It is sunny and warm when, in the mid afternoon of March 20, I arrive at Newton Grove, North Carolina. I take the wrong spoke of the wheel leaving town, but by cutting across on the Bentonville Road gain the highway on which the battlefield is located. The tents of the sutlers and modern vendors tell me that this is the place, so I turn north. All the areas (sutlers, reenactor parking, etc.) are well marked with permanent signage. At reenactor parking, attendants are on hand to assure that space is not wasted and travel lanes preserved. The field is plenty large enough to accommodate the reenactors. Fortunately, we are spared the rain that might have turned the fields into quagmires.
As I’m donning my gear, I’m amused by a dose of unintended irony. As two people in blue are passing by, one says, “I’ve got my Enfield defarbed, but I have to defarb my Springfield.” The speaker is a cross-dressing woman with her long hair tied in a pony tail! However, I see only a half dozen RFCs (recognizably female combatants) that weekend.
I then march across the street to the Federal camps, arrayed along a circular drive or loop in the woods. As I arrive, I see a frontloader spreading gravel and sand in some muddy areas of the drive. Although it has not rained since the previous night, and wind has dried the surfaces, there is still mud underneath. As I see cars trying not to bog as they exit, I think of the best solution to scaley travel lanes: use only what you can carry in.
I eventually find my company in the center of the loop, occupying a distinctive lodge or gallery made by connecting four or five tent flies. After laying out my bedding, I join the boys on a walk to the sutlers (a short way down the road). I count 35 sutlers, almost all of whom I’ve seen before.
Back in camp we have supper, sit, drink and jaw until it is dark. Since the rest of the boys drove all night, they retire early while I and two others start to walk around the loop. We stop at a tent where the 6th NHV Contra-Band is doing a rip-roaring performance of “reenactor songs”: some appropriate to the period, some not. A popular piece that is new to me is “Rock me mama like a wagon wheel,” a song originating no earlier than 1927, and not released until 1973. They also do jokes, most of which are nonperiod and/or politically incorrect. The crowd loves it, joining in on the choruses. After the band does its encore (around 10 p.m.), we return to camp and to bed.
Staying warm under my folded-over blanket and overcoat, I get a good four hours of sleep before reveille, and get up under an overcast sky. Ignoring reveille, our captain, lieutenant, first sergeant and cook are all snoozing. That means no roll call, no one to roust the fire, no one to start the coffee, and no one to receive the others who have fallen in with us. I therefore dine on the hardtack, coffee, cheese, summer sausage and trail mix I brought with me, glad that I did not throw in for the company mess.
Eventually everyone does get up and we assemble in fatigue order (shovels and canteens, but no accoutrements) and march the color line (the drive abutting the camps). Once the battalion is formed, it marches to the battlefield to the north: a cornfield that is sandy, rutted and soft underfoot, hence unsuited to drill. But it is easy to dig, which we proceed to do, making a north-south line. I use my tin plate, which works only for soil that is already loosened up; but if you have to use a shovel to loosen the soil first, you may as well shovel it at the same time. So I give up on the plate, and wait to take over from tired shovelers. We manage to get two feet below grade (with a pile 18 inches above grade) before we fall in and march back to camp.
A short while later we form the company and march out to the battlefield for company drill. After less than an hour, the battalion commander has “to the color” blown and does two maneuvers before marching us back to camp, where we break for lunch. Assembly is blown around 1:20. We form battalion on the color line, then march out to the battlefield. Part of our battalion occupies the works we’d dug earlier, while our company is sent out as skirmishers. It is warm and sunny enough to cause sunburn, but a breeze mitigates the heat. A seemingly endless number of Federals march onto the field from the south and start digging in at right angles to our line. I count four battalions, with from 250 to 300 men per battalion; which adds up to 1000 to 1200 infantry. After a long wait, a reb battalion marches onto the field and melts back into the woods on the lower ground opposite.
Finally, going on two hours after we had fallen in on our color line, the Confederates shoulder arms and we skirmishers rise up. The rebs then leave the woods and reform in the field. When they start advancing, we skirmishers start firing, then fire in retreat. When the rebs start volleying, we assemble on the right flank and march around the end of our works. Those who can take their places in the trenches and start exchanging shots with the rebels. Some left out of the works fire over the heads of those in the works (unsafe, as it exposes the latter to muzzle blast). I don’t attempt to fire at all, but make myself useful by bringing up the cartridges of the shooters in the trench ahead of me.
At this point a father with two boys (around age 10) tells them to get into the trench so they can see better. This puts them under the men firing, interfering with the latter and exposing the kids to muzzle blast. I immediately say, “Unsafe! Unsafe!” while the troops in the trenches shoo the kids back. In addition to the hazard it created, this incident destroyed time travel for the reenactors, thus underscoring why kids should not be allowed on the field, period.
Eventually the rebs make their move toward the trenches, which is our cue to abandon them. We on the Federal right wing retreat in disorder to the east, rally on the 21st Michigan’s colors, then retreat north behind some extremely shallow trenches. However, soon after crossing our works the reb battalion melts away, leaving casualties in its wake.
It is evidently now the turn of the three remaining rebel battalions, who are lined up east to west in front of the spectator line. They advance and start trading volleys, decimating the Federal right wing, which cannot retreat further because we have active artillery (12 pieces) at our backs, endangering the hearing of all in front. My ears are also assaulted by the Henry rifles to our left: their shorter barrels and smaller caliber create a much louder report than a musket. Having fired off ten rounds in quick succession, I must stop because my barrel is too hot to hold. The captain tells me to borrow a musket from one of the dead, so I pick up another musket and fire off 10 more rounds. By now I’m low on ammo, so I merely spectate as some Federal companies advance beyond the works to engage the rebels.
