The Red Badge of Make-Believe Courage
Long after Ken Burns inspired a nation to sniffle, Civil War hobbyists are reenacting America's deadliest conflict—over and over and over. Live from the ersatz killing fields of Gettysburg, our man asks: Is this any way for adults to behave?
It’s a sweltering day in a damp meadow near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Me and my pards from the First Maryland Infantry Battalion, Confederate States of America, are backing up that debonair cock-o’-the-war Major General Jeb Stuart and his dismounted cavalry. An olde-tymey steam train is screeching ’round the bend. It’s packed with sweaty tourists who think they’re on a routine Fourth of July fun run. But today they’re in for a surprise: Rebel troops will halt the train with a thunderous cannon barrage, board it, and turn it “back toward Richmond”–that is, back to the Gettysburg depot to pick up the next throng of ticket holders.
The farmer whose field we’ve commandeered is a classic American Gothic type–in the sense that “gothic” means glaring, mistrustful, and cranky. Despite the cash he’s been awarded to let obsessives in faux 135-year-old woolens tromp his property, he’s radiating grumpiness. Ignoring him, those of us who aren’t too obese crouch in a gully, gasping in the heat as the train chugs closer.
Boom! The artillery’s opening salvo makes my chest cave. Attack! We rush out, hooting profoundly. Suddenly, previously concealed Union troops swarm out of the train and form battle lines. As the Yankees shoot back and train-riding civilians fire away with cameras, our captain vainly commands us to maintain orderly files. I fumble to reload, dropping caps and spilling powder.
“Take some hits, boys!” commands Stuart. As we were briefed pre-battle, the appropriate times to die are when you’re flanked and outnumbered, when you run out of ammo, when you get tired and think you’re going to have a heart attack, and when the boss says to. It’s only fair that I take a quick hit, this being my first encounter with “the elephant,” macho reenactor lingo for the pandemonium of ersatz warfare. I spot a patch of dry grass. A fine place to expire.
From about 30 yards away, a Yankee warrior in 1970s-style aviator-frame glasses targets some sky above my head and pulls the trigger. I lurch back toward the grass, coming up short and landing in mud. My new $75 pants! I flop around, taking care not to crush my canteen ($35) and gingerly pitching my Enfield rifle ($400) onto dry land. I decide to “reenact” a fatal shot to the heart. Rising on my elbows, stoically moaning and whimpering, I watch the Rebs counterattack the train. Their charge pushes the front line ahead of me, and Doc Fontaine, our company medic, drops by for triage.
“Dead or wounded?”
“Dying–but please don’t splash fakey blood on my $25 shirt.”
I close my eyes and envision the ebbing of the life force. The sun and smoke, musket and artillery blasts, and lusty Rebel yells–all these sights and sounds wash over me. The grass chafes my neck, insects crawl and gnaw. This, I realize, is what it might have been like to die slowly and alone on America’s deadliest battlefield, to savor the noise, smells, and terror of one’s final breaths…
Uh-oh. Our boys are falling back. Now I’m in no-man’s-land. TBGs–reenactor shorthand for “tubby bearded guys”–stumble past. A chubby corporal stomps my ankle. Fortunately, the Union is soon repulsed and retreats again. The train rolls off, the wounded start helping the dead to their feet, and a sickly bugle croaks out its timeless call: Miller time.
Who are the estimated 20,000 humans, not only in the United States but also in such distant, war-starved lands as Germany, who regularly don gray or blue and spend their outdoor leisure time reenacting the American Civil War? More important, why are they still at it? A few years back, reenacting had obvious appeal: Among other perks, make-believe combatants got to do their thing in films like Glory and Gettysburg. And when PBS briefly wooed the under-80 demographic with The Civil War, large-scale buffdom became almost cool. But instead of passing like so many other fads, reenacting has become an indelible subculture. According to The Camp Chase Gazette, a monthly fanzine that’s reenacting’s answer to Variety, this year alone, hundreds of battles and “living history” encampments are slated. What’s the enduring appeal?
Reenactors will tell you they’re tapping into the values and folkways of America’s most hallowed conflict. (No, not slavery and mass amputations. Rather states’ rights, valor, and chivalric combat.) Scoffers tend to mock them as closet racists, kooks, or Trekkie-like geeks, and contemporary cultural stereotypes aren’t helping matters. Witness the recent episode of ER in which a deranged, accidentally wounded reenactor refuses to “get out of character.” Nor has the hobby’s image been helped by Larry Dewayne Hall, a Confederate reenactor arrested last year in connection with a string of murders committed in the vicinity of battles that he attended. “Suspect has humongous mutton chops,” the crackling police bulletins must have said. “Repeat: mutton chops.”
