Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The 7th Virginia Electric Calvary at Spotsylvania

Posted in Memory, Technology by Andy Hall on January 21, 2012

Something new today. Guest blogger Cole Grinnell is a scientist, writer, and actor who works, when he works, out of Baltimore, Maryland. He should have a blog, but strangely, he doesn’t.

The 7th Virginia Electric Calvary at Spotsylvania: Reflections on a Modern Attempt at Battlefield Traversing

 by Cole Grinnell

It is a crisp, windy late spring day in Spotsylvania. A random patchwork of clouds and clear sky drifts over an open plain, casting shadows like roving armies maneuvering below. We stand facing small overgrown V of earthworks, scarcely more than a hundred yards long, and listen to ranger describe the shear brutality of this place. He describes nearly a solid day of constant hand to hand fighting, thousands of men filling in and tamping down the bodies of the dead and dying, soldiers overcome with mad surges of energy abandoning their rifles, and fighting for hours with hatches and knives, people so utterly exhausted from endless combat that their legs had forgotten their function and they had to be pulled from the trenches by their comrades. We stood and listened to the last of this, his final words carried out over the trench line by the wind; a deafening silence was felt in our chests. We look on ahead, over onto the field, where the Union men rushed to open the breach and finally crush the army that had dragged them all over Virginia. We look behind, in to the trees, where Confederate regiments surged forward, one at a time, to try and and buy their compatriots behind them enough time to construct new defenses. We look to our left, up the road from where we had just come, to see a Segway humping a tree.

“Err, ah, hang on”, I say grabbing the handle like the bridle of a playful pony. “You see, if you guys are going to lean them against something, you have to make sure it’s not on an incline like this. Otherwise, it’s just going to keep rolling up and down against it.”

With our group thoroughly admonished and our guide thoroughly pleased with himself, I assist them in mounting back up (yes, it was the best term I could come up with for it) and we roll silently on to our next destination.

The Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield Segway tour was the joint effort of the few innovative rangers with the National Park Service and the tour company for which I was a licensed tour guide. (I still list the fact that I am allowed to give tours in both Fredericksburg and Williamsburg on my resume. If you ever happen to be with me in either of said cities, please remember that any of the half remembered facts I’m yelling at you are officially backed by the local government.) This tour was a serendipitous fusion.  My employer, a local Segway rental company, was in a bit of bind. While officially sanctioned by the city to use their gyroscopic wonder-machines, the relatively crowed streets of Fredericksburg and a bit of bad press (mainly involving the mayor falling off one our Segways) meant our ability to ride about in town was limited. The Park Service’s idea seemed to solve quite a few of our problems. It moved us out to an area of wide paths, few cars, and little obstacles, and hid our riders from the judging glare of onlookers. (Not that I blamed them; gliding around motionless a foot above everyone else does give one a bit of an arrogant air.) Plus, with the rangers doing all the talking, all we had to do was cart the carts out there, teach the tour group how to use them and herd them along to keep up with the guide. Easy as falling off a log. Also, just as painful.

Training begins mid-morning far in the back of battlefield, away from any possible foot or vehicle traffic. (This was a lesson we learned from our downtown days, where our first practice zone was in the city hall parking lot, which ended in a steep hill that dropped directly into a busy street.) If you’ve been to Spotsylvania before, it’s at the tail end of right spur of the main drive, directly in from of Lee’s final defensive line. If you haven’t, it’s bit with some trees and some fences. The tour group skews older and maler, with the outliers usually being the patient girlfriends and families of the attendant Civil War buffs. This, of course, meant the group was filled with people that were quite eager to get to the history already, and were competing amongst one other to prove who could master these machines the fastest. Unlike the animal analogy above, this stage was more about breaking the rider than the horse. Like drill masters molding raw recruits, we taught them calls, maneuvers and formations. There was always the possibility that things would not go to plan and we needed discipline enough not to have a two-wheeled Manassas on our hands if it did. We give their steeds a last once over, check their helmets, hand them a memento mori (in the form of a waiver) and turn them over to the ranger.

The ranger is the officer in our little company, and I and the other Segway rental staffer are the sergeants. He directs us where to go, what to do once we get there, and lays out the facts. We keep everyone in line and make sure no one falls behind, which still happens, surprisingly, on devices that all have the same top speed. (Some people are just born stragglers.) In matters of insubordination, there is always one know-it-all in the group who clearly thinks himself better suited for the ranger’s job. Between the ranger’s fact bombs, my shouts of “Watch the road!” and most riders’ inability to talk at length and stay balanced — which cuts down on the “I have a question that’s more a statement” discussions — they are quickly dealt with.

