THREE OAKS — For the third year in a row CIvil War battles raged in Three Oaks as re-enactors set up camp in Dewey Cannon Park July 26-28 for Civil War Days.
The opening ceremony (held in the park pavilion on Saturday morning, July 27) included presentation of the colors by members of American Legion Post 204, a welcome from Civil War Days Committee Founder and Chair Kathy Avery Alton and Treasurer Priscilla Lee Hellenga, and comments from both current State Rep. Brad Paquette and then President Abraham Lincoln (as portrayed by Murray Cox).
Paquette noted that “both the north and the south sang a similar song as they marched into the uncertainty of their near-ending future — ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ Lyrics rang out with much more impact, in my opinion, than cannon balls ever could have.”
He later noted that disease took over 400,000 of the 600,000-some lives lost in the Civil War, adding that the “disease of division” plagues us today.
“We perish to the most powerful enemy when we resent our neighbor and what he or she thinks or if he or she lives in a different fashion than we do.”
Lincoln (Cox) pointed out the proliferation of stars on the American Flag, originally numbering 13.
“Under the blessing of God each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country.”
Mark Scygiel (a re-enactor and Civil War Days Committee member) shared information written by fellow Civil War Days Committee member Randy Miller about the Three Oaks area during the Civil War, noting that more than 3,000 volunteers from Berrien County joined the war effort “with several hundred coming from the communities of Three Oaks, New Buffalo, Galien and Chikaming Township.”
Most from the local area were assigned to the 12th Michigan Infantry which mustered into duty in Niles for training in late 1861.
“On March 18th of 1862 the 12th was ordered to Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee to support the growing fighting force under general Ulysses S. Grant. The regiment reached the field in time to take part in the Battle of Shiloh.”
On Dec. 24th of that same year, he said 115 members of the 12th repulsed a force of 3,000 Confederate troops in Middleburg, Tennessee, earning a commendation from General Grant.
“Lincoln,” General (and future President) Ulysses S. Grant (portrayed by Larry Werline) and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (John P. Luna) met with visitors to the park for a Coffee with the Generals event Saturday morning, sharing their views (both contemporary and in hindsight). Each later made a solo presentation.
One little gem from “Stonewall” — “I do enjoy whiskey and I do enjoy tobaccy — but because I enjoy them they can’t be good for me.”
Connie Hansen portrayed Mary Wade, the mother of Jennie Wade, the only civilian casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg — sharing a harrowing tale of a home caught in the crossfire.
In addition to the re-enactors portraying soldiers, there were women in period costume such as Jessica Scygiel (a member of the Civil War Days Committee).
She helped younger visitors to the encampment play a Civil War-era ring toss game, and construct small log cabins and drums.
“We get so far into the period that I will help educate the women ... to get them to know what the women wore and what we did throughout a day. Women did actually more than what the men did ... We were the ones that took care of the house, we took care of everything at home.”
Her husband, Mark is a re-enactor in the Berdan’s Sharpshooters unit originally out of Grand Rapids.
On Sunday morning Pastor Rich Zeiger led a Real Life Church Service in Dewey Cannon Park. The Harbor Country Singers performed songs related to the Civil War on the Three Oaks Arts & Education Center’s Spring Creek Stage later that day.
Three battles took place during the weekend in a large field located between the local Elementary School and the Three Oaks Community Garden. As Dave Rowley of the Michigan 10th said after the final one on Sunday, they were representative of the thousands of skirmishes that took place during the Civil War.
The Confederate group (led by Bob Fragala, a captain in an Arkansas militia, and composed of members of the 7th Arkansas, the 11th Missouri Home Guard, the 1st of South Carolina and the Texas 5th) overran the Union Line to emerge triumphant in the first encounter at midday Saturday. Those same soldiers were wiped out by the Union side’s big, booming 20-pound Parrott cannon during an ill-advised charge later that afternoon.
The Sunday skirmish ended with the Rebels withdrawing to fight another day (“See you in Gettysburg!” one of the retreating re-enactors shouted).
Fragala said each re-enactor represents at least a hundred men.
“If we had fought live, the battle would have been over in seconds — the cannon would have wiped us out,” he noted.
Rowley said a total of about 40 Federals (including the 11th Missouri, the 18th Michigan , independents and the Berdan Sharpshooters) and 35 Confederate re-enactors (plus the artillery groups) were registered for Three Oaks Civil War Days.
There was plenty of taunting back and forth during the three fights, although nothing could be heard over the roar of cannon fire (blanks of course) that intermittently erupted on the battlefield.
The Union Side had both a smaller gun and the big Parrott “rifle” cannon which its operators said when loaded with a bullet-shaped shell backed by two pounds of black powder would recoil back 12 feet upon being fired (and those shells could travel more than two miles).
Rowley, who led the Union coalition during the battles, said he and his father (Norman, who passed away about 10 years ago) founded the state-wide group that today has more than 30 members during the Bicentennial in 1976.
“We’re one of the oldest groups in the state of Michigan today.”
He added that about 28 of his ancestors were in the Federal Army during the Civil War (including General Grant) and his grandmother knew some of them.
“My dad actually knew Civil War veterans where he was a young man ... so some of the stories he used to tell came from Civil War veterans.”
The encampment also offered views of 1860s life such as Christian Parker of Robinson’s Battery (First Michigan Light Artillery Battery C) preparing stew (beef, beans and taters) over an open fire.
Rick Jipping of Holland. Mich. said Cobb’s Battery (which brought three artillery cannons for the Confederate re-enactors) has a total of about 48 members from locales such as Coldwater, the South bend area and Battle Creek, 10 of whom were at the Three Oaks event. The group participates in about two re-enactor activities per month from April through October.
He said there’s even a Facebook member from Nigeria who joined because of his interest in the Civil War.
Jipping said the real Cobb’s Battery was a private artillery unit. And just like the real thing he owns the cannons (a total of six).
He said it was not uncommon for wealthy landowners to establish their own fighting units.
On Saturday night, Kathy Avery Alton and her daughter, Elizabeth, led a “Civil War Soldiers — Their Lives, Their Service and Their Stories” tour of 14 grave sites at Forest Lawn Cemetery south of the village, sharing information on such local veterans of the past such as John W. Smith, Oliver W. Brockway, Dr. John M. Paxon, Joshua Chatterson and Frederick Thaldorf. Many of the men buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery had faced both successes and hardships during their lives, with several losing many children and relatives to disease and misfortune. Some were injured during the war and some became prominent members of the local community.
Steve Williams, of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Michigan Department Camp 85 (who also participated in the cemetery tour), said the graves of more than 30 Civil War veterans have been identified in Forest Lawn Cemetery.