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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

“Gettysburg”

  

I had missed the first day’s fighting due to a prior commitment in Columbus, Ohio, and had to race down Route 30 SE in my Ford Explorer to try and reach my division’s rendezvous in time. It struck me how strange I must appear to passers-by, driving down the highway in my Confederate uniform, a plain unbleached shirt and vintage butternut wool trousers, a gray forage cap on my head and, though the other drivers couldn’t see them, russet leather brogans on my feet.

Upon arrival, I saw that in and around the park extra space had been demarcated, a necessity due to the huge numbers of spectators and participants visiting the Gettysburg area for this, the annual reenactment of the legendary Civil War battle. This year the anniversary of the three day conflict fell, quite conveniently, on a Friday-Saturday-Sunday stretch. Being relegated to the late second and third days of the conflict, my first active role one of the men of Pickett’s division, Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate Forces dovetailed nicely with my work schedule.

I left my car near the guide’s post, in close proximity to what is now called McPherson Ridge, where the battle began on July 1, 1863. The reenactment, too, would have started here mere hours ago before following the footpaths history had transcribed.

Now the area was spotless, having been hastily converted from the initial battleground to a place of makeshift parking lots for the larger crowds expected at today’s and Sunday’s performances.

It was a few minutes before 6 PM, and after searching for a few minutes I found my group setting up camp in a grove of oak trees near the Chambersburg Pike, just as the men we were imitating had done a hundred and thirty-seven years ago. Off in the distance, longer gaps between cannon shots and the sun suspended low in the sky indicated the second day’s fighting was coming to a close.

There were over four thousand of us gathered here, and I knew there were many more thousands a short span to the south, where the day’s battle had raged.

In greeting the other men, none of whom I had met previously, I soon realized that I would not be permitted to converse in the modern style, even by singular exception. I was silently berated with meaningful glances as I was questioned about my strange accent and manner of speech.

As a Northerner born in the Yankee state of Ohio, I was not bred to the charge before me. Rather, having followed a career opportunity to Virginia, I became a southerner through immigration. Having spent the last twenty years, roughly half of my life, as a genteel Virginian, I had affected a lilt in my voice and a penchant for the homey vernacular of the South, in sharp contrast to the keen, measured tones of the North where I was raised. I now spoke in a strange mélange of tongues that often left my fellow conversationalists perplexed.

The “War Between the States,” as it was preferred in the South, was a much different affair below the Mason-Dixon Line. Sherman’s vindictive and savage razing of Atlanta; Lee’s staunch heroism in the face of overwhelming odds; the brilliance of Stonewall Jackson; these were things not much discussed in the Yankee North.

 

It was to be a relatively innocent evening as we of Pickett’s Division hung back out of the fray, the early birds of our group having experienced the first two bloody days of battle as long-distance spectators of a grand show. The procedures for this weekend, intended to be the largest and most authentic battle reenactment ever undertaken, were strict and left little room for interpretation. Soldiers of the original Pickett’s division did not join the fighting until the third day, and so we would wait as well, restless, awaiting our moment of glory.

I spent the early evening awaiting civilian visitors to the campsite, but they never came. I thought nothing of it, since we were off the beaten path, quite far from the main battlefield where most of the spectators were surely gathered.

With a tin cup full of coffee, I sat outside my tent and watched the proceedings as the more experienced men drilled and conversed in the manner of the Confederate Army circa 1863, for the benefit of no one but themselves.

 

Being a newcomer to the whole reenactment experience, and since this, Gettysburg, would be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny from spectators, scholars, and other reenactors, I was told that I would be part of the retreating forces once it came to the critical moments of Pickett’s Charge. This was thought to be a simpler task than authentically portraying a field casualty or the extended efforts required by the few men who would break through the Union lines for a brief, glorious moment before being turned back.

Once the camp setup was complete, we found ourselves bored by our own company. I passed time inspecting the replicas of arms, uniforms, and flags that were all around. The men pretended to be amazed by daguerreotypes from Paris, and titillated by Parisian women depicted in the same, despite their old-fashioned clothing, which revealed little beyond demure, similar looking faces.

The men talked, in character throughout, about the famous battles that had passed up to that point in the war, and of Stonewall Jackson, mistakenly shot by his own men after returning from a reconnaissance mission in the dark. They spoke with reverence of the recently dead commander, remembering his amputated arm buried near Chancellorsville, and his body later laid to rest with a soldier’s burial at Lexington.

