When First Sergeant Al Chewning of the 3rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment invited me to travel to Gaines’ Mill to participate in a program that Richmond National Battlefield Park was hosting, I seized the opportunity, as any semi-able-bodied son of Virginia would.
“I’ll be traveling to Richmond next weekend to defend Virginia and her honor,” I announced one evening to my wife.
“Who’s Virginia?” she asked, totally unimpressed.
I explained that I was going up to Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor battlefield sites to participate with living historians from the 3rd Virginia in a program called The Changing Faces of War as an “embedded” journalist.
What will I need?” I asked First Sergeant Chewning.
“Nothing. If the 3rd Virginia wants you to have something, we’ll issue it to you,” said Chewning.
Just before we hit the interstate for Richmond, I was issued jean cloth trousers, suspenders, brogans, drawers, and a battle shirt. The slouch hat that I was issued was just icing on the cake. I quickly changed into my previously owned Confederate uniform, and we were on our way to Gaines’ Mill. I felt authentic, and I looked authentic. Before the weekend program was concluded, I would also smell authentic.
First Sergeant Chewning thought wearing the uniform to the battle site would enrich the living-history experience. It certainly did. Dressed in Civil War garb, we stopped at a rest area to use the facilities. We carried no military accouterments. Most people just chose to ignore us.
“Are ya’ll Amish?” inquired one young man.
“Where’s the re-enactment?” asked another.
We stopped for dinner at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant near Gaines’ Mill. We sat in the rocking chairs in front of the restaurant and waited to be called for seating. Finally, our number came up. “Lee party of eight,” the hostess announced. I chuckled to myself. That was pretty clever I readily conceded.
When we arrived at the Gaines’ Mill site, National Park rangers were ready for us. The parking area had been taped off for the weekend. There was plenty of firewood, and the battlefield was good to go.
Hoping to chase away at least some of the mosquitoes from Boatswains Swamp, we built small campfires and spread our canvas ground cloths and blankets out under the stars.
In the middle of the night, I heard what I first thought was the rumble of artillery. When I saw lightning flashes in the distance, I realized that it was thunder. We packed up our bed rolls, wrapped up the equipment in canvas, and headed for the shelter of the trucks and vans.
Lightning struck a tree in the middle of the Gaines’ Mill site, not more than 75 yards from where our vehicles were parked. A direct hit. We spent the reminder of the night sitting upright in the trucks, trying to get a little sleep.
Of course, sleeping in trucks was not exactly authentic in the eyes of living-historians. Most serious living-historians and reenactors would dismiss anachronisms such as watches, cigarette lighters, and trucks as “farb” (far be it from authentic). During the War of Northern Aggression, troops on both sides would’ve sought shelter in a nearby barn, church, or private residence.
After a light breakfast of potatoes, onions, and mystery meat, I was introduced to infantry musket drill. After a few minutes of drill in the regular formation, Sergeant Paul Pokorski became acutely aware that I lacked the requisite background — as well as any natural proclivity for drill. Pokorski furnished me with one-on-one drill instruction. In fifteen or twenty minutes, I began to get the general idea, but I soon learned that getting close in musket drill was not enough. The Third Virginia drilled by the book —Gilham’s Manual — and they insisted upon doing it right.
Most living historians and re-enactors worthy of the name conscientiously research the pertinent historical materials for months before presenting a program. Before the first presentation to visitors or patrons, they profess to having “butterflies” in the stomach — perhaps not unlike soldiers going into battle.
In the morning the sky was overcast, and the temperature and humidity gradually increased. By demonstration time, our jean cloth, butternut uniforms and double-breasted frock coats were soaked with perspiration.
Considering the conditions, the program, drill, and firing demonstration went well. Other than a few misfires because of the humidity, the demonstrations went exactly as planned at both the Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor sites. The afternoon demonstration was even better — no misfires.
The second evening, we saw what we believed to be heat lightning and heard thunder in the distance again, but the thunder storm never arrived. Anticipating a violent storm, few slept well that evening.
While the 3rd Virginia Infantry Regiment was very serious about accurately portraying history and presenting a quality program, they were certainly no strangers to humor — especially before visitors showed up at the site.
Captain Mike Hendricks, historian with the 3rd Virginia and president of the Independent Volunteer Rifles, had a little fun mocking the “farb” Hollywood Civil War hero stereotypes commonly presented by the movie industry. Hendricks stuck three or four replicas of Civil War era revolvers in his waist belt and frock coat and strutted around the site for laughs. “Captain Wales is here,” laughed several living historians, fully appreciating Hendricks allusion to Outlaw Josey Wales, portrayed by film hero Clint Eastwood. Hendricks was demonstrating exactly what to avoid as a living historian, and everyone recognized his parody of film heroes for exactly what it was.
Hendricks and his comrades-in-arms are not inclined to participate in “farb fests” — re-enactment events at which the authenticity of portrayals doesn’t approach their standard of historical accuracy.
Sunday morning, before visitors arrived, Hendricks led a memorial service to honor the men of the 4th Texas who gave their lives in the attack on the strong Federal positions at Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862.
The Federal troops were routed and Richmond was saved — if only temporarily. Following the memorial service, morning and afternoon drill and firing demonstrations were performed admirably under the most adverse of conditions. Several living historians who participated in the afternoon demonstration were overcome by the heat — after the program.
While I had hoped to extract a better sense of the sacrifices that the average soldier in gray made in defending Richmond during the Civil War years, I actually walked away from the weekend program with an increased respect for the living historians who braved the mosquitoes, violent thunderstorms, humidity, and heat to present an accurate and authentic program to National Park visitors entirely at their own expense.
“This is the worst weather that we’ve experienced in sixteen years,” confided Mike Hendricks. “Glad you could share the experience,” he added.
Through their mutual respect for history and many years of campaigning as living historians on the National Park circuit, the 3rd Virginia Infantry has developed a strong bond — a camaraderie — that can only be appreciated and understood through common sacrifice and a strong sense of purpose.
They were — to borrow a phrase — a band of brothers, very much — I imagine — like the determined soldiers that they so accurately portrayed in their program. I felt fortunate to have shared their passion for history, as well as their intense camaraderie, even if it was just for a weekend.