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Tim Rowland - Re-enactment presents an all-too-real history lesson

September 13, 1997

As a re-enactment, it was horrifyingly realistic. Ninety minutes of white-smoke, ear-smacking fury unleashed by thousands of men, joined to commemorate the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam with blue or gray wool and black powder.

In what can only be described as the world's noisiest history lesson, Antietam's tragic truths were pounded home. First, the blue seemed to have such power in numbers I began to think there was no way they could even pretend to lose.

Their deployments were beautiful to watch. Columns of dark blue uniforms, crisply clicking into their places on the line like pegs into a cribbage board. So perfect, until it all fell apart at the hands of the rag-tag Rebs - fell apart because of foolish advancements, unprotected flanks and a final, crushing right hook from A.P. Hill, resplendent in his scarlet battle shirt and coal-black beard and hat.

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What a vivid extravaganza.

And the camps: There hasn't been this much canvas in one place since the Spanish Armada. Acres and acres of rolling meadowlands spotted with rows of triangular white pup tents, home to a city of re-enactors the size of Martinsburg.

Let your eyes mist over a bit and it's all too easy to see the angles of the tents go round and picture them devolving into fields of white-columned tombstones, lasting monuments to the real soldiers who stalked these grounds 135 years ago.

Yikes, spooky.

It's only a movie, it's only a movie. It's only a re-enactment, it's only a re-enactment.

But when the artistic descendants of A.P. Hill came roaring out of a sunken dell wearing their pride and tattered gray wool on their sleeves and sliced into the soft flank of a dumbfounded Union advance - well, I was just happy I had my bag of fresh-popped, lightly glazed popcorn clutched to my chest as a reminder that it was all an act.

I'd purchased the delicious popcorn at the "sutler's camp," sutler being a 19th century word meaning "ancestor of the T-shirt and sunglasses shops."

There dozens of tents with period-costumed hawkers selling everything from hoop skirts to rum-dipped cigars. I had hoped to profit from this re-enactment myself, but my book about squash production in the Civil War - I call it "Gourds and Generals" - didn't hit the press in time.

There was even a sutler's tent selling sundries that had a chicken tethered below a sign that, I swear, said "Caution, dangerous chicken." This was starting to get surreal.

By Friday, we got our press orientations and I was checking out the re-enactment chat rooms on the Internet (which was known during the Civil War by the 19th century word "Entrails") and it was apparent this was going to be big.

The media crews showed us all the thoughtful attention to detail that had been paid to the site, including split rails and straw over the fire hydrants, because that is the way people hid their fire hydrants in 1862. They were also waging war against the groundhogs, plugging the holes that can stop a man as effectively as a cannon canister.

Antietam, of course, had no clear winner, basically because political consultant Dick Morris was born 100 years too late. He could have taken either side and spun a plausible argument for victory. (It's not a "retreat" it's a "planned, cooperative advance inconsistent with the direction of the enemy.")

But Saturday had plenty of winners: The throngs of people fortunate enough to view this amazing spectacle and the incredible wave after wave of re-enactors who stepped back into time to commemorate the horror of this nation's darkest day.

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