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Red River III: My view from the supply train

Posted on Tuesday, September 1, 2015 at 7:17 am

Union soldiers on the march.

Union soldiers on the march.

Anyone who has been in Civil War reenacting for any length of time had already heard the tales of the previous two Red River campaigns. Indeed, these tales, like any good yarns, magnified the first two events into great heroic tales, not unlike “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Great epic tales of hardship, valor, victory over the elements, and of memories that will never die. Great tales of a modern attempt to retrace the squandered opportunities of a Western struggle long gone and a greater war never to be forgotten. I, as many others who had heard these stories, felt cheated that these two events were unique and only twice before offered up for the few hardy souls tough enough to take on the challenge of a week long campaign style event being held in real time and tracing the actual route of the Red River battles. I too wanted a chance to earn my own “red diamond” as had the earlier campaigners. The first Red River was in 1994, to be followed by the second in 1999. I had long hoped there would be another, and was thrilled when plans were announced for one more final Red River, re-enacting the 150th anniversary of the “Camden Expedition” and to be held in Southwest Arkansas near Hope and the historical village of Washington.  But, by the time the plans were announced there were only a few weeks left before the event deadline, and, competing as it did against a full slate of other 150th events already on the calendars of just about every unit in the country, registrations were slow in coming and eventually wiser heads prevailed and the event was rescheduled for 2015. It was indeed a wise decision.

A great deal of preparation was required by both the hosts and the participants. For the host it was no easy task to line up horse teams for two supply trains and two artillery trains. Some teams came from as far away as Iowa, along with expert horsemen and women to instruct the soldiers on how to ride and handle them. Period rations were to be issued each night and these had to be bought, sorted out, transported, and issued to the various units and messes. A fine assortment of meats, sweets, vegetables, coffee, bread, and even grits were issued in such quantity that the surpluses became baggage in the trains. Hay and oats were needed for the horses. Not a single horse felt cheated. Water was a big concern and the supply was surprisingly adequate. Water storage tanks were built into the beds of several of the supply wagons and managed to keep the canteens full and the horses watered. Trailered buffalo tanks were set at each encampment site.  Considering that the average daytime temperatures were in the low to mid 90s, this vital water was, for the most part, always available. Preparation also included setting up a staff and cadre for the direction of the event which ranges from knowing the roads and where to go, to commanding the various diverse units, and to be able to handle the unexpected enormities of daily events as they occurred.

The soldiers too had to prepare. Each man was to bring a full cartridge box and 250 additional rounds, separated into “arsenal packs” and carried in period correct wooden ammo boxes to be shared by four men. Needless to say, caps were needed for these as well. These ammo boxes were to be brought along in the supply train and issued each night or as demand required. Each man had to learn the fine points of campaigning, what to bring and not to bring, how to sleep under the stars and how not to offer themselves up to suckle the ticks, skeeters, and chiggers. Everyone was asked to begin conditioning themselves for the march by doing daily marches with their full packs at least a month before the event. Sadly, I think many failed to do it. Five to six miles a day doesn’t sound like much until you actually try it in brogans on a 93 degree day along a stone road in the dust, with your weapon, full cartridge box, wool clothing, rations, and even the weight of a full canteen. Other considerations the participant needed to address was the high cost of the registration, the travel expense, the time off work, how to cook everything over a fire with little more than a small fry pan, mucket, or even a tin cup. Those of us involved with the horses found out quickly that the needs of the horses exceed the needs of the few or the many, the cav guys seemingly more adept at campaigning than us artillerymen and teamsters. Finally, getting used to sleeping on the bare ground forced many to begin each day a bit more tired and sleep deprived than they were used to at home.

