"It's not going to be the merriest of Christmases, but we'll get by," said the woman in the homespun dress as she stirred the coals in the fireplace. We were all crowded into the little cabin trying to remember that it wasn't bad manners to stare at the people in funny clothes eating out of wooden bowls, seeing as they were historical reenactors. It was a nasty cold evening to be hanging out in a park in Raleigh, but happily, most of the history seemed to take place around a blazing fire.
"Christmas in the Village, Christmas in the Camps" was a series of vignettes depicting life at home and in the field during the second winter of the Civil War. A guide with an enviable floor-length velvet cloak and a kerosene lantern took us on a tour of camps and kitchens, a field hospital and a wedding chapel, all cleverly arranged in and among the restored period outbuildings at Mordecai Historical Park. Capital Area Preservation, a private nonprofit that maintains Mordecai for the city, hosted the program as the finale to a year of lectures and events concerning the Civil War. "The focus we chose was away from battle scenes," says Gary Roth of Capitol Area Preservation. "Our purpose was to show individual lives."
There was a merciful lack of gunfire and mayhem, as reenactments go. Most of the scenarios focused on the kind of detail that sticks with the historically impaired when dates and battles do not. I was delighted to learn that wartime households roasted okra seeds when the coffee ran out. And that supply clerks referred to dried produce as "desiccated vegetables;" hence, "desecrated vegetables" is what men called them at the front.
The encampment looked wretchedly uncomfortable--canvas shelters strung pup-tent style, with no apparent way to keep the rain out, and a few wooden chairs by the fire. These had been commandeered by three preadolescent boys, who were discussing the logistics of hide-and-seek. "All I know is when I say go one of y'all will have to come after me," one declared. "I don't want to freeze my feet off," his friend reasoned. The first kid could have been an off-duty reenactor--he wore a Confederate cap with his Carolina Starter jacket, puffy sneakers and jeans.
Anachronism is half the fun of reenactments. There's something pleasant about that dissonance--watching a bunch of Johnny Rebs with muskets threading their way through cars parked on the street. Added to this confusion is the question of who is really acting. One fellow playing a mess sergeant gave us a talk on war-era provisions. Except he wasn't exactly playing a mess sergeant; he is a mess sergeant, for the 26th Regiment, which was a real regiment, and kind of still is a real regiment, only for a defunct army. He pointed out that folks back then ate the same things they do now, but in different packages. "Technology changes," he said, "but people don't really change."
The guys around the next fire, reading letters from home and talking bull, may not have been acting at all. They sure weren't faking their accents or their beards. They insulted each other in a good-natured way and gossiped about back home: "I never liked him anyway," and "If I was at home, I'd take a stick to that young 'un." The 26th Regiment folks wrote their own scenarios, and it seemed to come naturally to a lot of men, standing around acting like you're somebody you're not.
The women appeared tethered to a slightly more strict reality. One lady gave a heartfelt Christmas Eve speech to a flock of mostly cooperative little girls. St. Nicholas, she explained, might not have many presents for children this year, since he had to bring the soldiers so many things they needed. About then, the hide-and-seek players ran by, hollering. "Pay no attention," she said, right quick. "It's just soldiers. You know how noisy they are." Watching the women's scenes reminded me of why I used to be such a tomboy: Who wants to wait around for the chance to chew the scenery when your man dies in the war? I'd rather be in the field hospital sawing off limbs.
On the whole, the vignettes were informative and charming. The attention to detail in costume and setting was marvelous. When the soldier on leave married his sweetheart, the chapel was decorated with magnolia leaves, pinecones and cotton bolls. When they knelt at the altar, we could see that even the groom's shoes were the right vintage. (On the way out of that scene, our guide confided, "And folks, they're really engaged!") On an outside wall, you could read a posting, from the Raleigh Gazette, of local casualties at the battle of Fredericksburg.
A handful of boys in gray stood around another campfire. Three Yankees slipped from the trees and joined them for a brief Christmas truce. Swapping coffee for tobacco, one Union soldier asked, "Why do you boys fight so hard?" A rebel answered shortly, "Because you're invading our homes." A realistic answer, no doubt. Histories are always somebody's version of what happened, and I appreciated the personal nature of this version, but with some reservations. For one thing, war is an uglier business than what was portrayed here. It is hard to reenact rotting bodies, lice and dysentery. For another thing, the reenactors, Caucasians all, breathed not a word about the black people who lived among them, and certainly not the word "slavery."
The hide-and-seekers dashed in front of our group again between the wedding and the field hospital. "You wanta play right, count again," one of them yelled. Three little boys, one white, two black, chased each other through the mud the way kids do. Each of those boys will grow up to be a free man and a full citizen in the eyes of the law, and by the grace of God, the eyes of his neighbors. The War Between the States, whatever else it did, ended slavery. If you're talking about history, you ought to mention that. It's more important than most things.