by Harry J. Lowther
Jeb stood beside an old cannon near the place where Robert E. Lee had sat upon Traveler to watch the attack go in. Looking out across that gently sloping field nearly devoid of trees or large rocks he wondered that men would deliberately put themselves there under fire from nearly a hundred guns and thousands of rifles. Yet fifteen thousand had—as if on parade—marched across that very field. Jeb knew they had fallen in waves, piled like broken toys, but the attack had plodded inexorably onward.
He focused the zoom lens of his camera on the point just under a mile away where the gray battalions had converged and smashed into the Union line. Bloody Angle it had been called ever since, and the name was certainly apt. Jeb recalled from his reading that hundreds on both sides had died there in agony spilling their blood into the rich Pennsylvania soil before the line had broken.
Jeb was fully aware that the moment of that break was critical in the history of his people. From that moment the freedom and dignity of the Southern blacks was assured. Jackson Early Beauregard Sterling, for that was his full name, studied that section of the field and could almost hear the guns punctuating the yelling of ten thousand men engaged in slaughtering one another in the name of freedom. He could almost see, through the swirling smoke of battle, the second charge led by young Major A.J. Halliday go in against the strongest point of the Union line and smash through.
Alexander Halliday had become an instant hero that day when, after the first repulse, he had rallied the men just a few yards out from where Lee himself was sitting. Placing his hat on the point of his sword and shouting, “Follow me to glory!” led the ragged rebel infantry to the greatest victory ever won on the North American continent.
At that point the main Northern army was divided and the rout begun. In his mind Jeb could hear the exultant shouting of the victorious army in pursuit of the vanquished foe. Years of teaching the history of the War for Southern Independence at the University of Tennessee provided the scenario that quickly played itself out in his mind.
The rout had been complete. Artillerymen abandoned their guns, some unhitching the horses to ride from the field. Infantry threw away their rifles so they could run faster. The Union Army was shattered. That night, in warm summer darkness, the army dissolved. McClellan was recalled to lead the defense of Washington. There was no army, and he knew it. He established headquarters at Cincinnati sending orders to Grant to raise the siege of Vicksburg and march his army back to defend the north. Washington fell on July twenty-second, and Lincoln was arrested on the White House grounds. McClellan assumed the Presidency, moved the capital to Cincinnati, disbanded Congress, declared martial law and sued for peace. When Grant surrendered his army at Nashville on July thirtieth an armistice was arranged.
The treaty of Covington settled the right of secession allowing the states of Maryland and Kentucky and the southern half of Missouri to leave and join the new Confederacy. Jubilant and magnanimous in victory and increasingly aware of the economic inefficiency and diplomatic embarrassment of slavery the Confederate States abolished that institution in 1868 with the passage of a bill sponsored by the newly elected Senator A.J. Halliday. For decades afterward Southerners enjoyed pointing out that the only slavery on the North American continent existed in the factories of New England in the north.
The South had prospered, and the former slaves shared in the good times. An army made up largely of ex-slaves liberated Cuba and brought it into the Confederacy. Southern prosperity rested on sugar, tobacco, cotton and beef along with ship building, steel and electric power. It proved a solid base for the betterment of all people of the C.S.A. Black men sat in paneled offices and in state legislatures. They commanded battleships and regiments and taught in state universities.
Jeb smiled to himself at the irony. Lincoln had tried to tie the war to the slavery issue, make it a crusade. He had failed, but slavery ended anyway, more easily and with less ill-feeling. There was ill-feeling in the north, plenty of it. People for whom Northerners had spent millions of dollars and gallons of blood, only to find it had all been unnecessary, were not suffered gladly in the North. Jeb had experienced this attitude himself at the passport control in Littlestown yesterday. The authorities had searched his car and demanded additional documentation.
He probably wouldn’t have come to this place if he hadn’t been working on his second book. His first book, a you-are-there treatment of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, had been a great success. It had been widely acclaimed for its first person, first hand, eye-witness narrative style. Jeb had spent weeks in Charleston researching the battle. He had spent hours standing where the guns had been and staring out across the harbor toward the fort. He had then gone to the fort and stared back until he could hear the guns, smell the burnt powder and feel the concussive impact of the cannonballs.
