Unwashed, unbowed, they revisit 1860s life

Samiha Khanna, Staff Writer

DURHAM – On the surface, it might sound like high-schooler Corey Adams spent the whole weekend making trouble. He camped out in the woods with friends, fired several shots from a rifle and didn’t call his mother even once to let her know he was OK.

But the 17-year-old had a lot of supervision — he was under the watchful eyes of a few corporals, his first sergeant and his dutiful captain. And the rifle cartridges he fired were blanks.

Adams is one of the youngest members of the reconstituted 38th North Carolina Troops, a group of Civil War re-enactors who set up camp over the weekend at Bennett Place State Historic Site in western Durham.

With the men wearing woolen gray field uniforms and women in skirts and petticoats, a group of about 25 people re-created the camp life of Confederate infantrymen. Just like Southern soldiers of the 19th century, the men practiced marching, loading their rifles and living simply from the land. And that meant — sorry, Mom — Corey had to leave his cell phone in the car.

"They’d rather have me out here doing this rather than doing something bad," Corey said of his mother and grandmother, who have morally and financially supported his foray into Civil War re-enactment.

The three-day event at Bennett Place was one of several the re-enactment group participates in about once a month. Later this year, they’ll travel to Gettysburg, Pa., where Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defeat marked the high tide of the Confederacy.

"We try to keep our nation’s history alive," said Ricky Meadows, acting captain of the group. "This is so our youth won’t forget our history."

Significant signing

Though there was never a training camp or battle on the 325-acre Bennett Place homestead, the farmhouse was the site of talks that eventually led to the largest troop surrender of the Civil War — when Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston met with Union Gen. William T. Sherman and negotiated terms that ended the war in April 1865.

The original farmhouse, owned by James and Nancy Bennitt (frequent misspelling drove the family to change the spelling of the surname after the war), was destroyed by fire in the 1920s and reconstructed in the 1960s on the same spot.

The kitchen, also in its original place, was where Andi Vann-Jensen and two other civilian women Sunday prepared a rice and sausage dish and sweet potatoes for the troops, using cast-iron pots they hung over a fire. Vann-Jensen, a nurse from Asheville, has been a re-enactor for nearly 30 years, she said.

"It’s a chance to slow down," she said. "It’s a restorative time."

Saturday’s events, including shooting and marching drills, drew about 90 spectators, said John Guss, manager of Bennett Place. Visitors on Sunday were less numerous.

Captain’s commands

Most of the drills and other events were directed by Meadows, a tall man whose gray and chestnut curls fell around his shoulders. He carried a slow-burning Backwoods cigar. An officer’s sword hung from his left hip.

Upon Meadows’ command, the troops took hold of their rifle muskets.

"Unfix bayonets," he instructed. The men detached the metal points from their rifles and sheathed them in leather scabbards hanging from their belts.

"Forward march," the captain said a few moments later, taking the troops into a field of calf-high grass.

Soon, each soldier had fallen to one knee. Each crack of their rifles produced a white cloud that smelled of rotting eggs — the sulfurous stench of blackpowder without the deadly lead.

The campers slept under simple triangular tents. They denied themselves showers but were allowed to use the restrooms inside the Bennett Place visitors center, a convenience some hard-core re-enactors might have frowned upon.

Mostly, they were roughing it.

Before Sunday’s hot lunch, most of the soldiers sustained themselves on parched corn, similar to corn nuts, and hunks of salt-cured bacon. Others had hardtack biscuits, known to crack molars if carelessly chewed.

Corey Adams didn’t even sleep in a tent Saturday night, he said. Instead, he settled on the ground near a campfire with just a thin blanket, despite his mother’s wishes that he keep away from any open flames.

The teen had promised to call her and let her know he was OK as soon as the campers retired their Confederate battle flag Sunday afternoon.

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