I'd always thought there were only two kinds of ah-ha moments you could have in a romantic relationship: the bizarre and the bad.
The first would be like catching your boyfriend in his boxers pop-lockin' to the movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo — aka, "Ah-ha, so you are a dork!" And then there's the bad — catching him in his boxers, pop-lockin' your roommate in his own version of Breakin' 2: Electric Booty Call. That would be the "Ah-ha, so you're a dick!" Both discoveries require one to take a T, sit down, and assess the situation.
But what if your ah ha moment was something completely different? What if you found out that the person you were dating lived a double life? That they had a secret hobby hardly anyone knew about?
What if you discovered your boyfriend was a reenactor?
It happened to me. This is my story.
At the 2005 senior class barbecue at the College of Charleston, I finally met a guy I'd had a crush on for over a year. Tall, handsome, and impeccably dressed, Daniel Gidick had me at "how about a Heineken?"
Problem was I only knew him as "hot pedicab boy," and I needed the skinny on John Doe, STAT. As soon as he asked me out, I sidestepped Magnum P.I. and pulled up a chair to my PC. That's where I discovered it.
Buried beneath Google results mentioning him as the CofC History Club President and an Phi Alpha Theta inductee, I found a picture. On a website called The Authentic Campaigner. There was my crush, wearing wool trousers, holding a musket.
"What the...?" Was the only response I could muster.
Right at that moment the doorbell rang. There was Daniel ready to head out on our first date!
Now prior to moving to the South, my only understanding of the word reenactment came from a visit to my hometown's annual Folk Life Festival, a sort of renaissance fair slash mountain man convention. One moment in particular always stood out: An obese "Highlander," spread eagle sans briefs in DIY soda-top chain mail and kilt and sipping a Big Gulp, tried to sell my mom and me Scottish knives, while nearby his medieval maiden heaved her corseted bosom to the sounds of a lute. Yes, this was the freak show playing in my head as I opened the door to Daniel.
He took me to the Upper Deck where we chatted about books and travel, school and the future. Things were going great, but like a bad LSD trip, the fat man and the lute lady would not stop twirling in my head. I had to know what was up with that picture on the net. Four drinks later I came out with it: "Have you ever done reenacting?"
His face dropped. He paused and mumbled something to the effect of, "Uhh, actually we call it living history." With those two words I knew my life would never be the same.
Don't Ask Don't Tell
Like a clandestine militia, the world of reenacting, be it Civil War, Rev War (the insiders term for the Revolutionary War), WWI or II, is a hush-hush society, at least in my experience. Most reenactors who give a damn about their reputation outside the battlefield are mighty hesitant to reveal their historical alter-egos. When I met Daniel, his was well concealed.
With all the makings of a typical college student — he was a pedicab driver, an active international club member, and a good student — few would have dreamed he was involved in such a contentious hobby. But with his quiet admission, exposing the fact that he dabbled in both Civil War and Rev War reenacting, I knew I'd just been let in on a huge secret. One that the man in front of me did not necessarily want the College of Charleston population to discover.
"It's definitely not something I go about broadcasting," Daniel says today. "There are a lot of negative stereotypes out there that give the hobby a bad name. You don't want to be thought of as some unreconstructed, gun-loving nut trying to refight wars."
What's that? Judge someone based on a stereotype? Why I never!
Okay, I can't back that up. When Daniel confessed, my gut reaction was, FREAK!!! But having grown up in the Northwest, where it's a regional obligation to not only accept people's differences, but also announce how accepting you are — preferably with a bumper sticker — I didn't balk at his admission. Instead I stayed seated, batted my lashes, and if I recall correctly, said, "Wow really? That's so interesting," and continued to pepper him with questions about his hobby until he begged me to stop.
It wasn't until the next morning that the reality of our conversation sunk in. "Hold up. Did he say he owns a musket?" Actually, he owns three.
Daniel got his first, an Enfield rifle musket, when he was 16. That was just three years after he started reenacting in seventh grade. The first Civil War event he attended was at Malvern Hill, just outside of Richmond, Va., where he grew up. Daniel met up with a group known as the Fifth Battalion.
"There was another kid in my middle school who was in my unit, and my parents knew his family, so my folks were like, okay this isn't that weird that our son is going to hang out with 30-year-old men in the woods," he says.
While he had a great time at the small day-long event, Daniel was still pretty green. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I brought beanie weenies." Needless to say, the canned delight wasn't exactly a typical ration during the Civil War.
He quickly became wiser. "I fell in with a great unit," he says, "one that taught me about the era's material culture and authenticity." From that event onward, Daniel was hooked on the hobby. To put it simply, he says, "It was a lot more fun than the Boy Scouts."