Both armies were well matched in numbers. Infantry on both sides numbered near or about 80 men. I think everyone expected more than that….or at least I did, but most who had registered did show up, some a bit late, and while a few dropped out, they were replaced by a few who came in a day or two late. The cavalry numbered around 30 on each side. Both cavs were excellent, period correct, and very good at what they did. There were no slackers in either cav. Each army had two artillery pieces, horse drawn, but a bit undermanned to satisfy the various certifiable drills. Still, the small crews were used because of there being no mounts for the crews beyond the limber seat or in a supply wagon, none wishing to run alongside the guns on the road, and also the fact that the extra crew members (myself included) were needed to ride the artillery teams, ride shotgun on the supply wagons, and assist with the harnesses and loads while on the march. In the end, everyone did a fine job…….but all you mainstream artillery safety officers (again including myself) would have “had a cat” so to speak had you see it. But, we were guests at an event 900 miles from home so it seemed wise to “do what the Roman’s do” and go along with the program. Finally, each army had from four to six supply wagons, depending on the day, which were assigned one wagon for the cav, one for the artillery, and the rest for the infantry. Since only two horse teams were used they quickly became overloaded and any hopes that certain individuals might have had to be picked up by a wagon if they fell out were not to be realized. As is turned out, riding those wagons isn’t a joy ride in any sense. The ride was rough and more often exposed to the sun than the infantry was. All the wagons brought along shovels, axes, saws, rope, and all the other period correct trail blazing and engineering tools of the trade. Each army had between 12 and 14 horses pulling the supply train wagons and artillery that needed constant attention.

We arrived at Washington, Arkansas about mid-day on Friday, June 5th. Washington is a restored historic community not unlike Zoar in Ohio, or Bedford Village in Pennsylvania. It would not only be the starting and ending point of the campaign but would itself be the battlefield on Tuesday. Though the event didn’t actually begin until the following Monday, we thought it best to get there early, get the cannon off the truck, and get used to the horse team that was to pull our gun. As it turned out we were one of the first to arrive, being met by Jack King, the organizer of Red River III, with a hearty hand shake, a smile, and the usual “How ya’ll doin’.” It wasn’t long until we were shown the artillery “static” camp and got set up. Each army group (cav, infantry, artillery, supply train) has its own separate static camp where we lived when not on the march, and as the camp for the events occurring Tuesday night as the armies moved through Washington. The supply train and artillery were combined into one camp. The Federals had a pleasant area assigned to them in the more residential east end of Washington around and adjacent to the old school house with its modern toilet and shower facilities.  The Confederates were located on the west side of town with the cav being on a low tick infested hill, the infantry just below the hill, and the artillery in a grassy field just west and on the other side of the road. The two camps were separated by the main highway into Washington, the administration buildings and such on each side of the highway, and a very nice restaurant, all ruin by the historical society. All in all the setting was perfect for everyone’s needs and offered as nearly perfect period correct stage of events as we could have hoped for.

The area surrounding Washington also lent itself to the period correctness of the event. The area contains some very modest homes and farms, all located along dirt roads with the swamps and forests coming right up to the edge of the road. Logging is a big industry there and many of the open area were not so much farm land as recently logged acres. Few modern road signs or markers can be seen but rather, symbols painted directly to trees along the road seem to suffice. For the most part the folks living there are friendly and took great pleasure from suddenly seeing a Civil War army marching up their otherwise boring country road. Only once were we located near enough to a highway that the sound of modern America interfered with the otherwise natural quiet of nature. There were, however, many times that during the march a truck or automobile would come up on the column and feel the need to pass us at all cost, snapping cell phone pics with the usual waves and smiles. More often than not though, the traffic was logging trucks trying to squeeze past us on the narrow roadway. They got a kick out of it whether or not we did.

If there was anything wrong with the place it was the ticks, chiggers, skeeters, and other critters. Not since 150th Manassas had I witnessed so many ticks being nurtured by so many re-enactors. Some did worse than others as with any such malady, but were it not for the noise of the wagon wheels on the stone roads you could have heard the tramping of the tick armies as they followed us along. Worse than the critters was the incessant heat. The average temperature each day was in the mid-nineties with no rain to ease the heat or increase the already high humidity. At night it would get down to the mid-seventies, but only very gradually and only for a few hours. The locals told us the same week the year before had been in the hundred and twenty degree range. I suppose we were to be thankful it was as cool as ninety. One hundred and twenty would have wrecked and perhaps ended the event.

And so was set the stage of our giant play. Being in the Reb artillery and supply train as I was did not limit my ability to chronicle this event but rather put me in an observation position to see everything, most of the time.

