Maj. Reed W. Settle
3rd Regiment, Co. E, Engineers
Each of us has our own personal reasons for being involved in Civil War reenacting. Those reasons could easily expand this article into a book. Collectively we choose the engineer impression because we: have a genuine interest in the engineering impression, this is the only Confederate unit in town, like the way the unit is organized and run, like the level of authenticity we strive for, need to get away from 20th cent. stress, need to get out of town for a few days... (insert your own reason here).
I think I can speak for most of you when I say we each make every effort to assemble our kit, and prepare our impressions to the best of our ability, to the highest level of authenticity we can. Using the resources of our fellow reenactors, our regimental leadership, the Engineer Bureau, etc., we continue to refine and perfect these impressions.
This works great for our living history but what about battle scenarios? Where do we look for guidance in authenticity there? You can look to your left and right during a battle and occasionally catch a glimpse of someone who appears to be really caught up in the battle and their body language reflects it. For many others, they have settled into a reenactment battle routine and just go through the motions. Now that is not to say most are not enjoying the motions, but if you could view the battles from a distance (as I do on the Brigade staff), you would agree that an important element of battle is missing.
Short of personal experience it is hard to imagine what it must have been like in these battles. We do have a few members that can relate Vietnam battle experiences, but they rarely choose to re-live those experiences.
So eventually a discussion like this eventually arrives at Hollywood. Ah yes, Hollywood.
We are all aware of the John Wayne style reenactors. We wince at the thought. But then movies like Glory and Gettysburg came along. Most of the actors we are viewing are actually fellow reenactors. Now this was more like it. Large bodies of troops, cavalry, and artillery. Lots of smoke, fire, yelling and reasonably correct uniforms. But something was still missing. The action was there but the realism was still lacking. Oh, yes they were taking hits, but only rarely were they that believable.
Then along came a war movie that actually captured all of the above, AND included the brutal reality of battle - "Brave Heart." Wrong era but most would admit, you the viewer were in the middle of the havoc and destruction during those memorable scenes.
If you had the opportunity to be involved in a reenactment of one of those battles, I think you could easily get caught up in the spirit of the conflict, which would impact your actions, based on what you saw in this movie. Of course Im talking about acting here. No heads need get cut off, or anyone get maimed, but movement, feints, body language can suggest much to the public, and carry the message of the struggle at a reenactment.
Often when I talk about authenticity I talk about raising the bar in small increments as new information is discovered about our impressions, or historical information, etc. Ratcheting up the requirements if you will. What was in the past OK, now needs to meet a new level of expectations.
The bar has just been raised again. This time in the Spielburgs movie "Saving Private Ryan."
If you have not seen this movie, you must take the time. Many men in Co. E are in, or have been in the military. Some have experienced combat, others have just had the pleasure of crawling under barbed wire with live 7.62 machine gun rounds screaming just over their heads. Interesting experiences, but not something one would want to re-vist often.
The movie "Saving Private Ryan" puts you squarely in the uncomfortable circumstance of seeing, hearing, and feeling (if your theater has one of the new Dolby sound systems), the reality of battle. No punches are pulled, and the savagery of conflict washes up on the beach, is splattered on the sand, on the movie screen and the lens for that matter.
Attention to detail and authenticity are carried to new heights. For the men who went over the side of their landing craft and found themselves held under water because of the weight of their packs, weapons and ammunition, they were still not safe. Bullets hissed through the water, and some found their targets in those trying to wrestle their web gear off and get to the surface. In this movie you heard the bullets flying in every direction, ricochets, tings as they hit metal objects, thunks as they hit men. The gore was pushed in your face, along with body parts flying through the air. Not a pleasant scene, but this is what it must have been like. In fact men who were there at D Day say this movie is the best representation of their experiences they have ever seen.
The recoil of the men, the hunkering down as they were pinned, the chin-to-their chest posture as they forced their way forward under murderous fire is something missing in our battle scenarios.
Im not suggesting John Wayne style deaths, or that we ratchet up aggressive and dangerous behavior in our battles. No we do not need the Frenchman from Gettysburg to join us to add that element of reality to our scenarios. What I am suggesting is that you think about what it must have been like to have incoming .58 cal mines flying all about you. At our close-in fighting at Ft. Tejon those artillery pieces would have been throwing canister your way. Should you ignore that company of men that just flanked your position and unloaded a volley at you? I think not. Yes the event organizers want to protract the battle. So take a hit, crawl to the rear, recycle and re-join the fray if that is what is called for. But when you are advancing on a position, do it as you would approach a hail storm/hurricane. Not as though you were in the midst of battalion drill.
Like the metaphor of the onion. To the extent that we are talking about researched and documented subjects, each new thing we add to our impression adds another important layer to our onion/impression. Standards like we have in Co. E, keep the onion from stinking.
Do yourself and your impression a favor. Get out of the heat, get a coke in a Dixie cup, and prepare to sit, white knuckled in your seat, when you see and experience "Saving Private Ryan."
A must see reenactor movie.