In the heat of battle: Re-enactors bring Monocacy battle realities to life

Civil War re-enactors, portraying Confederate skirmishers, demonstrate infantry combat tactics Saturday afternoon at Gambrill Mill on the Monocacy National Battlefield. Re-enactors braved Saturday\'s heat for the historical event. (Adam Fried/Frederick News-Post)

Wood smoke, sauteed onions and body odor could combine almost anywhere.

Add artillery smoke and you have a battlefield.

The cannon banged, and then silence fell for a moment Saturday while smoke poured out and hung in the steamy air at Gambrill Mill.

No soldiers fell this time.

Thousands fell July 9, 1864, during the Battle of Monocacy that involved the Gambrill Mill land.

The Civil War re-enactors who camped at Gambrill Mill as part of the 148th commemoration of the Battle of Monocacy demonstrated how Union and Confederate troops could have killed and been killed in the war. Shrapnel made of nails, chain or wire was used to injure any number of troops in addition to the direct target.

Artillerymen showed that firing a cannon is more than shoving a round into the barrel and lighting a fuse: It takes a half-dozen specialists, a sequence of actions and a few minutes.

Between explosions, re-enactors displayed their bedrolls, playing cards, sewing kits, cooking utensils, guns and knives. Park staff told visitors that 148 years ago, the outcome of the war was uncertain and that Union Gen. Lew Wallace saved Washington at the Battle of Monocacy.

Wallace held off Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early.

If Wallace had not delayed Early’s march to Washington, history might include a story about how Confederate troops destroyed Washington, the park historian said. She pointed to Md. 355 and said it was the main road to the nation’s capital during the war.

Christine and Mathew Benjamin explored the encampment, learning how the soldiers lived.

They marveled at the cans and jars of products soldiers might have purchased at a sutler’s tent.

Rob Griesbach played two roles, as a member of the 2nd Maryland Infantry and a sutler, a civilian grocer who followed the troops. At a sutler’s tent like Griesbach’s replica, soldiers could have bought an apple for 5 cents or a can of milk for $2.

Felice Schwetje asked her father, Erik, for a nickel to buy an apple before learning no real apples were for sale. Griesbach enjoyed surprising visitors like Felice and her brother, also named Erik, by pointing out goods that would have been for sale 148 years ago and are still today: Folger’s and Eight O’Clock coffee, Van Camp’s beans, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, Gulden’s mustard.

Even Ghirardelli chocolate and Excedrin pain reliever.

That Excedrin must have been useful, Christine Benjamin said.

Under the shade of a tree far from any air conditioning, Daniel Warrenfeltz in Company B of the 14th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry cooked his breakfast over an open fire.

Sweet yellow peppers, red onions, fatty bacon and white potatoes sizzled in an iron skillet. An ear of corn roasted inside its green husk. The cooking fire’s wood smoke blended with the aroma of cooked onions and artillery smoke.

The temperature was in the 90s, and Warrenfeltz said the soldiers still would have eaten hot food, worn their complete wool uniforms and fought just the same.

“They didn’t grow up with AC,” said 14th Tennessee 1st Cpl. Kevin Zepp.

Zepp and other 14th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry re-enactors — none of them from Tennessee — said they spend thousands of hours every year reliving, learning and sharing the history as both hobby and civic duty: to teach and enjoy the history that goes with the war.

“There’s as many reasons for re-enactors as there are re-enactors,” 14th Tennessee infantryman Russ Seibert said.

The Monocacy encampment was originally scheduled to have a second day today, but park officials canceled it out of concern for the heat.

The battlefield’s visitor center will have a second day of special exhibits, and local authors will sign their books about the battle’s central figures.

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