From the top of their kepis to the tip of their brogans, meet the Brooklyn-based Civil War reenactors who leave everything on the battlefield.
Patrick Stultz wades through the forest, bushes snagging his baggy red trousers. He hoists a .58-caliber musket above his blue-wool jacket and sweat-stained red kepi hat. A rusty tin canteen rattles against the leather cartridge box on his belt. He marches out of the shadows of the elms with his fellow soldiers, blinded by the sunlight and the smoke.
Two dozen men fall clumsily into rows, stepping on one another’s heels. Stultz hangs back and barks at the men of the front line to take a knee. All obey their sergeant, including Jesse Henry, a 30-year-old with whiskers like tumbleweed. He pulls out a paper cartridge and tears the flap open with his teeth. Gunpowder granules mix with saliva and turn his lower lip black. He dumps the remainder down the barrel of his replicated Springfield Model 1861 and puts a gold-colored cap no bigger than a pencil eraser in front of the hammer. Raising and aiming the 10-pound, 40-inch weapon with both hands, he pulls the trigger. Three feet of flame leap between deadened tree branches toward gray coats across the open field.
It’s a Saturday in late April and a few hundred Civil War reenactors are gathered at Neshaminy State Park, a 339-acre campground northeast of Philadelphia that substitutes for Northern Virginia. There, in November and December of 1863, the Army of the Potomac tried unsuccessfully to squash the rebels before winter. Over four days of skirmishes, the Battle of Mine Run took the lives of 1,272 U.S. troops and 680 Confederates.
Stultz, Henry and their fellow New York-area reenactors belong to the 14th Brooklyn Regiment Company E, which is modeled after the New York State militia whose doggedness and colorful outfits are said to have caused Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to shout, “Hold on, boys! Here come those red-legged devils again!”
It’s an hour before the day’s big battle, a public event. Hundreds of spectators are gathering on the other side of the park while the reenactors treat themselves to a “tactical”—a warm-up to make-believe. But this private moment of mock carnage and immolation would abruptly come to an end. The 14th Brooklyn has hardly volleyed shots, and got the kinks out of its formation, before they corner the enemy. Frustrated at the quick and aggressive positioning of the federals, the rebels call a cease fire about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Brooklyn marches on.
“This sucks,” Jesse Henry says. His fellow devils agree. “That was smoke-shrouded chaos. You’re not going to see the elephant in that.”
Civil War reenactors approach their hobby with the zeal of a prophet and the curiosity of an academic. On the battlefield they live to “see the elephant,” a nineteenth-century phrase describing the rush that only certain daring pursuits—exploration, hunting or war—can provide. Those moments, however, are becoming fewer and far between. The old guys are getting out of the game and, although it’s a young man’s hobby, the kids aren’t necessarily rushing to take their place. What was considered hardcore only a couple decades ago is now looked down upon. Meanwhile, the Great Recession has taken its toll on what was already an expensive endeavor. Time, in this case, may not be on their side. Their numbers have dropped significantly in the last 15 years and may never return.
They see themselves not as the gun nuts and losers that popular culture would have you believe, but as teachers, the self-anointed and self-effacing stewards of our nation’s past. And to save that past—or rather, future—the 14th Brooklyn and their allies are leading the charge to do two seemingly irreconcilable things: make the hobby more appealing and yet more absolute.
And yet there may be a silver lining in the hobby’s decline. Those members of a group or a movement who stick through it in good times and in bad are often the most devout.
* * *
The earliest Civil War reenactors were in fact Civil War soldiers. Before the fighting ended, veterans were already restaging battles to honor the dead and to show civilians what their countrymen had endured. Over the next one hundred years, recreations were performed mostly by service men, as had been the tradition of some armies going back to ancient Rome. However, during centennial commemorations in the early 1960s, the federal government decided it was disrespectful to let people shoot at each other and pretend to die where others had actually died.
