Friday, November 20, 2009

The Free And The Brave - Part 2: Way Of The World

Memorable and miracle moments from the 2009 American Heritage Festival, as presented by We Make History

From the journal of Private Christopher Francis, soldier of the Continental Line, recruit of the The 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, and Prancing Puritan.

Pictures by M. Cynecki and Mr. Jones!

I’m heading into the Quartermaster’s tent, looking to resupply my cartridge box from my private stash of powder.

“Is everyone decent?” I ask before sticking my head inside.

“No, but they’re all dressed!” quips a Civil War recruit. Laughter rips through the morning air.

“I walked right into that one,” I smirk.

* * *

“Order Arms is by your right foot.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

I flip the musket around to my other side, opposite from where I’ve just shouldered it. It’s an interesting paradox: in the 18th Century drill, I carry the musket with the left arm but rest it next to my right, which is opposite from the Civil War drill, which involves mainly my right arm. Given the patched-up condition of that formerly bum wing, I don’t mind one bit. My left has the right amount of strength for a long march.

We are part of a grand procession of time on this second day of the Festival, starting with Colonial America and proceeding through our alliances with the Spaniards and French to the Loyalists, the Yanks and Rebels and then WWII and the modern era of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. It is a long and impressive line of dozens upon dozens of re-enactors stretched out parallel to the rope line separating the spectators from the participants. It reaches nearly the entire length of the battlefield, the largest group we have yet seen. As we march, we are first serenaded by the bagpipes and then by the crisp and patriotic whistle of the fifes—even if those redcoat musicians are playing them.

“Parade rest is like this,” our commander explains to me as I come to what I think is the proper position of my gun and hands along the line, only to find out I need to fold my hands in front of me with the barrel tucked in my elbow instead of keeping one hand on the barrel, or something like that. Four years playing soldier and I’m still learning the drill.

General Washington introduces himself and all the soldiers before the opening-hour crowds of families. He reminds everyone that while America still has a lot of problems, “America is still the greatest nation on Earth.” The crowd applauds.

We underscore it by paying tribute to our real-life veterans on both sides of the rope line, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem.

“O Say Can You See, By The Dawn’s Early Light...”

I have sang this song countless times, but never with the fervor or intensity of now, and much of it is due to the finely-tuned voice of our French commander immediately to my right. As his singing rises to the moment, so does mine—and miracle of miracles, in key. Just like Proverbs says, as iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man. The last time I possessed such musical passion within me was in New Market, when our small contingent of the 1st Virginia belted out the Doxology before marching onto the battlefield. Such holy harmony drew a reverent silence from the other companies and a few Confederates to tears.

“You have a beautiful voice,” a lady later compliments as I walk through the camp. I halt, speechless.

“My lady, you are too kind to me!” I say with a bow. “You must be confusing me with the gentleman next to me with the better voice.”

* * *

Happiness is a flintlock that fires when I need it, and it’s starting the first battle strong, even though we are scheduled to lose it to the British. We push in on them, keep on pushing and advancing forward, getting off several good volleys—defined as synchronized and loud—before we discover we’re being flanked by the Spaniards to our left.

Make them Hessians. Once again our commanders up with a creative scenario—use the Spaniards in a new role, one that takes into account that their uniforms of yellow and blue aren’t that much different from the German mercenaries. It can work, and it does.

My weapon, meanwhile, wants to surrender before the rest of us. After about six shots, the throw of the hammer is not sparking any jets of flame and smoke. It’s frustrating but commonplace. Hasty scraping with my pick and brush cannot get it working again, so I have to deduce it’s the flint. After we’re vanquished, I clean it up and adjust it.

In our second Revolutionary War skirmish, we are slated to win. But it will be no easy march to victory. The sun emerges from behind the partly cloudy sky, beating down on us in our wool uniforms with 70-degree heat. The British are taking the field fashionably late. When they do arrive, they start making up for lost time.

“The British are moving too fast. The Hessians are moving too slow.”

It’s another instance where the plan is detouring in front of us, and we have to make adjustments.

“Forward, march!”

