photos © Jim Hull
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it. — Robert E. Lee
There is something darkly enticing about guns. To men, at least. Something atavistic. The sharp report, the kick of the weapon, the sudden explosion of violent power across a distance.
The first time I fired a pistol, I was impressed immediately by three things. To begin with, this was a lethal machine in my hand. I emptied a .357 Magnum revolver into a target, and my palm stung from the slapping recoil. For a whole day afterward I was very polite to everyone, as it had become crystal clear to me that anyone could end my life with a gun, and that there was no point in antagonizing someone who might carry one.
Second, TV shows don’t get the sound of guns right. It’s not a “boom”, it’s more of a crack! — like fireworks. This makes sense, as both involve the explosive detonation of gunpowder.
Third, I was a good shot. I could get ninety percent of my rounds into the three-inch-wide central black circle, called the “10 ring” for its maximum points. This gave me a quiet feeling of reassurance: in an actual firefight, all I had to do was not panic, aim calmly, and knock over the opponent with a bullet. Or so I believed.
I’ve learned a great deal since about warfare, with the chief exception of having never experienced it in person. From what I’ve heard, I must conclude I can only faintly grasp the true intensity of war, and I can never hope to understand fully the trauma suffered by so many of its veterans.
I took an opportunity to reduce my ignorance by attending a Civil War re-enactment at a nearby college athletic field. A goodly crowd of spectators wandered through the many white tents filled with nineteenth-century memorabilia for sale. Nearby, food vendors offered overpriced french fries and turkey legs. Men and women in authentic period costumes promenaded serenely among the visitors. On a distant slope stood old-fashioned beige-cloth tents for the soldiers — Union on one side, Rebels on another. The northern troops sported elegant blue uniforms, while the Southerners wore ragtag gray and beige. An outdoor stage presented musicians who played old-time music.
And then there were the battles.
Viewers sat in bleachers and gaped as uniformed troops marched onto the field, arrayed themselves in Napoleonic rows, and fired rifles at each other. The weapons crackled loudly. The men would pause to muzzle-load their guns and then resume firing. (This tactic — rows of fusiliers shooting directly at each other — seems foolishly absurd until you learn that the muskets were wildly inaccurate.)
Mounted officers patrolled the outskirts. Here rode General Lee, in white beard and gray uniform, astride a magnificent pale horse; across the battlefield rode General Grant, replete with cigar. Northern soldiers sometimes cheered; Southerners gave the Rebel Yell. Now and then a re-enactor would drop to the ground, writhe a few moments, and lie still. No one was hurt: the rifles fired blanks made of cereal grains that flew thirty feet and fell limply to Earth.
Then the cannons lit up. The first shot startled with its impact — it felt like someone had slapped you in the chest. The sound was painfully loud; my ears rang for a moment, and I found myself putting fingers to them as the cannonade continued. The big guns cracked much like the rifles but with a powerful underlying boom. Smoke issued forth until the battlefield was partly obscured. Now and then a perfect smoke ring would sail out of a barrel, float languidly into the sky, and dissipate, a quietly beautiful vision from so violent an event.
Those guns! Sudden and powerful, weirdly alluring. It was thrilling. No wonder young men volunteer to fight. The glamor! By the time they realize how awful it really is — blood everywhere, spilled intestines, blasted skulls — it’s too late.
The re-enactment weapons were primitive by today’s standards. It occurred to me that one soldier with a modern A-R automatic rifle could mow down every actor on the field in under a minute. Americans lost a million souls during the Civil War; humanity lost ninety million more during the two World Wars. The machinery of death has advanced mightily over the decades. In light of the vastly greater carnage of subsequent conflicts, is a battlefield re-enactment from an antique war somehow insensitive?
No. It’s part of our history; it’s part of the severe growing pains of America. It was a time when brother sometimes fought against brother on the battlefield. We can at least derive some sense of how these engagements must have played out as painful real-life calamities. And we can learn something of how our ancestors behaved back then, of how they dealt with wartime — of their pride and spirit and determination in the midst of tragic circumstances.
But those guns! Amazing.