Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Soldiering On

A new recruit of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry takes up arms at Picacho Peak during "Civil War In The Southwest" and finds himself dogged by an enemy whose force he underestimated.

Adapted from the battlefield journals of Private Christopher Francis
Photographic assistance by
Rosemary W. and
Michael C., 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry

The fresh recruit from Tucson stood in the morning Arizona sun, blue skies matching the trim of his new powder-gray uniform, a kepi barely containing his bushy brown hair as he wondered how the Confederates could shoot and move with all their accouterments. A cap box and slinged bayonet hung from the black leather belt around his waist. He fiddled with it several times before sliding it into the right position. His Sergeant had instructed him on the proper way of fixing the haversack, cartridge box and canteen looped over his shoulders. The belt needed to snake around the straps a certain way to let one haversack strap hang free.

Two new recruits to his side hastily acquainted themselves with their gear, fresh from the sutler and in need of adjustment. Leather punches and cutting tools reported for duty. Arrangements for cartridges and musket caps followed where needed. Nobody would go unarmed or unloaded.

"Line up by height!" commanded the Sergeant.

The men of the 1st Virginia formed up, minds girding for battle, the mood jovial and anticipatory. The Sergeant could tell a more soldierly demeanor and discipline were needed, and thus began the drill.

Three basic commands to carry arms, and the recruit from Tucson found himself having trouble with all of them. The shiny new 1861 Springfield in his hand defied his wishes as the trigger ended up facing the wrong way when he shouldered the weapon. After each command his eyes flitted to the privates on either side of him, checking and verifying and adjusting his fingers, hurrying before his seargent adjusted them by force. The rifle weighed on his arm with nagging fatigue as he held it around the trigger. He did his best to ignore it. He needed the strength.

He anticipated some difficulty, remembering his service several months ago, in different uniforms and hats -- as a Yankee Doodle and then simply a Yankee -- but with a determination to master the order of arms or at least avoid scrutiny.

Marching came naturally to him, propelled by the rhythm of the young company fifer's rendition of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and the unison crunching of brogans against sun-baked earth. The recruits wound a path through the camps to the admiration of civilians in the waning stages of breakfast. Ladies sat around camp stoves, smiling for their warriors, enjoying the morning and the promise of Confederate victory.

Despite the rustiness, Colonel Scott was impressed as he addressed his troops and greeted the new recruits.

"I know you will enjoy this," he said to the Tucson soldier.

With allied units falling in and a few words of inspiration and duty from their leader, the 1st Virginia marched off to battle.

The Yankees stood in wait for them this morning, cannons primed and ready to take out a few rebels. Their adversaries would announce their presence with a thunderous volley.

"Double charge!"

The Tucson recruit snatched two cartridges from his pouch, ripping the ends off with his teeth and pouring each down the Springfield barrel with the hurried urgency of a newcomer desiring a suitable first impression. He dug out a musket cap and pressed it into place as the firing lines came to the ready. Rifles from the rear rank lowered over his shoulder as he raised his own to his chest.


White smoke blasted from the twin rows, not nearly in unison, but enough to scare a faint-hearted Union conscript. Yet their numbers proved formidable and their positions a serious challenge. They had calvary with pistols. They had cannons. They had plenty of willing men. The Tucson recruit did not concern himself with the odds, however, as he kept reloading and firing and advancing with the lines.

"Fire by rank, from the right!"

The Sergeant had warned them about this command. In theory and in practice, rifles would fire from one end of the lines to the other in a chain reaction, each man not firing until the man beside him fired or at least popped his cap. It seldom happened correctly. Yet remarkably, it happened on this occasion with a convincing result -- not perfect, but convincing.

Aside from a few rebel yells, the soldiers of the 1st Virginia had little time to admire their combat skills, loading and unleashing volley after volley, advancing on the Colonel's command. In front of them, the Union calvary took shots anywhere they could find them. Cannons fired at Union targets but failed to knock out any of the line.

"What the heck?" the Colonel wondered aloud as a few rebels from another unit ran for the Union lines. Deserters? Daredevils? Turncoats?

The fresh recruit found himself puzzled as well. Why aren't those Yanks going down?

A Federal cannon blasted out the center of the 1st Virginia line -- just as expected. The men collapsed in a painful display, but retreat did not even cross the mind of those still standing. If the Yanks were going to profess some sort of immortality, by golly, so were they.


