There's a war council convening in the kitchen of Chris Helton's rustic Anderson County farmhouse, and tension hangs in the air like a noose.
Even though it's an unseasonably warm 81 degrees in early March, the dozen or so men gathered around the handmade oak dining table are clothed in suffocating Confederate gray wool trousers and coats, their torsos encircled by assorted cumbersome holsters and constricting leather straps. Lt. Helton and his commanding officer--fiery-eyed, stern-countenanced Capt. John Ravnum--are briefing the men of the 63rd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Confederate States of America). C.S.A. leaders are expecting trouble at the Confederate outpost in Bridgeport, Ala., and the raw recruits of the 63rd need the wisdom and firm guiding hands of their chieftains if they're going to "see the Elephant" (war slang for one's first combat experience) in less than a month's time.
"If you're ever captured, disavow all knowledge of the unit," Helton says with only a hint of a smile. Then he turns to Ravnum, fires off a rigid salute, and barks with more palpable relish, "Now garb up, men--we're ready to march."
The 63rd Infantry Regiment is a Confederate Civil War re-enactment group. Loosely mirroring the real 63rd Tennessee regiment commissioned by the Confederate States in July of 1862, the unit sports a roster of some 50 weekend warriors of widely divergent ilk--college professors, store owners, mechanics, engineers--knit together by a yen for virtual history and a spiritual (if not familial) connection with the South and its legacy of stubborn independence.
According to Dr. Stephen Ash, the resident Civil War expert in the University of Tennessee History department, most Civil War re-enactment troupes were founded in the 1960s to help commemorate the conflict's hundred-year anniversary. Today, there are more than 30,000 Civil War re-enactors across the United States, with a handful of Confederate units and a couple of Union groups stationed in Knoxville alone.
"What's interesting is that lots of people thought the whole thing would die down after the Centennial," says Ash. "It didn't. Civil War mania seems to be bigger than ever."
So how are we to explain the popularity of a war that ended 137 years ago, an event marked by a degree of strife and misery perhaps unparalleled in American history? Re-enactors cite various reasons. Some say simulated battles offer a chance to relive, albeit vicariously, a significant and singularly turbulent piece of our nation's history, from the hard lot and simple camaraderie of the 19th century footsoldier to the surging exhilaration and mortal terror of war.
"When you have that moment of total confusion, with nothing but smoke and yelling and screaming, and you look around and nothing you see is from the 20th century, that's what you're searching for," says Ravnum. "You've entered a time bubble. That's when you're truly experiencing history."
Others point to their own sense of regional patriotism, asserting that the War Between the States was--and still is--inextricably linked to questions of personal autonomy, Constitutional verity, and perhaps the very cultural identity of the South. "I think that in today's more transient society, we're in danger of losing our regional distinction," says Sgt. Charles Walker of the 63rd, a journalism professor at UT. A native of Louisiana, Walker still harbors childhood memories of family picnics at the Vicksburg battlesite in nearby Mississippi and of feeling deep links to his southern heritage even at a tender age. "If we want to maintain our distinctiveness, we have to work to preserve it."
All of which is well and good, but none of which explains why mature adult men would drape themselves in the primitive war togs of a bygone era and clomp around in bad shoes shooting muskets and scaring cows on a muggy spring day. In the interest of full historical disclosure, I spent some time with the men of the 63rd, probing their motivations, slogging across Anderson County pasture land in soldier's lockstep with pencil, pad. and gun.
And finally, I made the trek to Bridgeport, site of one of the many full-scale re-enactments staged across the country every year, and donned full battle garb. What I found was an insular, self-sufficient community of enthusiasts, an extended family of hard-core hobbyists rife with quirks and fascinating, sometimes troubling squabbles. What did it all mean? I wasn't sure, but I knew it wouldn't be over until the Elephant came.
