Bruce Clark and friends bring thunder to classroom and museum

Wayne County was once the border between the United States and the Confederacy

Two of Battery C's four pieces at a night fire in 2013 at Davis County. Bruce Clark was number two on the front gun as well as section commander.

On Sat., April 21 and Sun., April 22, local Civil War reenacting units will hold a spring drill in Wayne County at the Allerton Round Barn Farm Museum.

“If people want to come out, they’re more than welcome to watch us,” Bruce Clark said. “We’ve got some period baseball equipment. We may have a pickup game after drill. If anybody loves history, we are always recruiting, and we’re more than boys going out and playing army and putting on a reenactment. If life would be better shooting cannons, come out and give it a try.

“As we train to be safe and somewhat accurate in representing what was done at the time, we have adopted a training standard presented by the National Civil War Artillery Association, based on The 1860 Field Artillery Tactics by French, Barry and Hunt.

“Large units from big urban areas always want us to attend their events, but it took years for a few to show up at small rural events. I thought rural Iowa deserved to have a living history just as much as the big urban areas and wealthy communities, and if they weren’t going to support us, then we’d have to support ourselves.”

This is not just lip service for Clark, who from his home base west of Centerville is a fixture during Wayne County’s Civil War Thunder in the Woods every year. He also possesses a depth of knowledge and the critical thinking skills of a college professor—in the guise of a southern Iowa farmer.

“Bruce is energetic and enthusiastic, and he has helped us with several events here at the museum,” said Brenda DeVore, Director of Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County.

“We’ll have a few guys from our infantry unit show up over there, plus our artillery,” Clark said of the Civil War drill, his fourth year of Spring practice at the museum. “We’ve done drills in other places, but this has a nice feel to it.

“At the museum, it’s a good thing for them; on a fair day, we’ll have a big crowd show up to watch what we’re doing. We’re a museum program, indirectly if you will, simply by doing what we do.”

Several years ago, they added a course for the evenings on the theory and principles of leadership. It will be held at the church after supper.

“It’s self-development,” Clark said. “It’s expressed best in being a person of self-initiative, which is characteristic of the American soldier.

“The last couple of years, we’ve had a school day at our fall reenactment, which has been a successful endeavor. The first year, the best discussion came from a third-grader, of all people. I talked about the history and development of artillery. I asked the class, ‘What is the earliest thing you can think of at the beginning of artillery?’”

The Wayne third grader answered, ‘the atlatl.’

“I was impressed a third grader would know the correct name for a spear thrower,” Clark said. “He and I had this conversation. I told him from a scientific point of view I like the atlatl because you’re using human force with a lever to impart greater than unassisted human force and velocity to a projectile, which, to me, is the crude definition of artillery.

“Last year, my favorite comment was when a fifth grader from the Corydon area asked me about tariffs,” Clark said. “My talk was on underage participants in the war, and then we opened it up. We had a discussion on tariffs at the beginning of the country favoring raw goods and Southern interests. As the country grew, population and wealth were greater in the North with a subsequent shift in political power to the North, reflected in the shift in tariffs to favor manufactured goods. The economic discussion of today’s politics was dealt with last fall at our school day because of the political and economic ramifications leading up to the Civil War.

“That’s the whole point of kids going to school. Not where they can sit there and have some history teacher say, ‘memorize all of this.’ History is a lot more than a list of dates and names. History is about mechanics—how did they do that, why did they do that? And considering the technology at that time, ‘How in the world did they do that?’

“It’s basically the good story you learn in English class—the who, what, where, how, when, and why. History is that on a grander scale.

“I’ve always said, a history teacher who can make history boring is the most talented person in the world, because with something as interesting as history, someone would need talent to make it boring.”

Wood cannon

After 150 years, Civil War reenactments in Wayne County are still relevant. After all, it was the border between the Free and Slave States, an area in dispute antebellum.

“I made my first cannon out of wood when I was 10 years old,” Clark said. “I got three firecrackers worth of powder in it, drilled a small hole for the fuse and used a firecracker fuse, got the roundest rock I could find out of the driveway to put in it. I aimed the cannon at a barn away from the house with metal siding.

“Lo and behold, it didn’t take much to blow the boards apart, and threw the rock against the metal siding—it went, ‘Whack!’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ I wanted to build a cannon for more than 40 years before I ever got it done.

“In 2003, my dad and I started making a Civil War cannon for a Civil War era cemetery in Tennessee, where he was from. I had the plans for it. They ended up using something else, so we had a cannon on our hands. We started the artillery unit then.

“Before the first reenactment in Corydon, we got to delving into the Civil War roots here,” Clark said. “The 36th Iowa Infantry was raised primarily out of Appanoose County, with a ton of support from Wayne, Monroe, Wapello and Davis Counties. We started our infantry unit then

“Reenactments have public appeal because it is nothing more than theater on a really big stage with quirky props—we’re telling a story.

