Campfire Ramblings - 1987 Reenactment Review
by Jonah Begone
The most interesting year in the Civil War, for me, was 1862. This year we had an opportunity to reenact what might be called "the Extended Cedar Mountain Campaign," consisting of the battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Antietam. I participated in all four 125th anniversary reenactment events. Here's what I thought about them:
It was big, it was brutal and it was hot. The intrepid 110th was rudely awakened at 4 AM for the Saturday morning smokefest: a battle that was a literal illustration of the phrase "fog of war" and an unforgettable and wonderful experience of confusion and movement. A unique adventure. The afternoon, however, featured an unskilled and tedious drill session in place of a promised tactical. Why they do that, I don't know. Reenactors will enjoy and bear up better for a hot tactical than they will for a hot drill session. Fortunately, the 1987 "Harmonic Convergence" provided us with the comforting spirit of ELVIS -- channeled through the body of Bob Fleming -- to ease our misery. [A major in-joke. - Jonah] Sunday's battle reenactment, Alas, was simply disappointing because of the heat and our limited participation in the battle.
The normally excellent planning at this event was off, too: why were the women's camps placed so far from everyone else's and why weren't they supplied with a water buffalo? Why were we positioned under a hot sun for an hour prior to Sunday's battle? Why did we not return to the battle after Sunday's initial encounter with the enemy? (The Second Regiment was on the field before and retired after the National Regiment!) While overall a worthwhile event and one of the best this year, Cedar Mountain '87 cannot rate as highly as did its predecessors in '85 and '84.
SECOND BULL RUN
This one was a lot of fun. I define "fun" as being involved in a good woodsy tactical on Saturday -- I would have loved to have been able to shoot Rebs from behind that log fortress we built, but the unfortunately the Rebs weren't obliging us that day -- and a gratifyingly long and melodramatic battle before the somewhat hostile spectators on Sunday (the wretches kept cheering the Cornfeds). True, the battle ended inconclusively, but it was fun. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the event, too, from Head Honcho Daley all the way down (and I do mean down) to new recruits Dennis Burt and John Breslin, and Rebel transplant Bob English. Good to have you with us, guys.
However, I assume the event was best enjoyed by two busloads full of Her Britannic Majesty's subjects who attended and gave the event a unique quality (and uniform interpretation) we don't see too often. The sutlers were happy to see them too, I imagine. Watching them come off the bus was vaguely like watching the final 20 minutes of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Can anyone explain, though, why they chose to sing the Irish Rebel song "Rising of the Moon" upon their arrival?
The one thing that was immediately apparent in the event was the spirit of a newly-revived and invigorated 110th Pennsylvania. We were in unsurpassed fighting form: our volleys in company with the 61st New York were those of veterans, our spirit was exhilarating, and even though we were scripted to lose Sunday's reenactment I felt that by the end we hadn't even begun to fight. Was it the wonderfully cool weather, the new blood, the guiding spirit of ELVIS, or just pride that did it? Whatever it was, it was great! Enjoyable event.
SOUTH MOUNTAIN (Crampton's Gap)
First the bad news. Practically everyone I talked to, and myself, were disappointed in Sunday's battle. Possibly because our company didn't get to use our "alley tactics," or possibly because of the omnipresent spectators and twentieth-century trappings (I got sick of looking at cars and cameras). The most dissatisfying aspect for me, however, was the unauthentic (dare I use the "F-word?") conclusion. Major General William B. Franklin, in command of the Sixth Corps at the real battle, described the finale: "The enemy was driven in the utmost confusion from a position of strength and allowed no opportunity for even an attempt to rally, until the pass was cleared and in the possession of our troops." Does this sound like Sunday's reenactment to you? The final fight at the wall looked more like Fredericksburg than Crampton's Gap! Why wasn't this planned to end in a complete rout, especially since we outnumbered the Confederates in this event so heavily? We don't get to reenact many battles that the Union actually won -- we should have taken advantage of this one! I hope we don't give away our victory at Gettysburg next year...
