The Skirmish Will Be Followed by a Ladies’ Tea

One hundred and fifty years after the start of the Civil War, the East Texas town of Jefferson holds the largest reenactor event in the state to commemorate a battle that never happened between soldiers who never met. The bullets may not be real, but the feelings about the conflict are as raw as if Robert E. Lee had surrendered yesterday.

August 2011By Comments

Soldiers return fire during the Battle of Fort Jefferson, which was held at the Tuscumbia Ranch on May 7 and 8, 2011. 
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

One thing was certain at the Battle of Port Jefferson this spring: The North was destined to lose. Exactly how that outcome would be achieved was discussed in detail at a gathering of officers on Friday, May 6, in the basement of an antebellum plantation home, where Victorian and Greek Revival furniture decorated the rooms and a painting of Robert E. Lee hung in the parlor. Ricky Hunt, a 53-year-old baggage control operator at DFW Airport, stood in a circle of eight men. As the battalion commander for the Trans-Mississippi Volunteer Infantry, he wore a cotton shirt, a green corduroy vest, a gray frock coat, beige pants, tall boots, and a kepi decorated with four braids, signifying his rank of colonel. With his short-cropped white hair, clenched jaw, and perfect posture, he radiated the gravitas of the actor Ed Harris. “Thank you all for coming,” Hunt said. “Federal troops, you’re more than welcome here anytime.”

“Except Reconstruction,” one man muttered.

Hunt smiled through the muffled laughter and waited for silence. Then he began explaining how the armies would go about killing one another over the next two days. Since high travel costs had prevented actual Yankee reenactors from attending the event, some Confederates had stepped up and offered to play the part of the Union on the condition that they could behave like jerks. Everyone agreed that this was a good idea. The Federals would be the first to take some casualties at a skirmish scheduled for 10:15 Saturday morning. This would be followed by a full-on battle in the afternoon, which would leave the Union with the upper hand. On Sunday, the South would claim the final victory, and everybody would go home satisfied.

One of the officers pulled out a map of downtown Jefferson, and Hunt began dissecting the first encounter. “When we go down toward Otstott Park, I would prefer that you come at least to the gazebo and let us push you back,” he said, addressing the Federal officers. “We’ll take the fight to you.” He turned to Mike Bringhurst, a 61-year-old Houston veterinarian who served as captain for the Union troops, and pointed to the map. “You hit us, and we’ll react,” he said.

Bringhurst nodded. “We’ll go straight to the Jefferson Hotel, dismount, and form a skirmish line,” he said. “We’re going to take the hotel, then loot and pillage.” Hunt answered a few questions about the maneuvers, then Bringhurst announced, “That’s when some other civilians will riot, and we’ll shoot them.”

It bears noting that the Battle of Port Jefferson never actually happened, though the members of the local chamber of commerce who created it will be quick to tell you that it could have. In the name of tourism, facts have been eclipsed by a theory more beneficial to area businesses: If the Confederates hadn’t stopped the Union army in Louisiana, during the Red River campaign, Jefferson could have been one of the next targets. To the town’s credit, this loose historical premise has hardly diminished the enthusiasm for the Battle of Port Jefferson. On the contrary, the event is now the largest Civil War reenactment in the state.

The desire to dress up and perform historical warfare strikes some people as an odd inclination. Certainly, it would be a deal breaker on a first date. Yet such events are surprisingly common. Napoleonic and Viking battles are re-created in Europe. The Japanese reenact samurai fights. In the United States, spectators can witness various conflicts played out from the Revolutionary War, both World Wars, and the Vietnam War. Of all the American reenactments, however, the Civil War retains a popularity that confirms its lasting and complicated effects on the country. The first reenactments were held before the fighting even ended, but it wasn’t until 1996—with the 135th anniversary of the war, the popularity of movies like Gettysburg, and the thriving economy—that interest in reenacting surged, bringing with it an insistence on authenticity that has remained even as participation has declined. (While no official figures exist, Hunt estimates that the current number of Civil War reenactors nationwide is between 60,000 and 100,000.)

