A Soldier’s Correspondence from the Civil War: Bull Run

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, Lewis Norman (not his real name), a Ph.D candidate in American history at a major research university and a Civil War re-enactor, has agreed to write some columns about re-enacting and the experience of war.  

I am sure that there a variety of opinions about historical re-enacting among the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I do feel it has the potential to be a legitimate and valuable way of getting people excited about the past.  As an academic historian-in-training and a re-enactor, Norman’s columns will attempt to bridge the gap between these two approaches to encountering the past.  Enjoy!–JF

Soldier Correspondence from the Civil War 150th:  Bull Run, Virginia.

By Lewis Norman

I packed my gear in my 21st century car and drove to pick up my “pard” in Pennsylvania.  We drove the four and a  half hours to Virginia in eager anticipation, modern clothes, and the last bit of air conditioning we enjoyed for the weekend. We hypothesized what it would be like to “see the elephant.” We knew, no matter how it panned out, the event would be exciting, if at times miserable.

Knowing a little about the event, we were eager to fall in with our friends as the 69th New York.  We had red battle shirts (of cotton flannel), sky blue wool trousers, authentic undershirts and socks.  Canteens full, cartridge box full of ammo, and a haversack full of 19th century-acceptable food. We feared the heat, but had no idea just how bad it would get.

The previous Thursday the National Weather Service released a heat advisory, but we were convinced we would be fine. We had been hot before.  It is always hot at a reenactment.  But this was different.

We parked the car, carried in our gear, and had our tent set up before nightfall.  Life was good.  We sat around with the other soldiers, swapping stories about our expectations for the weekend, discussing mutual friends, and alternating between 21st and 19th centuries with great ease.  We had no idea what the next day held for us.

On Saturday morning, we arose to an all-too-early reveille. By the time our bodies actually fell asleep the night before, a fatal concoction of uncomfortable sleeping on a ground cloth, heat, and Christmas Eve-like emotions, we were far from ready for the still-dark conditions of the morning.  We fell in for morning report, huzzahed at the news that there would be no morning drill, and prepared ourselves (mostly by hydrating) for the day’s battle.

After first call, we fell in for combat.  We marched to the edge of the battlefield in huge formation.  After poking through the woods, on our front were a handful of rebels shooting in our direction… and about 200 spectators.  This was not part of the plan.  We, the rank and file, did not know the plan, but were wondering what to do.  We waited in the shade, our temperatures already rising.

When we marched up to the battlefield, we were in the wrong place.  We were surrounded by firing, smoke, and officers yelling orders.  The pandemonium was realistic, if hair-raising.  We made our way to the middle of the battlefield, where we were supposed to be, and were given the order to rest.  It seemed strange, but we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  We eventually advanced on the enemy, fired some rounds, then fled the field.  After a lackluster fight and overwhelmingly hot few hours, we reformed and fought a bit more.  Everyone in blue and gray was exhausted. 

It was 108 in the shade that day.  Even with the “ice angels” (volunteers in 19th century clothing putting ice on our hands, hats, and canteens), we were dehydrated and exhausted. Most of us slept, or more accurately laid motionless, for the rest of the day.  When the sun went down, we emerged like the Phoenix to swap stories of our battle exploits.  We speculated what it might have been like to do that “for real.” Few of us considered the real “Great Skedaddle” and how the men of 1861 were forced marching, or perhaps running, back to Washington while we were lying in our tents.

Over night, thousands left the event, another option not available to the men of 1861.  Some of us stayed.  The next morning we were glad we did because we awoke to a nice gray cloud cover.  It was noticeably cooler.  We had a spring in our step.  We knew the scenario and were prepared to duke it out with the rebels again.  The second day’s battle was great.  We fought proudly, representing the 69th NY as we fought against men from Alabama, South Carolina, and undoubtedly many other southern states. 

The most harrowing experience was not the heat or the skedaddle.  It was, in fact, hearing the “boos” of the Virginia crowd when the Union cannons blasted a battery fire (all six guns firing at once).  I looked, quizzically, at the crow as if to solve their riddle.  I understood that their ancestors probably were on the other side.  But it felt, oddly, more like an  athletic contest.  They “rooted” for those men rather than us. I had trouble deconstructing it in the moment, but it struck  me as a bizarre notion.  Who cheers or boos a war?  Though we were acting, the event we represented had over one thousand casualties merely miles from the place in which we recreated it.  The “reality” of warfare seemed quite far from that Virginia field.

That experience ultimately made me reflect on the purpose of this Civil War Sesquicentennial and the role I would play in future reenactments.  What are we really doing?  Is it a celebration?  Is it a remembrance?  What is the difference between education, entertainment, reflection, and celebration?  How has romanticism changed the way in which we view the war?

As we sat on the road and spectators walked off the property, they “thanked” us.  They said things like “good job,” as if it was a performance.  I asked myself if that’s what it was. Those people paid good money to watch us.  Should I have been surprised?  What was our purpose?

I reflected on these issues, from the oppressive heat to the cheering Virginians, most of the way home.  I enjoyed a 21st century cheeseburger and an even more appealing 21st century shower.  As I returned to my daily grind, I couldn’t shake the reality of that reenactment.  I had seen the elephant.  In fact, I had seen an estimated eight thousand reenactors the first day (five thousand the second) wearing various shades of blue and gray.  What had we accomplished?  We kept the memory of the war alive for the spectators who were there and thousands more who read about it, but what memory did we preserve?

One of the most interesting and telling points about the weekend came in the parking lot.  As we sat in bumper to bumper traffic, those bumpers declared the allegiance of many of the soldiers.  From southern apologists to “CW Reenactor,” the stickers on the tail end of the vehicles expressed a variety of attitudes about the Civil War.  This was not just a “hobby” for many of these folks.  It was their “thing.”  In their offices, businesses, churches, and communities they are known by friends and neighbors as “the crazy Civil War person.”  It was a gathering of like-minded Civil War buffs.

As we move forward with this celebration, I encourage us to be critical of the way we talk and think about the war.  Let’s not forget that when reenactors fall in the meadow, they eventually resurrect.  Yet many of those who fell in 1861 never rose again.  Some hobbled to the rear missing appendages.  An incalculable number were shell-shocked before there was a term to describe it and found themselves completely incapable of explaining what happened to them. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. described it as the “incommunicable experience of war.” Hopefully we can depict some of that war, but rather than romanticizing it, perhaps we can use the tangible manifestations of war, with tents, guns, and uniformed soldiers, to help us realize the sacrifices that were made for contrasting visions of American nationalism.