Just as he did 135 years ago, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant will lead his Union soldiers across central Virginia next weekend to face the fiery but outmanned Confederates commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Only this time, after the fighting is done, the two Civil War heroes can share their thoughts about the bloody battles at a book-signing sponsored by Borders. Or over an order of super-size fries, courtesy of McDonald's. If they like, they can even watch their moves on a commemorative video.
That's because this year's Civil War is brought to you by the folks at Primedia Inc. -- and their many corporate partners.
The three-day event -- with spectator tickets selling for $10 per day -- is planned as the largest Civil War reenactment ever in Virginia. It aims to be a precise and unparalleled re-creation of the battle of the Wilderness and other major clashes of 1864.
But it is also a proving ground for a new type of historic engagement: large-scale reenactments that serve as vehicles for corporate sponsors to increase visibility and turn a profit. If the backers can sell enough tickets and products, they will look for other battles that can profitably be refought.
"This is the first time that a corporate [entity] is sponsoring a reenactment like this," said Don Warlick, a reenactor turned organizer who is coordinating the weekend's battles in conjunction with Primedia. "We're hoping it works because the hobby needs someone of that nature to sponsor stuff. We just don't have the resources to do it."
The prospect of corporate sponsorship is cause for concern as well as hope among reenactors, a national network of about 30,000 history buffs so passionate about their play that they sew their own uniforms, train horses for cavalry fights and cut their hair in the style of the 1860s.
Large, sponsored events can draw many more thousands of reenactors, so the re-creation of the battles is more accurate and impressive. But the aura of a county fair that is created by vendor activities and promotions strays far from the atmosphere of a Civil War battle, some reenactors say.
"We don't want it to turn into Nascar or look like a sporting event," said Bill Holschuh, a reenactor and publisher of the Camp Chase Gazette, the leading publication for Civil War reenactors. "That's the problem -- people who put big money out there tend to like big signs."
"Grant vs. Lee," as next weekend's event is billed, will be held on 500 acres at Brandy Station -- itself the scene of a Civil War battle -- just outside Culpeper. The affair, expected to draw 10,000 reenactors, will open Friday with a parade, followed by the cavalry Battle of Yellow Tavern and the Battle of Saunders Field. The events will continue Saturday and Sunday with demonstrations, races between Blue and Gray horses and several more reenactments, ending with the assault at Cold Harbor.
The $250,000 event could generate as much as a $500,000 profit, organizers say, a yet-to-be-determined portion of which will go to historical preservation causes.
"If it makes money and everyone's happy, we'll do it again," said Dean Regan, advertising director for Primedia's History Group, which is putting on "Grant vs. Lee." Future assemblies could involve other wars or historical events. The Leesburg-based History Group is primarily known as the publisher of a dozen historical magazines, including America's Civil War and Civil War Times.
In addition to a profit from the event, the sponsor hopes for a marketing boost. "First and foremost we're trying to extend our brand into the Civil War category," said Brent Diamond, History Group's vice president. "We're also trying to introduce living history to a broader range of people who will hopefully become subscribers down the road."
Civil War reenactments have a lengthy history of their own. In 1903, Confederate veterans of William Mahone's Brigade re-created the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg. A few reenactments ensued over the next 60 years, including 50th and 75th anniversary events.
But it wasn't until 1961, the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, that the modern reenactment movement took form. After the many centennial reenactments ended, local groups began putting on their own small-scale re-creations. The community of reenactors and the events they sponsored grew over the next 25 years. The 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1988 drew more than 10,000 reenactors and sparked the mega-events of today. This year, there will be about 360 reenactments of all sizes across the country.
Primedia is not the only group to run one of today's mega-events. A handful of nonprofit groups also sponsors large-scale reenactments. In Gettysburg, where interest is particularly keen, a group of local business people administer the annual remaking of the 1863 battle. A 12,000-person reenactment took place last year.
But Primedia is taking its event beyond traditional reenactments. Most of the concession stands at other events, both large and small, are dedicated to the basics: food, drink and period merchandise. Primedia is including books, videos, software and other modern goods. The company also is sponsoring lectures and informational discussions by historians Edwin Bearss and Noah Andre Trudeau. Other events pride themselves on teaching history through the reenactments themselves.
At "Grant vs. Lee," there will be more than 100 vendors selling books, artwork, food and other merchandise. Borders Books and Music will have a tent where the public can buy Civil War-related books and speak to authors. Talonsoft, a Baltimore-based war games software company, will have a display. The Military Channel will be producing and selling a video of the reenactments ($19.95 during the event, $25 after). And McDonald's will be trying to draw customers into its restaurants by offering coupons as part of admission.
Warlick doesn't foresee a carnival atmosphere.
"A company like Primedia, who's very historically conscious, is real concerned about the image of [the event]," he said.
Moreover, organizers say, reenactors at "Grant vs. Lee" will find the sponsorship a boon, because the money it brings can pay for events that make the re-creation more authentic and more enjoyable. For example, the fight for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, which started at dawn in 1864, will start at 6 a.m. this weekend -- an extremely unfriendly hour for onlookers, but an authentic delight for reenactors.
And organizers have arranged for a reenactors-only fight in the woods that will not be shown to the public. Accurate as they may be, such battles normally are omitted from reenactments because it's virtually impossible to see most of the action.
Still, many reenactors focus on the fusion of their activities with those of scores of vendors, and they wonder whether American history can commingle with American capitalism.
"If this is successful and we decide to continue into the event business, we'd get away from the word reenactment," said Primedia's Regan.
This strategy could backfire, Holschuh said, because reenactors covet authenticity above all else.
"Mega-events are good," said Kyth Banks, a reenactor from Jonesville, Va., who is known as Captain Gray Dog of the 37th Virginia Company during battle. "But the problem of them is a lot of times, outfits that do mega-events get into numbers, and authenticity suffers."
Dale Alkire, who puts on a small-scale reenactment in Lima, Ohio, sees another downside. "A lot of units would come to Lima, but they'll drive all the way to the East Coast instead. It takes care of the month of June [for reenactors]."
Then again, "Gettysburg was awesome," said Alkire, referring to last year's remaking of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which he participated. "If you had to make Pickett's Charge, to look and see 15,000 people there . . . ," his voice trailing off with the fond memory.
Day tickets cost $10 in advance ($24 for a weekend pass) or $12 at the gate. Tickets for children ages 6 to 12 are $5 per day, and children 6 and younger get in free. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 1-888-696-3340 or at www.TheHistoryNet.com on the Internet.