On the front lines

Published 10:36 am Monday, June 15, 2009

The year is 1864. A horse neighs as women and children mill around A-frame canvas tents and campfires. Soldiers in blue Union Army uniforms grimly stand in line with their muskets as they prepare to enter a grassy field for battle.

For many people, reenacting the Civil War is not only a hobby, but a way to preserve an important part of American history. The deadliest conflict in this country’s history, the Civil War took about 620,000 lives between 1861 and 1865. Civil War reenactments have been held since the beginning of the 20th century; even veterans of the war participated.

Adams Dairy Days attracts hundreds of people each year to its festival, which includes a Civil War encampment at its city park. The Union and Confederate armies battled Saturday afternoon; the South was victorious that time. A battle was also scheduled for Sunday.

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Nels Ebbesen, who plays a fife (a small flute) for the Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Company B, in La Crosse, Wis., said Saturday that reenactments are a lesson in history for both the actors and the audience. His company is modeled after a real unit in the Civil War.

“Some people travel 200 miles to portray what (character) they want to do,” said Ebbesen, who has been reenacting for more than four years and lives in Winona. “A lot of younger people are getting interested in it.”

Ebbesen and 9-year-old drummer Gunner Johnson, of Crystal, were musicians for the Union Army.

Musicians not only entertained troops as they marched — they stayed behind the lines during battle and helped carry bodies.

“They were assigned one for each company,” Ebbesen explained. There was also sometimes a bugler. The drummer had to know all the songs the bugler and fifer knew.”

Gunner, who participated in his first reenactment Saturday with the Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, said he became interested in the Civil War because of his older brother.

“I was too young to handle a gun,” he said. Gunner took drum lessons at a local music store, where the teacher educated him about Civil War drumming technique. He and Ebbesen purchased their costumes online from “sutlers” — men who sold uniforms to soldiers during the war.

“It’s not just about war; it’s about reenacting history,” Ebbesen said. “From every little town, they would take half the men and go to war.”

Reporting from the field on those battles was Charles Wood, a war correspondent from La Crosse for the Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Company B. A 1975 Pacelli High School (Austin) graduate, Wood has been involved with reenactments for about 20 years.

His job is to observe and report news from the field for the La Crosse Republican; the newspaper and the La Crosse Democrat actually sent correspondents to cover the Civil War. The La Crosse Tribune is a direct descendant of the La Crosse Republican, Wood said.

“I take news in the field and write it of and then submit it to my editor,” he said. Although he tries to remain neutral, “it is 1864 out here,” he said.

Wood actually writes articles about the battles for reenactment publications. He even reports on events in the reenactment world, like a visit from “Abraham Lincoln” at a library in La Crosse.

A photographer was also covering the battle Saturday; however, most photos taken during the Civil War were of camps and after-battle scenes, Wood said. Famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady managed more than 20 teams of photographers, who he sent out to cover the Union.

“Battle photography came later because the lenses were too slow,” Wood said.

Civil War reenactments are about much more than just war; whole encampments are recreated, down to the makeshift hospitals.

In authentic garb — right down to the blood-stained white coat — was Don Evans, or “Doc Eli,” of Mason City, Iowa. A member of the 16th U.S. Medical Corps, Evans had two great-grandfathers who served in the Civil War.

“I’ve been reenacting for about 15 years,” said Evans, who plays a surgeon. “As a grow older, I no longer look like an infantryman.”

Evans explained that the U.S. learned a lot about medical procedures because of Civil War. Men were only treated with ether — which is highly-explosive — and chloroform.

“We did not have sterile water, we did not have sterile surroundings,” Evans said.

Injured soldiers would first come to the “pre-op,” where nuns would dress wounds with bandages and apply tourniquets. They would then go to “op” and “post-op.”

“There was no professional nursing staff,” Evans said. Many hospitals were founded after the war by Catholic sisters and other Christian organizations.

Evans said battle wounds sustained in the Civil War were especially devastating because Minié balls — muffle-loading rifle bullets — would shatter bones. Amputation was often the only way to save the men.

“This is far more devastating than what they use today,” Evans said as he held up a 1-ounce lead bullet.

The “op” was set up in a tent outside during the Dairy Days encampment, but the hospitals were usually inside buildings, such as schools and churches. Doors would be removed and used as operating tables; windows were opened for ventilation because doctors were smoking cigars around the flammable ether, Evans said. Gangrene and lockjaw were feared, and wounds were packed with wet lint and wood shavings to prevent bleeding and flies, Evans said.

Although horrific injuries were sustained during the war, most deaths were not caused by guns and cannons.

“Two out of three people died of disease,” Evans said.