Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Civil War Plus...

By Rob Watson

As you may know, I do a fair amount of traveling to attend Civil War Reenactments. Most are just sitting around camp and swapping old stories then standing out on a simulated battlefield loading and firing a simulated Civil War era cannon. Last month at, Pea Ridge, was an interesting change in the battle and events in camp. This month almost everything was different and interesting. We left a day early so we would not be rushed to get set up.

D'Arbonne State Park was the site of our event. They had improved camp sites with electricity (for our popup camper) so Wife decided she would like to go with me. I made reservations and was allowed to pick and reserve a campsite. I looked on the map for the most remote site and chose it. (These sites are removed from the 'period' sites where the reenacters camp in their simulated military units in canvas tents.)

The first pleasant surprise was the park itself. D'Arbonne State Park is situated in the steeply rolling hills of North Louisiana. It is set beside D'Arbonne Lake. The area is heavily wooded with large pines and oaks. It is large, clean, well maintained, and all together, a very attractive place.

Our next surprise was the campsite. It was not remote. It was completely surrounded by other campsites... the map I chose from failed to show the 50 or so additional sites in the area. All the campsites were well spaced from each other and lay beside the paved road. The road formed a large loop leaving a covered pavillion and open space in the center. This area, as well as all the campsites were in open woods and was almost completely shaded. I was, at first, irritated by a dozen or so portable canopies set up in this open area, even though they were several yards (meters) from our campsite. During the evening, an excellent pianist played some of the old 'swing' songs from the 50's.

Wife has an attractive Civil War era dress, so I asked before we left if she wanted to take it. "No, I would rather just be a spectator." In the process of setting up the camper and searching for our "regiment", Wife mentioned that she had thought of being a soldier. "I would rather be a soldier than a 'woman'. (Reenactment rules state that female soldiers have to look like men) I was surprised and very pleased by this development.

Fortunately, Wife's becoming a soldier was easily accomplished except for disguiseing her womanly shape. I had brought two sets of uniforms. (I selected my uniforms to be oversized for me so that I could wear winter wear underneath.) Wife put my pants and shirt on over her regular clothes, and with the suspenders strategically placed, took on the appearance of a slightly plump soldier. At the soldiers camp, the captain had a spare pair of period shoes, cappie, and a gray wool jacket to complete the uniform. She was then introduced around camp as 'Sam'.

The administration for the battle requested our battery put out three cannon, which left each gun short handed. In such cases, large children are sometimes allowed to 'run powder'. That is, they take the powder charge from the ammunition box (limber) and carry it to the number two gun crew member for loading the gun. However, no such children were available. 'Sam', not really familiar with this task, was reluctant to join the gun crew but agreed anyway. After several practice drills, which are always done for safety reasons, Wife became comfortable with her assigned task.

Remember the dozen canopies that surrounded the large pavillion and first irritated me? Well, on Saturday, early on the day of the first battle, as I returned to our campsite from the room of requirement, I encountered a pleasant senior citizen. She was cleaning tables in the pavillion and engaged me in conversation. She was a member of a group called D'Arbonne Dutch Oven Cooking Society, and they meet at D'Arbonne State Park on the third Saturday of every month to have a cookoff. This month was special because they had invited other societies for a regional cookoff. She invited Wife and I to join them for lunch. After some thought, I asked if it would be an imposition if I brought a dozen or so Civil War soldiers to the event as well. "Oh, yes, by all means, every one in the park was invited."

When 'Sam' and I got to the battery camp I passed the word that we had all been invited to lunch with the 'cast iron cooking society'. This was welcome news as there was a burn ban in place because of the very dry conditions. No one could cook on the ground as they usually did. (some said they were planning to eat hambergers at one of the sutlers... but, they later discovered the hamberger guy never showed) Ten of us piled into a truck and drove to the cookoff. We were fortunate to arrive early because when the line formed for food we were at the head of the line by accident. We were all in our Rebel uniforms because we had to hurry back to take our place on the battlefield. We had gathered at the raffle ticket table when people asked us to pose for pictures. We moved off to the side and formed up. Several people came over with their cameras to take pictures. Where we stood became the head of the line for food. We were fortunate in that the line for food reached nearly to the street. It would have been longer had the people not been four abreast.