The void was filled by ordinary men who held reenactments off-site, sometimes on fields adjacent to hallowed ground. They marched in work shirts, gray-colored jeans and cowboy boots. Cartridge boxes were constructed out of cardboard. Instead of a musket, some brought muzzle loading shotguns.
“People realized that wasn’t a good representation [of a soldier],” says Robert Lee Hadden, 62, the author of Reliving the Civil War: A Reenactor’s Handbook.
A few groups, he says, began obsessing over details as early as the late 1960s, some of whose members turned up with original Civil War accoutrements. But the push towards more period-authentic dress came about a decade later, and has intensified since then. As the hobby evolved, so too did a marketplace for proper-looking gear.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s and ’80s, on the heels of the country’s bicentennial celebrations, that the numbers of the fake ranks exploded. In 1986, Time magazine estimated there were as many as 50,000 Civil War reenactors throughout the country. Relying on the registration lists of bigger events, some long-term veterans of the hobby say their numbers held steady until about 2000. Today they’re about half the size.
The quick decline has caused many reenactors to reevaluate how the hobby is run, and by whom, in an effort to preserve it. One sore spot is Gettysburg, which has been organized for the last 18 years by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee (GAC), a for-profit company. This summer was the 150th anniversary of that decisive battle, but thousands of reenactors didn’t go. Many of them claim the event has been overrun by the worst of what the hobby has to offer—the poseurs and profiteers. Their solution? Secede.
In June, the 14th Brooklyn participated in a different Gettysburg event hosted by the Blue Gray Alliance (BGA), a non-profit network of hundreds of reenactment groups from both North and South. They charged less and promised to put the needs of the men above money. They did away with GAC practices like providing bleacher seats for those spectators willing to pay a little more. It’s a serious distraction, they say, when your goal is to relive, and consecrate, a moment from rural Pennsylvania, 1863.
“It’s almost like a sporting event rather than a reenactment,” says Terry Shelton, the BGA’s Confederate commander, “and that’s why reenactors have stopped going to that event. It’s so commercialized.”
Each group claims to have attracted more than 10,000 reenactors to their own Gettysburg event; there were likely some men who went to both. One major difference between the two was that the BGA managed to recreate several clashes as they had actually occurred, in real time.
During the many months it took to plot troop movements, Shelton’s man in charge of artillery dug through official reports as well as firsthand accounts and produced a paper about Pickett’s Charge, the final and futile assault of the battle. He found that Confederate artillerymen should have been spread across the field, whereas the men who organized Gettysburg for many years had been deploying them in a straight line. Shelton was startled. Put a couple cannons in the wrong place, he says, and you’ve changed the complexion of the whole performance.
“That was smoke-shrouded chaos. You’re not going to see the elephant in that.”
The BGA event was not without its own problems, namely a shortage of water in at least one part of the campgrounds. (No event is immune to criticism, and that includes Neshaminy, which is run by a committee of reenactors, locals and park rangers.) Shelton dismisses complaints of the accommodations as the grumbling of a fastidious few. Put some reenactors in a time machine, back to the war, he says, “and they’d still be unhappy.”
Next summer, it’s likely the GAC will resume its monopoly over the Gettysburg commemoration. Shelton says he doubts the BGA will have the energy to put on an event that is bound to attract far fewer people. The 150th anniversary was a milestone. The 151st, not so much.
In June, Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, told the Wall Street Journal that reenactments were an “unfortunate distraction.” To understand history and its reverberations on our modern politics, he said, one must hold a musket and taste period-authentic food in addition to reading classroom texts. In other words, war is not a spectator sport.
* * *
At Neshaminy, Patrick Stultz spends his nights eating hardtack and stroking his Van Dyke beard, searching with green eyes for the familiar faces of his friends. Sweet tobacco wafts from his Meerschaum pipe. On his forearm is a tattoo of Benjamin Franklin’s famous political cartoon, a disembodied snake with the words “Join, or Die.” He wears a homemade yellow and brown checkered shirt. In fact, he made or altered much of his outfit by hand, including shortening his wool jacket so that he’d look more like an original soldier.
