By Joshua Thiering
First Hand Account
One would be surprised by the thoughts that run through the mind when lying on the ground playing dead after succumbing for the second time during a Civil War re-enactment.
A young recruit to the Confederates was one casualty who just happened to conveniently run into Union soldiers in front of a bleacher full of modern onlookers.
I was the young recruit participating in the Battle of Ogletree Bay in Copperas Cove, Texas. While dying, this private wasn’t thinking about home and country, his lady, or who would look after his sister. He was thinking, “Why did I die with my face staring at the sun? I wish they had sunscreen back then. The next time I die, I will be more careful.”
Like Lazarus, I died twice. The second time was much more convincing. Though the enemies were aiming above and away from the Confederates (for safety), a rogue Union “bullet,” powered by destiny, struck my chest, causing a violent effect.
The redeeming thing about re-enactments is that participants die at their own discretion, and nobody want
s to be the first to die. This spat of necrophobia led to 15 minutes of fighting without a single casualty.
“It must have taken the soldiers about 15 minutes to perfect their aim,” Noelle Renfro, a spectator, said.
The smoke from the rifle and cannon fire put a fog over the hard-fought territory of Ogletree Gap, a city park in Copperas Cove. The smell of sweat and gunpowder assaulted soldiers’ nostrils. As I was loading the rifle, cannon fire startled me. I poured half of the gunpowder down the barrel of the gun and the other half down the collar of my shirt. The blackened collar now served as a badge of rattled nerves.
In order to load a Civil War era rifle, infantrymen have to pull a pouch of gun powder out of their back holster, tear a hole in the top, pour it down the barrel, and put a small cap over the pin while half cocked. Many of the men use their teeth to tear the powder pouch. Following their example, as a baby-faced private I earnestly bit a little too hard into my packet, getting a mouthful of gunpowder, which tasted like dirt.
Once dead, I watched as Union soldiers walked past after the retreating Confederates.
I began to entertain thoughts of last-second heroics. I could just climb to my feet daringly and fire shots with my pistol at the backs of the enemies as if I wasn’t really dead. I could even yell, “Die you bluecoat scum. I was only pretending to be dead. Now you’re dead!”
Not being one for theatrics, I abstained, and knew I wouldn’t be able to get past “blue coat scum” without laughing.
Soon the battle was over. The Confederates had lost, and the Yankees had acquired Ogleetree Gap.
Feeling like a war hero, I picked my sweat-drenched body off the earth and marched back to the campsite, with the peculiar sense of honor and dignity that comes from pretending to fight for one’s country.
Eight tents formed the campsite of the Fight’n Sixth, my regiment.
The troops in the South had a variety of names. Some called them Greybacks, and others Abe Lincoln killers. Today the Fight’n Sixth were Abe Lincoln killers.
Wooden chests, oil lamps, Confederate flags, canteens and tin cups marked the campsite. For the most part, the participants steered clear of modern conveniences. A roll of paper towels, used primarily for cleaning, was the lone exception.
Back at the campsite after the battle, I retold the story of the gunpowder, getting inside my mouth and shirt.
“It’s an acquired taste,” the lieutenant jokingly responded.
The colonel added that he seasons his steaks with it.
At the mention of steaks, I began to feel hungry and reached into my ration sack for an after-battle snack. What I found was hardtack, commonly called tooth iron. It was a staple of Civil War rations for the South.
Hardtack (pronounced almost like heart attack) is made from one part water and six parts flour. With these wheat bricks, one could break a window, sharpen a knife or possibly balance a coffee table. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that cement, which was first created in 1824, was not at the very least a little inspired by hardtack.
The after-battle conversations were sometimes lax. The men spoke of contemporary things like putting Mentos into three-liter coke bottles and watching them erupt like geysers. Other times the conversations struck closer to the era, making them difficult for the modern ear to understand.
Two hours later, the soldiers’ ears were still ringing. But through those ringing ears, stories of other re-enactment could be heard of the strict diehard fighters of authenticity called the stitch counters. These exacting re-enactors count seams and turn up their noses at historical inaccuracies like a coat with machine-sewn button holes.
Union soldiers are frightening, but for a novice, stitch counters are worse.