Why were we at Ball’s Bluff? Because the Union force at the battle was the 1st California Infantry Regiment — a group, formed in Philadelphia by Sen. Baker, that ironically contained only one known Californian (actually, just a veteran of the Gold Rush). The 1st California was so badly mauled at Ball’s Bluff that it ceased to exist, but was reformed as the 71st Pennsylvania. The 71st, however, throughout the rest of the war, continued to call itself the 1st California, and even wore that designation on its uniform collar.
It was this “California” connection, no matter how tenuous, that had brought our small group of Silicon Valley Boy Scouts and dads to this quiet corner of the Potomac. Each summer, I try to organize something out of the ordinary for the older Scouts. We’ve driven to Oregon and walked the Lewis and Clark path, hiked 192 miles across England, and driven cattle up the Chisholm Trail. But this year’s trip in many ways proved to be the most complex and resonant. As part of two Eagle Scout service projects, we helped restore Ball’s Bluff in preparation for next year’s sesquicentennial, then toured the Civil War exhibit at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum, then drove up to Gettysburg to sit at the Angle and march the path of Pickett’s Charge.
That night, we moved to Morven Park, also near Leesburg, and as we sat sweating in the darkened antebellum rotunda of the Westmoreland Davis mansion, a Confederate soldier (Chief Interpreter Doug Smith) burst in and drafted us into the Rebel army. We soon found ourselves on a scouting mission across moonlit empty fields towards the Potomac under musket fire. We slept in another open field, and the next morning set to work helping restore the trails and huts of the winter encampment used by the Confederate soldiers after Ball’s Bluff, as well as participated in an archeological dig.
In the afternoon, we put on the Civil War uniforms we’d purchased from a Fresno sutler — the wool pants and jackets were almost unbearable in the humid, 90 degree plus heat — and met arriving re-enactors of the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Captain Craig Mullin. For the next two days we drilled, marching and conducting the manual of arms (the boys first used wooden guns, then real Enfields) and finally, firing the rifles.
It goes without saying that re-enactors take what they do very seriously. But the mistake is often made in assuming that it is all about dressing up and playing army and searching for that transcendent moment when the present falls away and the past is once again alive. Just as important to these re-enactors is the act of honoring the fallen, of making sure their sacrifices — often the supreme one — are never forgotten.
As I watched through the day, this same spirit seemed to imbue the Scouts with a similar sense of pride and purpose. These were Silicon Valley kids after all, their lives filled with Facebook and World of Warcraft, MTV, and SATs. Many have seen their parents lose jobs in the last couple years; and many will soon choose a lesser, cheaper college because their families can no longer afford the tuition. And more than one Scout couldn’t join us on this trip because of tight family budgets. And yet, as difficult as times are, marching in the heat in a scratchy wool uniform with a rifle on your shoulder put things into context for the boys. It could be much much worse. They could be dumped into a grave in Ball’s Bluff, or standing at the Angle, watching as canister blew to bits boys their age on the other side, and nervously awaiting the bayonets of Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s on-rushing howling divisions.
This reality hit us all, men and boys, most deeply when Captain Mullin’s wife Katie, in her long, traditional dress, delivered to each of us packages “from home”: hand-addressed packets of string-tied butcher paper bearing replicas of stamps of the era. Inside, in an extraordinary effort by the ladies of the 71st, we found, wrapped in wax paper, gifts of lye soap, dried fruit, peanuts, shortbread, handkerchiefs embroidered with our initials (and a medicinal bottle of whiskey for me, the colonel) and, most touching of all, hand-copied versions of real letters from home of the era. No instant messages, no emails, not even a cellphone call from home — in 1862 this might be all that a young soldier might hear from home in months.
With new resolve, the boys drilled even harder in the unfamiliar sweltering heat. And if they didn’t find that timeless “moment,” I think they discovered something even more important. And it showed a few mornings later when, at the Boy Scout National Jamboree at Ft. A.P. Hill, before a large audience, the boys, still in their 1st California uniforms, marched through the drill as the color guard to the morning’s VIP flag raising. They did it perfectly, to the cheers of the crowd.
To the boys, that was no doubt the climax of their trip. But for me it came two nights before, as we sat with the 71st and sang Civil War era songs to the accompaniment of Captain Mullin’s harmonica. I thought of the newly white graves glowing in the darkness just a few miles away — and around this country and across the world. In a tribute to my own Civil War ancestors, Martin Malone and Thomas Martin Kirby, Kansas Cavalry and Infantry respectively, I called for “The Minstrel Boy.”
Together, men and boys, we sang the words that resonated both then and today:
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”