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Learning your hay-foot from your straw-foot

Ned Jilton II • Mar 13, 2019 at 5:30 PM

Events such as the Siege of the Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel, the Battle of Blountville and the Siege of Fort Watauga in Elizabethton don’t just happen. It takes practice to bring the historical accuracy you expect to see to these events.

I know from personal experience that even something apparently as simple as marching takes practice.

My one time as an honorary colorbearer I tended to take too long a stride and would begin marching so far out in front of the line the sergeant would have to call out, “Jilton, slow down.”

During the Civil War, teaching new recruits who didn’t know their right foot from their left foot to march was a problem. The solution was to tie wisps of hay on the left shoe and and straw on the right. By chanting “hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot” the squad learned which foot to step with and to keep in step.

Now if they didn’t take too long a step like me, they would do alright.

Then there’s the more serious business of handling a muzzleloading rifle or musket.

A little while before I did my turn as an honorary colorbearer, I went through a muzzle-loading safety course.

While I was on the firing line, the person next to me asked about my rifle, and as I started to answer him, the instructor quickly interrupted and said, “Don’t talk to him. Pay attention to what you are doing.”

The instructor was absolutely right, of course.

During the American Revolution, there were something like 14 steps in the loading and firing of a musket. In the Civil War, they were reduced to nine.

If you don’t pay attention, you could lose your place in the steps required to load and fire a muzzle-loader and end up with a rifle that doesn’t work. Or worse, a rifle with multiple charges that goes boom instead of bang.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, some rifles were found to have more than one bullet loaded. A couple had as many as eight.

One of the reasons was that soldiers, some poorly trained replacements, were in a rush and failed to pay attention to what they were doing. They would improperly load their rifle with ball first instead of powder, rendering the gun useless, and then continued to load and try to fire.

When training recruits on muzzle-loaders, many a sergeant would say, “Powder first and then the ball. Or your musket won’t shoot at all.”

To avoid these problems, soldiers from early days to the present go through a camp of instruction to learn what they need to know. Then drill and drill and drill again until they reach a point at which they can carry out commands without distraction or hesitation.

Re-enactors do the same thing as their historic counterparts so as to be historically accurate as well as safe on the field.

This year you have the opportunity to watch, learn and, maybe if you ask, fall in with the recruits.

Civil War re-enactors from throughout the region will gather Friday through Sunday at Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site in Johnson City for the annual Camp of Instruction — a chance for the new recruits to learn what they need to know and for the veterans to keep their skills sharp.

Watch and learn as re-enactors from the Department of East Tennessee camp, drill, march and prepare for their 2019 re-enacting season. During the encampment, visitors will be able to study how soldiers lived in camp, examine different types of uniforms, watch how soldiers drilled, hear the numerous commands of the officers, see the various weapons carried during the war and much more.

Admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children 12 and under (children 3 and under are free). Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site members are admitted free.

As to the first three events I mentioned at the start of this column:

The Frontier Muster and Trade Faire will be held on April 27 from 10 to 5 and on April 28 from 11 to 3 at the Wilderness Road Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park.

The Siege of Fort Watauga, a live retelling of the Cherokee attack upon the settlers of the Watauga Valley in the summer of 1776, is Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19, at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton.

The Battle of Blountville will take place Sept. 27 through Sept. 29. This year is the 156th anniversary of the battle.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@ timesnews.net .

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