By SANDY KOCH
Special to The Messenger
As a wave of spectators scurried down the road on Saturday to Columbus-Belmont Park, just across the Tennessee border in Kentucky, ground-shaking explosions pounded through the woods. The first volleys of the two afternoon re-enactment of the Battle of Belmont had started, commemorating one of the early battles of the Civil War, 150 years ago. The modern day history buffs, gripping cameras, water bottles and little hands, hastened their pace, not wanting to miss any of the action.
The early autumn sun shone on the green lawn between the earthen trenches as over 225 Union and Confederate re-enactors trotted through the trees into their positions, shoulder to shoulder. More casual and colorful attires dotted the “high ground” on top of the trenches and reconstructed redoubt, as spectators of all ages sat behind the yellow police cordon that kept them off the battlefield. A haze of smoke from the black powder fired from muskets and cannon filtered through the air, making it all seem real.
A narrator in period breeches guided the onlookers through the action on the field below. “The Confederate army is in retreat … they cannot stand the onslaught … the Federal Army has the momentum … they begin to loot the camp…”
“US Grant” strolled through the crowd, engaging the spectators with comments. “What are you doing here general?” “Harassing the South, as usual,” he retorted. But good naturedly he paused to pose with a red-shirted confederate re-enactor and his young daughter.
As the small group of Federals led by the then green US Grant celebrated their victory, Gen. Leonidas Polk saw the action from his fort across the river and sent in Confederate reinforcements.
A playful football cheer for the home team swelled through the crowd as more Confederate soldiers trotted out onto the field. “What could have been an easy victory for the Federals … but they let their guard down … US Grant tries to maintain order but sees that he could not,” the narrator said.
Though the final chapter was not re-enacted, the narrator told the crowd that the Federals, including Grant on horseback, headed for the boats on the Mississippi River below, yielding Belmont to the Confederates.
But like knowing the end of the movie before you watch it, the crowd knew the Federals would be back, eventually to occupy the forts at this strategic point on the Mississippi River.
The narrator spotted a Union deserter below who had just taken off the “blue” to join the winning side. “Yeah, come on over,” yelled a woman from the crowd.
Nurses in hoop skirts and bonnets swept onto the field to administer to the downed soldiers.
A Union soldier with bagpipes strolled up and down the field playing taps. “Oftentimes, a long mournful sound could be heard…”
At this point, the spell was broken as the crowd was invited to cross over the yellow line onto the field and visit with the re-enactors who represented units from Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and even Wisconsin.
“Matthew Brady” started to fold up his antique wooden frame camera with digital lens poking through the opening. Photographer Bobby Bell of Troy said that sometimes he gets “goose bumps” when he realizes that “that is what Matthew Brady saw in front of him.”
Kings Battery of Missouri was still hanging out in front of the Parrott Rifle10 pounder explaining to the curious how the cannon would in real life be loaded and fired. That day only black powder had been inserted for effect. One of the artillerymen in the characteristic red shirt, said it took him three years to build the carriage and supports for the iron barrel that he ordered from a company that also makes sewage pipes. The crew comes from Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. They positioned their cannon on the hill with a truck but some artillerymen said that ATVs were also useful.
One hundred fifty years ago, the battle took place across the river in Belmont, Mo., not the Columbus side in Kentucky where the park stands today. Due to the changes in the river and topography, both of the old towns are mostly underwater now. But a popular and scenic park sits atop the river bluff on the Columbus side today offering visitors glimpses of what the trench works were like. The huge iron chain and anchor that stretched across the Mississippi river to slow down or stop Union boats was excavated in the 1920s and now stretches out between picnic pavilions in the park. Exhibits inside a farmhouse/museum on top of the bluff tell the story of the battle and the forts that stood there.
On this particular weekend, scattered through the scenic park overlooking the Mississippi River, were white tents where the re-enactors had been camping out, some since the previous Thursday. Folding chairs sat out in front of the tents where a stack of wood waited to be lit for the evening campfire.
