I arrive at the site, Friday evening, 18 June 1999.
Mega-events attract a wide variety of reenactors: fake morticians, pretend telegraphers, ersatz whores, the usual wanna-be soldiers, civilians and me, Jonah Begone.
So what was billed as "the largest reenactment ever in Virginia" had an appeal for me, despite the fact that I have pretty much abandoned living history for the purer form of combat known as rugby football. (You really want to know what combat is like? Forget reenacting, play rugby.) But, confirming that my literary pards Bill Holschuh, CCG publisher, and Bill Jackson, whom I collegially refer to as "the Voice" ("...of Civil War Reenacting") were both going to attend this 135th Anniversary "Grant vs. Lee" Wilderness reenactment, well, what the heck, ya know? The added attraction of a press pass and all sorts of imagined privileges further convinced me to go.
This time, however, I would do an event as an unabashed farb and sleep not in a tent, but in a 1993 Dodge Caravan - the new model JonahMobile. (I sold my 1974 VW Beetle after ten years of dedicated service getting me to and away from events.) O judge me not harshly, Gentle Reader, and reflect that I have slept out under canvas and stars for no less than sixteen hard years, teaching Joe American Public about his heritage. Included in that is nearly nine years of duty as a Boy Scout leader. So I figure I'm entitled.
By the way, if you want thrilling, up-close shots of battle action, look elsewhere or buy the official video - I don't have any. I didn't plan to do any of the battles - they wouldn't be significantly different from anything I took part in with the 125th anniversary series - so I confined myself to other aspects of a reenactment; more of what a spectator or visitor would experience. Having always been a participant at events, this would be a new slant for me.
It wasn't hard to find the CCG tent - it's the same old tent, with the same old publisher, Bill Holschuh, and the same old editor, Bill Jackson, and it usually always is placed so that people may glare at us as they walk by. This time, that meant it was placed at the end of sutler road. Friday night I spent a pleasant few hours chatting, usually about the kind of thing reenactors generally talk about, whether in a period camp or in a car drinking beer in the parking lot: movies and reenacting, mostly.
I also strolled about the camp and got some pictures - or tried to. It was getting dark fast, and while there is many things a digital camera can do, taking images in the dark is not one of them.
Bidding The Voice and Bill adieu, I trudged back to the JonahMobile, where I gladly fell into the embrace of Morpheus, listening to what is certainly one of the glories of Western Civilization, Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. My dreams that night were a curious blend of recreational pursuits: of rugby pitches with well-manicured, 1 ½ inch high green grass (all the better to tackle and be tackled upon), the heady reenacting smell of leather, damp straw and wool, the flicker of firelight and the anticipation of finding that rare 1961 Columbia Masterworks LP at a Saturday morning yard sale.
Reville, Saturday morning, 19 June (what a pard in the 15th New Jersey used to call "re-vile").
Usually, the camp sound of tin utensils being banged around and reenactor chat wakes me up. Not this time. The JonahMobile was shaken by two insistent thumps, which I initially thought was some lout leaning against the car. It was, of course, cannon fire - the 6 AM opening shots of the beginning of the "Mule Shoe" scenario. I did not want to get up at 6 AM, but recognized that trying to get to sleep again was going to be futile, so I threw on some clothes, grabbed the camera and set out.
For the life of me, I don't understand what attracts spectators to Civil War events. Sure, visiting the camps and Sutler Row has some appeal, but after 16 years of being a soldier participant, watching a battle as a spectator is an absolute bore. These images will give you an idea of why this is.
Mule Shoe battle photographs
The event organizers, being mindful of crowd control and litigation, want to keep the mobs away from the people with black powder out in the field. The public (rightfully) demands sometime interesting to look at in exchange for cash. The result is less than perfect, and downright disappointing if you're used to actually taking part in a battle reenactment. I hiked up to the top of a hill with the teeming masses, and got atop a flatbed truck with a fellow who was a familiar sight: the Photogenic Rebel General impressionist. I think his name is Ripley Robinson; anyway, he's been a fixture at these things since I began reenacting back when the world was new.
The battle the spectators get to see is masses of blackish and grayish people, milling about and creating huge amounts of smoke which obscure anything really interesting. Perhaps you can get a sense of this by looking at the images.
Anyway, after the firing stopped the fellow on the public address system told us we could walk around among the entrenchments, which, I must admit, looked pretty good. Apparently the event sponsor went to some time and expense to construct a realistic-looking battlefield. (They even constructed chevaux-de-frise.) I imagine many reenactors must have time-tripped this morning, something, as grounded as I am in the twentieth century, have never been able to do.
I walked back to the JonahMobile and typed this up, and made crucial decisions about the rest of the day: Should I leave early? What should I get for breakfast?, etc., the kind of things soldiers of the period didn't have the luxury to ponder. Remembering my charter to do this event as a total farb, I headed out to the McDonald's up the road, and had one of their cheap and unsatisfying breakfasts, with a Coke chaser to cut the grease. (I also pocketed a tube of Rolaids - another amenity of 1990's life the soldiers didn't have - just to be safe.)
Then it was a leisurely day taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a Civil War reenactment along Sutler's Road and the Federal Camps. A lot of the time I hung out at the CCG tent watching people pass by. It's amazing how fat some of these people were. In fact, I can't recall an event where I've seen fatter people, but you be the judge - look at this. What the nutritionists are saying is true: America is in trouble. We seem to be eating ourselves into early graves.
If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then I need only refer you to the following photographs to capture what was going on that Saturday afternoon.
A visit to the camps
Finally, Bill I, Bill II and I decided to go out for dinner. The mistake we made was in heading out to Culpeper instead of Warrenton. Looking for a Shoney's or someplace national, franchised and safe, we were fooled by the word "family" included on the sign for Jenner's Family Restaurant and ate there. What a dump. I had the saltiest ham ever, and from where we were sitting we could see a couple of the teenaged help smoking in the kitchen. A television over the counter was tuned to a dire county-western video channel, and our waitress was slow; Bill Holschuh kindly paid for the meal out of the Camp Chase Gazette corporate account, and we left. I popped more Rolaids, fearing the worst. They didn't help, though, and neither did a visit to a Dairy Queen for some ice cream to cut the acid; I suffered, my friends, I suffered. Witness my anguish.
Heading home in the now-very filthy JonahMobile (there was a ton of dust in the parking lot) after 24 hours at Grant vs. Lee, I reflected upon my experiences as a member of the Fourth Estate. Hope you enjoyed this little account.
p.s. Absolutely none of this is copyrighted, by the way. If you like one of these photographs, take it. A little gift from Jonah to you.