Taking the Hit
Becoming Wounded on the Re-enactment Battlefield
Captain Tom Corll, Adjutant, 9th Texas Infantry

Many re-enactors look forward to spending a weekend re-enacting, an opportunity to relive a small time in history with those who share common interests.  Participating in a battle scenario is exciting, and provides a sense of realism allowing spectators an “authentic” view of the battle.  However, many re-enactors are hesitant to portray wounded soldiers on the battle line.  The intent of this paper is to present brief information on the stated subject allowing re-enactors a better understanding of this important area.

In the 1860s Napoleon Tactics were considered the “honorable” way of engaging an enemy.  From our 21st Century perspective, the idea of standing face-to-face with an enemy seems ludicrous.  However, most re-enactors realize that Napoleon Tactics were based on smoothbore rifles that had limited range and capabilities, thus the close ranks with the enemy.  The veteran soldier soon realized that even under such closeness of rank, his chances of survival in a battle were quite good.  On the average, a soldier stood a 20 % chance of becoming a “loss”.  A loss identified a soldier as being killed, wounded or missing.  While some units experienced major losses in a given battle, the normal loss rate meant that the soldier had an 80 % chance of leaving the battlefield unharmed.  Overall figures validate this information.  Of the 21 major battles between the years of July 1861 through March 1865, the Union forces averaged an 18 % loss of men per battle while Confederate forces averaged a 20 % loss of men per battle.1   Using these figures as a basis, each unit participating in a re-enactment could pre-determine that approximately 20 % of those present would become “losses” during the battle scenario. 

A brief comparison of today’s ballistics versus those of the 19th Century is needed.  When a rifle is fired today the bullet moves at a high speed (referred to as velocity).  We are accustomed to watching numerous movies and television programs where people are “shot” and forced backwards by the impact of the bullet hitting the body.  In the nineteenth century bullets moved at a slower velocity.  The slower velocity is an important point for the re-enactor who is going to become a casualty.  This slower velocity resulted in various reactions from soldiers who were actually wounded on the battlefield.

An important point to remember is that one of the soldier’s greatest fears was to actually become a casualty.  After experiencing numerous battles, and seeing the hundreds of men who were wounded or killed, a soldier knew that he was just as vulnerable as his peers.  The thought of lying helplessly on the battlefield was extremely frightening.  Many soldiers experienced nightmares in which they were either shot or undergoing some type of traumatic post-battle procedure.2   Unfortunately, for some soldiers, their nightmares became reality.

What were the initial reactions of soldiers once they were wounded on the battlefield?  In his book, “The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat,” author Earl J. Hess provides insight on combat and casualty experiences.  Many soldiers reported feeling no pain at all, only an awareness that they were hit.  This would be followed by feelings of numbness, then either weakness or pain.  A.B. Isham, a veteran of the 7th Michigan Cavalry explained a feeling of shock, followed by a tingling sensation and a sense of numbness.  Another soldier, shot in the shoulder experienced only numbness, then trouble breathing followed by a dull aching feeling in his shoulder.3   Other soldiers did experience some sense of pain such as Colonel Adoniram Warner of the 39th Pennsylvania.  Colonel Warner was shot in the hip at Antietam.  He explained the feeling of receiving a tremendous thump from a blunt object without any pain around the wound.  After the initial shock of being hit diminished, he felt as if he were not badly wounded (although he was?).4   Soldiers wrote that during the course of a battle it was common to just hear an “Ugh!”, followed by the sound of a soldier falling to the ground.

So how should a soldier react on the battle line when they are ready to become a “loss”?   What action should you take?  The answer will depend on where your unit is in the scenario.

If the battle line is moving forward, you may want to fall forward, letting your rifle fall to your side.  Falling straight forward will allow others to easily pass over you with out tripping, falling or stepping on your person.  You may wish to just stop where you are, permitting the battle line to proceed without you, simulating a feeling of shock and dismay.  Some soldiers would have called to their peers or family members, telling them they were shot and giving words of encouragement for them to proceed.  Numerous scenarios could be easily relived. 

If the battle line is stationary, you may drop your rifle, grab your arm or leg and slowly lower yourself into a sitting or lying position.  Some soldiers were wounded in the upper extremities and merely stepped to the back of the company.  Once there they gave moral support to their comrades who were still firing.  Others left the battle line and walked to the aid station.  Various stories are told of these incidents.  In Stephen Crane’s story, “Red Badge of Courage,” the officers and NCOs would stop soldiers heading to the rear and demand of them, “Show me your blood.”  Those who showed their “red badge of courage” were permitted to continue to the rear.  Those who could not show blood were forced to return to the front.  Other soldiers would be confused and disoriented and seek guidance from their superiors.  Numerous stories are told of soldiers who had arms shot off in battle.  According to soldier letters, some of these lads would reach down, pick their arms up and say farewell to their peers, assuring them they would return to assist them later in the battle.  A scene such as this was recently depicted in the movie “God and Generals”.  A soldier at Fredericksburg lost an arm while charging up Marye’s Heights.  He quickly reported to his commanding officer and requested permission to return to the rear.  With permission granted, the soldier probably only walked a short distance to the rear before becoming overly weak from a loss of blood. 

Some re-enactors like to throw their arms in the air, twirl their bodies around and make dramatic falls onto the ground.  While this may be a form of dramatics that some individuals enjoy, such actions should be the exception versus the norm.

Units in the War Between the States were unique in that they were formed from geographic areas.  Thus family members stood side-by-side in the battle line.  There were instances where soldiers were wounded and their peers stopped to help them.  As these incidents occurred, it was the responsibility of the corporals to make these men return to the battle line.  In other instances, soldiers had high regards for their commanders.  It was not uncommon, when the commander was wounded, for a group of soldiers to rally and carry their commander to the rear where he could receive immediate medical attention.  Scenarios such as these could be internally coordinated within the unit for an added touch of realism.

A brief note reference the effects of artillery toward the on-coming battle line.  Artillery blasts had a high velocity and soldiers could be pushed back distances of 30 feet or more. For most re-enactors who respond to artillery fire, the norm is for a group of soldiers to fall to the ground where they stand.  While this is impressive for the spectators, it would be interesting from a re-enactor’s perspective to see a small group actually fall backward, simulating the impact of the blast.

Providing a realistic scenario should be the intent of all re-enactors.  As teachers and re-creators of history our goal should be the achievement of a re-enactment that simulates the battlefield.  Properly demonstrating the losses on a battlefield will provide the spectator a brief glimpse of history and allow them to see the tragedy and high cost of this conflict.  This truly was a time when sacrifices were made and true heroes gave their lives and sometimes their fortunes for those ideals in which they truly believed.  See you on the battlefield.

Notes.

1   Griffith, Paddy.  Battle in the Civil War: Generalship and Tactics in America 1861-65.  Page 46.  Field Books, 1986.

2  Hess, Earl J.  The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat.  Page 29, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 1997.

3  Ibid.  Page 30.

4  Ibid.  Page 30. 

 
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