Playing War
Reenacting the Civil War
June-July 2000

From MissouriLife magazine

Missouri played a pivotal role in the Civil War at a great cost. So what compels Missourians today to reenact those tragic times?

Cassville, Missouri. Major Stan Prater of St. Louis, commander of the Second Battalion Frontier Brigade USA, wakes up on the bitter cold morning of April 8, his mind still churning with battle strategies mapped out the night before. He knows his regiment is outnumbered by the ragtag but fiercely determined men of the Missouri State Guard camped nearby. He doesn't have the numbers, so he has to have the tactical advantage.

He opens the flap of his white canvas tent and braces himself against the whipping wind. Even his bushy black beard won't protect him from this kind of weather. Then his thoughts turn personal. Today he will meet in battle his own kin, Colonel Ted Prater of Joplin, commander of the First Missouri Battalion Trans-Mississippi Brigade CSA (Confederate States of America). Will this be the day one of them takes the other's life? But there's no time for sentimentality. Other lives are at stake, and there's a noble cause to defend.

There's almost nothing about this story or these people that tells you this is happening not in 1861 but in the year 2000. Down to the details of their hand-sewn woolen trousers and black-powder muskets, the soldiers in this Civil War reenactment look and act like the real thing. Only this time the bullets are blanks. The fallen men will walk off the field, and Stan and Ted Prater will later sit around a campfire and compare family notes.

Civil War reenacting is history brought to life. It's a combination of theater, education, fellowship, family entertainment, and genealogy made fun. Every year hundreds of reenactments are staged across the country. This year alone, Missouri is host to five reenactments, all recreating conflicts fought in 1861, including the national event at Wilson's Creek June 16 through 18. Gatherings vary in size. The Cassville reenactment comprises about 500 soldiers and civilians. Wilson's Creek is expected to draw nearly ten thousand from around the world.

Why recreate the conflict that pitted American against American, brother against brother in one of the bloodiest and most brutal catastrophes this nation has ever endured? Ted Prater, quoting philosopher George Santayana, says,  "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Sergeant Carl Barker, a Federal artilleryman from Peculiar, says the closeness to history has kept him coming back for eleven years. "When you start reenacting, if you're not a history buff, you quickly become one," he says.

Historian Ken Burns, creator of the Public Broadcasting System's epic Civil War series, tells us the Civil War is part of our identity as Americans. "Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. É It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads."

Steve Fink of Kansas City is an engineering technician when he's not playing a captain with the Missouri State Guard. "I've been interested in the Civil War since I was a boy," he says. He researches the war constantly but says the book learning doesn't compare to the actual experience. "I've camped in freezing weather, I've been snowed on, I've run out of ammunition. It gets tough."

Corporal Sam Hafley of Belle says that's why it's imperative that soldiers get proper training. "This can be a dangerous hobby. At close range, even blanks can cause serious injury," he says. Sam once got hit in the head with a rifle barrel during a battle. It was an accident, but he suffered a concussion nonetheless. "Safety is the most important thing," he says. "We don't let just anybody in uniform get on the field."

Authenticity is paramount. The dress of the Confederate soldiers standing at attention for the 9 a.m. drill tells the story of Missouri's pro-Southern effort in 1861. Farmers recruited from behind the plow. Merchants who walked away from the cash register and into formation. Boys in knickers. Felt hats, straw hats, mechanic's hats, knit stocking caps. Wide suspenders hold up droopy, wide-legged trousers. There's even a scattering of uniforms left over from the Mexican War. In 1861, this was the look of Missouri's State Guard.

Federal soldiers, by contrast, wear uniforms of dark blue sack or frock coats with blue jersey trousers. But early in the war, some Union soldiers hadn't yet received official uniforms, so a sampling of other colors and styles is not unusual.

The men, women, and children in the civilian camp have their own stories. One woman, her dark hair pulled back in a tight roll, sits on a wooden stool and gathers her long skirts close to keep them from the fire. Her home was destroyed by Federals, she says. She has no choice but to follow the soldiers. She wouldn't be safe anywhere else. When the men go into battle, she and a small contingent of other women prepare to nurse the wounded. They stand by with blankets, water, and a basket of medical supplies.

