America may be at peace, but battle re-enactments rage on

by By John Skow; Beth Austin and Joseph J. Kane (Time, 8/11/1986)

The first Union artillery shells detonated at 1 p.m. Picnickers from Washington, society women in long dresses and their escorts in string ties and long black coats, watched from their hillside vantage point, eating fried chicken as they waited for the Federal troops to crush the Confederates.

At the outset, this battle near the railhead called Manassas Junction went according to Northern expectations. Union forces swept over one hill, then another, as the Rebs staggered and dropped. The Federal's horse-drawn artillery batteries, seasoned regular Army units, were ordered to hold their fire, when a regiment of Brigadier General Thomas (''Stonewall'') Jackson's Southerners, dressed in blue at this stage of the war, were mistaken for friendly forces. Cannons boomed, muskets cracked, horses reared in the dust. Confused and frightened soldiers stumbled through the swirl of smoke. Then, along the Sudley Springs Road, near Henry House, came Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's fresh troops, who had just arrived from Manassas. The Northern advance faltered. A Union private yelled, ''I can't see!'' as he stumbled and fell into the weeds. Another Northerner lost his nerve and began to run. His colonel drew a pistol and yelled, ''You have two seconds to get back into that line or you will be dead.'' The coward slunk back. The Union artillerymen were cut to bits, and by 3:15 p.m., the disaster that the North was to call the First Battle of Bull Run was all but over.

''Chase them Yankees back to Washington,'' shouted a woman in the spectators' area. Overhead, a supersonic Concorde ghosted upward from Dulles Airport, far too high for its passengers to see history being remade. This restaging of the First Battle of Manassas (as the South, which won and thus should have the choice, calls the conflict) came 125 years less one day after the original. The site was five miles from the actual battlefield, on 500 acres turned over for the occasion by a land developer. It was one of the largest re-enactments so far in the national craze for battle re-creations, which gathered momentum as a result of the Bicentennial celebrations ten years ago, and shows no sign of a cease-fire.

Numbers are slippery, partly because hobbyists who specialize, say, in the Revolutionary War have no reason to keep in close touch with Civil warriors. But some 50,000 people, many of them women and children, may be involved in relighting the old campfires and refighting the old battles. Some spend thousands of dollars on their costumes and weapons, and a rueful joke among re-enactors is that their 18th or 19th century wardrobes are far more elaborate than their present-day clothes.

Christopher Nelson, 44, a vice president of a Japanese consulting firm in Virginia, was unruffled at the Manassas battle, as was proper for a Union officer sent down from Washington to view the fighting from a distant hill. He wore dark blue woolen trousers, suspenders, an officer's jacket, a sword and a Colt .44-cal. Army-model revolver of the type issued to officers before 1862 -- in all, about $500 worth of gear. His interest was in the historical significance of the battle, which saw the first appearance of rifled cannons and the first movement of troops into battle by rail. ''None of these generals had ever handled so many thousands of troops before,'' he marveled.

An estimated 35,000 Confederates and about the same number of Union troops took part in the real battle, though accounts vary, and about 6,500 soldiers and camp followers joined in the re-enactment. Patrick Massengill, a Pentagon cartographer, kept things in order with twelve pages of script and 34 maps that boiled a long day's fighting down to 2 1/2 hours. Troop movements were as accurate as history and conjecture could make them, but deaths, desertions and the like were left to the inspiration of the combatants. Said Massengill: ''There is a lot of ham in these people.''

There was a lot of earnestness too. ''If you want to understand this war, then you have got to know how the soldiers felt,'' explained Thomas Downes, a machinist from Cleveland who had signed on as a captain with the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment. ''We cannot drink Cokes or Gatorade in the camp. It wouldn't be authentic. But if you can get whisky, that's all right. We are living historians. We have to do this to understand our forefathers.''

First Manassas was such noisy, nostalgic fun that the organizers are talking about staging the battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam next year, Gettysburg in 1988, the Wilderness Campaign in 1989 and Appomattox in 1990.