It's a chilly Saturday morning in Bridgeport, Ala., and I'm sitting on a hay bail in the middle of the 63rd Confederate camp taking stock of my own recent period transformation. My feet are covered with the stiff and cracking leather brogans of the southern infantryman; hard and unyielding, with nail heads poking insistently at thin leather soles, these shoes obviously weren't designed with orthopedic fitness in mind.
The rest of my outfit includes tattered wool pants and jacket worn over a cotton tunic, a wide-brim hat the size of a small umbrella, and a pair of old button-down suspenders to prevent my oversized trousers from slipping earthward and shattering the whole illusion by revealing my less-than-authentic Hanes underdrawers. If nothing else, re-enactments foster a much deeper appreciation for modern-day sartorial innovation.
Hanging from my side is a canvas "haversack" complete with a small cloth sewing kit (the "soldier's wife"), a miniature Bible, a corked glass water bottle, metal plate, and a couple of tins of Gulf Brand Oysters (Beanie Weanies disguised by period labels.) The thick leather cartridge belt around my waist supports two sturdy pouches, one filled with caps and the other with small, sealed brown paper wrappings, each containing 60 grains of coarse black powder.
Lying dormant across the hay bail is a menacing black .58-caliber infield rifle musket; slender and brooding, deceptively heavy at nearly 12 pounds.
There's considerable expense involved with re-enactment. With rifles running no less than $250, and a cheap pair of trousers, shirt, and brogans running close to $200, even the less fanatical participants may eventually spend close to $1,000 on a full outfit and gear. (Clothing and equipment are purchased through "sutlers;" named for Civil War-era traveling merchants, sutlers are craftsmen who peddle 1860s paraphernalia at events and through mail-order ads in re-enactment publications.)
Authenticity exacts a toll on the re-enactor's comfort as well as his wallet. At overnight events, most men sleep on blankets thrown over straw beds beneath crude canvas tent flaps and eat such mouth-watering trail delicacies as hardtack (a tough, bread-like substance known for its resistance to mold, with roughly the flavor and consistency of a caster cup), dried apples, and peanuts--known as "goober peas" in the soldier's vernacular.
However, Helton says authenticity is well worth its price, both for the virtual combatants seeking a genuine slice of battle history and for the thousands of spectators who show up at re-enactments every year to witness life-like dramatizations from the comfort of a lawn chair.
"Some units aren't as strict, and the smaller events are usually more laid-back than the larger ones," says Helton. "But when you're out there dirty and nasty and sweating, covered in dust and gunpowder eating hardtack without your Coke or your La-Z-Boy, that's when you really get a taste of what they experienced back then."
Confederate and Union camps are separated, of course, with the two armies staking out tent space on opposite sides of the broad pasture that will later serve as a battlefield. But as I make my way to the line of sutlers stationed between the two camps, I notice that a handful of Union soldiers have entrenched themselves on the eastern fringe of the Confederate site--an unholy commingling, to be sure, and a clear breech of authenticity.
Those troops, I'm later told, are galvanizers. Named for real Confederate prisoners-of-war who switched sides in exchange for their freedom, galvanizers are Confederate re-enactors who don Union blue when insufficient numbers of Federal troops show up at events--a common problem at re-enactments, particularly at those staged in the deep South.
Galvanizing is a sensitive subject among many Confederate re-enactors, says Cpl. Tim Elrod of the 63rd. While the practice lends all-important realism to battles that might otherwise seem unlikely or even laughable, preserving the historical exactitude re-enactors hold so dear, it also exposes the still-festering psychic wounds and unresolved regional animosities that sparked the war in the first place.
"Galvanizers are a little like bisexuals--they're going both ways," says Elrod, a blond Anderson County native with a boyishly rugged mug and a sandy sprinkling of yellow facial hair. "Some people get upset about 'em, but I don't have anything against 'em. Gives me more blue boys to shoot at."
Then, as if to underscore the inherent tensions, he adds: "Of course, I wouldn't do it personally."
