The story of the CSS Neuse

By Matthew Young

In October 1862 Thomas Howard and Elijah Ellis began construction of a new ironclad
gunboat at Whitehall (present-day Seven Springs) North Carolina. This new vessel, to be named Neuse, for the river on which it was to be built was one of a class designed for used in North Carolina’s coastal waters. These ships were not intended to be ocean-going or to raise the blockade, rather they were intended to defend coastal towns and wrest control of the sounds from the Union navy. The Neuse was a smaller “ironclad” type of vessel, measuring only 158 ft. long, and drawing eight feet of water.

Work on her construction at Whitehall was delayed by damage suffered in a Union raid
in December of 1862, but some ten months after the work had begun, the hull of the vessel was completed.

Following completion of her hull, the Neuse was launched and floated to Kinston in
August 1863. Work to complete her was very slow, with only a handful of workers employed in Kinston where she was being outfitted. The men assigned to her were mainly employed setting up workshops and drilling iron plating for the new ship.

By early 1864 Confederate authorities in Richmond were anxious to see the ironclads
under construction in North Carolina hurried to completion. At the beginning of February, little of the ship’s armor was on, the engines were in place, but the boiler was not in (in fact the boiler had not even arrived in Kinston at that point). Until the boiler had been laid in, the main deck could not be completed, and obviously, until the deck was in place the guns could not be mounted. Responsibility for completing the ship fell to her first commander, Lieutenant William Sharp. Also instrumental in the effort to see the ship finished was Brigadier General Robert Hoke, whose brigade was stationed in the area for defense.

Lt. William Sharp

On February 1st and 2nd , 1864, Major General George Pickett attacked in the direction of New Bern, but the assault failed to penetrate the Union defenses. Pickett concluded that New Bern probably could not be recaptured without naval support. Major William J. Pfohl of the 6th North Carolina, stated as much in a letter he wrote on February 9,
If we had had the boat along with us before I have not doubt but that we would have
succeeded.”

The failure of the attack emphasized the importance of completing the vessel as rapidly as possible. In the same letter Pfohl said that: “The work on the gunboat building at this place had been redoubled.”

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Though he could not have known it, Pfohl’s brigade commander, Robert Hoke, wrote to
John Whitford, President of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad on the same day to expedite work on the ship.

H. Justis goes to see you about having the boiler brought forward. All the iron here will
be prepared for the boat tomorrow & we are putting it on as fast as the holes are
drilled…The engines are in the boat and we are now awaiting the boiler which please
have brought forward at once. After it is gotten in the work will go on night and day.

Whitford also received a letter from Stephen Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy seeking his assistance in getting the iron armor plating shipped.

Sir, the construction of the naval vessels in North Carolina and particularly on the Neuse and Roanoke Rivers has been greatly retarded by the difficulty of getting iron armor for them over the railroads…I take liberty therefore of requesting whatever assistance you may be able to afford in the transportation of iron from the rolling mill in Atlanta to Kinston and Halifax.

Anxiety over the tardiness of completing the ship was great enough in Richmond that
Mallory ordered Lt. Robert Minor from the navy’s ordnance bureau on February 10,
proceed without delay to Kinston, NC and endeavor by any means in your power to
hasten the completion of the gunboat now under construction at that point…You will
explain to the officer in charge of the vessel the views of the department and…impress
upon him the necessity of employing as many mechanics as can work on the vessel day
and night, and you are authorized to send agents elsewhere to collect them. You will
keep the department advised of your movements and report upon the condition of the
gunboats at Kinston and Halifax and the progress made toward fitting them for
service…

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The next day Minor related the details of his orders in a letter to his wife.
…The ground attack on New Bern having failed in its object is the basis of my orders I
believe- and hence the clues I have to the whole matter…” (Mallory told Minor) “You
can have carte blanche to employ as many men on her as you like, to send agents out to
collect mechanics, to hurry forward the iron plates, and to do just as you like, only push
her forward, and tho’ she is not under Lynch’s command I will place her independently
under your orders- For I want her completed as soon as possible.

