Before the Battle
By Sarah Alban
A little boy is sitting on a battlefield in Arcadia Valley, which holds 2,500 souls and the town of Pilot Knob, 90 miles south of St. Louis. In a few minutes, a Civil War battle reenactment is going to rattle him. Literally, four cannons and hundreds of rifles blasting each other are going to shake the hairs on his head. The boy, who is probably seven years old, sneaked onto the field and is now sitting inconspicuously among a group of professional photographers; he is sitting on a plot of grass fenced with flags to keep spectators off. In a few minutes, he’s going to have a closer view of the field than any of the other 20,000 spectators. When the bodies start to fall, he is going to be only yards away. And he has no clue.
He’s munching on rock candy.
Before The Battle: The Women
Hours before the boy slid in with the photographers, a group of female reenactors were initiating me into their weekend pastime. I was holding up my hair in a historically accurate bun, while a half-dozen of the women, wearing vivid handmade petticoats, surrounded me and trying to make me seem more convincing as a reenactor. I was trying.
I’d abandoned my blue jeans, car keys, and cell phone—all taboo items in a reenactors’ camp—in favor of an under-petticoat, corset, slip, drawers, chemise, and over-petticoat one reenactor had lent me. These women have been hand-making their Civil War-era outfits for years and sometimes decades.
The women were mostly members of the Ladies’ Union Aid So- ciety, a 19th century group of women that would canvass towns to raise money for their men at war. The LUAS even visited their men in camp in times of calm, and they brought their children, too. Many of these reenacting LUAS brought their children to the camp this weekend because most of them, like their predecessors, have relatives who will fight in the battle later on.
One woman, trying to keep my bonnet in place, realizes she will have to pull my bonnet ribbon especially wide to mask a big black tattoo on the back of my neck.
“A bonnet covers a multitude of sins,” she says, tugging my head without asking whether that hurts. I deserve that. I am a modern impostor in this world of authentic reenacting, and the tattoo is my mark of espionage—my ball and chain to the outside world from which these women are desperately trying to pull me.
As potatoes blacken over a fire pit in the ground, a milk-and-butter cream thickens in a cast-iron skillet. The fire pops and sizzles. A group of spectators wearing jeans and toting digital cameras meanders into the camp. They peek between canvas tents, avoid the fires, and ask questions of the reenactors. One father watches his son eye a group of kids rolling in hay bales; the kids are getting straw stuck in their suspenders and hair. The father tells a LUAS woman, Amanda Cone, that his son can’t wait to reenact. The father means his son can’t wait to be a soldier.
But Amanda points to the kids in the hay, looks to the son and then the father, and says, “He’s old enough now.” Nearby, a reenacting baby drops something from a wooden highchair, which looks like it could splinter a stuffed animal.
The father smiles and walks away.
Before The Battle: The Men
The night before the battle, a handful of reenactors were camping in front of the courthouse with a dented roof in Pilot Knob. Their campsite, which consisted of grass, no tents, and perhaps a blanket, sat two miles away from the battlefield and Fort Davidson.
The night before battle, most other reenactors slept in tents right beside the fort. Some of them brought trailer-campers to avoid the dewy grass. They didn’t go as authentic as the courthouse men, who call themselves “progressives.” Most people who aren’t progressives call them “hardcores.”
The night before battle, the progressives slept in the dirt. A lot of them didn’t cook dinner, although they could use a meal, as many hardcores diet year-round so they stay as skinny as the real, often starving soldiers.
The night before the battle, Pilot Knob’s temperature dropped, and I could see my breath. The progressives passed the night in the frigid air, woke before sunrise, and marched the two miles to the battlefield.
There, they met the other reenactors, the ones who had slept well and had food in their bellies. They began a few hours of military drills. The reenactors hoisted long rifles against their shoulders, the bayonet tips gleaming silver under the warming sun.
Charlie Hoskins hoists a gun with them. Charlie is serving as a lanky, progressive Union infantryman. When his drills end, with most of the morning gone, Charlie walks to the LUAS camp.
He stands against a tent pole beneath a canvas roof the women set up. His eyes crinkle constantly; he’s giddy. Having shivered away the night on cold, dewy grass, he is now melting the ladies’ hearts with his smile.
Charlie is a lawyer from Washington, Missouri. As such, he could have taken an expensive vacation somewhere posh where waiters hand him cocktails underneath his umbrella. But Charlie is not in Hawaii, or Mexico, or Vanuatu, or any other oasis. He is 80 miles south of his home, in Pilot Knob, because he prefers sleeping on the ground, eating blackened potatoes straight from a fire, and taking bullets.
