The Extra Mile
By Richard Buxton
I’m sleeping between two Springfield rifles. Each would be as long as I am were the bayonets fixed, but that’s not a good idea in a civil war dog tent, so called because when the soldiers first saw them, they said they were only big enough for a dog. There’s two of us in here.
We’re above 3,000ft on Droop Mountain. There was a battle here in November 1863, a small one by American Civil War standards, that cleared the last Confederates out of the newly born state of West Virginia. In point of fact, the Southern soldiers who died are thirty paces away in a burial-pit surrounded by a split-rail fence. We’re in the Union camp. There’s a dozen or so other re-enactor tents spread about the sleeping autumn glade, all but our neighbour Alan’s are bigger than ours. He’s in a ‘pup’ tent. ‘Go figure,’ as they say around here. The larger Confederate camp is a mile away.
My ‘pard’, Jeff, is the other side of a Springfield. He’s zoozing away, living up to his claim to be able to sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat. I’m not doing so well. I’ve flown over from the UK and Jeff is my host for the week. We’ve driven five hours from his home in Ohio. With typical American generosity, he’s prepared all the gear and food we need, drilled me in the Manual of Arms and let me share his dog tent.
I’ve done several trips to the States to mine detail for my civil war stories. Before now I’ve ridden old train routes to mountain copper mines, boarded paddle-steamers on the Ohio and the Cumberland and, bravest of all, walked alone on a Georgian battlefield after dark, but here I’m going the extra mile. I’ve never re-enacted, never worn a Union uniform or fired a civil war rifle.
It’s just above freezing outside. What’s more, outside comes inside as there’s no tent-flap where our feet rest. My clothes and layers are a mix of authenticity and modern-day practicality. The more authentic I can be the more believable detail I can harvest for my writing, but we’ve made some concessions. My wool socks would look reasonably authentic but for the ‘Cat’ logo. My pants (trousers to this Englishman) are woollen and civil war fashion: light blue and with braces that are presently off the shoulder or else the buttons will pop when I manoeuvre inside the tent, so Jeff tells me. (I prove him right the next morning and he has to sow it back on.) I’m wearing a slipover thick cotton shirt that buttons at the neck that I think it looks fetching in a Heathcliff sort of way. Underneath, in view of a likely frost, I have a modern-day collarless t-shirt and I’m wearing a woollen hat that reads ‘Old Men Rule’ which I was given for my 50th birthday. It’s dark outside but I’m wearing glasses; I don’t want to lose them or roll onto them in the night. I’m under a sleeping bag and then a wool-blanket that looks in period. One of the Minuzo thermal golf mittens I smuggled in has been pressed into service as a buffer between my right hip and West Virginia. I’m warm but uncomfortable. The couple of hours sleep I’ll get tonight are already behind me but I’m content enough listening to the rain in the trees outside and thinking about my experience thus far. Like my sleeping arrangements, some of what I’ve learned is relevant to the past, some to the present.
For one thing the soldiers camped here a hundred and fifty-five years ago didn’t have a Portajohn. Neither was there a warm ranger hut a minute away with donuts and coffee for breakfast. Before we turned in, Jeff showed me how to make coffee the old-fashioned way, grinding beans in a skillet with the flat stump of a sawn log. We set them to stew in a pot (a bit like overnight oats) and will boil it tucked by the fire in the morning. I’ve also learned how to wear my ‘traps’ for when we march and fight. The cartridge-box is strapped over the left shoulder and the box tucked behind you. The thick leather belt goes over the cartridge-box strap and the attached cap box slides just to the right of the buckle to be out of the way when I’m carrying my rifle. My sheathed bayonet hangs on my left hip. A haversack, containing my provisions, goes across the right shoulder and, lastly, a full canteen over the same shoulder but with the strap tied so it sits a little higher. All of this will matter when I’m trying to load a cartridge and place a cap when fighting tomorrow. It will also matter when I review the latest draft of my second novel, The Copper Road, and realise how physically inaccurate are some of my descriptions.
I have to fight my way out of the tent to go pee. I need to get my leather boots on because it’s wet out in the dark but it’s tough from a sitting position while trying not to wake Jeff. My calf muscle cramps and I struggle upright with my boot half on. Three middle-aged guys can keep a shared fire going all night even in the rain. For young guys it might go out, but as Jeff, Alan and I get up regularly for calls of nature we can tend to it. I walk a little away from the tents to find a pee-tree (the Portajohn is too far and unlit anyway). I try not to look left to the burial pit or right to the embalmers tent. Ralph the embalmer is already set up for the visitors who will watch us re-enact tomorrow, his plastic cadaver laid out on his table. I pee quickly, throw a log on the fire and climb back in between the Springfields. We’re going to fight in the morning. I’m not expecting to sleep. I am expecting donuts.
‘Tell me when you’re loaded,’ says Jeff. He’s training me on the job. Our Captain has us in skirmish formation, five yards apart in the sun dappled woods up on Droop Mountain. It’s rough ground to advance over. I’ve never scrambled across fallen trees in full civil war kit carrying a heavy musket. Life hasn’t prepared me for this. Maybe my imagination has, at least a little. I’m too excited to feel tired from my sleepless night and anxious not to look too much the rookie. I’m yet to fire my first shot.
I find some cover behind a thick upright tree, reach behind me for a powder cartridge and bite it open. Placing the rifle butt on the ground, I tilt the barrel slightly away from me then tip the black powder inside. There’s no ball to ram home, we’re only pretending after all. I fumble inside my cap-box, next to my belt-buckle, and retrieve a pea sized percussion-cap. Lifting the gun, I press the cap onto the nipple and pull the hammer to full cock. ‘Loaded,’ I say. This means Jeff is free to fire if he sees a Rebel out there, but instead he says he’ll cover me while I move to the next tree. The Captain wants us to push them a little; history says we’re supposed to win.
