Saturdays Reenactment at 150th Anniversary of Sharpsburg

“You have got to be kidding!”  said a surprised reenactor trying to cook his breakfast over a smoky fire. It was about 6:45 and barely light enough to see. I had just informed the men to get ready for drill.

Sgt William O’Quinn and Lt. Walton on the reneactment battlefield of Sharpsburg at sunrise on Sept. 8, 2012

The bugles, fifes and drums had blared reveille in the darkness just before 6 AM. I stretched myself and checked to see what might have seized up after a night sleeping on the hard ground. I found myself surprisingly limber as I sat up and put my wool blanket aside. I had laid down on top of the blanket to have a little cushion between me and the ground, but sometime during the night I must have gotten chilly and pulled my blanket over me. I stumbled through the dark camp as men were getting dressed, starting fires or just trying to grab a few more minutes of shut-eye. I found the First Sergeant and we compared rosters to make sure all the men were accounted for on the morning report he had to get over to headquarters. The Captain stopped by to inform me that we would be drilling this lovely morning and to have the men formed on the street by 7:30. There had been speculation that we might be skipping drill, but who were we kidding? In 1862 Confederate Soldiers drilled two, three and four times a day. Drill, drill and more drill they complained in letters home, but their lives depended on it, so they learned to drill with precision and pride. Reenactors typically drill once or twice during each reenactment, not counting using our practiced skills to maneuver on the field while in “battle”. Like all good soldiers, we complain about it, but we know it is important so we can look sharp in the eyes of the public and our peers. There are units out there that never drill…and it shows! We DON’T want to be like them!

The sun was partially hidden behind gray clouds. We knew rain was in the forecast, but that was for later. Right now, the clouds gave us welcome shade  from the blazing sun and allowed us to drill in the open field without getting too overheated. We ran through the basic facings and knocked the rust off. For most of us it had been several months since we marched together, but, like riding a bicycle, it quickly comes back to you.

The 6th North Carolina State Troops on the drill field

Right face! forward MARCH! By the left flank, March! Right wheel, March! Forward, March! By company into line…

We maneuvered up and down, back and forth and were soon effortlessly drifting across the field to the Captain’s orders. All around us other companies were doing the same. Today’s reenactment battle would require us to act as skirmishers. Once we had demonstrated our comfort with the basics, we moved on to the trickier movements required for the skirmish line. This required the company to spread out at 5 pace intervals across the field, which is easy to do, but always a challenge for those in command to be heard and maintain order. As the sun rose higher in the sky and the morning hours burned away, we practiced skirmishing and began to feel quite confident… again. As with any skill, practice makes perfect.

The brigade officers and NCO’s started calling the regiments back together and we completed the mornings program by running through a number of brigade drills before finally marching back to camp.

It would soon be time for lunch. The sky was getting cloudier and our first order of business was to put up our large fly to provide shelter in case it rained. William took charge of the effort and after much discussion, because every passerby had an opinion on the best way to do this, we finally committed ourselves and began the work of stretching the canvas out and securing it. If we had four evenly spaced trees in a square or four tents poles, our job would have been simple, but we had neither. Nor did we have much rope.

Matt holding last corner, Rick holding pole while William unravels rope

We ended up tying a corner to the predominate tree, under which I had slept the night before. Since this was “my” tree, I tied the rope, but I only had a short rope tail to do this, left over from our neighbor Craig’s tent. I tied a double half hitch and gave it a good solid yank. It seemed secure. Next we stretched the opposite side to a log…which promptly moved as soon as we tied to it. We shoved it back into place and secured it, then  pondered how to attached the last corner, left hanging in thin air. I finally found a large limb, which the Captain hastened to cut to size with his trusty camp saw. He then helped us tie it to the log and then on to a further tree, stretching our canvas tightly overhead. The resulting macrame project used a lot more rope than my little half hitch and would withstand a hurricane. We finally had a home! we laid out our blankets and I sat down to eat something for lunch before it was time to couter up  and march to the battlefield.

First Call! The words jarred me awake. I had stretched out on my blanket after lunch and dozed off. Around me the men were already getting their equipment on. I stood up quickly, hitting my head on the low canvas roof I had forgotten about already. I quickly got dressed and, as is my habit, I rolled  the rest of my gear inside my ground cloth in case it rained. I looked around and no one seemed to be carrying their ponchos so I dropped mine on top of my gear. To bad I didn’t carry it with me!

