In annual ritual, reenactors invade Neshaminy State Park

The Army tents are there for more than show - reenactors slept in them Friday night, through the rainfall. "When I woke up, I was in a puddle about an inch deep," one participant said.
The Army tents are there for more than show - reenactors slept in them Friday night, through the rainfall. "When I woke up, I was in a puddle about an inch deep," one participant said. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 22, 2013

The crack of gunshots came first, followed by hooting Confederate soldiers and the eventual boom of a Union cannon.

On Saturday afternoon, Neshaminy State Park in Bensalem was transformed into a 150-year-old battlefield, as hundreds of reenactors, dressed in regalia from the 1860s, re-created a battle scene during the 24th annual Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment.

The reenactment is a weekend-long historical celebration, and while the Civil War may have been the bloodiest era in the country's history, the battle scene Saturday - meant to depict the Mine Run Campaign of November 1863 in Orange County, Va. - was the only hint of violence on an otherwise-cheerful afternoon.

Union and Confederate reenactors set up camps in the park, with rows of white tents lining the fields and campfires woven throughout each row.

Participants sleep outdoors all weekend, and protocol is to eschew modern amenities like cellphones and electricity.

They don their finest 19th-century attire: navy blue uniforms for the Union men, tan and gray shirts for the Confederate soldiers, and large, colorful dresses for the women.

And there are commissaries for each unit, where food is cooked over an open flame; tents where 19th-century memorabilia is available to view; and music tents for military bands.

It all makes for an eventful weekend, and Bensalem Historical Society founder Susan Sandusky said that about 650 reenactors and 3,000 spectators attended Saturday.

The number of participants was down from past years, she said, noting that typically there are 1,000 reenactors.

But some noted that the decline could be due to others saving up their weekends for this year's Gettysburg Reenactment, which will mark the 150th anniversary of that battle, fought in July 1863.

That event, July 4-7, is expected to draw tens of thousands of participants.

Those who did make it to Bensalem said they were excited to reenact the Mine Run Campaign, which occurred about five months after the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the Battle of Mine Run, Union Maj. Gen. George Meade and his Army of the Potomac intended to overwhelm Gen. Robert E. Lee's smaller Army of Northern Virginia, but a series of weather delays and tactical blunders hampered his ability to attack. Meade eventually retreated.

"I look forward to this," said Margo Dorrell, 59, a reenactor from Monroe Township, N.J.

Dressed in a puffy pink dress and teal Zouave jacket, Dorrell sat crocheting next to an open flame, explaining that she has been attending reenactments with her husband, Nick, since 1998.

Despite their Northern roots, the couple decided to join Confederate Company K, 19th Virginia, she said, because Nick respected the rebellious attitude of the Southern soldiers.

The company has about 30 participants, Margo said, most of whom are from New Jersey. And while only about 13 members made it to Bensalem this weekend, she said that the reenactments they attend together make them "like a second family."

"It's fun when we're all together," she said. "We hate when it ends."

That familial spirit was expressed by many participants, who said the period attire and activities bond them in ways that non-reenactors need to experience to understand.

"It's hard to explain to someone who doesn't do it," said Frank Ruiz Jr., a lieutenant colonel in the Union's 14th Brooklyn Company. "We don't have bullets flying over our head. But we experience the battle, the snow, the cold, the wind. Our friends outside of this hobby have no clue."

Battling the elements was certainly part of this weekend, as storms Friday night forced soldiers in their tents to cope with wet sleeping conditions.

"When I woke up, I was in a puddle about an inch deep," said Max Rowland, 19, from Long Island, N.Y.

But the conditions couldn't deter him from living like a 19th-century soldier.

Rowland, who has been a reenactor for about two years, said that "non-period" items are known as "farbs" (short for "Far be it from me to say they didn't have that in the Civil War") and those who are routinely caught betraying the 19th-century spirit are ridiculed - in a friendly way - as "farb-y."

"Even if you have something that's just a little bit off, it's a farb," Rowland said with a smile, noting that he couldn't use plastic ladles while cooking. "It's pretty tough."


Contact Chris Palmer

at 609-217-8305, cpalmer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @cs_palmer.

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