Campaigning

By Jake Smith

digitally restored original photo

The American War Between the States, commonly referred to as the Civil War, is well-known as the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. This clash between North and South consumed the souls of over 700,000 soldiers and countless civilians. You have undoubtedly read accounts of the horrific combat and carnage perpetrated and endured by the brave men who fought on both sides, but what you probably haven’t heard much of is how these men lived their day to day lives throughout the war. Contrary to popular belief, a soldier’s life on campaign consisted mostly of activities other than fighting. Between long marches, dangerous picket duty, poor diet, camp diseases, exposure to the elements, and plain old homesickness, the boys in blue and gray faced much more adversity and hardship than we can even begin to understand.

Gettysburg reenactment

The old Napoleonic adage of “an army marches on its stomach” still rings true to this day. Today’s troops eat from pre-packaged and vacuum-sealed meals that they take in the field from which they can somewhat procure the nutrients and energy they need. This was not the case in the 1860’s. Canning was not yet in common practice and soldiers were supplied with enough rations to last for several days. To prevent food spoiling, rationed meat would be heavily preserved with salt, and armies would often be followed by long supply trains of wagons carrying food and supplies for the troops. The typical rations issued to a federal soldier consisted of mostly hardtack, coffee, and pork that was so heavily covered with salt that it had to first be scraped and boiled before it was even remotely palatable. Other supplementary items included sugar, salt, rice, vinegar, and sometimes fruit or vegetables that they would forage to break up the monotony of their diet. The Confederates were much less well-fed than their northern counterparts. There is no typical Confederate diet per-se as they ate what they could get, but most Southern soldiers’ diets consisted in large parts of cornmeal and bacon, rarely a vegetable, as well as tobacco and peanuts, as these items were plentiful in the Southern states.

112e20e35a07e6c3ca280bcd7dfee66b--camp-meals-civil-war-photosBecause of these differences in supplies, there are many documented cases of Confederate and Union soldiers trading southern tobacco for U.S. Army issued coffee. Soldiers on both sides often cooked their meals in small frying pans or improvised skillets made from damaged or surplus canteens. Troops would usually form into small groups of around five to seven men called “messes”. These messes of men were usually comprised of close friends who cooked and ate together, and sometimes combined their rations into larger pots to make meals such as stews. These larger pieces of cookware were somewhat cumbersome and were often left behind in the wake of a rapid advance or retreat. In many such occurrences, after a routed Union army had abandoned their camps, the famished Confederates would often give pause to eat their enemy’s meals and acquire whatever food and supplies they could.

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This poor diet was a major contributor to diseases contracted by troops on both sides. Over the course of the war, disease would take the lives of over 388,500 fighting men, or approximately 55.5% of the estimated 700,000 deaths. This deadly scourge did not discriminate between Federal or Confederate, nor veteran from recruit. It was impartial in its selection and affected both armies immensely. Dysentery was perhaps the most common of these plagues and was brought about by contaminated drinking water and the overall filth in the camps. In comparison to modern medical knowledge, the people of the time had a significant lack of understanding of pathogens and the transmission thereof. Therefore, latrines would be placed near streams, contaminating the water and poisoning those who drank of it. Some men with severe diarrhea from dysentery or typhoid would not be able to reach the latrines in time and would inadvertently turn the camps into an absolute cesspool of germs and bacteria. It was in this putrid combination of mud and excrement from men and animals alike that the soldiers slept, cooked, and drilled every day for long periods of time.

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The conditions of hospitals were not much better. The concepts of blood types and cross contamination had not yet been discovered, and the horrendous health of patients was a true testament to this lack of knowledge. Doctors would probe wounds with bloody fingers and use the same instruments on numerous men without washing them. This led to intense fevers suffered by the patients in the hospitals as well as a high death toll for amputees. Other common ailments of the time include, but are not limited to, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and pneumonia, to which General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson notably succumbed after his mortal wounding at the battle of Chancellorsville. Once we look at the appalling conditions in which these men lived, we can begin to understand the reason that the death toll from sickness is so high, and why this supposedly glorious war wasn’t so glorious as it was cruel and horrific for the men who endured it.

WOW.

In the modern military, there is a saying “Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain.” There is another, seemingly contradictory to the first, “Pack light, freeze at night.” These statements are both equally true. For the soldiers of the time, as well as for our modern soldiers and marines, a balance has to be struck between these two realities. When you live entirely out of the pack on your back, you have to sometimes make hard decisions on which items you bring for comfort and convenience in camp, and how much weight you want to carry, bringing you inherent bodily discomfort. This was especially true during the 1860’s when men would be in the field for years on end. From burning heat and stifling humidity, to freezing rain and snow, the elements played a large role in the misery of the men who endured them. To quote one soldier from the film Gods and Generals during a scene when two men are camping under a starry sky in the summer of 1861, “That’s fine for now. You’ll be humming a different tune when it’s raining, you’re all covered in frost, or you need me to dig you out of a snow drift.”

