Civil War Sesquicentennial events: where to learn what’s on

Civil WarAs the nation continues to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, an increasing number of reenactments, special exhibitions, lectures, and living history demonstrations are taking place. There are so many that it’s hard to know what’s going on when! Two websites will keep you informed of upcoming events.

Civil War Traveler bills itself as “your headquarters for 150th anniversary information” and it sure delivers. Broken down by state, it gives travel information and maps to all of the major, and many minor, historic landmarks. The events section gives a rundown of what’s coming up. Civil War Traveler also acts as a clearinghouse for state and local tourism agencies. If you fill out their online form telling which regions you’re interested in, you’ll get information from several sources in your mailbox.

Civil War News covers some of the same ground as Civil War Traveler, with a searchable calendar covering events. This site goes beyond travel to cover issues such as battlefield preservation and goings-on in the reenactment community. Some news stories are free, and the full bimonthly issues are available by subscription.

The Sesquicentennial has led to a wealth of blogs of the “this day in history” style. The best I’ve seen is the Civil War Daily Gazette, which is one of the only blogs I read on a daily basis. It’s addictive. See you in the comments section!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Civil War Battle of Pea Ridge to be reenacted

Battle of Pea Ridge
One of the most important Civil War battles west of the Mississippi is going to be reenacted next month.

The Battle of Pea Ridge was fought from March 6-8, 1862, in northwestern Arkansas. In the first year of the war, Union forces had pushed most rebel forces out of Missouri. Now they moved into Arkansas and slammed right into a Confederate army on its way north to try to regain their losses. In a bloody battle involving some 26,000 soldiers, more than 3,000 men were killed or injured, including three Confederate generals killed. The Union army decisively defeated the rebels. This ended any serious chance for the rebels to take Missouri and was the first step toward the Union capture of Little Rock the following year.

One interesting aspect of the battle was the multiethnic nature of the two sides. Half the Union soldiers were German immigrants, some of whom didn’t speak English. The Confederate side included about 800 Native American troops from various tribes.

The Battle of Pea Ridge’s 150th Anniversary will be held on the weekend of March 9-11 and will include a mock cavalry fight, a concert of period music, guided hikes of the battlefield, lectures, artillery and rifle fire demonstrations, and encampments where you can see how the soldiers of both sides lived. Events will take place both at the Pea Ridge National Military Park and in the nearby town of Bentonville.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Battle of Marathon to be fought again

Battle of MarathonWhile the U.S. is having lots of Civil War reenactments lately, it’s not the only country where avid hobbyists like to refight old battles. This year Greece is marking the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, an epic clash between the Greeks and Persians that saved Europe from invasion and allowed Greek culture to thrive. To commemorate the battle, there will be a reenactment on the actual battlefield.

The battle was a desperate attempt to stop the Persian Empire, the major superpower of the day, from invading Greece in 490 BC. The Greek city-states of Athens and Palataea blocked the passes leading out from the Persian beachhead on the Plain of Marathon. Even though the Greeks were outnumbered two-to-one, they attacked and routed the Persians, ending the invasion.

There’s a legend that an Athenian named Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory and died from exhaustion right after he gave the good news. The distance from Marathon to Athens is, of course, about 26 miles. This actually never happened, but it makes a good story.

From September 9 to 11, hundreds of reenactors from around the world will converge on the battlefield for a day of sham fighting and historical demonstrations. The Greek side will include many Greeks, while the Persian ranks will have many Iranians. Dozens of other countries will contribute people as well. Events will be centered on a reconstruction of the Greek military camp and there will be archery demonstrations, ancient music and dancing, and much more.

At least 200 warriors will duke it out on the original battlefield, but there won’t be any blood spilled. The Greeks will have dull spears and the Persians will be firing rubber-tipped arrows. I bet this poor fellow pictured here, a Greek casualty of the real battle, wished there were rubber arrows back in his day.

[Photo courtesy Keith Schengili-Roberts]

Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Nation gears up for Civil War sesquicentennial: reenactments, exhibitions mark the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict

Civil War, civil warA hundred and fifty years ago, the United States descended into a bloody Civil War. Young men on both sides eagerly signed up for what they thought would be a short and glorious conflict. A typical example is this private from the Fourth Michigan Infantry, pictured here courtesy of the Library of Congress. He poses, way too young and unconvincingly cocky, in the early days of the war in 1861. It’s so early, in fact, that he hasn’t been issued a uniform.

All across the United States, museums, historic sites, and reenactment groups are preparing for a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

South Carolina was the first to secede on 20 December 1860, so the anniversaries have already started. Actual fighting, however, didn’t begin until the famous attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Rebel artillery opened fire on 12 April 1861 in what are generally considered the first shots of the war.

Fort Sumter is now a national monument and the National Park Service is planning special exhibitions this year for the anticipated flood of visitors. Yet this isn’t the only anniversary in 2011. After Fort Sumter the war flared up all over the country.

The Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial lists events for almost every week this year. Abe Lincoln will give speeches, reenactors will show off their weapons and uniforms, and museums across the state are setting up exhibitions on different aspects of the conflict. Missouri had one of the first battles of the war at the Missouri River port of Boonville on June 17. A Union force routed a group of secessionist Sate Guard troops in less than 20 minutes. The rebels retreated so quickly that both sides dubbed the fight “The Boonville Races”. While the battle was short, it opened up the Missouri River to Union steamboats, cutting the state in half and making it much easier for Union troops to control Missouri for the rest of the war. On June 17-19 the battle will be refought and this forgotten skirmish will get the credit it’s due.

%Gallery-116977%The first epic battle was at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21. The battle is called First Manassas by the Confederates. Many Civil War battles are known by two names. It was a huge victory for the South and sent the Union army scampering back to Washington, DC. Historic Manassas Inc. is planning a four-day series of events that will include reenactments, concerts of Civil War music, and even a Civil War baseball tournament. One of the less-anticipated outcomes of the war was the popularization of baseball, which was played by soldiers of both armies. The idea of the game spread with them as they marched.

Besides the big sites and state-sponsored events, smaller organizations will be remembering the war too. The Echoes Through Time Learning Center and Civil War Museum will have a series of events over the next four years. Set up by a group of reenactors and amateur historians in a shopping mall in Williamsville, New York, this museum epitomizes how regular people are involved in Civil War research and education. These folks gather in Civil War Round Tables in almost every state and are always ready to welcome new members.

Even states that didn’t have any battles are marking the occasion. Maine’s Civil War Sesquicentennial will commemorate the men from Maine who fought and died. Their website has an interesting daily series of newspaper articles from Democrat and Republican papers from Portland. The political spin, name calling, and anger could be straight out of 21st century television news.

This is one of the things the Civil War can teach us. When Americans start thinking of other Americans who think differently as “the enemy”, the whole country can fall apart. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 soldiers and and more than 50,000 civilians. In an excellent op-ed in the Richmond Times, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., says he cringes when he hears people talking about “celebrating” the anniversary. He feels there’s nothing to celebrate about a war brought on partly by “grandstanding extremists and blundering politicians” that cared more about short-term political gain than helping the nation they claimed to have loved.