Have you ever gone to an event filled with great hopes, only to find that the sponsor’s logistics were infinitely short on water, firewood, hay bedding, site preparation, and persons available to take complaints or resolve issues? Ever been disappointed with the level of authenticity? Fought one scenario after the other on the same ground while watching the other side maneuver into their start positions? Are you getting tired of the same old corndog fairs where little Johnny asks “Aren’t you hot in those clothes?” Tired of doing all the work so the organizers can make “Tator” (spectator) money off your efforts?
Where are the mainstream, authentic events run for us, by us?
This veteran re-enactor found the answer to that question in Tennille, Alabama over the weekend of October 23, 24 and 25. The event was a first-time reenactment of a portion of Union General Benjamin H. Grierson’s raid across southern Alabama in 1865. (Tennille is just south of Brundidge, Alabama off of U.S. Highway 231.) What follows is a report on all aspects of the event – and if it is glowing, I just ask the reader to remember that apparently it is possible to do the impossible, when the desire is actually there.
Quick and easy was the order of the day. Download and print the registration form, mail in the fee and then just wait for the weekly updates. Included was a place for emergency contact information that could be accessed immediately even from the site, so if there was a serious issue loved ones could be contacted quickly. On site there was a simple sign-in sheet for the standard release form and directions to the Federal HQ, the Home Guard HQ, or the civilian town of Tennille. The registration fees covered most of the improvements to road nets on the site as well as the usual amenities such as port-o-lets, hay, straw, pre-positioning water for both soldiers and horses, and the bar-b-que meal served on Saturday night.
SITE AND WEATHER
The site consisted of approximately 900-plus acres of farmland roughly in the shape of a triangle, bordered on one side by the Pea River and part of the other by an active railroad which crossed the Pea at the southern apex of the property. There were wooded areas, open pastures, a serviceable road net, and impenetrable thickets. Most of the soil was sandy, covered in the pasture areas by a dense growth of Coastal Bermuda. There was a rolling aspect to the entire property and at night there were only lights from a couple of radio towers which were in excess of 15 miles away, in other words, the isolation and quiet was very “period.” Over the weekend I heard the railroad only twice.
The temperatures ranged from lows in the 60s at night to approximately 80 in the day. Not uncomfortable, very survivable in the day and great sleeping at night. The skies were clear and it had been dry for several weeks prior to the event. Some areas had soil so dry it seemed like talcum powder and on some roads, every column was marked by a dust cloud.
The parking area was a secured rolling pasture, almost out of sight of the paved road that bordered it and nearly a mile from U.S., home guard and civilian areas. Potable water was available in each area via recently installed water lines within easy walking distance. At various points along the route of march during Saturday’s campaign there were prepositioned stocks of horse water in troughs and potable water in gallon containers to either consume or to refill canteens (or both). Firewood was prepositioned and more than adequate, consisting of hardwoods and kindling. Straw for bedding was co-located with the hay ration. The hay was of excellent quality, limited to one horse/one bale for the event. Considering that horses were only picketed overnight Friday night and overnight Saturday night and until approximately 8 a.m. Sunday morning, one bale was quite adequate. The Saturday night meal consisted of Bar-b-que served by the civilians from the Town of Tennille under the expert leadership of Ms. Terri Lawson. Other than that, this was a true campaign style event, eating from haversacks, no runs to the store, (since there really weren’t any). This event makes you plan, think about what you really need, how much it weighs, can I eat it, shoot it, or sleep on it?
To gain a full understanding of this event I will provide an overview then attach addendums from the Federal commander and from a Federal enlisted man.
Friday was arrival day, the first arrivals from the various units placed picket lines and established camps in the respective areas. The artillery park was sited, horses were picketed and hay was drawn, beds were laid out and fires built. Infantry elements were used for guard duty after hours of darkness and to direct late arrivals to their unit’s area. Many troopers actually rode in from the parking lot, dropped their saddles and were in the period from that time until departure on Sunday. Actually not a single vehicle was driven into camp after dark Friday night until Sunday after the final battle. (Amazing.)
Saturday in the U.S. camp dawned bright and clear, horses were watered, hayed and fed, coffee boiled and rations were cooked and eaten before saddling. The column moved out after a short delay waiting on the teamster with wagon to arrive. (Again, potable water.)
Flankers were posted to watch the sides of the column somewhere between 200 yards and the tree line, scouts posted to the front approximately 300 yards. Order of march: scouts, HQ, cavalry, horse-drawn artillery, infantry, wagons, rear guard. The march was pretty uneventful for approximately 1.5 miles over the previously described rolling terrain.
Toward the Southeast the scouts were engaged by a small force of what appeared to be mounted riflemen or mounted home guard. At this point a sharp skirmish was initiated, cavalry was dispatched to the front, followed by infantry toward the right flank with additional cavalry in reserve. Artillery was introduced by the defenders and the U.S. responded by unlimbering and initiating counter-battery fire by the mounted artillery. After approximately 35 minutes, with the successful turning of the home guard’s flank due to overwhelming U.S. forces, the home guard retired after bringing their horses forward and limbering their artillery.
Troopers refilled canteens and checked and redistributed ammunition before continuing southward for approximately another half mile. Near a large bend in the road, there were several shots from the wood line, none of which hit their mark. Another fight would soon begin as home guard resistance stiffened in the edge of the woods. Again, cavalry and infantry were employed to assault the enemy front and feel for the flanks. The home guard now had an additional horse drawn gun which they serviced with great speed and accuracy. Again, this very defensible position was only taken by sheer weight of numbers combined with the fire support of the Federal horse artillery and the home guard horse artillery again retreated into the woods toward the Pea River trestle with their infantry and dismounted rifles contesting every stump and tree.
