living the past

From the lieutenant’s cap I had drawn a “4.” So they killed me about forty yards shy of the wall. Hoke, my neighbor’s son, was in his first fight and also had a “4”; he got a little further but inevitably, he too, was mown down. Jackson, a clever Florida boy, is also at his first reenactment: He had drawn a highly coveted “5.” He could go all the way to the wall or choose to surrender –– his call. Our captain, Matthew, a veteran of many battles, also drew a “5.” He had died here on this very ground back in 2008 and on many other fields since, but he had never before made it to the wall … he never surrenders.

All of us were representing the 17th Georgia Regiment at Gettysburg on the climatic last day of the Blue–Grey Alliance reenactment, an organization that coordinates these ersatz bloodlettings. Our “Pickett’s Charge” was located on a field about five miles south of Robert E. Lee’s actual copse of trees and was not the official commemorative event, as it was being held the weekend before the battle’s 150th anniversary. Many re-enactors prefer doing the “undercard” so as not to contend with spectators who know nothing more of history than to look at a man in gray and ask, “What side are you on?” Or to enquire, “Where did you get your costume?”

As to that, we call the duds “uniforms.” Today I am wearing a four-button grey “commutation” jacket with semi-matching jeans-wool trousers by Wambaugh and White. My hat is a farmer’s beehive, dark brown, by Dirty Billy’s of Gettysburg, with mismatched brogans by Missouri Boot and Shoe. My primary accessories are by L.D. Haning & Co; my gun is a replica three-band .58 caliber Enfield made in Italy. I am ready for the red carpet.

The site of our battle is the Bushey place, situated on several thousand acres with woods, fields, and a high hill that can accommodate several distinct scenarios, and about 10,000 re-enactors. The “Yanks” are camped in one corner and the “Rebels” in another. Artillery, cavalry and sutlers (suppliers), whose needs are different, are camped between. Graciously, the event planners had given the Southern infantry the encampment on the high ground.

Captain Matt Young
Captain Matt Young

Our group from Columbus, Georgia, is a unit within the Georgia Volunteer Battalion (GVB), the coordinating structure for all the pockets of enthusiasts across the state. The GVB has been around for years and has volunteer officers elected for their knowledge, ability and seniority. It is an independent re-enactment group (dues-supported) that coordinates with other state and regional organizations to re-stage these signature events (and many that are less famous).

No one shows up at these events with a new frock coat and simply declares himself a captain or a colonel. Well –– they do, of course –– but they are ignored. The men and women who participate are typically history buffs re-tracing the steps of ancestors involved in the actual struggle. Some portray civilians, or doctors, even slaves. The “hobby,” as some call it, is open to all.

One’s forebears may have fought on both sides of the conflict and it is not unusual for re-enactors to portray a rebel great-great grand-pappy one day, and say, “Old Uncle Hiram” or some other rascal Yankee the next. Numerous women participate, particularly in the cavalry. They are easy to spot: They are the ones who don’t fall off.

My great-grandfather went off to war with the 3rd Alabama Regiment of Volunteers. His company was the Tuskegee Light Infantry, formed in Macon County. My mother heard his stories when she was a girl: the Battle of Seven Pines, The Seven Days, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. She remembered his rifle hanging over the fireplace. He was seventeen when he left.

I came to appreciate all of this pretty late –– just a few of years ago in fact ––  and despite my grey hair, I came with the same desire to “connect” that attracts everybody: to find that something beyond the history books.

I found Matthew Young, 34, working at Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum in Columbus. He is the enthusiastic captain of our local group, the 17th Georgia; Henry Benning’s first command. Matt signed me up and put me in touch with Carl Cofield, a retired history teacher who lives in Ellerslie. Carl is our unit’s touchstone for all things Civil War. At 67, he is a still-strapping six-foot-two Vietnam vet and an unapologetic Southerner. Carl’s ancestor fought with the original 17th, and on the first day of this “Gettysburg,” we took the route those boys followed, up the slope to Devil’s Den where they had captured a battery of Union guns. Carl has been a re-enactor for more than twenty years. His son, Danny, 34, has been involved since he was eleven and now serves as the 17th’s first sergeant.