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In addition to mostly adverse climate conditions, soldiers had their daily responsibilities such as picket duty, fatigue duty digging trenches or latrines, as well as daily drill and often long marches. The men would be drilled in their units, often in excess of twelve hours daily. This included marching and maneuvering drills as well as weapons drills. All of these were essential to combat and crucial to the survival of the soldier. One famous example of the long and arduous forced marches carried out by the troops is of General Jackson’s very own Stonewall Brigade. Often referred to as “Jackson’s Foot Cavalry,” these men would often march in excess of 26 miles per day, and earned their nickname for their ability to move faster than all other infantry units. More often than not, the Stonewall Brigade would wake up before sunrise, march over 20 miles and go straight into battle without stopping for a meal until their night-time positions. This mobility was pivotal to many of Jackson’s victories in the Valley Campaign of 1862, but did not come without a cost. Due to moving at such brutal speed, many footsore men, either injured or just plain dead-tired, fell out of the ranks as stragglers. Because of this, Jackson went into combat many times without his full troop strength as well as having his regiments all beyond the point of exhaustion.

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Photo Credit: Ramon Salas

Fast forward to modern-day times. I have been reenacting for a few years now, and have recently been getting into the campaigner aspect of the hobby. For those who are unaware, there are two main types of civil war reenacting. These are mainstream and campaigner, also known as progressive. On the campaigner side of reenacting, you are often issued rations, stand picket or fatigue duties, go on marches, and sleep on the ground. The only things you have are what you carry on your back, and overall it is a more immersive experience. Although I understand it is not for everyone, one of the main reasons I have been recently re-enacting in more of a campaigner style is so that I can more accurately experience what the soldiers went through. Although I don’t wish to contract diseases or be away from home for years on end, I am able to march the distances they marched, go hungry and sleep deprived, stay out in the cold or the rain, and sleep on the uncomfortable ground. Even if only for one weekend, I am able to understand a fraction of what these men endured on behalf of their nation and each other. When you briefly learn about the war in school, it is two dimensional: just names and years on a page. But when you reenact, the people and places jump out of the book and become real. Once you read the actual letters and correspondence of the men who were there, and you understand their thoughts and relationships, you realize that these were real people just like you and me. They loved, feared, had a sense of humor, and everything else that makes someone human. When you realize this, suddenly they’re not so far away in the past. When you put on the wool and literally walk a mile in their shoes, you can begin to understand their lives and the sacrifices that they made. It truly gives you an understanding of the era and the ability to look at it in the same way that you look at our own day and time: as a participant.

 

 

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Why We Fight — In Their Own Words

The issue of why we fight and reenact is very passionate and extensive. If you saw last months post, there are many reasons why we fight, and many you may not have expected. Last month’s post was so well received that it was picked up by the Camp Chase Gazette, and the Civil War Courier. I must thank the editor, Ms. Jessie Greene, for publishing it!

Reviewing the interviews I did for “Why We Fight,” I realized there were so many stories that were incredible, and so many good things people had to share, that I regretted I could not use them all. So, for the first time ever, I am continuing a theme for a second month and want to introduce you to several amazing men and women. I want you to hear their stories, in their own words…

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

C. Harris–Cpl, 53rd GA, Co. K
“A friend of mine asked my why I do it. Why do I get dressed up in a wool uniform, carry an 8 pound rifle, and march around? My answer to them is always the same thing. I do it because I have questions. I want to understand the war from the perspective of the common soldier. I know that I will never truly grasp the fear and the horror of what they saw 150 years ago. But to take a small glimpse into the past and see how they cared for their uniforms, cooked and ate food, drilled and marched, and that the way they did it then is similar and also different from the way our modern military does things now. I often find myself accidentally throwing in “modern” military terms when speaking to other reenactors. I spent four years in the United States Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom and words like “Roger that” and “Hooah” always seem to keep drifting in.

“I reenact because in a way, I miss the structure and the camaraderie of the military. I get this in reenacting without the real death and loss of friends that came with being in active duty. I also do this because of the history. When I was in school, we had boring history teachers who read dry facts from a textbook and acted like they wanted to be anywhere else but there reading from the book. I found history to be more than that. I looked at history as more of a collection of stories about people and events. The choices they made and the effects of those choices. These were the real flesh-and-blood soldiers. They had mothers and fathers back home, brothers, sisters, and friends. They each had hopes and dreams for their lives after the war. For many, those dreams were cut short by shot and shell.