Marching to the Battlefield

The usual confusion prevailed as men drifted from their camps to the streets and formed companies which were then organized into brigades. Other Brigades marched by us with flags flying and music playing. We waited for our turn and joined the long line of Confederates. There were thousands of troops on the march, the site was awesome. We entered the grassy, overgrown pasture. Tick city was my first thought, but in the end I never saw one or found any once I got home. It may have been the religious spraying of OFF provided by our thoughtful comrade Yankee Joe. We stacked arms and were dismissed to rest. I laid down in the long grass next to my friends and watched brigade after brigade march onto the field. This wasn’t a mega event by far, but it was pretty impressive seeing all these troops. Overhead the clouds played tag, showing alternating patches of blue sky and sunshine followed by more clouds. The last thought on my mind was rain as we lounged in the grass having idle conversations amongst ourselves.

Troops gathering for the battle

The calm, relaxed atmosphere suddenly evaporated as officers urgently recalled their men to the battle line. The troops scrambled to their places. We quickly took our arms and marched off down a shady wood road. We were on the way to the battle field. We were ready to fight! No matter how many times I do this, I still get butterflies in my stomach. I’m like a 10 year old playing army again. Ahead stood two staff officers directing us forward. As I passed them their walki-talki blared to life and announced “severe storms are headed your way in 15 to 20 minutes”.  That’s it, I thought, the storm would probably force them to cancel the battle. I expected to be turned back to camp at any minute, but we kept going forward. Then, through a break in the woods, I saw why. Hundreds of spectators, colorfully garbed in shiny raincoats and holding umbrellas, lined the edge of the battlefield. Like the gladiators of long ago, WE were the show and the show must go on, regardless of the weather. An image of me leaving behind my poncho suddenly appeared in my brain. Oh Crap, we were gonna get wet, I thought.

Craig and William getting soaked during the downpour

The line of marched stopped. We were in our position at the edged of the battlefield. In the distance a cannon roared…or was it thunder? It was thunder. The cannons were directly in front of us and they were quickly being covered to protect them from the pending rain. A flash caught my eye. Someone snapping a picture? No, it was lightning. The men nervously joked about the four foot long musket “lightning rods” they all carried. Overhead the trees started whipping around as a heavy wind blew leaves and hats indiscriminately across the field behind us. With a roar, the sky opened and rain drops as big a Minnie balls pelted us from above. The wind whipped the rain in our faces and we could do nothing but stand there.

Federal Skirmishers appearing out of the mist at the 150th anniversary Battle of Sharpsburg on Sept. 8, 2012

The shady lane offered little protection and there was no where else to go, so we stood quietly in our ranks and got quickly drenched.  Water overflowed from hat brims and cascaded in waterfalls. evrything in my haversack was sodden. After the heavy downpour had efficiently done its job in soaking us, It settled into a steady, gentle rain. My garden would have loved this, but I was dripping and ready to go home! Fat raindrops kept falling from the leaves overhead, but outside the treeline the rain had tapered off and a heavy fog rolled in. The artillery men had uncovered their guns and were loading them. In the distance, a line of ghostly looking enemy skirmishers appeared on the ridge, well hidden by the rolling mists.

BOOM! We all jumped and turned to see a cloud of smoke surrounding a nearby Cannon that had fired and caught us off guard. BOOM!, BOOM! roared two more cannons. The battle was on and wet or not, we would soon be called on to push back the enemy.

Members of the 6th North Carolina state troops deployed as Skirmishers at the 150th anniversary Battle of Sharpsburg on Sept. 8, 2012

Our own officers demanded our attention and formed us back into our battle line. We surged forward through the underbrush and  advanced through the cheering cannon crews across the wet field. The cannon smoke hung in the damp air mixing with the floating mist. The acrid black powder smoke stuck our eyes and throats. Whatever was beyond the rise was obscured from our view. Our battle line marched on until we came to the far edge of the field. We deployed as skirmishers and cautiously entered a a copse of trees still dripping from the rain. The ground rose in front of us as and huge slabs of wet gray rock punctured the surface at odd angles, giving the skirmishers good cover. We continued our advance. Suddenly the mist cleared and we could see long lines of blue troops packed along the distant edge of the field. Their skirmishers appeared in front of us and opened fire. The crackle of muskets interrupted the worried shouts of officers trying to move us into position. We held the high ground and had a good selection of trees and rocks to hide behind as we started to return fire. As we moved through the woods we stumbled across spectators in lawn chairs. Up until that moment, the urgency of battle made it all seem very real, but it vanished after that. From my position as a file closer I spotted the Federals starting to turn our flank and warned the other officers. The Brigade started to withdraw and we found ourselves in front of the cannons again, but, this time,  blocking their shot. We quickly got out of the way and ended the battle with a final ear splitting BOOM!

