Manassas, VA: Seeing the Elephant
“Today, you’re gonna see the elephant,” a reenactor named Joe said knowingly as we marched the dusty, sweaty mile up to the Manassas battlefield.
Joe is one of the 100 or so folks who make up the 21st Georgia Volunteer Infantry, a unit more or less based out of western New York, but whose members travel from as far as Arizona for big reenactments.
Joe was referring to my first battle reenactment. The phrase, “see the elephant” turns up in enlisted men’s journals and letters, but its origins are a mystery. What I did see, though, is what it’s like to fire an Enfield rifle as part of a unit, to march as one with the soldiers around me, to get a mouthful of black gun powder, and to wear impractical and possibly dangerous wool clothing in 125-degree heat.
During our trip to Gettysburg, PA a few weeks ago, Matt and I met up with Bill Foster, an excellent tour guide who gave us a play-by-play of the battle. Aside from being a knowledgeable guy, Bill is also a longtime reenactor with the 21st Georgia, and he put us in contact with the unit’s captain, Jason Rose.
As soon as Rose got back to us (Monday, three days before we would need to leave for Virginia), Matt and I knew this was a trip we couldn’t miss. We had talked to dozens of reenactors, and all of them had spoken at length about the love they have for their hobby, but we wanted to feel it for ourselves. And, as far as first-time reenacting venues go, Manassas is like starting in the big leagues.
This year’s event served as the first major reenactment of the 150th anniversary series since The Battle of First Manassas (or Bull Run) was the first major battle in July of 1861. We were told that there would be more than 12,000 reenactors on hand, and the opportunity to be filming from their midst had us very excited to get on the road again.
So, Jason arranged for us to borrow uniforms and rifles, and we traveled to Manassas.
Our uniforms were huge on us, and we looked a little awkward as Confederate soldiers, but my month-long beard-growing escapades (much bemoaned on the home front) had paid off. As I emerged from the tent, leaking sweat and wearing my baggy new duds, one reenactor named Dave exclaimed, “You look just like a real rebel!”
We anxiously awaited the parade through Old Town Manassas the following morning, but at the last minute, it was decided by our battalion leader that it was just too hot to make anybody march. The 21st Georgia, save for a few hardcore individuals, did not march in the parade, and as Matt and I waited with our cameras on the sidewalk for the reenactors to pass us by, the reason was apparent.
July 21-24 were Virginia’s hottest days on record this year. Any movement became a chore; even talking seemed a stretch at some points. Our brains got a little soupy in the heat as well, and finding the answers to simple questions required more and more mental dexterity as the weekend went on. The heat index really did reach 125 each day — a feat that I honestly didn’t even realize was possible.
The standard question people asked was this: “You fellas are from Florida, aren’t you? You should be used to this.” Our standard response was, yes, it gets hot in Florida, but we usually have enough sense to take shelter indoors and bask in the air conditioning. Out here, camped in blinding fields and chasing isolated patches of shade cast from tent flies, there was just no relief. Staying hydrated took up most of our time and energy as we waited out the crushing heat of Friday afternoon.
But then it was time for drill. The officers of the 21st Georgia patiently taught us what we needed to know to be soldiers. We learned rifle positions (Shoulder arms, order arms, present arms) and maneuvers (forward march, right face, and all six ways to approach a battle) straight from Gilham’s Manual of Arms. We carried our 13-pound Enfield rifles and learned to load and fire them with speed and shaky precision.
The next morning, I would see the elephant, and Matt would be there to document it as a member of the medical corps, following behind our line.
I cannot describe the feeling of marching and sweating alongside that many reenactors with any sense of accuracy. I felt equally insignificant and hugely important; I was an ant, but I was a part of a moving, breathing column of ants about to clash. But my role here hit home for me when we crossed into spectator territory. Fans cheered and clapped, and some yelled things like, “For Virginia!” and “Kill a Yankee for me!” It was as if we were minor celebrities. 11,000 spectators braved the heat that morning — some paying $75 to sit in the sweltering heat of the grandstands.
When we hit the field, we had to wait in the sun for 47 minutes as the cannons fired in front of us. Jason yelled at us: “Close your ears and open your mouths!” When I asked Joe about this, he told me the cannon blast could break your teeth if you kept your mouth closed. I stood closed-eared and slack-jawed as the artillery blasts shook the world around me, and a line of spectators cheered behind us.
While we waited, Jason broke open a cartridge and smeared gunpowder on my face and into my beard, a rite of initiation. “Welcome to the 21st,” he told me solemnly.
And then, it was time to fight.
The rest of the battle is a blur of tearing off cartridges and fumbling for blast caps. Load, fire, load, fire. Fire at will. Fire by the drum (a fancy maneuver that sets the 21st apart from their farbier colleagues).
Our unit fell in the center of a much larger battalion — the 7th Virginia — and we were constantly squeezed by the collapsing wings to each side. I had to fight and elbow my way in, just to stay in line, all the while struggling to keep my outsized boots from slipping off my feet.
The heat of battle was intense, and the firing never stopped. We marched across the field as a unit — albeit an occasionally sloppy and chaotic unit — and pushed back the Federal line. Men fell around me, choosing to “die” whenever they got too tired or hot, or if they ran out of ammunition.
Our commanding officers screamed orders at us, struggling to be heard over the firing and the competing noise of the fifers and drummers who followed us everywhere.
I kept ice cubes in my hat, and choked on dust and smoke, and once bit too far into a cartridge, spilling grainy, salty gunpowder into my mouth. After that, I ripped them by hand and spilled them crazily into the barrel of my rifle with great effort. The firing surprised me in one respect: the guns don’t kick back at all, and every reenactment shot I’ve seen has been a part of the act as guys mime the power of their guns. This is a part of the show that I continually forgot, so focused was I on just getting the thing loaded in time for the command, “Fire!”
Every once in a while, I would look back and see Matt, dressed in wool pants and shirt, suspenders and slouch hat, filming with his DSLR. He usually had a huge smile on his face; we got some amazing footage of the battle that we absolutely never would have gotten from the media area, or the grandstands. This was a first-person shooter.
And then, after almost two hours of fighting, it was over without fanfare. The Federals simply turned around and left, leaving someone next to me to say, “Is that it?” But it wasn’t; we still had a sweltering mile-long march back to camp, and once there, we would find no relief from the heat but to pour water on ourselves and stare into space.
We had seen the elephant and lived to tell the tale.
Safely in the air conditioning