Looking back on it, I believe the hardest thing for my supportive, progressive parents to come to terms with regarding my teenage interest in Civil War reenacting was the need to buy me a pistol. Back in 1975 my father had been an active proponent of the campaign to ban private ownership of handguns in Massachusetts. And now here was their 8th grade son, mad about history and passionately interested in the period of the American Civil War, desperate to join a troop of cavalry reenactors that was then organizing in my hometown.
The challenge was to somehow reconcile their desire to encourage my interest in history, love of costume and theater, and otherwise gentle nature and non-violent proclivities, while coming to terms with the fact that I had graduated from cap guns to percussion caps and from toys to reproduction firearms capable of firing live ammunition. They ultimately resolved this moral quandary by purchasing a reproduction Colt Navy model 1851 revolver and accoutrement's "for the unit" that was never to come home with me and was never to be loaded with anything but blanks.
My own dilemma had nothing to do with weapons - except that my continued participation in this hobby required my parents to work out a principled compromise to provide me with one. My problem was that the cavalry unit forming in Millbrook NY wore the wrong uniform. Although numerous ancestors served in New York infantry regiments during the war, and I even had a Gr-gr-great Grandfather in the 1st NY "Lincoln" Cavalry, the opportunity now before me was to join a troop of 10th Virginia confederate horsemen.
I was a dyed in the wool Yankee sympathizer - as the above photograph taken of me in the Spring of 1982 will attest. My childhood games of "civil war" with the neighborhood gang, previously discussed here, were Union fantasies. True, there was the confederate brigadier in the family closet, but my affinities lay elsewhere. And now, for the sake of history I had to choose whether to participate as a southern soldier - and whether I could do justice to the historical interpretation that would require - or to pass up the opportunity for the sake of my personal beliefs.
Reenacting ultimately won out over progressive ideology, and the day my shell jacket arrived from C & D Jarnagin in Corinth, Mississippi was a thrill I still recall vividly these many years later. I ordered the kepi from a store in Spotsylvania where during a family vacation to southern battlefields I had previously acquired the Union 'bummer-style" forage cap depicted above. You will note the combination of "modern mufti" and authentic reproduction uniform in the image at right, which happens to be the only photograph of me in even partial confederate attire that was taken during this period. Observe as you enlarge the image that the State of New York belt buckle is worn reversed to indicate its captured status: a refinement insisted upon by members of our sister regiment, the 10th NY from over in Ulster County, when we trained with them one afternoon. That was the same day I live fired a .44 cal Walker Colt revolver that belonged to one of the other reenactors, who used it for hunting deer and needed to clear the charges, and appalled my family by happily discussing it over dinner that evening.
The branch of the 10th VA in Millbrook was a very small unit. Its founder and Sergeant was an 18-year-old public high school student named Troy Sorbello who had moved up here with his mother from Virginia where he had been a confederate reenactor. Troy had a large personal collection of uniforms, weapons and soldier's sundries, which he freely shared with me while I was acquiring my own equipment. It was his saber I wore in my school musical as the captain of the "Pinafore", and his spare pair of mounted sky blue trousers and brogans. He was a gentle and generous young man and extraordinarily good with animals. Troy used to tell stories about riding his horse to New York from Virginia along back roads and byways, and to hear him tell it it was the only way to really see the country.
The others were Steven Greer, the son of a local auto dealer, and Jason Nolan, who decided to reenact as a civilian rather than a trooper - probably because he did not ride a horse. I was the youngest at 14 years old and the only private school kid among us, and that was it. We were four boys playing at being our gr-great grandparents.
Going to different schools and not yet of driving age, I relied on my mother to get me to Troy's and to unit events. This was the first of my teen-aged friendships to test my parent's comfort with me riding with young drivers. Because Troy was 18, he made the cut, but this became an issue later, when we had our first big reenactment to attend and once again our family found itself with divided loyalties.
It was June, 1982 in Reagan's America. We were a household of progressive, liberal Democrats - even the one masquerading as a confederate in his spare time. June 12th that year was a singularly important date for us. The nuclear freeze movement was planning a huge disarmament rally in New York City that would become the largest peaceful protest march in American history. Ordinarily the whole family would have gone, but there was a conflict. This also was the date of my first Civil War reenactment: an encampment, mock battle and cavalryman's ball to he held at the Wild West City in Netcong New Jersey. A tough choice for liberal minded folks trying to do right by all concerned, you will agree.
