An article I wrote for my reenacting regiment in a special newsletter I did, summarizing the 125th series of events (1986-1990) we all sweated through. If you attended any of these, you’ll agree or disagree with my opinions. - Jonah

The Good and the Bad of the 125th Anniversary Events

By Jonah Begone

Written in Spring 1990

Well, I think we can say we've just about seen it all during these last four years! Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Here's my estimation of which was what. I'll start with the worst and finish up with the best, to put an end to all those nasty and untrue rumors about my jaded attitude.


The Battle of the Crater. Absolutely, positively THE worst event I've ever done, 125th anniversary or otherwise. Very poorly-planned; the really disappointing explosion ("PPFFFTTTT") was followed by a ridiculous "Defense of the Crater" by the Confederates (we never even got into the crater, much less get driven from it). This was the first of the $5.00 per person events, to make it even more irritating. A bad deal all around.

The Wilderness. Disappointing in just about every way. In Friday's battle we got a small patch of woods that was jammed with about five reenactors per square foot instead of a Wilderness, and the usual rout in Saturday's "Fight for the Crossroads" (where were the crossroads?). Sunday we finished the Mule Shoe scenario in a ditch far away from the Rebel entrenchments that the Federals historically captured. For me that whole weekend was epitomized by the sight recounted at the end of Paul Rogers' "Southern Revenge": a pig's head mounted on a mailbox with a Confederate battle flag flying overhead.

Saturday's defense of the redoubt at Chancellorsville: or, The Defense that Never Was. Instead, we watched Reb units march around to and fro, then tramped through some really appropriate areas where we should have fought, to finally confront the enemy at a US Army staging area. They were surrounded by olive‑drab tents and some of them were sitting on picnic tables waiting for us. (And this was the non‑spectator battle for the "authentics"!)

Sunday's battle of South Mountain (Crampton's Gap): what should have been a Confederate rout was instead another rewrite of history: Rebels holding a secure position behind a stone wall in front of which we were slaughtered. More Fredericksburg than Burkittsville. Suckaroonie.

Remembrance Day at Gettysburg. Just dismal. For some reason I recall Dale Fetzer running around in the rain assuring us that "It Is Not Raining" more than The Speech itself. Of course it didn't help being herded in like cattle to hear it, either. Another thing I'd just as soon forget was the anti‑climax of seeing Old Abe walking up the street surrounded by twentieth- century guys with modern video equipment.

The heat at First Bull Run: Thinking about it, I'm sure it was hotter and more humid for more days at this event than at any other! (Record numbers of paramedics bear this out, I think.) It reduced an extremely promising event to an experience of just languishing in the heat, waiting for a battle that at once was over too soon and not over soon enough. (Review of the event here.)

The porta‑potties at South Mountain: Not nearly enough and absolutely disgusting. I've never seen "Can You Top This?" played with outdoor restroom facilities before and I hope I never do again.

The "Flag Film" and "Stonewall's Valley" at New Market: I wasn't disappointed ‑ they were actually worse than I remember!

The canceled "Pass in Review" at Gettysburg: I was anticipating another Federal Rally, except formalized and better. What we got instead was an uneventful march up to our positions.

The artillery duel prior to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg: Very anti‑climatic, and with all the Federal guns present I'm still not sure why. I'd love to see our gunners get another chance, though, like at a future Malvern Hill reenactment...

Sunday's battalion drill session at Gettysburg: I've attended some goofy National Regiment drill sessions before and since, but that one took the cake. Amazingly, I don't exactly remember why - some form of selective amnesia, I guess. Some of our guys that normally do Revy War had stunned expressions on their faces! (I think was it during this that I positively decided to enlist in General Washington's Army.)

The traditional artillery battle at Cedar Mountain: it was bad enough that we almost watched the whole thing from the field with the ground charges, but our poor view of the demonstration from that Cornfield from Hell turned it into one of those "Let's Hurry Up And Get This Over With!" experiences.

24 hour picket duty at Gettysburg: I had the 2 to 3:30 AM shift, and instead of going to bed without having been properly relieved I'm now sorry I didn't just refuse to do the thing altogether! Let's face it: details of eight guys walking picket all night for the stated purpose of keeping the Unorganized Others camp away from ours was just plain dumb. Also, I have no interest in knowing "what it must have been like" (losing sleep, that is) and likewise have no desire to fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home for lack of sleep. A real loser of an idea from the National Regiment or the event sponsor (I suppose they'll blame each other).

