My Civil War: Re-enacting in the days of 9/11 

In a way, none of it was real. No one got shot. The stakes of nationhood weren't on the line. But it was real to me

By Dan Johnson

Published May 28, 2017 7:30PM (EDT)

Dan Johnson, age 14, in Staunton, Virginia (Courtesy of the Author)
Dan Johnson, age 14, in Staunton, Virginia (Courtesy of the Author)

Some days I can’t believe it happened.

Now I live 3,000 miles away from the battlefields and small towns I haunted in my youth. I have carefully cultivated a partial fiction of healthy cosmopolitan interests. If only to prove to myself that my excursions into the deepest realms of historical escapism and sensory nostalgia were not permanent.

Yet I would be lying to say that the time I spent re-enacting the Civil War was somehow a limited chapter in my life. This was no mere youthful diversion. “The hobby” was the central facet of my adolescence. I built my identity around it. I learned to stretch my long weekends spent dressed in wool into a full-time fantasy.

I grew up the only child of a deeply religious military family. We had moved eight times by my ninth birthday. I grew weary of being the strange kid, the new kid, the boy who remembered the Gulf War (and its cost), the outsider who tried to be funny to save himself from friendlessness, the child who liked books too much.

Distance, political and geographical, has fractured me from most of my old mess-mates. Many with whom I shared cold nights and warm fires, bread rations and slabs of salt pork, Hardee’s drill and hearty laughs are as ghosts to me now. Living memories replaying endlessly in the sepia margins where my mind wanders in dreams.

In a way, none of it was real. No one got shot. No one died of dysentery. No one withered away in a distant prisoner of war camp. The stakes of nationhood were not on the line.

It was a glorious simulation, a beautiful hyper-reality. One that people have invested the near-entirety of their lives in, not out of cornball devotion but out of a truly desperate need to feel connected to a deep sense of continuity and soul undergirding a modern America that seems so foreign and cold.

It was there in the ranks of my Civil War that I discovered a central truth. Life is absurd; we must learn to enjoy the beautiful amber that coats the fossils of death strewn all around us.

* * *

Pubes. That’s what they called me. Pubes because of my thick curly hair — a feature that despite my utter lack of Semitic heritage gave a number of my co-workers carte blanche to casually call me a few choice slurs. A mere week before and I had been a buck-toothed, pudgy 14-year-old on family vacation wandering around a Jelly Belly factory in Northern California. Now I was sitting in a double room at the Best Inn off of Route 81 in Staunton, Virginia, surrounded by men in sweat-soaked Confederate uniforms.

A janky TV blared with a marathon of VH1’s “Best 100 Videos of All Time.” Through the walls above the bed headboards came a steady, rhythmic pounding from the adjacent room where a sinewy, shifty-eyed chain smoker from North Carolina was marathon fucking his wife. When they found his body beside a gas station less than a year later, no one who knew him would be surprised. Muffled jeers erupted from the other adjacent room every time the next video on the countdown wasn’t “Take On Me.”

Every guest at the Best Inn (except that prostitute who plied her trade in the pool that one afternoon) had two things in common: we were all Civil War re-enactors and we were all temporarily on the dole of Turner pictures.

I had been in Staunton for 48 hours. I already had a bad case of swamp ass and a mean sunburn. It was going to be a fun two weeks.

* * *

Civil War re-enacting is a lot like Boy Scouts. You spend a lot of time outdoors. You learn a tradecraft of camping and survival in both sweltering summer humidity and bitter winter cold. You come prepared. You leave a better person.

There are differences, of course. Instead of breathable cotton shorts and neckerchiefs, you get to wear a uniform of layered wool and leather gear a century and a half out of fashion. Guns are ubiquitous and obsessive safety lectures are often forgone in favor of a “watch and learn” mindset.

No official merit badges are handed out, but kudos are given when you avoid being trampled by a horse, shot accidentally with a ramrod or deafened by the detonation of a pound of black powder wrapped in tinfoil and shoved down the muzzle of a Napoleon howitzer.

While there are no scoutmasters sitting by a wistful campfire at night to teach you the proper way to tie a knot, there is a robust contingent of veterans on hand who are more than willing to tell you about using detonation cord to snap off a VC prisoner’s hand in the back of a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter over a lonely stretch of jungle outside Huey City circa Tet ’68 or what the burning oil fields looked like in the night sky after American armor punched across the Iraqi border in ’91.

