DADE CITY — Bill Dayton winces at the memory. It was autumn of 1956 when he led other neighborhood children in war games on Dade City's Tank Hill.
"The dog fennel was 7 feet tall," said Dayton. "And I ordered my sister to 'burn the fields' in a Civil War re-enactment. She took it literally and the smoke was visible for miles."
Dayton, then 12, was forced indoors after that, so he started putting his troops on pedestals. Inspired by H.G. Wells' Little Wars, Dayton molded lead alloys into 54 millimeter soldiers, painted their uniforms and prepared for battle.
Little Wars spells out the rules of engagement for toy soldiers, from the distance that can be covered in each turn to the process for taking prisoners and exacting casualties. The focus is on strategy, not bloodshed.
"In my games, we just lay the injured soldier on his side with no blood and guts," Dayton said. "There's a feeling of power to see all the soldiers across the floor."
Dayton, now a 67-year-old attorney, has continued the miniature melees over the years. Friends and colleagues gather at his Dade City home now and then for historic battle re-enactments. Teams of two to 12 players salute the "redoubtable Gen. Dayton" and move tiny cavalry, infantry and artillery across a landscape of rivers and valley created by stacked encyclopedias.
"Sometimes the games would go on for days," antiques dealer John Herrmann said. "We'd leave our soldiers in place and Bill would remember every detail. It was always a losing battle for me because I could never challenge such a smart man who's always three or four steps ahead of everyone."
Over the years, Dayton has amassed a collection of more than 500 miniatures, spanning the eras from the Roman Empire to the Napoleonic Wars. Each is handmade and meticulously painted.
"These aren't toys," he said. "They are works of art."
Dayton earned his bachelor's degree in history and his law degree from Mercer College. His education in war came firsthand: He joined the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and was promoted to a first lieutenant. Attached in 1969 to the U.S. Army Support Command, Qui Nhon, he was appointed to the post of military historian. Dayton's record keeping was meticulous and expanded his perspective.
But the experience — the death, the blood, the pain — changed his outlook on war. He said one of his most admired military figures, Robert E. Lee, put it best: "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should become too fond of it."
The tiny battles with the toy soldiers aren't war at all. They are a competition. They are a history lesson and a chessboard rolled into one.
And when the battle is over, all the pieces are tucked safely back into their boxes.