My favorite phrase from this one is “Imagine your eight-year-old dinosaur fanatic, grown up with 20 or more years of reading, all dressed up as a triceratops, standing around in a circle with other triceratops discussing the Mesozoic era -- or in this case, Lincoln and his generals -- and you have an idea of the intensity of the discussions.” - Jonah
Pieces of Paper Pinned to their Coats
By Howard Mansfield, Yankee Magazine, September 1999
Reveille at dark. Four a.m. Bugles call, far off and near. There are rows and rows, acres upon acres of small tents, ghost-white under the stars. Dark blue figures are emerging. The blue uniforms make us nearly invisible to one another. We fade from view in just a few feet. We stand for roll call and then huddle by a small fire crowded with tin cups holding coffee.
"Tomorrow at dawn you march into the cornfield," we had been told. At the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, 8,000 men died in a cornfield in an hour and a half. The soldiers walked into corn taller than they were, and by battle's end, not a stalk was left. We are here at the 135th anniversary of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American Twenty-three thousand men were killed, wounded, or missing in action, and both armies marched away to fight for another three years.
In a practice drill we had advanced into a cornfield, aiming our muskets. I grew up playing in and around cornfields; they were exciting mazes. But this, even though it is only a drill for a mock battle, has a small taste of terror, looking down a rifle barrel into the green.
We fall in and march off in the dark, four abreast, our company joining the others until there are long lines of Union blue, rifles high, marching, halting, advancing again. Up and down the line, the officers shout commands: Orderrr! Arrrms! In the distance, the battle flashes orange-red. The battle has begun, a thunderstorm close to the ground.
We march into a bean patch adjoining the cornfield. It's smoky, misty, dark, mysterious. Cannons and muskets fire, flaring orange-red. The cannons shake the earth, smash into your ears. The cornfield can be seen in the smoke, up a rise. The Confederate gray blends into the low-lying fog and the gun smoke. Long gray lines of soldiers appear and disappear. We stand and fire, loading the black gunpowder into our musket barrels and shooting on command. The gray line across the field is lost at one moment and then at the next is rapidly gaining definition. They are charging forward, the fog seeming to reform itself as men with rifles. Officers all about are shouting orders. Bugles are sounding orders. Officers are racing by on horseback. Preset ground explosions go off, scattering dirt. It is difficult to pick out your commanding officer's voice. We fire and fire, fall back, wheel, fire again and again. Fifty feet from us, I can read the eyes of a Confederate captain. His sword held high, he charges his men toward us. He is screaming. If he had live ammunition, he would use it.
I take a hit and fall forward. The field is full of noise -- cannon and musket, shouting, cheering, screaming. The noise moves through the ground and you at once. Here is noise to fill a Sunday morning. A field surgeon appears to dress my "wound."
The whole scene comes at you like a dream and stays in your dreams for days afterward. The sounds and rhythms of that life linger. Not only the heat and noise of the battle, but the peace of the camps. Field after field of tidy rows of white tents. The sounds of crickets at dusk, of talking, of horses whinnying, of drums, bugles, and fifes. There is always music. A haze of campfire smoke, the smell of coffee and chicken cooking. No cars or radios. There's an experience of heightened spectacle and peace.
In all the dreams I'm marching to the drums. Long lines of Union blue stretch over a hill into the morning light. Long marching rows that take a half hour to pass a spot.
Going to see the elephant. That is what many Union boys called going to war. They would see for themselves.
On this fine September weekend, some 15,000 men, women, and children had come together in this Maryland field to reenact Antietam. Some had come from as far away as England to fight this battle again. More than a few were fighting their third Antietam; some had been fighting the Civil War longer than the war itself had lasted. This is a show we put on for ourselves -- for each other. Believe in it, have faith, attend to the details, and we can build a better elephant.
This is war without death, just what the peace movement always wanted. Many people find reenacting the Civil War disturbing -- or silly, like playing trick or treat on the graves of the solemn dead.
