One day last September I was visited by a couple of guys who were writing a cover story on the South for a Dutch magazine. They had been to Darlington, Tuskegee, Oxford, Charleston, and other shrines of Southern culture, and I was pleased to see that Chapel Hill was still on the list. Over Allen & Son’s barbecue we talked about their travels.

They had just come from witnessing a War Between the States reenactment at Flat Rock, North Carolina, they said, and they were struck by the utter seriousness with which reenactors pursue their calling. It is an every-weekend event for many of them, with thousands of dollars spent on uniforms and equipment and travel to battles. My visitors were also impressed with the remarkable authenticity some of these weekend warriors achieve. Many refuse to do anything that their originals could not have done: they sleep on straw, cook vile food over open fires, huddle in leaky canvas tents against the rain. But even in the most scrupulously 19th-century setting some contemporary issues just won’t go away. My Dutch friends had met a young woman who’s tired of being a camp-follower and bandage-roller and wants to shoot it out with the boys. Women in the military, retroactively.

Now, historically, a few women really did bear arms for Southern independence. Harry Turtledove’s science fiction novel The Guns of the South makes use of the genuine case of Molly Bean, who fought for two years (and was twice wounded) with the 47th North Carolina. But I gather that Molly could pass for a man, or at least for a boy, and apparently that’s not a possibility for this latterday Janie Reb. She isn’t letting that stop her, though: she is muttering about legal action—an option that probably wouldn’t be open to her if the Confederacy had won.

Anyway, when I had to confess that, as a matter of fact, I had never been to a reenactment, I could see my credibility evaporating. So when I learned the next week that there was to be one about an hour’s drive away from us, I took it as a sign that the time had come for me to fill this hole in my experience. With three visiting English friends, my wife and I set off to see the little-known Battle of Aversboro, originally fought in March 1865, a good way to the south of where we were to witness it.

As we pulled into the makeshift parking area, paid our five dollars to the Confederate-uniformed guard, and took a program from his hoop-skirted assistant, we could see the cantonment, which had been set up that morning. Various Confederate flags—the Stars and Bars, the Stainless Banner, the Battle Flag—fluttered in the breeze over a concession area offering refreshments, souvenirs, and bumper stickers saying things like “Vote Confederate” and “I’d Rather Be Shooting Yankees.” I bought a Minie ball to go on my keyring with the .45 cartridge already there (the gift of a distinguished Southern poet who told me it was a mojo to keep liberals away, but mostly it just causes me problems in airports).

We had missed the Gentlemen’s Duel and the Period Fashion Show, but arrived just in time for the Capture and Trial of a Federal Spy, which the program said would take 15 minutes—short work, we reckoned. The spy turned out to be a woman (not a lady, obviously), so Southern chivalry wouldn’t allow her to face a firing squad on the spot. To our disappointment, she was just marched off under guard to prison in Raleigh.

Soon the cavalry came jingling by—a score of splendid horses, their riders in an authentically motley assortment of grey and butternut uniforms, most of them with plumed hats a la Jeb Stuart. They rode across the pasture-battlefield and into the woods, to reconnoiter for Sherman’s forces, moving up from South Carolina. Meanwhile, the field artillery, distinguished by the red flashes on their natty grey uniforms (too natty for 1865, I thought), wheeled their big gun into place on a knoll overlooking the field. The infantry—50 or 60 men, three young drummer boys, and a couple of officers—marched from the camp to the field, where they knelt for a prayer by the chaplain, then arrayed themselves in three trenches that looked suspiciously like the work of a modern backhoe. The regimental band had set up just down from the artillery, and it struck up a couple of hymns, then “Just Before the Battle, Mother.” Several hundred of us spectators were strung out on a line perpendicular to the trenches.

Everything was in place. Now all we needed were some Yankees.

The public address announcer gave us a run-down on the battle we were about to observe: essentially a holding action late in the war, he said, nothing much in the way of strategic significance—in other words, a hell of a place to die, but some folks were fixing to, anyway.

Eventually the Confederate troopers galloped out of the woods to report the enemy’s approach. Then a couple of Union horsemen were spotted, before they rode off to deliver their report. The crowd was getting restless.

Suddenly, at the edge of the forest, there they were, the blue-belly hordes!

Maybe 20 of them.

It seems there’s a problem. Nobody wants to be a Yankee. Even the few who turned out on this afternoon didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it. One of them said only, “It’s a nasty job, but somebody’s got to do it.” I read later that reenactments of our Civil War are a big deal in Europe, and they have the same problem, but they’ve solved it with characteristic finesse: European reenactors are required to be Yankees for several years before they’re allowed to be Confederates.

Anyway, back in North Carolina, the federals formed a double line and advanced across the open field toward the first of the three earthworks. This sort of suicidal advance (on a larger scale, of course) just about did the Confederate Army in at Gettysburg, but when the artillery cut loose with a deafening “kabooooom”—no one fell. The Confederates in the forward trench held their fire until the blue line was almost on them, then cut loose with a sheet of flame, a mighty “craa-aack,” billows of black-powder smoke—and still no one fell. Just over the hill, I reminded myself, folks were waterskiing on Falls Lake, and I wondered what they made of all the gunfire.

