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
The Power of GOD’s Word is such an amazing thing. It can be eloquent and yet simple, and I think of this as Reverend Charles Whitfield stands before us and tells us of CHRIST’s mission to save us all, and the offer HE makes to all of us, appealing to the businessman and pilgrim alike. No wonder Benjamin Franklin -- a man of science and that Patriot with whom I identify the most -- found the Reverend’s teaching both dazzling and inspiring.
Afterward, a pair of a ladies and I are discussing our congregations, and how we have all had to withstand schisms and faults that have divided us. From the Anglicans to the non-denominationals, nobody is alone in finding themselves having to deal with troubles in their church, finding themselves separated from GOD, or perhaps even lost.
I know that feeling. “I grew up in the Presbyterian church,” I say. But, I explain, it was the love of history that would ultimately connect me to GOD.
And so, once again, I’m sharing my testimony, of getting right with GOD after getting sick on the battlefield and hearing others were praying for me, baffled by their love, and astounded that General Robert E. Lee found himself feeling the same way when he found his chaplains were praying for him. “I’m just a poor sinner!” he said. I felt poor in so many ways the day I heard my commander recount that historical fact: poor in soldiering, poor in spirit, poor in purpose.
If a great general like Lee could find himself poor, and admit it, and cry out for help, without fear or shame, I could too.
“I didn’t want my life to end up as a dash between two dates,” I said to them, voice cracking, humility overcoming me.
The same thing happened the first night at camp after our Thanksgiving feast, when I told a redcoat my story of getting right with GOD. Sometimes I feel like I’m crying out for help again and again every time I tell this story -- especially since I know I’m talking to Believers when I tell it.
So what is the point then?
Hope. Praise. Reassurance. Faith.
“GOD doesn’t give up on us,” I tell them. “HE didn’t give up on me.”
And HE doesn’t give up on those who seek him, through schisms and everything else. Reverend Whitfield knew that.
* * *
The redcoats look impressive in their drill. They have polished drummers and fifers. Their officers wigs sit powdered and proper. They have at least six in their numbers, compared to our four.
But we have milita, Spanish allies, and moxy.
“Company!” shouts General Washington as we march by the British regulars, “Stick out tongues!”
We are following the Cowpens scenario once again, drawing the redcoats in and then routing them. And again, the plan develops some unexpected but typical unplanned variations. For me, everything is fine as long as I can get my flintlock to fire.
“Load!” General Washington shouts.
More powder in the pan, I think. That ought to solve some of the problems. I tear off a cartridge end and heap it underneath the frizzen. The rest goes down the barrel and I hope it’s enough.
“Come to the ready!”
I raise the musket straight up before me, like it’s standing at attention.
“Take aim! Fire!”
It works. It works again through at least two more volleys. It will give me great pleasure to make it to the end of the battle and chase those redcoats back to England.
“Come to the ready!”
My hand reaches for the whisk and pick hanging from my waistcoat button, and I feverishly brush the pan off once again. I reload.
I need more spark. Wrestling with the flint, I pull it forward on the hammer, a move intended to get more striking surface against the frizzen when the hammer comes down. Powder is still in the pan, enough for a decent ignition. I snap the frizzen down again and recock.
It is a satisfying sound, a triumph of man against mechanisms, but at a considerable price. My flint leaps out of the lock and into my hand after it strikes the frizzen.
I cannot get it back in. We are advancing.
“My flint came out,” I whisper to a compatriot.
“Go down on this next volley,” he advises.
The redcoat muskets crackle with smoke and flame and I take the hit: “Aaagh!”
Another life sacrificed for Liberty. I wonder how the real Continentals could tolerate such flint issues. “It’s better than a matchlock,” they probably said.
* * *
“You switched accents!” a boy observes after hearing my drawl paired with my powder-grey Confederate uniform.
“You must be confusing me with my great, great, great ancestor,” I smile back.
No confusion about one thing: happiness is a working 1861 Springfield, shooting orange flame in the general direction of those Yanks across the field from us. I hope they’re taking casualties. We are supposed to win this first battle of the day.
