Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 3

A Soldier's Pack

Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town
My parents find the bayonet

An old Confederate soldier holds the long metal shaft in his hand.  He indicates the tepee-shaped tip, explains how when you stick a man through with it, the bayonet leaves an odd-shaped hole that a surgeon cannot easily stitch up.  So the wound festers and the man dies.  This is just one of the reasons why the bayonet was among most feared weapons in all the Civil War.

Also, it was very good for cooking meat.

The bayonet is one of many fun items arranged on the old soldier's table.  There is a square-headed tooth brush with a bone handle, tooth cleaning powder in a round tin, soap, small white candles, little sacks of rice and beans, and a tin cup with ice water--though the ice is probably not historically accurate.  Everything fits into the soldier's canvas bag, which is coated in tar.  The tar keeps the rain from contaminating the goods.

Fun stuff in a Soldier's Pack
I don't know how it happens, but suddenly I'm recruited into the Confederate army.  The old soldier puts a gray wool coat on me.  It's cotton-lined and not nearly as hot as it looks.  But it is a bit heavy.   

He has a blanket, too, which he's rolled up and twisted into an oval shape.  Some soldiers carry their blankets on their backs.  He prefers to loop it around his neck and demonstrates this tactic by sticking it on me.  The blanket oval goes over my head and through one arm.  It mildly chokes me.  He says it will flatten over time and then sticks a musket in my hand.

In the Confederate Army
The weight is beginning to add up.  I'm not falling over or anything, but it is uncomfortable.  The blanket oval reminds me of a harness.

"I feel like a pack horse," I comment.

The old Confederate lifts up his boot.  A horseshoe is nailed into the heel.

Soldiers actually did this during the Civil War.  The horseshoe broke up the ground and gave them better traction when marching over rough terrain.

We turn to the food.  I see what looks like a very large, very fat saltine cracker.

I become excited.  "Is that--?"

Hardtack.  Image courtesy of New Boston Historical Society.

Teeth Dullers. Worm Castles.

 Way back in high school I read about this Civil War ration with horrific delight.  A simple mixture of flour, salt, and water created this indestructible biscuit that soon became the bane of soldiers everywhere.  And now I have the chance to eat it!

But first I must break off a piece, and that proves to be about as easy as ripping a rock.  The darn thing will not crumble.  At last the old soldier manages to chisel me off a morsel.  I pop it in my mouth.

"Don't bite down," he warns.

I know.  I let the hardtack soften in my spit.  I'm surprised how quickly it dissolves.  For all the mythos regarding the hardtack, it really just tastes like a saltine cracker.

Of course this hardtack is new.  The soldier tells me his wife made it this weekend.  In the Civil War, hardtack would last for months.  Sometimes they'd acquire unexpected guests, which would wriggle out when the soldiers soaked the biscuit in their chicory "coffee."

"But I don't think the soldiers minded the worms," the old soldier tells me.  "Extra protein."

I can't imagine anyone wanting to eat worms.  But it's true the soldiers were in a perennial state of hunger, especially on the Confederate side.

A second Confederate soldier, popping in on our conversation, tells us how he saw Confederate uniforms on display at a museum, that they looked so small, they almost seemed fake.  "These were men who stood at 5' 6" and weighed about 130 pounds.  You could put your hands completely around their waist."

Unlike the Impersonators

At the time of the Civil War, one woman describing the Confederate soldiers noted the "gaunt starvation that looked from their cavernous eyes" and further remarked: "That they could march or fight at all seems incredible." (Grant, 201).  Needless to say, after the battle, soldiers could often be found stripping supplies off the dead, friend and foe alike.

This brings me to the quiz portion of this blog.

Question:  What's the number one thing that soldiers would look for when foraging off the battlefield?   Is it:

a. money
b. food
c. ammunition
d. canteens
e. shoes

Surprisingly, the answer is d. canteens.  Next they looked for ammunition, followed by food.  However, if a soldier did see a dead man with money or a nice set of shoes, well, it wasn't going to do him any good, was it?

Confederate Camp

* * *

To Be Continued...

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

Additional Sources:

Grant, R. G.  Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man.  DK Publishing: New York, 2010.

Harding, David (editor).  Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.  Diagram Visual: New York, 1990.

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