With loud huzzahs and bayonets fixed, the corporal’s guard of Yanks (one of them in a dashing Zouave outfit) charged the trench, broke the green South Carolina militiamen who were manning it and drove them back, then went on to rout the second line and drive them back. Meanwhile, off to the side, the equally outnumbered Union horse-soldiers, sabres drawn, were mixing it up inconclusively with the rebel cavalry. By this time dead and wounded Confederates littered the field, but the Yankee boys hadn’t yet taken any casualties to speak of. We understood that this was because there weren’t any Union soldiers to spare, but still, it was getting embarrassing. As the thin blue line advanced past the dead and dying Confederates toward the third and last of the Confederate trenches, I was reminded of what Reuben Greenberg, the black police chief of Charleston, South Carolina, said when someone asked why he gave one of his officers time off from work to march with the Palmetto Guards. “Well,” Chief Greenberg said, “you all have always told me that one boy in grey is worth ten in blue.” But it sure wasn’t working out that way this particular afternoon, and the crowd was getting uneasy. When the sound of a jet plane was heard through the overcast, someone joked, “At last—air support!”

In the trench waited the rebs who had successfully withdrawn from the forward works and those who had been held in reserve all along. So far the Yankees had been invincible, but now at last they would be allowed to die for their country. From 20 feet away they took a volley head on. Then another. As the crowd cheered, they crumpled like tissue paper.

Through all of this, the band had been playing jaunty airs. Now they struck up “Dixie,” then “The Bonny Blue Flag.” As the Confederates came out of the trench to recover their wounded, one paused to examine a fallen Yankee. “Take his shoes!” a woman next to me shouted.

Afterwards we wandered around the camp, where we watched the amiable fraternization between Blue and Grey. We bought some sarsaparilla, on tap at one of the sutlers’ wagons, and looked around the hospital tent, where a medical student from East Carolina University had set up his array of antique bonesaws and other fearsome implements. Someone introduced me to Wolfgang Dresser, a young man who has achieved some fame in reenacting circles for his devotion to the Cause. Every year Herr Dresser comes over from Germany for a month’s vacation, going from one reenactment to another, serving as a Confederate private. What I want to know is, where were these guys when we needed them?

My wife overheard one Confederate private telling another that there was a Pizza Hut a couple of miles down the road. (When she said “Pizza Hut?” he grinned and, turning to his buddy, said, “Say, I saw me a dead mule back yonder. Looks like mighty good eatin’ tonight!”) But others took their cuisine more seriously. A naval unit up from the coast (with their boat on a trailer) was cooking cabbage and field peas in a big iron pot. The jolly jack tars had fought as infantry that day, but back in camp they were sailors again and proudly showed us their guns and “torpedoes” (mines). They explained that everything on the boat was authentic except the modern lifejackets and radio equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard. I reflected that a Confederate Coast Guard probably wouldn’t have meddled.

It was getting late, we were getting hungry (and for something better than cabbage and held peas), so our English friends bought one last souvenir and we hit the road. A good day’s work. The Yankee advance had been thwarted, however temporarily. There was still hope.

* * *

At lunch a few days later with an academic crowd, I was telling my companions about the afternoon, and how—well, “interesting” was the word my English friends had used, and that’s exactly right—how interesting it was.

“I don’t know,” one of the others said. “Didn’t you find it just a little—well, you know.”

Unfortunately I did, but I wanted to make him say it. I asked him what he meant.

“Well,” he said, “wasn’t it sort of a redneck crowd?”

I told him, first, not really and, second, I don’t have anything against rednecks, and we let the subject drop, by tacit mutual consent. But I wish I hadn’t.

Look, what I saw was a bunch of guys out having a good time—shooting guns, riding horses, camping out, praying—and a few hundred citizens like me, who enjoyed watching them do it.

Sure, most of the Confederate reenactors seemed to be Southern patriots, and many of them were doing homage to their ancestors. My questioner may have a problem with that, but I don’t.

As for racism, which I take to be the real subtext of that question—well, one of my English friends was sniffing about for that, too. He was somewhat taken aback by one woman’s battle-flag T-shirt that said “Heritage, Not Hate,” but relieved when the P.A. announcer concluded a list of American wars with “Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Los Angeles.” He has been in American academic life long enough to know that opposition to burning and looting is just a mask for racism.

For my part, though, I was struck with the fact that my English friend had to do some decoding to conclude that we had fallen among bigots. I mean, when small-town and rural white Southerners have racist thoughts we’re notorious for not keeping them to ourselves, and I didn’t hear any overtly racist talk all day. I did hear some strictures directed at the junior senator from Illinois, but, after all, she started it.

No, the senator would not have been well-received, in the unlikely event she had chosen to make an appearance that afternoon. On the other hand, while it’s true (and to my mind perfectly unremarkable) that this was almost entirely a white crowd, I stood for a while near a middle-aged black man, who seemed to be having fun, like everybody else. If he was pulling for the Yankees he kept it to himself, but I don’t believe he’d have taken more than good-natured teasing if he’d ‘fessed up.

And I wouldn’t have hesitated at all to introduce my friend Don to these guys. Don is a Mississippian, now a college professor in Pennsylvania, and he belongs to something called the Sable Arm, an organization with membership limited to direct descendants of black Union soldiers. He’s not a reenactor, but some of his friends are. (Where do you think the 54th Massachusetts in the movie Glory came from?) If I had taken Don along that afternoon, I’m sure he would have been welcomed—kidded, perhaps, like the Union reenactors, but welcomed. And he’d have understood what was going on a good deal better than your average college professor.