Adapted from the battlefield journal of Private Christopher Francis of the Continental Line and 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry
Photographs Copyright © 2007 By Michael Cynecki and Rosemary Woods
The first children gather outside the camp, at least 50 or more standing in front of Gen. Washington and our Redcoat commander, eager to explore this new world of tents and tepees, teased by the scent of morning fires warming breakfast. Two hundred years stretch over two hundred yards -- British regulars, American patriots, French allies, mountain men, Native Americans and frontiersmen. Union soldiers camp near Confederates and 1800's schoolteachers. And down the way, World War II G.I.'s, Chinese allies, and Vietnam fighters establish their base. The young eyes swim over the settings during the opening remarks.
Our French commander recognizes me at first sight, offering an enthusiastic "Christophe!" A buckshot of French greetings sail past my ears.
"Good morning, monsieur," I muster with what little of his native tongue I know.
I knock the clouds of drowsiness from my head, the restless night stew of anticipation fringed with anxiety, and force myself into the patriot I'm portraying. Without a doubt, the children are drawn toward this figure in the red, white, and blue uniform with the long musket standing next to the French officer in his purple and white, a gorget catching a ray of sun. His wife and child sit by his side. Yet as far as I can tell, I am the only Continental in sight.
The children spill out into the camp. I smile and clutch my musket, hoping I know enough history to answer their questions.
He draws them in with an accented greeting, and a question: Is anybody wondering just what is a Frenchman doing in the American Revolutionary War?
"We want revenge," the officer explains in accented English. "The British beat us badly in the French and Indian wars. We almost bankrupted France to help the colonists."
I get my opportunity to jump in. "In fact, this is a French musket." I hold it out for them. Their eyes gravitate to the 1777 flintlock weapon as I explain the process of loading and firing it. I am in my zone of confidence. I can talk about firing a musket a thousand times and not tire of it as I point to the pan holding the powder charge and how the flint strike on the frizzen sets off a chain reaction that will ignite what's in the barrel, pushing the musket ball out for an effective range of about 60 yards, give or take.
Hands shoot up in front of me, and I try to answer questions quickly enough to get to the next child without anybody starting to do the dance of impatience.
A few ask about my bayonet. I can only ask them to imagine it, because it's laying out there somewhere in the fields, probably knocked off my haversack strap in the rush to stow equipment from two different eras in a matter of minutes. I later find it by my modern-day carriage, safe, undisturbed, but not ready for combat.
"Is that your real accent?" a child inquires of the officer.
"If I am from France," he challenges, "wouldn't I sound like this?"
"Greetings and salutations," I chirp as the curious students pass by, almost begging them to hit me with questions, which they do without fail.
"Why did you join the Army?"
"The redcoats shut down my newspaper," I tell them. "They didn't like what I was saying about King George the Third. I have to defend my God-given liberties. This is why we have a First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law abridging our Freedom of Speech or of the press, or of the right of people to petition the government for redress of their grievances." I need to put that last phrase into 2007 English: "The freedom to protest."
Christopher the Soldier is morphing into Christopher the Statesman. I don't see myself as a fiery orator, but I cannot suppress the urge. If I can persuade these children to care about their freedoms, light a match of passion within them, albeit in my amateur, extemporaneous fashion, they will be better for it.
Two Redcoat commanders approach. One of them holds out some paper cartridges. "I believe you dropped these."
"That's the last time I accept anything from a redcoat," I tease as the young ones observe. "You know I will be returning them to you."
We jibe each other, the wretched Brits threatening me with beatings and a prison ship.
"Not if I can help it!" I sneer. "I'd rather die first!"
One boy thinks he's qualified to join the patriot cause. "For liberty," he says, as I put him to the test.
"Louder, so I know you mean it!" I challenge.
"Louder than that!"
He shall do, even if my firelock is a bit heavy for him. Several children want to touch it, and I carefully let them feel its weight while I hold one end. "Imagine marching all day with that on your arm."
"Are you really going to shoot people?" another lad asks.
"We're going to try to," I respond.
The continuous teaching moments accelerate the clock, and soon we head for the battlefield with the children marching by our sides, inspired by the beat of the drum and the colorful uniforms.
