Visiting the Civil War

The day I drove to Mission State Park in Salem, Oregon my head was bursting with anxiety and anticipation. To view a Civil War reenactment seemed like stepping back a century and a half to the world of Volunteer for Glory. To distract myself, I thought about my teen-age persona, The Rio Kid. My horseback riding pals and I had assumed various sobriquets as a way of reliving eras when horses were the main source of transportation, and gunslingers dominated small towns. (At least according to movies and television.) Drawing upon Rio to coolly approach the unknown with aplomb, I transformed my automobile into my horse, Stormy. So my fantasies were embellished over the long miles to Salem. Nothing would stop the daring Rio and her invincible mount as they wound through Rebel cavalry to the scene of battle. A messenger sent on a top-secret mission, her job was to deliver maps and information to General Grant.

But as I approached Mission Park, Rio galloped away, leaving plain little old me to make the final approach. After paying both Park and Civil War fees, I hopped a shuttle to the encampment, sparing me a two-mile hike. The weather was unexpectedly warm, so I was grateful.

When the shuttle unloaded its passengers, I entered a world of hoop-skirted ladies and uniformed men. The blue and the gray mingled companionably as this was a re-enactment, rather than real thing. Soldiers carried muskets, some had sheathed swords, and many escorted elegantly dressed ladies.

Noting that the battle was about to begin, I followed a crowd to the action. The battle was staged some little distance away from me, except for three Confederates manning midget mortars. The dramatic explosions kicked up a flurry of grass and dust. Several Union soldiers fell beside their cannons. Troops advanced. Horses and riders appeared. Two large, black horses pulled artillery caissons to fortify rebel lines.

Whipping out my digital camera, I prepared to take photos. My husband had instructed me, saying all I had to do was aim, check the picture in the viewfinder, and press a button. This ought to have been sufficient except for the fact I couldn’t see a darned thing. The viewfinder was completely dark except for a few vague shadows. Maybe it was because I was standing in direct sunlight. Still I needed to soldier on! Just as I positioned myself for another shot, a little message flashed, saying the memory had expired!

The spectacle was satisfying, however, and the smoke from muskets, cannons, and mortars clouded the atmosphere, much as described from contemporary Civil War accounts. Far fewer bodies littered this field than in battles like Donelson, Shiloh or Gettysburg where the casualties created a patchwork quilt of blue, gray, and butternut.

As the soldiers, marvelously resurrected, marched away, I returned to the sutlers that offered everything from “weapons” to decks of cards featuring various generals. Books and toys abounded. Of course, there were gorgeous dresses, hoop skirts, shawls, and hats. In fact, I fell prey to a particularly winsome bonnet and bought it on the spot. Remember to look at the bonnet and forget the face.

Relying on advice given by the announcer of the battle, I spoke to Doris, the sutler coordinator, and her daughter Cindy, about Volunteer for Glory. After looking over a copy, they offered to take all I’d brought on consignment. According to them, books sell well at re-enactments, and if any are left over, they take them to the next event. After this euphoric experience, I treated myself at the food and drinks concessions.

My next stop was the field hospital where Civil War medical procedures were demonstrated. Fortunately, there were no amputations as that might have strained the nerves of spectators as well as actors. To think that these were forerunners of the MASH units we learned about in the TV series.

Driving home, I forgot the Rio Kid and relived the experiences of the day. I’m totally primed to attend the reenactment planned at McIver Park in September. See you there?