As a potential girlfriend, that story made sense to me. Hell, my adolescence was made up of all kinds of screwy hobbies. I was in a traveling performing group called the Melody Lane Singers, for Pete's sake! Who was I to judge?
"The image in people's minds is big-bearded people in leathered leggings telling you about the olden days," says Miranda Peters, a friend of Daniel's. "They equate Harry Potter and Sci-Fi with reenacting."
Peters, a former employee at Historic Brattonsville in York, S.C. speaks from experience. Not only does she do a little reenacting herself, but she dates a reenactor as well. Her boyfriend, Matthew Keagle, a masters student in the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware, is well known in the East Coast reenacting world as one of the most "hard-core" guys in the hobby. Hard-core essentially refers to individuals who are meticulous, those who study the time period's language, weaponry, clothing, and food ad nauseum. Case in point, this fall Keagle hand sewed his own Lauzun's Legion uniform; the legion was part of the French Expeditionary Force during the Rev War.
"I spent two years researching original orders and regulations, scouring what I could find in this country and built the whole uniform," Keagle says, "I had to learn 18th Century French so I could read the documents and find period images to reconstruct it."
I'll be the first to admit that sounds pretty OCD to me. My will to learn French begins and ends with La Fourchette's menu, but Peters explains this kind of obsession is actually one of the benefits of dating a reenactor. "Matt's on the couch sewing, not playing video games or going through car magazines. He's doing something productive," she says. "We're not just watching TV or going to movies."
Boy, don't I know it. I realized quickly after starting to hang out with Daniel that the traditional date night was out. Rather than heading out for a round of putt putt, it was off to Fort Sumter, Middleton Place, or the Old Slave Mart Museum.
For Daniel and plenty of other reenactors, their whole lives are an effort to educate themselves on bygone times, and anything can trigger a historical reference. For example, when buying groceries at the Harris Teeter a few months into our relationship, the clerk said, "That comes to $18.60." To which Daniel promptly retorted, "Dec. 20, 1860, the year South Carolina left the Union."
It was like making out with an Encyclopaedia Britannica minus the moldy book smell and presumably a lot of paper cuts.
Truth about Living History
Why the Civil War though? What force of nature could possibly convince grown men, particularly a seemingly well adjusted boyfriend, to take off multiple weekends from their air-conditioned lives to don layers of wool and camp out on a battlefield in South Carolina in the middle of May?
"The Civil War is the most popular topic in the world," explains Charleston-based historical consultant Craig Hadley. "There are more books published on the topic than any other event in history."
Hadley, who's been reenacting since the late 1980s, says that in the United States alone there are around 50,000 Civil War reenactors. "I've met Civil War reenactors from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and England too," he says.
The draw, Hadley believes, is the whole "moonlight and magnolia" mythology. As he puts it, "It's been romanticized over the last century and a half. The American Civil War fascinates the world."
However, Hadley's quick to point out that such a fascination produces a variety of reenactors.
"There are four types," he says. "Farbs, mainstreamers, hard-core guys, and living historians." Allow him to break it down.
"Farbs are people at an event that are completely unauthentic," Hadley says.
The history of the term farb is debated, but many say it's derived from the actual phrase "far be it from authentic." Keagle puts it this way, "I would say a farb is particularly someone who has seen or has heard of or who knows about the historical accuracy of a particular thing or action or object and consciously does not act on it. Essentially, willful negligence."
Farbs are loathed by the hard-core reenacting community, i.e. my fiance and his posse.
"I have a great example," says Daniel. "I've seen groups of farbs roll in with raccoon dick bones stuck in their hats. Literally." (And yes, raccoons do have bone in their penis. It's called the baculum. Look it up.) "They've got uniforms made out of a polycotton blends. They're running around with sabers and carrying two pistols. Two pistols at the minimum!"
When farbs are asked to justify their woefully inaccurate historical interpretations, like the use of polyster pants, the common retort is, "Well, if they'd had it back then, they would have used it."
Second on the list are mainstream reenactors. "They make up the bulk of the hobby," says Hadley. "They might be really into history or just out for a good time. They're semi-authentic."
The difference here is a mainstream reenactor may show up to an event in clothes that kind of look the part, but his threads are generic, and he'll likely be totting his whole family along with him. "They'll set up camp with a big tent and then bring out a cooler of beer," Hadley explains. "They want to take part in an event, but they still want creature comforts."
Next up: the hard-core. "That'd be Daniel's category," Hadley says. "They're really particular about what they tell the public. They're in it for personal exploration, to try to understand the life of the people of this period."
