The Vortex
{a work of fiction}

I have taken the opportunity to write down the events just as I remember them, before time and imagination alter the truth of what happened that night. In the intervening weeks I have told this story to dozens of people and have found it becoming more unbelievable with each telling. This is the truth as I know it, a simple narrative of the extraordinary and unbelievable events that took place on that hot August night.

I had arrived at the event late, as usual, tired from a six hour drive and anxious to fall in with my comrades who were already mingling with a curious public. The 5th New York monument stands just a few hundred yards from the busy Warrenton Turnpike on the battlefield of Manasses, Va. Someone with connections had really pulled some strings with the National Park Service to get permission for us to camp out near the monument. For it was here in the late afternoon of August 30, 1862, that the men whom we portray had made their fateful stand against overwhelming odds. In a battle that lasted just minutes they had engaged Hood’s Texans and achieved the unenviable distinction of suffering 347 casualties of the 462 men who went into battle. Many years later a twice-wounded Andrew Coates would refer to the spot where the monument now stands as "the very vortex of hell." Private Coats’ hell would continue for the next two days as he lay on the battlefield without nourishment or medical attention until being picked up by the Confederates. Many of his comrades would not survive the exposure.

Like every other living history we prepared to answer the standard questions:

"Are your uniforms hot?"

"Do your guns really shoot?"

"Don’t the uniforms make good targets?"

At least once a day you get an "expert" who has seen the entire Ken Burns series and watched "Gettysburg" a dozen times. He begins to tell you about the Civil War as if you’d never heard of it. He quotes the lines of Shaara as if they were written in the Official Records. Rarely asking questions, just looking for someone to confess his Civil War knowledge to. You begin to feel as if you’re moderating a support group for Civil War Enthusiasts Anonymous. Somehow you endure with a smile on our face, waiting for that one individual with whom you can really make a connection, someone who leaves a little more enlightened than when they came. That’s why we do it; to carry forth the memory of those who served their country in a time when its very existence was in doubt. To educate those who have benefited from their sacrifice. To explain to today’s Americans who those soldiers of long ago were and what they did.

The morning passed quickly. At times the small parking lot was full, with sizable crowds watching us perform the Manual of Arms and the Bayonet Drill. The afternoon slowed to a trickle, the blistering heat driving would-be spectators to the beach or the air-conditioned mall. By 3 o’clock we were left to ourselves, with only the occasional Park Ranger to keep us company.

As evening settled in we enjoyed a plain, but hearty, meal before settling back to enjoy the last few moments of daylight. The following day would include a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument followed by more drill and more questions from a curious public. Grouped around the campfire, or clustered next to a tent, the men began the telling and retelling of former deeds and past events. It was a ritual that occurs time and again, the storytellers and their listeners never tiring of the tales. Someday someone should write them all down so that they could just be read from a book; required reading for new recruits.

It was about this time that somebody, I have my suspicions who, suggested to the Captain that a guard should be posted. A hurried conference of officers and NCOs approved the plan, and thus began a search for volunteers for guard detail. The process used to select individuals for guard duty is similar to the method commonly employed by 6th grade math teachers to determine which students will demonstrate their homework on the chalkboard. With everyone aligned before him, the First Sergeant, or some other fortunate NCO, asks politely for volunteers, all the while scanning the line of faces for likely suspects. Once his gaze rests on you it’s useless to look away; you may as well shoulder your weapon and report for guard duty.

Being fairly new to the unit (and not being particularly close to the individual doing the picking); my selection was virtually guaranteed. Trying not to look too disappointed at the prospect of standing in the dark for an hour, I pasted a smile on my face and grimly accepted my fate. To do otherwise might leave the impression that I didn’t relish the assignment, and would almost guarantee that I’d get picked again.

