- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

MIDDLETOWN, Va.

By their own estimate, the Kalil family of Royal Oak, Mich., has spent thousands — perhaps even tens of thousands — of dollars to return to the 1860s.

They have a room in their basement devoted to their Civil War gear. There are uniforms and weapons, hats and corsets, vests and buckles. Their three children grew up going to re-enactments, squeezed in among the gear for the long ride down the highway and back in time. Now their 7-year-old grandson, Caleb, sometimes accompanies them.

“I yearn for the gentility of those days,” says Lynn Kalil, a homemaker. “Ladies were ladies then. We live in the modern world, but it is nice to go back.”

Mrs. Kalil and her husband, Ed, have been Civil War re-enactors for about 35 years. They were interested in history, and re-enacting was something they could do as a family.

“It gave us an opportunity to travel all over the country,” Mr. Kalil says. “Eventually, each kid had its thing to do. My sons became drummers. They’re busy in their jobs now, so they don’t get to too many now.”

Says daughter Sarah Kalil, 27: “We didn’t go to Disney World. We went to Civil War events.”

The Kalils were among an estimated 10,000 re-enactors who gathered here last week for the 145th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of First Manassas, also known as Bull Run.

Most Civil War re-enactments are highly structured events. Re-enactors work with a unit — marching together, fighting together and preserving the spirit of long-ago soldiers together. At the weekend’s event, rules ranged from no live ammunition to listen to your battalion commander to no direct firing within 40 yards of the enemy. Any close fighting is done only with a prior rehearsal, only with the permission of the commanding officers and only if it pertains to the actual battle scenario.

In other words, one can’t show up, expect to play P.G.T. Beauregard and start waving a musket at random Union troops.

The rules are just as strict off the battlefield, too. Planning on camping with the troops? If so, don’t try sleeping in a University of Maryland T-shirt. Authentic re-enactment clothing only, please.

As re-enactments go, this is one of the big ones, with rows of tents lining the hills and dozens of vendors (called sutlers, in Civil War-speak) selling wares that will help an enthusiast re-create the era with remarkable detail.

Got your eye on a $1,200 rifle? There’s a big selection. Need a replica of a mother-of-pearl button from the era? You can find it here. A woman’s ball gown and fingerless gloves? Visit the Civil War Lady tent.

“We’re like the Neiman Marcus of Civil War items,” says Civil War Lady owner Joy Melcher when asked why corsets start at $190.

Besides the money — an authentic reproduction uniform easily can cost more than $1,000 — re-enacting as a hobby takes time. This isn’t a round of golf or a Major League Baseball game. First Manassas itself took one day, but the re-enactors will be here for two.

It also takes a real — and sometimes uncomfortable — attention to detail. The troops dripped with sweat in their encampment, and so it goes for re-enactors clad in heavy wool trousers on this hazy July day. The troops camped in simple tents and cooked over a campfire. That’s happening in 2006, too, although one can step out of history and go to the gyro stand if one needs a break.

Scott Hinkle of Scottsdale, Ariz., enjoys playing roles. His vocation is as an actor and educator. He is at the Manassas re-enactment with his wife, Lisa, and three daughters, ages 10, 8 and 5. Mr. Hinkle is playing the captain of the second Virginia infantry. Mrs. Hinkle carries a parasol; the girls wear homemade dresses with petticoats and matching bonnets.

“Re-enacting is a wonderful hobby and educational tool,” Mr. Hinkle says. “It really makes history come alive. We live in a generation that wants things in 3-D. This does that.”

The girls entertain themselves by playing Civil War-era games. They love the running with hoops and tug-of-war, says oldest daughter Emily. Do they feel they are missing out on the high-tech fun of their generation?

Hardly, Emily says.

“We don’t even do that stuff at home,” she says.

History is here

Over at the encampment for the Fourth U.S. Light Artillery and 10th New York Heavy Artillery Unit are more young people who have embraced re-enacting as a hobby.

Paul Andre, an art teacher at Homer Central High School in Homer, N.Y., has brought 17 members of the living-history club he founded two years ago.

Mr. Andre, 37, has been re-enacting for about 14 years. Because the high schoolers naturally thought their ponytailed teacher was cool, their interest in his hobby was sparked. They petitioned the school. They sold cookies. They built cannons. They have gone to 60 Civil War events in the past two years, Mr. Andre says.

“You can get a better understanding of history this way,” says Kurt Shanahan, 18, a recent graduate of Homer High who plans to study history at the State University of New York at Cortland in the fall. “Until you stay in a tent and wear hot wool, you might not appreciate what soldiers went through.”

The Homer High Living History Club has brought along seven cannons as part of its car caravan from upstate New York. Three of them are full-scale cannons that weigh 3,500 pounds each. The other four are smaller prairie howitzers. The students load them with eight tin-foil cylinders filled with 16 ounces of gunpowder. The students are not actually firing artillery, but the boom and smoke are quite realistic.

“We’re using as much powder as they used to fire projectiles,” Mr. Andre says.

The Homer group counts several young women among its members. They are wearing the red shirts and blue pants of the unit and fighting as if they were men. This is, of course, a departure from the exact details.

“An awful lot of the folks can be chauvinistic,” Mr. Andre says, “but the girls go out and show they can do this as well as the guys.”

‘Lost in time’

Bill Christen met his wife, Glenna Jo, when he was playing a colonel at the 130th anniversary of Gettysburg in 1993. They carried on a correspondence in period fashion and were married soon thereafter.

Mr. Christen, a retired engineer for General Motors, publishes the Watchdog, a quarterly publication for re-enactors, and recently published a book, “Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland.” Mrs. Christen researches and gives talks on Civil War-era clothing.

They are still regulars at the Civil War events, but Mr. Christen, who lives in Warren, Mich., has switched to playing a civilian rather than a soldier. Marching in the heat with firearms has taken a toll on him over the years, he says.

“This is a sporting event,” Mr. Christen says. “You should be able to walk three or four miles carrying a backpack. You really need to be in shape. A lot of re-enactors are not in shape.”

Still, Mr. Christen, a re-enactor since 1977, says he feels at home here. For history lovers like himself, it is the closest thing to being there, he says.

He doesn’t get that feeling even by reading the best biography or viewing the most meticulous documentary. He says the Civil War has particular appeal to historians because it was fought on U.S. soil and changed the course of our then-emerging history.

“I can read about a soldier,” he says, “or I can put on a uniform and say, ‘This is what it felt like to be him.’ The Civil War had such an impact on our history. There was a whole generation lost. I have been in some events when I feel like I’ve been lost in time. I wear glasses and have asthma. I come out and do this. I don’t even feel those things anymore.”


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