The heat of battle

July 26, 2011

When you live in Northern Virginia, only miles from Washington D.C., you are somewhat aware of the history all around you, yet it is a distant feeling, drowned out by suburban sprawl and ubiquitous strip malls. Today, it is difficult to form a picture of what happened in this countryside 150 years ago during the Civil War. Over half the Civil War battles were fought in the state of Virginia.

Appropriately, the first major battle of the Civil was at Manassas in Northern Virginia. The First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run on July 21, 1861, dashed hopes on both sides of the fight that war would be a quick affair. The rest, as they say, is history, and I will leave it to historians to tell that story.

For me, the 150th anniversary of this important battle was an opportunity to imagine what it may have been like. With my cameras in hand, I could share the experience with others through my pictures. Cameras of course have a great way of opening doors and allowing one to see what others do not. With the aid of my daughter’s teacher, Mark Stevens, who is not only from Manassas but is also a Civil War reenactor, I was graciously invited into the Confederate camp to spend a few days soaking in the sights and experiences of the reenactor. No, I did not put on the wool uniform and nor did I sleep in a tent. I did, however, get a good glimpse of the passion and dedication these reenactors take into an event. By the time they were ready for battle, I was already overwhelmed by what I had seen in the Confederate and Union camps. Talk about a feast for the eyes of a history buff.

I must preface all this by pointing out that while the reenactment was taking place, Northern Virginia and the entire Washington D.C. area was suffering record high temperatures, over 100-degrees. That’s hot, really, really hot. And did I mention humid? Now close your eyes, picture the heat, and then reach for your woolen soldier’s uniform….. Union or confederate, gray or blue, either will do. Hot yet? Now put on all your accessories for battle, fill your canteens, pick up your musket and……well….you get the idea. Yes, you are sweating profusely before you have even started marching toward the battlefield. Back in 1861, temperatures were only in the low 80’s.

Due to the heat, event planners decided to scale back the day’s battle, but reenactors still performed for a half day under the blazing hot sun. Never having seen a reenactment before, I was unsure what to expect. As the battle began, I was not remotely disappointed. Awe is more the word. The choreography of man, horse and artillery in simulated battle was a sight to behold.

Through the smoke and the noise, the battle ebbed and flowed all morning. The dead and dying lay scattered about the fields. Women and children in period costume brought them water and ice, lest they become truly dead and dying. An announcer called out the battlefield movements for the thousands of spectators that filled the stands despite the weather.

With deadlines to satisfy and wanting to beat the crowds, I headed for my car the way a sports fan departs a game early when he knows which side will win. After a much needed shower and some serious re-hydration, I filed my pictures from the day’s event. Later that evening, I returned with my 12 year-old daughter to see the camp after the battle and to hear a sermon by her teacher who also serves as a Civil War chaplain reenactor. The sun was setting , the temperatures slightly dropping, but the toll of the battle was all around.

Reenactors with ruddy faces hung sweat soaked garments on their tents. Smoke from campfires filled the air. Soldiers cleaned muskets, cooked dinner or sat around the fire deep in conversation. Some simply laid down on the ground and went to sleep. Those who had endured too much simply packed up their cars and headed home despite a scheduled battle the next day. The chaplain’s sermon fittingly mentioned the scriptural view of Hell as a place of heat and torment.

Like real soldiers, reenactors come from different places and different walks of life. And like real soldiers, they are united in a cause. Like real soldiers, they said the camaraderie is the reason they keep doing what they do. At the camp that night after the battle, these reenactors thanked me for doing what I do with my cameras and calling attention to their world. My response to them was a bit of a cliché, “no, thank-you for what you do.” But I meant it. These fine people honor history and honor the people they portray. Their stories, their education and their commitment are truly inspirational. We should all be grateful to them for helping keep this important chapter of our history alive. I thank them for sharing this with me and all the hardy folks who braved the elements to see the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run.

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