“In southern Iowa, it’s especially relevant. There was a lot of pressure here, a lot of guerilla raids from Missouri.

“That wasn’t the only stress that happened along the border. There were slaves trying to escape. There were plenty of known instances of people coming up here and setting up shop who were in the abolition movement formally or informally, who tried to help slaves get away.

“They certainly didn’t like it across the border. Davis County has the best example, where there was a formal raid of military soldiers. They killed an abolitionist in the raid because he had helped a slave escape.

“Pointing out this history—making sure people are aware of it and don’t forget it—our motto is to find history and preserve, protect and promote it. We have to be the guardians of our own history.”

The last and the worst

“There was some nonsense going around the Yankees were cowards and they wouldn’t stand up to a fight,” Clark said. “It was an idea being promoted heavily in the South, especially South Carolina.

“General Robert E. Lee knew better. He wrote a famous letter where he was talking about both sides before the war. He said he was afraid his friends in the South don’t understand the Northern reserve. They see this reserve as weakness. I don’t think they understand there is steel underneath, and resolve, and what it’ll mean.

“In the same letter, he talks about his friends in the North, that he didn’t think they understand how passionate Southerners were about slavery.”

There is a misnomer that Lee was anti-slavery. Lee’s wife inherited many slaves from her father’s estate, and he was known as a cruel master.

“He was known as an intensely harsh taskmaster,” Clark said of Lee. “He was cruel. He thought nothing of whipping them. He was not indifferent or benevolent or anything else—he was considered a cruel master. Obviously, the slaves did not consider him to be a kind master. If he had any feelings on them, it would’ve been that they were inferior.

“The feeling slavery was dying and would’ve went away anyway without the Civil War, I don’t buy that. The South was digging in. If anything, Southern politicians were passing more laws to entrench and protect it. We can’t impose modern values on that time and its people. Slavery existed long before America was founded and was abundantly dispersed throughout the world at the time of the Civil War.

“Even though by then England, France, and the civilized nations of Europe had done away with chattel slavery—there were still property prisons and indentured servitude. Of civilized countries, American slavery was unique in that it was the last and the worst.”


An evolving pastime has become disconnecting the Civil War from slavery.

“If you read every one of declarations of the States that seceded, it literally says, ‘We are seceding in order to protect the institution of slavery,’” Clark explained. “If you have the moment of time when it’s pretty clear why they’re seceding… the Sons of the Confederacy had conventions through the 1920s and published a journal for a while. This evolution flowed from that and from the Daughters of the Confederacy.

“Now, if you don’t want to look at that, in a more pragmatic way, you can say, ‘A man has the right to determine his alliances and what his own local politics will be.’ They could say, ‘We no longer find it in our interest to be aligned with the federal government, and we want to secede.’

“In Tennessee, they had a vote not of the Legislature but the electorate, of everybody. And the vote to secede failed. Well, so much for it being a matter of the electorate or a matter of self-determination and the vote. It’s a lie. So, the State Legislature, these being men of more money and different interests, they went ahead with secession.”

Mountain men

“There is a severe disconnect from the truth right now in most of the South,” said Clark. “The easiest way to explain it, my dad, growing up in Tennessee—the old people were pretty Unionist when I was a kid in the 1950s—they didn’t have anything good to say about the South.

“I never really thought much of it at the time, but as I got to studying history, I found out that the mountainous areas in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina were intensely pro-Union. East Tennessee held a convention to secede [from Tennessee], but they were too deep in, they couldn’t pull it off, but they tried.

“In fact, there were six counties that voted in East Tennessee that were 94 to 96 percent pro-Union,” Clark said. “Only two east Tennessee counties barely had a majority for secession. The vote in East Tennessee was so overwhelmingly Unionist that the vote for the State failed.

“My family now, a good share of them think of themselves as Confederate even though the County then was 94 percent pro-Union. You can’t get people to vote 94 percent for anything today, let alone during a hard time when they were buried deep in the South.

“The people outnumbered the Confederates, but because of the local leadership—the sheriff’s department and the home guard and the troops stationed there—they were organized, so a small group of people were able to hold a thumb on a population 10 to 15 times greater of a different sentiment.

“I’ve got cousins today that fly Confederate flags, and think of themselves as Confederates, but they don’t even know their own history at this point in time,” Clark said. “If it was about franchise, in the States that actually had elections, the Confederacy didn’t honor it.

“People that have no ability to talk about the facts and understand how the facts are derivative of other actions, are only dealing emotionally with things. All they’re doing is venting and blowing off steam. They’re not productive when they cannot have a well-rounded conversation based on facts rather than their feelings.

“We went through a horrific war. This act of treason—which is literally what it was—in my own opinion, if Sumter hadn’t been fired upon, I think the South would’ve got away with it. They would’ve slowly drifted apart.

“According to Mark Twain, ‘Figures don’t lie. Liars just figure.’ Taking things out of context seems to be the national pastime anymore.”