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Helga Ross

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Civil War in Westfield
by Helga Ross   

Last edited: Thursday, May 08, 2003
Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2002

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We're on the way to the Civil War - the American one - No, not Virginia, not Pennsylvania, not Tennessee - Rockton, Ontario - a setting where time stands still....

I really will have to talk to more Canadian Yankees and Confederates when I have the opportunity...get to the bottom of this. How peculiar am I?

Helga's Heartlines: A Journal
Saturday, August 12, 2000.
Rockton, Ontario.

It's 9:30 am and I'm running late. I'm supposed to be on the way to Westfield by now. The day will be half over before I get there. Why, oh why, does it always take so long to dry my hair when I'm in a hurry?

The plan was to take the scenic route - Expressway being perfectly banal - Jane and I stick with our agenda. She's a good sport and a favored travel companion. En route, we pass the northern reaches of the town where I grew up. The fields and woods and orchards my playmates and I used to raid as kids have since gone to suburban sprawl. With a twinge of nostalgia I determinedly search for vestiges of that former life. There are some green expanses left, I see, where my old boyfriend and I went on memorable hand-held walks.

It's a wonderful day. We have the weather with us; bright and beautiful, as are our spirits. We're on the way to the Civil War - the American one - No, not Virginia, not Pennsylvania, not Tennessee - Rockton, Ontario. This same time, each year, the Canadian branch of American Civil War Re-enactors stages a weekend event at the Westfield Heritage Village and Conservation Area, a setting where time stands still. The site includes a village green and over 30 historical buildings, including a beautiful period church, and a Tea Room, where many weddings and receptions are held. Open year-round, the Village hosts productions such as Christmas in the Country, Ann of Green Gables Day, Celtic and Folk Festival. This year they're staging the Battle of 2nd Bull Run, (2nd Manassas, as it's known in the South).

We arrive in time to see something of the cavalry demonstration before the big fight. An unabashed horse fancier, the consummate combination of magnificent beasts in motion and men in uniform makes my pulse race. Cavalry battle is my personal favorite Civil War scenario; I was there when Stuart met Custer at Gettysburg on June 30th, 1996, and enjoyed the action immensely. The soldiers' flushed faces, horses' steamed flanks, the synergy and symmetry of horse and rider was spectacle enough to make me melt.

Time for the battle. There's a sizable crowd today, I see, families mostly, with children pressed eagerly in front along the fence where they have an intimate, unobstructed view of the struggle. Many observers have brought blankets and folding chairs, and have made themselves quite comfortable. Also present - A TVO film crew to record the occasion for those interested, but of necessity absent. The Union Army Chaplain is our commentator.

The following excerpt from the Flamborough Review American Civil War Re-enactment newsletter, sets the stage for we fascinated spectators:

The Battle of Brawner's Farm, by Donna Elliot:

"Then came a scene few of the Yankees in farmer Brawner's field would forget.... Six brigades, numbering about 6200 men, were descending on (Brig. Gen. John) Gibbon's 2100 men. Among them, the famed "Stonewall Brigade", one of the best known fighting forces in the world.... Two lines of Federal and Confederate troops stood 75 yards from each other and fired as fast as they could load and aim. Neither side retreated and neither advanced. They took no cover, but fought by the book, standing there for an hour and a half, slaying each other in great numbers as the light slowly faded.... Darkness finally ended the battle with the Confederates having halted the Federal assault.... The next day it was reported that 'the bodies lay in so straight a line they looked like troops lying down to rest'.... Gibbon's Black Hat Brigade lost more than 900 of its' 2100 men...would soon earn the name "The Iron Brigade.""