There is, of course, a third postulate: Perhaps most of these “soldiers” are good guys who are simply out to make friends, get drunk, shoot guns, and have fun.
Heroes, zeroes, or belly-full-of-beer-o’s? The only way to find out, I realize, is to march onto the Civil War’s blood-soaked playing field. My quest for the past begins in “the future”–on the Internet. Like members of other groups unable to satisfy all their aberrant urges in three dimensions, reenactors use cyberspace to keep in touch. I locate the appropriate site, where I’m immediately impressed by the sheer bellicosity of the breed, especially Confederates, many of whom think they’re still getting the ramrod from the North.
“It seems that most contemporary textbooks downplay the importance of contributations that Southerners have made, instead focusing on depicting us in a biggotted, racist manner,” Reb reenactor Rick Veal contributates. “Thus preventing [readers] from coming to the conclusion that the War was an illegal invasion of the South by the North….”
But it’s not just North-versus-South that divides these folks. There’s equal disrespect between the so-called hardcores and farbs. The hardcores are also known as button pissers, thanks to a notorious 1994 Wall Street Journal article that explored the hidden schisms within reenactordom. The piece profiled the elite Southern Guard, a unit so committed to verisimilitude that one soldier’s uniform featured brass buttons soaked in urine to achieve a yellowed “1860s patina.” Hardcores also practice “dead man’s bloat,” Method-actor portrayals of swollen corpses in the field, and engage in “spooning,” cuddling up on chilly nights with the other fetid, unwashed men of their units.
Farbs–the term is a derogatory derivation from the phrase “far be it from authentic”–are more easygoing types who like to enjoy modernity’s pleasures, such as camp stoves, insect repellent, beer, and soap, before and after battles. Hardcores disdain their often inaccurate uniforms and portrayals as “farby.”
Ultimately, I decide the only way to be scientific is to go farb one weekend, hardcore the next. Which leads to the ultimate question: blue or gray?
“Do yourself a favor and link up with a Union regiment,” I’m advised by Yankee reenactor Kim Allen Scott. “I believe recreation is what your readers are interested in, not some weird ideology regarding ancestor worship or political backlash.”
I pose an open question: Do most other guys buckle under peer pressure to join the winning team, or does the wisteria-scented Old South prove irresistible? “My impression is that there are at least twice as many Southern reenactors,” replies George Komatsoulis, a weekend corporal with a Union battalion. “Around the unit we think that it’s the ‘romance of the lost cause.’ I’ve heard people say this about bad guys in movies, that somehow they’re always more interesting than the good guys.”
That tears it: I will become Confederate Boy, marching in the doomed ranks of Johnny Reb. On the Net, I meet lots of friendly soldiers who invite me to muster into their units. For my first weekend, I decide to hook up with Jeb Stuart and his cushy train-raid encampment. A week later, I’ll join a more button-pissing outfit, the Army of Northern Virginia, at the Fight for the Hills, a hellacious reliving of the struggles for Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top. All of it, obviously, will transpire at the Mecca of Meccas: Gettysburg, where the South came to grief on July 1-3, 1863.
Under leaden skies, Gettysburg National Military Park looks sepulchral indeed when I pull into town on July 1. Despite the hordes of tourists clogging the approach roads, its rolling fields and rocky heights look like “hallowed ground” on a fine dismal day like today. Some reenactors with a supernatural bent consider Gettysburg the Grand Central Station of the spirit world, with sentry wraiths marching in the mist. Here in the gloom, even those who aren’t so inclined might have second thoughts.
I check into camp, which turns out to be farb central: a roped-off area inside a woodsy RV lot. My unit commander is Captain Chris Chesnut of the First Maryland (CSA). A thirtysomething chef in less unreal life, hairy-chinned Chris weighs in at 260 pounds–a textbook TBG. His wife, Debby, is here along with her mom, creating the real-life spectacle of a burly Confederate captain cowering from his mother-in-law.
