126 Years After the Real Battle of Cedar Creek, Men in Blue and Gray Fight a Much More Civil War

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

For the moment, the guns of Cedar Creek were silent. Fierce and martial men—half of them in blue, half in gray—squinted at one another across the killing ground. Soon they would clash, the smoke from black powder hanging heavy in the autumn air, the screams of the wounded punctuated by the cannons' roar. In the meantime, though, there were problems. The Confederate commander was having trouble commanding his horse. "Does 'Whoa!' make him stop?" he was wondering out loud. "Sometimes 'Whoa!' works," an aide-de-camp allowed. "Sometimes it doesn't. Just don't poke him in the butt with your sword.' "

It wasn't like this the first time they fought the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley back in 1864, when Gen. Jubal Early took 30,000 sleeping Union soldiers by surprise and nearly drove them from the field. That time, the fleeing Federals were rallied by Gen. Phil Sheridan, who turned the tide of battle and broke the back of the Rebel army.

This time, on the 126th-anniversary weekend of the bloody day when nearly 6.000 men lost their lives, the old battleground near Middletown was being chewed over by 900 Civil War "reenactors," men and women who get an enormous kick out of dressing up in reproductions of Civil War garb and charging around hallowed battlefields with blank-firing weapons. General Early's stand-in—he of the dubious equestrian skills—was really George Heffner, 43. a boiler repairman for the Maryland National Guard. Full-dress reenactments of Civil War battles are a way of life for him—he can no longer even recall how many he has done. "My two ex-wives said I went to too many," he says.

The reenactors, watched by large crowds of spectators inspired by the PBS series The Civil War and the 1989 movie Glory, are sticklers for historical accuracy. They sleep on beds of straw, cook thick stews over open fires and wear 1860s clothing re-created with painstaking period detail. There are no down sleeping bags, and L.L. Bean long Johns are banned. The trailer that sells super burgers on Texas toast. Italian sausage and fresh-cut French fries has been conveniently tucked away behind some nearby trees—not far from the long line of portable toilets. The day is perfect for battle.

On the Rebel side. Thomas Place, in real life a Yankee truck driver from Buffalo, N.Y., is priming his boys. He draws his sword and bows his head. "Gentlemen, listen up," he exhorts his men. "Dear Lord, please care for us and bless the Confederate soldier."

Then he tells them: "Take some water, gentlemen, while you have the chance."

Everyone takes a drink—everyone except for one hapless Reb. "Oh. hell," he says, "I left my canteen in the truck."

"They didn't have trucks then," a comrade hisses.

Sherman might not have believed it. but re-enactments can be hell too.

—Michael Neill, Bill Shaw at Cedar Creek

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