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Within a few days of receiving his orders Minor told his wife in a February 14, letter the
situation he found in Kinston:
My own darling, I have just arrived here…and though it is Sunday I have taken hold of
the work already, and hope before many days to be able to report very favorably on the
progress she has made, though the prospect is rather bleak, the steamer being hard
aground, and no prospect of having her afloat before the freshet comes down…

Compliant with his orders, Minor submitted a report to Secretary Mallory on February 16, that read in part:
As you are aware the steamer has two layers of iron on the forward end of her shield,
but none on either broadside, or on the after part. The carpenters are now bolting the
longitudinal pieces on the hull and if the iron could be delivered more rapidly or in small
quantities with more degree of regularity the work would progress in a much more
satisfactory manner. The boiler was today lowered into the vessel and when in place, the
main deck will be laid, in readiness for her armament of two 6.4” double-banded rifles.
The river I am told is unprecedentedly low for the season of the year, and the steamer is
now aground, with no prospect of being well afloat before a freshet…It is very apparent
that to be useful she must be equipped in time to take advantage of the first river rise, and in the event of there being none or even a slight one I have advised and since directed the construction of four camels to be used in or on the ship on her way down the river…I have advised and since directed the construction of a covered lighter of sufficient capacity to carry ten days coal and twenty days provisions for the steamer…If the material is delivered here as I hope it will be from the arrangements just completed to expedite it, I believe the steamer will be ready for service by the 18th of next month.”

Several changes occurred in mid-February. The number of men employed in completing
the ship increased from fifteen in mid-January, to over 230 in mid-March. 116 men from Hoke’s brigade were employed on February 26 to augment the labor force. A change of command occurred as well. Lieutenant Benjamin Loyall, a close friend of Minor, assumed command of the Neuse on February 17. His predecessor, Lt. Sharp was assigned to become the ordnance officer at the Charleston, South Carolina Naval Station. The period between mid-February and early March of 1864 was one of considerable activity in Kinston. On February 16, the boiler was lowered into place, and on March 7, the guns were put aboard. In the intervening three weeks the deck was completed and engineering work would have been going on to complete setting up the machinery. Amid such rapid work, Minor took time to write his wife.

If I was to tell you (he wrote) all I have done, how agents have been sent out, money
spent, and work pushed, as it should be when people are in a hurry, you would open your eyes wide with astonishment…

Any administrative abilities that Lt. Loyall may have had were certainly tested during
early 1864. He was responsible for completing the ship, which meant coordinating with the civilian workforce and their superintendents. He had a good working relationship with General Hoke whose brigade supplied much-needed manpower for the project (including men from the 21st Georgia Infantry Regiment). At the same time, Loyall had to organize a crew. The crew began joining the ship in January and continued up through early April. Many of these men were inexperienced, and the ship’s first payroll, covering the first half of 1864 reflects this, as it shows numerous promotions, demotions, and changes in duties among crew members.

Beginning in March 1864 letters written by Lt. Loyall and Master Richard Bacot, a South
Carolinian who joined the crew on March 1, 1864, tell the story very well. Pessimism dominates the early letters but by mid-April one can sense a growing eagerness to take the new ship into combat.

On March 9, 1864, Loyall wrote;
My dear Minor, your kind note with enclosures reached me yesterday. Tift has been
very energetic in the discharge of his duties, and I believe that all has been done with
dispatch for these days as far as he is concerned. The stop is at Wilmington, where there
are several car loads of iron awaiting transportation. We have been working slowly for
the past few days for want of iron, and I don’t know if it can be helped…The enemy have
been undisturbed in their work, and I fear, have done it well. Cuthbert was near as half-
mile to the enemy’s boats. About four miles above the town (New Bern) there are two
channels down the river- the “Neuse Channel” and the “Linkfield Channel.” In the
former they have sunk five vessels loaded with stone in line ahead, which prevents their
being washed out by the current. The other channel is very crooked and stumpy- here
they have sunk vessels loaded with stone across the channel, where it is very torturous.
Besides this they are at work with pile drivers. You know that freshets do not raise the
water below Swift Creek- this I am told by all who pretend to know anything of the river.
Altogether I am in pickle. Perhaps there may be a way to surmount these obstacles yet.
The Neuse floats not- the first course of iron is complete- the second is fairly begun- the
guns are in and mounted and I think will work well. But the ignorance and greenness of
my conscripts would make an old tar swear his head off. Now and then a stray shad
comes into our hands but black-hearted biscuit and fat bacon still form the basis of our
daily bounties. Dispeptic symptoms are beginning to appear.”


