This was the first year I attended Civil War Re-enactments. My interest was peaked by an ad I saw when visiting Port Gamble in Washington State in 2008. The ad showed that a re-enactment of the Battle of Port Gamble put on by Washington Civil War Association, would take place the following spring and I decided to go and take photographs.
The date arrived, I checked the website and off I went. The trip from B.C. included a two-hour drive and a ferry ride to the beautifully preserved town of Port Gamble.
I arrived early, the actual battle didn’t start until 11 a.m. but the camps opened to the public at 9 a.m. My first surprise came when I arrived at 8:30, was stopped in the parking lot and asked by a serious young man, “which side I was fighting for and was given directions to where I could get kitted out!” Okay, he was kidding. Phew!
The actual event is held on the large display grounds in Port Gamble. I found the “camps” of the Union and Confederate armies on different sides of the grounds, with tents erected amongst the sloping greens. I was taken by how genuinely authentic these hobbyists are at recreating the scenes from the Civil War. The tents contain exact replicas of the cots, bedding and sideboards, and with uniforms and boots waiting to be donned. The camps were alive with re-enactors, practising among themselves, preparing for the upcoming drills and presentation of arms and battle. Nothing was overlooked - campfires, wood cut, billycans boiling water for coffee. The atmosphere was electric and the period so authentically reproduced, I felt I had gone back in time. I felt drab in my 21st century clothes, amongst all this history.
There was the laundress’ camp, an important woman in the battle place. A laundress was hired to wash for an average of 15 soldiers. She received 50 cents per month from each man, and luckily, this was deducted before he received his wages. The 50 cents per month for each soldier and four dollars from each officer, made the laundress well paid according to the wages on the post.
There was the camp of the medical and sanitation core. Nurses cleaned wounds, performed minor surgeries, administered treatments and had to endure hard physical labour. They worked under horrible conditions, were grossly understaffed and constantly exhausted.
I met and spoke with a woman whose children were dressed in period costume and she explained how the little boy, all dressed in white, not unlike a nightgown, would not be allowed to be dressed in trousers and shirt until well out of diapers and of a certain age.
There was the company store and the sutlers’ camps. A sutler was once a merchant who followed an army around or maintained a store on an army post and sold goods to the soldiers, ranging from tobacco, sugar and coffee to hard goods and furnishings.
The public was encouraged to wander freely amongst the camps, where children played with hoops and women weaved on antique looms.
The time passed quickly and I was lucky to get many images, but as the battle neared, activities became even more serious and the men in the camps proceeded to their stations. The morning parade of each battalion took place in both camps and I hustled to get photos of the two sides - each outfit took roll call and the inspection of arms. There was a short moment for prayer and the men then fell out and took up their places for the battle.
Next, the artillery was wheeled into place on either side of the hills. The Gatlin Gun, which was cleaned and presented so proudly, was taken to the head of the battle: all was ready.
Field notes of the Washington Civil War Association say, “Like other Civil War organizations in this part of the country, the WCWA has three components; Confederate, Civilian and Federal. They boast three artillery units: Cobb’s, Polk’s Tennessee and Stanford’s Mississippi Batteries.”
They have two mounted cavalry units in the 14th and 43rd Virginia. Since the Federal Component doesn’t currently have a mounted unit, the 1st U.S. Cavalry is galvanized to keep things balanced.
The Cornfed contingent is rounded out with the 1st Confederate Engineers.
The Naval Detachment from the USS Tahoma supplies artillery service for the Union. This detachment also has marines who turn out as skirmishers or infantry as the needs of the brigade dictate.
The Yankee’s also have the U.S. Medical Department, Army of the Columbia Fife &
Drum Corps and for those not yet old enough to take the field with a rifle, the
Norwich Cadets. The cadets are generally attached to headquarters and serve as
couriers. They also drill with the infantry, so when they “come of age,” they’re already well-trained soldiers.
The Battle is reproduced from manuals of Civil War, which describe the procedures that the original battalions followed. The strategy and outcome of the battles will be determined by the generals commanding the troops just as they did during the actual war 150 years ago.
As a photographer, I delighted at the smoke from the cannons, which in the wind drifted across the field. I enjoyed the “falls” the soldiers took when “hit” and at the medics on the sidelines who rushed into the midst of the battle to pull them out. I have images of the spotters with their telescopes, acting as forward guides to direct each battalion. There were fall backs, regrouping, charges and, at one point, a young man ran madly across the battlefield supposedly crazed by the destruction and death of his fellow soldier. My eyes followed the young drummer boy as he marched behind the ranks, only to be shot and, as I watched him fall, so did my heart. It felt so real!
One of the most moving parts came at the end of the battle, as the flags were lowered, reveille was called, and women laid wreaths at a makeshift cross and grave to salute the fallen.
What a morning! The battle is usually re-enacted two or three times during the weekend and the camps carry on all day with re-enactments of the soldiers’ daily lives.
The WCWA is committed to honouring their ancestors both Northern and Southern, who fought and lived during the American Civil War; their dedication and sharing of knowledge are exemplary. As hobbyists, they work hard at keeping the battalions alive and they share that knowledge with school groups and clubs in the area. The magnitude of their devotion to realism, authenticity and all their hard work is to be applauded.
DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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