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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Matt on the battlefield with Chris Bestul and an authentic Civil War cannon (it went boom).

Shift switch: Civil War reenactor


Every now and then, the writers here at OnMilwaukee.com decide to give other, unique jobs a try.

Managing editor Bobby Tanzilo, for instance, worked as a cheesemaker for a day, a record store clerk and harvested soybeans. Publisher Andy Tarnoff spent a day with a Milwaukee police officer on the K-9 unit. Senior writer Molly Snyder has sampled careers as a magician's assistant, diaper washer (a job that somehow exists and is a thing) and most recently, a role in the Milwaukee Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

Me? Well, I recently fought in the Civil War.

No, I didn't finagle my way into purchasing a time machine. Instead, I spent my last Sunday all dressed up in my 19th century best, participating in a Civil War encampment (and ice cream social!) at Old Falls Village in Menomonee Falls. I even found myself envisioning the whole world in sepia tone, narrating letters out loud like a Ken Burns PBS documentary and using the word "fortnight" in regular conversation – though the not exactly period accurate bouncy castle at the attached ice cream social somewhat shot a musket hole in my immersion.

I'd always had a mild personal connection to the world of Civil War reenactments. My uncle has several years participating in these encampments as a hobby, and growing up on the border of Hales Corners and Greenfield, I remember waking up some late summer mornings to the sound of echoing musket fire (totally not unnerving at all) at an encampment at nearby Trimborn Farm. It's always been on the outskirts of my life, so when I found out about the upcoming event at Old Falls Village, I had to give it a go (even though it's not a job; everyone participating is a volunteer, there for the love of community, history and possibly black powder).

I showed up at about 9:30 Sunday morning and walked through some of the simple Civil War-era tents scattered across the park grounds. People were all in their uniforms or their period appropriate garb, tending to fires, eating an early lunch and hanging out.

After meeting some of my fellow comrades in arms, I was quickly whisked away to get a uniform. Early on, one of the event's coordinators Nancy Greifenhagen asked me if I had any preference on a side. I said the Union, because as much as I usually love siding with the underdog, it helps if they're not racist.

I got a heavy, button-up and not-at-all-slimming blue wool jacket (perfect for a hot summer day!), a belt with cap pouch and bayonet sheath – complete with bayonet – and a black hat, all which had to be bought by those participating. Like most hobbies, to participate, you have to spend the money.

However, Civil War reenacting actually qualifies as a tax write-off since it technically is an educational service. Almost everyone participating in the encampment was a history buff, ready to answer questions about their period-authentic gear. Making up answers is a big no-no, and electronic devices are out of sight, though with a close look, you could see a Kindle or cell phone sticking out of a wicker basket or hidden away on a table. Phew, I thought, I wouldn't have to take my notes via parchment and quill pen.

Fellow Union fighter Scott Blood, in his second year of reenacting, explained the various symbols on my hat. The horn meant I was a member of the infantry, while the E and 2 identified me as a member of the 2nd Wisconsin, Company E.

It may be participating in a fake battle, but everything in it is very real, down to the details. Some guests aren't convinced, leading to bafflingly brain-dead questions like "Is that a real baby?" and "Is that a real fire?"

Now all outfitted up, Scott and I walked back to the tents. The infantry's tents were nothing more than little white pup tents, maybe only a little taller than waist high (the higher ranking officials and artillery men had larger, roomier tents). As Scott informed me, back in Civil War times, the men were much shorter, maybe 5-6 to 5-8 on average. And yes, they do sleep overnight in them. After hours, with the patrons gone, cell phones and electronic devices are fine.

I chatted some more with the Union guys, learning about how long they'd participating in these sorts of encampments and what kind of activities I was in for today. Some had been doing it for decades. Others were participating in just their second or third event. Several had recently gone down to Gettysburg for a massive 150th anniversary encampment/reenactment there.

Most of the reenactors were about middle-aged – likely because they're at the age where they can afford the period authentic uniforms, muskets and equipment needed to participate – though there were plenty of kids around as well. The Union's drum and fife players were 16-year-old identical twin brothers Andrew and Anthony Burzinski. They started all the way back as 12-year-olds just because it seemed cool and interesting.

Later in the day, I ran into a group of young female reenactors playing Hoops and Graces, an old game involving two thin sticks and a ribbon-covered hoop that was meant to teach young women how to be more graceful. I did very poorly. There is a points system, though it seemed akin to the points on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?". After spending a few minutes slinging the hoop around and incompetently stabbing at the air trying to hook the hoop, I have no idea how this was a game about grace. Watching two people play Dance Dance Revolution after knocking back several cases of PBR is more graceful.

Eventually, it became time for infantry drills. I was handed a musket, and it was time to march. Early on, it went somewhat easily. The moves were fairly simple, marching in step with my fellow infantrymen and shifting my musket to the appropriate positions shouted by the captain. "I might actually have the hang of this," I thought, "I might even look cool blending in with these guys."

Oh, poor poor optimistic me.

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