Since this year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, enthusiasts are gearing up for reenactments of more than twenty major battles, with the largest turnouts anticipated for Sharpsburg and Gettysburg. No doubt the reenactors all have their motives. In Southern states, the reason cited is often personal: to honor the memory of their ancestors and to summon a time when the South promised a command of its destiny.

The undeniable appeal of the Battle of Port Jefferson, of course, is that for one auspicious moment the outcome of the fighting can be controlled. That feeling was not lost on the officers as their meeting drew to a close. The chamber of commerce president, 49-year-old Charlie Chitwood, stepped forward, looking a little out of place in a T-shirt and jeans. Much hoopla is made over the town’s ghosts, for tourism purposes, but in this case the evocation of the past was unstaged. “Most of you know my wife, Juanita,” he said. “She goes back to Captain William Perry, who brought the first steamboat to town and built the Excelsior Hotel. He was shot dead by Federal occupation troops after the war when he was walking home. They were charged but acquitted. As a result, my wife will wear anything but blue. It’s amazing how deep some of that runs here.”

Though it has often been said that the 
Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, only a handful were in Texas. One of the better known engagements, the Battle of Palmito Ranch, near Brownsville, took place after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. These facts—or that Sam Houston chose to step down as governor instead of pledge an oath to the Confederacy—do not dampen the reenactors’ enthusiasm one bit. They will be happy to tell you about the trials of the infantrymen; the blockade that left Texans without necessities like medicine, paper, and farm implements; and the women and children who waited at home for the 60,000 men who signed up to fight. Twenty percent of Texas’ soldiers died of disease and battle wounds, an astoundingly high number at that time. So while a Southerner born near the old plantations in Virginia may not think of Texas as a central player in the Civil War, the state’s Confederates had their share of grievances and the reenactors no less inspiration.

But it can be easy to forget that Jefferson is part of Texas at all. Large pecan trees and dogwoods scatter light on the manicured lawns throughout the city. The downtown resembles the French Quarter more than it does nearby towns like Kilgore or Henderson, which flourished during the oil boom of the thirties. When Chitwood drove me around during my first day in town, he explained that the architectural style took root during Jefferson’s boomtown era, between 1845 and 1873, when a logjam in the Red River raised the water level enough for steamboats to proceed inland from New Orleans. As one of the most important ports in the state, Jefferson served as a gateway for new Texans as well as for merchants selling their goods. By 1860 it was the fourteenth-largest city in the state, with a population of 1,988. Slave owners, who made up 43 percent of the town’s taxpayers, helped raise a unit shortly after the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Chitwood pulled into the Oakwood Cemetery to arrange luminarias on the grave sites of Civil War veterans. “Of the 191 on my list, I’ll bet there are 45 Federal. Of those, 25 were Reconstruction troops: 24 died of disease and 1 was a suicide on New Year’s Eve,” he said. “This was a depressing town in Reconstruction.” Chitwood is a likable promoter and a fast, enthusiastic talker with a bouncing, matter-of-fact delivery. We passed a number of dead who bore the name Robert Lee, and in the middle of the cemetery, Chitwood pointed to two neat lines of white headstones that had been erected in the nineties. “These markers are for Federal soldiers who were buried here in unmarked graves,” he said. Then he added in a whisper, “Nobody liked them much.”

Jefferson’s boom days came to an end in 1873, when the Army Corps of Engineers blew up the logjam and reduced the water levels, effectively ending steamboat operations. More recently Jefferson has tried to make the best of its quieter days by promoting tourism. In the town’s historic center, distinguished by red-brick streets, antiques-store windows display wagon wheels and Victorian lamps for visitors searching for small-town charm. During reenactment weekend, restaurant owners make a fuss over their customers; locals dress in period costume. Even the prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits in the sheriff’s jailhouse driveway stop washing officers’ cars to smile and wave at passersby.

