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Patriots find their roots at re-enactments

Hulking uncomfortably in an aisle of hair curlers and makeup supplies, I repeated myself to the beauty-store clerk as she stared up at me.

 

“Mustache wax,” I said. Then, after a delicate moment, I pantomimed a 19th-century gentleman with a bemused eyebrow quirk, as he straightened his long mustache ends. “It’s for a — costume party.”

I was indeed dressing up in costume, but even with my lack of experience, I knew a Civil War re-enactment in Arkansas was going to be no party. Never having attended a re-enactment, the closest I could imagine the event was as some type of 1860s-inspired renaissance festival with super-itchy and uncomfortable clothing.

Not that I’ve dressed up for the renaissance festivals I’ve attended — at least not as anything other than someone who has lost his fascination with the jolly festivities one overpriced turkey leg and too many “huzzahs” yelled in my face later.

So here’s the thing: The reason I bought a pair of wool pants and jacket was because I was under the impression that to get close to the actual re-enactment, you had to fit in to the era as closely as possible. Re-enactors who spend serious money looking and living an authentic Civil War soldier’s life for several days  — i.e., land of misery — don’t appreciate it if you’re marching behind them in a T-shit and flip-flops.

To get close meant to understand, with my “Westerner” perspective, why it is these events are held. It is theorized that Civil War re-enactments started even before the war was over and have continued in one form or another ever since.

I decided to go in an 1860s reporter costume essentially because it was cheaper and more similar to today’s clothing than buying a uniform I’d end up hanging in the closet or wearing on Halloween to utterly confuse and confound trick-or-treaters.

Going to Arkansas was both a way for me to meet up with some long-lost relatives and fulfill my history-buff-like desire to see a re-enactment firsthand.

After a few inspiring days of driving across Kansas, with a short trip through Missouri, I arrived in Arkansas for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Prairie Grove. The original battle was essentially a stalemate between the North and the South — but ultimately considered a Northern victory when Confederate troops left after the first day of fighting, essentially leaving the state in Northern hands.

I discovered a re-enactment is nothing like a renaissance festival. While a renaissance festival has nothing to do with the actual Renaissance, with perhaps the exception of poor hygiene, a Civil War re-enactment has almost an insane level of historic accuracy.

The crowds are different, too. At a renaissance festival, many in the crowd tend to be in some sort of partial medieval/fantasy grab — men with fake swords strapped to their jeans or women sporting elf ears or magical hairpins.

At a Civil War re-enactment, with the exception of an occasional Confederate flag T-shirt with torn off sleeves, only the re-enactors are in costume.

Perhaps the biggest difference that I discovered was in the overall mood. Renaissance festival attendees and participants have a bemused look on their faces. The future of a character at one of those festivals can generally be characterized as optimistic: go jousting, save a princess, drink mead, repeat.

The future of a Civil War soldier was $11 a month, a hideous number of transmittable diseases — try saying “scorbutic ulcers” and “bilious remittent fever” five times fast. And on a cold Dec. 7 day 150 years ago, 2,568 soldiers on both sides would die on a grassy hillside.

I watched cannon on both sides shake the air like angry dogs, blanketing hundreds of men in smoke as they fired antique guns at one another. It was a relatively somber event, which is not to say it was outright depressing or that people weren’t enjoying themselves in some fashion. But the crowds that came to watch took on more of a spectator role than that of fellow reveler. Particularly well-fired volleys elicited uncertain cheers.

I won’t pretend that I fully understand why nearly 50,000 Americans do this on a regular basis. But if I had to take a wild crack at it, I’d say it has something to do with our relatively short history as a country.

As a nation of mostly immigrants, our short tangible history is really only as permanent as the next shopping mall or parking lot. Re-enacting is living history and a way for many to find their roots that a museum or television special can’t possibly capture. It’s about intimately knowing our past so that we may better learn what our future has in store for us.

While I stood close to the battle in costume with my expertly waxed mustache, with an audience of people in T-shirts and flip-flops, I saw a remarkable thing happen.

The battle ended, smoke cleared, the dead stood up, dusted themselves off and joined the living.