Monday, October 8, 2012

Maryland, My Maryland -- 150th Reenactment in Boonsboro MD (long post)

September 7-9th, 2012 

"Maryland, my Maryland" was a large-scale event to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam in September 1862. It was planned by Rear Rank Productions, a group known for its authenticity in recreating battle scenarios.  Their website will still be online for a good while probably, so you can go read about the history of the Maryland campaign here in an excerpt from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War:

 (It's very long-winded, about 35 pages' worth I think, so I won't reproduce it here)

The following is quoted from the website:

On September 7-9, 2012, the Rear Rank Productions and the Southern Division will be hosting " Maryland, my Maryland", the 150th Anniversary Reenactments of the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam.

The event will be held about 1 mile from South Mountain, on privately owned property, and is sponsored by the Washington County Visitors Bureau, Central Maryland Heritage League, Brittany's Hope Foundation and in coordination with the 150th Maryland Campaign Committee.

For the past 12 years, we have brought you Fire on the Mountain 2000, Burkittsville, 2001, War on the James, 2003, To the Gates of Washington 2004, Summer of '62 in 2005, September Storm, 2007, At High Tide, 2008, Return to Manassas, 2010 and Along the Potomac, 2011. As a team, we have identified a repeated, documented success model, and it is based upon the following

1. Historic Progressive Scenarios, with unit specific researched scenarios, historical force ratios, good combat distance, and background information so each unit can properly research their role in the event
2. Preservation Dollars. No organizer is getting paid. All proceeds from this event will be donated to Central Maryland Heritage Foundation and Brittany's Hope Foundation. CMHL is the primary organization that helps preserve the South Mountain Battlefield Brittany's Hope Foundation helps with the adoption of special needs children worldwide. The event is built on a business model that will insure a respectable donation on behalf of the reenactors in attendance.
3. Fun. Bringing back the fun of the hobby. We will have good battles, plenty of living history and reenactor education programs, good camping areas for both campaign and garrison troops
4. Event rule enforcement. Most events have rules, but no one enforces them, causing the actions of a few to mar the weekend of the many. This will not happen at this event. There will be even handed polite but firm event rule enforcement. Please review the rules and regulations as listed on this site. These are not "hard core" rules, nor are they lax. They are basic quality and safety rules. For an organizer or commander this is not the "fun" part of the job (if there is one), but rather the hardest part, but one that is rightfully expected by the participants, and as such is the most important part of my job. I owe it to you that the actions of a few do not detract from the experience of the many.
5. Treating reenactors with respect.
6. Honoring and Remembering those Brave Boys of 62, of BOTH sides!
7. Public education. Our goal is to provide high quality demonstrations in order to better educate the attending public, and create in them a better sense of our collective history.
8. The Civil War Experience. To set the stage for each of you to truly experience September 1862, and provide the field on which each of you will excel.

This is an all volunteer effort, with all proceeds going to CMHL, for their efforts in preserving South Mountain, and Brittany's Hope to continue their work assisting with the adoption of special needs children.
  This was less of a spectator-oriented event, and more of a weekend "for reenactors, by reenactors."  It was very well-planned and provided an unusual amount of information beforehand, with regular e-mail bulletins sent out by the event organizers. They were hyping this as a "hardcore event" as opposed to the "mainstream event" in Sharpsburg the following weekend.  About 4,000 infantry & cavalry were expected to attend.

 The reenactment was held on approximately 50 acres of privately owned forest and grassland attached to a large farm on Monroe Road, located off Route 34 and only a few miles outside the small town of Boonsboro. West of Sharpsburg, about three hours drive from Delaware.

Interesting side note: On a family trip through western Maryland in 2010, I visited the Gettysburg, Monocacy and Antietam battlefields and continued out to the town of Frederick, to check out a cemetery where a very distant cousin of mine that lived at the time of the Civil War was buried. He apparently was a wealthy man in that town, who built an impressive brick church which still stands and is buried in the cemetery behind it.  On the way home from Frederick, we stopped at a tourist attraction called Crystal Grottoes Caverns, which turned out to be a small cave system underground with really fascinating mineral formations. It was actually in someone's backyard and was discovered only a decade or two ago.  If you ever go out that way I'd recommend stopping to see it, it's a nice little side trip.  The family that owns that property is very friendly and (for an admission fee) they'll send you on a guided tour of the caverns. It's smaller than you think and takes no more than an hour.  Here's their website:

The point of bringing this up?  Crystal Grottoes turned out to be on Route 34, only a quarter of a mile down the road from the farm that hosted this reenactment!  I sure hope the cannons going off didn't harm those million-year old limestone formations...

