Harper House, Bentonville Battlefield, NC- Throngs of people gathered in small clusters on the lawn of John Harper’s farmhouse in Bentonville, NC on the morning of Saturday March 19. Even at 9 am the brightly shining sun was warm enough to drive people into the dappled shade of the ancient trees in front of the house. Red, white and Blue bunting hung limply from the second story balcony in the still air. The air buzzed with conversation as dozens of small groups of men and woman talked amongst themselves. Small children played soldier with wooden rifles and chased each other through the crowd. Others clung to the thick spreading lower branches in trees that invited children to climb them. I wandered onto the park-like lawn and joined the festive atmosphere with my reenacting friends from the 6th North Carolina State Troops. Like most of the others present this morning, we were wearing the garb of 19th century civilians and portraying local citizens who had gathered to join the Confederate Army. This was an event sponsored by the North Carolina department of Cultural resources and the Staff of the Bentonville Battlefield. The public had been invited to witness a living history program portraying camp of instruction for newly enlisted, “green” troops. The frustrated officers trying to whip us into shape called us “pasty faced shopkeepers and oafish, sod busting farm boys”, but that was later in the day after the speech making and merriment ended and we were being turned into cannon fodder.
My friend, Tom Justus, and I stood at the edge of the crowd in the shade of a tree. He unbuckled the straps that formed a carrying sling around his black instrument case and withdrew his ever present fiddle. The thin, high pitched drone of an irish jig punctuated the still air as Tom scratched out a tune. Normally this would have drawn a crowd, but with all the activity in the yard, we were barely noticed. Suddenly a hush fell over the crowd and we looked up at the balcony. A gray haired man, nicely dressed in a black sack coat and black short brimmed hat, waited politely while the crowd quieted down and gave him their attention. He was John Harper, owner of the farmhouse whose lawn we were gathered on. He welcomed us and lamented the occasion that brought us together…the coming war. He referred to the telegram received by our governor, John Ellis, asking for 75,000 troops to quell the rebellion. He reminded us of the reply, “you can get no troops from North Carolina” which was met with rousing cheers from the gathered crowd. Mr. Harper encouraged us to enlist in the Johnston volunteers and regretted he was to old to lead us himself, but assured us the war would be over in a matter of weeks since we all know that a good southern boy can whip any 12 Yankees!
At the conclusion of the speech, uniformed army officers funneled the eager volunteers into lines for examination by a medical officer before being enlisted and sworn in. By this time some spectators had gathered behind us to watch. Looking at my gray haired friend Tom, and thinking about the gray streaking my own beard, it occurred to me that we could no longer portray eager farm boys anxiously running off to a great adventure. Men of our senior years needed no excuse to stay out of the army,so why would we have been there?
Perhaps we could portray veterans of our own boyhood adventure in the Mexican war. Older men who wanted to prove to themselves and fellow villagers that we were “able bodied men” willing to fight in this patriotic cause. That would be a more likely impression for us to portray at this stage of our reenacting career.
As Tom packed away his fiddle, we remained where we were, surveying the youngsters in a rush to enlist. I remarked to Tom, and some spectators within earshot,”Remember when we were boys and they told us the war with Mexico would be over in a week? That didn’t work out so well, if you recall those dusty marches across the dessert. Are you SURE you still want to enlist” to which Tom played his part perfectly by reminding the skeptical character I was playing of “duty and honor” while the spectators behind us chuckled.
We soon found ourselves in a long line. In the distance, officers laboriously filled out paperwork. A reenactor behind us joked that it didn’t take him this long to enlist in the real army. Tom and I started chatting about our first person impressions. A first person impression is the 19th century person you are portraying. They can be a real person or a fictional person. The important thing is that you stay in character and be true to that persons core knowledge and beliefs. This can be as simple or complex as you care to make it. Some reenactors invent elaborate characters or portray ancestors or once living soldiers through detailed research into every aspect of their life. I asked Tom if he was going to be a blacksmith which ties into his passion and profession as a medieval armorer. He had thought about this and decided he would portray a foundry-man or maybe a railroad metal worker as a tribute to some of the skilled “mechanics” that comprised the 6th NCST and in tribute to the company shops near his home. I hadn’t given my character much thought, but as the lined moved closer, I decided I would portray my Great-Great Grandfather, John Walton.
John Walton was born on Applyby-Magna, England in 1830. In the 1861 English census he lists his occupation as a coachman in Cheddleton, England. John Walton never traveled to America. At the time of the war between the states he was 31 years old and had a large family. Had he lived in America, he would have been a prime age to have fought, either as a volunteer or later as a conscript. What he thought of this war in far off America was never recorded. I am the descendant of John’s son George, who arrived on these shores two decades after the war.
I stepped up to the doctors table.
“John Walton” I replied
The doctor did a double take. “Are you related to the Waltons?”
“I am “the Waltons”, sir” I replied
He gave me a foolish grin, undoubtedly thinking about the 1970’s t.v. show, “The Waltons” which caused me to suffer through high school with the nickname “John-boy” .
He continued checking off items on his examination form, without actually examining anything. Another Doctor told me to touch my toes. Placing my right hand on the table, to steady myself, I bent my knee and lifted my foot to touch my toe. The Doctor gave me an exasperated look and exclaimed “not that way!”
I calmly turned around placing my left hand on the table and raised my other leg in the same manner, to the amusement of onlooking spectators. The doctor gave up, shoved my papers toward me and told me to report to the enlisting officer before turning to the recruit behind me and shouting, “Next!”
I joined another line. Welcome to the army…hurry up and wait!
Tom and I were looking over the forms in our hand. Even though Tom is a head shorter than me, both our forms said: height 5′ 10″. The forms said we have brown hair, and brown eyes. I looked at Toms white hair and beard. It turns out we both have hazel eyes, which may be a greenish hue, but not brown. I wondered how they got that so wrong.I guess in their hurry to enlist us they glossed over some of the details.
I started thinking about how excited I have been in the past, when researching, to find a soldier enlistment papers or other “official documents” in a soldiers compiled service record. Their height, hair and eye color brought them to life a little bit. But now I have to question how accurate those “facts” really are. I never thought about it before, but if this information was not recorded by the person themselves, it may be questionable. Just because it is on a form, doesn’t make it accurate.
When I got to the recruiter he glanced over the form, looked me over, filled in a few more items and sent me to a group of recruits waiting to be sworn in. I sat in the shade and had just gotten comfortable when a officer got us into line and we we sworn in.
I was now officially a soldier of the Confederate states of America!
Next: Learning how to Drill