I got into the weekend warrior thing when I was a chubby middle schooler forever draped in baggy Led Zeppelin t-shirts. We stumbled on two re-enactors at a diner in Leesburg, Virginia. My mom took me to see the next day’s battle. I was hooked at first sight.

My parents saw the responsibility of taking care of horses in a Union cavalry company as an opportunity to remedy a rash of bad grades and all too frequent trips to the principal’s office. They were right. I shaped up. I poured myself into “the hobby.” I wanted nothing more than to earn the acceptance of the men in my unit. I took a strange, dusty cow path of antiquity toward manhood.

I learned extra special things on that cultural backroad. How to know your socks are on fire when you’ve shoved your frozen feet into a February campfire to regain feeling in your toes. How to avoid getting kicked in the face by a mare at 2 a.m. on a packed picket line. When to engage the drunk Confederates having sex in the communal pile of horse waste. How to appreciate the calluses on a man’s hand as a sigil of hard work.

With kids running around and a prevailing attitude of “just have fun,” mainstream re-enacting could feel more like an extended family camping trip with a bizarre dress code. We packed big tents on company streets around a chuck wagon where a massive man in comically wide blue kersey trousers served up cold cuts and shoofly pie. We kept coolers of beer and soda in our tents. Every now and then someone would bust out a dynamo radio at night to listen to a NASCAR race.

Still, I was a probationary member in a pastoral utopia of armed nostalgia.

When I was 12, I saved up money from my pet-sitting side gig and bought a malnourished, 18-year-old, ex-Amish buggy horse named Tony for two hundred dollars. He was on death’s doorstep. I nursed him back to health. I spent every afternoon shoveling road apples and getting him back in shape. I marked time that winter lugging him peppermint-spiked warm water. By the first event of the next re-enacting season, you could barely tell it was the same Tony. He had a thick coat and an attitude. Old-timers who never before gave me the time of day started offering a few gruff words of semi-support.

I earned my way onto the field for the first time at a parade in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, replicating the famed Grand Review of May 1865. There was no one there to complain about an underage rider, so the captain of my company, a former Air Force door gunner, one hell of a drinker and a world class storyteller named Clifford, let me ride by his side as a flag bearer.

That parade may have been one of the superlative moments of my entire life. I was ecstatic. My dreams of participating in the refought Civil War were realized. Better yet, a much older trooper suffered a total collapse of his nerves during the trot back to camp. His body couldn’t take the punishment of bouncing down a city street. Amidst a shameful avalanche of moans, Clifford had to strap the trooper into the saddle so he wouldn’t slump onto the pavement below.

I felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, a sense of pride in having done something an adult couldn’t. I wanted more.

* * *

You could reasonably expect that the anniversary of the largest battle in the Western hemisphere would be perennially well attended and hot as hell. The good, the bad and the ugly of the Civil War community came out to Gettysburg that year to burn some powder. On the first day, we had a strong turnout. A hefty contingent of Yankee cavalry showed up for a march in column from the re-enactment site a few miles southeast of the town itself to Little Round Top.

A notorious cavalryman rented out an old mare named Annie to a recent enlistee. The mare was short and stocky — maybe 14 hands tall — with a dun coat. She began to shudder and wheeze halfway through the march. The trooper on top of her thought she’d gotten lazy. He spurred her until her legs crumpled. She died there by the side of the road.

The horse’s owner did the unconscionable. It being the first day of a three-day event, he opted to drag her corpse into a horse trailer, where he left it to bake for the rest of the weekend beneath a July sun.

The campfire meeting that night split between the meek and the vengeful. Half the men there wanted to kick the living shit out of the horse’s owner. A handful of others wanted to call the Humane Society. Few could afford the scrutiny of the ASPCA, and the long hand of the law worried others. A compromise was reached.

Clifford and the rest of our boys refused to fall in with the horse killer the next day. We rode off and took the opposite flank of the Federal line during the afternoon scenario, where we ran willingly into a world of hurt.

Even in a war without bullets, mock combat has its casualties.

Confederate infantry formed along the crest of a hill behind a squat stone wall curved to face another stone wall one hundred yards distant, where fast-firing Federals blazed away at them with Sharps’ carbines.

