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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Seeing the Elephant

The ride to Culpeper, Va. was an exciting one insofar as I was headed for my first large scale event as a Civil War reenactor. The Blue Ridge Mountains, to my right, were beautiful, a bit more subtle than the majestic Rockies or even the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These were far more easy on the eyes, large yet rolling, filled with lush greenery and marked here and there by a road going through one of its many passes, leading into the famed Shenandoah Valley. The names of the towns, passes, rivers that I passed had been etched in my mind since childhood, Warrenton , Brandy Station, Manassas, they read like a Bruce Catton novel. It had been a long time coming to get to this place.
 Fall, 1988. Headed to work on a Saturday morning when I saw a hand made sign CIVIL WAR ---->. I made the turn and having a few minutes to kill I'd take a look. I mean I HAD to, this undoubtedly was some sort of sign from above. Going down the road I caught sight of an American flag, a 35 star one, then the tops of tents, then the parade ground where all these men, dressed in blue, were formed up. I parked and walked over, completely entranced by what was going on. These guys looked great, morning parade was impressive as they did their evolutions and inspections and were dismissed for breakfast. 20 + years of being a "buff" was coming to fruition.
Needless to say, I joined the 3rd Regiment of Infantry, New Jersey Volunteers, outfitted myself and joined the fray at a few minor skirmish events and countless drills but the big fight was still to come.
I swung into town late afternoon, Thursday. The first big event of the year started tomorrow. The 125th anniversary of the beginning of the Overland Campaign of 1864 promised to be a good one with Friday being the reenactment of "The Wilderness". I grabbed a motel room, had a quick bite and settled in to take stock of my equipment, get some rest and take the last shower for 3 days. I was pretty excited and didn't get much sleep, so I spent time reading up on the actual battle I was going to help recreate.

In the spring of 1864, Gen. U.S. Grant, newly minted overall commander of all armies in the Union, accompanied the Army of the Potomac as it started south on what would be the final campaign of the war. Unlike past Federal commanders whose target was the rebel capital of Richmond, Va, Grant knew that the only road to victory was the destruction of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and to that end his advance columns splashed across the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864 and began the race to get through the thick, almost impenetrable second growth of tangled briar's, pines and underbrush known as The Wilderness. The original forest had been long cut down to fuel the many iron forges in the colonial era and what was left was possibly the worst place ever to fight a battle. Getting through this area quickly meant flanking Lee out of his position onto open ground where Grant's superior artillery and infantry could be brought to bear. Lee, aware of this, sent 2 of his corps along the 2 main dirt roads that ran through The Wilderness and attack, negating Grant's superiority. On May 5 & 6 a struggle of utter chaos ensued as all battle lines became hopelessly tangled and in many cases lost their way in the thick woods. The slaughter was severe and many wounded men, unable to move, were roasted alive in the many fires that sprung up from the discharge of so many black powder rifles. I thought of the men and the courage it must have taken to fight this battle and I was determined to try and do their memory proud.
 I got a very early start next day. Donned my uniform, had my knapsack and all my accoutrement's and musket ready to go. Stopped in a coffee house for one last decent meal, you would have thought that General Sherman hisself had strolled in and pulled up a stool, it got deathly quiet and all the early morning farm boys gawked and kind of murmured amongst themselves. The waitress broke the ice with some funny comment and I made a joke about invading the coffee shop and all was right with the world once again. A couple of good 'ol boys slapped me on the back on the way out and said something like: "Don't let them "southron" boys stick ya with no bayonet...you keep nice and low now, hear?" Stuck with a bayonet? WTF? I knew they were kidding, but still.....

The site was to the south and west of the original battlefield, in Louisa County, Va. I pulled in, parked, loaded my stuff on my back and set off for registration. It was beastly hot for early May and I was already pouring sweat before I had gone very far. I passed bunches of guys whom had arrived and were wandering around, a lot of rebel boys with no shoes! They glanced at me and gave a grunt and a small smile, cordial enough I suppose. My bootee then stepped in something mushy and extremely stinky, my first horse road apple! Wow, how historically correct!. I signed my waiver and glanced at the roster and saw that a few boys from the 3rd were already on site. "How many you expecting?" I inquired. The reb sitting at the wooden table gave me a grizzled look and said: "Oh, we "figger" about 12,000 or so, what with walk- ons and "sech", you blue bellies are in for a hot time, I tell you.." I shouldered my musket and started the tramp down the dirt road for camp.