...Anyway the directions and parking for this event weren't difficult. The Rear Rank Productions site displayed a satellite view on Google Maps with the parking areas, battlefields, camps and sutler areas clearly plotted out. It even had the exact latitude and longitude GPS coordinates for the registration tent.

Traffic wasn't bad for me going out there. I-95 and 695 took me around Baltimore without a hitch, then I-70 was pretty fast.  I think people tend to mistake the route number for the minimum speed limit.  I prefer to play it safe, just get out of the way and let the morons have their accident somewhere else.  So leaving at noon on Friday I got there around 3 PM.  Registration was painless too, the lines weren't too long.  The staff made sure each participant signed his/her life away as usual and that we had a copy of their medical emergency form in the pocket of our cartridge boxes.

Finding the campsite for the Mifflin Guard was a challenge, as at any other event. More so because I'm joining a new group (The 1st PA Reserves Bucktails) and didn't know or recognize anyone very well.  I still don't have a rifle, so the Bucktails captain let me borrow his old one, then at the last minute he decided he wasn't going due to his wife getting sick.  I was so freaked out by the idea of getting there and not having a weapon that I almost considered spending $750 I didn't have at a sutler, but I was talked out of it. The captain promised he'd let me use his old Springfield and gave it to a pard who was coming to make sure I'd have it. But I didn't get his phone number or his name, so it was a test of faith. Since my only contact for the event stayed home, I had no way to call and ask where the camp was or let anybody know I was there.  Needless to say finding the Mifflin Guard took awhile.

The terrain on the farm property for this event was hilly.  The two parking areas were on a pretty steep hill, and Monroe Road was barely wide enough for two way traffic, even less so with lots of people walking.  Monroe itself went up and down like a rollercoaster. From there we were directed onto a dusty dirt road, leading through a densely wooded area that I think was never meant for cars. There were ruts so deep and dropoffs that I was afraid my small car would get stuck in, very abrupt turns and uneven surface.  My Honda Accord is not an off-road vehicle in the least.  I imagine horses would even have trouble.

Much of the military camps ended up being in there.  The path seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere, and there wasn't many patches of ground to set up a tent on that wasn't covered by fallen trees.  There were no company streets at all, just tents poking out of the brush here and there. Of course, I rolled down the window and had to call out "Hey, I'm looking for the Mifflin Guard camp..."  No one could tell me where it was, but told me to just keep going.  I came to several dead ends and made the tightest 3-point turns I could imagine in front of other cars trying to squeeze through the dirt horsetrails.  I started to worry about finding the camp.  A lot of it seemed to be Confederate.

Finally, the claustrophobic woods opened up to a large field where I saw the big sutler tents on the left, and nice, even rows of tents on the right and blue uniforms. This was more like it.  More asking around without a straight answer.  Then I saw a white wood sign with the rough painted letters "MG". Well, that must be it. I parked in the tall grass which was beaten down flat and start to unload.  There's four different Pennsylvania Reserve regiments, of which the Bucktails is only one. We had the 12th New Jersey next door to us. The 149th PA, the 150th PA and two other groups were also camping with the Mifflin Guard.

The first man I see with a Bucktail hat introduced himself as John Martin. I recognized his name from the company e-mails.  Sure enough, he's got the borrowed rifle for me in his tent.  That's a relief. I went and introduced myself to the Colonel of the 149th who'd be my officer for the weekend.  As other people started to arrive I helped them unload vehicles and set up their tents, as any good reenactor should.