We give the redcoats our best shots before turning on some turncoats attacking our artillery. As we are aiming for them, my weapon wants to surrender again. No flames, no smoke—just that heartbreaking click after the trigger is pulled. Another shot fails to fire. It’s time for me to take a hit.

I go down on the next British volley. Within seconds, our beloved Molly is there to tend to my wounded leg.

“Some water for your mouth,” she says, pressing the liquid to my lips. Those blasted Brits had better not be aiming for her this time. I can’t even shoot back. She can’t, either.

After we claim victory and resurrect ourselves, I note the continuing problem with my gun.

“I think your flint is upside down,” a compatriot notices. If he’s right, the soldier next to me also has a flint with the same issue. If it is, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if a flint flip is the solution.

* * *

Many of our Civil War recruits possess fine voices, and so they are a natural fit for a presentation of 19th Century music, accompanied mainly by a lady skilled with the hammered dulcimer. They sing “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and several songs of war and faith. As I am turning to return to camp, I spot the man in the top hat and tailcoat portraying the Governor of Minnesota. He asks me for a favor.

“I’m supposed to give a speech to the 1st Minnesota before the battle. Do you know anything about that battle?”

“No, I don’t.” But it doesn’t matter. The Governor has just flicked the switch of passion within me and instantly I feed him some words to use.

“You have taken heavy casualties. You have lost many of your brethren, and many of you may be wondering, under these gray and cloudy skies, whether the cause is lost...”

The Governor perks up. “You ought to write this down!” his wife whispers.

My voice is rising. Heads turn.

“But now is not the time to surrender, even in the darkest hours, for you know your brothers and sisters would want you to honor them by continuing the fight for this nation of ours...”

His wife is motioning me away from the crowds for fear of stirring up an accidental historic portrayal to compete with the other performance. I tone down my voice.

“There’s the idea,” I say. “You may use my words or make it your own.”

He makes it his own, indeed, keeping his address to the troops succinct, restrained in passion but with the reverence intact, saying all of Minnesota is proud of them. So are their fighting buddies in the gray.

* * *

Far away from the skirmishing, the young ones are in school, drawing on chalkboards and pads with quill pens and ink wells. Their young teacher looks after them with a warm countenance and a soft voice in front of the colonial flag of circled stars and stripes, the “Betsy Ross.”

Their neighbor the blacksmith is staying busy. A large table of his works -- candle holders, horseshoes and other creations -- draws many to sample and hold. Not far away, the WWII contingent is camped out in their camouflage and covered truck.

From across the camp, an occasional shout and cheer tingles the ears. Upon further inspection, you see it’s coming from in front of the Quartermaster’s tent for the 1st Virginia and 1st Minnesota. The young recruits, finished with the morning drill, are huddled around a small table slapping cards into the center. It’s not poker, but it might as well be given the intensity of the play.

Before long, they’re drilling again, marching into the center of camp and around the perimeter in a hodgepodge of Union and Confederate uniforms. A young captain-in-training who’s developing the growl of a drill sergeant leads them through the paces, stopping them and turning them to pose in front of tents for visitors snapping pictures.

“Only Black and Decker does more drilling than you all,” I observe.

* * *

That cannon blast nearly exterminated our entire company. The ball went right through our center, taking me and two fellow Confederates down. I lie in the grass moaning and groaning half a minute before succumbing to death.

The medics know I’m a lost cause, but I can still be useful. With eyes closed, I feel them using my legs as a device to prop up somebody’s head. Bandages are going on. Are they wrapping up my legs, too?

Moments later, a northern Nurse arrives screaming and belittling my brethren still left alive.

“Prison camp will feel a lot worse than this!”

“You’re gut shot, and you’re gonna pay!”

“You know what they do to people like you!”

Snickering dribbles out of people’s dead and wounded mouths. “Can you bandage your mouth while you’re at it?”

She only grows angrier. “Look, you’ve made me spill my morphine!”

I know it. It bounced all over my pants.

* * *

The public has departed and dinner is cooking, but I can hear the clapping off in the distance. While the officers are toasting at their Saturday social, some of the others have organized their own social event, an instant ball in the Civil War camp to the accompaniment of our 19th Century musicians on dulcimer and fiddle with a few jammers filling in.

