Some Not-So-Civil War Games

From the "Out There" feature by Alex Heard

(Washington Post Magazine 10/23/88)

You've probably noticed the recent boom in Civil War "reenactments." Last summer's Gettysburg redux drew 10,000 combatants. An estimated 50,000 people nationwide are deeply into this hobby, and more are taking it up all the time. All of which prompts one to ask: Why? Why do sane people dress up in hot woolens and spend entire weekends tramping around dusty battlefields shooting muskets that give of smoke that smells exactly like rotten eggs? Is something odd going on here? Well, last month a 3,000-man replay of the Battle of Chickamauga took place on a farm near Summerville, Ga., and despite the fact that the very thought of going made me shake like a cold, wet kitten watching "101 Dalmatians" in 3-D . . . I went, in search of answers.

Why the trembling? It's like this: I have problems with historical reenactment buffs. Of all types. Partly because they yak self-righteously about their motives ("We reenact Renaissance days to honor the spirit of an age . . .") but never admit: "It's fun wearing a costume, and I find that I have more success meeting [men/women] when I'm not just being me." Partly because they brag about "authenticity" ("These boots were soled using antique-design square-head nails custom-made by a full-time Revolutionary War-style sutler who eats only acorns") but never, ever reenact things like, oh, hammer-'n'-knife dentistry and dying of diphtheria. And partly because . . . well, they just bug me, all right?

It all started in college. There was a female graduate student who often sneaked up behind me and yelled, "ARE YOU READY TO JOIN THE SOCIETY FOR CREATIVE ANACHRONISMS?" The second time this happened, I responded with fire-drill efficiency viz, a wobbly-kneed (yet speedy) dash in any unobstructed compass direction. But the first time, I stupidly asked, "The whaat?" She explained: The Society for Creative Anachronism is an organization whose members "celebrate the Age of Chivalry by reenacting it." Each local chapter has a king, lords, ladies, knights, a jester, musicians and a wizard, and on weekends they all pack up and go on role-playing retreats. "We feast," she said. "We practice the rituals of Courtly Love. And most important, the knights engage in chivalric combat to establish hierarchical status and bring honor to the ladies . . ."

Suddenly it was all chillingly visualizable: horny grad students gathered in a big tent, where they partied the olde-tyme way ripping up roasted chickens, burping a lot and letting juices spill down their chins. The guys would be those tubby, purple-lipped, bearded types who spent their youth playing week-long war-tactics board games. They would suit up in shoulder pads and homemade armor and clang it out with wooden swords while the ladies clad in, brrr, extra-sheer damsel garb reclined on pillows, sighing at a songbird in a tiny cage and . . . sketching it . . . as they waited for Sir Michelin Man to stagger home and sling some dialogue from "Tristram and Isolde." (And please, don't accuse me of unfair stereotyping. I eventually wrote an article about the society and found I'd erred on the side of not being alarmed enough - namely, I hadn't counted on the constant yelling of, "Serving wench! More mead!")

The Chickamauga event, however, was not a Nerd Convention. Oh, sure, a few were on hand. One guy I met pathetically refused to "break character" when I interviewed him. One soldier showed me a hunk of plastic that looked like lowers from a set of horse dentures, and said, "Look at this. I just got it in the mail from Stone Mountain Miniatures!" Me: "Yep. That's one of those, uh, a . . . What is it?" Him, with misty reverence: "Breastworks."

But that sort of geeky burbling was not the real story here. No, the real story was that a significant number of the Rebs - and they were scary, hard muscled, Lynyrd Skynyrd-looking guys, too, not weenies - were unreconstructed. Extremely unreconstructed. I feel stupid now for not having anticipated this, but I think I can be excused, because the one major-media treatment of the Civil War reenactment scene that has appeared - U.S. News & World Report's August 15 cover story - had nary a word about the presence of large numbers of redneckus southernmanicus in the Confederate ranks. The basic reason-why-we-do-this presented in the story was: to honor our ancestors, so that no one forgets what they went through.

Hey, I can live with that. I spent years 0 to 14 in Mississippi, I used to play Reb soldier a lot, and though I grew out of all hat by age 9 and am now a firm "Hooray for the Bluebellies!" man, I have no problems with a little homage-paying. And I talked to several Rebs who seemed to be in it for genuine, harmless historical-buffery reasons, and who seemed used to the fact that the North won and that this is GOOD, not BAD. But the crackno-American presence was a factor. On Sunday morning I met a Florida participant who had spent Saturday night in camp with the Rebs. He was wide-eyed and pale. Fueled by not-so-authentic cases of Old Milwaukee, they'd let their hair down. "There was . . . a lot of racist commentary," he said. "And they all seem to think that if the South had won, they'd be the aristocrats."

