Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Posts tagged ‘American Civil War’

Civil War Skirmish at Red Clay Creek

Wilmington RR2

On a warm morning in September, I returned to Red Clay Creek in Delaware to photograph the woodland scenes and Wilmington & Western steam train that provided the backdrop for the skirmish. Photographer for Philadelphia Weekly, J. R. Blackwell, and I met up with General John Houck and the other reenactors portraying both the Union and Confederate forces. J. R.’s photographs feature stunning portraits of the soldiers and camp folk.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. This link has an interesting history of the song. On a comment board, someone wrote this insightful post:

My great-great grandfather fought for the Union (wounded 3 times) as he was an abolitionist, and yet this song moves me so much, it almost makes me feel sorry for Southerners. And I mean no irony in that last sentence. As my Uncle Bill, a combat infantryman in WWII said, “Rich old men start wars and send poor young men off to die in them.” Pretty much the case for almost every war.

This next video came out of an experiment where I interviewed reenactors to set up a storyline for the video, as I wanted to try a different approach by expanding on the music videos I had made last year at Red Clay Creek and Rising Sun. When asking folks why they became involved with reenacting, many Confederate and Union soldiers felt strong connections to their ancestors who fought in the Civil War. I understand that relationship as I have an affinity with those who came before me and have written about their lives on this blog. The end of the Civil War meant that those who had lost their connections to family and culture through slavery could now begin to establish their heritage.

Historical Reenactors

Civil War Reunion: Pennypacker Mills, Pennsylvania, May 2014

 

The farmland, forests and fields of the Pennypacker Mills County Park provided the setting for the Civil War Reunion. The park lies 15 miles north of Valley Forge National Park and just across the Perkiomen Creek from the town of Schwenksville. “Perkiomen” is a word from the Lenape, a tribe of Native Americans who settled in the area, that means “muddy waters” and “where the cranberries grow.” As I walked down to the creek, tall grasses waved in the gentle breeze casting an incense over the landscape. Purple, white and yellow wildflowers peeked out from under the canopy of grasses. I stood on the bank of the creek as the melody, “Wade in the Water,” a song associated with the Underground Railroad, played in my mind.

The Perkiomen Creek and Underground Railroad share a connection. In a famous case, a slave named Rachel had to flee from West Chester when her owner, who lived in Maryland, showed up in town with a warrant for her arrest. Fleeing from her pursuers, Rachel jumped a seven feet high fence, escaping once again. After hiding in an attic, her friends smuggled her out of town to Phoenixville, crossing the Schuylkill River and then the Perkiomen Creek at Tyson’s Mill in the middle of the night. (The Underground Railroad in our Area)

The centerpiece of the park is a colonial revival mansion built around 1720 and owned by the Pennypacker family for eight generations. Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker, who served the state between 1903 to 1907, lived in the house and collected many of the antiques that are displayed throughout the rooms of the mansion.

Mansion at PPM

Having filmed two other Civil War reenactments, skirmishes on the Wilmington Railroad and at Rising Sun, Maryland, I looked forward to a new adventure on the rolling hills of Montgomery County. Although no Civil War battles were fought here, in 1863 Samuel Pennypacker enlisted in the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia and confronted Confederate forces at a skirmish north of Gettysburg at Witmer Farm.

American Civil War: History and Recreation

Other than a few history classes in college, I hadn’t studied much about the Civil War. In order to learn more, I’ve watched the recent PBS series, Civil War: The Untold Story, the central theme, which some view as controversial, establishing that the Civil War was fought over slavery and not the issue of states’ rights. Producer-director Chris Wheeler stated that the film brought hate mail from groups on the radical right. The film also included the relatively unknown history of the contributions of African-Americans to the conflict. I admired the filming of the battle scenes. What Wheeler and I have in common is that we both photographed reenactors, who are dedicated to accurate portrayals of the Civil War.

General John F. Hartranft

General John F. Hartranft

General John F. Hartranft (a.k.a, Mark D. Grim, Jr.), a native of Montgomery County who fought in both the Eastern and Western battles, presented a lecture on his experiences during the war and as provost-marshal during the trial of those accused of assassinating Abraham Lincoln. The General stated that when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers became confused as to the reason they were fighting. They understood the cause as preservation of the union and not for the freedom of the slaves. General Hartranft reaffirmed to the soldiers that preserving the union was the purpose of their sacrifice. As strongly as I believe that the preservation of the union was important, seems like freeing an oppressed population would be a more compelling reason to take up arms.

