Re-enactors 'try to stay as true to history as possible' Union, Confederate troops stage key Maryland battle

September 13, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO -- While the troops under his command primped and practiced yesterday for a battle they knew they would lose, "Brig. Gen." Bob Drane squatted under a white canvas awning and explained how he was going to die.

A bullet would hit him in the chest, he said, just as a battalion of North Carolina infantrymen charged forward to reinforce the Confederate left flank. His men would drag him to a quiet spot in the woods, and he would bleed to death. The bugler would sound taps.

And today, he'll do it again. But this time he gets to live.

As the commanding Confederate general of this weekend's re-enactment of the Battle of South Mountain, history demands that he be killed in action, Drane said. Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr. died Sept. 14, 1862, so Drane would have to "die," too.

"We try to stay as true to history as possible," said Drane, a 39-year-old Westinghouse engineer from Charlottesville, Va.

Hundreds of Union and Confederate re-enactors are camped outside Boonsboro this weekend, awaiting orders to live or die. The men in charge of staging the mock battles try to choreograph as much of the action as possible, ordering units to hold a ridge or charge to their deaths.

They are re-enacting part of the Battle of South Mountain, the first major engagement of the Civil War on Maryland soil, although it is often overshadowed by the battle at Antietam three days later.

Yesterday's planning began with a decidedly unhistoric meeting of Union and Confederate officers in a little grove of trees just off the battlefield. Given the terrain and the number of troops each side had, and with the guidance of a historian from the Central Maryland Heritage League, they chose the Battle of Fox's Gap as their guideline.

They agreed on how the rebel skirmishers would ambush the federals, where the artillery would be and where the Confederate line would collapse. The battle would last about 45 minutes, they decided. The Union, of course, would win.

"Some re-enactors don't like to hear it, but this is as much a theatrical production as it is a military pageant," said Kevin Air, weekdays an employee of the Library of Congress who portrayed the colonel who commanded Union forces at Smith Mountain. "I mean, hey, we're all firing blanks here."

Participants were careful to ensure they were, in fact, firing blanks, after a Battle of Gettysburg re-enactor was injured in July by a real bullet fired from a Civil War-era weapon.

Drane and Air, who communicate throughout the battles by radio, agree when and where battalions will be placed and which will succeed. At the end of the engagement, they give the word and the Union troops force the rebels off the field with a final surge.

While groups of men know their fate, however, individual infantrymen usually decide which mythical ball of lead has their names on it. Some outfits draw straws to determine who will live, die or be wounded, but at South Mountain the soldiers planned to decide for themselves.

Bob Sidley, a 50-year-old "private" from Pittsburgh who serves in the 40th Pennsylvania was thinking of dying in honor of his great-great-uncle Joseph Nunemaker, who died in the real battle.

"But I'll wait and see," he said. "Usually, if you get tired or hot, you just die, that's all. But you want to fire your gun and burn up some powder first."

Union and Confederate actors will re-enact another engagement from the Battle of South Mountain at 1 p.m. today. The camps open to the public at 9 a.m.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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