Living History: First Battlefield Letter

Report from the front: A correspondent’s story

July 8, 2006, Saturday

I awoke a little after 6 a.m. I turned onto my stomach. Mike Champion was starting the fire, about 10 paces in front of me. To my right, under the fly of the home tent, Rob Cetner was starting his morning routine. I looked to my left from my pup tent. Pools of sunlight bathed the tops of the white canvas tents that were set up in the open fields. I caught the smell of horses and sweet hay on the breeze. About 15 yards away a Union cavalryman was going through his morning routine, as an unsaddled horse stood nearby, its tail wafting.

“These re-enactors are great people,” I thought. They went to this extent on their own to re-create military and civilian life in the 1860s. Except for the advancements in technology, living in the field in the 1860s wasn’t much different from living in the field during the 1980s and 1990s when I was a Marine.

I washed my face and brushed my teeth in the metal basin on the small table at the home tent. Cold water from the pitcher. Hot water from the covered, blue enameled pot warming on the single-burner, cast iron stove. Coffee from the percolator, and a tin cup to drink it from. All luxuries, for I was accustomed to using only a canteen of outdoor-temperature water and a one-pint metal cup for my morning ablutions and powdered coffee. First eye-squinting experience: I sampled the period-correct soap, used for ambience, and found that it burns just as much as 21st-century soap does.

Changed into my period clothing — black felt gambler’s hat; long-sleeved, striped blue and brown cotton shirt; black cotton trousers; burgundy suspenders; green vest — and my contemporary black dress socks and boot camp-issue black leather dress shoes. (One builds a wardrobe slowly in this hobby.) Put my sleeping gear away. Slung my canvas haversack over my shoulder, put my pencils in my shirt pocket, tucked my folded sheets of newsprint into the waist of my trousers and set off … with my 35mm SLR camera … to take pictures of the camps before the sunlight became harsher.

I was an anachronism. My impression, as re-enactor’s call it, was of a special correspondent for an African-American newspaper of the 1860s.

“Good morning” to the ladies, as I pass through the fly of the home tent. Penny Cetner, Dawn Adams, and Lisa Champion, our cook, were up now.

When I returned, breakfast—eggs, bacon, hash browns, and cheese—was on the fire. But I couldn’t wait; shoved an apple and an orange into my haversack. It was about 7:40, according to my pocket watch. The tactical battle was to start at eight. Where was it? Got directions from the Discovery Museum staffer at the registration tent. Not far away, about a quarter of a mile south.

Met up with nine Union soldiers on the slope above a cornfield — Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery. I told 1st Lt. Tim Tedrick, about my impression and my assignment and he invited me to embed with them — and Mary, their 12-pound Napoleon cannon. Mary was a real-live combat veteran of the Civil War. Her sister Molly was down the road a ways, out of our view. The Confederates were in front of us to the west, somewhere, within two miles. Battery G was the Union right flank.

Introductions, pictures, interviews taped on my radio reporter’s tape recorder. At some point during that first hour, our lone picket was summoned away, leaving us without infantry support. History lessons, biographical exchanges, lots of jokes.

Cannon fire to our left, some distance away. About 8:40 a messenger arrives. The Confederates are turning the Union left flank and trying to hit us from behind. Be ready.

Soon, one of the men spots a flag at the forest on the opposite end of the cornfield. Lt. Tedrick faces Mary right to meet the assault. Load up with canister. Nine Confederate cavalrymen ride hard along the edge of the cornfield. They turn the corner, form a line abreast, and open up with rifles and pistols. Mary belches. The Confederates fire back. Three riders break off, charge across the yard to our right, trying to hit the crew from behind. I change position twice to stay out of the line of fire; the tall grass isn’t tall enough. Load more canister. Mary roars at the six now grouped in front of her. One of the three has worked his way up the slope behind us. A thin tree between me and him now. The three soldiers with the limber and munitions are unarmed and exposed.

“I’m dead!” calls out one of the crew.

“I’m dead!” calls out the bold cavalryman. Lt. Tedrick shot him.

“Spike the gun!” orders Lt. Tedrick.

The horse soldiers stop their attack.

“Where’s the umpire?”


Both sides assess: Union, one killed; two or three Confederates killed. It’s 8:50. Both sides must sit out for 20 minutes. The Confederates ride back to their lines the way they came. Some of the crew naps; the others talk, clean the gun, and watch for another attack. No more action for us. Exercise ends about 10:15. The men attach the limber and roll Mary back to camp, by hand. I return to the Wool, Warp, and Wheel camp on Sutlers Row. Missed Lisa’s breakfast. I eat my orange. Oh, well. I’m a vegetarian anyway.

Authors Note: This story is one of a series of articles I wrote for the Daily Herald, Lake County, Illinois, in 2006. Copyright (c) 2006 by Daniel J. Johnson. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or any of my stories on this blog, please write to me at


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