Review of the film Gods and Generals

Civil War historian Dr. Steve Woodworth at Texas Christian University, reviewed the film Gods and Generals for the Journal of American History in 2003. The American Historical Association (AHA) recently posted a copy of that review that appeared on the website Teachinghistory.org. I have met Dr. Woodworth in the past and have found him to be a friendly and capable scholar, and enjoyed his take on the movie, as he summed up many of the problems with the film. Being in both the reenacting community and the scholarly community, I have heard both extremes on the film, with reenactors, especially Confederate, being largely praiseworthy, while scholars are more critical. I feel that this review is a rather balanced evaluation of this Civil War film.

Click here to read the review

By the way, this is the 250th post on this blog!

After Action Report on the 150th Reenactment of Wilson’s Creek

Dan and I left about 1000 from Grand Forks, ND, on Wednesday, 10 August and headed south to Wilson’s Creek near Republic, Missouri.  The route down I-29 was blocked by flooding in Iowa, which meant we were re-routed on state roads.  We got back on I-29 after a scenic tour of farms in Iowa.  Saw many Cabela’s along the way so don’t screw with the Iowans, since they are heavily armed. Stopped driving at 2200 and stayed the night in St. Joseph, MO. Left about 0900 the next morning.

Arrived in Republic, MO, about 1400. We registered and drove into the Confederate Camp area.  What I saw looked like a Boy Scout Camp Jamboree instead of neatly lined tents of the Confederate Army.  It got really interesting when we were asking around where the 3rd Missouri Infantry was located.  No one seemed to know where any units were positioned. No company streets had been laid out.  (Company streets are simply the running of a string from the first tent straight down to the last tent so the unit can have tents to the left and right of a path or “street” leading to the commander of the unit; like an inverted “U”).  Also noticed there were no SLOW DOWN or ONE WAY signs for vehicles using the dirt road running between the rows of tents.  No common sense was jumping out to greet me…

We found the major of the 3rd Missouri and he placed us on the top of a new street.  We just had unloaded our gear when three other groups showed up and recognized my truck. We set up four tents in about 30 minutes and had a fire pit dug to cook the evening meal. By 1700, we had eight tents set up and were ready to eat by 1800.  The ladies had chicken and dumplings for dinner, which went really well with a couple of Coors Lites!

On Friday morning, the damn bugler blew Reveille at 0530 and we got up to light the fire for breakfast. (There was a shortage of cut wood for the camps. Any other event I’ve been to always had wood cut and piled up for use. We ended up dragging dead wood from the tree line, which cleaned up the park.  Maybe that was planned, huh?)  The ladies fixed cinnamon buns for breakfast with sliced oranges and plums.  I cheated on the coffee by using instant with boiling water!

The first battalion formation (about 300 Confederates) was at 0730.  The commander looked like Teddy Roosevelt and had a soft voice which did not carry down to the left side of the formation where we were standing.  Our sergeant major looked like ZZ Top and was concentrating on proper foot alignment of the front row.  When you stand at PARADE REST in 1861, you keep your left foot in place and move the right foot to the back of the left one, at a 45 degree angle.  He was so anal about the feet, we thought he had a foot fetish!

After the formation, we went back to camp.  Suddenly, the bugles were blowing and the officers were yelling that the Yankees had taken the field and were moving toward our camp.  Of course, the field was only on the other side of Wilson’s Creek, and we could see the enemy not too far away.  We formed up quickly and marched off to meet the Yankee invader.

The lines of Confederates were impressive since we outnumbered the Yankees about 4 to 1.  The real battle was about 3 Confederates to 2 Yankees.  The Yankees held the center of the field and within an hour, the ranks of the multi-uniformed Southerners had pushed them off the field. We actually pushed them to the bridge over Wilson’s Creek, where since they didn’t turn their muskets down as a sign of surrender, the Confederates continued to march across the bridge.  This upset the blue clad invaders and they looked like whipped school boys.  The crowds, which were mostly pro-Confederate, enjoyed the action.  We marched back to camp and had the rest of the day off for doing such a good job in routing the Yankee square-heads from the field. (Several of the Union militia units were German immigrants from St. Louis, so “Square Heads” was a descriptive means of identifying them).

