Boy Scouts with Muskets

By an English correspondent

From Postscript, Issue 393



GEORGE: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something

- Seinfeld, 'The Opposite' (Season 5, episode 22)

With those lines reverberating in my head, I look up from the wet grass and resume my contemplation of the soles of the brogans a couple of inches from my nose. I quickly glance around me, restrained by the knapsack’s constant digs into my back. I reckon there are at least fifty of us here: all lying face down in two rows, laden with kit, muskets to hand. We look quite convincing, all things considered. Someone proffers a bag of nuts. I take a handful and pass them on. We’re waiting for our cue, if you could call it that. On hearing the cannon, we’re supposed to get up and fall in, then in formation at double-quick cross the ramparts, avoiding the pyrotechnic wires as we go (I doubted whether that final instruction was strictly authentic). In the meantime, we have to keep low. From where we’re placed there’s supposedly a fantastic view of the south coast, but after the struggle I had getting the pack on I’m not in the mood to loosen it slightly to give myself the requisite freedom of movement to fully take it in. An old hand to my right turns his head and, with a whisper, asks if I’m looking forward to seeing the elephant for the first time. His grin widens as far as it can within his chinstraps as he merrily adds:

Besides, you might die’

I tell him that that might please a vast number of people, then quietly remind myself that the only real danger would come from getting in the way of another’s bayonet: this is, after all, only a game. The wind picks up snippets of conversation from the lines – a combination of half-heard unfunny jokes, interrupted anecdotes, and the proud display of new kit. I recognise some of the voices from earlier; others are from those I have yet to meet. There will be a time for that later, around the fire, perhaps. Not now.

I feel a tap on my shoulder: an officer is checking to see how I'm coping. I’ve only been in uniform since this morning, after all. Only a few hours earlier I was strutting around Somerville wearing black tie, now I’m being addressed as ‘Private’. If I listen and follow those standing next to me I should be fine. I gobble some more nuts, and after a couple of attempts at disentanglement manage to take a quick swig from my canteen. A mysterious but brief silence, then the chatter begins again. I tighten my grip on my musket and try to visualise standing up without being kicked in the face. The man to my right gives me a sly smile; with his cap pulled down the effect is mildly comical. I’m about to ask him something trivial when we hear it.

Without even a moment’s pause we’re up and moving in two files. Other than watching out for those stray wires I’m straining myself to ensure I can hear the commands over the din and can see someone to copy in case of uncertainty. An occasional and subtle tugging at my sleeve keeps me from veering out of line. We reach the slope down to the fort, the Confederates, and the paying spectators. I hardly notice any of them. Breaking formation, we're all trying to work out the best way to descend the gradient in one piece. We know they're firing at us, but we have to clear the bank or risk a far more realistic injury than usual when one of the hidden charges explodes. Balancing with the musket I hobble down, and despite a couple of slips manage to rejoin my company. Without time to regain our composure we're back in line and moving.

I can barely hear the shouted instructions over the racket, amplified by the walls of the fort. I must be doing something right: I seem to be keeping in sync with those on either side of me. My focus is on them, the man in front, and the officer. I am not conscious of anything else. In the ranks our role is simple: we move... load... aim... fire by rank... load... aim... move... fire by company... load... move... fire by line... volley... cease... dress... move... turn... load... oblique... aim... fire by something or other... oblique... skirmishers split off... cover... prime... dress... fire... load... check... something... huh... what... fire... aim... prime... move...… oblique left... fire by –

I drop down.

I hope it was a noble death. Not that it matters. I vaguely feel a couple of fingers checking my pulse, then one of the medical corps, in a whisper, asks if I’m dead, dying, or wounded. I don’t hesitate to reply - I’m not in the mood for a mock amputation. Not on my first outing, at any rate. My hat is moved so it partially covers my face, and I hear them move on to the next casualty. They leave me on the dusty gravel, feeling the rattle of the artillery, the guns, and the pyrotechnics vibrate through my bones. All around me the chaos, confusion, and stress of the mock battle continues to rage: death itself is macabrely relaxing.

An eerie calm.


A few moments’ reflection.


Thinking they had missed a trick by omitting a final trumpet, I stand up, exchange nods of acknowledgement with a similarly reincarnated Reb, then quickly fall in with my company. Us damn Yankees had lost, apparently, but then that was how it was scripted to be. For the audience’s pleasure we parade together, both sides in two long ranks, and fire a couple of volleys in their general direction. A short burst of mass bayonet drill, followed by presenting arms, and it’s over. They seem to enjoy the spectacle. Despite my non-firing weapon, distinct lack of bayonet and poor memory for drill commands, I have not done as badly as I feared. We march back to camp singing ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom’, deliberately yelling it out as we pass the Confederates’ tents. I’m enjoying myself, far more than I ever thought I would. I never considered that it would be right for me, but going against my instincts - doing the opposite - has worked. I decide, there and then, to become a re-enactor. Huzzah!

From the same author: Reenacting the American Civil War in Great Britain