The rapport between Rebel units and Union groups, particularly those in the South, is a strangely ambivalent affair. The classic Civil War movie tag-line--"brother against brother, father vs. son"--is in many ways an apt metaphor for the relations between opposing re-enactors hailing from the same locale; most of the men know each other--sometimes quite well--and have generally friendly associations. "We view each other as fellow historians," explains Walker.
By the same token, they often hold fiercely conflicting views on the issues raised by the War Between the States, particularly the explosive yin-yang of states rights vs. the sanctity of the Union.
"Guys in our unit believe it's a political statement to put on a gray coat," says Walker. "We don't advocate blowing up buildings or not paying your taxes, but we believe in the principles for which those men fought--adherence to the Constitution as it was originally written."
"They say Americans have never lost a war, but for people in the South, that's not true," says Helton, a 12-year veteran re-enactor and hunting enthusiast who traces his Civil War fascination back to grade school. "They've got a sense of loss--of their way of life, of their income--and that impact is still felt today."
"Lots of Confederates want to refight the war on the re-enactment field," avers Robert Queen, a supervisor for an environmental services company and a private in the Knox-based Eighth Federal Regiment. Now in his late 20's, Queen grew up five miles from Stonewall Jackson's birth home in West Virginia and was immersed in the war and its philosophical implications from childhood through his term as a political science major at UT.
"A lot of the guys in this regiment had ancestors who felt strongly enough to tear away from their own states to help preserve the Union. We represent the United States of America. The Confederates, regardless of what they maintain, can't say that. They carry a traitor's flag."
One debate that is conspicuously absent from all of the highly charged but seemingly obsolescent political rhetoric is the question of slavery--although Confederate groups are apparently besieged with accusations of racism from outside groups. (There is one African American re-enactor at Bridgeport, and oddly enough, he's wearing Confederate gray. Although he politely declines an interview, I'm told black re-enactors are occasionally found on either side of the battlefield.)
All of the troops I speak to point out that abolition was only one of several issues contested in the war, a cause often championed less out of heartfelt conviction than for political gain. Bill Stevens, a private in the U.S. Eighth, says that while some Federals employ abolitionist rhetoric as part of their weekend method acting, most Union soldiers are more apt to cite personal and patriotic considerations.
Confederate units, on the other hand, take great pains to explain that they are casting their lot with regional pride, not racial bigotry; most groups will automatically reject or "court martial" recruits with ties to hate groups and extremist factions. But while the sincerity of the Rebel troops I meet is touching and obvious (most frothing white supremacists would be driven to the brink of madness by the relentless onslaught of historical minutiae or, after a weekend of silly hats and brogans, at least seek out an organization with a more stylish dress code), some observers point out that the legacy of the South has a dark side that shouldn't be forgotten in the rush to revivify its Old World agrarian spirit.
"Some parts of the Southern character should have been eroded, without question," says Ash. "Southern white racism isn't as virulent as it used to be, and that's an end we shouldn't lose sight of."
Officers' call at Bridgeport falls at 9 a.m. Saturday, as more than two dozen U.S. and Confederate commanders gather in the tumbling shadow of the dilapidated hulk of a barn yards away from the battleground. The morning cool has already dissipated, and my uniform is now a smothering, prickly albatross.
Heedless, the officers are all dressed to the nines in a strikingly vivid array of uniforms and accessories--jackets with red or gold flourishes, double-breasted coats, tails, top hats, feathered caps, long leather riding boots, monocles, silver pocket watches and swords--reflecting the surprising diversity of the various states and sub-factions that fought in the war.
The purpose of our gathering is to hash out the logistics of the weekend's encounters. Tiny Bridgeport was the site of two lesser skirmishes, with a small force of Union troops capturing the Confederate river port in Spring of 1862, and a band of Rebels reclaiming the town in late summer. In keeping with that history, the Union troops will overtake the Confederate position during the Saturday afternoon conflict, with the Rebs claiming victory at Sunday's clash.
The opposing commanders briefly discuss the wherefores of who will capture whom, but our parley is strangely uninformative, seemingly bereft of specific details. Helton admits that re-enactments could often benefit from more stringent planning--one Union leader admonishes that, "We can't have mass resurrections in the middle of the field like we did last year."
