A LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

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© Roger Hughes 1996.

Observations by Lt. Col. A.J.L. FREMANTLE ( a.k.a. Englishman, Roger Hughes ) upon the flourishing Civil War activities DOWN UNDER.

 Anyone could readily be forgiven for assuming there would be little interest in the war between the American States on the other side of the world. I wish to report that nothing could be further from the truth and advise that both debate and living history is alive and well in the land of the Kangaroo and Koala.

 During the month of September 1996, I sallied forth to observe the action at the annual get-together at Taminick, about one third the way between Melbourne and Sydney in the beautiful Warby Range, near Wangaratta, not too far from Wagga Wagga. Indeed names to conjure with.

 The topography of these inland areas is not unlike the eastern seaboard of America. The coastal plain abounds with lush forests and vegetation and even a few hundred miles inland there is little sign of the aridness associated with the vast "Outback" hinterland. The camp was located in a superb setting. A semicircle of wooded hills gave protection from the wind, the open side of which overlooked the massive yet tranquil Lake Mokoan. The distant silhouette of The Great Dividing Range meandered like a black snake across the horizon.

 My accommodation had been assured by courtesy of The Rowen Light Artillery—Lt. John Cousins commanding and his delightful wife Elaine. A full size parrot crouched by the tent, reminiscent of a cat ready to pounce. ( Here it becomes necessary to explain, "the civil war variety," since full size parrots fly wild in these climes ).

I was instantly struck by the authenticity of the encampment which even contained hastily dug shallow graves, complete with exposed bones. There was also a highly functional "dunny"—none of your modern Porta-letts for these lads!

Not far from the Rowen Battery were camped, or I should say stabled, a very loud unit of New York Anderson Zouaves, so named after the famous defender of Fort Sumpter, one of which I was quick to observe was female. They had only been formed one year and had not the slightest semblance of discipline, raucously hailing me as, "The Pohmie officer from Gettysburg".

At this juncture it might be worthwhile digressing for the general edification of readers as to the derivation of this particular moniker which irritates Englishmen so. The term POHM ( pronounced "Pom" and uttered in the same vain as a Southerner might express the word Yankee! ), is an acronym for Prisoner Of Her M ajesty, referring to British convicts who were transported to this land, there being no further accommodation in America after your revolution. I therefore quickly became ambivalent to their taunts, since it was patently obvious to any gentleman, ( which these fellows were decidedly not! ), that I was visiting Australia of my own free will.

 With a total population of less than most American States one should little wonder that such a specialized gathering would be small, and for this reason the events shared by living history groups and reenactors from other eras and spanned a total of two weeks. There were Napoleonic soldiers including some Frenchies, Pioneers, Colonials, and a gaggle of Scotsmen who persisted in heaving ( small ) tree-trunks around. A group of particularly finely attired Cavaliers caught my eye, ( English Civil War 1641- 1649 ), sporting cumbersome muskets with slow matches and enormous twelve foot pikes. These chaps had the extraordinary custom, at least in our times, of standing-easy with left hands placed on their hips which, in company with their ornate feathered bonnets produced howls of derision from the New Yorkers. However, their taunts swiftly dissolved into ignoble rout and cries of "we surrender!" when these dashing peacocks advanced decisively upon them, their pikes lowered menacingly and uttering dire threats to skewer the Bluebellies in parts which made an honest man's eyes water.

 Activities commenced early on Saturday with colors and I was intrigued to reflect upon which flag would be unfurled as it was run up the staff. How might all these different parties be honored? Was it possible the Confederate Battle Flag could be combined with the Stars and Stripes along with the French and British flags, a rare combination indeed? I concluded the most logical banner must perforce be the Australian Flag, but was proud to see a very large Union Jack flutter free on a jerk of the lanyard. It was none-the-less strange to see Confederates and Federals saluting this emblem which their forefathers fought against. Had England at last regained our lost colony?

