Re-enactment captures Shakers' Civil War compassion

September 26, 2004|EMILY BURTON

PLEASANT HILL - Margaret Sparks didn't trust the travel-worn Confederate troops milling about Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill Saturday, even though they had been ordered not to pillage or plunder the peaceful Shakers.

"I'll believe it when I see it," she said from beneath her bonnet.

Sparks joined approximately 160 expert costumed interpreters specially invited to the village to accurately relive the Shaker's selfless feeding of Civil War troops who passed through in the summer of 1862. The Shakertown Civil War Encampment continues today.

In the late summer, Confederate troops traveling from Richmond to the battle of Perryville were given much-needed food, clean water and a place to camp at Shaker Village. One Shaker journal describes feeding 1,000 soldiers a day, despite drought-ridden crops.

Though the Shakers hoped to remain removed from the war, a major turnpike bisected their village and drew starving armies from both sides to their doorsteps.


"The Shakers had a choice to make... They were Unionists, and here comes the Confederate Army sweeping in," said Susan Hughes, Shakertown's education director, moving off the road as a column of unshaven soldiers marched in behind her.

One Shaker journal entry set the scene: "...The main body were ragged, greasy and dirty, and some barefoot, and looked more like the bipeds of pandemonium, than the beings of this earth..."

Re-enactors waiting Saturday for their rations of ham and pickled okra agreed army life was crude in 1862.

"I think the Shakers were scandalized by some of the rough men that came through here," said Rebel re-enactor Scott Fugate of the 48th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry.

A different perspective on the war

Unlike the Battle of Perryville and other re-enactments that focus on bloody skirmishes, the Shakertown event looks at the Civil War from a different perspective.

"We have the opportunity to do something that's not a re-enactment, but shows the effect of the war on civilians," Hughes said.

Seeing the bayonet-tipped rifles stacked beside their main thoroughfare sent costumed townspeople into murmuring clusters a safe distance from the waiting ranks.

"Well, I don't think they belong in a town like this," Sparks said, with a nod from her hoop-skirted traveling companion. "I just as soon not see the rebels."

Sparks' character was fleeing north on the turnpike with her widowed sister after the Rebs had killed her brother-in-law. The rebels weren't known for good morals, she concluded.

Saturday's soldiers were known more readily for their good acting. The 80 unwashed troops had been specially invited to participate in reliving history because of their attention to historic accuracy. A set of authenticity guidelines had been provided for the event, said Rebel soldier James Conley of Cincinnati.

The rough blue pants each man Confederate soldier wore Saturday authentically represented the uniforms destitute Rebels had seized in a raid shortly before arriving at Shaker Village . They marched in with battered canteens to swap and Stephen Foster ballads to sing in the shade. All materials used this weekend had been hand-made and period-authentic, from rough home-woven cloth shirts "down to underwear and socks," said soldier Jeff McIntire of Lebanon, Ohio.

Civil War enthusiast Ron Blitz came from Columbus, Ohio, to take in the Shakertown event and came away impressed with the historical accuracy the re-enactors maintained.

"This is the best presentation we've seen," Blitz said.

One sense of authenticity was missing

There was one sense of authenticity missing, however, despite everyone's best efforts - the stench of ill, unwashed soldiers. After months of marching with dysentery and no change of clothes, "you could smell them miles away, if the wind was right," said visitor Charlie Engle of Athens, Tenn.

Between the diarrhea, mumps and smallpox, "more died of disease than bullets," said Engle, a member of the organization Sons of the Union's Veterans of the War.

Re-enactors also honored a soldier Saturday who is believed to be the only non-Shaker buried in the village cemetery, Confederate William Outlaw, who died in 1862 of injuries from battle of Perryville. Though 17 miles from the village, Perryville citizens loaded hundreds of injured into ox carts a and brought them to the Shakers for medical attention, McIntire said.

"Seventeen miles away, they could hear the thunder of the artillery," he added, which at times still holds true during the reenactments of the Battle of Perryville.

When not tending to the injured during the war, the Shakers fed soldiers until their lack of food forced them to push troops away from their doors and close the windows. One Shaker wrote they were afraid to ring the dinner bell for fear of the swarms of troops that would answer, said Georgie Riddell, Shakertown program coordinator.

Despite ladies in lace gloves and swaying hoop skirts, the Civil War era was more than its romanticized image and should not just be remembered as such, Riddell said.

"We tend to romanticize these things, but there's nothing romantic about this time in our history," Riddell said, "The suffering the country was enduring or the death of so many men."

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