The last Monday of every May is Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday that honors the veterans who died while serving in the nation's military forces. The long weekend, in addition to reminding us of the sacrifices of our citizens, also marks the unofficial start of summer, and, for the past few years, has served as an occasion for Civil War buffs to gather in eastern Washington for the Battle of Deep Creek.
Staged on a small farm west of Spokane, this three day event draws Civil War reenactors from across the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds of men, women, and children converge on the site, where they live in white canvas tents, and reenact battles on a nearby field. Hosted by the Washington Civil War Association (WCWA), the participants offer not only two battles per day, but also educational lectures about various aspects of military and civilian life during the nineteenth century. These include discussions of military equipment, medical practices, religion, and politics.
This year, on Saturday afternoon, the WCWA reenacted the Battle of Bull Run. The first significant battle of the Civil War, this encounter occurred on July 21, 1861. The inexperienced Union army, goaded on by Northerner politicians who expected a quick defeat of the South, attacked a Confederate army near Manassas, Virginia. Upon receiving news of an impending battle, confident spectators --- men, women, and entire families --- made the seven hour buggy ride from Washington D.C. in order to witness the predicted rout of the Confederate forces.
Their optimistic expectations were disappointed. The Confederate forces were reinforced by the arrival of a southern troop train, and ultimately, the Union forces were defeated. The war would not have a quick end and the death toll was just beginning.
The Battle of Deep Creek began at 3:00. The Union forces held the southern end of Deep Creek Farm, as the Confederates marched across the creek, to assume a position in the North. Both sides were supported by cannon fire and light cavalry units. Having finished their martial posturing and catcalls, the two long files of infantrymen slowly converged on the center of the field. As the distance diminished, the foot soldiers began firing blanks at their counterparts. Men began to fall; medics on both sides scurried to succor the wounded.
Most of the actual Civil War soldiers had little experience with their muskets. Their training was often limited to knowing how to load and discharge their weapons. Although some could shoot, the limitations of their weapons and the smoke from the cannon and rifle fire quickly made markmanship irrelevant. This would change with the introduction of the 1861 Springfield Musket and Minie ball, a combination that would enable infantrymen to destroy their adversaries from a greater distance. The soldiers at Bull Run, however, were equipped with smoothbore muzzles and balls; one never knew exactly where the projectile would go once it left the rifle. Close action was essential.
With fewer numbers on both sides (there were more than 36,000 combatants in the original battle), the reenactment was only able to generate a modest amount of smoke, and the two forces stood off and peppered each other with their muskets. After thirty minutes of combat, the two cannon on the Union side ceased firing --- presumably the artillerymen who were serving them had fallen. The Confederates moved forward slowly, and finally, overran the last of the Union soldiers, who had taken a defensive position behind the silenced cannons and were reduced to firing pistols at the advancing enemy.
The demonstration ended when a bugler, stationed at the southeast corner of the field, blew a mournful rendition of Taps. Then, the dead rose again, regrouped into their formations, and marched back into their camps --- a radically different ending from the real Battle of Bull Run.
It was a fascinating display, an event made possible by the WCWA's passion for this period --- spending three days under the open sun in heavy woolen uniforms or long hoop skirts requires a commendable level of commitment. The event was also a reminder of those who had fallen in the field as well as the ultimate folly of the human impulse to make war on each other.