A Soldier’s Correspondence From the Civil War: Ball’s Bluff

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, offers another column about re-enacting and the experience of war.  See his previous columns here.

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

Correspondence from the Civil War 150th

By Lewis Norman

Aside from a few skirmishes, no major action took place in the Civil War between Bull Run in the summer of 1861 and Ball’s Bluff, a battle along the Potomac, in the fall of 1861. During that time, the real armies spent time reorganizing, and, in many cases, still frantically enlisting new soldiers.  The reenactor armies spent that time going to school, work, and otherwise living the lives of twenty-first century Americans.

There was a collective excitement about this “event,” the phrase we use for a weekend that usually involves living like a soldier from food, to drill, to battle. We were excited because Ball’s Bluff is a regional park (not a national park), so we were allowed on the actual ground where the real battle took place.  One of the phrases that gets thrown around often in historical circles is “hallowed ground,” in the case of Ball’s Bluff, we felt it.

My pard and I arrived Friday and took a quick glimpse of the ground.  We guessed where we’d be the next day, and examined the bluff itself.  A bluff, for those who may not know, is essentially a  cliff.  At the bottom of Ball’s Bluff was a part of the Potomac River.  Harrison’s Island there separates the Potomac, but it is still imposing.  The height of the bluff varies along the battlefield, but suffice it to say it is ominous to climb down, let alone doing so at a hurried retreat as the Union soldiers had to in 1861.

Friday nights at reenactments are a bit of a mind meld.  Worlds collide.  Trucks drive tents and supplies in, driven by men usually wearing an amalgam of 19th and 21st century clothing; a t-shirt here, a kepi there, and smart soldiers keep their tennis shoes on until the very bitter end. Eventually, by midnight or so, most of the camp is effectively back in time.  Some comrades drinking concoctions that make them jovial, some singing “authentic” music, and most catching up on “real life” as a transition back in time.

One of the most exciting parts of the event was waking up Saturday morning to a foggy and cold morning.  We fell into ranks  surrounded by fog, Civil War tents, and every man in uniform.  It was time travel at its finest.  As we practiced maneuvers in morning drill, we collectively loosed ourselves of the rust of a few months away from soldiering.  The real soldiers had, at very least,  several weeks in the ranks, practicing the basics daily.  We bumbled around the field, impressed with ourselves in getting into soldiering shape, at least enough to look respectable in front of the “sold out”  crowd for the public battle later.

This code shifting, from modern to historic, remained at the heart of the event all weekend.  When we formed up for the march to the battlefield, we did not realize what a “moment”  awaited us.  We crossed the highway and marched up a winding Virginia road.  It was part asphalt, then turned into dirt.  Somewhere between the camp and the “hallowed” Ball’s Bluff field, we found ourselves devoid of modern intrusions.  Just a few hundred soldiers, fully equipped in authentic gear, marching at the route step (so not on the beat, but certainly all together), headed off to recreate a historic moment.  It was, for many of us, the high point.

As we arrived on the battlefield and rested at the bluff, we discussed the positions of the soldiers.  I stood where the 20th Massachusetts, the famed “Harvard Regiment,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. had fought 150 years and one day earlier.  It was surreal for many of us.  It was not “like the real thing.” We were ON the real ground.

As the battle began, we stood in reserve and watched some of the fighting.  When we took our steps out across that field, I felt something deeply moving.  Some might call it spiritual.  I felt a
connection.  It wasn’t something from one of the paranormal shows on television.  It was a communion, in a way, with history.  I felt a deep emotional pull that began triggering something like tears.  But, of course, I was a soldier, and I couldn’t blubber my way across the field.  I was there to depict young men whose purpose was to kill.  I tried to do that honorably, yet with the same fear in my eyes that they had.

Despite that deep, powerful moment, the scenario was a bit ahistoric.  There were a few hundred spectators with Nikon lenses and brightly colored clothes on our front.  There was a cemetery, commemorating the dead of the battle, on our left. Things were not exactly how they had been.  As we fought and some fell, the reality was that our friends got back up again.  Near the end of the scenario we were all taken prisoner, but during the real battle, hundreds fell down the bluff, some crossed the Potomac, and others drown in their efforts to escape.  We, it seemed, were the lucky ones.

Moving forward with the commemoration, the 150th anniversary events are going to get more frequent in the next three years.  We have already begun discussions about Shiloh, an event that will involve an all day drive just to arrive at the location next March.  Is it worth it?  We think so.  Hopefully the crowds at these events and the people who show interest in the 150th do so out of a genuine sense of connecting with the past.  Hopefully we strike a balance of memory and honor that does not forget the sacrifices of those who served.