On March 19 th , 1864, Richard Bacot wrote;
Dear sis, I find it exceedingly dull here as the town is completely deserted by all its living inhabitants & I know now of those living in the country round about. We (the officers of the Neuse…) live in a small house on the street, which is the terminus of Col.
Washington’s Avenue, about a quarter mile from our future home the “Neus’ance.” I am
afraid that name will prove but too appropriate. Her “iron fixin’s” are not done, her
engines are not ready, her quarters and storerooms are not rear ready, & “last but not least” the river is falling about 12” a day we will have to trust Providence for another rise when the vessel is finished; finally to make matters worse we have a crew of long,
lank “Tar Heels” (N.C.’s from the piney woods). Our two guns are mounted and we drill
the crew every morning at 9:00 & every evening at 5:30 o’clock. We have one or two
good men for a “Neucleus” but I’m afraid the rest will never learn anything about a
gunboat. You ought to see them in the boats! It is too ridiculous. They are all legs & 
arms & while working the guns their legs get tangled in the tackles, they are always in the wrong place & in each other’s way. We are having “camels” built too, with which to lighten the vessel over the shoals etc. in the river. Also two large covered lighters for
carrying coal etc. I suppose we will be ready by the first of May, I hope so at least, for
the Yankees obstructed the river once & the freshet washed them away & of course if
they have time will do it in a more effectual manner…The vessel herself will be very
close and warm this summer, but we will be richly repaid for all inconveniences if we are permitted to succeed in capturing New Bern & Roanoke Island. Our paymaster has just arrived & will leave again tomorrow, he has no money & will not pay off. Wouldn’t spend it if he did (as there’s nothing to buy) so will wait.

Richard Bacot

Loyall wrote back on April 7;

“My dear Minor, There has been a flare up with the mechanics employed here & you may be able to throw some light on the disputed point…a few of them refused to work last night saying it was not fair play etc…I wish you would send a few of the things required by the gunner- especially the fuze wrenches…The Yankees have never stopped working on the obstructions. You have no idea of the delay in forwarding iron to this place. It may be unavoidable, but I don’t allow it. At one time twenty-one days passed without my receiving a piece. The fault was on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. Every time I telegraph to Lynch he replies “Army monopolizing cars.” It is all exceedingly mystifying to me.”

Loyall wrote again on April 16;
Your statements about the wages of the mechanics has caused messrs. Fleming and
Howard to appeal to me to support them in their obligation to the men under their
charge…the energy of these men (the workers) has visibly slackened. Confound them
they should all be enrolled and made to work Gov’t. price with rations, or go in the army.
I think well of your improvement on Port Shutters, which I hope will be adopted, for a
more primitive contrivance than the present cannot be gotten up. I think a shutter can be made to close with more ease & more quickly than these. So far everything works well aboard the little Neuse. She will be the most crowed cramped affair you ever saw. There has been too much room taken up for coal, which will only bring her down in the water. The vessel will draw nearly 8 ft. of water when complete. Mark what I say- when a boat, built of green pine & covered with four inches of iron, get under the fire of heavy ordnance she will prove to be anything but bomb proof. The upper deck is 2 in. pine with light beams & is expected to hold a pilot house. I should not be surprised it said pilot house was knocked off. There is very little to hold it on. The movement going on in this dep’t. has nearly broken my up in work. My portion of the men transferred from the army was thirty. I got some very good men- only a few sailors, but soldiers inured to hard service…It has taken nine days to cut the iron for the pilot house for the ship. We have to cover the three after faces of the shield- very little iron on the flat of the decks. I can’t tell when she will be ready but she can be used in a week. You have no idea of the delay in getting articles to this place.”