In the meantime, there is no danger of peace breaking out and boring everyone. If the French and Indian War catches your imagination, there are rousing battles at Old Fort Niagara, a restored 18th century stronghold on Lake Ontario. The conflict usually re-enacted is the siege of Fort Niagara, won by the British in 1759. But, one Saturday not long ago, the Siege of Oswego (1756) was refought, and the French and their Indian allies forced a British surrender. Afterward, Harry Burgess, 38, a Port Huron, Mich., history teacher, ranted to an onlooker in French-accented English about ''thees monster,'' the British army. Reverting to normal English, Burgess said that partaking in such battles ''gives us a private time machine.'' The Revolution is always popular, in part because the British uniforms were dazzling. These were not just the well-known red coats, but kilts for Scottish outfits and suits of splendid foppishness for officers. Lord Cornwallis is not required to surrender every weekend, but when he is played by Ken Siegel, he does so in the highest style. Siegel, 42, a management consultant from Needham, Mass., wears high silk stockings, brown-top riding boots, leather-lined, white wool breeches closed with gold buttons, a white waistcoat with a gold pocket watch, a crimson sash, a general's coat in scarlet wool with blue lapels and velvet cuffs studded with 20 14-karat buttons, a white wig and cocked bicorne hat, and a $15,000 18th century sword, inlaid with gold. ''I come off as a totally arrogant, pompous ass,'' he says with pride.

Siegel belongs to the British Brigade, a fifth column with members in 17 states. The brigade can field 600 men, including a mounted general and staff, 20 mounted dragoons, a battalion of artillery with five to seven cannons, four large infantry regiments, and ten additional companies of foot soldiers, including four units of Highlanders in kilts. The cavalry even has two professional stunt riders who can spill their horses. Next year the brigade is taking its act to England, possibly so that Cornwallis can get new instructions.

Despite the strength of the British Brigade, the colonists have the fervor to keep winning. Authenticity is pursued to the point of obsession, and anyone wearing polyester would be laughed off the battlefield. Shirts are handmade of ; linen, often by the soldiers or their wives. Buckled colonial shoes for officers are available from an outfit in Valley Forge, Pa., and flintlock muskets (made in Japan, though this point is not stressed) can be had for $285. Among the strictest reconstructionists are the 1,000 or so members of the Brigade of the American Revolution, a group founded in 1962 to re-create the life of the Revolutionary soldier. This brigade will not allow women to fight, though it does accept women and children as craftspeople and water carriers, which would have been their roles in the 18th century. ''Most working-class women of the 18th century were virtually treated as beasts of burden,'' explains National Commander George Woodbridge, an artist for Mad magazine. Well, maybe. But when Becky Anderson, 20, an attractive brunet carpenter from Bowling Green, Ohio, swings into battle at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., she wears the uniform of the 10th Virginia Regiment, Wayne's Corps of Light Infantry, carries a musket and is addressed as Nathaniel. Her parents took her to re-enactments when she was 14, but ''as a girl you had to wear dresses and sit around the campfire cooking. I didn't like that.''

Anderson is a member of the North West Territory Alliance, which accepts women as combatants. So is Dennis Farmer, the curator of a historical museum in Monroe County, Mich., a lieutenant in the 10th Virginia Regiment who has spent some $10,000 on such items as camp gear, uniforms, a musket and a pair of authentic 18th century eyeglass frames. ''The Revolutionary War is my favorite time period,'' he said one hot Saturday at Greenfield Village before a fight with the dreaded British. ''As wars go, you can't find a better one that was fought for a clear-cut cause.'' The script called for Anderson, Farmer and the other colonials to lose, and they did (at Greenfield Village, the Americans win on Sundays). But casualties were unusually light. Did an afternoon downpour have anything to do with this? Yes, admitted an insider. Authenticity is fine, but getting your uniform clean again is pure hell after you have expired for your country on muddy ground.