The Cofields advised me on what minimum equipment was required. A gun is the greatest outlay, about $400 to $800, depending on new or used; I would also want a haversack, a canteen, and especially a hat –– “not one of those dinky kepis” ––  a proper hat with a wide brim to ward off the sun. That’s what the old timers wore. I could buy powder and percussion caps as needed.

Over the ensuing years, I saw “the elephant” (my first battle) at Resaca, Georgia, in May 2011. That fall I camped with a New York outfit at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, where I was dressed “civilian” to portray a reporter for the Richmond Whig; then with the 17th again at Sharpsburg in 2012. I went on my own to the Battle of Olustee, Florida, in early 2013, where I was allowed to kick in with other GVB troops. They were all strangers to me, but they treated me like family––in a good way.

Typically, members of the 17th caravan to events, but I have traveled to many events solo, as an easier way to facilitate my research. I am writing a book, a history of great-granddaddy’s 3rd Alabama, so I take side trips to historical sites that have a connection to them. Seven Pines (now near Richmond airport) was where the 3rd lost 196 men in twenty minutes. At nearby Malvern Hill, one month later, July 1, 1862, they were thrown against the greatest mass of cannons in the war, and they sustained another 200 casualties. And so it went. By, September 1862 they were in the famous sunken road at Sharpsburg, and 150 years later, I stood there too. But by then, I was knowledgeable enough to be more interested in seeing where Mom’s grandfather had fought on nearby South Mountain, a critical, though largely forgotten engagement where Rodes’ and Garland’s Brigades held off McClellan’s entire army just long enough for Lee to gather his forces.

The slips numbered one through five that we had drawn from the hat the day before, represented the rate of attrition suffered by Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s Divisions in the fateful charge of July 3, 1863.

This morning we fall in and count off: “One. Two. One. Two…” until everyone has his assigned position in line. Eventually, we have inspection beginning with throwing our ramrods down our empty rifle barrels. These remain there until the inspecting officer comes and stands before each of us. I thrust the rifle into his hand and he drops the ramrod once more. A clear “ping” indicates the barrel is clean of powder residue. He checks the outside for signs of corrosion or damage, checks the firing lock, points the rifle to the ground and fires off a cap. (It’s the mercury percussion cap that sends a spark down to the powder in the barrel). When he fires, the officer expects to see dirt or leaves move in front of the muzzle. This exhaust tells him the cap has a clear path to the powder. Thrusting the gun back into my hand, he moves on to the next soldier. Later, he comes down the rank behind us, to make sure everyone’s cartridge pouch and cap box are full.

Compared to other mornings, today’s inspection is conducted in a more somber vein. Most field inspections provide the ranks with a platform for banter, quips, critiques and mutterings, probably much as they did back in the day. But the modern event known as Pickett’s Charge –– from the Southern perspective at least –– is a more solemn occasion. “The high tide of the Confederacy.” A re-enactor is expected to be “in the moment.” The moment everything for the South went south.

Our GVB general, Thomas Jessee, hails from Florida. Fit and trim, with white hair and beard, he closely resembles a compact Robert Lee. There are always several Lee look-alikes on these occasions. General Jessee is liked and respected by the rank and file, tributes earned over time for his evident ability in various roles, not for his resemblance to Lee. He does not pretend to be any persona other than himself.

“No jokes, no cameras –– today you honor and portray your ancestors,” is his final message to his battalion. The officers begin to shout: “The sword, the sword, the sword … ” and the chant is taken up by many of the men, while the remainder of us are silent and puzzled. Jessee smiles and says, “I will gladly parade my sword for the members of the Georgia Volunteer Battalion,” and pulling the blade from its scabbard, then beginning at one end, he marches swiftly down the line, sword aloft, the officers and men reaching up to touch the talisman.

