I’ll stat by saying that this did NOT happen to me. Yes, I stood at Thayer’s Approach on the Vicksburg battlefield the other week, but the rest is fiction and concocted in my own imagination. Enjoy!
I stood upon the edge of Union Avenue, the sun dipping low over the tree-lined to my right My eyes trailed up the winding path on the southern ridge that soldiers had cut over a hundred and fifty years ago and I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like on that day.
Mississippi in mid-May couldn’t have been as breeze and moderate as it was now in November. The heat, the mosquitoes drawn to the river to the west, the booming cannons coming from all round mingled in with the screams and whizzing of bullets.
What would it have smelled like? Would the stench of gunpowder and sweat have overpowered everything, or would soldiers have even given any thought to it? Breathing in deeply, I could smell nothing but the earth and fallen oak leaves scattered across the well-kept lawn. It reminded me of the autumns of my childhood spent in Louisiana. So close to home now, but for the soldiers who stood where I stood now, home was so far away. Soldiers from Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin must have felt so alone, so isolated from their family and loved ones. I couldn’t imagine it and I didn’t want to.
I read the plaque about Brigadier General John Thayer’s attempt to approach the Confederate line by trenches and tunnels, how they built fascines to protect themselves under enemy fire. That was all after Grant decided to lay siege to Vicksburg. After two days of bloody, vicious fighting convinced him that the Rebels were too well fortified to buckle under direct assaults. All over this extensive battlefield, mines were dug, explosives detonated under earthen redans and redoubts, telegraph lines were cut, railroads were intercepted, and men died fighting for something they believed in with all their hearts.
I couldn’t relate. Not really. I had been too scared all my life to go after what I wanted. Too scared of what people would think of me. I’d hear their voices in my head telling me I was insane for doing it, for trying to be something I wasn’t.
Maybe that’s why I wanted to come here. To understand why these men would put themselves through a siege for forty-seven long, hot days.
I heard footsteps coming up the pavement behind me and moved away from the plaque so the visitor could read and learn what happened here. I was tempted to turn away, afraid that the person would think I was a little “special” for staring at a barren hill for so long. If traveling to all these battlefields had taught me anything, it was that there were few others dedicated to the history as much as I was. Who else would strap on a backpack and go hiking through the parks when there were perfectly good roads to drive on?
“You best take cover,” the voice said. “Those Rebs could have sharpshooters up there.”
I turned to look who was speaking, my blood chilling in my veins. I hated it when strangers talked to me on these battlefields. I never knew what to say or how to react. I just wanted to be left alone.
The man beside me looked like he had stepped straight out of an old wet-plate photograph, the kind Mathew Brady used to capture the likeness of dead soldiers on the battlefield.
The hem of his pants were muddied and frayed, his leather shoes looked like they had seen better days. His uniform was stained by patches of dirt and clay that popped against the navy-blue fabric. Shiny brass buttons that were undone down the front of his coat caught the sunlight, as did the metal from the rifle he carried. Beneath his coat, was a cotton shirt that must have once been a nice, pristine white, but was now ruined by sweat and soil. A haversack was strapped across his chest to hang on his left side, just like mine. Only, his was a Union haversack and coated to make it weather resistant. Mine was straight canvas, like a Confederate’s.
Upon his head was the typical army-issued kepi, the wool dyed to match his coat. His face was smudged with a black substance I could only guess was gunpowder, and I could see droplets of sweat on his brow as if he had been sweating before coming up to me. And then, standing out starkly against his tanned skin and dark uniform, was the bandage around his right hand. It was speckled with the same dirt that soiled his clothes
I searched my memory, but I couldn’t recall ever seeing a flyer or hearing word about a reenactment scheduled for that day. In fact, I knew I had missed quite a few special events at the park by coming this week as opposed to the following. Maybe I had seen wrong or I had finally met someone a little crazier than me?
I tried to hold in a smile as the reenactor looked at me like I was the one out of place on the ridge.
“Come on to the tunnel,” he said. “It’s a lot safer there.”
