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Winter of 1863-64 again

August 17, 2009 12:44 am


Re-enactor Greg Kelly puts the roof on a hut like the ones that would have been used by Confederate troops during the winter of 1863-64. lo0817mont2.jpg

Civil War re-enactors Greg Caton (left) and Greg Kelly, representing the 58th Virginia Infantry, work on a hut's roof.


It's a short walk through an Orange County woods from the 21st century to the 19th.

That's what visitors to James Madison's Montpelier found yesterday if they followed their ears to the sounds of construction in a small clearing off U.S. 20.

There, a half-dozen men in hobnail brogans, wool trousers, linen shirts and forage caps toiled to build a log hut similar to one that sheltered Confederate soldiers encamped at Montpelier in the winter of 1863-64.

The men building the hut are Civil War re-enactors, and yesterday they sweated out a 90-degree afternoon using tools that would have been available at the time: hammers, axes, hatchets, a crosscut saw and chisels.

They're in the early stages of re-creating a winter camp similar to one that sheltered Gen. Samuel McGowan's South Carolinians early in 1864.

That cold January, about 1,500 troops camped at Montpelier, sleeping in log huts chinked and daubed against the wind. Officers' huts had planked roofs; enlisted men made do with canvas tent tops.

Each 12- by 12-foot hut had a fireplace and wooden chimney, and each would have been packed full at night, the men sleeping close to share body heat.

The huts were built in orderly rows covering about 5 acres, according to evidence archaeologists have uncovered in recent years.

Each hut had an adjacent pit from which clay was dug to daub spaces between logs, and into which the soldiers later dumped their trash, said Matthew Reeves, Montpelier's director of archaeology.

Now, just a hundred or so yards from the original campsite, re-enactors of the 3rd Regiment, Army of Northern Virginia, are creating a smaller version.

They began the work last December and have since cleared the site, felled trees for logs, and dragged, notched and hoisted those logs into place. An officer's hut is nearly complete, and two enlisted huts are in progress.

Much of the work has been done with modern tools and equipment. But yesterday, the re-enactors wanted to give Montpelier visitors a look at how it was done in 1864.

Troy Fallin, Greg Caton, Greg Kelly, Steve Blancard, Sam Blancard, Rob Lawson, T.J. Bartel and Evan Bartel wore the wool and wielded the hand tools.

A campfire smoked nearby, creating a mosquito-deterring haze.

Modern-day visitors wandered in occasionally for a look and a history lesson, including a musket-firing demonstration.

But visitors had to stretch their imaginations--downward, by about 80 degrees--to place themselves in the winter of 1864.

"This is a winter quarters, so it's kind of hard to be doing this in August," said Steve Blancard, a Fredericksburg resident.

All the re-enactors yesterday acknowledged that the soldiers of 1864 were made of much tougher stuff than a group of 21st-century history devotees.

By the winter of 1863-64, they said, food was scarce and McGowan's soldiers were probably getting two meals a day, with rations measured out in ounces. Hardtack--a flour-and-water biscuit known as "sheet-iron crackers" or "tooth dullers"--at least put something in their stomachs.

Warm clothing was scarce, and it wasn't unheard-of for a picket standing guard overnight to be discovered frozen by morning.

"We're used to air conditioning, heat and three square meals a day," said Greg Caton of Luray, taking a break in the shade after a bologna-sandwich lunch.

As hard as winter was, though, the re-enactors said soldiers looked forward to winter camp.

At least the huts were covered; in summer, men slept in tents or out in the open. A community campfire provided warmth.

But the re-enactors said the main thing soldiers appreciated about winter camp was that they weren't getting shot at.

Laura Moyer: 540/374-5417

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