It is explained to us newcomers, when the sword was new, twenty-five years before, Jessee was re-enacting right here at Gettysburg, when a persistent Yankee re-enactor tried to wrest the colors away from Jessee’s men. Except by mutual pre-arrangement, battle flags in reenactments are not trophies to be won by either side –– bugger the history. Jessee brought the guard of his sword down emphatically (but purely as an instructional device), which caused the Yankee to rethink his course. Upon such things, chants are born.

Later, on the parade ground assembled with other battalions, I hear a chant taken up behind me: “The monkey, the monkey, the monkey … ” I do not ask.

Culp's Hill scenario
Culp’s Hill scenario

The summer weather has been cooperative. Nothing intolerable, a few intermittent showers have kept everyone on alert. When the sun is out the temperature rises quickly, but it does not go much beyond 90 degrees. All re-enacted heat is real. And every hot day is measured against the 150th anniversary of Manassas in 2011, when the temperature stayed above 100, and most tents were under a relentless sun. Anyone who was at Manassas can take Gettysburg’s ninety degrees with a grateful smile. At that Manassas, the only time it dipped below one hundred degrees was for several minutes before each dawn. The rest of the time we shuffled like zombies –– stifled in our wool uniforms –– seeking ice instead of brains. Both armies retreated early from that event.

Our sergeant major is a big man, imposingly so when he needs to be. One on one, however, Jim Boone is pleasant and helpful, quick with a joke, kind towards the lost and confused. He keeps a lit pipe and speaks through it with a deep and sonorous voice, his pleasant accent betraying coastal origins. I am told he used to be a TV weatherman, which explains the familiar way he brandishes a staff to underscore his statements.

Last night some boys went into town and came back singing. This happens at encampments. There is no authority beyond common courtesy to stop them and they sing late into the night. If they were merely drunk, or singing bawdy songs (there are always women and young people in camp), they might have been shut down by popular demand, but these boys are good and their songs are not the usual chestnuts. They play skillful banjos and have a couple of Irish tenors of fair ability. Their campfire was closest to Boone’s tent.

An indulgent Reveille arrived at 6 a.m. If the battalion had needed to be in line at dawn the bugle might have sounded before four. But 6 a.m. is early enough. At 6:01 Sergeant Major Boone is up and banging a pot around the singers’ camp. There is a playful gleam in his eye, but he does mean business. “Get the hell up, you dogs. If you can keep me up till two, I can sure get your butts up at six! Out of those tents, you damned rascals.” … or words to that effect.

 

The sergeant major and the adjutant oversee the assembly and inspections. They remind officers of their duties and keep everyone on schedule. Everything today is planned like clockwork. Our companies are assembled on the gravel road and we shift up and down the lane to make room for late-arriving companies or to let horsemen or other battalions move down the road; dress right, take two paces backwards, return two paces forward, then line up or “dress” on the colors. Repeat as necessary.

For the purposes of today’s battle, 17th Georgia is designated 2nd Company, and we are placed in the “right wing” of the battalion (battalions during the war technically were two wings of one regiment; today’s army makes accommodations). Commanding our wing is Major Steve Walczak, a transplanted rebel from Massachusetts. At “thirty-something,” Steve makes a handsome officer: slender, a trim moustache, turned out nicely in a gray coat and kepi. His white trousers are spattered with yesterday’s mud. He handles his duties with aplomb and commands like he was born to it. He has drawn a number “1.”

Assembled, we march down our hill about a mile, each of us shouldering nine-pound rifles. About three hundred horses pass us going up hill; our cavalry has finished its engagement with the Federals. We are marching light, no blanket rolls or knapsacks today. We stop in a meadow among a few scattered trees, well back from the intended battlefield. We are ordered to fix bayonets and stack arms, then falling out, we seek the nearest shade. Wagons have brought ice and bottled water to supplement our canteens and we are admonished to stay hydrated. No one is here to re-enact heatstroke.