The event planners filled the weekend with activities and demonstrations including musical performances, battle reenactments, children’s events, speakers and sutlers displaying their wares. I took advantage of an early start on the day and attended every event on their schedule.

Mansion Tours

Visitors could walk through the house, where guides in each area presented a history of the rooms. The house was not electrified until after the Pennypackers left, but in 1900 much of the building was updated and renovated. Many of the original furnishings, books and paintings remained with house and in remarkable condition.

Included in the slide show below, is a portrait of Governor Pennypacker, whose veto in 1906 blocked what would have been the first compulsory sterilization law in the United States. Pennypacker stated:

“It is plain that the safest and most effective method of preventing procreation would be to cut the heads off the inmates, and such authority is given by the bill to this staff of scientific experts…Scientists like all men whose experiences have been limited to one pursuit…sometimes need to be restrained. Men of high scientific attainments are prone…to lose sight of broad principles outside of their domain…To permit such an operation would be to inflict cruelty upon a helpless class…which the state has undertaken to protect…” Wikipedia

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Songs & Stories of the Civil War

Dressed in a Confederate soldier’s uniform, Matthew Dodd played banjo and guitar, singing songs of the Civil War era, as well as telling stories. He plays “Dixie” in the video at the end of this post.

Matthew Dodd

Civilian Street Demonstrations and Families

Union Patriotic League, an organization that represents domestic life during the Civil War era, often accompanies the reenactors, displaying their specialized interests, whether basket weaving, cooking or sewing. They created charming vignettes inside their tents, with rugs, quilts, flowers and lamps.  In the real Civil War encampments, women and children rarely accompanied the soldiers, so these tents are representative of domestic life at that time and not actually recreating camp life. Photographs that follow are from the both the Union Patriotic League and Civil War reenactor camp sites.

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 Confederate Artillery Demonstration

John Houch presented a history lesson to the gathered crowd, who came to watch the firing of the cannons. John mentioned that in the filming of Gettysburg, the director borrowed 50 cannons from reenactors. In addition to the seasoned adults, children and teens also took part in the demonstration. The Confederates represented the 37th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, Company A.

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Becks Philadelphia Brass Band

Becks Brass Band

The Becks Philadelphia Brigade Band, a Civil War/Victorian-era brass band, performed military and social music of the Civil War period through the late 1800s. Authentically uniformed, the band played both reproduction and period instruments including a piccolo, Eb cornet, Bb cornet, Eb alto horn, tenor horn, baritone horn, bass and percussion. Today’s band serves as representatives of the brass band of the 2nd Division, 2nd Corps, 2nd Brigade of the Union Army of the Potomac in 1863.

Battlefield Enactment

Like the little girl whirling in circles, controversies swirl around the authenticity and ethical debates on battle enactments. For someone who would melt down every bullet and bomb ever produced, I have had to ask myself what is the attraction to watching battles, which in reality brought untold suffering and grief? Can someone so committed to peace derive an uplifting message from living history enactments?

My argument is in support of the reenactors. They have been extraordinarily kind in sharing information they have learned and generous with their time in making an honest effort at historical representation. Reenactors have every right to role play, as any movie director or documentarian has to present their view. These are regular folks who are portraying regular folks. Just like critics analyze films and television, visitors and observers may also critique these enactments. Just being present, reenactors encourage discussion, debate and further research. Historical reenacting, as well as for those of us making videos, carries the responsibility to authenticity and an understanding of the implications how the history of the Civil War might be presented.

Links

Friends of Pennypacker Mills Museum Facebook Page

Pennypacker Mills: Montgomery County, PA

Living History: Day in the Life of the Soldiers of the Civil War

On a visit to Wilmington  & Western Line, a steam train that runs through the Red Clay Valley in Delaware, I just happened to have the good luck that Civil War living history reenactors were staging a battle and takeover of the train on that day. I recorded the dramatic action of the battle in video in this post: Steam Train Journeys into History: Civil War Skirmish at Red Clay Creek.