There were 60 or so pots of food lined up on the tables. I, at first, tried to get something from each. It became clear this was an impracticle idea because my plate was large, but only 1/4 the required size. Turns out, each of the soldiers had the same idea and the same problem. Much of the food was 'different' in appearance and excellent in taste. I had left room for only 2 of the ten desserts. All of the time we were there, excellent, live, Blue Grass bands were providing the music.

Back at camp we were greeted with "lean hungry looks" by those who chose not to go with us. We lunch goers staggered around groaning from the great overload of food. Some lay down for naps. Then came time for battle.

Even our battlefield was unique. Normally we fight on broad, open pastures. Here we were in heavy woods. There was just enough space between trees that we could see that our field of fire was clear of people (a safety requirement). The colonel complained that he had forgotten his binoculars. "What for?" says I, "You can't see 50 yards anyway." In fact we never saw the enemy and seldom saw our own infantry. Our three guns booming and smoking away was the whole show on our end. Sam did very well at her assignment and later claimed to enjoy it.

After the battle, Sam and I walked over to the air conditioned Visitors Center to listen to a noted author describe his future book on Nathan Bedford Forrest (famous Civil War General). When walking, Wife and I normally hold hands. In this case, Sam refused to hold my hand explaining, "This is not Brokeback Mountain." NBF is one of my favorites. This author chose to describe events from his life and times that are not normally covered in other books on the man. It was very Interesting. I learned a lot. This guy also has a book out on Richard Taylor,(famous mostly in Louisiana) another of my favorites.

Returning to our campsite showed the whole cookoff crowd and their canopies had completely disappeared, as did many of the campers around us. It was then that I noticed some of the campers had marked off their spaces with strings of Christmas lights.

Sunday morning, Wife and I showered at the nice, new, clean, facilies in our campground, then dressed for church. After the service, visitors were asked to identify themselves. I was asked for our life history... I gave the short version.

The Sunday afternoon battle was a repeat of Saturday... smoke, noise, and trees. We moved the cannon back to camp by hand. Sam turned in her borrowed uniform parts and became womanly again. We said good bye and hit the road for home. Of course, there was no actual battle at D'Arbonne Landing but a good time was had by all at the 'reenactment' there.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pea Ridge Civil War Battle Reenactment

By Rob Watson

Thursday, after an 8 hour drive, I arrived at Pea Ridge battle reenactment site. I paid my entry fee and set up camp at the top of a very high hill. The view in all directions was of rolling hills, forests, and pasture land typical of the lower Ozark region of northern Arkansas. During the night my camp was inspected by a skunk, who did not leave any odorous markers.

Friday Morning event plans called for a 7+ mile march from the reenactment site to the actual battlefield. I presume this was to reenact the march of the Confederate soldiers before the battle. Having done my share of long hikes in the Boy Scouts, I drove to the battlefield and saw the museum. Featured there was a 30 minute film describing the battle. Like Pleasant Hill in Louisiana, they claimed to be the largest Civil War Battle fought west of the Mississippi. While there I noticed a description of a third battle which also claimed to be the largest battle west of the Mississippi. I wrote the names of the three battles on a slip of paper and suggested the park service guy research these claims.

Friday Afternoon saw the reenactment of the first phase of the original battle. In this, a small group of Union soldiers tried to ambush a much larger Confederate force. These troops were routed but managed to kill the two Generals commanding the Confederates. This set the stage for the eventual defeat of the Rebel force on the following day. The most notable difference from other reenactments was the large number of expensive equipment, such as large cannon with ammunition limbers and full teams of mules to pull them. Also there were several supply wagons with horse or mule teams. The numbers of federal and rebel infantry and cavalry were much larger than I have seen before. When I asked "Why?", I was told this was a 'national' event. Further investigation showed organized units from Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, as well as Rebel units from Arkansas and Missouri, along with larger contingents of troops from Louisiana and Texas. The troop numbers and the large size of the reenactment site allowed the Union troops and the Confederate troops to have separate encampment areas.

