History

U.S. Civil War Battle Re-Enactments

McIver Park, Spring 2004

The United States Civil War of 1861-1865 has been an enduring focal point of politics, tactics, personalities, States Rights versus Federal Authority both in the USA itself as well as overseas. Military people still study the tactics, supply methods, command and control methods used by the Union North and the Confederate States of America (CSA, The South) during the war (most are still applicable to modern warfare) but the most visible way the the public sees and experiences the Civil War first hand is through re-enactors staging battles.

Every year the local Oregon chapters of re-enactors assemble at McIver Park in Estacada Oregon in late April and stage battles for the public. They live in tent cities like the men and women of that era actually did. The staged and choreographed battles is the highlight (two of them a day) for most people, but between battles you can spend time visiting the Northern or Southern camps asking questions concerning any aspect of the Civil War that you can think of.

You can find out more at the Northwest Civil War Council.

Re-Enactment Photographs Of the Battle Between the States

These were taken using ASA 1000 speed color negative film. All have been reduced to 600x400 in size to ease downloading. I also took images with a roll of Ekachrome slide film that I will post later.

Cavalry, cannon and infantry were mustered and deployed to McIver Park a few days before the weekend battle. I estimated around 300+ re-enactors were there this year. Some were dressed as the camp followers in their Sunday best to watch the battles (like what happenned during the first few battles of the war.)

Loading of a 12 pounder as seen from behindCivil War Cannon Cannons were the dominate method used to control a battlefield. Disabling and capturing of cannons ranked very high in the minds of generals. The destructive force that a well trained battery could bring against an infantry assault could swing a battle in just a few minutes. here the crew has just finished loading the cannon are are awaiting the firing order from the battery commander.

 

Firing a civil war 12 pounder as seen from behindFiring a Civil War 12 Pounder The battery commander signaled the crew to fire and the smoke and sound of a Civil War era cannon reverberates in the clearing. Cannons were loaded with round shot or canister. Round shot was just solid 12 lb steel balls (hence the name, weight of shell was passed onto the cannon) had good accuracy up to a mile. However, round shot was not very effective against infantry at close range. Once the infantry got within 1/4 mile of a battery they would switch to canister/grapeshot. Canister was a tin filled with small iron balls that were fired at the ground just ahead of the advancing troops. Hitting the ground caused the canister to break open, with the result of hundreds of small balls filling the air from the ground up to around 10 feet (due to bouncing) into a fan pattern that could take out 10 to 30 men in one shot.

Artillery gunners signaling that their cannon is loaded and ready to fireArtillery Gunners at the ready An artillery commander signals that his cannon is ready to be fired as another battery in the background fires. A good artillery team could get out three rounds a minute and some could get off 5. Water buckets were very important as to ensure that new powder being rammed down the bore does get set off by any leftover burning embers in the cannon.

A smoothbore cannon is fired with the resulting smoke showing its locationCivil War Smoothbore cannon fires As seen from the front as the cannon is fired. The smoke from a cannon always gave away its position. A battery varied in size but usually consisted of 4 to 6 guns. The noise is easily heard miles away (Cannon re-enactors usually use 1/8 or 1/4 normal charge since they are not firing any cannon balls) and the sound of cannons is what usually directed reinforcements to the fight.

Union infantry crouch behind a wooden rail fence in defense.Union Infantry behind wooden fence Smoke from cannons and musket fire blur this image of Union men kneeling to fire at the Southern lines across the meadow. Smoke always caused confusion and mistakes on the battlefield. The "fog of war" is aptly apparent on battlefields when muskets and black powder were used in battle.

A Confederate aims and fires his cap and ball pistol at the Union LineCivil War Pistol being fired A union hated Rebel fires his pistol at the Union Lines. Pistols had only an accurate range of 100 or so yards. When pistols came out it meant hand to hand fighting was about to occur.

 

Civil war pistols shown with hammer back and about to be firedRe-Enactors with Civil War Pistols Firing There are multiple people here using pistols to fire at the enemy. Initially Officers were the only ones issued pistols but eventually sergeants and all Calvary personnel were issued or used pistols regularly.