“It’s more fun than golf,” he says.
A few yards away from Charlie, an hour before battle, another Union infantryman, Bill Baehr, is speaking with the LUAS women. Bill has just returned from his second war tour in Iraq. This weekend he spent about $500 on a train ticket from his new station in the state of Washington to Pilot Knob to reenact in the battle in which he has reenacted since he was a child.
Bill is discussing with two women the historical inaccuracies of Civil War movies. The conversation slips to period books like Pride and Prejudice and their movie adaptations. Nearly every movie mentioned has at least one imperfection, a rule bent by Hollywood. Pride and Prejudice, though, is faring pretty well in the talk.
Bill has removed one of his stiff dark- brown brogans (a type of boot) and revealed the bottom of a red, white, and blue wool sock. The bottom is patched with a Confederate flag Bill added.
“I sewed that on because I like stepping on the enemy,” he says, patting the flag like a pet. Soon he and Charlie leave the tent to return to their campsite. The battle is about to start, and officers are calling in their soldiers. One by one, the men pick their rifles out of the tall pyramids of bayonets that have been lying idly in the campsites all afternoon.
The Battle (1864)
Battle magic helped the Union win in September 1864. Confederate Gen. Sterling Price was leading an army of 11,000 to 15,000 infantry- men north from Arkansas into Missouri. He wanted St. Louis, a Union stronghold, but Pilot Knob sat in his way.
Surrounded by big hills in Arcadia Valley, about 110 Union soldiers protected iron-ore mines in the St. Francois mountain range. Price didn’t want the iron. He wanted to wipe off the only Union blip on the map between him and St. Louis.
The Union learned of Price’s plan days before the assault.
Officers dispatched Gen. Thomas Ewing from St. Louis and an emergency infantry from Iowa to Fort Davidson to bolster the numbers from 110 to about 1,000. Ewing and the men stepped off the train in Pilot Knob the same day Price reached town from the south.
Ewing ordered two patrol groups to walk the town’s main road south that day. The patrol groups got nearly two miles without any trouble. Then, they ran into Price’s army face-to-face.
That’s when the courthouse got its dent.
Ewing and Price’s men exchanged fire, but Price was holding back, waiting for more of his men to join him. Ewing’s men returned to the fort and notified Ewing: Price was coming to town tomorrow.
Price came, but pathetically. His commanding officers rallied the soldiers before each assault because they had to attack straight up steep earthworks into withering musket fire from the entrenched Union soldiers. During the final, third assault, the Confederates finally reached within feet of the fort, but grenades blasted them to pieces. The carnage at Pilot Knob is in- famous for its proportion to the number of soldiers who fought.
The Battle (2010)
The boy doesn’t touch his rock candy once the battle begins.
He’s a little shorter than me kneeling, capturing photos of the battle unfolding. A few yards away from us, a Confederate reenactor becomes the first to catch a bullet (really a blank) in his gut. With a jump, roll, and tumble, he becomes the first corpse.
Hundreds of rifles send sound waves crashing against the crowd. Four Union cannons sporadically blast white smoke-clouds onto the field, and the smoke snakes between the spectators.
Confederate soldiers fall faster than Union ones. Who dies is not choreographed in advance, but everyone knows how the story will end. Confederate soldiers know textbooks cite high death numbers on their side, so they comply.
This is part of battle magic.
When the battle is called, 90 percent of the corpses on the field belong to the South: a Union victory, as it was 147 years ago.
The first casualty has barely moved since his jump, roll, and tumble. He did twitch and breathe a couple times in role lapses. Now, though, he is rising from the field. Battle magic. The boy has not noticed the corpses disappearing one-by-one.
He’s clapping, shouting, bursting. “Good job, good guys,” he says to the victors, standing like stiff posts at the fort. “You’re the best!” Before the battle, I asked him to pick a winner. He picked the
Confederates. “Because, look!” he said, pointing to Confederate lines outnumbering Union infantry ten-to-one. “Look how many guys they got!” The boy eventually realizes the field has emptied. I think he notices his rock candy is bleeding blue on the grass, too. Just before the battle, one reenactor said this: “History is shaped by how we can relate to it.” The boy might not remember why one side won and the other lost, or why appearances don’t necessarily reflect heart. But he’ll likely remember the thunderous clap of cannon, the acrid smoke stinging his eyes, and the unanticipated victory against all odds. He’ll probably forget that he dropped his rock candy.
For upcoming events in Missouri, visit the Missouri Civil War Reenactors’ Association website at www.mcwra.org/events.html.