Well it's getting near the end of the reenacting season, and the 2nd Delaware has returned from an event that is eagerly anticipated by all, and that I can now look forward to each year: the Battle of Cedar Creek.
After a horrendous personal disaster of a weekend at the big 150th Battle of Manassas at the end of July, which featured oppressive humidity and scorching 100+ daytime temperatures (heat index of 115--not kidding, people could fry eggs inside their cars and bake cookies on the asphalt in parking lots) ...which found Yours Truly sweat-drenched, heat-exhausted, sunburned, hungry and dehydrated, forced to sit out the Saturday battle in an emergency tent. Abandoning camp to seek shelter, a soft bed and a cold shower at a cousin's house with a golf cart tip-over accident on the way out of the farm to top it off, (which injured my already fragile mother who drove me all the way out there just to sit and watch) and a few months of wondering what in-the-name-of-all-thats-holy I was thinking taking up this hobby in the first place and whether I should write a resignation letter and sell my brand new expensive uniform...
....I felt it was time to get back on the horse so to speak, go back out and regain my honor on the battlefield; finally "see the elephant" and do what it was I signed up to do. To be an 1860s soldier, fight for glory and honor and preserving the Union and making Father Abraham Lincoln proud. It was time to prove myself that I could do it. I could be one of the boys in blue and tough it out, awaken my courage and take up arms, keep history alive and honor my veteran ancestors...you get the idea. I know I'd never make the cut in today's Army, so this is my way of serving my country. Making the past come alive so it won't be repeated.
I felt like this event was a second chance for me to do that, and get completely immersed in history to experience that 'magic moment' when suddenly it's not a game anymore and it feels real, and this was it and so much more. I still have very vivid pictures of it in my head and I'd like to share them with anyone willing to read while they are still fresh in my head. This is one for the books, one that I want to remember and talk about.
The Cedar Creek event is popular for a few reasons: the nice cool Fall weather (which is very wool-friendly), the fact it's allowed to be on part of the actual battlefield, unique to this battle only (the National Park Service banned reenactments on hallowed ground after the 1961 Manassas Centennial which damaged the land, Cedar Creek though a National Battlefield Park is exempt because it's largely privately owned and maintained by donors) and the rare experience of a morning Tactical skirmish before sunrise, which really has to be experienced to describe... although I'll try. I want to make this so vivid that reading it can take me back and anchor me in this time and place, because here I felt in many moments that it was real. I don't care if it takes a week to write. I want to share this adventure through my eyes, as I saw it, if words can even do it justice. It was a moving experience. I'd like you to come along with me.
I spent all month building myself up for this. I went out and walked a minimum of three miles a day, regardless of heat or cold or rain. Wearing long jean pants, long sleeves and a jacket. I ate healthy, plenty of fruits and veggies and protein and carbs, drank vitamin-loaded health shakes and herbal teas to build up my weakened immune system. I put myself through a sort of 'basic training' regimen that consisted of things I haven't done in a long time, push-ups, crunches, military chin-ups and bench presses, piling on the weights until it made me sore. Pain is weakness leaving the body. I understand that when my muscles ache, it's the tissue rebuilding itself and making me stronger. On rainy days when I couldn't hike, I spent 10-20 minutes on an exercise bike. I put on the uniform and full accouterments and stood in the garage for an hour or more each day with that 12-pound rifle, drilling the Manual of Arms until the motions became mechanical. (No rifle firing though, because I live in suburbia and gunshots result in 9-1-1 calls, I'm no country bumpkin)
Order Arms...Shoulder Arms...Support Arms...Right Shoulder Shift Arms...Present Arms...Fix and unfix bayonet...Load on the nine count...Handle Cartridge. Tear Cartridge (spit out paper and some gunpowder). Charge Cartridge. Draw Rammer. Ram Cartridge. Return Rammer. Prime. Ready. Aim. Fire (bang!). Repeat. Until it became muscle memory, and I could do it almost with my eyes closed. Again and again until my hands stopped shaking. If I missed a step in the routine, I'd start over from the beginning.
The weekend began days in advance, with the usual long logistic process of planning the trip. Making sure I was registered. Looking up directions to get to the place. Printing them out because my parents don't trust GPS. They prefer a road atlas. Checking and rechecking the 5-day forecast. Grocery shopping at farmer's markets for rough, crude food with no modern packaging. Ham, hard cheese, wheat bread, apples, peanuts, dried fruit, crackers, biscuits, bacon. Arguing with Mom about how to transport the stuff (Brown paper only, please. No, I'm not taking that in Tupperware. No plastic. Forget Ziploc bags. Aluminum foil, are you kidding me? I won't be caught dead with that. How about wax paper wrapped in this museum gift bag that looks like 1800s newsprint. Wrapped with twine, not string. Do I really need a cooler if its so damn cold? etc etc etc)
Packing up the uniform in a plaid cloth bag, in the reverse order I put it on so I spend the least amount of time undressed in the cold. Rolling up my Aunt's old wool blanket, a threadbare old quilt and rubberized canvas blanket that doubles as a ground cover and rain poncho. Can't forget the ancient wool blanket to throw over the cooler. All modern stuff has to be hidden. And a few modern things I can't do without. Smart Water with electrolytes added. Gatorade. Ensure with Revigor for muscle health. More electrolytes, less cramps. My neuromuscular condition and high metabolism demand it, as much as I hate it.
Then I study the map of the campground, that looks like a 6th grader made it in MS Paint, with US & CS camps roughly indicated by dots. I look it up in Google Earth and study the satellite photos to get a better idea of what the landscape looks like. Because the dirt roads to the camp are never on the map and have no names, or addresses. Okay, so we take exit 302 from Interstate 81 to Middletown VA, follow Route 11 until we get to a car wash and hopefully there's a sign pointing to Registration. Then hope I can find the camp and that it's really where the dumb map says it is. (At Manassas another regiment stole our camp spot and we had to drive around asking people where Vincent's Brigade was. "2nd Delaware...you came from DelaWHERE? I dunno. Try driving around until somebody waves")
We make all these carefully laid out plans, and of course it all comes crashing down. My brother wants a ride down to Newark on Friday so he can meet up with his friends and go all the way out to Lancaster for the Rennaissance Faire, it's a 20 mile detour. We wanted to leave at noon and get to Virginia by 3-4pm.