The camp, as it were, was a good mile or so down this twisting, turning, over hill and dale type of dirt road. Here and there was a tree, but mostly you kicked up dust and baked as you walked. The sweat was stinging my eyes and I periodically took off my cap to wipe my brow with my coat sleeve. That early morning shower was a long way in the past.  I reached our company street and saw 2 tents up already. We were perched on a sort of hillock and the view was pretty damn amazing. Tents were springing up everywhere. Off in the distance I could see the reb camp and close by saw a squadron of cavalry drilling. A team of horses trotted by pulling a caisson and what looked to be a 12 pounder Napoleon cannon. I set up my tent and helped the other boys do likewise as they came wondering in. We would be fighting that afternoon so I made sure canteens were filled and any last minute details were taken care of.

The bugles sounded assembly and each regiment lined up in their respective battalions. Marching by the right flank we started down the long road that I had recently walked. We were about 3/4's of the way back in line and as we came to a rise I could see spread out before me a long blue line interspersed  with National and State flags at the head of each regiment. It looked to me like there was easily of full sized brigade! The drums and fifes were playing martial airs, the flags were flying in the breeze...I could see how a young man could get caught up in the "glory" of the moment and march into battle little knowing what horrors awaited him. Then came the dust.

The dirt road kicked up tons of dust from all those ahead of us and soon we were choked with the stuff. It settled on our uniforms tuning them a light shade of brown. I hung my head and tried to catch a clean breath and continued wiping the sweat off my brow.. My feet were seemingly on fire and I was drenched from head to toe, but the drums and fifes kept my spirits up, as they were meant to. Fallen soldiers began appearing on the side of the road, those already stricken with the beginnings of heat exhaustion. They lay under trees being tended to and drinking copious amounts of water. My mind refused to go there, I was too caught up in the moment to think about falling out. I girded my loins and trudged on.

We reached the registration area where we guided left onto another dirt road heading, I think, north. Now I saw a bunch of black folk with wooden stands set up selling sandwiches and other good things to eat. They also had a large pail and were giving soldiers a drink of water. I grabed a ladle and drank down the cool water. "God bless you, Billy, whip dem secesh", the young brawny black man told me. I realized these were folks reenacting too. I did not think I could be any more immersed in the era, then I heard the distant "thud" and "thump" of cannon and I knew I was close to "seeing the elephant"...the term used when seeing combat for the first time. Our battalion filed off the road, stacked arms and rested.

We were on a ridge and across the valley to our front was a huge patch of woods as far as the eye could see. I could not tell where the artillery was set up, just kept hearing it. Looking at the tree tops I saw smoke boiling up from the forest floor, the ball had opened and the troops were engaged. I figured it was almost a mile from where I sat, down through the valley, into the woods to the fight. I sat and drank, I pulled some dried beef from my haversack and sucked the juices. Here and there little fires had sprung up and little knots of men were boiling coffee, others puffed at pipes and still others just quietly talked or stared into space...each with their own personal thoughts about what they were experiencing. Was it really possible to get struck in those dense woods by some un-reconstructed yahoo with an axe to grind? Could things get out of control? 12,000 guys with guns, bayonets, swords and no security of any kind...it would have to be blind faith. The bugle sounded assembly...coffee was gulped, fires kicked over, everyone struggled to their feet and fell in. We fell in and in line of battle began crossing the valley to the woods ahead. The file closers to our rear gently prodded us as we tried to keep as straight a line as possible, guiding center on the colors. I saw a couple of rabbits scury from the forests edge and as we got closer men started to appear, leaving the front, headed to the rear. Were these guys re creating being wounded, or had they really had enough? We stepped into the woods and all soon became confused chaos.

Somehow our regiment became seperated from those on either flank, but we trudged ahead towards the sound of the firing, making room for those tired souls who seemed to have had enough and made their way to the rear. The firing grew louder and those behind us were now urging us forward quicker...up and down gulleys and small ridges we went, the bushes tearing at our clothes, the smoke now getting thicker. My mouth was wide open and my heart was racing. We halted and were told to load. I tore a cartirdge and rammed it home. I fumbled for a percussion cap, my hands dripping, I couldent make my fingers work, I dropped one and finally secured one to the fire hole. We dressed our line as best we could, we could hear screaming and yelling just over the rise but could not see much, I caught glimpses of troops off to each side of us, I assumed they were our boys. Off we stepped climbing the small rise and then I saw 'em and it looked like the vortex of hell on earth.



