Winter 64

Feb. 20 -24 2008

Back row; Ron Roth, Bill Rodman, Garr Gast, Mike Schaffner, Alex Stowe, Tim Czerow, John Fable

Front row: Chris Piering, Conan,  Bill O'Dea, Shawn Parsons, Zach Parsons

 

  http://img177.imageshack.us/img177/3783/privateredmanry0.jpg

Shawn as corner man to the fighter Larouche

“Winter ‘64” After-Action Report

By M. A. Schaffner   aka Pvt. Alexander Tate

Company ‘K’ 151st N.Y.S.V.  

 Overview

 This event sponsored by the Columbia Rifles was based on the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac at Brandy Station in 1864.  Participants portrayed Companies ‘H’ and ‘K’ of the 151st New York State Volunteers, with battalion staff, a dispensary, laundresses, a Christian Commission detachment, and, for the last evening, the “White Star Saloon.”  Planned activities encompassed a broad range of experiences, including guard and fatigue duty, mail call, Sunday inspection, grand guard, foraging, and a boxing match.  

 To cover all this, “Winter ‘64” ran from Wednesday, February 20, 2008, to Sunday the 24th.  Officially, Wednesday was actually Friday, February 18, 1864, so we could hold the “Sunday” inspection on Friday, leaving a full day before going home.

 About seventy living historians participated in the event, which took place in the original home of the 151st NYSV near Newfane, New York.  A great deal of preparation went into readying the historical center and its buildings, digging sinks, positioning firewood and straw, planning a coordinated series of sub-events, and providing all participants with registration information, corps badges, period mailing instructions and materials, first person identities, etc.

 The organizers’ labors inspired corresponding efforts from all registrants.  Even with several pre-event dropouts, attendance exceeded 90%.  A couple of people showed up the second or third day, and two or three had to leave due to illness, but numbers and enthusiasm remained at a high level despite the unusual length of the event. 

 Clerical Operations

 Scott Biggar (as John Besher) served as the clerk of company ‘H’ and, as Alexander Tate, I served as clerk for company ‘K’ and the battalion.  With the  encouragement of Kevin O’Beirne and the other organizers, Scott and I started talking several months before the event about what we could do to support it.  We decided to try to reproduce the paperwork aspect of the scenario as far as practicable.  This meant both bringing the needed materiel and preparing to support a full range of possible activities. 

For materiel Scott brought a splendid reproduction of a clerk’s desk and I brought a box, each of which we fairly stuffed with stationery supplies such as pencils, pens, ink, inkstands, blank paper, steel erasers, blotters, straight edges, several yards of red tape, & c.  We also brought a pretty full range of forms for personnel, QM supplies, ordnance, and subsistence; as well as various period references, including the revised regulations, Scott’s military dictionary, ordnance instructions, and the first edition of Kautz’s Company Clerk.  We also had Sick Books, duty rosters, and descriptive rolls.

  In the event, at least 95% of this never saw the light of a cold winter’s day.  But that wasn’t the point.  The point was that they would have had it anyway.  For both Scott and me, I think it was a matter of professional pride to see that we would be as prepared as any clerk of the time for whatever did come up. 

  In order to provide some sort of ID that each participant would receive as they arrived, Scott suggested the furlough form.  That would have unique personal information enhancing its value as an ID (and later souvenir), but would also provide a convenient fiction to explain how we all happened to arrive at the same time in a prepared camp.  I thought this was a great idea; Kevin O’Beirne and the other organizers gave it their enthusiastic support, and we soon found ourselves preparing 60+ personalized forms. 

  Unfortunately I filled all my forms out with the 2008 dates instead of the 1864 ones.  I’m glad no one mentioned it at the time, but that probably says more about the average soldier’s desire to read through lengthy forms than any reluctance to tease the clerk for screwing up.  It also illustrates the unfortunate fact that an interest in 19th century paperwork doesn’t necessarily translate into competence.  Oh well.

