BOONVILLE — A cursory glance would have suggested the Missouri State Guards, dressed in their Civil War-era civilian clothes, were setting off to celebrate a summer festival.
But a closer look revealed that this ordinary bunch of a couple hundred men of all ages and sizes were on their way to a battle.
“Get ready, men,” an officer with a long, scraggly beard shouted at about noon, and the guards, who constituted the infantry, assembled at the back of the encampment. Some carried rifles on their shoulders, others held pistols while a few quickly tucked a dagger or two in their trousers.
Col. Mike Williams, commander of the Confederate troops, playing the role of Col. Marmaduke for the First Battle of Boonville, ordered the men to stay firm and fight with bravery.
Half an hour later, on the battlefield, the re-enactors did what had happened 150 years ago: a brief skirmish followed by a quick retreat under a ruthless attack by Union troops.
But this was not an actual battle, and the re-enactors had enjoyed themselves earlier in the day while preparing for the re-enactment.
“I’m excited,” said Cody Bush, a private in the 1st Missouri Cavalry. “It’s a lot of fun, even though we have to lose.”
It was Bush’s second time at a re-enactment. He said he first heard about the Civil War re-enactments through his friend, who is the first sergeant of the same unit Bush is now enlisted in.
Brian McCarty, carrying an artificial piece of pork leg in one hand and a double-barreled shotgun in the other, said he was always interested in Civil War history, but got into the re-enactments after watching some movies that had “live-action sequences” of the Civil War.
McCarty, who lives in Kansas City, said he was associated with the “Tater Mess,” a group of Civil War re-enactors, who usually “splits food, boils coffee and looks out for each other” while performing their “living history” demonstrations.
Andrew Kasmar, another re-enactor for the Missouri State Guard who had come from St. Louis, said he was independent and not affiliated with any of the Confederate units, which had set camps along the western perimeter of the battlefield. He said two of his prized possessions were his 1890 rifle and a buffalo robe – a kind of blanket the State Guards used to carry with them.
Perhaps one of the biggest encampments on the Confederate side belonged to Collins Battery B, which was hosting the rest of the re-enactors for the event. Battery captain Lou Dunlap brought two cannons to the event – a 12-pound Napoleon and the smaller Mountain Howitzer.
In all, the Confederates had 10 cannons, but to maintain historical accuracy they couldn’t use them in the First Battle of Boonville re-enactment. So the Confederate artillery opened up during the generic Civil War battle later.
In the morning, before infantry drills started, a couple of men sat outside a slew of camps, set up together near the battle site, loading and preparing their weapons for the fight. One of them, Jesse Koster, 64, said he had been re-enacting Civil War battles for six years. Koster was part of Kelly’s Irish Confederate Brigade, a legendary militia of soldiers that is said to have fought valiantly for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Koster flashed his replica of an 1861 rifle and said he took pride in being part of the re-enactments.
“I was raised up on it, and now I’m living it,” he said. “I’m hooked to it.”
In the same brigade, Richard Heaviland of Kansas City was dressed up as Captain Joseph Kelly. Heaviland said he had been associated with the re-enactors for nine years and was involved with three different groups working on “living history” demonstrations for children in Kansas City.
“We do a lot of school-day stuff,” he said. “It’s fun with kids.”
Later in the afternoon, re-enactors from Kelly’s brigade formed the front line of the State Guards for the skirmish with the approaching Union troops. They fired several times before taking cover east of the battlefield. The fight didn’t last long, and they had to run for their lives along with the rest of the Missouri State Guards.
All was not lost for the Confederate re-enactors, however, since they overcame the Union troops in the generic Civil War battle held immediately after the initial First Battle of Boonville re-enactment.
At last, they had something to rejoice about.