What Was It Really Like?
A letter below written by my father, John Hill, in 1996 in regards to being asked the ancient old question, “What was it really like fighting in the Civil War?” How did those soldiers really feel about the war?” The below letter was published in the Johnny Reb III rulebook on page 63. For more information about the Johnny Reb III wargame design and reference charts, click here.
Unfortunately, I don’t know. Despite 30 years of study and almost 10 of civil war Reenacting I feel that my understanding of the civil war battlefield will always incomplete. The more I learn the more I realize how little I know. I have read hundreds or reports and first hand accounts, participated in large reenactments, and have been heard the rattle of a thousand muskets and the roar of massed guns. But, I know not the actual battle. I have not been forced to march 26 miles and plunge into a desperate battle as did A. P. Hill at Antietam. I have not experienced battle, but I believe that it has to be one of the most confusing and horrible experiences known to man. And Civil War, in terms of carnage per unit area and time, was one of the worst.
In an attempt to decide what it was like, I have been forced to rely on the writings of men who were there and may own experiences as a re-enactor. Both are useful viewpoints and offer insights not offered by the other. However, both are also limited. Very few civil war participants were able to present an objective retelling of what they saw, what they did , and why they did it. Immediate regimental, brigade, or division reports were often shaped to insure what they did, and why they did it, were seen in the most favorable light possible. Postwar memoirs while exceptionally useful were often written to prove a point or vindicate an action. But by studying these records and in participating in many battle reenactments, I have begun to discern a pattern, and that pattern was that there was no pattern.
Battle, was the ultimate stress situation. The noise alone often made conversation between adjacent men exceptionally difficult. Maps were often worthless and visibility could be random and prone to constant change. Rosecrans, in attempting to direct the Battle of Chickamauga, had difficulty locating his own army, let alone that of the enemy. Even down at the regimental level, the simple problem of positioning yourself to effectively face the enemy was no small task. AT Wilson’s Creek, for instance, one Union regiment became so confused that its actually formed and dressed on a Confederate regiment. When I fought in the Wilderness reenactment, as a private in the 19th VA, the tree canopy trapped the musket smoke and visibility dropped to no more than twenty yards – less than inch of Johnny Reb terrain. In such an environment, I am lead to believe that an atmosphere of swift change and constant crises was the defining element of the civil war battlefield, and in reality, most of the participants may have had very little control over what has happening. Often, once the armies were engaged, the higher the level of command, the less control you had. You could be left – as was Grant at the Wilderness — with little to do except whittle.
So, in many respects, this game [Johnny Reb] despite its wealth of detail and ten years of evolution cannot even begin to simulate the sweeping maelstron of a civil war battle. It is, at best, a pale reflection of the actual event.
Falls Church, VA, 1996
This is quite a refreshing piece of writing. There seems to be a lot of analytical studies and books written about war situations, but I like how John’s letter points out that at a basic level a battlefield can be little more than chaos and confusion. I’m sure this is probably how the civil war participants felt.
Thanks for sharing this – it made a good read!
Thank you Mara for commenting on this article. Have a wonderful day!
Stephanie, thanks for sharing this letter.
I have always believed that our civil war was the worst one this country ever engaged in. Yet, at the same time, it could be argued that it was as important as the Revolution that led to our independence. You see, our country began moving in the same direction, after this, and it has led to the greatest country in the world.
Who could see, at ground level, the meaning of what was happening and where it would lead?
You are correct in that our country’s Civil War was the worst one this country ever engaged in. It is always a huge devastation to see any country divided instead of standing proud and united. I like what you said about being at ground level and seeing the true meaning of what was happening and where it would lead. It is easy to lose sight of what really matters and start a huge war over things like religion, land, and politics. My father studied war as a military analyst and wargame designer to include games such as Squad Leader and Johnny Reb thus, his inspiration behind writing this letter. You can read more about my father here.
Many thanks for the comment.
I find the Civil War one of the most interesting topics even in today. I love history ever since I was in school and also would ask my Grandmother questions about things she saw as a young girl.
I remember traveling to places like Fort Scott and different areas growing up and watching some reenactments, none of the big ones unfortunately.
I enjoyed reading your Dad’s letter and will be reading more of your website. I just want to say thank you for sharing his letter.
Thank you Robert for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed reading my father’s letter on Johnny Reb. Please feel free to explore the website.
Very nice, and informative letter from your father. I like reading about the Civil War and history in general. The description of the battlefield was of interest to me as it’s the first time I had heard about the smoke from gunfire couldn’t get through the tree tops and limited visibility as it did. Something one just does not think about, but that makes him a great writer in my opinion. His writing brings out the feeling like you are right there with them. Very nice and glad I had a chance to read it. Thanks for sharing.
Many thank Al for the kind words. My father was a very detailed writer who was able to allow his readers to look through the eyes of the characters in the story. Every good writer has the ability to put you right there in the story scene. As he said, no one can truly understand the enormous impact that war can have on a person who was in the front line combat zone. The American Civil War (ACW) was the most devastating war of our time in the opinion of many historians, including my father. Thank you Al for taking the time to read.
Wow! That is a great letter, its rare to have in writing a physical account of what so many soldiers went through in battle.
I have two relatives, both of which who have passed, that fought in wars. My grandfather fought in WWII, and my dad did two tours in Vietnam. To hear the stories that my grandfather told, its hard to truly imagine what they went through both physically and mentally. Sadly all we have are the memories of those stories, as we were not lucky enough to have any of that info put down on paper. A truly great read!
Thank you Jennifer. I am glad you enjoyed reading this letter. Please feel free to continue perusing this website for other articles about the legacy my father left behind.
Very inspirational letter by your father, I totally agree with him that we do not know what a war actually looks like and frankly I hope not to see one in my lifetime. But all the documentaries and movies that have tried to showcase wars makes us think how it would have been. Really nice post, made me stop and remember our forgotten war heroes.
Thank you for your comment. I am glad you enjoyed the letter written by my father in regards to Johnny Reb III. War is definitely not a pretty thing and it is important to always remember our fallen heroes and never forget what they sacrificed for us. Please come back and visit again soon.
I must say that as much I’m not into wars or history in general I really enjoyed reading this post of yours. Especially the letter from your father.
What a inspirational man!!!
And you are indeed following his steps as Linda mentioned in her comment.
And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy reading your articles. Because you’re honest and motivational person.
Thank you for sharing this with us!
All the best to you!
Thank you for the very kind and generous words/compliments. I am glad you have enjoyed reading all of my articles and thank you for following along. I find it rather therapeutic to write about my father – a sort of healing if you know what I mean. Wishing you the absolute best.
What an great writer your father. Very nice post Stephanie.
Your father is such an inspiration to all of us through his writings.
You have been doing such a incredible job threw your writings Stephanie. You are indeed following in your fathers footsteps I feel.
I really enjoyed reading this post “Johnny Reb”.
Thank you for sharing your fathers story and best wishes to you…
Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate those words. You are probably right – perhaps I have inherited some of my father’s writing genes. I love to write and I know he did as well. Thank you for visiting today and reading. I know you are a regular visitor and I appreciate your continued encouragement.