I am disgusted to see a “Federal” reenactor in shirtsleeves with a “CS” beltplate and gray trousers. To keep numbers equal, the sponsor permitted excess rebels to galvanize as Yankees. However, the sponsor obviously failed to enforce standards as to the minimum required for a Federal impression. Despite this lapse, the general authenticity level of the troops is comparable to the Blue-Gray Alliance events.
Realistically, the rebel attack should have swept the Federal right flank from the field. However, the scenario calls for the rebs to stop before reaching our line and then withdraw, which they do. Only at the center do the Confederates reach the works, only to be repulsed after some hand-to-hand.
Then the call goes out for all to resurrect. We reform company and battalion, then wheel into a column of companies. Then there is a long wait as the rebels march past the reviewing stand (occupied, it is said, by the governor). The rebel infantry look to be about equal to the Feds, which means between two and three thousand infantry total: certainly the biggest Bentonville ever, and a respectable number for such a remote Sesquicentennial event. After unnecessary delay (in which gaps form between the marchers), our battalion moves forward. Evidently the companies to our front are galvanized, as they holler “Tarheels!” as they pass the reviewing stand. For our part, we holler “Michigan!”
We arrive back at our color line, more tuckered out by the march there and back than by the battle itself. On my way from the parking lot (after having retrieved more rations), I chat with one who had participated in the preservation march that morning. He reported that he was leaving because his feet were sore after marching eight miles over pavement (contrary to representations made before the event that only a small part of the march would be on pavement). It took 300 troops four hours to cover the eight miles.
That evening, five of our company walk over to hear the NHV minstrels. “General Sherman” is in attendance. We hear some repeats from the previous night, but also some new ones. The performance ends earlier (around 9 p.m.), so I am in bed earlier as well.
It is warmer tonight, and I get between six and eight hours of sleep. I get up soon after dawn (it is hard to tell, as the sky is overcast). The temperature is cool enough to require a jacket, but not cool enough to warrant an overcoat. After breakfast, we tear down the shebang and tote enough to the vehicles so that we will be able to carry the remainder out in one load (thus avoiding traffic jams in camp).
At 11:30, we form company and march to the color line. From there the battalion marches northeast along a trail that parallels the original trenches built by the First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics. After we cross the works, I see “General Grant” on horseback. “Isn’t he supposed to be up in Virginia?” I ask. After we exit the woods and march south along the western tree line, our battalion commander orders us to go from twos to fours without halting. This elicits curses from me, as it means that everyone has to run to get into their fours. Over the way, I count three Confederate artillery pieces. When we reach the Federal artillery battery (four pieces), the battalion commander has us close up, which elicits more curses from me, as it means that troops will be shoved out of line when we get the order to “front.” Someone who does not know company drill should not be leading a battalion.
While we wait, other battalions form a north-south line in the center of the field and start digging in. I have hopes that we might be held in reserve (hence avoiding more digging), but instead we are ordered to front (shoving men out of line) and then forward. As we advance, many of us who have never seen cotton in its natural state are taken with the remnants of the harvest left in the dirt. Once up to our place, we are ordered to dig in. Not wishing to put a dirty plate back into my haversack, I try my tin cup, but find that bare hands move more of the sandy loam more quickly. Still, we’ve gotten only a foot below grade when the Federals to our left start firing on the rebel line at the tree line opposite us. The rebs eventually advance and start firing, leading us to open on them. Once again our artillery is at our backs, producing hearing-damaging reports. I take a hit, lying half out of the trench until I am dragged back on my belly. Then I hear, “They’re flanking us!” I look up to see a rebel battalion assailing our rear. The Federal right wing leaves its trench, faces by the rear rank and wheels right to meet the challenge.
Had the first-engaged rebels advanced again, they would have squeezed us as in a vise. But it evidently is not in the script, as the first-engaged rebels have retreated to the tree line, content to fire at us long distance. I note that the rebel left left casualties in their wake, while their right is apparently bullet proof. By now the rebel flanking party has been forced back, so the Federal right wing faces by the front rank and returns to the trench.
That is where we are when the firing ceases. Across the way, someone who looks like General Lee reviews the rebel line; isn’t he supposed to be up in Virginia? Anyway, we reform battalion and, without bothering to do a march-past for the spectators, march off the field at a killing pace (130 steps per minute). We slow to a more reasonable pace on the trail, and back on the color line the parting words are mercifully short. The sun is just coming out when our company repairs to its former camp, removes accoutrements and coats, and rests an hour before heading to the parking lot.
The rest pause after the battle dashes any hopes of getting out quickly. Since it is stop-and-go leaving the parking lot, I wait about an hour for the traffic to subside. Unfortunately, I fail to consider that traffic moving through the parking lot doesn’t necessarily mean that it is moving beyond. I manage to dodge traffic negotiating the park, but a mile or so from the intersection with US 701 encounter a long line of stop-and-go traffic caused, I eventually learn, to slowpokes who take 10 seconds to turn onto 701, when a good driver could do it in five. Eventually, I leave this bottleneck behind and book on home to Michigan.
A March event avoids the ticks and other insects that bedevil reenactors in warmer weather. It also creates the risk of cold temperatures and rain, but we were spared in that regard. All in all, this was very well organized, well attended and reasonably authentic event: one of the better 150ths.
-By John A. Braden