Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The First National

Perryville Battle, 150th Commemoration

Perryville KY

I grew up in Ohio, and my idea of seafood was something from Red Lobster.  It was something passable for supper, but stank fishy.

But then I visited Barcelona, Spain, and had fish fresh from the Mediterranean.  I realized Ohio does not have seafood—it only serves spoiled fish.  Seafood can actually taste good.
Courtesy David Stephenson of the Lexington Herald-Leader

A national event was an experience that has escaped me until now, so when I arrive at Perryville, Kentucky, I was not sure what to expect.  But after this weekend I realized I had not really experienced a reenactment before—the thrill in contrast to what I had been attending was that much different.

Since this weekend was a battalion event, so I held my new rank of major.  Studying up on the rank’s duties, I realized that since our adjutant was not able to come, his duties fell to me—and of all times to fulfill extra duties, this was the one weekend with the most work.

I drove down in the midst of a seven-car caravan of the 1st Tennessee, setting up camp in the “mixed” camp (as opposed to the “military” camp).  The mixed camp was the 1st Tennessee’s choice so that many of their wives could join us.

After setup, I hunted down colonel, locating him in military camp on the other side of a hill, half a mile away.  That half-mile is no exaggeration.  The Confederate commander had measured the distance—0.62 miles if you took the easy, winding road, or .45 miles if you took the shortcut that took you up a steep hill of which even a mule would be leery. It was a long ten-minute walk.  That first Friday evening alone I had to make the trip about four times—once after locating him, once after the brigade officers meeting, once to get all the adjutant’s (my duty, remember) company and battalion forms I had forgotten in mixed camp for the battalion officers meeting, and once more when the colonel of mixed camp informed me battle was moved from 7 am to 8 am, to confirm with Colonel Julian. I believe by the end of the weekend I made a total of eight round-trips.

I already experienced the level of activity of an entire weekend, and the weekend had not even started.  I drained my sixty-four ounce canteen plus in all that walking on that first evening.

In addition to Lt. Porter unable to attend to fulfill the adjutant’s position, Lt Col Clark was also unable to attend, so Colonel Julian brevetted Ben Cwyana of the 12th South Carolina to fulfill this role. Cwyana was the one who filled the role of major for the Saturday battle at Jackson, Michigan.  Since I had never served with him before, I was not sure what to expect.  I had no issue with not being brevetted myself since I have not had the opportunity to prove myself as major.

Saturday morning, and my first duty, as battalion adjutant, was to deliver the morning reports—in military camp.  A half-mile hike, up a long, steep hill, to Independent Guard headquarters to consolidate the reports from the mixed-camp units of the 1st Tennessee Company B and the 9th Kentucky Company D with the military camp units of the 12th South Carolina and the 5th Kentucky Company B.  Then a return hike to Confederate headquarters to deliver the reports.  There was no point of returning to mixed camp at this point—the battle started in under an hour.  I marched out with the military camp units to the rendezvous point on the battlefield.

In a sense, I wish the battle started at the original earlier hour.  I had heard that fog always fills the hills for the morning battle that adds to the ambiance of the weekend.  There was no fog, but to watch two full brigades populated by five battalions was an experience I have not been privy to before.  The battlefield was large—perhaps among the largest I had seen at an event—but did not appear anything out of the ordinary.  But it was on the grounds of the original battle that the event was reenacting.  However, after seeing what I thought was the entire field for our battle, I came under the impression that the grounds we were using to fight on were a scaled-down version of the actual thing.

In preparation for this weekend I studied various battle maps ahead of time.  I learned that the battle front of Maney’s Brigade fell on the same location where the 1st Tennessee was camped.  There were many details of the battle I did not know, but I did know that the space filled by both the original armies was vast.  I had not realized that the morning battle only gave us a taste of things to come, as we ended it just before we crested the hill at the end of that field.

After the battle we held morning parade.  I misplaced my little cheat sheet of the commands the adjutant was to call, so went from memory, only missing the final “Present, arms”.  Capt Sharp later told me that I rattled off the commands way too fast, threatening to put me on Riddlin, thinking I was nervous.  I was not nervous—I do not get nervous—that speed was just the adrenalin rush I was feeling from the excitement of the weekend. Or maybe it was just the coffee.

After parade, the park presented us with the flags we used for the morning battle.  The concept appeared as strange to us as it sounds reading it.

