Perryville re-enactors recall war's hardships

October 10, 2004|EMILY BURTON

PERRYVILLE - This was not the life of glory many southern boys dreamed of when they ran off to fight for the Gray.

Moldy hardtack and missing shoes, short nights and long marches dogged the Rebel troops. The soldier's life often involved more walking than fighting, as hundreds of civil war re-enactors discovered this weekend while reliving the Civil War's Battle of Perryville, at the actual battle site.

Downtown Perryville was full of sticky-faced kids with plastic toy guns, a variety of yard sales, and food vendors with smoking grills. Some festival-goers would find their way up the hill to the battle reenactment Saturday. If they missed their chance, events continue today.

At the battlefield's hilltop camp, close enough to civilization for a decent cell phone signal, Rebel re-enactors slept on piles of hay under dog tents. Historically, soldiers called it that after they found the army-issued canvas tarp was only big enough for one dog to huddle under. On cold nights when blankets were in short supply, they had to spoon together to stay warm.


It was a "really rough life," said First Tennessee Regiment cook Rick Fullen, of Franklin, Ohio.

A confederate private was paid $11 a month, would find themselves foraging for their own food as the war progressed, and sometimes went into battle barefoot, he said.

They fought for self-preservation off the battlefields against scurvy, dehydration and frostbite.

The North had an advantage

"Northern troops were much better equipped, because they were well-supplied," Fullen continued. "They were better set up for mass production."

As the quality of Northern troops' uniforms improved throughout the war, those of the Rebels became more threadbare and scarce. Even Stonewall Jackson's wife had to make socks for each of her husband's soldiers, says folklore.

Fullen and the other battle enthusiasts are full of history lessons, having learned about life during Civil War times down to the tiniest details as they researched the roles they play at re-enactments. They are especially well-versed in how trying a Rebel's life could be.

Before July's Battle of Gettysburg, some Rebel troops marched 12 miles a day to the war, wearing thick woolen uniforms and 30 pounds of supplies. They went without food or water, a few without shoes. During the battle, water boys sent to fill the canteens were captured. This forced troops to fight without water throughout the night until their ammunition supply ran out.

Toward the war's end, many Rebel staples were in short supply. The Union Army had destroyed much of the south's crops and pillaged the rest. Soldiers found food wherever they could and read letters from home that had been written on wall paper.

Average soldier weighed 147 pounds

During that time, the average soldier was 147 lb., 5'8" and very lean, said Dave Chaltas. Known as Parson Lee to the boys in gray at Perryville on Saturday, Chaltas has also appeared as General Robert E. Lee in other reenactments.

Very few men had much meat on their bones after marching miles on end.

"Only a few generals had that luxury," Chaltas said.

Though he played a Rebel man of the cloth Saturday at Perryville, Chaltas as Parson Lee prayed with the boys in both the Blue and the Gray while field doctors tended to who they could.

"When they're on the battle field, God doesn't see color. Blue, gray, black or white," Parson Lee explained. "Lincoln once said: 'Both of us pray to God. Both of us think God is on our side.'"

If not dodging Union bullets, Rebels had to fight to stay hydrated, especially during the drought-ridden year of the Battle of Perryville, said Joe and Julia Rollins of Corbin.

The mother-and-son team walked behind the troops with bags of ice to cool the men after they marched to battle in their heavy wool uniforms. With supply lines cut by the Union, the Rebel troops were "pretty poor, pretty rag-tag, especially in this area," said Julia Rollins.

Need for water led to battle

It was the need for water that led the two armies to clash at Perryville, said Rebel re-enactor Steve Menefee of Harrodsburg. In October of 1862, the state-wide drought drove both armies to the Chaplin River to water their troops. The ensuing battle drove the Rebels to retreat before nightfall.

"The Confederate troops fell back to Harrodsburg and drank the town branch completely dry," Menefee said.

If a soldier's life of rag-tag glory should end on the battle field, and if he was lucky, a chaplain would kneel down beside him for a last, rushed prayer.

What do you say to a dying soldier?

Parson Lee answered between rifle volleys: "How can I be of service and what can I do to help? What is the status of your soul and do you want to atone for your sins? And then I go from there."

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