Myself and three other lucky souls were turned over to the Corporal of the Guard and marched to our posts. My post was to the rear of the 5th N.Y. monument, I suppose to guard against a sneak attack from the direction of Young’s Branch. After receiving my orders (which were simply to walk back and forth and try to avoid tripping in the dark) I was left to contemplate the joys of a soldier’s life. Upon posting the sentries, the Corporal of the Guard returned to the campfire; confident that his services would not be required for the rest of the watch.

One by one my comrades turned in until only the Corporal of the Guard and the First Sergeant remained around the campfire, talking in hushed undertones and stirring the dying embers. Quiet fell over the double row of tents pitched in the grassy area between the 5th and 10th New York monuments. A heavy mist began to creep out from the woods beyond, rising slowly up the incline towards the monument and our encampment. I had resigned myself to the possibility that they would leave us out there all night, just to see if we’d do it.

I took position directly behind the 5th monument, leaning against a cedar tree, rifle cradled in my arms. My gaze roamed down the sloping meadow while my mind wandered back to those events more than a century ago. The mist had wafted about halfway up the slope, swirling in and out among the scrub brushes that dotted the overgrown meadow. It appeared as a smoky tide, slowly rising towards the tents and their slumbering occupants.

At first I thought they were deer, moving cautiously in and out of the mist, walking near the wood line. As I strained to catch a glimpse I realized that the silent figures in the fog were human forms. There were three of them, moving slowly, cautiously, heads tilted towards the ground as if searching for something amongst the tall grass. Speechless at first, I struggled to recover my voice and yell out "Corporal of the Guard! Post Three!" The cry was instantly echoed by the three other sentries and the Corporal came at a trot, peering through the gloom to locate the spot where I was standing.

The Corporal of the Guard was one of the old timers, a throwback to the early days when reenactors made their own uniforms and wore original accouterments. He had held almost every post in the unit, suffered through a hundred rainy events and a few snowy ones. Burnt by the sun and chapped by the wind he had sat around a thousand campfires. He was one of the ones who refer to Living History as "The Hobby". If anyone had heard and seen it all it was the Corporal.

I pointed towards the woods where the three figures still moved silently through the scrub brush and weeds. He stood silently beside me, neither of us saying a word or moving our eyes. The man from Post Two drew near, and all three of us stood gazing at the three ghostly figures passing before us. I don’t know how long it was before they passed from sight, back into the fog from whence they came. It seemed like an hour but I doubt it was more than five minutes. We had watched for fifteen more minutes without catching a glimpse of the mysterious wanderers when the Corporal turned to me and muttered "Keep a close watch, call me if they come again." He sent a scowl in the direction of Post Two, reminding him to get back to his beat, and trudged slowly back towards the smoldering campfire. I was left with a feeling of loneliness and a sense of foreboding to keep me company.

Adrenaline is a curious thing. It pumps you up for a short time, but once it’s gone the fatigue comes crashing back. A long drive in the early morning hours, followed by the exertions of a hot day had left me drained. Despite the strange apparitions in the fog I found my eyes heavy and my mind dull. My thoughts drifted to those who had stood watch, night after night, for whom falling asleep brought the penalty of death. Had I been in those times I would surely have faced the firing squad, for I was soon fitfully dozing with a sturdy cedar as my pillow.

I awoke with a start, unable to clearly focus on my surroundings and unaware of the amount of time I had been asleep. It was as if the subconscious had jolted the body awake, screaming that something, somewhere was not quite right. They stood right in front of me, not five yards away.

Any rational person would have concluded that they were a trio of Confederate pranksters, out to give the "Red Devils" a good scare. Or perhaps some of Washington’s homeless had become squatters on the battlefield. Whoever they were, they were real, right down to the wrinkles in their tanned skin and the smell of body odor, mingled with chewing tobacco and wood smoke. Their hair was matted and their ragged clothes were caked with dust. I knew them by looking into their eyes. These were Lee’s men, not the stalwart Confederates of the Kunstler and Troiani prints; but ragged, half-starved veterans with wiry frames and dangerous eyes.

