The Boys of Little Round Top
by A. Elizabeth Herting
The smoke from the cannon blankets the field in a dense, rolling fog that covers the prostrate bodies of the boys unlucky enough to draw the death card. He can see them lying there, impatiently still in their pretended demise, unable to check their cell phones or even post on Facebook.
James Lee wonders again what it must have really been like. The chaos and blood, the glory of dying for a lost cause, the nobility and perfect senselessness of it all. He is convinced that he has been born into the wrong era; the fast pace and relentless march of technology are just too much for him.
He crouches down and sees some of the boys in blue approaching. He does not want to get captured this time, will refuse to surrender without a fight or at least until he can get his part of the bar tab paid.
James hits the ground once more as the Union soldiers pass him by, his expensive, authentic butternut uniform grinding into the dirt and grime. He’d better not rip it; this one cost him well over $400 to get every detail exactly correct, not to mention his gas and travel expenses just to get here. No, he will not, cannot give up. The battle still has a long way to go, and James has come a very, very long way to be here.
* * *
James’ famous last name was a real badge of honor. Grandma used to tell him that he had a connection to the great man himself. To about one-eighth of one degree, but related all the same.
James had always taken great pride in that small slice of his heritage, holding onto it in the sea of his mother’s constant struggles to support them, his absent father’s supreme indifference and the harsh realities of a life that had been disappointing so far. Being born and bred on the south side of Chicago should have made him more partial to the Northern side of things, what with the “Land of Lincoln” and all, but his heart belonged to Dixie.
He knew that in this day and age, honoring anything about the old South was frowned upon. Confederate flags were being removed, buildings renamed, history being scrubbed and judged by modern standards. The great evil of slavery was vanquished to the ash heap of history and good riddance as far as James was concerned. In that, he and Lincoln were in complete agreement.
No, the epic history-changing issues that fueled The War Between the States always felt above his pay grade, too political for his liking. Arguments from well over 200 years ago to this very day were being endlessly debated and rehashed by far greater thinkers than himself, and James was under no illusions that he would ever be included in such a distinguished group. What fueled his intense, almost obsessive interest in the War and all of its great battles was simply the soldiers.
Ordinary men like himself, living their lives, barely scraping by, that were called to a cause, right or wrong. Something far greater than themselves, a higher purpose. For a brief shining time they became brothers in arms, willing to die to protect their way of life, their homes, their honor.
James knows that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers were dirt-poor farmers fighting against the low-wage factory workers and immigrants from up north. Nobodies from the lowest rung on the ladder of life went into battle with the likes of Generals Lee, Grant, Hancock, Longstreet or the doomed division of General Pickett, carving their names into the rock of history for all time.
To James, nothing captures the adventure, romance and scale of the War more than one of its most legendary battles. Indeed, it was the pivotal battle that turned the tide, leading their fiery conflict to its inevitable end. The very name has always made his heart beat just a little faster, filling him with an inexplicable longing: Gettysburg.
* * *
James leaps up from his position, startling the Union soldiers and raising his Enfield Three-Band Percussion exact replica rifle — which set him back another hefty $250 — directly at the Yank on the right. The black powder charge goes off with a spectacular bang as he watches the man’s surprised and disappointed face with a feeling of supreme satisfaction. “Sorry, Billy Yank, all’s fair in love and war!” he says in his best imitation of a southern drawl, the unlucky man calling him a foul name before dropping to the ground in his pseudo-death.
The other man scrambles away in an undignified, clumsy gallop. “Damned polyester soldier!” James calls after him in disgust, hating some of the unserious, “weekend warrior” re-enactors that populate these events. James is a big believer in total immersion; he is strictly hardcore. When he takes part in a reenactment, he is “all in” from the food he eats, weapons he uses down to the shirt on his back.
He even found an old locket with a tintype photograph of a woman he believed to be from the Civil War era at an antique store and keeps her in his pocket, making up entire stories of their devoted, undying love. He has been called a “stitch counter” before, a term that is meant to be an insult for Immersives like himself, but he wears it as a badge of honor.
He may not be well educated, but he does know that polyester and hidden stitches weren’t real common in the 1860s, and he’s never afraid to point it out. He knows this hasn’t made him many friends in the reenactment community, but it always gives him an intense burst of pride that he is getting as close as he possibly can to those heroic fighters from so long ago.
James sighs heavily as he watches the Yankee run off into the cannon smoke. It is only to be expected, he thinks. This is the official reenactment on the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, and tons of “mainstream” re-enactors are here for the occasion. It is very special that they are even allowed on this hallowed ground, following in such brave footsteps on the very days the battle was fought.
James swallows his annoyance and remembers that he should be grateful; this is the defining experience of his young life. When they are all done here, these guys will go back to the comfort of their own homes, surrounded by the miracles of modern technology. James will experience something akin to mourning when the battle has ended, an actual physical pain when he has to pull himself out of the nineteenth century and back into his everyday life.
* * *
In their tiny, rundown apartment on one of the many nights that his mother had to work the night shift, James came across The Civil War miniseries on TV. He was flipping through the channels in search of a cartoon when the grainy black and white footage with its magical music filled the dark little room.
James was instantly transported, completely engrossed in what he saw. He watched for hours until he could no longer keep his eyes open, his mother finding him face down in front of the TV when she got home, exhausted but changed forever. He found that he knew some of the drills and routines of the soldiers, could feel their extreme discomfort on the long marches and heartbreak in their letters to home.
More than once he knew the battle’s outcome before the show told him about it, leaving his mother in open-mouthed astonishment that her 9-year-old son would know about such things. For his 10th birthday, she got him a collection of painted Civil War tin soldiers that he absolutely loved, even more so knowing how much it had cost her. For his 12th birthday, she presented him with an old copy of the movie “Gettysburg” and the hook went in even deeper.
James was highly intelligent, but never did very well in school. Every chance he got, he would devour books about the Civil War, looking for every detail that he could possibly find about the lives of the soldiers.
He decided that even though modern thought dictated that he shouldn’t be, he was hopelessly attracted to the ill-fated plight of the Confederate man, like a moth to a flame. He couldn’t focus on anything else, barely managing to graduate from high school without ever having any kind of meaningful friendship or date.
He tried studying history for a semester at the local community college, but quickly grew restless. He wasn’t sure what the future had in store, but he was certain that it would never be found in a classroom. History for him needed to be living and breathing, not a musty old footnote in some dry textbook.
He began working odd jobs here and there, making just enough to move him along to the next place when he happened to see a notice in the local paper. He can’t recall the name of the town anymore, but he most certainly remembers the ad. It was an open call for Civil War re-enactors, and on that day his future was set.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by A. Elizabeth Herting