Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Thoughts About Reenacting from a Soldier's Perspective -- 150 Years after the Fact.

Finishing up my first year as a reenactor on this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I'm going into the next history-making year of events with a lot of mixed attitudes and solemn feelings about it. I know this is no fun-filled walk in the park that some people make it out to be.

True I may have visited places like Gettysburg and Fort Delaware since I was five years old and heard stories about it, but the stuff that American pop culture shoved in my ears since that early age made it seem like a "Long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."  A legend almost, like Star Wars. Something to glorify and admire, and sing songs like the Battle Hymn of the Republic about, not knowing or caring who John Brown was and why his truth keeps marching on when he was just some crazy old guy who killed a bunch of people and held a town hostage. Or what the "grapes of wrath" are and where we store them. Or that the Purple Mountain Majesties in the distance above the fruity plains look more blueish green, and bombs bursting in air and the rocket's red glare make me think not of a fort blowing up but fireworks on the 4th of July.

I'm reading a lot of books, watching documentaries and seeing the bloodiest four years in American history in ways I was never shown it before, that they never wanted to tell me about in school.

Wars to me were fought across oceans in some distant place that was nothing like here, over things I could barely understand why people ever believed in; like the idea people with dark skin weren't human beings, or that if you were Jewish in Germany in the 1940s that was a crime. Or that people would blow children up to keep us from filling our gas tanks. Being a child of the 1980s-90s, wars to me were just like watching movies on late night TV. Percolated, filtered and decaffeinated into easily digestible tidbits by evening news bulletins squeezed in between shampoo commercials.

All these bad people who hate us live so far away, why don't we leave them alone? It was inconceivable to me how something like that could happen to us; we live on an island fortress, surrounded by allies, we're the greatest country on earth. Why would anyone want to mess with us?

We are lucky that we were even born in a part of the world where you aren't called an "infidel" for not believing Allah is great, or where we can actually walk out our front door without getting a few grenades lobbed at us, where we can go to the laundromat or get on the bus without somebody blowing us sky high. That our women can have jobs, and go to school, appear in public and not be traded like animals.

Wars to us are fought way over there, not here. Bad stuff happens to those people, not us. We don't have to watch that stuff going on in our backyards or be worried if the family down the street wants to kill us. 150 years ago, things were quite different.

War, as we know it, (thanks to the media) is Starship Troopers raging on a distant planet. It's science fiction, hardly real to us at all, except for the insanely brave few of us who have actually been over there.

I have a lot of thoughts to get out of my head about this, and about war in general and how crappy it is from any perspective, and I know my knowledge isn't perfect, some of the facts may be a little off...but this is how I'm experiencing it for the first time. I'm taking in a lot of new information in a short amount of time, almost like last minute cramming before a final. So have patience and hear me out, let me give my two cents. I'm not a certified historian and certainly not qualified to write a 3-volume masterpiece on it like Shelby Foote did, nor do I claim to know any more than anyone else, and I certainly can't join the National Guard and ship myself off to Libya to see just what I'm talking about, but I'd like to share how I see it.

Reenacting has become such a spectacle anymore, I think people that attend these events lose sight of why they are being done in the first place. It's not meant to be entertainment. It's not like watching a football game, or NASCAR. Over half a million people died in this war, more than both World Wars combined. It was a bloodbath, nothing more or less. It's not a sport you watch and cheer about.

Civilians in 1861 quickly learned that at Bull Run, when they showed up with picnic lunches to watch the battle from just a few hundred yards away. A number of them were wounded or killed by stray shots and cannonballs. They panicked, ran screaming away from the field with the routed Union Army close behind them and their escape slowed the retreat of the troops, creating in the words of one historian "the grandfather of all traffic jams." Rumors of a rebel "black horse cavalry" riding down behind them and sharpshooters hidden in the trees escalated the senseless panic, and ultimately caused more to be injured or killed.

The state of America's army on both sides was general chaos. The officers were incompetent, they were elected officials, not appointed by merit, most had political and not military backgrounds. They perhaps understood the tactics, but were inexperienced and poor decision makers in combat. They were leading soldiers into battle who had drilled as a regiment, but not as companies or brigades, or battalions. Many of them had never even fired their rifles before. There was no 'Union Army', only state militias. Their uniforms all looked different. Some Northerners wore grey coats, and some Southern boys had blue. Many times they were ordered to fire on their allies, or regiments were cut down by enemies mistaken for friendly units. Wounds from these front-loading weapons were terrible. They shot soft lead 'minie balls', crude bullets that deformed as they left the barrel and hit their targets. They flattened out once they hit, shattering bone and in many cases going straight through, leaving exit wounds that were much larger than the entry. Rifling and spinning shot was brand new at the time, most soldiers had never shot one before. Veterans who fought in the Mexican war and Indian conflicts were used to the smooth bore muskets that had shorter range. So their corporals and captains ordered them to close within 150 yards before they fired. At that range, people got torn to pieces.

