Not necessarily common knowledge

Published Aug. 22, 2014
Sitting in my uncle’s backyard in Winona at our July 4 gathering of family and friends, cousin Sheila described how she found a Minié ball in her garden. “I have no idea how it got there,” she said. When her friend did not know what she meant by a Minié ball, Sheila said, “You’ve been to Gettysburg; you should know what a Minié ball is.” But her friend did not.
“Sheila,” I said, “we grew up knowing about Minié balls, but I don’t think the average person knows what they are.” “You’re right; I probably teethed on them,” quipped Sheila.
I have been immersed in and surrounded by the 19th century from my earliest memory. My maternal grandfather owned a large collection of Civil War relics, participated in the Civil War Centennial re-enactments and owned a Civil War cannon. It was a normal experience for me to fall into the 19th century with every walk through his gun room, the floor covered with cannon balls and other relics, a glass showcase holding more items, a sword hanging above a doorway and a small room serving as the gunsmith room. On a trip to Georgia in 1972 for my cousin’s wedding, we went with my grandfather, my uncle (the father of the bride) and others to a small hill, the site of a Civil War fort, to hunt for Minié balls, and I picked up the 19th-century nails that Grandpap and Uncle tossed aside in favor of bullets.
I have read books about U.S. history my entire life, following in Grandpap’s reading interest. My favorite fiction as a child dealt with early U.S. history, and my favorite book of all, “Fiddle, Flute and the River” by William Grote, chronicled the adventures of two boys traveling down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the early 1800s. I have a photo of my mother, my paternal grandmother and I in which I am wearing a Civil War kepi (the military cap of the time), and I have a good suspicion where I got that cap.
I believe my grandfather liked to immerse himself in history, as do I. He liked the clothing of the 19th century, and he filled his gun room with relics that placed me squarely in the past. The room looked, appropriately, as if it had not been remodeled since the house was built in the 1800s Grandpap wrote a letter to my grandmother, I figure while he was at a re-enactment, in the style of a letter home from a solider to his wife, giving details of the campaign and postulating on the coming battle.
I enjoyed that sense of immersion on Sunday when I played at the Haines House in Alliance. I wore clothing in the style of the 19th century — white western shirt and tan canvas cowboy vest by Scully, blue early 1800s breeches by Jas. Townsend and Son, and brown Mosby hat by Dirty Billy’s of Gettysburg. I played traditional Celtic tunes and tunes I have written in that style, and my clothing and music sat well with the beautifully restored house that figured so prominently in the antislavery movement, to which I feel a strong connection through my Whitacre Quaker ancestors, who lived near Winona and may have been involved in the Underground Railroad.
I felt that way in August 1975 when my family visited Petersburg National Battlefield and I learned about living history, where re-enactors wore clothing of the Civil War era as part of their portrayal of the time. My mother commented on my discussing the latest issue of “Civil War Times Illustrated” with the park ranger at The Crater, where Union men, trying to end the siege, dug a tunnel under the Confederate lines and set off explosives, only to be shot to pieces in the crater they created. That day stayed with me, and to this day I prefer clothing of the 19th century to that of today, an interest that gelled after seeing those re-enactors. One short visit can influence a lifetime.
Petersburg National Battlefield will offer programs this weekend to commemorate the Battles of Weldon Railroad and Reams’ Station. And if you are wondering, the Minié ball was the conical lead bullet designed by Captain Claude-Etienne Minié of France. But I can’t tell you how one ended up in my cousin’s garden, but I have my theories.

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