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Fiction: Pulitzer Prize Reporter Interviews Survivors at 146th Annual Gettysburg Reenactment by Fred Skolnik
By Fred Skolnik
That summer I decided to drive up to Gettysburg and do a piece on the annual reenactment. I’d been to Antietam a few years back, so I knew most of the principals. Of course, McClellan was gone and Jackson was dead, but I looked forward to seeing Bobbie E. and the other good old boys. They’d come up through the Valley and parked themselves west of the town. Meade was fanned out to the south and east. I had a reservation at the Cashtown Inn, about ten miles away. As I got in late, I decided to skip the first day’s fighting. I watched the news on CNN and took a nap.
Gettysburg is a small tourist town where ten roads meet, making it a natural military objective. It is surrounded by rich farmland, cultivated by thrifty German farmers of the same stock as settled the central Valley. There are some souvenir shops in the town, and it’s a short walk to the cemetery and battlefield. I drove over in the evening and checked out a few bars. I found Bobbie E. in one of them with Pete and Harry. Harry showed me the hole in his hat where the paper wadding had stopped a bullet. “It’s a good thing he has a small head,” Pete said with his customary guffaw. They were all still wearing their uniforms. Bobbie had on his Wellington boots and his gray jacket with the three stars on it. Until he was hit, Heth had been bringing the men up on the Chambersburg Road. Lee had been in Cashtown. I asked him if he’d expected such fierce resistance. “Bet your sweet ass I did,” he said. Bobbie worked in the mines over at Scranton. Pete was from Troy, New York, Harry from Akron, Ohio. Bobbie had been coming down for the reenactments for about thirty years. He’d started as a lieutenant, then got the deputy command of a regiment, and now this, the entire Army of Northern Virginia. He looked like a general. He was of medium height with a big head and massive chest, though his legs were kind of spindly. He had the beer belly now but was still impressive.
Longstreet wanted to flank the Yankees over on their left, get between them and Washington and make them come to him on his own ground. Lee wanted to attack right away. He was waiting for Hood and McLaws to come up. They were all drinking pretty hard. I understood that Pete and Bobbie E. had been having words right from the beginning of the campaign. I’d heard there’d even been a fistfight a few years back, something about a waitress when they’d both been pretty drunk. Josh and Hank came in around ten o’clock. Hank said right away, “I figured for sure you’d come after us today over on the hill.”
Bobbie said, “Dickie boy dint have the balls to go in. He ain’t the man he used to be.”
“It’s that widder wife of his,” Josh said. “I hear she’s quite comely. Made him soft, I guess.”
“Or the leg,” Pete said. “Don’t forget that goddamned leg.”
I asked them whether they thought Cemetery Hill could really have been overrun that evening.
“Hell no,” Hank said. “I had twenty thousand men there by six.”
“And the artillery,” Josh added.
I looked at Bobbie E. “Wherever they are, that’s where we’ll attack,” he said.
Harry made us all go over to the nearby batting range. As a kid, he’d signed up with the Cardinal organization for a few thousand dollars and played some Class B ball. He’d been a centerfielder with a rocket arm but couldn’t hit the big league curve. I watched him foul off a few and then blast a couple into the netting. Bobbie E. took a turn but didn’t touch the ball. “Sheee-it,” he said.
Afterwards they went inside and shot some pool. Bobbie kept looking at his watch and kind of mumbling to himself, “Hood’ll soon be up.”
“What are you going to do tomorrow?” I asked him.
“I tole you. Hit ’em wherever they are. Dick said they couldn’t take the hill so I tole ’em I was gonna bring ’em aroun’ to the right so Jubal says maybe they can after all. I have to wait till Hood comes up.”
“How many men have you got?”
“I reckon seventy thousand.”
“And the Yankees?”
“Oh, a hundred thousand for sure.”
Pete started in again about flanking them and I could see Bobbie E. was starting to get hot under the collar. Again he said, “We’ll hit them where they are.” He ran a few balls and had another beer. Pete took me aside and explained his thesis. “Look at Fredericksburg,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied, “but what if Meade falls back? And, don’t forget, you don’t have Stuart here to screen for you.”
Bobbie must have overheard us. “Where is that little prick anyway?”
“The good Lord knows,” Harry said.