Now the good news: Saturday was Federal heaven. That "drill tactical" was indeed memorable, and it seems that at Burkittsville the National Regiment Eastern Battalion has finally lived up to its many promises. It now appears to be the large, well-organized group of professional, authentic and spirited reenactors it should be. Some organizational issues remain (democratic elections and a treasurer and audit committee would be nice), but those massed veteran volleys and improved large-scale drill maneuvers won this lowly private over, and for the first time at Burkittsville I actually felt proud to be in the National Regiment! [A feeling which wouldn't last long. - Jonah]
I'm sure the free beer and oysters were appreciated by nearly all -- I don't drink and I can't stand oysters -- but I have to wonder what kind of message we're sending. At most events, alcohol is not permitted. Are we officially endorsing combining alcohol and gunpowder? Well, apparently nothing bad other than a few drunken privates came of it, and since I can sense a rising chorus of HMI boos and hisses, I'll stop here. Let me just conclude by observing that the combination of a new spirit of accessibility on the part of the officer cadre and a willingness to cooperate on the part of everyone else has finally made the National Regiment work out.
ANTIETAM (the "American Civil War Commemorative Committee" event)
Antietam: the most interesting Civil War battle for me. The 125th anniversary reenactment of it was, quite simply, the best event I've done this year! Kevin Coyle and I attended courtesy of the 3rd Maryland. Al Harris, Bob English and Bob Fleming went with the 4th Texas, and Howard and Becky Rogers did their hospital impression, once again illustrating the diverse nature of our members.
I was pleasantly surprised at the attendance. I expected, given ACWCC's publicity problems, about 150 Yanks at most, with the corresponding 2 or 3-to-one ratio of Rebs. There were about 600 Federals present, with about a like number of Confederates! Kevin and I fell in with a polyglot company comprised of elements of the 2nd Wisconsin, 3rd Michigan, 49th Indiana, 8th and 30th Ohio, 5th New York and the 3rd Maryland! After an extremely inept and ragged drill session -- it's true, the National Regiment is superior in the art of moving troops around -- we headed out for the "Burnside Bridge" portion of the weekend. This took place at a bridge over the Antietam that was a dead ringer for the bridge on the battlefield (not the upper bridge, but one built in about the same date). There was dirt thrown over the paved portions of the bridge, and daunting heights from which the Rebels could send a well-directed fire upon us. It looked very authentic.
As our company was sent in almost last, there wasn't much to do except for some mopping up on the heights and pursuit of the fleeing enemy. However, the experience of trying to get across a fuming, body-strewn bridge under fire accompanied by the cheers of our comrades is one I'll never forget. For our company it ended too soon, but for the front companies that were able to stay and fight for awhile, I heard ridiculous (but sincere) comments like: "I saw the face of God!" It was that good.
In a notable act of fairness, the National Regiment troops (our company plus the 116th PA in front) present were allowed the first crack at the Rebels in the cornfield the next morning. 6 AM the next morning! The resulting battle should have convinced everyone of the worth of starting reenactment hostilities at "the first blush of dawn." The chaotic advance through the cornfield was yet another experience I'll never forget, and the battle in the orange, smoky light of dawn was one of the best prolonged tacticals I've ever been involved in.
I spent a lot of time around the 2nd Wisconsin's superior and exceptionally aggressive color guard (which we named "the Sequoias" because of their height): they were continually in the front urging us on, and there were very real moments of panic as the colors were in danger of being taken. They weren't, though, and after the battle we all agreed that we had participated in something very special.
The "Sunken Road" battle for the paying public later that day was the weakest of the three we fought, but it wasn't bad. Our company, the first in, was told to advance within 30 yards of the Rebel line and take 75% casualties! Good authentic that I am, I took a stomach wound right away and crawled over to the sunken road to avoid being hit further. For my efforts, I got yet another unique experience: a Reb's-eye view of a Federal assault. With the numbers involved, it was impressive! Waves of enthusiastic Yanks were cut down, only to prevail in the end, driving the Rebs back to the cornfield. As in the actual battle, you could walk the length of the sunken road on the dead without touching the ground, if you wanted to do such a thing (I think the reenactors would complain).
Yes, there were Farbs aplenty. One guy in a Bucktails unit got chewed out by no less than John Henry Kurtz for wearing what looked like some sort of Boy Scouts canteen. Yes, the festival "commemorative T-shirt" atmosphere seemed overwhelming at times, and a new sight at the sunken road battle was that of spectator involvement: a kid with a toy rifle ran out and bayonetted a wounded Yank, than ran back into the arms of his (hopefully not pleased) parent. But let's give credit where credit is due: ACWCC and the much-maligned Napoleonic Tactics, Inc. put on an excellent, enjoyable event. If it's true that we didn't go as a unit because of a misplaced, fumbled or even non-existent invitation, fine. But if we didn't go on account of animosity or petty politics on our part, we bit off our nose to spite our face. All weekend I kept thinking: "the 110th should have been here." Ladies and Gents, you missed a good event.
[This was one of the best reenactments I have ever done. - Jonah]