I should have written this 23 years ago. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Maybe it was too sad; maybe it was too intimate. It was, indeed, heartbreaking, and it did, indeed, touch me at my core. It’s time, because it is now relevant. Many who read this will say, “Huh? Relevant to what?” Others will nod, and say, “Yep.” I accept that, but even so, it’s still time.
In April of 1990, I took part in the 125th anniversary reenactment of the battles of Sayler’s Creek and Cumberland Church, and the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox, Va.. What follows is an excerpt from my memoir of that event.
The next morning [after the Battle of Sayler’s Creek] we broke camp and drove to the staging area for the surrender ceremony. Again, we were the second of three battalions, drawn up in a little draw, facing a road that ran up to the McLean house, to our left. We were told, “Do NOT march in step,” and it was repeated several times. I assume it was to prevent showing anyone that we still had any pride or spirit left, though both Chamberlain’s and Gordon’s memoirs speak of the precision of the Confederate drill that morning. The melancholy from the previous night was with us still, but different. I can’t describe it. There was sadness, but a bit of rebelliousness, too. It wasn’t an overt, or outward rebelliousness, but rather the sullen, “Damned if I will,” that a slave might mutter as he spits on the ground as his master walks away.
The first battalion was to our right. They were given he command to face right, then march by files left twice, so they marched by us from right to left, their colors waving gently. Were they marching in step? Oh, my goodness! That army never marched so well! Not a sergeant called cadence, but that thunder of their heels on the gravel at precisely 110 steps per minute rolled up the draw ahead of them. I believe you’d have had to shoot those boys to keep them from marching in step. As we watched them pass by, we saw a world of mixed emotions in their faces. Many wept, many more were about to, and some had masks of repressed emotions that were known only to God at that moment. We had an overwhelming sense that we were watching the ghosts of brothers march past us into legend.
Then it was our turn. Right, FACE! By files left, MARCH! By files left, MARCH! And we were taking our turn up that road. The Third Battalion watched us go, and my heart tells me they saw the same expressions, and heard the same perfect cadence of our steps as the Grand old First Battalion had shown. Moving now, there was precious little time to reflect. I know my face was drawn into a terrible scowl as I fought to suppress the tears and the shouts of rage. We topped the rise, and there was the First Battalion, faced front, about 15 feet from the Yankee infantry. The Yanks stood as if they were carved of stone. Nothing moved but their flags. Battalion, HALT! FRONT! Right, DRESS! As I moved along the ranks of my company, perfecting their alignment, I saw other first sergeants doing the same, and I knew none of us would be caught with the tiniest imperfection on that day.
Then it came. That order we’d all known would come, but somehow, never really believed would. Fix, BAYONETS! Rifles moved left and hands moved in numb memory. Bayonets clinked onto muzzles and locking rings clicked, then rifles moved back to the right. At this moment, I happened to look into the face of a Yankee first sergeant across the way. He was an old fart, like me, and his expression was one of – well, I’ll be damned – sadness! The private next to him, however, showed a flicker of fear as we fixed bayonets. The Yankee rifles were naked, and at that distance, we could have had every one of ‘em before they could have reacted. They knew it, and we knew it, but honor in the form of the spirits that swarmed around us kept our passions in check.
Stack, ARMS! The movements that had baffled us years ago, but had been learned through practice on hundreds of fields and roads moved the rifles forward and mated them into neat stacks of four rifles each, bayonets upward. As I write this, the emotions that filled me return like hammers, and I don’t know how I can express them. I must, though, because it is time.
I watched the stacks forming, and when it was my turn, I handed Annie to the corporal at the head of the front rank, and watched him lean her carefully against the stack. There. I’d done it. I’d handed my rifle over to the enemy, and stood before him feeling naked and helpless. And defeated. Hell, even castrated. In that moment, I understood all of the rhetoric that has swirled and blasted our society about the right to keep and bear arms, and the real meaning of the 2nd Amendment. I was here, in my place in the rear rank, and Annie was there, three feet from me. I wasn’t allowed to touch her, to snap her to the order, to shoulder her, and most of all, not allowed to move her to my left side and pour a charge down her throat, to then ram a gray ball down on top of the charge, pivot to my right, swing her before me, put a cap on her cone and prepare to fire in the defense of my home, my family, my would-be nation, indeed, of my very dreams. She was taken from me, and had some Yankee stepped up, grabbed her from the stack, and swung her against a tree, my sense of loss could not have been greater.
The order came to remove our belts and cartridge boxes and hang them over the bayonets. Then our colors were carefully rolled around their staffs and the staffs laid across the stacks, like fence rails. Several companies found their iron grips on their emotions break at this point. They ripped their colors off the poles and, with harsh strokes of bowie knives, cut them into scraps, each man taking one as a talisman that almost none would ever understand. The battalion commander was given the canton of a Stainless Banner. I’ll bet anything in this world he still has it, and woe to the man who disrespects it.
Right, FACE! We faced right and doubled, almost floating away because of the lack of weight. My right arm literally cramped from the absence of Annie. Many other men experienced the same thing. We were marched a short distance to a corral, ringed with wire fence and Yankee infantry. We spread our ponchos and blankets in the wet grass and sat down in silence. After a while, quiet conversation started up, and after that the irrepressible spirit of the men asserted itself and someone started singing. A few gathered twigs and boiled coffee. I ate half the hardtack cracker that had been given me the day before. But we sat, thinking, and I know there was not a man but felt the helplessness of sitting there, penned up like bloody sheep, in the presence of our enemies. For the rest of our lives, we would never be entirely free of the realization that we lived and walked about only at the pleasure of the government. Since that moment, I have never been entirely free of the nagging thought that, had the ceremony been real, my life would have been held in trust – not really mine – and the government would have owned the paper on it. It was then and is now a feeling so revolting and humiliating that I pray none of my countrymen, Northerner or Southerner, ever feels it.
Jeff Cooper is quoted as saying that when you pick up a rifle, you are transformed from a subject into a citizen. The profundity of that statement was lost on me before I sat in that corral and watched Yankees walk past our arms and look at Annie and the others, and there wasn’t a damned thing in the world I could do about it. A well-armed person, man or woman, is a force to be reckoned with, and may not be abused without a price paid. An unarmed person lives only at the discretion and good will of those who have guns. Some will say this could never happen here, but that is not the point. The point is that an unarmed person lives only at the pleasure and good will of those who have guns, and this fact cannot be repudiated. Fools may deny it, tyrants-in-waiting may ridicule it, but it is as solid and irrefutable as any stone – even any gravestone.
For myself, I will be a citizen.
END OF PART III OF MY PERSONAL MEMOIR