The basket of bottles and crude instruments would hardly qualify as medical supplies today. The stethoscope is nothing more than a thick, wooden funnel about five inches long. There's a mean-looking metal probe designed to pull out musket balls. A bottle of laudanum (a mixture of whiskey and opium), a bottle of brandy, and a bottle of homemade wine are the anesthetics. Michelle Yipe of Joplin is one of the nurses. She tells of Southern ladies who smuggled medical supplies from the North by sewing them into the hoops of their skirts. No gentleman would dare to look under a lady's skirt, Michelle says.

Other civilian followers are the sutlers, merchants who sell the soldiers items not provided by the army. Today's sutlers have much more to offer than their typical Civil War counterparts who often scavenged their goods from abandoned houses and dead soldiers. Inside the sutler's tent are shelves of leather goods: shoes, haversacks, belts. A well-stocked sutler carries hard candy, tea blocks, peanuts in the shell, wool blankets, walking sticks, and clothing. There are toys for the children, too.

Reenacting is a family hobby for many people like Cheryl and Yancy Franklin of Joplin and their three children. The Franklins have participated in reenactments across the country. Cheryl is still researching her persona, the woman she models herself after. Most serious reenactment participants assume a persona based on a real person ÐÐ often an ancestor ÐÐ or a composite of real people whose lives they've carefully researched.

Learning about these people turns history into life stories, says Cheryl, balancing a china teacup and saucer in her hand. Even the teacup has a part in the story, she explains. Southern women forced to live in tents still held on to a sense of pride and conducted their lives with as much dignity as possible. In the midst of chaos and despair, afternoon tea offered a scrap of normalcy. Ladies would bring their own teacups and saucers to save the hostess from the embarrassment of not having a proper table setting for her guests.

By noon the the temperature is finally above freezing. Soldiers in camp clean their weapons while field officers finalize battle plans. The company cook, Lane Russell from Liberty, puts away the cast-iron skillet and soot-coated Dutch oven. The horses, specially trained as mounts for the field officers, are restless at their makeshift hitching posts. At 1 p.m. the call goes forth for weapons safety and uniform inspection by the respective commands. Something about this formal gathering of the troops alerts the mind and senses to the gravity of what is about to happen. The fact that it is a reenactment is overshadowed by the reality of the bloody encounters that took place in this very area more than a hundred years ago. An eerie quiet descends over the camps.

Major Stan Prater solemnly addresses the men standing at attention before him. He gives a rousing speech to encourage his troops to fight with honor for the cause of preserving the union.

Across the field, Colonel Ted Prater makes sure his men are prepared for battle and issues final orders to his officers. Then he introduces Missouri's pro-Southern governor, Claiborne Jack-son himself (aka Jim Beckner of Kansas City). The soldiers let out a loud whoop as Jackson reins in his horse and, in a passionate outpouring of Confederate patriotism, shouts at the top of his voice: "Your rights and dignity have been trampled. This is a people's war and a Missouri decision. We are not now going to get on our knees and kiss the boots of a foreign invader in our state. We will fight on in this holy crusade!"

With a grand sweep of his broad-brimmed hat, the governor departs. The chaplain steps forward. The men remove their hats and bow their heads. A few words of supplication to the Almighty. The mumbled amens. Then "God bless the cause!"

The talking is over except for the command, "Right face, forward march!" Columns of soldiers march toward the battlefield accompanied by drummer boys keeping a steady beat, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, over and over. The horses proceed purposefully as if they and their riders are of one mind. A bugle's plaintive call to battle joins the rhythmic sounds of horse hooves and footfalls.

Although the battle is scripted ahead of time by the commanding officers, there is always an element of uncertainty. No one is assigned to die or get wounded, but experienced soldiers know when they've taken a hit. Typically, says Lieutenant Adjutant Larry Deitzel from Columbia, one side wins one day and the other wins the next. Because there was no Civil War battle in Cassville proper, today's will be a composite of the many skirmishes fought in the area.
As the artillery moves into place, foot soldiers take their positions. From the crest of a hill, mounted officers shout orders. With rifles loaded and aimed, the Confederates and Federals form opposing lines of defense and walk into each other's fire. White puffs of gun smoke cloud the air.

