Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's On!

After a hot, sweaty, opening skirmish, the 2nd Virginia gets an invitation to take the lead role, and this time, your humble servant is along for the fight.

Darkness envelops the camps, pierced by a stray headlight from a vehicle delivering supplies to the moonlit tent cities. Police and security buzz the perimeter of the camp, situating themselves for a long day of crowd control. Not even a stray snore cuts through the soupy morning air.

I enter our camp, jacket in hand. I am the first to arrive. I thought at least a few officers would already be here, even before the morning bugle. A few soldiers sleep in the tents. The rest of us have spent the night at a nearby hotel. Re-enacting lets you pick and choose your level of submersion into the military way of life. A cool bed and a cold shower are well-accepted amenities.

The wake-up trumpet sounds across the camps just minutes after three of our officers arrive. "That's a good bugler," one notes as he sits in the darkness.

"I need to visit the sutlers," I say to them. "I lost my kepi on the way in."

"We found one," another replies. "It was lying in the road." I'm not 100 percent sure it's mine, but it fits.

The others stroll in as morning rises to meet us. It's going to be another tough one: high humidity. High heat. However, there's a 40 percent chance of showers. Ordinarily, this would be something we would root for, but not with the tents. Rain means mold. Mold means hours of scrubbing down stained canvas.

This time, I'm rested and ready. My hydration is at a level that will let me function through the sticky Virginia day. I'm ready to come to Stonewall Jackson's aid.

"Officer in the camp!" a voice calls. All of us stop what we're doing, rise up out of our chairs and snap to a salute to the commander who has just walked inside our perimeter.

He calls over our Colonel for a discussion. The two converse outside our hearing as we go about our morning business, sitting and drinking water and making sure we have our supplies in order for the day's battle. Before long, we learn those battle plans are changing.

Most of the 33rd Virginia is gone this morning, deciding not to battle another day of humidity along with the Federals. What's more, one of their commanders has had a medical emergency. A few remain, but some other battalion has to step into their lead role and absorb the holdouts.

Our Colonel huddles us up for a morning meeting. We are more than happy to fill the spot, but the commander giving us the invitation has a request for us: we need to shed our grey wool shell coats. The 33rd Virginia didn't wear them; we actually need blue shirts on instead. The officer making the request, however, understands we may not have the time or cash to invest a spur-of-the moment wardrobe change. Our white shirts will do nicely.

The lead role in the battle will bring other advantages besides less wool to sweat in: we will get an earlier starting time, meaning we will finish earlier and be able to start packing up sooner. We will have less time standing around waiting to be sent in as reinforcements. We'll fire more shots. Everybody will see more action.

"You're in my company," one of the captains says, noticing my pacing as I itch for battle. "And I'm ordering you to sit down and don't overheat."

I remove my old reliable 1861 Springfield musket from its sack. It has rusted a bit on the outside after the trip from Arizona, but it looks all right. During inspection, though, it fails to cock properly, meaning it's no good for battle. I figure rust may have invaded the lock, meaning the hammer won't hold where it's supposed to. If we had more time, I could take it apart and clean it out with some help from one of several gun experts in the camp. But we have to form up and march out. I swap my Springfield for a loaner Enfield from the regimental armory. I could learn to like this weapon: it's lighter and easier to carry on a long march.

"Yeah," the recruit in the file right of me agrees. "It's that's thinner barrel."

We are among the first Confederates to take the battlefield. No standing around waiting for something to happen.

"Prone!" barks a commander. At least, that's what it sounded like. I have never heard the command before. I don't know if he called "Prone!" or "Prime!" or something else, but it means get down on the ground, out of sight, out of range.

For the next 15 minutes, we lay in the grass, sneaking a glance at the Yankee standards hundreds of yards away, peaking out over the tall grass that is rife with spiders, ticks, grasshoppers and hornets. A monster stinging insect nearly buzzes my face. I'm glad the horses haven't trotted through this area before us.

A lady walks between our laid-out ranks delivering ice to anybody who holds out their kepi. I stretch it back to her, and the cubes she deliver go down my shirt and into my mouth, the rest melting into the cap for a cooldown.

Any moment now, we're going to get the order to advance.