“I think that because I served in the modern military, it gives me a certain kinship with those who served in the past. It gives me a way to place a face and feelings to the dusty old tintypes you see in the books. I reenact because I want to learn how these soldiers’ lives were similar and different from our own. The more I learn about the history and the time, the better I can answer questions from those who see me in my uniform and ask. I do it for their memory – for the men in both Blue and Gray. I do it so their memory doesn’t fade away. Their story will live on through me, and others like me, who tell these stories. Take it from a soldier who has actually “seen the modern elephant (note: this is a term we use to note when a reenactor has had an experience as if they were actually there and fighting the war itself).” There is nothing worse for a soldier than to have his deeds forgotten. It’s the same as the old quarterback who threw the game-winning pass on homecoming his senior year in 1997. He will talk about it for years because it was his moment. A lot of soldiers are like that as well.

“This leads me to another topic that brings bad feelings: Our Civil War monuments are in danger of being removed because some feel that they offend people. What these people fail to consider is that a lot of times, these monuments were likely the only thing that a lot of families had left of their fathers and sons who fought and died so far from home. Many who were killed in action, both North and South, were buried in mass graves and their bodies were never returned home (Note: there are also many accounts of the Federal soldiers being buried and the Confederate dead being left to the animals, and there are photographs to prove it). This was a time before soldiers ID tags were in use. Communities back home would have fundraisers and charities to raise money for a monument for their loved ones. In many cases, whole towns had lost fathers and sons because they served in the same unit. Our Civil War monuments were a physical line to those who paid the ultimate Soldiers’ Sacrifice. To remove these statues is to remove a part of our history. To remove these statues is to tell those loved ones left behind that their fathers and sons, who died for their cause, were meaningless and their deeds should be forgotten. We shouldn’t allow this to happen. I would hate for 60-years from now [to see] a group removing monuments with the names of my friends who had died in Iraq because their war was “unpopular” and causes hurt feelings.”

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

J. Palmquist–Pvt, 61st GA, Co. B

“The reason I do this is because of my ancestors. They fought with black men who willingly went into battle because the cause was just and true. They didn’t fight because of slavery. So therefore, I fight to preserve their memory. To teach people the true past of our nation. To show them how soldiers actually lived back then.”

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

L. Shockey–Nurse, 5th GA/53rd GA, Co. K
“History was ingrained into my brain since I was little. It has always been one of the many things that my dad and I have always bonded over. It was my favorite subject in school. I love reenacting because I always wanted to do it. I wanted people to know that there are two sides to the story, and whoever wins the war isn’t always right. I want people to know that you can’t get rid of history. You instead have to learn from it. The Bible is history and it is the best historical book in the world. If you try to get rid of history, that is like trying to get rid of the Bible and I am sorry – but that will never happen. Plus, if we don’t learn from history – we will repeat it! I believe in preserving history and honoring my ancestors – my family to be exact. My ancestors fought in many wars and I support them all. They laid their life on the line for me and that means the world to me! When people judge the Confederate flag, or a monument – I take it personally. That’s an attack on my family – one that I won’t stand for! So, if dressing up in 6-7 layers of clothing and wearing a very uncomfortable corset will get my point across – well then that is what I will do!”

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Photo Credit: Sherry Frazier

B. Nelson–Cpl, 16th Ga, Co G.
“We fight to protect the name and honor of our ancestors-both North and South, and protect what they stood for – particularly our Southern ancestors. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t over slavery. Slavery was an aspect of the war but it wasn’t a major issue of the war. It was an issue politically, not on the battlefield. In the Confederate army you had different ethnicities and races. You had Native Americans, Irish, British, Jewish, German, Italian, African Americans, and more-and they were integrated into white regiments, unlike the Union which made them into their own separate units and brigades and segregated them. In the South, most of them were fighting to protect their homes and their neighbors. This isn’t just the slave, this is the free man too – fighting for the Confederacy! African Americans had a major part in the Confederate Army. We fight to PROTECT that fact!

“Unlike what the media says, the battle flag is not a racist symbol! [General] P.T.G. Beauregard made the Confederate battle flag a symbol of religious, Christian beliefs. Nothing about the flag is racist at all! It is being hijacked as a racist symbol by the KKK and the neo-Nazis. Then that stereotype spreads that it was about racism and protecting the slaves, but that is not the case. We fight to protect that true fact, and to protect the memory of a war that made so much significance in our history! With the American government today trying to white-wash the American population with a history that isn’t true, basically, they are wiping the Civil War from the face of the earth as if it’s irrelevant.

“That war did so much for us. It meant so much- It divided the country! It showed us that we are not perfect as a country. It saddens me that they are trying to wash away all that we cherish. Look at what they are doing in Spotsylvania. Almost all of it has become front-line property. Recently Nash Farms is being taking away from us. It might become the same thing as Spotsylvania. Everything is becoming lost to us. We are losing monuments, we are losing all of this, because of the simple fact that they want to erase a nation that was apparently racist. That wasn’t the case during the time! They were a country separating themselves from a tyrannical rule! A tyrannical rule they saw as it was!

