I’m in third grade. Hershey Elementary School. We all pile onto a row of big yellow school buses that rumble down Route 322 to I-83 to Route 15, which goes southwest from Camp Hill to Gettysburg. This is my introduction to the Civil War.
In a photo that survives from the trip, twelve of us cluster around a cannon with our teacher, Mr. Leader. He wears a brown faux-leather leisure suit jacket, and the wide collar of his shirt is out and flattened down against the jacket’s lapels. He’s got some sideburns going on and a thin, seventies moustache, and although he wears darkly tanned sunglass lenses, the shape of his smile suggests he’s squinting. We thought he was the coolest teacher ever.
I might be one of the kids sitting on the cannon, the kid in the black hat farthest out on the end of the muzzle. I can’t quite tell, though, looking at the picture, because that kid is mostly obscured by a classmate, Bob, whose grown-up self sent the photo to me some thirty-three years after it had been taken. “My mom was one of the chaperones, which is why I have the evidence,” Bob told me. He suggests I might be a kid next to the cannon wearing a white hat, and indeed, I might be. I can’t tell.
There’s not enough background for me to know where the photo was taken, so it could’ve been anywhere. Gettysburg has 371 cannons scattered across its battlefield. I wonder, though, if the photo was taken up at the north end of the field, near Oak Hill and the Eternal Light Memorial. No good guys or bad guys, the memorial says—just blue and gray. No white hats or black hats at all.
I became enthralled on that trip with Devil’s Den, a mammoth tumble of house-sized boulders half-swallowed by, half-jutting out from the earth. Confederate sharpshooters hunkered down there and shot at Union officers across the Valley of Death. No wonder the Devil lived there. I wouldn’t know until decades later that the devil was really a big ol’ black snake reported to live in the rocks sometime back in “the olden days,” and locals had to keep an eye out for it when they visited this part of the battlefield. As a third grader, the thought that a big ol’ black snake might’ve lived in these rocks didn’t even occur to me as my classmates and I crawled through the maze of tunnels under the mammoth stones. This was a playground, not a habitat—and certainly not a battlefield.
The highlight of the trip was our visit to the wax museum. I would visit again thirty years later and the exhibits looked much the same. I wondered how they kept those life-sized wax dioramas dusted. Maybe they didn’t. I couldn’t tell. The history itself looked dusty.
I first met Stonewall Jackson at that museum. One of the displays showed the Battle of First Bull Run. A wax figure dressed in a gray coat stood next to a fieldstone wall that had a chunk blown out of it. Lots of fake trees crowded in on all sides of the display. I naturally assumed this officer was the “Stonewall” Jackson the placard mentioned because, after all, he stood next to a stone wall. But he was pointing to the back wall of the diorama, to a painted scene that depicted another man on horseback leading his men in battle. That, as it turned out, was Stonewall Jackson. “Back Wall Jackson” might’ve been more appropriate. The wax guy in the foreground was Bernard Bee, I guess, the man who gave Jackson his nickname: “There stands Jackson on the back wall! Let us resolve to die here and we shall get waxy!”
It doesn’t matter. The legend of Stonewall impressed itself on me.
That afternoon, back at school, the teachers let us loose on the playground to kill the last twenty minutes before dismissal. We decided to kill each other, lining up as blue or gray soldiers on opposite sides of our newfound battlefield. We charged each other, some kids wearing kepis they’d bought at the wax museum’s gift shop. I’d bought a Confederate flag, not having enough money for a kepi. I waved it as I charged. Regardless of how cool the design of my flag was, though, I aligned myself with the blue troops because I lived in the north.
Sammy Shipman, who would die a few years later from leukemia, stood in the middle of the playground. He’d declared himself to be Stonewall Jackson. Sammy was big compared to the rest of us—so big he could’ve been “Brick-Shithouse” Jackson. We tormented him for being so big—something I’d feel guilty about after he died—but today it worked to his advantage. We swarmed him. He pitched us off, one by one, like fleas, like gnats, like ragdoll Union soldiers. I don’t remember any other Confederates, although there had to be some.
Nor do I remember any teachers yelling at us to stop our crazy-mad roughhousing, although I can’t imagine anyone who was watching would’ve let such violence continue—at least the violence as I remember it. We swept across the playground in a grand charge more like wild cavalrymen than the deliberate marching-in-ranks advance of General George Pickett’s men, although we were recreating Pickett’s Charge. Stonewall Jackson might not have been there for Pickett’s Charge, but Sammy Shipman was, and we charged him. It didn’t matter that we were blue, that he was gray, that Stonewall wasn’t at Gettysburg. Stonewall had been at the wax museum, and that was enough. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have money for a kepi; I had money for a flag. Running across the playground, recreating Pickett’s Charge all wrong, I was the color bearer. I had no way of knowing then what an honor that was, or how I would be the one most likely to die.