Many a school child knows the First Battle of Bull Run was the initial major land conflict of the Civil War, fought July 21, 1861—but many, many more remember it for another reason: picnickers. Washington, D.C. socialites trailed the Union army to Manassas, Va. bearing replete picnic baskets, planning to dine and watch the Union rout the hapless Confederates.
Hard to say how many deviled eggs and drumsticks were consumed before the Union army fled from Stonewall Jackson’s Virginia Regiment, reminding us all for the next 147 years that Civil War battles are not suitable for dinner theater.
Or are they? A couple hundred spectators paid $100 each to watch some locals reenact the Battle of Fort Sanders last Friday evening, with heavy hors d’oeuvres a la Regas Restaurant and festive adult beverages part of the package.
And at first, fun and frolic are the message at this benefit for the Helen Ross McNabb Center and the Frank H. McClung Museum. Mid-size cars and a charter bus that had set off from Knoxville Center mall pull off Washington Pike into a grassy lot at the heel of House Mountain, 20 miles or so from the real site of the battle. They disembark peppy, agile passengers, who look like so many birdwatchers armed with binoculars and dressed in fall cardigans, khakis, a couple in blazers, most with sensible shoes.
Talk is upbeat, glasses quickly refilled with white wine, beer; meatballs and cheese cubes speared and swallowed. All adults, the history buffs look studious, the socialites scan the crowd looking for friends and acquaintances. If these grown-ups know that the audience for the morning reenactment on these sun-dappled hills included around 50 middle schoolers from West Valley who got mysteriously nauseous and had to be bused back out, no one seems to dwell on it.
Instead, they ooh and coo as regal, civil, draft horses pull up fancy white carriages to transport people to the reenactment site: acres of grassy knolls, and, off to the right, the long, low earthwork fort of the Union army, reproduced accurately three years ago by a production crew for the documentary Its Memory Alone Remains, which supports the permanent Battle of Fort Sanders exhibit at the McClung. (“From the bottom of the ditch to the top of the parapet is 20 feet. Climbing with weapon in hand is difficult. It will test you,” reads a website bid for extra volunteers to join the reenactors in playing Confederate soldiers.)
All troop cheerfully to narrow metal bleachers and slide in, chattering about football and fall gardening while before them five blue-uniformed soldiers kneel 10 yards apart, facing Confederates, some lounging, two hills away. Most of the audience knows something of the battle being relived—how on Nov. 29, 1863, Union forces occupied Fort Sanders in Knoxville, and Confederate Lt. Gen. Longstreet amassed an army to ascend the fort’s steep hill, not realizing there was a wide, deep ditch in front of Maj. Gen. Burnside’s parapet. The Confederates lost 780 men in the clash; the Union sacrificed 100 soldiers and secured control of Knoxville until the end of the war.
And now it’s all going to happen again. “The siege was 12-17 days, something like that—we’ll sort of compress it,” says the announcer, and all laugh.
When the action starts, the audience speaks almost as one—the reverberation of sound makes each voice heard to all, and no voice distinguishable; you can tell only what gender the speaker is:
“It sure is peaceful out here.”
“They don’t even have uniforms, they look like a motley crew.”
“It doesn’t take long to kill five people.”
“Oh, they’ve got reserves in the background.”
“Think of the dry-cleaning bills on those suits.”
The smoke from one cannon forms a 20-yard diameter smoke ring that perfectly frames the crescent moon ascending in the dusk. The Confederates before it march close, in a front-facing huddle. This is the only time you can hear soldiers speak; in accents authentically East Tennessean. “Let’s go boys!”
“Don’t git too far ahead.”
More cannons, more sharpshooters, more fallen bodies. Then the Confederates are mounting the hill.
“I knew the Union wins ... this battle!”
“They get massacred in that hole, with short-fuse grenades. I know, I saw the movie.”
“They get tricked into the ditch.”
An older woman, who looks both refined and scholastic, borrows her husband’s binoculars. “Oh, I can see so much better. There goes one. Oh dear, it’s so sad.”
A lone trumpet sounds out “Taps,” every note. Just 25 minutes or so of battle later, all on the field are ragged tired, or dead. Those in the bleachers are silent, a few teary. The last note fades. The Blues set up a cry, “Huzzah!”
“Can we boo now?” comes a voice from the audience.
The mood broken, the spectators file away, off to a brilliant white tent and tables with white tablecloths. A bass fiddle is playing. The buffet line snakes back to the entrance; the partiers are piling plates with meatballs, fruit, and chicken tenders.