Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Big Game Hunt (A brief respite from the political scene)

   I hope that you will indulge me on this occasion, as I simply wanted to post a story that I thought you might find entertaining. A respite from the political scene is always a good thing.

   As many of you know by now, I participated in the hobby of Civil War reenacting for many years. As a result of this my company and I served as VIP's (Volunteers In the Park) for the National Park Service, took part in numerous movies, and participated in living history programs and battle reenactments up and down the east coast, and even some out west. We had a great deal of fun and met a lot of people along the way. Among my fondest memories are the many good friends I made during those years. While I do not always miss wearing wool uniforms in the summer heat, I do miss the fellowship that went along with it.

   Recently one of those old friends, William Posey, found me on FaceBook and we renewed our friendship. In doing so he mentioned an event that took place back in the early 1990's at the reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek, VA, near Middletown, VA. This event takes place annually in October to commemorate the battle where the Confederate forces, under General Jubal Early, were defeated by General Philip Sheridan's Union army. The battlefield and Belle Grove Plantation remain much as they were in 1864. It is a beautiful setting in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. As the two major battles that are fought at the reenactment take place early Saturday morning and in the afternoon on Sunday, there is time for other activities. On the occasion my friend mentioned we took the opportunity to fill our Saturday afternoon with a "Big Game Hunt."

   Technology was not then what it is now and small, handheld digital video recorders were not readily available. The old, clunky VHS recorders were not always easy to use and carry around, so, to this day, I still kick myself for not recording this event. However, I will try, as best I can, to use my descriptive powers to relate the event to you. I will begin with the genesis of the idea for this "hunt." We were participating in a living history program at Meadow Farm Museum in Henrico County, VA, in September. We had a good relationship with the folks there and did this program annually. One of the small buildings on the grounds was used as my headquarters, as I was the officer in command. A dear friend of mine, Paul Rush, had just recently returned to the United States after a couple of years in Italy. His wife had taken on the responsibility of teaching at a school for U.S. citizens stationed abroad and they lived there during that time.

   After most of the participants had taken to their tents for the evening, Paul and I sat in my headquarters and just talked and caught up on old times. At some point during the conversation the upcoming event at Cedar Creek came up. Paul and I share what can best be described as a strange sense of humor and I proposed a "what if" scenario. "Wouldn't it be funny if we......" - and the idea for the Big Game Hunt was born. We spent the rest of our time that evening throwing out ideas for this hunt. Would this idea work? Could we do that? Would enough people want to participate? Things of that sort. In the days after, and before arriving at Cedar Creek, we talked a few more times about it, finalizing plans, arranging for other participants, making phone calls, and gathering the needed equipment and items to make it happen. Things were coming together nicely and those we asked to participate were only to happy to take part. However, each of them was sworn to secrecy, as this big game hunt was to be a very special one.

   The weekend of the event finally arrived. As was usually the case at Cedar Creek the weather was beautiful and would make for a very pleasant hunt. We had determined that we would invite five fellow Confederate officers from other organizations as our special guests. I was to be the host and my First Lieutenant, Bob Wilburn, my second. Members of my company, F Company, 21st Virginia Infantry, and members of the Stonewall Brigade, would participate. I was commanding Jackson's Division at the time, an amalgamation of several different Confederate organizations, which was founded by F Company and the Stonewall Brigade. Everyone was anxious to take part and they all kept their word to remain quiet about the premise of the hunt. Paul Rush was working in a print shop at the time and had come up with the idea to create a professional looking invitation for our guests. Here is a copy of the original, which I still possess.

On Saturday morning I had couriers deliver the invitations to each of our guests. I am sure the looks on their faces, upon reading the invitation, were priceless. I am happy to say that they all showed up, if for no other reason out of a sense of curiosity. It is important to know what the setting for this affair looked like. The area around Belle Grove Plantation was rolling undulating countryside. Swells and depressions abounded. Our camp was set upon a ridge overlooking what can best be described as a natural amphitheater. A slight downhill grade sloped away from our camp to the north and then leveled out into a far reaching field. To our right was a wooded area. These woods were not impenetrable, but they were thick enough to hide anyone there from our view. The field in front was covered in tall grass that ranged from knee-high to waist-high. As the field opened to our left, toward Winchester, VA, Belle Grove Plantation's outbuildings were visible. The "open area," where the hunt would take place was approximately 200-300 yards in length.

   Along the ridge, in front of our tent line, was placed a row of chairs for our guests. My chair, often referred to by the members of Jackson's Division as, the Throne, was in the center. Here are a couple of shots of the throne. It is a period chair, but as you can see, rather ornate. I took much ribbing for this chair, but I never let it sway me from its use.

