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Toy Soldiers

Young minds imagine the realities of America's Civil War.


"Form a line of battle," commands Jefferson Spilman, an interpreter at Pamplin Historical Park who this weekend is a lieutenant. "Quickly. Quickly!"

The "recruits" scramble to get into place, shoulder to shoulder in two parallel lines — short soldiers in the front, taller ones in the back. But not quickly enough, and they're a little uneven. Forming tight battle lines is essential, Spilman explains to his young blue- and gray-clad privates: "A cannonball might come through, take all six of you out right here," he says, indicating a group on the left.

And why is it important to have two lines? he asks.

One boy pipes up. "When one person gets shot, the person behind you can cover," he says.

Or, adds Anna Jones, 12: "When you need to reload, the person behind can cover for you."

It's only the second hour of Civil War Adventure Camp at Pamplin, and already the recruits have mastered the tools of war. They've learned basic commands: Attention! Order arms! In place rest! And they've practiced the "load in nine times" drill, the Civil War method for prompt and orderly loading of muskets.

Recruits eagerly pantomime Spilman's orders with their wooden guns, tearing at imaginary cartridges with their teeth and ramming home a phantom ball and powder. Reloading would have taken about 20 seconds each time, Spilman explains. "So I don't want to see any of this 'bam bam bam bam,'" he says sternly.

When it comes time to "fire" the mock weapons, the older recruits utter "Bam" rather meekly. The front line bellows "BANG!" along with that guttural gun sound that seems a natural instinct in children: "Pe-ow! Pow-pow!"

"Now, would it be a really scary experience to be on a Civil War battlefield?" Spilman asks.

"Yeah," the privates chorus. That's why these drills were important, the lieutenant says, so soldiers would obey orders instead of being distracted by their comrades' limbs hurtling through the air.

"A lot of you wouldn't be going home," he says, "and you wouldn't be writing letters to Mommy and Daddy."

The parents in the rear line nudge their small soldiers back into place, duck the wooden guns wildly slung and urge them to fill their tin cups with water. They are ignored.

Before long, cool dusk descends. The orange moon, nearly full, hangs low in the sky and mist rises from the fields in ghostly ribbons. The shadows of history seem to press around the firelit camp. Some soldiers stare up at the heavens, exclaiming at the stars.

"That's a plane," says Wyatt Courtwright, 10, who is a descendant of Robert E. Lee. "Shoot those plane machines down!"

A few of his comrades raise their rifles and take aim at the blinking, modern intrusions in the sky.

"The Yankees outnumber us," Aaron Bolis, 12, says gravely, eyeing the blue coats on the other side of the parade ground.

"We've already killed three of them," Courtwright replies.

On the morrow, the battle begins.

Dear Ma,

I thought I would use the last light of the fire to write you and tell you we are doing quite well. We have just finished our Supper, which truly is not as Pitiable as is related by other soldiers. Two Ladies in camp concocted a savory Beef stew which was rapidly Devoured. Nor is the water sour, but rather cool and abundant.

Today we learned to Signal to our comrades with flags and torches such missives as "infantry attack" and "Confederate retreat." Our Lieutenant says we had best learn the codes for signals such as these, but we have seen no sign of the Rebels yet. Our only adversaries are the infernal Mosquitoes. I do hope none in the camp fall to that dreaded Affliction, the Yellow Fever. They say it lingers in the bad ethers from the Swamp.

The bugle has begun Taps and soon I will be called to the night watch. I am sorry I can not send any Money, I must ashamedly admit I lost 10 Dollars tonight playing chuck-a-luck with the Sergeant. You need not send me your Reproaches on the evils of Dice, for now I know well it were best to hold my purse rather than seek to increase it through Gambling. I hope to return home soon.

your affectionate son,

Billy Yank

"Did everyone sleep well?" asks Lt. Spilman at 6 a.m., as the haggard soldiers arrange themselves in lines. "No," they say.

"Well, that's exactly the answer I expected to hear," he says cheerfully.

Today is the day, Spilman says, that they will "see the elephant" — the Civil War term for going into battle for the first time. "For a new soldier, seeing the elephant can be a terrifying experience," he says.

The company splits into Union and Confederate sides. The soldiers eye each other grimly as their leaders make ready the platoons. The battle is on.

"First platoon ready. Aim. Fire!" Sgt. Jeff Dean orders his rebels. The Union force splits into two wings and advances. "We're being flanked!" Bolis shouts. But his warning comes too late. Outnumbered and surrounded, the Confederate forces beat a retreat to the fence.

"I like this a lot," says Josh Westcott, 10, a Confederate. "Did we win?"

The second skirmish goes better for the Southerners, who loose a Rebel yell that sounds far more fearsome than the Yankees' "Hoo-rah." But the conflict soon turns into a melee.

"Fix bayonets!" commands Sgt. William Allison. The two sides enthusiastically swing and hack at each other with wooden guns until the officers call a halt. No one dies.

Sgt. Dean recites from memory a letter from a battle-worn Civil War soldier, which ends, "And you can't tell what moment you may be in eternity. Verily, war is hell."

The moment of solemnity is lost on some of the youngest recruits, who are eager to go on to the next lessons, to learn how to impale their opponents with bayonets and aim the camp's mortar to batter an imaginary enemy behind a sandbag bunker.

Many say they would gladly trade their modern lives, PlayStations and all, for a chance to see action in the Civil War. "Yeah!" says Sean Bonham, 8. "'Cause I want to shoot a reproduction musket."

"Sean, it would be a real musket," says Connecticut native Jay O'Brien, 10.

Ryan Babb, 13, says he could have signed up to be a Union soldier, even at his tender age, "if I lied." And he would have enlisted gladly in the Army, he says, even if his parents had begged him to stay home. "Yeah," he says, matter-of-factly. "My parents are doing that anyway, and I'm going into the Marine Corps. Sharpshooter."

Sean Murphy, 16, also plans to enter the Marine Corps when he's old enough. But he wouldn't have wanted to fight in the Civil War, he says. War today is "a whole lot less bloody," he says. "We've lost about 2,000 so far in Iraq. That'd be nothing in the Civil War, in a battle. They'd be happy to walk away with that."

Murphy's own great-great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier from a small New York town who joined the Army when he was 18. Murphy's grandfather, Jack Henderson, 65, wears his ancestor's belt buckle, emblazoned with a polished eagle. "It was exciting," Henderson says. "They'd never been anywhere. ... That's why he went. Not to save the Union."

Nor did he see the Southerners as his mortal enemies. Murphy's forefather and his comrades would sneak out to meet the Rebels at night, Henderson says, to talk and trade. He swapped a watch for a Confederate pistol, sold them baskets of apples for $2 and even went dancing with Southern girls in nearby towns. "I don't think he suffered," Henderson says.

Here, too, in camp, there's no lingering animosity between Yanks and Rebs after the battles. They companionably eat breakfast together and, as the morning warms, take off their woolen uniforms until T-shirts outnumber blue and gray.

One Confederate private, however, keeps his jacket buttoned all the way up — and slept in it last night — while his contemporaries shed all but their caps. Bolis, a Rhode Island native, has been a Civil War buff since he visited Gettysburg years ago. He, more than any other soldier, seems sorry to relinquish his arms and receive his discharge papers. The Civil War is the ultimate war, he says, "because it's Americans fighting Americans. There's nothing else like that." S

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