This was the technique he called “getting into history”. As he often told his students, “Don’t just read about it. History was lived; relive it.” He believed that the place something happened could help you to establish a metaphysical emotional bond with the people who had been involved in the event. Now he was here to get back into history. The field was much as he had imagined. He had seen the photographs, from Matthew Brady on, so he was a bit surprised at the lack of monuments on the Confederate side of the field. There were a few old cannons and some headstones, but the only public memorial was a small pile of bronzed horse droppings where Traveler had stood. Apparently, thought Jeb, the fact the the C.S.A. and the U.S.A. had been allies in two world wars had not been enough to completely heal the rift.
Jeb stood beside the old cannon and listened for history. He heard the guns and the yelling and began to smell the smoke. As he stood staring at the distant point where the line had broken he realized that the smoke, explosions and running men weren’t just in his mind. He heard clearly the tearing sound of massed musketry and the thundering of big guns with the undercurrent of screaming men killing and being killed. The acrid smell of burnt powder stung his nose. In the distance men in blue were running. Jeb became aware of hundreds of men running and shouting all around him. A gun crew manned the cannon near where he stood. Men in gray and butternut brought up the last of the powder and shot and began loading the gun.
Jeb took off the coat to his light gray three-piece suit and draped it over a tree branch. He rolled up his sleeves and picked up a ramrod. As he rammed a cannonball back down on the powder already loaded, he shouted over the din, “Y’all got those damn Yankees on the run. Time now to put ’em away!”
A young officer looked at him strangely then went back to sighting the gun. “Stand away,” said the officer. “Fire!”
A corporal touched a long match to the fire hole, and the gun erupted in smoke and flame. The noise up close was like a blow to the head, and his ears rang. Along with the others, Jeb sprang forward. He grabbed a swab to clean any unburned powder from the barrel. When he turned to get the ram, another man already had it. The crew pushed past him to reload the gun. Jeb looked out across the field through the swirling smoke. On the sloping ground of Cemetery Ridge a group of Union soldiers had been formed into a rough square and were firing in volleys.
Jeb now noticed something else; the blue soldiers were still running, but they were running the other way, toward the gap in their line. Moreover they were running in groups directed by officers on horseback. The gap itself was no longer growing and spreading but was contracting and being pinched off. The gun fired again as did cannon all along Seminary Ridge; expending valuable powder and shot in an effort to discourage the rallying Northern troopers. But, they were rallying and storming back to annihilate the small bulge in their line.
Union artillery was firing again, not only at the Angle but at Seminary Ridge. Of course, Jeb thought, they want to isolate Pickett’s brigades by pinning down any reinforcements or cavalry moving forward to exploit the break. The Northern counter-battery fire became fierce with Yankee shells falling along the road behind the guns and cannonballs careening among them. Several Confederate artillerymen were down, some horribly mangled. A terrible crash drew Jeb’s attention to the nearest gun on their right. It now lay upon its side with one wheel crushed beneath it, the other spinning lazily above it. The barely recognizable remains of a man lay crumpled under the barrel. Other members of the crew staggered away spattering the dusty road with their blood.
An intensity of yelling to the front brought Jeb’s attention back to the field. It was not the confident rebel yell of troops going forward, but it was the screaming in pain and anguish of an army in retreat. Back they came, the battered remnants of Pickett’s command. No longer disciplined and confident they stumbled back singly or in small groups. Many were bleeding, some were assisted by comrades. The majority wore the vague expression of people shocked and stunned by some great calamity.
“No!” Jeb shouted, “this can’t be happening.” He ran out onto the field waving his arms. “No, no, go back. You must go back. One more charge and they’ll break. Go back, go back.” He ran toward a large man who had thrown away his rifle. “Go back! Find a gun and go at them again. Glory and victory are right out there.”
The man grabbed him and threw him down onto his back. “You go, nigger. They’s nothin’ out there but death.”
Jeb rolled over and raised up with his arms. He was looking at the cannon he had tried to help with. It was no longer firing, none of the guns were firing. Even the Union artillery fired only sporadically. Jeb pulled his knees up into a crawling position but was immediately knocked back into the dirt by a foot in the small of his back as a terrified trooper vaulted over him.
When he finally regained his feet Jeb no longer looked like the successful author and college professor. His vest and his trousers were torn and dirty. The sleeves of his white shirt were grass-stained. He turned and again faced the retreating Confederates. “Turn around,” he pleaded. “Go at them once more.”