Two other Continentals stand beside me now, along with our Catalonian guard, who have traveled great distance from that enclave yet to be known as Tucson. The redcoats form up across the field -- two of them anyway -- with their rag-tag loyalists and turncoats in tow. No wonder they insist on talking first.
The meeting of commanders in the center of the field proves fruitless, as expected.
"Silly English," our sergeant says. "They never listen."
General Washington prepares us for the skirmish. "What we cannot accomplish with our words, we will accomplish with our muskets."
Gunfire crackles from the enemy line. No time to panic. We shall answer in an orderly fashion, as disciplined conscripts.
The routine of ripping off a power cartridge with my teeth, priming the pan, and dumping it down the barrel is devoid of any uncertainty, save for a couple. I have cut each load from 90 grains to 60 to conserve my supply. Will 60 be enough? And... ugghh... how did this hammer get so blasted stiff?
"Come to the ready!"
I raise the musket to my shoulder.
THOOOF! Success is a white smoke trail. But a fellow private takes a ball -- virtual, but still painful.
"My leg!" he cries as he writhes on the ground, screaming in agony.
"You'll pay for that!" I cry out to the bloody lobsterbacks.
It doesn't take long. The British wilt before us as we advance on them, taking out one of their commanders.
The sergeant and myself chase what's left of the enemy into the woods.
"Back to England!" my comrade cries.
"I'll chase you all the way across the Atlantic!" I bellow.
He tries to hit us with a parting shot. It misses.
Victory is ours. The redcoats are vanquished, and the hundreds of children watching behind the safety lines celebrate with cheers and applause. We Continentals return the appreciation, marching off the field with high-fives for the children at the front of the crowds.
"Huzzah! Huzzah!" I cry as I pass them, slapping palms in hearty celebration with the smiling kids.
"We are doing Pickett's Charge!"
I move 100 years forward on the timeline, hastily changing from Continental to Rebel and standing in formation with the 1st Virgina. With the reality of the numbers, we will take on the Federal lines and artillery in battalions, each one with a commander. But the firepower of the cannons will doom us.
"When you go down, yell and scream," our Captain advises. "The kids love it!"
Just out of his sight, a curious group of youngsters absorbs the inside information. The Captain quickly adds a postscript in their direction: "That's what you want, right?"
Only one volley from my small battalion, and we will go down with a cannonball. "Get ready! Get ready!" our 1st Sergeant advises, anticipating the blast.
The boom instantly reduces us to screaming, moaning creatures of the earth.
The living hobble back to General Lee, leaving him to declare, "It's all my fault."
We have time to answer questions, but first we have to clear our loads. One by one we fire off a cap without loading to clear any powder. I pull the trigger and a sting pelts my left eye. A fragment of a musket cap has split off and hit me. It doesn't wound me, but others catch on to my ailment as I rub my eye. The 1st Sergeant notices what I'm priming with and he makes a point of announcing the dangers: "This is why we don't use six-wing musket caps!"
Our Captain looks me over, and I feel my heart sink again. Please, I don't want a repeat of Picacho Peak. But fortunately, the cap fragment has hit just below my eye, and it hasn't left a mark. Others check on me, making sure my eye is all right.
Classes slowly file off, leaving us with the camp to ourselves once again. As day fades into late afternoon, we come together for a potluck dinner.
A Native American friend, one strangely familiar from a dancing engagement, parades a turkey to the front of the tables, announcing the slaying of "The Beast!" A true Thanksgiving feast this will be.
We have much to give thanks for. The children had been wonderful, our leader points out, and we had been wonderful teachers.
"When I came through the camp, everybody was interacting with the children," he observes. "Not one person was out back trying to hide."
We had made a difference in these young lives, he assures us, each and every one of us. I feel relieved. I still consider myself an amateur re-enactor, learning as I go sometimes, always worrying about the impression I'm making on young minds and whether I'm living up to the standards of historical accuracy.
Sinking my teeth into the delicious turkey, I know I am blessed. After at least a dozen years of eating Thanksgiving dinner on the job or some restaurant because of the demands of my other life and time, I help myself to turkey and corn and savor the company of my re-enacting family... those I love... those I pray to God to watch over every day.
At twilight, the young 1st Virginia Cadets scamper into the after-dinner conversation with a prisoner on a rope. They've captured the Yankee known for bellowing, "Roll a Civil War Cartridge!" As he explains it, the young Virginians caught him with his pants down and tied his hands. Looks like the Federals are going to be running short on munitions.
The numbers lean in our favor for a morning victory as I stand with the Continentals once again. Those Brits have one cannon, but we have two. No need to talk before firing.
"Show them we are here in earnest!"
"I don't know if we're here in earnest," a compatriot snickers, "but we're here in America!"
Cannon fire gives us confidence and we advance forward, thinking a victory is mere moments away. But the Royal Irish Artillery hits us with a devastating charge, wiping out all but one of our lines.
I collapse with my comrades, the blast burning through my insides. Just enough life remains for me to see the lone remaining Continental firing his musket with the blue skies of Heaven above him, blue as the field of the so-called "Pine Tree" flag leading us into battle.
The cause of liberty is not lost, and with the cry of "Resurrect!" we are all on our feet again, healed, happy and eager to answer questions. We shall put things right in the next battle, General Washington assures the crowd.
The redcoats, however, remain unconvinced. They still think they can talk the patriotism out of us as the commanders parlay before the second battle. As usual, it ends with disparagements for both sides.
From General Washington: "Arrogant fellow."
From the redcoat commander: "Cheeky fellow."
We face another fight. Yet this time we are laying a trap for those Brits. Our militia will lure them forward, and then the Continentals, French and Spanish allies will devastate them -- just like in the Battle Of Cowpens.
We need a quick and decisive victory. My musket tires of the fight, refusing to fire on more than one occasion, perhaps the result of an over-fouled pan or clogged touchhole.
"Ohh....," I groan as a cartridge tube mistakenly goes down the barrel. The powder blasts it into a shower of smoking paper.
Among my comrades, one attempted volley results in three of us pulling our triggers with only clicks and no smoke. When we finally charge the remnants of the enemy, a load of powder remains in my barrel with an empty pan after two attempts to set it off fail.
"You need a wire brush," a fellow soldier advises, indicating the one hanging around his balderic -- I need one of those, too. Looks like I'll have to smuggle them from the French.
You would think the lobsterbacks would learn. However, another victory would follow the next day, in the same manner, leaving Redcoats and Tories lying all about us near the heavy artillery that was supposed to deliver the patriots into their hands.
A redcoat commander hangs lifeless next to a cannon, and General Washington cannot resist the visual spoil of war. Producing a modern image-taking device from his coat, he discreetly captures the moment before anyone can notice.
General Lee leads us in prayer on the battlefield, calling on God to help us send those Yanks back to where they came from. Ohio would be nice. Antarctica, even better.
"C'mon, you Yankee scum!" taunted recruits with the 1st Texas. "Advance on us!"
The cycle soon begins of loading, priming, firing and advancing. With so few of them compared to our numbers and steadfastness, we defeat them in mere minutes, trading earth-shaking cannon fire. Minutes later, we are shaking the cannons as privates climb up on to them in victory, hollering their best rebel yells, no doubt in honor of the Virginia women who watch from a safe distance in relief.
As they celebrate the beautiful sight of victory, beauty is blooming across the camp, where ladies in hoopskirts gather outside the school established by the kindly Miss Kay. Their colorful attire blooms from the earth like wildflowers in spring as they share an afternoon tea and dignified conversation, perhaps about the future of the nation or the war dividing it.
The future is not out of their sight, for the 20th Century soldiers camp mere yards away: the Marines of Vietnam, and the Allies of World War II -- including the Chinese resistance to the Axis. They electrify and amaze, carrying all the flavor of the battle-hardened elite in their green and khaki uniforms. They march with snap-shoe precision, carrying a menagerie of exotic firearms as their commander spits orders in the native tongue. Many of them have flown halfway around the world to be here in Queen Creek, an impressive accomplishment in itself. And from their determination and authenticity, one could envision them parachuting onto the battlefield.
Laughter and applause float over from the center of the camp, where the officers share a meal illuminated by the dancing lights from silver candelabras. Smoke from campfires wafts among the tents. And one truth is self-evident: the Catalonians know how to cook.