But Helton also points out that step-by-step orchestration makes for less realistic war; just like actual conflicts, each re-enactment has its own kinetic ebb-and-flow, with the onus of control resting on officers' teamwork within the command hierarchy and familiarity with the battle plan. "Sometimes, things surprise you," he says. "In those cases, you use your knowledge and improvise."
At the end of officer's call, I head for the sutlers in hopes of making my breakfast out of something other than hardtack and goober peas. Sutlers' Row is a bit like a 19th century shopping mall, with most of the vendors maintaining a degree of realism in their appearance, if not always in their wares (with some notable exceptions, such as the "authentic" Hawaiian flavored ice vendor hawking out of an ordinary Coke stand.)
Most sutlers are re-enactors whose zeal for living history has extended to period crafts and trades. Mike Pleasant, a Chattanooga power company employee, spent three years in a local artillery unit before founding "Cooter and Jebediah Clinkers' Emporium" with fellow gunner Peter Westcott. The Clinker brothers now travel to re-enactments across the southeast on weekends, plying the blacksmiths' trade.
The duo also make something called kettle corn--an especially savory form of popcorn with an addictive blend of sweet and salty seasonings--using a massive 40-gallon copper kettle hung from a lever on a wooden tripod over a sterno flame planted in a three-foot hole.
"Right now, we're doing it as a hobby," says Pleasant, a.k.a. Cooter Clinker. "But one day down the road, it's quite possible Clinkers will become a full-time business. When you stay as strictly period as we do, it becomes a way of life."
Down the way next to Levi Ledbetter's yawning canvas tent, Frank Lanning (Levi) sits on a wooden stool plucking an ancient fretless banjo in the style of 19th century ministrels. A former junior engineer from North Carolina, the veteran sutler vends a sprawling array of period knick-knacks and fashions, from coats to hats to buttons to weapons. But the appeal of Levi's is not so much the scrupulously authentic merchandise as Lanning's own antediluvian mystique; with his top hat, plaid vest, striped coattails, and billowing eruption of a beard, the 48-year-old sutler looks like some Old World spirit, a mercantilist apparition stepped out of one of the black-and-white tintypes that sit in his traveling shop.
"It's a lot of fun, but there are plenty of headaches, just like in any business," says Lanning, a descendant of the Confederacy, rolling his eyes and speaking in a voice so placid and matter-of-fact that it shatters the illusion of antiquity. Then, turning to a customer, he apologizes and promises, "We should be able to take American Express in another week."
One p.m.: I'm standing in a line of men 250 strong, rifle cocked, staring across a rolling expanse of mud slogs and grass at the distant blue phalanx poised some 300 yards away. The burnished yellow Alabama sun is at its withering zenith, bearing down on our backs and hats and turning our uniforms into oppressive wool ovens.
Behind me, I hear Pvt. Roy Schubert of the 63rd reading aloud from his haversack Bible. The rest of the men are at loose ends, yearning for the adrenaline rush of combat to arrive and dissipate the crushing anxiety of the wait. "We're gonna show 'em the Promised Land," someone mutters.
The Elephant draws nigh.
For me, however, the terror and elation of the fray will be short-lived; whereas some units improvise their casualty rates as the battle wears on, the men of the 63rd determine their lot in advance. Since we will deploy in a so-called "skirmish line"--the vanguard of the attack far ahead of the bulk of the troops--two of us have volunteered to take early hits.
Schubert, a 40-ish, bespectacled DOE scientist from Oak Ridge, says the 63rd typically uses a "chit" system, whereby the troops draw secret lots that tell them if and roughly when to take a fall. Some regiments, however, are notorious for not taking hits, regardless of circumstance. "We call them Kevlar units," Schubert laughs.
"You've got to play it by ear," he adds. "If there's a group of Yankees standing 10 yards away, all aiming at you, you might oughtta think about going down. There's no better feeling than when you aim right at a Yankee and he falls, so I try to return the favor every now and again."
