24 July 2012

An Hour in 1862

This is what certain grown men do for a hobby: they dress up in loose-fitting trousers and wheel cannons out to a field to pretend to kill each other twice a day for a weekend.

Put plainly, the Battle of Antietam was recently re-enacted in a field near Chehalis, by the Northwest Civil War Council. (Costumes not required for spectators.) We happened to be passing through Chehalis that day. Honest.

Their wives, mothers, and daughters go with them, in hoops and tafetta; or as vivant what's-its-names, daughters of the regiment; and sit with their crochet hooks, or trying to keep their hoops out of the fire, in and around tents furnished to resemble nineteenth-century homes as nearly as possible.
Those who do not have wives sleep in rough, soldierly dwellings indeed: just a length of canvas draped over a stick or two.

A few of the women manage large tents purveying 19th-century wares. O it did make me happy to walk into a store of bonnets, 19th century sewing patterns, and wee wooden needle-cases.

As I was asking the shopkeeper where, exactly, we were in America (she didn't know where Antietam was either), drums and fifes sounded, and bagpipes:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death ye shall find him
His father's sword he hath girded on...
Three hoopskirts and I swished out of the shop to watch the soldiers march into battle.

And here they came! First the cavalry marched, on handsome horses in beautiful straight lines - up to trot! up to gallop! - past us, and halted.

Then the Union infantry, in row after row of young men, marching to music.
I had to fight a bizarrely strong instinct to rise from our hay-bale in honor of the young men going off to give their lives defending the Union.

 "Are you an attorney?" called my mother, to the man in the frock-coat.
"No, he is a Yekke!" yelled my confused instinct.
'I am the governor of Maine,' the gentleman introduced himself, and presented us with his card, on which was printed, indeed, his name, and Governor of Maine. 'These are my boys,' he indicated the troop marching past us. 'They march, as you see, under the sign of an Elephant, for they've never "seen the elephant" before. They've never been in battle.'
We wished him success in battle and he returned to his men as they marched past us...

...and down into the valley wherein erupted the Battle of Antietam, with a cry of Charge! and a clatter of rifle-fire and the Boom! Boom! Boom! of cannons, sending smoke rings into the air and shrouding us all in smoke.
O horror! Those young lads from Maine, and their flag of the Elephant, were the first under fire!

Drums, fifes, and bagpipes played all the while, even under fire, from the battlefield.
"Their rifles are accurate within 200 yards," explained a commentator; and the troops fought a great deal more closely than that: one group of men against another, close enough to recognize each other.

The battle raged a long while, the Union first gaining ground, then being pushed back, with a rebel yell, by the grey and Zouave Confederates. The rebel yell was wild and animal; it made me suspect that they weren't in this fight for states' rights at all, but for Don't you tell me what to do, or I want my slaves, or I'll show I'm a man by defending mine own; and it seemed to me a miserable cause for war; so that I thought of Ruskin's suggestion, to let the South secede, and then fight them, with purer motives, over the issue of slavery alone, as one sticks up for oppressed frosh in a boys' boarding school... -- but it was too late; they were already at war!

A group of Union soldiers fell, one by one, just before us, felled by a group of grey Confederates crouching in the brush; the surgeon, standing to the side with a white sheet, in a blood-spattered apron, inspected them, turned hopelessly from some, tended to others as best he could with sadly limited resources and with filthy, blood-stained bandages. The rebel band left their place in the brush and crept round the dead, to behind the Union ranks, to fire on a small band of soldiers.
On the hill across the valley, a cavalry battle ensued.

The smells of battle: horses and saltpeter.

There was something disturbing in that all the women came out to watch their menfolk slaughtering each other. One Southern belle came in her ballgown.
"That looks like a party dress," said my mother.
"It is."
"You must be a real devotee of the cause, to think this is a party," observed my mother, snapping a photograph tintype of the belle with two of her friends from the North.

It was easy to imagine that the battle was real; it was harder to imagine it so real as to find it dreadful. That's probably a good thing -- save the distress for what really merits it.


  1. Note that as obliging as the local authorities are otherwise; they DO require porta-potties; which show up in the background of many snapshots . . .

    My observation of the action was that Civil War (and other war) battles tend to have occurred -and continue to occur- in peaceful agricultural landscapes, with wheat waving in the breeze and trees in full flower.

  2. No disrespect here, but it kinda bothers me every time I hear that "South=fought to keep slavery vs. North=fought to end slavery" myth. If it was all about slavery, why didn't that 10% minority of southerners just ratify the Corwin Amendment instead of seceding? Or why did 5 northern states own slaves? Or why didn't U.S. Grant free his slaves until after the war? Because it wasn't the sole issue for the conflict.

    I say this because you might get a different point of view from visiting the Confederate camp at this event, they are very nice fellows.

    By the way, you should post the pictures of the belle and her two friends from the North. I believe they are friends of mine. :)

    1. A fair point. As you can tell, I am not a Civil War scholar. I, too, have always heard that slavery as the sole (or maybe even main) cause of the War is a myth. My point was that the sound of the rebel yell hardly calls to mind the subtleties of politics -- not surprising, in the heat of battle. I'm sure they are very nice fellows. :)

      What I have been reading lately -- correspondence between John Ruskin and Charles Norton, and some lectures delivered just before the war -- seems to imply that in the North, slavery was popularly perceived to be the main issue. It's a tiny sampling of contemporary literature, of course; I'm sure the war was also over states' rights and probably a whole host of other issues.

      The pictures are on my mother's computer -- let me go find them. Were you there, Anonymous? If you tell me what you wore I'll see if you're in any of them. I'm a bit squeamish of posting pictures of gracious ladies without their permission.

    2. Sorry for the misunderstanding ma'am. We re-enactors love to hear what spectators have to say about our scenarios and absolutely LOVE to teach our nation's history. :)

      I was a soldier in the Confederate group that snuck through the brush in your description. I wore a gray uniform with blue trim, a black hat, and a blanket across my shoulder. I should also mention that the belle in the pink satin ball gown is my sweetheart.....ironic, no? ;)

      I'd love to see more photos of the event!

    3. Ok. I hope you're still around, sir, because I got some more of the pictures up.
      You can access them at https://picasaweb.google.com/114249900784712874580/CivilWarReenactmentInChehalis?authuser=0&feat=directlink .
      Thanks for a great and very informative hour.