December 8, 2012
The last event of the season finally arrived and I began my long trek to Fredericksburg, Virginia crammed into a Ford Explorer with three other guys and their gear. I joined Quinn Marcotte, Charles Russ, with Butch Foster in his SUV.
It was a long 11-hour trip with Butch arguing with my GPS about the way we should go. The lady in the box was determined to always get even with us whenever we tried to veer off her planned path, always leading us back to her route.
It probably would have been a shorter trip if we had simply given in to the shrew.
We camped at Slaughter Pen Farm, which was the actual battleground where Jackson had his front lines. That night we met with the colonel of our battalion, and Capt Steiner of the 5th KY (the unit we fell in with) requested we be deployed as skirmishers in the town of Fredericksburg as the Yankee invaders crossed the Rappahannock. He had the experience of doing this for the 145th, and hoped we could do it again. The colonel agreed to the request.
But in the morning the battalion sergeant major informed us we would be the color guard since we were a small unit (seven rifles plus the captain) and appeared to have the only flag. With reluctance, we conceded, and Butch took the flag as the first bearer, the plan being that we would rotate around so all could have the opportunity to shoot.
Butch appeared near depression as he trudged with us into formation to mark the line for the battalion, carrying the 5th’s St Andrew’s Cross. However, as we waited, another battalion officer came to us with a request. He told us that a North Carolina unit requested the honor of being the color guard, to allow their flag the history of being in all the 150s. Butch could not contain himself as he handed the flag to Quinn. “Here, hold this,” he said as he charged off with the determination of a tiger seeking its prey, nearly trampling another battalion in the process. He was after his rifle, and we had to holler after him to take the flag with him to return it to its cradle by the captain’s tent.
And it got even better when we were told we would be deployed as skirmishers after all.
It took two buses to transport our entire battalion over to the staging site near where we would confront the Yankees. For awhile we had lost the colors in transport, but they managed to find their way to the battalion formation.
The colonel found a local resident willing to donate his small yard enclosed with a short stone wall as our defensive position. Located directly across the street from the landing for the pontoon bridge, we were in a prime configuration for harassing the Yankees.
We were instructed that we were to die at that location. So after harassing the Yankees as first a platoon landed from a pontoon boat, we started making ourselves easy targets. But the Yankees must have been marching with horse blinders as they only aimed at the Yankee battalions in front of them up the hill beside us and down the street in front of us. I put a few double-loads in hoping to make enough noise to attract their attention. We were at the point that just one Yankee shooting in our direction would have experienced a miracle ricochet that would take out all four of us in that little alcove.
Capt Steiner, beside me, even started shouting orders to the Yankees. “Fire to your oblique!” he shouted.
But nothing seem to work. Capt Steiner kept mumbling, “How did they ever win the war?” Imagine if this was for real—our little platoon had a total of nine rifles (two had fallen in with us looking for a home), and we were being completely ignored. We could have probably succeeded in taking out more than an entire battalion.
We were finally overrun when a Yankee commander and a couple of other Yankees started chasing that other Confederate battalion up the hill beside us. I think we caught that Yankee completely by surprise—he had been oblivious to our presence until he had practically stumbled upon us. Capt Steiner started to pull out his sword and hollered, “SHOOT US!”
That Yankee was something better left out of print. He was furious with us, shouting to us to not to shoot and being as threatening as he could have, never mind that if has been real, he would now be contributing donations of lead to future Yankees. What could we do? At that point we basically hid in that corner as the Yank stumbled on like something out of the Three Stooges and ignored us—no pickets to guard his prisoners or anything to cover for the scenario screw-up he caused.
All was well, however. After the Yankees moved on, we regrouped and joined our battalion up the street behind the fighting. We watched from behind as Rebel sharpshooters took potshots at the Yankee battalion, making each step a struggle for those Yankees. As they moved on we shared lunch from food we stored in our haversacks.
Some of us were noticeable short on water in our canteens. I had plenty in the half-gallon water buffalo I keep at my side, but others were not so fortunate. Water could only be had by foraging for water facets about the nearby buildings.
Our battalion reformed and marched up to Marye’s Heights. It seemed rather quiet, so someone—I believe it was Capt Steiner—asked me to lead us in “Bonnie Blue Flag”. It was an honor that gave me a thrill to sing that song in remembrance of all those soldiers that lost their lives 150 years ago. After finishing, the fifer played a few ditties, then returned to Bonnie Blue Flag, where I started up again. The hike went about a mile up hill to Marye’s Heights, where we stacked arms and waited for the concluding battle.
We had plenty of time, so Quinn and I wandered to the visitors’ center and the original wall where the Yankees met their doom. Not much remained of that original wall, but a sobering moment passed through me as I stood behind it and imaged a sea of blue falling against the wall of singing lead from the dragon breath that spewed forth from men defending their homes. Or the awe and terror the Yankees must have felt facing that stonewall where an invincible wall of gray stood fast.
And we had forgotten the artillery battery parked up the hill, perhaps 30 yards behind us. As we blazed away, a cannon blasted over our heads. The hill sloped well enough to keep us well below the danger zone, but that concussion was sudden and severe. At that point Quinn expressed his gratitude for having brown trousers, while Charles Russ, in his Irish accent, said, “I think I peed a little.”
The smoke was thick. The muskets fired so quickly as to produce the steady rumble of machinery. Men fell within five yards of the wall, yet were difficult to see through the cloud. The battle ended when the Angel of Marye’s Heights scenario was reenacted.
Weather was amazing for December. I had feared that it would be cold and wet—even snowing, like what those men experienced 150 years ago. But the balmy air held in the sixties. When we marched that mile march from the river to the heights, I found myself sweating.
Although I was well stocked with water, numerous others had issues with the water supply. Once we were in the town we were completely on our own for water and latrine facilities, which was a problem since we had little break between the nine a.m. battle and the two p.m. battle. But for me, the only real issue of the event was the wait for the buses to return us to camp. The original trip into town did not take overly long as it was well planned with sufficient busses. But returning to camp took a wait of nearly an hour as only two school busses traded loads.
However, overall it was spectacular. Perryville was better, but there is much history here, and it was unique.
The trip back proved as long as the trip out, and having to listen to the single CD of Irish music that Charles Russ had purchased for the entire trip seemed to extend it even more. I think it replayed around eleven times—we nearly memorized every song when we finally dropped Chuck off.
Fredericksburg.com news desk.
Civil War Trust
Virginia Guard Public Affairs:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguardpao/8254962957/in/photostream/ (oops--guess the bridge is a little short)