It was the mounted unit’s job to demonstrate with a charge in the crescent of grass between. Not until Clifford and I galloped into the band of turf did we realize it was pockmarked with bowling-ball-sized gopher holes — a lethal hazard to horse and rider.

The horses farther back in the column got the worst of it. Many of the mounts were young and inexperienced. The strain of balancing careful footwork while guns fired toward them and a rider on top belched out fire from a Walker Dragoon or Navy Six single-action pistol was too much.

Behind us, men and equines alike were screaming. In between gunshots we could clearly discern the dull thud of bodies hitting the earth.

I was terrified and out of options. I’d gotten myself this far. There wasn’t enough time to steer Tony around the holes. I slacked the reins, dug my hands into his mane and trusted.

I was lucky. Tony grew up dodging potholes as cars rushed by him on the streets of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He took it in stride. When Clifford and I wheeled around to look at the column behind us, we counted four riderless horses. Grown men I’d seen boasting and cavalierly cantering around the camp were writhing on the ground.

Spectators were cheering wildly. They assumed that men dropping out of saddles in the heat of battle had been a scripted flourish.

When the ambulances left with the fallen men, I got offered my first real job.

* * *

To be fair, I didn’t get hired. The film company offered to pay me three hundred dollars that week for the use of my horse. My position as assistant wrangler was entirely provisional. Still, it was an important opportunity to prove myself and make inroads with the glamour of “Hollywood.” I worked so hard that week that the director of the Discovery Channel “Civil War Combat” episode felt obliged to pay me. Another weird merit badge from my Civil War: underage hard labor guilt.

For a week, Clifford and I lived on four hay bales apiece in the cinder block garage out back of the Daniel Lady Farm on the Hanover Road in Gettysburg. Legend had it that during the battle, Lee himself slept in the farmhouse. The house became an impromptu operating room. An adjacent barn was the convalescence room where recent amputees could stare out the window at a stack of hacksawed appendages eight feet high.

I saw things that week I will never forget: a backyard clothesline hanging thick with Civil War clothing above a carpet of spent shell casings from some unseen AK-47 free-fire fest; a swarm of ground bees lending legitimacy to a shot of actors pretending to writhe with fake wounds on the slopes of Little Round Top; a re-enactor supervisor declaring his unabated hatred for “that pinko FDR;” an enchanted evening spent catching fireflies beneath a pristine night sky; disembodied screams emanating from the locked and unoccupied barn; Clifford and another Vietnam vet glassy-eyed, weighing the merits of Charlie’s combat prowess; a prevalent stench familiar to those who have gone a week or more without bathing; an actor soiling himself in the saddle when a bold young gelding named Rummy (Clifford liked to name his colts after booze) took off with him; me slinking away from a campfire n-word chorus before the members of an ad-hoc Klan meeting saw how curly my hair was.

Clifford was not exactly a sympathetic boss. He demanded hard work, which itself demanded an ability to clarify his vague and often shouted commands. He pushed me to my emotional brink. On day six he realized I’d reached my 14-year-old breaking point. He loaded me into his perpetually malfunctioning Ford International Diesel and took me to East Cavalry Field, where Stuart and Custer and Hampton fought. Then he bought me a sandwich at the diner on Gettysburg’s central traffic circle. It was his gruff way of showing kindness.

* * *

The shower I took upon arriving home after a week spent without running water was one for the record books. The runoff spiraled with a sooty mix of caked-on Adams County dirt and the occasional tick. When I looked at myself in the mirror afterwards, I saw an unfamiliar face — leaner frame, sharper eyes.

All 14-year-olds have, by that point in their lives, endured at least 728 weeks, but how many can look back at one and know instinctively that those seven days were the razor’s edge between child and adult?

I spent the rest of the summer riding obsessively. I mowed five acres of pasture with a push weed whacker every other week. I waited out black-sky Virginia thunderstorms beneath the eaves of a two-stall run-in. I threw stacked hay bales. I lived in the surreal center pocket of a Venn diagram that bridged modern suburbia with a visceral atavism.

In late August, I spent a week on family vacation in Northern California. After a summer spent sweating profusely in the company of high-strung, gun-toting American Civil War enthusiasts, the gentle zephyrs of the Bay and the relative warmth of the average Californian were shocking. It was psychedelic in the most basic of ways — a mind-expanding litany of new and pleasant sensations that shocked a system of thought temporarily divorced from its ordinarily harsh context. It was paradise. It was terrifying.

