A memoir of Civil War reenacting

    This week's post is outside of my normal scope of writing, but as I was going through my hard drive I stumbled across some great photos and some old newsletters dating back to my life as a Civil War re-enactor back in the early 2000s. I "served" (and I use that term carefully with full regard for the actual service rendered by our veterans) for six years as a high private in the rear rank of the 14th Ohio/3rd Arkansas unit which was based in the Toledo area. We were a very active group for a number of years, taking part in many living history events, talks, parades, and reenactments each year. Looking back on it, I really enjoyed the time I spent in the unit and developed some friendships and connections that have continued long after my days in the blue uniform where over. 
The author as a very young and determined "High Private in the rear rank" brandishing my deadly Enfield rifle and gleaming bayonet, the terror no doubt  of many a Rebel opponent. Consequently, the bayonet also made a nice implement to cook over the fire with but it blacked the blade such that I could never get it clean again. This was taken at an event at the Wood County Historical Center in 2000. 

    As the name of the unit implies, we were a "galvanized" unit in that we would portray both Union and Confederate impressions depending on the needs of the event we were attending. We generally attended the Jackson Civil War Muster at Cascades Park, took part regularly in the Hastings tactical (which was a great event), living history events at Wildwood and Providence Metroparks, an event or two at the Wood County Historical Center, and every year ended with the Hayes event at the Spiegel Grove in Fremont. 

    Most of these events were well-organized and a lot of fun, but what I most deeply appreciated was the opportunity to get a bit of a tactile sense of what it was like to "be" a Civil War soldier. I tended to approach events going "campaign" style; early on I shared a tent, but later just did the gum blanket/blanket thing and spent many a cold night uncomfortably on the hard ground. I got some small sense of how it felt to march long distances (the ten mile hike we did at Providence was eye opening in that regard), how challenging it was to cook over a log fire, how much hardtack hurt to chew (a lot), and how much one grew to appreciate simple things like the shade of a tree or a drink of cool water on a hot day. I shivered in the sub-zero cold of a winter's night at Billie Creek, sweltered under the hot sun of a Michigan summer at Jackson, and shivered miserably in a tent as it rained buckets all weekend.  I learned how it felt to wear a wool sack coat and pants in the summer, and how difficult it was to load your rifle when the barrel was so hot that you couldn't hold it in place without burning your hand. I learned how much black powder stinks and how quickly you lose sight of things more than a few feet away from you because everything is shrouded in smoke. I felt what is like to march around with a knapsack full of clothes, a haversack full of food, and a heavy musket on your shoulder in a pair of brogans. As I said, it was an eye-opening experience and one that immeasurably deepened my appreciation for the hardships which our Civil War veterans endured with such remarkable pluck and constancy. 
As reenactors, we always aimed to replicate scenes like the one above showing a group of saucy Army of the Cumberland veterans posing prior to Sherman's Atlanta campaign. I love this photo because it shows the un-uniformity of dress and some great examples of "she-bangs" in the background. 

    Our experiences with combat were (understandably) less than realistic and the event report reproduced below touches on that a little bit. This area of the hobby always has presented a bit of a problem: how does one accurately reproduce the "reality" of Civil War combat when the reality can hardly be described, let alone reproduced without real bullets and shells flying? The short answer was that we didn't do the subject justice (nor could we), but certainly did the best we could within the confines of the hobby. As far as it goes, tactical events always were much more interesting to me as they had no script, and pitted the minds of the respective military commanders against one another. Judged tacticals like Hastings were very cool and the judges would determine casualties, etc. The Newark event below was a non-judged tactical, and as I rather acidly remark, it turned into a "farce." 

    I hope you enjoy this bit of reminiscing and enjoy "A Straggler's Memoir, or the Battle for Exit Five." 

