“Back to one!” (Part 1)

IMG_1141Concussions from an artillery barrage ripple up the backs of Union infantry huddled behind a stone and earthen position nicknamed “The Angle.” Dust raised by cannon blasts swirl around the troops, penetrating their noses and mouths.

“Get out of the way!” roars an artilleryman at the prone figures. “Move, move, move!” Several blue-clad soldiers roll aside as a 1,500-pound cannon is trundled downhill by its crew to be re-positioned beside them. The order “Rise up!” is given and Federal troops prepare to repel a furious Confederate assault.

Muskets buck against the soldiers’ shoulders as they take aim at the butternut-and-gray mass advancing upon them. The air is rent by the rattle of musketry, cannon explosions, screams and curses. It’s the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in the torrid heat of July 1863.

In time intermingled yells of “Cut!” and “Cease fire!” bring the battle to a halt, and the powder smoke from countless muskets and cannons starts to clear. The Union and Confederate “dead” rise to shake hands or slap one another on the back for a job well done. It was August 1992 once more, and Ted Turner’s TNT production company wrapped up another day of filming the dramatization of Michael Shaara’s 1975 Civil War novel, “The Killer Angels.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book explores the Battle of Gettysburg – often called the High Water Mark of the Confederacy – from the experiences of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and several other commanders. TNT filmed the movie from July to October 1992, on and near the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

I was one of some three thousand Civil War re-enactors that journeyed from around the USA and several foreign countries to participate in the week-long filming of the Pickett-Tremble Charge that August. The photo above is of a younger(ish) incarnation of this blog’s author, dressed as a Rebel. The Confederate Pickett-Tremble Charge was the largest sequence to be filmed for the movie, subsequently titled “Gettysburg,’ that made its debut in October 1993. This is the first part of a quartet of posts concerning how I got to participate in the re-creation of a terrible, yet momentous event in American history, one in which troops from Michigan played a pivotal role.

To begin with, here are a few words about Civil War re-enacting. The hobby got started in the early Nineteen Sixties, as centennial observances of the American Civil War took place in many places. Early re-enacting tended to be long on enthusiasm and short on authenticity: men wore blue jeans and modern army boots; they carried a bewildering variety of weapons (often genuine antiques) and homemade equipment into battle. As time passed and more people became involved in the hobby, a greater emphasis was placed on historically accurate impressions.

A cottage industry sprang up to supply re-enactors’ needs for reproduction uniforms, firearms and all manner of camp gear. Many of these items were initially sold at events by vendors that share their predecessors’ title of “sutlers.” Of course, the rise of the Internet transformed shopping for re-enacting gear. By the early Nineties there were an estimated 250,000 men, women and children involved in Civil War re-enacting groups in the United States, Canada and even Europe. People are often surprised that foreigners participate in this American pursuit. Some thousands of Canadians are reputed to have served in both armies, as did Irishmen, Germans and Swedes. Occasionally one encounters women in the ranks, something that actually happened when they followed their husbands or brothers into battle. No one knows how many women did so; some of them went because, like many men, they craved the adventure of being in combat. Virtually all modern re-enactors are older, taller and stouter than their Civil War counterparts.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this interesting account!

An official “Re-enactor Mudder”!


Are you familiar with the term “mudder”? Originally it applied to a racehorse that ran well on a muddy or otherwise difficult track. Nowadays its meaning has expanded to include pickup trucks with the same capability. The newest twist is “Tough Mudder,” a $250 million industry in the United States, with over two million participants annually. It involves navigating a series of obstacles filled with, or covered in . . . mud.

I’ve come to believe that my hobby, Civil War re-enacting, entitles me to establish a brand-new category of this pursuit, “Re-enactor Mudding.” The rationale for doing so might seem a trifle arcane, but hear me out.

Regardless of the area of the country in which re-enacting takes place, the season generally follows its historical antecedent. This means that participants “campaign” from late spring to late fall. Now, re-enactors don’t expect always to be battling under sunny skies, amid balmy temperatures. During my years in the hobby I have had experienced a wide spectrum of weather conditions, from a frosty night spent in a sunken Tennessee farm road in October to 106-degree daytime temperatures at the height of a Virginia summer.

I have to say that I put up with being cold or hot pretty well. However, I am not a big fan of being muddy and wet. Case in point: a mid-September event in Michigan at which the above photo was taken. Arriving at the Union camp site the previous evening, I had just started setting up my canvas dog tent when the skies opened. The rain pelted down as a pard and I struggled to erect the tent. Despite being sheltered by trees our clothes were instantly dripping and water flowed around – and over – our brogans.

The travail didn’t end once the tent was in place. In our haste to escape the deluge we hadn’t hammered the tent stakes in all the way; heavy raindrops pounding the gap between the edge of the canvas and the ground sent sprays of muck inside my humble abode. I managed to put down a groundcloth, upon which I placed my musket, haversack, accoutrements, knapsack, blankets, etc. It was quite a feat to arrange my possessions in such a way that they were only dampened in the succeeding hours.

