125th Manassas in Summer, 1986, was my first "mega" event - and the first of the 125th series. Perhaps I sound a little breathless. A lot of us were. - Jonah
Campfire Ramblings - 125th Anniversary Battle of 1st Manassas, Summer, 1986
by Jonah Begone
Was there ever an event so vast and so hot as the 125th Anniversary reenactment of 1st Manassas? I was amazed by the level of involvement, participation and planning that went into it all -- being in it was actually like being a bit player in a much greater scheme of things. I suppose this was what a major Civil War battle seemed like to the individual soldier, so the impression I'm left with is probably an authentic one.
I made some observations during my three day stay at that dusty camp in Centreville. Here they are for what it's worth.
We all know that the South won the actual battle 125 years ago, but it's obvious who won the reenactment of it: the heat. It was all-pervasive, and despite the best-laid plans of the organizers and the units present, the event quickly turned into a matter of keeping cool (or at least keeping from becoming prostrated by the heat). I knew it would be at least warm, but I really didn't anticipate seeing more of the Fairfax County, Va. paramedic vehicles than of the enemy!
It seemed impossible to think of anything but the heat most of the time, and for awhile during the battle, getting an adequate supply of water was the most important thing in life! I'm sure we've all been to hotter events, but the combination of the heat, dust and activity made this event unique.
Along with the good turnout we had, I was impressed by the obvious level of concern the members have for one another in that I was continually being asked (especially by our dear ladies) how I was holding up, and noticed the same questions being asked of others in the 110th. This is a pleasant reaffirmation of the fact that people do care.
I was especially gratified by an incident that took place in the tree line where the 110th rested before the Henry House attack. One obviously weary reenactor -- whose name was Rick and was attached to a Pennsylvania infantry unit, I forget which -- had obtained a big bag of ice and propped it up against a tree, and was supplying ice and ice water to the exhausted men returning from the dusty mess at the Henry House Hill. I didn't see him drink any of his ice water, and he remained at his self-appointed post until after I left. Several members of the 110th benefitted by his timely philanthropy, and if there's a reenactment citation for gallantry somewhere I nominate this good Samaritan!
I can't leave this topic without mentioning our exceptional ladies and vivandieres. They cooked over open fires and prepared meals, and in the case of Cindy and Jennifer, marched with us in the dust and supplied us with much appreciated cool towels. As well as vastly enhancing our unit's impression they are an example of perseverance and dedication.
Another good example was shown to me at the line to fill canteens at the water buffalo: officers, all from Western Battalion units, volunteering to fetch water for their men. I suppose it could be that these units had more officers than their Eastern Battalion counterparts and could therefore spare them to fetch water, but in talking with these gentlemen I detected a greater degree of concern and obligation than I normally see with our reenactment officers here in the East. Please understand that this statement is not all-encompassing; I think our officers do an excellent job and deserve to be commended. There is something to be learned here, however, and a good many reenactment officers and aspiring reenactment officers would do well to emulate their Western counterparts.
Seeing U.S. Signal Corps flags being waved in the distance while the SST "Concorde" flew by was a graphic illustration of how much twentieth century technology differs from that used during the Civil War. It was also only one of the many inevitable anachronistic sights I saw at this event. One I wish I hadn't seen, however, was the preponderance of automobiles parked around the authentic camps. (One reenactor I spoke to mentioned that if he could pack his stuff all the way from Los Angeles to make this event, the people living closer could surely do the same without leaving a car in the authentic camp -- I think he has a very good point!) But, for all the effort that was put in to insure authenticity, it would seem that practicality still had the last word. We saw paramedics drive between the armies on the field, and the presence of the spectators and camera crew kept us from really feeling like we were in 1861.
I couldn't help noticing that despite all the planning and preparation, once the battle got started things simply went out of control! The officer with the battle plan was struck down with the heat, and as others were forced to leave the field and find shade the situation got progressively more confused. Lieutenants found themselves stepping in for Captains, and Corporals were performing Sergeants' duties -- all very authentic and good experience for those not normally assigned to command. Also, it was interesting to see the heat force officers to "take hits" despite their best efforts to stay in the battle!
Another inescapable observation is that Manassas was the first event at which the now more fully organized National Regiment was the major unit on the field in terms of influence and numbers. Together with the Western Battalion we fielded the majority of the Union troops, and we looked simply awesome. So, it seems that for better or for worse, the National Regiment is going to be around for awhile in some form or another. Some details still need to be worked out as far as organization is concerned, but it appears that the Eastern Battalion has supplanted Warren's Brigade and has become the dominant large reenactment group in the East.
Let's face it, Manassas was about as big and authentic as a reenactment could ever be, and considering the various injuries and heat-related problems, probably more authentic than one should ever be allowed to get. (By the way, did you see the terrified riderless horse kicking and running loose among infantrymen in the field adjacent to the Henry House?) This is normally a potentially dangerous hobby when everything goes well, but when the heat gets poured on and muddles everyone's thinking and events just seem to sweep you forward out of control, accidents happen and you stop having fun. This may be the way a battle really was, but we should be a little more cautious with the reenactment.
I'm not saying we should avoid having big events, and I'm not saying we should try to second-guess something as unpredictable as the weather in our scheduling. I'm saying we should be prudent. I heard someone suggest splitting the battle into two phases, with a cooling off period in-between. This sounds like it would have saved a great deal of work on the part of the paramedics. Another thing that would help is cutting out all unnecessary drill, like the session we had on the morning of the battle. It would have been far wiser to let everyone conserve their strength. However, hindsight is always 20/20 and confused thinking was a definitely a factor that weekend.
So, did we have a good time and was the whole thing worth it? As far as I'm concerned the answer is yes. I can't say that I remember much of the really exciting part of the battle at the Henry House -- the whole thing now seems like a dusty and confused blur -- but the event was basically fun, if a bit disappointing. My overall impression was that there were 5,000 participants all dressed up with nowhere to go most of the time! Still, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.