When I was asked recently if I'd like to attend a Civil War reenactment, I pictured a field the size of a large backyard on a foggy morning with about 40 guys milling around -- men who don't socialize much outside their own obsessed milieu. I pictured them in whatever blue or gray winter Goodwill overcoats they could find, running at each other with fake muskets until they were tired (I gave them 20 minutes) and then rising from the dead, slapping dust and sandspurs off their pants, and squabbling about who won.
We arrived at the 15th annual Battle of Townsend's Plantation and Civil War Festival in Mount Dora and found not a handful, but an RV park-full of people: men, women and even kids in perfect period costumes, including real Colonel Sanders suits and mustaches (not so much on the women). These people were living in tents for the weekend as though the year was 1861. (OK, some stayed in their RVs, but they weren't as interesting to watch.) They cooked over campfires and tended to their crafts and horses ... horses, for crissakes!
Sort of like Trekkies, these people spend lots of their weekends telling the present to take a hike. We do declare.
"I can shoot as many people as I want and there's no review board," jokes Joe, a retired police officer, when we ask why people like doing this. We get a Baskin-Robbins variety of answers from his compadres, from "I like camping" to "I like acting" to "I want to remember my ancestors."
People re-enact lots of different wars, we discover, but Joe says the Civil War era is "romantic. ... When people are in this period, they're more polite. There's no road rage. The mentality was kinder." Nobody, including us, mentions that slaves featured prominently in that kinder, gentler time -- and we don't see anyone re-enacting their roles. What's more, the actual battles of the era were anything but gentlemanly.
Fortunately, we didn't hear any of that old "South Will Rise Again" rhetoric. But we did see one disturbing bumper sticker in the parking lot. It read: "I have a dream," and showed a Confederate flag flying over the White House.
There were some black "soldiers" fighting on the Union side, which seemed puny compared to the Confederate side. "That's always the case," the Union soldier said. "It's somehow cool to be Confederate. They were the rebels."
If the sides are too lopsided, Confederate players will defect to the Union side so the pretend battle can be fair. The Unionist's wife, also in period dress, observed that there are so many Southerners because they're "still fighting the war."
This made sense to us. The one who loses always keeps fighting. If you get dumped, you'll undoubtedly waste a year wondering what went wrong and rehearsing your if-I-ever-see-that-person-again speech. Meanwhile, the dumper has moved on to other dates, forging new relationships (and battles). Consider also: It is never the boss who comes back to the workplace with a loaded gun. It's always the disgruntled employee who got canned. The winner never demands a rematch.
At any rate, politics of any kind didn't seem to figure prominently into this pastime, and everyone we talked to was more into play-acting than weird revisionist history. We heard lots of enthusiastic treatises about the use of Napoleonic battle strategies, how the town of St. Cloud -- our little St. Cloud -- was founded by Union troops and how entire families get into living history as a form of educational recreation.
Two for one
Our personal favorite on that score was an exhibitor who played the part of the local surgeon, dispensing historical advice on the effect of rhubarb laxatives (strong) and the correct dosages for using alcohol as a painkiller: "You hang your hat on the bedpost and drink till you see two hats." Then you've taken the right dose.
We became so caught up in these displays of daily life that we forgot we were there for a war, which started promptly at 3 p.m.
Because the Battle for Townsend's Plantation wasn't a real one, the outcome was going to be a toss-up. But after about an hour of listening to real cannons shooting blanks (they're slightly louder than the space shuttle re-entering the atmosphere), watching people ride their horses at each other while shooting more blanks and getting to see a few people die, we were kind of pooped and didn't hang around to find out who won. Besides, whoever won the battle, we know who won the war.
Yes, it was weird to watch a fake war while our country is in the middle of a real one. But the big revelation to us was that the re-enactors were so much like everyone else who can't wait for the weekend so they can drop out of real life. Only their drug of choice is the past. After all, yesterday is another day.