Shiloh at Sesquicentennial Reenactment

The last Saturday in March found us trudging through ankle deep mud to reach the encampment at Shiloh.Ahead we could see the sutlers’ tents as we heard  the pounding of gunfire and saw smoke in the distance. I felt transported in time.

One week short of Shiloh’s sesquicentennial anniversary and the conditions were much the same. The mud, heat, and bugs plagued re-enactors and spectators just a they had a century and a half earlier.Unlike the soldiers, we had made the conscious choice to visit , mine based on photo opportunities and my husband’s on his interest in history.

What struck me first was the passion of the re-enactors. They travel from all parts of the country to play a specific  role in battle. Staying in character included sleeping in a tent in the rain with no conveniences.( Although there was a porta- potty nearby. I can’t imagine how that works with a hoop skirt. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d like to find out.) All supplies and equipment are meant to be historically appropriate to the 1860’s.The sutlers ( suppliers) travel the country supplying the troops and for some this is a full-time job.One purveyor had spent hours the day before fitting women’s corsets. The tailor repaired uniforms and a photographer used a box camera and offered tintypes. I realized how much I appreciate my digital camera.

An opportunity to meet the generals was the first scheduled event. I was surprised as to how many people crowded into the tent . General Grant , the first speaker, waved his cigar and stood on a table. A dynamic speaker , he commanded respect . One or two hecklers made their anti-Union sentiments known.After his speech,  visitors crowded Grant with questions and for photo ops ( kind of like the line at Disney to shoot photos with Mickey). They treated him with a deference and awe that surprised me since this was all an act.  General Sherman who was heckled loudly by the Georgia contingent came next. He was followed by General Hardee, a CSA general , who received a standing ovation from most of the crowd. A band played several pieces including The Bonnie Blue Flag which again brought many people to their feet standing hand over heart . They did not play The Star Spangled Banner, which left me sitting and feeling out of place.

One speaker said that The War Between the States should not be called The Civil War. While I totally agree that there is nothing about  war that can be called civil, historians do call it The Civil War.He emphasized that he was often told to get over it, and felt that it was a disservice to our history. What struck me is that the overarching issue of slavery is never mentioned or portrayed and those issues did not end with the war.

Taking time to visit the camps ,I admired patchwork quilts and garments hanging in the tents. A good number of children , also dressed in period garb, tended to chores around campsites. I tried to determine how their parents had convinced them to forgo digital devices for several days, let alone to dress in period clothing rather than jeans and tee shirts.

The juxtaposition of time periods clashed in lines at fast food vendors and throughout the camp.Hoop skirted women shopped next to those in cut-offs.On the battlefield itself, lawn chairs and coolers arranged in areas surrounded by caution tape added a sense of surrealism to the event.People handed out ear plugs to temper the cannon noise.

Before the starting time of 1:30, I wandered the battlefield shooting photos and trying to avoid getting trampled by Grant’s steed.I shot photos of children as drummers and cannon minders. Several battlefield photographers carried what looked like box cameras until I realized they were wooden boxes disguising digital cameras.I was disappointed.

As the battle began, I noticed women dressed as soldiers.I was surprised to learn of the controversy this choice causes in some reenactment circles. There documented research is that there are a number of women (stated as near to 400) who fought on both sides of the war as male soldiers. Most of the research is based on diary excerpts and reports.Still a number of groups don’t accept women outside of the standard roles of nurse, laundresses, and vivandieres. The National Park Service has ruled that women cannot be prohibited from events based on their sex , yet some continue to face discrimination or the epithet Farby Barbie.

Farby is a term that used to describe items in reenactment that are not true to the period. One site attributed the word to the comment “Far be it from me to tell you….” Barbie is self-explanatory.The issue raises interesting questions. The only women  documented are those who were discovered or those who admitted it later. Women who were truly successful in their participation as soldiers could never be counted accurately.If reenactment is meant to be historically accurate , then I would think women soldiers should be included . Obviously, those that were so easy to identify could not have kept their identities secret for long.

This was one of many issues that came to mind during the day. Re-enactments during the Sesquicentennial are major contributors to tourism. Tennessee is home to the second largest number of Civil War battlefields, and the Tennessee vacations website offer many resources on the events and touring of battlefield sites.Virginia, Maryland, and of course Pennsylvania have theirs. Next year is the Battle of Gettysburg‘s sesquicentennial, the big event, and many people at Shiloh discussed plans to participate or attend. Three days of activity and reenactment are planned for those first days of July 2013, the bloodiest of the war, a battle that was unplanned and began with the Confederate soldiers‘ need for shoes.

At the end of our day , sunburned, thirsty and hot, we drove home to air-conditioning and dinner. The 100,00 soldiers and more than 20,000 casualties at Shiloh could not.

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About unsouthernbelle

I am a native New Yorker , transplanted to Memphis, who is a photographer, teacher, and wanderer. I am inspired by the beauty and stories that resonate from abandoned places and found objects. View all posts by unsouthernbelle

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