He Couldn’t Believe it Was Colorado
The battle was reaching its height, rifles popping, artillery thundering and cavalry clashing, and a man excitedly approached me. He was from Florida, in town on business, a Civil War reenactor himself, and he had seen the reenacted battle from Parker Road as he drove by. “I can’t believe this,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve got to send some pictures home. They won’t believe it. A reenactment in Colorado, and I was just passing by.” The unexpected find was clearly the highlight of his day, and I saw him several times later wandering happily amid the gathered crowd.
The field didn’t look much like Virginia or Maryland, but for the thousand or more spectators over the two-day event, the warm, dry, sunny weather and the natural slope of the open grassy terrain made a perfect setting to watch nearly 90 reenactors (musicians, soldiers and civilians) mark the war that affixed the individual states into one nation.
One-hundred and fifty years after the crucial Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg, for you Confederate fans), soldiers skirmished with ear-assaulting artillery and peppering and smoking riffled muskets, cavalry on horseback fought with sabers, and spectators watched in rapture, not in Maryland, but on Parker, Colorado’s Reata West field. Living history reaches all our senses, leaving deeper memories and impressions than ordinarily gleaned from books, lectures or tours, and the past was brought to life last Saturday and Sunday (September 15 and 16, 2012) thanks to the Parker Area Historical Society (PAHS) and the Castle Rock Civil War Unit which sponsored their third, largest and most successful annual Parker Civil War Living History Days.
I’ve been to a number of reenactments over the years, and this one was well-organized and easily enjoyed. I was there Saturday as spectator, fan and to sign a few copies of my Civil War novel, Beyond the Wood. Due to the latter, I was able to start my tour a little earlier than the public, and my wife, Susan, and I walked through the well-organized camp, from the tent of the abolitionist (with its slave tokens from Charleston) and its abolitionist rallys to several mercantile tents (sutler’s tents).
The highlight of our visit along the camp road were the young people. We passed a group of young women seated outside a tent, each in period attire, and we stopped to talk about their dresses and who made them and if they would have been made by a sewing machine or by hand in the 1860s—it was concluded that while there were sewing machines, the dresses would have been made at home by hand. Only later did we learn that several of these young women were students of Kurt Knierim, a social studies teacher from Rocky Mountain High School in Ft. Collins and sponsor of that school’s Civil War club, called the Lobo Mess for the school mascot—a lobo—and for a “mess” or a group of soldiers who chose to eat together. According to Knierim, students join the group, choose their favorite part of the war to research and write 15 minute presentations. The group speaks at schools and community events, dressed in Civil War clothes. Each year, Knierim obtains grant money to fund clothing for about 10 men and 10 women in their club; impressive commitment to teaching and students. Later during the day, I saw Knierim, instructing some definitely modern and young civilians on marching commands and technique.
We visited an open tent where 11-year old, Matthew McCarthy, a new recruit for the Castle Rock Civil War Group, explained to me displays of Minié balls (Civil War-era bullets) and the medical supplies that would have been used during the war, including some serrated saws used in the few-minutes-long amputations so popular during the war. He explained that he had been studying the war for the past four or five years, and that he was too young to be able to use a musket—“You have to be 16 to be a reenactor,” he explained, but he was saving up to buy a drum, because you can be a drummer at age 13.
Tim Brown, bearded, warm and friendly captain and head of the Castle Rock Civil War Unit, Second Colorado, which had organized reenactors from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico for the day’s events, indicated that the 2012 event included more than a 50 percent increase in the number of soldiers over last year and three times the number of reenactors playing civilian roles.
Mid-morning saw demonstrations of period martial music, from American Revolution tune Yankee Doodle to the Battle Hymn of the Republic—written during and for the war. They also offered a rendering of the song Abraham Lincoln requested to hear upon receiving news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered: Dixie. The performances were much higher quality than I expected, and only later did I learn that the musicians were well-trained professionals. Based on Civil War soldiers’ reports and my experience on Saturday, I am convinced that the average real music of the Civil War did not measure up to the top-notch tone or quality of what we sampled.
John Voehl in his role as Abraham Lincoln was on hand for the festivities—I understand his beard was real, and he looked great, but Susan commented that he needed to have his nose enlarged for the role. (I recommend he leave his nose alone.) Voehl talked about Lincoln and spoke as Lincoln, giving a rendition of the Gettysburg address. A friend of ours, a huge Lincoln fan, who came down from Denver, was delighted to have the chance for an exchange with Mr. Lincoln.
The morning also included artillery, musket, and cavalry demonstrations and explanation and the afternoon battle included all three, and a Confederate cannon that did not want to be taken; but most importantly there were a lot of families gleefully taking in the action throughout the day.
Up at the book signing, I visited with Mike Mulligan, long-time friend LeiOma Koestner and Catherine Traffis of the PAHS and sampled the root-beer-like sarsaparilla (12 gallons were consumed in three ounce shots) served gratuitously by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. The women, mostly dressed in black, were also giving away samples of corn bread, cookies and never-the-soldier’s favorite, but often their dietary mainstay: hardtack. They could have easily sold the cookies and corn bread, but I understand why they had to give away the hardtack.
My new friend from Florida captured the difference between this re-enactment and those he does with his unit in Florida. “We have a hard time convincing people to be Union.” Maybe it’s their weather.
Thanks to Castle Rock Civil War Unit and PAHS for sponsoring this—in the sentiment of the Floridian—extraordinary event, and thanks to all the reenactors. We hope you keep the tradition going.
The Castle Rock Civil War Unit is a non-profit dedicated to presenting the life and times of Civil-War-era American citizens and soldiers and to educating the public and furthering serious discussion and study of the American Civil War. PAHS is a non-profit established in 1986 to research, record and preserve historic events and sites in Parker, Colorado.