Most of them ignored him as they straggled back from the Angle. A few cursed him for a stupid nigger and advised him to find shelter where he could. Far across the field some blue-coated officers on horseback and a few Federal sharp-shooters were nipping at the heels of the receding Confederate wave. Jeb grabbed a youthful officer by the shoulders. “Rally your men,” he begged. “Lead them back. The second charge will carry the day.” He turned the dazed man and led him by the hand back toward the Union lines. A sword lay beside the mangled corpse of a colonel, and Jeb stooped to pick it up. He put it into the officer’s hand. “Take them back, sir, and victory is yours.”
They were near the middle of the field now among the greatest mass of retreating soldiers. Jeb pushed the officer ahead and watched him walk calmly to a large rock which he stood upon. Placing his hat on the sword point he raised it above his head. “Rally on me,” he called. “Fear not and follow me. We shall–”
At this point he was hurled backward from the rock and slammed into the dirt. Jeb ran to him and bent over the fallen man whose eyes stared unblinking into the sun. A huge hole in his chest still gushed blood. The face, which Jeb now studied, was familiar, a face he’d seen in hundreds of drawings and photographs. “This can’t be,” Jeb wailed. “You can’t be dead.” He started to stand when a searing pain flashed from the top of his head and sent him spinning off into enveloping darkness.
* * * * *
Birds were singing when Jeb awoke. Something heavy was prodding him in his side; his wife’s foot? Painfully he opened his eyes on a bright blue morning that was gently spinning clockwise. The worst hangover since college, he thought. What the hell did I drink? And that weird dream; what the hell was that about?
Somewhere close by, but out of his line of sight, someone said, “Look here, Billy, this one seems to be alive. He’s so dirty and smeared with burnt powder he looks like one ’a them neegroos.”
A face with a blue cap above it moved into Jeb’s field of vision. “Why ya dang fool, it is a nigger.”
When Jeb turned to better see the men his headache returned. It was less intense, but, all the same, it made him groan.
“He’s alive okay,” said the first man, “but that knock on the head is makin’ him feel pretty bad.”
With great effort Jeb reached his hand up to touch his head. He felt the sticky mess of blood and dirt matted in his hair. Good Lord, he thought, I must have had an accident on the way home from wherever I was drinking. What could I have been drinking, and how much? Now the cops have found me. How much trouble am I in?
“Was anyone else hurt?” he asked. His throat was so dry he hardly got the words out.
The men laughed. “Yeah, thousands,” said the one in the blue cap.
Jeb’s memory began to work, painfully and inefficiently. The battle, he thought, the battle was real. He raised up on one arm to speak. The bright blue world began to spin a little faster, but he recognized the uniforms of Union Civil War soldiers. “Prisoners?” he gasped.
“What?” The first man offered him a drink from one of several canteens he carried. “Here, let me take a look at that wound. Hmm, not serious, bet it hurts, though. Bullet plowed a furrow right across his scalp, even got a little bone; ’bout like a Shawnee scalpin’ but messier.”
Jeb winced at the touch of something wet to his head. Tiny gold pinwheels spun across his little portion of the sky, but he was beginning to feel just a bit better. “You men must be prisoners,” he said. “Prisoners on a burial detail.”
“Prisoners?” sneered the other man. “What a damn fool idea. Shit, we won. The only prisoners around here are Rebs. What the hell was you doin’ out here with them bastards?”
“But, we won,” Jeb muttered in confusion. “Pickett’s second charge went through and rolled up your line. You people ran, and the Union Army dissolved.”
“That bullet scrambled up your brain, boy. Ole Bobby Lee slinked off last night with his tail ’tween his legs. We whupped him good.” The Yankee soldier spat into the grass. “Get this dumb nigger outta here. He’s contraband.”
Half a dozen men now clustered about Jeb. His wound was cleaned and bandaged, and he was eased onto a stretcher sticky with blood. As he was lifted he saw that they all wore Union blue. They smelled of sweat and blood and newly turned earth. The pain again radiated from his head down through his body.
The physical pain was less severe; already endurable. It was his mind that concerned him. He knew he had been a teacher, history, of course, but where? His name was Jeb; Jeb what? He could remember teaching history, and remembered exhorting his students not to just study history but to live it. He’d had a theory; yes, a theory, that you could will yourself back into history; and he had done it.
The true implications of what he had achieved struck him like a body blow. He had been present at the climactic event of the Battle of Gettysburg. The painful scalp told him he had been a participant, and, as he thought of this the tears began to flow. He had interfered and changed the course of history, and he was now firmly trapped in the results of his interference. He would never meet his wife. She would be born years after he was dead. His children would never be born at all.