In his April 16 letter Loyall stated, very accurately, that the ship could be used in a week.
On April 22, it would be called upon. Days earlier the Neuse’s sister ship the CSS Albemarle had been instrumental in the recapture of Plymouth by Gen. Hoke. Following his success at Plymouth, Hoke hoped to take New Bern using the Neuse, and accordingly the ship was ordered downriver on the 22nd to take part in the operation. Her armor was still not quite complete, the crew was still not well organized, and it is unknown whether she could have gotten over the Federal obstructions in the river above New Bern. Moreover, the river was falling rapidly. In an ideal situation, the attack would have been pushed back a few weeks to allow for better preparation of both ship and crew and, hopefully, for the river to rise. But, in times of war, such an ideal situation rarely presents itself. Hoke’s brigade did not have time to wait; they were already under orders to travel to Virginia to meet expected Union offensives. The attack had to be pressed. On April 28th, Bacot wrote his sister to explain what happened.

Dear Sis, I have bad news to tell you this time. Even worse than I anticipated when I
wrote last. The C.S. Neuse is nearly “high and dry” on a sandbar just below Kinston.
The river had fallen about six feet when we got our orders to go down, and there was
scarcely enough water for us to cross the obstruction (placed by the Confederates); we
nevertheless started down last Friday and had proceeded about half mile when we
grounded on a sand-bar. We tried to get her off but her great weight and the strength of
the current were too much for us, besides, the river is falling at the rate of ¾ in’s per
hour. The stern of the vessel is afloat, but the bow is four feet out of the water. We will
have to wait for a freshet again and that will probably take place in July or August. I
assure you our disappointment was great when we found we could not get off; the troops
were here ready to join us in the attack on New Bern and we were all expecting to take
the city and sink the gunboats and have a fine time afterwards; we were destined to be
disappointed however and I suppose as “everything happens for the best,” we ought to
grumble too much, but it does seem hard to be so sorely disappointed after expecting so
much.

Neuse+4

Apparently, the camels that had been ordered weren’t successful in getting the vessel
over the sandbar. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard telegraphed Gen. Braxton Bragg on 24 April
requesting that an engineer be sent from Richmond to “Contrive some plan to get the gunboat afloat. I fear she will be materially injured if not floated soon. The water has fallen seven feet in the last four days, and is still falling.” One novel means of refloating the ship was tried also a man named Blanton wrote on May 15, 1864.

He was ‘staying in Kinston a working on a Dam across the nuse river to pond the water
to moove a gunboat that has run aground and I suppose that it will take some month or
two to get it Done and Donte care how long it takes to get it Done for i ruther Bee work
then not and I get $2.50 a day and will work all the time at that until the work stops if I
could get to Do So.’”

Confederate authorities reluctantly resigned themselves to the fact that the Neuse was
hopelessly aground until the river rose. Consequently, the Albemarle was ordered to make the long trip to New Bern to replace her stranded sister. The intended replacement met determined resistance form seven Union gunboats upon entering Albemarle Sound, and was forced back to Plymouth. Without naval support this third and final Confederate attempt on New Bern failed as the earlier ones had.

Fortunately for the crew and officers of the Neuse and for Confederate Naval authorities
the worst fears about the ship’s fate would not be realized. The new ship was not destroyed by grounding as two other Confederate ironclads would be. The best efforts to refloat the ship failed, but nearly a month after grounding the long hoped for river rise occurred.

Dear Sis,” Bacot wrote “when I wrote to Pa, about a week ago, we were still “in status
quo” on the sand bank, but we are now afloat again and in our old “Cat Hole” again. The
day after I wrote Pa, the river rose and we got off, and just in time too as the water fell
that evening. The workmen are again on board making music with their sledgehammers driving bolts in the iron overhead. All the troops have left here for Virginia and the place
is exceedingly dull.

The Neuse was returned to her mooring at the “Cat Hole,” the site of the modern day
King Street Bridge. Workers returned to put some finishing touches to the vessel and the ship’s crew would settle into a dull routine that would last until near the end of the war.
Thereafter, even at the times the river was high, there was never an opportunity to attack New Bern. Near the end of August 1864 Commander Joseph Price replaced Lieutenant Loyall as commanding officer of the Neuse. It would be Price’s unfortunate duty to order the destruction of his own ship. On March 12, 1865, after an intense fight with Union cavalry at the Battle of Wyse’s Fork, Price ordered the Neuse to be scuttled to prevent the vessel from falling into enemy hands. Neuse Gunner Eugene Williams wrote of the incident,

For forty minutes prior to abandoning her, we shelled the enemy on the opposite side of
the river vigorously. That booming was her funeral knell.” The crew of the ship, some of whom had been on board for over a year, now had to destroy her. Williams continued, “An instant after and dense columns of smoke were rolling from the ports of the ‘Neuse’. How greedily the red flames of fire licked her noble sides! How splendidly was she devoured!

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Salvage work would occur on her in late 1865, recovering the guns, engines, boilers,
armor plating, and anything else of value that could be sold. Her hull remained on the bottom of the river until the 1960’s when Neuse was raised and recovered. The State of North Carolina assumed control of her and her remains have since been moved to the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center in downtown Kinston, which opened officially on March 7, 2015.

*****

Matthew Young is a historian, reenactor, and Director of the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center in Downtown Kinston, NC.

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If you are ever in Eastern NC, please be sure to visit the Interpretive Center located at 100 N. Queen Street, Kinston, NC 28501. Contact the center at (252) 522-2107 or cssneuse@ncdcr.gov. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-5pm. Learn more at: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/neuse/neuse.htm?utm_source=www.visitnc.com&utm_medium=website&utm_campaign=downstream-referral

 

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Elements of Reenacting

What do camp fire smoke, sweaty wool, gunpowder, wet canvas, freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors all have in common? Well, if you are a living historian, they are all things you experience and love.

Yes, love.

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Photo credit: Robert Carswell. Nash Farms Battlefield 2015-Atlanta Campaign

 

Some call us crazy, some call us impassioned, some say we live in the past (you think? ;D), some say that we can’t let go, and some say a whole lot of other things which shall not be repeated by a lady such as myself. Something special happens when one decides to become a living historian. We sign up for days of hardship, nights where one cannot get warm, heat that puts grown men down, marching in Brogans until our feet feel as though they will fall off, and days without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Yet, we thrive on it. We can’t get enough of it, and when there is an extended time between events, we miss it.

Kaitlyn, CSA at Old Clinton 2016

Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

We have a saying when someone comes to take part in an event and leaves with the passion coursing through their veins and a gleam shining in their eyes, that “they have been bitten.” At times we teasingly warn them that if not treated, it becomes a full-blown illness from which they cannot recover. My company teases me that I came in already “bitten,” and in a way, it was true. It had been slowly festering in me since my childhood with my first doses of living history, particularly with the War Between the States. Once I took the field at my first event as a reenactor, it was like a second dose. By that second event, there was no chance. I was hooked! It had bitten me so well that not only did I know it, but my company and reenactors from other companies could tell as well! Smells, and other sensory triggers that were once less than desirable, such as sweaty wool, now smell wonderful to me. Recently I drove by a location where they were clearing land and burning a pile of wood. That smoke wafted in through the air vents in my car with the fresh air, and all I could think about was being in the field with my company.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton. Occupation of Sandersville.

