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June 19, 2011
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

A curious young boy looked up Saturday afternoon at mustached and bearded Gens. Robert E. Lee and "Jeb" Stuart, both in uniforms.

"Are y'all from the South or the North?" the boy asked. "We're from the South, sir," responded genteel Lee. Actually, he is David Chaltas of Jeremiah, Ky. Gen. Stuart, in real life Wayne Jones of North Augusta, S.C., said later that is a big reason why Civil War re-enactments are important: to educate young people. If that little boy didn't know about the Civil War before, "he'll know after today," Jones said. Minutes later, Union and Confederate cannons began firing from about 75 yards apart in a field at the Smith River Sports Complex in Axton in a prelude to the re-enactment of the Battle of Martinsville. That actually was a hotly contested cavalry fight on April 8, 1865, according to writer Darryl Holland. The re-enactment, which continues today at the sports complex, is being presented by the Stuart-Hairston Camp 515 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) in Martinsville. As the cannons fired Saturday, Jones and Chaltas crossed a rope separating spectators from the combatants. Chaltas began to speak, perhaps partly to the spectators and perhaps pumping up the battle re-enactors: "They are coming to Virginia. Virginia, remember your heritage. ... We do this for God, we do this for country, and we do this for honor ... ." Chaltas referred to the smell of cannon fire as ambrosia. It also smelled a little like burned eggs. Jones told the spectators that war re-enactments bring history to life and engage the senses more than reading about history in a book. In all, about 18 Union and 25 or so Confederate soldiers from several states took part in the approximately 45-minute re-enactment of the Battle of Martinsville in Saturday's hot, humid weather. At each end of the battlefield were infantry soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in a couple of lines behind one another and firing their muskets/rifles. The soldiers on both sides had to reload after each shot (traditionally a maximum of three times a minute). Standing shoulder to shoulder in formation made their firepower more concentrated and presumably could kill more enemy that way. In the real Battle of Martinsville, which was a calvary engagement (soldiers on horseback), Union soldiers had repeat-firing rifles while the Confederates could fire only one shot at a time, and local historian Tom Perry said he thinks that was why Union soldiers won the battle. Union forces also outnumbered the Confederates. After several volleys of fire in the re-enactment, the Union forces had the advantage as more Confederate bodies lied strewn on the field. "Load 'em up, boys. Load 'em up," a Confederate sergeant yelled, instructing his soldiers to reload their weapons. At one point, he scolded one soldier: "Are you a coward?" Several times, the Union forces slowly advanced a few feet, standing shoulder to shoulder, and began firing again in the new location. The Confederates would back up a few feet to a new position, from which they would shoot. Ransom Autry of Thomasville, N.C., portrayed a Confederate surgeon and has researched them. He wore a white medical coat and carried a yellow flag but no weapon. He said in an interview earlier that as a surgeon he would try to save the wounded soldiers, amputating legs when bullets shattered leg bones, removing bullets and sewing up wounds when leg injuries were less severe. Autry said he would have an assistant put those with head and gut wounds in the shade, give them morphine or if a medical painkiller wasn't available, a mixture of liquor and water, and give them a chance to write their final letters to loved ones because in most cases they wouldn't survive. Only after he finished attending those on the battlefield with a greater chance of survival, would he return to attend to those with head and gut injuries, Autry said. On one Union volley, nearly a dozen Confederates were brought down. Confederate reinforcements came, but the Union soldiers continued to advance. On the sporadic times when Union soldiers were shot, some of the spectators cheered. Finally, the Union soldiers charged, walking fast or running, toward the Confederates. Some Confederates were killed by gunfire; some, like historian and Confederate re-enactor Allen Jackson of Ridgeway, engaged in hand-to-hand combat before dying. Only a couple Confederate soldiers escaped. Afterward, Confederate re-enactor Gary Elliott of Danville said he was hot and sweaty during the battle in his long-sleeved, multilayered uniform. He said he has taken part in several dozen re-enactments since 2006, and this one felt like "a tactical demonstration," showing how troops maneuvered. He has been in some re-enactments with as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people where he got more of an adrenalin charge and experienced what amounted to tunnel vision, where he was focused only on what was in front of him, he said. One of the close to 200 spectators, a woman who declined to give her name, giggled that she liked the re-enactment - except her side lost. Richard Handy of Martinsville, who has been to several re-enactments before, said it was "great. You can see something not so far away. I just hope it gets bigger." He said it was the first re-enactment attended by his 10-year-old son, Gage, who was thrilled with it. For instance, the sound of real gunfire is nothing like you hear on TV, dad said. "I think it will spark his interest in Civil War history," Richard Handy said, adding that Gage now wants to read "Red Badge of Courage." Pam Thrush of Roanoke, who knows one of the re-enactors, said, "It was very interesting. I would like to go to more of them. It seemed authentic." Her 12-year-old son, Gabe, said, "I really loved it," and he added that he would like to become a re-enactor. "I really like the Civil War." Daniel Young is the current commander of Stuart-Hairston Camp 515 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) in Martinsville, which presented this first re-enactment of the Battle of Martinsville, and he hopes it will become an annual event. He said having a re-enactment was a long-time dream of commander Raymond Sayers, who died in 2009, and all 15 camp members wanted to hold it and "have done everything they possibly could" to put it on. Virginia King, president of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, who placed her hands on her ears during part of the gunfire, said events such as the re-enactment bring visitors to the area, which helps the economy, and she thinks visitors will go home, tell others about it, and more people will come next year. Perry said it was a pretty good turnout for a first re-enactment, and he thinks the event has great potential, especially considering the sports complex is near a major highway and Martinsville had a real battle, whereas with some re-enactments there was no battle there. The re-enactment will continue today. Gates will open at 9 a.m., a church service by Parson Alan Farley is scheduled for 11 a.m., and the battle will begin at 2 p.m. Several "sutlers" (representing people who traveled around and sold provisions to Civil War troops) and vendors are set up. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children 12 and younger. Parking is free.