Josh and Hank said goodnight. “We’ve got to deploy,” Josh said.
“Deploy your ass,” Harry muttered.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Bobbie added.
They broke up at around midnight. Bobbie was staying at the Quality Inn on Cemetery Ridge, Harry and Pete were at the encampment. I drove back and watched the news on CNN again. Then I called my wife.
“Hope I didn’t wake you,” I said.
“No, that’s all right.”
“How’re the kids?”
“Fine. So how’d it go today?”
“Had some drinks with the good old boys. They haven’t changed a bit.”
“What’s tomorrow, the second day?”
“Who’s winning so far?”
“What’s the difference. Listen, hon. About us.”
“What about us?”
“It’s too late to be sorry.”
“I really am.”
“Bully for you.”
It turned out that Lee had more trouble than anticipated with Longstreet and Ewell. Neither of them wanted to move. When Ewell finally thought to take Culp Hill, it was too late, so Lee had to tell him to wait till Longstreet attacked. Longstreet hemmed and hawed and didn’t start getting into position till noon. As nothing was happening I had lunch with Harry at the General Pickett All-U-Can-Eat Buffet. I asked Harry where Hill was.
“Aint feelin’ too well,” Harry said. “The little fucker must have a sex disease.”
“Can I quote you on that?”
“Quote your ass.”
“What brings you to the reenactments?” I asked him.
“I’m a natural born killer.”
“You mean it’s a vicarious thing.”
When we got back everyone was still standing around. Hood had told Longstreet it would be crazy to attack up the Emmitsburg Road because the Yankees were already there. Longstreet told him that that was what Lee wanted and that was what Lee was going to get. Hood was right. The Yankees had extended their line almost to Little Round Top. Three times he went to Longstreet and three times Pete told him no. Finally, he gave up and started to move. McLaws to his left started moving too, in the direction of the Peach Orchard, where Sickles had his salient, but right away got stalled. Pete stayed there to encourage him. I stayed there too.
“Pretty hot here,” I said.
“Don’t get your balls in an uproar,” Pete said, “or they’s liable to get blowed off.”
“Do you think you can break their line?”
It was after four o’clock. You could hear the firing on the right. Hood’s men were swarming Rose’s Woods and the Devil’s Den. Hood was hit in the arm and carried from the field. Law’s brigade split in half and Oates took two Alabama regiments straight up the Big Round Top. I went back to Seminary Ridge. Bobbie E. was observing the action, not really knowing what was going on. He was drinking Wild Turkey. Then, at five-thirty, McLaws started moving again. “Hot damn!” Bobbie E. said. “Aint we jez havin’ a fine ole time.”
I got back onto the Emmitsburg Road and this time turned right, catching up with Law’s men. Oates was now moving down to the saddle between the two Round Tops. Billy had been a brawler and a womanizer in his youth. You wouldn’t have wanted to tangle with him now either. He was a little out of breath from all the climbing. So was I.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked him.
“See that little hill up yonder? We gonna roll it up.”
“It’s full of Yankees,” I said.
“Pay them no heed.”
On his left a couple of Texas regiments from Robertson’s brigade were moving on Little Round Top too. Everyone surged forward with a blood-curdling yell. Up on top of the hill the Yankees unleashed a murderous barrage. Billy hit the Yankee line five times and was thrown back every time. He was up against the 20th Maine and the noble Chamberlain. The Yankees then swung around and came charging down the hill. Oates' men turned and ran. The Texas boys couldn’t make any headway either and over in the Devil’s Den and Slaughter Pen there was a bloodbath going on. McLaws' men with Anderson on their left pushed forward to the bottom of Cemetery Ridge but the 1st Minnesota came charging down and stopped them cold, giving Hancock time to redeploy. Thousands of men were dying or dead. Night came and everyone stayed where he was. Nothing had been gained.
I realized that I hadn’t accomplished much either. The fighting was fierce but no different from fighting anywhere. I wanted to get to the men and understand their reasons for being here. Most of all I wanted to get to the bottom of Bobbie E. I had always wondered what made a man great.
After dinner, I made another tour of the bars. This time Billy had joined the good old boys. They were at a big table and razzing the Yankees in the place. Then, Dick came in, and they razzed him a little about his new wife.
“You do it with the leg on or off?” Pete said.
