Ever play the game, “what period of history would you live in other than this one”? For me the answer was always America in the 1860’s. Not because I wanted to die by a piece of 50 caliber lead flying at me from across a wheat field, but because I was always interested in understanding what set of circumstances led a people to draw arms against one another. Years ago we moved south (only to Virginia) but it was far enough to indulge one of my lifelong fantasies, to participate in a civil war re-enactment. I was in hopelessly in love with the image of sitting around a campfire, smoking a pipe, eating bacon, beans and hard tack while engaging in intellectual dialogue with my fellow re-enactors on the genesis of the conflict to which we had dedicated our free time. I was up for an education, just not the one that I was about to encounter.
Apparently Re-Enactors come in different models and not all are apparently equal. Amazingly the difference lays in that most feminine of pastimes, fashion. To begin, there are the Farbs. Farbs are there primarily for the fun, they don’t care much for authenticity and consequently are prone to come in Australian stockman’s caps (I saw an Akubra at one battle) as their headwear. Interestingly the word farb has multiple uses; it can be used as a noun, as in “He’s a fucking Farb,” an adjective, “get that farby canteen out of my fucking face,” a verb, “will you fuckholes stop being farby,” or an adverb, “knock off that farby walking you fuckers.” Mainstream re-enactors are the most numerous of the population and make reasonable efforts to appear authentic to outsiders. They do make allowances though, kitting yourself out as a soldier of the civil war can run into the thousands of dollars if you let it. The last group, and possibly the most psychotic, are the hardcores. These guys stop at nothing to achieve what they consider to be complete authenticity and immersion. These efforts stretch to full weekends without uttering any word or subject out of character with the times. No “how ‘bout them Yankees” for a Hardcore. I believe you’d get your ass kicked for saying something like that. They crash diet, purposely emulating people with anorexia nervosa, in order to get that sunken eyed look so common in photos from the time. Oh, and they are also prone to soak the buttons of their jackets in urine to achieve that tarnished 19th Century look.
In Virginia re-enactment is not just a pastime, for many it is nearer to religion. So much so that Virginia celebrates Lee/Jackson Day; a day in which to celebrate two of the Confederacy’s most influential Generals. Lee I like and happen to admire but Jackson, while certainly talented at killin’ was a crazy bastard. He used to go around holding one of his arms high as he felt that one was longer than the other and keeping it high drained the blood and helped him remain upright. He also ate lemons obsessively and was prone to fall asleep with food in his mouth. Like I said, a crazy bastard. Originally Lee/Jackson Day was only Lee Day and held on January 19th. In 1904 appreciators of crazy bastards everywhere wanted one of their own to venerate so the State Legislature voted to add Jackson to the ceremony. In 1983, and here I am not kidding, the State Legislature didn’t want Virginia to take another day off to honor the achievements of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. so they voted to just add his name to “Confederate General Day”. Of this decision a better man than me said it best “how prejudiced do you have to be not to want to take a day off from work?” In the year 2000 Virginia’s governor finally said, “hey y’all, let’s split these days up so that we can have a four day weekend.” A small victory for those that saw the incongruity in celebrating a civil rights figure on the same day as two men that fought to keep his ancestors in bondage.
My first experience with re-enactors was not with a hardcore, nor was it with a farb, it was the re-enactor equivalent of a Regular Joe. This guy, let’s call him Randy (cause that the kind of name that fellas will go by in Virginia), showed me around the encampment. We saw the tents they lived in for the weekend, the equipment that were used to cook food, clean weapons, treat battlefield wounds and transport all their supplies. It was all very impressive…and educational. In sharing this thought with Randy he let me know that the day before they had hosted a group from the local elementary school. This, I thought, was a capital idea; show the little tykes around and let them know how hard up the soldiers really had it. I have always felt that experiential learning was the most effective way to teach children so I asked Randy, “What did they think of the whole set up?”
“Oh they loved it,” he said, “it’s great when we get to teach them things that they don’t learn in the classroom.”
“Like what,” I innocently asked, preparing my usual – yeah, isn’t actually doing and feeling something a better way to reach children – soapbox speech.
“Well, let me think,” pondered Randy, “we asked them why the civil war was fought and the kids all said slavery. I said no, it was fought over states’ rights.” Randy then rocked back and forth on his toes while raising his chin slightly in smug self satisfaction.
“Right,” I said, “but weren’t the States seceding because of slavery?”
“No that wasn’t it at all,” said Randy quietly; looking around as he spoke in order to make sure the other re-enactors didn’t hear my sacrilegious comments.
“But weren’t the States protesting the North’s pressure to disallow slavery in new territories” I asked?
”Yup,” said Randy.
“So it was about slavery then,” I returned.
“No, it was about States’ rights,” he repeated. It was now apparent that I was clearly not “getting it”, and after a few more minutes of chatting Randy cleared off to tell the other guys about that cheeky fucking Australian who was trying to tell him about his country’s history.
It was in this moment that I knew that I would never be a re-enactor. I was willing to put up with the dirty old clothes, black powder burns, sowbelly for dinner and weak coffee for breakfast. I was willing to spend nights spooning other guys out in a field and sit around and talk about “that Yankee Lincoln.” I was even happy to do this with people that did not share my particular political persuasion, as was commonly the case with me and the South. What I was not willing to do, what I could never condone, what I will not tolerate is hanging around with people that want to re-write history in order to paint a better picture of the people that they admire. It’s true that most of the soldiers that fought for the south did not own slaves but that doesn’t make it okay to gloss over the reason that the Confederacy went to war in the first place.
And with all of that said, I now await the first person to say, “then why don’t you just go off and re-enact the federal soldiers, you miserable prick?” Please allow me to end my post with the following two reasons: firstly, the federal soldiers were well equipped leading to a more expensive investment in clothing and supplies, and as I am a cheap penny pinching miser this was not an option. And secondly, while Randy was showing me the Confederate encampment I asked where the Union soldiers were. Randy pointed far across the field in front of us and said, “over there.” I squinted and sure enough, I saw a pitiful few gathered around a small fire and preparing to battle a vastly larger force of Confederates; something that was a rare occurrence in the actual battles. The Confederates were just so much cooler, what with their “rebel yell” and lost cause. Complicated, eh!