“It angers me that this is what’s happening. Because without our history, without knowing who we were, it’s taking away from what it means to be an American, to be free, to know where you came from! I know where I came from. I know I have ancestors in both the South and the North that fought through the War Between the States. It’s like trying to forget a bad dream. But this is what happened! You can’t change history. Those monuments should be left there as a sign saying, “This shouldn’t happen again!”

“I really hate what is happening. We need to fight. We need to go to events. We need to bring the attendance up and let people see that we love what we do! It’s like Irwinville – If we can’t get those numbers up, we’ll lose places like Irwinville [Note: Irwinville, GA is the location of the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis], we’ll lose Pickett’s Mill. We’ll lose all of those places. We’ve seen what happened at Nash Farms, and that’s something we need to think about as reenactors. What will be next? Clinton? Olustee? Manassas? Andersonville? Which ones? It’s something that every reenactor needs to think about. And it should spark a movement that every reenactor should embrace. We need to keep teaching, we need to keep going to these events, so that the memory of these soldiers will survive. Without those memories, we won’t be able to know where we came from. America has a terrible past, we know that, but it’s our duty to teach it so that history does not repeat itself. Because it is my opinion that history does repeat itself. ”

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J. Smith- Pvt, 16th GA, Co. G
“You know, when I first started reenacting, it was just because I like history and it was fun, and when I found out about my lineage, it was a way to honor my ancestors. Now it is to protect our honor, history, and culture. To fight back against the lies and hateful attacks set against us simply because we are different. The more they push reconstruction, the more proud I am of who I am and where I come from. So in essence, it is having the opposite of the desired effect. From now on, I will be more proud every time I put on the Gray.”

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Photo Credit: Jerry Chesser

J. Reno–Capt. 5th GA Vol. Cavalry
“Thirty-five some-odd years ago, I decided to dive into my ancestry and genealogy. This was a time before computers and Internet. It was a time of family Bibles, census reports and microfilm. The history I have found on my hunt for my ancestors has been incredible; and the journey is not over.

“Being born in Atlanta, Georgia… seeing Gone With The Wind in the Fox Theatre on grammar school field trips… and walking the battlefields of North Georgia with my family… I always considered myself a Confederate; just like everyone else.
As a youngster, I was fascinated about the War Between the States, this War of Northern Aggression, the Civil War. I was told amazing stories by my grandmother -stories of men [who were] veterans of that war. Stories of my ancestors that were deaf from service in the artillery, stories of Confederate uniform trousers that were made into kid’s pants after the war, the story of my great grandmother who watched all of her worldly possessions be destroyed by the Yankees, minus a glass cream pitcher she clung to in her arms.

“My family had lived in Eastern Tennessee and Northern Alabama. I learned my Alabama ancestors were dedicated Confederates. Private James Beard, 26th Alabama Infantry, captured during the Fort Henry & Donaldson campaign, died of smallpox as a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ill. Sergeant Samuel Green, 55th Alabama Infantry, captured after watching his unit be shot to pieces at Peachtree Creek during the Battle of Atlanta. Brothers in the 4th Alabama Cavalry – their families being severely punished by the Yankees for being “secessionist.”

“My Eastern Tennessee kin were harder to find. I ran into dead end after dead end during my search. Then on a trip to Chattanooga I was given a copy of a document belonging to an ancestor. Discharge papers, from the Federal Army. My Tennessee kin had joined with the Yankees? I could not believe it. Not only my GG Grandfather, but his whole family (males of military age) had joined the 9th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, U.S., in September of 1863.

“Then I stumbled upon a most interesting fact. My Great Grandparent’s fathers served on different sides during the war. Could it be? A husband and wife who’s fathers fought each other during the conflict? It was true; Elbert Reno, son of Private William Reneau (Reno) of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, U.S., married Mary Posey daughter of Private Hesekiah Posey of the 35th Tennessee Mountain Rifles C.S. and William Reno and Hesekiah Posey were from the same neighborhood, Hamilton County, Tenn.

“So I am asked, why do you fight (reenact)? I would answer “only for a few reasons.”
I would like to see my family history kept alive and shared. I can’t imagine how much information would have been lost if I had not started my search many years ago.
It gives me joy to see a child’s eyes light up when they can talk to a soldier. When they can ask questions, touch a saber, learn the soldier’s daily life. I want to honor those men that marched off to war for what they believed in. To remember the families who were left behind to try to survive. The people of that time endured suffering that we could never imagine.

“Lastly, I do not know if the scars from that war will ever be completely healed; but the county was not torn badly enough to keep a man who’s father fought for the north and a girl who’s father fought for the south to come together and make a family… my family.”