  Enough work went into pulling together office supplies and filling out furloughs that I began to feel that the best thing about getting to the event was that it meant I no longer had to prepare for it.  By comparison the actual clerking seemed pretty easy.  Both Scott and I were, like the officers’ orderly and cooks, relieved from guard and fatigue.  Unlike the orderly and cooks our work was physically light.   Immediately after reveille we met with the first sergeants, filled out the morning reports, then got them signed by the orderly and officer in command, then gave them to the sergeant major.  In my case I  then took my report and Company ‘H’s to battalion headquarters to fill out the consolidated morning report, which I usually got done in time to show the adjutant as everyone finished breakfast.  We also provided the guardhouse with the Guard Report forms, copied orders into a blotter book, and performed sundry other tasks.

  It was interesting to see how this all became routinized over a four day event.  On the first day it took me about twenty minutes working with Sergeant Bloomer (Brian Luscombe) to understand our numbers.  On the second day it took about half that, mostly to figure out what I’d screwed up the first day.  By the last day, it took just a few minutes.  Even filling out the form went quicker, as the practice had made me far more familiar with it than I get during the typical weekend reenactment.              But that’s more than enough about clerking.

 Activities

 Friday, February 18, 1864 (Wednesday, February 20, 2008)

  For most of the day I rode up from the DC area with Assistant Surgeon Steinert (Noah Briggs).  Once in Newfane I spent my time squaring away my gear, slipping on ice, sleeping, and being woken up for roll calls.  My principal achievement of the day consisted of taking over the best berth in the Cooler Hut for myself.  Of course, the best berth in the Cooler Hut is, on the overall scale of hotel comfort, something on a par with the honeymoon sweet in Bergen-Belsen.

 Saturday, February 19, 1864 (Thursday, February 21, 2008)

  Thursday morning provided Company K its first opportunity to form up en masse for a reenactment of the last stand of the Teutonic knights in the Battle On the Ice (Novgorod 1, Teutons 0).   After reveille, the men went back to their huts and I conferred with 1st Sergt. Bloomer over the mysteries of the morning report. 

  Mr. Besher and I had expected sick call immediately after reveille, as it ought to have been, but it wasn’t scheduled for another couple of hours so we did our reports anyway.  I had a chance later in the day to glance over an officer’s shoulder at the actual event schedule and saw that they had about 237 discrete activities listed, so I can understand the mix-up.  Plus, I think they wanted the men to be awake before Steinert started poking at them.  In any case, we had a permanent invalid already housed in the dispensary (Theodore Bragdon – Hank Trent).

  Thursday pretty much ended up being the big settling in and meet and greet day.  I visited several friends and reinforced my exclusion from drill and fatigue by keeping on the move between the Cooler Hut and battalion office so no one could give me any actual work to do.  The downside of this was the ice.  I remember strolling along, wearing my blue spectacles to ward off snow blindness (per Scott’s – go ahead, look it up) when my heels undertook to leap at the horizon behind me.  I landed safely on my hip and, limping only slightly, decided to leave the blue glasses in a secure place for the rest of the event.

  We got most of our mail right before dinner.  For some reason a number of us didn’t get letters we’d expected from our spouses.  Since we were at a point half way through the normal length of a reenactment with a few days yet to go, this kicked off a certain sad homesickness only somewhat alleviated by the receipt of our boxes.  Among the other contents of my box from home was a package of “stationery” that contained a quire of writing paper, some blotter paper, and a couple of dozen prints with which to decorate the living quarters.  

  For the record, all of the prints (as well as the copy of “The Iron Platform” and the Workingman’s Association flyer) came from the New York Public Library online collection, and included several quite amusing cartoons of the era, a few pictures of brave soldiers and ships at sea, and several nudes.  Of the last, an Ingres proved especially popular, and a 19th century copy of an old master (well, she wasn’t that old) ended up gracing the sole window of the Cooler Hut, which tended to magnify the brightness of the light coming through and add warmth to the glow.   Several copies of the prints made their way around camp and proved a valuable investment in the goodwill of my comrades, not to mention earning me a pinch of tobacco, a bit of chocolate, and even some fractional currency.

