“…a clumsy/graceful waltz between past and present…” Zak’s got that right. I have never read a better terse description of a modern reenactment! - Jonah
Civil War Reenactors Live To Fight Old Battles
By Dan Zak
(Washington Post, Sunday, July 1, 2007)
The wool pants itch, especially around the inner thighs, especially when you're marching. The rifle's heavy. So's the canteen, kit and bayonet, which dig into your haunches. After a good hour of standing at attention and shifting stances in the militant summer sun, the tendons in your right arm burn, sweat slicks your back under the sack coat, and you might wonder, Why live like a Civil War soldier these days if you don't have to?
"Because they can't," says Ray Wetzel, 55, a resident of Hanover, Pa., and member of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, a reenactment unit that portrays those Union infantrymen. He's referring to the hundreds of thousands who served and died during the Civil War. They're not around to remind us, Wetzel says, but he is.
And so are hundreds of other reenactors in the District, Maryland and Virginia, especially now that we're in the thick of reenactment season in an area swollen with Civil War battlefields. More than 3,000 reenactors will invade south central Pennsylvania on Friday for the Annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment, just as 80 reenactors did in Westminster, Md., last weekend for a commemoration of Corbit's Charge, one of the small but consequential conflicts that paved the way for that tide-turning battle.
Taking place on a plot of mowed grass between Carroll County government buildings, the reenactment I joined in Westminster was a clumsy/graceful waltz between past and present. Pickup trucks lumbered by as a cavalry led an abbreviated charge on horseback. Women in hoop skirts wedged themselves into nearby port-a-potties. A parade of infantrymen marched through town while the sound of nail guns echoed from a construction site.
Amid this commotion, I found myself under a grove of trees at a fire pit surrounded by makeshift tents and guys in woolen federal uniforms. This was the 1st and 3rd Maryland volunteer infantries' joint camp, in which I embedded myself from reveille to dusk.
"I can't get enough of it," says Jacob Martz, 27, a 1st Marylander and carpenter who lives in Annapolis and goes to a reenactment every weekend. "You can turn off the 21st century. You can step outside of your own life and live someone else's. If people would come out and try it once, they'd see."
At a living history event such as Corbit's Charge, they'd see someone like 15-year-old Evan Kilka grinding his own coffee and cooking salted pork and desiccated vegetables over a fire. Evan, a 3rd Marylander from Wheaton, says he wants to go into the Marines. His friends sometimes give him a hard time about his hobby, but then again: "I find today's youth rather unpassionate about everything," he says, turning to give a robust history lesson to a passing spectator four times his age.
Spectators milled around the camp all day, some eyeballing us like we were animals at the zoo and others having no reservations about walking into a circle of grizzled, bearded men and demanding an explanation.
"What's that?" a preteen in capri pants asks Wetzel, petting the bucktail attached to his cap.
"That's the rear end of a deer."
The girl pales, then asks about the gun in his boot.
"That's a boot pistol," Wetzel says, pushing the barrel of the weapon between my ribs. "If you get in close, it does nasty things to a man's insides."
"Ew," the girl says. "Good thing I'm never going to be in the Army."
"Wouldn't be too sure about that."
Yes, modern conflicts and politics often creep into fireside conversation at a living history event. ("We can win it," Wetzel says of the Iraq war. "No, we can't," says Dale Brennan, 48, a 1st Marylander and Laurel history teacher.)
But just as often, the topic is the politics of the 1860s. ("Was Robert E. Lee a traitor?" Brennan asks. "Yes. Next question," says Uniontown resident David Bloom, 56, president of the 3rd Marylanders. "No, he wasn't," Wetzel says. And so on.)
Civil War reenactors are often passionate about educating the public -- something they say is not always done in schools. (Believe it or not, a popular question from spectators is "So who won the war?") Events like Corbit's Charge allow them to correct misinformation, or at least present the public with a flesh-and-blood example of history, even if it means living meagerly (and in wool) for a hot weekend.
"It's a time machine," says Stephen Dunn, 51, surveying the scene later in the day. Dunn, a first lieutenant in the Culpeper-based 4th Virginia Cavalry, Company D, and a construction foreman by day, rested against a tent pole as the 2nd South Carolina String Band warmed up. The band would soon play period music for reenactors, who were striking matches for their period pipes, and for curious spectators, who hauled in nylon lawn chairs to dip their toes in the past.
"This is not a perfect example, but then again many of the places we go have modern aspects," continues Dunn, ashing a period-correct cigar between his fingers, which are burnished bronze from battle and sun. "But I enjoy stepping back in the era. I have many ancestors on both sides that fought this war. It allows me to feel connected."