I’m thinking about it with every bite. I’m back in my Puritan clothes this evening, and I’m feeling more than a bit like John Playford.

“I can’t stand this anymore,” I say, finishing up. “I must get a dance in!”

I dash off with the blessing of my dinner companions and find lines of young ladies and gentlemen finishing up a round of “Chase The Squirrel.” But they’re running out of dances they know, and so they look in my direction.

“Do you know any dances?”

“All the dances I know are mostly 18th Century,” I admit. “But if you’re willing to try, we can improvise, too.”

Someone suggests the Pineapple Dance—although it will have to be with an apple this time. I give my go-ahead for that, and volunteers quickly arrange three chairs as I explain the dance’s progression from three seated people. “One of you will take the apple and the other two will sashay off. Or you may give the apple to somebody in the line and all three go down the line. PLEASE BE DELICATE! The person who wins this apple has to eat it!”

The music starts and we’re off and sashaying. A lady ultimately ends up with the fruit. All end up out of breath. Now is the time for a waltz.

“Gentlemen, you are expected to do your duty!” I bellow. “I do not want to see any waiting lady deprived of a dance!”

Those who don’t know how to waltz learn from those who do, choosing either an easy two-step or a more-mannered box step. I am alone, unable to woo a lady from the sidelines who is trying to keep warm. Another one eventually steps up to me midway through the number, and I take her arms cheerfully, with much admiration.

I help call a Virginia Reel... and then a marathon reel to the tune of Jingle Bells. The Christmas season is officially underway in all of our hearts, something reinforced by the officers, who are merry from their evening together and parading through the camps with gifts and carols. They arrive as we’re attempting a polka.

We sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Feliz Navidad” in honor of our Spanish allies. Their commander returns the favor with a hilarious rendition of something I could only call “The Tortilla Song.” A gentleman dazzles us with a humorous reading, and a few ladies regale us in more carols and hymns.

General Washington, quite delighted with everything, remarks that with all the talents of those around us, we cannot let the evening go by without seeing “the talents of our prancing Puritan!”

White steam in the cool evening air pours from my mouth.

“Yes, take a breath.”

What, dear me, shall I do? The “Prancing” part is the hint.

“I am not much of a singer,” I begin. “But I think now we should turn to the dance! Someone suggested a jig.”

I call over two of the 1st Minnesota who were in the mood for one earlier. “I don’t know what John Playford would think of what we are about to do, but I know that there is a myth that Puritans abhor the dance!”

The three of us start slowly, but then we work up fervor as the music proceeds beyond the first few bars, jigging and prancing about as the crowd cheers us on -- “Yes, cheer us on!” -- with clapping. In short order, we pull in a few ladies.

I cavort all over the place, pulling a lady in and jigging to each other, rounding a circle in a mad promenade.

“Come on in! The water’s warm!” I cry.

A few more do. But most are just content to watch and admire. “This is exactly what they did in camp,” I overhear General Washington say, and I know my display is winning approval.

We had one last hymn, from our beloved Molly Pitcher, who chose a favorite hymn from the Church of England: “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.”

“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love...”

As she is singing, General Washington whispers a suggestion to me: “Why don’t you dance as she is singing?”

Dance to a hymn? It does not seem proper, especially not for a Puritan. But her voice is so beautiful and the allegory so fitting, I accept the invitation.

Many a time I have danced an improvised solo minuet when I have found no available lady for a waltz. So that is my caper now, stepping gracefully in a circle around her as she sings, toes pointed every so often, turning occasionally in place, sometimes with a honorable glance. But we are giving GOD the ultimate honor. The original Puritans may have frowned. The colonists could have scoffed, but nothing in this moment invites any jeers or cries of irreverence.

“Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.”

I worry about upstaging her, so I attempt no overtly fancy steps or flirtatious gestures save for a low and courtly bow at the end, where unfortunately I have ended up behind her. The audience gives enthusiastic approval while the warmth of it all continues to radiate through me.

“This is my favorite night,” General Washington tells me as we walk towards the next camp to honor with carols and pies.

I can feel it. “All is right with the world,” I tell him. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the rest of the world, all is right here.”

IN THE CONCLUSION: The final battles... and the ongoing mission!

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