When the cannons fired 'canister shots,' pretty much a tin can filled with golf-sized lead balls, it acted like a sawed off shotgun. Soldiers were said to vanish in a "red mist", essentially nothing left recognizable as human.

Officers had a 50% higher mortality rate than infantry. If officers were killed, their men would panic and their lines would fall apart. What started out as orderly pieces moving on a chessboard after about 20 minutes became a scattered, disorganized and unruly mob. Retreating Northern troops threw away whatever heavy equipment they carried, like empty rifles and cartridge boxes, knapsacks, etc. that slowed them down as they ran away from the battle. The Confederates picked them up and captured tons of equipment that had been carelessly tossed aside.

My feelings are mixed. Part of me is honored to be given the privilege of doing this. Part of me feels a pride in my heritage and a strength I never knew before.  Another part of me hates it for what it portrays. I think reenacting tends to glorify war, and make it out to be something other than the horrible, gruesome and terrifying thing it is in which tons of people died. If we had been there while the real battle was going on, even the best of us would be puking our guts up. The smell of the smoke and gunpowder, the burning flesh, the rotting bodies, the blood soaking the ground. Pieces of human beings scattered across a field. Every war is fought for different reasons, but after it all you just end up with hundreds and thousands of people dead for reasons that in retrospect, seem really stupid. They all end the same. And history of course gets written by the victor.

The gruesome details get somehow left out of the picture.

I think God has nothing to do with it. God is on nobody's side. One can say that one serves God and country, if only to disguise the fact that one feels like a murderer. We think of these bearded old guys as towering, Zeus-like figures, shooting bolts of lightning from their eyes.

To me, General Lee was as much of a hero as Grant was, or any of the other guys on the side who won. Lee didn't like slavery, he said himself he was only fighting to protect his homeland of Virginia from getting destroyed. After he was sent to kill John Brown and stop the slave uprising, he resigned from the Federal Army. All he wanted to do was kick some butt and then go home. He was a genius, top of his class at West Point, and probably the greatest general since George Washington. But his charge at Gettysburg failed because it was an act of desperation, he knew they had already lost by then, his men were poorly supplied and his campaign underfunded. He was a profoundly religious man.

People have said Lincoln was a tyrant. Other people worshipped him like the Messiah. Personally I feel Honest Abe was a pacifist. He hated war just as much or more than the next guy and was willing to prevent it at all costs. War was the last thing he wanted to do about slavery. He was looking for a diplomatic solution from day one. It was because of people like Sherman that he was looked at as a tyrant. He mourned the loss of every officer like one of his own children. "My boy! My boy!" he cried out in despair. "Was it necessary that this sacrifice be made?" (He said this when Ellmer E. Ellsworth, the captain of the Zouave regiment was shot for ripping down a Confederate flag) Grant started out as a drunken half-assed loser who couldn't hold a job or support his family, and now his face is on a 50 dollar bill. All these invincible gods and generals were just average Joes who put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. They were only human, and they made mistakes.

The difference between right and wrong is all relative. The Civil War wasn't black and white, it was just shades of blue and gray.

The time period which we portray is a time when twice as many people died from illness, starvation and exposure as from getting shot or blown up. In fact, getting hit in the face by a .58 caliber bullet or blown to pieces by a shell was probably the quickest and least painful way to die. If a soldier was wounded, his chances of survival were much less than 50/50.

Medicine as we know it was nonexistent. There was no understanding of germs or how disease spread. For example when Lincoln was dying after he was shot, sources have said that his surgeon probed his bullet wound with hands covered in cow or horse manure. That should give you some idea of how important it was to be clean back then!

If a soldier was shot in the leg, he would either bleed to death on the spot or end up dying days later from exposure and dehydration, lying forgotten on the field, already left for dead. If he didn't die right away and was taken to a field 'hospital', by which time his wound was probably horribly infected, his best chance to survive was have the limb amputated. Without anesthetic or sterilization, mind you. The tools surgeons used were rusty and covered in other victims' blood, which had the potential to carry worse diseases. The most they could do for pain was hard whiskey. Just the sound of the screams alone would be enough to make you faint, if you were lucky.

