SHARPSBURG, Md. -- The Civil War Battle of Antietam was so big, they’re re-enacting it twice. And nearly 8,000 re-enactors had to make a choice: strictly regimented realism or bombastic spectacle?
The two privately financed events, both open to the public, were scheduled on back-to-back weekends leading up to Monday’s 150th anniversary of the bloodiest day of combat on U.S. soil. About 4,000 uniformed re-enactors participated in last weekend’s event near Boonsboro, Md. Another 4,000 plan to take part in this weekend’s extravaganza near Sharpsburg, Md.
The dual re-enactments highlight a division between the hobby’s so-called progressive wing, with its scrupulous focus on historical accuracy, and mainstream re-enactors more interested in battle tactics and camaraderie than in having the correct number of uniform buttons.
Both groups are dedicated to commemorating the clash that occurred Sept. 17, 1862, on rolling farmland along Antietam Creek, about 60 miles north of Washington. More than 23,000 combatants from the North and South were reported dead, wounded or missing after 12 hours of carnage that began at dawn.
The battle was indecisive, but it ended Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. He led his battered troops back across the Potomac River into Virginia the next day, giving President Abraham Lincoln the political strength to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation four days later, followed in January by the final version. Some historians consider Antietam a more critical turning point in the war than the Battle of Gettysburg, fought the following July.
It’s unusual for competing groups to mount separate battle re-enactments, but this is no ordinary anniversary. Antietam, known in the South as the Battle of Sharpsburg, is the biggest Civil War event of 2012. Many re-enactors who got into the hobby during the 125th anniversary are now in their 50s, with few opportunities left to join such large battle scenarios. Antietam came nearly 18 months after the war’s opening shot at Fort Sumter, and 2 1/2 years before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Va.
Last weekend’s re-enactment was billed as a progressive event, with rules governing everything from the type of shoes worn by soldiers to the number of cannons on the field – just four per side.
“We press the guys to have exact, correct uniforms, as best that they can, to duplicate the appearance so when the public sees it, it’s not just generic Civil War – it’s like pulling back a window shade looking directly into September `62,” said organizer S. Chris Anders of Rear Rank Productions in Hagerstown.
Anders’ group has been mounting such events for 12 years. The group’s focus on authenticity has won followers such as John Miller of Waynesboro, Pa., whose unit opted for the progressive re-enactment.
“You research everything from your role, your character, all the way down to the uniforms that you wear,” Miller said. “For example, a certain regiment was wearing a certain style of jacket. The guys are going to research it, find the original piece, they’ll make patterns off of it and then after that, a lot of them will go ahead and try to reconstruct those using the same methods that they used back then, which more or less is thread, needle and hand – and a lot of handwork.”
Such meticulous attention to detail has led some mainstream re-enactors to nickname their progressive brethren “stitch-counters.”
“They get a little bit elitist in their attitude and they can be a little snarky at times,” said Dennis Rohrbaugh, a contractor from Chambersburg, Pa., who’s leading about 150 re-enactors to the mainstream event produced by Civil War Heritage of Gettysburg, Pa.
Rohrbaugh said mainstreamers and progressives share plenty of common ground, but there’s only so much realism he can stand.
“Just because soldiers at the time had dysentery doesn’t mean we have to go out and have dysentery,” Rohrbaugh said. He’s not above hiding a cooler at camp to keep food safely chilled.
Civil War Heritage leader Kirk E. Douglas Sr. said the rules are looser at his mainstream event because it’s a show for spectators. People might come for the 68-gun artillery battle and the Civil War Balloon Corps – although there were no hot-air balloons at Antietam – and learn something in the process.
“The history program far exceeds the four hours of battles that we’ll have,” Douglas said.
Christopher L. Smith, a re-enactor from Akron, Ohio, said the dual re-enactments evenly divided members of Birney’s Division, composed of 24 Federal infantry re-enactor units in four states. Smith led a group to the progressive event, while Rohrbaugh headed the mainstream faction.
Smith said the competing events caused confusion in the ranks.
“From a personal standpoint, I’m not necessarily pleased about it, but people can do what they want to do,” he said.