Reenacting the First Battle of Bull Run

26 Jul

Ladies and gentlemen, I have promised you epicness and I now bring you epicness.   Straight from the 1860’s. This past weekend, while nestled in the historic bosom of Manassas, Virginia, I proudly reenacted the First Battle of Bull Run.

Happy Lollipop Tuesday, ya’ll.

Getting into formation before heading out to the battlefield in the sweltering heat. Like this group, many chose to don the complete uniforms in spite of allowances made by the organizers for the elimination of jackets, gloves, and a variety of equipment.

It all started when a loyal reader casually mentioned her long and lustrous history of reenactment.  For those of you who are lost, reenactors are folks to trot from one famous battleground to another to reenact a historical event that took place there many year prior.  They don the clothes, they sleep in tents, and even the greenest of them know more about history than your high school teacher.  In fact, many of them can tell the story of a battle in such interesting and tremendous detail that it makes you want to be a history teacher.

Apparently, my reader has been donning crotchless pantaloons (and a host of other period-accurate items) since high school and wanted to share her joy with me.  And as if that weren’t enough, she also suggested I apply for a media pass on the grounds that I was covering it for my blog.

And to my surprise, it worked.

I drove in the evening before to get the lay of the land and conduct an “interview” with my friend.  I donned a dress with my bright red magical media lanyard sticking out like a sore thumb and in the parking lot stumbled upon a group of rowdy men in camping chairs, drinking beer.  I walked past and gave it a moment – considering the power of my magic lanyard, and whipped back around to actually, well, interview someone.  Without the quotation marks.

They greeted me happily with a camping chair and a beer – which in any other scenario I might have declined but I was on official business.  And if I had to stomach a can of fizzy urine to have an experience, then by golly I was going to make that the best damn beer of my life.  I asked them what reenacting was all about, what brought them there, and things like there they got their uniforms.  Out of respect for their privacy and for what they shared with me I shan’t go into further detail.  But suffice it to say they were a wonderful group of fellas who gave me my first glimpse into what an interesting mix of fun and sincerity goes into the life of a reenactor.   When I parted, I left them a bottle of Brandy for their troubles and decided that I had experienced something fantastic that weekend even if all the rest was a bust.

A reenactor in full uniform takes his horse to practice maneuvers with a view of the Union camp behind.

Which it wasn’t.

Because the next day when I walked onto the battleground, I was greeted by horses, muskets, canteens, and wool uniforms on every lad and lass in spite of the ridiculous death-taunting heat index.  Make no mistake: these people aren’t joking around.  One man brought his 2-week-old baby along.  (Fear not – rumor in the Union camp was that they were harboring a small AC unit in their tent for moments of dire need.)

As with any Lollipop Tuesday, I tried to get as involved as possible.  So when my reader offered a pair of crotchless pantaloons, a modesty skirt, a full button-up dress, and told me she could get me onto the battlefield if I donned them all and followed her command, I giggled like a little schoolgirl.

To be frank, it was awesome.  The entire thing.  With over 8,000 registrants, what could have been better than standing in the battlefield with the Pennsylvania Artillery as they rallied the horses to pull the canons forward, cried havoc, and let loose the dogs of war?  As they pushed their way farther onto the field and gun powder and dust overran them, I made my way  over to the official spectators area to see the fruits of their labor.

And my heart sank.

I saw real gunpowder, real formations, real charges, and real horses.  I saw men fire guns and others fall to the ground.  And while I knew it wasn’t real because I was just having a beer with those men or laughing as they shoved ice in their hats to fight the heat, I couldn’t ignore the fact that not long ago, men gathered on these fields to fight for something far bigger than themselves.  And when it was over, they did not retire to their tents to talk about what a good time it was or drive home to air conditioning, or – in most cases – get to rise from the battlefield and brush themselves off.  That’s what brought people from all over the world and the United States to reenact the 150th Anniversary this past weekend.  In fact, some of them took it upon themselves to represent a member of their own family who lost their lives that day in Manassas.

And even after the camaraderie, the thrill of a new experience, and a beer enjoyed with a great group of men, that realization is one that quiets my soul. 

To see professional photographs of this event, consider viewing the Richmond Times-Dispatch album here.  Their photographer, Kevin Morley, did a fine job of capturing the weekend.

18 Responses to “Reenacting the First Battle of Bull Run”

  1. Ro July 26, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    That’s awesome, Jackie. Next stop, Gettysburg?


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

      Actually, a lot of folks asked me if I’d be there in 2013. I think it’d be amazing, but who knows. 🙂


  2. egills July 26, 2011 at 9:17 am #

    I must admit I normally have a lump in my throat at events like that. But I really do love attending them! Here in Bath we have a Jane Austen week where poeple come from all over the world to do walks etc all in full period dress, it’s a sight to behold.

    Lol one of my friends is so into these things he even goes off on role play weekends – he’s off to do a zombie weekend soon.


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

      How cool! There’s a Charles Dickens Festival I went to once that was much the same – and man am I a sucker for Ren Faires 🙂


  3. Sonja July 26, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    Kudos to you Jackie!! This might be my favorite Lollipop Tuesday.

    Several years ago, I went to Antietam. It was so eery to walk the battlefield, knowing what had happened there so long ago. That was better than any history lesson I ever had in school. It left quite an impression on my sons as well.


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

      It’s really quite chilling to look over battlefields and imagine what happened there. To have people act it out for you so convincingly is a whole other level.


  4. Lori July 26, 2011 at 9:30 am #

    What a wonderful write-up! It sounds like you had an awesome experience. I always thought that reenactments were absurd and embraced only by those who refer to the civil war as “The War of Northern Aggression” (yes – some people do still refer to it as this; ask Kendall – she’s from Georgia). Thanks for putting it into perspective for me.

    I’m still amazed that so many people turned out in that heat. Kudos to them, and you.


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

      Yeah I believe you. There really are folks who do it for a variety of reasons. While I was there, I was told of a kid’s parent going into their school to complain to the teacher that her daughter was being taught that Abe Lincoln was President when it was actually Jefferson Davis.

      Which, to be fair, is also true. Winners write history. 🙂


  5. The_Observationalist_NYC July 26, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    This is actually more than awesome… It’s too early for me to think of the right adjective; but this HAS to take the cake.


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

      haha I’m glad you approve 🙂


  6. lexy3587 July 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    wow… that sounds like so much fun!


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

      It was a blast! …no artillery pun intended…


  7. pegoleg July 26, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    What a great, great experience! I’m so proud of you for doing this, crotchless pantaloons and all. (I couldn’t help but notice you mentioned those a couple of times.)


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

      They really are the sexiest part of the 19th century.


  8. Patrick Browne July 26, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    This is a really nice summary of why reenactors do what we do. Thanks. Not the beer part. 😉 But the whole concept of reminding people that the stuff from history books was real and should not be forgotten. I was there, sweating it out in wool, and had a great time.


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

      I really didn’t expect for it to touch me the way it did. I was honored to be there. Thanks for all that you do to give that experience to others as well. 🙂


  9. knotrune July 27, 2011 at 4:59 am #

    Either there are more of us than I thought or your blog attracts a disproportionate amount of re-enactors! 🙂 I travel to a rather earlier time, medieval and Viking Age. As you discovered, it is the moments where the curtain of time briefly parts and you get a glimpse, a feeling of the reality of the past, of real people who lived those events, who may even be your own ancestors. Brilliant! 😀


    • Jackie July 27, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

      How cool! I had no idea how many folks do it until I saw the stats for the registrants.


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