The extent to which hard-core reenactors will go can be startling. I discovered this during the first visit to one of Daniel's events at Fort Moultrie. On the really authentic guys, not a thread of their clothing was machine sewn. They brought their own rations or ate out of a communal pot, boiled beef being the soup du jour. Often men were shoeless and scorning tents. Most slept outside under the light of the moon.
The final category, according to Hadley, is the living historian, which he considers himself to be. "We're hard-core, but we think the most inaccurate thing you can do is reenact a battle," he adds. "Why would you want to?"
As a veteran, Hadley served in the Navy, and he had an epiphany in the late '80s during an event. "I'm sitting there and I overhear a group of kids watching the battle saying, 'This is so cool.' "
It was a wake up call for the historian. "You can't reenact the terror or fear of real combat." Which is why he decided to stop participating in the battle reenactments.
But let it be said for the record, "battles" are not all there is to the hobby. A lot of events are simply designed to educate the public about the time period.
"Those are good and all," Daniel says, "but you can turn into a Rent-a-Reb." In other words, you can become just a guy with a Confederate kit who's constantly called on to dress up and talk to tourists.
"I want to do the history justice," he says. "I want to dig earthworks, march down dirt roads, and be at a picket post through the night. It's not about creating an authentic combat situation; it's about doing sundry duties and experiencing the camp life of soldiers on both sides."
Daniel has done both Union and Confederate impressions; he's played both the Redcoats and the Continentals in the War of Independence as well. Understanding both sides of the story is something he's found essential to being better able to educate the public — a critical factor for the future high school history teacher.
Rebel or Yankee? Redcoat or Continental? Picking teams wasn't my issue. There was just one thing I had to know before I could date Daniel, what's in all this reenacting stuff for women?
"Ask Taylor." Was the response I got.
Taylor Shelby, former director of Charleston's Powder Magazine, is a poster girl for hard-core female reenactors. She participates in Rev War reenacting and is currently a member of the British 62nd Regiment of Foot.
"Very few people realize that women were a part of the army," she says of the Revolutionary War. "But in truth, thousands of women served with the British and American armies — generally wives of the soldiers — as laundresses, nurses, and seamstresses."
Shelby believes the courage of those women equals that of the soldiers who fought on the field. "When you think about the hardship they went through spending eight years in America, in many cases with children in tow, facing the same dangers of illness, starvation, and uncertainty as the soldiers did, you can't help but be awed by their strength. I find it really inspiring to tell their story."
But a woman's role in Civil War reenacting is a bit of a different story. Unlike the Revolutionary War, civilians were more likely to be refugees rather than camp followers.
The hoop skirt, however, is a hot commodity among female reenactors, and at many Civil War events you'll see ladies who look more like Scarlet O'Hara than a displaced person.
"A lot of reenactors girlfriends come out on a Saturday night event in the big skirt just so they can go to a dance," says Hadley. This, of course, is totally unauthentic, but charming nonetheless. In fact, it's as charming as newbie Civil War reenactor Amanda Shaw.
The Savannah College of Art and Design graduate recently relocated to Charleston and picked up the hobby on a lark. "I asked my friend, wouldn't it be funny to do a reenactment one time?" Shaw says. Thing is, she discovered, you can't just do it one time; you have to join a unit to really participate, so that's just what she did. "I've been to three events now, most recently the Battle of Aiken."
Shaw just had a dress made and is eager to get more involved in the hobby, but any concern about what people might think she finds laughable. "You recreate history for a moment," she says. "It's like art."
Regardless of how new she is to the whole scene, Shaw has an excellent point: it is an art. When done well, reenactors can transform an open meadow into Gettysburg or convert the lands around Drayton Hall into the Siege of Charleston.
Peters sums it up this way: "Ask any 6-year-old when they leave a museum or an event what they remember. It's not the labeling. It's not the lectures. It's what the guy in the costume and gun was talking about."
In short she says, "Reenactors instill an interest, if not a love for history in the next generation, and for that alone they should be revered." I concur. Which brings us to today.
If you'd had told me at that 2005 barbecue that not only was I about to meet the man I'd marry, but that he was a reenactor, I would have choked and spat a chunk of Q in your face. Of course if you'd have told him I'd eventually write this article, he would have probably done the same.
Instead, on Oct. 10, I'll take the hand of a man that can name all of the presidents in sequential order, listens to fife and drum music like it's America's Weekly Top Forty, owns a beautiful pair of hand-sewn leather breaches, and yes, is a freaking reenactor, and before God and my family, say with all confidence "I do." Because say what you will about the hobby, there's nothing sexier than a man who's passionate about something, even if that something happened 150 years ago.