 The campground is the permanent live-firing range of the North East Muzzle-loaders Society and a major event for the weekend was the firing of live rounds in cannon and rifle at targets placed in the hillside. At 9:0am sharp this commenced with gusto and the crack of rifles, of many calibers and types, echoed throughout the hills. Field pieces were loaded with a clay ball which shattered upon impacting either the target or the surrounding rocks and appeared quite hazardous. Here I perceived a certain contradiction in that there has never been an actual battle reenacted at Taminick, thereby no doubt accounting for the distinct lack of spectators. This was partly because of the diversity of the participants ( armor clad Roundheads and Cavaliers against Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, I think not? ), but mainly due to the problem of liability insurance. I was always under the impression that America was the litigation capital of the world, yet fierce battles are reenacted there every weekend, often resulting in injury. I was advised that in Australia a signed disclaimer is not worth the paper it is written on and damages have been awarded against organizers notwithstanding. This struck me as a pretty poor show, when persons voluntarily engaging cannot accept the possible consequences of their preoccupation.

 In the light of this disappointment and not being involved in the live shooting I accepted an invitation from the Yankees to "invade" a nearby winery for forage, the owner of which was suspected of Confederate leanings and which they claimed was "just over the hill". I must herein caution anyone against accepting such an invitation from an Australian, because some five miles later we were still marching over boulderous landscapes with no sign of the promised land. My mates however were very jolly fellows full of Yankee jokes which I had not heard before and we did stop for a tipple now and again which somewhat relieved my aching feet. At length we struggled to the pinnacle of the mountain and indeed, below us stretched a fertile valley of mouthwatering vines. Our descent to the cellar door however was not without incident.

 As we strolled through a field, "a short cut," singing and oblivious of danger, I beheld a rather uneasy looking herd of cows some two hundred yards distant. I suggested to my companions that they might make less noise and not wave their large striking regimental flag quite so brazenly, antics which were patently beginning to upset the beasts. Being the senior officer,

( actually the only officer, since this rabble had decided not to even elect a sergeant affirming, that "officers only muck things up!" ), made not one iota of difference to these unruly fellows and it was rudely retorted that I should remove my scarlet tunic since that was more likely to be the cause of the animals increasing agitation. However, before you could say "put that man on a charge" the herd commenced to advance towards us and drawing nearer were clearly not the docile cows I had imagined, but raucous young bullocks spoiling for a scrap. With the fearsome beasts now breaking into the double quick, eyes and nostrils blazing, I drew my sword and ordered the troops, ( with no certainty of the beasts halting even if we showed a firm stand ), to "Fix bayonets and stand fast!". As the thunderous hooves grew louder it was apparent to everyone that their velocity was not at all conducive to a sudden stop and if we stayed put we would likely be overrun and flattened into the soft earth. The situation was rapidly becoming untenable since their combined front stretched wider than what was possible to run and outflank the charge. Discretion therefore proved the better part of valor and to a man we all retreated, ignominiously over a nearby fence. It was a most unfortunate encounter for me since I split my breeches, but in retrospect a small price to pay for the probable consequences.

 We were all in dire need of a drink as we entered the winery and were not to be disappointed in the proprietor who's son was also "away at war" over the hills. Some considerable time later we gingerly crept past our now docile enemy, this time keeping to the road, our proud flag furled and my tunic tucked under my arm—purely on account of the heat you understand. It was probably as well, since we were all pretty well oiled and our baggage train burdened with the weight of bottles. One astute fellow, ( who I promised to recommend for promotion if he kept giving me a swig ), had filled his canteen with the heady Port Wine of the locality which assisted us to march along, if somewhat haphazardly. In our condition we would have been sitting ducks for any half decent company of Confederates but we arrived back at the camp quite unmolested, having taken a much shorter route recommended by "mine host."

 After a nap I donned my full dress uniform to attend the formal regimental mess dinner in a 250 seat marquee, admirably prepared over open fires and ovens by the host unit. I had the honor to be invited to the head table and of proposing the Royal Toast—"Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, long may she reign over us." Later it appeared as though the venerable lady had been listening, because rain over us is exactly what happened. The heavens opened with a peel of thunder reminiscent of the bombardment prior to Picket's charge, followed by a deluge which necessitated the frequent evacuation of great reservoirs from the tent roof. The torrent did not however dampen the after dinner revelry which tradition dictated each regiment or group doing a little party piece, one of which I became embroiled in.

