GETTYSBURG -- At this very moment, the spitting image of Gen. Robert E. Lee is outside his tent bowing to a lady and kissing her hand. That much is clear. What's blurry is just when "this very moment" occurs.
One supposes the present.
A living-history group called the Maryland Members of the Confederacy -- led by Carole and Art Twigg, who live in Sykesville and portray the white-haired general and his wife -- is camped now at General Lee's headquarters at Gettysburg. The encampment is one of several events marking the anniversary of the great Civil War battle here July 1, 2 and 3, 1863.
But with a turn of the mind and the suspension of reality, "this very moment" takes place in the mid-19th century -- simple, southern, chivalrous and romantically remembered by the Maryland Members of the Confederacy. After all, the suspension of reality is the foundation of the group.
"All of us are kind of disappointed in the world today," says Mr. Twigg, wearing a replica of the dapple-gray uniform General Lee wore when he surrendered at Appomattox two years after Gettysburg. "Crime is rampant. Children grow up without honor and respect. Everybody wants too much and races through life too fast."
"This is our escape from reality," interjects Mrs. Twigg, wearing a full, elegant gown.
"A lot of people out here are possessed," says Mr. Twigg, referring to re-enactors and living historians who descend by the thousands upon Gettysburg the first days of July. "They're stuck in the Civil War era. I'm close, but I'm not possessed. I know there's the reality, and there's the fantasy. And I live the fantasy."
But the boundaries are often unclear. Conflicting images abound.
r. Twigg and the 17 others in his group set up camp next to the old stone house that was Lee's headquarters the first day of the battle 132 years ago. Most of them will be there until
Wednesday. The stone house, now a fine museum, is surrounded by a Quality Inn, a gift shop and General Lee's Family Restaurant on busy Route 30.
So it turns out that the armed pickets in their gray uniforms guarding General Lee's encampment this week also guard a 7-Up machine and the gift shop. The members of the Twigg group pop into the Quality Inn lobby for air conditioning and coffee, and visit the restaurant for the General Lee Country Omelet or the Rebel Reuben.
They do occasionally camp in more remote areas, build fires and commune with ghosts of the war, but here the campsite is a patch of lawn wedged between the stone house and the motel putting green. A blazing streetlight provides the means to read even at 3 a.m., and the whining cars and roaring trucks ensure a fitful night's sleep for a person from any century.
But the state highway guarantees a deluge of curious visitors to the campsite. And they provide their own conflicting images, such as the man in the Jimmy Buffett Fruitcakes On Tour T-shirt listening as the man portraying Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble tells with great emotion of losing a leg in Pickett's Charge.
The more the merrier, as far as the Maryland Members of the Confederacy is concerned. The Twiggs founded the group in 1993 as a vehicle for educating people about the Civil War era from the southern point of view and claiming a part of that era for themselves. Members appear in schools, on battlefields, even in nursing homes.
"We're not trying to be a militia and arm the people so we can take over and burn down the Capitol," Mr. Twigg says. "We're not trying to fight another war. The war's over. But it is part of our history and our ancestors' history. And we respect that."
They display the Confederate flag -- "not with any animosity," Mr. Twigg says, "but with honor and pride for our ancestors."
What about slavery? Although it was the issue that poisoned the conflict between the industrial North and the rural South, the war began over state's rights and an encroaching federal government, Mr. Twigg says.
"I'm totally against slavery," he says. "I don't believe any human being should be in bondage, except maybe someone who has committed a crime and is in prison."
And racism? "In other units, I'm sure it does exist, both Union and Confederate," Mr. Twigg says. "But there's no place for that in my group."
Mr. and Mrs. Twigg are both 55. She works as a payroll clerk for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. He is a building engineer for Loyola Banking in Glen Burnie.
She began looking at him funny about four years ago after they joined a group that re-enacted Civil War battles, and he began growing a beard to go along with his white hair and mustache.
"You know," she started telling him, "you look like Robert E. Lee."
"Now don't start that," he shot back. "No way am I going to portray Robert E. Lee."
But others saw it too -- even when he shopped in street clothes at the mall. "Finally, I said, if so many people accept me visually, I'd consider it a great honor to portray this wonderful man," Mr. Twigg says.
He began reading everything about Lee. He says he's got a long way to go, 10 more years to read it all, but nobody ever questions his uncanny resemblance to the man.
He knows of three others who portray General Lee, none of whom he's met, but it was Mr. Twigg the U.S. Postal Service picked to portray the general at last week's dedication at Gettysburg of the new Civil War stamps.
Mr. Twigg acknowledges that his character changed once he began portraying Robert E. Lee. The line between reality and fantasy blurs again.
"My entire life has changed, to be honest with you," he says. "I used to have a very quick temper. I read that General Lee, too, was once a highly temperamental man. But he learned how to control it. So I figured, I can too. I learned how to have patience, to think before I leap into action.
"I was also self-centered. But he was a man of such love and compassion, and above all a man of great honor. I decided that if I'm going to portray Robert E. Lee, I'm going to live like him."
Whether he's in or out of uniform, Mr. Twigg now greets females graciously. He calls males, regardless of age, "sir." And he addresses other members of his unit, no matter the circumstance, by their adopted identity.
His wife explains: "They could be in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts, but to each other they're still generals. Let me tell you, you put on one of these dresses, and you become a lady."
Donna Gribble agrees. A 42-year-old school bus driver from Cockeysville, she portrays Ann Trimble, the second wife of General Trimble. Her husband, Larry, a 40-year-old school bus mechanic for Baltimore County schools, portrays General Trimble.
"You feel very feminine, very elegant," says Mrs. Gribble, explaining that underneath the cotton dress she made are about five layers of undergarments.
"I just love to wear the clothes. And I love having a man open a door for me, or pull out a chair, or tip his hat in the street. Some women who wanted to burn their bras took away the glory of being a woman for the rest of us."