This was a true woods fight. Tree to tree, fighting in skirmish order, the Federal left anchored on the Pea River by the Federal infantry extended right to the single lane road between the trees and the cavalry dismounted on the right of the road with horse holders waiting just on the outside of the almost impenetrable woods. To say that the going was slow would be more than accurate. The woods hindered movement, and stymied command and control of the attacking Federal force in the face of the excellent defense put up by the home guard. Slowly pushing forward on line, the Federals advanced for over a half mile to find the trestle guarded by two mountain howitzers and what appeared to be every able bodied man from this section of Alabama.
Unknown to the local defenders and to most of the attacking Federals, a force of Federal cavalry had ridden wide around the right flank and had found an opening through which they made a dashing charge toward the trestle. This caused the defenders to rather hastily de-camp, leaving one mountain howitzer but making good their escape before being caught with their back against the Pea River. With the area secure, led horses were now brought forward down the narrow woods road, gathered by their riders, pickets were posted and then lunch was eaten from haversacks. The entire fight to this point had been fearfully contested over assorted terrain, fought by the combined arms of cavalry, infantry and artillery and supported by the wagons. A true campaign-style event.
After lunch, the column moved out over the excessively dusty road parallel to the railroad and had moved about a mile when we overtook several women and children (locals) who had obviously been foraging the poor countryside for edibles. They were stopped and questioned as to their activities and the general locale in effort to gain some intelligence about the enemy and this area. They were most uncooperative. We did confiscate some of their baked goods with their heated objection. One of these ladies decided if these “Yankees wanted some eggs, then they could have them,” and proceeded to pelt the troopers in the ranks with raw eggs. Very inhospitable. They were offered the opportunity to swear loyalty to the Union to ensure they would not be further molested but they refused. Some had papers showing the discharge of their husbands from service and they were all of one accord in saying they did not want anything to do with soldiers in any uniform. Most of the troopers, many family men among them, understood the necessity but inside, many objected to the treatment of these civilians. When the small girl began to openly weep it tore at the heart strings of the troopers and they were more than happy when the column moved out leaving these women and children in the dust. This aspect of encountering civilians is one of the aspects in reenacting that is too often overlooked. Armies did encounter civilians, those interactions can make for genuine period exchanges since civilians were almost never happy to see soldiers, regardless of the uniform. The first person impressions and attitudes of these capable reenactors added a completely different dimension to this event.
After another mile of marching, the column came in sight of the town of Tennille, our objective. After a short but aggressive entrance into the town it became apparent that there was nothing here of military significance, only the obstinate attitude of the few males and many females which was quite unnerving. After several attempts to reason with them it was determined that even though they might be short on necessities the penalty for surliness would be that they feed the command that evening. The civilian dynamic combined with the military maneuvers made for some memorable exchanges which I have seen replicated very few times. Their preparations went much further than the average individual who puts on the clothes, then sits around camp waiting to socialize. They were at home in their environment, doing the things they would at home in the mid 1860s. MS Terri Lawson’s attention to civilian detail, down to what was carried in their pockets, would and should shame the average, weekend warrior.
Scouts to the rear of the town discovered that in the distance there was an earthwork fort occupied by infantry and artillery (probably more home guard). Orders were given to attempt to breach this position, and several disjointed attacks were made and even with the support of our horse drawn artillery we had no success. An entire day of fighting had sapped most of the energy from both men and horses. Infantry pickets were posted to observe both the town and the fort, the command bedded down, ate the feast provided by the citizens of Tennille, then rested for the night. The reduction of the fort could wait for the morning.
Saturday night was quiet and cool, both horses and men rested well.
Sunday morning was a repeat of Friday morning, old hands now, all were ready to move out by 8 a.m. and the column was in motion looking for a different approach to the fort. By 10 a.m., such an approach was located, and well-led, highly coordinated attacks were launched with coordinated, highly effective artillery fire delivered with both accuracy and great speed. Horse-drawn artillery is definitely a combat multiplier.
The fort itself was made of earth, higher than head high, connected and reinforced with trees that supported and reinforced the works and shaded the defenders from the Alabama sun. The few apertures were surmounted by chevaux de fries preventing access. Much work had been done on the artillery emplacements by the defenders (which appeared to be textbook patterns of design) and proved extremely effective.
The battle for the fort lasted over an hour but cavalry is not organized nor equipped to take such positions, an effective force but ill matched to the job at hand. The fort stood despite all the assorted attacks by combined arms forces consisting of cavalry, mounted artillery and infantry, and the Federal forces now took their leave of Tennille, marking the spot on the map for future reference.
Everything worked at this event. That, in and of itself, makes it unusual if not unique in my over 30 years of reenacting. This was a “for us, by us” event. As far as maneuver area, it had it; combined arms, it had it; first person interaction, it had it. The experience of dealing with the local civilian population was a great addition and something that is always lacking at the average reenactment. If you want to experience something out of the ordinary, live like a true soldier, or civilian in period for the duration, enjoy pristine scenery and experience a genuine civil war environment, Tennille is the ticket.
About the Author
Kenneth Morrison is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, having served in armor and cavalry units in the U.S. and in Europe. A 30 year veteran of Civil War Reenacting, he has commanded cavalry at the company and battalion levels. He currently serves as AAG in the brigade of Brigadier General William G. Rambo. He has earned Master’s Degrees in History and Education from Jacksonville State University and an Ed. S in Curriculum and Instruction from Lincoln Memorial University. He is employed as an administrator in the Oxford City School System in Oxford, Ala. where he and his wife Mitzi have resided for over 30 years.
-By Kenneth Morrison