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Why Living History Part Four: Levity

Moonshine and Wood Sorrel


"Trooper Barleycorn? John Barlycorn? Anyone?"

Have you ever consumed moonshine? And not the silly stuff sold in liquor stores that comes in mason jars but is otherwise produced by a licensed distiller. I mean moonshine that is made by an individual with his or her own unlicensed equipment, somewhere on their property. I mean the stuff of mountain stills, the stuff the doctors drank on M.A.S.H. Hailing from within the shadow of the City of Chicago I did not grow up consuming moonshine, and as a resident of said area have access to a myriad of high-quality liquor stores that stock just about anything my little heart desires. So in short, the chances of me ever consuming real, homemade moonshine would have been slim to none- if it wasn’t for me becoming a Civil War reenactor.

Shiloh, Tennessee

I had the pleasure of participating with my unit in the National Sesquicentennial Event of the Battle of Shiloh, held in Southwestern Tennessee in April of 2012. As reenactments go, this was another great event that I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in. It introduced me to many things, some of which made a lasting impression on me. Moonshine was one of them. Now, it may come as a shock to all of you, but reenactors have a tendency to consume alcohol in their private hours after the events they are participating in are closed to the public for the day. Sitting around a fire drinking a beer or sipping some whisky is no less satisfying in 19th Century clothing than it is in a modern campsite. Plus, as we like to muse, alcohol was an essential element to war fighting for centuries and played an important role in our civil war, and so by us consuming it while reenacting we are just trying to be authentic. Anyway. Beer and bourbon (or any kind of whisky) is pretty standard stuff for my unit, and everyone brings along a quantity to suit themselves and maybe to share with others. At this particular event we had the pleasure of meeting and sharing a camp with many local reenactors who were either from the area or had come up from Mississippi.


For days we shared meals and mirth, and with that mirth came drink. It was the last night of the event, the next day being the final battle and then the pack down to go home, and one of the guys from Mississippi decided to produce a bottle from his tent that he had been saving. Except it wasn’t a bottle with a label, or really much of a bottle at all. It was a mason jar full of clear liquid that I was soon to find out was his own special recipe for moonshine. Well, it wasn’t long before everyone in camp was laughing and telling stories around the fire, and then singing around the fire, and then, well, doing a number of things foolish and/or regrettable around the fire. I personally found that I enjoyed the moonshine while smoking a cigar, which, retrospectively, I am lucky did not result in an explosion. I don’t recall at this time the exact details of how the remainder of the evening went, I can only recall that I was lucky to have found my tent at all and to catch some sleep before the hot, southern sun made its appearance the next (or same) day. And then…


Wood Sorrel


Have you ever consumed Wood Sorrel? Wood Sorrel is another one of those things that a boy growing up in the shadow of the City of Chicago would not typically be exposed to. That is, be exposed to in a sense that he would eat it. Wood Sorrel is a flowering plant that grows somewhat like a weed, and as such, is probably growing somewhere on the property of just about anyone who reads this. But here where I grew up, we were told specifically by our mothers not to eat plants and weeds that we find growing wild in our yards, and so therefore I did not grow up consuming Wood Sorrel. The reasons why I did on the final day at Shiloh are twofold; one, I was severely hungover from the moonshine that I had drank the night before and two, I was surrounded by individuals who had grown up in a rural setting and were therefore experienced in the arts of consuming wild plants for their healing properties. Now, I was in such a sad state of affairs that final hot morning that I must have produced a pitiful sight for all who cared to notice. (Mind you, on the last morning of an event of this size and length just about everyone is rough around the edges, yet I still stood out). As I sat in a wooden folding chair before my tent trying to pull myself together a local guy saw me and came over to check on me. “You know what you need? (I could think of a dozen things at least) Wood Sorrel. A good batch of Sorrel will fix you up good. Let’s go find some”. Now, being in the state that I was in I was in no position to argue, but I had my reservations to say the least as I followed this gentleman into the woods for I-knew-not-what.

As it turned out, we didn’t need to go too far to find a patch of what he sought; at the base of a large shady tree was a patch of low leafy plants with little white flowers blooming amongst the leaves. “There. There you go. Just go-on and grab some and eat it up”. Now again, I was not raised to find things in the woods and eat them and further, I had already experienced some stomach “unpleasantness” that morning and so was understandably wary of putting anything in me that I didn’t recognize. Sensing my hesitation (and undoubtedly laughing to himself about city-boy reenactors) he stooped down and grabbed a bunch of the stuff and popped it in his mouth. Whole and unwashed. “See, it’s good for you. Now grab a bunch and don’t be scared”. Looking at him, and feeling as bad as I did (the sunny south was particularly sunny that morning, which was making this worse) I just sighed and did as I was told. As I chewed the bitter plants in my mouth he just smiled and walked off with a wave, which made me think of the scene in the Princess Bride where Wesley has built up a tolerance for iocaine powder… Reserved to my fate I returned to my folding chair to await what came next, be it recovery or death. And as it turned out, it was mostly the former. I actually started to feel a little better! I was less queasy though my head still hurt, but I could suddenly stand without the feeling of fainting. Wood Sorrel was a wonder drug! At least it felt like it at the moment at any rate. The rest of the story need not be fleshed out: No, I didn’t suddenly feel great, but I was able to pull myself together and get through the rest of the event in mostly one piece. The long drive home to Illinois was a different story, but maybe that belongs in a separate post. The moral of the story is this- Being a reenactor will open your eyes to all kinds of new experiences if you let it, and can teach you a lot about what you should and shouldn’t put in your body. That’s (sometimes) what reenacting is all about.


R. E. Weston


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