The Orphan Company from the 3rd Kentucky was relaxing and cooling off after the day’s exertions in the hot sun, slipping out of their heavy wool uniform coats. That day they were Confederates, but most of the re-enactors said they have uniforms from both sides and adapt to whatever the personnel requirements are for the battle taking place. Even their rank can shift. “I was a colonel last year and this year I’m a private,” laughed Bob Ward of Princeton, Ky.
A younger member of the Kentucky troop said that a full uniform and accessories can be a $3,000 investment these days as prices have gone up.
The military coordinator for this event, Gene Bolen of Columbus, sported a wide-brimmed straw hat and fine Confederate officer coat as well as the obligatory white beard. He said it takes eight to nine months of preparation to get ready for the Belmont re-enactment. Once the scenario for the battle had been worked out, he called the officers together prior to the battle, walked them through the field, and told them where he wanted them to stand and go. Many of these officers have been coming to Columbus for years.
Park director Cindy Lynch said a committee of 12 had been working together for many years as the event is in its 21st year. She said her 15 park employees also do a great job getting the park ready. “It’s one of the last re-enactments of the year and it’s like a reunion for a lot of them. Each year it gets a little bigger.”
The soldiers played their parts two afternoons, Saturday and Sunday.
A doctor’s tent sat high on the hill next to the museum where Major Medical Surgeon Grady Garton showed visitors authentic amputation knives and other Civil War era equipment he has assembled over the years. He often makes presentations to schools and will soon be going to assisted living centers, where he will share his extensive research on medical practices and devastating diseases of the day. Garton knows the stories of many greats, the grandfathers and other ancestors that came from “every state in the Confederacy.”
Many of the re-enactors told visitors stories of ancestors but more than one said it was their children’s history class or project that first piqued their interest in Civil War history.
Vendors of re-enactment wares had also set up shop in white tents, hawking everything from brass buttons to hoop skirts. At “Lady Adeline’s” tent, Kathy Williams of Union City showed off some of the ball gowns and other lady’s wares she had made. She said she got the re-enactment bug after visiting one at Parker’s Crossroads and being “moved to tears.” Starting from scratch, after never sewing a stitch on a sewing machine, she fashioned a ball gown for herself and soon began making them for others from her home.
The “Seven Sisters” from the Rustin family have also gone into the dress-making business. Real sisters from as far away as Michigan, they had all assembled in full gear and were all together for the first time in five years at Columbus. They had also made dresses for grandchildren and in all had 16 family members decked out for the event. Lynette Gray, one of the sisters, hails from Troy.
Indeed there were many hoop-skirted females wandering around the park. In the evening, they assembled for a pageant that judged best “belle” and gentleman’s costume.
And after the pageant, the 52nd Regimental String Band, got the music started for a costumed ball outside among the lanterns in front of Pavilion B. Teenagers and their parents, as well as younger costumed folk, assembled as the band leader instructed them on how to line up for the grand march, led by Gen. Leonidas Polk and Gen. US Grant and their wives. The gentlemen were reminded they were to have white gloves so as not to soil the ladies’ gowns. No spurs or guns were allowed on the straw dance floor.
With much bowing, curtseying and sashaying, the ladies and gentlemen stepped through a number of Union and Confederate favorites including a Virginia Reel to the strains of “Turkey in the Straw.” The spectators sat and admired the costumed procession from picnic tables on either side but some could not resist doing their own do-si-dos amid the orange coolers.
As the evening wore on, cars, not carriages, drove off from the parking lot and costumed teenage couples wandered into the shadows as they would in any age. The music drifted through the trees and into the cemetery up on the hill. On the dark roads back home, images of white beards and puffs of gun smoke flashed across the memory and then disappeared.
Editor’s note: Sandy Koch is a part-time lecturer in international studies at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Before that she was a journalist and editor for about 20 years, writing mostly about international topics.
Published in The Messenger 10.13.11