Civil war re-enactors

Quilts, visiting grandchildren and daffodils called me to the festival in Camden this spring. But conversations with Civil War re-enactors stayed with me for days afterward.
The Confederate camp of a few canvas tents and cannons perched on the bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. Men in the gray uniforms camped and ate there as the soldiers did during the Civil War. The re-enactors explained that the folks in the area decided they would not make it easy for the Union soldiers to come ashore. They set up a row of cannons and shot at the Union ship. The Confederate soldiers in the Camden area never had to go to war. Their imposing front worked. The Union soldiers sailed past Camden and went on down the river.
At the re-enactors camp the white canvas tents provided a modicum of modesty. The one woman onsite explained the soldiers were taking a lunch break to eat Civil War type food: Beans, gravy, bread and cake for dessert. When eating bread, it won’t hurt to learn information such as is raisin bread healthy.

We walked around, checked out the river only to rush back to the camp at the sound of cannons exploding blanks.
While we waited for the next round, we found a display of Civil War bullets. A thin, elderly man noticed us and quickly lifted the top to show a few of the bullets he had found with a metal detector at Jenkins’ Ferry – an Arkansas Civil War battle field.
“I’ve found over 3,000 bullets,” he said. From the bottom row of time corroded lead bullets he picked up a finger-tip sized bullet with three rings around the base. “See those three rings?” his thumb nail crazed the slight indentation. “This came from the Union army.”
Plain bullets came from the Confederate army. Bullets with other markings testified to other origins.
He picked up bits of lead skewed to the side and flattened. “These bullets hit something or somebody,” he said.
“And these,” he lifted up a mashed, piece of lead with sharp, uneven surfaces. “I have only found seven of these out of the 3,000 bullets I have, he said. “What do you think that is?”
We stared blankly.
“This is where the phrase ‘bite the bullet comes from,’” he said. “Those are teeth marks.”
In that time without pain killers and general anesthesia, surgeons handed the wounded a new bullet and told them to bite it during the operation to remove a bullet or their limb as fellow soldiers held them down. Skilled surgeons were known for their speed back then. Speed in removing a destroyed leg. Speed in stitching the person back together.
But no speed could totally run ahead or away from the pain of the patient under the knife. The patient – or victim – ground their teeth into the bullet against the horrific pain.
The bullet collector knew where to find unused bullets. He looked for trees at least 150 years old because soldiers stood behind the branches of the young trees while they loaded their guns and tamped the bullet and explosive into place. In the heat of battle, scared soldiers dropped bullets. Rather than bending to grope around for the tiny piece of lead, they would just take out another bullet and load it. The bullets were mashed down into the ground. Over the next 150 years, the bullets sank deep into the soil. The metal detector found bullets sunk 10 or 11 inches into the sod. At one tree, the collector said he pulled out a bullet and started to leave when the detector sounded again . . . and again. Before he finished he had found a half a dozen bullets in one spot where a scared soldier awkwardly tried to reload.
He also demonstrated an early prototype of today’s grenade. The cast iron ball with holes could hold pellets or small metal balls. When the ball exploded out of the cannon it broke apart and sent pellets everywhere. One cannon ball or early grenade could throw out as many as 100 deathly bits of metal to wound the enemy soldiers.
Finally the time had come to reload the cannons and fire. Volunteer teenagers from the crowd pulled the rope. We felt the percussive explosion bounce against our bodies.
The show over, we returned to the 21st century to ride home and reflect on our glimpse of the life on a battlefield a century and a half ago.
(Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times. E-mail her at