Civil War reenactment correspondent Hastings Hensel.
Photo by Marci Tressel
Experiencing a true “period rush”—that moment of temporal vertigo when the present blurs into the past, or what some Civil War reenactors call “seeing the elephant”—requires the perfect blend of preparation and unpredictability. That, at least, was what I learned at last year’s Battle of Charleston when I enlisted with the 7th South Carolina Infantry unit commanded by Maj. Buddy Jarrells, who doubles as the battle’s director.
“I first saw the elephant at Gettysburg in 1976,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you see it. You actually think you’re back in time.”
The preparation part began as soon as I arrived at the campsite at Legare Farms on Johns Island. Pvt. James Daves issued me my gear—a rifle and bayonet, a shirt, a felt hat, a cap box and a round box to go on my CS belt, a wool jacket and pants, a haversack for any small provisions—before assigning me to sleep in the supply tent, where I carved out a small space for my bedding and my modern items. One of the basic rules of reenacting, I learned, is that “farbish” gear (reenactor’s slang for anything inauthentic) stays inside your tent, and everything outside of it must be as historically accurate as possible.
The company was quick to drill me in the basics of Civil War soldiering. No sooner had I stowed away my gear than Pvt. Cody “Pinky” Horrell began instructing me in the art of handling a black-powder weapon, and Pvt. Craig Wood taught me how to roll paper gunpowder cartridges and fire them high so as to avoid unintended injury.
The night before battle, as the voices drifted in a camp that had scrubbed itself free of modernity, I lay awake and stared out the open tent flap. The moon had risen above the Stono River, and nothing in my line of sight was any different than it might have been 150 years before. I thought about the past, about the circumstances and the reality of one’s birth, and of my two known Civil War ancestors, one of whom had died nearby during a skirmish.
At dawn, stirring to the sound of a bugle blowing reveille, I felt a temporary confusion, as though I were in fact a Civil War soldier waking in fear and anticipation. All throughout the morning, there was a stony-faced urgency among the troops, a palpable seriousness, as though our lives were indeed on the line.
After roll call and drills, we began marching single file to war along an old game trail that ran along the riverbank and wove between the trees. It still felt like a big game of make-believe, but then the unpredictable happened. Storm clouds gathered and a chilly rain began to fall, and it was as if the weather had been sent to dissolve the lines of reality.
Pandemonium interrupted the stillness. Union troops opened fire, the bright-yellow flashes of their rifles lighting up the woods. Cavalry units flew by on horseback, and men started letting out piercing rebel yells. We followed our captain down a dirt road and tried to hold our ground, but the wall of Union soldiers kept advancing.
After firing my last round, I made a conscious decision to take a hit and “die” for the authenticity of the battle. I watched as a bearded Union soldier crouched down, loaded his rifle and took aim. My shoulder jerked back, and I fell down onto the cold, wet ground in a spasm.
I lay there looking up into the trees as the rain fell and the woods filled with smoke. The war charged on around me, and I considered again how the view was no different than it might have been 150 years ago when my ancestor lay dying.
The whole weekend I had been ever so close to seeing the elephant, and there it was suddenly, just as Jarrells had warned me —a specific but brief feeling of bewilderment, an unbroken connection to the past.
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