Dinner was salted pork, beans, and corn bread, with coffee always at the ready. The food was better than merely edible, though certainly less than gourmet. I suspected this might be one aspect of the entire reenactment that would draw no complaints for lack of authenticity, even if it was of slightly better quality than the food the rebels had actually eaten.

I cleaned my weapon, a replica recently purchased at no small expense from a mail-order outfit. I polished its smooth gray metal, listening to the strains of “Dixie” and “Oh Susanna” among several others I did not recognize.

There were no women in the camp, unlike most reenactments. Whole families were usually involved, women handling the cooking and laundry duties, children running about and making a general nuisance of themselves. The quest for authenticity had apparently precluded any familial involvement in this year’s Gettysburg reenactment. Their absence made for a surprisingly quiet and pensive mood in camp, despite the choruses of the song singers.

My own wife, Emma, did not mind the exclusion. She made no claim to understand the attraction of this horrible moment in our country’s history. I could only explain to her that it was as pivotal and glorious as it was horrible, and that it marked some of the most fascinating heroism and strategy ever seen on a battlefield.

Even so, I was not as enthusiastic as many of the men who made up our division.

 

At night, I slept by myself. There were sounds from outside my tent throughout the night, though I suspected I might be dreaming or imagining some of them. An overactive imagination should not have surprised me, given my predisposition for the history of these battles and my excitement at the ever-nearing hour of my group’s time in the spotlight.

There were voices, seeming to come from the air itself and echoing cries for vengeance and blood. The sounds, and moreso the foreboding message they carried, disturbed me greatly.

I lay awake, staring alternately at the shadowed interiors of the tent and my own eyelids, contemplating the differences between the two armies. From my readings, I knew that the bulk of the Union army was motivated by such mundane incentives as salary, possibility of promotion, inertia, or general anti-southern sentiment. For some, it was the justice of freedom for slaves or the passion of Lincoln and the need to preserve the union.

In the Confederate army, however, most of the men fought with a savagery that was understandable only in the context of an invasion of one’s homeland and sensibilities, which was how most of them perceived the war. Not only was the defense of one’s homeland justifiable, but honorable. Now, at Gettysburg, having enjoyed a run of successes, they we were taking the battle to the North in their own territory.

A victory here at Gettysburg would force the union to listen to those pleading for peace on both sides. France and England would consider officially recognizing the Southern Confederacy to protect their own interests in the tobacco and cotton trades.

I felt the exhilaration coursing through my limbs. It was no wonder men outside were awake. Even now, one hundred and thirty-seven years later, the excitement was palpable.

    

We rose early, before sunrise, and within hours had made our way to Seminary Ridge. As we marched, I engaged several men in conversation, careful to couch my questions in the proper dialect.

I asked them point-blank whether they had stayed up last night or had been a cause to those strange voices I had heard. All replied in the negative, and also denied hearing any voices other than their own.

We were forced to alter the course taken by our representative division in 1863, because of the current layout of the National Park’s borders. We marched down West Confederate Avenue and turned off to the right to travel behind the campsites of the troops who’d previously arrived and fought. I thought it quite strange that I still had not seen any spectators to the festivities. There were no children, no one to be found in modern dress, and the ban on women in the army camps seemed to have been extended to the entire National Park.

There seemed to be no one within miles who was not a soldier of the blue or the gray.

 

It was a hot, clear day, nearly identical to the weather recorded at Gettysburg for July 3, 1863. This resonance struck a chord in me until I considered how many “identical” July thirds had likely passed unnoted since that time. A clear sky divulged no secrets as to its age, nor, for that matter, did the clouds or the shining sun. Beyond the additions to the battlefield of scattered statues and monuments, could any man discern one year from another in this place?

We moved again, closer to the front but still hidden from the sight of the Union forces. We would be attacking soon enough.     

The figure of Robert E. Lee was imposing even from a distance. The man portraying Lee had the same battle-weary gaze I’d seen in countless photographs of the General. The reenactor’s mount was the same proud Confederate gray that Lee’s horse Traveller was reputed to have boasted. The guidebook to the weekend’s events had given the man’s name as Ridley Johnson, an actor who’d carved a niche for himself with acclaimed portrayals of several famous Confederates, most notably Lee himself. Johnson’s esteemed reputation owed as much to his physical resemblance to the General as to his still-considerable acting prowess.

