My tie to the reenacting world and my close friend, Dylan, convinced me that in order for me to understand the world of reenacting, it would be vital that I actually participated in one. He chose a more mainstream event - the 147th anniversary of the battle of Resaca, Ga. The rest, I suppose, is history.
Within 24 hours of landing in Atlanta, I find myself marching into battle, dressed in blue with the authentic living history group, the Armory Guards. We are portraying the 12th Missouri, which historically consisted of 90% German speaking soldiers. Dylan and I brushed up briefly in the car ride on the way, but really were only able to retain insults and how to say elementary phrases like “I drink water.”
Ricky, our fearless lieutenant, receives our battle orders for the day.
“Alright, achtung y’all,” he says “we’re going to be skirmishers, y’all know what to do, but make sure to keep your intervals.” I have no idea what he’s talking about, but go ahead and nod in agreement. Heck, I’m still not exactly sure how to take my belt off.
“I drink water,” I say to Dylan in my finest German.
Before I know it, we are marching into battle. Canons boom around us as we close in on the enemy. A line of confederates advances on us. It’s terrifying. I remember thinking that there is no possible way I’d ever be brave enough to fight like this. My heart is racing as they take aim and fire their first volley. We all hit the dirt, no casualties yet.
“Fire at will!” Ricky shouts.
I shoulder my rifle, cock back the hammer, line up on a reloading confederate and squeeze the trigger. With a crack of the rifle, white smoke pours out of my barrel. The rebel pauses, looks at me, and continues reloading. We continue on like this for some time, shooting, reloading, all the bullets on both sides missing. Finally, our small unit of 10 men is completely surrounded. Time to die.
Lewis, our first sergeant, takes a hit early on, but has rejoined the ranks. Must have been a flesh wound. I hear Ricky shouting for us to take causalities. On the next volley, I go limp and fall face first into the dirt, Lewis dies beside me. It’s 90 degrees outside, so I decide to be injured instead of dead, so at least I can drink some water. Lewis rolls over and looks at me.
“Watch this, I’m going to try to save someone and get shot.” He stands up, begins dragging a soldier by his suspenders, only to die a 3rd time. It’s too hot to die in the sun. I roll over and see a shady tree 100 feet back.
“Let’s go die over there,” I say. Lewis is resurrected once again, and supporting each other, we hobble back to the shady tree to die in comfort. As the rebels retake our position, Dylan is capture, and Lewis and I enjoy yelling our newly learned German insults at them.
When the smoke clears, a round of “taps” resurrects us. Dylan says “I told you the battles are silly.” He’s right. Yet, most of the guys in our unit have ancestors that fought in the Civil War. I start to wonder about what they would think if they saw us playing war on a hallowed battlefield. I shake it off as we hike back up to the authentic camp in the woods. We pass by the mainstreamers. They are having taco night.
Later that night, I found my self laying flat on my back covered in wet rags, trying to cool down. My head was killing me, and my stomach was in all sorts of turmoil. The Georgia heat, bacon grease, potatoes, and hard tack were most likely the culprit. I’ve been living in Los Angeles too long. I’ve grown soft. Everyone in my unit checks on me to make sure I was OK, they offer me items from their packs, food, water, and aspirin. Later Dylan walks up with a fowl smelling tin cup.
“Drink it,” he says, “it’ll make you feel better.” I oblige, might as well, I already agreed to sleep on a rubber mat in the middle of the woods. I take a long draw of the mystery drink. Disgusting.
“What the hell is this?”
“Coffee and whiskey!” He howls.
I take another sip and next thing I know I’m back on my feet, just about as cheerful as ever. We spend the rest of the night joking and laughing, and the guys all are willing to field my many questions about a soldiers life. And trust me when I say, these guys know their stuff. I learned more about the Civil War at this reenactment than I have in my lifetime. Later, I take off my boots, roll my coat into a pillow, and ignoring my misery, drift into a comfortable sleep. Somewhere around then I realize what it’s all about.
Reenacting is not about just the battles. Though spectators do enjoy them, and I’ve heard people ask some really important and compelling questions after witnessing one. Reenacting is about history. The Armory Guards have read the first person accounts, poured through the photographs, and have taken years to learn about the lives of these men. Though there are moments when grown men take about fabric and soldiers die 3-4 deaths on the field, the true core of reenacting is true and just. It’s about remembering and teaching history, something groups like the Armory Guards do very well.
In the car ride back, after the most delicious steak I’ve ever had, I remembered wondering what our ancestors would think of this. Perhaps some would be upset to see us reenacting such a horrible time in our history. However, I think most would see us, with both Confederate and Federal ancestors, coming together across job descriptions, income, and backgrounds. They would see us not forgetting where they fought, how they fought, and most importantly why they fought. They would be happy to see us, sitting around the campfire, drinking whiskey and coffee, remembering their stories. They would witness us sharing our food, our water, and our supplies openly and willingly. They would be glad to see reenactors taking a weekend to suffer a little bit to honor their name. Most importantly, however, they would be relieved to see, at least for those moments, that we are no longer fighting.