There Was No Reveille

Last month at Wreaths Across America in Winchester National Cemetery, a bugler played “Taps” at the conclusion of the ceremony. As the final notes faded, I experienced a strange reaction. I expected to hear reveille next.

Years of doing living history at Civil War reenactments in Southern California had trained my ear to expect a certain pattern to the bugle calls. At those reenactments, when the “shooting” had ended, a bugler played taps, paused a moment, then sounded reveille to signal the “casualties” that the battle was over and they were supposed to get up (or wake up from their battlefield naps). I hadn’t thought about that for months, and it wasn’t on my mind as I heard Taps at the ceremony, but my inward reaction to the long silence startled me and nearly brought tears.

These dead buried in the national cemetery and across the road in the Confederate burial ground had been gathered from battlefields throughout the Shenandoah Valley. When the shooting ended, the fallen did not get up. The staggering wounded did not make instantaneous recoveries. The blood was not from tubes of Halloween gore.

Instead, they bled out. They gasped their final words. They fell suddenly. They were punctured by bullets, stabbed with bayonets, trampled by horses, racked by disease. Then, their dead bodies were collected and interred hastily. Comrades, civilians, or maybe camp followers did the grisly work of digging the graves or trenches and laying the corpses to rest. Meanwhile, the news of death moved to their homes—definitive accounts or the agonized tale of missing and unidentified. Later, perhaps, their earthly remains found a final resting place in a military cemetery. Maybe their new graves marked with granite, engraved with a name, a state, or only a number.

A number alone? Is that all that is known of someone who breathed, lived, loved, hated, fought, laughed, cried, and believed in something enough to fight? Hundreds of numbered stones sentinel the burial places of these unidentified soldiers in Winchester National Cemetery and other locations.

Standing in a row of numbered grave markers waiting for reveille was impossible. The soldiers beneath the numbers were never identified. They are unknown to us. The bugle echoes into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, another benediction drifting. In my imagination, I think of the notes winging along the ridges, fields, old roads from here to Lexington and back to the banks of the Potomac. But the dead will not hear. Nor will they answer to any other earthly bugle call.

The last call of taps is their end. There is no reveille for them.

10 Responses to There Was No Reveille

  1. It is always important for us to be reminded, no matter what favorite form our study of the Civil War takes (books, tours, living history, material culture, maps, primary sources, maps, museum visits, etc.), that the story we’re studying involved real people who suffered terrible losses. There is heartbreak underlying every single aspect of the war we study, but we’re so removed from that in time and space that, too often, we forget that. Thank you for the poignant reminder.

  2. A necromancer is someone who talks with the dead. My idea of being a historian is that we all want to be necromancers. We want to ask the dead how it really was, what they thought, dreamed, wished for. I hate the reality of death–so final. I think we write books, blogs, emails, whatever, in order to deny that finality. We want to bring them back to life. I, for one, will keep denying death & keep trying to talk to those who came before.

  3. Ken Burnes could not have said it better, your post should be part of something like what he might say with music and verse. Just great. Very good.

  4. i am always a little puzzled how my reenactor friends are so fanatical about getting their living history exactly right — uniforms, weapons, buttons, drill, et al … yet when it comes to ultimate soldiering experience — combat, death and dying — they don’t come close … like the war movies of the 1940s, and even the movie Gettysburg, death and dying are sanitized (perhaps for family consumption) into something like kids playing cowboys and indians — a bloodless and benign exercise …that’s not the right historical message … i have often asked them why they can’t do the history without the mock casualties — that doesn’t earn me any points with my pals … Sarah makes a great point about what we ought to be remembering at these events — and its not the right brass buttons or bugle calls … thanks for the reminder.

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