The reenactors began to arrive Friday afternoon, setting up camp on wide patches of grass in the historic district. By sunset, they were everywhere. Down the pathways between rows of various canvas tents, men arranged wooden chairs, tables, candle lanterns, campfires, and barrels of water. Just two blocks from the Hamburger Store, fifteen cavalrymen established a post. One by one, trucks rumbled down Polk Street, pulling cannons as locals watched. If all seven hundred participants had wanted to go to battle against some unsuspecting neighbors in, say, Marshall, they would have been well prepared.

The warriors held jobs as mailmen, parole officers, fast-food cashiers, and history professors. Some bunked on an air mattress and patronized the restaurants; others slept on the ground and ate hardtack (a square cracker of flour and water that tastes like a petrified biscuit). Everyone paid lip service to authenticity, from the uniforms and gear to the soldiers’ behavior in the final moments of life in combat. But at a battle that never happened, the consensus was that realism could be taken too far. “I heard some guys can bloat good,” a man told his buddy, referring to how bodies swell while lying on the battlefield. “One guy had a pump.”

“I bloat fine all by myself,” the friend responded with a laugh, and he pushed out his round belly and proudly patted it.

While the battles are the weekend’s main attraction, organizers wisely cast a wider net to attract participants, sponsoring a grand ball, a ladies’ tea, and a presentation of colors that is followed by doughnuts and coffee. These additional activities are a hit with the reenactors’ wives, who might have otherwise stayed home, grumbling about their husbands’ absence on Mother’s Day weekend. “My wife only comes to this one because she’s into the ball,” one man told me. Casual tourists also appeared to enjoy the other festivities, though they tended to keep a polite distance from the participants.

One group seemed to be noticeably missing: Jefferson’s black residents, who make up more than a third of the population. Those I bumped into at the convenience stores and gas stations had a range of reactions to inquiries about the reenactment. One woman listened to my question, put her hand high in the air, spun on her heels, and walked away. A man in his thirties said he hadn’t heard about the event, since he didn’t read the newspaper. “There may be racists there,” he added with a shrug, “but that’s everywhere.” A younger man in his twenties answered calmly and deliberately, “We don’t like it. We just think they should let it die.” I mentioned that the participants condemned slavery, but he didn’t buy it. “Obviously they’re celebrating the South, and we know what the South stood for.”

A century and a half ago, his meaning would have been clearer than it is today. Texas lawmakers named their reasons for joining the Confederacy explicitly in a Declaration of the Causes, written in February 1861, which read in part: “Servitude of the African race . . . is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and . . . the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.” As time passed, however, this ugly aspect of history was downplayed and replaced by a host of more-redemptive reasons. On the stoop of the chamber of commerce, where folks tended to congregate, one reenactor told me, “This is not a race thing. The war was about freedom. It was about money. We would never condone slavery.” Other participants I met over the weekend were just as quick to reject the interpretation of their Southern pride as a cover for bigotry. Of course, some seemed relieved to be in the company of men who could unironically utter the phrase “War of Northern Aggression,” and a fringe element was candidly, and regrettably, acknowledged. But most saw no connection between racism, which they sincerely condemned, and a belief in the Southern cause—a paradox that mystifies many mainstream historians but perseveres nonetheless.

It was perhaps not surprising, then, that some reenactors grew frustrated with the narrative memorized by the area schoolkids at Friday’s living history demonstration. At a station dedicated to explaining the Red River campaign, the presenter, who wore a thick gray wool jacket as the sun beat down on him, tried to hide his irritation with the students’ notion of a saintlike Lincoln. He held a map of the region showing old battle lines and asked a group of six white, fourteen black, and nine Hispanic teenagers, “Why would Abraham Lincoln want to take Texas?”

A boy in the back of the group piped up, “Free the slaves?”

The man winced, then asked, “Where did Texas come from?”

Another boy offered, “Mexico?”

The man nodded. “And he was afraid that Mexico was going to try to take back Texas,” he explained. “Now, what was Lincoln’s job?”

