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
Shawn as corner man to the fighter Larouche
“Winter ‘64” After-Action Report
By M. A.
‘K’ 151st N.Y.S.V.
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.
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.
February 18, 1864 (Wednesday, February 20, 2008)
February 19, 1864 (Thursday, February 21, 2008)
Sunday, February 20,
1864 (Friday, February 22, 2008)
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.
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.
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.
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?”
February 20, 1864 (Saturday, February 23, 2008)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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