"Careful, don't step on the wounded, boys"
That’s what we call it, anyway. “Taking hits”. That is the act of pretending one has been wounded or killed as a result of “enemy fire” during a battle scenario. As a reenactor I probably get asked the most questions in regards to the act of “taking hits”. As in, “how do you know when you are hit?” “Are you guys actually shooting things at each other?” “Is someone keeping score?” “Does it hurt to get hit?” etc., etc. Briefly, the act of taking a hit is a skill all unto itself, and is a necessary aspect of being a Civil War reenactor. During battle scenarios we are firing real gunpowder at each other, but nothing more (no projectiles). This gives the effect of combat without most (yes most) of the danger. Yes, exploding gunpowder is still dangerous without a projectile, whether it is being fired out of a pistol, rifle, or especially, a cannon. The very act of operating a percussion weapon endangers the user, and anyone standing too close to the muzzle upon discharge can be injured by the energy released or burned by the powder, or obviously both. Reenactors need to be mindful of what they are doing when handling their weapons, even though no projectiles are involved, lest they themselves or others become injured (or killed) in the process.
Anyway, the act of taking a hit is important because it helps drive home to the spectators that even though 19th Century combat can appear strange and even comical to the modern eye, nearly three-quarters of a million men were killed in this manner during our Civil War. The taking of a hit is usually a spontaneous decision made on the part of the individual in response to how the battle is developing around him. If one find himself is such a situation that being hit would be highly likely, such as when you are being faced with overwhelming firepower or are being pressured by overwhelming numbers of enemy combatants, then it is only right to do so. In order to make it look “right”, however, one must be familiar with the art.
One- U.S. Civil War-era percussion weapons, while being fairly inaccurate, were powerful despite their appearances and did terrible damage to anything that managed to be hit by them.
Two- U.S. Civil War combatants were generally of diminutive size and often malnourished and sickly to boot, making their ability to withstand gunshot wounds (especially large ones) slight at best.
Three- Combat often took place at ridiculously close ranges, making the act of being wounded or killed in combat a very public spectacle.
Four- This was the Victorian Era, and as such, men comported themselves in a manly manner of fashion when faced with death, even upon being mortally wounded.
All of that taken together means roughly; to do this right, you have to make it look painful while at the same time not to cry out and grovel unnecessarily. You have to be able to time it as to look as if you have been hit by enemy fire, yet be far enough away from said fire as to not actually be injured by it. And it needs to be done in front of spectators, if possible.
As a rule, I always try to get hit. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve made it through a battle scenario unscathed in all the years I’ve done this. And as a rule, I am a dramatic die-er. I have gotten my prat falls and gymnastic tumbles down to a humble form of science, so much so in fact that there have been times that onlookers have been genuinely concerned for my well being when seeing me do so. In all the countless times that this has happened, a recent incident stands out in my mind which I will share here.
This past spring my unit and I participated in a local event in Elgin Illinois, held annually on the old mental health hospital grounds. This is actually a really cool local event that is steeped with melancholy and history, and some would say even the paranormal. One of the reasons why it is so great is that the spectators are really actually pretty close to a lot of the action as the designated battlefield area is rather narrow and long. During the battle scenario this past spring I found myself near the end of the scenario pushing forward with a small squad of dismounted troopers against several mounted troopers opposite. In doing so, we swung directly in front of the spectator line, putting us literally within feet of the barrier. As shots were being exchanged I dashed ahead to engage an opposite number, and while discharging a pistol took a hit from his leveled carbine which sent me sprawling backwards and to the ground.
A hard hit. I literally snapped back and then dropped flat on my back like a stone, not to move again until the conclusion of the battle. Well, when I took my hit I happened to be right in front of a large group of spectators, with not a few families. I was close enough to hear the collective “gasp” from the crowd and to catch a few people cry out as I slammed to the ground. I could also hear a child start to cry, and to start pleading with his mother that I had been shot and killed. Another child was crying as well, likely as a result of the first child crying. Laying there, despite the continued gunfire I could hear the mother trying to explain that I was “okay” and that we were just acting, but the child was adamant and getting more upset by the minute. This had an effect on those around him, as I then heard a man try to assure the child, only to question if I was okay himself by saying “I’m sure he’s alright, he’ll probably get up when everyone else does”. This all played out for maybe three minutes or less as the battle scenario wound down around me, with the concerned child continuing to cry and to plead and those around him starting to doubt that I was indeed still alive.
Then it happened. The “all clear” (or resurrection) was sounded, and all of us casualties slowly (and painfully) began to pull ourselves up and to give the customary wave to the crowd. As I rose I decided that I would walk over to the crowd to show them that indeed all was well and to locate the crying child if possible. Which proved to be easier than I had thought, since as I started to make my way over a boy of about seven with a tear-streaked face was jumping up and down while holding his mother’s hand at my approach. When I reached them I smiled and asked them if they had enjoyed the show, and as they all began to chime in about how much they thought I had really been hurt the little boy grabbed my coat sleeve and asked “are you really okay?” “Yes I am, but thank you for being so concerned. You don’t have to be upset for me, but this was a very serious thing in real life and many men just like me would have really been hurt or killed in a battle like this. It’s important to remember that when you come out to things like this with your family, and important to remember when you read about it in a book or talk about it in a classroom.” And then he just looked up at me and said, “That didn’t look like it does in my book at all”, and then gave me a small and gentle hug. That’s what reenacting is all about.
R. E. Weston