FORT SUMTER NATIONAL MONUMENT, S.C. — For thousands of Civil War re-enactors, the next four years are a chance to capitalize on the public’s curiosity about a century-old hobby that demands such attention to detail that the fights seem almost real.
The die-hards converging soon at the site where the War Between the States began 150 years ago with a Confederate artillery barrage on Union-held Fort Sumter can’t wait to help others understand why they spend weekends tramping through the rain, sleeping in tents in snow-covered fields, cooking on open campfires and enduring mock battles in wool coats under the hot Southern sun.
They’re expecting a surge of interest in a pastime that has roots at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, when Confederate veterans retraced Pickett’s Charge. Re-enacting took hold for good five decades ago during the Civil War’s centennial.
“The 150th cycle is going to be great. It’s going to bring us some new re-enactors and it’s going to bring a lot of attention and publicity,” said Reece Sexton, publisher of the Civil War Courier newspaper and two companion magazines considered bibles by enthusiasts.
“The hobby is not going to die. It does need some new blood.”
There is no nationwide association for re-enactors, but Sexton estimates as many as 50,000 take part at least occasionally. An estimated 1,000 re-enactors will be in Charleston, S.C., for the festivities surrounding the April 12, 1861 attack on Fort Sumter, the first shots of the war. Organizers will explode a starburst shell over the fort, signaling re-enactors manning some 30 cannons ringing the harbor to begin a 30-minute barrage.
Sexton expects up to 12,000 re-enactors in Virginia for the 150th anniversary of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, in July.
But the capstone will come in 2013, when the Gettysburg anniversary could draw as many as 25,000 re-enactors and four times that many spectators to the fields of Pennsylvania.
There are re-enactments yearly of many major Civil War battles and of numerous smaller skirmishes at locations near the battlefields. None is permitted on the actual battlegrounds.
But the next four years will be special.
“Among a lot of re-enactors I’m talking to, this is it. This is the anniversary they have been waiting for,” said George Wunderlich, a re-enactor and executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.
Interest in re-enacting has ebbed and flowed over the decades.
“You get the Ken Burns series on the Civil War coming out and everyone wants to be a re-enactor. Then it ebbed.” said Mike Stivers of Summerville, S.C., who has been re-enacting more than 10 years.
There was renewed interest in the early 2000s when the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was raised and “now with the 150th, you’re going to have another resurgence,” Stivers said.
The 150th anniversary will expose even more people to the war, just as the centennial was a chance to educate young people half a century ago, said Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park.
“I know a lot of people who tell me when they first got interested in the Civil War, it was because they were here in 1963,” Lawhon said.
For Wayne Jones, of Aiken, S.C. — who portrays Confederate Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart — bringing history alive for kids is a big part of the excitement surrounding the sesquicentennial.
“It’s a chance for us to teach by giving people a real opportunity to use their five senses to understand,” he said.
For re-enactors, the hobby isn’t cheap. A replica musket jackets, pants, brogans and shirts can easily cost $1,400. That’s for a basic kit. It’s more if you portray an officer or a Calvary soldier, or if you are in the artillery and have to buy a cannon.
Civil War supplies can be had online or from merchants who sell items to soldiers in the field at re-enactments.
“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of time, but it’s something you really have a love for,” said David Coon of Aiken, S.C., a re-enactor for 16 years.