A girl in the front responded this time. “Free the slaves?” she asked.

The man winced again, as if he had run headlong into Union guns.

Wondering what the kids’ reaction was to the reenactors’ accounts, I sidled up to Vicki Myers, an eleventh-grade social studies teacher in Jefferson who has been teaching for 32 years. She was dressed conservatively, with beige pants and a pretty print top, and she maintained a calm demeanor despite her students’ restlessness. Myers encouraged a handful of disengaged students to check out the cannons, but they told her they didn’t want to trek down the dirt path and get their sandals dirty. Myers sighed. “It was a long time ago for them,” she said.

The women with giant hoop skirts and parasols who began lining the streets of the historic district for the parade on Saturday morning did not consider the past to be so expendable. Rubbernecking tourists about three rows deep were already snapping photos. Two Cub Scouts were scrutinizing an old man with a long coat and a gray beard. “Are you gonna die?” one of them asked.

“Unfortunately,” the man replied. “But we’ll die like heroes.”

The boy said, “I think you should die like this,” and he grabbed his gut, threw himself on the ground, and began wailing and jolting spastically.

“Roll around a few more minutes!” the man commanded.

A siren sounded, indicating the parade’s commencement. A garden club, the world’s smallest high school band, and a 99-year-old dressed as a ladybug preceded Tiny Mister Jefferson and Petite Miss Jefferson, along with a slew of other coronated young ladies sitting up high in convertibles. After the carload of Red Hot Mamas of Marshall and the flatbed trailer exhibiting the American Girl Book Club passed by, a man in an 1800’s gentleman’s suit jumped into the street and announced, “Here come our boys!” prompting a roar from the crowd.

First, the cavalry came through, led by Ricky Hunt, who was surrounded by men and young boys carrying a variety of Confederate flags. Following him were men dressed as soldiers who held their rifles over their shoulders in “support arms,” with their left arms crossed over their chests as they marched in nearly straight lines. Their costumes varied. They wore gray or butternut jackets, all colors of cotton trousers, gray wool kepis, forage caps, planter hats, slouch hats, and muslin shirts. One Louisiana outfit looked more clownish than tough in straw hats, blue-and-white-striped pants, and striped socks. A good number of the men sported bushy facial hair. “I feel safer already, boys!” one bystander yelled. On an elaborately decorated ironwork balcony above the action, a blonde with a bouffant, wearing a pink silk bathrobe, took photos while her male friend, dressed in Confederate garb, cheered the soldiers marching around the corner and out of sight.

Almost immediately, the Union soldiers made their entrance. Mike Bringhurst pointed to the flags on the Jefferson Hotel porch. “Take that tattered Texas flag down!” he commanded his men. Next, he called a female reenactor “cheap Texas trash,” prompting her to slap him. The crowd exploded. “Get out of here, Yankees!” one man shouted. Bringhurst then addressed a man wearing a long frock coat and a top hat who was playing the role of the mayor.

“If you don’t raise the U.S. flag over the courthouse,” he announced, “then we’ll raise it over a pile of ashes and turn Jefferson into the Atlanta of the West.” A bit of commotion followed, ending with Bringhurst saying, “You will all take an oath of allegiance to the Union,” at which point the long-bearded fellow who had been joking with the Cub Scouts responded, “Here’s your oath!” He then broke a prop bottle over Bringhurst’s head.

On cue, a riot broke out, with “civilians” throwing Styrofoam bricks at the soldiers, many of which blew down the street with the slightest breeze. The Union soldiers responded by opening fire on the crowd. The mayor started waving a gun as the Confederates returned and started pushing back the Union soldiers. Shooting and stabbing ensued, and Bringhurst was taken down with a dramatic flair that gave onlookers enough time to snap at least two photos before his face encountered the red-brick street. His demise was greeted with much applause.

