Civil War re-enactment commanders share bond of friendship

Saturday, June 18, 2011 | 10:06 p.m. CDT; updated 8:44 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 20, 2011
Stan Prater, who portrayed Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the Union commander, surveys the field from atop his horse. The original battle of Boonville took place June 17, 1861.

COLUMBIA — About 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, commanders from the Union and Confederate re-enactors’ units assembled under an open tent in front of the main stage at the re-enactment site.

Outside the tent, a slight drizzle had continued for almost half an hour.

“Usually when it rains, we have a lot of people that go home. Fortunately, we won’t have that this time,” Col. Mike Williams said, referring to the fact that his company was camped in a shallow area almost a mile from the only exit.  

Williams was the commander of all the Confederate units that had gathered for the re-enactment.

His counterpart, Col. Stan Prater sat right next to him. Both men were supposed to lead their troops into battle against each other later that day. Right now, they sat like old friends enjoying a football game on TV.

Instead, they were at an officers’ meeting to discuss battle scenarios and positions.

The generic Civil War battle after the First Battle of Boonville would not be strictly scripted. Rather, the commanders would have a lot of flexibility with their troops’ movements.

Soon, Lou Dunlap, captain of Collins Battery B, the re-enactors’ unit hosting the event, arrived on the scene. The other commanders told him about their problems: the infantry camp didn’t have enough straw, one commander had issues with his unit not getting water and others felt they didn’t have ample fire wood available.

After Dunlap satisfied their concerns, they got down to business.

As the wind bellowed outside and the tent flapped violently, the eight commanders discussed when to move the artillery cannons to the field and how. They determined the battle positions.

When wind brought rain into the tent and blew Dunlap’s hat off his head, the commanders decided to change their position to the southern end.

Across from the officers' tent, two of several temporary tents had already collapsed under the furious wind, and organizers were trying to keep the ones still standing from flying off. Yet the wise old commanders stood their ground, unfazed and unmoved. Once they had determined when and how the artillery would be fired, they looked satisfied and got up to leave.

“OK, Mississippi, let’s go take a tour of the battle site,” Prater said, referring to Williams.

“He calls me Mississippi because I’m originally from Mississippi,” Williams explained.

The two colonels walked north toward the re-enactment site through the muddy grass from the tent.

Williams, who has been taking part in re-enactments for 14 years, was going to represent Col. John S. Marmaduke, the officer who led the Missouri State Guards, in the First Battle of Boonville while Prater was playing Gen. Nathaniel Lyon’s role for the Union troops.

On the way, Williams regretted that he had not brought his horse; Prater would be mounted on horseback during the battle.

They talked about the generic Civil War battle to follow the original battle’s re-enactment. The night before, they had already decided who was going to win.

“We flip a coin to see who wins,” Williams said, adding that Confederate troops will emerge victorious from the day’s second battle.

Things are not always as predictable as a win-loss decision, Williams explained. The re-enactor commanders often make their own battle strategies to trounce the opponents.

“That’s how it happened in the Civil War,” Prater said.

“But I know all his strategies and he knows mine,” Williams quickly added, referring to their long time on-field animosity and off-field camaraderie.

Williams recounted how one time during their early days, Prater had ordered Williams’ capture during one re-enactment and then forgotten about it.

“His guys captured me, took me to their camp and tied me up. I sat there for two hours,” Williams said. “I was pissed.”

Williams said he had gotten into Civil War re-enactment because he had always liked history and had always portrayed a Confederate soldier.

“My reason was heritage,” he said. “But, the rule in my battalion is always to carry two uniforms.”

Prater said most of the times they had to completely stay in character.

“As commanders, our soldiers expect us to be in character,” he said. “We want this to be historically accurate, especially around the crowd.”

The two commanders agreed that it was ultimately about staying true to the history of the Civil War. They observed the battlefield and went over the minute details of the re-enactment.

The Union and Confederate camps were pitched on the opposite sides of a big field. On the way back, as Williams turned toward his camp, he looked at Prater and said, “It would be nice if you fall off your horse today.”

“It could happen,” Prater said.

Both men laughed and turned the opposite way to leave.

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