We spent the rest of the day visiting the sutler tents and buying items we wanted but didn’t need.  There was a root beer stand and several food vendors.  The prices were not bad but they didn’t take Confederate money.

We had a large pot of stew for dinner and spent the evening listening to several songs.  We even had a history class for two on the young soldiers in the unit on the US presidents, the states, and the Bill of Rights and Ten Commandments.

We also had a Union Cavalry “raid” through the area about 2100 in the dark.  Now, if the event planners had this on the schedule, it wouldn’t have been a problem.  But when several of the Yankees rode through the poorly lighted area, the possibility of someone walking to the porta-johns getting run over was very possible.  We didn’t know whether this was planned or not and some of the boys close to the horses began firing at them.  We sat in our tents since we didn’t know what the hell was going on.  This showed very poor judgment on the part of both the planners and re-enactors. If someone was hit by a horse, the lawyers would be circling like the sharks for a settlement, not to mention the possibility of a rider being pulled off their mount and having the crap kicked out of them by some angry Rebel having to hit the head!

Saturday morning the damn bugler woke us up again. We ate pancakes for breakfast and then drilled as a company, and then as a battalion with Teddy and ZZ Top.  His voice got a little louder since he must have been informed of his lack of a “command voice”. (Military term for using your voice, and other parts of your anatomy to reach all the formation, to put it nicely).

(One item I must report on here.  I noticed one of the officers was riding his horse right through our row of tents.  I walked over to him and asked that he not ride through our living area.  He stated that he was the battalion commander and that I should talk to my captain.  I wanted to jerk the SOB off the horse but didn’t know what the horse would do in a confined area of tents.  So I walked off and told my captain what a pompous ass this clown was.  He turned out to be a corrections guard from Okiehoma who counsels prisoners being paroled.  That’s the problem with these want-to-be Kentucky Colonels, using his re-enactment position to be important, due to his lack of esteem in the real world!  I saw him three times after this incident and hoped he would open his mouth but he always turned away.  I also told the brigade staff about it and they agreed horses in camps were not welcomed).

The morning battle was okay, but confused.  Too many of the officers didn’t know how to move troops around, which was the actual problem in 1861 and also in 2011.  So nothing has changed in 150 years.  The evening battle was a complete cluster when the entire Confederate army was marched into the tree line.  The Union marched out a unit of about 200 to fire into the trees.  Mind you, the crowd was about five hundred yards away and couldn’t imagine what was going on.  Hell, we were there, and still didn’t know what was going on!  We were bunched together in the little shade available, while an idiot portraying a Confederate officer was riding his horse through the tightly packed formations.  Common sense was left back at camp since the horse wasn’t too happy to be crowded by the lines of soldiers.

We ended up firing at the top of the trees and scaring half the birds in southern Missouri.  It was such a waste of powder (about $20 a pound), I just used the caps and saved the powder.  We had no clue what was going on with these knucklehead officers.  (Felt the same way in several staff meetings in Afghanistan, too!)

On Saturday evening, I got a ride with Craig Lenz to the hotel room that his family had booked to take a shower so I could go to the evening dance.  We got to the dance, and again, this event must have been planned the weekend before. The sound system and the lighting was poor, and the ground to dance on had holes and small clumps of brush sticking up.  Not very conducive to slide your partner across the dance floor.  There was no water or sodas since the vendors had run out.  Really poor planning on the event staff.  The band was good, but the dance was a flop.

On Sunday morning, the bugler let loose about 0600, and we had breakfast of eggs and bacon.  We fought the last battle which was actually done correctly, with lots of casualties on both sides and the crowds were happy to see the field littered with dead and wounded.  Sick people, huh?

We broke camp about 1400 and finally left the field about 1500.  We ate lunch at Culver’s (kind of a Friendly’s ice cream restaurant) and hit the road about 1630.  Dan and I drove to his parent’s house in Jerseyville, Illinois, and arrived about 2200.  We left the next morning about 0930 and arrived back in Grand Forks at 0100 Tuesday morning.

