For Hard-Core Few, Replaying Civil War Ain't Whistlin' Dixie

They Don Period's Clothes, Eat Era's Grub and Sneer At Less-Exacting Brethern

By Tony Horwitz, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal (6/2/94)

[and, in 1998, the author of "Confederates in the Attic" - Jonah]

The Plains, Va. - Glassy eyes fixed on the midday sky, Robert Lee Hodge lies splayed in the grass, cheeks puffed and belly grossly swollen. Seated nearby and clad like Mr. Hodge in full Confederate uniform, Fred Rickard looks up from his salt pork and biscuits. "Rob's doing the 'bloat,' '' he says.

Mr. Rickard and several other Confederates crowd around their fallen comrade, critiquing his "impression." One says Mr. Hodge's tongue should loll out further. Another notes that his stiffly cramped hands don't look truly rigor mortal. They then return to their lunch.

"Hands are a problem," Mr. Hodge says, leaping to his feet. "It's hard to give them that authentic, bloated look unless you've really been dead for a while.''

Irrepressible Conflict

Achieving that "authentic look" of Civil War soldiers, dead or alive, is the obsession of Mr Hodge and a small band of zealots. While most Civil War re-enactors are content to don blue and gray uniforms and fire blanks, a fanatic cell known as "hard cores" seeks a far more radical recapturing of the past.

While in the field, hard cores wear only period attire (including buttons soaked in urine to achieve an oxidized, l860s patina),.eat period food (such as hardtack and sorghum), and try to speak only about period subjects (no chat about Monday night football). Like Method actors. they also inhabit their roles, growing 1860s-style whiskers and starving themselves to achieve the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates.

"They're pushing the envelope in terms of authenticity," says Bill Holschuh, who publishes the Camp Chase Gazette, a magazine for re-enactors. "About the only thing left is live ammunition and Civil War diseases. I hope it doesn't come to that.''

Of the estimated 20,000 Civil War reenactors nationwide, perhaps 2,000 are in the hard-core camp. Their growing fundamentalism has polarized a hobby that most outsiders would already regard as extreme. Many hard cores, for instance, complain that spectators interfere with the authenticity of battle re-enactments. Some also refuse to fight beside those whose uniforms and performance art don't measure up: a group derided as ''farbs,'' short-hand for "far-be-it-from-authentic.''

When you get into the grim details of the Civil War, you realize how soft our lives are. Maybe you have to suffer a bit to feel the past and appreciate what we have now," says Mr. Hodge, who has lost 35 pounds over the past year and suffered bruised ribs after being dragged by a horse during a cavalry engagement. The son of an Ohio car salesman with Southern roots, Mr. Hodge was born on ''Stonewall" Jackson's birthday and named for another Confederate general ("I only wish my parents had included the middle initial," he says of his namesake, Robert E. Lee). In "so-called real life,'' the 27-year-old works at odd jobs in Washington, mainly to finance his Civil War habit. He combs archives for details of camp life, pores over photographs of Civil War dead to perfect his "bloat" and has taken up sewing to better replicate 1860s garb.

Needless to say, this all-consuming hobby can wreak havoc on work and family life. Joel Bohy, 27, recently left his girlfriend of five years, his job of 10, and took a $3.50-an-hour pay cut to move to Maryland from Massachusetts so he could join Mr. Hodge's unit, the Southern Guard.

"My girlfriend got tired of competing with something that happened 130 years ago.'' says the construction worker. "This hobby is worse than crack. I tell people: 'I don't do drugs, I do the Civil War.' "

Hard cores also speak in mystical tones about their mission. Rob Young, a farmer, bristles at the word "re-enacting," saying it implies a counterfeiting of the past. "We're living history," he says. "Sometimes it takes me three or four days to come back to the 20th century."

A recent "spring drill" at Mr. Young's farm in Virginia offers a taste of hard-core life. Twenty men - who work as waiters, law clerks, carpenters and other jobs during the week--camp without tents, huddled under thin wool blankets and "spooning," or clutching each other, as defense against the 28-degree night. Rising at dawn, they practice "wheels," "obliques" and other maneuvers from a Civil War manual.

Mostly, though, they debate the fine points of Civil War wear, right down to the thread count and stitching on their blouses and haversacks. "We're all GQ fashion snobs when it comes to Civil War gear,'' says Mr. Hodge, who, like many hardcores, spends several thousand dollars a year perfecting his attire.

Most hard cores - and most reenactors, from both North and South - prefer to play Confederates, in part because rebels enjoy greater sartorial latitude. Northern re-enactors, emulating their well-supplied forbears, tend toward tidy and conformist ranks of blue. Confederates, meanwhile, wear frayed trousers of varied hues. Their headgear ranges from stiff caps to limp "slouch hats," their shirts look as though they haven't been washed since Antietam and their beards appear to have been shampooed with grease, tobacco spittle and coffee grounds. "I haven't had head lice yet, but I'd feel like I'd elevated thing to a new level if I had,'' says Mr. Hodge, checking his scalp after camping out, sans tent, in a torrential downpour.

It is just such attitudes that alienate many mainstream re-enactors. They regard hard cores as elitists who want to exclude those who are less exacting, including a growing number of women reenactors, some of whom cross-dress as soldiers. Soft cores also question hard-core notions of authenticity.

'1 bet you that Civil War soldiers did everything they could to avoid rancid bacon and sleeping in the rain,'' says Bill O'Neill, a re-enactor from Newport News, Va. Adds Bill Bishop, a member of the same unit: "In the Civil War, they took almost all available men into the ranks. So why deny someone the right to fight because they're too fat or make use of a few modern conveniences?"

At a recent re-enactment of the Battle of the Wilderness, for instance, many soldiers carry modern lighters and smoke cigarettes rather than the cigars favored in the 1860s. Some sport wristwatches and spectacles with plastic frames. And in the heat of battle, Mr. Bishop smears fake blood on his forehead from a tube labeled "Fright Stuff" before feigning injury.

But few others among the 6,500 re-enactors at the Wilderness battles succumb to wounds, at least not quickly. ''Who wants to drive six hours just to get here and fall on the ground?" Mr. Bishop asks.

At the Wilderness, after a half-hour hail of imaginary lead, Mr. Bishop's commander finally gives the order: "OK, boys, it's time to take some hits.'' His men start dropping, though most prop on elbows to watch the battle rage on. Others carry small cameras and take snapshots while lying in the grass.

The hard-core Mr. Hodge watches from a nearby knoll, shaking his head. "The whole thing's so phony that I feel almost polluted just by being here,"' he says.

In fact, Mr. Hodge is here only as a observer - and as a missionary searching for new converts to the hard-core cause. Spotting a soldier whose mud-caked uniform and violent death throes stand out from "the sea of farbs," Mr. Hodge invites him to a coming march through Virginia. "Let's do the first few miles barefoot!" says the young recruit.

Mr. Hodge slaps his back approvingly. "Super hard core," he says.

Mrs. Begone's retort to this article.

Fourteen years later, Rob Hodge discusses the fame that came with this article.