A Straggler’s Memoir
The Battle for Exit Five:
A short history of the Sunday tactical at Infirmary Mound Park,
Newark, Ohio
By Dan Masters

    The woods echoed faintly with the reverberations of the pistol shots from the skirmishing cavalry in the distance- four men assigned from the company crept along the pathway cut through the dense growth on the lookout for the first signs of Confederate troops. Numerous pathways through the brush lead to within the briar patch, but we pressed on until an approaching cavalryman reports the situation to the Major. He gives the command to rush forward to assist the cavalry, and the entire company moves at the double quick to occupy exit five, or better known as the ‘Bloody Crossroads.’
    Sunday morning, June 26, 2005 was warm by most accounts, hot by others, but was a beautiful clear day. As the 14th Ohio marched at route step up the long hill to battalion formation, the perspiration had already started its incessant flow down our necks, compounding the already oppressive humidity and rapidly rising temperatures of the day.
    As sixth company, the 14th Ohio formed on the left of the battalion with Major Minton in command of the wing, Lieutenant Rob Morgan in command of the company. We walked for some time towards the front of the park in company with the rest of the battalion; a small detachment of cavalry, and one mountain howitzer dragged by the dedicated men of the battery.
    About 11 o’clock, the battalion entered the thicket and at the left fork in the road, the 14th Ohio took the road less traveled by and it made all the difference. Alone and unsupported (except by the cavalry detachment which had gone to the front), we marched along the narrow lane in search of the Confederate flank. As a member of the aforesaid advance party, following Corporal Mark Young, I kept on a close lookout for any signs of Confederates lying in ambush, or passing through the dense brush and woods that surrounded us.
    As earlier mentioned, a Federal cavalryman approached us after we had made a turn to the right along the path and informed us that they were engaged with a squad of Confederate cavalry ahead, and that with our assistance, we could push them and perhaps gain the Confederate rear. As we approached the crossroads, our cavalry started the fall back and exclaimed that “Rebs are coming around the bend.” At the Major’s command, the 14th ran to the crossroads to hold that important position before the Confederates arrived. As the first echelons of the company arrived, the Confederate cavalry made their appearance, fired their pistols in the air a few times, and just as quickly fled down the road. Strange to say, despite the superior marksmanship shown by the 14th Ohio on numerous prior occasions, we failed to bring down any of the men or horses. This questionable marksmanship manifested itself throughout the morning engagement, as I will explain later in this narrative.
The author at right with my pard and tentmate Joe Wilhems decked out in our finest Federal attire in an image taken at the Hayes event in 2000. 

    After clearing the Confederates from the crossroads, we advanced down the right fork on the pathway in pursuit of the cavalry. Advancing at a moderate pace for about 100 yards, we came to a gradual concave bend in the road which prevented those on the right side of the road from seeing very far ahead, but enabled those on the left to gain a clear view for some distance down the pathway. As expected, we came across a few members of the ironclad cavalry squad, but Corporal John Molitoris discovered that some of the cavalry were making for our rear, hoping to gain the crossroads through a field that lay a little to the left of our position on the road. By following such a path, they would strike the left fork on the road near the crossroads and put our company into a nest of trouble. But then again, they were only cavalry. Several rounds were fired at the cavalry through the woods before we ran back to the crossroads to prevent the cavalry from capturing this important, and apparently, coveted piece of real estate.
    Once again, the 14th arrived in nick of time and received one charge from the cavalry before they high tailed it (literally) out of there. However, we were not out of our scrape yet as a company of Confederate infantry was advancing down the road we had just retreated from, determined to force us to retreat further and give their Buttermilk Rangers a chance to gobble us piecemeal. Several well directed volleys were fired at this new threat before the Confederate infantry slowly pulled back, apparently needed on another portion of the field. Our casualties to this point were minimal, actually nonexistent. Suffice to say the damage we had inflicted on the enemy was also negligible.
    At this point, Major Minton expressed some disgust at the apparent disappearance of our cavalry, which should have been dealing with the opposite numbers in gray. Outnumbered nearly two to one, with a decent sized enemy infantry company on the right, and a whirling squad of desperadoes on the left, the Major ordered us to fall back a short ways to cover the crossroad and minimize the effects of enemy fire which was pouring down both roads in a steady pace.
    We then were ordered forward on the left road and a runner was left to watch the right road for any advancing infantry. We spent only a few minutes in this position before I was ordered with Corporal Molitoris, and our young but gallant Musician Bud “Frenchie” Young to make a demonstration along the right road while the company went around on the left to flank the Confederates, using the woods as cover. After being instructed to make noise and fire occasionally to convince the Rebels we were there, we advanced a short ways down the path. I was on the right side of the road, and as such, could see nothing of the Confederates but Corporal Molitoris fired a few rounds from the left. We were creeping forward when on the left we heard a crashing in the woods and loud voices as our company poured out of the woods and flushed the two Confederate sentinels back onto their support.
    At this critical junction in our struggle, our company (in a somewhat discombobulated condition organizationally but eager for a fight) found itself in the enviable position of being on the right flank of the Confederate infantry company which we had fought earlier with only four or five skirmishers before us. We delivered several crisp but ineffective volleys, which strangely enough did not even attract our intended targets’ attentions. Pressed by Union infantry on their front and flank, one brave Confederate finally admitted defeat and took a hit.
The author decked out as a member of the 3rd Arkansas infantry, complete with inverted US belt buckle. I do not have a date for this image but believe (from the background) that this was taken at an event we did in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area. 