We try to imagine the aftermath of the sort of carnage that took place on the fields of Shiloh, Antietam or Gettysburg, but we can't. Because no one currently alive has ever seen that many dead people in one place. We have no way to comprehend it. They just sound like numbers to us.

The dead soldiers in the aftermath of such a battle would be enough to fill an American football stadium. Try to comprehend a football stadium full of dead people.  Spread out so that they completely cover the ground, and filling all the seats. And you can't take one step without walking on somebody's corpse. That, more or less is what Bloody Lane at Antietam looked like. More American lives were snuffed out there in a single day than in some foreign wars spanning years. Tens of thousands of people fell dead in under an hour.

Take the first 3 minutes of 'Glory,' for example. I think no movie better portrays how gruesome and terrifying it was. It begins with a triumphant and uplifting score. People marching, uniforms clean, swords and bayonets all shiny and flags unfurling, they give the order to form ranks and fire, and then the cannons open up. An officer draws his sword, begins yelling at his men to press forward, and then they watch his head explode like a grenade inside a watermelon before he can finish his sentence. You don't even see the rest of the battle. They cut directly from that scene to bodies everywhere and smoking wreckage, a few survivors wandering around kicking soldiers to see if they're really dead. Robert Gould Shaw, leading his men to glory and freedom in that spotless uniform, ends up with a nasty bullet wound in the neck laying face down in the dirt.

Soldiers went into these engagements with about 60 rounds each. Good firing units could manage about three shots a minute. So we can safely say that battles lasted not much longer than 20 minutes.

That's all the war was. That was how long it took for several thousand people to die. Just 20 minutes.

We need to not lose sight of the grim reality that this 'hobby' of ours can hide. When you get deep enough into it, it blows all your preconceived, history textbook, Hollywood-packaged notions of what war is out the window. All the proud military history and heritage thrown aside, what you have is a comparatively clean, bloodless theatrical performance of people killing each other.

We shouldn't forget that. And I for one definitely don't take this as lightly as some do.
I have no personal conflicts or illusions about what we are doing. I'm happy that I am at last healthy enough to do it. But having this stuff on my mind during an event or reenactment helps me to come to grips with the grim reality an actual soldier faced.

If my feet ever hurt after marching in a parade, I'll just think how it would feel to march thirty miles in a day, without shoes.

If I go for a weekend without a shower or clean clothes, I'll remember it's better than stealing a uniform from a dead man.

If I shiver at night in that big A-frame tent, I'll try to picture sleeping in a leaky dog tent exposed to the wind and rain, or lying in a ditch with only the clothes on my back and maybe no blanket.

If I have to skip a meal once in a while or I miss a good old cheeseburger, I'll think about how their rations went rotten and moldy and soldiers had to eat their leather belts and shoes or whatever they could find on the ground that looked edible.

If I feel a bit dehydrated on a summer day, I'll remember the wounded men at Gettysburg, who lay forgotten in the Wheatfield for 3 days without food or water.

We rest assured that if we ever do hurt ourselves at an event (God forbid) we'll be whisked away in an ambulance to a real hospital, instead of a filthy barn and a blood-soaked wooden table where some farmer who calls himself a doctor is waiting to hacksaw a leg or an arm off with a rusty cutting implement.

We also don't need to worry about getting dysentery from the water we drink.

Whatever mild unpleasantness we may experience in sacrificing a few modern comforts, it's a walk in the park compared to life in the 1860s.  I can't help but experience a twinge of guilt when I stare at those scratchy old tintypes of angry-looking, half-starved men in their rough wool coats. Many of them look so bitter and miserable. Like they hated being alive. Well, they sure didn't have much to smile about at that time. 

But when I look at a ripped and torn battle flag in a museum and the fierce eagles clutching spears and thunderbolts, it makes me sad to think that the country they fought so hard for no longer exists.  These men were braver and tougher than we can ever know.  The fact anyone survived such carnage and survived to old age is a miracle.

The surest thing I have learned from becoming a living historian is this: the more I learn about what life was like in the 1860s, the more fortunate (and spoiled) I consider myself to be alive 150 years later.  As we seem on the brink of another civil war, with a bitter Congress divided in two and neither side willing to compromise, our people even more unfairly divided between the desperately poor and filthy rich; as the gap widens and the chasm opens to swallow our country, I just wonder how far we have really come as a 'free' society.

And I wonder if and why anyone would want to reenact the War on Terror.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is my favorite thing that you have written.