Chancellorsville's snowy reprise

Re-enactment: Blizzard notwithstanding, orders are orders in New York's Central Park.

February 23, 2003|By James Barron | James Barron,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- I was the first Confederate to die in the Battle of Central Park. At least, I think I was.

I was just doing what I had been ordered to do -- hit the ground and play dead the moment the other side started firing. The other side was a line of Union uniforms with muskets and flags and earplugs and cell phones. We were a line of Confederate uniforms with muskets and flags and earplugs and cell phones.

The idea was to re-enact the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Civil War engagement known as Gen. Robert E. Lee's greatest victory. Never mind that the actual battle was fought in a dense forest in Virginia in April and May, not on an open field in New York City in February.

And never mind that the biggest blizzard in seven years had bullied its way across the city less than 48 hours before we took our positions in the East Meadow, at 99th Street and Fifth Avenue. That was 19.8 inches of snow for us to march around in.

This battle had been arranged by Warner Brothers to publicize the opening of the film Gods and Generals. So this faux battle had things that the real Chancellorsville did not have: a green room where stars of the film could wait while we did our drills; portable toilets; even Al Roker doing the weather for the "Today" show with soldiers in the background.

A volunteer

I had volunteered to play Confederate soldier for a day, the "fresh fish" in a company that gets together regularly at mock battles. Our company -- modeled on an infantry unit from the Army of Northern Virginia -- included a nuclear physicist, a plumber, a home-improvement contractor, a Vietnam veteran, a musician who was on "The Gong Show" in the 1970s, and three women.

To look like one of them, I had borrowed a uniform: a blue tunic that had been stolen from the body of a Union soldier, or so I was told; a private's cap; scratchy wool pants with suspenders; and brogans, steel-heeled shoes that turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. Of course, they were two sizes too large, but that was about right for someone who was wearing three pairs of heavy socks.

I hoped that the company would not mind the $200 worth of modern ski-shop underwear that I bought on Tuesday, or the two undershirts and the cashmere sweater that I was wearing for extra warmth.

But some of my fellow soldiers had greater concerns about authenticity. After all, we were more than 250 miles from the glorious battlefield. "This is Hollywood, it's not re-enacting," said Joseph Habermann, a home-improvement contractor from Washingtonville, N.Y.

And it was Hollywood. We traveled in ways the soldiers in "Cold Mountain" or "The Red Badge of Courage" never did.

`Advance by bus'

"Confederates advance by bus," Michael Callaghan, a respiratory therapist from Floral Park, Queens, joked as we climbed aboard at 6 a.m. Paid for by Warner Brothers, it picked us up at a Midtown garage where Warner had offered free parking to soldiers who do not live in Manhattan.

On the bus, and later between drills on our snowy battlefield, I had time to ask the inevitable question of my fellow Confederate soldiers: Why? Why take part in battles like this one, and why be on the Southern side?

Some wanted to transcend their 21st-century lives and careers that have not led to the top. Some made their choice the moment they opened that first history book in school.

Some simply like lost causes or, as George S. Bateman, the company's captain, put it, "fighting for the underdog, I guess." He does not mind being a Rodney Dangerfield of re-enactment. "We get booed and hissed upon quite often," he said. "People feel that flag represents slavery and hatred, which it doesn't."

In fact, this company says it is politically correct. "You won't find any racists in this group," said Bill Helmstetter, a high school history teacher from Plainfield, N.J. "We run them out. We don't want them."

Interpreting history

David L. Goliger of Baldwin, N.Y., echoed this in describing an incident on the way home from a re-enactment in Maryland. He was pulled over by a man who had noticed a bumper sticker with a Confederate flag on Goliger's car.

"He invites me to a cross-burning," Goliger said. "Little does he know, for starters, that I'm Jewish."

And then there are those in the company who draw a distinction between the cause that the Confederates fought for and the way they conducted themselves in battle. "I'm not standing up for slavery, I'm standing up for the Southern army, which fought honorably," Hernandez said.

I had more personal reasons for joining the Southern side. A distant relative was an aide to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate hero early in the war. Another relative signed South Carolina's ordinance of secession, as I learned when I was 5 and my mother showed me a coffee table book called "Meet Mr. Lincoln." The ordinance filled a whole page, and I read every signature until I found the name that was like mine -- the last one, A.I. Barron.

The Central Park re-enactment would have been a bigger adventure if our company had brought along its artillery. Mount Sinai Medical Center, which looms over the East Meadow, vetoed the cannons, said Goliger, the company's main organizer.

And some old-timers in our company saw tougher fighting in Virginia when scenes for Gods and Generals were being filmed (and the temperature was in the 90s). But it was hard enough slogging through about-faces and company-rights -- who cares if it looked as if we were duckwalking in so much snow?

The carnage in the Battle of Central Park was bloodless -- no one broke open red dye capsules to make our wounds look real. After a while, the shooting stopped, and we were once again just two lines of soldiers with muskets and flags and earplugs and cell phones. And the urge to call our wives and tell them that, yes of course, we had survived.

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