A common question I am asked is, “What is it like to be on the battlefield?” It’s a really good question, but not one that is easily answered. The answer varies depending on the battle, one’s position, and one’s rank.
For the basic enlisted soldier, the majority of their focus is on listening to the orders of their officers and NCOs and following them. Making sure they use their training and execute their orders well.
For Corporals, their job is to ensure safety, to maintain and dress the line, and complete whatever order the NCOs or officers give. They may have a squad of men assigned to them for whom they are responsible to oversee and lead.
Sergeants are responsible for holding the line, keeping the soldiers where they are supposed to be in the line, and are an alignment point for the line.
1st Sergeants maintain the stability, safety, and structure of the unit. They make sure everyone has what they need (a Sergeant or Corporal may do this for the men assigned under them as well). They watch what the Captain or Major are doing and make sure they have what they need, as well as trying to anticipate any needs or upcoming commands to be ready for them.
Officers- roles of officers change with every rank. Captains are over Companies, Majors and Lt. Colonels are wing commanders. The Colonel commands the battalion. The officers read the enemy. They see what is coming and try to counter it. They have to think on their feet and command men, knowing the consequences of their commands – whether right or wrong. There is a certain pressure on them, because the lives of the men under them are completely in their hands.
Medical- Medical varies based on which role we are playing. A head surgeon or battalion surgeon is usually in the general hospital or the rear field hospital. A field surgeon may be on the field, but will be behind the line of battle, not on it (you hope. I have had the line of battle shift on me and end up right in the middle of the fighting). Vivandieres would also be behind the line of battle, but may be on the battlefield tending the wounded. Nurses would be in the hospitals, with a few exceptions, such as if one were portraying Clara Barton or Annie Etheridge, both of whom did take the to battlefield behind battle lines (these ladies were Union). Our job is to check the wounded, get them stable and back on the line, or to the hospital to the rear.
For all of us, we learn and manage to navigate the terrain for each event, adjusting what we are doing to make sure orders are carried out correctly and we still stay safe. Everyone still feels the concussion of the cannon fire, quickly learning what to look for, and when to cover one’s ear for protection. We all quickly learn the sound of a musket volley, or fire by file and make minute adjustments as needed. The smell of gunpowder fills our noses, sounds fill our ears, and at times, senses start to overload if a lot is happening at once. It is easy to become lost in the moment, to truly be living in the battle with all the chaos, fighting, enemy movements, or hand-to-hand combat. There is excitement of the unknown, the horror of seeing fellow comrades fall.
When the first shots are fired, adrenaline kicks in. Our response varies based on our role and whether we are giving or taking orders. Some of us are more seasoned, so the musket fire does not affect us as much. Some are military veterans and the musket fire puts them back in the zone with which they are so familiar. For me, it depends on which role I’m playing. If I’m a soldier or medical corps, I’m ready for battle. I’m thinking both offense and defense. If I’m in a civilian role, it is a very different response. I know that army is coming, and I know they are up to no good. It means we need to hide our valuables, our food, our children, and if possible ourselves. The Yankees love to come in, steal our supplies and manhandle the women, who usually have no defense until the Confederate army arrives, most particularly when we are reenacting the battles in Sherman’s march to the sea.
As a soldier, there is a particular moment when the enemy begins advancing. You watch them, you study their movements and see what they are going to do, and as enlisted, you pray your officers will give the order for you to fight, and an order that won’t get you “killed.” When they enemy advances toward you and there have been no orders for your line to advance, you can feel the anxiety building. There is an instinct in all of us to want to fight back. Some feel our breathing speed up, some get a knot in their stomach, or sweaty hands. These feelings are intensified when we are facing an opposing line of reenactors we don’t know. We don’t know how they were trained, we don’t know what they can, or will do. There’s an added level of tension there because not only do the officers have to try to read the opponent and properly counter them, but on a more basic level, we realize there is a much more likely chance of someone getting hurt. When we fight and train together often, we begin to trust each other. We know what they know and they know us. We know what they are capable of, and that we all work hard to keep each other safe on the battlefield. When we have an unknown opponent, it is much more like fighting the war itself. We know they aren’t out to kill us (unlike the actual war), but we know there is a higher risk of someone getting hurt.
When our officers get fired up, and begin to fight an aggressive battle, that’s when it starts getting fun! There will be lots of movement, much more determination than a predictable battle. They move men back and forth, the opposing line trying to find a weak spot to breach the line. The musket volleys and artillery fire encourage the adrenaline and our resolve. We listen over the din of battle, we taste the sulfuric grains of black powder in our mouth as we rapidly tear open cartridges and load as fast as we can. The smell of smoke fills our nostrils as the cannon blasts wrack our bodies. The gunpowder hangs in the air like a blanket, cloaking some of the movements of our enemy. Thoughts run through our heads even as we execute the commands: Are you going to run out of ammunition before they are stopped? Are you going to die today?
I’ve had a few heart-dropping moments when instances felt very real for me on the battlefield. My first was a moment fighting the battle for Atlanta, over a year into my reenacting experience. I had been in multiple battles and multiple roles by that time. During this battle, we were making our final assault on the Federal line, pushing them back hard. I was medical corps and thus on the field behind the line of battle. I had knelt down to tend one of the “wounded” when the lines clashed and moved right in front of me. As the lines collided, one Yankee private broke through the line and came right for me! As medical corps, I am considered a non-combatant, and therefore unarmed. I had no way to defend myself, and was on my knees tending a wounded soldier. I saw the Yankee private coming toward me, and in that instant, I knew I was done! If he got to me, there was nothing I could do. My heart jumped into my throat and my breathing increased all in one second. I tried to find a way to oppose him, but while he was just feet away and before I could get to my feet, one of my brothers in arms took him to the ground in epic style. I quickly looked to him, nodded my thanks, and went back to my duties with a big sigh and deep breath.
The second of these events was at our most recent reenactment. The battle had been going for some time, and I had been dispatched to the Confederate right flank. We were losing men as casualties, and I was checking them. With a yell and a charge, the Federals attacked our position. The lines quickly clashed, and the Federals were busting through in places before our men could shore up the line. One of the Federal officers (who is a friend of mine and fights fiercely) broke through the line with part of his company just feet from my position. All the emotions and the thoughts of that first experience came rushing back as this time many men broke through the line. I thought, “Boys, stop them or we are done!” Thankfully, our boys in gray came in before I was taken prisoner or killed.
Other reenactors have stories upon stories to tell. Many nights we it around the fire and tell these stories to each other. If you have the opportunity, sit and talk with a reenactor and ask what it’s like. If it’s during an event, we will tell you in the first person of the character we are portraying. If it is outside an event, we will tell you about reenacting, the history, the art, and the skill of what we do. We love to share our passion with anyone who will listen or wants to learn, and we are always learning from each other!
I hope this blog has given you a little taste of what it’s like to be on the battlefield during the battle, with all the sights, smells, emotions, and experiences that comes with it! If you are near the middle Georgia region this weekend, be sure to stop in at Old Clinton in Gray, GA! They will be reenacting the battle of Sunshine farms, and the Battle of Griswoldville (part of Sherman’s march to the sea)!