Guest Column

Civil Encounter

I enlisted in Company A of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry regiment to fight for the Union just before dusk on the last day of September. The ceremony took place on a field edged by birch trees in New Durham, N.H.

The company's hospital steward, Dan Meehan, asked me a series of questions. "Have you ever had fits?" he asked. "Uh, no?" I replied. "Are you in the habit of drinking? Have you ever had the horrors?" "Not daily, no. And yeah, I've had some nightmares." He put no to both. "Are you subject to the piles?" "What? I guess not." I signed the Oath of Allegiance and officially became a private.

I was to spend the next 24 hours living, eating, drilling and marching with the men of the Charles W. Canney Camp No. 5. The Rochester-based camp is part of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, a national organization of descendants of Union veterans and others who share their goal of preserving the history of the Grand Army of the Republic. It's one of five such camps in New Hampshire. I had read about the encampment online, and as a journalism major at UNH, I thought I would check it out.

Having signed my allegiance to the Union Army, I was given a glimpse of the $200 enlistment bounty a private would have received (in reality, a laminated antique check). Then it was time to dress in the uniform I would be wearing for the next day: a sack coat of navy blue wool, sky blue wool suspender pants that displayed a good inch of my ankles, wool socks, a homespun plaid shirt (I was lucky to get it, Meehan said), and a blue woolen cap. I was allowed to wear a pair of black Skechers since there were no authentic size 11 shoes to be had. Meehan handed me an 1853 Enfield single-shot, muzzle-loading musket, and I was detailed to Cpl. Lance Robicheau for drilling.

"Shoulder arms!" Robicheau barked, showing me the motions at the same time. I fumbled to bring the heavy Enfield up to my right shoulder, holding the trigger guard with my right hand. "Post arms!" Robicheau dropped his musket diagonally across his chest, catching the barrel with his left hand. I juggled mine, almost missing the barrel. "We've got a lot of work to do," Robicheau announced to Meehan and Pvt. Roger Nason, who sat by the fire.

Around the campfire that night, the men recalled reenactments they had participated in, including Burkittsville, where the Confederates held the town until they were driven out, as scheduled, on Saturday afternoon, and the annual Gettysburg phenomenon, where as many as 100,000 spectators watch 20,000 reenactors participate in battles, live mortar fire competitions and cavalry charges.

I was curious what drew them to these events. To Meehan, a firefighter, Robicheau, an electrician, and Nason, a Liberty Mutual computer manager, nothing could be better than time travel mixed with camping. "I look forward to this all year," said Nason. Robicheau offered another explanation: "It's one thing to read about it in your nice comfy chair, but if you're out doing it, it puts a tangible feeling to it."

Tangible indeed. Soon it was dark and cold outside the comfortable glow of our campfire. At midnight, according to Nason's pocket watch, we retreated to our tents. With only hay below and a wool blanket above, I slept two hours at the most in fitful stages, waking every half-hour. After a while I moved next to the fire, and as I lay awake and cold on the grass, I wished for morning as never before.

I dozed just before daylight and woke again with the sun fully risen. Coffee was brewing and Meehan was preparing breakfast. As the sun glistened on the dew and its rays warmed my tired body, it was suddenly easier to imagine a Civil War soldier grabbing a quick cup of coffee and some hardtack before facing the day's march or battle. More than 600,000 soldiers, North and South, lost their lives in the Civil War. The 12th New Hampshire lost 181 to war and another 139 to disease. The regiment saw action with the Army of the Potomac up and down the East Coast: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Richmond. Did exhaustion, or a desire to blot out tomorrow, make sleep come more easily to them? Or did they toss and turn like me? They are all gone now—the last Civil War veteran died more than 50 years ago. I can't ask them questions as I can ask the reenactors. But I would like to think that every morning after April 9, 1865, they slept well and woke refreshed to enjoy coffee, breakfast, and life.

Nicholas Gosling '06 is from Meredith, N.H.

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