(Spoiler alert! - this is a complete synopsis)
The conflict had many names in the press and among the citizens of the United States: the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, the War of Southern Independence, the War of the Rebellion – or, as some genteel bluebloods of Charleston, South Carolina, still refer to it; “that minor unpleasantness.” To most Americans, ultimately, it would be known simply as the Civil War.
It was the first modern war incorporating torpedoes, submarines, machine guns, aviation, railroads and the use of massive explosives. It was also a war of brutal hand-to-hand combat where a soldier was twice as likely to die from disease, malnourishment or wounds inflicted by swords and bayonets as bullets. Military tacticians in the 1860s hovered between the ancient and modern. Leaders from both sides were often reluctant to embrace the new technologies, even after they had proven their efficacy. Manned, tethered hydrogen and hot air balloons were employed for reconnaissance by both sides, and spotters high above the battlefield would sometimes electronically telegraph, via 500-foot cables, the positions of their enemy to commanders on the ground. Though successful in several campaigns, the Balloon Corps were dismantled by 1863, two years before the end of the war.
The Confederate Navy scrubbed their submarine program even after the H.L. Hunley, its first practical submarine, successfully sank a Federal blockade ship, the USS Housatanic, just off the South Carolina coast. The Hunley earned a place in history as the vessel behind the world’s first successful submarine seek-and-destroy mission. The Hunley itself became a victim of her own success sinking shortly after the Housatanic with all eight crewmembers aboard. After retrieving her, intact, from the bottom of Charleston Harbor, the Confederate sailors’ remains were interred, accompanied by a full military funeral at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. Eight horse-drawn caissons transported each of the crewmen in a procession through downtown Charleston that lasted most of the day. Fifty thousand spectators attended the memorial service, and for the first time in over a century press from around the globe were once again reporting on the American Civil War. They called the spectacle the ‘Last Confederate Funeral.’ Participating in the interment in an official capacity were 10,000 Civil War reenactors. The year; 2004.
The first Civil War re-enactment I attended was on December 1st, 1989 in Franklin, Tennessee, a then small town 30 miles south of Nashville. The 125th anniversary of the Battle Of Franklin took place on a cold, gray December day, not unlike the first days of the original bloody battle. Along with thousands of spectators, I watched the reenactment unfold across the open farmland of the mostly still undeveloped Williamson County countryside. The spectacle of thousands of men in costume uniforms, dozens of mounted Cavalry, dozens of cannons and a commitment to authentic portrayals in both the civilian encampments and on the battlefield was gripping. I was suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, overcome by an unsettling sensation. I wondered, albeit briefly, if maybe I wasn’t witnessing a reenactment but the actual battle – a spectator on the sidelines of history. For a brief moment, full of both wonder and trepidation, I had no doubt that I was standing on a ridge in 1863 watching history unfold in real-time. The reenactors had accomplished their mission.
He slipped off his wedding band, which had become loose fitting after he’d dropped 20 lbs on an already slender frame. He placed it carefully on the end table and leaned in to kiss his wife, Susan, gently on the cheek.
“See you later, Honey,” he said softly. “You’re coming down, right?”
“Hmm...? Ah, yeah I’ll be there babe. Have fun,” she answered through a yawn. “Be careful.” She drifted back to sleep but not before calling out softly. “I love you Tommy.”
“Me too,” he said and walked from the bedroom.
Leaving the house in the cool of pre-dawn he felt an odd chill and passed it off as the weather. His unconciously furrowed brow betrayed his uneasiness at walking to his pickup truck dressed in a Confederate uniform - but he had no choice. The others would be at the re-enactment dressed out, ready and waitng for the straggelrs to fall in. Most re-enaactors capmed at the events like an odd combination of Boy Scouts and frat boys, but Tommy's group preferred the the softness of a mattress and warm bedrooms arriving early for role call and Parade in the field.
Tommy's truck was usually parked in front of his house but because of his late return from McCauley's Pub the night before, found he had to park several blocks from home. Still dark, only a distant street lamp shed a dim, otherworldly orange glow over the neighborhood. The city had installed ‘crime lights’ as a deterrent after the spate of violent crime in recent years but Tommy hadn’t noticed them making a difference.
