Echoes from Our Past: The Journey Begins

** This post and others labeled “Echoes from Our Past” are not technology related.  I am not blogging about equities, networking or SDN.  If you are looking for a post on those subjects, please stop reading as this blog will soon return to regular subject matter.  **

Echoes from Our Past posts are a diversion for me.  I enjoy writing, so much so I have finished an unpublished novel, yet I cannot decide to self-publish as a complete novel or release in serial Dickensian form using a blog.  This is my attempt to put myself in the place of my 3rd great grandfather who answered Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers in July 1862.  At the age of 35, he left his farm in Lyons New York and went south to meet other men in battle.  
Men who had left their farms to go north to meet other men in battle.  My 3rd great grandfather was named George.  He was a father and head of his household when he left his farm.  He had resisted two prior calls to join the others who went before him; why he could not resist this third call I will never know.  Perhaps he felt a need to end the war that had already go on longer than most had imagined.  Maybe he felt a need to do his share.  Maybe he felt an obligation to the others who had gone before.  I suspect it was the latter, for I have been affected by watching others depart while I remained behind.

I went to Norwich University.  During my senior year, a number of my classmates were called to serve during the first Gulf War.  I remember the day with great clarity that the first Gulf War became real for us all.  We were in our senior year, yet it was the twilight of our innocence as we would soon pass into roles that would lead us become fathers, commanders, leaders and contributors to society.  Each day at noon, the Corps of Cadets would form and march to the noon mess.  A few days into the school year, on picture perfect late summer day in Vermont, we marched into Harmon Hall and were told to remain standing for a special announcement.  On walls of Harmon Hall hung large paintings depicting the heroism of Norwich men for over a hundred years who had gone before.  Under the gaze of the murals, a US Marine approached the VIP seating area known as the Crow’s Nest.  He took the microphone and issued a warning order to all the Marines who were on reserve status within the Corps of Cadets that they should expect orders to be recalled for deployment within 48 hours.  War had come and for my senior class we were soon smaller in number.

On the eve of my 10th reunion, the towers were struck in New York.  Afghanistan and then Iraq and a whole series of events for a decade.  Many of my classmates served during these years as they were in the prime of the military careers.  I did not serve and I sometimes feel regret, especially when I see the tributes to those who did and the empty chair.  I seek not to know why my great grandfather chose to serve, but rather to know what it was like and to honor his service.

I am standing in the middle of no where, wondering how to begin, lost between tomorrow and yesterday, between now and then; and now were back where we started; here we go round again.  A few weeks ago I received an email from old acquaintance that I had not seen in perhaps ten years.  The email was from a relative of General George Pickett.  The same Pickett who led the Confederate charge on the third day of the Battle Gettysburg.  He was asking me if I wanted to join him at the 150th Gettysburg reenactment.  The email stirred long dormant emotions and it started me thinking about Gettysburg and my 3rd Great Grandfather.

In the summer of 1862, the future of the United States was very much in question.  A failed campaign to take Richmond resorted in Lincoln calling for another 300,000 volunteers.  My great grandfather was a farmer in Lyons NY.  He was 35 years old at a time when the average life expectancy was 45 years.  He had a 6 year old son.  He embarked on an journey that would would result in him being located along the Emmittsburg Pike on July 3, 1863.  Before he reached Gettysburg, his untrained regiment, the 111th NY was stationed at Harper’s Ferry on the eve of Lee’s first invasion of the north in 1862.  Stonewall Jackson swallowed up the units at Harper’s Ferry a few days before the battle of Antietam.  George was paroled by General A.P Hill and was encamped in Indiana until arrangements could be made to swap parolees.  Being paroled at this time during the American Civil War as like being given a time out and men were honor bound to abide by terms of the parole.

