A Soldier’s Correspondence from the Civil War: The Battle of McDowell

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

McDowell, Virginia is in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.  The town is extremely small, but its residents are proud of their Civil War heritage. There in the middle of Virginia nearly twelve thousand Union and Confederate soldiers fought one another on the side of a mountain.  It is widely considered the second victorious battle in Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s infamous 1862 “Valley Campaign.” 
Many of us arrived on Friday night. When our cell phones lost signal fifty miles before we reached McDowell, we knew it was going to be an interesting reenactment.  My weekend got off to a “good” start when I threw my knapsack (full of all my spare gear) into a cowpie.  Authenticity has an odor all its own.  We carried our gear on our backs into camp and slept out under the stars around a campfire.  Other than my au de bovine, things were looking good.
We awoke Saturday morning to the gorgeous vistas of the Shenandoah Valley. McDowell had many old buildings and, though we could see some pavement and a few powerlines, we generally felt back in time.  With an early morning reveille and an immediate call to “commissary duty,” I remembered I was in a pretend war, not on vacation.  A squad of us reported to the Commissary Sergeant for our company’s rations.  We brought enough food for 40 soldiers back to camp and distributed it.  Coffee, potatoes, slab pork, onion, apple, and fresh soft bread; it was a realistic ration and we ate it up, literally and figuratively.
Then, seemingly unannounced, we were given the order to form up.  It was evident that the rebels were near.  This was an unscripted scenario and we headed up the hill toward the threat.  Excitement was in the air.  And we marched.  Then we waited.  Grumblings flowed through the ranks… the officers had led us off track. Since we did not see any rebels, we decided to march back to camp.  It was, in some ways, the most authentic thing I had ever done at a reenactment.  We were all eagerly anticipating a battle, but nothing transpired.  Soldiers in the Civil War, especially the Union soldiers chasing Jackson in the summer of 1862, did that for weeks on end. 
We made it back to camp to recover from the wandering and the rain, which barely fazed us while on the march, and things got more intense and more annoying.  We did our best to feel “authentic” about it.  Later in the day we had a “public battle” staged in the main field where several hundred spectators watched the Confederates sweep the Union from the field.  The rain continued.  We walked across the small river and settled into our camps for the day. The ran was sapping our strength.
By mid-afternoon the weather had cleared and we began putting up temporary shelter.  We dried our gear.  Our optimism bounded as we hoped to make something of the remaining twenty four hours of the event.  Squads went out on patrol, soldiers stood guard, and we all took turns hauling wood and water and helping each other survive.  If nothing else, we learned the true dependence on the “unit” to maintain not just military order, but necessities.  Despite feeling like we were “roughing” it compared to other reenactments, we still had nearby port-o-johns, pre-cut woodpiles, and ample rations to keep our bellies full. 
The next morning, with little in terms of breakfast and no morning roll call, we began a march up the mountain.  What started as authentic fun became a real workout.  As we climbed, we slowed.  The fatigue of the weekend set in.  Some of the older and larger gentlemen stopped on the sides.  We all panted like overworked draft animals.  It took a while, but we made it to the top of the mountain, where our pickets (the soldiers out front, watching for the enemy) began firing.  We heard the rebel yell and followed our orders in skirmish line along the mountainside.  We fought a short, but hot battle with the Johnnies, who defeated us just as they did 150 years ago.
As we slowly trod back down the mountain, many of us thought about May 1862.  Back then the soldiers did not have time to stop for water breaks or to rest their feet.  Several of them had marched for many miles in the days before the battle.  It gave us a sincere appreciation for the service of those fighting men.  It reminded many of us of our relative lack of fitness.  It also made us think long and hard about the hearty men of the Civil War and what motivated them to fight on in the midst of such trials.
Sometimes people ask reenactors why we do what we do.  For many of us it comes down to the dual purposes of commemorating the event and having a chance to “feel” a small measure of what they felt.  When I removed my brogans (shoes) and put on my modern athletic shoes, I was a welcome change.  As we live in our relatively pampered worlds of the 21st century, it does us a great service to remember that hundreds of thousands of people sacrificed in far greater ways to give us the freedom to play soldier.