We got off to a rather late start Sunday morning. Though we started early by my standards, we quickly discovered that sorting out all the harness and getting the horses harnessed and ready to go, not to mention loading everything on the four wagons, took much longer than it should have and rather than everyone being on the trail in the cool of the morning we instead found ourselves starting out quite late and in an already hot 90 degrees. Both infantries had already left, being bussed to their jumping off points (as was the plan) and the Confederates were pursuing the Federals. But this was to be an easy march to the first camp, we thought, and the first night under the stars would prove to be quite a change from the “static camp” we had already slept in the two nights we were here. There was some minor skirmishing on the way, mostly by the cavalry, which led to the first of several “incidents” that occurred along the way. The great chicken farm debacle started when the Federals entered onto the property of a rather large Tyson chicken farm and began shooting. Very soon a very irate farmer strode onto the battlefield bearing his own modern side arm demanding to know who was in charge. The Federal commander rode out to meet him and see what the problem was. It is said, to paraphrase somewhat, that the farmer asked “Are you the commanding officer?” The reply was something like “Well, that depends upon what your intentions are with that side arm.” But, everyone calmed down and the farmer even offered to sell some chickens cheap. Seems the farm was scheduled to ship out all the chickens that day and night and the gunfire was stirring them all up….just what the farmer didn’t want to have happen. I guess Arkansas chicken stampedes are a frightful thing. Well, anyhow, that being over, the Federals moved on to their camp and the Confederates bedded down right across the road from the chicken farm. Rations were to be issued the next day so we were still eating from our haversacks, watering the horses, putting out the picket lines, finding a spot to share with the ticks for our beds, learning how to dig a latrine, and generally hoping to get everything done before dark.

That first day was an eye opener. It became obvious very quickly who had packed too much in their knapsacks, who had not done any physical conditioning for the march, how rough it is to ride in a wagon with no springs, how fast the water supply gets used up, and how used to a modern toilet everyone is. Some marchers fell out and even a few gave it up early and left for home. The horses had run their limits too, not being used to such a pull and the wagons being too heavy for two horse teams to pull easily. Some who fell out, thought they could just climb up in a wagon and ride to the camp. Sadly they discovered the wagons already too full and heavy to allow another man to ride. I rode shotgun on the cavalry wagon and quickly found out that even the driver’s seat, sprung as it was, was still a bit like being whacked by the principal back in my school days, but getting an untold number of whacks rather than the one or two I was used to from my previous mischief. At any rate, most everyone slept surprisingly well, and with a distant storm lighting up the distant thunderheads in an interesting heat lightening display, we all dozed off, hoping as we slept that the guys on guard duty could keep the enemy from our midst.

The general was perturbed by the long time it took to get underway the day before, he having had to hold up the entire line of march while waiting for the arty and supply train to get moving. Hence, we got up at 6:30 a.m. in order to get ahead of it. We fared a bit better, but again everyone was still waiting long into the morning before we were ready to move. Amid his fits and expletives we got everything moving and once more were in pursuit of the Federals. The line of march would leave the road and start cross country several times, and at one such point the trail became pretty rugged, narrow, soft, and little more than a deer run. Everyone was on full alert since we expected to be ambushed at any time. The troops, guns, and wagons fell into a somewhat dull cross country march across wetlands and farms, through fence gates and past farm buildings, with an occasional hard stony dirt and gravel road. Again we expected something to happen and it wasn’t until we encountered the Federal rear guard that towards the end of the march that a sharp but short engagement involving the entire army against the Federal rear guard ensued. It was a heated but short exchange where, upon it’s conclusion, the Federals encamped and we did likewise. The two armies were close enough that you could hear them at their work, but this second night out had a bit more to it. Rations arrived and everyone was pleased if not surprised at the quality of it. Very quickly the supply train/arty group decided to cook as a large mess with the two Dutch ovens in the artillery wagon. Most everyone else stayed with the four man mess set up that had been planned all along. With the routine feeding and picketing of the teams and the camps having been set out, everyone set about cooking, cleaning weapons, watering the horses, and the camp gossip ranging from whether it would rain or not to what everyone thought about guard duty. More and more it was starting to look like everyone was really enjoying this adventure. Gone was the complaining about how hard it was to ride on a limber, who needed to do what the next day, and great was the general need for showers.  We had been told that Tuesday we would make our longest march yet, but would wind up back in the static camps in Washington for the night. Everyone was ready for that. There was to be a battle right in the town and everyone was up for the fight.

