Lone Jack readies an unusual Civil War re-enactment

Two years ago, when he and his wife finally owned the old place, Steve Brown just stood there, smiling.

He’d admired the 1870s farmhouse since he was a kid growing up in Lone Jack. When it came up for sale, he could see beyond the mud daubers buzzing in the ceiling and the mice skittering around the baseboards. He was thrilled to own a piece of history.

Outside, acres of cornfields rustled in the breeze. No traffic noises, just cicadas and crickets singing together in the twilight. No evidence at all of the 21st century. Just timelessness.

This piece of Earth probably hasn’t changed in 100 years,

he thought. And that’s when his idea was born.

It would be the perfect place for the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Lone Jack.

So now, Brown, along with the Lone Jack Historical Society and his neighbors, is hosting perhaps the town’s biggest remembrance/celebration/faux battle just up the road from the old killing field.

“I just smiled when I heard because Steve’s is the perfect place,” recalls Dan Hadley, society vice president. “It’s entirely possible that fighters passed through the Browns’ acreage on their way to the fight at Lone Jack. And there’s probably a lot of ghosts out here who will be watching.”

It’s only fitting, too, because Brown’s great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Brown took the Confederate side in the local fight. (That’s him on the right in the cover photo.)

A note here: Brown forgot to ask his wife if she would mind handing their home over to the event. She found out when she overheard some of the planners saying, “We could have soldiers shooting from the balcony!”

She laughs about it now.

“This is once in a lifetime. How could I say no?”

The Battle of Lone Jack took place right smack on what is now Main Street in the little town.

On Aug. 15, 1862, Missouri State Militia from Lexington came looking for pro-slavery forces that had surprised and mauled the Federal garrison at Independence a week earlier. The 800 or so Union cavalry, accompanied by two small cannons, found some rebs at Lone Jack and easily dispersed them. Not realizing they had ridden practically into the middle of several camps of freshly recruited fighters for the South, Maj. Emory Foster told his men to dismount and spend the night in the hamlet.

Alerted by the cannon fire that night, rebel colonels, including Upton Hays, Jeremiah “Vard” Cockrell and John Coffee, decided not to withdraw but to attempt a two-phase surprise attack at dawn. Their forces, strong in numbers, perhaps 3,000, but light in arms, successfully crept through a tall-weed-filled field to within easy rifle shot.

The initial assault was delayed and disjointed; nevertheless, the Union men quickly found themselves in desperate, sometimes hand-to-hand combat. “Our line of battle was scarcely formed when they came upon us, yelling like savages,” reported a Union captain.

The struggle on the morning of Aug. 16 surged back and forth for five hours around the two small Federal cannons, over perhaps 100 shot and screaming horses and all around the blacksmith shop, the tenuous Federal stronghold. The men poured musket and shotgun fire across the 60-foot-wide road, and at one point, a young fighter leapt on a cannon, shouting “Hurrah for Jeff Davis,” and was cut down immediately.

Finally, thinking incorrectly that fresh rebel reinforcements under the feared William Quantrill had arrived, the bloodied Federals retreated. Their wounded major was left behind, protected by a young rebel gentleman named Coleman “Cole” Younger.

The carnage it left made an impression on troops who arrived later, including Stephen Elkins, who would become the U.S. secretary of war in the 1890s. He wrote: “I went over the battlefield afterward, the blood, the cries for water and death, the naked bodies stripped of their clothing, the dead horses which served for ramparts, gave me a disgust for war ”

The number of dead will forever be debated, but estimates place casualty rates (killed, wounded, missing) well above a third, perhaps half, for the Federals and nearly as severe for the rebel combatants. Many of the likely 200 dead are buried together in two trenches that extend into the little cemetery just outside the Lone Jack Civil War Museum. In death, they are on the same side once more.

The names of the Confederate families who fought that day still dot rural mailboxes around the village. Brown knew from his own family’s stories that “those Confederate fighters in Lone Jack were mostly farm boys scared out of their minds.”