Just what were we creating here in this field and why?
I had never intended to go to Antietam. I knew nothing of reenactors until I met the Sixth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry.
On a rainy April Saturday they were holed up inside the G.A.R. hall in Peterborough. The G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic, was the Civil War veterans' organization. (Other veterans have since taken their place and meet here to play bingo.) The Sixth had only recently formed to portray the farm boys of Companies E and K, who had marched off to the war from the small towns in sight of Mount Monadnock. It had about two dozen members, of whom only half made most of the 30 parades and events each year.
There were three or four guys in Civil War uniforms, with displays of old photos, guns, uniforms, and a recipe for making your own hardtack. They had set up some tents downstairs, duct-taped to the vinyl floor. A tripod of guns stood nearby, locked at the bayonets, the rifle butts also duct-taped to the floor. A half-dozen visitors drifted around the hall.
Jim Sutherland, a shy postman from Golfstown, had joined the Sixth in the last year. His ancestors served in the war, one as a surgeon's assistant in the Eleventh New Hampshire.
Sutherland had already been to some big battle reenactments. He drove 24 hours to get to Shiloh in Tennessee. There were "10,000 boys" there ready for the show. They were routed by torrential rains. Streams ran through the tents. The red Tennessee clay stained his baby-blue trousers a greenish tint. When the chemical toilets flooded out, a general retreat was sounded.
He also fought his way through the heat at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. A freak April heat wave sent the temperature to 105 degrees, he says. There were 8,000 "boys" in their Union and Confederate wool suits, and as Sutherland recalls, 149 fell to heat stroke and seven to heart attacks. "But no one died," he tells me. A much better result than the first battle, I think to myself.
Reenacting seemed to be gently ironic; modern life breaking in with duct tape and chemical toilets. "We did the Pheasant Lane Mall," says a reenactor who is visiting from another regiment. "We've got the howitzer now; we're doing Confederate. Plus we've got three flags." He is talking shop with Mike Sebor.
Sebor had started the Sixth. He was a 12-year veteran of reenacting. With his crew cut and short, stocky build, Sebor, 33, has a military bearing. He was standing by his tent in the basement, explaining an average soldier's equipment and food.
He hands me a lead minie ball, the musket shot weighing more than one ounce. The shot feels substantial in the palm. He holds the lead to his wrist and explains, in part, the carnage of the war: lead at close range meeting flesh and bone.
"If you look at this -- this is soft lead, and when it hits, it mushrooms out even further. Picture it twice the size of that wrist. It would literally shatter your bone. Back then doctors couldn't set that kind of fracture, so they'd amputate your arm."
"These weapons were used in devastating company," he says: a full regiment, a thousand men firing, accompanied at times by cannons. At close range the cannoneers could load "hell-can fire," chunks of metal and balls in chicken wire, which would spray out like a huge shotgun shell. Men would march, shoulder to shoulder, flags held high, into this fire.
"It was the last Napoleonic war," Sebor says of the battle tactics,"and the first modern war."
From a piece of lead, he draws a panorama. This is why he is standing here, on his free time, dressed up. He knows that some people think it foolish. Sometimes they are hostile. "We get the ignorant ones who walk by on the sidewalk and say,'Oh, look at the little boys with their guns.' We're not out there just because we've got guns," says Sebor, who as a policeman in Peterborough sees enough guns. "If they'd come up the steps, they'd learn. The weapon -- that's just a piece of equipment --that's not the focus. We do it to preserve the history that's in each soldier, in each regiment, in each town," he says.
Most often, people ask: Is that a real gun? Aren't you hot in that uniform? If there's a chicken cooking over a campfire, they ask: Is that a real chicken? If a reenactor has brought a baby along in period dress, they ask: Is that a real baby? These questions are so common that the Smoke & Fire News, a newspaper listing reenactments of many eras, has a regular feature called "Tourists say . . ."