He was looking forward to the day’s activities, and began to relax a little. He smiled at how odd it would look to be seen in his neighborhood dressed like 1860s-era soldier, musket and all, like a long-lost and forgotten ghost roaming near an old battleground. Harper's Ridge was world-famous for its massive Civial War battle and today's was it's 130th anniversary. He though again about his urban setting and his distintly un-modern costume and found himself chuckling under his breath. “What a sight I must be.”
He was utterly alone walking down the dimly lit street. Most of the ‘Crime Lights’ had been shot out so many times that the city refused to keep replacing them, which made his dark street even darker. An unusual quiet and stillness hung in the air and he liked his neighborhood this way. Usually the sounds of urban life intruded every part of his waking hours and this morning’s walk to his truck was in stark contrast to the constant noise he had grown wearily accustomed to.
At first, the thumping, almost like that of a heartbeat could be felt more than heard. Tommy cocked his ear. A lone nightbird chirped and a dog barked a block or two away. Still walking toward his truck he heard it again and then stopped cold. The thumping was now all too recognizable as that from a kickerbox, an amplified bass speaker that hip hop kids installed in the backs of their cars and played at ear-deafening volumes. The vibrations could travel hundreds of yards and penetrate thick walls. He often wondered how the car’s occupants survived the eardrum-shattering reverberations. He heard the thumping again. It was a good bit off, Tommy thought, but he tensed a little and started walking again, though with a quickned pace. The thumping got steadily louder but it seemed to come from everywhere – he couldn’t pin-point the direction. Tommy spoke quietly to himself.
“Not now. Not dressed like this.”
His truck was still a block and a half away. He walked faster. The thumping – boom, boom, boom was like the unwanted approach of an evil giant’s footsteps and it was nearly on top of him. He thought about running into the shadows to hide but it was too late. A small Honda Accord zoomed around the corner at top speed. It was chopped and low to the ground. Shiny from countless coats of wax and polishing, the white car reflected and seemed to amplify all light touching it. The windows were tinted so dark they were as black as the night – the kids called it ‘Presidential Tint.’ Flashing neon license plate holders and ultraviolet purple-hued black-lights, glowing from underneath, gave the car a psychedelic, evil aura. Tommy stared straight ahead as it roared by him. The sounds of rap music shook the neighborhood. Boom! Boom! Boom! He didn’t dare turn around to look. He was now 100 yards from his truck and he kept up his quickened, steady pace. Screeching brakes behind him sent a chill down his spine and adrenaline flowing through his body. He heard two car doors open and behind the constant drone of the music he heard the laughter of young men, drunk on alcohol, the intoxicating irresponsibility of youth and the power they felt over their lone victim.
From a distance they mocked and voiced their disbelief, yelling over the thumping bass.
“What the fuck was that?!” one of the teenagers yelled out. More laughter.
“Damn!” said another. “That is whack. I am not believing what I’m seeing. Shit. Yo, yo let’s check this out!”
This was not what Tommy wanted to hear. He fumbled to find his keys to be ready to unlock the door and jump in. He searched his pockets frantically. “Where are my keys? Where are they?” he yelled aloud, panicked. He was not used to wearing the strange clothes. The pockets were in all the wrong places. Desperately he searched, patting front and back for the familiar lump of metal that would not take shape. Behind him he heard the car’s doors slam and the turbo-charged Honda burn its tires in a one-hundred-eighty-degree spin.
He was in trouble. He thought he must have left his keys at home on the kitchen counter. He was sure he had taken them but where were they? He was now fifty yards from a truck he wouldn’t be able to get into and five blocks from a house he was locked out of at 5:00 in the morning with gang-bangers on his heels looking to have some fun. He fought off flashbacks of previous unpleasant encounters in that very same neighborhood. The car sped up to him and screeched to a stop. The doors opened and the pounding of the bass was almost deafening. Tommy just kept walking. He didn’t dare turn around.
“Yo! Johnny Reb!” called one of the boys, yelling over the pounding bass. He heard laughter from the car. “The war’s over. Ain’t you heard, dude?” Tommy ignored them.
“He must be one of those Civil War fools I saw on TV yesterday,” stated another boy.
Tommy had gained 15 yards. He was closer to his truck but still had no way in it. He was terrified.
“Yo! Muthafuka! We’re talkin’ to you!” another voice taunted with an amplified malevolence. “This bitch ignorin’ us. I think he need a little history lesson, cuz he sure ain’t no Yankee fan in that outfit.”
“Yeah,” added another voice “didn’t the Yankees kick those redneck’s asses?”