Behind the row of chairs were placed three tables. On one was a wine serving set made of pewter, which would be used to serve our guests some liquid refreshment. It was a very ornate and decorative set with a serving tray. With the wine set were two servers, each in uniform with blouse completely buttoned, pants legs hanging about the shoes, as for dress occasions, no head wear, waist belts, white gloves, and towels. Alongside the wine set was a tray with cheese and crackers, as well. I wanted to be a good host after all. The servers brought the wine forward and made quite the show of filling each goblet from the carafe. This being done the cheese and crackers were brought out. As we enjoyed the refreshments there was much small talk and banter about the days events and reenactments past. It was obvious that all of our guests were about to bust wanting to know what exactly was going on, but they played along and did not ask directly.

   As we finished the refreshments the time was drawing near to begin the hunt. On the other two tables were placed three muskets. Two rifled and one smooth bore. An 1842 caliber .69 Springfield smooth bore, converted to percussion cap, an 1861 caliber .58 Springfield rifled musket, and an 1858 caliber .577 British Enfield rifled musket. Along with each were cartridges and percussion caps. There were two men assigned to these tables as well. Their responsibility was to load and present the weapon that each guest chose for his turn. Among our guests was one Charles Hillsman, Colonel of the 18th Virginia Infantry. Charles has since passed on, but he was the epitome of the Virginia gentleman. Well liked by all who knew him and on this day the senior officer among my guests, thus he was given first turn. As I recall he chose the British Enfield.

   So, now the refreshments have been served and the servers are standing behind their table at in place rest. The loaders are preparing the British Enfield musket for its work. Myself and all of my guests are still seated. I motion to my lieutenant to come over to me. He struts over (Wilburn loved to strut), comes to attention in front of my chair and snaps a salute. I look up and say, "Let the hunt begin." With this he snaps another salute, turns to our bugler, and orders, in a firm military voice, "Let the hunt begin!" Now we were fortunate to have the services of one Richard Banz, of the 4th North Carolina Infantry, a member unit. Richard knew every bugle call that was ever used during the War for Southern Independence and could play the bugle very well. However, there is no "begin the hunt" bugle call, so he just came up with some obscure, seldom heard call and blew it with all his lung power. Very impressive. By now the loaders have presented Colonel Hillaman with his weapon of choice. He is standing a few feet in front of his chair and anxiously awaiting "the game."

   Off to our right, in the woods, we hear loud yelling and the clanging of pots and pans. The "beaters" are chasing the game from the woods. All eyes are now fixed on the wood line. Our guests, and by now the many curious spectators that have gathered, have no idea what is coming next. Then suddenly, bursting from the trees and into the tall grass, there it is. It's''s.......A YANKEE SOLDIER. Yes, a Yankee soldier in his blue uniform was running out of the woods at top speed. A laugh goes up from the crowd, but Colonel Hillsman is not distracted. He levels his musket, leads his prey, and .....pop! The percussion cap exploded, but the weapon did not fire. This was unanticipated. Colonel Hillsman drops the weapon and calls for the 1861 Springfield, which had also been loaded. The prey has been frightened and is running back and forth in the grass, not sure which way to go. Colonel Hillsman again levels his weapon, taking careful aim, he waits....waits.....BANG! The Yankee is down. But what's this? It is not dead, but flopping around on the ground in its death throes. Colonel Hillsman has been accompanied to the hunt by his regimental Sgt. Major, in full dress uniform. The Sgt. Major, taking stock of the situation, ran out to the wounded Yankee, drew his caliber .36 Navy revolver from his holster and put the beast out of his misery. Upon doing so the Sgt. Major waved back to the Colonel and yelled that it was over.

   Now to retrieve the trophy. From among the Stonewall Brigade had been hand-picked four of the biggest, most imposing NCO's. This detail was led by a Sgt. Bibber. With a wool blanket they ran as one out to the dead Yankee. They laid the blanket on the ground next to it, picked up the Yankee, and placed him on the blanket. Then, with Sgt. Bibber yelling commands, in what can best be described as some sort of African dialect, they each took a corner of the blanket and ran back to Colonel Hillsman's seat. Colonel Hillsman was still standing and accepting congratulations on his outstanding shot, when Sgt. Bibber and his men arrived. They dropped the beast at the Colonel's feet and then Sgt, Bibber got down on both knees, grabbed the beast by his hair, and raised its head off the blanket before the Colonel. With his empty hand Bibber gestured at the trophy and said, in that African dialect, "Good beast, Master, good beast."

   The kill was then removed to the rear, while the Colonel admired his handiwork. Then the next bugle call and the beaters began anew. This went on for each of the invited guests until all had bagged a trophy. Although we had not advertised this affair, many people had gathered to see what was going on. Yankees, Confederates, and civilians alike. With each kill a roar went up through the crowd, which I would estimate at around 150 people. Everyone had a grand time and those who participated gave it their all. Even the fellows who were the prey enjoyed their part in it. It was quite the successful affair and Paul and I were more than pleased to have seen our idea come to fruition.

   My years in the reenacting hobby were some of the happiest of my life. I still have many close friends to this day whose friendships began as members of F Company and Jackson's Division. I treasure them all.