Though I had been warned not to call the uniforms “costumes,” it didn’t take long to realize that part of the appeal of reenactment weekend drew on theatrical impulses. And the ensembles do not come cheap. Full dress uniforms run at least $500; muskets can start at $675. To serve the needs of the enthusiasts, a cottage industry has sprung up around the hobby. Near the Confederate campsite in Jefferson, a few entrepreneurs had set up their trailers for the weekend. Thelma Barry, of the Mercury Supply Company Sutler, out of Livingston, sat on a stool inside her camper, where she housed a variety of hats and uniforms. Internet orders were half of her business, she said; the other half required setting up shop at reenactments across the state. In addition to trousers ($49.50–$155), jackets ($95–$595), and hats ($20–$58.50), she sold lye soap ($1), tea “chunk” ($2), tooth powder ($6), snoods ($5), ladies’ mitts ($12), crotch powder advertising “Take home a country gent” ($7.50), black horn combs ($4.75), ladies’ silk fans ($5), and more than forty kinds of buttons (prices varied). She seemed content with the work, but the reenactor in her frequently won out over the saleswoman. When a man walked up to her window and said, “I should get a white flag in case I need to surrender,” she passed along some advice learned from years in the business: When you get tired or hot, she warned, “find some shade and die.”

Back at the camp, an older couple named Bobby McWilliams and Viola Stoops, of Colmesneil, were sitting in their wooden chairs, welcoming visitors. McWilliams wore a gray shell jacket, beige trousers, and a straw hat with a wide brim; Stoops wore a long plaid skirt, a white blouse, and her hair in a snood. Their decade in reenactment service was unmistakable. Their camp was outfitted with cabinets, a cutting board, and a table with a red-and-white-checkered cloth. “The war is always discussed at these events,” McWilliams said. “We have discussions about shoulda, woulda, coulda. I’m proud of my Southern heritage and my ancestors. We lost, but we didn’t lose our pride about it. I grew up in a home where if the word ‘Sherman’ was mentioned, people spat. I had a friend named Grant, and Daddy would call him Lee. He couldn’t say ‘Grant.’ ”

When I remarked on their accommodations, McWilliams took some offense. “Don’t let this luxury throw you,” he said. “We’ll do a throw-down with a bedroll too. We’ll do Gettysburg.”

“We were at the 140th, 145th, and, God willing, we’ll be at the 150th anniversary,” Stoops said.

To buoy his credentials, McWilliams added that he went to an event in Maryland where the temperature dipped into the 20’s. “I did suffer hypothermia,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but we wouldn’t do it again. You’ll see some real hard-core guys at bigger events. Their attire will be worn and they’ll be barefoot.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Stoops spotted a violation of the first order in the campsite next to hers: a large red cooler out in the open. “They’ve got to keep their farby cooler hidden,” she said. “Got to keep those newbies in line.”

“ ‘Farby’ is ‘far be it for me to say,’ ” Stoops explained.

As they exchanged disapproving glances, a trio of middle-aged women wandered into the camp and shyly asked for a photo. “Sure,” Stoops said with a smile, stiffening her expression for the camera. With a “thank you,” the group wandered to the tent next door. Stoops put her hands over her face and peeked from between two fingers. Urgently, she whispered, “Now those ladies are going to take pictures, and that farby cooler is going to be in the background.”

The least-farby group of the weekend, according to Stoops, was Mike Bringhurst’s unit. Shunning the tents, Bringhurst’s company slept without cover. He admitted that he ate at a few restaurants over the weekend, but in general, he tended to chomp on only hardtack, sausage, and fruit. He has even been known to ask the reenactors’ wives to send the men letters on plain white paper. He said he connects to his ancestors through these events. Once, in 2002, his group camped on the Sharpsburg battlefield. “We marched through the corn, where the First Texas unit suffered an eighty-two percent casualty rate, and laid a wreath of yellow roses on the monument,” he said one day while we were talking at his camp. “We brought Texas dirt from home and sprinkled it on the monument.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye,” said one of his officers.

