Issue 0008
June 16, 2003
Shadows of History - A look at re-enacting the American Civil War - By Neil K. MacMillan

You may have seen me. I’m the guy with two days growth of beard and the blue uniform. Wire rimmed glasses frame my blue eyes and you’re as apt to see a guitar in my hands, as you are the rifled musket I carry into battle. A dark blue kepi covers blond hair that is getting ever whiter. I’m a candle ender, a writer a poet and husband. And I am a Civil War re-enactor.

I initially got into the growing hobby because I wanted to write about the American Civil War and felt I needed to understand what the soldiers went through. Re-enactors will tell you that people participate for a myriad of reasons. Like any other hobby, re-enactors are first and foremost, individuals. For American re-enactors, the pull of our nation’s history and in some cases the fact that a re-enactor’s ancestor may have fought in the Civil War, are strong pulls.

For foreign re-enactors the pull can be equally strong. During the Civil War, fifty thousand Canadians and fifteen thousand British subjects (Other than Canadians and Irish immigrants) fought in the war. The Union army was estimated at one point to be forty percent manned by foreign-born people. The army’s XI Corps was predominately German born. There were several thousand Irish soldiers in both Armies and even a handful of Chinese soldiers.

Many join the ranks of re-enactors because they find it fun. In addition to the usually seen Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry, people also portray engineers, doctors, chaplains, civilians, politicians and even undertakers.

In the United States there are several large re-enacting groups including The United States Volunteers (USV), a National Regiment portraying the Union, and the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), portraying the Confederacy.

There are several societies in the United Kingdom that re-enact the American Civil War as well. Five years ago when I participated in the 135th anniversary re-enactment of the battle of Gettysburg, seven British subjects, four French citizens, eight Germans and three Russian re-enactors joined our regiment.

As a writer and poet, the re-enactment hobby gives me a better feel, not only for the history, but also for the people who fought in the Civil war. I have written two poems about the Civil War, a short story and several articles.

So what is a re-enactment like? Follow me into the time machine.

It’s a sunny day and maybe just a trifle warm. The sky is almost a powder blue and the birds are serenading you. It’s a good day for a stroll or just lounging with a glass of lemonade.

You hear them first. The thunderous bellowing of a sergeant echoes through the trees. His words are harsh and uncompromising and the lilt of his Irish brogue mitigates nothing. The steady tread of the steel heel plates on their brogans reminds you of horseshoes. Tin cups rattle against their sheathed bayonets.

You see them now. They are clad in heavy blue uniforms. The brass buckles that they proudly sport glitter in the early afternoon sunlight. Their faces are grimly determined and their ranks are ruler straight. Carrying ponderous looking muskets, they march in measured, precise steps. There is very little banter in the ranks.

The commanding officer calls out, “To the right, by file, into line!”. Columns of four men become a battle line. The soldiers automatically align their ranks. The commander orders them to load in a brisk, confident voice. As they charge their weapons, the first sergeant admonishes them to hurry. They are brought to the ready facing a similar number of gray clad enemies. The command to fire is given and the Union soldiers' ranks erupt in a thunderous crescendo. A thick cloud of white smoke lingers as they re-load.

They bring their weapons to shoulder arms and start forward at the double quick in time with the drum cadence. A wounded cavalry trooper yells, “Give ‘em Hell, Regulars!” A Confederate volley opens gaps in the line that are quickly closed by the men left standing. The blue line halts and the command “Fire by file!” is given. Firing in pairs, the Union line sounds like a rolling thunderclap. The unit’s Irish first sergeant roars, “Quickly, Spalpeens! Keep your fire up".

You watch in amazement, musing that something has to give under the intense fire. Amid the yells of the wounded and the gunfire you watch boys with powder stained faces fight and die. Nurses and medical orderlies dash out to help the wounded to safety. A hush falls over the field and a bugler plays “Taps”.

As quickly as it started, the fighting ends. The dead and wounded rise and shake hands with their “enemies,” complimenting them on a well-fought engagement. There is lighthearted banter about who took the best hits.

The participants march back to their camp with just a touch of swagger, belting out “The Battle Cry of Freedom”. As they fall out of ranks, their equipment almost flies off of them.

The first sergeant pours a cup of coffee and asks if anyone else would like a cup. The Irish brogue is gone now, replaced by the Syracuse accent he was born with, laced with just a trace of Dixie. Their job done for the day, if they are on the duty roster, they help the ladies prepare dinner, and if not, they start cleaning their muskets.

They’ll fight again in the morning. Will you join them?

Article written by :Neil K. MacMillan

Edited by: Melyssa Sprott and Jeff Humphrey

Copyright 2003

In This Issue:

  1. Shadows of History - A look at re-enacting the American Civil War

  2. A Message from VoicesNet

  3. International Poet Profile

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