There’s something magical about walking the steps in history. I wrote the following vignette after one of my visits to Gettysburg National Military Park with my family. It is a work of fiction with a fantasy bent. I had a great time looking up some of the details, including when the road near the mentioned monuments were completed. The Iron Brigade was an all-western unit in the Army of the Potomac. Three of its regiments were from the state of Wisconsin, my home state. This posting comes 148 years after the Iron Brigade fought near Willoughby Run that long July morning.
That’s what the locals call these woods in the fall of the year, when the frost has just begun to nip at the edges of the leaves still clinging steadfast to their branches. The muffled fall of my boots upon the hardened mud is the only sound louder than the faint, yet incessant, tug of the wind as it rolls up past me while en route to the McPherson barn. The rub of cloth against cloth undercuts them both, but even that is not sufficient to reinter the sounds beneath the stillness of this place, the stillness everyone else finds here.
It begins with the clanking, the cold soulless sound of iron upon iron as everyone’s gear rattles in time with our steps. As we deploy, the clanking subsides only to be superseded by the sudden wall of muskets moving down in concert. Ground thunder rolls as the stocks hit the ground. Sharp ripping sounds assault my ears as cartridges open to loose the grains of black powder. The metallic hiss of ramrods swishing down the barrels to ram home the shot brings me horrors akin to screaming. Bullets cut through the air, the burst of the powder not half so soul shaking as the quieter venom of lead projectiles searching out any wayward, misplaced flesh.
The place has a pastoral beauty with the barn behind and the woods ahead. That’s how the grainy gray picture postcards back in the borough shops make it look as they juxtapose the trees, barn and cold stone memorials the survivors left behind. The landscape spread before me is both alien and familiar. The overall shape of the trees is the same but the onset of autumn has dethroned many of the crowning leaves. Underbrush grows thick where local herds once chewed it short. Trees stand whole where once they were broken while others stand where fields once held sway. I can see where once I could not and am blind where once I saw crumpled bodies in the smoke.
They tell me this is Herbst’s woods or McPhearson’s woods. Others even call it Reynold’s woods, but I don’t see how any name, let alone any man, can encompass this place. Its sudden, labored birth into fire that July morning removed it, in a sense, from the grasping claims of possession to which men are so prone to adopt. A name can never hallow this ground in the same manner as suffered blood.
The strange new view blurs before my eyes, the dull colors heralding winter’s gradual encroachment replaced with verdant greens and midsummer’s wildflowers. Blue coats and black hats, symbols that harken back not to the volunteer roots of the men stepping out alongside me but to the regular army on which our old brigade commander thought to mold us, darken beneath the glimmering sun. My unit’s colors catch the corner of my eye as I try to watch the land all around us, searching for where we might first confront the opposing troops this day.
A general rides along with our front ranks, putting us into position himself for all that he is a corps commander and we’re just a small regiment in the first brigade in his corps. Word in camp said he was offered command over all of us here but that he turned it down. He urges us forward with a loud cry when his voice suddenly stops, his body slumping toward the ground. There’s a slight pause all around us. I don’t pause; death holds little mystery for me.
Shaken, seeing the bullets claim Reynolds and my comrades, I reach out a hand. Cool hard granite rests firmly beneath my palm. It is a fortress against my memory, one on which I can balance. I let my fingers the grooves that form the letters. Touching them lets me see them as they are, lets me know the red granite pillar topped by the crest of my brigade and its five regiments stands beside me.
I pull my worn uniform jacket tight across my body as the underlying wind strengthens until it envelops me in a living cocoon. Chills sweep across my spine. I walk on, following Meredith Avenue around its curves until it ends. I trudge through the tall grass that separates Meredith and Reynolds Avenue. I want to stop a moment to pay my respects where the general fell, but I’m still no match for even this mild weather. I know the boys back home would call it mild, but to me it is akin to whips of ice lashing my skin. I want to feel nothing again, to watch the sun and sky only as a display of light and color.
I nod toward the mound in the grove before turning toward the borough. Though I walk briskly I am still caught in the snare of memory. The chill half vanishes from my skin. Now the sun dances on bayonets but I feel it not. Cold and heat have no calling. Only the black clouds of powder and smoke violate the neutrality of my skin, sending spiderwebs of pain crawling up and down my arms and face. I move through it, having dealt with such phantom pains ever since Brawner’s Farm.
Friends fall around me, the strong men of Wisconsin, but I hold my ground. Things are getting tight, but this wave of Confederates won’t break us yet. Then it strikes me through the shoulder. My weapon falls to the ground. I feel the ball’s black poision pulling me down.