George was released from parole with his regiment in November 1862 and ended up in Centerville VA with the other men on his unit in May-June 1863.  Lee’s great Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac on June 24th, 1863; one hundred and fifty years ago today.  The Army of Northern Virginia was just past the pinnacle of their glorious height; but this was not evident to men who marched wearing gray on this day.  Stonewall Jackson was not with the Army when it went north for a second time.  He was dead, having crossed the river to rest under the shade of the trees some forty-five days before.  Lincoln appointed George Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Meade turned his Army northward and began to give chase and many units of the Army of the Potomac passed through Centerville on their way north.  This must have been site to behold.  A few times in my reenacting experiences I have seen large groups of troops organized on the field; but it has never approached size and power of the actual force levels during the Civil War.  I have seen 35-40k reenactors on the field at the 135th Gettysburg.  I have seen rows of cannon and well organized cavalry, but even I cannot grasp the power of 75,000 men, cannon and horse marching by and the chaos caused by clash of 125,000-150,000 on the field of battle.

Four days later, with Confederate riders near Harrisburg PA, Lee ordered his army to concentrate near Gettysburg.  The men of the 111th NY were ordered north on June 24 joining Hancock’s 2nd Corps in the division commanded by General Alexander Hays.  Marching on dirt roads, clad in wool clothing, carrying your equipment is difficult for many of us to imagine.  Beards and mustaches were needed to keep the sun off the face and the lips from getting chapped.  Wool is warm, but wool also breaths providing insulating and UV properties.  Sleeping was not in tents or at rest stops.  It was a gum blanket on the ground and weather happened.  It rained and there were no fast food restaurants.  There was also the random occurrence of violence in the form of organized combat.  Troops practiced close order drill frequently, because the tactic of the day was to mass firepower.  In order to control and concentrate firepower, men armed with rifled muskets that could kill at 250 meters were concentrated into powerful units of killing power.  These men were trained to a Pavlovian response to orders that allowed commanders to maneuver and control the killing power on the battlefield.

On June 26, the 111th NY struck camp and began a march northward.  They covered 15 miles on the first day before they stopped to make camp for the night.  Tired and hungry the men were soon given orders to reform and resume the march.  Reenactors grumble when a FUBAR event occurs today and I imagine it was no different for the men of the 111th in 1863.  They marched a few more miles before reaching the pontoon bridge that spanned the Potomac River at Berlin Maryland, which is present day Brunswick.  At the bridge they waited in the rain and mud for their turn to cross.  Shortly after 3am the last solider of the 111th stepped foot on the the Maryland side of the Potomac.  They were given three hours of sleep and were formed by 8am to resume their march.  They still did not know where they were going, but a soldier’s sense of a looming clash was taking hold within the ranks.  On the 27th they covered seven miles before being given a rest.  They reformed at 3pm and began marching another eight miles before establishing camp at the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Maryland.

At 3am on the morning of the 28th, the men of the 111th NY struck camp for a brisk twenty mile march to Monocacy Junction in fifteen hours.  In the letters from the men written at this camp, one can read a sense of foreboding doom.  They knew they were chasing Lee.  They did not know where they were going, but they knew they were chasing Lee northward and the result would be great clash.  Each day the pace of the march seemed to accelerate.  The twenty miles on the 28th were followed by 35 miles on the 29th of June.  They crossed streams three feet deep and it rained frequently.  Men were order not remove their shoes when crossing streams and the 2nd Corps had posted guards at all crossings to prevent the removal of shoes.  Speed was paramount.  Men were being pressed to march quickly.  The pace and urgency of the situation was telling.  The men in the ranks on both sides were not naive summer soldiers.  Two years of war had chased the summer soldiers and adventure seekers.  The majority of the men who marched north on both sides were veterans.  Each side wanted a fight and they wanted a big fight.  They were hunting each other.  They could sense danger.  There were no spectators, these were professional armies composed of harden veterans.  They knew each others flags, the names of the commanders of the opposing brigades and quality of the troops.  Brigades on both sides had developed reputations, just as sporting teams do today and the men on each side knew what they faced when battle was given.