In the end, after earnest debate around the kitchen table, it was determined with the wisdom of Solomon to divide the family in two equal parts. My father and sister would march to Central Park with nearly 1,000,000 fellow opponents of the nuclear arms race, and my mother and I would drive to western New Jersey so that I could "see the elephant" with my comrades in gray. Only Troy and Steve owned horses and the borrowed trailer could only carry two mounts, so Jason and I were to fight dismounted. Along the way, Mom and I learned a valuable lesson about the proper following distance to maintain between one's Honda Accord and the rear of a horse trailer with the hindquarters of its occupants exposed to view.
The Wild West City was one of those Mom & Pop tourist traps that emerged to entertain a mobile population traveling the nation's Interstates after WWII. It had a wide palisade of suburban spite fence around its perimeter, a dusty main street with false-fronted stores and penny arcades, and a 1/4 scale kiddie railroad encircling the whole affair. There were loudspeakers in the trees announcing the day's events, which notably featured the capture of Black Bart at 3, followed by a confederate raid on the town at 3:30. It was, in a word, hokey, and not at all what I had imagined reenacting to be. Not at first, anyway.
What was, I think, true to life about the experience was the total confusion of green troops, the lack of understanding of the tactical situation before us or of a unified command structure. Jason and I were soon separated as he wandered off and blended in with the regular "townsfolk." Troy and Steve, meanwhile, were told that as the only cavalrymen there who had actually brought their horses, they were to play a key role in the battle, galloping into town after we had first captured it to announce that Yankee reinforcements were on the way. This left me alone, without my unit or comrades, and uncertain of where to go or what to do.
The battle began without my fully being aware of it. Just when an actor in a long handlebar mustache was asking his little deputy sheriffs what to do with Black Bart now that he had been captured - to which they replied with gusto "Hang him!" - I heard the sound of gunfire. I headed off through the side streets of the town and suddenly found myself joining a ragged skirmish line of dismounted confederate cavalry advancing down the main street. At the far end of town the Yankees were drawn up in line of battle, with a few zouaves in baggy red pants and fez's on the right flank, waiting to receive our fire. Suddenly caught up in the moment, and pointing my pistol in the general direction of the enemy, I squeezed the trigger.
The most disappointing blob of waxy smoke poured limply from the barrel. The paraffin wax we had used to hold our powder in the cylinder of the revolvers interfered with their discharge in a most unsatisfying way. After two more misfires I decided that my best course of action was to become a casualty and when the Union troops leveled and fired, I dropped dramatically to the ground.
Playing dead is not all it is cracked up to be, especially when there are 6th graders kicking you and exposing you as a fraud for breathing. After enduring this for a while I decided it was time to revive, and crawled to my knees, only to find that my comrades were retreating around me and the Yanks were advancing with fixed bayonets. One of the troopers helped drag me to the rear and offered me a drink from his canteen, but soon I was alone between the lines again and it was all I could do to drag myself down the street ahead of the relentless Yankee horde. I pulled myself up over a low wall and as the only target left to receive the next and final volley, slumped once more to the ground, and the battle was over.
As the audience cheered and I dusted myself off, a confederate soldier came up to me and handed me my pistol, which I had left in the sand where I had first become a casualty. Reunited with Troy and the rest of my unit, it was the general consensus that the event had not met our expectations. The overall sentiment of the 10th VA confederate cavalry (Millbrook branch) was that the best thing to do was to hold up the kiddie train when next it made its circuit, but my Mom gently suggested that maybe there had been enough fun for one afternoon and we had best head for home.
My dad and sister were featured in Time Magazine's coverage of the great peace rally, photographed and interviewed as they strode alongside survivors of Hiroshima near the head of the march. I went off to boarding school that Fall and lost touch with my confederate friends back home in New York. Troy Sorbello moved back to Virginia where he was a talented and humane animal trainer and founding Lieutenant of Company B, 9th Virginia Cavalry. Tragically, he died in 1998 of Hodgkin's Disease. At Troy's funeral, there was an honor guard from his unit and a riderless horse with his boots reversed in the stirrups. He was 35 years old.
Too young, like so many young men whose short lives we reenactors depict. Godspeed, Troy.