Still, imagination alone can’t save the hobby—something that weighs heavily in the minds of the 14th Brooklyn’s senior members. For Frank Ruiz, Jr., 31, who portrays the group’s lieutenant, this summer is a chance to return the hobby to its roots, and in doing so, attract new people. That means putting more work into theatrical elements, such as military drills and clothing.
“It’s not a war on the mainstream,” Ruiz assures his comrades around the campfire. “We’re just steering by example.”
In the “hardcore” or “campaigner” caste of the reenactment class system you’ll find people who count the stitches in their uniform and spin their own wool. The 14th Brooklyn is considered “progressive” because it adheres to aesthetics—the trousers should be “Madder Red,” Ruiz says, a brick-ash orange-color that absorbs moonlight—without being dogmatic. “Mainstreamers” see the hobby as a social event; you’ll spot them during the day with a can of Natty Ice. But the man who pulls out his cell phone on the battlefield is truly to be shunned. He is a “farb,” meaning something like “far be it from authentic.” A Facebook page called “Happy Friends Civil War Farb” exists to make fun of such people.
The upfront investment for a newcomer is around $1,500—a serious impediment to membership whenever the economy tanks. The first purchase is usually an $800 musket, known as “the big nut” in some circles. The 14th Brooklyn’s colors are unique—a blue tunic and red vest ($150), red kepi ($155), red pants ($65)—which limits the number of sellers one can buy from. Other essential gear: heel-plated brogans ($115), white canvas gaiters ($30), beeswax-lined tin canteen ($50), bayonet and scabbard ($60), waist belt with a cartridge box and cap pouch ($100), and an unbleached muslin shirt ($40), to say nothing of the various tools needed to maintain a musket, or an authentic-looking tent (as well as gas and time off from work to travel). Many hardcore and progressive types started young and have built up reserves of clothing, which they hand down to new recruits, or “fresh fish.”
“I wanted to explore the duality of man,” DeRuiter says, “the pastoral and the killer side.”
Stultz, 33, started reenacting French and Indian War events with his father at age six. He grew up in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and at 16 volunteered as an Army medic. After 9/11, he was placed with Special Operations Forces as an intelligence officer. As part of his training, he says, he endured the same interrogation methods that he would later use on others. This is what I am here, he recalls thinking; this isn’t what I am back home. In Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa, he treated his job in a detached manner, as though he were only playing a comic-book character.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff I have to live with,” he says. “A lesser man would have to go to psychiatry for it.”
He takes comfort, however, in having built schools and aid stations, and having trained policemen as young as 14 years old. Most of the boys he commanded at Neshaminy were but a few years older.
By day, the men portraying the original soldiers of the 14th Brooklyn are firefighters, paramedics, students and cooks. Stultz, who lives in Queens, is a receptionist at St. John the Divine Cathedral House on the Upper West Side while another reenactor, Christian DeRuiter, assistant to the canon pastor, helps with prayer. Few talk about their jobs. To them, reenacting is a profession. They post sepia-colored pictures of themselves in uniform on Facebook. They list their ranks on LinkedIn. “I am the executive officer,” Ruiz, the lieutenant, wrote between his experience as an auditor and a computer technician. “Help run the day to day for our Captain.” His captain is his father.
“If you don’t have a great real life, you can come here and have one,” Stultz says. “It’s like escapism.”
Yes, reenactments provide the opportunity to get out of the city and pretend to be someone else for a few days. But rather than retreating into fantasy or isolation, reenactors are running toward a more human, primal and communal existence. These weekend camping trips in places such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts—half a dozen every year—allow them to reconnect with their ancestors in the same way, as one veteran puts it, that Christians practice the Eucharist, Jews practice Passover, or Muslims practice Hajj. What little money the 14th Brooklyn raises from giving demonstrations at schools and Cub Scout events goes toward the restoration of old grave sites, as well as their own genealogical research. A few can trace relatives back to the war. Others assume the identity of a real soldier and then learn what they can about that person’s life.
