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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1999

Re-enactors make history come alive


I was buying a jar of jam at the sutler's tent when the cannon went off, close enough and loud enough to make my teeth rattle and my eyes widen into an excellent impersonation of fear. The salesman, a stout, bearded fellow in the woolen blues of a Union soldier, barely blinked. As he handed me my credit card, I could read his thought _ a greenhorn!

But I was enjoying every minute of it.

A few months ago, attending the re-enactment of a U.S. Civil War battle wouldn't have been high on my to-do list. I had never fired a gun in anger (I had surfed through the Vietnam War on a college deferment, a high lottery number and a deaf right ear) and I could not see the point of grown men dressing up in funny clothes and firing blanks at one another all weekend.

Then, to help my mother, a genealogy buff, I began to poke around genealogy sites on the Internet and dig up factoids on the Civil War service of my great-great grandfather, William Rea. A private with the 45th Ohio Volunteer Infantry regiment, Rea had had a hellacious war, spending nine months in the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., a notori ous forcing ground for malnutrition and disease, where 12,912 of the 45,000 prisoners died. Rea survived, but spent the next two years as an invalid and never completely recovered from his ordeal.

Rea's regiment, however, had the distinction (or frustration) of chasing famed Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan for three weeks through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, finally running him and his 2,000 men to ground near Buffington Island, on the Ohio River, where Morgan had intended to ford to friendly territory. Instead, in the Battle of Buffington Island, on July 19, 1863, Morgan suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the 45th and other Union forces. Though Morgan himself escaped, 700 of his men were captured, 57 were killed and 63 were wounded. Meanwhile, 21 men on the Union side died.

The Battle of Buffington Island may not rank high among Civil War conflicts, but it was one of only three battles fought on Union soil. Also, the battlefield has become embattled itself: A local company has received a permit to mine gravel on 600 acres of it, and the re-en- actors who organized a three-day event from July 16-19 to commemorate the battle's 136th anniversary intended to use every opportunity to protest this desecration.

Reading all this and more on the Web (see www.civil warhome.com /buffington.htm for details) I decided to make the re-enactment part of my next trip to Ohio. What was I getting into?

What I found when I arrived at the battle site, on a sweltering July day, was a Civil War-era camp sprung to life, from the white tents of the soldiers to the hoop skirts of the women. There were jarring notes (kids in cut-offs and T-shirts guzzling pop at a picnic table) but the overall effect was that of walking into an impromptu history theme park. All the re-enactors _ about 150 soldiers from both sides _ were not only in costume but, to greater or lesser extent, acting their 19th-century parts. No one was listening to a ball game on a Walkman or closing a deal on a cell phone.

Instead, a woman was intently explaining to a small crowd of visitors how she and other volunteers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission tended the wounded _ and sold homemade jam and other comestibles to support their activities. A man costumed as a Civil War-era peddler, right down to his ragged goatee, was hawking fresh eggs with a smooth line of patter that would have done an Asakusa banana seller proud.

Meanwhile, two Confederate soldiers were silently examining the Buffington Island battlefield marker, where tiny Confederate battle flags had been placed in the ground _ one for each of the fallen soldiers. "My great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy, but when we were growing up we never heard any stories about what he did," said one soldier who, with his period glasses and brush mustache, looked like a younger Teddy Roosevelt. "I guess a lot of the soldiers kept quiet _ they didn't think the folks back home would understand what they had been through."

Re-enactors, however, have been anything but quiet. Spurred by the revival of interest in the Civil War in the past decade, re-enactment units and events have been proliferating. The Camp Chase Gazette (users.qual.net/~civilwar), the leading re-enactors magazine, announced dozens of events in all parts of the country in its July issue, along with a long list of ads by regiments in need of volunteers.

Investigating this phenom- ena in his best-selling book "Confederates in the Attic," Pulitzer Prize-winning re- porter Tony Horwitz found that many re-enactors, espe- cially the ones who styled themselves "hard-core," were not just grown-ups playing soldier, but amateur historians dedicated to get- ting every aspect right, from the number of stitches on their uniforms to the stories they told around the camp- fire. One of Horwitz's princi- pal informants and guides, a Confederate re-enactor named Robert Lee Hodge, had even perfected what his admiring friends called "the bloat" _ the round-mouthed, swollen-bellied pose of rigor mortis often seen in Civil War-era photographs of dead soldiers.

Hodge, now a celebrity in re-enactor circles, made an appearance at Buffington Is- land (and posed solemnly in uniform for a Columbus Dis- patch photographer), but you didn't need to be hard-core to understand the appeal of slip- ping into another era for a day or two. In one sense, it was like becoming instantly Amish _ one could leave the static of our wired world far behind. In another, it was like being an extra on a movie set, with all the thrill of being in character, but without the boredom of waiting for the clapper to come down.

Lights, camera, charge!



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