For years, he taught Civil War history to Blue Springs eighth-graders, going beyond the pages of a book. He read out loud accounts from journals and old newspapers. He brought artifacts to touch, showed old tintypes, asked re-enactors in to portray some famous, some not-so-famous characters.

He tried everything to stoke his students’ imaginations about this history, just as growing up in the shadow of a Civil War museum had done for his. One of the dioramas there shows the violence of the fight.

Now his home and property will become a life-size diorama.

Sesquicentennial re-enactments are being held all over the country where blue and gray threw lead, from Shiloh, Tenn., to Manassas, Va. (the second there), to Sharpsburg, Md. But the planners in Lone Jack wanted to do something different. Something that would give a viewer a wider sense of what happened, beyond the batteries of howitzers belching smoke, the moving ranks of men following old banners and the rushing of horses back and forth in simulated cavalry charges.

They decided this re-creation would be civilian-focused.

For three hours on Saturday night only, more than 250 people will become civilians as well as soldiers living in seven scenes. Candle- or oil lamp-lit vignettes will unfold in short performances before the audience.

“Actors will play to the audience but not engage with them,” Hadley says.

And every five minutes or so, Lucinda Cave will die in a front bedroom at the “Cave House” hotel.

She and her children tried to flee the carnage of bullets, according to later accounts. Abandoning their home/business when it caught fire, they found cover in the brush. The story goes that she rose to stop a little one from running into the open and a slug slammed into her chest. She died days later of massive infection.

Other scenes will unfurl in the blacksmith shop, the smokehouse, the cornfield. Everything will show what the townspeople lived through. “A lot of it will be grim,” Hadley says, “especially when they see families looking for their dead among the rows of corpses.”

Not that there won’t be black-powder battle re-enactments (1:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday) around the Brown place. These will include the shooting of Cave, huddling out there on the field with some children.

Lone Jack planners hope their re-enactments based on true accounts will “raise the bar on remembering history,” Hadley says. As such, everyone participating is being held to strict historic accuracy, either through clothing, dialogue or narrative stories.

Which has gotten them some criticism on the event’s Facebook page. Some Civil War re-enacting groups were turned away, leading to an anonymous complaint calling the Lone Jack efforts the “lone joke.”

For example, one unit, proud of its multiple artillery pieces, was given a polite no thanks by Hadley. “I told them, there were only two cannons at our battle,” he explains. “We’re trying to keep everything as historically accurate as possible, both for the re-enactors’ enjoyment and the public.

“No one will show up and join in because they have a jacket or vest from the era,” Hadley says. “No one will have a feather plume.

“People have called us snobs and stitch Nazis because we turned them away if they couldn’t meet the guidelines,” he says. (A “stitch Nazi,” by the way, is an enthusiast who hand-sews his battle garb for strict authenticity down to the right buttons and fabric.) The high standards, though, are attractive to some units, such as the Tater Mess, that strive for authentic conditions.

So there won’t be canvas tents for troops to sleep under. “The soldiers who fought in the Battle of Lone Jack didn’t have tents, either,” Hadley says. The men are bringing their own food, entrees from the 1860s campaigns, and storing it in the Browns’ outbuilding. On Saturday night, it becomes the Cave smokehouse, raided by hungry soldiers.

Every fighter was asked to bring an arsenal pack for 10 rounds. The rounds will be packed into a wooden ammo crate and then “re-issued” just as they would have been in 1862. “But the public won’t see that,” Hadley adds. It’s just for the participants’ sense of realness.

The public will see the depictions of dying and wounded, though, as will a documentary film crew.

Wide Awake Films, a video company in the River Market, will donate its finished interpretive product to the museum to be installed some day as an exhibit.

