From BMWs to Bugles : Trends: Tired of fast-lane living, many yuppies are relieving stress and reliving the past by marching off to war--the Civil War.
As recently as a couple of years ago, 29-year-old Bill Byrd did everything you’d expect of a yuppie: He bought a BMW and a Rolex, and he was constantly living at the limit of his 15 credit cards.
Today, the Little Rock, Ark., salesman spends most of his extra cash on such items as a $250 navy-blue wool suit--impeccably tailored in the style of an 1860s Union cavalryman--a pair of $375 Manhattan pistols and a pair of $200 leather riding boots.
And instead of visiting health spas for recreation, he’s heading for battlefields--Civil War battlefields.
Byrd is one of a growing number of young and middle-aged urban professionals who have turned into Civil War buffs in what has become the latest yuppie pursuit. Rather than skipping dinner to work late, as they did during the 1980s, these relative newcomers to history are leaving the office early on Fridays to travel to a Civil War battlefield for an early-morning tour.
On reflection, the matchup may be a natural, as even the yuppies themselves concede.
After a decade of materialism and self-absorption, young professionals are taking an interest in the Civil War partly to regain their bearings--and as an anchor for their lives, says Gregory Markus, a political scientist at the Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“The last decade was focused so much on making money, consumerism and a strict, short-term focus on the bottom line,” Markus says. “Now, people . . . are trying to put their work and their own lives in some larger context. Searching through history is one way to do that.”
Bob Ross, 31, a research chemist in Rochester, N.Y., who has assembled a fledgling collection of 24 new and rare books on the Civil War, agrees. “It brings you back to your roots,” he says. “It gives me a perspective on the things that are going on today.”
James Robertson, a Civil War historian who has written several books on the era, says the trend has been intensified by the recent 11-hour Civil War series on the Public Broadcasting Service--the network’s most-watched series.
About 250,000 Americans are pursuing some aspect of Civil War history, from collecting memorabilia to re-enacting battles, says Robertson, who declares: “Interest in the Civil War is at an all-time high.”
But the most surprising development to some is how many of the new Civil War buffs are yuppies--or, at least, reformed yuppies.
When 35-year-old Jean Nash of Darnestown, Md., who owns a real estate management firm, went to a meeting of Civil War buffs here earlier this year, she expected to see “a bunch of old fogies.” Instead, she found 40-something professionals, including a neurosurgeon and a financial analyst.
Although firm statistics are not available, Roy Morris, editor of the American Civil War magazine, says a survey of his readership shows that the majority are white-collar and between 25 and 45.
David Shackelford, an officer in the Western Brigade, an Indiana-based Civil War battle re-enactment group, says more than half of the organization’s 1,000 members are baby boomers in the same 25-45 age group.
And officials at Gettysburg National Military Park say most of their visitors are in their 30s and 40s.
Though most battlefields and dealers are concentrated in the East, California has Civil War devotees, too. Last month, the National Civil War Assn. in Sunnyvale hosted two battle re-enactments. And for four years, buffs from all over the state have convened in San Diego for the Grand Military Encampment: three days of parades and re-enactments.
The fact that the biggest new group of Civil War buffs are young professionals may be more than a coincidence. As older memorabilia collectors can attest, it takes a lot of cash to buy Civil War relics, or even reproductions. Even the uniforms and boots can add up.
Gregory Ferguson, a North Little Rock, Ark., attorney, estimates he has spent several thousand dollars on Civil War paraphernalia over the past few years--$1,200 each for Confederate and Union uniforms (he switches sides from show to show) and $500 for a tent.
He also has bought a steel officer’s sword--valued by experts at about $2,000--and has spent $240 on black iron cooking pots and another $500 for a musket.
The Western Brigade’s Shackelford points out that you also must have enough spare time to be able to take off a few days every now and then to participate in the reenactment of a battle.
Just like buying the junk bonds of yore, collecting Civil War memorabilia promises a high rate of return on many investments.
The interest in memorabilia has sent prices on rare and used books and manuscripts soaring, says Dave Zullo, owner of Olde Soldier Books near Washington.
And Howard Marquardt, who makes and sells small pewter castings of Civil War-era soldiers, points out that a commemorative set that once sold for $1.69 now goes for as much as $1,000.
The Institute of Social Research’s Markus suggests that yuppies may be more attracted to Civil War-related hobbies than those in other generations or income brackets because they are “more susceptible to taking stock” of their lives following a decade of high living.
But Kalamazoo, Mich., attorney James S. Brady II contends there are even loftier benefits. Brady insists that learning about the dedication of the 1860s soldiers to their causes inspires him to be more committed to his clients.
Brady has devoted an entire room in his home to the display of Civil War artifacts, books and letters, including 125 letters written by a Massachusetts Union Army captain, Charles James Mills.
“The Civil War for me is much more than a hobby,” Brady, 36, says. “It’s a way to become closer to people whom I most seriously admire by owning something they owned.”
But Byrd, for one, believes that the sociological explanations may be overdone. The Civil War hobby is mainly “a good way of relieving stress,” he says--a way to escape 10-hour days and fast-lane living.
Indeed, for all his fancy uniforms, the modern-day cavalryman in many ways seems unrepentant about the 1980s.
“I still have the Rolex,” he says.