The Civil War Muster
by Laura Bien
A team of horses pulling a cannon thundered through Ypsilanti's Riverside Park as their driver tried to rein them away from a microphone and two speakers near crowded bleachers. WHAM! BOOM! BAM! One speaker rolled under the cannon, trapped between the wheels. It was one of only three historically inauthentic or, as reenactors say, "farby" moments I noticed at the annual Civil War Muster.
Muster visitors can observe a typical day in the lives of Civil War soldiers, of whom Michigan contributed some 90,000. After morning drills, a parade of soldiers marched over the Cross Street Bridge to a rations wagon near the Freight House. Union soldiers stacked their arms tepee style and lined up for sandwiches and fruit. They chatted with interested onlookers, whose T-shirts seemed slovenly in comparison with the befrilled, fitted dresses and dainty parasols sported by ladies clustered here and there.
I chatted with Karena Cabla from Tecumseh, who confided, "It takes me more than half an hour to get dressed." She enumerated her clothes: corset, bloomers, hoops, underskirt, skirt, undershirt, blouse, snood, leggings, garters . . . Her apparently "hard core" fiancé had convinced her to become a reenactor and to do the details right. (There are many levels of intensity in Civil War reenacting: while a farb might throw together a uniform from stuff around the house, some hard-core reenactors insist on exhaustive historical authenticity to the point of soaking buttons in urine to achieve the proper aged patina.)
Cavalryman Craig Burns from Ohio told me he enjoys reenacting "because I love horses, camping, and the military." He reeled off details about the unusually high pommel on his saddle, the merits of various revolvers, and the restricted use of indigo in uniforms until the twenty-first century seemed to fade and I sank into the history trance some reenactors call a "period rush" which Burns then shattered when he gave me his e-mail address.
speakers' stirring oratory and a patriotic-music concert by the Fifth Michigan Regiment Band that included the lugubrious "God Save the South." My gaze was diverted from a hoopskirted lady chewing gum to ragtag Southern troops sneaking in from Frog Island. They were late for lunch perhaps disoriented by the Northern terrain and looked abashed as the curious audience craned round. We'd make short work of them, clearly, in the upcoming battle.
The troops marched to the park for a reenactment of the Battle of Honey Hill, originally fought by the Union's 102nd United States Colored Troops, many of whom were Ypsilanti residents.
Hunkered behind a rail fence, the Rebs fired earsplitting volleys at our boys in blue. Cannons belched smoke. Snipers clambered into trees and picked off soldiers whose "dead" bodies eventually littered the field. In the bleachers, I overheard a boy ask his mom, "Have any Americans died yet?"
"They're all Americans," she replied.
The Muster returns on Saturday, April 20.
[Originally published in April, 2002.]