Hahahahahaha! It's 2pm by the time we drop him off and get back on I-95. Traffic on the Beltway around Baltimore backs up at rush hour. Stupid gaper delays and construction every few miles. 15mph in a 65mph zone. Oy Vey. Then we stop for dinner. We don't even get on 340 through Maryland and pass Harper's Ferry until 5 or 6pm. I missed a gorgeous sunset because our only camera batteries died. I think the map took us the long way. We finally make it into Middletown Virginia and it's getting dark. Great, how am I supposed to find the camp, navigate by the stars? The tents and campfires all look the same.
Fast forward through the rest of that nonsense. So we get to Cedar Creek Battlefield around 8:00. By then it's long after sundown. We finally find the "Car Wash" which turns out to be a nondescript cement block building, with no sign or advertisement or lights on or anything. But at least someone made a crude wooden sign with "US Registration" and an arrow. We follow that down a dark, narrow back road to a big white tent with construction lights and a generator chugging away. There's no sign for Registration but everyone's parking off the road and walking to it. Okay, so we made it. I go in and a few people wearing Volunteer t-shirts have card tables set up on the grass.
I hope my name is on the list. Batt, Jeffrey, Private, 2nd Delaware, Vincent's Brigade. I sent in the check way back in July and never got the medallion and info packet in the mail. Apparently no one else did, either. Huzzah, my name is on the list. I expect the 'medallion' to be a commemorative, collectible laser-engraved deal like 150th Manassas. But instead they give me a cheaply engraved dog tag on a keyring in a plastic baggie. It just says 147TH CEDAR CREEK REENACTMENT and below that, OCTOBER 15-16, 2011, OCTOBER 19, 1864. No ribbon or chain or any way to not lose it. "Don't drop it in the grass or you'll be kicked out of the camp"
Gee, thanks. Fortunately I carry a length of spare leather shoelace for my boots in my haversack. I bite off a foot long bit of it with my teeth and tie it around my neck. A dog tag, Civil War style...ish. Then it's back in the car to drive up the dirt road and find where the camp is.
The volunteers have a tent with haybales stacked near the camp entrance. They say a bale of hay spread around the inside of the tent over the grass will keep me warm and insulate it better. The canvas A-frame tents we use have no floors, sold separately. I have only a wool blanket and dirty quilt between me and the ground.
The hay's dry and only 5 bucks. Sure, why not. I pay the lady and her 8-year old kid struggles to push the haybale up on top of the minivan. I say "here kid, lemme handle it" and toss it up there. Straw showers down all over the car and inside it. Oops. I roll the window back up and happen to look at the sky, and notice more stars than I have probably ever seen at home. This battlefield is really isolated in the Shenandoah Valley, and primitive. Not a single telephone pole or streetlamp, or modern building with outdoor lights. It is pitch black out there.
Still have no idea where the camp is. I have to call the First Sergeant and he talks me in and waves so I don't run him over. Actually the first thing I hear to let me know I found the camp is the familiar voice of Randy Dotson yelling at someone when they turn on a flashlight. "You're killin' mah ambiance!" And always the familiar "Damn it, Doni!" Yep, home sweet home. I'm here.
The company's already got the fire going. The A-frame tents are neatly lined up along the 'company street' with box-shaped wood lanterns and a single candle burning dimly, hung from the peak. I'm directed to set up my tent under the only tree in the immediate vicinity. I toss all my gear on the ground and get to work pitching the tent, with some other 'pards' help. It's our unwritten rule and a common courtesy. Everybody helps everyone else set up their tent. Holy cowpies, it's cold. Probably like 30 out. The wind is blowing at around 40 miles an hour.
The thing about these tents is, they are made of sailcloth. Actually a guy owned a business in Wilmington Delaware that made canvas sails and rigging for ships. He got a contract to make tents for the entire Union army. When you try to set up these things in gale-force winds, let me tell ya, you better stake them down hard otherwise the 2nd Delaware Infantry can become the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Infantry. Okay, not really.
When I finally get the tent erected and am confident it's not going to sail off over the field like a hang glider, I toss the bale of hay inside, cut the ropes binding it and spread it around, being careful not to drop my cell phone in the mess. If I lost anything important in that stuff, talk about a finding a needle in a haystack.... I take care to spread it evenly so it's not lumpy and really stuff it in the gaps between the tent and the ground. Hey, this stuff really works. I can already feel the inside of the tent heating up. My glasses get foggy with condensation. My buddy Dave Archer gave me an old Army surplus folding cot to use in exchange for 6-pack of Oktoberfest. It's pretty ingenious the way it unfolds. It's modern, so I gotta cover it up with the quilt. I also unroll my old boy scout sleeping bag and an airpad, put that on the cot and then drape the quilt and wool blanket on top. Okay, maybe it's not authentic, but who really wants to freeze to death?
That being done, I start to put my other gear inside. I try to work fast so I can get suited up and go out to join the guys around the fire. I undress as quickly as humanly possible and put on a pair of longjohns. Then the baggy rough cotton shirt with wooden buttons. Then on go the scratchy wool trousers and suspenders. Then I take off my socks and put on the elastic-less, itchy woven yarn ones. Then I bend over and lace up the "shoes", which are hobnailed leather soles with a very thin suede-like leather stitched together, and holes for shoelaces, also made of leather. They offer no support to your feet whatsoever and are about as comfortable to walk in as wrapping your feet in duct tape. I paid extra to have these steel horseshoe-like plates put on the heels to double the walking life of the shoes. They make a clicking sound when we walk on concrete, like tapdancing shoes. This click also helps us keep in step when we march in parades.
Then I put on the wool vest, to hug the shirt to my body for an extra layer. It's got a lot of brass buttons, from the waist all the way up to the neck. Always leave it buttoned. Seeing a man's shirt and suspenders was considered visible underwear. It has some tiny pockets, for a book of matches or a pocketwatch, if I had one. Then the dark blue wool jacket goes over that. More buttons to fasten that easily get pulled off. This wool is hard to describe just how scratchy it is if you've never worn it before. It feels like wearing a burlap sack. Maybe hence the name, 'sack coat'. Then I put on my antique glasses with tiny round lenses. They have no nose pads and feel awkward the way they rest on my nose and the earpieces loop around my ears. And onto my head goes my hat, the dark blue forage cap. So named because soldiers used it to hold extra food when they went foraging. It's floppy and looks sort of like a top hat somebody stomped on. It keeps my head quite warm, my hair is always soaked when I pull it off. I really need to bundle up more because it's so cold out. So I put on a lighter blue long coat, called a Greatcoat over everything. It's the one with the shoulder flaps. It's lined and very warm. Then I put on knitted wool gloves and untie the tent flap to go out and join the boys at the fire.