  On the whole I managed to stay sufficiently busy and distracted to forget that the following day would be Sunday, with a dress parade.  I looked at my brass, consoled myself with the thought that it was as shiny as anyone’s, and committed to a generally cheerful and indolent remainder of the event.  Alas, Sergt. Bloomer soon appeared with instructions for how to pack for inspection, as well as the information that directly after we would be marched off to grand guard, perhaps for the whole of the next day and evening.   I remember exchanging grim stares with one of my hut mates.  What did these people think this was, the Army?

Sunday, February 20, 1864 (Friday, February 22, 2008)

  Suddenly I had no time for anything.  As soon as I’d finished the morning clerking, it was back to the Hut to pack for grand guard.  This would have been easy enough at home, but in the confines of our quarters involved an awful lot of shuffling clothes and gear in the intervals between my comrades doing the same.  I think the Cooler Hut isn’t much more than eight by ten feet in external dimensions, with four bunks to hold our seven men and an Airedale.  When two men taller than four feet lie down, each on their own end of the bunk, their legs overlap.  When the other fellow is of more than average height, decisive measures become necessary to avoid an undue intimacy with each other’s feet.   Besides myself, the Cooler Hut held Charles Redman (Bill Rodman), Charles Pettis (Chris Piering), Sergt. Nathan Peck (Garr Gast), Matthew O’Connor (Bill O’Dea), William Peacock (Tim Czerow), John Roddy (Alex Stowe) and Conan the Wonder Dog (Conan).  One of the funniest moments of the whole event came during our first hut inspection when the sergeant said, “Stand by your bunk.”  It was in fact physically impossible to stand anywhere in the Cooler Hut without standing by all eight bunks at the same time.  About the best thing I can say is that in the Stygian darkness of the hut I finally learned to tie my cravat without instructions, or a mirror, or any light – the point not being that I did it well, but at all.

It was under these conditions that I emptied my knapsack and repacked it, per instructions, with wool blanket, extra shirt, extra socks, shelter half, gum blanket, and overcoat rolled and strapped on top.  By the time I accomplished this, divine services were about to begin next door at the sutler’s hut, which was commandeered for the occasion by the Christian Commission.

  Having an insalubrious reputation to maintain, I had no desire to attend services.  When Lieutenant Carlin (Pat Craddock) told me that Captain Wiles (Dave Townsend) insisted, I insisted on having the adjutant read me the Articles of War – not as a choice, of course, but as punishment.  Reluctantly the lieutenant turned away and I went off to find the adjutant, Lieutenant Jewel (Scott Schotz).  He in turn went off to try to find a copy of the Articles of War.  Mr. Besher and I had several among our various texts but I wasn’t about to let on and after some effort Lieutenant Jewel made the military equivalent of the sign of the cross and sent me on my way to sin no more.  After this we had dress parade and knapsack inspection, the latter principally notable for the time it took us to un-sling our knapsacks and get them all pointed in the right direction.  So far as I know we passed. 

  The only drill of the weekend occurred right before the inspection, when the officers thought to find out whether or not we could all “stack arms.”  We could (which by the way is no mean feat on a glacial ice sheet), but the real problem is that nearly everyone knows a slightly different way to “take arms” afterward, all of which are from “Casey’s” and none of which can be performed correctly without technical hints and metaphysical commentary from the rear ranks, supplemented by helpful groping.  As a public service I now present the actual instructions from the manual:

 428.  At this command, the rear-rank man of every odd-numbered file will withdraw his piece from the stack; the front-rank man of every even file will seize his own piece with the left hand and that of the man on his right with his right hand, both above the lower band; the rear-rank man of the even file will seize his piece with the right hand below the lower band (if the rifle musket be used the piece will be seized at the middle band); these two men will raise up the stack to loosen the rammers, or shanks of the bayonets.  The front-rank man of every odd file will facilitate the disengagement of the rammers, if necessary, by drawing them out slightly with the left hand, and will receive his piece from the hand of the man next on his left; the four men will retake the position of the soldier at order arms.