As the fighting intensifies, bodies litter the field. A drummer boy falls to the ground. His fellow musicians carry on. Drum beats and the high-pitched melody of a fife keep a steady sound track amid the noise of clashing sabers, galloping horses, booming cannons, and an occasional Rebel yell. What started out with a sense of order and purpose now seems a great tangle of humans and horses. The line between make-believe and reality seems blurred.

At the end of the battle comes the resurrection. All the dead and wounded join the ranks of the survivors and parade off the field to the enthusiastic applause of an appreciative audience.
Back at camp, Colonel Prater pays a visit to Major Prater at his tent in enemy territory. For a while their identity as cousins supercedes their role as Confederate or Union soldiers. The two met about ten years ago at a reenactment, and had no idea they were related. At the time, both were privates, Stan with the Union, Ted with the Confederacy. "We were reenactors for a year before we found out we were related," Ted says. "We fought each other at Wilson's Creek and other places. At Fort Scott I was going around talking to soldiers and introducing myself. I walked up to this one guy and said, 'I'm Ted Prater.' He said, 'I'm Stan Prater.'"

The Praters did some research and discovered their common ancestors came to America in 1622. During the Civil War, the Praters had as many Federal as Confederate soldiers, so the Prater cousins fighting each other in reenactments is an accurate portrayal of their shared history. Their respective battalions actually fought against each other at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863.

But today in Cassville, it's playacting. The enmities of the past are  history, and Ted and Stan Prater are best friends.

Civil War Sutler
by Sean McLachlan

Jean Warren, a laundress for the Confederate army, still gets emotional when she recounts watching Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg two years ago. After a Confederate artillery barrage failed to soften the Union lines, Pickett's fifteen thousand men charged across a wide field into a hail of Union musket and cannon fire. When the smoke cleared, hundreds of rebels lay dead or dying, and the North had won the battle.

The event was a reenactment, but for a moment, it felt like the real thing. Jean and her husband, Del, relive the past, dressing up in period costume and going to reenactments with other enthusiasts.

Fifteen years ago, they started a mail-order business for reenactment supplies in their basement. In 1996, they opened one of the few reenactment stores, called sutleries, in the United States.

James Country Mercantile, just off the town square in Liberty, is non-partisan. "We take money from both sides," Jean jokes. Racks of uniforms can supply officers and enlisted men alike, whether Union or Confederate. There are civilian costumes for men, women, and children and hundreds of patterns for those who want to sew their own. The clothing is accurate down to the smallest detail. Buttons are made of brass, bone, or ivory, never plastic. Suspenders have to be adjusted like belts because they don't contain any elastic. One customer researched the pants worn by Federal troops and discovered that the two official suppliers made them slightly differently. Both styles are available.

The uniforms are made of thick wool and get hot even on mild days. Shoes were made of hard leather with wooden heels. There are no lefts or rights; all the shoes are identical. "You used to walk through a stream, and the leather would form to the shape of your feet," Jean says. "That's how you got them to fit."

For the die-hard purist, there are toothbrushes made with boar bristles. Even Jean admits she hasn't tried those.

The Warrens also stock fully operational muskets and six-shooters. Authentic lead bullets are also available. And if your gunpowder gets wet, you can always pick up a bayonet for $40. Because most of the equipment is handmade, a soldier's gear doesn't come cheap. A Confederate jacket can go for $200. A powder horn costs $25. Even the most inexpensive musket is nearly $500. "It takes about a thousand dollars to get a basic setup, clothing and a gun, and that's just bare bones," Jean says.

For the researcher, there are hundreds of Civil War books, including reprints of original army drill manuals and Bibles printed in 1862 by the Confederate States Bible Society.
Reenacting is not just for men. Many women act as laundresses or soldier's wives. A few even dress up as "public women," complete with bills of health from the army. Children can participate as drummer boys or family members of the troops.

Jean believes that the grimmer aspects of the Civil War, the death and the slavery, shouldn't be glossed over. "We've got to understand history so we don't screw it up again," she says. "These people aren't doing it just for themselves. They're in it to educate."