[Recreation of “Rebel Veterans furl the Stars and Bars for the last time before starting for home” from The Golden Book of the Civil War: “Monroe Wildcats” representing the 1st Tennessee Dismounted Cavalry. Tinker Homestead and Farm Museum 8/6/16]
I first was bitten by the Civil War bug back in elementary school when I discovered The Golden Book of the Civil War. The illustrated history is adapted for young readers from The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. Written by Charles Flato (who was once a member of the Communist Party and maybe a Soviet spy) with an introduction Bruce Catton, the volume provides a carefully researched and broad overview of the war.
The American Heritage series was renowned for its collection of pictorial maps by David Greenspan. Greenspan’s full-color maps combined an artist’s vision with the cartographer’s discipline. The reader sees battlefields from the perspective of aerial photographs provided by the U.S. High Altitude Photography Program, conveying — back in 1960 — battlefield topography in a way rarely available to the Civil War historian.
The maps, along with photographs, historically accurate illustrations and epic paintings fueled my boyhood imagination. So I took the book to the 13th annual Tinker Homestead and Farm Museum’s “Civil War Days” at the Tinker Nature Park in Henrietta.
The weekend featured the Excelsior Brigade’s Fife and Drum, a presentation on what Union and Confederate soldiers ate for “sweet delights” as well as medicinal, roots, plants and confectioneries of the period, a period wedding, songs and stories of the Underground Railroad, medical demonstrations, an evening dance with City Fiddle, a period church service, a Ladies Dress Show and Tea, and re-enacted battles Saturday and Sunday.
I was hardly alone in my boyhood fascination with The Golden Book of the Civil War. Warren Tole first read the book in his elementary school library (found soon after under his Christmas tree). Poring over every page, Warren examined the pictorial maps with a magnifying glass. The book was the Civil War bug that bit Warren for life. He still has the well-turned volume in his basement-turned-Civil War library.
One of Warren’s favorite epic paintings was of Lee’s defeated soldiers furling the Confederate flag for the last time after Appomattox — the picture recreated above. The painting holds a two-fold meaning. On the one hand, Warren felt the pathos of the men who had fought so long for the Great Lost Cause. On the other hand, the furling signified the preservation of the Union.
Warren’s parents also took him to Gettysburg. In the museum Cyclorama, Warren saw Confederate General Lewis Armistead’s futile breakthrough at The Angle, as well as the recently reopened Electric Map. The family took the car audio tour, now the podcast tour. On our family visit to Gettysburg, I proudly brought home an authentic musket ball to show my friends that now lies somewhere on the bottom of the creek on Roby Drive.
A longtime reenactor who appeared in the North and South miniseries , Glory, Gettysburg, and a documentary on the Andersonville Prison, Chuck Smeltzer pointed to several illustrations in the book. For episode 6 (March 1865 – April 1865) of North and South, Chuck traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to recreate the siege of Petersburg.
Chuck said the illustrations, epic paintings and pictorial maps in the Golden Book are decent realist representations of the war. But, as Chuck added, with all movies images and novels, the problem is always the same when it comes to battles: how can you capture chaos?
And how can you really re-enact the horror (and exultation) of war when the muskets and cannons at the Tinker Homestead don’t shoot real bullets and balls?
Representing the 28th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company E, Tom Enedy, Orton Begner and Will Huther, provided more background on several Golden Book paintings. The cannons fired by Hooker’s men at Lookout Mountain were not unlike the ones at the encampment.
We looked at the pictorial map of the battle of The Wilderness where Rochester’s greatest soldier, General Elwell Otis was wounded. Apparently, the side bar scene description covers the area where Otis would have been. (see Celebrating the first Otis Day (June 15th) with the General’s sword at its new home: the Military Society of Rochester)
Looking at the Confederate camp at Cornith, Mississippi, they could tell it was early in the war because the sibley tents still had plentiful canvas. And the camp could only be in the South as several slaves are pictured. They noted that for many of the men — south and north — life in the camps was noticeably better than at home: more food and often more pay.
Like Chuck, the three have done filmed re-enactments. Perhaps the most memorable was the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia. The explosion in the crater was tremendous and all alongside were pyrotechnic displays drawing thousands of spectators.
Speaking of spectators, I learned from Brenda Natoli (representing the 28th NY from Canandaigua) that idle wanderers in the encampment like me are called “tats.”
Brenda’s “impression” (the term reenactors use to describe their assigned role) was a camp cook whose husband and son served in the regiment. The husband had been killed so Brenda remained in camp to vigilantly and watch over her son, played by her real life son, Robert.
An avid reenactor who first performed in the battle of Fort Ontario in Oswego two years ago, Robert explained the impression was partially based on I Shall Be Near You , Erin Lyndsay McCabe’s novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband, inspired by the letters of a female soldier.
Brenda explained how women would come and go into the camps hired as cooks. Because of the heat, Brenda was dressed in man’s uniform rather than a full skirt. Cooks would fold their skirts as high as possible to avoid catching on fire. While the cooks were stationed in the rear, the job was dangerous. If the camp was overrun, a female cook might be given a gun and told to hold her ground. If captured, the cook would be forced to work for the other side.
There were quite a few women reenactors. Serving with the 1st Tennessee Dismounted Cavalry, Julie said young women joined both armies, concealing their gender by hoping to pass as teen age boys. If revealed, the women would be drummed out of the army — or worse.
As a Yankee tat, I did get in a bit of trouble with one of the Wildcat’s associates, Katie Gaisser. I accused Katie of playing the role of Belle Boyd who was jailed twice as a Rebel spy. Like Scarlett herself, Katie slapped me down as a damn Yankee.
Like Brenda and Robert, the encampment attracts across the generations. I met the “Monroe Wildcats” representing also the 1st Tennessee Dismounted Cavalry. In their teens and very early 20s, the young men had met at a re-enactment class at the Genesee Country Village & Museum.
Since then, the Wildcats have been to re-enactments all over the Northeast. One member has a thriving online business making and selling period war clothes and accessories. The Wildcats were pleased to recreate — as best they could on short notice — two scenes from The Golden Book.
In a juxtaposition of love and death, before the battle Jessie and Jennifer Parks were married in a period ceremony . They met as members of Moody’s Battery.
The battle itself — from 1861 early the war — was full of smoke and theatrics, drawing lots of tats and paparazzi. The sight of Union and Confederate dead was a solemn reminder of the price and horror of actual war.
Ultimately, the battles are not the focal point of the encampment weekend. While the campers are keen Civil War buffs, they most relish the camaraderie and sharing their love of history. So check out next year’s 14th annual Tinker Homestead and Farm Museum’s “Civil War Day”. Make your wedding plans early. Be there at reveille for the best vitals. And if you are a Yankee, don’t call a Rebel girl a spy.
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