The people at the St. Catherine’s Military Academy Civil War Re-enactment are a breed apart. Like other weekend warriors, they still spend a ton of money and vast amounts of time on their hobby, but the majority of their day is spent just hanging out talking to people. They refer to this as “living history,” mimicking the fashions of the time and learning a narrative to relate to onlookers.
An observer who just walked around looking at stuff on this day could be forgiven for thinking that the whole enterprise is sort of, well, lame. Being a young man raised twenty minutes from Disneyland, I’m used to my Americana having some spectacle, dammit. At least some Eco-style hyperreality, so that I can marvel at the painstaking attention to detail and feel immersed in the environment. Any ghost town or Williamsburg worth its salt can at least conjure up some gosh-wow moments.
Not so here. The Union camp is in a nice grotto-ish area, but the Confederate camp is right smack on Ball road, a thoroughfare in the heart of downtown Anaheim. The “battlefield” is just the school’s football field made sadder by the few pitiful attempts to decorate it—15 fifteen feet of wooden fence that separates nothing from anything and arbitrarily peters out onto the well-kept grass. Adding to the semiotically confusing atmosphere are the St. Catherine’s students who range K through 8, and are dressed in full military uniforms. My brother attended St. Catherine’s when he was a boy—dressing every morning in white underwear and white tank-top with black sock garters, he resembled a twelve-year old Walter Matthau.
The battle itself is deeply shitty. Once it commences, the twenty or so warriors on either side fire their no-doubt expensive weapons at each other and then pause to reload. It is here that an interesting phenomenon makes itself apparent. Each of these re-enactors has spent a lot of money on their authentic replica weapons, and they probably don’t get to shoot them more than a few times a year, with the result that none of the soldiers want to pretend to die first and lose opportunities to fire their guns. Thus, for the first few minutes of battle, we all watch these grown men shoot at each other thirty yards apart, then reload and fire again while steadfastly refusing to die. Finally, one of them, a Confederate, I believe, had the good grace to curl up spooning his flintlock. The ice broken, soldiers began dying as the Confederates slowly advanced.
Cannons shoot every so often, and these are not in any way shitty. The boom reverberates off the wall behind me, creating an odd phasing effect where I hear the blast from two directions almost but not quite simultaneously. They also set off the alarms of several cars that are in the general vicinity.
After the battle, I decide to flex my journalistic cred and get myself some interviews. Never one to be cowed by high offices, my first interview is with the tall man, Honest Abe himself.
The re-enactor who plays Lincoln had just recited the Gettysburg Address into a terrible microphone, inadvertently recreating the speech’s original conditions (I assume) in the sense that no one in the back could hear a damn word he said.
I patiently wait for some kids to finish talking to the President, and I outflank him before he can get away. The interview proves a disappointment. When I ask what his favorite part of doing re-enactments is, he says, ““Oh, ‘s’fun. Kids.” Sensing an unfruitful avenue, I excuse myself, but not before mentally noting that his fake Lincoln mole looks like Silly Putty.
As I conduct these interviews, I notice an interesting trend. Everyone wants to talk, and they answer my questions as best they can, but on some level they’re uncomfortable. I realize it is because they are not quite sure whether they are supposed to answer as 21st century people doing re-enactments or if they are supposed to stay in character. Perhaps out of sheer cussedness, I bounce back and forth between addressing them as modern people and as nineteenth century soldiers. This is maybe not the best approach, as I find when I interview ol’ U.S. Grant.
One of the things I wonder about consistently is how one advances among the ranks of the re-enactors—how do you get to be Lincoln or Grant and so on. When I ask Grant about it, it’s clear that he’s not just enthusiastic, he’s genuinely passionate, which is a word that gets thrown about a lot, so I invite you to think about for a second longer than you might normally be inclined to. He is passionate about knowing about Grant and acting as Grant. He tells me that he put in his dues, and when the former Grant retired, he jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps it is because he portrays such a high-level person, but Grant does not seem as eager to teach the way the other re-enactors are. He seems content to just walk around smoking his cigarillo and being an undeniable bad-ass.