   Dumbfounded by the evident lack of marksmanship and firepower wielded by the two Union companies confronting this lone Confederate company (unsupported and flanked), it seemed to me that this tactical was in danger of becoming a farce. Perhaps a farce is too strong a term, but at the very least, a poorly directed grade school play. But I digress…
    As the Union company in our front pressed the Confederates out of position, we moved back along the road but shortly headed into the woods on our left and advanced across a dry stream bed and saw our targets in an open field. A few scattering shots were fired by both sides before we pulled back into the woods and headed back to the road.
    It was at this point that I started to straggle. The oppressive heat and excitement of the morning’s engagement (as well as an empty canteen) prevailed upon me to slow down and rest a little. The company moved back to the crossroads and headed down the left road, but Private Tom “Dutchie” Lingeman and I lingered in the rear and soon took our ease in the shade. To perhaps salve our consciences, Dutchie and I agreed that we were guarding the crossroads. A necessary duty for all of the effort and sweat expended to control that point, but a duty to which neither of us took very seriously as was soon evident by our gear and weapons lying on the ground. Fortunately for us, the battle seemed to be ending as the last parting shots rent the late morning air. In fact, the woods became somewhat quiet and a passing two wheel cart driven by two ladies stopped to offer us water. Soon there after, First Sergeant Minton rousted us from our ease and we rejoined the company. To say the least, I felt done in.
    As we left the woods, no one seemed to be sure if we had won or lost our engagement. It was declared a victory, but the hard evidence of it was difficult to find. We had the Confederates cornered once- they took one casualty. Perhaps in the later fighting which I missed, more damage was done to the enemy, but I doubt it. This defect was more than made up for later that afternoon when the Confederates again found themselves flanked by artillery and the 14th Ohio safely ensconced behind breastworks. The bloodshed was frightening to behold, more so when the deranged Confederate commander ordered the pitiful remnant of his brave command to charge an advancing Union infantry company. The men were cut down to the last, with the lone exception of a defiant color bearer who retreated off the field to hoots of derision from the men in blue.
A shot of the 3rd Arkansas Infantry in our glory at the Jackson Civil War Muster in 2004. A nice mix of gray and butternut uniforms captured the raggedness of our Arkansas forebears. I am unfortunately not in this picture as I had slipped and broken my tail bone some weeks previous, which gave me the opportunity to see us in action. The boys (and ladies) made me proud. Yes, we had Corporal "Carl" who was actually a very charming young lady named Keira (third from left in the front rank next to Sergeant Rosser), and she was a good soldier. 

    The carnage of that field convinced all of this horrendous business, war. However, it is clear that in the struggle between the historical memory and the historical fact of the Civil War, the historical fact is no longer in the ascendant. Suicide charges and bloodless battles make a mockery of the men we represent (and purport to honor) and reflect poorly on the hobby in general.
   Next month, I might have to break out my own soapbox to speak of the importance of taking casualties in believable proportions.


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