1. Archive

War and remembrance

A loud boom filled the air, rattling the windows of historic buildings hundreds of yards away. The smell of horses, and the strains of fife and drum music hung overhead.

Ladies in hoop skirts and bonnets watched as a line of "Union" soldiers filed past a group of "Confederate" soldiers, en route to a battlefield where they would soon aim rifles and cannon at each other across an expanse of green field.

The re-enactment Saturday at Heritage Village in Largo was missing only the grisly aspects of war, the hunger, exposure and the bloodshed that marked the real Civil War, which ended more than 130 years ago. These "soldiers" appeared to be having far too much fun.

Each year, an estimated 1,700 battle re-enactments are staged nationwide, said one make-believe Confederate soldier. Saturday's was a small one: A couple of hundred participants performed for a few hundred visitors. What has Americans from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line so transfixed that, even in the 90-degree Florida heat, they don woolen coats, pants and caps or long-sleeved, full-length gowns with hoop skirts, bonnets and gloves to spend their weekends in a fantasy world of the 1860s?

" 'Cause I'm dumb," Brian Talbert, a member of the fantasy Battery E, 3rd U.S. Artillery, sayswith a face-splitting grin.

Standing on a green field, surrounded by hundred-year-old buildings, and soldiers dressed in Confederate gray and Union blue, Talbert, his long hair tied back to better display his silver and gray whiskers, plays the role of a first sergeant.

"It's called insanity," agreed Ray Eanes, a fellow "soldier" of the 1st Pennsylvania Artillery.

"The reason I got involved in it is history," said George Kramer, a 16-year-old Largo High School student who has been re-enacting battles for three years and attends about 25 a year.

"They do get uncomfortable, but that's what they wore," he said as he gestured to his woolen pants.

Jody Alkula passed the afternoon under a canvas canopy dressed in a long skirt, ruffled hoop skirt and cotton blouse.

"There's no drugs or anything like that," she said. "It's a real wholesome, family-type thing."

Next to her, Chris Burridge explained the intricacies of her 1860s-era, periwinkle-colored linen day dress.

"They'd have house dresses of muslin, plain, with no hoop skirt," Burridge said, displaying an expertise in historical women's garments gained through the one or two weekends a month she spends at re-enactments. "Underneath, they'd wear pantaloons, cotton stockings. They would have changeable sleeves, and they would never show their shoulders during the day."

Fanning themselves with lacy fans, Burridge, a nurse, and Alkula, who works at Wal-Mart, said they are so dedicated to the hobby they have made getting the time off a job requirement.

"To me, it's a relaxation," Burridge said. "You go back after a weekend and you feel like you've been off a week."

Many re-enacters travel throughout the Civil War theater, visiting battlegrounds and meeting other buffs. When they're traveling, Burridge, Alkula and their families sleep in 1860s-era canvas tents and cook in black kettles over fire pits.

Talbert shows a visitor how a cannon is loaded and fired. The percussion makes ears ring and chests vibrate.

"It's a very addictive hobby," he said. "When you're in the hobby, you are in it with all different sorts of men, from doctors to garbage collectors."

Jeanie Barszcz and her husband, Brandon, met at a re-enactment and were married in period costumes 11 years ago. He's not the only one in the family who wears pants at some re-enactments, she said.

"I have full uniforms and dress as a man," she said. Jeanie Barszcz met her husband while firing a cannon. She was walking in the footsteps of her great-great-grandmother, who followed her husband into battle at Shiloh in Tennessee, she said, and when her great-great-grandfather was killed, his wife put on his uniform and took his place.

Sharon Savastio, a Largo wildlife photographer, attends re-enactments to sell coffee cups and photographs of mock battles.

"These people are so into this," she said. "They live this."