The Grand Army of the Republic’s “Sham Battles”

Civil War Battle Reenactment
Civil War Reenactors at a recent reenactment of the Battle of Carthage in Missouri. Photo Credit: KOMU 8 Television,

In my last post, I reflected on the many reasons why people dress up in Civil War clothing and take time out of their busy schedules to engage in battle reenactments. I shared some thoughts on why I don’t really care for battle reenactments, and I questioned whether engaging in a battle reenactment was an appropriate way to “honor” the services of Union and Confederate soldiers.

For this post, I’d like to share some findings I made during my research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana. Although I still believe that most veterans in America don’t particularly care for battle reenactments, I was surprised to find a few newspaper articles detailing two separate instances in the 1890s in which GAR members and the Sons of Union Veterans participated in what they described as “sham battles.” I find these sham battles to be quite strange, and I do not propose to have definitive answers for why they took place. I’ve spent a good amount of time with these sources but my forthcoming proposals are largely speculative. Take them with a grain of salt and remember that just because some GAR members engaged in reenactments doesn’t mean that they all approved of these events.

On March 28, 1890, the American Tribune–an Indianapolis newspaper run by GAR members that was largely popular with Union veterans who fought in the Western Theater–published an article entitled “Some Rare Fun.” Roughly 200 GAR members and Sons of Union Veterans in Peru, Indiana, descended upon the property of “Captain Blake” (who was most likely Philander Blake, a member of William B. Reyburn Post 56 in Peru). Blake was about 70 years old at the time and lived roughly five miles southeast of the city. The article explains that all participants received muskets and cartridge blanks. “Here the forces were divided and one division composed of [GAR] veterans with the cannon, took a position on the ridge about a quarter of a mile beyond the house and in full view of it, while the attacking division, composed of the Sons of Veterans, were posted in the edge of the woods about half mile away… It was about eleven o’clock when the forces were ready for business. Boom went the cannon. It awoke everybody for miles around.”

The article then takes an absurdly melodramatic tone. It also appears that Blake takes the battle too seriously. The author describes Blake as rushing back into the house, shouting out  “tear up all the sheets we’ve got, for there’ll [sic] be a hundred wounded men here in ten minutes.” He also proclaims, “Maria, if I fall in this engagement name both the twins after me so if anything happens to one, my name will still be preserved to posterity, and remember that I died with my face to the enemy doing my whole duty.” As the “war” concludes, everyone, including many of the neighbors, head over to Captain Blake’s house where “Mrs. B,” the ever-dutiful wife, is making baked beans, bread, and coffee for “the Peruvians.”


On May 23, 1899, the Indianapolis Journal sent a reporter to the State Encampment of the Indiana GAR, an annual event in which veterans from all over Indiana met for several days to fraternize, march in parade, and make speeches about the Civil War and current-day political concerns. The 1899 Encampment was held in Terre Haute, where a “record breaking” attendance of 20,000 came out to see two hours of band music, military exhibition drills, and a sham battle fought by the GAR, the Sons of Union Veterans, and the veterans of the recently concluded Spanish-American War. Since the war had ended less than a year earlier, the participants decided to stage a reenactment of the Battle of El Caney, a battle in which the Americans successfully attacked Spanish fortifications at El Caney, Cuba, but at the expense of 81 dead and 360 wounded. The article gives names for who commanded the “Spanish Garrison” and the “United States Forces,” but does not clarify whether they were GAR or Sons of Union Veterans members. A lengthy description of the reenactment–which included the use of Gatling Guns and trench warfare tactics–ends with “the Spanish colors being replaced by those of the United States.”

Why did these reenacments take place, and why were GAR veterans so excited to participate? Could you imagine veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq (the first one), Afghanistan, and Iraq (the second one) engaging in battle reenactments of those terrible wars? It simply boggles my mind thinking about.

I think that part of the reason why these veterans engaged in battle reenactments has to do with the popularity of fraternal societies and their associated rituals, a movement that began after the Civil War at the height of the Victorian Era and lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s. W.S. Harwood, a journalist writing for the North American Review in 1897, described the period as the “Golden Age of Fraternity.” Voluntary fraternal societies like the Odd Fellows, Freemasons, Knights of Pythias, and the Grand Army of the Republic all enjoyed national memberships that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The GAR, for instance, hit its peak in 1890 with more than 400,000 members, 25,000 of which came from Indiana, according to Dennis NorthcottJason Kaufman points out that nearly half of all White males in America were a part of some voluntary association during this time (groups like the Elks Lodge kept African Americans away, although it should be noted that the GAR accepted African American Civil War veterans into their ranks).

In 1963, Emile Durkheim argued that this rise in associations was the result of “transformations in the underlying structures of society.” Many industrial middle class white men, according to Durkheim, joined fraternal societies to “escape” from several underlying tensions provoked by the changes brought on by industrialization in America after the Civil War: tensions between labor and capitol, urbanization, and rapidly increasing rates of immigration, just to name a few. Engaging in a mythical battle reenactment may have acted as an “escape” for veterans who wanted to reflect on their younger years, when things were “simpler” (a common theme echoed by many reenactors today, although such notions are clearly false). Even though the battlefield was a terrible place, it was a place many veterans could not escape mentally. With society’s rapid changes in the post war years (and a lack of medical understanding about harmful mental disorders like PTSD), perhaps the battlefield acted as a place of comfort and order for some veterans.

More convincing to me, however, are arguments made by Mark Carnes and Lynn Dumenil, who assert that concerns over gender were a driving force for the popularity of fraternal rituals and voluntary associations. Through these organizations, men distanced themselves from the rest of society and resorted to a place where the bonds of brotherhood and fraternity could be strengthened away from the presence of women. “Manhood” took on “the acquisition of a wide range of roles and statuses” during this period as young men journeyed into manhood during a confusing and complicated time. Although aged 70 at the time, Captain Blake’s assertions to “Maria” of “facing the enemy” upon death suggest that the battle reenactment acted as a mechanism in which to reassert his honor and bravery as a man. In an age before television, video games, and mancaves, reenactments of recent and painful battles may have played a role in establishing GAR Civil War veterans as exemplars of manhood to the rest of society. Promoting American nationalism was also an underlying goal of these reenactments, but the rhetoric of “honoring” those who served in uniform or teaching lessons about the past is nonexistent. These were guys who wanted to have fun and entertain themselves, albeit in a way that is strange to us today.