General Lee rode by, saluting us by removing his hat as the cannon boomed near the front lines. Despite the heat, a distinct chill passed through me at the sight of our leader.

A rough tally had counted approximately four and a half thousand men in our group. Here, under Lee’s direction, we combined with the forces of Pettigrew and the other Confederate officers who would be accompanying us on the charge. Our total was, within a man or two, the twelve and a half thousand generally attributed to the men of Pickett’s Charge.

The cannonade, designed to soften up the enemy’s lines before the charge, had ceased. In 1863, the Confederate artillery had overshot the Union lines, causing little of the damage intended and setting the stage for the massacre that the original Pickett’s Charge became.

The heat-haze shimmered in the field before us. The diurnal cicadas had relieved their nocturnal cousins, the crickets, and provided a noisy soundscape for the goings-on. Carrion birds waited nearby, cawing their impatience. I smiled at the scavengers’ gullibility; they had been deceived by our portrayals, and awaited a feast that was not to come.

 

At 3:00 p.m., John Pearson, as Major General George Pickett, turned astride his horse. Looking back at us men, he yelled, with a gleam in his eye: “Remember old V’ginia! Charge!”

Three quarters of a mile and a long wooden fence loomed before us, distancing us from our objective: the copse of trees centered at the middle of the Union line. The target was now marked within a few yards by the testimonial to the Confederate Army that described Pickett’s Charge as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. We took it as our goal.

We set out in saturnine silence, a perfectly ordered line of men nearly a mile in width. The Union men quieted too, respectful as if watching a funeral procession.

The history books agreed that the speed of the march was somewhere around one hundred yards per minute. I had determined that using the three quarters of a mile figure for distance, it would take us about thirteen minutes to reach the other side at our current pace. I suspected, of course, that such a calculation was to prove hopelessly irrelevant.

As we marched, I sneaked glimpses at the men on either side of me. There was a determination in their eyes and in the way they leveled their chins and held the colors that reminded me there was something greater at work here than a simple reenactment. Our commanders had repeated the battle history so many times that any man in the division could have recited it verbatim. We all knew that the march was to be accompanied by silence until the last few hundred yards. And yet, as I stole glances, I noted that the pace was growing ever quicker.

As our boys shifted from steady march to double time, the first unmistakable rebel yells pierced the air. The high-pitched ululations froze my blood, and I can only imagine what impact it must have had on the Union soldiers, forced to stand motionless and wait for their attackers to approach.

At about two hundred yards, they started firing on us. Eleven cannon and seventeen hundred muskets trained on our exposed ranks, erupting all at once. As our line disintegrated and the boys began to return fire, I stopped, unable to see through the smoke whether there was a man ahead of me.

The smoke cloud of musket fire immediately surrounding me finally dispersed, and I gleaned a sight most terrifying in its grotesquerie.

The field before me writhed, filthy with the pleading cries of shattered men. I swallowed hard, as it was unlike any scene to which I had ever borne witness. The indescribable sounds these men made could not be false, could they? If so, never was there a more convincing, realistic panorama constructed than what lay before me now.

I ran toward the Union troops slower than the others, unable to draw my gaze from the bodies littered everywhere. I saw wounds that I could differentiate by their cause, whether long-range ammunition, short-range canister shot, or musket fire. There was no explanation forthcoming from the men of the division reenactment as to how these utterly convincing injuries were created. Perhaps, I thought, we were all expected to strive and prepare for such attention to detail? It seemed a difficult task, one that could only be accomplished with days of relentless practice and planning.

Whistles of close-passing missiles buzzed my ear as I bent over a body to examine a particularly gruesome wound. Blanks would create no such sound, or such wounds, and I shuddered with the knowledge that somehow, real projectiles were being fired.

Men fell with such sudden stoppage they seemed as automatons whose motors had been switched off. They dropped in awkward positions and lay still, leaving no doubt that their wounds were authentic, as well.

Petrified, I hid behind the body of a man whose entire left side had been ripped open with canister shot. I was too scared to do anything but breathe, and even that only with conscious effort.

A horse approached from behind and I turned to see the man playing Pickett atop his mount.

