In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as Civil War veterans aged and reflected on their service in the early 1860s, they erected monuments at leading battlefields, gathered at veterans organization events, marched proudly in popular Memorial Day and Independence Day parades, and recorded their reminiscences for posterity. With the horrors of actual battle behind them by a generation or two, the public wanted some idea of the grand pageantry of tactical military maneuvers, but not the danger.
Enter the concept of Civil War reenactments.
Then known as “sham battles,” the craze swept the country. Reenactments of varying scopes were held on actual Civil War battlefields such as Chickamauga and others. Here in Pennsylvania, sham battles were held in various locations, including in Lancaster in October 1895, on the York Fairgrounds (hosted by a visiting West Virginia military unit) in October 1898, in Wilkes-Barre in 1902, and in Mount Gretna in 1903. There were several others, as well.
The 1898 York sham battle had been popular, but small in scope. For several years, local officials thought of repeating or expanding it. Enter the local E. M. Ruhl Camp of the Sons of Veterans (now known as the Sons of Union Veterans). Its leadership, in conjunction with York civil officials, decided to host a grand, multi-day event to commemorate the Civil War. Plans included a reunion encampment of veterans, a massive parade through downtown York, various speeches, dinners, and a massive sham battle on the fairgrounds. Heavily advertised, the S.O.V. reenactment on June 12, 1906, attracted more than 10,000 enthusiastic visitors.
A reporter for the York Daily covered the mock battle and filed this report in the June 13 edition.
10,000 Persons Saw the Battle
Admirable Knowledge of Fighting Tactics Displayed in Handling the Troops
“Let us have peace” was General Grant’s message to Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865, after four years’ strife, and it was repeated by Gen. Fred. Tschudy yesterday after an hour’s strife between two divisions of the Sons of Veterans on the paddock at the fairgrounds yesterday afternoon.
After a continuous and withering fire (only one was withered, however, and he was on the withering side) peace negotiations were opened between Commanding Officers Tschudy and Baker and a draw declared.
And through no real bullets flew, one man had to be carried off the field. But not from wounds, however; merely another victim of the heat.
Major Campbell, a veteran of the civil war who is visiting the local camp and is versed in the art of warfare, declared after the battle that Gen. Fred Tschudy displayed an admirable knowledge of fighting tactics in the handling of his troops. Any real display of scientific tactics, however, was impossible on such open territory as is the paddock of the fairgrounds; but, nevertheless, an audience estimated at ten thousand enjoyed the spectacle thoroughly and cheered the combatants time and again.
Hostilities began shortly after 3 p.m. Col. William P. Baker, of South Bethlehem, assembled his command, which consisted of Companies A, B and E, of the Second regiment, about the buildings on the south end of the grounds, with a squad of skirmishers on the front line. Near the entrance of the grounds were stationed the light artillery, in charge of John Hoffman, of the York camp. Away to the north a few minutes later appeared the scouts of the attacking force, which was commanded by Brig.-Gen. Fred. Tschudy, and immediately opened fire. Baker’s division started on a rush, not revealing the strength of the attacking force. A few scattered shots were exchanged and then began to swing into full view in absolutely perfect order the first of the three battalions which composed General Tschudy’s force, and which outnumbered its opponents fully five to one.
It was not long before this was discovered by Colonel Baker, and his division assumed the defensive immediately and maintained it throughout the fight. The attacking force consisted of three battalions, the first including A and B companies of the Sixth regiment, and A, D, E and F companies of the Third, and were commanded by Capt. William Tawney, of Gettysburg; the second of B, C, D, E and M companies of the First regiment, commanded by Col. Charles Becker, of Reading; and the third of E and I companies of the Eight regiment and B company of the Fourth regiment, commanded by J. J. Shaner.
The three battalions swung over the north end fence and a gradual advance was made under cover of heavy fire. The little defending squad lay prone to the grass, keeping up a scattered fire and holding their more numerous opponents in check. And then the little brass cannon a few score yards in the rear belched forth and the opposing force fell back, but only for a time.
The contest continued in this manner with wavering and advancing and peace consultations now and then, and then by several skillful flank movements, General Tschudy advanced his force to the center of the field. The right wing of the attacking battalions, consisting of B company of the Sixth regiment, and F of the Third, prepared to make a bayonet attack and started on a dead run. Reinforcements for the already heavy attacking force caused the thousands of spectators to tremble for the safety of Colonel Baker’s men and it seemed as if indeed they were to be annihilated, as General Tshudy’s entire force, emitting a famous yell moved forward, with every gun blazing away.
When 50 yards away from the other side, they were met with a deadly volley which effectually stopped their onrush and a few minutes later a truce was declared with honors divided evenly. The Second regiment band played “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and amidst thunders of applause the combatants marched off the field. And this seemed to be the most pleasing feature of the entire afternoon, for there is nothing more striking than a large body of soldiers with every man keeping perfect step.
About five hundred men took part in the battle and the companies were as follows: First regiment — B company, of Philadelphia; C, of Lebanon; D and E, of Reading; M, of Lansdale; Second regiment — A company, of Easton; B, of South Bethlehem; E, of Allentown; Third regiment — A and D companies, of Shamokin; E, of Williamsport, and F, of Minerville; Fourth regiment — B company, of Braddock; Sixth regiment – A company, of York, and B, of Gettysburg; Eighth regiment — E company, of Bellwood, and I, of Johnstown.
York Daily, June 13, 1906.