Now this is interesting. Hot, dusty roads, a carnival atmosphere, beer in copious supply, great fanfare, unfulfilled expectations, political hyperbole, a generous dose of theater, some success and an undercurrent of depravity. It seems that the first proper Civil War reenactment sponsored by a Union general, no less! - had a lot in common with the ones we attend these days! - Jonah

 

Ex-Union Officer Leads Re-enactment
By Bruce M. Venter
(S
pecial to the Washington Times, 2/26/05)


Not long after the guns fell silent, many former combatants took up the pen to refight the Civil War on paper.

Union Maj. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, arguably one of the most colorful figures to emerge from the war, longed for a more visual reminder of things past. In 1878, on the bucolic fields of his northern New Jersey farm, "Little Kil" as he was affectionately called by his West Point classmates, sought to re-create scenes familiar to the old veterans.

Gen. Kilpatrick would stage the first re-enactment of a Civil War battle.

Known to some as "Kill-Cavalry" for his supposed abuse of men and horseflesh during the war, not every cavalryman agreed with this infamous sobriquet. "That he has done some rash things all must acknowledge," wrote one trooper in the 2nd New York Cavalry, "but that he has done much to give a name to the Cavalry of the Union Army must also be acknowledged."


After graduation from West Point in the May 1861 class, the future general fought as a captain at Big Bethel, recruited the Harris Light Cavalry as its lieutenant colonel, led a brigade and division of cavalry in the Gettysburg campaign, and initiated a failed 1864 raid on Richmond.


He completed his Civil War career as commander of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's cavalry in the March to the Sea and Carolina campaigns. Despite several battlefield embarrassments and three combat wounds, Kill-Cavalry managed to attain the rank of major general by age 27.


From his early days at West Point, Kilpatrick nourished a keen interest in politics. It can be argued that his meteoric military career was integrally linked to cultivated political connections, but by 1878 Kilpatrick's political prospects were dismal.


Despite repeated attempts, he failed to garner the New Jersey gubernatorial nomination and had changed political parties twice. As a backer of Rutherford B. Hayes' 1876 presidential bid, Little Kil had bungled his campaign responsibilities, losing Hayes' confidence and costing him a coveted job in the new administration.


But the former cavalryman's fertile mind was not idle. Now a gentleman farmer, he conceived the idea of an enormous encampment for Grand Army of the Republic veterans. The three-day event would include military parades, appearances by famous generals and politicians, speeches, a play authored by Kilpatrick himself, even a re-enactment between the veterans and the New Jersey National Guard.


At first, preparations hummed along briskly, with Gov. George B. McClellan -- the former Union general -- agreeing to provide troops, tents, arms and equipment. A New York City caterer was engaged to serve special guests at the general's farmhouse. The famous showman P.T. Barnum provided a giant tent to accommodate 5,000 people. A grandstand, fresh-water aqueduct and guardhouse were constructed. Kilpatrick would pay for the free event by charging vendors for booth space.


The first day's scene was reminiscent of the war itself, as scarred, empty-sleeved veterans arrived at the crowded railroad station accompanied by state militia units in full dress uniforms.


Some 10,000 people made their way 2 1/2 miles from the train depot to the farm. After they trudged up the dusty roads, the throng quickly became aware of shortages in food and tents. "We didn't have a thing to eat," moaned a member of the New Jersey National Guard, "until my company formed, and each man putting in thirty cents, we bought our supper."


Beer, however, was not in short supply. Apparently the much-touted aqueduct system failed, so participants took advantage of the 10,000 kegs of brew on hand to quench their thirsty throats. "Camp Kilpatrick," likened by the press as "one vast beer garden," had its share of gamblers, pickpockets, roulette wheels, sword swallowers and other raucous performers. Adding innuendo to Kilpatrick's reputation, just a mile from the general's farmhouse was a large tent staffed by "shameless women."


Day two included a dress parade, political speeches by one-legged Gen. Dan Sickles and a performance of Kilpatrick's new play, "Allatoona." When actors forgot their lines, the general, hidden off stage, was ready with his prompter's book. The evening concluded with a serenade dedicated to Mrs. Kilpatrick and a grand fireworks display.


The final day of the celebrated August encampment dawned cool and cloudless. By noon, some 30,000 spectators had jammed Kilpatrick's pastures for the much-heralded re-enactment battle.


A boom of cannon signaled the opening of a 1,500-man battle. The veterans, acting the part of Confederates, were posted on a hill. The state militia attacked from its position on the field below, capturing the battery. The old soldiers counterattacked with flags flying, musketry rattling and artillery roaring. Hand-to-hand combat in retaking the field pieces left many re-enactors bleeding from small wounds.


Suddenly, Gen. Kilpatrick emerged on his piebald charger, dashing into the melee with a flag of truce. Recognizing a supreme dramatic moment, Little Kil, standing up in his stirrups, declared for all to hear that his long-standing wish had been fulfilled: He had re-created the past days of glory. The crowd responded with uproarious cheers.


The re-enactment thus concluded, the men marched back to camp. In typical theatric style, Kilpatrick stood on his porch, his arm in a sling, feigning a wound as the troops filed by him.


For one season at least, the general's farm was destroyed: his grain and hay supply consumed, the cornfield trampled, the orchard ruined, fences down. Cynics who speculated that he hosted the re-enactment for profit were grossly mistaken. A New York paper sarcastically commented that "this little entertainment will cost him $5,000 when all the bills are in. But what are filthy dollars to a man of sentiment?"


Kilpatrick, however, remained unmoved by the criticism. In this respect, his re-enactment was a perfect reflection of its creator: great fanfare, unfulfilled expectations, political hyperbole, a generous dose of theater, some success and an undercurrent of depravity.

Bruce M. Venter, an independent researcher and writer, lives in Alexandria.