The Bearded One stood closest, a threadbare gray coat hanging limp across his gaunt shoulders. He had steel-gray eyes, a long salt-and-pepper beard and he stood ready to pounce or fly at any sudden move. He was the oldest of the trio, probably mid-thirties but he could have passed for fifty.

The others were dressed in shirtsleeves, white muslin that had stained to a dirty gray, the collars and sleeves blackened with dirt and gunpowder. The Blonde One was younger, with piercing blue eyes and blond stubble on his cheeks and jowls. His head was covered with matted blonde thatch which stuck out in every direction from under a black slouch hat. His jaw continually worked on a giant plug of tobacco which he excreted in a brown liquid stream.

The Young One stood close to his companions. His nervous eyes avoided contact with mine. Small and painfully thin, he stood bareheaded and nearly barefoot. His face bore the same dark tan as his comrades. I doubt he was more than sixteen, one of those adventurous boys who had stretched the truth about his age in order to "see the elephant". From the looks of him the elephant had nearly trampled the life from him and he now clung to his two friends for survival.

It was an awkward moment. I clenched my rifle tightly to my chest, not knowing whether to call for help or challenge my ghostly visitors. Before I could respond the Bearded One beckoned me and, turning away in unison, the trio began to walk away. They had gone about ten paces, almost out of view in the thickening fog, when the Bearded One turned and beckoned me again. This time I stirred and began to follow them warily into the fog.

In retrospect I don’t know what possessed me to follow the three mysterious figures into the fog that night. Perhaps it was a sense of curiosity, or a desire to expose the midnight visitation as a hoax. But in truth I felt compelled to follow. I felt a sense of urgency about these three, something that told me to ignore the danger and trust them.

They stopped at the edge of the woods, a tangle of underbrush and scraggly cedars interspersed with cottonwood and towering oaks. The Bearded One turned and looked at me, beckoning once again, before they plunged single file into the darkness. I followed as best I could, briars and branches pulling at my accouterments and uniform. We walked maybe fifty yards before breaking into a small clearing. A dying campfire glowed near the center of the clearing with ragged blankets and assorted accouterments littering the ground. The Bearded One proceeded across the clearing, leaving the others squatting near the fire.

I cautiously skirted the campfire and drew near the Bearded One who stood next to a giant oak. He pointed with one bony finger behind the tree, waiting for me to comprehend. In the dark of the forest I couldn’t make out anything, the firelight extending only to the base of the great oak. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see that there was a hollow on the other side of the tree. In width it was maybe four feet and about three feet in depth. At the bottom of the small depression was a bundle. I drew near for closer examination before recoiling in shock upon the realization that it was a human form.

We stood in the dark, staring into the depression at a body curled into a fetal position. I slowly leaned forward, reaching out to touch, but not daring to. It slowly dawned on me that the figure was clad in a uniform quite similar to my own. The Bearded One looked at me, and seeing that I comprehended, turned to join his companions by the fire.

They had come across the body while searching for their wounded comrades. A young boy, not much older than those who hang out in front of the convenience store back home. Mortally wounded, he had undoubtedly crawled from the field of slaughter into the shelter of the thicket. Through briars and underbrush he had pulled his broken body in search of shelter from a scorching sun and the merciless showers that followed. The ancient oak had towered in its prime in those days; reaching far above the gnarled and stunted trees that had surrounded it. Drawing himself into the hollow at the base of the tree, he had spent his last few hours in the shade of the friendly oak. Now these soldiers from a century past had honored their fallen foe by locating his comrades and revealing to them his final resting place.

I sat with my back to the great oak, a lonely sentinel waiting for dawn to carry the news of the discovery up the hill to my comrades. It was obvious that I had been selected for this most sacred assignment. Fate had decreed that I should be chosen for guard duty when rarely, if ever, was a guard posted. Fate had sent three ghostly Confederates from a century past out of the mists and to my post. And fate had determined that I would not flee or hesitate, but follow them to that spot. To stand watch over the remains of a poor young boy who had died to save his country was the least I could do. I would do my duty. I would stand watch until that soldier was safely among friends. Leaving that spot would surely disrupt the vortex that had drawn together the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To leave in the darkness might also mean that I would never find that spot again. I would stand watch until the dawn drove away the inky blackness and supernatural mists which surrounded the great oak.

