Lieutenant’s Lore

By Jeff Douthit

Chapter 1: Bentonville

     This year’s 135th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Bentonville, NC is returning to the original battleground for the first time in ten years.  There were a couple of events held after the 125th at some thicket they called a boy scout camp somewhere east of Greenville, but they were pretty poor.  The original site is a lot like Saylor’s Creek in that it hasn’t changed much in character since 1865. We had a large group from the 47th attend the event 10 years ago.  Since this was one of the big events of the year, the Confederate camp had been moved out of the woods and into a crop field.  The soil in this area is very sandy, which we would come to regret later. I was supposed to bring the company table but had left the boards at home.  I was sharing a tent with Wayne Thompson and all he had for stakes were railroad spikes.  So, I figured we could use the table legs on the tent corner to hold the tent down.  Wayne pushed them in the sand up to the loops for the crossbar.
     Friday night we were all in good spirits, bottled and canned.  Saturday morning started early with drill, then we would start on an all day tactical.  We usually had the 18th fall in with us in those days. The 47th had veteran leaders in Captain Frank Weber and First Sergeant Ken Haack.  However, we were breaking in two new junior NCOs, Sgt. Johnny Broaddus and Corporal Danny Shoemake.  Soon after we left camp, marching toward the drill field about half a mile away, Ken started having his usual intestinal troubles.  Ahead of us we spotted a row of Spyveys along the trail.  Ken told Frank that he was going to have to fall out awhile, but Frank said he would have to wait till after morning parade.  Just as we came to the first spyvey, Col. Hillsman ordered the battalion to halt. He barely had the words out before Ken raced out of line, dropping gear along the way.  And, just as he got the door locked, Hillsman ordered forward march again.  Ken caught up later as we went through drill.  I noticed that Dan’s face was about a shade lighter gray than his jacket was.  He wasn’t saying a word and kept staring straight ahead.  We drilled to Chuck’s content, then he allowed the men to rest a few minutes before the march started.  Well, Dan staggered off a few yards, fell to his hands and knees, and began heaving his guts out.  Someone in the ranks commented that when Dan studied a battlefield he really liked to get an up close view of it.  To this day he is still kidded about touring Bentonville from six inches above the ground.  So if you see the Captain bent over on the field, he is just trying to his bearings.
     We marched out cross-country, skirmishing some along the way.  Fought a good little battle, redoing the Confederate attack on a part of Sherman’s column.  After lunch, we headed back toward camp for the second phase.  For some reason, our column was halted along a farm lane in the middle of some plowed down fields that I would say were about the size of the Cedar Creek battlefields. All the sudden, the wind gusted up and created a giant sandstorm.  So, while the Generals got themselves unscrewed, we stood there, not able to see more than six feet away, joking about how we should be reenacting Lawrence of Arabia or the Afrika Corps.  Ken started complaining (which happens about every ten minutes) about his wool rash.  A guy named Brad Benson said, “ I got the thing for you.” and pulled a toothpaste tube sized tube of diaper rash ointment.  “Yeah, this stuff is great. I use it all the time. Here, try some.”
     We finally started moving again, following a gas line right of way through the woods.  The right of way was a cleared path, about 50 feet wide and 3/4ths a mile long, leading from the farmland back to the battlefield.  About one hundred yards in, the line dipped into a hollow where a small stream crossing had created a mud bog. It was here, of course, that the Yankees ambushed us.  Why we hadn’t go downstream about fifty yards to the hard crossing we used on the way out, I don’t know.
     The Confederate column broke up into single file groups of men trying to find a path around the swamp.  Colonel Rock tried to lead his battalion straight through.  Rock wasn’t his real name.  I can’t even remember it.  He got his nickname at another reenactment when Haack yelled to couple of guys to take cover with him behind this large gray rock on the field.  When they started sniping at yanks over the rock, it moved.  Rock weighed at least 400 pounds, and I swear his frock coat could have been used as a Sibley tent. I have a video taken of the Battle of Atlanta reenactment in which he rumbles up to the top of the Yankee earthworks and takes a hit.  He flops down, and then the dirt under him starts to give way.  A little Yankee kid under him tries to hold him back with one hand.  He then drops his musket to use both hands, but to no avail.  He is swallowed up in the gray avalanche.
     Rock charged into the swamp and started sinking quickly.  By the time we got there he had sunk up to mid thigh, and was yelling for help.  They tell me some cavalry guys threw him a rope and drug him out later.
     Longstreet’s Corps regrouped and started moving up the trail in column of companies.  The 47th was second in line, behind a group made up mostly of young boys dressed in brown uniforms that we called the Nutter-butters.  Al Harris was senior captain in the Corps, but as they said back then, he had a case of the slows. He had stalled our advance in front of some light resistance, and Capt. Weber was getting pissed.  He yelled, “Charge!”  We rushed straight ahead, knocking little nutter-butters out of the way, and startling the Yanks so bad that they took off, with Frank hard after them.  Some one yelled, “What do we do?” I saw Frank disappearing into the brush and yelled back to follow the Captain.  I took after him until I ran into a large brier patch. Determined to keep up, I lowered my head, leaned forward and pushed in. (this is one place a slouch hat is better than a kepi) I staggered out the other side of the brush and straightened up to regain my bearings.  I had come out in an open field beside the right of way with a line of breastworks in front of me that was quickly filling with Yankees.  I don’t think I was noticed until Kenny Eskew came out of the woods and fired off a round.  They fired back, of course, and I know I must have had the deer in the headlights look.  There was nothing to do but dive back in the briers.