Tuesday once again found the general upset that getting the horses up and harnessed was taking way too long. We had been told to be up and ready by 5:30 a.m. to get things moving. Unfortunately, at 5:30 it’s still dark and that made sorting out the harnesses and breaking camp even more difficult. Once more words were exchanged between the general and our commander along the lines of, “I just don’t know what it will take to get you guys ready on time” or something more vulgar than that. The lesson we were all learning pretty fast was how hard it was for the supply train to keep up 150 years ago in a real life day-to-day yearlong reality. It wasn’t that we were slacking off, it just takes that long. It’s easy to see why the supply train was always late. The general informed us he had to get moving and we would need to catch up, and off they went, he with the cavalry and infantry and we doing everything as fast as we could manage. We were all pretty sure the Federals wouldn’t miss a chance to ambush us this time. But it didn’t take long for us to get rolling and as the cool of the morning turned into another 93 degree day we were well on our way. We soon turned off onto another cross country trail and were close behind the Yankees. Soon we once again left the gravel county road and onto another expanse of trackless pasture and scrub. We entered a more heavily wooded section with the trail being only wide enough for the wagons to squeeze through. About halfway through the woods the Federals, being well led and highly inspired, had at some point built a crude but adequate bridge to cross a low stream at the base of two rather steep banks running down to it. The bridge made it possible to get a wagon across. Well, not wanting the pursuing Rebs to use their bridge, they blew it. Yes, I mean their engineers blew it up with black powder charges. We heard the blast but thought it distant cannon fire. At any rate, when we found the damaged bridge it was then up to us to repair it, and so we did, using the shovels and such that we had, and after maybe an hour of steamy work in the high humidity we moved enough dirt over the damaged section that we could safely cross with the wagons. It was then that we were informed that the Yankees had run out of water. The battle that was supposed to take place would not happen. We would be returning directly to Washington.

Everyone was pretty beat when they reached Washington. The plan was to rest the horses for a day while defending the Confederate camp (static camp) against Federal attacks on Wednesday, sleep in camp that night, and set out once again Thursday morning toward Prairie D’Ane. There were engagements and skirmishes all day Wednesday, including Confederate attacks into the Yankee part of town involving infantry and supporting horse artillery, and Federal moves against the Reb defensive line. During one of these attacks a soldier was badly burnt by an accidental discharge of his own weapon into his side up near his left armpit.  The ferocity of these attacks along with the noise and the accident, caused another of the several “incidents” that occurred during the event. It seems the townsfolk who live in Washington had had enough of the noise and commotion and announced that there would be no more fighting or gun fire in Washington. Well, so much for that. The planned rest of the day skirmishing was now over and done with and everyone relaxed, not knowing that there was yet an even bigger incident brewing that could end the entire event even sooner than expected.

This incident resulted from the plans to get everyone back to the static camp after the big Saturday battle on the original Prairie D’Ane battlefield. It was thought that if a sufficient number of cars and other vehicles were staged at the battlefield in advance, that these vehicles could shuttle everyone back to Washington after the big Prairie D’Ane battle in one big group, have our farewell banquet, and end the event in a giant warm fuzzy moment. Well, apparently nobody had informed the guy whose land these cars and trucks were to be parked on. What made it even worse was that the ground was wet from the recent rains, and add to that some poor behavior on the part of the drivers themselves and the result was a rutted up yard, a wheat field being run over, and a lot of ill will. The sheriff was called, words were exchanged, diplomacy evaporated, and the sheriff settled the whole thing by banning the battle and anyone with a weapon from setting foot in his county. Unfortunately his county included the battlefield. Now Jack was in a real pickle. He had to locate an alternate battlefield. All this was going on while none of us attending had any clue there had been a problem. But, it resulted in the big battle now being planned for Thursday morning rather than Saturday, and the return to Washington being done as a march after the next day. We would return to Washington Friday morning and Saturday was now empty, save for the banquet. It can in no way be denied that whatever Jack King did behind the scenes had saved the event, but as far as the uniqueness of having the big battle on the original battlefield the opportunity had been squandered. It must be said that in spite of the frazzled feelings of the Washingtonians and that county sheriff and the guy who got burned it is surprising that they allowed us to continue at all. This speaks well of them, whatever the final results were to be.