Since just a few years after the battle — in the museum is an old, yellowed broadside announcing an 1887 picnic — the village has remembered the anniversary with typical small-town activities, such as pancake breakfasts, parades and color guards/flag ceremonies at the mass gravesite honoring the dead.

It was the biggest social event in Jackson County in the 1890s, with wagonloads of visitors arriving from every direction. “One year they recorded 15,000 people. The timing of it coordinated with politics, so it brought everybody out” to hear the stump speeches, Hadley says.

One who remembered those days was a fellow named Harry Truman. He’d grown up hearing stories of the Civil War. As a senator, he tried unsuccessfully to get a monument built at Lone Jack. Not until after his presidency and return to Independence was he able to secure funding. At the 101st remembrance in 1963, Jackson County celebrated the completion of the Lone Jack Civil War Museum, a unique round stone building filled with Civil War artifacts and pieces of the lives of the residents.

Truman was also responsible for commissioning an artist to create four dioramas depicting regional Civil War moments. One is a fine three-dimensional depiction of “Order Number 11” by George Caleb Bingham. The famous painting defamed Union Gen. Thomas Ewing’s forcible 1863 evacuation of Missouri’s border counties. Lone Jack residents suffered particularly.

The dioramas’ creator, William Philyaw, now 91, remembers the grand opening of the Lone Jack Civil War Museum well. Truman shook Philyaw’s hand after pressing his nose to the glass and peering into the artist’s miniature world. “Mr. Truman really loved Civil War history. His family had deep roots in the conflict.”

Philyaw built 20 more dioramas for museums in Kansas and Missouri. He was also the artist commissioned to build a model for the New York World’s Fair in 1964. He built an eight-foot miniature of Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born somewhat accidentally. The model is now at the museum in the old Wren Church at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

For the past 50 years, Hadley says, Philyaw’s works were the museum’s most powerful images showing what war was like.

Rewinding history to re-create an era took months of preparation at the Browns’ home. Their house, built by a Civil War veteran, will become the Cave House, circa 1860s, Lone Jack’s frontier hotel.

Surrounding it are split wood fences, just as in the 1800s. The fences, borrowed from Missouri Town, were dismantled and erected by Bill Wehner, a volunteer. But when he noticed that the fences weren’t long enough, he split logs himself and built more. Wehner also built a realistic blacksmith’s bellows for one of the vignettes.

The Browns planted a culinary garden in the spring, growing mostly “heirloom” vegetables, but also cotton plants, tobacco and other crops that an 1860s family would have grown.

They took down their son’s basketball hoop and removed outside electric lights. Their neighbor planted his corn crop with wider rows so that re-enacting troops could more easily camp and tramp among the rows. The public, too, is invited to visit the Confederate position in the fields Saturday and Sunday.

In the front yard will be one tent, set up by James Country Mercantile, out of Liberty, which specializes in 19th century gear and clothing. National photographer Robert Szabo will also be at the site creating 19th century “wet plate” photography Saturday evening. (Szabo took the photo of a sepia-toned Robert Redford for the April 2011 cover about the Civil War for Parade magazine and the Civil War cover of the 2005 National Geographic.)

Shuttle buses will run every 20 minutes from the village of Lone Jack two miles out to the site. Volunteers say most of the vignettes at the re-enactment will be wheelchair-accessible, with no shortage of re-enactors to assist.

Around the museum, living historians will portray veterans telling stories at the little Memorial Cemetery. Crafts, concessions and Civil War materials will be sold.

It sadden Hadley that three sides of the acreage where the struggle took place is now under homes, parking lots and fast-food restaurants.

The historical society is trying to raise funds and find grants to purchase the remaining 20 to 30 acres of the original battlefield, one of the few untouched sites left.

Sacred soil, Hadley says.

“We have a responsibility to tell this history as true and good and accurate as we can. We’re story tellers with a goal

“My hope is that at the 200th, I’ll still be here, and we’ll look back at this as one very special event. Maybe one that will bring a whole new group of people fascinated with Civil War history.”