Mock me if you will, but for several summers during my college years, I was a Civil War reenactor, proudly serving with the 64th Illinois Infantry. I spent a number of weekends dressing up as a soldier, camping out, having mock gun fights to the delight of audiences, and generally geeking out on all things historical. Some of the greatest (and not-so greatest) moments of my life occurred in the camps and on the “battlefields.”
I recall one particular battle where I briefly (and unexpectedly) found myself the darling of some very vigilant spectators. On a warm Saturday afternoon in a large field somewhere on the outskirts of the Chicagoland suburban sprawl, I, and my comrades in arms, lined up with a number of other Union regiments; at the opposite end of the field stood the ranks of the motely Confederate army. As it happened on that fateful day, I was placed at the very end of our battle line (what we armchair historical experts call “the flank”). Despite my perilous position, I had no fear of the Rebels getting around me because I was strong, courageous…and thoroughly protected by the roped-off audience members crowding a few feet away from me. Normally, I never paid attention to the spectators. Even as close as I was to them, once the battle began, I was in the zone.
At about the midway point of the “battle,” with men falling all about me, I pointed my loaded musket toward the general direction of the Confederate line and fired.
At this point I should explain that typically during smaller events, reenactors are only provided with a very general battle plan. We are told which side will win, and what the basic troop movements are. Everything else, such as if you are killed, wounded or survived the battle, was more or less spontaneous. It was during one of those unplanned moments, that a Rebel reenactor standing directly across the field from me, reacted to my random shot and dropped dead, almost as if we had coordinated it. The crowd (possibly believing that we had) roared with delight.
“Woooo! Do you see that?” someone shouted. “He killed that Rebel!”
And the audience cheered…me.
Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I then decided to up the ante. After letting a few minutes go by, I dramatically reeled from a shot and fell dead. As I had hoped, the crowd reacted with commiserating dismay.
“They killed him!”
“Man, I thought he was going to make it.”
I lay, face-down on the ground, hiding my smile and soaking up the adulation. As the audience murmured about my sad fate, the battle continued, drifting up the field. I listened intently for the end of the fight, after which would come “the resurrection,” when all the wounded and slain soldiers would rise up to the applause of the audience. With fewer and fewer men left fighting, the sounds of gunfire grew more and more sporadic as the action continued to move away from me. Finally, the popping of the muskets stopped altogether…or so I thought.
I popped my head up to look around.
Alas, the battle wasn’t over.
“Hey!” several members of the crowd shouted and pointed in my direction. “He’s not dead!”
The audience reception to my sudden restoration was rather lukewarm. I tried to make the best of it, pretended I was grievously wounded to play upon their sympathy, but the damage had been done. I had given them something to cheer for, pulled at their heartstrings with a beautifully tragic ending…and then killed the magic by my impetuosity.
Such are the fortunes of war.