Modern life suddenly evaporates. I'm in 1864 now.
There are many familiar faces and a handful of new ones. Craig Flick and Sean Haley are our new recruits. Everybody who I've been to events with before greets me with a smile and a firm handshake and tell me it's good to see me again. The morale is high despite the whipping, freezing winds. The "fresh fish" sit in a circle on small folding wooden chairs or stumps around burning logs, sipping warm drinks from their tin cups and listen to stories of the "old-timers." Much of the talk seems to center around guns, politics and war stories from years gone by. I meet randy Warnick's two sons Cory and Shannon for the first time, who have been with the 2nd Delaware for years. The three of them like to joke a lot and are fun to be around. I move from one huddled group to another, trying to absorb all the latest news. A few more latecomers arrive at the camp and they graciously accept my offer to help them set up their tents. The more I move around, the less cold I am.
I reconnect with a few guys who I haven't seen in awhile. Jim Villieux was at Spotsylvania. He lives out here in Virginia and only joins us for battles. I reminisce about my first combat experience 5 months ago when the two of us forgot to take hits, charged all the way across the battlefield right up to the Confederate trenches and almost got taken prisoner, looked behind us and the rest of the regiment was in the dirt.
I'm just happy to be here on this battlefield and taking in the camp experience. The rich smell of smoke from the blazing logs, the snapping and crackling of the fire. The flickering orange light on the faces of the soldiers gathered around these islands of warmth. The aroma of cigar smoke hanging in the air. The pervasive merry laughter, singing and banjo playing from nearby camps.
I keep looking up at the stars on this perfectly clear night and at how bright the full moon is. It's brilliant white and light enough to cast shadows. I can walk around and see everything almost like daylight. I look out over the rolling hills and aside from us, everything is peaceful and quiet. I can't see the Confederate camps because they are on the other side of the hills, probably a good mile away. They are undoubtedly doing the same thing we are on the eve of battle, just having a good time.
The camaraderie continues late into the night, and I know that I should retire soon and get some sleep. The battle won't be until the afternoon and there's plenty of time to just hang about camp or go to the Sutlers tomorrow. Sometime around 11 o'clock to midnight, I tell everyone it's time to go "hit the hay" (literally) and seek the shelter of my tent. I know I have a long few days ahead of me and need to conserve my energy.
The tent is not as cozy as it looks. I just can't get comfortable even with all the wool blankets, my head is still cold. I hear the wind howling outside and feel the tent getting blown back and forth. I hope it stays up. I have absurd visions of it getting ripped out of the ground and the winds carrying me and my belongings into the wild night sky or scattering them all over the field.
Eventually the voices and laughter die away, and the solemn dirge of 'Taps' is played. Everyone must be back in their tents; no talking until morning. Someone nearby is snoring at the top of their lungs. In fact, just about everyone is snoring except me.
I lay awake for probably the whole night. The moon is so bright I see the silhouette of the overhanging tree on the canvas wall of my tent, the leaves moving and shifting. There are some flashes outside, silent. Probably an approaching thunderstorm. Surely enough, at around 3 in the morning, it hits. The wind seems to have a voice, like a wolf's howl. The tent gets blown about so violently I brace the upright poles with my hands and feet, actually fearing it will collapse and smother me. I hear rain beating on the thick fabric like a snare drum. Then it's all quiet again. Maybe I nod off for an hour or so before dawn.
DAY OF THE FIRST BATTLE
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 15
I open my eyes and see I'm still under cover. I didn't blow away. I expect the tent to be sagging, soaked and dripping on the inside, because wet canvas is like a sponge. But I touch it and it's bone dry. The wind really dried everything out, the ground doesn't seem wet. The hay did its job. I didn't feel the wind at all.
I don't want to get up until I absolutely have to, I feel cocooned in my layers and layers of wool. I wait until I hear the sharp bugle of Reveille to start to move. I extricate myself from the bed wrappings and sit up. I untie the strings of the tent flaps, put my cold leather shoes on and stagger out with my tin plate and cup to cook my own breakfast.
Several people are already up and the coffee pot is boiling. I wait my turn to use the cast iron frying pan to cook my strips of bacon. I munch on an apple and a rough roll of wheat bread. The thing about cooking on cast iron is it takes so long to heat up, then it cooks very fast, and as soon as you get your food off the fire and on to your plate it's cold already. The bacon cooks in a matter of minutes, leaving a thick layer of grease on the pan and it gets very dry and crunchy. I'm not eating slab bacon, which is what the soldiers would have cooked from a freshly killed pig. I can't get that stuff unless I know a butcher. It's the same stuff we eat, only cut an inch thick. Delicious and the grease is very useful for more than just clogging your arteries.
The battle isn't going to be until 2pm, so I have a whole lot of blissful nothing to do. That's what I love about camp life. The idleness. Not having to do anything or be anywhere or think about anything; I can just exist and enjoy being alive. I don't even need to know what time it is. The Company officers dictate what to do and when to do it. When to sleep, when to get up, when to eat, when to drill, when to march, when to fight. Time doesn't mean much.
At some point I hear somebody's going to Sutler Row to go shopping. I figure why not, I have some time to kill. As long as I'm back by 1:00, we fall in at 1:30. Someone else will let me know when that is.
I decide to accompany Jim to the sutler's tents, located by the CS camp, which turns out to be all the way at the other end of the battlefield. We take the only dirt road to get there, and it turns out to be the longest possible route. We learn how long and steep a climb it is getting over the hills. Cedar Creek is all up and down, up and down. And there are sharp rock outcrops all over the place to trip over. A huge chunk of the battlefield nearby is now a limestone quarry.
I walk up and down Sutler Row, looking around in each tent and not buying much of anything. I see a few merchants I recognize mail-ordering my gear from. Fall Creek Sutlery, Dell's Leather Works, The Regimental Quartermaster.
