© Roger Hughes. 1997
Along with some 10,000 others, I anticipated the 135th anniversary reenactment at Shiloh, Tennessee, with awe. I attended the 125th Gettysburg, when about 3,000 Confederates marched up that steady slope into the guns, which was impressive enough.
Shiloh was billed as greater even than that, with 10,200 participants and some 150 full size guns registered, truly a prospect of magnificent proportions. My wife and I therefore willingly sallied forth from our headquarters near Orlando, Florida, at 2am, which placed us on the campground fourteen hours and 820 miles later. This trek was insignificant however, compared to the intrepid chaps who came from the old country and even Europe just for "the big one."
Even on Thursday there were long lines at registration, with the camps rapidly filling. Clearly many had taken more time-off than normal from their real occupation to be part of this. Being a British observer with the Confederates I was more fortunate than I knew to be allocated a good pitch for my lodge with the Divisional Staff. Having been washed-out of more events than I care to remember, I now possess a natural keen eye for the high ground.
The field was absolutely bone dry, and earlier a complete tent and accoutrements had been wiped out by a stray spark from a campfire. However, on Friday evening it rained and rained, and rained, and did not stop until the wee hours of the morning! We were thankful to remain snug and dry as the lightning illuminated the canvas above our heads.
A dawn battle was scheduled, which I had ( reluctantly ) agreed to observe with one of the staff, ( I do wish organizers would not do these things—one does like ones lie-in on Saturdays ), but when I stuck my head out of the soggy folds at 5.30 I thought the mighty Tennessee had burst its banks!
Still, the show went on and a great Confederate attack pushed the Yankees out of their own camp, ( swamp ), and across the open plain, which rapidly became a quagmire. This was as naught however, compared to the civilian camps and the poor sutlers, who I visited later in the morning. They were swimming in rivers of water after another deluge. Trenches, more reminiscent of moats, had been excavated, but one man’s ingenuity caused another's misery, since the overspill inevitably ran through other tents.
At least the organizers had the good sense to stop further vehicle admission and not to insist those cars which were still in the camps be removed to the parking fields, which more like the battlefield of Verdun than Shiloh.
I was present at mid-morning meeting when the decision was very painfully made to cancel the whole event. Forked lightning illuminated a gray sky and the forecast prophesied another dose of heavy precipitation. More than one battalion had already declared they would opt-out. Rumour had it they had taken a tally of how many could swim and decided not to risk it.
A radio call went forth for tractors and it was naturally some time before these materialized, however nobody was going anywhere, the entrance to the vehicle field being already axle deep. When the first of the laboring leviathans arrived the drivers appeared to be unfortunately be left to their own whims as to who they extricated and who they did not. People therefore attempted to assail the bog of their own volition, but many failed to even make it to the entrance, which further clogged the approaches. Those who did, ( usually four wheel drives ) invariably became immured in the ruts caused by the tractors and had to be dragged out of the way.
Not everyone was trying to escape. Considerable merriment came from the camp of the 4th and 7th Georgia, pitched on a convenient slope adjacent to the exit from the vehicle field. These fellows set up grandstand seats and hailed every attempt to escape with raucous howls of derision or approbation, depending upon whether the vehicle made it to the road or not. A stadium "wave" rewarded the ( rarely ) successful drivers.
Many stalwarts, ( I did not see many officers ), gallantly assisted their comrades by pushing their vehicles when they became bogged, only to be instantly showered head to foot with slime from the violently spinning wheels. I observed many a good man slip, face down in the mire, there being but one response to the hearty cheers from the irreverent Georgia boys—a sweeping, dripping bow. I was observing at first hand, not the blood-bath we had come to portray, but the mud-bath of Shiloh.
Towards evening I gave up trying to entice a tractor driver to pick me up. ( Even that dishonorable tactic of pulling rank did not a jot of good ). They did seem to have a preference for Tennessee number plates. I came to the conclusion that the only thing which was going to extract me was good old "British ingenuity." The objective being to move my van barely a 1/4 mile to my tent, so we might prepare for an early evacuation the following morning.
Since I was one of the first in I was near the entrance and only a small clump of trees bared access to a relatively untrodden strip of ground and liberty. I therefore commandeered a stout saw from the Georgia camp and proceeded to hew down a few saplings, finally producing a brand new exit from the bog.
Starting the motor I felt like those intrepid British escapees who launched their way out of Colditz. Then, with a good push from some stout fellows I was slipping and sliding my way to freedom on soggy but reasonably firm earth. Front wheel drive helped, but I finally ground to a halt in the mud all but twenty yards from my tent. Were it not for the courageous assistance of a few staunch artillerymen, whose mighty heaving finally enabled me to slither to a halt beside my lodge, I might still be there.
Sunday morning we struck tent at 5.30am ( again ), and by seven were ready to make our final dash for freedom. Only 100 yards of mire stretched before us, but instead of leaping forward on the command, my carriage buried its front wheels up to the axles in the yielding ground. There was simply nothing for it but to put the kettle on, while keeping an eagle eye for the arrival of the first tractors.
Eventually, through the effective persuasion of a French observer, ( who was in exactly the same boat, yet a better groveler than I ), we secured the services of a gigantic machine of dinasorial proportions, one tyre of which was as wide as my vehicle. A chain was secured to the rear axle and we were dragged ignominiously backwards through the mud to the tarmacadamed road.
To his inestimable credit the driver only requested $ 10.00, which I thought more than fair. However, there were rumblings of extortion to the tone of $ 75.00 for some extractions. We were soon thankfully, yet sadly, rolling south, unbeknowingly with a bent axle and a slow puncture.
No doubt the reverberations of all this will surface in this newspaper for years. For my own part I have eternal sympathy for the people who laid their fortunes, and their reputations, on the line. This was not a "for profit" show like many a recent debacle. It was a regular reenactors event, but much much bigger, and you know how the saying goes, "The bigger they come, the harder they fall." This one fell due to nothing more than the exigencies of the diabolical weather—which is a hard pill to swallow—especially since Sunday turned out to be gorgeous.
We, who merely attend, might reflect and ponder before we criticize those who are prepared to put their necks on the block for the sake of history.