The call to ARMS Columbia's Brad Calhoun was worried. Would he have the makings of an ersatz Civil War soldier? At a rookie re-enactor's camp, he would take his best shot -- sort of.

October 24, 1998|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

To my dearest, brave war hero,

I send you all my love -- to my one true sweetheart. Thanks for protecting our family, our land and our great nation. Everyone here is so very proud of you. You are so brave!

-- Janet Calhoun to her husband, Pvt. Brad Calhoun, Company C, 7th West Virginia Regiment, Union Army Brad Calhoun's radio is willfully set to a classical music station. An Ansel Adams print pretties his living room wall. A living room. What is that? And the sofa, it's soft and bloodless.

Hey, soldier, you think they had classical music and living rooms and sofas at Gettysburg? Ansel Adams never photographed a battlefield, now did he?

You tell me you live in Columbia? Where and what is that? About that dog. Nice dog, Alex is the name. But you think they named dogs Alex during the War Between the States? Should have named your dog Jeb, or Pickett, or Beauregard.

A good thing you signed up for camp, a four-day, $985 camp called "Civil War Adventures." It's for folks like you -- 37 years old, all shy on the outside, an electrical engineer for the Department of Defense, somebody who one day just might become a hard-core Civil War re-enactor. You, Brad Calhoun, can pretend to be shot and left for dead. And stand guard. And not shave. Not even (heaven help him) pick up a newspaper all weekend.

"I feel like a new recruit, and I just want to measure up," says Calhoun, the day before he leaves Columbia for camp. "The Civil War is such a fascinating time ... the fact men would line up and just pummel each other. Would I have had the guts to stand there and have people shoot at me?"

Calhoun has something to prove, or maybe he's looking to test himself. "I think," says his wife, Janet, "this was something he needed to try."

Calhoun had watched from the sidelines in July, when 15,000 re-enactors staged the Battle of Gettysburg on the 135th anniversary of what's considered the greatest battle fought on this hemisphere. The event nearly moved him to take up arms himself.

"I don't think you'd describe me as a Civil War fanatic," he says. "I think this weekend is to decide whether I could become one."

On a Thursday morning in mid-October, the electrical engineer reports (early) to camp near Winchester, Va., southwest of Hagerstown. He parks his Jeep Grand Cherokee and surrenders his suburban life for a fall weekend -- circa 1863. Based on his philosophical bent, Calhoun chooses a Union uniform: wool pants, suit coat, cap, braces, boots and a haversack for carrying rations.

In short order, Pvt. Brad Calhoun is sworn in, taught to salute, ordered not to make eye contact with officers and learns to keep his uniform buttoned at all times.

Before he hugs Janet and pats Alex goodbye, he agrees to act as a field correspondent. As he heads into the encampment on a 60-acre farm in West Virginia, he tucks a notebook into his haversack.

Oct. 8 -- First Day.

After all recruits had arrived we began learning the basics of formation and marching. ... All the veteran soldiers introduced themselves. Feeling caught up in the moment, I quickly developed a life story. I said I had aspirations of being a writer and thus intended to keep a journal about my war experiences ...

-- Pvt. B. Calhoun

One hundred and thirty-three years after the fact, the Civil War has become one of the hottest games going. If men aren't golfing or computering, they're picking up single-shot, muzzle-loading reproduction Enfield rifles and forming companies, gnawing at hardtack, swapping prisoners and listening to some fiddle-playing corporal around the campfire. Women and kids play, too.

They rise and shine to fife and drum, form skirmish lines on make-believe battlegrounds, and stay in "first-person" all weekend. The present is forbidden. Talk is of Lincoln, not Lewinsky. Grant may be an embarrassment to the country, but not Clinton. Say you're from Ellicott City? You mean Ellicott Mills, as it was called last century, right?

"You wouldn't bring up the Atlanta Braves," says Bill Holschuh, publisher of the Ohio-based Camp Chase Gazette, the official magazine for Civil War re-enactors. His magazine lists more than 300 re-enactments a year, such as those held recently at Taneytown and Boonsboro. Holschuh figures as many as 40,000 people call themselves re-enactors.

"We don't know why it's so popular," says Holschuh. "I was a Civil War buff and avid reader. It seemed re-enactment took it to the next level -- closer to the experience." But he's since retired from full-time re-enacting.

"Re-enactors have the average career of a [National Football League] running back -- about five years," Holschuh says.

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