Sutlers in the Civil War were businessmen who followed the camps around and charged high prices for food, provisions and equipment. Now they are like strip malls for reenactors. This is where you buy your uniforms, cookware, boots, belts, civilian clothing items, rifles, etc. and everything else you need to make your 'impression'. They also sell gunpowder and special hard-to-find products to waterproof leather and polish brass. The product quality among sutlers varies. Of course, higher quality stuff demands a higher price. I walk up and down the 'street' going into each tent and having a look around. I don't buy much except for a wood candle lantern so I can see in the dark without a flashlight. I don't have a pocketwatch so I ask for the time. It's getting near noon and I figure I should start the trek back to camp, because fall in for the battle is at about 1:00. The journey back is easier, it's mostly going downhill. Instead of walking down that dirt road I cut directly across the battlefield and cut the time in half. My feet are still sore from the hard leather shoes and almost twisted ankles from stepping on rocks.
When I return to camp, someone hands me a brown paper bundle tied with string. It has a postmark stamp that says October 1864. It's addressed to Pvt. Jeffrey Batt, 2nd Delaware Infantry, Vincent's Brigade. Who sent me a package and how? I open it up and inside is a knitted scarf and fingerless hand warmers. Wrapped around a folded letter. I unfold it and start to read.
October 17, 1864
My dear cousin,
I hope you are well. It is cold here already and everyone at home hopes you are not without comfort. Lewis Duckett came home last month with a bad wound to the chest. The doctors say he will not live the month out. His wife is heartbroken and always with tears.
Please be careful and aim high. You do not know how it grieves me to think my favorite cousin a murderer. Remember, my beau and brothers are opposite your guns. I knitted you this neck warmer as your mother writes me and tells that her old hands are too sore. She sent me an old book at least 20 years out of style but told me the patterns in it are smart and will compliment you. The pattern is called a "honeycomb".
Working on it made me remember those times when we were children and we sucked on Aunt Beth's honey taffy down by the bridge. Remember the time Mr. Andrews almost caught you boys stealing apples from his orchard and you boys were running so fast that you all lost your balance and fell over the side into the water? I'll never forget your face as you crawled out of the water, or your mother's. I miss those days, and you. I pray that you are safe and that this reaches you immolested.
Your Southern Cousin,
What creative genius! I had no idea I could send mail from one camp to another at a reenactment. This was from my friend Stephanie, a civilian from a Confederate regiment who goes to Cedar Creek every year. Reading this, for a moment, made me feel like I was really a soldier. It was possibly the most moving experience of the entire weekend. (Steph, thank you. That made my weekend because it gave me a 'magic moment' that took me back in time. I wanted to include this to see if you're reading :D) The letter is now in my personal effects and I can't wait until next year for a chance to exchange more letters. The scarf and hand warmers were also put to use in the field, which I'll mention later.
THE SATURDAY BATTLE
Once I've rested a bit in camp, leaving myself about an hour to eat my lunch consisting of an apple and a ham and cheese sandwich, I hear the First Sergeant say "Second Delaware, First Call!" This is the order that tells us we have a few minutes to suit up and get ready for battle.
Time to gear up. I go back to my tent and put on the 'accouterments.' The leather cartridge box with my rolled paper rounds of gunpowder goes on first, draped over the left shoulder so it rests on my right hip. The brass eagle medallion goes over the heart, to offer meager protection from a shot to the chest I suppose. Then the leather waist belt with the brass US buckle goes on, this holds my bayonet scabbard and percussion cap pouch. This also holds the cartridge box in place at my side so it won't slip behind me. Then draped over my right shoulder is the strap for my haversack, sort of a carry-all for food and personal items. It's made of tarred canvas, used to be a shiny black that smelled of asphalt but now it's worn to a flaky gray. Then last of all is my canteen of water. I stuffed an extra bottle of water in my haversack in case I run out in the field. Then, I slide my borrowed .58 Enfield rifle musket out of its wool bag and sling the leather strap over my shoulder. We form into a company line on the grass outside the camp for inspection.
We line up smallest to tallest in two ranks. Naturally I'm on the taller end. This so a short man won't have to aim over a tall man when we fire a volley, which involves the guys behind us aiming over our right shoulders. The Captain walks along the line and gives the command for us to "Order Arms," meaning lower our rifles from the shoulder carry position so our rifle butts are on the ground beside our right shoe. Then he orders to fix bayonets for inspection. We draw our ramrods and insert them into the rifle barrels. When the Captain stands in front of me, I hold up the rifle with the left hand, so he can examine it to be sure it's safe to fire. He lifts up the ramrod a bit and lets it fall. A reassuring "ping" sound means the barrel is not plugged. He then pulls the hammer back to half cock position and tries to squeeze the trigger. It doesn't strike. That's good--half cock is the safety mechanism. Satisfied, he hands it back to me. He moves down the line doing the same for each soldier in the ranks.
Walking down the line again, he makes us count off 'twos'. The first guy says "One!" I say "Two!" and the guy to my left says "One!" and so on, One, Two, One, Two all the way to the end. This is our number we have to remember, so we form properly into combat and marching formations. He questions one soldier near the end. "Do you know why you said two?" The private says "Because I can't count any higher, sir." There's some muffled laughter. The color bearer is brought to the front. The other company in Vincent's Brigade has formed up behind us. Colonel Wolff has joined the Captain at the front. The time has come for us to move out and onto the battlefield.
Captain issues a "left face, march" command. We each turn to our left so the two rows of men become two columns, marching behind the flag. This is the formation in which we take to the field. Our guys are at the front leading Vincent's Brigade. Well, this is it. We're going into battle.
We begin the march up that dirt road over the hill that leads on to the field, our shoes clomping in unison behind our fluttering Stars and Stripes, shifting our rifles from shoulder to shoulder to relieve the burden. I realize I'm not scared, or even nervous. I just feel like my senses are sharply tuned in and more aware of everything around me.
Most of all, I notice what a gorgeous day it is. The sun is so bright it warms my face and jacket, although it's brisk and windy. I glance upward, and the sky is perfectly clear and a gorgeous, endless blue, not a cloud in sight. The sunlight brings everything to life, I can still see it sharply in my mind like a photograph. How it gleams on the steel of our rifle barrels and the chrome of our bayonets. It makes our uniform brass shine. For a while I fixate on the bobbing heads and spear-like bayonets, and the color bearer holding the regimental flag in high in front of us.
Our flag is very old, faded and threadbare, it looks like it's seen many battles. It's torn and ripped and parts of it are missing. The stitching on the stripes has come apart at the end, and the stripes are like fringes that whip around in the breeze.