 

The Union line in a steady advance against the Confederate lineStaged Civil War Battlefield Charge Most Civil War era generals resorted to a frontal attack - a charge - to win a battle. There are VERY FEW documented cases where this actually worked. The majority of the time it just caused the attacking side to lose the battle. Most battles won by the North and the South were won by maneuver in order to attack an enemy flank or once in a great while the rear of the enemy's main battle line. Both sides persisted in doing frontal assaults right until the end of the war.

Conferderate commanders on horse watching the progress of the battle.Confederate Generals on Horse Horses were extensively used in the civil war - mainly to haul cannons and supplies. Regimental officers and above almost always rode horses during battle so they could control the units under them. General aides were key to controlling the battle going as a dispatch rider to give new orders to commanders and to report back what is going on to the General in charge. Here these two Confederate re-enactors look upon the battle as his horse looks at the "dead" soldiers in the foreground.

An aide rides up to devliver orders to the front rankAn Union General's Aide Delivers Orders An officer delivers orders to the front line commander. Aides rode too and from the battlefield delivering orders and reporting back what they see as well as what the unit commander passed along to them. 15 minutes to hours could pass before what had happened was delivered back to the general trying to run the battle. Aides were often picked off by snipers.

The thin rebel line is separated by a tree which hinders movement and commmand but continues to fireA rebel line Pistols and rifles are in use in the Confederate line next to a tree. Command and control was always difficult. In wooded and obstruction laden battlefields tidy lines were quickly turned into ragged separated lines that lessened the effectiveeness of volley fire and caused many attacks to be halted while under enemy fire while the troops slowed by obstructions caught up with the main line.

Union riflemen reploading their smoothbore musketsSmoothbore Musket Reload Hiding behind a wooden rail fence Union Soldiers reload under fire. Various stages of reloading of smoothbore muskets can be seen in this picture.

 

Firing at willFiring At Will The union line has stopped advancing and individuals are firing at their own pace. A good soldier could fire off three rounds a minute. Just like a cannon.

 

Massed timed fire was more damaging that rapid firing at willUnion Line Volley Fire Volley Volley fire was the preferred and most effective way to break an enemy line - once you got close enough with enough men left still alive to fire. Smoothbores muskets are widely in-accurate past 300 yards. (Snipers, who maintained their own weapons and would often use rifled guns, could shoot accurately 600 yards.) Thus a defending line could get off 15 rounds of fire against a line steadily advancing enemy line from 300 yards out till they were at their line. This would be too much firepower to overcome if attacking an a line 1/2 your strength. Most would advance, then once within range, the lead line would fire, the next line behind would advance, fire while the first line had reloaded, then the lead line advanced and fired and this repeated until within 200 yards (3 or 4 volley fires) then they would charge to lessen the time they would be open to really effective defensive fire. This would give the defenders only two to three rounds of fire before they got within their lines. Here you can see the smoke from those who had reloaded and were ready to fire at the volley command.

The Federal line advances over the battlefield.Union Line Advances The Union line has continued to advance after stopping to fire. In staged re-enactments (as well as in movies and TV) they seldom use the real ranges employed since that would take up too much room. 300 yards - 1000 feet or around 270 meters - is the amount of room needed to do it right. This means spectators could not acutally see in detail how things worked back then making it hard to convey what is happenning to people watching. So they always compress the scale in the re-enactments as well as in the movies. They usually just show the charge and close combat since that is more dramatic than watching a line of very small figures fire from 1000 feet away for 5 minutes. Here the opposing lines were usually 100 feet apart.

A solider wounded hands up his cartidge to a soldier still in the fightWounded But Still in the Fight A "wounded" Confederate solider on the ground hands up a cartridge to allow his comrade to reload. In the heat of battle pre-packed cartridges would often be dropped in the rush to reload and another one pulled out and used instead. You can trace where semi stationary battle lines were by mapping where lots of unused cartridges are found on civil war battlefields.

 

We have the US Civil War to thank for the "Greenbacks" that the US uses till just recently. Prior to the Civil War all bank notes and US Government notes were very colorful just like the European ones. To save money the US Government just printed bank notes in green and black to pay troops and suppliers. If any Southern troops got the Northern currency they could not spend them - unlike Gold.