“LOOK OUT, SHAFT! HE BEHIND THE DOOR!”
If you’d sat next to me in a movie theater during the 1970s, you might have heard those warnings and others shouted at the screen to warn celluloid heroes of impending danger.
I was tempted to yell out similar warnings to certain heroic actors Saturday.
“There is one, right there!” or, “DUCK. He’s fixin’ to shoot you, man.”
I didn’t, but only because I knew the good guys were going to win, anyway – not because the fix was in, but because the actual battle had already been fought 150 years ago and what occurred Saturday was just a historical re-enactment.
More than 20,000 people gathered near Four Oaks in Johnston County for the sesquicentennial commemoration and re-enactment of the Battle of Bentonville in the Civil War. The Union won the three-day battle, but it was a pyrrhic victory, since both sides suffered a large number of casualties – dead, wounded and missing: 1,527 for the Union, 2,606 for the Confederates.
In historical terms, 150 years is a mere blink of the eye, which may explain why re-enactors aren’t the only ones still fighting the Civil War. Some people are even still debating the real reason for the war. We know the truth, but hey, what’s the harm in humoring them if they want to say it was for something else?
Some even claim that many blacks fought for the Confederacy.
That is historical fact. My great-great-uncle, of whom we speak only in hushed tones, Col. Beauregard Saunders – that’s “B.S.” to you – was one. Col. B.S. fought for the wrong side in that war, but only, he insisted later, because he thought the crossed rifle insignia on the rebels’ caps was an “X” for Malcolm X.
At a Johnston County gas station where I stopped Saturday to get directions, I met Charles Underwood. He called himself “Johnston County’s last liberal,” but before guiding me to the battlefield, he said of the re-enactment, “I went 15 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago. I ain’t going back this year: The South keeps losing.
“Maybe for the 155th” commemoration, he said with a laugh, “they’ll let the South win.”
Many visitors parked in a cottonfield littered with sad, trampled little cotton bolls and walked about a half-mile to the battlefield. As we neared the site, a cavalry of Confederate soldiers emerged from the woods and halted our progress until they passed.
“Thank you for your patience,” one horseback-riding rebel said, tipping his cap, “and remember: Today’s dead Yankees are brought to you by the Army of Northern Virginia.”
Wait, what? That proclamation elicited a disturbingly raucous cheer from the people surrounding me, many of whom had affixed to their clothes a sticker that read “I Support Confederate Heritage.”
It wasn’t the last such cheer. Standing there in that hallowed cornfield with dead corn underfoot where dead, insufficiently venerated soldiers once lay, an even louder one erupted when – during the recreated battle that strove for historical accuracy – the Union soldiers were routed and forced to retreat.
I was about to get worried – Say, who won this battle? – until that cheer was followed by a resigned sigh that signified “Ah, hell. Here come Union reinforcements.”
Whew. You know how the Civil War is referred to as “the lost cause”?
Bentonville is where it was irretrievably lost and the good guys finally prevailed. In “Fierce Patriot,” Robert L. O’Connell’s biography of Gen. William T. Sherman, O’Connell wrote that “Sherman told his soldiers to ‘turn down the blowtorch at the North Carolina border.’ ”
Theodore Upson, a Union soldier at the time, attributed Sherman’s magnanimity to the fact that “the people around here are very poor ... but very kind and hospitable.”
Cynical Confederate sympathizers may be inclined to attribute the staying of his fiery hand to their belief that Sherman’s bloodlust and pyromania had already been sated on his march through Georgia and South Carolina, both of which he treated roughly – deservedly so, but roughly nonetheless.
O’Connell and others wrote that Sherman allowed Confederate Gen. Johnston (not the lead singer for the Chairmen of the Board, although he, too probably was singing “Give Me Just Little More Time” when Sherman approached) to escape to Smithfield, where he presumably ordered barbecue before surrendering at Bennett Place in Durham April 26, 1865.
Yep, the blink of an eye.
Saunders: 919-836-2811 or firstname.lastname@example.org