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By Staff | Aug 17, 2012

The roar of artillery shook the small valley to its bedrock. The crackling staccato of small arms fire filled the air. The dead and the wounded were scattered all about, the human wreckage of warfare cluttering the verdant vale.

Despite this, the surgeon and the undertaker endured deep disappointment. There was no business for either of them that day. In other words, it was another successful battle at Pipestone Civil War Days.

This is the second time my wife and I have been a part of Civil War Days. We have found this to be an extremely pleasurable experience due to the fact that I enjoy the idea of watching history being recreated and my wife enjoys the idea of dressing up.

It’s quite clear that my wife is not alone in this as there were a large number of ladies wearing period garb. Some were decked out in clouds of fancy fabrics and floated along as if they were hovering on some sort of antigravity device. Other ladies wore dresses that would be considered work or everyday clothing. A good example of this would be the woman who physically helped her husband roll out their cannon.

I chatted with her later and learned that she is from Hastings, Neb.

“We attend about four encampments each year,” she said, referring to gatherings similar to Pipestone Civil War Days. “This is one of the most enjoyable encampments. We know a lot of the reenactors here. Many of them are like family to us.”

My attention was drawn to a cannoning demonstration being conducted by Confederate artillerymen. The commander of the artillery crew explained what his men were doing and why. One step involved the use of a sponge on a stick to clean the gunk from the bore of the cannon. This must be similar to brushing one’s teeth, except on a slightly larger scale.

Even though I was fully prepared for it and absolutely knew what was coming, I jumped about a foot off the ground when they touched off that big gun. I was glad I had taken the precaution of making a preemptory bathroom visit.

I wandered down to the Union encampment where I came across a couple of ladies who were wearing Victorian hausfrau frocks and were knitting beside a campfire. I chatted amicably with them and learned that they were from Fargo and that they attend several encampments each year.

I made a remark about knitting being a lost art and that it was wonderful for them to make a live demonstration, but one of the ladies quickly corrected me.

“We started a knitting class a few years ago,” she said. “At first, we didn’t have enough people to fill one class. Now we have a waiting list of folks who want to learn how to knit.”

A short ways away a trio of Union soldiers, one of whom was puffing lazily on a pipe, lolled on the grass next to a small canvas tent. It reminded me of how I once read that a Civil War soldier’s life consisted of endless periods of boredom punctuated by random moments of extreme terror.

Our friend Myron Koets was plying his trade as Dr. Cranium, a peripatetic phrenologist. It was a hoot to watch him examine the skull bumps of volunteer audience members and deliver analyses of their personalities. An amazingly high percentage of Dr. Cranium’s patients were diagnosed as having messy closets – and most admitted that this was true.

A great battle takes place each day during Civil War Days. The Union forces march out onto the field, their uniforms looking crisp and uniformly blue. The Confederate troops took their place, their uniforms variously colored and somewhat ragtag.

The men lined up in ranks and aimed their muskets at each other. It’s hard to imagine how they did this in real life, with real ammunition being pointed at one another. It’s hard to imagine how they resisted the urge to throw down their muskets and run the other way.

Spectators watched from the sidelines as the battle raged back and forth. A pair of ladies who were wearing huge hoop skirts were seated on the ground, surrounded by circular ponds of fabric. It mystified me as to how they managed to perch on the earth while wearing such vast accouterments. I was going to observe how they regained their feet, but when I glanced again they were walking away. I suspect some sort of spring mechanism may have been involved.

Civil War Days is a wonderful learning event and should be experienced by everyone. And if you don’t agree with that, you should see Dr. Cranium.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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