By Kim Lyle
In an era when time travel has yet to be invented, we must settle for museums, photographs, films, and books to transport us into the past. Rarely is there an event that allows us to live and breath moments from before our time. But last weekend, members of the Baton Rouge community were given the opportunity to do just that. Through the interpretations of living historians and re-enactors, visitors were transported 153 years to a time when the Civil War first came knocking on Baton Rouge’s door.
The Battle of Baton Rouge began as an effort by the Confederate army to retake all of southern Louisiana from Union control. While New Orleans was the prize diamond, Baton Rouge was a worthy jewel, key in their aspirations of moving further south. In the end, it was the Union’s gunboats on the Mississippi that caused the Confederates to retreat. While the actual battle took place all across town, the reenactment was staged within the historically rich compounds of the Rural Life Museum.
The re-enactors came from a multitude of backgrounds, all sharing a love of history both on and off the field. Lawyers, teachers, doctors, and mechanics have all been known to wear the authentic wool uniforms and recite drill marches from the period. Historian Keith Bauer, first sergeant of the Union army, has been involved in the reenactments for an 15 years.
“It has always been in my nature,” said Bauer. “I played with Civil War soldiers as a kid and have spent 18 years as a relic hunter. It was a natural progression, one thing led to the next.”
A deep well of Civil War knowledge, Keith was able to describe the many differences between the reenactment and the way life actually was for the soldiers.
“We have fresh shirts, an ice chest, and hot food,” said Bauer. “Real soldiers had to forage for berries along the way, only had one or two clean shirts, and carried the minimal in their packs.”
It was not uncommon to see three men sharing a blanket on the ground, or walking barefoot to spare their shoes the wear. These men truly sacrificed everything to fight for what they believed in. By the battle’s end, over 16,000 men had made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Their life depended on it, we just play. We do it to honor them,” said Bauer.
The main event took place at midday, amidst dreary, grey skies. At the field’s center was a mockup of Magnolia cemetery, where the most heated action occurred. Live canons were repeatedly fired from each side, their sporadic blasts rattling the bones of onlookers.
After the live action subsided, visitors were able to walk through each soldier’s camps and see not just how they fought, but how they lived. Blacksmiths could be found at work in their shop. Women were preparing hobo stew for the night’s meal.
The museum’s curator of education, Steve Ramke, expressed several intentions for organizing the event.
“I hope that the public gains a greater appreciation for the context in which it took place and that they leave with a better understanding of how important an event this was,” said Ramke. “Even after 150 years we’re still feeling the repercussions of what happened there. It set the stage for the present and will set the stage for th