A friend passed along word that my Blog had made it big time and was critiqued on another web site about the Civil War. The review ... Well written but talks a lot about being burned out on the hobby.
Well friends, that was the past two years. I think we were all a little scorched around the edges prior to this season. This year I have a lot to be thankful for in our hobby and one of the biggest is that it is my 25th Anniversary in Civil War reenacting! (Cue the balloons).
Yes indeed, both Stinky and I can trace our beginnings to the Battle of New Market in 1983. He with the 18th Virginia Co. G, I with the 41st Virginia of Mahone's Brigade. Now I know what a lot of you are thinking ... Tony was a private once?
Well it is true, we all have to start at the bottom.
I had been recruited in March of that year at Ft. Boykin
, the site of the annual School of the Soldier for Mahone's Virginia Brigade. I elected to come to Sayler's Creek, the first event of the season, as a spectator to get a better feel for the hobby I had just joined. This would prove later in life to be a wise decision.
Sayler's Creek was a tough event back then, close to what we would now consider a "progressive" event. Back then we considered it as close to the war as you were going to get without real bullets flying at you. At Sayler's Creek you would sleep on the ground with little cover, there were no families attending and few sutlers. The battles were renowned for being Death Marches
all consumed with the Yankees chasing us through three counties. Bottom line, if you knew you couldn't do it then don't come. Admittedly, as a spectator, I did not see the hardship that befell the participants and only saw the battles, from that standpoint I was hooked.
So fast forward one anxious month to the middle of May and I am off to New Market for my first event. I didn't shave for a week to get that scruffy Confederate look, I packed beef jerky and water for food and came armed with $50 to start buying gear. I was instructed to look for Mahone's Brigade when I arrived and to check in with my Sergeant, Butch Petrey.
My wife and I took off early to get there and we arrived just as darkness had fallen. She unceremoniously dumped me off at the Confederate Camp with my blanket and sleeping bag, food and water. She was off to spend Mothers Day Weekend with her Mom who was about 15 minutes up the road. This always proved to be a convenient matter for us in years to come having the event that close to Mom.
Back in camp I went a looking for my new friends. I stopped at the first tent with soldiers and asked for Mahone's Brigade, reply, "I don't think they are here yet". Off to the next camp, "Yea I think they are over there on the other side of the camp." After walking back and forth for about an hour a group of three soldiers invited me over the the fire to rest for a moment. They were very hospitable, offered me some coffee, a little nip of something stronger and even to join them for part of their steak dinner. After about a half hour of conversation I realized I had found a good hobby with folks who were friendly and genuine. I bid my farewell and managed to trip into the next camp where I finally found Mahone's Brigade. It was the next day that the commanding general, George Heffner, rode up to me and addressed me by name and asked if I had ever found Mahone's Brigade. I told him I did and I did not realize who I was being entertained by. He spoke to me words I carry to this day, "I'm just an officer, if it wasn't for the privates we wouldn't have an event".
When I appeared in camp seemingly out of nowhere appeared Sergeant Petrey with a "where the hell have you been." He introduced my to five members of our company (all by nickname) and showed me to my tent. After getting settled I came out to meet folks but found everyone had already left the fire for other camps or had gone to bed. So I retired to my sleeping bag and blanket. I was amazed how soft the grass was where we camped, almost softer than my bed at home. I fell asleep thinking this reenacting stuff won't be so bad after all.
Morning came too early at 6:30am. I was very out of place, still in modern clothing but eager to get started. I was given a pair of pants that were two sizes too big and a coat that was too small, at least the shoes fit. A little later in the morning I was taken to the sutlers by Sergeant Petrey. "How much you got", he asked. With a reply of fifty from me, he came back with, "well I can spend that no problem".
We passed a lot of sutlers tents full of everything needed to become the complete soldier. Sgt Petrey gave his critique as we passed them all, "Don't buy from him he will rip you off, we don't use him he's an ass." Finally we show up at his destination, a skinny guy standing behind his car with the trunk lid open. I was kinda hesitant at first and confused, all these grand palaces of shiny military replica items that looked every bit as exciting as a Turkish Bizarre were not as good as a guy selling out of his trunk like a denizen of a Saturday morning flea market?
"Slick Rick, what's happenin," my sergeant called out to the seller as they shook hands like long departed friends. Set my friend here up, he needs a kepi, haversack and a belt with buckle. The gentleman set me up in short order pulling from various places in his car. Total came out to $48, the two dollars change promptly was snatched up by my sergeant, we will need this later he said. Funny as it was buying my first authentic soldier items from the back of a car it turned out the merchant was Dennis Boettcher of Fair Oaks Sutler fame. To the day I still have my belt and hat and I consider Dennis one of my dear friends in this hobby.
On the way back I discovered the need for the $2, in a show of good faith towards his new recruit my sergeant bought me a fresh squeezed lemonade, with my money. Back in camp I was told to get my gear on quick, time to learn how to be a soldier. I was thrown in a line with two other fresh fish. One proved to be David Perkins of the 12th Virginia Infantry. Over the years it has been speculated by Stinky and I that the other fish may have indeed been Stinky. I remember we pretty much mangled the drill. The corporal sent to drill us called us all hopeless. "If you are lucky you can just follow the guy in front of you. Just don't hurt anyone", he said.
The event for the day was the parade in town. Man this reenacting ain't bad, first comfy ground to sleep on now a parade. We would walk to the staging area, march through town and then catch buses back to camp. I was proud in my first formal activity as a Confederate soldier. I was all smiles as I passed my wife and her family on the parade route. It was all great, until the parade was over. Our 1st Sgt. gathers us up and announces, there will be no bus, we have to walk back to camp and the city wants us out of the park in five minutes. My first harsh reality as a soldier that every promised luxury is probably a lie engineered to get you to do something.
Sunday marked my first experience in battle. We were going in first, right after the artillery barrage. After the artillery show we were sent to the back of the Bushong House, between the house and barn, to meet the Federal skirmishers in the orchard. "Man, who would want to be artillery? They just stand back here and miss all the action", I thought. Our Captain held us up a little short in the backyard of the house. It was then that I heard the strange "zipping" noise that sounded a lot like bullets flying through the air. My first thought was what in the hell have I gotten myself into? I looked over at some of the guys old enough to be Vietnam veterans and noticed they had a real scary look on their faces. I knew this was authentic but not that authentic! It never dawned on me that the noise was just a strange concussion off the buildings from the blanks the Yankees were shooting. To this day I still love watching the new guys go into the yard and listen to the bullets.
Boy! This was exciting stuff. It was everything I read about and more! We were shooting as fast as we could, men dropping around us, the sergeant yelling us to keep a line formed. Then the word came, "Charge the Guns!" I took off hell bent for leather towards my Yankee foe, I was going to capture a cannon in my first battle. Only one problem, a gunner with his sponge was waiting for me. As I charged the gun he reared back with the sponge in a pose that was reminiscent of Babe Ruth getting ready to swat number 713 over the wall. I reached the gun and almost had my hand on the muzzle when it hit me. WHAP! I heard the sound and I was launched backward. When I awoke gasping for air, the little gunner was over me asking if I was ok. He caught me across the chest and knocked the air out of me pretty good. He sat with me for a moment as I regained my full breath, then he reached out a hand and said, "Good fight Johnny".
Thus ended my first battle. Lessons learned for that weekend. Don't give your money to the Sergeant, porta johns are nasty so eat more cheese the week before, don't believe any promises given by officers and lastly, those Yankee boys ain't so bad after all. Reenacting was good then, it is still good now.
Labels: 25th Anniversary, Civil War, Old Reenactor Tales and Lies