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Refighting the Civil War, With Government Help

by Lisa A. Bacon

They arrive in hobnail boots and tattered uniforms, lugging vintage rifles and worn blankets, ready to fight.

On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line they come, without hope of winning, without fear of losing. Weekend after weekend, the outcome is always the same as they live out scripts written in another century on the fields of battle.

They do it for the love of Civil War history, the camaraderie, the experience of living in another time. And typically these re-enactors, as they are called, pay for their own period clothing, weapons, food and other needs.

While local governments often accommodate the replaying of the 19th-century battles and skirmishes, it is rare for them to support them financially.

But Jim Campi, policy and communications director for the Civil War Preservation Trust in Washington, and others whose hobbies or professions relate to Civil War history say some of that is changing. "We're on the front end of a trend," Mr. Campi said.

In recent years, local governments around the country have begun providing administrative support or supplementing marketing efforts. Sometimes they have even paid re-enactors to appear at an established event, although that is rare.

Greene County, Va., spent $5,000 for this weekend's re-creation of the Battle of Stanardsville, which scholars and buffs concede was a minor skirmish.

In May, Spotsylvania County, Va., where a two-week series of engagements inflicted 30,000 casualties, underwrote a restaging of the fighting.

"Just a couple of years ago, county government didn't have much interest in history," said Rob Hodge, 37, a 23-year veteran of re-enactments who took part in Spotsylvania County's. Now Mr. Hodge, who was born on Stonewall Jackson's birthday and named for Robert E. Lee, says he senses a new attitude.

Mosheim, Tenn., sponsors a yearly re-enactment of the Battle of Blue Springs, in which 300 soldiers died. And for 10 years, Kentucky's Department of Parks has been the primary sponsor for the Battle of Perryville in that town of 800 residents.

But the size and significance of a battle has little bearing on whether it receives public financing. Twice in the last 10 years, Washington County, Md., has paid for re-creations of the Battle of Antietam, commemorating Lee's first attack north of the Potomac. By comparison, the annual re-enactment of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, is produced privately.

Douglas Barnes, deputy county administrator for Spotsylvania County, said 8,000 to 12,000 visitors watched 4,000 faux soldiers recreate the Battle of Spotsylvania in May, far short of the 20,000 paying visitors needed to cover the $250,000 estimated total expenditures. "We're in the red about $120,000," he said.

But Mr. Barnes said the event was successful in other ways.

"We wanted to bring awareness to our cultural heritage, and we did that," he said, adding that the cost included three commercially produced videos that will be used to market the county to tourists. "I don't think there was ever the feeling that the county lost out."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


New York Times stories by Lisa Antonelli Bacon 

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