DeRuiter, 42, says he chose a man similar to himself, one who would allow him to search his own soul. On the battlefield he’s Private John S. Edwards, originally a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bay Ridge, also known as the “Church of the Generals” for its connection to neighboring Fort Hamilton. Edwards was an abolitionist who put his beliefs behind the musket rather than the cloth. DeRuiter carries a 120-year-old prayer book in the pocket of his uniform. When he’s not pretending to shoot other men, he’s been known to issue last rites to the felled in his own rank, some of whom rub red dye on their clothing to enliven the theater of death.
“I wanted to explore the duality of man,” DeRuiter says, “the pastoral and the killer side.”
Few cross over and play soldier for the opposing army. Stultz has done it, but the idea of regularly fighting alongside Confederates and not Unionists makes him uncomfortable.
“It feels like you’re cheating on your wife,” he says.
As a conversation-starter, Stultz occasionally wears his red kepi on the streets of New York City. He and the other senior members take recruitment as seriously as anything else. At the first meeting of the year, in February, there was talk of putting up posters to attract new blood to the hobby.
“It’s only dead if we want it to be,” said Ruiz’s father and the company captain, also named Frank.
“Give ‘em hell, Brooklyn!”
Evidently their work is paying off. The 14th Brooklyn is nearly twice as large as it was in 1996, when it was founded. Today it has 44 members on paper, about half of whom showed up to Neshaminy. It also belongs to an organization called the Union Volunteers, whose dozens of reenactment units, mostly from the Northeast, fight at major events under a single flag. It even has its own officers, and Ruiz is a lieutenant colonel. At Gettysburg, he commanded 200 guns.
The 14th Brooklyn’s founders were in their 40s. Now they enlist teens. It even has a chipper 12 year old who runs messages and carries wood. Some veterans hope one day to put a musket in his hand, as they did for his older brother. One of the sergeants is in charge of his own son. After events, Ruiz rushes to play with his one-year-old boy, Jack Aiden, who has already been fitted with a uniform.
There are also cultural considerations to keep in mind that may make it harder than just finding people who have the stamina to march in the sun all day. Robert Lee Hadden, the reenactor and author, says young men are drawn more towards WWI and WWII because—at least in the first case—of the impending centennial anniversary. (One member of the 14th Brooklyn, a recent high school grad, also belongs to a group of bombers.) The big question at the moment is whether the Civil War will lose its appeal once the 150th anniversary has come and gone in 2015.
“That’s about the range of romantic appreciation,” Hadden says.
The diehards of the 14th Brooklyn are mostly thirtysomethings. During the skirmish, the face of Matt Dellinger, who’s writing a book on the original regiment, expressed nothing. Everyone else looked frightened or crazed as they shrieked and pushed one another into formation. Stultz was talking about this, between battles at Neshaminy, when Dellinger overheard his name.
“What’s that?” he says, strolling through the leaves with hands hung in his pockets.
“You looked like the fucking Buddha out there,” Stultz says.
Dellinger, deadpan: “I find this very relaxing.”
* * *
The Buddha arrives late the night before. The headlights of his rental car turn a corner to reveal a field with dozens of white sheets and little fires, only the silhouettes of horses and men. It rains all night, and the temperature drops low. Only one tent remains vacant. A 62-year-old man, one of the 14th Brooklyn’s oldest members, spends the night in a nearby hotel.
Few of the men sleep, and by the morning of the warm-up battle—tired and sore, unwashed and unshaven—they are ready for the first of many servings of salt pork and potatoes, hot off cast-iron skillets. Few brush their teeth. Cigarettes and whiskey are about the only modern items to turn up all weekend. At night, the men shiver and lip their vices, grinning as they remind one another to “embrace the suck.”