The 150th Wilson’s Creek had many problems.  It seemed the planners had a motive to make money, and not spend any on basic items like water, porta-johns and firewood.  That they accomplished.  The crowds were large, and the money they made was probably impressive.  Yet, the atmosphere of commercialization off-set the main reason most of us drove hundreds of miles and dozens of hours to get there – to honor those who fought there.  Future event planners, after pulling their heads out of their collective rear ends, will see that the event must be planned to honor those men that fought and died at the site, and not to squeeze dollars out of the re-enactors and the public as if the event was like an annual county fair.

Up Wilson’s Creek without a paddle: the good, bad, and ugly of the 150th annivesary event

Well, I am back from my trip to Missouri (Mizz-ur-ah, or Misery, if you prefer) to participate in the 150th anniversary battle reenactment, which was my first ever national event (check out Stuart Lawrence’s take on Bull Run/Manassas for another national event) and wanted to share my thoughts.

First, let me say that there is some buzz going around in one reenacting forum regarding the event with opinions coming down both ways on the weekend, with most being negative. Second, I am only in my second season of reenacting and will admit to not being as partial to primitive camping and using portable toilets as others, but am learning to like the camping. Third, this will be the first in a possible series of postings regarding the event from others in the unit I fell in with, as well as others interested, so you will get several different impressions of the same event. Finally, constructive comments on these postings are welcome and appreciated, as we could get a good discussion on this topic going, but please remember to be civil.

The trip began with Stuart Lawrence and I leaving Grand Forks Wednesday morning to drive as far as we could and stop for the night. With continued high water on the Missouri River, parts of I-29 have been closed for weeks and remain closed, which warranted a detour, but we arrived late that night in St. Joseph, Missouri, staying in a Motel 6, which was nice. We awoke the next morning, had a good breakfast and headed on, arriving in the Springfield area around 1:00 PM and set up our tent and gear. We introduced ourselves to Christian Shuster, who invited our unit to fall in with his 3rd Missouri for the weekend and waited for others to arrive. Once the rest of the unit arrived and our camp was erected, we prepared ourselves for the coming days of battle. That evening we were treated to the first of several fine meals prepared by our camp cooks (hats off to you ladies for your hard work).

Friday morning came early (before 6:00 AM), as we enjoyed breakfast and prepared for battalion drill at 7:30. We formed up for the morning battle around 10:00AM and had the first fight, which was a good one, as we charged the Federals and drove them back across a wooden bridge crossing Wilson’s Creek. The crowd enjoyed it, but it was a smaller gathering (most people being at work on a Friday). We went about our day, anticipating the afternoon battle and looking forward to an exciting national event. Boy, were we surprised.

Let me preface this by saying that I have only a slightly negative view of the event, mainly from a logistical point of view and issues with some of our higher level command that I believe contributed to a more negative atmosphere among some of the participants and the feedback on the forum (more on this later).

Friday afternoon’s battle found us on the hill in the trees waiting for the Union to move into position and give us battle. Well, we wound up shooting into the trees, which made us a bit upset. Saturday and Sunday’s battles went much better, as we expended more powder and put on a good show for the crowd. Several of us went down from a cannon shot (including myself) and were then covered by crickets, which made for a few chuckles. This was one of the better parts of the event.

Now then, no event is perfect, and there were a couple things that were bad and one that was ugly that upset several reenactors around our camp. The bad was how our senior command staff (brigade and battalion commanders) had us formed up over a half hour before the scheduled start of the battle. This “hurry up and wait” was only problematic from the standpoint of being in the sun and heat, and while it was much more pleasant temperature wise from earlier in the week, it was still a potential hazard if not accustomed to it. Another bad issue was running out of water for a period on Saturday, which was not good. There were a couple safety issues, including a cavalry ride through our camp during the night, and, one person riding their horse through the tent areas.

The ugly part of the event were the portable toilets. Simply put, there were not enough of them, they were not cleaned often enough, and ran out of paper. They were also not set up well and leaned at times. Now, if it were possible for a human to not use the bathroom for three days, I may have attempted, but as it was, there were times that the conditions were just bad. Having only nine portables for almost the entire Confederate camp was insufficient. Future organizers take note, please have reliable facilities for us and make sure they are cleaned more often.