“We held a silent prayer, and you heard sniffles,” Bringhurst continued. “Sometimes we ask each other, ‘What would they think if they’re looking down from heaven?’ ” He shook his head as a smile spread across his face. “I think they’re saying, ‘You guys are stupid! Why are you dressed like that?’ ”

Bringhurst’s words rang in my ears Saturday afternoon as the temperature inched toward 90 degrees. In order to gain access to the battlefield, I borrowed one of the officer’s gray wool shell jackets and pants, with suspenders, and a wool kepi. “Girls fought in the war,” several people assured me. “Just stuff your hair into the cap.” I did as instructed, stumbling a little over my long pants, and promptly began emitting the odor of a wet dog. The sun blazed as soldiers leisurely reassembled with their battalions, drinking from canteens and making use of the Port-O-Cans. Beyond them, a five-acre pecan orchard served as the battlefield, offering plenty of shade for the wool-clad dead. It was a beautiful spot to get blown to pieces.

The consensus among the officers was that I should hide behind a petroleum engineer named Ron Strybos, a six-foot-five “major” who was easy to find in a crowd. Knowing he was a stickler for details, I proudly told him I was writing my notes using a pencil instead of a pen. Strybos glanced at it and sighed. He gently informed me that the pencil was too long, it shouldn’t have an eraser, and the paint should have been yellow, not blue.

The soldiers assembled in two lines facing the field, and a high-explosives technician stood before them, preparing to deliver a safety talk some of the men had dubbed “the hamburger speech.” Since the cannons at either end of the field would not be shooting off live rounds, their fire would be simulated by detonating wired charges that had been carefully positioned about one foot deep in the ground. Anyone standing too close would suffer an all-too-authentic consequence.

“Can everybody hear me?” the technician shouted. “These are not pyrotechnics! These are high explosives! You’ll see a gigantic black cloud on the Confederate side. When that is done, it is safe for you to commence. We’re going to give you a demo.” He signaled to one of his four assistants, who were paired up on opposite sides of the battlefield with electronic control boards hooked up to batteries, and the ground shook as a loud explosion sent a football-size chunk of earth into the air and triggered about five car alarms in a nearby dirt parking lot.

“That’s ten ounces of high explosives!” he said.

Ricky Hunt gave the ranks a few moments for that to sink in. Then he hollered, “Right face!”

The order was followed by the clinking of canteens and rifles as the men turned. “Forwaaaard march!” he yelled, and the Confederates started toward a line of pine trees on the southwest side of the field.

For a few minutes in the woods, the men stood quietly as sweat dripped down their faces. “It is just as still as can be,” Strybos said, watching a monarch touch down on the tall grass in front of us. And then it began.

Attennnntion! Load!” Hunt called. I stuffed earplugs in my ears and braced myself.

“Load to the readaaaay!” Hunt continued. “Right face! March!”

Out in front of the group, a young boy held a version of the Southern Cross battle flag, with a red cross on a blue field. Two drummers beat out ta-da-dum. Ta-da-dum. Ta-da-dum-dum-dum.

“Left wiiiing, hold!” Hunt said. “Shoulder arms! Forward!”

Boom! The first explosion hit our side as we inched out of the trees, and the audience came into view. We headed toward the open field as more cannons volleyed, followed by the sounds of more car alarms. Chunks of earth in the large, central area of the field were soaring into the air as if in slow motion.

“Double-quick march!” Hunt yelled as the men assembled against the tree line, parallel to the enemy. “One, two, one, two!” the sergeants shouted. An explosion sent soot and dirt flying into our faces, and I held my breath and ducked behind Strybos as I ran through. More ground exploded.

“Dress left!” Hunt yelled as the air cleared. “Water now!”

The volleys continued as men slurped from their canteens and Hunt dealt with a teenage boy who’d had an asthma attack, causing momentary confusion. Once the boy was safe, mounted cavalrymen from each side raced to the center of the field, where they exchanged gunfire near the audience.

Then the infantry began. “Ready!” Hunt yelled. “Aim! Fire!” A series of popping sounds followed, and the men hurried to reload. “Ready! Aim! Fire!” The men answered again.

