• Notes From The Frontier

A (Reenactor) Soldier’s Tale


Yesterday, I got a pleasant surprise. I had been working on a post for today, “The Mysterious Angel Glow of Shiloh,” when I received a text from a loyal Notes from the Frontier fan, John Graff. John had commented on a recent post, “Reenactors: The Passion of Re-Living History.” He is a veteran reenactor and he liked the post. I had asked reenactors to share their stories. John said he would and, boy, did he! Yesterday, I received this story from John and was so impressed, I decided to postpone my original post and feature this one instead. I do not normally share NFTF followers’ stories, but this is a first-hand account of a veteran reenactor that takes us right there on the battlefield. I think you’ll really enjoy his “soldier’s tale.”

Seeing The Elephant

By John Graff

Every good Civil War Reenactor true to his hobby has the likeminded goal of experiencing that “somewhere in time” moment, that we have somehow time-jumped into the past and have reached the pinnacle of living history.

In the hobby we call it “Seeing the Elephant.”  We take the very phrase from our own American Civil War ancestors as they experienced the baptism of fire for the very first time. Gaining such experience at a great cost, they best summed it up as something you always wanted to see but, afterwards, never wanted to see again!

Gathering ten thousand history buffs together on a common field, all highly invested in correct period uniforms, weapons and other necessary accouterments, is the synergy that makes the magic happen.  Our form of virtual reality.


Here's mine:


In the closing days of 1989, the re-enacting community would come together in central Tennessee to commemorate and re-enact The Battle of Franklin on its 125th Anniversary.

I came north with my Pards (re-enacting comrades) as part of the 7thGeorgia/ 26th Wisconsin, a Unit comprised of men from every walk of life and vocation—from salesmen to a nuclear-powered attack submarine skipper. All very good people with a common interest in Civil war history and getting out and away for a weekend camping and socializing. I call it “Boy Scouts with Guns.’

As we assembled and registered, the organizers’ census pointed to more grey than blue at the event. The solution has always been to “galvanize,” which basically requires you put on the blue suit.

Now some hardcore “Unreconstructed Rebels” have sworn to never don the blue. But, as for myself, my Great, Great, Grandfather served with the 16th Ohio and died in the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi.

Being that, I dressed accordingly. Now, as luck would have it, I was assigned to a Buckeye unit who were ordered to man the forward rifle pits as skirmishers. That means we would be first to fight and or die.


It was a bluebird-sky morning where you could see your breath and feel the bite of cold, thankful that you were wearing your Kersey Blue Union great coat and you had food in your belly, along with your “possibles” and extra rations in your haversack. Time for a little pipe full of “tobaccee.” Then wait for the big show.

So there I was in my dirt hole, keenly listening as a forward observer should for the approach of any adversary.

I didn’t have to wait long. Off in the distance was the muffled sound of fife and drum. Their cadence certainly marshalled an army on the move.

To our front stood a forest of hickory and scrub oak, thick enough to conceal anything in a field of tall grass beyond.

We could see no enemy yet but can now hear their company commanders yelling to First Sergeants. In turn, they passed orders on to Corporals who in parroted their commands.

They were now pressing towards us.

All grew silent but for the sound of some birds’ rustling feathers as they took flight and the scurrying of rabbits flushed from their hidden locations ahead of some great danger.

You now hear branches breaking and cups hitting against canteens and the occasional curses as unlucky privates were caught in briars.

Then they were there.

I now witnessed a long continuous line of Butternut and Grey clad soldiers stepping out from the cover of woods and re-forming into battalions. Their fixed bayonets caught the morning sun and gleamed for a moment like so many stars. As a watched this Southern army, I could see they wore what they could find or were issued along with homespun clothing mixed in. A true rabble but a dangerous one.

Now came barking orders for the advance, along with sharp cries of love for state and country. A cheer arose as they moved on us.

The command was shouted: “double-quick men!” and then “right shoulder shift!” as the charging juggernaut invoked spine-tingling Rebel yells as they closed in on us.  

Now was the time for action. We raised our rifled muskets and fired into them. Three or four fell from their ranks and lay dead on the ground.

Reloading as fast as we could we fired into them once more. We knew that it was time to skedaddle, as their commander gave the order to halt and fire by battalion. As they did a sheet of flame and fire rolled at us, along with a long cloud of smoke. Down went many of my morning companions, screaming in agony as I dashed for safety. It seemed liked the Rebs were on my heels as I made it to the four-deep main union battle line. They parted and I passed to the rear to catch my breath.

A battery of 12-pound Napoleons suddenly exploded on the Rebel onslaught, opening gaps into their ranks. Finally, a fusillade of Springfield rifles from the boys in blue further decimated the Jonnies’ numbers.

We all were engulfed in battle and the fog of war, yelling and cheering as the battle lines ebbed and flowed.

I shall never forget that day for I had “Seen the Elephant.”            

LOOK FOR TOMORROW’S POST: “The Mysterious Angel Glow at Shiloh.”

For related Civil War posts, go to NotesfromtheFrontier.com

-Reenactors: The Passion of Re-Living History

-Surgery during the Civil War

-The Gettysburg Address

-Sally, The Famous Civil War Mascot

-Civil War Animal Mascots

-Arlington Cemetery

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