Our camp is voluptuously appointed. Captain Chris has hauled along a stocked cooler (hidden in an ammo box), outdoor furniture galore, and a large tent with twin cots. We’ve also got a cookhouse, manned by the family of Ron Waddell. Fifty-two and lean, he’s brought his wife, Beverly, and daughters, Heather and Rebekah, from their home in nearby Lebanon to handle domestic chores. Ron is a full-time “living historian,” getting paid to visit schools as a period doctor. He portrays Jeb Stuart’s medical director, Major John Fontaine, M.D. He and his period-clad family have been doing the Civil War for nine years. Except for Beverly’s Amway distributorship and the kids’ schooling, it’s the focus of their lives.
That night I get no sleep. My fellow soldiers, so jacked up to be back in the friendly confines of the nineteenth century, gab for hours. The captain, my tentmate, thunders in around 3 A.M. with his boots on and commences cannonlike snoring. At 4, a late-arriving Dorkus confederatus whomps our tent, looking for his campsite.
The next morning is bonding and discipline time: We chew the fat, drill, and run through the script for our train raid. That afternoon, after the first battle, the grumbling skies open in a deluge. While I wait out the storm in an overly air-conditioned Plymouth Neon with four other farbs, a grizzled young Johnny Reb brags about an illegal encampment he took part in a few months back. A pair of local cops approached a hundred Rebs at their campsite to ask them to put out their fires.
The storyteller scoffs manfully. “They’re telling a hundred armed men what to do.” Other Rebs join in the virile gaiety. Strictly to himself, Confederate Boy asks: Huh? First of all, the hundred men were “armed” only with muskets and powder–no bullets. Second, not that I’m complaining, but with this group, such pseudomilitia bravado is just a pose. At the moment, a corporal is scurrying past our car, cowering under a colorful golf umbrella. No matter what their physiques or facial-hair situations, all these guys are TBGs deep down.
Actually, they’re not all guys. Back in camp, a Union private is drying out by our campfire–and he’s a she. Sunny Sonnenrein, of the 15th New York Mounted Cavalry and 124th New York Infantry, is a German-American portraying an immigrant soldier. Back home in Goshen, New York, her riding buddies got her into reenacting several months ago. Sonnenrein says she’s already totally outfitted–and hooked.
We talk about the discrimination faced by distaff battlers like her. In 1991, a reenactor named Lauren Cook Burgess filed a civil suit after the National Park Service booted her out of an Antietam reenactment for being a woman. Burgess won on sexual-discrimination grounds, but the ruling applies only to events on Park Service land. The prevailing attitude elsewhere is spelled out in the rules for the Tennessee Campaign, a multibattle fall 1995 event, the reenactor Lollapalooza: “If you are discovered to be a woman on the field, you will be removed from the ranks. Do not come to this event…unless you and your unit are prepared to live with the possible consequences of your actions.”
“We had a girl in our company who wore makeup and jewelry,” says Sonnenrein, distancing herself somewhat from too-prissy others. “Finally we couldn’t take it anymore and tossed her out. No one knows why she was interested in the first place.”
Ummm…to meet TBGs?
The rain returns, and we seek shelter under the captain’s canvas fly. While many a Civil War battle was fought in the muck, those guys had no choice. We do. We are medium core. Faster than you can say Digital Music Express, we pack up our gear and head for the twentieth century.
When I return the next weekend, the weather looks promising: dry and hot, no need for spooning. We’ll be replaying two Gettysburg battles, Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top, crucial Union repulses of uphill Confederate charges. Gettysburg is known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, for it was here that Rebel forces, peaking after a string of successes by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, were decisively trounced and began their slow decline. The Rebels’ inability to capture the high ground at Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top helped seal this fate, because it pushed Lee into ordering General George Pickett’s disastrous charge into the Union center.
Today, replaying Culp’s Hill, we’ll clash on a rustic hillside eight miles from town. I track down my new buddies in the sprawling Confederate camp, where they’ve proudly set up ragged canvas flies over tree branches. Despite the Therm-a-Rest hidden under my period blanket, I feel last weekend’s farbiness melting away.
Nontubby and nonbearded Bryan Boyle, 39, from South Brunswick, New Jersey, works as a computer network engineer for Exxon Research. Bill Andersen is a stocky, witty, 32-year-old computer scientist from Baltimore. Bill’s brother Mike, 35, made the trip here from Milwaukee and resembles an Ed Harris with hair. Devin Shook is a lanky 33-year-old goofball, and Rich Dragos, a 36-year-old from West Islip, New York, can, I’m informed, drink a lot without getting stupid.
