Posts Tagged Civil War reenactment

The Battle of Frederick

I’ve never been to a Civil War reenactment. That’s fine, most people probably haven’t. Except living, as I do, in Northern Virginia, it often takes a very concerted act to never attend a Civil War reenactment. I know people who move from the west coast to the east coast who are surprised at how much of a big deal the Civil War is on this side of the country. I myself grew up all through the South, and we’d learn plenty about the War of Northern Aggression (though we always glazed over just who won or lost), but even then nowhere has been nearly so stoked in the Civil War as the area around DC. I suppose living in the suburbs of one capital with another two hours south does that. Both battles of Manassas, Gettysburg, and Antietam are day trips, and a skirmish happened within walking distance of my house.

This area lives the Civil War like Yorktown lives the Revolution. Especially now, in the heart of the sesquicentennial. Which I came so close to spelling correctly.

So this weekend the wife and I were looking for something to do when we stumbled on a Civil War encampment going on in Frederick, just an hour up the road. We struck out, glad for something to do, and even considering it a research opportunity for Nickajack. Which it was, thanks to a fashion show of women’s clothing that actually gave us two interesting plot points.

But the star attraction was clearly the Civil War encampment and reenactment. For those of you not on the east coast who haven’t seen one, a Civil War encampment is a big camp-out for reenactors where they pitch their tents and hang out in heavy wool clothing during the absolutely armpit of a DC-area summer for a weekend. Keep in mind this is me talking, in the best of conditions I don’t understand the appeal of camping. Yes, I was a boy scout once, I left for a reason. Well, many reasons, but that was one of them. Camping in the middle of July while wearing 1860s period-appropriate clothing? Not something I can even remotely wrap my head around. Then again, I’m sure many of them wouldn’t understand the appeal of reading old pulp science fiction while sitting in a garden, we all have our odd habits.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, photographed by Matthew Brady, c. 1864

There was a hypothetically Federal camp, and a hypothetically Rebel camp, though the sides were intermingling. Generals Lee and Sherman were sitting in tents only a few feet apart as we walked through. I would like to state for the record that the camp’s Sherman was about as spitting of an image as one might expect for a small reenactment in urban Maryland, and that his tent was explicitly labeled “General Sherman.” This point will be important later.

Come 2pm and it was time to gather under the high tension lines, running from the nearby power relay station, and experience a civil war reenactment. This particular event featured roughly two dozen Rebels behind a wooden barricade, backed up by a cannon, three dozen Federal troops, and one cavalryman from each side staying several dozen yards away so the kids could see the horses. The tide of the battle went something like this:

The Rebels were entrenched behind their wooden barricade when, right on schedule, the Federals emerged from a corn field. The Rebs opened fire and one of the Feds fell. Several volleys of gunfire were exchanged, the cannon fired once, and the Feds returned to the corn. Much cheering and flag waving from the Rebs. The Federal troops then reemerged, and stood around for a little before against opening fire, and again retreating to the corn. This was repeated a third time. After that, the Rebel troops prepared for a charge by crossing in front of their barricade. This was stymied by the Federals again emerging from the corn. Twice the Rebels were about to charge, each time they only took one step before being ordered to halt. Several of the grey coats fell, the rest retreated, the Federals advanced, and we were told the battle was over and the North was triumphant.

I’m not sure what I expected out of a Civil War reenactment, but it was not this. Granted (get it, GRANTed, cause it’s the Civil War), it was a small reenactment but in the end we could only be confused by what we’d seen. There were no interpreters on the sideline explaining the battle to us, or telling us what the retreats to the cornfield represented. Were they other armies arriving? Was it several hours worth of actual battle, condensed? Several days? Real time? I don’t know if this is a feature of larger reenactments, I’m sure if someone has been to one I’ll be elucidated in the comments below.

This is almost exactly what the event didn’t look like.

After we got home (and had a brief power outage) we set about looking up the battle we watched to see if we could make any sense out of what we’d seen. The organizers of the event described the battle as Sharpsburg, a name I didn’t initially recognize. Because I’d always heard it called Antietam. What we’d witnessed under the high tension lines in southern Maryland was an odd representation of the bloodiest single-day battle of the entire war. The battle that gave Lincoln clearance to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The battle that William Sherman was nowhere near, being down in Mississippi at the time.

I can make no mental connection between what we saw on a field in Maryland and what transpired 150 years ago this September. Perhaps I’m not supposed to. I wonder if the entire reenactment would have made more sense if it was only meant to be an anonymous skirmish between the two sides, rather than one of the most notable battles of the entire war.

I also wonder just how representative this was of reenactments. Certainly it was nothing compared to last year’s massive sesquicentennial reenactment of the first battle of Bull Run. That event featured over 1/3 as many participants as the battle itself, and even the people watching the event were morbidly period-appropriate, as that was one of those early battles that families came to watch with picnic baskets. I suspect that a majority of reenactments look more like what we saw. Some weekend civil warriors having a camp-out then putting on a show for the tourists. In the end, I’m left with far more interest in the process behind the reenactments than the war. How they choreograph the action, how individuals decide which side they’re representing. I read up on it a little before the big one in Manassas last year, but actually seeing it reignited the questions.

Especially “why?”

No no, don’t worry, I’m not going to get into reenactments. Certainly not. Just that they’re the latest thing to fascinate me.

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