The Pennsylvania Infantry camps were laid out side by side, company streets
running East - West, on a gently sloped hill of long grass trampled down pretty flat (it lends an authentic touch not to be camping on freshly manicured lawns). There were so many crickets and grasshoppers jumping around everywhere, I don't think I saw any two of the same species.  Across the top of the hill ran a barbed wire fence, and on the other side was a plowed field with cows, overlooking westward, a broad valley with red painted wooden barns and no powerlines or streetlamps in sight. We had front row seats to a panoramic view of unbroken sky that would treat us to spectacular sunsets both days and, on that afternoon, a far off thundercloud with forks of lightning arcing into the air.  For now it stayed away from us.

Once camps and company streets were established, the rest of Friday night was typical for the eve of a reenactment: people arriving at all different times, gatherings around the campfire, lax dress code, passing of bottles and snack food around; lots of joking and merry laughter.  The 12th New Jersey's camp was to the left of us, and looking over there I spotted a familiar face.  It was my old 'pard', Dave Archer from Vincent's Brigade.  He seemed to be looking for somewhere to stay. I waved at him and he came over, I couldn't believe we ended up in the same place.  Dave was from my old regiment, the 2nd Delaware.  He showed up without his group and was looking for a unit to fall in with. Of course, he was welcome to stay with us.  We sat down and talked as the sun went down.  The sunset was so magnificent that many people walked up the hill to watch. The first of many times I wished I had brought a camera.

No big surprise, but the strict rules laid down by the event staff proved unenforceable.  The rules stated that:  1) If anyone was caught with a flashlight and not a period lantern or candlestick, the flashlight would be confiscated.  I saw flashlights waving around like lightning bugs for much of the night as people were setting up.  2) Any parked car left in the camp area after 10 o'clock PM would be towed, starting at 10:01.  Wishful thinking!  People were still arriving as late as 1 AM to unload their vehicles.
After it got dark, we decided to go take a walk back in the forest and scout out the locations of the confederate camps.  Their tents seemed well spread out and hidden, not like the straight company streets in the Federal camps. Nobody even stopped us.  (I am still leery of "fraternizing" with the enemy, especially after dark. You never know if someone's out looking to capture a Yankee spy)

Around 11:00 the echo of an unseen bugler in the forest played Taps, and it was lights out.

I didn't sleep much, mainly out of anticipation for the next day's battle, but also because of the loud insects and ground that was not as soft as it looked.  I had a new mattress tick (canvas bag meant to be stuffed with dry leaves or straw), but I didn't see any straw bales being sold this time.  So I folded my wool blanket in quarters and did the best I could on my back.  The grass was trampled down, but the ground was uneven and lumpy.  Dave slept in his pickup truck; he was the smart one.  Eventually the voices died down, and everyone was snoring but me.  I never sleep on Friday night. 


Saturday there was a 'walkthrough' of the tactical scenario for the first battle, the reenactment of Fox's Gap.  We formed up for first call and inspection at 9:30 AM, and our PA Reserve regiments joined together and had our first Battalion drill, consisting of four companies.  Battalion drill isn't too hard, just go through manual of arms with your company and listen to the orders of the Captains and the commander.  We practiced "1st Company, aim, fire!" and so on.  So we were all dressed in our wool coats and full leather accouterments, rifles shouldered and ready to march out by battalion.  It was about 90 degrees and the sun was already heating up.  I remember doubting if I'd have enough water in my canteen.

At last, we hear the order for "1st Battalion! Left face! (doubled up in twos) Forward, March!  And we proceed into the woods to march the dusty trails to the battlefield.  The walk takes about half an hour.

We arrive on the field, and it's a steep uphill slope to a wood fence.  Very tall grass, with bushes catching on our clothing.  We spread out about 6 paces between every man, and practice moving up the hill toward the line of Rebels who wait in the trees near the fence.  The roped off spectator area is behind us.  Having rehearsed the battle and practiced our well spread out skirmishing formations, the commanders discuss how the scenario is to unfold, while we retire back to camp until 11:00 when we reform.

11 o'clock rolls around, and it's time to fall into line. We get suited up, form battalions again and march in columns of four into the dusty trails through the forest.

Then once we get to the staging area, time for the old "Hurry Up And Wait".  The PA Rifle Reserves have to wait on the side of the dusty trails, sitting on logs for about an hour while other brigades move into position. We see the horses marching by and long columns of men filing in.   Off course, we start to sweat as we drain our canteens.  A few guys offer to take them and refill with water from the storage tanks near the camps.  A few minutes later, they come back and say all the tanks are empty already.  So we're headed into battle without enough water. Great. I don't know if I can last the fight.

