All images and text ©Bennett Barthelemy and some images licensed through Tandem Stock
“I think it’s just a place for a bunch of closet racists.”
Mike had just expressed a somewhat tepid response to my days plan - to casually intermingle with a 500 or so living anachronisms and a cadre of a dozen Meetup photographers from Portland. Enroute to MacIver State park, at the Clackamas Shell staion, I had randomly picked up Mike who was heading to his rented room on the other side of Estacada. Oddly enough, he was a photographer as well, shooting bands. I told Mike I had never been to a reenactment, never thought I would go - mainly because I too assumed I could find better things to fill my time. But this morning at 8 AM I found myself charging forward with some excitement.
I found a strange mix of emotions stirred while attending the Civil War reenactment... The first was a bit of shock at shoveling out five dollars for the state park entrance and another eight for the event. 13$ was how much a soldier in the Civil War earned in an entire month of fighting and I blew it in two minutes. Back then that same soldier could trade that months pay and get himself embalmed. Money really went a lot further then. This investment had me determined to make the most of the day.
As I parked I could see scores of the period white canvas tents set up in a section of the sprawling park that went westward into groves of trees and out of sight. It had turned out to be a stellar sunny day, the first day of fall, despite a bit of a dismal forecast for gray skies. The battles took place twice that day with over three hundred soldiers on foot, horses, complete with canons, muskets, rifles, revolvers blasting. Smoke, ear deafening blasts, the ground literally shaking… The choreographed battles, which I am guessing were meticulously researched and followed to the best reality given the terrain, troops and supplies and safety of everyone - were pretty damn epic despite the odd smile in the heat of battle.
I admit to getting emotional when the first soldier took a bullet and dropped. This took a while during real fighting apparently with each side getting closer and closer to each other because the accuracy of the guns was not great and you often had to aim high to arc the bullet – hard to be a straight shooter unless you could see the whites of their eyes, literally. It wasn’t the stirrings of some nascent patriotism but rather an empathic response to a glimpse of the reality of life and death on the front lines. The reenactors would speak in the present tense and it would be “our company” -or as one hoop skirted woman told me from the Maryland camp which was a border state which divided families right down the middle as to which son might fight for the north or south, “We would stay in hotels in nearby towns while our husbands fought”. This definitely gave it an immediacy and realism I did not expect. Kids ran around playing croquet, there were polite repartees between husbands and wives. The food was period and localized as were utensils. They stayed pretty true to character. Union soldiers were not to cross into the Confederate camp and vice versa… I suspect the decades span of reality between the two worlds that these men, women and kids inhabited became more than a little blurry.
You could walk into camps and ask questions of individuals and listen to the programmed scheduled talks. Each would have a researched spiel about who and what they were about with some cool tidbity historical facts to try and put you there. During an artillery and firearms talk one soldier shared, “Imagine how demoralizing it would be if the man next to you just had his head blowed off.” This was the sound bite comments I came away with. In truth it was the walking through the various sections of the Union and Confederate camps that gave me the best appreciation for that reality. At the medical talk the nurse asked the crowd how you would get to the hospital. “Say your best friend was next to you and shot in the leg. Would you help him to find the hospital? No, because you could instantly be shot for desertion.”
Field hospitals were open air, often because the newly invented chloroform would be knocking out the surgeons as well if they weren’t careful. Gut wounds? They gave you some laudanum and left you to die. The least injured was always taken first, probably because you could send them out to fight again. Amputations were exceedingly common. A grizzly affair of applying a scalpel around the limb to be hacked to peal the healthy skin back and expose arteries and muscle. Then the saw… then the filing of the bone… they would then tie off the arteries with strings left hanging out and use medically infused wax to mold the stump. After a few days the surgeon could gently tug on the string hanging beyond the stump and if it came free easily the could be reasonably assured that the artery had healed shut they would not have internal bleeding.
The embalming tent was perhaps the coolest. Apparently some 10% of bodies were embalmed during the Civil War, the new vogue thing to do. As a soldier you could pay 13$ to get a card and ensure an embalming of yourself if the chaplain found it pinned to your coat, and there was enough of you left on the battle field that the card hadn’t disintegrated. That way you could get home to be buried in the family plot. Creosote oil was often used but that would turn the body black. Then they used arsenic but embalmers were dying with its application. Gaping wounds had cotton or rope stuffed in them and then were sutured shut.
The army did not have ways of identifying next of kin so you would get a note that you had a package to pick up at the local post office. Oh boy. Is it that bag of apple seed? Hey, Mabel, that box is kinda big for for a catalog. Oh, shit, its Jimmy!
Some 3 million fought in the Civil War. Blacks (called coloreds there because they heeled closely to the vernacular of the times-I only saw one cell phone being used and one Red Bull and Mango shake being consumed by a reenactor), Native Americans… The embalmer was currently brokering a deal to sell his extensively researched act that he performed for 13 years as a newspaper reporter and said had a couple prospective buyers to carry on that torch.
I would gladly pay 13$ again to see that and watch another battle - for sure…