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Photo Credit: Sheila Chasteen

S. Chasteen- Pvt, Cobbs Legion
“Well, I fight because I have such a deep rooted connection with the war. I feel like people now forget about the war and the individuals who fought in it, so there is some duty and obligation that you get when you start reenacting. This war is a big section of my life and what defines me as a person because it’s my history. It’s what makes me who I am today, and I plan on preserving the memory because if I don’t, I’m doing them a disservice. As an American, this is something we should all strive to do –remember – and that’s why I fight.

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Photo Credit: Kenny Stancil

K. Banks, Pvt, 16th GA, Co G
“Growing up, reenacting wasn’t really my thing. Being in a family who forced me to always go since I was a baby, I really had no choice. To be honest, I flat-out hated it. I hated the outdoors due to the gnats and other bugs during the warm months; and I hated having stiff joints during the cold months. But, the one thing I hated all year around was packing for events. Once I matured, I understood the life a lot more. I grew to love it. How? Because there’s a bond among one another within my unit. That’s what I grew to love. Then I started thinking, “I want that. ”

“So, at 15 years old, I shocked my family and took up arms and joined my guys on the field. Never have I regretted the sweat, blood, and tears on the field (that’s when the best battles happen). Nor have I regretted sitting around behind the lines cracking jokes with the guys. There are times where the battle seems so real that when I see one of my guys fall, my heart screams. That’s how it was back then. They had a close family. There were disagreements, but which family doesn’t have some kind of issues?

“I get told a lot that, “you’re as good as any man that ever tore a cartridge.”  Words cannot explain how much I hate being told that. Hear me out: Once you start the hobby (yes, I said hobby), those words mean a lot. Feels like you’re doing great in the ranks and it boots up your confidence. However, once you get past your big arrogant, know-it-all, newbie phase, you’ll find out that those words are a flat-out insult to those men who actually went through hell on earth.

“Aren’t those the men and women we are supposed to honor? I fight and I do what I do to honor them! But, it’s more than just dressing out and doing memorial services now, it’s in the heart.

“People these days are literally trying to erase history but it’s always going to be there. Always. Even dressed up as a lady, on the field as a nurse, or in full uniform with my guys, I’m still doing my part. I maybe a “soldier” but never will I compare to those people 150+ years ago. My over all job isn’t to be a soldier- my job is to keep the memory of my ancestors and the unknown graves alive.”

Credit Becky Maddox

Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

J. Morgan, Major, PGL Left-wing commander

“I started Re-enacting at the age of 14. I have always been interested in the War of Northern Aggression, the “Civil War.” I started re-enacting because I love being on the line and firing my musket. Now I do it to educate the public on the truth about the War. I want to preserve our Southern Heritage.

“As an officer, I have a responsibility to the safety of my men. But at the same time, I have to focus on the field and how the Federal and/or Confederate counterparts are moving around the field so as to see how to respond to their movements. I have to remain cool and focused.

“Since my time in the U.S. Army, this hobby gives me a since of purpose and camaraderie. These special people have become my family. No matter the race, creed, or faith, these people are my family. I do it for them, and to honor my ancestors.

“I remain your humble servant, Major James C. Morgan, Phillip’s Georgia Legion, Left Wing Commander.”

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Photo credit: Heidi Edge

H. Poythress- Commanding Colonel, Georgia Volunteer Battalion
“Not long after I left the modern military, I was a student at Georgia College in Milledgeville. I commuted daily from Macon that spring quarter. One afternoon in early May I was passing through Gray on my way home and saw the tents set up in the fields for Old Clinton War Days and decided to go into town and see up close what was happening. That was in 1991…..

“Since that day I have totally and whole heartedly committed to the reenacting community in my home state of Georgia, and in many ways far beyond. I have traveled all across the American Civil War sphere of influence, ranging from the great pilgrimages, to the fields and stone walls of Pennsylvania, to mud holes in Mississippi and Arkansas, in the quest to absorb, consume, reflect on and protect every morsel of the Civil War experience; and it has blessed me beyond anything I can imagine.

“The events of the last few months and the actions of the haters of the “Left,” the “Liberals,” and the “Progressives,” toward Confederate history have left me angry and more determined than ever to buckle on my armor and prepare myself for what has become an unabashed and unrestrained genocidal drive toward the South and the memories of its fighting men of the 1860’s. These events are not new: Over the years I have marched in parades where opponents of anything and everything Confederate lined the sidewalks and hurled insults toward us and threatened boycotts on local business where the parade was being held. I have been denied the opportunity to present a complete presentation on the War to school children by being told that weapons or flags or the mention of certain figures could not be a part of the program. I have participated in rallies when State flags were being changed without the consent or will of the majority of its citizens. Even friends of mine as deeply rooted in the same cause of historical awareness and preservation were denied service at restaurants.

“But it is different now. Most recently, I have watched with sadness and a heavy heart [to see] the desecration and removal of monuments to the South’s Heroes-the one defining icon reminding us of what makes us who we are and what we should strive to be:

Brave.

