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By Staff | Aug 20, 2010

Reenactors gather on the courthouse lawn for some socializing and a ball.

Black powder gun smoke mingled with the fumes from numerous campfires, tinge the hot summer afternoon a light blue.

As the staccato of musket fire popped and crackled in the distant tree line, a nearby cannon suddenly thundered, its shockwave powerful enough to instantly liquefy the bowels of unwary bystanders

A sooty, sweaty blacksmith slapped a chunk of cherry-red iron onto his anvil and began to hammer it into shape as shapely ladies in large and elegant hoop skirts strolled past. A tall man with distinctive headgear – a stovepipe hat – made his way from canvas tent to canvas tent, his wife, Mary Todd, at his side.

Some sort of time warp? An extremely isolated area where folks hadn’t gotten the word that the Civil War is over? Nope. Just a few random scenes from the recent Pipestone Civil War Days.

I was drafted into being a part of this event, portraying someone who is pretending to be a reenactor. I don’t rightly recall how this all came about; I am a peaceable person who so dislikes conflict that I even avoid games of tic-tac-toe.

Union Army reenactors fire a cannon during a demonstration.

In any event, Myron Koets and I tried to play the part of sailors from the ironclads the Monitor and the Merrimack. Which is sort of silly when you consider that I can’t even swim.

Attending Civil War Days was eye-opening and educational. One of the first things I learned is that my wife likes to receive compliments.

My wife had purchased a long and flowing dress, one that’s correct for the Civil War era. I still find it somewhat strange that a person can buy ancient-looking apparel over the Internet.

She also purchased a parasol. For you young people, a parasol is not an alternative form of Lysol; it’s an umbrella-like device that ladies use to shade themselves from the sun.

During our two-day foray at Civil War Days, my wife was told numerous times that her outfit was very pretty. A good number of folks also snapped her picture. She soaked it all up like water to a parched sponge.

“I’ve decided what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she declared after a bit. “I’m going to dress up and go to Civil War events and let people compliment me.”

Great work if you can get it.

Speaking of clothing, there was a huge variety dresses being worn by the ladies at Civil War Days. Many of these involved the so-called “hoop skirt.” The mechanics of such devices are incomprehensible to mortal man, but when properly applied give the impression that the wearer is floating along on a bell-shaped cloud of cloth.

Some of the ladies had hairdos and hair accessories that seemed to defy all known laws of physics. I cannot imagine how those things were assembled and the amount of effort they needed for maintenance.

On the evening of the first day a grand ball was held on the courthouse lawn. The combination of the architecture, a luxurious lawn and the sumptuous clothing were enough to make us believe that we been magically transported to the antebellum South.

A good number of the ball gowns were as fancy as wedding cakes and seemed to have just as many layers. If lace and frills were frosting, some of those dresses would have weighed several hundred pounds.

A pair of familiar-looking figures stood at the edge of the crowd. Screwing up my courage, I went over and introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.

Turns out that they are actually Max and Donna Daniels of Wheaton, Ill. I asked them how long they’d been involved with such events.

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years,” said Mrs. Lincoln. “We’re pretty much attending Civil War events every weekend from April through October. It’s our full time job. It’s how we pay the mortgage.”

After we had chatted a pleasant spell, Mrs. Lincoln glanced around. “He’s slipped his leash again,” she mused. “The president manages the country, but I have to manage the president!”

The next day I tried to notice more things. A lone fiddle floated the strains of “Ashokan Farewell” on a cool breeze. A clutch of little girls – some of them dressed in period garb, including deep bonnets – watched enraptured as a lady demonstrates the fine art of quilting. Two small boys wearing Union uniforms marched in formation, wood rifles on their shoulders.

It reminded me of something Mrs. Lincoln had said the previous evening.

“This is one of the best Civil War events we have ever attended,” she murmured as dozens of reenactors stepped lively to the music in the soft summer twilight. “The people here are so nice and the whole community participates. It feels like one big family!”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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