FORT SUMTER NATIONAL MONUMENT, S.C. — For thousands of Civil War re-enactors, the next four years are a chance to capitalize on the public's curiosity about a century-old hobby that demands such attention to detail that the fights seem almost real.
The die-hards converging soon at the site where the War Between the States began 150 years ago with a Confederate artillery barrage on Union-held Fort Sumter can't wait to help others understand why they spend weekends tramping through the rain, sleeping in tents in snow-covered fields, cooking on open campfires and enduring mock battles in wool coats under the hot Southern sun.
They're expecting a surge of interest in a pastime that has roots at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, when Confederate veterans retraced Pickett's Charge. Re-enacting took hold for good five decades ago during the Civil War's centennial.
"The 150th cycle is going to be great. It's going to bring us some new re-enactors and it's going to bring a lot of attention and publicity," said Reece Sexton, publisher of the Civil War Courier newspaper and two companion magazines considered bibles by enthusiasts.
"The hobby is not going to die. It does need some new blood."
There is no nationwide association for re-enactors, but Sexton estimates as many as 50,000 take part at least occasionally. An estimated 1,000 re-enactors will be in Charleston, S.C., for the festivities surrounding the April 12, 1861, attack on Fort Sumter, the first shots of the war. Organizers will explode a starburst shell over the fort, signaling re-enactors manning some 30 cannons ringing the harbor to begin a 30-minute barrage.
Sexton expects up to 12,000 re-enactors in Virginia for the 150th anniversary of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, in July.
But the capstone will come in 2013, when the Gettysburg anniversary could draw as many as 25,000 re-enactors and four times that many spectators to the fields of Pennsylvania.
There are re-enactments yearly of many major Civil War battles and of numerous smaller skirmishes at locations near the battlefields. None is permitted on the actual battlegrounds.
But the next four years will be special.
"Among a lot of re-enactors I'm talking to, this is it. This is the anniversary they have been waiting for," said George Wunderlich, a re-enactor and executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.