My new pals explain that they go into battle with rucksacks only, campaign style–no tents or fuss. “After the final battle,” says Mike, who’s been sleeping around in the woods for a week, “we just march back to the truck and drive home, while everybody else is here for hours breaking down their tents and stowing their farby gear.”
Taking a break from our hardcoreness, we ride into town to quaff brews at a cozy outdoor caf. At the next table is a pair of true button pissers: Johann, a dirty-blond, mud-caked Confederate, and his nonspeaking pard, whose name I don’t catch. They’ve been sleeping rough in the forest for two weeks, gathering stink. The manager of the bar won’t even let them inside.
Johann greets us: At least we can appreciate his authenticity. Showing off his basically disintegrated shoes, he shares his pedigree. “We’re unofficially part of the Southern Guard,” he says, “but we can’t handle all their rules. We like to do our own thing.” Bill, a self-described gun nut, launches an arcane discussion on armaments with Johann. Mike, recognizing a gleam in his brother’s eye, instigates a retreat from this killing field of tedious one-upmanship.
The next morning, as I scrounge around for a spare weapon, an Enfield rifle becomes available–but with a string attached. To get it, I’ll have to join the company of its owner, Steve Mercer of Columbia, Alabama, a 45-year-old captain with the 15th Alabama. Captain Steve is a true “lifer”: He’s been reenacting for 12 years and attends more than 30 events annually. Unemployed, he makes a few bucks as a “sutler,” selling reenactor goodies. Inside his tent, which is thick with customers, he gleefully relates what a soldierly good time his boys have. “Once, we attached a ball and chain to this guy in his sleep. He gets up to take a piss, near killed himself. Then we couldn’t find the key. So we had to saw it off. Ha!”
This antebellum frat-boy talk makes me wonder out loud what sort of initiation is in store. Captain Steve smiles slyly. As we chat away, I ask if some guys get so deep into the Civil War that they decide they fought in it in a past life.
“I know one guy who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson,” he says, voice and dander rising. “But that’s not possible, because the Bible says you don’t get reincarnated.” Visibly trying to restrain himself from a biblical rant, he rants anyway.
“Hmmm,” I say when he finishes. No one else speaks.
Soon enough, it’s time for my first drill with the 15th–and my hazing. Eyeing me narrowly as I stand at attention, First Sergeant Manning Williams maniacally tears open a cartridge roll with his teeth, battlefield style. Then he pours the black powder into his mouth, getting it nice and moist…nice and moist. After which he gives a Rebel yell, spits the powder into his hand, and starts spreading the halitosisy goo on my face, still screaming. Nobody seems to find this unusual.
Our first action will be the Battle of Culp’s Hill. Today there’s a decent crowd of spectators, and I decide it would be nice to get myself nobly wounded instead of dying with a grotesque gurgle. After 15 minutes I take a hit in my left arm, stagger around briefly, and then try to rejoin the fray using only my right wing. A female medic–a real one, not a reenactor–rushes up, thinking I’m actually hurt. I wave her off. Back in formation, I take another hit so I can flop around extra-pathetically. Soon as I do, here comes the medic lady again.
“Do you need some help?” she asks.
“Might need to amputate, ma’am,” I gasp. Wink, wink. She’s visibly annoyed–once again she thought I was really hurt. “Hey, lady,” I croak as she scurries off in a huffy clatter, “excuse me for being convincing. It’s my job.”
The night before their suicide attack in Glory, the black Union soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts used rhythmic call-and-response prayers to get in touch with their souls. The night before our attack on Little Round Top, the men of the 15th Alabama shoot guns and yell a lot. Reveille blows at 5 A.M.; figuring I won’t sleep anyway, I rouse myself at four for a look-see around, bumbling over to the Widow Barfield’s cookhouse for coffee.
A cherubic woman in her forties, Betty Barfield worked as a correctional officer for 12 years, but now she and her daughter, Maureen, travel to reenactments, cooking dollar-a-plate grub in Confederate camps. Except, she bitterly mutters, at the increasingly frequent events “where the promoters won’t let me set up,” lest it suppress official concessionaire income.
