On the weekend of December 7th and 8th, 1996, some two thousand Civil War reenactors, mostly from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Missourri, gathered at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Prairie Grove. The weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm for December. On this day in 1862, however, the weather was damp and miserable. A Union army under General Francis Herron lay encamped along the bottomland surrounding the Illinois river, his men cold, damp, tired and sick, pursued by Confederate General Hindman, his superior force entrenched on a hill above Herron's.
Herron's choices had been whittled away by fate and by Hindman, who hoped to finish off Herron's smaller army and have time to regroup before turning his troops against Union General Blunt, who was even now moving east from Fort Smith in hopes of rescuing Herron. If Herron withdraws, he leaves Blunt to face Hindman's superior force alone, and then Hindman will just continue his pursuit after finishing off Blunt. Herron is forced to stand.
Hindman's problem is to roll up Herron before Blunt arrives. The combined armies of Herron and Blunt would be superior to his own. Even so, Hindman delays his attack until noon on the seventh, giving the ground a chance to dry out. Herron has deployed artillery on Hindman's side of the river and lobs shots into Hindman's formations, further delaying an assault by keeping the confederate troops in disarray.
Hindman's initial assault overwhelms Herron's artillery, but stalls upon meeting with Northern infantry in defensively advantageous terrain. He falls back to regroup as Herron's infantry counterattacks.
For the time being, though, the Confederates have the advantage of superior numbers and the Union counterattack stalls. Hindman is on the verge of finishing off Herron's battered Union force when General Blunt, with fresh troops, arrives on his left flank.
Blunt's force turns the tide against the rebel army, which is driven back to the breastworks they had constructed on the high ground. Nightfall and bad weather keep the Union from pressing the attack. The next day, Hindman, short of supplies and ammunition, withdraws, leaving the vital crossroads, and ultimately all of northern Arkansas, in Union Control.
One thing worth noticing about this little piece of history is the similarity between Hindman's loss at Prairie Grove and Napolean's loss at Waterloo. In both cases, the attacking force was hoping to defeat inferior fractions of a superior army piecemeal. In both cases, weather caused the attacker to delay his initial attack until around noon. And in both cases that delay allowed reinforcements to arrive before the defending force was defeated.
Rarely have I met a more enthusiastic, friendly, and helpful bunch than these Civil War reenactors who took part in the Battle of Prairie Grove reenactment on December 7th, 1996. They seemed to be dedicated, knowledgeable and well-informed on matters concerning 19th century dress, weapons, tactics, politics, you name it.
Most of the reenactors I spoke with had attended a half-dozen events in 1996, ranging from battle reenactments like this one to "tacticals," which are refereed live-action war games, to honor guards and formal balls.
Among the reenactors there is a practice known as "galvanizing." It seems that most reenactor units, even those in northern states, portray rebels. Apparently it's just more glamorous to be a confederate. The problem is that many battle reenactments require specific proportions of blue and gray.
Fortunately, the sutlery, the leatherwork and buckles and such, are similar for both the northern and southern armies. Makes sense. After all, before secession, the supplies on hand were all for one single army. Many reenactors carry with them both blue and gray coats so they can change colors with a new coat the way a galvanized nail changes color with a coat of zinc.
Reenacted battles are scripted. There is one reenactor, usually the man who has the most experience, who acts as general in effect for both sides. He gives instructions to unit commanders listing which units arrive on the field at what time, how they are deployed, when and whom they attack, and how many casualties they are to take.
Within the constraints of the instructions given by the general, individual unit commanders give orders to the soldiers. If the soldiers are well-drilled, they really don't have to have any idea of the overall plan.
Casualties are handled in a number of ways. One reenactor told me that in loosely scripted battles, the decision to fall over dead is often left up to the individual soldier. As one infantryman put it, "If you're thirty feet in front of a canon that's supposed to be loaded with grape shot and the thing goes off. You look pretty stupid if you don't fall down."
For this battle, they used a red/black cartridge method. Each soldier has a cartridge box that has compartments which contain cartridges, paper pellets filled with measures of gunpowder. Usually they are white, but each company commander is issued a number of red and black cartridges, reflecting the number of killed and wounded his unit is to suffer in the day's battle.
Your commander randomly replaces some white paper cartridges with red and black. The soldiers, firing the cartridges in order, load either a white, red or black cartridge. If they load a white cartridge, they continue loading and firing. Once they load and fire a red cartridge, though, they are supposed to fall over dead the very next time their unit takes fire from the opposing side.
If you load and fire a black cartridge, you are expected to fall over wounded the next time your unit takes hostile fire. I overheard one company commander briefing his troops. He said, "You wounded don't forget to writhe and moan."
There was considerable controversey among the reenactors at the time of the Prairie Grove event. It seems that some women want to be allowed to portray soldiers in the battle reenactments, and not be confined to female roles. Some of the men were pretty steamed about this. After all, much of the attraction of this kind of role playing is that of immersion in an illusion. Anything that breaks that illusion denegrates the experience. In the 19th century, sexual roles were pretty rigidly defined.
The women argued that women passing as men actually did serve in both armies. The men counter that the women wishing to serve as men in reenactor units should do as their historical predecessors did and try to really pass themselves off as men. The women protest that each male reenactor is not required accurately to represent a specific historical counterpart, therefore requiring that a male represent a male is like requiring that a redheaded reenactor soldier be required to represent a redheaded historical soldier.
At the time their official associations were handling the issue on a case-by-case basis. Women were allowed to participate as soldiers sometimes, when they could be placed far enough from the audience that it wouldn't be obvious that they were female ("You bayonette charge like a girl!"). The women, insulted by the "back-of-the-bus" treatment, point out that in Elizabethan times female roles in theatrical productions were portrayed by men. The men argue that the customs of Elizabethan theatre are not relevant, and that the reenactments are not to be considered theatrical productions performed solely for the benefit of the audience. In a reenactment the participants are also audience, and their continued participation requires the psychological gratification that comes with living momentarily inside a coherent historical illusion.
Surely they hold enough events annually so that all preferences can be accommodated.
This article is by way of thanks to all the reenactors whose enthusiasm and dedication made for a fascinating and enjoyable afternoon.
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