographer. He "died" again yesterday at the sixth annual reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run. "This time they got me in the eye," he said.
Morse, a photographer with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, makes a hobby of fighting unto death. With his forehead covered with artificial blood that he dumped on himself during battle at close ranks, Morse's latest dying antics brought him the best soldier award from the battle reenactment organizers.
Huddled under umbrellas and ponchos in a steady rain, several hundred Washington-area residents watched some 300 history buffs in full regalia stage the annual reenactment at Bull Run Regional Park in Fairfax County.
On July 21, 1861, during hot, muggy weather, locals trekked with picnic hampers to hills overlooking the actual site near Manassas for what they thought would be an enjoyable outing. The gore of battle spoiled the fun. The Battle of Bull Run was the first serious fighting of the Civil War, a clash of raw recruits that shocked both sides into the realization that there was a war on.
Yesterday's weather was one deviation in a reenactment otherwise faithful to actual troop movements. Men and boys in authentic uniforms fired replicas of weapons or actual relics and died convincing deaths in the mud. The show normally attracts a crowd of several thousand, but the rain limited the number of onlookers.
The war was regimented: No hand-to-hand combat. Cavalry soldiers weren't allowed to fire from horseback, since jittery horses could have shied and slipped on the wet field. No projectiles in the weapons. No bayonets. And no polyester.
"They have to wear wool or some material that would have been worn at the time," said Randy Bowers of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which sponsored the event. "We inspect each weapon and each man in the ranks before they come on the field."
"Everybody's a ham," Bowers added. "These guys've been doing it so long, they drop dead and then you see them back on their feet in the battle."
The 300 troops represented the 35,000 men in the actual battle in which one in ten were killed or wounded. The actors advanced and retreated amid deafening artillery fire as historian Kim Holein narrated the scene via loudspeaker. They stood shoulder to shoulder in tight ranks, "not the way you see it in Hollywood," Holein said.
Families of those on the battlefield--who came from as far away as Ohio and Massachussetts--gathered on a giant reviewing stand in period costume (not counting Japanese cameras), coughing when smoke from the cannon billowed their way.
"My entire line was begging me to let them make a suicide charge at the end," said Ed Franzosa, 38, of Oakton, Va.
"I told them it's not in the script." Franzosa portrayed Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, losing commander of the Union Army. He was chosen for the part, he said, "because I can ride a horse and I have a Yankee uniform."
In real life a chemist with the Justice Department, Franzosa rereads a book on the battle each year and participates in eight major battle reenactments annually to make his $1,200 investment in uniform, saddle and accessories worthwhile.
Yesterday, the general led his bedraggled troops off the field carrying a flask of cranberry liqueur in his boot, "for my consumption," he said, savoring the Civil War pun.
"I've done every battle you can think of in the east for the last five years," said Craig Hall, 37, an Arlington attorney posing as a private in Archer's Brigade, Fifth Alabama.
"I love history," he said, calling the reenactments the next best thing to a time machine. He was hit in the stomach yesterday:
"If you were shot anywhere but in the extremities they left you on the field to die. And the only thing to be done if you were shot in the arm or leg was amputate."
The actual the Battle of First Manassas ended with a famous traffic jam as sightseers and troops clogged the narrow roads, withdrawing to Washington. Yesterday's battle departed from the script on that score, too, with cars on I-66 flowing freely a couple of miles from Bull Run Regional Park.