The men in gray ran them down without bayonets, securing a quick surrender after at least 25 volleys. The Tucson's recruit's rifle barrel smoked and blazed with heat. He wondered if he would have enough rounds to make it through the rest of the day.

He and his fellow volunteers reformed in front of the spectators behind the safety ropes, casualties brushed off, the dead resurrected and smiling for the crowds camped out on the base of the rocky cliff with their cameras and wide-eyed wonder. After a few words of explanation from the Colonel, the questions commenced.

"How long does it take you to load those rifles?" one person asked.

"About 20 seconds," a recruit replied.

"But for some of us, it takes a little longer," the Tucson recruit added, slipping into a Virginia drawl.

He was grateful to have survived the battle, relieved his rifle had performed as expected, even if those Union scoundrels would not go down. But within him and above him, two other aggressors -- the building heat and a latent cold -- plotted a sneak attack, hiding out just as the Confederate forces did in Picacho more than a century ago.

They launched their charge, and the recruit found lightness invading his head. His insides groaned. His hands fell to his knees in a crouch signaling an imminent collapse.

"Can you make it back to camp?" a fellow recruit inquired, taking him by the arm.

"Yes," the Tucson recruit advised, his voice unsteady and weak. He stumbled as his rescuer guided him back through the tents and civilians, back to the shade of the 1st Virginia Headquarters, where the ladies instantly came to his aid. They peeled off his coat and gear, setting it aside while a nurse placed a series of cold rags over his head and neck. At times they wrung out water down his back as they offered bottles to him. Drink. Drink.

"You need to feel like you're drowning in it," a nurse advised him.

He had heard the warnings earlier in the morning, the advisories to keep drinking water, to stay hydrated, to take off the thick wool coats back in camp. He had brought Gatorade powder with him and offered it to his fellow soldiers. He had taken sips from his canteen as directed. He had heard of the Yankee recruit who had fallen before even stepping on the battlefield. And yet he couldn't understand his illness.

"You feeling better?" a fellow private asked.

"Yes, sir," the new recruit responded, trying his best to convince himself the worst was over.

Yet the skirmish was not finished. The latent cold made a charge from the center of his internal battlefield, launching a volley manifesting itself as a dishonorable discharge.

"What is wrong with me?" the recruit wondered aloud, saddened nearly to tears at his plight, embarrassed at all the witnesses observing him with a bucket below his head.

The Colonel offered him a choice. "Do you want somebody to take you home, Christopher, or do you want an EMT?"

"Get me an EMT," he said without hesitation, choosing the option that would not require an immediate surrender.

The ladies of the 1st Virginia continued to attend to him, cooling his weakened body with cloth after cloth, his legs now shivering from the cold water drenching him. The emergency medical technician soon arrived, and he complimented the nurses on an excellent job as he examined the heat-felled recruit. The young soldier warned his blood pressure might be low. Indeed it was, but not serious.

"Did you collapse?"


"If you had collapsed, I would have recommended you go to the hospital."

Fortunately, no ambulances would be needed. But on the advice of the EMT and his commanders, he would fight no more this day. It's not such a bad thing to remain here among the beautiful women of the 1st Virginia, they advised him.

True, he acknowledged. But he came to fight, not to play the wounded soldier, not to leave others worried for him. Despite his willingness to take up the rifle, and confidence he could return to the lines, he remained in the shade of the tent fly -- Colonel's orders. He sipped Gatorade water as the crackles of musket fire and cannon blasts teased his ears.

All through the day, the ladies and recruits inquired of his condition, taking comfort in seeing his color and spirit return.

"You did the right thing," said the recruit who had escorted him back to camp. "Heat exhaustion can sneak up on you."

The words comforted him, but the nature of the injury still gnawed at his heart. A bullet, a cannon blast, a slash of a sword -- those all seemed like more honorable injuries, things truly worth confinement to camp. He had worked through illness before in his other life and time. But perhaps that was foolish bravery, dangerous fortitude.

He joined his fellow soldiers for supper, determined to show his fitness and appetite.

"We were praying for you," another member of the 1st Virginia told him, relieved in his recovery.

He vowed to return the next day, stronger and wiser and well hydrated.

"Make sure you drink plenty of water tonight," his Sergeant advised. "No soda. No coffee."

He arrived early the next morning, resuming his place under the tent fly but determined not to remain there all day. His fellow soldiers trickled into camp, all inquiring about his condition. Much better, he told them, ready to fight on.

