Monthly Archives: June 2012

Channeling a Civil War Soldier?

Webster: channel: v. to serve as an intermediary for. Wikipediachanneling: a term used in reference to the esoteric process of receiving messages or inspiration from spirits.

Now, before you think me all wacky, allow me to state that I am a skeptic when it comes to any of theories involving “esoteric processes.” But there are moments that make you wonder a little bit…

This past weekend I participated in what was probably the best reenactment I have been to in my fourteen or so years of Civil War reenacting. The event, entitled “Lee Takes Command,” included three battle scenarios from the Peninsular Campaign. Objectively speaking, it was just a great event…splendidly organized and highly authentic. From a more subjective standpoint, this event was of great significance to my company in particular.

The list of scenarios included the Battle of Gaines Mill. We represent Company D of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. Historically, the real 22nd Massachusetts took their highest number of casualties during this battle. The Colonel was killed. My historical counterpart, John F. Dunning, the captain of Company D, was killed. When the shattered remains of the regiment regrouped after the battle, they were half the size they had been earlier that morning. After the war, the veterans held reunions on June 27, the anniversary of Gaines Mill, to commemorate that grave and terrible day.

So, this was an important event for in the recreated 22nd Massachusetts. This was compounded by the fact that the battalion to which we belong, namely the Mifflin Guard, decided that they would represent the 22nd Massachusetts during the Gaines Mill scenario as a regiment and would carry our colors. The entire battalion would, in a sense, be walking in the 22nd’s footsteps and would endeavor to represent what happened to “our” regiment during Gaines Mill. The leadership of the battalion and the other companies were most gracious in arranging this.

I’ve written before about the man I represent in reenacting, Captain John F. Dunning. If you’d like to read up on his background, take a look here. This connection is not a random choice, but simply a matter of fact. A captain commands the company and there is only one at any given time. And at this stage in the war, that was Dunning. So, by default, as I am captain of Company D, I represent Dunning.

As a historian, I spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of people long gone. This can be a fascinating exercise if you have enough primary source material. If not, it can be quite frustrating. The latter is so in Dunning’s case. No journal or letters. Very little to give me a sense of his character or motivations. A compatriot in my company has dug up some wonderful documents written by others in the 22nd Massachusetts which reference Dunning. So, there are some second-hand clues here and there. But I have far more questions than answers about Capt. Dunning.

Capt. John F. Dunning (1832-1862)

He was said to have been extremely popular with his company. Strict when on duty, but “one of the guys” when they broke ranks. They liked him for that. He even took part in pranks that the enlisted men played on one another. He was a supporter of Senator Edward Everett and asked the Senator’s permission to name his company the Everett Guard. So, probably a conservative in politics and probably not an abolitionist. The recruiting poster for the Everett Guard, which Dunning probably drafted (or at least approved), announced that, “Temperate American men will find this an excellent opportunity to enlist.” I think it safe to say that this is polite wording for “No Irish Need Apply.” So, probably a nativist streak? Being a descendant of Irish immigrants, I can’t say I admire that much and find it ironic.

A intriguing scrap of evidence that makes me wonder about his character was turned up by one of the men in my company. A certificate of disability discharging a 13 year-old soldier. The lad had enlisted in Company D as a musician but could not bugle. So they gave him a musket. Being just a boy, he could not carry it and could not keep up on marches. So Dunning had him discharged, writing, “he is of no benefit whatever to the service and has not been since he enlisted and is why I ask his discharge.” It is tempting to read between the lines here. Did Dunning simply want to rid himself of an annoyance? Or did he realize that the lad was probably going to get himself killed and wanted to get him safely home?

And then there’s his favorite toast, “Here’s to a yellow sash or six feet of Virginia soil!” That is, promotion to general or death. Puffy comments like that were absolutely typical at the time. But this one makes me wonder too. Braggadocio…or was he fully prepared to lay down his life?

More questions than answers. These are the things I wonder about as we march along dusty roads, listening to the cadence and the clinking of tin cups, trying to get into Dunning’s head. And I just don’t have a good sense of him. Rather an enigma and somewhat frustrating.

Just before we formed up the battalion for the Gaines Mill scenario, I had the company fall in so that we could present the 22nd Mass colors to the battalion’s color sergeant. He received them with remarkable decorum and said, “Captain, today all of us are the 22nd.” We were proud, to say the least.

And then off we marched, several companies from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey…and one from Massachusetts…all of them about to represent the 22nd Massachusetts at Gaines Mill. And I about to represent Dunning meeting his fate. And along the route, I’m wondering what happened to him during that battle. The 22nd was overrun quickly during the actual engagement. There probably was not much time to think. But as we marched (and earlier, in fact, in camp) I had this sense, for reasons I can’t describe, that he had no intention of retreating. And he probably knew it would mean death.

Of course I can’t know that for certain. But this hunch seemed to grow stronger as we marched along and I repeatedly glanced back over my shoulder at the 22nd’s colors carried high. Before long we fronted in a field and waited for the scenario to begin. We stacked arms, the other battalions got into place, the company chatted and joked. I stared at the woods from which the Rebels would come and thought about Dunning.

Over the previous 36 hours or so, the actual 22nd Mass had been on the move and engaged in the Battle of Mechanicsville. They probably had not slept nor eaten much in nearly two days. Ordered to give up the field and withdrawn from Mechanicsville, they came back to their camp at Gaines Mill and found the wagon trains had left. They then realized that the army was in full retreat. I could not shake the feeling, as I waited for the Rebels to attack, that the notion of a full fledged withdrawal was abhorrent to Dunning. I ordered my company, loudly and repeatedly, that they were to hold their ground.

We were in reserve for most of the scenario…which was historically accurate. When the final Confederate assault swept out of the woods and up the hill towards us, it was a bit terrifying. Hundreds of men running full tilt at you, firing muskets and screaming the Rebel yell. Instinctively, acting on my hunch, I planted my sword in the ground and turned back to my company who were in the process of breaking. I screamed at them to hold. And they did. For about two seconds until the overwhelming wave swept over us.

I went down. And as the battle drew to a close, I wondered if my hunch about Dunning was correct. If I had in any way gotten it “right.” I hope so.