I looked up and down the road and saw no cars, no joggers or other hikers. The pavement curved out of sight and all I could hear were the distant rumble of vehicles beyond the park and the wind rustling through the treetops. This guy was suggesting I walk down the steps to the preserved tunnel under the road. It was kept to give visitors an idea of the struggles of the Union infantry at this place on the battle lines, but I didn’t have any intention of going down there. My feet and hips were sore from walking almost seven miles already.
But something told me to play along. These reenactors could get so into character and that was something I enjoyed watching. Maybe there were more down in the tunnel and that’s where the demo was taking place?
So I followed after him, keeping up with his hustling pace though the muscles in my legs protested loudly. When we made it down the steps and stepped into the cool darkness of the bricked-out tunnel, the solider let out a relieved breath.
“That was close… Say, I haven’t seen you up here before. Which regiment are you with?”
I was a little surprised he hadn’t asked for a code word. Then again, this wasn’t a picket line and if I got the word wrong, then how could a reenactor continue after that?
Thinking quick on my feet, I said, “Wisconsin, eighth infantry. I was transferred here to help with the digging.” The only thing I knew about that regiment was the flamboyant story about their bald eagle mascot, Old Abe. The bird’s likeness was carved into some of the regiment’s battlefield markers.
Apparently, the soldier had heard of its renown and grinned. “The Eagle Brigade,” he said with a nod. “Excellent. I’m here with the ninth Iowa. We don’t really have a mascot, but we sure fight good.”
I remembered seeing their markers along the road and knew they were part of Thayer’s brigade during the May nineteenth and twenty-second assaults. They lost quite a few men.
“I heard what happened here,” I said, trying my best to play my part. “We were a little further east.”
The soldier’s eyes took an on excited luster. “How far did you get?”
I tried to remember exactly where I had seen that marker. “Two color bearers got their flags on the slope of the Stockade Redan. But we had to fall back. There was too much enemy fire and we couldn’t hold the position.”
He nodded, as if he understood exactly what I meant. “I’m Private Ackerman, by the way. John Ackerman.”
I had no fear of impersonating another soldier if I just knew a name, but decided to go with my own. “Private Bitikofer,” I said, offering out my hand. Clearly, in character, he couldn’t tell that I was a girl. Then again, men back then were clueless about women fighters. Trade a dress for a pair of trousers and tuck up your hair, and no one was the wiser.
He reached out with his injured hand to shake, but then thought better of it and gave her his left instead.
“How bad is that?” I asked, referring to his injury.
He only shrugged. “It hurts, but it could be worse. A buddy of mine was shot through the leg. A few more have had their limbs amputated. I think I got off pretty good.”
“Better keep it clean,” I told him. “You don’t want to risk getting an infection.”
Ackerman peered at me like I was talking gibberish, but let it slide. “It’s fine. I’ve had the doc look at it and he wrapped it up just fine.”
I let it go, knowing that if this man was sticking to what a private soldier would have known back then, disease and infection was the least of his problems. Getting shot by Rebel troops or starving was probably higher on his priority list.
I walked away, venturing close to the end of the tunnel that opened out on to the valley and ridge beyond. Confederate Avenue was on the other side, along with dozens of other markers for Louisiana and Mississippi regiments that defended the important port city. From Union Avenue, the ridge didn’t seem so imposing. She had even debated on crossing it herself to paint a better picture for herself. There were no guiderails to stop her. But from the tunnel, she could see why it might have been a little harder than it first appeared. If she did reach the other side, she would have been exhausted and out of breath.
“Thayer’s got us digging night and day. I’m sure glad Sherman’s sending us some help.”
I gave him a tight-lipped smile, once more trying to stay in my character just like he was staying in his own. “How long have you been digging?” I asked.
“A few weeks now.” He whipped his forehead with his dirty sleeve. “This heat’s the worst I’ve ever been in, too.”
I reasoned that would place this fictitious scenario in June. The Federals had another month to go before General Pemberton would finally give up Vicksburg.
“I don’t think you’ll have to be here much longer,” I replied.
“You think the Rebs are caving?” he asked eagerly.