Back on the trail Thursday morning both armies were on the march toward the battlefield. This was a rather routine and long march. Difference was that it was us being pursued this time. After cutting off the road again onto yet another of the countless grassy grazing fields surrounded by woods and scrub we came upon a stream we needed to cross that had steep banks, too steep for the wagons, and no easier place to cross either direction up or down stream. The crossing once again required the men getting the tools out. Earlier we had to cut a road through some pretty tough brush, leaving an artillery rear guard behind as we did, but that was nothing compared to this challenge. The banks of this stream had to be shoveled out by the infantry using the dozen or so spades we brought along. The plan was to cut a ramp down to stream level and back up the far bank. This meant cutting two ramps about 100 feet in length and removing the trees as well. The biggest tree would be cut so that it would fall across the ramp and thus block it for the Federals who were following. The work was difficult but the ramps were finished more quickly than imagined and the wagon train got across. However, as the blocking tree was about to fall some Federal cavalry cheated by cutting through a farmer’s fence (not allowed since it was private property and still in use) and capturing the supply train on the other side of the stream with little more than a few shots being fired. Later the capture was disqualified when the truth about the cut fence was revealed. At any rate, we reformed and continued to flee from the Federal pursuit. We thought ourselves quite clever with the tree blocking the road thing but once more the Federals had a surprise up their sleeve. When their main body encountered the tree blocking the ford, their engineers once again got out some black powder charges and blew the stump and tree loose, and pulled it out of the way with a team of six horses. What took us an hour to dig and block only took the Federals 15 minutes to clear. Regardless, the Confederates managed to escape and once again both armies went into encampment in what appeared to be a state park of some sort and again within shouting distance of each other. There had again been water shortages during the day, the supply carried in the wagons having been exhausted while the horses needed more, and we stopped by a local farm who allowed us to fill the tanks hidden in the supply wagons. This time there was to be no use of this water source at all during the night in the encampment. It had been easier to fill canteens from the wagon than to walk a bit further to where the “buffalos” were and get it instead. We would need the water in the wagons for the teams, not the men.

The next morning we started out getting harnessed up in the dark cool morning, and as usual the general was irate that the train and artillery wasn’t ready on time. We found out later why the general was upset. We were to cross a state route and Arkansas State Troopers were waiting at the crossing point at the specified time to block the traffic long enough for the column to cross. The troopers were waiting for us to arrive and our lateness was making the situation a bit touchy. But we got across the road and after a rather routine march (we were getting used to it now) we soon entered onto a rolling field of knee high grass surrounded by wooded areas what would be the big battlefield. A Reb artillery battery was placed there to watch for approaching Federals and the army spread out in similar vantage points with similar orders. A great deal of time passed as the cavalry scouted around, other horsemen circulating among the various positions looking for any developments. Though most of us still thought the battle would be on Saturday at Prairie D’Ane, it became obvious pretty quickly that this was to be a big battle too. Eventually the Reb forces began to concentrate in the field and about the time the infantry arrived we were informed that this was to be the actual climactic battle.

It began with the Federals making a move toward the supply train and the Rebs positioning artillery and cavalry to stop them. The infantry was deploying as well, forming two divisions in the center of the field. The supply train was to the rear and the two fieldpieces separated far enough apart to be more effective but close enough to support each other. I, along with the wagon guards and extra artillerymen, formed a skirmish line to guard the artillery and with that the Confederate force was in place. The Yank cav probed and attacked and probed again, the Texas Rangers and Tennesseans blocking them and counter charging their every move. It had been predetermined that the Feds would win this battle, as it had back then, but at every turn the Yankees acted as if the outcome was yet to be decided. At one point the Reb and Federal cavalry got so close the men were kicking each other, tempers flaring, but when the Yankee infantry advanced against the Reb artillery they took heavy casualties and the Rebel counter charge that followed it likewise inflicted heavy losses in the Confederate ranks, but the momentum was now in favor of the boys in grey. The Federals made more mistakes and the Greybacks exploited them, turning what was supposed to be a Federal win into a Federal route. The Yankee artillery limbered up and withdrew and the remaining Yankee infantry formed into a compact defensive formation as their officers came forward to surrender.  All in all though, the big battle was well done, well played, authentic, rewarding, and regardless of who “won” we all knew that everyone on that field had in fact been the winners. It was still going to be a long march back to the same campsite we had been in the night before, and we were all tired, hot, sweaty, and ready to call it a day.