 The Frenchmen, who professed to be part of the Grande Armie, apparently knew every verse of La Marseillaise and proceeded to boom forth. Needless to say neither I nor any of the other true British contingent were impressed and whilst the tune is undeniably stirring it does nothing to an Englishman’s heart. Indeed, after what seemed like endless repetition I became somewhat bored and decided to liven the proceedings up a bit. Various flags and banners had been hung on the walls of the marquee and near my seat happened to be draped a large Union Jack. After but a moments consideration of the possibility of starting the hundred years war all over again I grabbed my country’s flag and, waving it before the assembly, struck up with "God save the Queen." At first my puny refrain had no effect, then slowly yet irrevocably people, ( including I was pleased to see, a number of ladies ), rose and added their voices. It was but a short time until the whole tent was ablaze with rival anthems, both camps attempting to drown the other. Finally the President called for a truce to permit the continuation of the program. I was somewhat concerned, being the newcomer, that I may have overstepped the bounds of propriety, but found myself later overwhelmed with delighted participants, from both sides, who thoroughly enjoyed the impromptu event.

 The gray light of dawn exposed a quagmire reminiscent of Burnside’s Mud March, but I had been snug under a heap of blankets and with considerable inner warmth, having been issued with my own wine barrel at the feast.

 Regrettably I had to take my leave after breakfast and begin the long journey south. However, I received a report that the heavens again opened in the afternoon with hail as big as Minnie balls shredding a number of tents and bringing proceedings to a grinding halt. I could not help observing that September in this hemisphere is supposed to herald the arrival of summer. So much for the Australian weather!

During my five month stay in the fair City of Melbourne, in the Australian deep South, I also fell in with The American Civil War Round Table of Australia. I attended their monthly meetings at "The Retreat" a wonderful old "British" pub, though not one might think very appropriately named for the meetings of a Civil War group. I was received with no less warmth than that which I have always experienced on my travels in the (real) South. The club has been in existence for 26 years and has some two hundred members, mainly Australians but with a few Englishmen and Americans thrown in for good measure.

They are scattered all over this vast land which is about the same size as the United States. Clearly "out of town" members cannot attend meetings and are kept informed and amused by a comprehensive newsletter, my only criticism being the preponderance of discussion about rival football ( footy ) teams, but then, that's Australians for you. The Minie News is otherwise admirably, wittily, ( and according to them, painstakingly ), compiled each month by its editors Warren Davey and Ross Schnioffsky. I found everyone to be as scholarly, if not more so, than any SCV or Round Table group which I have had the pleasure to address in America. They are furthermore also schooled in the British point of view, vis-à-vis The Confederacy and recognition and questioning after readings from FREMANTLE, my own book on that very subject, were intense. This might be expected, since Australia was populated by Englishmen only after America's decisive demonstration of her desire to be free from Crown rule. I can therefore report that these Colonials are definitely hot on their subject. Regrettably, the same cannot be said of the ambivalent Melbourne weather, it being winter when I arrived, abysmally cold and damp. Nevertheless the friendship and comradeship of these erstwhile Australian Civil War-ers mitigated the loss I experienced upon departing Florida. For this I offer them hearty thanks and through this article perhaps help to "put them on the map" so to speak.

 Anyone in America caring to contact the group will I am certain, be received with enthusiasm, and may do so through the internet to editor Ross Schnioffsky, at: <R.Schnioffsky@latrobe.edu.au>

or by mail to the President:

Mr. Barry Crompton. The American Civil War Round Table of Australia.

14 Sunlight Crs. E. Brighton. Victoria 3187. AUSTRALIA.

 Their recently established world wide web address, ( which I am assured will be shortened in due course ), is:

<http:www.health.latrobe.edu.au/hs/ss/cu/ACWRTA/Title%20Page/cwtitle.html.>

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