Wow, the 145th. I was at the 125th anniversary edition, twenty years ago. It was the first of the “mega-events.” My primary memory of it now was the blazing heat. I’ll give this one a miss, but I suppose I should attend the 150th one in five years, just so I can say I did. - Jonah
Reenactors Prepare to Mark Battle of Bull Run
By Nick Miroff (Washington Post - July 21, 2006)
When legions of Washington residents retreat to beaches, lakes and pools this weekend, Fairfax City's Stephen Wolfsberger will put on a thick wool coat and trousers, march into battle under the broiling sun and try to avoid being "shot" by federal troops wielding muskets packed with gunpowder and Cream of Wheat.
His cause: the 145th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run.
Known to Confederate reenactors such as Wolfsberger as First Manassas, the battle on July 21, 1861, was the Civil War's first large-scale confrontation. The clash will be restaged in grand fashion Saturday and Sunday in the Shenandoah Valley community of Middletown. As for the heat, well, as any 21st-century Civil War soldier knows, there's nothing like a little physical suffering to put history in perspective.
"We do this to honor the original guys," said Wolfsberger, 1st sergeant of the 17th Virginia Infantry Regiment, Company D, the Fairfax Rifles. "It's an immersion weekend, a chance to sleep under the stars without really having to face the risk of disease or death."
Wolfsberger is one of more than 7,000 battle-ready reenactors expected to invade Middletown, trailed by about 400 cavalry horses, 75 cannons and more than 10,000 spectators, organizers said. There will also be interpretive exhibits, sutlers selling period attire, Victorian tea parties and Civil War-era music. Because the National Park Service prohibits the reenactors from using the actual battlefield in Manassas, the event will be held 60 miles away on the privately owned Cedar Creek Battlefield.
The "fighting" will take place over two 90-minute periods each day, with soldiers firing rifles and artillery loaded with black powder blanks -- Cream of Wheat holds the combustible material in place. Although the 1861 battle resulted in more than 4,000 casualties, organizers of this year's version have cooling tents, ambulances and an emergency helicopter standing by in case today's troops start dropping from the heat.
Unlike Gettysburg, Cedar Creek and other engagements that are reenacted annually, the Battle of Bull Run is held every five years. It's deeply revered for its significance, particularly among Confederate impressionists. Organizers say it will be the largest Civil War gathering this year.
"Manassas is near and dear to Confederate hearts," said Suzanne Chilson, executive director of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation. The Confederate victory "was a complete surprise to the Union Army and to people living in Washington."
Modern-day Washingtonians might be equally surprised to know just how far some of today's weekend warriors will go in the name of verisimilitude. The politics of the war seem a minor factor, as the central tension of today's reenactments is not so much North vs. South or slave vs. free but campaigner vs. mainstream. Many of the most hard-core campaigner reenactors shun mainstream events such as this weekend's, which they say are driven more by entertainment value than historical accuracy.
"At a mainstream event, people get together with friends and families to have a good time," said Bill Watson, a Stroudsburg, Pa., resident from the Potomac Legion, a Union battalion that won't be at Bull Run. "There's a difference in emphasis. The campaign side looks at it as an art form."
Campaigners strive to depict soldiers who marched hundreds of miles with few provisions, unlike most modern reenactors, who tend to indulge in anachronisms such as cold beer, contact lenses and cotton underwear. To better resemble their malnourished, underfed forebears, a proper reenactor should not be overweight, according to "The Campaigner's Manifesto" Web site.
Fairfax City resident Bill Scott has two authentic Civil War-era rifles, but he doesn't consider himself a "stitch-counter" like the hard-core. He and his girlfriend, Janet Pastrick of Fairfax City, who glues on a mustache for battle and fights under the slightly more masculine nom de guerre "Eli," will be riding with the 4th Virginia Cavalry Company H, "the Blackhorse Cavalry," though Scott's horse, Shadow, is white.
Scott's father, former senator William L. Scott (R-Va.), successfully introduced legislation to have Gen. Robert E. Lee's citizenship reinstated in 1975. Still, Scott maintains the reenactments "aren't really a North-South thing."
"We have a good relationship with the guys who ride federal," he said. "We're fighting guys we know."