Shades of Gray

 

 

John Howard watched as the mist rose  from Wild Pony Creek and glided over the bottom land of Wild Pony Ranch. As silent and cunning as the most experienced predator, the mist met no resistance as it infiltrated the ranch’s paddocks and vast upland meadows. It almost seemed to absorb the ground it covered, like a living thing with a rapacious appetite.

          “Who is this, daddy?” Emma asked.

          John turned away from the attic window and walked over to the foot locker where his daughter had found some old photographs.

          “That’s your great great great grandfather William,” her father replied.  “See, he’s wearing his Confederate uniform.”

          John flipped the photograph over.  “This picture was taken in 1861, probably just after he married your great great great grandmother Julia and was heading off to war.”

           “Is this the same man?” Emma asked, handing him another picture.

          John examined the photograph. A worn man with haunted eyes stared back at him. He turned the picture over. 1865. The story his great great grandmother told was that her husband came back from the war four years later and twenty years older. He refused to talk about his experiences as an enlisted man in the Twenty Seventh Virginia Infantry, Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. When pressed he would say only that he had seen things that no man should have to see and done things that no man should have to do.

          “Daddy?” Emma asked.

          “Yes, sweetie,” her father said, lifting his eyes from the picture. “It’s the same man.”

          “What’s that?” Emma asked,pointing to a small cross shaped medal.

          Emma’s father looked more closely at the picture and inhaled sharply as he noted the Confederate battle flag surrounded with a laurel wreath. The inscription was too small to read, but he knew what it said.

          “That’s the Southern Cross of Honor,Emma,” John said. “Your ancestor received that medal for valor in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America.”

          As he put away the pictures and left the attic with his daughter, John thought about the upcoming reenactment of the Battle of Lynchburg. The organizers had accepted his offer to host the event at Wild Pony Ranch and he was scheduled to meet with their representatives. He glanced at his watch just as the doorbell rang. They were here.

 

Sarah Jane Howard looked up from her computer and glanced out the window. Her husband and three other people were walking toward the barn. A slight smile crossed Sarah Jane’s face. She knew how much this event meant to her husband. John Howard was a serious reenactor who was fiercely proud of his southern heritage. The opportunity to host the reenactment of an important local battle was a dream come true for him. It also marked his first reenactment serving under his personal hero, General Jubal Early. She scribbled a note to get his uniform cleaned and pressed, before returning her attention to the computer.

 

John burst through the kitchen door, eyes gleaming with excitement.

          “How did your visitors like Wild Pony Ranch?” Sarah Jane asked.

          “They loved it,” John replied. “They said the layout is perfect for the battle.”

           “That reminds me, I’m getting your uniform cleaned,” Sarah Jane said.

          “No need to,” John said. “They told me they’re getting me a brand new uniform. Sort of a thank you gift for hosting the battle, I guess. It’s being delivered sometime this afternoon.”

          Sarah Jane looked up with a sly grin. “Did they tell you who got the role of General Early?” she asked.

          John shook his head. “I asked. Actually, I guess you could say I pleaded, but they still wouldn’t tell me. I’m sure there was a lot of politicking and competition going on behind the scenes. Anyway, they said they’d let me know.”

 

The doorbell rang just as they were sitting down to supper.

          “I’ll get it,” Emma said, jumping up from the table. A minute later she returned to the kitchen and said, “a man’s here to see you daddy. He’s wearing a uniform.”

          John walked to the front door and greeted a man dressed in Confederate gray.

          “John Howard?” the man asked.

          “Yes,” John said, extending his hand.

          To his surprise the man sprang to attention and delivered a razor sharp salute. With a bemused look on his face, John noted the three horizontal bars on the man’s uniform collar, and said, “no need to salute me, Captain. I’m not an officer.”

          The captain remained silent, holding the salute and staring through the wall at the end of the hall.

          With a shrug and a smile, John returned the salute. The man handed over his package and was gone.

          “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an officer salute an enlisted man,” Sarah Jane said from the doorway.  “I guess that’s your new uniform.”

          “I imagine he was just being courteous and respectful to the host,” John replied. “I’ll try the uniform on after supper.”

          “Put it on now, daddy, put it on now,” Emma cried excitedly.

          John glanced over at his wife.

          “I’ll put the food in the oven to keep it warm,” she said with a playful grin.

          John returned fifteen minutes later wearing the new uniform and an unreadable expression.

          “Wow,” Sarah Jane said. “You look like an officer.”

          Emma ran over to her father for a closer look at the uniform.

          “Looks like a good fit,” Sarah Jane said. She checked the waist and inseam, and smiled up at her husband. Her eyes grew large and the smile dropped from her face as she noticed the collar; a wreath, with three stars enclosed, embroidered in gold.

          “Oh, John,” Sarah Jane whispered in a voice thick with emotion. Stepping away from her husband, Sarah Jane slowly absorbed the presence of Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early.

 

John watched the sunrise from the attic window. The fields and meadows of Wild Pony Ranch were filled with soldiers, tents, volunteers, and vendors. Spectators would begin arriving in a couple of hours. John opened the foot locker and retrieved the photograph of his ancestor. “I will make you proud,” he promised.

 

Word had spread that John Howard had the role of General Early, and an overflow crowd of spectators covered the grounds of Wild Pony Ranch. The air was electric with anticipation. The fun and games party like atmosphere of most reenactments was missing. John was known as a strong partisan of the Confederacy and General Early. An intense experience was expected.

