Rethinking What Civil War Soldiers Remembered

Living History [photograph by Bierle]

Recently, I spent a day at a Civil War living history event here in California. It was a welcome break from a full week of research and writing, and I certainly enjoyed visiting with friends and networking with some of the Civil War history groups here on the West Coast.

It always surprises me what I learn at living history events or how history “comes alive” through specific experiences. During this past event, I chatted with a new acquaintance who was participating as a soldier at his first living history event. Unknowingly, he said two particular things in our conversations which created “aha moments” when paired with the recent archival documents I had been studying. Perhaps a glimpse into these conversations and the history that later came to mind will be useful to your own research or battle studies.

We sat at a table, finishing lunch. He looked around anxiously and asked, “What time is it? I don’t want to be late to report for the battle.”

One of the things I’ve been looking at in the archive records is battle timing. At this particular historic battle I’ve been charting, it rained and few participants accurately noted the time of certain maneuvers or charges. With an overcast sky, the soldiers could not even remember generalized terms like “about noon” or “near sunset.” Some had ideas of time because they had made vague notes in journals at the time after looking at a pocket timepiece.

However, just because a Civil War soldier had a pocket watch doesn’t mean it was accurate. Time zones and time tables had come into place with the railroad schedules, and people did keep time and appointments – often setting their watches by the church or town clocks. However, on campaign, those time keepers were not always available, and a soldier might not always remember to wind his pocket timepiece.

I had been thinking about the difficulties of determining and remembering certain times during a historic battle. This moment at the living history event when we had tucked away our modern cellphones and timekeeping devices revealed that question and challenge quite vividly. Also, I thought how battles were not fought on “schedules” and in nice, neat hour time-frames in real history.

Later in the day, my acquaintance was out of cartridges and had decided to watch the final battle skirmish from the sidelines to see what it looked like from an onlooker’s perspective. I asked which experience he preferred: “fighting” on the field or watching. He decided it was more interesting to watch, but the experience on the field had been unique and more insightful to learning about historical experiences. He explained, “In the [skirmish] line, I only saw this,” motioning with his hands and indicating the rifle held close for capping and firing.

Living History [photography by Bierle]

That observation reminded me of how the reminiscence battle accounts by officers and common soldiers vary. The officers had a more general sense of the unfolding fight on the field while the soldiers in line remember more minute details. The common soldier remembered the rain, when he ran out of ammunition, his comrades around him, moving quickly or defending a position, and perhaps a specific landmark; most remembered important charges or sudden retreats. Those soldiers were not as concerned with the maneuvers of other regiments (unless those regiments supported or attacked his unit). Officers, on the other hand, tended to take more careful notes or have more vivid memories of the happenings of regiments and brigades.

Archival material loosely reflects those experiences reported from the living history field. For a common soldier in his first battle, firing that rifle, following orders, and staying with the unit were prime concerns. Of course, on an actual Civil War battlefield, that soldier faced flying lead, hurt and dying men, and a yelling enemy. Certainly more dramatic and fearful than the bloodless field of re-enacting or living history.

Ironically, I had my doubts about attending the living history event. Driving there, I had pondered if it was a best use of my time. Coming home, I decided that escaping from the documents and writing had been a good choice. Visiting and making new friends is always pleasant, and a change of scene and real conversation can prompt better ideas. Along the way – although I did not have personal experiences “on the field,” I noted several observations or comments that brought my research to life and helped me think more accurately about the challenges of Civil War soldiering and how those veterans later remembered and wrote about their experiences.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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6 Responses to Rethinking What Civil War Soldiers Remembered

  1. Thank you, Sarah! I did find this blog interesting and helpful, in general
    and for my own writing and research. It is also a good reminder to me to get out there and attend live events. Best to you! Sarah

  2. John Pryor says:

    Sarah, so true. Other periods also reflect this weird and individual perception of time. Soldiers’ accounts of the Battle of Waterloo are filled with these inconsistencies. Great post!

  3. Rob Baker says:

    Great read. Definitely some interesting insight that I personally never considered while reenacting.

  4. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Love this perspective. You’re right.

  5. Tim says:

    Distortins in combat are normal and the causes behind it are not limited to the ACW. One thing about timing that alaays interests me is the length of engagements. It often seems impossible for people to be in situations as long as they thought they were. I really doubt the Schoolteacher regiment was in action at GBurg for an hour but that’s what McFarland said. Check out a book like ‘On Combat’ by Dave Grossman and some things start to make sense in context because the issues faced are timeless.

  6. Harper Stone says:

    Very good insights. Thanks for sharing.

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