Why research is important

My dad and I went to Jacksonville, IL today to attend their annual Grierson Days, which honors Gen. Grierson, who was a resident of Jacksonville.  He is best remembered for his raid into Mississippi with his cavalry that is portrayed in the John Wayne film The Horse Soldiers.  This raid, which led to the destruction of the railroad supplying Vicksburg aided Grant in his victory against the Confederate stronghold.  Now, back to the event.This event is one of the biggest reenacting events in the state, if not the Midwest.  It is held every June in Jacksonville and brings many participants and vendors, including the well-known Fall Creek Sutlery, which is the best known dealer of reenacting equipment.  One of the big highlights of the weekend event are the two “battles” between Union and Confederate “forces.”  Now, I have been to many events (most at my hometown during their annual Victorian Festival) and most are very good.  However, the event at Grierson Days is probably one of the worst I have attended.  Let me make this clear, THE SOLDIERS PARTICIPATING IN THE ACTUAL REENACTMENT WERE WONDERFUL AND DID A GREAT JOB.  You may be asking then, why am I saying this is the worst event I have attended?  The answer is the announcers.  This is the only reenactment I have been to where there are announcers during the battlefield.

Here are my problems with the announcing. First, is the announcing itself.  This takes away from the experience as well as amplifies the sound of the weapons.  They could have explained the differences in troops and weapons and the overall war before the battle, but did this during it, which breaks concentration on the battle.  Second, was that the announcers kept the microphone on when they were not commenting, which caused the crowd to hear their laughing and conversation while trying to pay attention to the battle.  Finally, the announcers were blatantly inaccurate and stated things regarding the battle that were obvious to those watching and did not need to be mentioned.

I understand that not everyone has great knowledge on the war, but this was ridiculous, as the announcers were misinforming attendees because they chose not to research and verify if their information was correct.  On a whole, the battle was good, but would have been great had the announcers just shut up.  They did not know what they were doing and took away from the great experience that attendees may have enjoyed.  Here is the lesson, research before commenting to large crowds on historical matters, as you may look foolish if audience members are educated on the subject.  To those in reenacting, keep up the good work and always research to maintain accuracy when presenting to people.


4 thoughts on “Why research is important

  1. I am the coordinator for the Grierson Event. One of our reenactors sent me your web site.
    As somone that is interested in making our event better, I would like you to e-mail me and let me know exactly what information was wrong, or, histsorically not correct, so that we can correct that.
    The historical information concerning Grierson is by myself, and researched thru the many books that have been written concerning his service during the Civil War and when he was Commander of the l0th Cavalry, Buffalo Soldiers. Did you have any problem with reference to the Historical facts concerning Grierson?
    The Battle and tactic remarks were made by the wife of one of our reenactors, and, by a Minister who has been involved with reenacting for a long period of time. Since I am not a reenactor, just the coordinator of the event, I leave those remarks to the people involved.
    In an effort to make our event even better I would ask that you please help us by becoming involved, and, let us know exactly where we are wrong.
    Since our event is free to the public, we rely on donations from our local businesses. As a result we like to let those in attendance know who the sponsors of the event are, the people that make the weekend events possible. To that end it is necessary to annouce those names.
    We would appreciate hearing from you.
    Ron Gray
    Benjamin H. Grierson Days