My reward for all this labor was to pass the rainy night, occupying an ever-decreasing area of semi-dryness in the tent, listening to the streams that gurgled around it. As the photo attests I survived the ordeal!

Perched in a camp chair as my coffee warmed that morning I was struck by the need to describe people that got through the kind of mud bath I saw all around me. That’s when Re-enactor Mudder came to mind. I find it a good, sturdy term for what I’d been through. I will be waiting for its use to become widespread enough for inclusion in the famed Oxford English Dictionary.

First person? Imperative!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIn language, the imperative is a grammatical mood that “forms commands or requests, including the giving of prohibition or permission, or any other kind of advice or exhortation.”

In a quarter century of participation in American Civil War re-enacting, I have had plenty of opportunities to see the variety of attitudes with which women and men approach the hobby. I think it can fairly be said that all hobbies exhibit a spectrum of involvement, from near-fanatical to ultra-casual. That’s the freedom a hobby ought to afford.

In re-enacting this spectrum is manifested at one end by people that style themselves “progressives.” Such folk strive for authenticity in all aspects of their impression. Thus, they are likely to make their own clothing (following mid-Nineteenth Century materials and patterns) and eat foods that were typical soldiers’ fare.

The other end of the dial sees those that are apt to have a replica canvas tent stuffed with beer coolers, air mattresses, cots, LED lights and other modern-day creature comforts. The pejorative term “farb” (whose origins and meaning are open to debate) is often applied by progressives comparing themselves to these less authentic brethern and sistern (yes, that is a genuine word).

(Full disclosure: my re-enacting club’s philosophical perspective falls smack-dab between these extremes. It is a family-friendly group whose members – whether civilian or military – work hard to present impressions that are authentic, without lice-ridden clothing or possibly catching dysentery! Also, I don’t judge re-enactors that make use of the items listed in the last paragraph.)

I am developing a series of hour-long talks to educate people about aspects of life in Civil War times. (Check out https://www.facebook.com/Near-as-I-remember-Reflections-of-a-Civil-War-Veteran-285082678359556/) The evolving list of lectures, which can be tailored to particular audiences, addresses topics that I believe will be of interest to many people.

What has all this to do with the posting’s title? Central to “Near as I remember” is making my presentations in first-person. To credibly communicate Civil War times I must “exhort” listeners to accept me as a time traveler, one that can answer questions while looking quizzical when asked about cell phones, airplanes, and the like. Recognizing this has enabled me to, if you will, enflesh a gentleman of the 1860s.

This is more than wearing a woolen uniform, hefting a rifle musket and passing around replica bullets and hardtack. It necessitates describing the past with deep knowledge, confidence and enthusiasm. If I’m to honor the past, first-person is imperative!

I’m curious: have any of you experienced presentations by women or men that are representing the past? What did they do well, or what could they have done better?


The Tower at Petite Vigne

IMG_1126The underlying reason for this blog’s existence is to track the progress toward publication of my novel, The Tower at Petite Vigne. I self-published the book back in 2010 but ultimately decided to re-write it, from the ground up.

Having finished that task, I’m confident that I have a much better “product” with which to attract a literary agent and, ultimately, a publisher for the manuscript. The artwork shown above, from the first edition, was a collaboration between me and a very talented designer I know. I like how the design captures elements of The Tower at Petite Vigne’s plot, and hope it will grace the new book.

The following paragraphs give a taste of what the novel is about. I hope it intrigues you, and that you’ll ask friends that like historical fiction to visit and follow my blog, as, nowadays publishers are keen to know an author’s online presence. Thanks!

Set in an occupied French village during World War II, the events described in The Tower at Petite Vigne are emblematic of historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s observation, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

A unique aspect of my work is that Petite Vigne’s mayor Hadie Masson is a black man. Having come from North Africa to fight in the Great War, rootless Masson wanders the French countryside after the Armistice of 1918. The solace he seeks draws him to the quiet village. In time most of Petite Vigne’s inhabitants accept the unusual newcomer but a minority remain suspicious of the “foreigner.”

To the Petite Vignais’ relief they seem to have been overlooked during the German conquest of France in 1940. The arrival three years later of a German Organization Todt construction crew to undertake a mysterious project nearby alerts Masson to the fact that his old enemy’s presence threatens the future of his adopted home.

Supplying free building materials and room and board for his laborers are just two of the many demands made by German foreman Franz Deggendorf. Hoping to blunt the demands’ impact, Masson engages in running negotiations with Deggendorf: his checkered success leads to accusations that he is actually a collaborator. As signs point to the coming of the long-expected Allied invasion of France, Deggendorf is pushed to do whatever is necessary to complete his task. Forcing village boys and men to serve as laborers strains his uneasy relationship with the mayor to the breaking point.

When blueprints stolen by Petite Vigne’s amateurish Resistance cell reveal the nature of the occupier’s project, Masson knows he must act to preserve his village from destruction. What can he do to derail Deggendorf’s plans, even as he fights to maintain his compatriots’ trust?