“Brave and unafraid to stand up and fight for our homes, our families and our neighbors in spite of the entire world bearing down on us.

“I seriously doubt those people who are so offended by these monuments have taken the time to truly educate themselves on the history of the War, its causes and its aftermath on the South; and I seriously doubt any of them really care to, or ever will. All they see is the modern one-dimensional “insult” of being offended. The feelings of anger and helplessness that many of us feel as these events continue to occur with deliberate belligerence and impunity with no end in sight or possible compromise with the enemies of our history and culture will, in time, force many of us in a position to act.

“I have always revered and respected the soldiers and citizens of both the Confederacy and the Union during the defining moment in our history as a Nation. War, any war, is a terrible abomination begat with sacrifice and suffering that consumes both sides with hate and distrust that last generations after the treaties have been signed and the troops returned home. I hope that many in the living history community feel as I do by presenting the War in a rational, fair and balanced and most of all intelligent way to anyone they converse with on the subject. We in the Civil War historical community are, at times, are our worst enemy and do much more harm to our cause, our ancestors and our culture, when we do not take the effort to educate ourselves completely on the War. Everything we do is stereotyped by others who do not understand or appreciate what we do, or why we do it. Everything from the smallest detail of our impressions when displaying ourselves to the public to understanding the facts of the War’s politics, events, timelines, and outcomes is imperative and crucial to our credibility. That is in reality “why I fight.” Our enemy is ignorance.

 

 

Why We Fight

Many people ask us why we do what we do. Why did we choose to be reenactors and living historians? Why do we choose to represent an unpopular war, especially in this day and time? Why do we choose to represent the Confederacy? Don’t we know that we shouldn’t have anything to do with the War Between the States?

The truth is, the answers vary as much as the people they represent, yet they all follow a few themes: Bravery, honor, respect, remembering men of every color who fought (that includes white, black, and red), remembering our ancestors, learning our family history, coming to terms with unpleasant facts, protecting the memory of the brave black men who fought for the Confederacy as well as for the Union, learning from a war that changed the face and future of this country, honor among enemies, and more.

 

This topic is one about which we are very passionate, and one that garners great emotion. You see, as living historians, we experience these things in a way that few people do. We don’t just live and learn the customs of the times, we BECOME these people and experience part of what they experienced. Searching primary documents to understand everything from the politics of the day, to the correct color or trim on a uniform, to getting inside the mind of a particular person who lived through this horrible war, we slowly understand who they were and why they did what they did. It gives us a unique insight into the war and people of a lost and largely misrepresented era of history.

 

For many of us, the fight began to honor our ancestors, for some to find out who they were. Many of us grew up knowing we were the descendants of a Civil War Soldier, but either needing to know more, to understand, or to find them, led us down this path. There is no better way to understand history than to touch, taste, wear, and smell it. It becomes a time portal to the time in which they lived, and to experiencing one small taste of what they lived through.

For the majority of us, we fight to protect the name and honor of our ancestors-BOTH Northern and Southern, but particularly our Southern ancestors for they are the most under attack. Contrary to popular belief, we fight to honor all colors and peoples who fought in the war. In the Confederacy, we have records of whites, blacks (both FREE and slave), Irish, British, Jewish, Scottish and other Europeans, and they were in integrated regiments! The Union created segregated units for their black soldiers, but here they fought side-by-side with whites and others. Jews fought on both sides of the war, but were celebrated and remembered in the Confederacy whereas General Grant expelled them from his army. We fight to remember them.

Confederate Jews

 

Many blacks fought on both sides of the war. Many people are familiar with the movie, “Glory” which is about the formation of an all-black Federal unit, and it should be remembered! But what about all the black men who fought for the Confederacy? There is a first-hand account of a black Confederate who had become the last man standing in the area. His uniform was bedraggled and nearly in rags, shoes were falling apart on his feet. He was approached by Union forces toward the end of the war and asked why he was fighting. His response? “Because you are HERE.” He was fighting for his home! One of our reenactors fights to remember his ancestors who fought side-by-side with black men who ”willingly went into battle because the cause was just and true. They didn’t fight because of slavery, so therefore, I fight to preserve their memory; to teach people the true past of our nation.” There are account after account of Southern blacks screaming, “The Yankees are coming!” and running in fear, and there are also stories of those who chose to take the underground railroad to freedom. ALL of their stories deserve to be told.