All Civil War re-enactments conform to our modern world. The term “Farb” or “Farby” is used to point this out, i.e. “Far be it from me to criticize, but,” is the casual tar applied to all inaccuracies and anachronisms. Each re-enactor must draw his own line in the sand of authenticity, beyond which he will not venture, whether it is consuming modern food, or keeping insulin on ice inside his tent, or using bug spray. Rule of thumb: Everything outside the tents should be authentic. Standing in line of battle next to a woman or a black confederate, is not, strictly speaking, farb. Some re-enactors may consider the blue Porto-Lets farb. For myself, I view them as time-portals to the twenty-first century.

Usually a good comeback trumps all nitpickers. One of these carpers spotted my cheap jogger’s watch up my sleeve while we were off-duty and prefaced his admonishment: “Is that a watch I see?” “Yes, sergeant,” I reply, “I took it off a dead re-enactor.”

By the very fact three-quarters of our faux armies are over the age of thirty-five, we are all farb. But the young rarely have the time and resources to spend on this hobby, and few of them have the concept of time and history that is essential to the experience. My backstory is I am a draft-dodging conscript, a soldier of little value.

Then there are the “hard-core” campaigners who attempt to do all things as if they actually were in the field, circa 1863 –– they live on sardines, carrots, hard crackers and bacon; they sleep in shelter tents (each man carries one-half of the shelter, two halves buttoned together form a pup tent), pack everything vital into a knapsack and carry it all in to the campsite –– just as if they were marching with Lee and Grant. It is not for the weak of body, mind, or spirit. Thankfully, this excuses me. Of course when the weekend is over, the hard-cores also return exhausted to 2013 and drive to the nearest Doodle-burger.

Farb or not, being a part of these gatherings makes you think. “How would they have done this?’ or “How could they have made that (tactical) mistake.” By walking the ground, wearing the uniforms, carrying the gear, the answers come.

Historians say this corner of Pennsylvania is famous because Heth’s Division needed shoes and Gettysburg had them. Perhaps. But the common assumption ––that Heth’s men were shoeless, or nearly so, cannot be right. You cannot go over this terrain shoeless. It is stony ground. There are brambles, snapped-off shoots that pierce a man’s foot, to say nothing of maneuvering men just inches apart from one another, or stepping onto a discarded metal percussion cap. A lame man is not an inconvenience –– he is a liability. Heth’s men needed shoes the way soldiers have always needed shoes: before the old ones wear out.

 

A few paces from where we lie, resting, Church Call is announced, but religious or not, no one moves from his shade. Fortunately, the chaplain for the battalion, Joey Amanda Young, is a preacher of some talent. His sermon, drawn from Hebrews 9, is apt. It speaks of covenants and “firsts.” He needs no notes, he speaks from the heart and his words are moving. I recall the words to the Twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures … ” and I wonder, how many young soldiers of both armies carried the same prayer with them 150 years ago?

The man portraying “Marse Robert” rides up and looks over our battalion. We all rise and salute him. “Lee, Lee Lee …  ” we chant. He makes the appropriately stirring remarks. He is a veteran to this role and performs it well. He and his entourage trot swiftly away, “Lee, Lee, Lee … ” follows him.

Our veteran, Carl, tells us the time is near. “Boys, you are about to see something you ain’t never gonna forget. I guarantee you.”