Later that afternoon, as I sat watching Day 2 of the battle unfold (emotions were running particularly high, because on this day the South routed the North and won the war's "last great Confederate victory"), a woman went by in a T-shirt that read: "If the South woulda won, weda had it made." (I closed my eyes to visualize the Old South in the modern world, but all I got was a disturbing image of muffler shops fronted by Ionic pilasters and weeping willows.) Another woman told me "the world would definitely be a better, more gentle place" if the South "hadda" won. She did admit that there perhaps, er, might be certain unpleasantries associated with an apartheid social structure, but she shrugged as if to say, "Hey, ya gotta break a few eggs to make a fluffy omelet."

Then the climax. I met a reenactor's wife, herself dressed in period garb, who said, "I am totally, completely into the Civil War purriod." "So, uh, do you read up on the era? You know a lot about this battle?" Silence. Repeat questions. "Well, naw," she said. "Ricky does the reading, and he just tayls me. But I'm poody sure we win tuday." "Do you think the South should have won the war?" "Yes, definitely. Because" - the following was delivered with the metronome rhythm of a third-grader reciting multiplication tables - "the world would be a better place. I really do believe that. You know, it's not true about slavery. Most southerners were just not into it at all." She went on to add that she and Ricky are "totally into" Harleys, because "it's just the best ridin' free and easy in the wind."

That does it. At the next big reenactment, we chopper in the National Guard to do some serious rounding up of nonloyalists. This to be followed by an authentic, old-timey, Civil War-era activity: suspension of habeas corpus.

Letters to the Editor (in response)

Declarations of War

I found Alex Heard's column concerning Civil War reenactments [Out There, October 23] to be mildly amusing, right up to the next-to-last paragraph. His implication that Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders are racist rednecks was a cheap shot. Maybe Heard doesn't know that most Harley riders are decent, law-abiding Americans people like Forbes magazine publisher Malcom Forbes, actress Eliz- abeth Taylor and comedian Jay Leno. Maybe Alex is unaware that perpetuating that old stereotype of "hordes of hairy motorcycle hoodlums carrying off our daughters" is a tired but harmful, kneejerk reaction. Maybe Alex doesn't know that, as a corporation, Harley-Davidson recently set a fantastic example of successful competition by an American firm in a market increasingly dominated by Asian manufacturers.

Say Alex, do you remember the recent Washington Post Magazine issue that featured a cover story about the death of a local man hit by lightning? There was a hero/stranger who gave the victim CPR for an impossibly long time, and guess what? He was wearing a black Harley Davidson T-shirt.

Lee Hausman, Falls Church

Alex Heard, if you are offended by rednecks who reenact historical events without being historians themselves, we are offended by journalists who write articles criticizing the South for suspending the writ of habeas corpus. What does it do to your argument to discover that it was that damned Yankee Abraham Lincoln who suspended habeas corpus?

Paul Desandro and Sheridan Dye, Arlington

Alex Heard asks why some 50,000 Americans enjoy refighting the War Between the States. Let me tell you why I reenact that war. I believe that people who use the Constitution as a foot mat and advocate the suspension of habeas corpus should be jailed, tried and then shot for treason. Our Founding Fathers did not intend for the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to be put on "hold" during a "national emergency." Five hundred thousand Americans died in the fight for the right of a state to leave the Union. I wear the gray to honor their sacrifices.

Well, Mr. Newspaperman, would you die to protect your rights under the First Amendment (freedom of the press)? The thought of the bloated bodies of 500,000 journalists lying scattered over a battlefield has me giddy with delight.

E. Philip Schreier III, Wheaton

NOTE: I called and talked to Alex Heard about this article shortly after it appeared in print. He and his editor were surprised by Schreier's reaction. (They found the "bloated bodies of 500,000 journalists lying scattered" vision a bit extreme.) I wasn't surprised at all, having heard this kind of thing before. I told Heard this was entirely consistant with the "crackno-American" element of reenacting, and that perhaps he needed to investigate the hobby more. He declined. - Jonah

There was something you failed to mention in your article about the people who reenact Civil War battles many of them are fat. These people like to think about how authentic-looking they are. But I doubt there were very many fat people in the Confederate and Union armies. They had to eat the worst kind of food, and marching 20 miles a day wasn't unusual. Not too many people, even if they WERE fat, would be fat after that.

Mark Weaver, Washington, D.C