We look overhead and see ugly dark gray clouds start to gather.  They seem to be moving fast, but in the wrong direction.  The sky rolls by and then it gets darker...and darker...and darker.  Rumbles of thunder are heard, even as we hear the gunshots of the battle starting.   I remember a few of us were looking at the row of "movable outhouses" across the dirt path and one guy says "Think we can break the Guiness world record and see how many reenactors can fit inside those porta-potties?"

It's barely noon, and already it gets so dark out that it looks like twilight.  Then, we feel the raindrops.  Within minutes, the heavens open up and it's pouring on us.  We run for the nearest cover to stand under trees, then we see flashes of lightning.  Curses fill the air as all our leather and wool and rifles get SOAKED.  The dusty roads quickly turn into a slimy, slippery mess.  So much for the battle.  The guys order us to return to camp.   The rest of the battalion leaves and I'm left under a thicket of trees with three other guys.  We head for the nearest rain fly where groups of people are huddled together, waiting out the storm.  I have no idea how far I am from my camp.  We're all standing in puddles of muddy water up to our ankles, or perched on wood crates.  The fly starts to sag from all the water pooling on it.  What a miserable day.  A taste of life in the Army!  After about 45 minutes it finally stops pouring, and I need to slip and slide through the mud to walk back to my camp. The battle was postponed a couple hours.

Once I get back, everyone's sitting around under tents and everything is soaking wet.  Nothing is left dry.  The cooking fire is out and we're all hungry.  So we sit down and try to warm ourselves as the fire's relit.  I eat a dry lunch out of my haversack and spend some time with buddies under the Medical tent.

So then the problem comes about of how to start drying our stuff so we can get comfy again.  The bonfire is rebuilt, and one guy in our regiment gets an idea.  He vanishes into the woods and comes back with a curved fallen tree limb about ten feet long.

Here's what we ended up doing.  You can see me hanging our wool coats and shirts from the stick over the fire to dry.  It worked, but it really made them steam though and everything smelled like smoke afterwards. But if you ever get caught in the rain, I'd recommend using it.  My tent, blankets, shirts and jacket were cozy and dry after awhile.

After a few hours of drying off, we formed up for another inspection.  Amazingly, our rifles fired despite being wet.  The cry of "Huzzah!" went up from the men. Maybe it's going to happen.  We march into the trees to rejoin the battle.

This time, everything has changed.  A thick fog comes in, so thick we can't see more than ten or twenty feet in front of us.  And it was so humid we could see steam rising off of everything. The hats of the men, the bodies of the horses. The whole atmosphere is very dramatic and surreal.  I'm in the rear rank of the firing line, put there by an officer who didn't want me to shoot over a much taller guy's shoulder.  (This is my usual place, being a 'two' as we count down the line) The battle begins as we spread out into our skirmish pickets and start to advance by companies, stopping every few feet to fire by rank.  We have to watch our footing as we march, the ground's uneven and knee-length grass and brush obscure hidden croppings of rock. The artillery line behind us commences firing up the hill, and the explosion sounds muffled in the thick fog.  The top of the hill and the treeline comes into view, and the 'rebs are approaching a wood fence before us.  As they materialize out of the mist, they start their usual hoots and hollers, yipping like foxes and howling like savages.  Why do they always seem to have the covered position on the high ground as we stand out in the open?  Union Generals....

The firing gets more intense and I shoot through about half my rounds, about 20 cartridges as fast as I can load.  The rifle barrel's starting to heat up and I'm not sure if it's my imagination, but it appears to be steaming.  I look down and I'm stepping over motionless men on the ground, with very large grasshoppers crawling on them.  Before I know it, I'm charging at a full run toward the fence and our row of blue coats are like a shooting gallery for the rebels. I see a man fire a shot in my direction, I take a hit and fall backwards.  The remaining survivors of the Reserves fall back and are gone from my field of view as the rebels leave their cover and advance out of the trees.  A Confederate officer on a horse trots almost right over me and for a minute I'm afraid he'll trample me.  The big animal's hoof lands less than a foot from my head.  How these animals stay so calm with all the noise is a wonder to me. If it got frightened and reared up, my head could be squashed like a melon with one of those forelegs.  As the rear end of the creature passes over me I silently pray it doesn't drop something else!

