RICHMOND, Va. — In the passionate world of Civil War re-enactors, authenticity is everything — from uniforms with historically correct stitching to hardtack made from scratch.
A battle re-enactment last month pushed realism to the limits: A retired New York City police officer portraying a Union soldier for a documentary film was shot in the shoulder, possibly by a Confederate re-enactor.
The shooting sent the 73-year-old to the hospital and left the Isle of Wight Sheriff's Office in rural southeastern Virginia with a Civil War-style CSI case. Investigators used film to piece together what happened and have narrowed a suspect to one re-enactor.
The Sept. 27 injury also sent ripples through the tight-knit re-enactment community, which can be understandably sensitive to public perceptions of thousands of enthusiasts toting swords and firearms in roughhewn uniforms, often on horseback.
"We were sort of freaked out because this hits the hobby hard," said Ed Hooper, editor of Camp Chase Gazette, a monthly magazine aimed at re-enactors. "It is so out of the norm."
Walk-on actor to blame?
The shooting of Thomas R. Lord Sr. in a Suffolk park violated the cardinal rule of re-enacting — no loaded weapons. Black powder brings the flash and bang to the pageantry, but even that primitive explosive is used gingerly.
Re-enactors said Lord's shooting may have happened in part because walk-ons were used. These are re-enactors who typically are not affiliated with a unit and unfamiliar with the chain of command or safety rules, akin to a football player showing up on game day to play for a team the athlete has never met.
Lord's shooter was among several Confederate re-enactors who showed up at the filming, said John C. Jobe, a member of Lord's unit who witnessed the shooting.
Re-enactors who have worked in filmed battles said the camera itself might have been a factor, saying filmmakers sometimes put realism over safety and ignore the hobby's strict rules of engagement. The re-enactors who were there when Lord was hurt said they weren't sure whether the film crew checked for loaded weapons before the battle commenced.
Sheriff C.W. "Charlie" Phelps said he didn't have evidence that the filmmakers were negligent.
"I can't say that anybody dropped the ball," he said.
Lord was shot in the shoulder while portraying a member of the 7th New York Cavalry. The unit answered an Internet casting call from a film company called Alderwerks.
Officials with the Virginia Film Office were not familiar with the company or the director, listed on the casting call as Matthew Burchfield, who was credited as a casting assistant on director Terrence Malick's 2006 film "The New World," starring Colin Farrell and Christian Bale.
In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Burchfield declined to discuss specifics of the filming because of the investigation.
"We are thankful for Mr. Lord's recovery and continue to keep him in our thoughts," Burchfield wrote. "We have been in full co-operation with the investigators on this case and await their findings."
'We don't let strangers fight'
Re-enactors' attention to detail was on display again this month at Cedar Creek Battlefield in northern Virginia, when thousands participated without any serious injuries, according to Jake Jennette, who commanded the Confederate forces that weekend.
With the cadence of a retired Marine Corps infantry officer, Jennette ran through a laundry list of inspections his troops must undergo, from weapons inspections to repeated drills.
"When we go on the field we are satisfied that the weapon is cleared," Jennette said. "We've trained these guys. We start them out as a private in the ranks."
Walk-ons would not be allowed to fight under Jennette's command.
"We don't let strangers fight," he said. "We fight together, we trust each other."
Rookies typically will have faces smudged with powder to signal a new arrival — known as "seeing the elephant," he said. Bayonets are removed, and weapons are aimed upward during a charge.
According to witnesses, Lord was raising his arm in victory when a musket ball ripped into him. "I felt like I got hit in the shoulder with a baseball bat," Lord told The Daily Press of Newport News. He declined interviews with The Associated Press, citing the investigation.
The hobby has come a long way from its ragtag origins to the near-fanatical authenticity modern purists demand.
The National Park Service allowed 2,500 re-enactors to stage a battle in 1961 on Manassas National Battlefield Park, in what some view as the birth of Civil War re-enacting. A horse-drawn caisson bolted and had to be chased down and someone was knocked down by a cannon blast.
The Park Service no longer allows battlefield re-enactments.
Hooper, the editor of the re-enactor magazine, believes the hobby has been surprisingly injury-free despite the frenetic battle scenes.
The most serious incident he could recall was a shooting 20 years ago at the re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. A Charlottesville man was wounded when he was accidentally shot by a re-enactor from France, according to news accounts.
Phelps said the shooter could face a misdemeanor charge of reckless handling of a firearm up to a felony, malicious wounding.
For his part, Hooper said the shooting will only amplify safety.
"This will make people, especially the commanders, take a good look at the men in his unit," he said.
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