The Union Army wants me. I’m not fit for battle. Past a reasonable age of recruitment. Never shot a gun except in summer camp as a child when I sent BB’s toward their mark on a little outdoor firing range at Camp Eagle Feather. Have marginal camping skills at best. And my loyalties would be deeply suspect due to family history.
The man in the replica blue uniform fresh from a battle reenactment in northern Virginia doesn’t know my great great grandfather on my mother’s side fought for the South. He just notices my quirky interest in the scene and hands me his card. “We’re always looking for new recruits,” he says.
If you are looking for Civil War sites and battle re-enactments, moving to Virginia is a great idea. The state is chock full of well documented battle sites. A strange impulse compelled me to come to Fort Ward in Alexandria. I wanted to witness something spectacular. I wanted to understand what it felt like to be at war. The guns blazing in the fog of war, the horrible dying and all of that.
Only it’s fake. The men dying horribly on the battlefield in their scrupulously tailored replica uniforms pack up their guns and canteens into SUVs at the end of the day. I feel cheated. They should stick with the charade and ride off on horseback en mass down the highway. It’s like accidentally discovering a Goofy character at Disney World taking a smoke break in back of the It’s a Small World exhibit while cradling Goofy’s enormous costume head in his arm. Where’s the commitment?
I dragged my son to the event. And because of a late lunch at Tyson’s Mall we arrive just minutes after the battle has ended. It’s a sweltering late July day. So, we arrive just in time to see soldiers lying in the shade recuperating from the battle. It must be tough work dying in battle. Even fake dying in a fake battle could wear you out in 85-degree heat, I suppose.
My 16-year-old isn’t interested in questioning the soldiers about the authenticity of their uniforms. Doesn’t care whether they have bivouacked properly. Or whether they stacked their replica guns in just the right manner outside their tents. He’s sitting on a bench, playing a Nintendo DS and only waiting to leave from the moment he got here.
A well-fed Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd wander across the grounds. It’s a historical fact that Lincoln poked around an ongoing battle once in July 1864 on a parapet at the Battle of Fort Stevens in D.C., and a Confederate sniper nearly made an early end of him then and there.
Because many think holding battle re-enactments on the actual battlefields where they were fought would be a desecration, the Battle of Fort Stevens was re-enacted on another Civil War site – Fort Ward in Alexandria – where no battle had ever been fought. So we just missed seeing fake soldiers take part in a fake battle on a fake battleground.
The good news is that this was only the 150th anniversary of the battle. I can come back in 50 years to see the perhaps more spectacular Fort Stevens battle re-enactment at the 200th anniversary. Only not, of course, at Fort Stevens.
No matter how compelling the recruitment officer is at that time, I still won’t be joining the Union Army.