  2. Mr. Gray,
    Since the event occurred about two months ago I forgot most of the exact words spoken at the re-enactment. For that I apologize for not making notes for future reference, but I do remember the overriding perception that I received. Perception is everything when engaged in public events, and your narrator seemed very unprepared and uncomfortable. Since the same person narrated the event last year, I know that is not the case. However, that perception came across, and many of the explanations seemed vague, and inadequate.
    I am not a re-enactor, but I hold a B.S. in historical studies and know much about military history. This comes from my 24-year career in the U.S. Army, and my access to military history documents in the libraries where I served. One of the units in which I served, the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry, held the sobriquet, “The First at Vicksburg.” The Vicksburg Campaign represented a significant part of that unit’s history, and a source of “lessons learned” instruction. When I visited the Vicksburg battlefield on vacation in 1995 I found the memorial commemorating that unit.
    However, my interest in the western theater of the Civil War goes much deeper than my military service. Like most other Illinois soldiers, the men from my county, Jersey County, served in this theater. One of my ancestors died from wounds he received at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads. Leander Stillwell, of the 61st Illinois, lived in Jersey County and his name is on the plaque inside the monument dedicated to Illinois soldiers.
    I too possess a significant number of books regarding the Civil War, including many works by Bruce Catton and the Time-Life Book series copyrighted in 1983. The Time-Life series has one volume, titled “War on the Mississippi,” which dedicates pages 86 through 96 to Grierson’s Raid. Had your narrator read from this text verbatim it would have sounded better than what was spoken. For example, your narrator said, “Grierson led three groups of soldiers,” or words to that effect. What is a group? Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1,700 men, consisting of the 2nd Iowa, 6th and 7th Illinois Regiments and a battery of horse artillery. A more detailed description provides a clearer picture of exactly what Grierson commanded.
    The narrator further gave the impression of Grierson as a “military genius,” that deeply affected overall American history. Grierson did prove himself a superb cavalry commander, as noted on page 88 of the Time-Life book I previously cited. The direct quote from Sherman to Grant in December of 1862, “The best cavalry officer I have yet had.”
    Regarding Grierson’s career following the Civil War, I consulted Robert M. Utley’s, Frontier Regulars, about the Indian wars of this period. Unfortunately, the Army of that time suffered from the same neglect and mismanagement that all “peacetime” armies endure. On page 362 Utley states that Grierson received his commission as a colonel largely because of his raid. While not confirmed, I believe that Grierson received command of the 10th Cavalry because it was the last one formed. This made him the junior regimental commander of the Army’s cavalry units, and placed him in a black unit as well.
    Unfortunately, military personnel possess the same weaknesses as the society from which they come: petty jealousies, bigotry, and nepotism. The Army became very “class conscious,” reflecting the dissension between West Point graduates and Volunteer officers. Much like civilians regard university credentials and “college rivalries,” or a college education over practical experience.
    White officers serving in black regiments suffered the same discrimination as their black soldiers, including deliberate ostracism. Furthermore, Grierson received the enmity of General Philip Sheridan, who deliberately made Grierson’s career “frustrating and undistinguished.” Grierson did distinguish himself during the 1880 campaign against the Apaches along the Rio Grande. However, both the War Department and the media deliberately underrated the performance of black units, and the officers that commanded them. This does not detract from Grierson’s many accomplishments; it merely places them in the historical context.
    With the nation’s steadily declining number of veterans, the general public knows little about battle tactics. Furthermore, with the deplorable history education in our schools, most know little about the Civil War. It seems that the current interest in re-enactment is the most visible source of education concerning the Civil War battles. Therefore, it is imperative that those engaged in this endeavor provide accuracy and enthusiasm in maintaining our heritage. From what I noticed those actually engaged in the battle met, and exceeded, those standards, and for that I commend them.
    While I do not endorse using Hollywood for history lessons, the John Wayne movie, “The Horse Soldiers,” is based on Grierson’s Raid. It does reasonably well at following the events, and must be taken in context as a Hollywood movie. However, since most Americans get much of their “education” from Hollywood, at least they get an idea.
    Again, this event occurred about two months ago, and the events of work and other human events have erased much of my memory. Therefore I am unsure of whether the following subjects were included in the narration, or not. I will include them now for the purpose of ensuring that they are not overlooked. For example, by 1863 the Union cavalry became a serious challenge for the previously dominant Confederate cavalry. Partially this occurred because the Union began using Western farm boys, such as those in Grierson’s brigade.
    Grierson’s Raid occurred as part of Grant’s overall Vicksburg strategy, partially for keeping the Confederates off balance. Most of our historical reference, and most Civil War studies, focus on the eastern theater. The Army of the Potomac enjoyed many advantages over the Army of Northern Virginia, such as personnel strength and equipment. However, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee did not, particularly given the long line of communication that he defended. Grant must keep his Confederate counterpart guessing, and keep Confederate forces stretched thin and unable to concentrate against him.
    I noticed “General Grant” at this past year’s event; why not erect a tent for the purpose of “Grant” explaining his strategy? One of the area colleges may possess maps and other documents for enhancing this discussion. Maybe this is impractical for you, given your reliance on donations, etc., but it provides a context for Grierson’s Raid. Regarding context, explain the importance of Vicksburg for both sides, and how the Union victory hastened an overall Confederate defeat.
    Part of my duties as a non-commissioned officer in the Army included giving classroom instructions. No matter how much I believed myself a “subject matter expert,” I rehearsed until this instruction became “second nature.” I do not know whether your narrator is a public speaker, but some prior rehearsal would definitely benefit the event.
    Regarding my participation in the event, I wish I could become involved in such things. However, Jersey County is a significant distance from Jacksonville, and involves a one hundred mile round trip. Furthermore, I work for the U.S. Postal Service, and my work schedule normally includes Saturdays. I just happened to make the past two years’ events as a matter of luck. My son graduated from Illinois College and knew the exact days of the event, which helped greatly. Over the past two years the event also occurred when I happened to be off on those particular Saturdays.
    I hope my comments have proven helpful without sounding condescending, for that was not my intent. However, I do not believe in “sugar-coating” things and normally speak my mind. Some better preparation by your narrator would make your great event even better.

    William F. Sauerwein
    1SG, U.S. Army (Retired)

  3. Pingback: Why research is important (via Civil War History) « Reenactors Gazette

  4. Pingback: Update on Grierson Days « Civil War History

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