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Some of us come from families who were divided. Imagine my friend’s shock after having known about his Confederate great-great grandparents, he found out he also had Union great-great grandparents! Literally, his great grandfather and great grandmother’s fathers fought against each other during the war, but were able to see past that and allow their children to marry! When asked why he reenacts, he says, “only for a few reasons. I would like to see my family history kept alive and shared. I can’t imagine how much information would have been lost if I had not started my search many years ago. It gives me joy to see a child’s eyes light up when they can talk to a soldier. When they can ask questions, touch a saber, learn the soldier’s daily life. I want to honor those men that marched off to war for what they believed in. To remember the families that were left behind to try to survive. The people of that time endured suffering that we could never imagine. Lastly, I do not know if the scars from that war will ever be completely healed; but the county was not torn badly enough to keep a man who’s father fought for the north and a girl who’s father fought for the south to come together and make a family… my family.”

My friend the enemy by Mort Kunstler

“My Friend the Enemy” by Mort Kunstler

Some of us (in fact, many of us) are veterans, and miss the structure and camaraderie of military life. For some, it allows them to step back into that role, to deal with death during war in a “safe” place, because this time, their buddy will stand up and live again at the end, where they know all too well the opposite happens in war. It allows us to know and understand first-hand the choices they made and the effects of those choices. To quote one of our veterans, “These were real flesh and blood soldiers. They had mothers and fathers back home, brothers, sisters, and friends. They each had hopes and dreams for their lives after the war. For many, those dreams where cut short by shot and shell. I think that because I served in the modern military it gives me a certain kinship with those who served in the past. It gives me a way to place a face and feelings to the dusty old tintypes you see in the books. I reenact because I want to learn how these soldier’s lives where similar and different from our own. The more I learn about the history and the time, the better I can answer questions from those who see me in my uniform and ask. I do it for their memory- for the men in both Blue and Gray. I do it so their memory doesn’t fade away. Their story will live on through me, and others like me who tell these stories. Take it from a soldier who has “actually seen the modern elephant.” There is nothing worse for a soldier then to have his deeds forgotten.”

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“Kings of Kernstown” by John Paul Strain

Many may be unaware that by an act of Congress in in 1957, all Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines that fought in the Civil War were made U.S. Veterans (U.S. Public Law 85-425, Sec 410, Approved 23 May, 1958; http://uscode.house.gov/statutes/pl/85/425.pdf). That means, to disrespect and dishonor Confederate veterans, one would be dishonoring AMERICAN veterans. We must represent and portray both, otherwise, how will we understand the war?

 

Many of us find they remind us of who and what we should be: honorable and brave. As our battalion commander so eloquently stated, “Brave and unafraid to stand up and fight for our homes, our families, and our neighbors, in spite of the entire world bearing down on us… I have always revered and respected the soldiers and citizens of both the Confederacy and the Union during the defining moment in our history as a Nation. War, any war, is a terrible abomination begat with sacrifice and suffering that consumes both sides with hate and distrust that last generations after the treaties have been signed and the troops returned home. I hope that many in the living history community feel as I do by presenting the War in a rational, fair and balanced, and most of all intelligent way to anyone they converse with on the subject…In reality the reason I fight [is because], our enemy is ignorance.”

 

We fight for honor. Not just to honor our ancestors, but learning honor from them. Robert E. Lee was the commanding General of the Confederacy. However, once he signed the armistice in the parlor of the McLean house on April 9, 1865, he became the largest proponent of restoration. He stated, “The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.” (Letter to former Virginia governor John Letcher (28 August 1865), as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 203. Retrieved from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee#1870s). In one instance, a Southern woman was teaching her son to hate the Union troops after the end of the war and asked General Lee for his help in the matter. He responded, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.” (quoted in The Life and Campaigns of General Lee (1875) by Edward Lee Childe, p. 331. Retrieved from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee#1870s).

What about the honor and respect shown between Confederate General John B. Gordon, and Union General Joshua L. Chamberlain at the final surrender of arms on April 12, 1865? Chamberlain wrote, “Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!… They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly—reluctantly, with agony of expression—they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down…”

Salute_of_Honor-Mort Kunstler

“Salute of Honor” by Mort Kunstler

In response, General Gordon stated what he witnessed, “When the proud and sensitive sons of Dixie came to a full realization of the truth that the Confederacy was overthrown and their leader had been compelled to surrender his once invincible army, they could no longer control their emotions, and tears ran like water…” (Retrieved from https://historicaldigression.com/2015/04/09/generals-joshua-l-chamberlain-and-john-b-gordon-at-appomattox/). These two men, two opposing Generals who had fought fiercely against each other, whose armies had tried to destroy each other, now faced one another in a time of greatest victory (and for a lesser man what might be a time of gloating), and a time of utter crushing sorrow. Yet, these men showed each other – their enemy until just 3 days prior – the honor and respect shown no greater man. These men, and their actions, deserve to be preserved and remembered as well.

