With the roll of a snare drum to keep them in step, 75 new "recruits" to the Confederate Army on Sunday kicked off one of North Carolina's first commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
"Left, right, left-right-left," a platoon sergeant called as the unruly columns of soldiers headed across a field at the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site. Costumed re-enactors and spectators playing the roles of Army volunteers jostled and joked with one another as they marched.
"Quiet in the ranks," the sergeant shouted.
Re-enactments are a popular way for Americans to learn about their history, and big anniversaries are a boon for both spectators and the people who stage the events. North Carolina's historic sites division has planned at least 141 events tied to the 150th anniversary of the war, many involving actors who spend thousands of dollars on authentic clothing and gear.
Normally, re-enactments at Bentonville take visitors back to March 19-21, 1865, near the end of the war, when Gen. Joseph Johnston made a last effort to stop the army of Gen. William Sherman, which was making its way back north after the March to the Sea. While the fight at Bentonville was serious enough to force Sherman himself to detour to join the battle, Johnston eventually was defeated. Soon after, he surrendered at Bennett Place near Durham, all but ending the war.
Every five years, Bentonville holds a re-enactment of the battle.
After the secession
But Saturday and Sunday, the historic site was taken back four years earlier, to the spring of 1861, before the farm fields were turned into a battlefield, before John and Amy Harper's house became a hospital for wounded soldiers.
North Carolina had joined other Southern states in seceding from the union in May of that year and was recruiting soldiers to fight a war they expected to come soon.
While state historians have no evidence that the Harpers' home was used as a recruiting station, there were several such mustering centers across the state. Raleigh had one, said William C. Harris, a retired N.C. State University history professor and author on the Civil War.
Army built from scratch
When then-Gov. John W. Ellis issued the call for recruits, Harris said, "There was great enthusiasm," despite the fact that less than a quarter of the state's population owned slaves.
Over the course of the war, 125,000 North Carolinians would serve in the Confederate Army, a third of whom would die, either from battle injuries or illness.
But the eager volunteers portrayed Sunday saw the war as a great adventure. They expected to be victorious, and many thought the fighting would be over and they would be home within six months.
Though some had military experience from serving in the federal Army or in the state's militia, most were farmers or shopkeepers who barely knew a platoon from a spittoon. They were offered a bounty for signing up, asked about their general health and given their enlistment papers.
Sunday's re-enactment demonstrated for about 100 spectators the difficulty Army officers had in 1861 turning green recruits into an organized force. The state was ill-prepared to outfit such a large number of volunteers with uniforms and working weapons, and the soldiers had no idea how to carry a rifle or march in formation.
Kendall Smith of LaGrange tried to get them in line.
Representing a first sergeant from the 27th North Carolina, Company D, Smith showed the soldiers right from left and taught them how to count off, form columns and march in unison. They would also have had to learn how to cook for themselves and grow accustomed to carrying 60-pound packs.
Smith, 46, said he participates in these events in recognition of his great-great-grandfather, who served in the Confederate Army and walked home from Appomattox Courthouse after the South surrendered.
"It's just my way of honoring my grandfather and what he endured," he said. Doing so in front of an audience, he said, "helps them understand. It brings it all to life."