It was 34 degrees by someone’s calculation on the morning of March 18, 2000, as the present-day members of Boyce’s Battery, MacBeth’s South Carolina Light Artillery, gathered around their campfire on the original Bentonville Battlefield in rural North Carolina.
Anyone observing these men as they sipped their coffee and warmed their hands would have had difficulty distinguishing them from their gallant ancestors who had served in the original MacBeth’s 140 years earlier. From all walks of Southern life, modern-day CPAs huddled next to delivery route drivers much as in their predecessors’ days physicians had shared campfires with haberdashers. Citizen soldiers then, citizen reenactors now, sharing a common bond of pride, sacrifice and dedication across the years.
MacBeth’s South Carolina Light Artillery was constituted an active Field Artillery Unit in The Land Service of the Confederate States of America on Sept. 16, 1861, in Union District, South Carolina.
One hundred and thirty eight years later, on Sept. 11, 1999, on a farm in rural Laurens County, South Carolina, men once again stepped forward, colors were unfurled, and a tradition of valor was reborn as the modern incarnation of MacBeth’s was mustered in. By their very presence these modern-day living historians/reenactors assumed an awesome and weighty legacy. They stood and looked across time at heroes and patriots who all too often sacrificed everything for what they believed to be true and worth defending.
Following its oath-taking in 1861 MacBeth’s Light Artillery, Boyce’s Battery included, moved from its muster site near Columbia, S.C., to a Camp of Instruction at The Race Course (now Hampton Park) near Charleston, S.C., to be equipped and drilled. Active field service for at least part of the battery was not long in coming.
On June 16, 1862, a single gun under Lt. B.A. Jeter participated in the defense of Battery Lamar during the Battle of Secessionville, S.C.
From the Secessionville field on James Island the full battery was posted to Virginia where it was engaged at Rappahannock Station (Aug. 23, 1862) and the Battle of Second Manassas (Aug. 30, 1862). During this time, and later, MacBeth’s was attached to Gen. Shanks Evans’s “Tramp Brigade,” so named because of its numerous transfers to various parts of the Confederacy.
MacBeth’s Battery reached its pinnacle of recognition during the Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland (Sept. 17, 1862) where it was assigned to the center of the Confederate line. Summoned by Gen. James Longstreet to help save the Confederate center when the Federals broke through the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane), MacBeth’s (Boyce’s Battery) laid down heavy oblique fire on the attackers. General Longstreet specifically commended Boyce’s Battery in his after-action report.
After the Federal attack on the Confederate left had failed and the attack on the right had begun to falter, Sykes’s Corps of U.S. Regulars made a move on the depleted and weakened Southern center south of the Sunken Road.
Joining a collection of cooks and clerks and a grab bag of batteries and parts of batteries, MacBeth’s dropped trail once again and stood in the thin line between the advancing Federals and the probable destruction of the Southern Army. Alternating its fire between double canister rounds to pin down the advancing blue infantry and shell, shot and case to counter the fire of several Union batteries on a nearby hill, MacBeth’s quickly expended its ready ammunition.
Not to be deterred from their desperate duty, the South Carolinians coolly began to dry fire. So accurate had been MacBeth’s fire that the Federal units didn’t notice the absence of live ordnance coming their way and failed to push their advantage. Informed of these extraordinary heroics Gen. Robert E. Lee penned a personal letter of commendation to the battery. The price for its valor was an exploded caisson, 15 dead horses, and 4 men killed and 15 wounded.
Re-equipped following the carnage at Sharpsburg MacBeth’s began to live up to its association with the “Tramp Brigade.” It fought at Kinston, N.C. (Dec. 14, 1862) then moved into Mississippi as part of the “Army of Relief” for the Confederates trapped in the defenses of Vicksburg, Miss.
With the failure to prevent the fall of the Southern river bastion MacBeth’s participated in the Siege of Jackson, Miss. (July 1863). It returned to its native state in the fall of 1863 to serve in the defenses of Charleston.
In May of 1864, it was back to the Western Theater for MacBeth’s where it participated in numerous actions in Tennessee including Morristown (Oct. 28, 1864), Bull Gap (Nov. 11 -13, 1864), Russellville (Nov. 14, 1864) and Flat Creek (Nov. 17, 1864). It lost one of its pieces in the action in the Oct. 28 engagement but found redemption on April 6, 1865, in the defense of Stony Hill (Battery Porter) near Asheville, N.C., during Federal General Kirby’s raid on that city.
Actively campaigning to the end, MacBeth’s opposed Federal cavalry raiders in Eastern Tennessee, Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina, until more than two weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
Hearing of the capitulation of the Army of Northern Virginia and the effective ending of the war, MacBeth’s began the journey back to South Carolina. Outside of Hendersonville, N.C., the battery was overtaken from the rear by a detachment of Michigan cavalry. Strung out in a column several hundred yards long and walking their exhausted horses, MacBeth’s had sent a detachment ahead to warn of possible Federal raiders who had been reported to be north of them near Asheville, N.C. They were not expecting an enemy threat from the direction of Hendersonville, which was west and south.
Firsthand reports of the ensuing melee recounts Federal troopers riding down the column shooting any South Carolinian who did not immediately throw down his weapon. One account describes a cannoneer taking refuge behind a large tree. Unable to get a clear shot, one of the Michigan soldiers ordered the man to come out in the open, so he “could be shot.”