One of our first stops is the sight of Upton’s charge. For those of you not in the know (all though if you read this blog, that’s pretty shameful on your part), many people consider this spot to be the birthplace of modern infantry tactics. Here, the road edges around the inside curve of the Confederate trenches, with about a hundred feet of flat land past that to the tree-line. The ranger explains to us in similar situations to this, the previous strategy was to advance in a long, thin line to overwhelm the defenses, presumably assuming, a lá General Melchett of Blackadder, that there were no way the enemy would expect for our forces to be so colossally stupid.  Major Emory Upton decided to attack with four single man columns that each had a different objective, as he trusted, the guide explains, that his lower officers were not idiots. While unable to hold the breach he blasted in the Confederate lines, Upton was immediately promoted by General Grant, who tended to like people that knew what the hell they were doing. Perhaps a bit absorbed by the importance of the spot, one of our number lets his mount get away from him. Segways are a little front-heavy and are, of course, controlled the orientation of weight on the gyroscope. This means that once switched on and calibrated, they will continue forward for a few yards without a rider. There is something almost poetic about a unmanned Segway rolling towards a trench line then collapsing on it’s own. Gives the eerie sensation of a riderless war horse and a solider killed in mid charge all at once.

Our company, rouge machine restrained and remounted, rolls on.

We reach up to the very start of the battlefield park, where the first contact for the battle took place and where, but for a few delays, the Union could have gotten between Lee and Richmond. On a spot very close to where General Sedgwick was felled, while chiding his soldiers that “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist. . . .”,  I fling myself off the side of the machine on hard onto the path, even as I’m reminding the group that parking was “the easy part.” I’m not entirely sure if there’s a word that describes the perfect combination of mirth at the irony of what had just happened, and dread in the realization that they now had to try the same thing that now showed on their faces.  I just know I was far from the first leader brought down trying to encourage his men in that place. Hell, I probably wasn’t even in the top ten.

More information is laid down. A rather stunning example of an artist putting himself and his friends into a battlefield painting is shown. And we roll on. And on and on. We roll along the paths of Confederate maneuvers on the lead up to the major confrontation. We roll to the fast hoofs of misdirected messengers and we roll to the slow trundle of artillery that could never quite get a good line on the enemy. We roll about in a cloverleaf of turns and double-backs in the mad scramble for positioning until we arrived very close to where we started. The Bloody Angle. There were more casualties per yard in that place than any other battle in our country’s history. We let that and many other details sink in for some time, but the light is starting to fade and our trusty mounts have no headlights. We roll on.

The last leg of trip was largely quiet. There were no more stops on the way back to our cars, just a ride past many stops already seen but now cast in the slight red hue of an early spring evening. It was here that the quietness of our means of conveyance came into its own. While perhaps no more silent than the light pounding of feet on earth, the gentle hum of the Segway’s engine was far more steady and thus quickly relegated to background noise and put out of mind. You could tell many in our company were lost in their own thoughts, sometimes dangerously so. I needed to interrupt a few reveries to prevent a rider from going off the road or popping off the back. It is only when we arrive and I begin to return the mounts to their stasis for the ride home that the conversations return. And they return in force, as it’s obvious everyone had something on their mind.

It is during these last exchanges of conversation, contact information and goodbyes that I realize something. The only reason our assembled company was breathless was that they were talking so fast (well, I was breathless because the Segways get considerable heavier and less maneuverable once they’ve been put to sleep). This is a crowd of some old men and some young children that traced more than a weeks worth of military movements inside of an afternoon, without breaking a sweat. They had gotten as immersive experience as a hiker (for they could always stop and walk around) with the speed and relative comfort of a vehicle. There’s no way many of these people could have seen or felt half of what they did, even if they had the time do so. While there may have been grumbles from some of the onlookers that we were somehow cheapening the place, there were people in this group that gained an appreciation for history that they would have otherwise never gotten. If it takes looking like a bit of a smug tit to achieve that, then so be it.

Though if the Segway’s engineers could somehow lessen the inherent wankery on the next model, I’d appreciate it. Also, the humping thing.

____________

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7 Responses

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  1. corkingiron said, on January 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Absolutely true. This poster should have a blog – and perhaps a commission in the cavalry.

  2. Matt McKeon said, on January 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Segway…eliminating the curse of walking for all Americans.

  3. S. Thomas Summers said, on January 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Hi Andy,

    You wanted to know when my book was released…well, it’s released!! Published by Abaphora Literary Press, Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War is available on amazon.com.

    Here’s some book info and early reviews: http://thelintinmypocket.wordpress.com/private-hercules-mcgraw/

    Here’s the amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Private-Hercules-McGraw-Poems-American/dp/1937536149/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327188350&sr=8-1

    Sorry. I didn’t know how else to get in touch with you.

    Thanks,

    S. Thomas Summers (Scott)

  4. theravenspoke said, on January 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    Any dude who knows this much in Baltimore must blog.

    I wonder if Segways encumber photo taking, say using a SLR and mid-range zoom. “Inherent wankery” sounds photo-phobic.

  5. SWNC said, on January 23, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Great essay. As someone who has had snotty thoughts about similar Segway tours, I really appreciate your insight and perspective. You’re a terrific writer.


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