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When I Was A Civil War Soldier

Posted Aug 24 2008 10:39pm
What? you say.

Nope, this isn't about reincarnation. Not about a silly costume party. It's about what might be one of the best stunts I've ever pulled, and about what was certainly a fascinating and memorable experience. It's been something I've been meaning to blog about for a year and a half, and have gotten derailed in that process for one reason or another - and I was re-inspired to do so after telling the story in brief the other day over coffee. It came up when my dear friend asked about the picture that now heads this blog - and this story will get there, eventually.

Somebody I know very well (yes, sweetie, even down to the detail of which tooth is hurting) is an incredibly gifted historian. His degree is in history, but his passion is in military history, and the man can tell you anything you could possibly want to know about any battle or war anywhere (and a lot of things you wouldn't). Anyhoo, in connection with this passion he participates in a lot of living history events. When we first started dating back in the summer of oh-six, we were doing some work on a book he's writing and one day he mentioned an upcoming living history event in Kentucky commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of Perryville . Of course I was intrigued, Civil War stuff has always grabbed hold of me even though I'm notorious for not remembering dates or lots of other pertinent details like who was on whose side. He talked about the event, threw out a flippant 'you should go with me' and then I saw him start to think about it. He said something along the lines of "It would be historically accurate, because women weren't allowed to fight but a lot of them did, they just had to pretend to be men."

The fire was lit.

He said, "Well, it probably wouldn't work, I don't think you could pull it off."

Oh, buddy, them's fightin' words.

We sent in our registration money that afternoon and spent the next couple of months getting ready. We rounded up and borrowed my uniform and traps and musket, I bought (with full intention of reading, damn the ADD) three books on women soldiers in the Civil War. He described the battle for me, gave me a dose of context for the war in general, most patiently. We rolled our own cartridges from brown paper, black powder, thread, and tissue paper. He'd smoke his pipe on the deck between stories about carnage and heroism. I let my eyebrows grow in, cut my fingernails short, dyed my hair a dull brown and practiced dropping my voice an octave and smiling less (girl cheekbones, they all said, would give me away in a heartbeat.) Scott warned me repeatedly that because the organization we would fall in with is staunch about historical accuracy, if I was discovered to be a woman I would be "drummed out of camp," as would have been done during the War. Which just intrigued me more, I admit. He explained all of the things we'd do as part of the reenactment, everything from ration distribution to meal preparation to sleeping arrangements. He made sure I was familiar with my traps and uniform, and taught me how to load and fire the musket (I can only imagine what the neighbors might have thought if they'd seen us through the curtainless basement windows, from waists down just in shorts and flip-flops and from the waist up in full Union dress, loading, presenting, firing, fixing bayonets, resting, all in step!)

And once in a while, I caught him grinning and believing we might actually pull it off.

So in early October, we piled all that stuff in the Saturn and off we went, a surprisingly enjoyable road trip through places I'd never been. I fell in love with Kentucky as he drove, me in the passenger seat sewing his Corporal insignia onto his new jacket.

Once we hit Perryville he went in to complete our registrations while I got dressed in the car, couple of sports bras to smush down what little giveaway there might've been up front, and the rest of the uniform just as the Union soldiers had done it, buttondown undershirt, wool trousers and jacket, handmade wool socks and leather-soled brogans and keppie hat. We drove to the battlefield location and parked the car, he got dressed and then (deep breath) we got out of the car. World, meet Eric, Yank Extraordinaire. (Or maybe just Ordinaire.) As luck would have it, a car parked right next to us and three guys Scott was roughly acquainted with got out, garbed up just like we were - and apparently these lads were from Denver. Introductions made, I did as I'd practiced, to say very little in a low voice, head not too high, and nary a smile (and the occasional butt-scratch, etc., for effect). Our schtick was thus: I was a first-time reenactor, 16 years old, and as a seasoned veteran Scott was taking me under his wing and guiding me through.

They bought it.

Minor victory in hand, we parted ways with our Colorado compadres and walked to where we expected to find our unit. A few of the guys were there, including one of Scott's old friends that we'd planned to let in on the secret, so we pulled him aside after an initial introduction as Eric... Scott says "This is really my girlfriend, Erica," - momentary wide-eyed confusion - but it was going to be good to have somebody else in the loop just because. The unit was divided into six-man messes, so it was likely that the other guys in our mess would wind up knowing as well, as I would spend the next three days eating, sleeping, and spending leisure time with the same five guys.

After a lazy few hours atop Starkweather's Hill, it was relayed that the unit would assemble at a different location the next morning, so Scott and I decided to go into town and get some rations for the next morning's breakfast before we went to bed down for the night.

After a quick chicken dinner at a fast food joint in Perryville where the locals didn't bat an eyelash at two dudes in the wrong century, we went into Danville where the closest Wal-Mart was, and what followed is a shopping trip I still giggle about. The folks in Danville didn't know what was going on over the hill in Perryville, and you could practically hear the collective whoosh of heads turning when we entered the store, brogans clicking on the tile. We collected bacon (opting away from the NASCAR brand bacon), eggs, a couple of apples, some beef jerky, and I don't remember what else - we were tempted to purchase the Country Home Brand Sausage to keep the packaging featuring the slogan "It's goooo-ooooooood" - but we laughingly restrained.

Purchases in hand, we drove back to Perryville, parked again, and put on all our gear for the trek to Division Headquarters, where we planned to spend the night. Mind you, 'all that gear' consists of the uniform, a knapsack (large square backpack containing essentially a rubberized ground cover and a wool blanket), a haversack (diagonal shoulder bag that held food, utensils, a sewing kit, tin cup and mess kit, and so forth), a canteen, a cartridge box, a cap box, and the gun. Not exactly packing light.

By the time we got back, it was dark, so we trekked a couple of miles through fields and forests (I was amazed that Scott knew exactly where we were going) and got to Division Headquarters where there weren't very many men yet. A number of them sat around a fire, so Scott asked me "Are you ready?" I said "showtime" and we approached the fire.

Second round of introductions, meeting equal success, so I started to relax a bit. Of course I'd have to try harder in the daylight, but for that night we settled in and I listened to those men talk a fascinating game (did I mention they were very big on historical accuracy?) Even their conversation reflected a reverence for years gone by, their choices of words more genteel than I expected, and it was easy to imagine it was really 1862. Scott poured water from his canteen into our tin cups, heated it on rocks by the fire, and made us coffee from the "essence of coffee" we'd made at home before we left - it's a coffee concentrate so strong that you dip a pocketknife into it, swirl the knife through a cup of hot water, and have a good stout cup of joe.

We retired for the night a hundred yards or so away from the fire and the headquarters tents, under the stars. The air was cool and moist (and doubtless responsible for the pneumonia I packed around for a month following, but that's another story), but we were dressed in head to toe wool, with a wool blanket under us and one on top, so we stayed warm, and awoke in the morning and made our rustic breakfast of bacon and eggs and coffee over the fire. Then it was time to go find the rest of the unit.

( be continued)
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