On the whole, while there were several things that diminished the quality of the event for several reenactors and myself, I did manage to enjoy myself. I met new people and experienced battles with hundreds, instead of dozens, of participants. Sutler row was fun, as there were several there, including a soda dealer from near my hometown of Jerseyville, Illinois.

Special thanks to Capt. Christian Shuster of the 3rd Missouri for inviting us down and being and all around good guy. Thanks to the rest of the 3rd for being welcoming and having a good time. Thank you to all in the 1st South Carolina for coming down and making the best of it, and to our civilians in camp for the cooking (especially the Lenz family and Amundsons) and socializing. It’s the end of another reenacting season for me, but it was a fun one. I hope to post some pictures and video from the event in the near future. Until next time, keep researching and reading.

The Bull Run of the West 150 years ago

Just a quick posting to let you all know about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri that occurred August 10, 1861. The battle is considered the Bull Run of the West, as it was the first major engagement of the war in the West and, like its Eastern counterpart, was a Confederate victory. In addition, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was killed in the battle and it paved the way for German immigrants to participate in large numbers for the Union cause, as they made up a portion of Lyon’s army. This is a short posting, as I am heading down to take part in the weekend events to commemorate the battle, including the reenactment. I will post on this early next week, but will be away from the blog for a few days. Until then, happy reading and researching.

Some videos from the First Bull Run reenactment

Here are a couple videos from this past weekend’s reenactment of the First Battle of Bull Run:

-This is a personal video of the event.

-Video of the parade.

AFTER ACTION REPORT FOR THE 150TH REENACTMENT OF 1ST MANASSAS, 20-26 JUL 2011

The adventure began when I got up at 2:00 AM on July 20, packed the cooler and hit I-29 South out of Grand Forks at 3:00 AM.  I was the only vehicle on the road for miles and miles until I hit Fargo about 4:30 AM. I was fortunate to spend only an hour sitting in morning traffic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, about 7:30 AM. I was headed to Northfield, Iowa, to meet two other members of the group out here in the Midwest, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, Company H.  I arrived at 10:30 AM and we packed up a four door Ford Taurus minus Granny sitting on top of the car.  I slept through most of Iowa and Illinois. We found the coolest road construction outside of Indianapolis and spent about two hours counting the orange cones all up and down the interstate.

We crossed into Ohio and then West By-God Virginia.  The mountains impressed the boys from the flat lands and so did the locals at the gas station.  “You all ain’t from around here, ur you??”  No, we ain’t.  We stayed in Wheeling, West By-God Virginia for the night. We left about 9:00 AM and crossed into Maryland and drove I-68 East.  We finally crossed into the promised land of Virginia about 2:00 PM!

We registered for the event and drove about ten minutes to reach the actual campsite.  Most of the group we fell in with came from the Richmond-Hanover area, although there were a few from California and Colorado.  There were about forty in all that took the field on Saturday and Sunday. The temperature was about 98 on Thursday, so putting up the tent was a good way to get soaked.  The area around us continuously filled up with new comers until we had about three hundred tents in the section we were assigned.  There were probably 300+ Confederate tents in the wooded section and about 50 cavalry horses.

The unit we portrayed for the event was Company B, 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, known as Wheat’s Tigers. Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat [6’4”, 250 pounds] created the Tigers who were basically Irish wharf rats from New Orleans [pronounced Nawlins’]and were known for fighting each other, their fellow Confederates, and the Yankees. Rumor has it that the Mayor of Nawlins’ had a city party when he cleaned out his wharf and city jail for men that joined the Tigers.  They also carried D-handled Bowie knives and used them on each other several times, as well as the Yankees, too. They rode in boxcars to get to Manassas and a few were killed riding on top of the cars due to low bridges. Ain’t no bridges in Louisiana?  

On Friday, we walked the area and avoided attending the parade in Manassas, since our officers thought the weather was too damn hot. It reached 102 by the late afternoon. We visited the over-priced sutlers and saw hundreds of items we would like to have but didn’t need.  I bought a new straw hat made in China to replace the one I had left on the kitchen table in Grand Forks.

I ran into Mike Evans, an Air Force NCO that had replaced my intelligence sergeant in Bagram, Afghanistan, in July of 2009.  Now we both we serving in the Confederate Army, trying to keep the Yankee terrorists from invading the sacred soil of Virginia!  He was in a Florida unit and arrived Thursday morning with about 45 other Floridians.

