The recession hasn’t been hurting 67-year-old small businessman Tom Hunge from Winchester, Virginia. Quite the opposite. “There have been days when I never put the phone down,” he says. “I just keep it next to my ear and write down new orders for eight hours straight.” He’s even had to contend with sabotage, when a Midwestern competitor (he won’t name names) tried, on four consecutive occasions, to “burn down” his computer. Thanks to friends in the CIA, the culprit was caught. “It’s not like we’re General Motors,” he laughs. “But people realize there’s money to be made in this business now, and they get crazy.”
Hunge is a professional Sutler, making and selling authentic-looking 19th century military supplies — ranging from pencils (a quarter each) to Whitworth rifles ($1000 and up) — and it’s an especially good time to be in his line of work. 2011 begins the Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and for the next five years, dozens if not hundreds of Civil War celebrations and battle re-enactments will be hosted around the country. Hunge claims there are currently 50,000 re-enactors in the United States and their numbers are growing every day. He also estimates that the typical wardrobe for a re-enactor costs roughly $1000, not including a rifle. What does that mean for him? You do the math.
When Hunge first got into the business with his wife Alice back in 1961, during the Civil War’s 100th anniversary, he hauled “six tons” of merchandize to a Gettysburg re-enactment. “We came home with an empty trailer and a cigar box full of cash,” he says. “We even sold the tent we were sleeping in.” Though he no longer travels and now sells everything via mail order and the Internet, he expects the 150th anniversary to be even bigger and more lucrative. In 2010, his sales were up 50% from previous years. And in 2011, he anticipates his business to double or even triple.
Hunge isn’t the only one feeling optimistic. Across the U.S., cities and businesses both small and large are hoping that Civil War fever is on the rise, and that it’ll translate into much-needed tourism dollars. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in particular, the site of the Civil War’s most famous battle (and Lincoln’s historic speech), is preparing for a marked increase in tourist traffic over the coming years. Bradley Hoch, the Chairman of the Gettysburg area 150th Anniversary Steering Committee, believes that attendance numbers to the Gettysburg Military Park and surrounding attractions could increase by as much as 33% this year, to a record high of 4 million visitors. (According to the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, they’re typically visited by 2.8 to 3.1 million people a year.) And those visitors are coming with heavy wallets. During a typical five year period, he says, Civil War tourism in Gettysburg brings in approximately one billion dollars. But during the five years of the Sesquicentennial, says Hoch, “we might be looking at total tourist dollars of 2.7 billion or more.”
With those kinds of numbers (and potential profits) on the line, Hoch promises a lot of bang for the buck. Literally. “A rolling thunder of cannon fire around Gettysburg,” is how he describes it. Beginning in April, when the first shots of the Civil War were fired, there will be a busy schedule of battle re-enactments and living histories throughout Pennsylvania, including demonstrations of civilian life during the 19th century, and even a commemoration of the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by Confederate troops in 1864. (“We’ll be using laser lights to simulate the burning along with some smoke affects,” says Janet Pollard, the head of Chambersburg’s Visitors Bureau.)
But the most anticipated re-enactment, of course, will be the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in early July, 2013. The last major re-enactment of Gettysburg, for the 135th anniversary in 1998, was widely considered t0 be the biggest ever, with between 30,000 and 41,000 re-enactors and 50,000 spectators. It’s difficult to predict if the 150th re-enactment will be as well-attended. “I’m not going to mortgage and bet my house on it,” Hoch says, but he admits that he’s cautiously optimistic.
1,600 miles away in Colorado, amateur historian Phil Williams also has big ambitions for the Sesquicentennial. He’s co-organizing an annual event in Colorado Springs called Freedom Fair, featuring Civil War re-enactments and a living history museum, that will run for three weeks every summer (between Flag Day and the Fourth of July) for the next five years. He hopes it’ll become so popular that the Freedom Fair can continue and thrive long after the anniversary ends. “I believe this kind of event can create jobs,” he says.
He has an uphill battle ahead of him, in no small part because Colorado isn’t exactly a hotspot for Civil War tourism. In fact, Colorado didn’t actually join the Union until 1876, over a decade after the Civil War ended. But Williams isn’t discouraged. “Colorado boasts 290 days of sunshine,” he says. “Our weather is pretty mild and the humidity is non-existent. We have a lot of green, lush area around us that can be used for reenactment battles. So what if we’re not on the battlefield? So what if it’s not the Gettysburg? If we put up enough buildings that kinda look like Gettysburg, people will get the basic idea.”
Not every organization with an army of Civil War re-enactors is looking for financial gain. Some, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, just want to stir up the national debate. Michael Givens, the SCV’s national Commander-in-Chief, says that their only goal for the Sesquicentennial is to “make sure that the true history of the South is represented.” Thus far, that means creating a little controversy. A December 20th “Secession Ball” in Charleston, South Carolina — a $100-a-person socialite event co-organized by the Confederate Heritage Trust — featured a costumed re-enactment of the signing of secession in 1860. It was picketed by hundreds of protestors from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), some carrying signs that read “Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism.” The SCV’s next big event, a February re-enactment of the swearing-in ceremony of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, promises to be just a divisive.