Even today, reenactors can talk about their regiments and the regiments on the other side with reverence and awe.  Events from 150 years ago still bring a laugh and nod of admiration as if it happened just yesterday.  When people ask me about the Civil War, I tell people that the American Civil War is woven into the fabric of our culture.  I will admit that it fades with each passing year and as one progresses westward, but in the towns and fields touched by the Civil War, the echoes are still there.  One must simply put away their smartphone and listen. I wrote this last year on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.  I think repeating a portion of it is appropriate:

 As reenactors, we begin our journey of enlightenment by reading historical accounts of the Civil War.  For the truly passionate student of history, the passages we cherish are not enough and we find our way to reenacting.  The siren’s call is too great and like Odysseus, we willing guide ourselves into the world of antiquarianism seeking inclusion.  This is where we discover the well of understanding; a well that quenches our thirst for only but a fleeting moment.  Reenacting is seeking enlightenment through the antiquarian experience.  History is far more than a collection of dates, places and people – it is a collection of experiences, achievements, sacrifices and expressions.  History is details.  History is tragic.  History is our lineage.  Reenacting provides a well of experiences and details that foster a stronger, personal understanding of our past.  As your understanding of the Civil War grows through reenacting, your thirst to drink from the well becomes stronger.  The well provides insights to you that pass others by like a summer breeze.

As a reenactor, you can stand on the fields of Antietam and feel the pain in your feet when you think of A.P. Hill’s Brigade in 1862.  You can feel how the packs and bedrolls can bite into a man’s shoulder on a long march.  You shift your weapon from shoulder to shoulder.  You know what it is like to peel the hot, wet wool from your body after marching in the Virginia sun for several hours.  When you drive through a small New England town and stop for coffee, you spy a monument in a forgotten corner of the town center.  To the average American, the monument is clutter left from a prior generation like at GAR hall – but to you it is something important, something to be cherished.  You feel a need to greet the monument.

You cross the street and take the time to walk over and read the monument.  Others look at you as if you are lost.  The names leap off the granite: Cedar Creek, Five Forks, Cold Harbor, Gains Mill and Second Manassas.  As a reenactor, you know the ground.  You have stood in the rifle pits at Cold Harbor.  These are not words from a generation long departed – they are a collection of experiences from the well.  You dip into the well and the experiences wash over you.  You remove your hat.  Perhaps you wipe your brow. You can hear the sounds of the muskets, the roar of the cannons and the stress of the engagement.  Orders are given “load,” “ prepare to fire,” “aim,” “fire!”  You can feel the ripping, tearing vibration of the volley.  You know the difference between fire from a skirmish line and fire from a regiment in line.  The smoke fills your head and teases the senses.  You feel a tingling sensation as you can see the battle flags on both sides.  You know these flags as you can see them waving defiantly in the breeze above the men.  You can see the First National Flag of the Confederacy.  Flags from Hood, Kershaw, Hill, Armistead and Cleburne fill your view.  Here stand the men from the South; men from Charleston, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.  Ghost brigades that once marched proudly to the call of their cause.

In the distance, you can see the Stars and Strips standing vigilantly in defense of her cause.  Brigades under the command of men named Sherman, Sheridan and Hancock.  You can see the men.  You know the uniforms.  You can see the long blue line filled with men from Pennsylvania, New York, New England, Ohio and beyond.  For a moment, you are with the men from the monument.  In the briefest of time, you join them.  They welcome you with nods of acceptance and respect. Then it ends.  The memories from the well pass.  You see the cars passing by and realize that it is time to leave.  You sip at your coffee; perhaps you offer a short prayer and return to your car.  As you drive down the road, you thirst to drink from the well once again.  Your passions are rekindled.  This is what reenacting provides.  Reenacting is a spiritual journey that can only be experienced by the individual, in the surroundings of many in pursuit of fleeting moment from our past.

On the evening of June 29th, the 111th NY reached Uniontown Maryland, a 35 mile march from Monocacy Junction.  It was here they would sleep, a short fifteen mile march from a small town called Gettysburg.


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