As in any military organization, the Confederate Army, having called reveille at 5:30 AM on Saturday morning, had all units form up no later than 7:30 for a 9:30 battle.  We practiced the “hurry up and wait” method rather well.  We finally marched out with drums beating and headed toward the Yankee invader. The Tigers were supposed to attack the 2nd Rhode Island Battery and capture it.  Well, history and the script didn’t get read properly and we attacked into about 500 Yankees surrounding the cannon.  We got shot to pieces!  Then we fell back three times and moved off the field.  About thirty minutes of fame!

After we regrouped, we marched back to camp, while dozens of other Confederate units were marching onto the field.  The Yankees pushed us off the field and then ran into Jackson’s boys.  Then they ran back to Washington City!  The battle lasted about three hours and there were many heat related casualties on both sides.  That’s about true for the original battle, too.

We did the same action on Sunday, with fewer troops on both sides.  The temp on Saturday was 102 and about a 118 heat index.  Many reenactors packed up and left.  We stayed and drank water, Gatorade and whatever else was available.  I went through about five gallons of water and 24 bottles of Gatorade.  We also killed off four watermelons, two dozen oranges and other assorted fruits.  Very few alcoholic drinks were consumed due to the heat. No one left the field on Sunday the same weight we arrived with on Thursday. It was difficult to sleep and sweat at the same time.  We even had the Israeli Ambassador as a spectator on Sunday, with a bunch of Secret Servicemen.  The rumor started that we couldn’t have weapons on the field.  That rumor lasted about a minute.  Apparently he is a big American Civil War buff.

This was the first national event I went to that had an ATM set up in the field!  The vendors were selling 10 pounds of ice for $4.00.  (In past events, they usually gave one bag per man per day free.  Guess that’s history now.)  The stands were full both days, 15,000 at $45 a person, with ten tents of standing room at $25 for about 500 people.  I just wanted 1% of the gas that people bought to get there and back.  The scenario was not to historical fact, but it was okay. We heard on Sunday that the organizers were experienced in golf tournaments.  Not the same thing with 9,000 reenactors with cannon and horses.  At least the porta-johns were cleaned three times a day!  Although few were cooking, fires were only allowed above ground.

So, why did so many reenactors go to Manassas, camp out and suffer though 102, 102, 102 and 98 degree days?  Because the 150th anniversary only comes around once!  And, as a Southerner, we won the first one big!  Shooting across the field at a long blue line that was invading Virginia must have been an incredible feeling for the Confederate soldier in 1861.  Of course, in 2011, no one was worried about having their head shot off either!

We had a cluster trying to pack and leave on Sunday,  We finally drove the long gauntlet to get out to go to a hotel and shower, sit in the pool and drink a cold beer!  We left on Monday morning about 8:30 AM and drove until 2:00 AM Tuesday morning to get back to Iowa.  I then drove on to Grand Forks arriving about 10:30 AM.  And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

Your Obedient Servant,

Private Stuart Lawrence
Company B, 1st Louisiana Special Battalion

Sun coming up at 6:30 AM 23 July 2011 at Manassas, Virginia.

L to R: Bill Feuchtenberger, Stuart Lawrence and Gary Mitchell ready for battle!

Flag Day at Fort Abercrombie

Last Saturday, several members of the Fort Abercrombie Garrison and I assisted the site in celebrating Flag Day. It was a fun day of educating visitors on the fort, the frontier army, and the Civil War (yes, Fort Abercrombie is a Civil War site in North Dakota). We set up a small display of tents and equipment used by soldiers and engaged the visitors when possible. In addition, we assisted in retiring several flags through burning, including one of the site’s old flags. We raised that flag one last time and saluted it, folded it, and retired it. It was truly an honor to take part in this.

One of the cool parts of the day occurred earlier, when WDAY came out and filmed us practicing folding the flag. Also, yours truly was interviewed and the segments appeared on the six o’clock and ten o’clock newscasts that Saturday night, so potentially 200,000 people got to see what we did and our passion for history.

Click here to catch the videos (there are two segments)

Here are some pictures from the day as well.

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