The questions reveal people's confusion, not about history, but about what they are seeing. What they are really asking is: What kind of make-believe is this? Is this play or history? Is this real or let's pretend?
It's both: It's let's pretend this is real. Let's make believe and we'll find our way back. It's serious play; it's work and leisure. This is war as play, war as homage, war as peace.
"Is that some kind of Hollywood, some kind of Disneyland?" a friend asks me after I return from Antietam.
"No," I say. "It's some kind of worship."
I am wearing a wool suit out in an open New Hampshire field late in August. It is like being strapped into a wool bake-oven. I am draped with equipment like a decorated Christmas tree: musket, cartridge belt, bayonet, haversack, canteen, hat. Wool is hot. Who said wool breathes? Maybe when it's got a few bullet holes in it.
Worse, I am dressed up like a soldier marching around in public. I feel so dorky. I feel as if I've just joined the dorkiest club in the school -- somewhere beyond the chess nerds or the A.V. squad. It's a borrowed Union uniform and the pants are clownishly large and lacking suspenders. I'm in danger of losing my pants.
Corporal Sebor drills his seven soldiers: Attention, order arms, shoulder arms, right shoulder shift, support arms, to the rear and in open order march, inspection arms, stack arms, count off, without doubling right face, left face, close ranks march, fix bayonets, charge. Huzzah! We shoulder the guns, cradle the guns, present the guns, rest the guns, stack the guns.
Wheeling in circles under the sun, firing black powder at nothing, wearing the uniform of a dead war, we are comrades in arms, men in the Union blue, ready to march for a war long over. We are building the elephant.
For a summer, I follow the Sixth New Hampshire as they gain members, parade for the public, and drill for themselves. I load paper gunpowder shells at the G.A.R. hall as we listen to Civil War marching music.
"Have you ever fired a black-powder musket?" Sebor asks me in his quick manner.
He will teach me. I "fall in" for training. And soon I am shopping for reproduction eyeglasses and 1851 Jefferson brogans. He rounds up the rest of the uniform and the musket. It can cost up to $1,500 to equip yourself.
Back before Sebor had a job, a wife, and two young ones, he lived one whole year practically in his Civil War tent, just going from battle to battle. His family was a little concerned. He has worn out three pairs of reproduction brogans. He is in the select group of reenactors who have been called on for the battle scenes in movies like Glory and Gettysburg. On his honeymoon he visited Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. Heading home, he snuck in another Civil War site, even though his sainted wife, Nancy, thought they were safe in upstate New York. ("That right there tested the strength of my marriage," he says.)
Finally we load and fire. I hold the rifle in front of me, tear open a paper cartridge with my teeth, tasting the gunpowder, hurriedly spill the powder in the muzzle, place the firing cap, and on command, fire. The noise is loud and satisfying. There's smoke. We stand in two rows. The back row is shooting over the shoulder of the front row. We're guys. Blam! Blam!
We rest. We're out in the ankle-high grass of a beautiful rolling pasture, Carnival Hill in Wilton, named for the winter games that were once held here. Sitting in the grass, the men pass around dried apple and dried peach and discuss Lincoln and his generals and different battles. "These guys have been reading about the Civil War since they were kids," says James Hadley, who has joined the Sixth in the last year. Many reenactors I met could quote parts of soldiers' letters and diaries, the way that people used to recite beloved poems. Standing around camp, I listen to some tough debates about the value of eyewitness letters and regimental histories versus the longer view of later scholarship.
Imagine your eight-year-old dinosaur fanatic, grown up with 20 or more years of reading, all dressed up as a triceratops, standing around in a circle with other triceratops discussing the Mesozoic era -- or in this case, Lincoln and his generals -- and you have an idea of the intensity of the discussions.
The reading has led them to take up arms. "You've exhausted the books to read," says Sebor. "Now you want all your senses in it. You want to taste it, smell it, see it. You want to get out there and see what they felt." The day of discovery arrives when they see their first reenactment. They're excited. They ask about joining. The real question has been answered: Adults can play! They can do this.
