09/26/05 — Still defending Goldsborough: Re-enactors show visitors what it was like

View Archive

Still defending Goldsborough: Re-enactors show visitors what it was like

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on September 26, 2005 1:45 PM

The Confederate soldiers hidden in the woods lay silently, waiting for the battle to start. When the boom of a cannon opened the fighting shortly after 1 p.m., they arose and fired a volley into the left of the Union line. But it was a feint, designed to draw the bluecoat's attention away from the real attack, which would come from the opposite side of the field. With officers shouting commands, the gray line advanced, prepared to hold its ground.

Sunday's re-enactment of the Battle of Goldsborough Bridge was nothing like the real 1862 conflict. Instead of the more than 12,000 men who took part in the original battle, about 180 Civil War re-enactors wearing replica uniforms were under arms. And instead of the battle taking place at the original site south of Goldsboro, where the great railroad bridge once stood, the re-enactors were formed in a field and surrounding woods at Waynesbor-ough Park, a few miles away.

But the spirit of Sunday's re-enactment was much the same as it was 133 years ago. Saturday's re-enactment had been scripted, with each side advancing and retreating according to a set plan. But Sunday's re-enactment was open-ended, with each of the opposing forces free to take whatever action they felt would give them an advantage.

"Today is tactical," said Col. Chris Umfleet of the 12th N.C. Regiment, a resident of Youngsville, the commander of the Southern forces. "Today is for the re-enactors."

What would make someone wear a wool uniform on a hot September day, sleep overnight in mosquito-infested woods, and carry a 12-pound rifle for hours?

"It's a love of history," said Umfleet, surveying the Union lines through field glasses. "For some of us, it's the fact that our ancestors fought in the war. For some who can't trace their personal family history, it's a way of connecting with that history. It was the last 'civilized' war."

Across the field, Umfleet's counterpart, Gen. Eric Gardner, representing the 18th Corps of the Army of the James, stood among a small group of blue-coated officers, watching the Confederates prepare.

"We're just going to see who can get the best of the other," he said.

In the ranks, boys who looked like Cub Scouts joined ranks with men in their 70s. Back in camp, women and girls were dressed in period costume as well, working the cooking fires and tending to the "wounded." They came from a half-dozen states: Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania as well as from all parts of North Carolina. At least one Union soldier hailed from Great Britain. Some members of the 101st Pennsylvania Regiment were actual descendants of men who fought in the original outfit.

Steve Hecker was dressed as a sergeant-major on the Union side. A re-enactor for 15 years, he is originally from Queens, N.Y., but moved to Greenville about 20 years ago. Invited to join in a battle re-enactment by some friends, he became hooked on the role-playing and has portrayed both Confederate and Union soldiers. He has been part of five movie productions, the latest "Gods and Generals."

He said that when he first called his father in New York to tell him about his new hobby, the reaction wasn't positive. He had, after all, started out portraying a Confederate soldier.

"Daddy's disowned me," Hecker said, smiling.

Many of the re-enactors switch sides according to the needs of the engagement, he explained. With so many re-enactments being fought in the South, it often became one-sided, with hundreds dressed in gray and only a handful in blue. So a lot of re-enactors took on Union roles to even things up, Hecker explained.

Sunday's "fighting" opened with a cannonade by both sides. When the Confederates hidden in the woods near the Neuse River were discovered it threw Union plans off for a while but the Union guns were pulled up and soon dislodged them. At that point the main Confederate line made its assault from the opposite side of the field. Marching in strict formation, the main body of Union troops counter-attacked. At one point the two sides blazed away not 30 yards apart.

Finally, the rebels made a furious assault on the Union center and were repulsed. The battle was over. The hundred or so spectators applauded. Unlike the real battle, the "dead" arose and shook hands before marching back to camp.

Afterward, back at his headquarters tent, Gardner appraised the day's events.
"Another well-earned Union victory," he said.