The Boys of Little Round Top
by A. Elizabeth Herting
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Having dispatched the weekend warrior, James goes off in search of his regiment, wandering as the smoke and fog thicken even more. He can’t recall how he got separated from them, takes out his antique compass and sees that the needle is circling furiously, like some sort of deranged stopwatch. He feels the terrain change under his feet, becoming rockier with every step of his well-worn, handsewn leather shoes. He senses a change in the landscape, perhaps the beginning of a slight hill as the sound of a bugle horn blares off in the distance.
He can feel a sudden electricity in the air as he climbs ever higher, and thinks back to his knowledge of Gettysburg, remembering that Union officer John Buford had the incredible foresight to secure the high ground for the North. That made all the difference, he thinks; the South was finished before a single shot was ever fired.
A metallic smell assaults his nose as goosebumps break out all over his body. If he could only see where he was in this unearthly haze, maybe he could find his way back to his regiment. There were signs posted everywhere for tourists to find the various battle sites; surely he should be able to find one of them without leaving himself open to attack?
He begins to feel weary, lightheaded as he continues up what is apparently a decent-sized hill. He needs to stop for a while, get his bearings before the daylight runs out. He has been here since dawn, choosing to set up his pup tent on the outskirts of the field where the event organizers have allowed the Immersives to camp. No comfy, modern motel for him, no way; he will have the full experience.
James searches for somewhere to sit for a moment, he literally can’t even see his own hands in front of his face. Suddenly a sharp, zinging pain bites into his neck at full speed. Damn it! What was that? He feels an awful pinching sensation and slaps the area of his neck hard, convinced that one of those enormous mosquitoes that constantly plague him in this ungodly July humidity had finally found its mark. Bug spray was not around for the Civil War soldier and so it wasn’t included in James’ provisions either.
Rubbing his neck frantically, he sees there is blood on his hand. That little bastard really got me, he thinks, I hope I pulverized him good. James literally runs into a fairly large tree and sits down gratefully, uncapping his battered old canteen and taking a deep sip of the iron-tasting water. How did I get myself so lost? Maybe I’ll just sit a spell and start out again in a few minutes. His eyes begin to feel heavy so he closes them for just an instant and drops off into an uneasy doze.
A huge explosion from somewhere behind him makes him jump to his feet, instantly awake and on his guard. The fog has cleared and he sees that he is at the bottom of a hill, “dead” rebel soldiers blanketing the terrain in a sickly gray hue. Man, those guys are not going to be happy having to lay there in the hot sun for hours, he thinks. I had better get moving.
He breaks out his one extravagance, a pair of actual bronze Civil War binoculars — another $250, thank you very much— and scans the top of the hill. What he sees makes him almost drop the binoculars in pure shock, a cold sweat breaking out on his brow. He can hardly believe it! Union soldiers are lining up at the top of the hill, taking orders from a man who, he swears, must be General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment.
Little Round Top! Of course, he thinks in wonderment, it is July 2nd, this is Little Round Top. I can’t believe my incredible good luck! He thinks back to all he knows of this decisive battle and remembers that Chamberlain was positioned on the very flank of the Union Army, there was no one past him; he was the absolute end of the line. If the Rebels were able to outflank him, they would gain the advantage and the Battle of Gettysburg may have had a very different outcome.
He watches them line up in real time as he has seen over and over again in the movie and read about in countless books, the drama of this moment taking his breath away. He recalls that the 20th Maine was desperate, having fought off wave after wave of Confederates charging up the hill. They were running out of ammo, had precious few rounds left, and the Rebs were gearing up for another try.
He can hear commotion behind him, nervous voices, whispering and he knows that his brothers in arms are getting ready for that final, fateful charge. God, he thinks in awe, the man playing Chamberlain looks exactly like him, even more so than the actor in the movie.
From the precise details of his uniform, down to the famous, walrus-style moustache that he has seen in every single picture of the great man. Yankee though he was, James hugely admired him for his passionate convictions and undisputed bravery. Bravery that he, James Lee, will get to witness live and in person or at least, a very close approximation of it: this is shaping up to be the very best day of his life.
The 20th Maine fans out into a long line, getting ready to charge down the hill in what James knows is called a right-wheel maneuver. He also knows that in just a few moments, Chamberlain will order a bayonet charge in a last-ditch attempt to hold them off, their ammunition completely depleted. Man these guys are spot on! This must have been exactly how it was, how fortunate am I to be here today!
He feels a great rumbling coming from behind, followed by a sound that raises the hair upon his head, bringing sudden tears to his eyes. It is a sound that he never dreamed he would hear, a sound that no one living could ever exactly reproduce. How on earth do these re-enactors know how to pull off what must be an actual, real live Rebel Yell?
He remembers the part in “The Civil War” series where old grainy movie reels showed elderly Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands over a fence at Gettysburg. Impossibly old, especially in those days, the ancient warriors were asked to demonstrate the Rebel Yell, but were too feeble at that point to really do it justice. Not like this. This feels real, a little too real as he turns to face the onslaught of Rebel soldiers heading straight for him at a dead run.
He leaps back up and flattens himself against the tree, momentarily paralyzed by the otherworldliness of his situation. His head tells him that this is just part of the weekend’s events but his heart is telling him something else entirely. The men that streak past him look like no other re-enactors he has ever seen. Not a single weekend warrior in the bunch. These men are impossibly lean, battle-scarred and almost feral. Their faces are stretched into terrifying masks as they scream like banshees, determined and deadly.