They share a pot of parea with me, a stew I had never tasted until now. In the twilight, I could hardly see what I was shoveling into my bowl, but it didn't matter because the taste was spectacular.
"When are you going to join us?" one asks. A fair question, undoubtedly, seeing as we all hail from Tucson. Yet I am still a Patriot soldier at heart, one used to traveling great distances from home to stand for the cause of freedom.
The officers, merry from their social, would later visit the individual camps. For the Catalonians, they offer a pie... and a song:
"Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad!"
The Catalonians could have sung it better, but we are not ones to quibble. They move on, laughing and celebrating life under the stars as the young ones sneak out to the parking lot and procure a car with a CD player for an impromptu swing dance, one rivaling the impromptu victory parties of VE and VJ day.
The ladies of the First Virginia invite me to this soirée, even though I admit the steps are unfamiliar. "But I've never been one to turn down a challenge from a lady," I add with a smile.
Before the festivities begin, however, I get an invitation to tackle another challenge: two filthy muskets from two days of battles. A fellow Confederate generously offers to help clean them for me, and he sets about scrubbing and swabbing the barrels as I hold on to one end, occasionally pulling with all my might when the cleaning rod sticks. An hour later, most of the fouling is dissolved, and my weapons are again ready for battle.
"Good morning, Arizona," KTVK weather forecaster April Warnecke announces off camera as soldiers and civilians march past the lens to the skirl of bagpipes. "Yes, we are still at Schnepf Farms, we're just on the other side of the farm for a very different event. I have George Washington with me this morning. Tell us, what's going on?"
"Well good morning, April," His Excellency answers as viewers continue to watch history file past. "This is my first time on television."
"I believe that!"
"We're having a fantastic day out here at Schnepf Farms with the American Heritage Festival. It's Arizona's, and in fact, the Southwest's largest living history event, representing all of American History, from Colonial times, westward expansion, the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, with battle re-enactments! We have southern belles, we have mountain men, we have colonists, we have pilgrims. It's exciting!"
"You've got just about all of it here. This has been going on for awhile, but today is the very last day?"
"It is. This is our fifth year doing this event, and this is our very last day, so come on out to Schnepf Farms. It's educational, it's family friendly, it's inspiring, it's patriotic, and you can find us at americanheritagefestival.com."
The camera hastily pans back to a two-shot of the reporter and the general.
"Thanks so much," April offers. "What a neat parade to look at here, as we see them coming around the battlefield. They do battle out here, too, correct?"
"We will have re-enactments of Revolutionary War battles, Civil War battles, and World War II battles today. So come on out and learn and be inspired by American history!"
"Absolutely. If you're not going to listen to George Washington, who are you going to listen to? Thank you very much."
She transitions into the weather report as the parade continues and signs off, returning to the air 15 minutes later to give a recap. Viewers in most of Arizona see a camera panning across three centuries of soldiers drilling in formation, rifles raised and lowered and shouldered and lowered again.
The powerful words of the Reverend George Whitefield inspire hope for anyone within earshot as he speaks to several dozen gathered around him from all periods of time. He speaks with an animated and confident air, as he pulls history forward into the present.
"I ask you, what is the meaning and power of a name?" he queries aloud. "We know in the times in which the scriptures were written, it was very common among the Hebrew people for them to name their children according to their hopes and aspirations for those children. They named their children very literally."
"Do we have anyone assembled here today by the name of Matthew?" he asks at one point. "Yes, we have a Matthew. The name Matthew means 'Gift Of The Lord.' Do we have a Michael among us? Michael, sir, means 'Who Is Like Unto The Lord.' It is a term of glorification of God."
The Puritans would pick up on the convention, naming their children "Loves The Lord," and so forth, so that even the simple act of calling them would amount to a prayer. Come to me, Gift of God, they would say. Some would have their names altered, adding "the Conqueror" or "the Great" after their given names. But of course, one name ranks above all others, the Reverend points out -- Jesus: One Who Saves.
The words are familiar. I heard them one year ago and reflected on my own name: Christopher -- Bearer Of Christ. I do so again.
A 18th Century friend of mine, a Christian sister, later tells me how meaningful she found the message. I can only imagine how many people the Reverend has uplifted and brought to God.
