History books teach a lot, but they cannot deliver the feeling of a cannon's concussion punching you in the chest.
Knowing all about Civil War battle formations isn't the same as witnessing ranks of soldiers delivering deadly volleys from their muskets.
The grim reality of war hits home at the sight of a widow hiding her face behind a long black veil.
The sights, sounds and smells of the Civil War came alive Saturday as hundreds of re-enactors staged the Battle of Aiken for the 17th year. The hour-long battle is the namesake of the event but hardly the only reason its worth visiting.
The festival continues today with presentations by period actors explaining life in the 1860s, artillery demonstrations and a chance to mingle with Americans from another time.
Saturday, for instance, the wives and daughters of famous Confederate officers talked at length about life on the home front.
Pam Jones, representing the wife of Gen. Jeb Stuart, described her journey to Aiken to visit family and flee the turmoil back home. On the long train ride, she talked with a widow who didn't know where the bodies of her husband and 15-year-old son were buried.
"Everything is uncertain," said Jones, who wore a long gray hoop skirt and small black hat.
Like so many others, she was "leaving a typical situation and heading into the unknown," Jones said.
Nearby, a photographer was taking authentic wet plate photographs typical of the time.
At noon, an artillery team from The Citadel Military College in Charleston, S.C., demonstrated the various types of cannon and shot. Spectators learned that the purpose of cannon fire was not so much to kill personnel as to wound them, because it took, on average, six people to tend to an injured soldier.
That's why projectiles were targeted to land 10 feet from their target and throw up a spray of dirt and debris. The ammunition on display included grape shot and canister shot, both full of small projectiles that burst and sprayed out, similar to a shotgun.
Two hours before battle the respective camps were full of soldiers sitting in the shade outside their tents, waiting for their lunch to finish cooking on a small fire. Visitors meandered on the sandy paths winding through the camps, pointing out interesting displays or a certain pretty Southern belle.
The viewing area by the battlefield steadily filled as the battle drew closer. Folks dozed with large-brimmed hats on their faces and a roving band of Union soldiers started a heated argument with the emcee when he dared to play Dixie over the loud speakers.
The battle started on time, beginning with a short skirmish, then a pistol and saber battle between cavalry. The actual battle to defend Aiken in February 1865 started with a fight called the Battle of White Pond and ended with the Confederates retreating.
Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler, who was outnumbered by nearly 1,000 men, resumed the fight in Aiken and pushed back Union soldiers on York Street at the present location of First Baptist Church of Aiken.
Saturday's battle ended with the Confederate soldiers retreating and will continue today at 2:30 p.m.