I asked the 27-year-old a question I always wonder when I see Civil War reenactors: Aren’t you hot?
“No,” said Milton. “I’m used to it.”
“All the girls think you’re hot,” said Michael Schaffner, who was dressed in 19th-century mufti. He was portraying a federal clerk pressed into the defense of the capital but often portrays a commander in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the “Glory” unit.
“Good one, captain,” Milton said.
This is how soldiers banter.
“It was hotter that day,” said Schaffner, 65. “Ninety-seven degrees in the shade.”
That was July 11, 1864, when Confederate forces under Jubal Early invaded the District and fired on Abraham Lincoln — who had come to Fort Stevens to watch the battle — before retreating.
Both sides, Schaffner said, had reason to be embarrassed by the events: the Union for allowing the enemy to invade the city, the rebels for letting the capital slip from their fingers. Saturday’s anniversary was marked with lectures and living history demonstrations.
What’s the most uncomfortable you’ve ever been reenacting?
“At Harrison’s Landing on the James River,” Schaffner said. “It was miserably hot.”
As would have been the practice during the war, lookouts were posted all night. Schaffner pulled guard duty.
“It never got below 80 degrees, and it was very humid,” he said.
When Schaffner got home, his wife told him to strip off his clothes in the basement. She didn’t want the authentically sweat-drenched garments anywhere near her.
And Milton? The roughest time he’s ever had?
“I was deaf after my first Battle of Fort Pocahontas,” he said.
“The cannon,” he explained. “I was too close. That was a lesson: Keep your distance.”
Milton works at the African American Civil War Museum portraying a soldier from the U.S. Colored Troops. He’s a hardcore reenactor who claims to even like hardtack, that notoriously inedible ration.
“We’re fighting to strike a blow and prove we’re citizens,” he said.
I ambled over to an exhibit on Civil War nursing practices and asked Jackie Greer and Vaughne Hansen what’s the most uncomfortable they’ve ever been when reenacting.
“The 150th anniversary of First Manassas,” said Greer, 54, without hesitation. “That was in 2011, on the actual site of the battle, or close to it.”
It reached 120 degrees in the shade.
“We weren’t any hotter than any of the spectators,” said Hansen, 61.
How do you stay cool in long-sleeved dresses that reach to the ground?
“It’s called cotton and sweat,” Greer said. “It’s nature’s cooling system.”
Some reenactors rely on switchel, a restorative drink also known as haymakers punch. Hansen said she makes hers with black strap molasses and apple cider vinegar, diluted with water and flavored with honey or lemon.
“We tell people it’s the Gatorade of the 1860s,” Greer said.
Kelley Chambers was clad in a red-and-white checked muslin dress to which she’d pinned a stained apron. Underneath were bloomers and a hoop that made her dress flare out like a bell. She said she’d shopped in a half-dozen thrift stores before finding black leather boots as plain and scuffed as she wanted.
Chambers portrays a field slave, and the heat, she said, didn’t bother her.
“It helps me appreciate where I am right now,” said Chambers, 53, a printing specialist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who lives in Fredericksburg, Va.
Reenacting helps her honor the nameless millions of American slaves who toiled in the fields, whose names we’ll never know, who’ll never have a school named after them or a statue raised in their memory.
Chambers lifted the hem of her dress and began walking toward a row of porta-potties. “I’m wondering how much of a struggle it’s going to be to get into those bathrooms,” she said.
To my eyes, no one looked like they’d be hotter than Eric Richardson, an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln. He was dressed in black wool from head to toe, a stovepipe hat on his head.
“He has to wear black,” said Richardson, 67. “Lincoln said that as long as the country was at war, we were in mourning.”
The actor said he’s seen other Lincoln impersonators who wear colorful brocade vests underneath their black frock coats.
“No, I’m not going to do that,” he said.
Richardson wasn’t complaining.
“Wool is good,” he said. “It breathes.”
As the sound of fife and drums drifted through the air, Richardson surveyed Fort Stevens and calculated when he’d need to make his own retreat. He was booked for another event that evening.
“I’m doing Dean Martin,” he said. “With a Frank Sinatra.”