  Easy, right?

  In a pleasant surprise, we learned that we had several hours left after inspection before we had to go out on grand guard or provost duty.  These I resolved to spend in studied idleness.  At some point I discovered that most of the hut had been picked for some specific duty.  Not being sure what I was supposed to do, I went to ask Sergt. Bloomer when and where I should report for grand guard.

  “I wasn’t going to take you,” he said.  I must have looked confused because he added, “You don’t actually want to go, do you?”

  Well of course anyone who actually wants to go on grand guard can be justly accused of displaying an unhistoric excess of enthusiasm.  Still, I told the Sergeant that as all of my Hut mates had been on one round of duty after another, and several were going out on the line themselves, I was slightly less terrified of grand guard than of being discovered snoozing peacefully when they got off their shifts. 

  With much grace the Sergeant allowed that I could tag along as a supernumerary and I went back to my cabin, seemingly light of foot, but in reality attempting to kick in my head with my own brogans.

We fell in around four in the afternoon, ten privates, three corporals, Sergeant Bloomer, and Captain Wiles.  An issue of ten rounds in an arsenal pack lent a certain note of solemnity to the occasion, which note was accentuated when the long roll beat and everyone in camp including the guards fell in for a momentary, false alarm.  And then we were off, crunching over the ice en route to the road.  We went in extra heavy marching order, with greatcoats atop in addition to blankets within our knapsacks, and the ground was sufficiently bad – with snow atop ice atop snow melted and refrozen in lumps and ridges – that the asphalt of the road was a pleasant contrast.  Still, we had a more or less level route and not very far to go beyond the proverbial mile and a half.  The only part that gave me pause was when we turned off the road, crossed a field and encountered a ditch at the edge of an orchard.  The ditch was at most ten feet wide, but in any case too far to jump, and bridged only by single plank that looked maybe eight inches wide crossing ice water a foot or two deep.

  “This is not good,” said a young soldier with the courage to voice what the rest of us only thought.

     “Follow me,” said Sergt. Bloomer, apparently undismayed.  We watched him cross and, seeing him survive, resigned ourselves to following.  A few hundred yards farther, across a ditch small enough to leap and another field of stunted fruit trees, we came to a hollow by the side of a stream where we were to set up our guard.  Here we found all the components of a comfortable winter post – a shack with a stove for our commander Captain Wiles, a pile of cut firewood, a mound of evergreen boughs, some fence rails, and an A tent.  All we had to do was fold the tabs and assemble.  

  This we did with reasonable efficiency, though it took a while to decide just what to do with the tent.  Some wanted to throw it over the boughs as a ground cover, some to set it up as a windbreak, and some to pitch it as a tent, while others contributed helpful observations on the feng shui of each alternative.  In the end we pitched it over a patch of ice in a location where it served passably as a minor windbreak.  It wasn’t ideal, but it ended the conversation.  We built two fires, one for each relief, kindled with squaw wood from the neighboring trees, and one enterprising soldier went into the nearby orchard and came back with an armful of tall dried grass to augment the evergreen boughs.

  Captain Wiles and Sergt. Bloomer established the first shift of pickets for half an hour and at the end of that time conducted the first relief to their posts.  After that the work went fairly automatically.   I had little to do but hang around the fire and notice how cold it was getting, but Sergt. Bloomer pointed out that standing on a piece of wood rather than directly on the ice would help keep my feet from freezing and, not long after sunset, declared that the time had arrived to put on our greatcoats.  I think it was coldest for about an hour after dusk, after which it seemed OK.  The moon was nearly full, the roads and modern lights were out of view, and the surrounding woods and fields were as beautiful as a dream. 

