Put plainly, the Battle of Antietam was recently re-enacted in a field near Chehalis, by the Northwest Civil War Council. (Costumes not required for spectators.) We happened to be passing through Chehalis that day. Honest.
Those who do not have wives sleep in rough, soldierly dwellings indeed: just a length of canvas draped over a stick or two.
A few of the women manage large tents purveying 19th-century wares. O it did make me happy to walk into a store of bonnets, 19th century sewing patterns, and wee wooden needle-cases.
As I was asking the shopkeeper where, exactly, we were in America (she didn't know where Antietam was either), drums and fifes sounded, and bagpipes:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death ye shall find him
His father's sword he hath girded on...
Three hoopskirts and I swished out of the shop to watch the soldiers march into battle.
And here they came! First the cavalry marched, on handsome horses in beautiful straight lines - up to trot! up to gallop! - past us, and halted.
I had to fight a bizarrely strong instinct to rise from our hay-bale in honor of the young men going off to give their lives defending the Union.
"Are you an attorney?" called my mother, to the man in the frock-coat.
"No, he is a Yekke!" yelled my confused instinct.
'I am the governor of Maine,' the gentleman introduced himself, and presented us with his card, on which was printed, indeed, his name, and Governor of Maine. 'These are my boys,' he indicated the troop marching past us. 'They march, as you see, under the sign of an Elephant, for they've never "seen the elephant" before. They've never been in battle.'
We wished him success in battle and he returned to his men as they marched past us...
...and down into the valley wherein erupted the Battle of Antietam, with a cry of Charge! and a clatter of rifle-fire and the Boom! Boom! Boom! of cannons, sending smoke rings into the air and shrouding us all in smoke.
O horror! Those young lads from Maine, and their flag of the Elephant, were the first under fire!
Drums, fifes, and bagpipes played all the while, even under fire, from the battlefield.
"Their rifles are accurate within 200 yards," explained a commentator; and the troops fought a great deal more closely than that: one group of men against another, close enough to recognize each other.
The battle raged a long while, the Union first gaining ground, then being pushed back, with a rebel yell, by the grey and Zouave Confederates. The rebel yell was wild and animal; it made me suspect that they weren't in this fight for states' rights at all, but for Don't you tell me what to do, or I want my slaves, or I'll show I'm a man by defending mine own; and it seemed to me a miserable cause for war; so that I thought of Ruskin's suggestion, to let the South secede, and then fight them, with purer motives, over the issue of slavery alone, as one sticks up for oppressed frosh in a boys' boarding school... -- but it was too late; they were already at war!
A group of Union soldiers fell, one by one, just before us, felled by a group of grey Confederates crouching in the brush; the surgeon, standing to the side with a white sheet, in a blood-spattered apron, inspected them, turned hopelessly from some, tended to others as best he could with sadly limited resources and with filthy, blood-stained bandages. The rebel band left their place in the brush and crept round the dead, to behind the Union ranks, to fire on a small band of soldiers.
On the hill across the valley, a cavalry battle ensued.
The smells of battle: horses and saltpeter.
There was something disturbing in that all the women came out to watch their menfolk slaughtering each other. One Southern belle came in her ballgown.
"That looks like a party dress," said my mother.
"You must be a real devotee of the cause, to think this is a party," observed my mother, snapping a
It was easy to imagine that the battle was real; it was harder to imagine it so real as to find it dreadful. That's probably a good thing -- save the distress for what really merits it.