A formation of Confederate sharpshooters wheeled around to face their Union foes amid the nonstop crackle of musket fire and the booming of cannons. The men, standing 75 paces apart, methodically pumped lead into each other, unfazed by the carnage around them.
Thus unfolded the re-enactment of the last major Civil War battle in North Carolina, 150 years after the fact. On March 21, about 25,000 spectators, some cheering for the home team, watched as 3,000-plus Civil War re-enactors replayed the first afternoon of fighting in what turned out to be a three-day conflict.
The 150th anniversary of the end of the war marks a turning point for the re-enactment movement, a social phenomenon that gained a mass following after the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. For some aging re-enactors – who lack the knees and backs needed to simulate several hours of marching and falling – Bentonville was the final campaign of their lives.
“A lot of people are getting out after the 150th,” said Robert Kirkland, 59, of Fredericksburg, Va., a retired carpenter donning the shell jacket of a staff captain in the 28th Virginia Infantry. “We’re an old army, look around.”
The graybeards who made it to Bentonville had taken part in most or all major campaigns in the 150th anniversary cycle of the Civil War – such as Shiloh, Manassas, Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
“After you’ve done the 150th, what could you possibly do better?” said Kernersville machinist David Vanhoy, 60, a corporal in the 1st North Carolina Battalion.
The fighting continued the afternoon of March 22 and included a Civil War-era church service, presentations and lectures in the morning. Organizers expected more than 50,000 people over the course of the weekend.
A typical re-enactment might feature a few hundred soldiers for a skirmish. Here, several thousand charged and countercharged, retreated and regrouped, tumbled and writhed, in an an outdoor panoptic worthy of a Hollywood movie set. The spectacle included cannon, cavalry and a VIP grandstand featuring Gov. Pat McCrory and other dignitaries.
The Bentonville re-enactment was preceded by several days of bivouacking, cooking, reminiscing and camaraderie.
Calling on reserves
The graying Bentonville re-enactors were a remarkable case study of art imitating life. Toward the end of the war, as the Southern case grew more desperate, the Confederacy likewise drew on senior reserves, arming grandfathers to repel the advancing Union troops.
At the real Battle of Bentonville, which took place just three weeks before Gen. Robert E. Lee signed documents of surrender, the Confederacy was trying to block Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s advance to Goldsboro. By then, Southern forces were so decimated they patched together regiments from surviving remnants of other fighting groups. The Southerners fought to a draw on the first day, but greatly outnumbered, they lost momentum and were forced to retreat.
And so it is for the re-enactors, who say the golden age of Civil War re-enacting appears to have waned and younger recruits are harder to attract. The re-enactors of the South Carolina Palmetto Battalion, for example, took in stray re-enactors for the Bentonville event in search of a fighting unit.
The Palmetto Battalion’s ranks have thinned by half from a one-time peak of 400 to 500 participants, said Laurinburg resident Bruce Blackmon, 51, wearing the single-breasted frock coat of a colonel.
“They needed a unit to fall in with,” said Blackmon, director of financial aid at UNC Charlotte. “This is a fitting end to the hobby. As Lee said at Sailor’s Creek, ‘My God, has the Army dissolved?’”
The recession has also taken a toll on the re-enactors’ ranks, though the larger and more popular units, like the Army of Northern Virginia, remain as strong as ever. Still, this hobby can burn a gentleman-soldier’s wallet, requiring replica uniforms, weapons and a commitment of many years of weekends and vacations.
“I’ve got enough stuff to outfit four regiments,” said 51-year-old Anthony Pollygus of Avery County, a captain in the 58th North Carolina State Troops. “I’ve got five tents, four rifles, three pistols, two drums, and both Union and Confederate uniforms, and I’ve got them from private to colonel.”
Jake Jennette of Swansboro has been re-enacting for 40 years now, typically in the role of Robert E. Lee, though at Bentonville, he was handling duties for Gen. Joseph Johnston.
“We’re going to lose a lot of graybeards – they’re hanging on to stay through the 150th,” Jennette said.
After Bentonville, the 73-year-old planned to retire his general’s epaulets and scale back his hobby. Jennette lives by the re-enactor’s creed, that ’tis nobler to perish in battle than to fade away.
“To me, happiness is sitting on a horse, having a heart attack and dropping off dead – that’s a re-enactor’s dream,” the old warhorse said and grinned.
If you want to go
Anniversary events will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The battle re-enactment starts at 1:30 p.m.
Paid admission is only required to view the battle re-enactments. All the other events are free, including the lectures, house tours, music and demonstrations. Go to http://bit.ly/1B8Lhle for more information on the events, including how to buy remaining tickets.
Large crowds are expected, so double the planned time to drive to the battlefield at 5466 Harper House Road in Four Oaks.