Wade Davis remembers the day he started down the 40-year path that on Thursday led him to a grassy field behind the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Chalmette, authentically dressed as a lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of the West Tennessee Militia as a nearby pot of coffee bubbled over an open fire in the frigid afternoon air.
It all began in Colorado in 1976, when Davis’ junior high history teacher, a member of a local war re-enactment group, came to class dressed as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, complete with musket in hand.
“I was just dumbstruck,” Davis recalled. “I didn’t know anyone did it. I didn’t know it was a hobby. But I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen.”
Davis, now a psychotherapist in Bonner Springs, Kansas, had grown up watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on television, and the thought of firing a musket was irresistible.
“I’d always liked the older-style firearms, and any chance to fire a period weapon and burn black powder was great,” he said.
Within weeks, Davis was marching at events with a local re-enactment group, and soon he began devouring the historical materials necessary to craft an authentic impression of a Western fur trapper and mountain man.
From there, Davis “gradually drifted backwards in time” to focus on the War of 1812, a pursuit that this month led him to Chalmette, where he was one of the 1,588 re-enactors gathered to re-create the Battle of New Orleans on its bicentennial weekend.
“For some guys, it’s cars. For some guys, it’s girls,” he said. “For me, it’s period stuff.”
There probably aren’t many re-enactors who won’t admit finding a visceral thrill in firing a period weapon, donning a costume or marching in formation. And their respect for an accurate re-creation is evident in their attention to detail.
But it’s a mistake to think that’s as far as it goes.
For the men and women who have come from around the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand for what is believed to be the largest gathering of people in War of 1812-era garb since the Battle of New Orleans itself, an event that outsiders might see as simply playing pretend on a massive scale is in fact interlaced with layers of authentic connections that make re-enactment culture special.
Friendships that begin in online forums are nurtured over years spent saying hello and goodbye at events held across the country. Re-enactors come together, sometimes in challenging circumstances, to perform the physical and logistical tasks required to prepare for and execute a pitch-perfect event. A barter economy has emerged, giving goods that are no longer commercially available a new outlet, preserving skills and methods that would otherwise be lost to history.
“It’s very much a community of its own,” said Claire Sparling, a 27-year-old seamstress from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who came in a group of seven women to create a commissariat in the re-enactment’s British camp. “You’ll find a lot of families, a lot of young couples and a lot of older couples as well who do this as a way to connect.”
“When we get together, there’s lots of hugging because you’re all doing something you love,” said Ken Daniel, a 61-year-old retired computer salesman from Pensacola, Florida, portraying a sergeant major in the Tennessee Militia. “We all love history and we all want to do really well and perform well on the field.”
Hooked on re-enacting
Standing amid the rows of white, triangular tents at the Louisiana Living History Park near the actual Chalmette battlefield, Daniel said he was “more of an academic type” back in 1989, when friends in a San Diego Civil War group persuaded him to join them for a re-enactment one weekend.
From the beginning, though, he was hooked, starting as a private and working his way up the ranks in events across the country.
“I’d tell people I’m actually a historian and I did sales and marketing part-time,” Daniel said. “That’s where my heart was. I loved my career and loved my job, but I retired a couple years ago and now I’m doing what I love, which is re-enacting.”
Daniel said he read more than 200 history books before developing a taste for first-person accounts. He said many of his fellow re-enactors share a view that popular history is too often colored by political correctness and modern sensibilities.
“The truth isn’t normally pretty,” he said.
John Keahey, a former petroleum geologist from Houston who used the oil bust of the mid-1990s to quit the business and begin sewing period costumes and speaking at local schools full time, said he appreciates the unique perspective of re-enactors.
“This is going to sound a little strange, but the people who would do this sort of hobby are not conventional, and they’re typically not politically correct, so you get to meet people who are less constrained by the conventions of society,” he said. “They are willing to try a hobby that is out of the norm.”
It may sound obvious, but re-enactors share a dedication to history that goes beyond simply reading books or watching the History Channel, not only among themselves but with visitors they hope to inspire — in the same way that each of them once had their interest kindled.
“It’s fun and all, but it’s for that little kid coming up who sees me and I can tell him something about history,” said David Latham, a lanky cattleman and timber farmer from Montgomery, Alabama. “If I can spark his interest, I have done my job. We do it for the public because that’s how we got here.”
Latham, wearing custom-made spectacles and dressed in a rifleman’s frock and canvas pants he dyed using the water from boiled walnuts, said he got into re-enacting after doing research on a cemetery on his family’s 175-year-old homestead near Montgomery.
“It’s a direct tie, a link to my lineage and where I came from,” he said, adding that he’s not as interested in the Civil War because it’s not as closely tied to his family history. “I’ve got a close kinship for this time frame. I have a close relationship with those cemetery grave markers and my 200-year-old ancestors there.”
A connection to history
For others, re-enactment is more of an intellectual connection to history than an emotional one.
Keahey, who has re-enacted 13 periods in world history stretching from ancient Greece to the 1890s, said that the more he knows about a period, the less interesting it becomes as a subject for re-enactment.
Dressed as a British private in the 43rd Light Infantry Regiment, Keahey said that wearing a costume for the first time is a process of discovery that, even absent the death and violence faced everyday by men actually in war, nonetheless connects him to their experience as they stood in battle two centuries before.
“This is a learning experience for me,” he said of the uniform he spent three months crafting in meticulous detail. “Is it warm? Is it cold? Does it constrict you? What would be the sensation that a person in this regiment 200 years ago would have felt?”
The costume’s leather neck stock, for example, restricts head movement. At first it feels unnatural, Keahey said, but in the context of re-enactment, the wearer shares the physical experience of the soldier he is portraying: unable to look around or run away, marching forward toward the enemy in lockstep, loading and firing his rifle.
“I find it endlessly fascinating,” Keahey said. “People come from different motivations. Some come to burn powder; some come to pretend to be soldiers. For me, I like to learn how it was done. I’m more interested in learning from people and teaching people than burning powder.”
“But I can do that, too,” he added, smiling wryly.
Sparling said her ties to re-enactments go through her mother and stretch to when she was 5 years old. As she grew older, she found historical demonstrations were an ideal outlet to fulfill her desire to be a working seamstress.
She said the thousands of dollars it costs and the seemingly endless “kit” of items re-enactors must make themselves or procure sometimes leave friends asking, “Why?” and “This is fun?”
But Sparling said she doesn’t see it as being much different from the cost, effort and dedication it takes for someone to play amateur hockey back home.
“I mean, there are a lot of strange hobbies out there. This is just one of them,” she said. “I kind of see it just as another thing that people need to do to get connected.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.