“Hell, he do it period with the leg,” Harry said.
A little later, Jeb came in and joined them, with “that crazy ostrich feather and boots up to his asshole,” as Pete liked to describe him. Stuart had only reported to Lee in the afternoon after taking his men on a wild goose chase for a week. Bobbie seemed morose. He’d been hitting the bottle pretty hard through the day, I could see. “Well, look who’s here,” he said now, his speech kind of slurred, “the rodeo king.”
Jeb was actually the only one of the good old boys in the upper income brackets. He was president of a bank in Harrisburg. He was actually an intellectual type. He told me he had been reading philosophy lately, Spinoza and Kant, but admitted that he could hardly understand a word of it.
“What does Spinoza mean when he says that there’s no before or after in eternity?”
“Beats me,” I said.
“And Kant: what does he mean when he says that space and time are the a priori conditions of perception?”
“I guess he meant what Spinoza meant, more or less.” I could see that Jeb wanted to talk about reality, but I didn’t have the head for it.
“Do you think something exists when no one is looking at it?”
“Oh, come on,” I said.
“I suppose it does, but in a different way.”
“Without attributes, as it were. Invisibly.”
“Not all attributes are visible,” I said quickly.
“Yes, but even the visible ones would not be perceived.”
“Then, there would be nothing, really.”
“No, there would be something, but it wouldn’t be perceived.”
We left it at that. Pete was staring at us and shaking his head. He winked at Harry and said, “The little pisspot’s a deep one, ain’t he.”
Jeb got riled. “I hear you got your ass kicked good today.”
Pete stood up and looked about to take a swing at him. Billy got between them and held Pete off. Bobbie E. banged on the table and told the waitress to bring another round. “I think I’m gonna make it with that babe,” he said.
The waitress came back and Bobbie gave her a little pat on the ass.
“General!” she exclaimed with a saucy look.
"Why don’t you and me get together later on tonight,” Bobbie said.
“Old Pete here has already asked me out.”
“Is that so?” Bobbie stood up, and now Billy had to hold him off too. It took a while for things to settle down again. Bobbie slid down in his chair and sipped his drink. I figured this was as good a time as any to get the great man’s ear.
“Bobbie,” I said, “to what do you attribute your success?”
“Past or present?”
“Well, I was interested in the past actually, but if you’ve got something to say about the present I’d be happy to hear that too.”
“Women find me irresistible. It’s the uniform. They always beg me to leave it on, specially the sword.”
“And the past?”
“Things was different then. ’Spectable women didn’t fool around. If you wanted something on the side you had to go you know where.”
“And on the battlefield?”
“Plenny a whores follied the army aroun’. I hear Buell sent fifteen hundred packing from Nashville, Tennessee.
“But, the fighting?”
“What do you think men fight for, if not to get laid.”
With that, we all got up to leave. I drove back to Cashtown and called my wife again. We hadn’t parted on the best of terms. She picked up the phone on the second ring.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?” I said.
“Of course not, it isn’t even twelve.”
“How’re the kids?”
“Fine. When will you be back?”
“Tomorrow evening, I think.”
“I’ll be out.”
“Where are you going?”
“And, the kids?”
“There’ll be a sitter.”
I had trouble falling asleep. I read for a while instead. I’d brought along Coddington but couldn’t get into it, so I read a few pages of Shaara’s book. I’d gotten my Pulitzer for investigative reporting, but that was just hard work, nothing brilliant. I’d thought that in doing the reenactment piece I could show a little flair, but I had to admit that I didn’t have an angle yet. The good old boys were just a bunch of northern rednecks and the soldiers of the south a figment of the imagination. I thought about my wife and wanted to call her again to set things right, but I knew that it was best to let things ride. I was in the Pettigrew Room, one of seven at the inn, at a hundred and twenty dollars a night with a big breakfast. A. P. Hill had had his headquarters here, perhaps sleeping under a patchwork quilt like mine.
The next morning it was the same story all over again, Longstreet making no preparations at all for the attack on the right but still looking to flank the enemy. Lee was exasperated, and they argued again. Just when things seemed settled, Longstreet said it was in any case impossible to attack from where he was, because the enemy was too strong on the ridge, so Lee backed down and agreed to shift the attack to the center, but then Longstreet argued that he couldn’t move Hood and McLaws without exposing his own flank, so Lee had to agree to make the attack with Pickett when he came up and six of Hill’s brigades.