Friday Night, about 11:30, I was awakened by gunfire from the Union camp. This noise consisted of both musket and cannon fire. It lasted for thirty minutes after I was awakened. No night battle was on the schedule. My unit, camped down with the Confederates claimed, next morning, not to have heard anything.

Saturday morning was graced with new and strange happenings. An actual reveille was sounded at 6am. By the time I joined my unit each of the infantry units was marching and drilling about the camp site. When this was finished, a large unit near us posted guards at the entrances of their campsite. These guys were in gray uniforms. Our unit was assigned to be Union troops so we were in blue. One of our guys, feeling frisky, walked into the guarded camp and was immediately arrested as a 'spy'. His 'punishment' was to haul two arm loads of firewood for that camp. Not having learned his 'lesson' he sneaked back into their camp and carried off their flag. He was captured again, given a summery court marshal and condemned to die by firing squad. The firing squad was organized and he was "shot".

In reenactments, it is not unusual for new guys to join and be included in the action. My unit is artillery and the same is also true. Because we use significant charges of black powder in firing our gun, a number of safety practices must be followed. There are essentially four 'skill' positions on each cannon. Carelessness or ignorance can cost one a finger or a hand.

The usual practice is to place the artillery before the battle and leave it in place without moving. When not in action we will sit on the ground away from our guns to simulate not being there. Friday a spectator walked by our fixed position and asked what we were doing. Our captain told her we were not there, we were invisible. 

Because our two gun crews were knowledgeable and practiced at our positions, our captain volunteered us for a special assignment. (also because our guns could be moved easily.) The Saturday reenactment was of the phase of the battle where Union troops were attacked and driven from their camp. We were to move backward while firing at the approaching Confederates. The man in charge of this movement came by our camp to give us a brief description of our 'action' and requested we place our guns early and be ready to practice the movement.

Saturday Afternoon was interesting and stimulating in a number of respects. First was the number of troops. All Saturday morning, hundreds of troops came pouring into the reenactment site. Where Cavalry units are usually represented by four or five guys, this day we has dozens. Where infantry is reenacted by units of dozens, this day we had hundreds. Where artillery is usually 6 or 8 small cannon, today there were more than twenty, most of them the larger guns. For me, with my limited experience in reenacting, the long lines of infantry and cavalry advancing on the field, firing as they came, gave me the first impression of a real battle. It has given me the desire to see (be in) one of the really large reenactments.

Our battery consisted of four cannon, divided into two sections of two. When the battle began the four guns opened a steady fire on the advancing Confederates. As they got closer, two guns continued to fire while the other two moved back a few yards. When they were set, our two moved back behind them and they began to fire again. We then got set and loaded and began to fire again as they moved behind us. These steps were repeated several times as we retreated over 200 yards to the base of the hill. At the bottom, the rest of the cannon, another 8 or 10 guns, opened fire. It was a challenge to keep my mind on my job of loading the cannon, while all the other impressive action was going on around me.

This reenactment simulated the other half of the first days battle at Elk Horn Tavern. Here the outnumbered Union troops were driven from their camps by the second half of the Confederate command.

Saturday Night, about 11:30, the Confederate camp decided to have a night battle. Again, cannon and muskets blasted away for about a half hour. Some of my unit were awake for this and speculated that the Union camp came over and attacked them.

Sunday Morning had its own unique events. Each unit held its own religious service. Also different, the battle reenactment was held in the morning. The units were somewhat smaller than the ones from Saturday. We were again with the Union artillery. One small cannon advanced up the hill with the infantry. We stayed in place. With a little coordination, it was impressive when all 12 guns in our batteries fired at the same time.

After the battle, I parted ways with my unit, packed my camp into the car and headed home. I was less concerned with fuel economy on the way home and instead of getting the 44 mpg on the way up, I only got 42.5 mpg going home... 24 gallons of gas to go just under 1,000 miles.