Thursday, July 24, 2014

150th Anniversary of the Monocacy Battle Retreat, Ellicott City, Maryland

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. The Union soldiers lost and retreated through the town of Ellicott City on their way to Baltimore. The July 12-13 weekend commemoration included reenactors at Mt. Ida (an estate dating back before the American Civil War) and in the city itself.

We started our morning at Mt. Ida, arriving right at 10 a.m. when things were supposed to start. As with most reenactments, if one arrives early one sees little. A small group of soldiers had some tents set up and an area for cooking but no activities had started. They played a little bit on their guitar and banjo but didn't have much else to offer.

J by the tent

L too shy!

Another tent with canteens!

Ready to make some coffee

Down the hill in the city a troop of reenactors were demonstrating military maneuvers on the main street. More importantly, they were demonstrating how to load and fire their weapons. The captain of the troop gave a lecture about the steps involved in using their rifles. They didn't fire since too many people, cars, and buildings were around. They marched up the street to a more empty area.

Telling the crowd about Civil War weapons

Not the best pose by the captain

At the top of the road, they demonstrated various firing techniques. The first was a full volley, where everyone shot at the same time. The captain stood behind the troop and shouted orders at them, mostly to be heard over the noise (battlefields were especially noisy).

Ready, aim...!

The captain explained that often with two lines of soldiers, orders would be for the front line to fire and then reload while the back line fired. This system increased the frequency of fire, hopefully adding some intimidation to the attack. A soldier could typically fire every 20 seconds with a Civil War-era rifle.

Front fire

Back fire

L didn't last long with the loud noises going off (we noticed some of the soldiers had ear plugs!). J lasted a little longer, but not much. Going back to the main thoroughfare, L and Mommy discovered a Civil War-era surgeon who was discussing medical practices at the time. With him, coming early paid off because we had a good ten or fifteen minutes with him by ourselves.

Civil War surgeon

He told us that the medical schools of the time rarely had cases where surgeries were performed. A school with 100 students would typically have 50 surgeries a year, meaning the students participated in a surgery every other year. That's why they had the surgical theaters, where dozens of students looked down from a gallery at two or three guys performing a procedure. Once the war happened, surgeons were performing dozens of operations a day (mostly bullet removal or amputation). Many surgeons dropped out after the first year because of the stress but the ones who stuck it out became leaders in the medical field because of their level of experience.

He also explained a few procedures but I won't go into that detail. J and L asked questions about his equipment and the bullets. He explained how the new rifle technology (making the bullets spin to increase accuracy (called rifling), among other things) increased the level of casualties. In the Napoleonic era, after shooting two or three times, a round ball shot from an unrifled gun could go in any direction and not very far. Civil War rifles were much more reliable over much longer distances and repeated fire, resulting in many more injuries.

Of course, the biggest killer of soldiers in the Civil War wasn't being shot but getting infected. The surgeons would often perform procedure after procedure with no time to clean their instruments inbetween. Soldiers often spread diseases like pneumonia in their close quarters. Not a good time to be in the army.

We thanked the surgeon for his interesting stories and were soon on our way to find some lunch.

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