“I don’t think they’ll last much longer with their supplies cut. Grant’s got them in a tight fix for sure. If Pemberton knows what’s good for his men and the town, he’ll give it up soon enough.”
For a moment, this was actually pretty fun. It was rare that I could ever talk Civil War stuff with someone else. Even if she was taking the side of the Yankees in the discussion. She could admire both sides. Their motivations, their bravery, and their tenacity.
“That’s a relief,” he said with a shrug of his brows. “I’m ready to charge up that ridge again and shoot those rebels. We all are. After the beating they gave us in May, it’s about time we showed them just what our boys can do.”
I had read about the fervor of both northern and southern troops, how willing they were to shoot and kill their enemies, how some soldiers enlisted just for the chance to shoot a man. But I hadn’t wanted to think that was the only reason they fought and died on battlefields like this. No one was that cruel and vindictive.
“Is that why you volunteered?” I asked, hoping to catch the reenactor in some deeper conversation.
Ackerman pursed his lips in thought and then shook his head. “No. Not really. I volunteered because all my friends did and I wanted to make my family proud… Those friends are gone now, and I miss my family more than anything. I didn’t want to be called a coward for not volunteering, and I don’t want to be labeled as a traitor if I ran. But none of that is keeping me here.”
“Then what is?” I asked, my voice involuntarily softening in this intimate, personally but completely fictitious conversation. For a minute, I was able to forget that this guy wasn’t a real soldier from the ninth Iowa.
“It’s the principle of the thing. Those men up there…” He pointed toward the ridge. “They represent something I can’t stand. They want this country divided. Our forefathers fought so we could all be independent and show the world that we can stand united. The Confederacy wants to ruin that idea. They want to tear this Union apart and that’s not right. I know some fellas here will tell you they’re fighting to free the darkies, and that’s all good, but I’m fighting for unity. We should all be one nation under God, indivisible.”
Those same words were adopted into the pledge of allegiance just after the war between the states was over. A phrase that once didn’t need to be stated, was permanently fixed in the minds of every citizen now, lest they forget the time when their country was almost torn apart by political and ethical differences.
“But what if it’s best the Confederacy was left alone? I’ve heard some say that they wouldn’t last long without the north’s industrial power, so why not let them figure it out for themselves?”
He snorted. “Those Rebs are too stubborn. If we don’t fight, if we don’t do what we think is right, then nothing will change. We have to stand up for what we believe. It’s that simple. If we don’t, then who will? And I’m willing to die for that idea of a Union, just like they’re willing to die for their independence.”
Just an idea. A simple, basic idea about unity and equality. It was about seeing the bigger picture on a global scale and understanding that these United States needed to be preserved.
After a long stretch of silence, I looked back to the soldier, but he wasn’t there.
“Ackerman?” I called, my voice echoing down the tunnel. Nothing. Not even footsteps.
A gust of wind howled down the corridor as I rushed back toward the stairs and to Union Avenue. Absolutely no one was there.
But he had to be there. He couldn’t have just vanished. A car passed by carrying a family of tourists. I could hear the music from their radio leak out the windows as they zoomed past, not even slowing down to read the plaque at Thayer’s Approach. It was only Stop Six on the tour road, and there were certainly other interesting spots on the battlefield, but for a moment, I could feel my world coming into some perspective.
My ideas and my passions may not have seemed valid to others. It might have seemed crazy to want to devote myself to something like this. I wouldn’t be the first person to do it, to dedicate their life and time to studying the past or sharing their knowledge with future generations. But everyone could bring something to the table. Whether it was a book or an idea. Everyone’s contribution was worth something in the end. Just like the Private John Ackerman said, if I don’t stand up for something I believe in, then who will?
Ackerman, John A. Age 22. 9th Iowa Infantry, Company H. Residence Decorah, nativity Indiana. Enlisted Aug. 21, 1861. Mustered Sept. 24, 1861. Wounded slightly in right hand May 20, 1863, Vicksburg, Miss. Died of wounds July 6, 1863, Vicksburg, Miss. Buried in National Cemetery, Vicksburg, Miss. Section G, grave 1249.