"I never thought I’d become a Civil War reenactor–or that I’d meet my man while dressed as a boy in 19th century wool."
I first became interested in the Civil War after completing a freelance radio piece on photography and forgotten soldiers. I interviewed a collector of these photographs (known as tintypes) and we were able to identify a couple soldiers by deciphering the initials on their photographed rifles. I’m a fashion blogger and a freelancer for NPR; 19th century military history had never been of interest to me before. But the tintype photos I researched for my piece had affected me profoundly, and I became obsessed.
I knew I had to try reenacting eventually, but I also thought I knew the type of person who listed ‘re-enactor’ among their hobbies. Civil War re-enactors are fifty-year-old men with potbellies who chew tobacco. I thought I’d try it once or twice in order to write about how quaint and strange it was. It would be a good party story, but I was curious, too. I ordered a plastic fife online and started to practice, and then I Facebooked a nearby fife and drum corps to see if they’d adopt me before their Fourth of July Gettysburg event.
When I showed up at a rehearsal, I was surprised: the field was populated, not by potbellied men, but by a handful of cute dudes dressed as Yankee soldiers. We briefly played for an hour in a courtyard in downtown Gettysburg. Actually, they played; I eked out a couple of limp notes. I promised to show up to a smaller event a month later as a warm up to Gettysburg (the Big Kahuna of the hobby).
Upon my arrival to my first event, straight away I was offered a tobacco pipe by a gorgeous, blonde hair, blue-eyed corporal, who was also a bass drummer in the field music corps. Let’s call him Anthony. Anthony showed me where to fill my canteen and how to dress for a formal parade. In the morning, he gently knocked on my tent pole to make sure I didn’t need anything when I woke up.
To prepare for Gettysburg, I got into character by donning a Union uniform and wearing a dope straw hat. I learned how to properly march down a line of troops with the rest of the band. (You step off with your left foot, by the way.) I underwent every city girl’s nightmare–I used port o’pots and slept outside in 40 degree weather. But all of this seemed easy, because Anthony wasn’t like anyone I had ever met. At the time I had been in the freeze-out stage of another relationship with a careerist who didn’t seem to know quite how he felt about me. But Anthony wasn’t pretentious or self-centered; he was polite, considerate, attentive. During our first day-and-a-half together, we didn’t leave each other’s side.
Reenacting is extremely taxing on the body — in some ways, that’s the most authentic part of the entire thing. You march around in uncomfortable shoes for long periods of time. Some reenactors, the ones really dedicated to 19th century authenticity, eat nothing but salt pork and hard tack for days. (I’m not that hardcore.) Weather is taxing and, for days at a time, you’re not allowed to take off your wool uniform. But at night there’s a campfire, and people stay up talking and playing fiddles and bones until 2 am. There’s also plenty of alcohol.
One night there was a kind of dance called a "fan dance.” One woman at the top of the line has a fan. She holds it up to her face to cover her whisper while she’s approached on either side by a prospective partner. Each partner offers her something. Then she picks her partner and they dance down the middle of the line. Anthony’s offering to me was an apple pie with my name on it. We waltzed under a full moon while he tried to make eye contact, I kept looking away, blushing because it all seemed so intimate. I speculated that the people around us could feel our strange energy. I was hooked. By the time the Battle of Chancellorsville came around we were rolling around on the ground (both dressed as dudes) making out on a field under the stars. Always vigilant about historical accuracy, the Union reenactors’ army prohibits openly displays of homosexuality, and since I was performing as a guy, we had to sneak around. I didn’t mind.
These days I can’t even imagine myself not doing reenactments. Maybe it’s because I’ve met the greatest guy ever doing it, and I don’t want to be far from his side. But the hobby itself has also touched me. I can now play 18 tunes on the fife. In the short span of time I’ve been reenacting, there are now an additional 20 people in my life who I consider close friends. The drum and fife corps have accepted me as one of their own. I have a theory that many of the men who participate in reenactments (most of whom were raised by other reenactors) are more responsible than other boys. Being raised in a quasi-military setting, they tend to be a touch more responsible, more honorable, nicer. They know how to disconnect from the world of Facebook and careerism for long periods of time, whether it’s for a date or a 15 mile march. You can tell how the hobby has shaped them. I get to watch Anthony pretend to be a corporal and be good at what he does.
So I’m not ashamed about how I spend my free time. Perhaps people look at me and expect me to spend my weekends hanging out in bars hunting for my Georgetown grad. I still go to bars sometimes, and when people ask me what I do, I try tell them about my strange hobby first instead of my job. And then I leave early and go home to my soldier.