They discuss the history of the "Bully Sixth," which fought in 23 major battles and numerous skirmishes, including Antietam, Second Bull Run, Vicksburg, Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and the Mine. They took part in amphibious assaults and were considered the best sharpshooters in the Ninth Army Corps.
"The Sixth was one of the hardest-fighting regiments in the Union army," Sebor says. They are overlooked, he says. Sebor picked them from the state's 18 infantry regiments. The Fifth New Hampshire already has its reenactors and is celebrated. Sebor is determined to make the Sixth better known. At the Antietam battlefield, he shows us where he thinks there should be a monument to the Sixth, by the Burnside Bridge. Trying to take this narrow bridge, the men of the Sixth were turned back twice, losing one in five men, killed or injured.
Each member of the Sixth takes on the identity of a real soldier of the regiment to do an "impression." They research his history, locate his grave, and if needed, tend it. Sebor was Osgood Hadley of Peterborough, a color-bearer who was wounded seven times and received the Medal of Honor. Then at one encampment James Hadley showed up asking questions. "I'm looking for my great-grandfather. I understand somebody impersonates him," Hadley said.
"You're talking to him," Sebor answered. "But you are a blood relative. I hand him over to you now."
A few of the 54 "rules and regulations for the 135th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg)": "Period footwear is mandatory! Anyone wearing inappropriate footwear will need to find correct footwear or be asked to leave. . . . No anachronisms on the person. This includes, but is not limited to: wristwatches, earrings, jewelry (except wedding bands), cigarettes, lighters, bandannas. . . . No visible anachronisms in camp at any time. This includes, but is not limited to: coolers, modern cans/bottles, cigarettes, bags of chips, bread in plastic bags, 20th-century clothing (shorts, T-shirts, etc.). No specialty impressions (Lee, Lincoln, Longstreet, etc.) are allowed without the written approval of the host. . . ."
Each detail builds the elephant. At Antietam we drill and drill, fall in, count off, march. I receive much instruction from the men around me -- march with your left foot first, count off louder, snap that gun crisply, hold the rifle here -- and I receive far too many compliments. I am conspicuous in my gun fumbling.
Performing poorly breaks the spell, disappoints the others. It's not playing fair. Good soldiers "look period." When the proud cavalry officers ride by, they are dirty and have a hungry stare that is uncanny. Poor players are decided as "Farbs." (As in: "Far be it from me to say -- but the buttons on your uniform are not period.") Farbs are not the real-fake thing. Standing at parade rest, our unit watches a soldier crossing the parade grounds with a modern cooler and jeers: "Nice impression."
At the other end of the spectrum are the "hard core." Some of the Confederate hard core might starve themselves down to 100 pounds, eat berries and rancid bacon, and go without shoes.
Most campfire criticism is reserved for the rebels: They won't die. Entire companies that should fall to close-range fire continue fighting. On the battlefield I observe the Superman effect on both sides. Our casualty rate is slim.
Dying is optional and also open to criticism: "If you're dead -- stay dead!" one reenactor complained after Antietam. "When wounded, do not lounge on your arm, propped up to watch the battle."
At Antietam, the Sixth camps with the Fifth New Hampshire. The camp strictly follows the 1861 army manual: neat rows of small "dog" tents. Each tent has some straw beneath the bed roll. (My head sticks out one end and my feet the other.) Facing the company "street," the tents look like a low-lying version of a 19th-century Main Street, the white houses of the Greek Revival only waist high. An entire pasture of tents lies before you like the graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
"We believe that to do the men that we're trying to represent honor, we have to live as closely as possible to the way they lived," says Randy Cook, a lieutenant in the Fifth. "What's the point of just putting on a uniform and pretending you're a soldier if you're not going to go out and do it correctly?"