These weekends are not only about the events, and the fun we have, they are about so much more. There is a brotherhood among many in the reenacting world, particularly among certain groups. There is a family bond for others, like those in my company. I have friends across company lines, and many of them are quite close. I talk to some of them weekly, if not several times a week! But we also realize we are there for a purpose. We don’t just go out there to play soldier or hang out with our friends, we go to honor those who went before us. We go to honor those who fought, sacrificed, and died- on both sides.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

My reason for being there is many-fold. First, I LOVE the history. I have been studying about it diligently for more than a decade and a half! Once that interest started, I have never fully been able to get over it. I have read, studied, explored, visited museums and battlefields, just because I love it. However, for me there is a special niche within the history that particularly holds my heart, and that is medicine. So many of the changes within the medical profession can be traced back to the War Between the States, whether surgically, women becoming nurses, the formation of an Ambulance corps, the skill of triage, creation of dog tags and so much more, all have their roots in the WBTS.

 

Second, depending on the event, I portray either a nurse, or medical corps. While I love nursing and think of these women I portray nearly like sisters, I find that I prefer being medical corps for many reasons. First of all, I get to be near the action. I hear the shouted commands, feel the concussion of the artillery, and I get a nose full of the smoke from the black powder as a volley is fired. I get to be in the thick of it, you might say. Being part of our medical response team, it also means that I am close to our guys if anything happens for real, and it certainly has! I am close enough I can monitor them and watch over them along with my fellow nurse, Lisa. But we are also there adding another layer to the event which was not present regularly, until the last year or so, and that is representing the wounds of battle and their care. Sure, guys would get “shot” and fall, and you would see many men “dead” on the field, but now we get to show the audience one small taste of what that carnage may have been like. Now they see guys go down and bandages applied with blood staining them, checking wounds, getting some men back on the line, and some drug to the rear. Some of our guys are good actors and will be screaming and writhing when they get hit and while we are treating them. We hear reports of audience members talking of how real it makes everything seem. All of a sudden, they aren’t watching a performance, it’s as though the guys really are shot and down. Suddenly the war seems just a little bit more real, and that makes it worth it!

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Surgery after battle and out of chloroform. Photo credit: Sheila Chasteen.

So how do all the smells I listed at the beginning apply? The campfire smoke means camp with your second family. It means evening time without the rush, sitting around the fire telling stories, trying to stay warm, or sharing our latest research so that everyone can learn from each other. It means food full of flavor, coming off the open fire and having a delightful meal.

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Photo from Chuck Harris

Sweaty wool reminds us of marching, suffering under the heat, and a brotherhood brought about by mutual sacrifice and sometimes misery. It means living in our ancestor’s footsteps for a few days, and getting a very small taste of what it was like for them and all they suffered during this second War of Independence.

Chuck Loading rounds-Shelby edits

Photo Credit: Shannon Herron, edits by Shelby Chasteen.

Gunpowder means battle and fighting a common foe. It means adrenaline, fear, ire, and passion all rolled into one. It means trying to do justice to our ancestors in how they fought and who they fought, as well as how they died. It means dealing with the carnage of war in a safe place, where the buddy you just shot will get up once the battle is over, whereas our ancestors were at times fighting and killing their own flesh and blood.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

Wet canvas means days of camping in all kinds of weather. Rain, snow, heat, and glorious weather have all played upon those surfaces. It means a few days getting back to the basics and back to nature. It means a few days disconnected from the 21st century and its technology and being able to slow down, take a breath, and really live again.

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Nash Farm Battlefield-Battle of LoveJoy Reenactment 2016

Freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors – well, that just means reenacting! Would I do it again? Absolutely. Every chance I can, whether through lectures, living histories, or reenactments. But as we must still hold down jobs and life in the 21st century, I am grateful for the chance to time travel several times a year, to spend time living before the era of technology, spending time with my second family, and getting back to the basics and one of the topics I truly love. Until my next event, I will have to remember the memories that are brought on by the smell of burning brush, or the black powder smell after fireworks are fired, or smelling the well-used (and full of odors) uniform coat that sits in my office even as I write this. Until then, I wish my reenactment family many blessings. To all of you, my readers, I hope I have inspired a passion for the history of this nation all the way back to its founding, and a gratefulness for all our ancestors- who sacrificed and died for their beliefs. To those who came before and fought this terrible war, both Federal and Confederate, I hope to continue to honor you well.

