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.
Reenactors
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

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