When the Confederate cavalry reached their camp they found that the Federals had gotten there first and had erected a magnificent breastwork clean across the middle of the Confederate camp. I mean, a full size well done lashed together by God real live defensive wall. Seems the Bluebellys hadn’t considered themselves beaten after all. How they had been able to erect such a thing after being so weary from the day’s activities and heat and in such a short time still amazed any who saw it. Regrettably, by the time the Reb infantry and supply train reached the camp the issue had been decided, the Yankees gone, and the breastwork chopped through and wide open. I was told later that there had been no fight, but an agreement that we all were just too tired to carry on. Pity…..would have been yet another great thing to tell those who were not there about, around the campfire of some future event years from now. Be that as it may, we still had to service the horses, erect our shebang, cook our rations, and get cooled off. As night fell the usual guards were set out, and everyone was asleep before the first shift had ended. Later that night a small group of Texas Rangers did raid the Yankee camp, but they too were so beat up and tired that none of them even got up to resist. And so ended the great day of the non-battle of Prairie D’Ane.

Saturday morning, as with every morning during the past week, began with getting everything ready for the march. Decisions were already being formulated about what would be done with the left over rations, how we would preserve the scant water reserves, and so on. This would be the longest march yet, culminating back in Washington. It was even hotter Saturday than any time so far and the men were still pretty tired from yesterday. There were more frequent stops, more water obtained from farms along the route, and to our surprise a group of civilian re-enactors had organized a cookie and lemonade party for us in the shady grounds of a cemetery along the way. Both the Federals and Rebels shared the welcome respite at the same time, any animosity long evaporated and a great relief from the hot dusty march. One incident though, involving a horse team. The beasts were all about done in and had been harder and harder to keep moving. During that break one horse at the rear of the Rebel supply train suddenly reared up and began to thrash about, falling over onto the other horse and breaking the pole (wagon tongue) clean off. Jeff ran back there quickly and got the stricken horse calmed down, but that wagon and team was now done for the day.  Soon a horse trailer arrived for the team, and when it departed so did the Confederates. It was now time to complete the march. There seemed to be a finality to it. When reaching Washington there were quite a few bystanders watching the columns move through town, cameras and cell phones clicking in every direction. It was good to be back, to realize that we had made it through, and good to know that very soon we’d be packed up and in a shower.

It didn’t take long to pack up. Going “campaign style” means you brought less with you to pack. We were done before we knew it and decided to run into Hope and get some motel rooms, get cooled off and cleaned up, then return to Washington for the farewell banquet. We didn’t know what this banquet was to be. In fact, so many participants had already left for home after packing up that we weren’t sure if there was anyone left to even have a banquet. There was much confusion as to what time or even where it would be held. I imagined a big affair with catered dinner, farewell speeches, and an awarding of the traditional cuff badge that had been awarded in past Red Rivers. Instead it became a small vegetable soup and cornbread lunch at the Washington Diner for maybe two dozen participants who stayed long enough to enjoy the gathering. I must say, whatever I had hoped it might be, it turned out to be a very nice finale to a fantastic experience. A humble meal to remind us all of what is really important about this hobby, the fact that so many of us can come together from so far away to pay tribute to those who fought the good fight in the greatest trial of the American people, and ask in return for nothing more than a fond farewell and a cup of soup. As far as those sleeve diamonds, it has been decided that a simple red diamond with the Roman numeral III on it, worn on the left cuff, will be the badge we may share to signify a job well done.

-By Harry Titus