I think it looks awesome. A tattered battle flag to me is the sign of a tough group of soldiers. Draw your sword, and throw away the scabbard. These colors don't run. Staring at the red, white and blue fills me with a patriot's courage; a strength and pride I didn't feel before. They didn't call us the Crazy Delawares for nothing. I might not be proud of my country as it is now in all its turmoil, political dishonesty and corporate greed, but seeing that old battle standard awakens something in me. It reminds me of the incredible courage and determination our ancestors fought with, and the cause of freedom they fought for. Back when the word freedom really meant something. I notice my teeth are clenched so hard my jaw hurts. I'm tearing up a bit just looking at it.
As we walk off the road on to the grass, I look downward to watch my footing because the ground gets uneven. We have to look out for the sharp rocks and the holes and ditches hidden by the uncut grass. When an obstacle is encountered somebody calls out "hole!" "ditch!" or "rock!" and we repeat it down the line so nobody steps in it. As I'm looking down at the grass rippling in the wind, I notice dozens of big crickets or grasshoppers jumping around. It's odd to think here I am going into battle to get shot at, and I'm looking at these insects jumping in the grass. I want to say something like "man, those bugs are huge" but I keep it to myself.
It's about now I hear the first booms of the artillery. They shake the ground and I realize that's why the crickets are in a frenzy. I can really feel those in my chest. Then comes the rifle shots echoing over the hills in front of us. I feel the growing anticipation of the battle and wonder what part we are about to play in it. As we make our way over the crest of the hill and enter the field to take our position, we have to execute some tricky maneuvers. Wheeling, marching at obliques and forming companies into line. Our drilling pays off. We end up using every formation we practiced. Meanwhile the audience is distracted by the cavalry on both sides who have fully engaged each other.
Somehow, when all the staging maneuvers are complete we end up facing the crowd with our bayonets still fixed, and all the action going on behind us. We stand this way for a good ten or maybe fifteen minutes for a reason nobody can explain. "Why do we still have these bayonets on?" goes unanswered. We shouldn't have them on in the field, they are deadly weapons and you can really poke someone's eye out.
Actually, bayonets of this type were very nasty. They have a triangular cross section, which makes an odd-shaped wound that can't be stitched up. If a man got stuck by one of these, and they were long enough to impale him all the way through, he would likely bleed to death in a very short time. Also bayonets were used for cooking and eating, and often plunged into the ground to use as candlesticks or tent stakes, and they were never kept clean. They were probably rusty too. So there would be the added fatality of infection.
The order at last comes to remove them. Then we do an about face, and the Rebels are lined up facing us and in firing range. The battle of Cedar Creek has begun. My memory of how this battle unfolds is a bit scrambled, I can't pay attention to what's going on around me and how the battle is unfolding. I am so preoccupied with loading and firing my weapon properly, and a bit stunned by the men behind aiming and firing over my shoulder. I remember volleying again and again, just concentrating on the mechanical process of following orders and keeping up a steady fire, trying to remain calm. The barked orders of the Colonel are just barely heard over my ears ringing.
"Load!" I stand the rifle between my feet, holding the barrel away from my body. I reach back and lift the flap of the cartridge box, pulling out a paper round. Bringing it up to my mouth, I bite the end of the cartridge and spit out the paper. I always get a few grains of gunpowder in my mouth and it tastes awful. I quickly pour the powder down the barrel and throw away the empty round. We don't draw the ramrod for safety since we're not shooting live; only a powder charge so there is nothing to ram down. Also if in the chaos we forget to remove it and fire, we have a deadly steel spear flying across the field. Then I yank the rifle up to chest level with the left hand, flipping it right side up in one motion. I reach down to my waist with my right and retrieve a percussion cap from the pouch. I affix the cap on the end of the nipple (the tiny opening to the firing chamber) and cock the hammer halfway, raise the rifle to firing position, flick the hammer all the way and pull the trigger. The rifle spits fire and recoils in my shoulder, my ears buzz and I repeat the process.
I'm in the front rank with the other 'fresh fish.' It's safer because I don't have to worry about aiming over someone's shoulder. When firing from the rear rank, one has to keep the front man's head midway between the muzzle, or front of the gun, and the lockplate and hammer mechanism at the trigger to protect his hearing. During the battle I catch myself making a few mistakes that could be dangerous. I tend to lean backward some as the rear man fires from behind me, not wanting to get deafened. This puts me closer to the hammer hitting the percussion cap, which could send a piece flying into me. Cory and Shannon Warnick are behind and remind me "don't lean back, stay still". They are nice enough to warn me when one's about to come over the shoulder and fire. At one point the Rebs advance so close they are within 40 yards of us, in which case we have to aim up over their heads for safety. The command is "Elevate" or "At a high elevation, fire!" I was so absorbed in the battle with guys shooting at me I started to feel it was real, they were actually close enough to kill me, so I had to aim at them! Luckily the First Sergeant reaches over with his rifle barrel and knocks it up as I fire. At this point I was not even aware of the spectators watching us, it felt like a real war.
The Confederate forces outnumber us and begin to press their advance. We have found ourselves at the bottom of a steep hill behind the solitary white house which stands on the battlefield (called the Heater House). Due to the uneven ground we cannot step backward to retreat uphill. We are forced to turn our backs to the enemy and run, something that no regiment wants to do. To be shot in the back while retreating is the least heroic way to die.
We run up the hill to gain some distance, and turn once again to face them and return fire. The Rebels steadily push forward and we have to retreat again. At around this point Vincent's Brigade begins to take heavy losses. The flag bearer falls, and our youngest in the ranks, a fife player of thirteen years, picks up the colors. He immediately follows. Then the Colonel takes up the flag, and is gunned down. The First Sergeant, angered at the loss of his boy, grabs for the flag and leads our retreat, then he falls. Seeing the bodies of my fellow men lying at my feet, I make a final stand with the three that remain, including the Captain. I'm sure that I must fall soon, my luck is surely spent. I stand my ground, loading and firing again and again, until I hear the Captain shout from behind me. "Jeff, you're dead!!" I double over as if hit in the stomach, and fall face forward down the hill among my comrades. As if with my last bit of strength, I roll over, splaying one arm out and look at the sky.
