Cumberland Times-News

April 30, 2012

Whatever the general had, they’d be ready

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— The Confederates have far fancier and more colorful uniforms than we plain-blue Yankees do ... must be a cultural thing.

One of the fanciest I’ve seen came walking up the hill toward us on Little Round Top, loudly proclaiming in a deep Southern accent, “Gentlemen! I am your prisoner! One of your men captured me down theah and sent me up heah! May I please have your parole and safe conduct?”

This Rebel sergeant represented a Texas outfit that tried four times to oust Chamberlain’s 20th Maine from Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Capt. Gary granted parole (a promise not to attempt escape or take up arms against us) to the sergeant, who said, “Suh, we might not have carried this day, but General Longstreet surely will have something prepared for you tomorrow!”

The captain said we would be ready for whatever the general had planned, and that the sergeant would be free to join him — so long as he honored his parole.

This fellow was friendly and downright animated as he told folks what it was like to be on the other side, charging up that hill. Makes it more fun for us and the tourists.

We were joined by a Yankee captain who fetched a flask from inside his coat pocket and asked if we would care to share it. We said we’d be glad to do so. He said it contained an Australian wine whose name I can’t remember, and it wasn’t at all bad. (The captain and I were weaned on the cheap stuff.)

I offered them my own flask, saying that its contents were from Kentucky, and I could vouch for the quality.

They passed it around with a chorus of coughs, snorts and sharp exhalations of the type that could be expected from people who aren’t accustomed to such potency. (A friend of ours puts a mixture of 100-proof Southern Comfort and moonshine in his flask. You should see how folks react to that.)

I took it back, raised it in a toast of “To absent brothers,” and did it justice.

“Any more of that stuff,” choked Reggie — who represents the all-black (with white officers) 54th Massachusetts, “and I’ll be an absent brother!”

Reggie always seems to be as happy to see us as we are to see him. While the captain and I take little kids and set them astride the cannon as they are getting their pictures taken, he kneels and lets them hold onto his musket (which he keeps under control at all times).

Once, he let his weapon fall to the ground and ... as I’ve told you before ... we don’t just dress the part.

“Private,” I bellowed at him from about six inches away from his face in my best first sergeant’s voice, “I hope you realize that you will not be sleeping alone tonight! You will have a 13-pound bunkmate, and she will be with you all day tomorrow while you peel potatoes, service the latrines and anything else useful I can think of!”

Folks just stopped and looked, and you could see the “Wow! WTH!” look on their faces. The captain knows how to do it too ... sometimes to me. (For as much as I’ve admonished him that I work for a living, Reggie still calls me “sir.” He blames it on his upbringing, which apparently was a lot like mine.)

Several Australians who recognized the name and taste of what was in the Yankee captain’s flask stayed with us for a while and were great company.

They offered to tip us, and we refused. Not why we do what we do, we said.

“Why then do you do it?” one of them asked.

Because we meet folks like you, we said.

It’s not all fun and games, although some treat it that way. One guy, we are convinced, shows up in uniform just to get his picture taken by people to whom he gives cards with his e-mail address.

 A lot of studying is involved. The learning never ends, and it’s addictive. You keep wanting more. If we don’t know something, we admit that and don’t give people bad information. As the captain says, if you ever meet somebody who says he knows everything about it (we have), get away from him. Such people tend to make fools of themselves, but honesty gains you respect.

A T-shirted fellow asked me about the cannon. I told him it was a 10-pounder Parrott Rifle that a proficient crew could fire twice in a little more than a minute.

Ideally, the crew would consist of a gunner and seven cannoneers, each of whom was assigned a specific duty, but could perform any other man’s duty if he had to. In this respect, I said, it functioned exactly like a modern artillery crew, and some of the jobs are the same today as they were in 1863.

The battery on Little Round Top had six Parrotts instead of the four now on display and put fire down on Pickett’s Charge — but it was likely that only the forward two cannon were used because the others couldn’t be moved out far enough to avoid firing over the other crews.

He kept asking questions, and I kept answering, throwing in little tidbits that most folks wouldn’t think of — like the idea that a man in a fancy red-trimmed artillery uniform makes a more inviting target than does a man in a plain blue shellcoat and britches.

I told him the maximum range was 5,000 yards and it took the shell 21 7/8 seconds to go that far — which the crew had to know in order to set the fuse for an airburst — although as a practical matter they wouldn’t shoot at anything they couldn’t see.

However, there was at least one battle in which a Confederate battery commander knew the range and direction of the Union position, but couldn’t see it. He used his table of fire to calculate the elevation of his barrels. After the war, the Army called him in for a conference because it was intrigued by the idea of indirect fire, and here was someone who had done it.

“Might have been at Pea Ridge,” the fellow said, and I said it could have been. OK. How would he know that?

We talked for a while longer and shook hands before parting.

After he left, Capt. Gary said, “You know that man is on active duty in the Army field artillery.”

Filled with wide-eyed thoughts of Joe vs. the Pro, I turned to find an Army captain in his field uniform watching me.

He smiled and said, “The Army still uses eight-man artillery crews,” then walked on.