I look "down" the hill, which to me is up as I'm laying downhill, and the land rises up again behind us. The fog's lifted somewhat.  There's maybe two hundred spectators that came out to watch, despite the rain. Having our backs to them the whole time, I didn't know they were there!  They applaud as the battle scenario ends and we can rise up to join our comrades.

The scenario went well after all.  I was thankful for the rain, because it killed that awful heat we had on Friday.  Dressed in wool, I'll take cold weather over hot weather anyday.  There were more storms possibly coming later, so the Frost Town Road & Crampton's Gap battle scenarios were canceled.

Saturday night turned out to be less fun. Even though our smoky dry cleaning worked on the clothes, there wasn't anything we could do about the wet ground.  In a desperate attempt to get comfortable, having no straw,  I stuffed my canvas tick with wet grass and clumps of dirt and threw my wool blanket over it.  It was a night that held little promise of sleep, and at 5:30 the next morning we'd have to march almost a mile to do the fight in the Cornfield.


The Cornfield.  This was the most vivid experience of the whole event, and I heard some of the other participants say in the weeks that followed, from now on reenactors would be split into two groups: "Those who were in The Cornfield and those who wished they were"

For the Bucktails of the Pennsylvania Reserve regiments, this was truly our fight. Because on a foggy morning of September 17, 1862, skirmishers of the real Bucktails marched into a very similar cornfield to begin the bloodiest day in American history, 150 years ago.  This was how the battle of Antietam began.  It was an anniversary battle for my company of the Bucktails, so we were allowed to wear the deer tails in our forage caps. A friend had bought one for me yesterday evening, so now I was one of them.   Throughout this well-scripted scenario, without spectators, more than ever before there was a sense of history being resurrected. The conditions were perfect and exactly as eyewitnesses described. It's something that replays in my head like a movie even a month later.

The night seemed all too short, and Reveille sounded when it was still very dark.  We crawled out of our tents to bonfires already blazing, a sky so full of stars and an almost full moon that lit the countryside well enough for us to see. There was only a few minutes to wolf down whatever rations we could before First Call and inspection.  I had never been called to march out at night before; this was a brand new experience.  As we fell in for inspection, the Reserve regiments joined larger companies to form battalions, and the battalions drilled as one unit.  Then other Federal battalions joined us, and we formed a whole division! Hundreds of men, and we were going to be marched out as one force. Once we had formed columns of four, the line stretched so far into the darkness in front of and behind me that I couldn't even guess our numbers.  For the first time at a reenactment, my ears heard a Major call out: "ATTENTION DIVISION. FORWARD - MARCH!"  And the march was on.  At no other time did I feel as much as one tiny man in a huge military machine, headed for an uncertain fate.  We marched on the dirt road across the sutler area, still slipping now and then from the mud but watching our feet carefully.   Then as we reached Monroe Road, we turned left and began the roughly mile long march to where the Cornfield battle was to take place.  

It was a fairly strenuous march as the road was uphill and down, uphill and down. It was so early, we wondered if we were the only creatures on the move while the rest of the county was asleep. We didn't have to worry about traffic on the road at this hour.  Except for this one old pickup truck with one working headlight that came up a side road and tried to turn into us. What an unusual sight he must have been greeted with. An endless line of soldiers, ghostly in the moonlight, marching in the dark to God knows where. Instead of turning around on the narrow one-lane road, it pulled off the side on to the grass and continued past us.  As we watched the red tail lights fade into the black, a voice in the line said with a laugh: "He's tryin' to get home from the party before his wife wakes up..." Quiet snickers echoed echoed down the column.  

