In July 1863 more than 51,000 men died or were wounded in a sweaty, smoky, three-day clash that’s often called the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. The Battle of Gettysburg changed the course of the Civil War and, by extension, the history of the U.S. That’s why, exactly 150 years later, just yards from the famous battlefield, four men dressed as Union soldiers are taking pictures of each other with American flags sticking out of their ears.
“What other hobby lets you shoot a musket in a national park?” laughs a Confederate soldier named Bob when I ask him why he’d traveled from his home in Ohio to celebrate Gettysburg’s milestone anniversary. I met Bob in a local microbrewery that was selling General Robert E. Lee and General George Meade growlers for $75 a pop. Bob finishes his beer and then excuses himself for the evening, saying he has to rest up so he can “bang bang bang, shoot shoot shoot, kill some Yankees” the next morning. He waves goodbye to his friend, a Union soldier named Mike (one of the group with the flags in their ears), and then leaves to spend the night in an air-conditioned motel—just as the Civil War soldiers once did.
I’ve never understood the appeal of reenacting the Civil War. It’s the most popular war to reenact—so popular, in fact, that people as far away as Australia do it. But why? Everything’s either totally fake and anachronistic (Who answers a cell phone while charging the Rebs?) or unnecessarily difficult. Why would you get all dressed up in a thick wool uniform in the middle of the summer and run around a battlefield carrying a good 20 pounds worth of supplies if you don’t have to? Don’t you feel a little silly at the end of the day when you throw your musket in the trunk of your car and drive home?
According to Bob, the answer is no, you don’t feel silly. You feel awesome because you own a musket.
For the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, I decided to hang out with some reenactors to see what the big deal is. The first thing I learned is that not all Civil War reenactors are created equally. There are the real hard-core types: men who sleep in tents, don’t shower for days, eat 19th century U.S. Army rations, and tear up when they talk to you about the sacrifice of the American soldier. These guys look down on the weekend reenactors, or “Farbs,” as they call them, although no one I talked to could tell me what the term actually means.
John Lucas, a retired New Jersey policeman who moved to Gettysburg seven years ago to become a reenactor, rails against these Farbs, with their Halloween costume uniforms and the bottles of Powerade they carry into battle. (Apparently the Civil War is just killer on your electrolytes). Lucas takes reenacting pretty seriously. He’s never washed his handmade Union coat, and while on the battlefield he eats only salted pork or hard tack—a square, hockey puck of a biscuit that comes in three flavors: stale, moldy, or with bugs.
But even Lucas draws the line at the authentic sleeping and bathing experiences: “I have a house in town, and I’m going to use it.” General Meade probably would’ve said the same thing.
Lucas let me follow him around Gettsyburg for the first day of battle (OK, the 150th anniversary of the first day of battle) and gamely answered all of my Civil War questions. When I naively wondered, “So what exactly happened at Gettysburg?” he politely kept his answer to a brief 35 minutes.
Unlike most Civil War buffs and long-winded grandfathers, Lucas doesn’t care about battle maneuvers or famous generals. He prefers to read soldiers’ accounts of their daily routines as recorded in letters home to their families. He’s fascinated by the minutiae of war and can talk at length about the smell of decaying bodies and dismembered limbs rotting in the summer sun after the battle is over. “Some soldiers just walked onto the field and vomited,” he tells me. Luckily, this is not part of the reenactment.
Lucas and I watch the Union Army practice artillery and canon drills, then he takes me across enemy lines to the Confederate camp, where he’s promptly captured and tortured. Just kidding, nothing happened to Lucas. That’s because he plays a Confederate soldier, too. “That’s right, I cross-dress,” he says. This is actually pretty common: If people don’t have a strong family connection to either the Union or the Confederacy, they tend to alternate between the two. In fact, most of the Confederate soldiers I met weren’t even Southern.
“I’m actually from Maryland,” says Butch Dell, captain of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, right before he unleashes a torrent of Yankee jokes on Lucas, calling him a Farb for answering his cell phone. Butch has been reenacting ever since he got out of the real military, at the end of the Cold War. In addition to the Civil War, he also reenacts both World Wars and Vietnam.
Wait a minute, Vietnam? Who’d want to reenact Vietnam? “What do you do, just hide in the bushes and wait for someone to blow you up?” I ask. Nah, he says, Vietnam reenactments are just drills and obstacle courses. But who plays the Viet Cong? “Mostly fat, white men,” laughs Butch, who is both of those things.
Butch launches into a story about the time he was sweeping a field for VCs when his M-16 jammed and he ran out of grenades—he thought he was going to die. He tells the story as if it really happened, with no indication that the whole thing was just a game. He’s about to explain how he survived when he notices that his fellow soldiers are lining up for the afternoon infantry reenactment. Butch cuts his Vietnam story short, buttons up his Confederate uniform, and marches off to Gettysburg to help the South pretend to rise again.
Just then, a tour group rides by on Segways.