The South is Risen

 

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very year on December 15, Harpeth Hall girls are taking semester exams and anxiously counting down the days until Winter Break.  As they struggle through their history exams—as they take a brief moment, say, to gaze out the window onto Souby Lawn—they might well be unaware of the real historical drama that occurred that day on that very spot during the last winter of the Civil War. So for those of you who don’t remember Dr. Clark’s 7th grade American History class, follow closely during this brief review, and while you’re listening, keep your ears peeled for the sound of marching feet. The Civil War may be coming to Harpeth Hall.

The Battle of Nashville, which took place on December 15-16, 1864, resulted with one of the biggest Confederate losses of the entire war. When the cannons fell silent and the smoke finally cleared, the Army of Tennessee, the second largest in the Confederacy, would never fight again.

 However, the Confederacy might not have endured such a devastating loss had it not been for the Battle of Franklin. Taking place less than a month earlier on November 30 and resulting in over 6,000 Confederate casualties, the Battle of Franklin was one of the bloodiest battles in Civil War history. “The more you study the battles of Nashville and Franklin, the more you realize how closely they’re linked,” says David Broemel, a board member of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society (BONPS). “The Battle of Franklin is important because it was a precursor to the Battle of Nashville. It really crippled the Army of Tennessee.”

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While there is no actual preserved battlefield for the Battle of Nashville, the fighting encompassed almost the entire Nashville area.  As Nashvillians take their children to school, drive to work, or shop at the Green Hills Mall, they unwittingly pass by places where thousands of men died.  For example, the bus stop in front of the Burton Hills subdivision on Hillsboro Pike was actually a small field hospital where Confederate troops received care. Redoubt No.4, a fort located behind the Abbotsford subdivision in Green Hills, was where the Confederates fired four cannons at the Union soldiers, who responded with 24 cannons of their own.  Shy’s Hill, Richland Country Club, Peach Orchard Hill, and even Harpeth Hall were all significant locations in the Battle of Nashville.  According to James Kay, BONPS president, “This bloody conflict was fought in the yards of virtually every Harpeth Hall student as the battle raged from the Cumberland River on Charlotte all the way to Murfreesboro Road. It’s the third largest battlefield in the United States.” 

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Surveying the pristine grounds of the Harpeth Hall campus today, people would never guess blood had ever been shed there, unless they include the occasional soccer or lacrosse injury. In reality, the events that transpired on the property in December 1864 played an integral part in the defeat of the Army of Tennessee.  At Harpeth Hall and Estes Road, two dozen Union cannons took aim at the Confederate forces.  “There were twenty-four Union cannons on the ridge of Harpeth Hall going down Estes towards town,” says Kay. “Within three hours, they bombarded the Confederate battery, which had four cannons in it.” Despite the valiant efforts of the soldiers at Redoubt No.4, the fort was forced to surrender.

The sacrifices of the men who fought and died in this pivotal battle might have faded from memory if not for the work of groups like the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society and the Carter House in Franklin. Since the battlefield is totally unpreserved, and suburban development now occupies the land, there are few physical reminders of the events of 1864.  The members of the BONPS and the Carter House staff work hard to keep the memories of these battles alive. Their work doesn’t lack interest. According to David Fraley, interim director of the Carter House, the historic antebellum home receives over 40,000 visitors a year.  Along with a movie theater, the house contains a walk-through museum, which includes uniforms, weapons, letters, flags, photographs, and an extensive library on the war itself. The mission of the Carter House is “to preserve the Carter House and battlefield; and to remember those who lived and those who died in this battle, while providing a unique educational experience to each of our guests who visit this historical site.”

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The official Web site of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society describes a similar mission and is dedicated to the protection of Civil War sites throughout Davidson County. The Society owns two historic properties in Nashville, Shy’s Hill and Redoubt No. 1, which are open to the public for touring. The BONPS meets quarterly, sponsors talks, and holds an annual membership banquet and awards presentation. It also holds a ceremony every year on December 16 at Shy’s Hill to commemorate the Battle of Nashville.

Here’s the part where you should listen for the sound of marching feet.

Although still in the planning stages, BONPS hopes to host a commemoration on, of all places, the Harpeth Hall campus in December 2009. In addition to erecting a historical marker describing the attack that took place there, the Society has also been in contact with headmistress Ann Teaff about possibly staging a small reenactment, complete with soldiers, muskets, bayonets, bugles, and yes, cannons—which they’ll fire, of course.  

 

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annons on Souby? Try concentrating on your history exam while reenactors storm the school. Not that the reenactors will have it any easier than the students. Since the goal of reenactors is to be as authentic as possible, these restrictions might create a few problems.  They may find it difficult, for instance, to be authentic and manage to “keep off the grass.” Also, they had better be careful not to leave gunpowder residue, fake blood or body parts on the sidewalks. Willy and the rest of the grounds crew will have a fit if they mess the place up. They’re as serious about their jobs as Civil War reenactors are about their hobby…very serious.

The dedication and passion of these reenactors were revealed in a conversation with Thomas Cartwright, former director of the Carter House and veteran of more than 250 Civil War reenactments. A self-proclaimed “heavy-duty” re-enactor, Mr. Cartwright participated in his first reenactment in the spring of 1973 at the age of 16. He began “adult reenacting” in 1989 and immersed himself in it for the next decade. His battle résumé includes being one of 13,000 reenactors at the 1994 reenactment of the Battle of Franklin, and one of 28,000 in the 1998 Battle of Gettysburg. For Cartwright, the interest in reenacting began with books.