When we do, the next 15 minutes rushes by in a stew of shooting, moving and firing. We gain major ground quickly, taking the Yankee artillery. But then we head towards stalemate, hyphenated by my own frustration as I pinch musket caps to get them to fit on the Enfield's smaller nipple. Across from us stand a persistent line of Federals in red shirts, and they just aren't going down.

It takes twice as long for me to fire, but commanders are prodding us: "Load, boys, load!" My Captain sees me rushing to get loaded and slows me down. "Take your time," he says in a low voice. "Don't rush it." Maybe he sees me turning red again like yesterday. The only thing heating up is the gun barrel. The Springfield disperses heat very well. The Enfield is holding it in.

We push on. We fall back. The ranks grow ragged as we rush to form up.

"Dress this line!" I call, trying to help my brothers in arms keep in line.

"Somebody needs to take a hit!"

Comrades to the right and left of me go down on volleys, and we pull them back up again as we advance, recycling them back into the unit. Nobody wants to lie around and play dead in a battle this large and exciting. Do it right, and the crowds don't even know it. Still, about a dozen mock casualties litter the space between us and them. At least one whips out a pocket camera and covertly squeezes off a few frames around himself. A couple of men in period attire dart between the lines, huddled over small video cameras. Official souvenir DVD's will be out in a few weeks.

Pressing on after shooting off some 30 or so rounds, we drive the Federals back behind the tree line -- and they've left us some booty.

"Plunder that water supply!" our Colonel barks.

Cases of Nestle water bottles sit in the open, waiting to be devoured. We break ranks, grabbing and drinking as much as we can before falling back into line for the next order to advance.

In front of us, the cavalry units are charging and putting on a show, one barely visible to people in the bleachers. A few more lines advance, and then just as suddenly as it began, it's all over.

"That's it, boys, the Yankees are leaving," a commander says.

And so are the crowds. Whether it's the heat, or the mistaken feeling that most of the action has ended, the stands are emptying out quickly. But appreciation is everywhere. Journeying back to camp, and throughout the day, spectators stop us and thank us, asking groups of us to pose for a picture or two.

I am chilled out and walking in the clouds. At last, I got to be a part of the battle, and oh what a battle. We agree universally this was the better battle of the two, whereas yesterday the unit did a lot of standing around and waiting to move in on cue. Nobody cares that this skirmish didn't last as long. Every moment counted.

As soon as most visitors are gone, we start taking the camp apart. The sun emerges from behind the clouds, and we're glad it held off so long. Tents come down and go into the trailer as we sort through all our personal effects. Soldiers trade the wool pants and linen shirts for tees and shorts.

By 4:00, we're loaded up and moving out, exhausted and happy and planning a pizza party back at the hotel with a dip in the pool afterwards. Our Confederate ancestors never had it so good, which is humbling. We brought smiles to a lot of faces today, which is uplifting. We fulfilled our mission, which is inspiring.

"Officer in the camp!"

People jump to attention and salute as one of the lead generals stops by the breakfast area of the hotel, where we're wolfing down Costco's best Italian pies. He smiles and laughs at us in joyous admiration, praising us for stepping up to fill an urgent need.

"I would have liked to visit with you more," he says. "But as they say where I'm from, I was busier than a one-armed pickpocket at a county fair!"

We invite him to stay and break crust, but he and his wife are off to find the best authentic Southern food they can get, collared greens and all. Still, he has to proclaim his love for his Arizona gunslingers, who come so far and do so much.

In war, the history books teach one thing, but the soldiers remember another. It is hardly cinematic or comprehensive. Each battle is personal, focused not on the whole but on the instant. When it's all over, I don't remember the big picture -- the lines on the map with the arrows and circles pointing the direction of the troops and where they marched or retreated. I remember the lone Yankee who charged from the line in desperation to be picked off with one of our shots. I remember that solid walls of Federals in front of me that weren't moving anywhere. Memories of the rote and struggle of firing at will fix in my head. A taste of fear is in there somewhere, fear not of getting killed but of not keeping up, not looking good on the field. It's not nearly comparable to its mortal cousin, but it's still fear.

Unlike my younger compatriots, this news producer's body isn't in the best shape for battle. I gather one could say that about a few old Confederates. But the heart will compensate for many things and drive forward just like the lines pushing those Federals back.

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