A century and a half after the first major battle of the U.S. Civil War, thousands of soldiers in 19th century uniforms once again faced each other across a field in Manassas, Virginia, 50 kilometers south of Washington.
Not even extreme heat was enough to keep the re-enactors from recreating a pivotal point in American history.
Long lines of soldiers marched across the field, white smoke filling the air as they aimed their muskets and fired. On one side, dressed mostly in blue, were the federal or Union troops. On the other, dressed mostly in grey, were the Confederates, from the southern states that had broken from the union.
“This is my duty and responsibility. I’m a Virginian and I think it is important to share and tell about the history,” says Robert Brown, 57. His ancestors were Confederate soldiers, and he feels he is representing them and what they fought for.
“This war was about political freedom, less government," Brown says. "They wanted to be out of the hands of the federal government."
He says soldiers on both sides, "fought for a cause they believed in. I’m sure it was hot back then, but they were willing to do that, because they believed in a cause they were willing to give their life for.”
Keven Pallett is also representing three members of his family who fought in the war. And like them, he crossed the Atlantic from England to participate.
Even though Pallett’s ancestors were among the more than 50,000 Britons who fought for the Union, for this re-enactment Pallett is a Confederate soldier.
“If you want to re-enact, you join your local unit. The area that I live in, which is on the South Coast, there are just Confederate units so you join the local unit.”
Pallett, Brown and the thousands of other re-enactors arrived one or two days before the battle.
They set up camp in nearby fields, pitching white canvas tents, and making them as homey as possible, with chairs or camp stools, trunks and tables or just a bedroll to stretch out on at night.
For some, like 56-year-old Keith Murray, from Maryland, re-enacting is above all a social gathering. “It’s enjoyable, the camaraderie of meeting the guys from the unit and coming out and living the life of the 19th century. Some of the battles you can almost feel like you are there.”
Almost, but not quite. With high-tension electric wires in the background, more than 10,000 spectators on bleachers and a voice on the loudspeaker pointing out different aspects of the battle, it is clear that this is not the 19th century.
And with few people willing to lie on the ground to simulate the dead and wounded, even the simulation of casualties is gone from this reenactment.
In July 1861, more than 60,000 troops fought at Manassas. Nearly 5,000 died in this first major land battle of the war, which resulted in a Confederate victory.
“It is often referred to as the end of innocence,” says Ed Clark, superintendant of Manassas National Battlefield Park.
“Manassas really changed the way the country looked at what was in front of them. Prior to first Manassas, both sides thought it would be quick and relatively bloodless, and what occurred down here on the plains of Manassas really woke the country up.”
For the re-enactment, more than 6500 people took part, even though it meant braving searing heat. While Clark understands that a lot of people connect to Civil War history through re-enactments, he fears they don’t get a complete picture of the war.
“They really don’t show the horrors of warfare. Also, re-enactments portray a one-dimensional view of what is going on. There is so much more going on at the time of the Civil War, way beyond the battlefield, the home front, experiences of different immigrant groups and African Americans that aren’t played out in reenactments.”
The Manassas battle, staged twice over the weekend, was the first of several big re-enactments planned for the next four years to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Many of those who came for this one, will be at those as well.