 

Another reason we fight is to remember the history so that we do not repeat it. Would it be easier to sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened rather than coming face-to-face with the uncomfortable and unpleasant facts? Of course it would! As living historians, we have to face these unpleasant facts head-on. We have to acknowledge them, and even portray them, in order that the truth be told. Would we like to erase slavery? Yes. Would we like to forget the atrocities committed on both sides of the war? Yes. Would we like to forget our homes burned, our women ravaged, and our land and communities destroyed first by war and then by carpet baggers and martial law? Absolutely. At times, it’s like a bad dream from which you want to wake. But it IS what happened! We can’t change what actually took place in history. We need to have it in the open so that we, and others, may learn from it.

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Photo Credit: David Chaltas. Fiddler’s Green, 2016.

We do these reenactments, we support the monuments, and preservation of our flags, artifacts, and battlefields as a way to say, “This should never happen again!” We should learn what was accomplished for good, we should hear the stories of those who overcame unbearable odds, and we should hear of the cold-blooded atrocities on both sides, and learn from them. No one in that war or around that war came out unscathed. The war broke our country in two, and it was rebuilt differently than it had been before. It changed the landscape of America politically, topographically, and historically. Therefore, we too, have not escaped the touch of the War Between the States.

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Dead Confederate Soldier, Harris Farm, Spotsylvania. Colorized by Shelby Chasteen, (used with permission).

 

I will end with the first-hand story shared with me by my good friend, Dave Chaltas. His story moved me to tears, so I wanted to share it as he relayed it to me. These are his words:

“When I was a lad, I lived with my uncles for a while. All three of them had served in the military…Uncle Charlie served in World War II and was severely wounded. Uncle Arlie was in World War II and wounded in Korea. He received the Bronze Star for Valor along with the Purple Heart. Uncle Arnold served in World War II and was awarded three Bronze Stars. I vividly recall one summer evening sitting on the porch listening to them reflect. Uncle Charlie called me over and told me to sit beside him on the steps. He began talking about my ancestors from the Revolutionary War up to the current time. He was filled with emotion and then hesitated before continuing. When he regained his composure, he shared with me the following story.

“He talked of a grand reunion fifty years after a battle known as Gettysburg. Now, I had no clue where Gettysburg was located, nor was I very interested at that juncture. My uncle continued talking and said that, in 1913, men who wore the Blue and Gray gathered to mark the locations of different battles and to reflect upon the sacrifices of American lives. Someone suggested that these old men recreate the fabled Picket’s Charge. Those men, who had [been] lads of twenty were now seventy. Men of thirty were in their eighties, some were in their nineties. They consented to do so with the spectators following. Old men stepped out in columns, as the drums of a distant war once again guided their movements. Descriptions of the march toward the angle were described in detail. When they reached Emmitt’s Fence, a grand cannonade was presented. As the rebels reached a certain point, the weathered Federal forces were given the signal to fire.

“I can recall the tears trickling down my uncle’s face as he continued and I can quote his words verbatim. He said, “There went across the land a great gasp that meandered across the field, but it was not the spectators. It was the Union soldiers. Realizing the significance of the moment, those soldiers guarding Cemetery Ridge threw down their weapons, crossed the breastworks and as quickly as their aged bodies could go, ran to the embraces of the Rebels who had been their enemies but now were brothers once more. And from the ages rose the Phoenix.”

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Union and Confederate Veterans at the Wall after Pickett’s Charge reenactment 1913. Photo Credit- The Guardian.

 

“My Uncle stiffened with pride and I will never forget his words and his charge to me. He said, ‘Some of our kinfolk were there, and it falls upon our shoulders to remember the sacrifices of both.’

“At that moment, the mantel of enlightenment fell upon my being and I became a new creature. I vowed to find out more of my ancestors and to honor them and more importantly stand in their shoes while they rested in the land they loved. Since that time, I have discovered that a person will never truly know who they are until they know who their ancestors were, for it is in history that gives us hope. I stand to honor God, Country, and the memory of all my ancestors who have served. I revere their monuments and honor their Veteran Memorials and Monuments. I follow the wisdom of the Bible when it says in Proverbs 22:28, “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” It is my duty. It is my honor. It is my responsibility to guard the stones of yesteryear so that the rising generations will remember and not be condemned to commit the mistakes of the past. Therefore, I stand for those who cannot.”

I could not have said it better myself.

 

***In preparing for this article, I have spoken to many reenactors and heard from their own mouths the reasons why they fight and reenact the War Between the States. I have included some of their stories in this article, and want to thank each one for their time and feedback. To your honor, gentlemen, and the honor of those who went before us!

 

Being on the Battlefield

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.

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Photo credit: Kellie Banks

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.

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Photo Credit: Kellie Banks

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.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

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.

Carrying the wounded-Shannon Herron

Photo Credit: Shannon Herron

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.

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Photo Credit: CR Studios BW Atlanta

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?

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Photo credit: Rebecca Partin

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.

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Photo Credit: Shelia Chasteen

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)!

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