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When the Past Becomes the Present

Posted on Saturday, October 1, 2016 at 10:05 pm

The battle began to rage, cannon blasts shaking the ground, gunpowder creating a blue haze over the battlefield as assault after assault ensued. A young private faced the Yankee onslaught time and again as they charged the entrenched Confederates. As one whole assault fell, a single soldier remained standing, locking eyes with the Private in gray. They both reloaded as quickly as their shaking hands would allow, knowing if they didn’t fire first they would be dead. Ramming the shot down their barrels, they primed their hammers, and in that split second, the Confederate fired first. Shock and horror covered the young Yankee’s face before falling, the Private shaking in the trench realizing that he had been seconds from death.

Farther down the line the battle remained hot. One unit created a hot zone, firing until their muskets had created a haze of smoke so that other units could maneuver to safety. Changing their position, they flanked another company, ending up behind part of the enemy battalion. As the battalion realized what had happened and turned to face them, the Confederates charged. The company Sergeant watched in horror as he saw a Federal officer pull his side arm and fire into the face of his brother. He screamed his brother’s name, but the words seemed a whisper through the din of battle. It was no use. He had to get to him! He felt like he was running through molasses as his brother grabbed his face with a scream and slowly fell to the ground. He rushed to his brother’s side to see his face covered in powder burns, yet the battle still raged.

One field over, Blue and Gray fiercely clashed. Soldiers were obscured in the cornfield, hints of blue and gray uniforms peeking through the corn stalks. Minié Balls were fired blindly in the direction of the enemy, ammunition running low, and as the battle continued to rage, so did their anger. As the fury of the men boiled to overflowing, soldiers ripped corn ears off the stalks and lobbed them across the field at the enemy, unwilling to give up though their ammunition had given out.

Across the battlefield, a young soldier in his second battle lay in the trench covering his ears as the artillery hurled cannon balls over his head and shook the ground with each blast. Leaves and twigs fell on and around the soldiers as the Federals advanced. Visibility was low as the gunpowder turned the air a hazy blue-gray. At the order “Rise,” the gray-clad soldiers stood and dressed the line, rapidly loading the muskets before being ordered to march. The haze of gunpowder stripped their throats and caused their tongues to stick in their mouth.

“Fire!” One second after the roared command, the musket volley erupted.

“Fire at will!” The soldiers reloaded and fired as fast as they could, the experienced ones twice the speed of the new recruits, with their hands shaking and heart in their throats.

“There they are boys, pour it into them!” Faint dark silhouettes appeared from the smoke like ghosts. For this new soldier, it was the first time meeting the enemy face-to-face. The din of the commanders shouting orders, the twigs snapping beneath Federal boots on the advance, the cannon belching forth death, and musket volleys filled his ears. Before he realized it, the Federals leveled their muskets at the Confederate line, and in a flash of light, seemed to disappear as Confederates fell around him. The soldier beside him fell, covered in blood and unmoving. The sight filled his eyes and froze him like a statue. Suddenly someone grabbed him from behind and jerked him back. “I said fall back!” He ran blindly in this hoard of men until they stopped, only to realize he had lost his own unit and had been enveloped in another.

“Sergeant, I’m with the 8th Georgia. I don’t know how I ended up with this unit, but I have to find my unit.”

The First Sergeant looked him over from head to toe and chuckled. “Well you are now part of this unit, Private. Fall in on the line.”

Slowly the sounds of battle stopped and were replaced by the popping and cracking of fires as darkness overtook the night. They had survived that day of battle and would live to see another, and indeed another came.

That morning, as the announcement that the Federals were forming up came down the line, each battalion was told to muster for battle. As the division fell into formation and marched toward the oncoming Federals, a Captain from the 53rd Georgia looked around and assessed the situation. Thousands of soldiers marched in formation before him. Turning around, he saw his men in formation, making their way toward the line of battle, and behind them, thousands more advanced. It was as if the field had become a sea of gray. He knew that the battle was going to rage, and many were going to fall. He wondered if the Federal forces would match them in size, or if the victory would be theirs that day.

The lines clashed as steel clanged and led cut through the air. On one side the gray and white uniform of VMI students overcame a Federal unit, chasing them over hills and through the mud, ignoring the aching muscles of many days of marching as they struck terror in the hearts of their enemy with a reverberating Rebel yell. As the battle raged hotter, two units faced Union forces at their desperate attempts to survive. The Captain and First Sergeant of the 57th Georgia fell as the company advanced against the Federal line. Now the Second Sergeant was in command. He screamed orders over the tumult of battle, successfully maneuvering his men, breaching the Federal line and taking them prisoner. Grabbing hold of the Federal Lieutenant, he jerked him off the ground, and said with a smile, “You are going to Andersonville.”

At the far end of the battlefield, the 17th Georgia faced the Federal cannon. The Captain had fallen behind, and the First Sergeant was nowhere to be seen. For one young Private, the fear of death was replaced with something more deadly-the absolutely suicidal thought that he would win. Seven or eight Privates were all that was left of their company as they faced the line of Federal cannon. “I’m going to whip their butt!” he thought. With the most blood-curdling Rebel yell he had ever given tearing from his throat, he rushed the cannon at full speed with the other Privates on his heels. The Federals surrendered. “This is what it is like to be on the winning side!” he thought as they rounded up their prisoners.

While the events of this story are not true of any one battle, they are real events. Many reenactors, across multiple companies and many years of experience have shared events in which they thought they were no longer in the 21st Century, but actually seemed to be in the 1860s, facing the enemy, and fighting for their lives. Only once the cease-fire had come, and resurrection been called, did they realize it was just a reenactment. For some, the events happen in camp, for some, it’s the onslaught of the enemy, and for some, it is as though they have been there before.  Many have told me of the frightening and surreal feeling of spanning two centuries in one moment, how it changed their view on the war, and increased their honor and respect for our ancestors and all they had faced. This is their story.

-By Rachel Holland