I watched as the trio of ghostly Confederates prepared a meal of ground corn baked in grease. The Young One squatted next to the Blonde One, staring at the hastily prepared meal with ravenous eyes. There were others in the woods, moving slowly in the shadows with eyes fixed stonily ahead. Some of them bore hideous wounds and all wandered as though in a trance toward an unknown destination. At one point a Rebel officer rode up to the trio near the campfire. He was dressed in shirtsleeves with his uniform coat thrown over the pommel and a bloody bandage affixed to his left arm. He consulted quietly with the Bearded One, pointing and glancing in my direction. After a moment of deliberation, he seemed satisfied with the explanation and rode off through dark woods.

After devouring their meager victuals, the three veterans gathered their ragged blankets and lay down near the fire. I was alone with my charge, even the spirits were now at rest. I sat staring into blackness, unaware of mosquitoes or the night dampness. It was clear that it was my duty to look after this fellow Zouave and deliver him into the hands of friends to receive his final honors. And so I sat through the night, ignoring the pain shooting up my back and the cramps and spasms in my legs. My body slept while my eyes scanned back and forth, sending dark images to the brain which interpreted the shadows and tried to comprehend what lay before me in the fog and darkness. This was how they stood guard. After marching and fighting for days or weeks the body would catch some rest while the mind stayed ever alert. It was how they endured; and it was how I endured that long, lonely night.

As the first gray light of dawn entered the woods they arose and gathered their accouterments. They left a still smoldering campfire and wound their way through the underbrush to find their unit. I was left alone with nothing but the call of the whippoorwill and the lifeless bundle which lay behind the tree. I had survived the test. I had performed my duty. Soon the men on the ridge would begin to stir and I would go to them with the incredible news.

I turned to look on the body in the first rays of daylight which filtered through the canopy of the great oak. There was nothing there! Only an empty hollow, void of anything save leaves and acorns. I shrieked with rage and dove into the gentle depression. I had been tricked! I had been deceived by a trio of Confederate pranksters. I had spent the night in the woods standing guard over an ancient oak tree and an empty hole. My comrades would assume that I had deserted my post to spend the night in the safety of my car. I had been a fool and now rage took control of me. I tore at the dead leaves with my bare hands, tossing chunks of earth in all directions. The roots of the great oak impeded my progress and, in a frenzy, I grabbed my bayonet and began hacking at the ground. My hands bled as I ripped out roots and rocks and stabbed again and again at the unyielding soil.

A dull thud met the stab of my bayonet. Again I struck what I supposed to be a rock or large root, and again the same dull thud. I struck several more times before brushing away a handful of dirt. It was then that I stared into the empty sockets of a grayish-white skull.

Within the hour the area was cordoned off. National Park Service rangers and local police hovered about. I endured a half hour interrogation loaded with accusations of relic hunting. Finally, the excitement of the discovery overcame the need to detain me and I was allowed to rejoin my awestruck comrades. Professors from nearby universities began to arrive and the press was close behind.

Two months later the official report described the remains of a young, white male between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five with gunshot wounds to the chest and left thigh. Neither of the wounds were immediately fatal, the cause of death probably coming from loss of blood and exposure. There was nothing found with the remains to identify them as to allegiance or unit. Had they inquired I could have given a description befitting a police artist sketch.

Since the events I have heard similar stories from several sources. One account tells of a relic hunter being led to an unknown grave near the Cold Harbor battlefield during the 70’s. Someone else offered evidence that the recent discovery at Gettysburg also had supernatural origins. I have written the National Park Service for the names and addresses of the discoverers, but have yet to receive a response. Whatever the future holds this story has been written down just as it occurred.

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