The Best Time My Civil War Soldier Came Home

by Emily Hilliard

My boyfriend, let’s call him Eli, fights for the Union Army. Sometimes Confederate, but mostly Union. He uses the excuse “I don’t have enough ammunition” as a reason for not going away for a weekend, and he once gave me a piece of hardtack, saying “Something to remember me by — it’ll last longer than I will.” Yep, dude’s a Civil War reenactor. And though my parents and friends may have guffawed a little when I first told them, dating a reenactor is pretty great.

For one, it means he’s most definitely a history nerd. Now maybe this is not a plus for you, but for me it’s a major pro. You’ll have flirty email correspondence in Morse code, and you can spend an evening together geeking out over early color photographs from the Russian Empire. It also means he will most likely love to cuddle up over an episode or two (or three, or four) of Downton Abbey, then engage you in conversation over the implication of Sybil’s harem pantaloons or Branson’s Irish radicalism.

Another great thing about having a reenactor boyfriend is that he probably sews. And for Christmas, he will make you a cool pouch made out of scraps of Osnaburg cotton he’s going to use to make a period-appropriate shirt for himself. He’ll also mend your vintage dress if the seams are busted and take a real interest in what knitting stitches you’re using on that scarf for your mom.

It also likely means that the man has a lot of close guy friends and mentors (fellow soldiers) with whom he’s staged battles or spent all night in the cold rain with nothing but hardtack to eat and the dregs of the fire to keep warm. By enduring such trials together, particularly those that are completely voluntary and under strange old-timey constrictions, reenactors tend to forge deep bonds that ground them in other aspects of their lives. In a world where “the bromance” has only recently been accepted by mainstream culture, my fella has strong male friendships and is comfortable with them. That’s cool.

It’s also sort of like having a daguerreotype boyfriend … but he’s REAL.

But it’s not all Gone With the Wind and “My very dear Sarah.” There’s also the risk of yellow fever, lice, malaria, malnutrition … Okay, so maybe even hardcore reenactors don’t go to quite those lengths to make their experience authentic, but one thing that can be a little rough is that reenactors are away all the time, staging battles with their buddies. Especially now, when the 150th anniversary of the War Between The States is upon us.

This was the case last weekend, when I was headed to a square dance/old-time music festival on a Virginia farm (if it’s any wonder I’m into a history nerd …). A bunch of Eli’s (non Civil War) friends were going to be there dancing and singing and playing banjos and fiddles, but it coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of McDowell. This was a source of a little tension between us — I really wanted Eli to come to the festival, but he felt that he had to go on an ill-fated attempt to fend off Stonewall Jackson’s attack — even though he already knew the Union was going to LOSE. I could tell he felt conflicted, though, so I decided to lay off and do my thing.

At the festival, as each one of his many friends came up to me, asking where he was, I had to say, “Well, he had to go fight the Civil War.” After several of these interactions, I decided that we needed to embrace the spirit of the thing and write him a letter. The letter read (cue “Ashokan Farewell”) …

May 6,1862 2012

Dearest Eli,

We are gathered around the table at the old home place and our mind drifts to you. Mrs. Cook and Mr. McGuiness have prepared a fine meal of bean stew, pork sausage from Sebastian’s farm, cornbread, creamed corn, boiled turnips, and light ale. Despite our plentiful fare, we are starved for news of you. Julie reminds us that yester night around the hearth, Mr. Winne sang a song, in his angelic voice, in memory of you. And just this morning, Miss Hilliard stopped in on her daily walk to market, inquiring for news of you from the battlefield. But all of this begs the question: Why aren’t you here? The war is over. Come home.

Your Loving Family

By Saturday night, I had just about gotten signatures from all the friends and relations from the old home place, so I folded it up in the pocket of my party dress, braided my hair, and walked through the moonlight to the packed barn teeming with dancers swinging and promenading and do-si-do-ing to a rippin’ live band. I found a partner and quickly got into the fray of what was the fastest and most exhilarating square dance of my life. After I’d swung so much I was sweaty, dizzy, and worried about the lack of bloomers under my dress, I decided to sit the next one out to catch my breath. I found a spot to stand in the barn door where I could watch the dancers and was drinking a beer and doing a little flatfoot, when I heard some heavy footsteps on the wood planks of the barn porch. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, I turned, and there was my Union soldier, in his woolen frock coat and side-cocked forage cap, trousers, and boots. I ran into his arms and he caught me and spun me around in the air, skirts-a-flyin’.

He must have gotten my unsent letter! (Did someone email it?)

And then we danced. And the band played “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Emily Hilliard is a folklorist, fiddler, and baker currently residing in Washington, D.C. She writes very little about the Civil War and a lot about pie at Nothing in the House.

Photo by Todd Harrington.