The Sayler's Creek Monument Ceremony: Not only did we not get to hear the speeches, we didn't even get to see the monument (which as it turns out was a good thing - it's maudlin and ugly). What we did see, at eye level, were Confederate rear ends, which we could have done without. What is really annoying, however, is the sneaking suspicion that our $7.00 per person registration when to pay for the thing. Hopefully, it represents the tombstone of the 125th.

The Appomattox Surrender: Not really all that bad, but who would have thought that finally watching those guys surrender would be so boring? (I have to admit, though, that watching them march by was, to put it kindly, amusing.)


Antietam. In my opinion, the best of the 125th events (with Gettysburg a not-too-distant second place). That early morning battle of the cornfield was superlative! The event was non‑political, too. The Rebs got about the same event we did, and the National Regiment troops saw as much action as the Unorganized Others. The commercial aspects were generally out of sight and unobtrusive, and the weather was pleasant. I wish every one of these 125th anniversary reenactments was this good! An unqualified success.

The Saturday drill that turned into a tactical at South Mountain: What a great way to end a drill session: both sides forming up for an impromptu tactical where we got to rout the Confederates from wherever they made a stand ‑ unplanned and very fun!

Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg: I've never heard that much rifle fire before, and I don't expect to again. Just colossal, and we were smack dab in the middle of it! What was equally impressive, however, was thousands of reenactors in a moment of silence, and "taps." Attempting it again at New Market didn't work ‑ these things just can`t be planned. The "Three Cheers for America!" summed up the whole mood perfectly.

Saturday's early morning battle at Cedar Mountain. The only time I've ever seen "fog of war." Maneuvering in the smoke was a unique experience; at one point our company actually managed to out‑flank the enemy, even though all we could see were the rifle flashes in our front. I haven't done a battle that looked so other‑worldly and weird before or since! (Unfortunately, we could have got into the cars and left after that because the rest of the event was hot, tiresome and generally boring.)

The Federal Rallies on the First and Second days at Gettysburg. Hundreds and hundreds of authentically‑uniformed Federals, all cheering and shouting ‑ this was the most thrilling experience of the 125th anniversary years. We were so pumped up that if the battle had taken place immediately after, we'd have swept every last Confederate off the field, despite their numbers!

Meeting British Reenactors at Second Bull Run: Not only was it flattering that a people with such a rich heritage of their own should be interested enough in our Civil War to travel all the way over here to take part in a reenactment, but talking to those guys really gave one a sense of the universal appeal of a study of history. I'd like to see them again. (Or better yet, travel there to do some reenacting.)

The Video Visions tape of Antietam: no interviews, no staged scenes with bad acting, just lots of excellent, exciting footage of an excellent, exciting event. A reenactor's video.

Our fight for the colors at Chancellorsville: yeah, it was juvenile and dangerous, but then again, isn't reenacting? I felt foolish afterwards, but it certainly was the highlight of that event, wasn't it? Our colors never run! (They just withdraw prudently.)

Camp life at New Market: with pleasant surroundings, lots of sutlers, cool weather, short, non‑exhaustive drill sessions, diverting colors formations and an endless amount of time in which to fool around, this event was just plain fun. What a "laid-back event" should be.

The Saturday tactical in the woods at 2nd Bull Run: The woods were thick and made for an interesting battlefield, spread out all over the place. We don't do many woodsy battles, which is a pity. I think the experience of being able to hear the enemy approach without seeing him or being able to guess at his numbers must be one of the ways we can replicate actual battlefield conditions. This was the best "forest" battle I've ever taken part in.

The Sunday reenactment of the battle of Monocacy: this one was great! Despite the fact that we were within sight of umpteen‑thousand spectators I was able to visually tune them out and focus on our immediate area, which looked like a real battlefield. There were moments that seemed very genuine, and with the frenzy and confusion of the battle and of hasty firing not only was the barrel of my rifle untouchably hot, but so were the bands! Our company also took a lot of hits; when we got back we had about 30% missing ‑ surely authentic. Collin MacDonald remarked to us "You guys must have had fun - you look terrible!" He was right.

