This story was originally published in "Bewildering Tales" in 2016 and is a story in the author's collection "Whistling Past the Veil," published by "Adelaide Books" in 2019.
The smoke from the cannon blanketed the field in a dense, rolling fog that covered the prostrate bodies of the boys unlucky enough to draw the death card. He could see them lying there, impatiently still in their pretended demise, unable to check their cell phones or even post on Facebook.
James Lee wondered 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 was convinced that he was born into the wrong era, the crudeness and constant noise of modern times being extremely jarring for him. He crouched down and saw some of the boys in blue approaching. He did not want to get captured this time, would refuse to surrender without a fight or at least until he could get his part of the bar tab paid.
James hit the ground once more as the Union soldiers passed him by, his expensive, authentic butternut uniform grinding into the dirt and grime. He’d better not rip it--this one had 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 would not, could not give up. The battle still had a long way to go and James had come a very, very long way to be here.
Grandma used to tell him he had a connection to the great man himself. To about one-eighth of one degree, but related all the same. His famous last name was a real badge of honor. 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 so far, disappointing life.
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 knew 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 captured 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 had always made his heartbeat just a little faster, filling him with an inexplicable longing: Gettysburg.
James leapt 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 went off in a spectacular bang as he watched the man’s surprised and disappointed face with a feeling of supreme satisfaction.
“Sorry Billy Yank, all’s fair in love and war!” he said 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 scrambled away in an undignified, clumsy gallop.
“Damned Polyester Soldier!” James called after him in disgust, hating the unserious, “weekend warrior” reenactors that populated these events.
James was a big believer in total immersion--he was strictly hardcore. When he took part in a reenactment, he was all in from the food he ate, weapons he used 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 kept her in his pocket, making up entire stories of their devoted, undying love.
He had been called a “stitch counter” before, a term that was meant to be an insult for Immersives like himself, but that he wore like a badge of honor. He may not be well educated, but he did know that polyester and hidden stitches weren’t real common in the 1860s, and he was never afraid to point it out. He knew this hadn’t made him many friends in the reenactment community, but it always gave him an intense burst of pride that he was getting as close as he possibly could to those heroic fighters from so long ago.
James sighed heavily as he watched the Yankee run off into the cannon smoke. It was only to be expected, he thought. This was the official reenactment on the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg and tons of “Mainstream” reenactors were here for the occasion. It was very special that they were even allowed on this hallowed ground, following in such brave footsteps on the very days the battle was fought. James swallowed his annoyance and remembered that he should be grateful, this was the defining experience of his young life.
When they were all done here, these guys would go back to the comfort of their own homes, surrounded by the miracles of modern technology. James would experience something akin to mourning when the battle had ended, an actual physical pain that he had 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 it’s magical music filled the dark little room.
James was instantly transported, completely engrossed in what he saw. He watched it 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 even 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 nine-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 couldn’t recall the name of the town anymore, but he most certainly remembered the ad. It was an open call for Civil War reenactors and on that day, his future was set.
Having dispatched the weekend warrior, James went off in search of his regiment, wandering as the smoke and fog thickened even more. He couldn’t recall how he got separated from them, took out his antique compass and saw that the needle was circling furiously, like some sort of deranged stopwatch. He could feel the terrain change under his feet, becoming rockier with every step of his well-worn, hand-sewn leather shoes. He sensed a change in the landscape, perhaps the beginning of a slight hill as the sound of a bugle horn blared off in the distance. He could feel a sudden electricity in the air as he climbed ever higher, and thought 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 thought, the South was finished before a single shot was ever fired.
A metallic smell assaulted his nose as goosebumps broke out all over his body. If he could only see where he was through 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 began to feel weary, lightheaded as he continued up what was apparently a decent-sized hill. He needed to stop for a while, get his bearings before the daylight ran out. He had been here since dawn, choosing to set up his pup tent on the outskirts of the field where the event organizers had allowed the Immersives to camp. No comfy, modern motel for him, no way--he would have the full experience.
James searched for somewhere to sit for a moment, he literally couldn’t even see his own hands in front of his face. Suddenly a sharp, zinging pain bit into his neck at full speed. Damn it! What was that? He felt an awful pinching sensation and slapped the area of his neck hard, convinced that one of those enormous mosquitoes that constantly plagued 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 saw there was blood on his hand, that little bastard really got me, he thought, I hope I pulverized him good.
James literally ran into a fairly large tree and sat 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 began to feel heavy so he closed them for just an instant and dropped off into an uneasy doze.
A huge explosion from somewhere behind him made him jump to his feet, instantly awake and on his guard. The fog had cleared and he saw that he was 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 thought. I had better get moving.
He broke out his one extravagance, a pair of actual bronze Civil War binoculars (another $250, thank you very much) and scanned the top of the hill. What he saw made him almost drop the binoculars in pure shock, a cold sweat breaking out on his brow. He could hardly believe it! Union soldiers were lining up at the top of the hill, taking orders from a man who he swore, must be General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment.
Little Round Top! Of course he thought in wonderment, it is July 2nd, this is Little Round Top. I can’t believe my incredible good luck! He thought back to all he knew of this decisive battle and remembered 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 might have had a very different outcome. He watched them line up in real-time as he had seen over and over again in the movie and read about in countless books, the drama of this moment taking his breath away. He recalled 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 could hear commotion behind him, nervous voices, whispering and he knew that his brothers in arms were getting ready for that final, fateful charge.