Fast forward one hour.  Before we knew it, we arrived at our destination.  The stars were still out, but there was a dim greyness on the horizon.  And before us was The Cornfield...silent and peaceful, a stand of corn over the heads of our men, calm as a gentle sea before the storm of battle. There was no wind to sway them, as if the corn itself was standing at attention and waiting for us.  There was a thick grey haze that hung over the whole area.  We stood and waited for awhile, in a kind of silent awe of this place as it changed before us.  The sky brightened from black to dark bluish grey, finally to white, and the fog was back.  It was so thick that as we took our positions, the field right in front of us almost disappeared.  The sun started to rise, and it was a red ball that made this dull orange glow that shone through the trees.  The reserve battalions were still standing at attention, and I checked my pocket watch. It was about 6:30.  We heard the first pops of rifle shots coming through the fog, and that signaled it had started.  Without shouting, the officers in a low voice gave us the order to go in by companies of skirmishers.  

My grip tightened on the 10-pound, battle-worn model 1842 Springfield in my hands. As the 1st PA Rifle Reserves, we were acting as scouts and skirmishers.  Our job was to go in first.  We formed a well-spread out line with six to ten feet between each man, and cautiously stepped forward.  The corn had to be trampled down by us to see even a few paces ahead, and there was the fog like an impenetrable barrier.  Being the tallest, I was all the way to the right of the line. As I went in, I was on the outside edge of the Cornfield and had a split-rail fence almost brushing against my right side.  I had to aim diagonally to the 'left oblique' when the time came to shoot.  Some men to the left overtook us, and in seconds they had vanished.  I hoarsely yelled "Here they come!" as the whooping rebels came at us. We just barely saw their shadows, and their wide slouch hats bobbing through the sea of corn as they began to fire at us.  I loaded my first cartridge and quickly percussion-capped my rifle, aiming just above their heads, and fired.  It was a dramatic effect the way the leaves of corn husks blew away from my muzzle blast each time.  We stood our ground, firing as rapidly as we could. As more men crashed through the stalks, they trampled them down so we could see ahead better.  We still could barely see what we were firing at.

We exchanged maybe a dozen volleys, and were ordered to fall back.  Many of us stepped backward, not wanting to turn our backs to the enemy.  We had to load and fire so quickly that I kept spilling gunpowder all over my hands, which were sweaty in the humid air and made greasy black smudges.  At this point, I completely forgot this wasn't real.  The cracks of the rifles, the smoke burning my nose, the shouts that filled the air, the recoil of the gun in my hands, the sweat pouring down over my eyes....  Men started to drop left and right as we retreated.  The casualties were convincing.  Men were clutching legs and arms, rolling on the ground and crying out, instead of taking a nap in the heat of battle.  

The survivors of the forward skirmish line, myself included, regrouped with the rest of the Union Battalions, lined up and waited for the rebels to stagger out of the corn and fall into our trap.  There were at least two artillery pieces in front of us, and the nearer one was almost next to me.  There was a young man pulling the lanyard to fire the gun, but he didn't yank it correctly, because the fuse kept fizzling and the gun wouldn't fire.  It took him a few tries, must be a greenie.  When he finally did, I almost lost my hearing in my right ear.  Then we joined in the artillery with our firing by company, by firing by file and then 'at will'  My ears rang like churchbells for the rest of the day and I think for several days after I went home.  I wasn't wearing earplugs; I didn't even bring any.

I posted a video taken by someone following my group and the action in the Cornfield. That is the closest anyone else will get to being there.  I really wish I could have captured it myself...there didn't seem to be any cameras around to record that spectacular sunrise we witnessed through the haze while this was going on.  But like the memories of the scarred veterans who fought on that grey morning 150 years ago, I'm sure the image will stay with me for the rest of my life.

When this battle ended, we were supposed to wait around for three hours until the last one, the big 150th Antietam battle, that was to take place in a neighboring field.  I decided to go back to camp for three reasons. I had left my haversack behind, figuring less weight would let me run easier.  There was no way I'd skip lunch after that long march, waiting 3 hours to fight again.  Second, I wanted to get on the road home early to give me enough time to dry out my tent and gear in the sun.  Third, I was almost completely out of ammunition, and had no gunpowder left to make more.  I had my fill and had seen enough action.   So I thanked everyone and said it was a great time, and made the long walk back to camp.  Meeting Sergeant Martin there who had slept through the battle, I returned the borrowed rifle, broke down my tent at a leisurely pace, and left before the roads were blocked by massive convoys of leaving spectators.  I made the 3-hour drive East without a hitch and was home before 2 o'clock in the afternoon.