Cedar Creek re-enactors bring battle to life

[Northern Virginia Daily] Death, disease and injury are unavoidable consequences of war.

And during the Civil War, hurting was a whole lot harder than it is today.

“The most popular operation was amputation, and they did a lot of those,” said Lori Beth Tolbert, who was demonstrating the role of a federal sanitary commission nurse at Saturday’s Battle of Cedar Creek reenactment.

Tolbert, stationed at the edge of the battlefield, was waiting for the wounded to arrive with hospital kitchen matron Patricia Backus and other members of the 1st Battalion Hospital 155th New York Unit.

Sweet-smelling wood smoke billowed as she and Backus tended bubbling cauldrons of coffee and water in preparation for the casualties to come.

“A lot of times when the men came in, they would give them coffee or tea or whisky,” Tolbert said. “Some kind of stimulant to keep them from going into shock.”

While caffeine and alcohol helped a little, those faced with the surgeon’s saw needed more than a stiff drink, the women said, shaking opiates out of a jar.

“Some of them run away,” said Keith Backus, sitting across the way under the doctor’s fly – a canvas awning. “We’ve got handcuffs we cuff them with.”

Backus was getting ready to do some real screaming in a mock-up amputation.

“I’ll be getting this cut off,” he said, holding up a bloody prosthetic hand with a bullet hole in it. “They’re going to throw it in a bucket.”

While “Doc” Paull R. Hanson – a retired doctor in real life – supervised, Tolbert made up his hand to look like the plastic one, in blood red and black, for the gangrene.

Hanson, 73, has been a Civil War re-enactor for 23 years.

“I’m not as old as the instruments, but I’m close,” he cackled.

A longtime collector of medical paraphernalia, Hanson proudly displayed a vast array of instruments, from saws and scalpels to vintage glass vials containing remnants of remedies.

He can vouch for their authenticity, but not their healing properties.

“Most of the pills in there were not that great,” he said, holding a bottle labeled “Blue Mass” aloft. “Some of them were very harmful.”

Blue Mass — a common cure for constipation — was made out of chalk and mercury, a highly toxic substance, he said.

As well as demonstrating how Civil War surgeons healed, Hanson makes his own wounds.

Searching for a sore for his prospective amputee, Hanson pulled out a wooden box and rummaged with glee, finally settling on a leg wound painted on pantyhose.

Backus rolled up his federal blue pants and pulled it on, as wide-eyed bystanders watched.

As cannons and guns boomed in the background, the walking wounded started to stagger up, and the battalion swung into action.

“They’ll send one surgeon around to see who needs to be operated on first,” Tolbert said.

Shattered bone could not be repaired, she explained — hence the need for amputations. But those men fared better than soldiers with head or bowel injuries, who were almost certain to die.

These men were set aside and made comfortable, she said, while surgeons saw to those with a chance of living.

The unlucky ones ended up with the black-frocked civilian embalming surgeon, Don Carothers.

“I embalm to transport the body home,” Carothers said. “The railroad would not ship a body that was smelling because they believed it was not safe – it caused disease.”

So for a modest fee – about $25 for enlisted soldiers and $50 for officers – Carothers enabled the dead to return to their families – and their family plot.

He also offered the services of his wife, Linda, as a professional mourner for $1 a day.

The newest member of the group, Carothers volunteered to play the part of a wounded soldier at a reenactment in Pennsylvania a year ago.

“The embalmer didn’t work out, and I fit the jacket,” he said.

Like most members of the group, Carothers has personal ties to the war.

His great grandfather, Asa Rose, served in the 4th West Virginia Ohio Army Infantry. He died in 1920 “as a crotchety old man.”

While Mrs. Backus grew up in Pennsylvania and her husband in West Virginia, their ancestors, Isaac Cullen and Salathiel Donohue, both of the 12th West Virginia Company, fought together in the Battle of Cedar Creek.

“[Donohue] was captured here and was taken to Andersonville, [Ga.], the Confederate’s worst prison camp, and that’s where he died,” Backus said.

He was just 19 years old.

To honor his memory, Backus has purchased 1 square foot of the Cedar Creek battlefield.

His little piece of history, along with the plots of others who have chosen to honor their ancestors in the same way, forms an invisible net across the site.

This makes the land difficult to sell, he said, so future generations can come back, and for a day or two, sense what it was like to fight the in the Civil War.

First appeared in Northern Virginia Daily, October 19, 2002