    The Johnnies had pickets not far from ours, and only later did I realize that there was no “provost guard” but that this was a cover for Redman, O’Connor, and others to galvanize as our opposition. Their transformation was facilitated by the alarm in camp just before we left – it ensured we were all formed up and looking in the other direction as they marched out ahead of us.  It was another sign of the amount of thought that went into preparing the event.

 In any case, our enemies didn’t give us much trouble.  Some bantering went on, but Captain Wiles quickly forbade any attempts to trade (“They need it; we don’t”) and refused invitations to parley, unless to discuss their surrender.  We had a bit of excitement at one point when, while inspecting the lines, the Captain called out the guard.  The nine of us not on duty quickly assembled, marched out, and formed in line, but the alarm lasted only a few minutes.  The real high point came when we heard voices in the adjoining orchard and, going out, encountered a bewildered civilian gentleman looking for a “kitty” named Pumpkin.  It was with some difficulty that I convinced him that the picket line was not the best place to be wandering about in search of a stray cat and I only succeeded when his younger brother – a cranky but not unreasonable fellow – showed up.

These were Hank Trent and Noah Briggs, our erstwhile invalid and assistant surgeon.  I think it speaks volumes about their talents at first person that within moments any resemblance they might have to comrades of the 151st dropped to the side.  Pretty much the whole group on picket became focused on the fate of Pumpkin and the problem of how to handle these two civilians, each of whom presented a different problem.  Was the fool faking it?  Was the “sane” brother a spy?  I have a great deal of respect for both Hank and Noah, so I feel a little awkward in noting the excellence with which one portrayed the village idiot and the other an obstreperous jerk, but I think we can all agree that they added an unexpectedly rich dimension to the evening’s scenario.  With the exception of a brief digression on the future literary accomplishments of Ambrose Bierce (a topographical engineer on the staff of General Hazen out west), most of the ensuing conversation turned to the probable fate of Pumpkin.  The boys got pretty creative with the possibilities but my favorite was when Private/Brevet Corporal Williams (Matt Woodburn) pulled a glowing twig from the fire and, turning in Hank’s direction, inquired, “Is this your kitty’s tail?”

  Around 10 p.m. we got orders to fall in, so we struck the tent, doused the fires, made a passing attempt to restack the unburned firewood, and marched out.  I think that despite The Plank we would have had an easy enough time marching all the way back, but as it was we only went a short distance to the road where a small caravan of vehicles soon arrived to take us back.  I seem to remember an online controversy a few years ago about the use of shuttles at “Shenandoah ’62.”  One could perhaps argue that this was for some reason fundamentally less inauthentic but, to tell the truth, most of us could not care less.  I didn’t hear any objections and was myself perfectly happy to accept the ride.

    Back at camp we found that the guard detail had kept all of our stoves going in our absence.  This occasioned such delight in the Sibley that the Vesuvius Lodge commenced celebrating, loudly and vigorously, and continued for some time.  The singing, laughing, and yelling became so intense that for a moment I thought that I had been mysteriously transported back to October, and Cedar Creek.  It raised the question of how this aspect of the event differed from similar celebrations at “mainstream” events.  Thinking about it, I came up with the following distinctions:

  1. The celebrants were, on average, younger.
  2. They had nicer uniforms.
  3. None of the songs actually mentioned the IRA.
  4. No one puked in the fire.
  5. It stopped at midnight.
  6. Everyone fell in, armed and accoutered, at the next morning’s roll call. 

  How much any of this matters depends on the individual, but I was particularly impressed by items 3, 5, and 6, in that order.

