One hundred fifty years after it really happened, we were once again engaged in that most doomed of military ventures: Pickett’s Charge.
I had spent five straight days in the saddle and was happy to be out of it, marching on foot toward some 3,500 Union soldiers about 500 yards away, and among my fellow Confederates in rural Pennsylvania, where the blue and the gray annually revive their epic clash.
I had ridden with the 1st Virginia Cavalry for days, but now, in this ill-fated charge against the North, a lack of horseback troops meant I had to transfer to the 1st South Carolina Infantry. We gamely held up the right flank while trying in vain to stay abreast of the entire line. The mission was soon to unravel, as it did in 1863.
“Stay on line!” yelled our mustachioed commander, who I’d only met 20 minutes earlier. “Stay on line!” Amid the chaos of the battlefield, he was perfectly suited, brandishing two sabers held out parallel to the ground and trying to get us to either slow down or speed up depending on the actions of those to our left.
As I marched on foot, Michael Schramm, an accomplished equestrian, snarked at me from the rank directly to my rear: “I told you, dude. Death before dismount.” I was perfectly content with my feet on the ground since my horse had decided he didn’t like the shouting and noise of the cannons and decided to exit the battlefield early – bearing me, his rider, clinging to the saddle horn. I was happy to walk in an infantry unit from South Carolina, the state in which I attended military college.
During the four days of battles leading to this ultimate ending, I had served as a runner for Brig. Gen. Doug Nalls, commander of the Confederate Cavalry, and Gen. Brian Gesuero, a firefighter from Clinton, Md., and commander of the 1st Corps.
I hadn’t been much use as a runner because my horse and I seldom agreed on which direction to head. At one point, as I was trying to leave the field, I inexplicably found myself in the heart of a saber battle roughly 10 feet from “Gen. Custer,” who smiled at me and said, “Not today, bud. I live through this one.”
But on this particular Sunday, as rain clouds threatened to douse the roughly 20,000 spectators in attendance, I got to the battle the old-fashioned way, in boots obviously made for a man with feet several inches smaller than mine. Among the Civil War’s most enduring jokes is that Army boots came in two sizes: too big and too small.
Cannons roared, men swore, spectators cheered, and I just tried to stay on line with my unit. It wasn’t easy crossing a gully-scoured battlefield, often through surprisingly deep water.
At 200 yards, we saw our last obstacle: a wooden fence halfway between us and the enemy.
Bugles blared, men yelled the rebel cheer, and on we charged. We closed with the fences and struck. And everywhere along the line the fence went down, except the section I hit. I managed to get a lungful of needed air when Schramm and the second rank struck me and pushed me into the fence again. Eventually, we surrendered to the inevitable and went around it.
At 50 meters, the Union soldiers opened up on us. It was a slaughter. I couldn’t help but wonder if the men on the first go-round had thought, as I did, “What are we doing here?” That’s when I became a Civil War statistic.
Schramm, who had been the best man in my wedding and served with me in Bosnia, had asked rather innocently several months earlier, “Why don’t you come do an embed with my unit?” After 19 years as a cavalry scout and an infantryman, including a stint with the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, Schramm had transferred to the Air National Guard to be a loadmaster. But his flight physical revealed a lung condition that precluded further service, and he was medically retired. So when he asked me to embed in his unit, I was understandably confused.
His unit, it turned out, was not of this century.
It was the 1st Virginia Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, where Schramm served as a major and adjutant in charge of seemingly everything from logistics to ensuring that greenhorns like me didn’t get trampled to death by their horses. Schramm is a battle re-enactor, one among a welcoming and gregarious group of people.
My wife, Caroline, and I sat around the campfire at night, eating food prepared by Mike’s wife, Jo, and discussed everything from current affairs to 19th-century military tactics. They told stories of re-enactments past, when conditions were significantly less hospitable than what we had on this anniversary date. They chuckled over lost boots at New Market and commanders who tried to revise history by winning battles their ancestral counterparts had lost.
The uniforms and weapons can get expensive, so most re-enactors have middle- to upper-middle-class incomes. A basic kit for an infantry re-enactor starts at around $1,000, with just the uniform, weapon, tents and assorted gear. For the cavalry, the cost of caring for horses is added, as are additional weapons like pistols and sabers.
Life as a cavalry troop under Brig. Gen. Nalls was easy compared to that of the infantryman. At 6 a.m. each day, bugles and drums would call the infantry to training. They would march through camp to a nearby open field, while those of us who depended on our equine friends usually slept in.
We fought about two battles a day and at night shared stories, camaraderie and fire-cooked meals. It was the best of camping, adding in the excitement of battle that resulted in no casualties. (This is probably why such re-enactments are so attractive to veterans.)
Schramm, a member of Mathews American Legion Post 83, lives in the Shenandoah region of Virginia. He introduced me to Vietnam War veterans, as well as those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, on both sides of the re-enactments. One of the infantrymen marching with us from South Carolina introduced himself as a Legionnaire and Korean War Navy veteran. The 16-year-old boy next to him talked about his desire to serve in the military when he turns 18.
The American Legion Family was well represented on the general’s staff, as we were joined by Logan Metesh and his wife, Jennifer. A firearms specialist with the National Rifle Association, Logan has been a member and adjutant of Sons of the American Legion Squadron 320 in Spotsylvania, Va. His great-grandfather, Joseph Davie, served in World War I as a horseshoer with Battery D of the 10th Field Artillery. “It came full circle for me to serve in the cavalry,” he said.
Logan and Jennifer were both fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia this time, but they trace their ancestors to the Union side – Logan’s family from New York and Jennifer’s from Wisconsin. Only in their 20s, they are veteran re-enactors. “We met at college (University of Mary Washington) during a meeting for a Civil War walking tour of our campus,” Logan says. “I got her started into infantry re-enacting, but she has been riding horses since she was a kid and wanted to combine the two. I told her if she could find a cav unit, we could join. She found the 1st Virginia Cav, and the rest is history.”
Jennifer rides carrying a saber entrusted to her by Blane Piper, a Legionnaire who served as a radioman in the Navy from 1961 to 1964. He had been a member of the post (as well as SAL and the Legion Riders) with Logan, and a re-enactor commanding a unit in Gen. James Archer’s Brigade. At the 135th anniversary of Gettysburg, Piper carried an engraved saber presented to him by his men. Unable to attend the 150th, he asked Jennifer, a corporal with the 1st Virginia Cav, to carry it into battle for him.
I never got the name of the man who shot me.
But as I lay there moaning in the grass, knowing I would never win an Oscar, I could see him smiling. And when the Union troops moved out over our position, chasing the now-fleeing rebels, he did stop to check on me.
“You doing OK, bud?” he asked with a wry smile. “You need any water?” I told him I was good but wished he hadn’t killed me.
“Never mess with us Hoosiers, son,” he said as he stepped over and past me.
“Damn,” I muttered. “Killed by a guy from my own state.”
As the rain started to fall, I regained my feet and stood at attention as a bugler played Taps, bringing closure to a milestone anniversary of a historic battle that will stir back to life this year. The battle will always resume, as long as there are people like us, who so deeply appreciate military history that we’ll happily step back in time, put on the ancient uniform, mount an insubordinate horse, draw sabers and march online into an enemy stronghold, hearts pumping with excitement, always knowing the ultimate outcome.
Mark Seavey is a writer for The American Legion Magazine and editor of the Burn Pit blog.
For more information on Civil War re-enacting and the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 4-6, visit the Gettysburg Reenactment Committee’s website.