Eyewitnesses reported that the cannoneer stepped from behind the tree, held his jacket open, and said defiantly, “If you want to murder an unarmed man, go ahead and do it.” The Michigan cavalryman uncocked his carbine and ordered the man to join the other prisoners.
As the prisoners were led away, and the few members who had managed to escape into the mountains began to make their way back to their homes, MacBeth’s South Carolina Light Artillery’s service to the Confederacy came to an end on a narrow road in the mountains of North Carolina.
The present-day MacBeth’s South Carolina Light Artillery is what is commonly referred to as a “mainstream” Civil War reenacting unit. By that is meant that in appearance, drill and conduct on and off the field it is virtually impossible to tell the reincarnation of MacBeth’s from the original battery.
The campsite is visually “correct” for the mid-19th century with modern conveniences such as coolers and sleeping bags permitted, but kept out of sight. Deportment on and off the field is consistent with conduct expected of gentlemen and ladies of the Victorian period, particularly regarding the consumption of alcohol and language.
Members who prefer not to camp are free to set up in the modern camping area at events or check into a local motel. These “Motel Rangers” are considered full members of the battery. Where a man sleeps is less important than his appearance and conduct on the field.
Perhaps the spirit of the unit is best expressed in the language of its Recruiting Notice which has run in mainline reenacting publications:
“Men of Valor! Men or Honor! Your country calls to you in her hour of need! Boyce’s Battery, MacBeth’s South Carolina Light Artillery (a.k.a. Battery E, 2nd United States Artillery) has recently been expanded and re-equipped. We can now put into field a 20-pdr. Parrott Rifle, two 3-Inch Ordnance Rifles, and a Mountain Howitzer. To crew these guns our Enlistment Ledger has been reopened. We are a congenial member-run unit comprised of men from a variety of backgrounds. Our membership mainly comes from South Carolina, Eastern Georgia, and Southern North Carolina but we will consider qualified recruits from any Loyal State. No experience necessary. We will train you in authentic period artillery drill and in our rigid safety standards.”
As for ordnance, the modern MacBeth’s strives to continue in the spirit of the original unit, meaning that they “take what we can get,” so to speak. Throughout its period of active field service the original MacBeth’s was equipped with a variety of field pieces reflecting the exigencies under which the Confederate Ordnance Department operated. Mexican-War era 6 pdrs. were in the line in the early months of the war followed by an assorted of smoothbore and rifled pieces.
Consistent with that heritage, MacBeth’s has four full-scale pieces. The guns are served by two full-scale limbers and a hand-portable ammunition chest for the Mountain Howitzer. A third limber, a caisson and a battery wagon are on order.
The Parrott Rifle tube was manufactured by Cannon Ltd., the Mountain Howitzer tube by South Bend Replicas. The Ordnance Rifles were manufactured by a private party as were the carriages and limbers for the Parrott and Ordnance Rifles. The carriage and ammunition chest for the Mountain Howitzer was manufactured by Paulson Brothers.
MacBeth’s prides itself on its adherence to the procedures prescribed in the U.S. Artillery Drill Manual, as slightly modified by the 1863 C.S. Manual. The unit also uses the rarely seen 1861 U.S. Mountain Howitzer Drill Manual which differs in important particulars from the drill for larger pieces.
One of the primary differences is that the Gunner can serve as No. 4. Even more interesting is that No. 4, whether it be the Gunner or another cannoneer, kneels to the left rear of the piece and performs the duties normally handled by No. 3, ergo sealing the vent and pricking the charge. No. 4 also attaches the primer to the lanyard and hands it to No. 3 who fires the piece on command.
During an average year MacBeth’s participates in eight battle reenactments and two musters or drill weekends. The unit normally selects reenactments in South Carolina, Georgia or North Carolina with the exception of one “national event” which can range from Gettysburg, Pa., to Vicksburg, Miss.
Drill weekends are held on Dr. Robert Moore’s farm located between Laurens and Clinton, S.C. Dr. Moore owns the Parrott Rifle, the Ordnance Rifles and the limbers. Bill Muse of Augusta, Ga., owns the Mountain Howitzer and the portable ammunition chest.
Social events include a Christmas party and regular battery get-togethers in which family members participate. Family members are also welcome in camp, but period attire is strongly encouraged if the family member is interested in more than a brief visit.
Consistent with the tradition of mainstream reenacting MacBeth’s is willing to “‘galvanize.” This term is derived from the way former Confederate soldiers who served in the Federal Army after the Civil War described themselves. Although they “wore the blue” in fighting against hostile Indians, in their hearts they remained Rebels, hence, they were “Galvanized Yankees.”
When MacBeth’s “wears the blue” it takes the field as Battery E, 2nd United States Artillery. This battery’s identity was selected because it served in the Eastern Theater of the war and on one occasion was on the same field as MacBeth’s.
Battery E, under a Lt. Benjamin, supported Federal Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s assault on the Lower, or Burnside, Bridge at Sharpsburg at the same time that MacBeth’s was struggling to shore up the Confederate center. While never actually exchanging counter-battery fire, MacBeth’s and Battery E were close enough to no doubt hear each other’s guns.
About the Author: David A. Gibson is corporal/gunner of Boyce’s Battery. The unit welcomes inquiries about the battery or reenacting in general. For information contact him at email@example.com or (770) 513-9515.