“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863” – William Faulkner in Intruder in The Dust
BY CLINT JOHNSON
Faulkner was writing about the moments before what those damn Virginians have always called Pickett’s Charge, but which is more properly called the Pettigrew-Pickett-Trimble Assault on July 3, 1863. Pickett, with his perfumed, oiled hair ringlets flowing from underneath the cap that barely covered his ego-inflated head, commanded only half the men in the attack. He had no command over the men that day from North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida who had been fighting for two days before Pickett’s fresh division arrived on the field at the end of July 2.
Next weekend, and oddly enough, on the first weekend of July, the Battle of Gettysburg will be fought again – twice in two weeks – 150 years after it was fought the first time. In the real battle more than 7,000 native-born Americans and immigrants died. This time around there should not be any deaths at the two competing reenactments, though any time you put 9,000 fat old guys in uniforms exerting themselves in the heat, you never can tell.
My reenacting unit, the 26th North Carolina Troops Reactivated, will be at the first event next weekend reliving what made the regiment famous. That was the distinction of marching onto the battlefield with more than 900 men, then leaving it after two battles of roughly an hour each on July 1 and July 3 with fewer than 90 men. The 26th NCT had the single highest percentage of losses of any regiment on either side. One company from Caldwell County lost everyone on the roster. Of six sets of twins in the regiment, only one young man survived. Nearly 30 men who carried the 26NCT’s colors during the two battles were shot down.
Why repeat this carnage in front of spectators paying between $30 and $90 for a ticket?
It isn’t to remember slavery. Northern and Southern politicians marched their citizens into a war using the proposed abolition of slavery as an excuse that would end up killing three-quarters of a million people – maybe more.
It isn’t to remember The Union. The Union had been fragile for 50 years before the war started. It was bound to fracture at some point. It just happened to be 1860.
It isn’t to remember states’ rights. The yeoman farmers of North Carolina were not anxious to leave the Union. They did not rush to support South Carolina when it withdrew from the Union in December 1860. It took five months before North Carolina made a difficult choice to leave the Union that was made easier by the actions of the U.S. government. U.S. Rep. Zebulon Vance (the first colonel of the 26NCT) said he was giving a speech about the importance of staying in the Union and had his hands raised in a gesture of peace toward the Union when he heard Lincoln’s demands that North Carolina provide troops to invade its Southern neighbors.
“When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation, it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a Secessionist,” said Vance.
Reenactors go out in the heat and the cold, and the blazing sun and the chilling rain to honor the men of both sides. It’s as simple as that. These Northern and Southern men left their homes to fight a war in which they had no personal stake. Few of the common soldiers on either side owned slaves and no one particularly liked the wealthy men who did own slaves. Fighting this war did not assure the common soldiers there was money to be made, new lands to conquer or spoils to be split among the winners.
The men who were drafted on both sides fought because the government compelled them under penalty of imprisonment. The men who volunteered were motivated by something else. Call it patriotism, a sense of honor, or a sense of place.
All those men were willing to leave their homes, and lose their lives, to defend those principles. It is that type of dedication to family, state, region and country that draws reenactors to participate in this strenuous hobby that has taken me to 19 states over 37 years and nearly 400 events as a Confederate and Union soldier. Every time I take the field, I feel my ancestor soldiers from Florida, Georgia and Alabama right by my side.
Clint Johnson is an author who lives in Jefferson. The Journal welcomes original submissions for guest columns on local, regional and statewide topics. Essay length should not exceed 750 words. The writer should have some authority for writing about his or her subject. Our email address is: Letters@wsjournal.com. Essays may also be mailed to: The Readers’ Forum, P.O. Box 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27102. Please include your name and address and a daytime telephone number.