God, he thought in awe, the man playing Chamberlain looked exactly like him--even more so than the actor from the movie. From the precise details of his uniform, down to the famous, walrus style mustache that he had 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, would get to witness live and in person or at least, a very close approximation of it--this was shaping up to be the very best day of his life.
The 20th Maine fanned out into a long line, getting ready to charge down the hill in what James knew was called a right-wheel maneuver. He also knew that in just a few moments, Chamberlain would 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 could feel a great rumbling coming from behind, followed by a sound that raised the hair upon his head, bringing sudden tears to his eyes. It was a sound that he never dreamed he would hear, a sound that no one living could ever exactly reproduce. How on earth did these reenactors know how to pull off what must be an actual, real live Rebel Yell?
He remembered 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 felt real, a little too real as he turned to face the onslaught of Rebel soldiers heading straight for him at a dead run.
He leapt back up and flattened himself against the tree, momentarily paralyzed by the other-worldliness of his situation. His head told him that this was just part of the weekend’s events but his heart was telling him something else entirely. The men that streaked past him looked like no other reenactors he had ever seen. Not a single weekend warrior in the bunch. These men were impossibly lean, battle-scarred and almost feral. Their faces were stretched into terrifying masks as they screamed like banshees, determined and deadly. He swallowed hard and tasted the cold steel of fear in the back of his throat as he watched 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 heard the sound of Rebel ammunition hitting all around him, an actual Minie Ball hitting the tree right above his head as he realized that these men were using live rounds in this battle. The 20th Maine dashed down the hill in a great whoosh, bayonets extended and James could see as if in slow motion, the clash that was about to come.
Before he could even form a rational thought, he ran out into the onslaught of Rebels, trying to warn them that the Yankees had no ammunition, this charge was all for show. He tried several times, yelling into the chaos until he was raspy and hoarse, but it was no use. The outcome of this battle had already been decided. 150 years ago on this very day. Right now.
Chamberlain’s great gamble would pay off, the Confederates would retreat and surrender to men with no bullets in their guns and the South would follow the path to their 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 looked up and watched as the two sides met in bloody battle, the fierceness of the 20th Maine beginning to overcome his brethren, for they were desperate men with nothing in the world left to lose--defend the flank or die. It was everything he had ever expected and more, in all of its horror and bloodstained majesty. Tears ran openly down James’ face as he saw the men begin to flicker and fade, like an old-time home movie. He could actually look through them, they were vapors in the mist and he knew that he might only have precious seconds before they were lost to him forever--these Boys of Little Round Top.
An impossibly thin man broke away from the charging pack and came right over to James, a smile lighting up his dirty, unshaven face. James felt an instant jolt of recognition--how did he know this man? He couldn’t recall seeing him at any of the reenactor events but was absolutely certain that he knew him, had always known him.
“Where have you been old Jim?” he asked in a slow drawl, grabbing James by the shoulders in a brotherly embrace. “We’ve been waitin’ for you!”
James looked on with disbelief as the man held out a battered old rifle, presenting it to James as a gift. James gently took hold of the stock, running his other hand along the barrel in a smooth, practiced motion. It felt like a long-lost friend, like coming home. They shook hands warmly and the man turned back to the battle, stopped, then held out his arm, inviting James to follow.
James took one final, slow breath as he stepped away from the tree. Behind him he saw his fellow reenactors 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 continued--Minie Balls whistling through the air, the clash of bayonets, screams and chaos. He knew what his decision would be in an instant, there never really was any doubt. He felt a moment of regret for his mother, hoped that she would be alright as he picked up his real rifle, leaning the expensive replica up against the tree like the husk of an old shell.
Old Jim stepped forward and followed his brother into battle, letting out a joyful, ear-splitting yell as he ran straight into his heart’s desire, and into history.
Claire Lee stood at the bottom of Little Round Top, trying to feel what her son’s last moments must have been like. She was cradling his replica rifle while holding a handful of brochures from the Gettysburg National Military Park. It was a complete fluke they told her, a horrible accident. Event planners were very meticulous when it came to firearm safety at these reenactments, checking each firearm with ramrods to ensure that no live rounds remained within.
Unfortunately, one well-meaning inspector got distracted and left his ramrod in a reenactor'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 reenactor 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'd spent years working two to three jobs at a time, desperately trying to support them after his father ran out. She 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 were very sympathetic of course, everyone signed waivers at these events, there was always an element of risk involved. They even allowed her to sprinkle James’ ashes on the hill of Little Round Top, right by the tree where they'd found his rifle. Claire was devastated, but at least she had the small comfort that James died doing what he loved, what he truly believed he was born to do.
She felt the tears coming again and bitterly wiped them away with the back of her hand. She reached into her purse to grab a Kleenex, dropping the brochures onto the ground. As she bent down to pick them up, she saw a picture on the top brochure staring out at her and felt an electric shock, adrenaline instantly coursing through her body. The Kleenex forgotten, Claire sat down heavily on the ground, allowing the tears to stream down her face as she stared into the face of her only child, her son.
He was there in an old black and white picture dated 1863, his clean-shaven, eager face beaming up at her as he posed with his regiment in full Confederate regalia. There were no names, just a date and a simple caption. Claire knew without a single doubt, that this was James, as she rocked 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 picked herself up and said goodbye to her only boy, taking a final look at the hill where he was resting. She held the brochure close to her heart as she walked 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.”
A. Elizabeth Herting
For Bob, and a church parking lot...