The battle is over, our entire brigade is in the dirt. The Confederates advance up the hill past us, pursuing those who are still running. They step carefully over us, look down and a few say things like "Look at those new shoes, let's take 'em"
For perhaps a minute I lay there, staring up at the sky and I get lost in all that infinite blue. I think of the sun shining on me, warming my body and the green grass. The last thing that I'm sure many soldiers saw was that endless sky. If that was the last sight I saw as a dying man, I'd feel very much at peace. Some of my brothers in the grass pick up their heads to watch the victors leave us behind, but I don't move. I'm stuck in that moment which seems to last a very long time, just staring up at Heaven. I wonder if my Great-great-great grandfather is watching me today, and if he'd say I fought bravely. The Private laying beside me is Dave Archer. He snaps me out of my reverie, tugging at my arm. "Hey Jeff, gimme your hat" I roll over and I'm looking down at a small brook flowing across the field. The sound of the water has relaxed me and soothed my ringing ears. This must be part of Cedar Creek.
Curious, I reach for my hat on the ground and toss it to him. He carefully dips the top of it in the creek, and gives it back. I put it back on my head. The water's very cold. Grinning, he says, "you've just been baptized in Cedar Creek" He does this for the other new recruits as well. So that was my initiation. It really did feel like a baptism. Now I was one of them.
We rise up together like raptured souls and start the long march back to camp. The rest of the day passes lazily until nightfall, when Colonel Wolff throws a party for the whole Federal camp. The Union regiments mingle and share all manner of exotic and expensive wines and great food, and sing and carouse joyfully late into the night. Some of the highlights included a very entertaining pirate impression by private George Ferguson, a cameo appearance of Field Soup (our company banjo and washbasin ensemble) as the Soggy Bottom Boys playing "Man of Constant Sorrow" to raucous laughter, along with the old favorites like "Ol' Dan Tucker" and "Down The Ol' Plank Road" and a toast to president Abraham Lincoln, whose re-election is secured with general Sheridan's victory after this decisive battle that will be recreated tomorrow.
Colonel Wolff always has a story to tell. He says his family actually fought for the South in the war. His great great grandfather was named Robert E. Lee Wolff. His great grandfather was Robert E. Lee Wolff Jr. And his grandfather was Robert E. Lee Wolff II. He's been reenacting since 1972 and back then he says, there were no sutlers. Uniforms and equipment had to be hand made and antique weapons were hard to come by. Reproductions were uncommon, and many guys used shotguns and bolt-action rifles from World War II. At someone's request, he shows off his talent to be able to recite Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din from memory. The only part of that I can ever remember goes "In India's Sunny clime, where I used to spend my time, in service o' her majesty the Queen..." he even does it with an accent, a mix of Australian and British that would be appropriate for the war the poem describes.
I go to bed eagerly anticipating the fight the next day, with a wheezing cough from the cold but very happy to be there, and alive. I felt a natural high. I need to spend more time around these guys.
SUNDAY MORNING: THE DAWN TACTICAL
A "Tactical" is a strategic reenactment event held without spectators, usually under similar conditions in which a battle was fought, or on terrain where spectators could not watch, such as in the forest at Spotsylvania. It's meant to give those involved a much more realistic experience of being a soldier.
Okay, first some background. Cedar Creek traditionally holds a Tactical very early in the morning before sunrise, in an attempt to recreate the carefully planned Confederate surprise attack by Maj. General John B. Gordon's division under the command of General Jubal Early on the sleeping troops of the Union VIII and XIX Corps, that began at about 0400 hours (4 AM) on October 19, 1864. There was a skirmish when they encountered a small number of General George Custer's sentinels, but it was not enough to cause alarm or even wake the sleeping men. Unhindered, they formed brigades and advanced under cover of a thick fog, coming close enough to hear Union soldiers talking in their bunks. At 0500 they rushed the trenches of the VIII Corps with a loud volley and the Union camps erupted in chaos. Barely awake, half dressed men ran out to fight and held for only a few minutes before running. Hundreds were taken prisoner. The Union response was slow and disorganized, and the defense that could be assembled was not enough to hold them back. Confederate artillery was also in range to shell the open and vulnerable Union flank. (This is a very condensed account of the battle) It went on for several hours, and the Union side slowly mobilized to mount a counterattack. Heavy losses were suffered and the army seemed thoroughly routed. Meanwhile General Philip Sheridan was in Middletown on official business, 12 miles away. He heard the cannons, first sporadic and then gaining in intensity, and he mounted his horse and began a frantic ride to the rescue that would be immortalized in Sheridan's Ride, a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read.
...Anyway other members of my unit told me this Tactical is a unique experience because we can go out before dawn and skirmish in the dark, lit only by the flashes from guns. They warned me to watch the first time and not join in, because of the uneven ground and rocks and holes to trip on. Of course, I didn't want to miss it. It sounded fun. I want to fight if I think I can.
As expected, I wake up sometime around 5:00 AM Sunday morning to the sound of rifle shots echoing in the cold air. It's started. I don't hear any shouting or sounds of confusion. It appears our boys are still asleep, as I hear snoring around me. I 'hit the hay' last night in my uniform, taking off only my great coat and shoes. I sit up, instantly alert.
I immediately pull on my great coat, tie the new red scarf around my neck and slip my hands into the wool fingerless gloves. Then I have to put on my leather accouterments over the great coat, which is not as comfortable but necessary to fight. I throw the wide shoulder flaps over my head like a hood, and then put the cartridge box, belt, haversack and canteen on. Sliding my rifle out of its sleeve, I step out of my tent.
I half expected a scene of chaos with people running around and shouting, but almost everyone is still asleep in their tents. Only one guy is sitting out by the smoky campfire drinking coffee, not in a hurry to go anywhere. I think it was private Randy Dotson.
I ask him if anyone else from our unit is going out. "Nope" I tell him I think I'm going out anyway. He makes no attempt to stop me.
I walk down the quiet company street past the tents, and see flashes from rifle shots in the field ahead of me. It does look quite awesome to see the sparks and glowing smoke from the weapons. It appears a small group of no more than ten Union boys are standing in a rough company line, shooting at some hollering Rebs in a ditch some distance away.
I walk out slowly into the grass and look around me. By this time the sun is coming up, it's light enough to see the terrain. The ground looks dark blue and the sky Eastward is a pale yellow, still cloudless. I can see a peak of the Shenandoahs on the horizon, very far away. It's an ethereal sky blue in the morning haze. Its going to be a very clear day and there's no fog at all, not like how I imagined.
