Background: As a Canadian the American Civil War has fascinated me for years. It is a pivotal event in world history and marks the greatest loss of American life in war. Hundreds of thousands of young men sacrificed their lives in a conflict that pitted the North against the South. The implications were vast and far reaching effecting countries far beyond the United States. The Civil War provided much of the necessary backdrop for Canada’s Confederation and the drive to become a country.
Confederate cannons explode furiously on the field of war.
Knowing that this event has played such a pivotal role in world history I jump on the opportunity to visit Civil War sites. I have had the chance to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga, visiting the areas where armies crashed together. I can’t describe the eeriness of a battlefield and the ghosts that haunt the earth. Personally Chickamauga spooked me more than Gettysburg. I was familiar with the latter from the film of the same name and visited it on a bright, crisp fall day. I knew of Chickamauga through the work of Ambrose Bierce. He was a Civil War vet and wrote brilliant works about his experiences. I will put a link to his work below and highly recommend you read a couple when you have a moment. The description of the horror of the battle and the twilight streaked battlefield matched exactly what I saw.
When I heard that there was going to be a historical re-enactment happening close to the Quad Cities where I live, it was beyond doubt that I was going to attend. Keokuk, Iowa was a short two and a half hours away and completely worth the drive in order to see this new adventure.
A cannon in the foggy woods of Chickmauga still fending off ghosts.
What did I learn: I was blown away when I arrived at Rand Park. Battle Lines were drawn up and the armies were beginning to shuffle into position. I quickly decided that I was going to set myself a couple of quick goals. Despite there being an announcer I figured that his voice would quickly become lost over the roar of cannons. Since I wouldn't be able to hear the announcer I didn't know how the battle was to proceed. The only thing I knew was the final outcome. Therefore, I was profoundly curious about how terrain, noise and action effected my perception of the battle. What I saw versus what really happened might be two totally different things. Obviously, as a spectator I was not involved in the re-enactment, rather witnessed it from the sidelines.
Smoke obscures the battlefield blocking our vision.
My suspicions about the announcer were confirmed the moment the first cannon fired. His voice was gone, lost to the roar of man-made thunder. I was standing slightly to the left of one of the cannons and a little in front. The shockwave from the blast rippled across myself and the spectators standing close. It was fantastic and I was laughing and smiling. Within seconds there was cheering and crying as small kids broke down under the noise. There was a full range of reactions in the second it took for the next gun to go off and blanket us once more in smoke.
Volley fire was amazingly terrifying to witness.
I imagined trying to relay orders in the chaos and to make out what was going on. While I was pondering this the Union guns cut loose across the field. It was eerie to see the enemy line suddenly vanish behind a cloud of white smoke. A split second later the report echoed across to us which would have heralded a storm of death.
The Union cannon shroud their line in smoke.
Since we were embedded with the Confederates when they chose to advance we moved with them. We dropped down behind small rise and lost the right-hand side of the battlefield. The group we followed flanked a Union unit and proceeded to shoot them to pieces. I was so focused on the action in front of me that I completely missed the cannons being advanced till they announced their presence with a cacophony of sound.
Moreover, the Confederate unit I was shadowing succeeded in capturing the Union group and for all visual purposes “winning”. It wasn't till we change position that we saw a huge number of southern soldiers had been captured as well. I have read in a number of stories where one group would claim victory yet the vast majority of the army would lose. Ernest Yunger details it in his accounts of the first world war in “Storm of Steel.” Xenophon and the March of the 10 000 is another story where a highly successful group of Greek mercenaries win their portion of the battle while their employer is killed and the cause lost.
Confederate forces shelter behind a fence.
What was similar: The similarities called back to my time in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. During my seven year tenure in the cadets I grew to be hugely familiar with the joys of marching and parading. Although the commands were different the units behaved much like the units of my youth. Unit Leaders badgered and cursed their soldiers into a line and got the dressing down proper. Once the troops were in line they marched forwards trying to hold that dressing as best as possible. Over the uneven ground it was nearly impossible yet they did a respectable job.
A plume of smoke heralds death.
I have also seen cannons fired in the past and was reasonably aware of the procedure that is required in order to shoot one off. However, there is something wholly different about seeing the a whole field of cannons roaring at each other. When I was in Halifax there was a whole ceremony that went with the discharge of the weapon. However, on the battlefield the orders where given and carried out in a fraction of the time. There was no ceremony, just simple and swift military precision executed flawlessly over a dozen cannon on both sides.
Conclusion: If you have the opportunity to ever check out a re-enactment of any sort you shouldn’t pass on the opportunity. History is buried in the past yet for a day you can unearth it and get a feel for how our ancestors lived. Nothing helps you appreciate the present like seeing the tools of the past. When you look at the tools of a battlefield surgeon and you compare that to the facilities that we have today it makes our current technology look nothing short of miraculous. Although we no longer fight in the manner of the Civil War you can still grow from the experience.
A wonderful day filled with wonderful experiences.
Best regards and keep training,
If you are interested in training together I would love to get together with you. Drop me a line on facebook and we can connect. I would love to learn from you.
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Travelling-Ronin/583588935029877?ref=hl
On check the video of my experience with the Civil War: Travelling Ronin
Check out the home of the 9th Virginia Calvary: http://www.9thvirginiacavalry.com/
Read Ambrose Bierce's short story "Chickamauga:" http://www.online-literature.com/bierce/992/