 Monday, February 20, 1864 (Saturday, February 23, 2008)

  The two clerks had been warned for a foraging detail so, after the normal morning clerking, Mr. Besher and I spent a few minutes in the Regs looking for something we could use as a receipt for subsistence stores.  There wasn’t anything, so we took a generic receipt form and filled out the basic information (date, location, & c.) on copies for subsistence and quartermaster property, the latter just in case we found it necessary to make off with a wagon or small building or something.  You never know.

   At ten a.m. our detail fell in, with about ten enlisted men led my Sergt. Stout (Brian Hicks) and Lieutenant Carlin.  We retraced our route of the previous evening, including The Plank, but instead of proceeding to the creek we marched up to a large brick house that had seen service before the war as a way station for the underground railroad and was notable for its mansard roof and upstairs windows painted to resemble stained glass.  We were in light marching order, with empty knapsacks for whatever provender we might find.  The day was fine and mostly sunny; the temperature even got above freezing for perhaps the first time in the event.  At first I regretted not wearing my mittens or wristers, but we quickly warmed up. 

  Things warmed up even more when the denizens of the house saw us come up.  Out came the two boys from the evening before, this time accompanied by their mother, whose offended southern propriety was convincingly portrayed by Terre Lawson.  The Lieutenant had already sent Sergt. Stout around with a couple of men to search the outbuildings and now explained to the worthy citizens that, with regrets for the circumstances that caused such necessity, we had to relieve them of the fixings for supper for sixty.  But not to worry – we would leave them a receipt.  Noah took this as his cue to step forward and berate the officer, while Hank and Terre accompanied him with a sort of rustic Greek chorus – Hank whining piteously as he twirled a watchman’s rattle and Terre wailing a lengthy account of the accomplishments of her ancestors in signing various Important Documents of American History. 

  Noah, as part of his assault on Carlin, produced an Oath of Allegiance and a Safeguard, which temporarily set the officer aback.  At that point I stepped out of line (literally – I had been doing it figuratively most of the event) and Sergt. Lyman Philips (Greg Renault) cautioned me to get back.  “I presume you brought a clerk along for a reason,” I said, and Carlin waved me forward.  I explained to Noah that the safeguard only protected the family and their property from casual desecration by individual soldiers – it provided no basis for refusing the legitimate request of a commissioned officer supported by a signed receipt. 

I don’t actually know that this is exactly true, but it did the trick.

   After a quick search of the house to see whether anything suggested itself as worth taking, the detachment marched to the outbuildings behind the house, one of which held several bushels of vegetables and half of a largish pig.  Mr. Besher and I went forward to make a note of the amounts and fill out the receipt accordingly.  Conscious of the solemnity of the occasion I strode purposefully forward and, just before I got to the door, found my heels taking wing in my second great pratfall of the event.  Fortunately I landed on the same hip as before, the pain of which I was already used to.

  Once we clerks completed our assignment a detail brought the food out for others to stuff in their knapsacks.  Shirker that I am, I held back a little – not so much because of the weight as to avoid sullying the inside of my knapsack with dirty root vegetables.  What I didn’t realize was that having an empty knapsack was the principal qualification for the Pig Detail.  After a brief delay in which Lieutenant Carlin contemplated, then discarded some Final Solution to the complaints of the civilians – I think I speak for most of the men in saying that we would just as soon have knocked them over the head – we picked up our burdens and marched off.

  Well, most of the men marched off.  Myself and another soldier shouldered the pole from which the pig depended like a cannibal prize and attempted to march, but managed little more than a pained waddle.  I told Lieutenant Carlin that he needed four fellows on it, at which he offered to take my place.  This offended my sense of propriety so he desisted, but did put us at the head of the column so we wouldn’t be abandoned by the others.  This worked for about fifty yards at which point it became clear that if anyone wanted pork before breakfast the next day, they had better not depend on me bringing it.  This time when Lieutenant Carlin offered to take my end I agreed.  Private Byron Randall  (Justin Runyon) relieved my comrade on the other end and the two of them ended up carrying that damn demi-swine, with one short relief, all the way back into camp.  This included crossing The Plank, which I can’t help but view as the Regiment’s single most heroic deed over the whole four days.  After we got back, and passed the guards presenting arms to our pig, we gave the Lieutenant three well-earned cheers.