“I think it’s payback time for dissin' us.” Their mocking had moved from bullying to threatening.
Sweat poured off Tommy’s forehead and he could feel his hands sticky and moist as he desperately, frantically continued looking for his keys.
A loud sound rose above the ceaseless thumping music and Tommy’s heart leapt as he heard the terrible noise. Instinctively, he turned to face his would be attackers and saw that one of them weilding an aluminum baseball bat had just slammed it into a post-office mailbox, nearly folding it in two like a paper sack. Just thirty feet away, two black youths, one with the bat and a white boy of about the same age, showing off a gleaming knife blade, stood facing him.
“Not again...,” he thought.
Desperately he felt for his keys one more time and put his hand on something not entirely familiar. Slung over his shoulder and resting on his right hip was his leather cartridge box. He opened the flap thinking he may have put his keys inside, instead he found 30 paper-wrapped blackpowder cartridges for use in the re-enactment. He had assembled the cartridges himself without the minie ball ‘bullet’ - re-enactors, after all, fired blanks at one another. But within one of the paper cartridges he felt something like a steel marble with a dull point – he had missed one. His unit occasionally had fun on a nearby farm with live-fire target shooting, camping and beer-drinking events - a way to let off steam and double the amount of blackpowder normally used in re-enactment blanks. The youths walked slowly toward him shouting obscenities and vulgarities of all sorts while the blaring urban music continued to drone its thumping bass.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Tommy knew what he had to do and moved with practiced efficiency. He slung the musket from his shoulder, planting the butt of his rifle by his left heel. He tore open the paper cartridge with his teeth and emptied it down the barrel followed by the led slug. He pulled the ramrod from the underside of the gun and packed the bullet and powder snuggly. Tommy was one of the fastest loaders in his unit, able to load and fire four times per minute. He backed slowly away from the youths who momentarily stopped their approach and sized up this strange sight. Still walking backwards, the rifle at his waist, the muzzle pointed directly at the boys, he cocked the firing mechanism one click, to the safety positon, and placed a tiny brass percussion cap on the rifle's nipple. The teens continued their approach, now just 15 feet away. He attached the cold steel bayonet twisitng it into place with a stisfying snap. The boys howled with nervous laughter, hiding behind one-another while the sized their prey up. One of the boys urged his friends to back off.
“Come on man. This cracker crazy,” he said “Let’s roll.”
The others ignored him and the one with the bat made two quick steps forward swinging the aluminum weapon at Tommy’s head. Tommy thrust the rifle forward and when the bat and his bayonet clashed sparks lit up the dark street. The other tossed his knife back and forth between his hands. Tommy’s head pounded with adrenaline and he felt dizzy. He could see the three Yankee soldiers jeering at him and the sounds of war raging around him. The enemy were within 10 feet and he had just finally reached a horse abandoned by some unseen rider. One of the Yanks was swinging his gun like a huge stick and another had pulled off his bayonet and was tossing it playfully from hand to hand. Cannons blasted all round him.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
He checked and tightened the small percussion cap placed on the firing mechanism of his rifle. Eight feet and closing, the Yanks continued their advance. The one swinging the big gun charged him. Tommy dropped to one knee pulling the hammer back one last click, aimed at the Yank’s chest and pulled the trigger. A blast in his ear, a strong kick to his shoulder and an orange fireball and thick gray smoke issued forth from the barrel and he knew the round was off. A millisecond later an audible thud and crack could be heard as a hunk of hot metal shattered the ribcage of the man in front of him. Blood sprayed the two Yanks near the attacker and they screamed in horror. Their screams were high-pitched, not of men, Tommy thought, but more the sound of boys.
“Just kids,” Tommy thought in horror.
They were just kids but they were damn Yankees just the same and in a man’s war. The distant moon cast an orange glow over the battlefield. Surrounding him, the cannons still blasted in a musical rhythm.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
One Yank soldier lay dead on the ground while two others stood horrified, sickened, frightened. The Rebel stood up, his musket barrel still smoking, his bayonet extended. He heard coins or ammo fall to the ground as he straightened. The items must have fallen out of his haversack, a small canvas shoulder bag most in the infantry wore. He looked down to see they were not coins or ammo but odd-looking keys. Several of them hung together around a shiny circular piece of steel. On one of the keys was inscribed a word that seemed familiar - "Nissan".