Belly stoked, I take a stroll in the elite section of camp reserved for generals. I nod at a lackluster Lee and then halt at the tent of General James Longstreet. Inside, I introduce myself to Tim Perry, a 39-year-old medical investigator and a dead ringer for Lee’s bushy-bearded right-hand man. Longstreet, played in the movie Gettysburg by a hilariously overbearded Tom Berenger, is widely revered, especially at Gettysburg, where he tried to talk Lee out of ordering Pickett’s Charge. I ask Perry how he managed to elbow aside the lesser dudes and assert himself as the alpha Longstreet. “There was another guy,” he snorts. “He came up and introduced himself to me. He was doing a Tom Berenger impression, not a Longstreet.”
The cream of the reenactor world is lined up in Perry’s tent to pay respects, and the fact that Confederate Boy, a mere grunt private, is monopolizing the great man causes plenty of consternation. I’m shortly elbowed aside by a Longstreet lackey who has brought along a comely female for the general’s perusal. Who would have thought there’d be a reenactor groupie factor?
Later, visiting the nearby Union camp to find my pal Sunny Sonnenrein, I feel eyes burning holes in my back. It’s like sitting in a bar while a TV displays a police sketch of yourself. Nobody helps direct me to Sunny’s unit; in fact, more than one blue coat brays, “Go back where you belong.”
Back in the Rebel camp, I’m told of the enormity of my gaffe: Cross-army fraternization is not encouraged here. “At some events,” a Texan notes, “they post pickets and take prisoners. You coulda been captured.”
This underscores a point I’d already noticed. The deeper we move into the weekend, the more my reenactor buddies–1,300 Feds, 1,200 Rebs–seem to be embracing an 1860s antipathy for one another. “Do you ever find yourself hating the other side?” I ask, my inauthentic pen poised over my farby notepad. “Does the violence ever get real?”
Silence. I get a sense of figurative wagons being circled, as the men exchange nervous glances. “Never,” someone finally says. “Never. Safety is our primary concern.”
“What about that guy who bayoneted that other guy?” (I’m making this up, but you never know.)
“We, uh, I haven’t heard about that.” Too bad.
That afternoon, as me and some pards hunker down waiting for artillery to soften up Little Round Top, an Army of Northern Virginia private gripes about a proposal to place a statue of Arthur Ashe alongside Richmond’s Civil War heroes. “I don’t mind them putting up a statue for an ‘African-American,’ ” says the fighter-philosopher, “and I don’t mind them putting up a statue for a guy who dies of AIDS. But I’ll be damned if they put up a statue to an ‘African-American’ who died of AIDS!”
Everybody grunts. Apparently there’s a fourth reason to reenact that I failed to consider: to protect the South from memorial statuary honoring skinny, lovable clay-court specialists.
No time to think about that, though. Soon bugles blare, and we get the order to charge up a 45-degree hill on this 90-degree day. A single thought unites us as we enter a hailstorm of Union lead: I’d like to die pretty soon; preferably in the shade. In fact: there!
Unfortunately, my battle-tested pards beat me to the shade, so I have to survive awhile. Farther uphill, peeping over the top of a breastworks, I aim at a Union artillery man. Blam! The bluebelly takes the hit. Yo! What a feeling!
But the tide turns, of course. Little Round Top ended when Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, after holding the Union’s left flank all day, sent the Rebs skedaddling with a fixed-bayonet charge. Now as then, most of my outfit has been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and a wave of blue is roaring down the hill to finish us off. It’s a crushing Confederate defeat. I haul gray-clad butt downhill, canteen clanging against my side. The crowd cheers the massacre as I run for cover behind a small line of Southern backup.
Pausing for breath, I take a last look back at the field of mayhem. The dead are rising awkwardly, while Yanks are clomping downhill and offering helping hands to the boys in gray. As I shuffle toward my car, people make sympathetic faces as if I’ve actually survived a battle, and the larger crowd applauds in sincere appreciation. The moment is genuinely moving.
I overhear a tourist dad describing the leaders of the real battle of Gettysburg to his young kids. “There was Armitage, who was an old pal of the Union’s Hancock…” Just then, a resurrected Reb swaggers past, ripping off his heavy coat and shirt, taking a swig from a can of Miller Genuine Draft, and letting go with a loud burp: “Don’t forget Brrrrrobert E. Lee.”
No, indeed. With men like this honoring his memory, his name will resonate forever.
Jack Barth served time as an overstressed Yosemite National Park worker grunt in the June 1995 feature “A Park Boy Is Born.”