Each year a hilltop known as Battery Hooper in Fort Wright becomes ground zero for Union and Confederate "soldiers" whose other jobs include the likes of insurance adjuster, special-ed teacher and receiving clerk.

On a summer afternoon at a wooded hilltop in Northern Kentucky, a canon shot splits the sky and leaves a shroud of silence behind. Men in coarse jackets and shapeless pants held up by suspenders stop in mid-sentence and glance over their shoulders.

Then the talk resumes, punctuated by fitful gunshots from Colt revolvers, muzzle-loading Enfield rifles and the boom of a big-bore Sharps.

"The Enfield is our most common weapon. It's rifled, not like a musket, so it's lethal to 500 yards," says Sgt. Tony Layman. "It can fire two or three rounds a minute. A good soldier can fire three."

If the year is 1862, the soldiers huddled around him are listening carefully, shifting restlessly from equal parts fear and excitement. If the day is Sept. 10, they have been ordered to sleep on their guns and form battle lines at 3 a.m. An army is making dust clouds to the south, marching to invade and burn Cincinnati. They're the last defense.

Wait A Minute

But it can't be 1862. The men on the hilltop known as Battery Hooper in Fort Wright wear gray. And no Confederates ever made it that far.

These soldiers are re-enactors "” not the motley mix of soldiers, rural Squirrel Hunters and freed black men who defended Cincinnati 150 years ago. Their battle that was never fought is replayed each year on the same ground where frantic defenders dug trenches and wrestled cannons up steep hills through tangled brush and thick woods.

Among the modern Confederate "replacements" at Battery Hooper Days on that recent day are a West Chester insurance adjuster, Sgt. Layman; a special-ed teacher from Milford, Bob Guinan; a Procter & Gamble shipping and receiving clerk from Harrison, Quinn Marcotte; and a federal employee from Cheviot, Rick Peak.

They drill, march and re-fight eight battles each summer as Company D of the Kentucky Infantry, also known as "The Orphan Brigade" because of Kentucky's resolute neutrality in the Civil War.

Sgt. Layman says, "We're not stitch counters," meaning the hard-core re-enactors so obsessed with authenticity they don't bathe for weeks and live on rancid salt pork and stale hard tack. "That kind of diet is not good for you," he laughs. "We're more of a mainstream unit. We pass the test. We're authentic enough."

No Coolers or Pop Tarts

Which puts them somewhere between the stitch-counting fanatics and the slacker sunshine soldiers who bring Pop Tarts and hide coolers of cold beverages on the battlefield, strategically placed for "defending the shade."

"They take a mortal wound," Cpl. Guinan explains, "then they crawl off to 'die' in a nice shady spot."

Company D burns "pounds and pounds of black powder," firing blanks. They drill through the winters and study terrain and tactics for meticulous role-playing at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Antietam, Perryville and Gettysburg. They camp near battlefields in Civil War tents, with hard benches, logs and stumps for furniture.

"Sometimes you run out of ammunition and you run," says Guinan. "Sometimes you're just hot and tired and you run."

Nobody pays the ultimate price. But they pay their way.

Layman's impressively realistic jacket: about $300. Matching pants, $150. Add belt, canteen, cartridge box, rucksack, quilt and 1853 Enfield rifle: about $1,000.

So why do they do it? Because playing summer soldier is priceless.

Summer Soldiers

Layman has nine ancestors who were in the Civil War, but only one was a Confederate. He joined the South "because I met them first," he says.

His wife is a history teacher, and as soon as they went to a re-enactment 18 years ago, he was hooked.

"The idea is to come out and have fun, talk about history and live history.

"Some get into the politics, but I don't have an agenda. I just enjoy the company "” even the Union side. We enjoy slinging insults."

Marcotte jokes, "It's a great way to meet people "¦ and kill them." Then adds, "It's really about the little moments when you feel like you are there."

Peck can rattle off battlefield details like a military historian. Guinan says "a textbook covers only this much," thumb and forefinger an inch apart. And dry books can't compare for laughs.

When their entire company was wiped out by a cannon at one battle, a heckler in the crowd yelled, "How many Confederates does it take to change a light bulb?"

Guinan was quick to shout back a historically correct reply: "What's a light bulb?"

Not far from the Kentucky 9th, a union officer demonstrated loading a Sharps. Women in Civil War gowns like floating petticoat teepees sang hymns.

A Yankee artillery squad loaded a gleaming black canon for another deafening round.

But at nightfall, when the tents were folded and the soldiers turned on their cell phones and drove back to the highway in pickups and Toyotas, the ghosts of 1862 must have emerged from the woods in wide-eyed wonder.

"How," they must have asked, "could our lives in the 1860s hold such a power and fascination 150 years later?

Don't they know that the battle never took place? Don't they know the Confederate Army was turned back because Gen. Lew Wallace saved Cincinnati"

The answer would be, "Mostly no."


The Amazing General Who Saved Our Bacon in Porkopolis

In Brookville, Ind., about 60 miles northwest of Cincinnati, a marker stands behind St. Michaels Church to honor the birthplace of Lew Wallace. The local high school has a Lew Wallace auditorium.

One of his books was so popular it outsold the Bible for a decade: "Ben-Hur, a Tale of Christ." Most know it was made into a movie that swept the Oscars. Few may know it was written by a Civil War general who was chastised for failing to follow orders at Shiloh, then parked on the shelf in Cincinnati.

In his remarkable career he saved Washington, D.C. in the 1864 battle of Monocacy, helped investigate and convict John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy to kill President Lincoln, became governor of New Mexico and was ambassador to Turkey.

Before he became the youngest major general in the Civil War, he was a state senator, lawyer, prosecutor and volunteer in the war with Mexico.

Wallace was tough, stubborn, opinionated, arrogant, reckless and courageous. That was the man it took to stop Confederate Gen. Henry Heth and his army of 8,000-15,000 from invading, burning and sacking Cincinnati.

Wallace arrived in the Queen City with no time to spare. He declared martial law Sept. 2, suspended all business and ordered every able-bodied man to build dozens of batteries on the hills of Northern Kentucky.

He seized riverboats to patrol the Ohio with 18 gunboats. He built a pontoon bridge in 48 hours.

When police arrested freed black men as slave labor for the trenches, Wallace set them free, paid them and formed the Black Brigade, the first of its kind in the Civil War.

Then Heth's army arrived. Wallace knew his defenses were still mainly a bluff.

He only had cannon shells for a half-hour of battle. "So scarce were shells, each one was worth its weight in gold," he wrote later. His gunners were so poorly trained that firing "would have bought my preparations into contempt."

He knew Heth's big guns could turn Cincinnati's wooden downtown into an inferno. Yet he had "solemnly resolved to see it burnt rather than sacked."

Heth climbed a rooftop near the Lexington Road (Dixie Highway) and stared through his field glasses at a Fort Mitchell battery bristling with cannons and rifle pits, part of seven miles of defenses built by Wallace in just 10 days.

Staring back was Wallace. Heth blinked, and Wallace was cheered through the streets of Cincinnati.