I yearned for balmy nights, the rattle of approaching musketry, the bliss of exertion.

* * *

Three days after I’d stuffed my face with garlic fries during a windswept Giants game (they won, by the way), I was standing at attention beneath a cruel August sun on the lawn of a superlatively shitty motel in Virginia. Abreast of me were 50 fellow re-enactors, the first iteration of the “Core Company” of hired military background artists who would fill in the key extra positions on a film called "Gods and Generals."

It was like a paramilitary summer camp. We fell into ranks first thing in the morning for roll call. We marched. We fell out for meals. We fell back in and drilled more. At the end of the day we fell out and reassembled in a neighboring apple orchard where half of us took goggles and a handful of crab apples while the other half slung bootleg paintball guns. We played war in our time off from playing war.

The closest we came to a father figure was our company commander, a re-enactor coordinator whose most auspicious traits were leftovers from his long stint as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor. We were all relatively safe so long as we stayed on his good side. You had to look elsewhere if you wanted compassion.

I gravitated toward a group of older re-enactors who were in a realm of their own. They were lanky and grizzled. Scarecrows with long beards and amazingly authentic uniforms I’d never seen for sale anywhere because they’d made many of the items themselves.

They took me under their wing. They taught me about gear and infantry drill and first-person accounts of combat and a host of other anachronistic nitpicks I’d never been conscious of before. They were my gateway into a world of hardcore re-enacting that would take me deeper than ever before into a hobby that delighted in dissolving boundaries of perception.

From before dawn to after dusk we lived in a 2001 simulacrum of the Civil War in which we suffered in a meager, playground way that paled in comparison to the men we were portraying. We shot the breeze. We shot blank rounds. We shot a movie. We got drunk on the two most enchanting fictions of our day and age: historical nostalgia and the glitter of Hollywood, however ugly and untrue each was.

* * *

My first day back at school was Sept. 10, 2001. I went from being a soldier in a fictional approximation of a long-defunct 19th-century army to being a boy in a 20th-century educational system. At home my time was much more my own, but my status had been greatly diminished to that of a child. A teacher welcomed me back to the “real world” even though everything about a return to supposed adolescent normalcy felt unnatural.

I first saw footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on the cafeteria TVs. In the days after, I sat in my parents’ house watching moribund repetitions of structural collapse, airport security checkpoint footage and the omnipresent tears of victims’ families. The high-pitched roar of combat air patrols replaced the regular wash of passenger jet noise from planes landing at nearby Dulles Airport.

The world of the dot-com suburbs was in a state of flux. A promising future braided with the trappings of supposed progress threatened to unravel in the face of the new national pastime -- brooding paranoia. In a time when nobodies from half a world away can fly planes into skyscrapers unimpeded, anything is possible. The lucrative undergirding of Pax Americana was suddenly in question.

There was a certain feeling of entrenchment in the re-enacting community that fall. We hobby soldiers did in literal what the rest of the country did in abstract — we dug into the bedrock of national mythos. It’s an age-old remedy in times of fear and insecurity. We sought our deliverance in the calm certitude of the past. Rarely is that enough.

As the world around me changed, re-enacting became an all-important excavation. I built a system of spiritual trenches to safeguard a comforting idea of history. I wasn’t alone. Far from it. The harder I dug, the more I found like-minded pseudo-soldiers doing the same.

I linked up with others in a vast labyrinth of breastworks cut into the loam of Americana to protect us from a future more intimidating than any of us could have imagined then.

Dan Johnson

Born in Virginia and raised wherever the Navy saw fit to send his family, Dan Johnson currently plies his trade as a writer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the LA Times, LA Weekly and LA Downtown News. Dan's weekly 8.72 (via Get Down Town) column focusing on cheap eats and culture in Downtown Los Angeles has just been released as a print anthology. Elsewhere, his "Old Dominion in Song" essay series on Virginia history and popular music can be found online at Pop Matters. In his spare time, Dan is the creator and administrator behind The Skid Row Reader, an experimental textbook geared toward adult literacy programs on Downtown's Skid Row. You can catch up with him online at

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