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Reenacting the Civil War at Detroit’s historic Fort Wayne

Posted on Friday, October 20, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Historic Fort Wayne located in downtown Detroit hosts numerous historical events every spring, summer, and fall, including the great Civil War Days, this year taking place in the heat of a Michigan June.

I think reenacting at the fort is a sort of pride for us who participate in the hobby, for it’s our own way to help support the old structures; visitors pay a very nominal fee to see the 1860s come to life by way of living historians in buildings that housed original Civil War soldiers over 150 years ago. And I love that we do reenact on land that our ancestors were mustered in on.

I spent time taking pictures with my “stealth camera” at the event in the hope that they would tell a story of life – military and civilian – during the Civil War.

In addition to my photographs, I am using quotes from those who were there during this time of great division in our country to help accentuate the images.

Are you ready to go back?

Let’s begin this journey by way of an excellent source book called “Hardtack and Coffee — The Unwritten Story of Army Life” written by John D. Billings and published not too long after the Civil War had ended. Billings served with the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War in both Sickles’ Third and Hancock’s Second Corps, and was also Department Commander of the Massachusetts Grand Army of the Republic.

One of the things Billings mentions is General Orders No. 4, from the very beginning of the War, where “many men had made valiant and well-disciplined peace soldiers, who, now that one of the real needs of a well-organized militia was upon us, were not at all thirsty for further military glory. But pride stood in the way of their frankness. They were ashamed in this hour of their country’s peril to withdraw from the militia, for they feared to face public opinion.

The moment a man’s declination for further service was made known, unless his reasons were of the very best, straight-way he was hooted at for his cowardice, and for a time his existence was made quite unpleasant in his own immediate neighborhood.”
Meeting President Lincoln was an important event for Union soldiers.

Abraham Lincoln had a strong and almost mystical devotion to ordinary Americans. In his July 4, 1861 special message to Congress, Lincoln described the loyalty of “common soldiers… and common sailors” who “have successfully resisted the traitorous efforts of those, whose commands, but an honor before, they obeyed as absolute law. This is the patriotic instinct of the plain people. They understand without an argument, that destroying the government, which was made by Washington, means no good to them.”

“Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bear his country’s cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause – honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle,” said President Abraham Lincoln.

It is doubtful if any war president in American history ever elicited as pervasive and as enthusiastic admiration among the fighting forces as did the railsplitter from Illinois.

The warmth with which he was regarded is suggested by the nick-names applied to him. Relatively few soldiers spoke of him as ‘President Lincoln,’ Mr. Lincoln,’ or ‘the President’…but thousands referred to him as ‘Old Abe,’ ‘Father Abraham,’ or ‘Honest Abe’…far and away the most widely used nickname for the president was the intimate and affectionate ‘Old Abe.’ This term appears in letters and diaries several times as frequently as any other.

Next up is a bit of history too many are not aware of:

The Allegheny Arsenal, established in 1814, was an important supply and manufacturing center for the Union Army during the Civil War, and the site of the single largest civilian disaster during the war.

On Wednesday, September 17, 1862, around 2 pm, the arsenal exploded. The explosion shattered windows in the surrounding community and was heard in Pittsburgh, over two miles away. At the sound of the first explosion, Col. John Symington, Commander of the Arsenal, rushed from his quarters and made his way up the hillside to the lab. As he approached, he heard the sound of a second explosion, followed by a third.

The most commonly held view of the cause of the explosion was that the metal shoe of a horse had struck a spark which touched off loose powder in the roadway near the lab, which then traveled up onto the porch where it set off several barrels of gunpowder.

It was speculated that it had been caused “by the leaking out of powder when one of the barrels was being placed on the platform.” In fact the problem of leaking barrels seemed to be the one point of agreement among all the witnesses. Alexander McBride, the Superintendent of the Lab, had repeatedly complained that the powder shipped by Dupont and Company was delivered in defective barrels with loose covers.

The explosion at the Arsenal was overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam, which occurred on the same day near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland.

I am very impressed with these two 21st Michigan members for the research and presentation they do to teach about the Allegheny Arsenal incident, something that I was not aware of until I heard them speak to visitors.

Encouraging young men to go off and fight was commonplace:

“Just take your gun and go,

for Ruth can drive the oxen, John,

and I can use the hoe.”

He’s a good ol’ Reb, “Cousin” Charlie:

“Dear Cousin,

Soldiering is quite different to what it was when I was with the army before. It will take me a long time to get use to many things that I have to do. But one thing I am blest to inform you of & that is we have preaching twice every Sunday when the weather will permit. We also have prayer meeting every night in our camp.

Write to me upon reception (and) give my love to all the family, servants included & believe me as ever your affectionate cousin.”

And there you are… our time spent in the turmoil of the early 1860s in both the north and the south — with the military and the citizens. It may not be the largest of events, but that’s part of its charm (though I do hope to see it grow a bit).

Many thanks must go to Tom Berlucchi and the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, for they are the good folks who keep this gem up and running.

In fact, coming up soon in Passion for the Past will be another adventure at Fort Wayne; only I’ll be going back a bit further in time — to the good old colony days.

-By Ken Giorlando