Lonely Planet Writer

How do Battle Re-enactors Decide Who Dies First?


If you're at all me, you've spent a life of sleepness nights burning with the immortal question: at battle re-enactments, who dies first? Are newbloods asked to shed theirs as the cannonballs begin to fly? Or do those tardy with dues drop early? Or is it just the unlucky, the worn out, or -- after a few days camping in a hot summer -- the stinky?

Last month, I attended the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Gettsyburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, to find out. I wasn't sure how I'd be received. At an open field a few miles from the actual field, I joined hundreds of troops in gray and blue, and as many observers drinking cold lemonade, shopping for hats and toy rifles, or listening to period music played under field tents. A historian from the nearby Gettysburg National Military Park -- which is wonderful to visit -- translated the scene of rows of soldiers on horseback tangled in sword clash and fake gunpowder from rifle shots. "There's much confusion out there."

As an Okie with a few Confederate swords in my family's collective attic, I gravitated towards the southern campsite between a couple skirmishes on the last of the three-day event. And I was surprised to hear half hailed from north of the Mason Dixon Line.

A younger northern re-enactor assumed the character of "Harrison Reed," who left his family in Albany to fight in gray. "I haven't spoken to them since '61," he said squinting into mid-day sun. One goateed dad (there were many) from upstate New York, Todd Smith, said he sided with the south because "they're more fun." His 12-year-old would be carrying the colors into a Pickett's Charge later that day, he said proudly despite both of their low chance of survival. (The Confederates saw high casualties in that disastrous attack.)

Everyone was united in why they were doing it -- for the bond with each other ("it's like a camping trip," one said; another: "you should hear the stories around the campfire at night") and more importantly a deep respect for military, past and present.

Patrick Jones, from Virginia, has been doing this for 10 years "to celebrate my three ancestors who fought for the south, and honor all those who gave their lives for what they thought was right." Did his ancestors die during the war? "No. One disappeared though," he said laughing. "And one finally surrendered two months after the war was over."

And in terms of how they pick who dies? Here's the confusing clarity:

One re-enactor suggested I could get started for "about $1000" -- that is if I wanted the full regalia and a big tent, all period-piece style. "We're everywhere, groups like us. Let me know and I'll hook you up." I might.