Carrying a nine-pound musket upright between two fingers is pretty painful. It feels like your right shoulder is slowly being dislocated and your knuckles are about to snap apart. I know, because I did it while marching in formation and wearing a wool Confederate uniform (jacket and cap, anyway) in 90-degree heat and overwhelming humidity.
I'd signed up, with about 30 others, to live the life of a 19th-century soldier for 18 hours (from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m.) at the Civil War Adventure Camp at Pamplin Historical Park, a 422-acre complex of historical homes, museums, and trails near Petersburg, Va. While we changed into uniforms--you can request Union or Confederate--we were told to store our cell phones in lockers. We then learned how to load muskets (with gunpowder but no bullets), practiced all kinds of flag-waving military signal codes, skirmished against our enemy, and did guard duty for 30 minutes at a time, which involved pacing with a musket and ordering another person to "Halt!" The food and lodging were true to the times, too: For dinner, we ate beef stew with hardtack (a tough cracker); for breakfast, we had beef jerky with dried fruit; and in between, we slept in tents or bunkhouses.
"We try to straddle the line between authenticity and comfort," explained Jefferson Spilman, a longtime war-museum guide, who was lieutenant of our company. Comforts included modern bathroom facilities, water breaks, and even wages--in the form of admission to the on-site National Museum of the Civil War Soldier (normally $13.50) and a $5 voucher for the gift shop. Between hollering orders and demonstrating bayonet techniques, Lt. Spilman regaled us with stories about how soldiers never washed and had nicknames for everything. (The "Virginia quickstep" sounds like something you do at a cotillion, but it actually referred to diarrhea.)
Half of the participants were grown men getting their reenactment feet wet. "I love history," said Ed Gill, 63, a retired medical photographer from Hillsborough, N.C. "But real reenactments take too much dedication and equipment.... And my wife said no."
The rest were kids, or their mothers. "I'm obsessed with the Civil War," said Jacob Walker, a 10-year-old from Mechanicsville, Va. (His whole Cub Scout troop had come to the camp.) "I've created my own regiment. We practice after school in my backyard. I'm the general." When I asked Jacob what he thought of all the marching, he barked at me: "We're not supposed to be talking in formation!" But then he softened somewhat. "It's my first reenactment, too," he confided.
The next Rally Days are September 3, and October 1 and 29; groups of 20 or more can book private Platoon Programs anytime. Kids under 14 carry rifle-shaped sticks, instead of muskets. 804/861-2408, civilwaradventurecamp.com, $70.