Meanwhile it got to be past noon again. It was an exceptionally hot day. Pete was riding back and forth. First, he talked to Georgie, then he talked to Ed, who was placing the artillery. Alexander was pretty young for such heavy responsibility. Longstreet told him to decide himself when Pickett should move out after the barrage. Georgie seemed to be having the time of his life. He had the abundant ringlets of his hair perfumed and spent most of his time writing letters to his seventeen-year-old sweetheart, Miss Sallie Corbell. Hill had opened up with his guns for about half an hour in the morning but everything was quiet now. Somewhere between one and one-thirty two signal shots were fired, and Alexander’s guns opened up. The noise was deafening. The men were hidden among the trees on the eastern slope of Seminary Ridge. Pete sat on a fence rail watching the bombardment. I sat down next to him.
“Well,” I said, “do you think you can take the ridge?”
“Not a chance in hell,” he said.
“What do you do back home?” I asked him.
“I got a little porno shop.”
“How’s it doing?”
“Not too good.”
“Ever serve in the army?”
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“So, what are you doing here?”
“I needed the vacation. Those bill collectors can drive you nuts.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“And, the ideals? What the war is all about?”
“It’s about getting killed, nothing more.”
“Incoming, incoming,” some jokester shouted from the trees. A shell came whizzing by overhead.
“That was close,” I said.
“Keep you pecker primed,” Pete replied.
At around three o’clock, Pickett moved out. He had his division on the right. Hill’s men were on the left. They all made for the Emmitsburg Road, about halfway to Cemetery Ridge, and regrouped in the swale, aiming now at the clump of trees at the center of Hancock’s position. Georgie rode with his staff behind his men. He handed me a thick envelope and said, “If you make it back to Richmond before me, please deliver this.” It was addressed to Sallie Corbell.
“She’s a little young for you, isn’t she?” I said.
Georgie was a widower, pushing forty now. “Thas the way I like ’em,” he said.
“Are you going to marry her?”
“If she’ll have me.”
“And then what?”
“Settle down. Sell insurance maybe. It may not be glamorous, but it’s a life.”
His men had started moving again. They were running now as the Yankees tore their lines with canister. Then they were at the wall, converging fifteen and even thirty deep, thousands pushing forward in a wild melee. Some got through. I saw Armistead go down on the left waving his hat on the tip of his sword to urge the men on. Then Pettigrew clutched a shattered hand. On the other side, Hancock was hit and Gibbon too. Men were falling all around, some were already coming back. It was like a scene from hell. Great shouts rose and fell with every surge and counter surge. The din was awful. Pickett was distraught. “We’re finished! We’re finished!” he shouted, for now all his men were coming back, those who could. He was in tears. The Yankees were still shooting but the battle was won. They brought down more men firing on our flanks. We rode back to where Lee and Longstreet were waiting. “It’s all my fault,” Lee was saying. “It is I who have lost the fight.” He told Pickett to get his division ready to repulse the enemy should he advance.
“What division?” Pickett cried out in grief and despair. “I have no division now.”
Everyone was dejected, but Lee somehow managed to maintain his aplomb and even his well-known teasing manner.
“Well,” he said to me, “you’ve been running around everywhere this afternoon jotting down your notes. Do you think you can lead us out of here as well?”
“I’m afraid not, General,” I said respectfully.
“Not to fear. You’ll soon be able to get your story in.”
“I’m sure I will.”
I hadn’t gotten my answer after all. I didn’t know why the men were there. I didn’t know what made men great. There was just the lot of us thrown together, playthings full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. After midnight, it started raining heavily, so much so that the wounded lying in low places were in danger of drowning. In the morning, townspeople started coming out to the battlefield to demand payment for all the damage done and sell pies at outrageous prices. It had been that way all throughout the campaign. I thought of my wife and our little house in Savannah and how I had left her when all was not well between us. How I loved her! How I yearned for her! It rained again in the afternoon as the men began moving toward Hagerstown. Suddenly, I felt a blow and a searing pain. As I fell to the ground I heard someone say, “It’s that newspaper feller. Too bad.” Then darkness.