“I read a great deal,” Cartwright says. “I’ve always liked to read, and I especially have always loved to read history. I’ve learned things from reenacting that I never could have learned from just reading, and the things that I would read that I couldn’t quite understand became all clear when I was reenacting.” Reenacting literally provides a “hands-on” learning experience when studying the Civil War battles.  “When you’re at a reenactment,” Cartwright says, “you see things and experience things that you could never experience from just reading about it.”

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When participating in reenactments, authenticity is crucial. “You don’t want to go out there wearing cowboy boots.” It requires careful and meticulous study of every aspect of a battle so that the reenactment corresponds to the original battle as much as possible. From the uniforms to the equipment to the weapons, everything is exactly how it was in the 1860’s. The reenactors eat the same food that the soldiers would have eaten. They sing the same songs around the campfire and use the same weapons and battle tactics. The only glaring difference between reenactments today and the actual Civil War battles is the use of live ammunition.

Interestingly, when battle reenacting first began in the 1950’s, reenactors were not nearly as adamant about staying true to the battles. As the hobby evolved, however, they became much more serious about being historically accurate and began paying much more attention to minor details. (The few who do not observe true Civil War customs and show up to battles with equipment or uniforms that are not historically accurate are ridiculed by the rest of the “heavy-duty” reenacting community and referred to as “farbs.”)

This obsession with maintaining authenticity causes many reenactors to go to great lengths to achieve the most realistic battle reenactment possible. Cartwright points out that if a serious re-enactor purchases a Civil War era gun and discovers that it has been protected with polyurethane, he will rub all of the sealant off because polyurethane was not available during the war. Reenactors buy shoes they must break in to fit their feet since, at the time, there was no distinction between left and right shoes. Some even march barefoot, as soldiers often did. The reenactors often endure harsh conditions to try to grasp what the soldiers went through. “You really get a feel of what it was like back then,” says Fraley, who is also a former reenactor, “from the foot sores and the blisters and sleeping outside in the freezing cold.” Cartwright reiterates this when talking about the conditions in the camps. “I’ve had to spoon with other men to keep warm. I remember this one time at camp when the weather was 10 above zero, and your water literally froze in your canteen!” Despite some of the grueling conditions, Mr. Cartwright believes that he and his fellow reenactors are still only experiencing, in his estimation, “one or two percent” of what the soldiers actually had to go through at the time.

Participating in reenactments can become very time-consuming; battles typically take place on weekends, but occasionally they last longer. While many reenactments are meant to be observed and enjoyed by spectators, some, called tacticals, are not intended for audiences. Tacticals are unique because they do not necessarily follow the sequence of real Civil War battles. Instead, reenactors set up different scenarios and create strategies, like a nineteenth-century game of paintball.  The two armies then fight to see which side is victorious. This seems to be the only time that reenactors are permitted to “change” history because the winner of the tactical is not predetermined.

This role playing is also not a strictly regional or demographic obsession. Reenactors come from all different places and backgrounds, and range broadly in age (there are even some children re-enactors). Women also can take part in reenacting by dressing up as men and fighting. In addition to soldier re-enactors, many play civilian roles, spectators, doctors, nurses, photographers, even “suttlers” (vendors who traveled around selling various goods to soldiers).

Of course, every time a reenactment takes place, the issue of who will play the role of the Union soldiers (called the Federal soldiers at the time) and who will play the Confederates arises. Cartwright, who has sported both the blue of the Federals and the grey of the Confederates, admits that it is more difficult to find reenactors to play the part of the Federals. “Even in Michigan they cannot get enough Federal re-enactors!” he laughs. He himself also prefers to be a Confederate, attributing the favoritism towards the Confederacy to the more interesting and varied Rebel uniforms.

Listening to Cartwright explain the various aspects of reenacting, it’s clear that reenacting is not just his hobby, but his passion. He’s spent many years learning and studying the battles, and is a veritable database of Civil War trivia (“Did you know that Federal uniforms were 11o warmer that the Confederate Uniforms?”). However, the thing that Cartwright most treasures from his reenacting experience is the friendship he has shared with fellow re-enactors. “Some of my best memories were around the campfire, and the camaraderie…the friendships you make are so rewarding.”  He even cherishes the difficult parts of the hobby, such as the time that the soldiers had to go on a 28-mile march. “I actually fell asleep while walking. I’ve never experienced that, I mean, how could someone possibly fall asleep while they were walking? I was that tired…Things like that, those experiences, along with the education and the friendship, are just priceless.” There’s practical knowledge as well: one of Cartwright’s friends from New Orleans used his reenacting knowledge to survive Hurricane Katrina.

There is, however, one misconception about why reenactors reenact that Cartwright wishes to clarify: Civil War reenactors are not crazy, war-obsessed fanatics who get a thrill out of pretend violence. “Some people might think that we are glorifying war. Personally, I hate war. I hate the thought of hurting anyone… reenacting is not about glorifying war, it’s about the commemoration of brave, brave Americans… and keeping their memories alive. For me, I have a greater appreciation of what they had to go through and how tough they were.” And, occasionally, the memories approach something close to what Keats calls negative capability—the dissolution of the self into the thing imagined. “Sometimes,” Cartwright says, “I have what we call ‘reenacting moments,’ where you’re almost back in time. And when the situation feels right, you don’t want to get out there and talk about bills, or football or something, you want to try to stay in character.” It’s moments like these when reenacting approaches something closer to art.

 

--Cara Moses