The rattle of musketry cracked with volley after volley as officers struggled to bark commands to keep their battle lines organized amid the din. Two regiments of Federal troops were arrayed in a line of battle, facing off against a single Confederate regiment across the field in this cold snowy December afternoon. Spotting uniforms and insignia, it was clear this was a hodgepodge affair, with elements of the 72nd Pennsylvania Fire Zouaves mixed with the 1st Michigan Infantry Regiment. On the other end of the field, and with a slight numerical edge, was the 26th North Carolina, sending a steady stream of fire at the U.S. line. Things were getting desperate, as off in the distance, Confederate reinforcements, the Louisiana Tiger Zouaves were fast approaching to turn the tide. At the last moment however, U.S. support also arrived on the field to retrieve the moment. And these Federal troops were lead elements of the 19th Indiana Infantry, part of the famed Iron Brigade. They could be just what it might take to seize the initiative and drive the Confederates off the field once and for all.
As the soldiers closed for the final charge, on the edge of the field, a crowd roared and cheered with delight. These are not soldiers, but spectators enjoying the scene. It is the annual village Civil War reenactment, and much of the town has crowded the central park to witness the festivities. Adults pack onto benches overlooking the battlefield, as children caught up in the spirit build their own ice-block fortifications for a snowball fight to rival the reenactment itself. Food trucks and stands offering snacks add to the festivities.
This reenactment is a merger of several elements of my own childhood and as Emerging Civil War’s newest member, I felt that showcasing this might be a good way to get into the holiday spirit while simultaneously reflecting on those who have influenced my appreciation of the conflict overall. To start with, the holiday village is a major tradition of my maternal grandmother, who began collecting and showcasing her own village of porcelain houses and townspeople in the 1980’s. It quickly grew beyond what most people think of when they ponder a holiday village on a mantle or bookshelf. Hers spread to taking up an entire room of the house, approximately one hundred square feet, and contained separate residential, government, shopping, and leisure districts of the town.
My older brother would set up this village each year the weekend after Thanksgiving, and by the time I entered middle school, and he was off to college, the task fell to me. It took an entire day to set everything up, with each building brought to life with individual light bulbs. It was my favorite part of the holidays. The entire setup remained until King’s Day, the official end of the holiday season and start of the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans.
When my grandmother passed, her holiday village was split between family members. I received my share, which amounted to about one-eighth of her original collection, when I got married. Since then, I have continued setting up my own holiday village annually, adding more modern pieces each year (including a massive dog costume parade that my wife adores). My own holiday village now contains 32 buildings (half being originals from my grandmother), a residential district, shopping district, downtown area, an airport, train station, cemetery, and park! It is spread across the whole house at this point.
The Civil War soldiers taking part in the village reenactment are a mixture of metal and plastic painted miniatures. The Iron Brigade soldiers, members of the 72nd Pennsylvania, the Louisiana Tigers, and half of the 26th North Carolina were made by Britain’s miniatures. The 1st Michigan figures, with their distinctive red Maltese crosses, and half of the 26th North Carolina, are plastic figures I found at a battlefield park gift shop.
These also have a childhood connection. I began collecting metal Civil War figurines in middle school, and growing up in New Orleans, I always begged my mom to bring me to the one store in the French Quarter I knew they were at. This initial collection likely sparked because of my memories with setting up my grandmother’s village and as a child I wanted something akin to that for myself, tailored of course to my passion for studying the Civil War. About once a year, I would have the chance to add a new set to my collection. This amassing continued until I graduated high school, when Hurricane Katrina flooded my childhood home. We gathered and cleaned figures found in the muck that was once my bedroom, eventually replacing pieces that were lost forever. If you look closely, you can still see paint damage and marks on some of the figures from the flood damage.
A final childhood memory links these two together, and that is Civil War reenactments. I had the great privilege as a high schooler of spending parts of my summer each year travelling from Louisiana to most of the major battlefield parks in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. There were always reenactors present at these battlefields, and even if they were not recreating a skirmish, seeing them in camp stepping into character was great. My dad also took me several times to the annual reenactment at Camp Moore, Louisiana (read the two part ECW write up about that training camp here and here), which helped link reenacting to visiting sites even more.
As the holiday season has commenced, I could not help but merge these three childhood memories into something I can share with the Emerging Civil War community. Hopefully it can bring you a good laugh or help you reflect on what made you so interested in the most defining challenge of the United States.
Have a happy holiday season!