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My Life In The War
By Scott Nicholson

My first taste of battle left me largely disoriented, but at least I was still standing at the end, though I lost my pencil along the way.

Tudd Dean, a member of the Blue Ridge Living History Society and one of the organizers of the Stoneman’s Raid Civil War re-enactment, recruited me to join the fun. I was to play a civilian reporter during the event held at the Horn In the West grounds in Boone, NC, last weekend.

Tudd and another soldier loaned me clothes from the period, a top hat and top coat and cotton shirt and pants. My only nods to the 21st Century were the rubber soles of my shoes and the rayon in my shoelaces.

My role in the event was as a local reporter in the town where the "battle" was taking place. This year, the event was staged as a battle centered around Westchester, Virginia. Since that town changed hands more times than a utility infielder, the script could take many different directions.

When I asked Tudd what I was supposed to do, I learned that there actually was no script. Over a hundred troops in both blue and gray, more than a dozen horses, a large contingent of civilian women and children, and one reporter were taking the field with only the vaguest notion of what would happen.

I asked Newland’s Tim Townsend, who was depicting a Sergeant in the Watauga Home Guard, what I should do. He said I should get out of the way when the action started, to run in the cabin and get captured along with the women and children.

"I won’t lie to you," he said. "This is a dangerous hobby."

That’s when I realized that I was going to be the only unarmed male in the battle, a cowardly reporter who runs around with a pencil and a piece of paper. This is a role I was born for. Whoever said, "The pen is mightier than the sword" was probably never in a duel.

Tim and I worked up a little scenario where I would come down during the drill and ask him how the "boys" were doing, what the state of the war was, and if the Yankees would ever show up here. Warming up, I tipped my hat to the ladies and engaged in polite conversation, not an unpleasant job by any means. The Union cavalry rode into town before I had a chance to deliver my lines to the Sergeant, though.

When the firing broke out from replica powder rifles, I gentlemanly assisted the women and children into one of the cabins. I watched from the safety of the back porch as the Union troops drove back the home guard.

One of the first Rebel casualties fell about fifteen feet from where I was hiding. He was a television news cameraman in his day job, and I’d talked with him earlier. I fought down an impulse to go out and help him, especially as a horse trampled excruciatingly near his head. But that would not have fit my role. No civilian alive back then, even a reporter, would be dumb enough to run between two battle lines.

The Union soldiers drove back the Boys in Gray, and Yankee foot soldiers stormed the cabin and captured us. On the front porch, the soldiers began robbing the women and menacing the children. When one got overly aggressive while taking a cup from a woman, I was driven to defend her honor and have it out with the blue-belly.

The soldier got a little enthusiastic, shoving me around with his rifle, and I hit the deck and lost my wonderful top hat. I stood up and delivered my best line of the day: "Don’t you mess with my hat."

As we prisoners were shepherded to another cabin, some of the children were crying, frightened by the realism of the event. Rigged blasts from cannon went off every couple of minutes, and the ladies pelted the Yanks with pine cones, shouted insults, and cheered the Rebel counterattack.

Meanwhile, our captors called us "traitors" and worse, though the language was generally kept in check for the benefit of the several hundred people in the audience. A couple of the soldiers wore big grins despite their "wounded" condition, and most of the victims managed to prop themselves against trees or fall out of the way of the cavalry.

The air was thick with powder smoke, the smell of horses, and noise of gunfire and shouts. As the Rebs began to push back the invaders, the prisoners were released, and I counted Yankee bodies. I reported 25 casualties to the Sergeant, who asked, "Are they all dead?" I answered something like "Not enough of them, sir."

I "interviewed" one wounded soldier who said he was gut shot and could do with a pint of whiskey. I told him he was done for anyway, so he might as well enjoy himself. I’d seen the staged field hospital, and there were far too many bloody limbs lying around to afford much hope.

I rolled another soldier out of the way so the captured Yankees could be collected and marched through town. Another of my lines, perhaps spawned by bravery in the face of victory, was to shout at the Yankee prisoners, "You shoulda stayed in New York."

"We’re from North Carolina," one of them answered, while my rifle-shoving friend pointed his finger at me in a "I’ll get you next time" gesture. Too bad for him he was marched to the Confederate military prison in Salisbury, where his chances of surviving disease were much lower than his chances of dodging bullets in combat.

Then the war was over, the crowd came down to take pictures, historians brushed off the dust and collected their weapons, and the Yankees and Rebels headed for the camps for a little relaxation and food together before the next event.

I was most impressed by the camaraderie among the re-enactors, and their mutual passion for history. Most of the re-enactors have the equipment and uniforms to switch sides and fight for either army. In the Civil War, "neighbor against neighbor" was too often true, but not in the modern version of it.

While I am ashamed to say that I discovered a streak of stubborn Rebel pride coursing through my veins, the real lesson I learned was that it’s not about us and them. Because, back then as now, it’s all us.

--This article can be freely shared and reprinted as long as my byline and web link are included

This experience helped inspire my paranormal suspense novel Drummer Boy.

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