“Fire at will!” our captain commands. He is a bit iconoclastic. His voice does not boom like a drill sergeant, but his tactics and command are nearly flawless as he leads us into battle, even though he’s learning alongside us. He’s the seasoned veteran; we’re the young whippersnappers.
Those Yanks aren’t going down. At least, it doesn’t seem like they’re falling. But that may only be because I’m focused on the ones still standing, trying to make every one of my limited cartridges count.
“Somebody needs to take a hit on this next volley,” our captain says.
I think more of us would be down by now, given the number of shots the Federals are squeezing off. Yet that’s historic warfare: ranks of soldiers shooting across the field at each other without anyone getting hit. One can aim, fire and miss many times. We are not sharpshooters, and neither are our weapons, but we’re coming into range, and it is high time somebody eats the ground.
“I’ve got it,” I whisper.
Not many from the front have gone down, to my knowledge. If they have, I am too focused to notice, but I sense the need is now for another casualty, and I drop to the ground in groaning agony of feigned pain.
I’m playing dead -- no wounded limbs like yesterday’s first battle, in which I hobbled around on a crutch in my right hand with the gun in my left as the rebels routed the Federals. I am dying with dignity.
From the ground I hear the rifles crackling off in the distance as the 1st Virginia pushes on and over me to victory.
* * *
The command: “Count off by twos… COUNT!”
The response: “One!” “Two!” “One!” “One!”
And to think we laughed when our Northern counterparts couldn’t do it.
“Count off by twos… COUNT!”
“One!” “Two!” “One!” “Two!” “One!” “Two!” “One! End of file!”
Bumbling. Shoving. Confusion. Disorder. Back to place.
“Count off by twos... COUNT!”
We repeat the numbering.
Do I step to my left or stay in place? Every move I make is wrong. It can’t be the fault of our two guest recruits -- redcoats who have turned gray for this battle. Why can’t I move into the right place? My frustration simmers, and I gather it is showing.
“Are you all right, Christopher?” our commander asks.
“Yes, sir,” I reply, bewildered.
At least one of my fellow soldiers thinks I am sweating too much and listing with my weapon, perhaps even dehydrated. They’ve seen it before. They worry about my patched-up arm. They won’t take chances.
I certainly don’t feel weak. What is the matter? What is my commander seeing?
Put down your weapon, my commander instructs.
I do not want to debate the issue. Sometimes others know your health better than you do, and the prudent thing is to heed their concern. So I march into drill without the Springfield to learn the “column of companies” formation sans rifle and sandwiched between two soldiers with EMT training.
The command is designed to get soldiers marching in rows of four quickly swung around into battle formation of two ranks if a threat develops on either side. From above, it resembles the shutting of Venetian blinds. We pick it up quickly, to the praise of our leaders.
At the earliest opportunity after drill, I grab the gun and march into to battle for Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s disastrous episode. In a small company of less than a dozen solders, it is a cannon blast that topples me, not my arm or anything else. The last battle of the day is over and I have made it to the finish line.
“You look much better, Christopher,” my commander observes some time later.
“I was frustrated over the drill,” I explain.
“We’ll get it,” he reassures me. I know we will, but I forget sometimes.
* * *
As day dissolves into night, soldiers and civilians are cleaning guns and disassembling tents under the setting sun. First the smaller shelters collapse, and then the large hospital and equipment facilities. Uniforms come off, replaced with sweaters and jeans as we begin the long journey back into our other lives and times. I help my French friends disassemble their canvas chateau and then help with the 1st Virgnia’s needs.
This is the world we built, the world we long to remain in. Just 24 hours ago, a string of campsites bubbled with laughter and happiness. Now most of it is fading with the Arizona sun’s rays, save for some colonial friends who are staying one more night.
Tearing down is a bigger task as we imagined, as we struggle to fit tent poles, chairs, canvas, and miscellaneous boxes and supplies into the Colonel’s truck and trailer. A handful of us stay into the night and chilly air to get it all loaded up.
“You guys are fantastic,” says our commander, hugging each of us, telling us once more how much he appreciates everything we do. He urges us to write and tell us how we’ve been inspired over these past three days.
We will be back here next year, back to rebuild this world, to skirmish and sing and dance once more. Until then, we have the warmth of our memories and the satisfaction of fulfillment in an ongoing mission.
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!