The widowed woman looks upon the assembled line of the 1st Virginia with a pained fortitude, still deep in mourning but determined to churn inspiration from her grief.
"To the comrades, brothers of my late husband," she begins in a voice a hair from cracking, "I want to make a request of you. Captain Scott has given me his permission to break protocol and share my heart before you march off to battle.
"The reason I speak to you, not with any eloquent words of course, is because you all understand that to protect our right to secede, as guaranteed by our Constitution, we must sacrifice now. Many of you joined the 1st Virginia after first taking leave of wives and children, mothers, father, sisters and brothers, because of your sense of duty and honor. I am deeply grateful for your sacrifice, and I am praying that my children will always know that their daddy lives by these same principles. I want them to always remember the honor that was his to fight courageously for the freedoms of his countrymen in order to protect our new Union, the Confederate States of America. He felt led to do so, and he could only do this through his faith in the Lord Jesus."
She walks along the formation, eyes piercing every recruit. "To those of you who personally knew my husband, would you please be like a father to this oldest son of mine? He so bravely desires to be the man of the family now, but he is only 14. I encourage you with what has also held me up in these uncertain, frightening times. I quote now from Isaiah: 'Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding. He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might He increaseth strength.'"
The war widow looks upon them and issues her call to battle: "God be with you all, and bring us victory!"
Her words concluded, the 1st Virginia right-faces with the urgent shuffling of feet and the hush of reverence. No playful remarks of whipping Yanks escape the recruits' as they march to combat with a fresh perspective and a rekindled fire.
All that cleaning, all that torment, and not one shot fired after two caps. The federals crack off shot after shot and I have nothing to return to them. I hastily borrow an offered nipple pick from a comrade and stab at the nipple of my Springfield, hoping to break through whatever blocks the powder from igniting.
I load once again, but a third cap pops off without a response from the barrel.
"Take a hit on this next volley," a fellow recruit advises, sensing futility.
Another federal squeezes off a round, and I take the powder with an orderly, only slightly dramatic tumble. A brother on the line pulls my kepi over my head and leaves me to absorb the call and response of musket and cannon fire.
Eventually a field doctor and nurse come around to me.
"Let's have a look at him. Eww, face blown off."
"Yeah, he's dead."
Not quite, but my gun is. Nevertheless, my fellow recruits press on to victory, and after I rise back to life I urgently seek to restore my firepower. It takes two attempts, both involving the removal of a side nut and much swabbing. The exact cause of the malfunction remains a mystery, but relief seeps into me as the 1st Sergeant raises the rifle high, shouts "Fire in the hole!" and revives the weapon with a thundering crackle and burst of smoke.
All is right with the musket, but the next battle ends with a staggering defeat. Confederates fall throughout the grassy field, save for a young one who refuses to surrender, screaming and struggling and firing as his recruit father pulls him back.
I see it all as I lay dying, cap beside me, leaving me vulnerable to insult from the victorious.
"This one's alive," one says as they walk among the fallen. Several of them stomp on me, searing my broken body once again as they laugh.
"Yankee scum!" I groan in agony.
The crowd loves it all, applauding us as we bring ourselves back to life. Even our federal foes are impressed with the Oscar-worthy performance of the defiant Confederate. It's not Hollywood; it's history, but anything that captures the flavor of war commands respect.
Weary but happy, we gather around President Lincoln with the assembled spectators, who shares his thoughts of war and sacrifice in the close of the afternoon, reciting the Gettysburg Address as Federals and Confederates listen in reverence.
"We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
He continues on, as the war did, into the speech he made at his 1865 Inauguration.
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
As he speaks, I note a familiar feeling, and familiar tears... derived from the insignificance of myself in the world blended with awareness of how past and present are unified in their divisions. President Lincoln's words of 1865 fit 2007 with staggering germaneness. Again a nation is fractured by war, searching its soul for an elusive remedy some fear might never be found. Again we pray for guidance. Again, we try to heal.
"Each side fought for what they firmly believed in," President Lincoln reminds us. "There can be no criticism. There can be no hatred, no animosity. We are one family. We are all Americans."
All of us.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
For more pictures and memories of this historic event, visit www.americanheritagefestival.com.
See you next year!