   We thought our work done and looked forward to a little down time before the afternoon and evening’s festivities, commencing with the boxing match that the adjutant had been taking book on all week, and the later gaming and drinking at the White Star Saloon.  But then we learned that the cooks were unprepared to actually cook the food we’d returned with and that the duty would fall back on us.

   After a brief period during which it would not have been safe for the cooks to emerge from the cookhouse, the men went to work on meal preparation.  Sergt. Bloomer again led the way, and even the clerk pitched in at peeling potatoes.  The Sibley singers helped the work along with splendid renditions of popular tunes, Schnapps snuck in a verse or two of “Hinaus in die Ferne” and “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” and we all bellowed out a rousing chorus of “Oh Canada” in honor of our first sergeant. 

  With the vegetables ready for the fire, I washed my hands.   I was then approached by Corpl. Seldon Goddard (Herb Coats) for assistance in resolving an accusation that he’d beaten up a group of VRC on leave in Washington City when in fact he’d been on furlough in Newfane.  This was an interesting sort of clerking pop quiz.  I asked him to accompany me to battalion HQ and on a half sheet of letter paper prepared the requested document, asking Capt. Wiles to sign as a witness.  After that, I was pretty much done for the day.  I finally got the letter my wife had sent me, and had to turn away from my comrades for a moment to wipe my eyes.  Funny thing about that – I knew I’d be going home the next day but it still seemed, at that moment, like the best thing anyone could possibly have given me.  The epic boxing match was one to remember and thanks to YouTube will be, but I didn’t watch it.  The White Star Saloon put on an excellent display, but after one beer I went back to the Cooler Hut and passed the time chatting with comrades in a warm place. 

   There was a lot of drinking that last night, which probably wasn’t a great idea with all the ice around, and if we are to believe G. A. Sala was pretty atypical of the Army of the Potomac in its winter quarters at Brandy Station.  But it was the last night of a four day event that was the last on a site famed for top tier events.  I think we all felt that we were near the end of a truly extraordinary experience.  Most events consist of full day of activity sandwiched between two predominantly travel days.  This one had three full days preceded by weeks, months, and even years of preparation by many dedicated participants.  We had a lot to celebrate.

  Tuesday, February 21, 1864 (Sunday, February 24, 2008)

 The morning clerking flew by, packing took far less time than I expected, and even with last minute good-byes and photography the 10 a.m. parade and dismissal came quite soon.  I took a last look inside the Cooler Hut to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but it was hard to focus – it seemed too bare.  Even with the remaining pinups, it didn’t look like home anymore.  Noah and I took Hank to the bus station in Buffalo then drove the eight hours back to northern Virginia talking of little else but the event.  I suspect we’ll be talking about it for years to come.

Living Conditions

 I mentioned earlier the general conditions in the Cooler Hut.  There were several others, holding from two to three men each to, in the case of the hutted Sibley, more than a dozen.  All of these represented a tremendous amount of work by the volunteers of the present-day 151st, both to build and to maintain.  And all – with the exception of the officers’ quarters in the post office, which bore a passing resemblance to a human habitation – were unsafe, unsanitary barbaric firetraps.  But they did achieve a high degree of authenticity and, when all is said and done, became our homes.

 In addition to the huts themselves, volunteers had prepared a more than adequate supply of firewood.  There was also in stock sufficient straw for every man to draw the regulation 12 pounds for bedding, which went a very long way to ensuring our comfort.  In addition, although our beloved sutler Mr. Hopkins was off in Washington City, Mr. Beasley of the Christian Commission (the same one and only Charles Heath) had taken care to prepare our homes with appropriate graffiti as well as little gifts of liver oil and various relishes.