I approach the line of blue jackets, trying to keep my head down, and ask what company they're from. The 66th Ohio, says a young man down on one knee, with a bulging full knapsack and blanket roll on his back. The first fully loaded guy I've seen, he looks like a hardcore campaigner. I didn't know you could pack that much and not fall backwards. His pack is hand painted with "66 OH Regt" in large letters. Soldiers on the march had to take their camps with them. I couldn't imagine marching for miles wearing that load and then going into battle, but that was what many soldiers did.
Somebody asks the question I was waiting for. "Where are the reinforcements from Vincent's Brigade?" I say with a stern face, "...I AM the reinforcements" No one else in my group wants to come out, I guess they've all done it before.
I fall into line and begin loading my rifle for a volley. I think I'm the oldest soldier in the group. They look like a bunch of teenagers. They're all kneeling down to make smaller targets.
This is a first for me...loading and firing from a kneeling position. It's more difficult than standing, because the rifle is over 4 and a half feet long. It has to be held diagonally to one side, and the powder still needs to be poured in the muzzle at a 45 degree angle. It takes some getting used to.
While we pinch off shots in the Rebels' general direction, we trade insults as well, just harassing each other like skirmishers would have done. "Hey Johnny, where all your friends at?" "They're a-comin, just you wait Yank" We fire at will since nobody appears to be in charge. The Rebs just aren't taking any hits, or maybe we're lousy shots.
Somebody yells "Here come those dismounts!" A regiment of dismounted US Cavalry comes out to join us, with yellow striping on their blue jackets and short-barreled carbine rifles. They can shoot more quickly than our muzzle loaders. I don't get a close look at their weapons but they're probably Spencer Carbines. (http://www.hackman-adams.com/guns/spencer.htm)
The Spencer repeating rifle loads up to seven cartridges from the rear and has a lever-action cocking mechanism, which lets the owner fire off that many shots in about the same amount of time it takes for our Springfields and Enfields to load and fire just once. They could Load on Sunday and shoot all week! --said Confederate veterans.
It appears we have the Rebs outnumbered and outgunned. Then I hear the sound of mounted cavalry coming down the hill at our backs. "Oh S--- Rebel Cavalry comin' over the hill!" I shout. Now we don't know which way to face. They have us in a pincer attack. We're either captured or goners.
A Confederate officer runs at me waving his sword, and a man next to me thrusts his rifle at him with an invisible bayonet. He falls to the ground, laughing. "Good fight, boys"
At about this point something really comical and surreal happens. A boy who looks no older than seven or eight years old appears out of nowhere with a brown cowboy hat and a plastic six-shooter. A toy cap gun. I gape at him and say "Who the hell are you supposed to be, Quickdraw McGraw?" He looks confused at my reference, mumbles something about "I'm gonna shoot me some badguys" and runs off in the direction of the Confederates who were shooting at us from the ditch.
Not exactly the way I pictured the dawn of the battle of Cedar Creek. But it was fun anyway. Heading back towards camp, one of our new recruits snaps a picture of me with his cell phone camera.
I return to the camp for my morning meal and more people are awake, some are cooking breakfast. I told them about my adventure, going off alone to fight without permission from the Captain. They ask me if I ate yet. I tell them "I had Rebs for breakfast!" I strip off my gear and great coat and notice for the first time that I'm sweating in the cold.
Breakfast consists of my own cooked ham, an apple, some real slab bacon and coffee. The rest of the morning is uneventful. I decide to accompany a group of men to the sutler tents for one last look around, (taking the bus this time) being sure I'm back in camp and ready to fall in for the battle. I buy an extra tin of 100 percussion caps (I feel I may be running low) and an old rusty cast iron frying pan for about 15 dollars. I figure steel wool will make it cook-worthy without too much work.
Waiting for the bus, I stand by a wood fence near a young Union soldier from another regiment. Some modern spectators come up and ask questions, like why his jacket is longer than mine. He's wearing a frock coat with light blue striping that comes down almost to the knees, and I have a waist length sack coat. I get into a 'persona' of sorts, and explain that there's a shortage of uniforms at the Quartermaster, and I'm just poor farm boy who can't afford a good coat. I also point out that light blue striping on a coat is for infantry, yellow is cavalry and red is artillery. This is my first experience educating the public.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON BATTLE
I make it back to camp about one o'clock in time for First Call, and put on my gear to fall into line again for inspection. The same routine as before. Our Captain tells us that we have performed well on the field and were put at the front of the Brigade as an example to other regiments. Captain Layton is a first rate officer and one of the best in the business, he receives compliments from Colonel Wolff. A couple of our men shake his hand and say "It is an honor to serve with you, sir." At this time, I feel it's appropriate to give him something I was saving for this occasion. It's a prayer that I wrote months ago for when we re-enact on an original battlefield. I hope he'll find a chance to read it aloud to us, but now is not the time. He folds it and puts it in his pocket. At least I gave it to him.
Forward, march! We depart our camp and take a different route over the hill to enter the field. This time we line up at the bottom of the hill near where we fell the day before, around the back of the Heater House, out of the public's view. Staging for the battle can be a little tedious. We march a little bit and stop, then move up and stop again. I remark to Sean standing next to me that it feels we're extras on a movie set, waiting to go on. There are two groups of rifles stacked in tripod configuration, bayonets hooked together, with our flag rolled up laying across them. A small company of Confederates, spread out on the other side of a thin treeline, is watching us as we shuffle in. We hear them proudly singing a rude song. "We spurn the Yankee scum..." Something along those lines. We're in Virginia, we expect to hear this stuff.
Our lines are facing each other so close that, if we were to fire, they would have dropped in one volley. But we can't do anything, we just have to wait for the signal. Sheridan's on his way. We stand around for a couple minutes and joke to pass the time. The First Sergeant, puffing on his cigar like always, gets the idea of sticking it in the end of his rifle barrel. "Look guys, a cigar holder!" We wonder what would happen if he fired it. Maybe it would give one of the Rebs a stogie burn right between the eyes. Or maybe it'd end up in his mouth, or up his nose. We make faces at each other and have a good laugh.
