Cumberland Times-News

July 21, 2012

They’re people, just like everyone else

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Little kids are among the reasons Capt. Gary and First Sgt. Goldy go to Little Round Top at Gettysburg to do “living history” in the role of Union soldiers.

Mind you, youngsters can come in all sizes and ages.

When a group of active-duty uniformed soldiers came by during our last tour, most turned to say hello, but they didn’t stop to talk. They had places to go and things to do.

The age group into which most of them fell, and the fact that they were accompanied by a number of somewhat older sergeants and officers, led us to believe they were from Officer Candidate School.

Two sergeants first class were bringing up the rear. As they passed, I pointed to them and told the captain, loud enough for them to hear:

“Look, sir, they got two grownups a-follerin’ them young’uns to keep ’em from strayin’!”

One stumbled and started to laugh. The other looked back at us and grinned.

Probably without realizing it, my mother started teaching me about little kids a long time ago. She once was a third-grade teacher, and I remember how she was with young’uns — including me.

Mom never treated little kids like little kids. To her, they were people like everyone else. They just hadn’t been people for very long, so she had to make some minor adjustments.

She got down on her hunkers to talk to them at their eye level, not in baby talk but the same way she would talk to adults, only more slowly and patiently, in words they could understand.

Knowledge of this approach has been useful.

A little fellow in a Union infantry cap who came up just about to my waist asked me (probably at the urging of his parents) if I would show him how to use his musket — a plastic replica not much shorter than he was.

I didn’t get down on my hunkers because of a combination of bad knees, britches that could stand to be bigger, and the fact that first sergeants don’t kneel to talk to private soldiers.

So I took his musket, bent over and, in a manner I think Mother Ruth would have approved, I showed him (in air-guitar fashion) how you take a paper cartridge from your ammunition pouch, bite the end off it, pour the powder down the barrel and put the bullet in the barrel to drive it home with the ramrod.

(We tell folks that to be a Civil War soldier, you basically had to be able to walk and have enough teeth to bite open the cartridge.)

Always replace the ramrod in its holder under the barrel. If you lay it on the ground so you won’t have to fiddle with pulling it out and putting it back in, you may have to move in a hurry. If you leave your ramrod behind, all you have is an expensive club — worth about $20, compared to a Union private’s $13 a month pay.

Then you place the hammer at half-cock, remove the spent percussion cap from the nipple and replace it with a new one from your pouch, cock the hammer all the way, put it to your shoulder, aim and fire.

The trooper and his parents were smiling when I handed him back his musket, so it must have worked. Thanks, Mom.

After they loaded the weapon, Civil War soldiers sometimes forgot to put on new a cap before they pulled the trigger — or didn’t pull the trigger at all. They were in a hurry, it was noisy, and they probably were terrified.

Of the 35,000 muskets retrieved from the Gettysburg battlefield, 11,000 were unloaded, 6,000 had one load and the remaining 18,000 contained anywhere from two to 10 loads (wouldn’t want to try to fire any of those).

A couple introduced me to their three high school-age children, told me they wanted to become history teachers and asked if I had some advice. I said to teach history as it happened, not someone’s politically correct version.

They should tell their students, for instance, that many people in the South were against slavery, but many in the North wanted to retain it — including slave-owners who would take up arms to help preserve the Union.

Also, there were about 3,000 free blacks who between them owned about 20,000 slaves. In 1860, the combined value of America’s 4 million slaves was greater than the combined value of all its banks, factories, ships and railroads — about $4 billion ($12 trillion today).

This is just some of what you need to know before you can begin to understand that the causes of the Civil War weren’t as simple as some people would have you believe.

If students are taught a flawed version of history, sooner or later they will find out. And then they’ll wonder how else they were lied to.

Another youngster came up to the captain and asked how he could become a soldier. He said he wanted to do what we were doing.

“How old are you?” the captain asked him.

“Nine and a half,” he said.

“Wait until you’re about 12, and then you can become a drummer boy,” said the captain.

(My friend Al Comer, who is now in his 90s, is the son of a Confederate drummer boy who enlisted when he was 14. James John Comer was the youngest infantryman to serve under my cousin Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and probably fought at Gettysburg.)

Then the lad said, “I’m from Russia.”

If that by itself didn’t put things in a whole new light, he added, “I want to quit school and become a soldier.”

Gary served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and later was a combat engineer in the Army. One of his two little grandsons died in a traffic accident a few years ago. He is, and always will be, “Pappy” to both of them. They loved to hear him talk about the Civil War.

Those thoughts suddenly flooding my mind, I listened as Pappy began talking to a little guy who had come to America through a process we never got around to asking about.

“Please don’t quit school,” he told him. “Stay in school and learn. Read and learn everything you can. Be the best at learning that you can be, and it will help make you the best at whatever you want to do with your life.

“That’s what you have to do if you want to come here and do what we do, or anything else.

“Read and learn not just for yourself, but so you can tell other people the things they want to know and need to know,” he said.

The expressions on his parents’ faces, and the tears gathering in their eyes, told me they were hearing something they hadn’t expected.

I wasn’t at all surprised by what my friend had to say, but that’s because he and I don’t just do “living history.”

When the opportunity arises, we also try to do what we can on behalf of the future.