Though we can’t see them, the cannons have been booming for some time. About noon, our bugler sounds. We return to our stacked arms and re-arm ourselves at the command “Un-stack: Arms.” Brandon Cantrell is to my right, a former state trooper in his mid-twenties, who makes sure I don’t screw things up too badly. Jim Carson, a grey-headed long-beard from Albany, is behind my right shoulder, John Fisher, a seasoned campaigner from Bainbridge, with a ginger beard, is on my left. Jim and John both know every detail of drill and maneuver. Hoke Hart, the teenaged son of my Columbus friend, a “4” like me, is behind me on the left. Carl, and Todd Turnbull are behind me too. Todd’s first reenactment was right on this field fifteen years ago, a member of a Federal gun crew. He preferred the infantry. I drink some more water. There won’t be much opportunity for a while.

The order comes, to “Load and Prime.” We go through this procedure quickly, pulling from our pouches the rolled cartridges of black powder. These don’t contain “live” rounds of course, so the rammer is not needed to tamp down the ball. A rap on the stock or a tap of the rifle butt is enough to send the grains of powder down to the base of the barrel. I retrieve a percussion cap from the small leather box on my belt, and fit it onto the nipple––the pierced protrusion under the hammer that shoots the spark to the powder. Even blank rounds can be dangerous, and we are admonished to always elevate our rifles and to make certain they are safely discharged before we take our “hit.”

Forming column we are led into the line of trees –– our stepping-off point –– where we break back down to battle lines. Men are lined shoulder to shoulder in front of us with more behind, and they go as far as you can see on either side. It is a good day to die –– certainly I have seen worse.

I need a hug.

Our objective is the stone wall, somewhere in front of us, hidden by the ranks of soldiers marching ahead and by the smoke of battle. The command comes, “Forward.” The drums begin to beat; we scramble across a small creek, we re-dress our lines. Major Walczak drops lifelessly in front of me, and sadly, I step over the “1.” His last instructions to us were “dress to the center, dress to the colors.” I see a friend from Florida, Richard Watkins, seventy-something, holding the colors over there to my left; I am getting closer, aligning myself with them, as the men fall from the ranks. The line, once so long that we had trouble finding space and had to yell “give right, give right,” to those down the line crowding us, is now filled with gaps, as the scripted 2s and 3s go down. I have no clear target in front of me, there is still a thinning rank of Confederates ahead, but I remember I am to discharge my rifle before falling, so I fire high and then try to join the dearly departed 4s as obtrusively as possible, though I am a quarter-mile from anyone who could be deemed a spectator.

As I assume ground level, the line, my line, fills my draft-dodging conscript’s-gap quickly, and presses onward to the wall where incessant volleys from the Yanks cut down more and more of my comrades. The colors are still waving, I don’t know how –– flags were target numero uno for marksmen back then. Just when I think this fight must be over, I see another wave of Rebels approach the wall from our left, then even more come in from the right. I had meant to recite the Twenty-third Psalm, but now I can’t remember the words.

At 'the wall'
At ‘the wall’

Eventually, those who drew a number with a circle around it –– designating the walking wounded­ –– begin hobbling back from the wall. The ranks of Union soldiers recreate the exultant jeer first heard by Pickett’s rebels, “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg … ” payment in kind for the decimation the Yankees suffered from Southern guns at that town, seven months prior.

The firing quiets down to occasional pops –– soldiers on both sides making sure their rifles are safely discharged. Then, with the rest, I rise, in what is known as the “resurrection,” and walk up to the wall to meet and greet my would-be opponents. They look so fresh and happy, those Union boys behind the wall. As I near a regiment with an ornate green banner I call out, “What regiment is this?”

“The Irish Brigade!” they answer proudly.

Figures –– New Yorkers. But somehow this sounds more welcoming than the “Iron Brigade,” so I soldier on. Then my Southern eye spots three attractive young women in the front rank. I pick the brunette who seems the least threatening.

“Darlin’,” I say with a smile, “I really do need a hug.”

 

 

 

 

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Photos courtesy of 17th Georgia Regiment
Booth Malone

Booth Malone

Booth Malone is a professional artist living in Columbus, GA; Currently writing a historical novel based on his great-grandfather's experiences in the Civil War which he promises will not be as boring as that sounds.