Fresh troops rushed past us into the fray as we  realigned ourselves and marched to the rear. We stood back at the first staging area as hundreds of fresh troops poured in waiting their turn to fight. The battle field was so small that they had to rotate us out to give others a chance, and the battle was over for us.

The only casualty was my soul…the soul of my shoe that is. I’m not sure what caused it to give way, because they aren’t that old. The long wet grass had managed to slide between the soul and upper and nearly tripped me as I was marching, pulling the soul away. I was forced to flap my way back to camp.

Between the exhilarating fight and the march back to camp we had begun to dry out from the rain. We would have enjoyed fighting longer but with our camp in sight we were happy to be back home…until we got to our tents. It seemed the wind and storm has passed through our camp with a vengeance. Tents we leaning or toppled. Blankets and knapsacks were soaked and my corner of the tent had ripped loose, exposing me and my messmates to the elements. My fate could have been worse but I had wrapped my blankets in the ground cloth so only the edges got wet, Matt’s blankets got wet on one end, but William’s entire kit was under a large puddle of water that had funneled into his once cozy quarters. To say this was disheartening would be an understatement.

William refastened the corner. I think my knot tying skills will be forever questionable, even though I think the rope was defective! The only thing to do was to stoke the fire and  dry the blankets. The sky still looked questionable as we stood surrounding the fire holding blankets and jackets close the the licking yellow flames, hoping they would not errupt in flames. I started thinking about the Confederate soldiers who fought here in 1862. It had rained prior to the battle. I realized how easy we have it compared to them. They  surely spent many wet nights wrapped in wet blankets, too tired to care, after fighting or marching all day. At least we had a fire and if absolutely necessary, we had any number of dry tents we could double up in. My overheated hands brought me back to the present. The fire was hot and my blanket had dried to at least damp. I felt and smelled like a smoked ham.

I wasn’t happy about my shoe either. It was aggravating to flap around. I don’t remember when or where I got these brogans, but it didn’t seem that long ago. I was hoping I could get them repaired and worried that they would be permanently damaged if I kept walking On them. I was dreading the evening battle.

Yankee Joe talked me into walking up to the sutlers where he introduced me to several friends who he thought could help. While walking around I was pleased to see the friendly faces of two of my old comrades from the 150th NYSVI. We stopped and exchanged pleasantries, but I was on a mission to get my shoe repaired. In the end the shoe was too wet and muddy to make a temporary fix.  I wasn’t in the mood the spend $100 or more on a new pair or to continue shopping. My stomach started grumbling from the smells of food cooking on sutler row. I was still damp and suddenly very tired. I flapped back to camp ready to cook supper.

More rain was forecast, canceling the evening battle.  I was relieved to hear this news. The bodies around the fire had thinned out and the other half of the men had headed up to the sutlers. I had brought some smoked turkey sausage, a pepper from my garden and an onion. I chopped up the pepper and onion and put them in the frying pan with a little oil. I raked a pile of glowing coals to the edge of the fire and spread them out until I had set my “stove” to medium. I rested the frying pan on the coals and started to gently cook the onions and peppers. The smell drew a few of my comrades. Unfortunately I had brought only a small amount and didn’t have any extra to share. I sliced the single sausage and dropped it in the hot pan. the coals had cooled a little so I raked some fresh coals under the pan to renew the heat. I covered the pan with my tin plate to keep the moisture in and the ashes out.  It didn’t take long to heat the sausage. I settled myself near the fire to eat supper, finishing my masterpiece with a few squirts to Texas Pete. Bon Appétit!

Private Hinnant made an appearance (strictly for medicinal purposes since we had gotten soaking wet and wanted to avoid a chill)

I was finishing the final morsels as the men started returning from the sutlers. The camp was dark and damp, but the fire cast a cheery glow.The quiet satisfaction of a full days activities counterbalanced the disappointment of the rain, broken footware and collapsed tents. Private Hinnant made an appearance and tin cups appeared from every corner of camp, bringing us together, even if only for a few moments. Jeff introduced us to an African nectar, which was quickly shared amongst the empty cups. We chatted around the campfire briefly, but people started drifting off to their tents or other fires. I stretched out on my blanket and my eyelids were getting heavy as I listened to a nearby conversation. I was wavering in and out, adding a comment here and there before finally drifting off to dreamland ending my first day on the reenactment battlefield to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Sharpsburg.

Next: A 50 year veteran

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