Good play is honorable. When I fall in battle and a surgeon appears, he offers me a choice of wounds: arm, leg, chest? (Wanting to live, I choose an arm wound.) He dresses my wound with a red rag, tells me not to worry, it won't stain the uniform. As he departs, in the midst of the battle noise, he says, "Thank you for playing."
Americans are said to have no interest in history; last month's news fades into the same background as the Roman Empire. In the evening, walking among the fields of tents, I thought it amazing that so many -more than 15,000, each at his own expense, each acting as his own museum curator -had traveled so far in search of so much.
And what had they come in search of? Honor, valor, truth, glory, fidelity, and honesty. The men who had fought the Civil War were men of conscience and endurance, I was told. They braved much, endured hardship, and triumphed in pursuit of their ideals.
Yeah, guy after guy will tell you that the gun stuff, the uniform, the salt pork and hardtack is part of it. But it's all to summon forth an appreciation of those old values.
This was an era when your word meant something, says Roger Joly of the Sixth. He tells me a story of Union soldiers invited to a Confederate dance. As the dance was ending, a Confederate officer arrived; finding the enemy among his men, he wanted them arrested. We can't do that, his men told him, we have given our word. Their officer honored this and stepped aside. "Amid all the carnage," Joly says, "it's incredible the respect these men showed for each other."
Several times during the weekend, Randy Cook of the Fifth talks about Private John Haley of the 17th Maine: He was a short-legged guy who would fall hours behind his company. He was the last in to camp, but he was "always present for duty. Even when he was ten miles behind on a road, he caught up and he saw the thing through. And that's the determination all these men had. The ones that didn't have the determination didn't last long."
This is where the reenactors touch bedrock, or to borrow an old fable, they reach out from our era, like the blind men touching the elephant. At Carnival Hill during a break in our practice, the men of the Sixth stood around talking of loyalty and patriotism.
"You can't know how the man's emotions were," says Bob Corrette, at 60 one of the oldest in the Sixth, but "there are the same basic fears. We are the same."
"Don't you think loyalty or patriotism had a different emphasis?" asks Wait Sy, at 61 the oldest in the group.
"We went downhill," says Corrette.
"Downhill or uphill," says Sy. "When Bob and I were kids, Memorial Day was a big deal. Loyalty, nationalism, jingoism -- those were positive words. If you were a healthy male, there was a sentiment: Who were you to stay home?"
"It was an honor to give your life," says Corrette.
"Vietnam was the first war where those words had a different meaning," says Sy. "Loyal to what? Yourself or the government?" His children have a different view of war. "When I was 15, I thought America was always right."
He didn't know that there was another culture that also had its beliefs, he says. "So when men would line up shoulder to shoulder, marching into five cannons, it was the right thing to do. Now maybe you think: Well, that side has a right to exist, too."
It is easy enough to make a cap or musket in the fashion of 1862; understanding the beliefs of the soldier who wore that uniform is the true restoration. Why did they march straight into fire? Why didn't they run? These are the first questions asked by those who are unfamiliar with the Civil War. Cook answers by telling of the charge at the battle of Cold Harbor. "These veterans knew they were going to die. They knew they were never going to make it. What did they do? They took their coats off, wrote their names on pieces of paper and pinned them inside their coats so that they would be buried in a grave, so they wouldn't be an unknown. Grim determination, plus resignation to see their duty through, no matter what."
The ethic of that time said that bravery and character were everything. This is the elephant many reenactors have come to see. For them, the battlefield is a meditation.
"I'm with the 18th Virginia, Company G." says Christopher W. Gowin, "and I can tell you, now I know just a little of what my ancestors went through as they arose at 3:00 A.M. to be marched into a melee of terrible firing in a cornfield on that day in 1862. I practically cried as I watched the artillery fire from the next hill while we waited to be rushed in as reinforcements. I cannot express the gratitude I have for all who organized, coordinated, and volunteered to work at this event. I only pray that one day my child may be able to see this as I did with my father, who is also a reenactor in the same event. . . . God bless you all."