The Rebels aren’t so easy to spot; light brown uniforms work better in an autumn forest than Union blue. Plus, it seems to me, they are younger. Jeff and I are the wiser side of fifty (Jeff is even wiser than I am) but the Rebels are flitting between distant trees like teenagers. Jeff fires and twenty seconds later calls, ‘Loaded.’ I spot a Rebel moving to the left and fire. There’s a satisfying crack and puff of white smoke.
We were delayed in starting this ‘tactical’ re-enactment when a young black bear crossed in front of us. We weren’t sure if mommy bear was somewhere on hand. I’m trying to take it all in for my writing, but I’m getting caught up in the boyish fun of it all. I wait for the Rebels to fire before picking another tree; you tend to move to the thicker ones as I imagine they did back in 1863 when they weren’t just firing smoke at each other.
A nagging thought moves with me. Is it right to do this, to enjoy myself fighting in the footsteps of men who died right here one-hundred and fifty-six years ago? Am I honouring them or dishonouring them? Would it make a difference if I were dressed as a Roman and the battle had been two-thousand years ago? But how else to get closer to them than this?
We figure out that there are only three or four Rebels up this hill and we outnumber them so the captain has us push on. In fact, he’s leading the way. Unencumbered by a heavy rifle (and possibly the extra 20lbs that are stretching my leather belt to its last hole) he’s tearing on ahead, pistol out. Oddly, given I only met the man two hours ago, I feel a strong need to keep up and protect him. It wouldn’t do to lose an officer. I make a mental writing note about how easily loyalty flows towards a strong leader. A Rebel and I have a tree-off. I know which tree he’s behind and he knows I know. Once he fires, I move forward and to the right. He can’t run for it as Jeff will bag him. Two shots and two trees later, outflanked, he surrenders. He’s actually about my age, not a teenager at all. Just fitter.
After the tactical, we have a more scripted battle on open ground with around a hundred spectators watching on. The Rebels have a few cannon firing at us. No one’s brought any on the Union side but we’re going to win anyway. It’s in the script. Jeff’s drill practice with me back in Ohio pays off and I move at command with the squad. We advance shoulder to shoulder, firing by rank and then by company. Bigger bangs, more smoke. I’m feeling quite emotional, part of a unit. Imagine how it would feel if your lives depended on each other. Jeff goes down theatrically but I decide I’m invincible, this is too much fun to end it early. The Rebels make a final charge but most go down knowing the battle is almost over. One Rebel, a young woman dressed as a private, keeps coming. She realises none of us are loaded so politely charges from side to side until we’re ready and then we shoot her. She’s laughing as we step past her and up the hill.
Making notes a few days later I find it easy to log the detail but harder to get at the emotion. Mostly I just felt twelve years old again, my only fear that I might run out of powder. When I come back to England I stay in London for the day and meet my wife Sally at the O2 for an ELO concert. It’s last year’s Christmas present and wonderful. Towards the end they play ‘Wild West Hero’. It’s a favourite of mine. I used to sing it loudly with my daughters on road trips. Now, I’m singing it in the O2 with 20,000 people, but discover an emotional echo in the song that transports me back to Droop Mountain. The lyrics are about the simple yearning to be a hero, a person that everyone looks up to, one who makes a difference. It makes me wonder at the motivation of re-enactors and more particularly at my own, not just at Droop Mountain but as a writer of civil war fiction. Is it all just wish fulfilment? Am I playing out a hero fantasy vicariously through my English hero, Shire?
Maybe it is part fantasy. Life’s not always as simple as one motivation. There are the same chuckles and manly bonhomie on a re-enactment weekend as there is on a rugby trip to Paris, or on the local golf-course with my mates. At Droop I learned that re-enacting can be for the whole family. My Captain had his wife and daughters camped with him, all in period dress, all enjoying the square dancing. I met people I would find it hard to meet any other way, kind and generous people, curious about a middle-aged Englishman fighting for the Union. I’ve not really bottomed this out, but maybe we don’t have to question our reasons for every last thing we do as we’re apt to do these days. Some of my experiences will find their way into my writing, some are just for this twelve year old going on fifty-four.
* Special thanks to Jeannie Herod for the use of her photos.
* Special thanks to Jeannie Herod for the use of her photos.
By Richard Buxton
Shire leaves his home and his life in Victorian England for the sake of a childhood promise, a promise that pulls him into the bleeding heart of the American Civil War. Lost in the bloody battlefields of the West, he discovers a second home for his loyalty.
Clara believes she has escaped from a predictable future of obligation and privilege, but her new life in the Appalachian Hills of Tennessee is decaying around her. In the mansion of Comrie, long hidden secrets are being slowly exhumed by a war that creeps ever closer.
The first novel from multi-award winning short-story writer Richard Buxton, Whirligig is at once an outsider’s odyssey through the battle for Tennessee, a touching story of impossible love, and a portrait of America at war with itself. Self-interest and conflict, betrayal and passion, all fuse into a fateful climax.
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The Copper Road
Richard Buxton grew up in Wales but has lived in Sussex for the last thirty years. He is a 2015 graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. He studied in America during his twenties and tries to return there as often as he can for research and inspiration. His writing successes include winning the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story award. His US Civil War novel, Whirligig, released spring 2017, was shortlisted for the 2017 Rubery International Book Award and was awarded a Silver Medal at the Wishing Shelf Awards. His follow-on novel, The Copper Road, is with the copy editor.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx