Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Nation Would Have Scarcely Lived Over

This past weekend Stones River National Battlefield celebrated the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Stones River.

On Saturday we had over 400 people visit. That might not seem too surprising, considering people like to come out for the cannon, but it never broke freezing. Sunday was even colder. I dressed out on Sunday and played an infantry(wo)man. I enjoy infantry (muskets) more than artillery (cannons), as it seems more challenging. Sunday's experience was a little different.

We started drilling around 9am, when the temperature reached 20 degrees. I cheated; I wore modern undergarments to help with the cold. I had on long underwear, a pair of running pants, and my wool pants, two pairs of socks, a long underwear shirt, a tank top, a long sleeve shirt, my period long sleeve shirt, and my infantry jacket. My hat did not cover my ears, but I had a scarf that I could use to wrap around my head when the wind got too cold. The clothing was sufficient when I was close to the fire, or even standing near a tree or the battery wagons (they acted as wind breaks). But when we had to form up to drill, we lined up in the wind, in the cold, pulling as much warmth as the rays of sun cold provide in 20 degree weather.

The most difficult part came with the actual musket-loading and firing. Wearing gloves got in the way of loading, so we took them off. At rest, we could tuck our right hand inside our jacket, Napoleon style. When the shout came to load, nothing protected against the biting cold. The pain that started to seem in after the cold could be described as a cross between a sharp pain and a burning pain. Several times I could not feel the percussion caps and had to take the time to look in my pouch to see that I actually had one in my hand. Every touch, every type of pressure felt like a hammer strake against my brittle fingers. And that was just during a living history demonstration.

Firing this weekend helped me realize another layer of understanding soldier life. I would talk about the cold, but I did not realize how much it could weigh on one's psyche. My fingers were so cold, at one point I had sliced my knuckle open and didn't even realize that I was bleeding under I got back to camp. The soldiers who fought at the Battle of Stones River did not have a warm house to go home to at night. In fact, they weren't just shooting for display. I imagine many were trembling, if not from the cold, from their nerves. If they were fortunate enough to have a great coat on, the extra bulk of the many layers, made limbs hard to move. If they were unfortunate enough to not have a great coat on, the cold creeping into limbs and joints would make shooting and running difficult to do. This just one more thing to consider out of the countless experiences a soldier faced (faces) on a battlefield.

While sometimes I think the volunteers who help us do living history demonstrations might be a little extreme (11 degrees is a little too cold for my tastes to be camping like a soldier), they do help keep history alive. Much like climbing over the calcified coral reefs in Peleliu and imagining the hell the Marines went through at that battle as they stormed those beaches, firing a Civil War weapon during similar conditions that the soldiers did gave me a brief glimpse of the hell that those soldiers must have faced. Being slammed back into the early part of 1863 also provided me a small reminder of why I do what I do.

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