My interview with Grant takes a turn south. He seems like an intelligent chap (and he is), and so I think I can coax some humorous answers out of him. (I should have been clued in by the fact that he smoked his cigarillo without compunction among children and journalists alike that he was not exactly the joking sort.) It is around noon when I cheekily ask him how many whiskeys he’s had that day and he tersely informs me that Grant’s drinking problem had resolved itself by the time of the war.
I move to the Confederate camp. To think about the kind of person who willingly joins the losing/racist side is not as interesting as it may seem. For one, the re-enactments simply can’t happen without them. There is also not a single racist among the lot, insofar as my journalistic eye is able to discern them (racists). One reason for joining the Confederacy way well be that their facial hair is simply way pimper than anything the Union is able to muster. When I talk to a young Confederate in his late teens, I ask him why he chose to join up with the South. He explains that you usually join whatever side your ancestors fought for. He doesn’t have any ancestors who fought, and says that he was fascinated by the Confederacy and the fact that it was a country that existed for such a brief stretch of time. I look at him to determine if he’s secretly a racist and my keen eye tells me he’s cool.
One of my friends is too shy to ask a Custer-looking fellow to shoot her, and so I ask on her behalf. He politely declines, stating that there are very strict rules that govern their firearms and that, even without a ball in the chamber, the rifle is still fatal to a distance of six feet.
Earlier I mentioned that an observer could be forgiven for thinking the re-enactment is lame. That only remains true as long as one doesn’t talk to anybody. These men and women are way better than the History Channel. Aside from their depth of knowledge, these people are more passionate about education than any group I’ve ever seen before. One thing they seem intent on getting across is the horrible human tragedy of the war. Though World War I was the first truly modern war, it had its near predecessor in the Civil War in terms of its mechanized waste of life.
At the Confederate weapons table, one fellow walks me through the various shots one could put in a cannon. One of the shots is essentially a cannon-sized shotgun charge that would turn the advancing army into “pink mist,” in the words of one old-timer. All that would be left when the mist cleared would be some boots and tattered clothing and fragments of corpse.
Though the St. Catherine’s Civil War Re-enactment has its share of oddities, the thing that will stick with me most is the story that a historian tells just before the battle starts. The battle is notable because it’s the only one that had child combatants. The boys were only supposed to be there to provide aid to the Confederate troops, fetching them supplies and so forth, but then the battle started to not go so well. The commanding officer, bereft of options, ordered: “Send in the boys, and may God forgive me.” They won the battle, but not without the loss of several boys who died for a country that wouldn’t even be around in a few years’ time.
 The presence of young people at all here is kind of weird. There are several young people involved in the re-enactment, including an apparently-romantic couple who must have interesting dates. My friend tells me he once knew a whole family of re-enactors including a girl who was brought down to the family garage on her sixteenth birthday where her father proudly revealed her present: a working cannon.
 I should mention that I addressed the question to “Grant” and he responded as the actor playing him. (Not to mention the fact that I later found over two internet sources contradicting his claim but ANYWAY…) Come on, general, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
 This guy is clearly a hit and usually has a crowd around him. One of the interesting factoids he drops on us is about his cavalry saber. He explains that you want the saber to be sharp enough to penetrate flesh and muscle, but not sharp enough to cut bone, as it can get stuck in the bone and take you off your horse. You want it to smash the bone, so that it takes the injured fellow out of the battle as well as his two friends who have to pull him off the field. It’s a debilitating weapon and not a killing weapon. If the saber kills him, then that’s only one person out of the fight as opposed to three.
 Another of my favorite characters was a black vendor in the Union Camp who, when asked how his day was going, responded, “I’m working like Lincoln never freed me.”
GRAHAM TOWERS reads the newspaper for the articles.