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.. Sayler’s Creek and the surrender were staged on the original sites, which always brings a different level of intensity to the emotions and the sense of being “there.” This is mostly about what happened at Appomattox, but to understand that, you need to have a feeling for what had preceded it, for that was what set the stage in our minds for Appomattox.
The event was first announced late in 1989. The first announcements said the event would be limited to 1,000 Confederates and 1,000 Federals because the sites were too small for the 15-20,000 troops we’d been seeing at Gettysburg and Wilderness. These 2,000 troops were to be the crème de la crème of The Service, and everybody wanted in on it. It is a source of tremendous pride to me that two weeks before the event was announced, I received an invitation for my outfit, Company B, 4th Texas Infantry, to attend. For the next few months, we trained intensely, worked hard on our gear, and spurred each other to new heights; we were going to be the best outfit on the field.
We arrived late in the day and immediately set up our camp. Most of the troops that were in the woods that night, were hard corps authentic, and had nothing in their camps they hadn’t marched in with. We had very simple tents and one blanket per man, and most of us had gum blankets or ponchos. It rained most of the night. Good suffering.
Oddly, I remember nothing of the first half of the first day of the event. I’m sure there was some battalion drill, because there was always drill, but other than that, it’s lost. In the afternoon, the Confederate army was formed, inspected, and passed in review. The artillery led the review, then the cavalry, then the infantry. Words cannot express the emotions of pride, humility, gratitude, and brotherhood that swept over us as we watched the brown- and gray-clad files sweep past the officers on horseback, with the army’s colors behind them, and a band playing “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” We marched straight from the parade ground up a road, and off into the woods a few miles away.
There was much confusion about where the army was supposed to be (highly authentic!) and considerable countermarching. Finally, the Second Battalion, which included us, was placed in a line of battle in one of the most preposterous positions I’ve ever seen. We were at the edge of a brush-choked ravine that was about 200 yards across and 20-30 feet deep. The problem was that we were out in the open, with our backs to a large, open field, facing the tree line, not 50 feet away. An officer on horseback rode up and told the battalion commander to be ready for a Yankee attack out of that ravine. We first sergeants went down our company lines one last time, making sure every rifle was loaded and capped, and that every man was aware of what was about to happen.
Squinting into the gloom of the woods from the bright sun, we heard men coming up the slope, and after a few minutes, we saw blue uniforms. The right wing of the battalion volleyed into the woods. A Carolina voice, rich with venom, shouted out of the woods, “Cease firing, you stupid bastards! We’re Confederate Marines!” We had been tensed for a close attack, and to suddenly realize we’d fired on our own men almost turned out stomachs. They’d been deployed as skirmishers to our front, but no one thought to tell us about it. (Highly authentic.) A few of the Marines came on and passed through the battalion, but several others lay in the woods. Not two minutes later, there was a terrific racket in the ravine, and half the Yankees in hell came boiling up out of it, at a run. The woods had destroyed their formations, so they came at us like a mob, howling and shouting and waving their rifles at us. We had time for one round before they were on us. Several crashed into my company, to my left, and swept them back, leaving me alone.
A burly Yank ran at me, obliquely, and waved his rifle as if to buttstroke me. I dropped into a deep crouch, reached Annie’s muzzle up under his rifle, and poked him under the short ribs. His eyes bugged out and he went down. (We had no bayonets on our rifles, so I just hit him with the muzzle, simulating running 17 inches of British iron through his guts.) I recovered to guard just in time to face a very young Yank in spotless, clean, new clothes, running straight at me, his rifle at arms port, his eyes wild with excitement and, I think, fear. I didn’t have time to evade or even look for my company. I set my right foot, lunged forward with my left, and thrust Annie in a lunge to low tierce, catching him just below the solar plexus. His momentum pushed my rifle back toward me and knocked me back a step, but it folded his body around Annie’s muzzle, her first band disappearing into his belly. As he fell forward, he dropped his rifle and his eyes locked on mine, and in them was the knowledge that he was a dead man.
An instant later a gigantic Yank stiff-armed me flat o’ my back and ran on. The young fellow had fallen at my feet, and was curled into fetal ball, winded or crying, or both. A few seconds after that the last of the Yanks had passed me by in pursuit of whatever was left of our battalion. Not one of them had finished me off or tapped me and said, “You are my prisoner,” so I looked around, jumped up, grabbed Annie, and lit off into the brush. For the next two hours, I and another Reb played hide and seek with Yankee cavalry patrols and skulkers. Eventually, my companion said he’d take his chances in the blackberry bog at our backs. We shook hands and he took off.
For another 45 minutes, or so, I crept around the tree line to a road. I was about to drop down the embankment to the road, when I heard horses coming. I scroonched back under a bush and waited. Of all the people to come down that road, in that place, at that time, was my dear friend from Arizona, Brent Brown, and his gray coat was a thing of beauty to me. Brent gave me a ride back to our camp, where my lads greeted me with jeers that hid the fact they’d been worried sick that I’d been injured. We were all exhausted – I was barely able to stand - and when it started to rain about dusk, we headed for our tents to get an early start on sleep. Within an hour, the temperature had dropped from the 80’s to the low 20’s, and it snowed like a girl dog all night. Lordy, it was miserable.
In my 30 years of reenacting, a few things have really stuck in my mind, and have come calling out of my memory when something summoned them. One of the most powerful was the vision on that young Yank – Lord, he was a baby! – as his body crumpled around my rifle and his eyes said to me, as plainly as ever a man spoke, “You have killed me, and I know it.” How many times, especially late in the war, did that happen? An old man, bitter and broken, took a life so young and filled with promise and hope. Some people have poked fun at reenactors, saying we are just boys, playing at war, and have no hope of experiencing the real thing. They are correct up to a point, but when it’s done right, as it was that afternoon, we can still get a taste of their life – a hint – a fleeting glimpse. Taking down that boy was one such for me, and I wonder if he remembers it was vividly as do I. I see him now, as I write this. I wish him well, for he is a constant rider in the long train of my memory.
END OF PART I