The flags used for the battles were all authentic reproductions of the actual battle flags.  When Capt Sharp heard that the park was going to give us the flags to use, he was concerned that they would be cheap nylon and polyester farbie banners that would embarrass us on the field, so offered to use the 1st Tennessee’s banner, which was a careful reproduction Polk-pattern flag.  However, when he saw there was practically no difference between the 1st Tennessee’s flag and the flag presented by the park, he was at ease.  The only thing he could find wrong with the park’s flag was the lack of seams in particular places.

The second battle started halfway up the hill about where morning battle ended.  I had a bit of confusion about this start point and expected the battle to be short; there did not seem anywhere we could go once we reached the top of that hill.
Courtesy David Stephenson of the Lexington Herald-Leader

But when we got to the top of the hill, the field continued on.  We went down the hill and up another.  The field turned to the right.  Up yet another hill, and it turned to the right.  Up another hill and it continued on.  Up another hill and it turned to the left.  In all, that battlefield must have been at least a mile long.  It had to have taken half an hour to return to camp, as we stopped occasionally in shade to take a break.

At one point near the end, we were taking severe casualties, and Capt Sharp tried to get his men to take hits.  He ordered Jackson Nyman to take a hit, but the private was oblivious.  Capt Sharp repeated his command, then resorted threatening to pistol-whip him if he did not take a hit.  I am not sure what went on in Pvt Nyman’s head—he seemed confused by what Capt Sharp wanted.  Finally, someone told Pvt Nyman to lie down—so he turned around and carefully laid down.  It took all I had to keep my composure and not roll on the ground with laughter.

I was probably the only casualty in that battle from friendly fire.  During the confusion, my wing took massive casualties, and I lost track of who was still standing.  While I worked to orient myself in front, the battle line suddenly leveled muskets to fire, one musket firing unsafely close to me, leaving a bit of ringing in my ears and peppering my face with some residue.   It was a bit of my fault for not paying closer attention to the situation, but it did give me a scare.  I went down to call it a day for me—but let the sergeant who got me know that I was all right—he was pretty shaken up himself from the incident.

That evening, the ladies of the 1st Tennessee made an enjoyable pot roast.  I am sure the soldiers of the Civil War did not eat as well as we did.

Sunday morning came around and I again delivered the morning reports.  At Confederate headquarters, I informed him this was my first time at Perryville.  He told me it was his first as well.  When I told him it was my first national, he commented that he could not tell.  I took that comment with pride that I was succeeding in my duties as major and adjutant.

The battalion commanders all met later that morning for the battle walk-through.  This battle was a little more involved than Saturdays—we were to fight on the opposite side of the park, north of the mixed camp, ending through the same cornfield noted in the original battle.  Due to this year’s drought, the cornfield was more of a field of tall weeds.

As I joined the meeting, I watched a drill between one Confederate battalion and one Yankee battalion, with the confederates charging and entering into hand-to-hand combat—I knew something was planned for battle.

The battle was quite the thrill.  For the infantry, it started ahead of the artillery pieces as we crossed a fence, cramped in against the other four battalions.  The plan was that we could take casualties on the approach to the Federal artillery, and then I would take them up as “walking wounded” and rejoin battalion.  But I think all the men had their dander going as no one took any hits until much later (or they did not believe I would bring them up to rejoin).  As we went up the hill to the artillery, the right wing started a double-quick charge after the signal that guns done. I took the cue and ordered my wing to double-quick.

At the top, the artillery changed uniforms and turned the guns—and we advanced down the hill toward the cornfield

Courtesy Erik Weisgerber
The original 1st Tennessee Company B had almost no survivors through that cornfield, and the Independent Guard Battalion was representing the 1st Tennessee Regiment for this battle.  At the point of entering the cornfield, we had taken no casualties yet.  In honor of that original 1st Tennessee, the modern 1st Tennessee Company B planned to all become casualties in the cornfield.  As we advanced, I was completely hidden by the tall weeds, so I raised my sword to be seen.  As we progressed, I could see the weeds starting to clear, so I took my hit—anyone watching would have seen the sword just suddenly disappear.  I turned on my back to watch for the advancing battalion—I did not want them to step on me. A rabbit wandered by, but ran off as I drew my sword to capture some lunch.

I wandered as a walking wounded back to the rally point Capt Sharp set for our return. I marched back with them to the museum to return the flag.

It was an exciting weekend—and I am ready for more.  Like this Ohioan experiencing fresh seafood for the first time, I feel as if I had experienced the elephant for the first time.

This event does end the season for the 1st Tennessee, but not for me.  I still have a few months left to my season.

1st Tennessee Company B

Video of start of final battle.
Final battle--part 2
Final battle Part 3
Final Battle part 4
Final Battle part 5
Final Battle--through the cornfield

Artillery Fire

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