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.

No comments:

Post a Comment