At the top of the hill behind them, judging from the pistol shots and hoof clomping, we know the cavalry fight is going on. From an infantryman's standpoint, cavalry reenactors seem like a joke. There are no thundering charges like in the movies. We don't get to soil our trousers watching a division of screaming horsemen riding straight at us at 50 miles an hour, ready to lop our heads off with sabers. These guys (or girls, more often than not) just trot around in front of the crowd to their applause, shooting their pistols in the air and clinking swords together like offering a toast. It's totally not convincing. The crowd always claps like they're watching a golf tournament. We're just not impressed at the pony show. But people like horses, especially women, which makes the surge of popularity in female cavalry reenacting a no-brainer.
Sean, being the historian, makes some comments during the battle about interesting things we might not know. Henry A. DuPont, a Delaware native, won the Medal of Honor in this battle. One point of interest I didn't think about was how he went into battle most likely using his own gunpowder, manufactured at his family-owned mills at Hagley on the Brandywine.
At last, here comes the man of the hour, the guy we're waiting for. Major General Philip Sheridan gallops by on his trusty steed 'Rienzi,' Waving his hat and shouting "Let's go get 'em boys!" A loud cheer goes up from our ranks as we raise our own hats in the air in salute. HUZZAH!! The tide of battle is turned.
The Colonel calls us to battle, sword pointed at the enemy. "Forward, march!" The torn old war flag is unfurled and hoisted high. The other Union regiments also raise their colors. The fife players begin a battle song, probably 'Battle Cry of Freedom.' Somewhere a drummer is helping us keep in step. We look down our line to make sure we march in line with the colors. Always dress to the right, on the First Sergeant and the colors. If a rock or ditch is in our way, we open a gap to walk around it and quickly close up again, forming tight ranks of shoulder-to-shoulder Yanks.
The firing begins. We fire first by Company, one regiment at a time. We also fire by rank; men in front shooting first, then the men fire from behind as we reload. Our volleys are crisp and in unison, just one huge "Bang!," not "Pop, pop, pop" like some companies. War shouldn't sound like popcorn. After a few volleys on command, we "fire by file." This is from the right to the left, just one man and the man at his back firing at once. If we can't load fast enough and miss a shot, we just wait for the next chance. It takes concentration to remember if we're loaded or not.
Double loading can be very dangerous. If one of our rifles fails to go off, the First Sergeant swaps guns with the man and inspects it. Since we don't use bullets or ram the cartridge, we can also tilt the gun downward and pour out the powder if we're in doubt.
We slowly advance and push the Confederates up the hill. They do what we had to do yesterday, fire a few shots and then turn and fall back. We continue to do so until we reach the top of the hill where we are in full view of the crowd. By now, I'm so caught up in the war I don't even notice the thousands of eyes on us. The cannon fire is so loud it drowns out the narrator's loudspeaker. For me at times like this, it's real.
The single line of Rebs we faced fall back to their rear companies and begin to pummel us. The officers start to fall as they really would have, also it's a sign for us to start taking hits. Our First Sergeants go down, and eventually the Captain. Sean is the next in rank, and he gets a few instant promotions. "Huh, I just got promoted all the way up to Captain in three volleys!" He says with a grin. Such things did happen. Officers and flag bearers were prime targets because without them, units were confused and demoralized. If a superior officer fell, his rank was transferred to the next ranking officer on down, and so forth.
We push forward and I notice our company getting smaller and smaller. My gun barrel is getting pretty warm from all the firing, but it's so cold and windy out the risk of a cook-off is hopefully low. I notice when I fire a shot, my spent cap looks blown open, almost flattened. Private George Ferguson is to my left and he's a weapons expert. I show it to him and he tells me my gun must have a powerful spring behind that hammer, but not to worry about it. Before I know it, it's over. I look around and regiments are breaking up and scattering. I turn and look at how far we charged; we covered a lot of ground. I'm just glad that I made it and didn't get hurt. Doni our drummer boy is next to me. He says "I'm gonna go find my dad," turns around and disappears. First Sergeant Bill Purdy then comes up behind me and asks where his son Doni went. "Uh, he just took off that way to look for you" I motion behind me.
The rest of our squad splits and goes off in different directions, most of them head for the reenactor parking area behind the spectators so they can drive back to their camp. I don't have a car and mom's probably already left; I told her to head for my camp when the battle was about to end. I know I'll have to make the long march back by myself.
The Union regiments still on the field are forming a parade line to march past the spectators in review, customary for the side who wins the battle. I fall into line behind an unfamiliar unit. I don't know what regiment they are or even what division, but I know as long as they are dressed in blue they will take me back to the US camps.
In front of me is a Sergeant with a very young boy who barely looks old enough to be a fife player. He's carrying the flag, a tiny square shaped one on a long pole, half red and half white with a large number 1 on it. It looks like a heavy burden for such a small kid; he keeps resting it on his shoulder. The pole's so long it tilts back and hits me on the head. The Sergeant tells him to hold it straight up and down. The kid obeys, then a minute later it droops again and I have to duck. He must tell that kid to hold that flag straight at least ten times until someone else takes it from him. The whole time I'm thinking he's way too young to be on the field.
A good 2 miles later, I'm back at the US camp coming in through the front gate where the bus picks us up. I realize I still have quite a way to go before I reach Vincent's Brigade. Tents are being taken down as camps are being packed up, and landmarks are disappearing. I walk past piles of garbage and some amusing things left behind. Like carved jack-o-lanterns with beer cans stuck in them. Looks like nobody really obeyed the 'no alcoholic beverages' rule for the battleground.
I manage to find the 2nd Delaware camp and most of the cars are there. I help as many people as I can take down their tents and load their cars. I make sure to shake everyone's hand, tell them "see ya next time" and watch them leave. My tent is one of the last in our camp to come down; with all the winds we had I'm surprised it stayed up.
Mom's waiting with the van, still full of straw from when I tossed that bale on top of the roof with the windows down. I ask her if we have time to tour the battlefield or the Belle Grove plantation. By this time it's getting near 4:00 and rush hour traffic, so the answer's no. Maybe next year. The Captain is about to leave in his pickup when we're ready to go. I ask him honestly how I did. He says he was impressed and I did a fine job, despite doing the Tactical without permission.
I have a slight cough from the cold air and feel I might be getting sick, but it was worth it. I made myself proud by surviving not only the two battles, but the Tactical as well! I had a long, tiring, strenuous weekend and didn't sleep much, but the important thing is, I did it. I feel awesome just knowing I can keep up with the guys. This will be an event to look forward to next year. I'll take cold weather over hot weather anyday.