Echoes from Our Past #3: Life is Good Today

In his book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz writes about a group of reenactors who strive to experience a period rush.  I think there is a fair amount of truth in his description, but I would define it differently.  I define a period rush as: when all elements become aligned and the reenactor becomes immersed in the period and for a fleeting moment, touches the distant past.  There is great deal of truth to the period rush.  They do happen, but they are rare.  The following is from a reenactment of the Battle of McDowell that occurred in 1862, but the reenactment took place in 2001.

The last three days were very tough; two nights sleeping on the ground in the open with several miles of marching and combat on Saturday and Sunday.  We arrived in McDowell on Friday and made our camp for the night.  On Saturday, I stupidly volunteered for duty with Provost Guard.  There was really no choice in the matter because one from our company was going.  I spent day listening to the citizens of McDowell complain about stolen chickens, ruined property and various other transgressions of their lives by Yankee soldiers.

Of all the moments I had at McDowell, the best was not a period rush, but one that exists just between the folds of 1862 and the 2001.  After the common meal on Saturday, we had a little time to ourselves before forming for our march up the mountain.  I took my cup of tea over by the church and sat down by the rail fence facing the road. As I sat there, a neatly dressed man in his 60s wandered up to the edge of the fence and was photographing the soldiers sharing a meal together in the churchyard.  He spied me from about forty feet away and slowly walked toward me.  When he got close, he shyly asked “Kin ah take yoa pichure?” I said of course he could.  He took the photo and said thank you.

He started to step away, then turned and asked, “are you a friend of Christ?”  Sort of surprised, I said yes.  He then said “Guess that makes us brothers then.”  I replied it does.  After a moment he said quietly, motioning to the gathered soldiers, “I guess a lot of those boys who fought here back in the war were our brothers too.”  I knew he could see it.  I stood up and introduced myself, as did he.  He went on to tell me how he had lost his wife three years earlier.  Every Sunday they would drive the fifteen miles into McDowell to attend the Presbyterian Church.  They never missed a Sunday.  We talked for awhile and he counseled me that home and family were the most important things in life.

We ended the conversation with a nod and he walked slowly back to his Lincoln parked down the road and drove away.  The old man was able to make the connection of common elements, faith in his case, between us and the boys of 1862 and felt comfortable enough to express that to a total stranger.  His eyes had been opened to something that had never struck him before.

Late Saturday afternoon orders came down that we were to march into the foothills of Allegheny Mountains and take up positions for the night.  We marched out of town and soon were lost in the fields in the foothills without a single modern intrusion.  Men marched in heavy marching order (packs and bedrolls for those of you who forget your history).  When we took a rest during the march, I turned to look back at the column of blue stopped on the road.  There was a long row of stacked arms as the troops rested on the sides of the road.  Smoke drifted up from the occasional cigar and pipe.  We took the usual insults of “go home you dirty Yankees” from people passing by as we left town.  Now that the area around McDowell had been fully occupied by the Federal Army, the local residents did not take kindly to the intrusion today and yesterday.  Some things never change.

When we arrived at our camp for the night, we immediately put our attention to finding a place to sleep as it looked like it was going to rain.  Soon a dark, drenching thunderstorm was passing overhead reminding us that the men of the 19th century stood out in the rain more often than not.  In typical military fashion just when we had decided on our shelter spot, orders came down that we may be breaking camp and moving to the top of a big hill.  It was almost dark and the hill was about a mile away.  Our leaders were concerned about reports that a Rebel column was expected to come over the hill that evening or next morning.  I personally was not looking forward to marching up the hill in the rain only to be attacked by Stonewall Jackson sometime in the darkness.  We put our gear back on, stood around for awhile and then the damn officers finally made a decision to move our company down the road where there was another path to the top of the hill that the Rebels were supposedly coming over.  We camped on the side of the road and just as we finished building a shelter along a stacked rail fence – the rain stopped.

We slept out in the open that night along side a flowing stream.  No cooking fires were allowed as the officers we concerned we might be too close to the Rebel column that was coming over the hill.  Most men were too tired to eat and wrapped themselves in their gum blankets and fell asleep.  We had to put pickets out all night, but not me as I had been on Provost Guard duty during the day.  We rose well before the dawn and quickly assembled into heavy marching order as we expected a Confederate attack at dawn.  I was pleased to see the pickets on duty in the distance.  Once assembled our group was placed up the road on picket duty.  We watched the Yankee army march from where we spent the night to the first campsite that we occupied for 15 minutes the night before.  Once by us, they stopped down the road and lit cooking fires for breakfast.  It is a rare sight to see men dressed in 19th century clothing break ranks and forage wood for fires.  Soon whiffs of smoke were drifting in the breeze and the smell of bacon and coffee enlivened the morning air.  Our company was on picket duty and we were pushed further away from the main body.  Four of us were placed high on a hillside near a great tree, which I figured was old enough to have seen the war.

We had a commanding view of the valley and the opposing hillside.  The land was mainly pasture with the occasional cattle gazing about and clumps of woods here and there.  If this was really 1862, those would be dead cattle.  It was cold enough in the morning that we decided to put on our great coats.  This is when the first period rush occurred.  My pards were eating a cold breakfast when I said to them “the breeze almost makes it cold enough for great coats.”  My friend replied “I know its cold enough for great coats.”  We then unrolled our great coats from our packs.  In nearly ten years of reenacting, I have never put my great coat on in the field – only at night or in the morning around camp.  To have our packs against the tree, seated with our great coats on in a stiff breeze with a commanding view was special.  Not a single contemporary intrusion marred our senses.  After about two hours and countless jokes about how the Rebels were “not coming this day” I thought I heard the command “halt” given in the distance.  The wind was in our face and it carried sounds quite well – but nothing revealed itself to the eye.

Below me on the road between the hills, I could see the men of our force snoozing and eating breakfast.  Suddenly, high on the opposing hill side I spotted a solitary figure.  This then became two companies of Rebels in skirmish line moving down the hill at a deliberate pace.  A single horseman moved back and forth across the ridge as the skirmishers moved down the hill towards our position.  After the skirmishers had progressed a few hundred yards down the hill, two columns of Rebels came over the hill moving quite quickly.  It was an awe inspiring sight.  We sat and watched the spectacle for some time.  It was an absolutely precious moment.  The Rebel commander brought his troops down the hill in fantastic order.

Within an hour of first sighting of the enemy, the skirmishers were engaged.  When the main rebel column assembled on the road they had to dispatch a company of men to deal with us as we were shooting at them.  I must state at this time we waited too long before we moved away from our position and when a full battalion is on the road, a single infantry company cannot hold them back.  There is power behind a mass column of infantry.  Napoleon knew this.  Thus our company was easily swept down the road and four of us were captured.

We learned the Rebels had been on the march since 4:30am and thus their commander was pacing the army with frequent rest stops.  Men were really falling out from fatigue.  The four of us where then paroled and told to pass between the lines.  When we reached the Yankee line (about a mile away) there was a lead company holding the line while the rest of the troops rested in the fields that we had passed the day before.  We reported to the Yankee commander by order of the Adjutant giving him all the intelligence we could and we also learned that our names had been entered into the official dispatch of our Company Commander for our bravery and sacrifice.  Since we were paroled, we were told to take a bunch of Rebel prisoners back to McDowell at the bayonet so the reserve company could join the battle line.

When we caught up to the group of prisoners, their dumb sergeant claimed that they were not prisoners, but really “malingers, miscreants and invalids.”  In fact, he called them an Invalid Company who had spent the night in a barn unable to march with the rebel column.  Thus ended our weekend marauding the village of McDowell in the Rebel south.


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