 Because for personal reasons I seldom draw rations at events I cannot comment first hand on the food served from the cookhouse.  From the reactions of my comrades it ranged from adequate to execrable.  The first day’s dinner of pea soup was burned and the supper of beef and cabbage was more gulag than goulash.  I understand that a few of the responsible adults protested, pointing out the safety issue raised by such a diet for men working in Arctic conditions.  We in the Cooler Hut had our own resources in our boxes from home, but not everyone did, so we gave a salami and other stores to the company for redistribution.  The next day’s breakfast was large enough, but not everyone could stomach it.  We were later told that this was all a deliberate prelude for the foraging scenario.  Those who wish to believe this are entitled to their opinion, as are those who doubt the cooks’ ability to calibrate the precise degree of burn in pea soup.  In any case, the cooks worked very hard to provide for all their customers and no one got sick.  Finally, the discussion of food would not be complete without mentioning the generosity of Mr. Beasley in providing every hut with USCC canned peaches and tomatoes, and of Mrs. Lawson in cooking pies.

 Sanitation over a four day event proved rather interesting.  Both officers and enlisted had their own sinks, the former a bit more finished than the latter but both al fresco.  The enlisted sinks were also down an icy slope from the huts, though not nearly so far as in 2006.  Each hut also had a slop bucket, which was best used outside as at least one hut would discover to its sorrow.   Despite the potty talk that distinguishes certain online fora, research into period latrines remains in its infancy, and there’s reason to suspect that what we had only crudely approximated the norm in Brandy Station.  For one thing there was no dirt for the fatigue detail to shovel over the growing contents so from the first day to the last we were reminded that, in addition to Conan the Wonder Dog, our other mascot was apparently a fastidious and well-nourished pygmy hippopotamus.  For the weak-willed among us there was a porta-john near registration, but on days the sun shone the outdoor sinks were probably superior.

 For water we had a hose just outside the barn across the road from camp.  There was occasionally modern traffic on this road, and there were modern houses in view across the valley from the encampment but under the circumstances none of these intrusions had much effect on the overall sense of living in the 19th century.  

 As a final note on conditions, the icy ground gave all of us more of a workout than one might otherwise expect.  The organizers and staff did their best to keep the principal avenues covered with boughs or straw but keeping one’s balance in brogans remained a challenge the whole event.

 First Person

 I was surprised how well this worked out.  We had a “safe word” that could be used to warn others that we were about to leave 19th century conversation – “I hear Blinky French is in his cups again.”  This alluded to accusations that the Corps commander had been drinking during the Mine Run campaign and was in practice inevitably shortened to “Blinky’s in his cups” or “Blinky etcetera,” but it was seldom completely omitted.  And people seemed to improvise a sort of informal commitment where Blinky French went in and out of sobriety but never fell entirely off the wagon.  Most conversations had a first person core, with 21st century talk blended in as necessary to communicate, or as a mutually acceptable commentary on the action. Though we felt pretty free to drop firper in the sanctity of the Cooler Hut, the talk seldom wandered far from what we were doing.  People may have shared experiences from past events, or thoughts on what was going on around them, but I heard nothing along the lines of what usually comes up at events, such as World War II or consumer electronics.  On the way back to Buffalo, Hank Trent remarked on how pleasantly surprised he was to walk down the street in camp one morning and overhear nothing that seemed out of place.  Offhand, I can’t think of a higher tribute.

Conclusion

 On the whole, this was in many ways the highest quality event I’ve attended and I find it difficult to imagine how it could have been improved.  We had a number of leaders in the authentic wing of the hobby, and a number of authentic leaders.  Beyond that, I think we could sense that the organizers were pulling out all the stops to make this a memorable event.  The participants responded in kind by bringing their A game.  We very quickly became more than the sum of 70 well-researched parts, and took on the character of an entire 19th century community, effectively sustained over several days.  The ultimate effect was little short of magical.

Salt Boiler Mess