He swallows hard and tastes the cold steel of fear in the back of his throat as he watches Chamberlain hold his sword high up into the air and bellow out the only word that can be heard above the roaring, hellish din: “Bayonets!”
He hears the sound of Rebel ammunition hitting all around him, an actual Minie Ball hits the tree right above his head, and he realizes that these men are using live rounds in this battle. The 20th Maine dashes down the hill in a great whoosh, bayonets extended and James can see as if in slow motion, the clash that is about to come.
Before he can even form a rational thought, he runs out into the onslaught of Rebels, trying to warn them that the Yankees have no ammunition, this charge is all for show. He tries several times, yelling into the chaos until he is raspy and hoarse, but it is no use. The outcome of this battle has been decided. 150 years ago on this very day. Right now.
Chamberlain’s great gamble will pay off, the Confederates will retreat and surrender to men with no bullets in their guns, and the South will follow the path to its own destruction in a blaze of futile glory. The war was a waste of such magnitude, such enormous loss of lives but, Oh! What a moment to be alive, what a fight!
He looks up and watches as the two sides meet in bloody battle, the fierceness of the 20th Maine beginning to overcome his brethren, for the State-of-Mainers are desperate men with nothing in the world left to lose: defend the flank or die.
It is everything James has ever expected and more, in all of its horror and bloodstained majesty. Tears run openly down his face as he sees the men begin to flicker and fade, like an old-time home movie. He can actually look through them; they are vapors in the mist and he knows that he may only have precious seconds before they are lost to him forever, these Boys of Little Round Top.
An impossibly thin man breaks away from the charging pack and comes right over to James, a smile lighting up his dirty, unshaven face. James feels an instant jolt of recognition: how does he know this man? He can’t recall seeing him at any of the re-enactor events but is absolutely certain that he knows him, has always known him.
“Where have you been old Jim?” he asks in a slow drawl, grabbing James by the shoulders in a brotherly embrace. “We’ve been waitin’ for you!” James looks with disbelief as the man holds out a battered old rifle, presenting it to James as a gift. James gently takes hold of the stock, running his other hand along the barrel in a smooth, practiced motion. It feels like a long-lost friend, like coming home. They shake hands warmly and the man turns back to the battle, stops, then holds out his arm, inviting James to follow.
James takes one final, slow breath as he steps away from the tree. Behind him he sees his fellow re-enactors in the distance, packing it in for the day, heading back to the comfort of their hotel rooms, Wi-fi and fast food. In front of him, the battle continues with minie-balls whistling through the air, the clash of bayonets, screams and chaos.
He knows what his decision will be in an instant; there really was never any doubt. He feels a moment of regret for his mother, hopes that she will be all right as he picks up his real rifle, leaning the expensive replica up against the tree like the husk of an old shell.
Old Jim steps forward and follows his brother into battle, letting out a joyful, ear-splitting yell as he runs straight into his heart’s desire, and into history.
* * *
Claire Lee stands at the bottom of Little Round Top, trying to feel what her son’s last moments must have been like. She is cradling his replica rifle while holding a handful of brochures from the Gettysburg National Military Park.
It had been a complete fluke they told her, a horrible accident. Event planners are very meticulous when it comes to firearm safety at these reenactments, checking each firearm with ramrods to ensure that no live rounds remain within. Unfortunately, one well-meaning inspector got distracted and left his ramrod in a re-enactor’s weapon, turning it into a projectile when fired with black powder.
James never had a chance, getting shot in the side of his neck with deadly force by the ramrod and bleeding out before the EMTs could get to him. Horribly, the ramrod passed completely through James’ neck, landing in the tree next to his propped up rifle like a bloody arrow.
Nobody could tell her how he had wandered off so far from his assigned regiment or how the poor, distraught Union re-enactor came upon him all the way out at Little Round Top, killing him in an instant without meaning to.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, Claire knew her son. He was exactly where he wanted to be. She had spent years working two to three jobs at a time, desperately trying to support them after his father ran out. She had spent so much time trying to eke out a living that she lost him somewhere along the way, she thought sadly. Lost him to another place, another time. Lost him to history.
The officials had been very sympathetic of course, everyone signs waivers at these things, there is always an element of risk involved. They had even allowed her to sprinkle James’ ashes on the hill of Little Round Top, right by the tree where they had found his rifle.
* * *
Claire is devastated, but at least she has the small comfort that James died doing what he loved, what he believed he was born to do. She feels the tears coming again and bitterly wipes them away with the back of her hand. She reaches into her purse to grab a Kleenex, dropping the brochures onto the ground.
As she bends down to pick them up, she sees a picture on the top brochure staring out at her and feels an electric shock, adrenaline instantly coursing through her body. The Kleenex forgotten, Claire sits heavily on the ground, allowing the tears to stream down her face as she stares into the face of her only child, her son.
He is there in an old black and white picture dated 1863, his clean-shaven, eager face beaming up at her as he poses with his regiment in full Confederate regalia. There are no names, just a date and a simple caption. Claire knows without a single doubt, that this is James, and she rocks back and forth in the dirt, holding herself and laughing uncontrollably through her tears. He was happy. She could see it in his eyes, at long last, he was truly happy.
Claire picks herself up and says goodbye to her boy, taking a final look at the hill where he is resting. She holds the brochure close to her heart as she walks back through the Park, the caption of the old tintype photo running over and over through her mind, now etched forever on her heart: “The Boys of Little Round Top.”
Copyright © 2016 by A. Elizabeth Herting