The Photo-Op at Manassas: You remember, when we were all lined up in an infantry square formation Saturday to have our pictures taken. Although we've since become accustomed to seeing large numbers of Federals in formation, at this it was the first time and it was very impressive. What was not so great, however, was playing "Who'll Make the Best Lightning Rod?" with an approaching thunderstorm by standing out in a field with fixed bayonets at right shoulder shift. All for the benefit of the photographers. Have you seen any of these photographs? I haven't, either.

The Friday evening snow at Sayler's Creek: In hindsight, I liked it. Besides giving the few of us that toughed it out by sleeping in the tents bragging rights, the resultant snowball fight was ridiculously entertaining (which when you think about it, occasionally sums up reenacting in general)!

POSTSCRIPT BY JONAH BEGONE (written for a 1990 reenacting unit newsletter I edited)

The quasquicentennial (has anyone learned to pronounce it?) is finally over. Thank Goodness! Hopefully, if we honor the paroles we were given as passes for the Appomattox ceremony, the quasquicentennial event sponsors will leave us in peace and not disturb us again.

Like I suspect many of you are, I am thoroughly sick of the commercial, circus‑like ambiance of many of the "mega‑events" we've attended, and am looking forward to smaller, more sane battles, tacticals and reenactments. Without all the spectators and the necessary commercial spectator support structure, thank you. In fact, my initial response to the NTI questionnaire question "In what direction do you think Civil War reenacting should go?" was "Away!" My answer now is "Down a smaller and less commercial path."

In our brave new world of post‑125th anniversary Civil War reenacting, my preference is to see only an occasional big event ‑ Sayler's Creek or Cedar Mountain, for example ‑ a few smaller ones like White's Ferry and Barnesville, and some laid back living history weekends, like Rockville and Ft. Ward. Pre‑1986 reenacting, in other words. Stuff on a more manageable scale.

Why? Because the lesson of the 125th anniversary is that bigger isn't always better. Often, as at the Wilderness and Gettysburg, the event sponsor simply wasn't up to handling all those reenactors. (And I don't think they ever got a handle on registration!) The numbers were nice to look at when on display, like at the Saturday drill at Manassas or at the Federal rallies at Gettysburg, but as far as our usual sightlines during the actual battles, six or seven companies would have given pretty much the same effect.

Walking past paramedics, groups of reenactors encircling water buffalos and a complete lack of cohesion at the conclusion of the Henry House scenario at Manassas, I remember thinking "This is more realistic than any reenactment should be allowed to get." That's another lesson from the 125th years: authenticity and numbers aren't always fun.

However, there is an allure about numbers; the feeling that somehow we were a part of something bigger. But lest we overstate the 125th anniversary brouhaha, it is fitting to keep a sense of propriety and proportion. Real Civil War troops were conscious of the fact that they were taking part in history - real history or events, not the sham "events" we attended. The basic con during the quasquicentennial years is that many reenactors think they were involved in making history, too. With all the publicity about "once-in-a-lifetime events," the reenactment sponsors certainly helped foster this idea.

Think about it: more people attend the annual VW show in Manassas than attended Gettysburg. And as maudlin as it sounds, more people feel more of a sense of unity at a Bruce Springsteen concert than do participants at a major reenactment. As far as the "honor for our ancestors" rationale is concerned ‑ a common justification for reenacting ‑ more people routinely spend more time doing genealogical research, keeping alive a real sense of personal heritage. And if we managed to raise some segment of the public's awareness of its history and heritage, fine, but good school teachers do that every day. For all our grandiose talk about memorialization, dedication and commemoration, reenacting is essentially a minor phenomenon. Not even a fad, on a national scale.

I'm not saying we didn't accomplish something in the 125th anniversary years. If anything, we've managed to redefine recreation to include running around out in the hot sun shooting at one another without benefit of paint pellets! (Come to think of it, though, the paint pellets aren't a bad idea ‑ at least it would provide us with an answer to the quasquicentennial publics question, "How do you know when you've been shot?") But at the end of these four years of commercialism, good intentions, innovation and effort, reenacting is still more of a minor recreational phenomenon than a cultural one.

So, goodbye quasquicentennial. What started at the site of a Northern Virginia business campus five miles from Manassas ended at a restored hamlet in backwater Virginia (Wilmer McLean’s Appomattox home). The new to the old.

Here's a final, disquieting thought for you, first vocalized by one of our pards: the 130th anniversary of the battle of Bull Run is next year...