“To the shoulder!” Hunt ordered. “When we get to the mount, we fire at will. On my orders. Forward march!”

Looking around, Hunt noticed that the numerous shots from the Federals had left his troops improbably unscathed. “Somebody take some hits,” he said. A few guys collapsed, sure to have their hats positioned to maximize the shade. After intense firing, Strybos ordered some more men to die, and about ten fell to the ground.

As we approached the Union soldiers, forty minutes or so into the action, the casualties were mounting. “We’re going forward!” Hunt commanded. “A lot of hits!” Men began dropping left and right, groaning as they gracefully tumbled into the grass. One officer commanded a company of eight, “Everybody die,” and they keeled over on cue.

Careful not to stumble over the bodies, the men followed the afternoon’s script and started falling back. Clearly the end was near. One of the wounded hollered, “Don’t turn your backs!” while two of the dead mumbled about the poison ivy. I wondered, briefly, about fire ant beds.

“Battalion!” Hunt yelled. “Kneel! Uncover!” Strybos tied a handkerchief to his saber and walked out onto the field, calling a truce as the Union troops whooped and the audience clapped. After the dead came back to life, soldiers exclaimed, “Good fight, boys,” to one another, and Hunt announced a dinner being held at the Methodist church. “I hear it’s brisket,” one soldier added.

On the sidelines, one of a handful of black participants in the weekend’s activities met up with his family. Most historians would rebuff the notion that blacks served willingly for the Confederacy in meaningful numbers, but that opinion would have been unwelcome on the Jefferson battlefield. The soldier’s wife, an attractive lady with seashell earrings and a wide-brimmed hat, greeted him with a hug and acknowledged that her husband’s passion was strange. “Especially with him being a Confederate,” she said. “But it’s part of history. We’re open-minded. We didn’t teach our children years ago that blacks fought for the South.” His children did not find their parents’ comments peculiar. Indeed, their middle school–age daughter piped up. “Me and my two friends were standing here,” she said. “The whole time we were going, ‘We want to do it! We want to do it!’ ”

Both sides had braved their encounters admirably. Nobody that we knew of had been executed for desertion. The heat was authentic, as were the sweat and the desire for a very cold beer. Maybe an hour or so in a meat locker. But the weekend would not conclude with a Union victory. That was not in the script.

Looking for a different perspective (and more breathable fabrics), I watched the battle from the sidelines on Sunday, situated between a sixty-something-year-old woman who had driven in from Arlington and an eighteen-year-old from Louisiana named Cedric. Cedric was dressed in an informal Confederate uniform of grayish-blue pants, a giant black T-shirt, red suspenders, and a black-brimmed slouch hat with a red cord and a brass insignia of crossed sabers on the front. “I know a lot about the Civil War from watching TV,” he said. His mother, who was sitting on a chair to his right, said that he hoped to participate in some of the upcoming battles. “They gave me some numbers to call,” he explained.

One kid hummed the Star Wars theme song as the soldiers peered out of the woods at one another and the explosions began, hitting the audience with hunks of dirt. Everybody pulled out their cameras and iPhones and zoomed in. I noticed that the woman from Arlington napped, opening her eyes only for the explosions.

After twenty minutes or so, the Union group turned and retreated. “Uh-oh,” Cedric’s mom said. “Run for the hills!”

As the Confederates advanced, the dead were beginning to pile up under the trees. Two Union soldiers, who apparently had an appointment elsewhere, limped off the field, crossed the audience line, and kept on limping all the way to the parking lot. The Confederates continued to advance until the Union waved its white flag and the crowd cheered. Then the officers came out to the middle of the field and taps was played, followed by music from the movie Glory.

I noticed that the woman next to me still had her eyes shut. I doubted that she would have been surprised by the Confederates’ hard-won victory, but maybe, for her, outcomes of long-ago battles were beside the point. “What did you think?” I asked. Popping awake, she said, “I think they did great.”

Related Content