CW Cannon L Antique

This video highlights Living History: Day in the Life of the Soldiers of the Civil War, when Company A, 37th Regiment, North Carolina Volunteer Troops, C.S.A., 1st North Carolina Artillery, Battery C, C.S.A., and the Town of Rising Sun, Maryland, hosted the 21st Annual Reenactment.

I strolled by the rows of canvas tents, the Union on one side of the creek and Confederates on the other, as wood crackled in the campfires and coffee brewed in tall metal pots. Reenactors portrayed surgeons, tradesmen, as well as soldiers. Even children dressed up in period clothing. The sound of a blacksmith hammering echoed through the park. I spoke with reenactors, who shared their knowledge on weapons, lanterns, desks and tent contents, everything authentic to the time period.

At midday the gray and blue soldiers faced off in a skirmish. The Union held the high ground while the Confederate soldiers crossed the bridge and positioned their cannon on the field. Soldiers on both sides fired their cannons as thunderous blasts echoed through the landscape, smoke drifting over the hills. As men fell, a field doctor bandaged up the wounded. A crowd of spectators sitting on the hill watched intently as the action unfolded just yards away.

LanternLate in the evening, as music of Kadence spilled into the cool night air, I wandered around the grounds in the light of the campfires and lanterns, softly illuminating the tents. Reflecting on the gentleness of the night and the harshness of the daytime battle, I considered the issues of preserving the Union, regional loyalty, justification for war and the abolition of slavery, which remains the greatest arbitrator in the ethical debate. Has the country evolved into a compassionate and empathetic to the plight of both sides?  I see these reenactments as an opportunity to ponder these issues.


Participants:

Confederate
1st Regiment, Maryland Infantry, Company 1
5th Regiment, Virginia Volunteer Infantry
Union
42nd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Company B
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Square Frame John
Many thanks to John and all the Reenactors.

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Other links to Civil War posts:

Steam Train Journeys into History: Civil War Skirmish at Red Clay Creek

tower

A beautiful Fall day provided the backdrop for a journey into history on the Wilmington  & Western Line, which runs through the Red Clay Valley, a watershed area that includes just over fifty square miles from New Castle County, Delaware, to Chester County, Pennsylvania.  “Candy cane” lamps lined up along the platform of the historic Greenbank Station, painted in traditional cream and burgundy colors. A museum near the water tower displayed a model of an amusement park that brought visitors to the area back at the turn of the 20th Century and featured a collection of antique photographs and books of the railroad’s history.

Climbing the steps to board steam train, felt like stepping back in time. The wooden cars, painted royal blue with gold trim, each has its own unique history.  We sat on the benches of the converted open air coach, built in 1912 in Altoona and once part of the Pennsylvania commuter rail network. The train hissed and creaked as the locomotive chugged out of the station, the plaintive whistle sounding at the first crossing. The Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia built the steam engine Number 58 in 1907 and in 1998 the engine was restored. The original route through the valley was laid out in the 1870s. We passed rolling hills, farms and woodlands, following the Red Clay Creek. We arrived at a waterfall and picnic grove where the Union solders and their families, dressed in period dress, strolled along the water’s edge.

Railroads played a significant role during the Civil War. The Jones-Imboden Raid against the B&O Railroad represented one of the largest movements of soldiers to a battlefront by way of the railroad. In June of 1861, Union Forces advanced by train from Falls Church, Virginia; Confederates fired artillery at the train near Vienna, making this the first time a train was engaged in warfare in American history.

The drama at Red Clay Creek unfolded as the Rebels, hiding in the woodlands, attacked the train with cannon and rifle fire. The Union forces poured out of the train, holding positions near the tracks.  At the outset the action seemed almost in slow motion because reloading rifles required that they insert each bullet one at time. While the Union held their line for a short time, Confederate reinforcements emerged from the forest, decimating the Union troops attempting to save the train. Passengers, becoming part of the play, fell under the command of the Confederates who boarded the train and occupied the coaches.

The music video captures this memorable ride into history and the tragic aftermath of the skirmish.

In Appreciation:
Confederate 
9th Virginia Cavalry, Company B
37th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, Company A
1st Regiment, North Carolina Artillery, Battery C

Union
2nd Delaware Volunteer Infantry, Company G
71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company K

Special thanks to John Houck.

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