The Sergeant inspected weapons as the men stood in line, taking each rifle and shaking it for the reassuring clink of a ramrod in a barrel. The tinkling of metal upon metal signified a clean gun. When he came to one of the newer recruits and his loaned weapon, the rod emitted a dull thud.

"We forgot to clean this one," the commander acknowledged. "You'll go down in the first volley."

The unforgiving sun rose in a cloudless sky, and the Colonel recommended a light drill this morning. Again the troops marched off, and the Tucson recruit felt more at ease this time, satisfied he was making progress with the commands. Some of the others found themselves out of step on commands to turn, which brought some minor frustratation to the Sergeant.

"You should know your left from your right!"

The recruit spotted a familiar face and lens to his left. A photojournalist from that modern-day dispatch of news and information, KOLD, had arrived to capture the soldiers preparing for battle. Now came the time to show the rest of the world what Virginia gentlemen were made of.

The 1st Texas and 8th Louisiana joined the gray-uniformed volunteers on the brushy, thorny battlefield. Yankees hid in the bushes, behind the cacti, taking shots. On the Colonel's command, a few of the allied men ran forth to take out those "pests."

Once again, the Confederates found themselves surrounded by blue coats -- on horseback, in formation, loose in the weeds. Drive them back! Drive them back!

Volley after volley jetted from the 1st Virginia rifles, and those Yanks refused to fall. They were as stubborn as they came, provoking questions about the aim of the rebel forces. The Tucson recruit took a hit he didn't expect as he advanced through the desert grounds. He marched straight through a cactus bush, and a needle lodged in his leg. But the Battle of Wounded Knee would have to wait as long as Union troops stood before him.

More shots rang out amid the blasts of heavier artillery and crackling of pistols. The recruit worried about his cartridge supply, but the solution presented itself. A cannon blasted him and two other men to the earth.

"Pull that cap over your face if you're dead," a post-mortal private advised from the ground. "Otherwise they could come back and shoot you."

Do these Yanks have no shame? the recruit wondered.

On the command to resurrect, he brushed himself off and fell back in line with the rest of the troops, marching to the rope separating soldiers from spectators. Before him stood a journalist from KOLD displaying a grin as wide as the Potomac.

"Private Francis, are these friends of yours?" the Colonel inquired.

"They do look a might familiar," the recruit replied in drawl. "They have come up from Tucson to celebrate our victory."

He expected the reporter to fire away with questions. He did not.

"Aren't you goin' to hit me with a question?" the recruit prodded. "That's what you're here for!"

"What's it like to re-enact?" the reporter opened.

"Are you asking me?"


"I will defer that question to my comrades."

The journalist found a father and son of the 1st Virginia and a colorful character of the 1st Louisiana, and the recruit hoped his compatriot in his modern-day world would have enough time to use as much of their words as possible.

* * *

At least two dozen people sat on wooden benches under a tent canopy, the wind blowing the canvas like a sail. The Tucson recruit held the center pole tightly, preventing it from falling onto another person, as it had an unlucky woman in the front row. She sat with an ice pack and a bump on her head. Colonel Scott, chaplain as well as commander, offered prayer for her before he began his Sunday service.

His homily turned back the pages of history to a connection uniting the leaders of the North and South, even in the height of war. They were men of God, true believers, faithful to the end. General Robert E. Lee, upon hearing chaplains had prayed for him, started to cry and said, "I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me."

The words pierced the young recruit. All weekend long, people had offered their prayers for him, he realized, prayers for his health and strength in his imperfect and sometimes miserable state -- a sick solider, a weekend warrior, determined but infirm and nursing a bruised heart. Yet friendship and camaraderie overrode all that, and the thought of being worthy of someone else's prayers left him humbled.

One billion people inhabited the earth at the time of the Civil War, the chaplain noted.

"All of them are gone."

Gone... and many forgotten, except for a handful of lives the history books have found worthy of remembering. One billion people gone, the recruit thought. An inexplicable sadness blossomed within him as he pondered the unstated void of such a massive departure of souls.

Many of them lived through one of history's darkest chapters and yet they're not even a footnote on the page, he thought.

No towns named after them, no statues bearing their likeness. No dates on the calendar, no words on a plaque. Here lived someone deserving of our praise, selfless and loving, who made the world around them better in a way you shall never know.

When I'm gone, I'm a footnote too. I've got to matter while I'm here. Nobody remembers you when you're gone.

Col. Scott noticed something amiss with the young recruit, and asked if he needed to get back to camp.

