The Civil War Connections Blog

Reenactors Memory (continued)

Hello again folks, and welcome back to the Connections blog! To rehash the closing sentiment of my previous blog post, Civil War reenactments provide a unique opportunity to step inside the shoes of our ancestors. Many reenactors take the events close to heart, and for them it’s about honoring our forefathers and the history they wrote, having a good time camping and marching around in period clothing, and acting out the battles. A great deal of fun is had by all, and a great deal of appreciation is felt for those who did all this for real.

For example, as the Irish Brigade slowly marched into view during Saturday’s Bloody Lane engagement, I got the chills. Click for a MUCH larger view!


However, a Civil War reenactment isn’t all butterflies and rainbows. There is a hefty amount of potential to take away a grim, depressing view of the conflict, which in some ways is more appropriate than having a lot of fun. One need only visit the Civil War surgeon’s desk to find out how many soldiers died of disease during the conflict (about 2/3rds of all Civil War military deaths were from disease.) Also, the way that surgeons dealt with the wounded would make a grown man cringe and shuffle his feet: most bullet wounds to the limbs were dealt with by amputation, and during big battles the surgeons often ran out of chloroform. Details like this paint the conflict in a whole new light – for each of those soldiers lying “dead” on the field at the end of a reenactment, one could easily picture two more rolling around in their blankets back in camp, running a fever and producing foul substances from various ends of their bodies. On Saturday afternoon’s Bloody Lane battle, I got “killed” and then revived by a battlefield medic, who put a red-stained bandage around my arm and helped me back to our reforming battle lines.

19th century Battlefield Medicine at its finest.


If I had truly sustained an arm-wound from a Civil War bullet, I would probably have to have it amputated: the bullets were made of soft lead, and would smush and fragment when they hit hard objects like a human bone. As they smushed and fragmented, they broke the bone in a multitude of different places, making bullet extraction and healing almost impossible even for modern medical personnel, much less the crude 1860’s surgeons. And chances are, after lots of heavy fighting and an overwhelming number of wounded, I would have had it amputated without chloroform or ether as a painkiller. Then, I would probably catch a disease and die from the extremely dirty hands and tools used by the medical staff, who didn’t know that washing your hands and tools after each patient was something you should do.

Makes me not mind the fact that modern medicine costs an arm and a leg…


In addition to the grim reality of death, a Civil War reenactment can also provoke a host of divisive and controversial points of view. Slavery in particular is a hot topic, one that divides both reenactors and members of the public. Most Confederate reenactors believe that the soldiers they portray were fighting for their homes and their states against a hostile invader, while many Union reenactors believe that the soldiers they portray were fighting for the Constitution and freedom for the slaves. Historically, both sides are right – and both sides are wrong. Tune in next week for a blog post on the Emancipation Proclamation, and how it forever changed what the Civil War was about. Until then, have a good one!