BOONVILLE — The elements of nature tried their best but failed to deter the Civil War re-enactors.
About 550 of them braved an overnight storm, stood firm during the howling wind in the morning and later endured the searing heat at midday before re-enacting the First Battle of Boonville in front of a cheering crowd.
The re-enactment marked the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was fought on June 17, 1861. The event was organized by the Boonville Civil War Commemorative Commission at the site of the actual battle, the Willard Avery farm on Rocheport Road near Boonville.
Commission co-chair Barbara Holtzclaw said despite the unexpected weather conditions, the response from the public was brilliant.
“It’s above expectations,” she said. “The number of people coming in is enormous.”
A few clouds momentarily passed across a brilliantly sweltering sun at about noon as the re-enactors representing the Missouri State Guards, a pro-Confederate group, and the Union troops faced off in an open, lush green field.
Union troops marched in from the north in three orderly units, with two cannons providing them cover from the rear, while Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, mounted on horseback, stood behind them, eyeing the approaching State Guards.
Some two dozen Missouri State Guardsmen formed a front line and rushed forward to meet the advance. They sat in the knee-high grass and opened fire at the incoming Union soldiers. After a brief skirmish, where the guardsmen and Federal troops exchanged several rounds of gunfire, the front line broke off and returned to rendezvous with and fight alongside their fellow Missouri State Guards stationed on the south side of the field.
As the Union troops kept firing, the guardsmen started deserting and retreating. Soon, the guard’s side of the field was empty except for a dozen bodies strewn across the expanse, some of them killed by their own fellow soldiers for attempting to desert.
The Union troops quickly marched forward and fired two rounds in the air to celebrate their victory. The First Battle of Boonville re-enactment was over.
The re-enactors had traveled from across the state to participate in the historic event. Doug Jones, a Union re-enactor who came from Lamoni on the Missouri-Iowa border, said the re-enactment presented an opportunity to preserve history.
“As time goes by, the knowledge of the Civil War goes away,” he said. “So we are trying to document it.”
Phil Woolfolk, a re-enactor from the medical unit, said the goal was to educate future generations.
“We are trying to teach kids what happened in their own backyard,” he said.
The First Battle of Boonville, one of four fought in the area during the Civil War, was the first land battle. It is also considered to be the most important of the Boonville battles because it denied pro-secessionist forces in Missouri from occupying the state and controlling the Missouri River, according to historian Randy McGuire, who works as an archivist at St. Louis University.
McGuire said the pro-Confederate Guards wanted to muster up an army in Boonville and Lexington and, with the help of a Confederate Army from the South, wanted to conquer St. Louis.
A Confederate St. Louis would have been the second largest and most industrialized city in the Confederacy. It would have allowed the Confederate forces to potentially push into Northern territory from Missouri.
“The river could have been the super highway for the Confederacy to capture the Northern states,” McGuire said.
But the Union victory at Boonville isolated the pro-secessionists in the state and paved the way for further defeats for the Confederacy, he said.
Woolfolk, who has an expansive knowledge of his hobby, said re-enacting is “strictly a hobby, a very expensive hobby.” He said a basic uniform for an enlisted soldier could cost about $3,000, while a tent and a rifle could be as much as $800 and $700 respectively. Some re-enactors have spent even as much as $30,000 on building a cannon.
A number of sutlers, or vendors, set up stalls at the re-enactment site, selling items as varied as Civil War-style root beer, dresses and souvenirs from the period.
The main stage at the event offered the audience a chance to listen to talks related to Civil War history.
More than 1,000 people watched the First Battle of Boonville, and more were arriving as the re-enactment continued.
“As a hobbyist, those guys really enjoyed it,” R. Charles Adams, a civil war artifact enthusiast, said. “It was realistic.”
It was 5-year-old Jordan Garth’s first Civil War re-enactment. Garth, accompanied by his parents, said he had a personal favorite among the infantry, cavalry and artillery presentations during the re-enactment.
“I liked the horses the best,” he said.
The only minor incident at the event was a re-enactor who passed out because of a heat stroke. He was transported to a nearby hospital via ambulance. Members of the Cooper County Fire Protection District, the Cooper County Sheriff’s Office and an emergency management unit were present on the scene in case of any emergency.
Maryellen McVicker, event organizer and commission co-chair, said she only had one suggestion for the people who were planning to attend the re-enactment on Sunday.
“Come as early as you can,” she said, referring to traffic jams on the first day, which had occurred on the gravel road that led to the battlefield.
Aside from a repeat of the re-enactments, the audience will also get to see musical performances and attend a church service at the venue on Sunday.