Sweaty details, plus: Lost Manhood
There’s going to be a series of posts on really basic drill in the next few weeks (because Spring Drill). Each will focus on the right way to do things, which is to say, the way they were supposed to be done 1861-65. There will be some discussion on why so much of it went wrong for us, which I honestly believe came about with a combination of dyslexia and out-of-context reading decades ago, combined with some muscle memory from the modern military veterans who form a small but significant portion of reenactors. And I’d like to touch from time to time on the differences between what we do as living historians and what “real” militaries do in their training.
Critics of sweating the details say it’s a form of extremism or fanaticism; sometimes you can pass a campfire and hear someone bemoaning the “drill Nazis” (or, in the case of the material-culture-done-exactly-right folks, “stitch Nazis”). The demurrals to this argument, at least the ones against accurate drill, are many, but boil down to these:
- It takes no more time, no more energy, and no more money to do the drill properly than it does to do it improperly.
- We are supposed to be depicting history, and doing it accurately adds to the depth and texture of our own experience while simultaneously lending verisimilitude when we inform the public with our actions.
- A huge part of the military experience, since forever, is the bonding that takes place. That comes from sharing hardships, danger and experiences. We are usually a little light on hardships and we face almost no real danger. That leaves experiences, and in my world experiences that are successful leave a better residue of camaraderie than those that are unsuccessful or even mediocre. Getting the drill and maneuvering done the way “they” did it is a visibly tremendous shared success.
Another often-heard argument against “doing it right” is our inability to get it ALL right. If we can’t field troops of the right age, what does it matter if we do the drill in a half-assed way? If we can’t trash the furniture and shutters on houses to build our fires, why sweat the drill? If our aging bodies can no longer endure the savaging of ten-mile marches or cold, hard ground bivouacs, what’s a little sloppiness doing “Right shoulder, SHIFT?”
- If we could get it all right, we would; some of it is out of our control, like property damage, our age span and its operational limitations, and above all the modern knowledge we bring to this endeavor to replicate history. But doesn’t that mean we should try even harder, not less hard, to make sure the things we can control are done properly?
- Philosophically, anything worth doing is worth doing right. Knowing what’s right and doing it wrong when you could do it right simply makes no sense.
Yet another argument: Not all units in the Civil War were good at drill. So some slop is acceptable.
- Varying degrees of skill at drill were a fact, sure. We’ve all heard about the regiment at Antietam that came into the fight so green they had to be put in line by sergeants from another regiment, who simply told them, when they were properly aligned, to stand there and fight. Which they did. And it would be good to reenact that sometime. But it seems to be the exception.
- Drill is tactics. Tactics is maneuver. Maneuver is essential to success. There’s a plaque at Pamplin Park outside Petersburg that details how a Yankee commander discovered an unmanned portal in the Confederate trench line and gave the “necessary orders” to change the alignment and formation of his advancing line to funnel the most men through that gap in the fastest time possible, and in a way that allowed them to expand the breach as they burst through. That doesn’t happen — under fire, as part of a general advance, done on the fly — without a great deal of expertise at drill. Go read it yourself if you want, a day with a visit to Pamplin Park is better than a day without such a visit, anyway.
- A great many soldiers took pride in their drill skills. I present you with the expressively disdainful words of Alfred Bellard, who moved from the 5th New Jersey infantry to the Veteran Reserve Corps after taking a knee wound at
Chancellorsville. These come during April 1864, when he talks about the need for drill due to the commingling of service branches in the VRC: “As there was so many men in the ranks, who had never handled a musket (being for the most part from the cavalry and artillery branch of the service) the evening dress parade was done away with and a half-hour’s drill took place instead. It was amusing to anyone who knew how, to see the way in which the new men broke into fours, or made an oblique movement. Sometimes they would crush up and so break the line, or hang back and so leave a gap in the ranks. Altogether it was a nuisance for men who were up in their drill to be placed in the ranks with them.”
Meanwhile: I’m starting a new feature each week, a period clipping from a newspaper. These will be offered without much comment, as a kind of window into life, news, advertising and humor from our era. Here’s the first, from The Jeffersonian of Stroudsburg, Pa., January, 1862. This is umm both advertising, life and humor, I guess, on the terrible affliction of self abuse….