          An hour before the battle John was finalizing the battle plan with his commanders. General Breckinridge reported that Hunter was dug in with strong defensive fortifications, but that his left flank was in the air. General Nicholls reported that Hunter had a division in reserve positioned behind the right end of his line. John considered this information and then announced the battle plan.

          “General Breckinridge, you will position your force on Hunter’s left flank. A brigade of cavalry will screen your move. General Nicholls, your men must break through on the right in order to hold the enemy’s reserve force in place. The remainder of the Second Corps will hit the center of their line. We’ll hit them at the same time, roll up their left flank, get behind them and cut off their retreat.”

          John Howard looked at his generals. “Questions?” he asked.

          “You’ll have to hit them hard, General Early,” Breckinridge said. “Hunter has a strong force.”

          “Yes, General Hunter is a formidable opponent when he is fighting the women, children, and old men of the Shenandoah Valley. He marches right into their homes and takes food from their table.”

          John paused and took a deep breath. He was trembling with anger. “Today he will be fighting the Second Corps, General Breckinridge, and there is no doubt about the outcome.” John looked at the officers and said, “that’s all. We go on my command.”

           John mounted his horse and rode down the line reviewing his troops. He stopped and faced his men. Battle flags fluttered gently in the breeze and a breathless silence hung in the air. “Today, on this ground, we are twenty two miles and one hundred and forty five years from Appomattox,” he shouted. “Today we fight the Battle of Lynchburg. Today the Second Corps is reborn.” The words were greeted with a roar of approval.

          John turned his horse and contemplated the enemy in the west meadow nearly a mile in the distance. He closed his eyes and felt the earth tilt as time flew backwards. He ached for what the south had lost. The loss of life, the destruction of families, the rape of the land, the humiliation of Appomattox, the humiliation of his ancestor, William Howard. All of it. Tears leaked from his eyes. John Howard raised his head to the sky and howled. An ululating wail not entirely human comprised of grief, despair, and rage. A sound capable of shattering fragile glass and strong minds. The Rebel Yell. A beat of silence was followed by a deafening response from the Second Corps. John Howard raised his hand and launched the attack.

 

          A mile away the Federal General Hunter waited in nervous anticipation. “Save your ammunition until the enemy stops and prepares to fire,” he ordered. “It should be a range of about four hundred yards, all open field. It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Hunter continued to watch as the Confederates closed the distance, General Early in the lead.

           “A thousand yards,” Hunter’s adjutant called out.

          Hunter’s men raised and sighted their weapons.

          “Five hundred yards,” the adjutant called.

          “Hold your fire,” Hunter ordered.

          “Three hundred yards,” the adjutant announced, glancing nervously at his superior.

          “Mother of god,” Hunter whispered as Early and the Second Corps charged forward at full speed.

          “Eighty yards,” the adjutant screamed.

          Hunter was frozen in place. “Fire,” he finally yelled.

          A row of Confederates went down before the rest of the Corps hit Hunter’s line like a rogue wave slamming into a sand castle. Federals threw down their arms as cries of surrender filled the air. As a Federal rifleman raised and sighted his weapon, Early wheeled his horse in a tight turn and knocked the weapon from the man’s hand.

          “Surrender,” Early demanded.

          When the man was slow to raise his hands, Early dismounted and jammed his gun in the man’s side, his finger tight on the trigger. “Right now,Yank, or I’ll drop you where you stand.”

          The rifleman looked into Early’s blazing eyes with fear and disbelief. Slowly he raised his hands. The battle was over.

 

Supper was over and the last car had left. John, Emma, and Sarah Jane sat on the front porch watching the purple remnants of a memorable sunset. John was still charged from the day’s battle.

          Sarah Jane touched her husband’s arm and said, “you did well, John.”

          “I hope so,” her husband replied.

          “Come on, Emma,” Sarah Jane said. “Time to get ready for bed.”

          Emma stared trance like into the distance murmuring softly to herself.

          “Emma?” her father asked.

          Emma pointed down the driveway to a line of trees. “He’s here,” she said. “Grandpa William. You can see his mist.”

          John looked in the direction she was pointing but saw only swirling ground fog, normal for this time of year.

          “Let’s go, sweetie,”he said. “It’s been a long day.”

          “ He wants you to know he’s proud of you,” Emma said. “He wants to give you something.”

          John picked his daughter up to carry her inside. They were going up the stairs when Emma said to her father, “someone else is proud of you, too.”

          John Howard smiled and kissed his daughter.

          “Daddy, who is Old Jube?” Emma asked.

          The smile slipped from John Howard’s face.

 

John sat on the front porch sipping a cup of coffee as he watched the sun rise over the east meadow. He had a full day ahead with paperwork to finish and fence to mend. He also wanted to clean up any remaining trash and debris from the reenactment. He put his coffee cup down and headed for the barn. Suddenly he stopped and looked down the driveway at the line of trees. Feeling slightly foolish, he changed direction and headed for the trees. He stopped at the tree line and looked around. Nothing. He waited. Still nothing. As he turned back toward the barn his eye caught something on the ground reflected by the sun. He bent down to examine the object. “Deo Vindice” 1861 1865.

His skin turned to goose flesh and his body trembled as he turned the object over and read the inscription. Finally, he started back to the house. He glanced over his shoulder once as he carried his great great grandfather William’s Southern Cross of Honor to the foot locker in the attic.

         

 

         

         

         

         

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

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