This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
It was a Saturday in September, and they gathered together, balancing plates of chicken wings, setting up camping chairs and lining up their smartphones to take pictures of the action on the field.
Every so often someone would crane their eyes toward the tangle of men in front of them, saying, “Is one of our guys down?”
But the men running at each other wore uniforms made of wool, not polyester. They toppled to the ground not when they were tackled but when they sustained (harmless, imaginary) wounds from (harmless, imaginary) gunfire.
Across from the Wilson Creek Visitor Center on Saturday the action was not football, but a Civil War re-enactment. There has been one at Wilson Creek once a year for the last decade, a full weekend event — this one continues today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the battle at 2 p.m.The re-enactors come from all over – McDowell County, Buncombe County, Haywood County, and of course Caldwell. Most are perpetual hobbyists – this is not the only re-enactment they do all year. And here, they’re portraying a generic skirmish, not any specific Civil War battle.
Some of them do this because they’re descended from Confederate soldiers, said Jeff Cordell of McDowell County, who counts himself among that group. Others are “history nuts.” Many are a little of both.
Henry Rathbone of Haywood County said he loves that re-enactments provide tangible history lessons for kids. This is nothing like the dusty pages of a textbook – this is history in smell and heat and color, out in a field in Collettsville.
Rathbone’s sons have grown up immersed in these tangible history lessons. One of them, Isaac, was 3 months old at his first re-enactment.
There are spectators at the re-enactments, too – and many of them cheer for the home team. (Hint: That is, in Caldwell County, not the team in blue.)
As the soldiers got into gear on Saturday, kids ran into the visitor center to round up their siblings. “Come on,” they said. “South’s getting started.”
They weren’t talking about a high school in southern Caldwell County.
There’s a strain of that among the re-enactors, too, but they’re willing to suit up in either color as it becomes necessary.
“Some places, you gotta play the Federals,” Cordell said.
Rathbone grinned as he responded.
“Well,” he said. “We have to have targets, don’t we?”
There is something profoundly odd about watching these re-enactments, seeing it all redone, a life-sized replica of the time, almost 150 years ago, when the country almost ripped itself apart at the seams.
Of course, in some places, the rip wasn’t so even.
In the mountains and the foothills, the war was often neighbor against neighbor, with loyalties sometimes lining up along the fault lines of family feuds and, other times, according to whichever army would feed and pay you best. For a man from the mountains, loyalty might spring only from the constraints of the Conscription Act, not from any firey desire to live and die in Dixie.
“This was one of those areas that were very split,” Rathbone said. “It was more neutrality, than anything, on the part of these people.”
In 2013, all that can seem far away. Constrained to history. Slammed between the pages of a dusty textbook.
But not out on a re-enactment field. Not when you’re breathing in the tang of gunpowder and hearing the clang of tin cups for water and watching men in wool under a hot, sticky sun.
And not as long as people still give their weekends to meticulous re-dos of what happened more than a century before.
This is not a book. This is right here.