We arrived last Friday evening at Fort Donelson (Ft D) and set up camp in the dark as usual. We joke that we have never learned how to set up tents with our eyes. Luckily, wood was cut and reasonably dry so after several failed attempts with matches we were able to get the fire going by sacrificing an old candle to the cause. With a fire blazing the cold high 20Fs night chill abated from the tentage area. Dawn broke on a very cold scene with a couple of inches of snow still on the ground form a week earlier. We’d heard coyotes howling and yipping all around us during the night and barred owls cackling and hollering in trees near by in the early morning.
We rekindled the fire form coals left over as other members were arriving, and warmed ourselves as we joshed back and forth and cooked thick slab bacon, eating it right out of the frying pan while trying to not blister our fingers or tongues. Washing this down with motor-oil coffee full of grounds and firing up a pipe made for a pleasant morning.
In the mid-morning, we formed up for inspection, and instructions from the Ranger, then started drilling to knock the rust off before the start of the season. We had 4 new members and had to go through a lot of basic drill but they caught on fast so after an hour we were able to put on our first demonstrations for the public.
Saturday was cold, and after a few short hours all the public had departed the Fort and we were again left alone in hallowed ground. It was not as cold that night, but still cold enough to require the great coats and fire. Pvt. Johnson put his pot on the fire and commenced to stewing up slices of sausages in Jambalaya mix and everyone had 2 full plates of it. Normally, such zippy foods are not wise in camp due to impending problems us old guys can experience with it. The younger guys devour anything with impunity, but we older guys tend to not have the cast iron stomachs anymore. But, Ft D now has new heated bathrooms near the picnic area and as nobody but us was in the Fort we ate with gusto! Soon after, we started taking 2-man “patrols” to the picnic area down the road. When one “patrol” returned the next went out and so on. Ah! The heat in the bathroom was almost too warm but one seldom comes across that sort of luxury at any re-enacting event!
Sunday morning broke like Saturday, but with snow flurries. We again ate bacon and smoked while sipping scalding hot motor-oil coffee from tin cups that can blister the lip if not handled with care. "Snookie" one of our camp followers had managed to be out of the Fort during the night and returned that morning with a sack full of sausage & bisquits she had procured from a farmerhouse owned by the MacDonalds we heard. These also went down our throats as fast as we could send them. At mid-morning when the last of the men were back in camp, the Capt. ordered us on a routine patrol of the Fort. We were formed up, inspected, then marched up the road to a trail head. We were then addressed by the Capt. who told us we were ordered to patrol the inner works trail looking for Confederate stragglers as the area was still a hostile area. We were then marched up the trail then broken off in 10 pace intervals. I was put on point first, and thus began a slow walk at the ready, arms port, eyes alert. Being a hunter, I put my quiet skills in gear and spent time observing many tracks in the snow and mud, and admiring occasional buck rubs. Behind me, every man was 10 paces apart following me all watching various things as well.
I came to the first obstacle, a short foot bridge and halted the line. First Sgt. Brunner came up to hold my place and I then carefully crossed the bridge, slipping on the way down the far side so that I landed on my knapsack and butt to the laugher of those behind me. Sgt. Brunner came over behind me and landed on his backside right beside me. It seemed the evacuated Rebels must have iced the bridge to slow us down! But to no avail to their obvious acts of sabotage, the rest of the company crossed, placing me at the rear of the column and a new Pvt. at the point. We continued, replacing men at each obstacle in the point until the next obstacle. The only sighting of importance was a common hoot owl being harassed by a jay that hooted and flew over the line.
Finally, I was back in point once more as we reached the edge of the lower water battery. Halted, we received instructions to clear the works. I carefully entered the works behind the big 10” Rodman gun, keeping my gun and eyes at the ready as I made my way around the emplacement. Once satisfied that gun and placement was secure, I aimed up the works and waved my file partner to leap-frog me to take the next emplacement. He did and waved me past him again. Together we secured the works while the company eased into the works behind us, keeping their eyes and guns at the ready watching up the hill, across the river, and down the edges of the woods. A bald eagle sailed overhead as we secured the last of the battery and its magazine. The Rebs have indeed departed.
At ease now to just sit and talk and enjoy something so very few people ever get to do, we watched down the river to the right bend as a huge dark form emerged slowly coming up the river. It was a barge, which for a moment, through the gloom watched from an open port under a 32 Pounder, looked like the USS Carrondelet chugging its way around the bend. I thought what it must have looked like on this very same date, 148 years earlier from that same gun position. The thick black smoke from the stacks of the gunboats rounding that same bend and the sounds of men all through the battery as they knew they were about to fire upon those ships. I watched as the barge approached to right about the ½ mile mark where the ships fired their opening salvos from forward ports. The sudden white puffs of smoke would have been seen followed a moment later by a deep thunderous boom that would have reverberated along the shores up and down the river. The howl of the huge iron shell was heard sailing over the battery and then a tremendous bang shook the men involuntarily into ducking and yelping as it burst over the fort.
These men of the battery then were in battle for the first time here, loading the huge guns and ratcheting them into place. Muscles strained to lift huge balls into the muzzles, as more straining was required to ram the balls into the breech. The sounds of iron wheels creeked as the pivotting carriages were turned to aim, and the clanks of iron projectiles in iron barrles was heard. Guns were primed as the ships fired again and again, and the men strained and heaved to push the big guns forward on the carriages. All cleared and the guns pointed toward the dark ships, a gunner shouted “FIRE!” and the huge guns roared to life, each spewing tremendous white clouds and showers of burning sparks out of the fort. The guns slid backwards on the carriages in a fraction of a second, stopping just short of the back of the carriage. Then that big 10” gun was loosed with the first full service charge the men had ever had opportunity to try in it. It leapt back on the carriage then fell off the back of it!
The moment of reflection was short lived of course, but it was one of those little “bubble moments” we all seek, and being there, under those guns, on the same date in the same sort of weather gave it to me.
The next event I will be at with my unit is the last of the big 145th anniversary events, the Battle of Bentonville, near Raleigh, NC. Bentonville was the last of the Civil War’s full-scale land battles. I don’t think it will be as large as the 145th Gettysburg, Shiloh, or Chickamuga, but it will be the 1st event of many units’ seasons so I expect a fair turn-out. I don’t know what unit we will be there, but if anyone happens to find themselves amongst the Union Infantry camps, ask around for the 9th KY Inf. Somebody eventually can point you to us. A couple of our tents have “9th KY” written on them so that may also help you locate us.
Incidentally, I have heard that Peter Jackson will be filming at many upcoming CW re-enactments most notably the upcoming 150th Shiloh event. Word is easing through the camps of a turn-out there of monumental proportions to dwarf all other past events anywhere. This is interesting news as it may mean a new CW movie in the works.
Not a Right-wing extremist -- THE Right-wing extremist! I like my guns towed and crew-served! http://www.9thkyus.com/ http://www.blockaderunner.com/ http://www.nps.gov/stri/