"Sir," I screamed above the fusillade, "what’s going on?"

"What d’you mean, ‘What’s going on?’" he retorted. "We’re fightin’ a battle here! Get up and fight!"

The white glow in his eyes concealed his pupils and betrayed the true nature of his character. To my perception, it was John Pearson no longer. It was now the embodiment of Pickett himself.

He forced his horse steady as he waited for me to rise, ignoring the horse’s nervousness and the gunfire all around him.

"We’re gettin’ a second chance, son, can’tcha see? A second chance!"

I ran a few steps in front of him until I heard his horse come up and pass me. As I paused to consider the words just exchanged, he charged fearlessly into battle. He stopped, maybe thirty yards ahead on the slope, and turned once more, his stallion rising heroically on its rear legs.

"Our cannons got ‘em this time, boys! This time’s gonna be different!"

Another yell was raised and bodies seemed to appear out of nowhere, emerging from the confusion and charging the Union lines. The men looked the same as the ones I’d met earlier in the campaign, men I knew were doctors, lawyers, white and blue collar both, twentieth century all. But now, they all bore that same glow about the eyes that Pickett did, and I knew something most unnatural had occurred.

Sound dissipated entirely and sight concealed everything except the Confederate soldiers. In a moment of preternatural clarity, I saw that the reenactors gathered on these grounds, motivated mainly by a consuming interest in history, had been temporarily captured, their wills suspended in deference to the ghosts of men with a more visceral interest in the outcome of battle.

Perhaps the absence of women in the camps had served to convince these long-slumbering specters that the battle taking place on the ground above them was at last genuine. The sheer scale of this reenactment may have awakened them when so many before had gone ignored. Whatever the cause, these spirits had long awaited this moment, patiently biding their time through the years. The carnage now being inflicted was proof that the moment had finally arrived to restage the charge at Gettysburg.

The men had passed into the smoke that divided our position and the fierce battle ahead at the Union line, and though my first instinct was to make a run back toward the Confederate lines, I was disoriented by the sounds coming from all directions. The low, constant moan was now punctuated by yells and screams for help.

I used the angles of bodies on the ground as a directional guide. Every Confederate who had fallen had done so while charging the enemy. In hope of escape, I moved in the opposite direction.

Retreating as I had been trained, in accordance with the history books, I found myself alone, trudging back the way I came, sweating and trembling.

The carrion birds still waited off to the side, clear of the smoke, untroubled by the thunderous gunfire being exchanged. They stared at me with slitted eyes, impressing their secret thoughts upon me with their collective gaze.   

Through the smoke, I targeted the tall bronze figure of General Lee astride his horse, back near where we had begun our charge. I focused on it exclusively, Lee atop Traveller, the memorial to the men of Virginia, one of the few testimonials to southern bravery in a place dominated by the memory of northern victory.

 

There would be much discussion regarding the performance of the men reenacting Pickett’s Charge that day: the way the men disobeyed their original orders and ran roughshod over the stunned Union troops; the way the weapons had impossibly spit deadly fire instead of blanks and how, after the fact, no fault could be leveled for it; the way the spectators who lined the outskirts of the battlefield on the first day were seized by a wordless compulsion to empty the park on the second and third.

The casualties were not comparable to the original battle, in which over seven thousand men were killed or wounded, but the manner was more memorable. In the aftermath of the reenactment tragedy, most of the injured were saved by expedient medical treatment. The shock and sheer mystery surrounding the events, however, would not ebb for years to come.

The men I served with as part of Pickett’s brigade remembered nothing of the actual charge. Nor did John Pearson recall anything of his foray deep into Union lines, so belligerent in his attack that he forced the Union men (whose memories and willpower were unaffected by the supernatural encroachment) to abandon their guns and emplacements and run for their lives.

As to why I was spared such possession as my compatriots suffered, I have my suspicions in particular the fact that I was the only man of our division born of Northern blood.  

Certainly, from this day forward when I hear the name of Gettysburg I will think not of bloody defeat, but of bloody valor, and of the souls of soldiers who would not surrender themselves to defeat or the passage of time. I provide this account as a warning, plain and simple: Let all who read this tread lightly upon those ghosts of history who have been branded the losers.

 

END

 

              

 

 

 

Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Gettysburg
." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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