Through the thick smoke and trees I could see the rebel line. It was at least 5 ranks deep, battle flag waving, men screaming like demons and firing as fast as they could load. We were pushed up into line, closing a small gap that had formed when a regiment had broken and left. I could feel the force from behind as officers and NCO's had their muskets and swords parallel with the ground keeping our ranks tight and stopping us from naturally stepping back from the onslaught. I began methodically loading and firing, no one had said anything about "taking a hit", it didnt look like anyone was falling, just smoke, screaming and a deafening roar. I soon had gone through half my cartridge box and my musket was decidely hot to the touch. I looked over and saw some knucklehead wasting water from his canteen as he poured it on his hot rifle barrel...a sure way to burst it I thought. I finally stepped back out of line and someone moved into my spot, my hands were black from gunpowder and Im sure my face was covered as well from tearing the cartridges. I took a knee and tried to take a breath. My uniform was soaked and I was exhausted. I took out a handerkerchief and wiped my face and neck, took a drink and soaked the rag with some water and tied it round my neck. The ebb and flow of the craziness had caused regiments in line to get squeezed out and pushed in again elsewhere. I looked up and my boys were gone. The smoke was so choking thick and the trees so dense that I couldent see a damn thing. I got up and stumbled down the line...I ran into a drummer boy beating his drum madly, could barely hear it. An officer was screaming, trying to shout encouragement and keep his men in line. He looked at me, grabbed my cartridge box sling and hurled me into line. Once again I was in the fray and began firing like mad again. I could feel the blast of the rebs muskets and got a taste of unburnt black powder that was issued form one of their rifles. The sun seemed to be going down and the confederate line started to creep forward at us. We fired high to keep from actually slamming them with the burst of fire from the end of the musket. I now went down, from what I don't remember. Another guy must have slipped and took me down ...I went down and stayed down, put my head in my arms and took deep breaths.


Pushing the yanks, the confederate battle line passed over me and in a moment the noise was diminished. I raised my head and looked around. The ground was littered with spent cartridge paper as well as bits of equipment here and there. There was no one really around except the guy who had brought me down, he was leaning against a tree smoking a pipe. I could hear the sound of firing off to my rear as I guess we were still getting pushed back. My comrade looked at me and lazily asked: "You ok?". I nodded my head, looking around and taking stock of my stuff. My cap and flown off at some point and as I looked around I saw it laying a bit away. I got up and moved over to it and picked it up. It had seen better days. Obviously some reb had been standing on it for awhile as it was covered in dirt with bits of twigs and leaves...I shook it off and put it on. "Now what?" I asked. My comrade shrugged his shoulder and kept puffing his pipe. I saw a small detachment of confederates picking their way through the woods towards us. Un reconstructed rebs? They were as grimy and sweaty as me. "You boys alright?" the grizzled old Sgt. asked. "We're both pretty good, where the heck do we go, whats going on?" Sarge spit a piece of tobacco he was chewing, "Licked you all pretty good, I reckon...you need a drink?" I reached round and felt my canteen and realized it was bone dry. "Thank you, yes". He passed me his canteen, the water was warm but clean and refreshing. "That was some fight" I said...."Seein the elephant today are ye?" Somehow he knew. I took a drink and shook my head yes. Sarge handed me a flask as I passed him his canteen "Take a drink of this, it'll get your blood up". I took a swig from the flask and felt the sting of good Kentucky Bourbon firing its way into my empty stomach...it braced me alright. "Thank you again Sergeant"...."Pleasure, thanks to you boys for comin down here and keepin the numbers even." So much for the rumors.

After being pointed in the right direction, I picked my way through the woods back to the ridge where I had started. It was quiet now, the troops having marched back to camp. There were still a few "shirkers" like myself wandering around. I sat and looked back at the woods. I had seen as much of "the elephant" as anyone in the 20th century could hope to. I sat quietly for awhile then I got up and went back to camp.