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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Getting Into Character

One part of reenacting is becoming the person we are representing. Some may think this is easy, but it is not always. We are representing people from a completely different time and culture from ours, as well as a nation at war. Friends and relatives were either fighting beside each other, or against each other. Motivations were as varied as the people in the ranks.

 

To truly reenact the war, we have to have reenactors in nearly every category: Confederate and Federal from infantry, cavalry, and artillery, medical corps, civilians, merchants, chaplain, and more. Each of these areas requires a different character, and a certain mindset and responses.

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Photo Credit: Heidi Edge

There are lots of ways we learn about our characters, and how to portray them. For most of us, we are always reading, whether journals, letters, autobiographies, manuals, or records – any primary document that will help us understand the events, what the participants had, how it impacted them, their thoughts, responses, and more. We look at personal accounts of the role we are playing and try to understand what they went through. My friends who portray solders study them, the military, the orders and rule of camp, the command structure, what they would have done, how they lived in camp, what they did between battles, what their duties would be (and are) depending on their rank, how they interacted with civilians, and more.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

Those portraying civilians study what it was like whether they were in town or following the army. Were they an army wife, mother, or child? Were they married to enlisted man or an officer? What point in the war are we portraying? How long would we have been blockaded here in the South, or are they portraying a Union wife with very little affect of the war on their way of living?

 

Those of us who portray doctors and nurses study the life and journals of those who were there. We study the medical procedures of the time, what they had to work with, what was known and unknown during the war, and what was changing. This could become important depending on whether you are portraying Federal or Confederate, and what part of the war is being lived. Some procedures did not exist at the beginning of the war, but were becoming commonplace by the end.

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Photo Credit: Sheila Chasteen

Everything changes when we get into camp. There we are living out of what we bring and can throw together with other reenactors. We are affected by the elements, and at times, by lack. We live in tents and have to warm ourselves by the fire. Life in the 21st century ceases to be in many ways. Once we put on the uniform, things change even more. You move differently, you feel different, you respond differently. I have friends who will be Confederates at one event and I’ll walk up, hug them, shoot the breeze with them, and at the next event when they are Federal, they are the enemy! We will call each other names, raid each other’s supplies, give them a wide birth, and of course shoot at each other! There was one event in 2016 where we had to split up part of our company, and some of us had to fight for the North. My Colonel, of whom I think very highly, had to galvanize. I was in gray, and as he was pulling his blue coat on, I told him, “I’m going to really not like you for about an hour, Sir.” That statement was very true, for I shot him three times on the field! (Thank goodness we are only using black powder).

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

I have friends who portray some of the best darn Yankees I have met. Trust me, my ire certainly rises seeing them across the field, and I do NOT want to mess with certain ones in camp when they are in Federal blue. There are others I want to rile beyond words! For one of my friends in particular, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about him when he takes the field in Blue or in Butternut – and it’s different depending on which role he is portraying. I once asked him why he played Yankee, and why he was such an absolute rapscallion when he did. I love the answer he gave, and I will try to do it justice here: “Because I have to represent who they were, and the brutality they brought down here. If I don’t, then I do an injustice to my family, and our ancestors who fought them, and I can’t do that.” He does a very good job at it, almost maniacally at times! When he is in Butternut (Confederate), I have seen him stand tall in the face of a Yankee onslaught. He is not easily moved or impressed by their tactics, always wanting to counter them and take them down, even under fire.

