Snakes at a Reenactment

It has been about 12 years since I started reenacting the Civil War. The reasons for getting involved in reenacting are numerous and vary widely from person to person. For me, the educational aspect is key. I’m also very big on civic ceremonies, parades and the like. I do enjoy a bit of pomp and circumstance…but, more than that, I like to play a role in seeing that the Civil War is remembered, not just on battlefields and at museums, but in small towns as well.

A couple days ago, my company marched in a local Veteran’s Day Parade. Afterwards, a few of us got to talking about the so-called “Civil War moment,” the pursuit of which is yet another reason why people reenact. Every now and then during reenactments, usually when you least expect it, the 21st century can slip away and you have a curious sense of time-traveling. For just a second or two, it can feel like you are “there.” In discussing this, we agreed that, unfortunately, the more you reenact, the more elusive these moments become.  Perhaps you just get used to it after a while, wearing a wool suit in the summer, marching down gravel roads towards the sound of cannons.

I know, for me, the scarcity of “moments” has much to do with the fact that I’m now an officer and spend most of my time trying to make sure that my company is where it ought to be, that my guys are being safe, that I’m following orders and not messing things up. There’s a lot to think about and little chance to ponder the time-travel effect. However, the moments still happen, fleeting and brief though they may be.

The most profound “Civil War moment” I ever had was back in 2001 and it was an experience I will probably never forget. It was at the 140th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run. A massive event…I don’t even know how many reenactors were there…probably over 10,000. This event is legendary in my unit as being the hottest one we ever participated in. We’ve done a good number of reenactments down south, but none as brutal as this. 100 degrees and probably 99% humidity for three days. It was just plain torturous.

The heat wasn’t the only thing with which we had to contend. The first night in camp, rumors started circulating that someone had been bitten by a copperhead snake and rushed to the hospital. By the next day, we heard that perhaps two or three more had been bitten. Apparently, the entire area was crawling with them. I have absolutely no idea if these were just rumors or not. But we were warned to stick to the roads and not to walk through tall grass or go near stone walls. I had no intention of disobeying those warnings.

On the last day of the reenactment, our battalion was marching towards the battlefield along a mowed path through a very large hayfield. Looking at the tall grass on either side of us, I was grateful for the path. Then came the order to halt. Apparently, a unit behind us needed to press on ahead. So, the order came to clear the road and get into the grass. This pleased me not one bit. With men muttering about snakes, we marched into the waist-high grass and halted. The other battalion began to march by.

Then there was a yelp. God, I thought, someone’s been bit already. As it turned out, they had not been bitten, but they had indeed stirred up a copperhead. A moment later another whoop from close by. This time, it was a harmless snake and one crazy soldier had fixed his bayonet and managed to skewer the thing. As he held it up in the air, most of the battalion cheered. I did not find much humor in this. I wanted to get the hell out of the tall grass.

Soon enough, we were ordered back on the path. But, to our surprise, rather than march to the battlefield via the nice, safe road, we were ordered to form a battalion front and press through the hayfield towards the Confederate position. There were more than a few curses and oaths. Men grumbling, “We should not be doing this.” I wasn’t the only one who felt this was a bad idea. A long line of reenactors stretching from one end of the hayfield to the other, marching right through it. Someone was going to step on a copperhead.

I remember marching with my eyes on the ground in front of me. My heart was literally pounding. After all the rumors and reports, it seemed to me that certain death waited in that field for somebody. Like some sort of sinister lottery.  It could be the guy next to me, or it could be me. I wanted no part of it. But I certainly wasn’t going to break ranks and hold back while my battalion advanced.

After plodding onward for what seemed a painfully long time, someone said, “Here they come,” and I looked up to see the rebel line emerge from the woods in the distance. A very, very long line of grey.  And there I was, looking at the enemy line, heart pounding, wanting very much to head back to safety and get the hell out of that tall grass but having no intention of looking like a coward in front of my company.

That’s when it hit me. I would be foolish to suggest that I actually knew in that moment what it was like to march into battle. But that is about the closest I have ever come to that sensation, courtesy of a field full of snakes. What did it was the genuine element of fear. I absolutely would not care to repeat it. But it was a unique experience indeed. I won’t soon forget looking at that line of grey and hearing the colonel command, “Forward, march!” and thinking, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.”

I am happy to say that in all the years since, I have never been to another reenactment that was so rife with snakes. I hope I never will.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

One response to “Snakes at a Reenactment

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