      While this was going on, Johnny was getting broke into the burden of command.  Because the trail was narrow, Capt. Weber had broken the company into platoons as we crossed the swamp.  Johnny was with the second platoon, mostly members of the 18th.  They had missed Frank’s order to charge, and were standing there trying to figure out what to do next.  Hillsman rode up yelling in his southern drawl, “Who’s in charge of these men?”
Johnny looked around for another officer, and then meekly said, “me”  Hillsman told him with a few choice words to get moving. They all took the hint and took off in search of first platoon.
      When they and the rest of the Corps caught up to us, we made a charge at the breastworks.  Back then, the Yanks had a group called the Henry company, about twenty men all armed with repeaters. They opened up on us and ended our attack in short order.  Several of us watched Brad Benson take a hit.  He stopped, bent over and brushed back some sticks, dropped to one knee, then both, and rolled gently on his side.  Years later, he was still razed about his slow motion hit.
     After this we regrouped and did some more skirmishing in the woods.  The company had become separated from the others, intentionally, on Independent Command (I.C.). A line of Yankees was spotted moving toward us, so we took cover in a ditch.  I had chills run up my spine as I figured out this ditch was actually a trench line from the real battle. We later learned it was a Union position, but it was still thrilling to use the old line.
     Longstreet’s Corps was supposed to be done for the day now.  The winds from earlier was blowing clouds in from the west.  Some of the other groups were doing a battle for the spectators.  The troops started yelling at Hillsman to let us join in.  He checked with the generals, and they said we could attack the entrenchments but not take them.  The Corps moved out of the woods and formed battle lines under darkening skies.  We moved out toward the Yankee line, breaking into a run.  In the line ahead of us was a film crew for the battle video makers. So we all took spectacular hits when the Yanks fired at us.  The director yelled at us to do some moaning for the camera.  We thrashed around on the ground, crying and hamming it up.  All the sudden, Ed Christopher hollered out, “Oh shit! Look at my gun!”  Ed was known for going the extra mile to do stunts for the camera. His picture was even on the cover of the Spotsylvania video.  He had taken a hit, diving off the top of the breastworks.  The shot shows him feet straight up in the air with his bald head bouncing off a log.  Everyone turned toward Ed, and then busted out laughing.  He had thrown his musket up as he took a hit and it had come down like a javelin, muzzle first, burying itself up to the middle band.  The director threw up his hands in disgust, his great shot ruined by a bunch of laughing corpses.
     By the time we started back to camp, the sky had turned completely black.  Rumors of tornado warnings spread along the line as we marched quickly toward camp.  Just about the time we were in sight of the tents the bottom fell out.  By the time we got to our street we were soaked to the skin. Everyone just dove into their tents without stopping to break ranks.  We tried to dry off the best we could.  Ken Haack was sharing his tent with Barry Davis and a new guy named Jerry Medlock.  Ken and Jerry had gotten settled in the tent and were just about all dried off.  Barry had stopped in the sutlers after the battle and stepped into the tent dripping all over them.  They got all upset and Ken threw Barry out of the tent, pushing his camp box out after him.  Barry whined, “Where do I go?”  Ken threw his keys out the flap and told him to go to the car.
     After about an hour, the squall line passed and the stormed settled down to a light drizzle.  Half the tents were down and all the firewood was soaked.  We had cold Dinty Moore stew out of the can for dinner.  I remember setting by the firepit that evening with a lantern sitting on the grate for light.  The temperature had been dropping and more showers were falling as the cold front moved in.  Ken and Jerry were still complaining about Barry muddying up the tent.  Jerry asked Ken what Barry did, and Ken replied that he was an Army Chaplain.  Jerry choked on his drink and screamed, “ A preacher! You threw a preacher out in the rain!  Are you crazy?” It was about this time that the wind and rain really picked up.
     Wayne and I settled into our tent.  All night, we would hear cursing, then the ping of tent stakes being hammered in a vain attempt to get them to hold in the sand.  Our tent billowed and swayed all night, but the table legs held it in place.  Wayne had a cot in the tent but I had to lie on the ground.  In the middle of the night he started complaining about a leak hitting him in the face.  I looked up and laughed when I saw what really was happening.  Back then I used to wear a bucktail attached to my haversack.  It was hanging from a hook on the ridgepole, and as the wind rocked the tent, the tail would swing over, just brushing Wayne’s face.
      The night from hell was eventually over, and we crawled out to a sunny clear morning.  The firepit was full of water, try as we might, we could not keep a fire going.  Some staff officer up on commanders row yelled out to turn in morning reports now.  Wayne yelled back, “Everything’s wet…Sir!”  You could hear guys laughing all over camp, and the staffer disappeared back into his wall tent.  Barry showed back up, looking happy and holding a cup of Hardees coffee.  “Where did you get that?”, Ken scowled.
      “In Newton Grove.”, Barry replied.  He told us that after Ken threw him out he had dried all his stuff with the car heater and slept comfortably in the back seat. In the morning, he drove into town for breakfast.
     The battle that day was kind of anti-climatic.  We did the charge and die scenario again.  But we left there with a whole bunch of new tales for around the campfires of future events.