Despite the pre-game tension, the battle begins without much fanfare. Taking our cues from Helton (who takes his cues from the weekend's host commander), our unit advances in two wide-set lines, with five paces separating the front rank from the rear. We move across the field in alternating waves, with one line advancing 10 paces and firing, then pausing to reload while the rear guard moves ahead.
Soon, we're within stone-throwing distance of a similar company of advancing Union troops, the lot of us continually filling and refilling the long black barrels of our musket rifles with powder from our belts, placing small metal caps beneath the hammers, issuing volley after volley as if we would send our enemies to perdition in a hail of balls and smoke. (No bullets are actually fired, of course, although the resulting noise is moderately deafening and a close-range shot would result in a nasty powder burn.)
Within minutes, I take a ball in the leg and, in a performance that doubtless won't be remembered as one of the great moments in re-enactment history, hobble off to the sideline where the resident 19th century physician performs "surgery" on my right thigh for the benefit of the 200 or so spectators who have been amassing since late morning near the sutlers at the south end of the field. "Going down a little early, aren't we son?" snorts the burly, red-mustachioed doc.
The operation doesn't take long, and my recovery affords me a chance to watch the battle unfold. The fray proceeds in a series of advances, flanks, and strategic retreats, building up to periodic major assaults in which one of the armies marches across the field in a powerful wedge, the crescendo of rifle volleys punctuated by the thundering expectoration of cannon fire.
With the first major advance, soldiers begin to drop like proverbial flies, some of the men taking frenzied, painful hits--squirming, groping, suffering long, and dying hard. By the end of the fight, the bodies are piled high and deep; a horse-drawn wagon carries dead and dying alike to the sick bay from remote parts of the grounds.
The last push comes more than an hour into the skirmish when the Federals launch an attack that pushes all the way to the Rebels' last line of defense at the edge of the pasture. With Union troops on their heels, the Confederate soldiers dig in for one last valiant stand before their position is overrun completely by a swarm of blue.
The Stars and Stripes is erected on Rebel soil even as the last of the men in gray turn tail and disappear into the woods. Despite a healthy reporter's skepticism, I can't help but feel the slightest twinge of guilt that my comrades-at-arms have fallen while I watched most of the action from a blanket in the shadow of the surgeon's tent.
Saturday's battle marks the end of my own foray into world of re-enactment, although the weekend is less than half over for most of my fellow troops. The evening will see many of them don dress grays and blues and attend a military ball, escorting wives and girlfriends in ballooning hoop skirts and lacy period dresses. And all of the Confederate warriors are absolutely champing at the bit for Sunday's skirmish, in which the Rebel units will chase the hated Federals from their ill-gotten stronghold and reclaim sacred Southern land.
But having heard the troops, done the deed, and ridden the mythical pachyderm all the way across the battlefield, I think I'm ready to draw a few conclusions about re-enactors, their passions, their peeves, and the knotty issues their hobby seems to raise. Looking back, I wish I could say I was seduced body and soul by the alluring heat of the fray, that I was so lost in the fiction of battle that I forgot all time and place and found myself transported back to the killing fields of 1862. But that didn't happen.
I likewise couldn't quite fathom the merit of couching the timeless quarrel over states rights and federal sovereignty in the dated language of Secession--pro or con. And Stars and Bars notwithstanding, I couldn't see much connection between re-enactment's generally mild-mannered costumed historians and the hate-mongering race-baiters with whom they are sometimes confused.
What I did see was that Civil War re-enactments provide grown men with an opportunity to play out some of the childhood dress-up and soldier fantasies that perhaps we never quite leave behind. Only now it's on a grander scale with more playmates and bigger, louder toys, and employing a theme that, due to its profligate ambiguities and quintessentially American character, allows everyone to fight for their own version of the home team. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
"It's a safe, fun way for us to escape the pressures of modern life," says Walker. "It's a way to spend our weekends in our own little piece of the 1860's."
The Elephant awaits