It’s a phrase unique to the men portraying the 14th Brooklyn, but every reenactor worth his Stars and Bars knows what it means. It means enduring intense heat or cold without complaint, to live momentarily as a soldier from the 1860s. It’s a mindset intended to shatter self-identity and willpower, and contributes to what some describe on the battlefield, in quasi-religious terms, as “period rush.” The smoke and sounds of canon fire and men yelling and dropping to the ground, others charging with bayonets—even the soundest of minds can feel the heaviness of this living history and, as Stultz puts it, “get outside the barrier.” Once, he says, in the midst of battle, he broke down crying. He’s convinced that on another occasion, while in West Virginia in 2006, a group of homicidal Confederates cut three of the four lug nuts on one of his tires. His truck and ten-horse trailer skidded off the highway.
But none of that was present in his mind on this Saturday in late April. He and the other men wait patiently in the shaded woods until gunshots mark the start of battle. Again, they burst into an open field. Only this time, hundreds of spectators—equal to the number of reenactors, if not more—wait atop a hill several hundred feet away. They snap pictures and take videos. Brooklyn halts and loads.
Stultz shouts through the smoke-shrouded chaos. Dellinger stands nearby, with his feet in a T. He slides his right foot forward and bends slightly at the knees, aiming above the heads of the crouching front line. Had those men been standing, Dellinger’s positioning would have been of greater concern to his sergeant. Had Dellinger, say, moved a few inches forward, firing over his comrade’s shoulder, he’d run the risk of shattering that man’s hearing. Had he moved a few inches back, he could scorch that man’s face with flame. Stultz had helped these men drill two weeks earlier at Old Bethpage Village, the group’s training grounds on Long Island. There, Jesse Henry spoke of the time someone accidentally shot him in the back from about a foot away. The muskets are loaded only with gunpowder but can cause third-degree burns. “Something like that could end the hobby that we love,” Henry cautioned members, old and new. “As much as we’re into this, this is pretend. I want all of you guys to go back to work on Monday with all your digits, limbs and ear drums.”
Again, the Confederates fuck up. Maybe they don’t like rules. Or maybe they’re trying to rewrite history. They’re supposed to attack from the right but don’t. So Stultz and the others run forward to get to them. And on the way, feigning death on the battlefield, between History Channel-like moans and groans, their fellow federals yell, “Give ‘em hell, Brooklyn!”
The triumph is short lived. It had been predetermined that the 14th Brooklyn would lose this battle. One at a time, sometimes two, the men pretend to take a hit. They drop awkwardly on both knees and dive forward into a current of gunpowder. The smell of sulfur stings the tongues and nostrils of the motionless figures.
And then after a minute, the firing stops, and with that, the battle is over. The audience cheers. The men rise and brush the dirt from their bodies, reborn.
* * *
Back at camp, the 14th Brooklyn’s captain, Frank Ruiz, Sr., 58, who’s known simply and respectfully as “Senior” so as not to be confused with his son, the lieutenant, does his best to warm the mass of weary men after another so-called disappointing event.
“The tactical sucked, the battle sucked, but hopefully the beer won’t suck,” he says.
“Huzzah!” they shout, and disperse for more salt pork and potatoes.
The night passes slowly. Some of the men wander over to the pavilion where they might get lucky and dance under the lanterns with a soldier’s daughter. Senior, the king imp among the satyrs, keeps close to the fire and entertains others with stories of his past—like the time he reenacted some battle atop some mountain during some storm.
“We did some dumb shit back in the day, didn’t we?” he says. And then he thinks about it. “Who am I kidding? I’ve been marching in the sun all day in this frickin’ wool costume. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on all this stuff. I’m away from my wife. I’m freezing my balls off in that tent.” He laughs, and so do the admiring men, and then he adds, “We still do some dumb shit.”
The next day, with another battle behind them, the men of the 14th Brooklyn shed their frickin’ wool costumes and break down their tents. Stultz wears a Star Wars T-shirt with Chewbacca’s face. One man hurries to his car and reaches for the tiny luxury from which he has denied himself for nearly three days. He comes back glowing, with ChapStick, and slathers it on his desiccated lips.
* * *
Jesse Marx is a journalist currently living in Portland, Oregon.