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Photo Credit: Sherry Knight Frazier

My beloved Captain is a little different. He loves the South, though he does have to galvanize occasionally. He is the constant Southern officer, runs a tight camp, shows respect to his fellow officers and those who outrank him, is a good leader to the rest of us (though to be truthful, Stephanie runs the camp). He loves our history and our heritage, and wants to see it portrayed well. He is calm and level headed at all times, which is good because we have some hot-tempered ones in the bunch! He’s very inviting to all, and encourages those who are interested to come to an event and see if this is for them. I would not be a living historian on a battlefield were it not for Stephanie’s invitation to come talk to them, and his invitation to join the 53rd GA for an event. Oh how immensely glad I am he offered!!!

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

Our member, J.R., is a filmmaker and is making a documentary about what it was like for the more than 400 women who disguised their sex and fought as men, and what it is like to portray them. That is her role in our company and on the field. She fights, marches, drills, and performs her role in camp just like the men. She is honoring those women, about whom few people are even aware. (Shout out to Reenactress Documentary!)

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Photo Credit: Reenactress Documentary

Mindset is everything. For some, the mindset starts before we get to the event. Some watch Civil War films such as “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals,” “Shenandoah,” or “Field of Lost Shoes.” Some listen to music from the war, performed by some of the historic bands such as “The Unreconstructed,” or the “97th Regimental String Band.” Many of our men are military veterans. They tell me they go back into military mode mentally. They know we are about to face an enemy and their training, both from the real military and our training as soldiers of the War Between the States, kicks in, just at a lower level than when they were in combat. Others have been reenacting so long that it has become second nature! For these, once they are in uniform and it’s time for action, they are in character.

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

For most of us, things change even more when we go on the battlefield. For those who have been reenacting decades, they think not just about the battle, which by now is like second nature, they are also always thinking about the safety of the men and horses, as well as putting on a good show for our audience. Many of those portraying Federal troops go from relaxed, to cocky, troublemaking good-for-nothings (and I mean this in the nicest way possible, guys), to fierce, aggressive fighters on the battlefield. There are a few in particular I look for when we are opposing them, because I know the most ferocious fight will come from their part of the field. All compassion is gone, only a determined enemy there to wipe out the South. For many of our Georgia reenactments, and depending on the battle we are recreating, some of the Federals decide to fight like they were under W. T. Sherman and his ruthless band of soldiers.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

For the Confederates, particularly at the reenactments here in the deep South, we are constantly in mind of the fact that this war was fought on OUR soil against our homes and families. We know when the Federals come through and man-handle the women, and raid the buildings (yes that is part of some of the reenactments- I’ve experienced it!), those were our women, homes, and lives destroyed. There is the feeling of the home guard, the last stand between victory and annihilation, and the last hope of keeping the Federals at bay. At times, there is desperation, at times anger, and at times, the intensity of “you will only get through over my dead body.”

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

For me, I become a mixture of modern times and the 19th century. My job as medical corps is to truly monitor our men and make sure everyone is okay, and that is real job in itself! But I also watch and act with those who are “wounded” by the battle, or get wounds of war, such as this last event where a guy “lost his leg” from a cannon shot. I jump in to determine if they are alive, dress the wounds, and see if I can get them back on the line or if they have to be moved toward the rear and medical care. My mindset is always on how to treat their wound with what I have, and what could have been done on the field, verses having to be performed in an actual hospital.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton, Editing credit: Shelby Chasteen

We act in ways we hope is both accurate and honoring to those who lived it. We set our mindset on the way the person we are portraying, or our ancestor, would have thought and felt. We strive to do our job well, whatever that role may be. We feel a great responsibility to make sure we tell the REAL story to the audience, and give the public some small taste of the real war, in all the unadulterated facts. Most of all, it is our passion that makes us who we are. Our passion for our history, our passion for honoring those who lived it, our passion for reenacting!

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

I hope this gives you a small look into the world of reenactors and all that we do. We are not simply people play-acting and shooting guns and cannons. There are many historians in our midst, and a love and connection to the history and to each other, which runs deeply through all of us.

 

*Please be sure to check out our photographers and the Reenactress Documentary! You can find them on Facebook, and you can find Reenactress Documentary here: https://www.facebook.com/reenactress/app/216201571807288/