I'm ready for the opening shots, yet it's always a complete surprise when they occur. The cannon go off and I start, involuntarily. The momentum builds - The first ranks of Union and Confederate foe emerge - The first casualties fall. It's a long time to lay there in the heat playing dead. Good idea. One of the mortally wounded sits up, takes a swig from his canteen, then falls over. More shots fired as the Rebels advance to the creek. A few poor fellas tumble in. The odd soldier tries to fish out one of his comrades. A row of Union soldiers falls in unison.... There is an irony here of which I'm intensely aware, but cannot explain. This is a most marvelous piece of play-acting. I'm enthralled. Yet, I couldn't really bear to contemplate the reality.

When the battle is over, there are ripples of applause. We must make way to let the Union Army pass. The men in navy blue - not all boys - proud and impressive, with military precision, march by, in rank and in unison. More applause.

Now, here come the Rebels, fearsome, formidable. The boys in butternut - many, men - are a motley crew, bedraggled, torn, tattered, some barefoot. Doggedly, determinedly, they plod along, uninterested in currying favor with the crowd. I'm fascinated, though they make me shiver.

Jane and I stop for some refreshment, then split up - she, to the village and army hospital - while I look for some soldiers to talk to, particularly, some 'frightening' Confederates.

I find a Union man, first, an officer. I ask him what is it about re-enacting and why the Civil War? I know why I'm here, what it means to me. Why is he here? A Canadian, of course, he informs me the draw for him is the military aspect, as he is ex-Army. And - boys playing with toys. Makes sense. He does the War of 1812, also, but admits the Civil War has a lot more drama. Surprise - at least, to me - he says he's in the minority. Most Canadian re-enactors are Confederate, by two thirds. I wouldn't have guessed. Why? There's something about "The Lost Cause", the individualism, the heroism, that appeals to them, as re-enactors, he suggests. It's the appeal of being able to do their own thing versus the Federal Army's regimentation. It's not about politics or slavery.

Where is the Confederate Camp? I understand there is a North Carolina contingent here. I want to visit them. My handsome Union Captain walks with me to the entrance. He points the way into the old growth pine forest. He leaves me to venture into the woods on my own like Little Red Riding Hood about to stumble into the Big Bad Wolf, the enemy. I'm afraid I must trust to Southern chivalry. "I do. I do." I tell myself.

There they are.... "Hello there. How ya doin?" I say.

The 'fearsome' fellows look at each other. Their silently designated spokesperson - He does not give his name, nor I mine - approaches. He's very polite and gracious to me, obliging of my questions. Tells me they've driven straight through for sixteen hours to get here, and they'll be driving sixteen hours to get back tomorrow. As I write this, it's hard to remember what I asked, and what he said. That's not like me. I usually remember everything. I had my notebook but I didn't write anything down. The only thing I do recall is telling him about getting lost in the Wilderness. He hadn't been there yet, so that may have been useful information. I think I was in awe. These guys were the real thing.

I depart from them and their campsite, no longer 'afraid', and make my way back to meet Jane in time for the only shuttle, leaving at 4:30 PM. On the way, I recognize the Chaplain and stop to chat with him, too. Another American - this one from across the border, nearby Buffalo. Been doing this for 17 years, he says. Likes coming here, where he gets to be a big fish in a small pond, say, compared to Gettysburg. I can appreciate that. Glad to have him.

Thinking out loud, I say his reason makes sense, but I wish I understood more about what motivates these Canadians... I won't have time to find out today. Is it war games, or what? A club, a kind of community, in which the whole family gets to participate, its' members to fraternize? Do any of them simply have a passion for the Civil War, like I do?

Chaplains always have something astute to say - so I assume. This one suggests they must have some good reason for coming out here to spend hours in discomfort in the heat and wet and muck. These guys practice for hours and take their roles very seriously. I thank him for that bit of wisdom, as I leave him.

I really will have to talk to more Canadian Yankees and Confederates when I have the opportunity...get to the bottom of this. How peculiar am I?

Web Site: Passions in

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Reviewed by Ana
good job.
Reviewed by Ana
Hi, this came up at All-the-Web. Keep on trucking. It is good to see people so interested in the puruit of American happiness! Good job writing, by the way.
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