Aside from a small stipend for travel expenses, Given’s role as SCV Commander is strictly on a volunteer basis. “It is not in any way, shape or form a way to make money,” he says. But what he lacks in a salary he more than makes up for with media exposure. He’s already been courted by Newsweek, the London Times and MSNBC’s Hardball, and those are just the opportunities he can talk about. During an interview for this story, he slipped in sound bytes seemingly designed to be contentious and attention-grabbing, from curious statements about the Civil War like “Nobody wanted slavery, even slave owners,” to claiming that Abraham Lincoln’s speeches sound like they were “written by some Neo-Nazi skinhead.” He may be painting himself as the bad guy of Civil War nostalgia, but infamy can be just as valuable as fame. Love him or hate him, by this time next year, you’ll definitely know his name.
Of course, none of it matters without the real show of the Sesquicentennial, the Civil War re-enactors themselves. Will they actually show up to these events and create the necessary pageantry and theatrics to attract tourists? Not according to Rea Andrew Redd, a Civil War blogger and the Director at Eberly Library at Pennsylvania’s Waynesburg University. Redd has been involved in Civil War re-enactments since 1993, when the “hobby” (as re-enacting is called among insiders) was at the peak of its mainstream popularity. “Back then, it wasn’t unusual to have twenty thousand re-enactors on the field,” he says. “You sometimes had to pinch yourself to remember it wasn’t the real deal.” But over the last decade, he says, the numbers have dropped significantly. “Now we’re lucky to get twelve people at one time for any given battle.”
Evidence that Civil War re-enacting has declined in recent years is anecdotal at best. (Apparently re-enactors don’t take a lot of surveys.) But most people with any involvement in Civil War nostalgia agree that the re-enactment “boom” of the 80s and 90s has all but disappeared in the new millennium. Tony Horwitz, the author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, thinks it might be a post-9/11 mentality. “It’s harder to play-act war when we have two real ones in progress,” he says. “And perhaps younger people, addicted as they are to computers and other devices, aren’t as keen on spending their weekends in the 19th century.”
Another potential problem for the Sesquicentennial celebrations is that many of the Civil War re-enactors who are still active are the kind commonly called “hardcore.” For them, the Civil War is less an intellectual interest than a lifestyle choice. “They’ll starve themselves to achieve the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates,” says Horwitz. “They’ll soak their uniform buttons in urine to oxidize the metal and give it the patina it would have had in the 1860s. They sleep in ditches and avoid modern words when in the field. They’ll do everything short of firing live ammunition to recapture the experience of Civil War soldiers.” For would-be soldiers fiercely devoted to authenticity, having a crowd of any size on the sidelines, flashing their cameras and cheering for their favorite “team,” can only ruin the moment.
Scott Harris, the director of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in Virginia, is intimately familiar with the hardcore scene. He remembers one particularly devoted re-enactor who paid for inexpertly-done dental work “so that his bridgework or fillings would look more like they did in 1860.” But, he says, that doesn’t mean they aren’t, at their core, entertainers. “Re-enactments are like high school football games,” he says. It’s their chance to put on a show for the public, and they’re very aware of the cameras. “Even the ones who live for authenticity,” he says, “they’re still playing for the bleachers.”
It may be true, or it may just be more media spin. Redd is the first to admit that the next five years are very important for the Civil War re-enactment community. It’s their chance to prove that re-enactments aren’t just another fringe activity, like the pimply nerds who dress up as their favorite Star Trek characters. If the 150th anniversary draws fewer re-enactors and fewer large audiences, he says, “then the tide has turned for Civil War reenacting.”
Unfortunately, Redd doesn’t believe that the next big wave is coming. “We passed through a landmark moment in the 80s and 90s,” he says, and he doesn’t think it’ll be repeated in 2011. The promoters and city visitor bureaus may try to sell Civil War re-enactment as a modern and vibrant cultural phenomenon, but Redd is convinced that “those days are long gone.”
Don’t tell that to Jeff Chandler, a 38 year-old real estate investor in Kissimmee, Florida. He has a genetic connection to the Civil War; his great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier, part of the Fifth Regiment Maine Volunteer Infantry that took part in fourteen historic battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg. Last July, he visited a Gettysburg re-enactment as a spectator and caught the bug. He met with some recruiters, and hopes to come back for the Gettysburg anniversary in 2013 as an actual participant. “I want to feel their struggles, feel everything they went through,” he says. “I want to understand what they fought for.” He has no problem with the costs of being a re-enactor, from the travel expenses to the hefty price tag of a full Civil War military outfit. “It just depends on what your definition of cheap is,” he says with a laugh. “Whatever you put into this, you’re going to get back.”
He hopes his involvement with Civil War re-enactment goes beyond the Sesquicentennial. “My ultimate goal is to become financially independent so I can dedicate more time to this,” he says. “I could see us doing several more events, or even traveling around and doing re-enactment full time.” And he’s not alone. He has friends just like himself, with dreams of fighting a centuries-old war on pseudo-battlefields, and they’re willing to pay for the privilege. It remains to be seen if they’re the future of Civil War re-enactment, and if they and others like them have the enthusiasm and credit card spending limits to keep a nation-wide tourist industry alive. But at least for the next few years, there’s a Sutler in Virginia with a warehouse full of slouch hats and muskets, ready to take their order.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the February 25, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)