"I'm just a little emotionally messed up right now," the recruit replied, rubbing an eye. "A lot of things to think about."

"The preacher's words got to you," his Sergeant comforted.

* * *

The second battle of the day found the 1st Virginians outgunned and in retreat. Yet even in retreat they attacked, turning and firing as they fell back to safer grounds, the inevitable no distraction for their will to win. The Yanks might have this round, but victory would be theirs.

Marching towards the gathered spectators for questions, the recruit spotted another familiar face -- one of the lead anchormen from his other life in time. He held a camera, but he was not there for a story. He smiled and waved, and the recruit replied with a discreet yet joyous acknowledgment.

I hope he's not just here because I'm here, the recruit thought.

* * *

At ten minutes after ten o' clock that evening, viewers of KOLD in Southern Arizona took in a sampling of the Civil War in the Southwest through the reporting of Mark Stine and photojournalist Edgar Ybarra.

"Here's a little history trivia for you. During the Civil War, where was the westernmost battle fought?" anchor Teresa Jun queried to introduce the piece. "This might surprise some of you. It was actually just north of Tucson, at Picacho Peak. That's where some dedicated volunteers re-created the Battle of Picacho Pass this weekend. KOLD News 13's Mark Stine takes us back in time."

Union soldiers marching and the sound of drumbeats flashed across screens.

"To the beat of the drum, soldiers march to war," Stine narrated.

A line of Federals launched a volley. "As soon as shots ring out, the battle begins."

Two confederate cannon blasted.

"It's kind of an experience, you almost think it's a real battle," recounted a member of the 1st Louisiana.

"This battlefield clouded with smoke was created in the name of living history," the reporter continued.

Major Anderson and his father of the 1st Virginia appeared on screen. "It's living history," the elder Anderson said. "It's giving history the humanity that it really had."

"Re-enactors re-recreate the Battle of Picacho Pass and others fought in New Mexico back in the 1860's," the reporter explained over video of more skirmishers.

"I have a love of history and I want to share that with people and help them understand what our history is, what our heritage is," the younger Anderson said.

"A love of history that takes men and women to the field of battle," the narrator continued, illustrated with the waving Stars and Bars and more battlefield action.

"Fire!" a commander shouted.

"Some able to dodge bullets. Others are not so lucky."

"It's exhilarating when you have the cannons going off and musket fire to the right of you and the cavalry coming through," Major Anderson recalled to the camera.

A quick shot of the Union calvary and pistol fire bridged into the next soundbite.

"Playing Cowboys and Indians when you were a kid -- only you get to shoot a real gun," the 1st Louisiana re-enactor grinned, a delight to the camera with his long white hair and beard looking to his side where his comrades stood. "We're all grown up men getting to play like we was boys again."

It takes hundreds of dedicated volunteers to pull off a re-enactment like this," the reporter noted.

"It takes about $1,000 for a feller to get outfitted completely to come on the field with his uniform and gear," said the 1st Louisiana man.

"Fore the re-enactors, the dedication of time and money is worth it, as long as the thousands of spectators take a little piece of history away from the performance," the narrator said, showing the spectators sitting to the side of the cliff.

"When you see other people care and come out it's very gratifying," the elder Anderson said, patting his heart. "I just get warm all over when I see the folks come out."

Mark Stine appeared on screen, walking through a camp and bending down before a tent. "But it's not just the battle. These men and women re-enacting live, eat and sleep the Civil War era all weekend long."

"Not take a bath for a weekend, cook on the campfire and eat dirt," the Louisiana soldier said with the pride of authenticity. "Sleep on the hard ground."

The picture changed to a hand rubbing against tin.

"Scrubbing on a washboard," the reporter described. "Laundress Colleen Gilliem shows there's much more to the Civil War than just fighting."

"It was more than just the war," the laundress noted. "It was the life and the home fronts back East that everybody left behind and the families they left."

"No matter if the re-enactor is living in camp," the reporter concluded, hyphenated by a burst of gunfire, "or firing a gun on the battlefield, it's all to keep this time period fresh in our minds."

His closing image displayed a sign in front of the peak, one arrow of the wooden post pointing to the battlefield, the other pointing to camp, the guidepost to history for those willing to follow.

The Tucson recruit had asked for the exclusion of his face and words from the story, even though he had pushed for a crew to make the journey to the battlefield in the first place. This wasn't about him, he insisted, and they understood.

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