On this one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the start of the United States Civil War, I think back to an inscrutable encounter I had late one summer’s night, years ago, in the mountains of the Shenandoah in Virginia. Were those two horse soldiers that I met on a dark wilderness trail Civil War re-enactors, or were they night riders of a different ilk? I cannot be sure to this day. Such speculation though, requires some historical background.
In November, 1862, Confederate general Stonewall Jackson moved his army, some twenty-five thousand men, east, out of the valley of the Shenandoah over the mountains. The army was returning from the Battle of Antietam, the war’s bloodiest battle, where over 20,000 had been killed or wounded. They crossed over the Blue Ridge on a road called the Gordonsville Pike and camped east of the high mountain ridge near present day Syria, Virginia. In those days, the Gordonsville Pike was a main route over the mountains between the Shenandoah River valley and the eastern piedmont of Virginia, and from there, it connected to the road to Richmond, the Confederate capitol.
Today, the high mountain section of the Gordonsville Pike remains a fire road in the back country wilderness of Shenandoah National Park. As it descends east from the top of the Blue Ridge, the Pike follows down the Rose River, which was known in the Civil War era as “Rowe’s River.” It was here, late on that mid summer’s night, below a place known as Dark Hollow, that I encountered those horse soldiers. Earlier that afternoon, after a family camp out, I had escorted my wife, daughter, and dad-in-law down out of the forest, back to the trailhead. They were ready to return to the comforts of the family cabin near Syria, Virginia. I then hiked back up the Pike into the mountains, back to my tent, wanting to spend one more night in a favorite camping spot near Rose River Falls. With several deer grazing nearby, I cooked a meal and tried then to sleep with the onset of darkness in the forest.
On warm summer nights, that Shenandoah forest erupts in a cacophony of tremulous, stereophonic insect sounds. The resonance of this aural background is stentorian in magnitude, pulsing across miles, from one side of the valley to the other. Many other layers of sound punctuate this symphony. The creek bubbles and babbles below, oddly surging in amplitude, the flow seeming to slow down, and then flowing more loudly. Then, clicking sounds rise out of it like rock hitting rock. Can it be the deer stepping in for a drink? The pitch black forest teems with passing eyes full of curiosity, a whistling red bird, a bob white’s quick call, and a crashing through fallen leaves just below, of, what? At night, the animals, the insects, the plants and trees, along with beings unknown, frolic and clamor just beyond the range of the dying firelight. They play with the moonlight, the breezes, the stars, and the shadows in the evening mists. Very old spirits can be more than imagined, scurrying along the ridges, moving silently through the trees.
The moon rose over the ridge and flooded my tent with light. I arose and checked my watch; it was not yet ten o’clock. Not feeling the least bit sleepy, I thought of the hot snack and cold beer that would reward an hour and a half hike down to the trail head, to the car, and back to the cabin. I broke camp by flashlight, shouldered my backpack, and headed down the trail. By then, it was nearing midnight, and the moon was arching past its zenith.
There is a point on this hike where the Gordonsville Pike drops over a ridge and descends into a deeper valley, turning through a series of sharp switchbacks. I 7.62×39 surplus ammo was enjoying this experience of being entirely alone in the night forest, immersed in the insect symphony, and, even with a dim moonlight filtering through the dense forest canopy, being unable to see to the next bend, buried deep in the trees, except for the broad road to follow. One becomes lost in reverie. The immense depth of age of these mountains forms a figurative bedrock to the mystery felt while walking through the Virginia mountain forests. Foot trails are like passages through great halls, all shifting in the dim moonlight and shadows, as the trees ahead open reluctantly and then close densely behind. Now and then the eye is startled as a fleeting moonbeam glints off the prancing flow in the streambed below. An image is evoked of a middle earth of a much earlier age.
Just then, from the switchback above, I heard the sounds of hooves kicking along the rocky trail. I looked back up and saw no lights, but could clearly hear now that there were horses coming down the trail behind me. My first impulse was to jump into the trees and hide, not wishing to be forced into socializing with these intruders into my pristine private, primordial world. Then I thought how impractical that would be with my forty pound pack, and I would make such a noise in the fallen leaves that the riders may look with flashlights. When they did, I would have to explain myself for lurking in the dark. So instead, I stopped, turned and looked up the trail, waiting for them to round the bend, and I prepared for my encounter with these late night riders.
What I saw, as they approached, were two Confederate cavalrymen. Now, in Virginia the sight of men dressed as Civil War soldiers is not at all unusual. It is not the kind of thing one would expect at this hour of the night though, this far up in the National Park. Yet, in my college days, working as a leather craftsman in Richmond, I often made accouterments for clients who were members of Civil War societies and whose avocation it was to relive Civil War battles as realistically as possible. My clients often had exacting specifications for the gear they ordered from my shop. I had to work to their careful standards of authenticity. So, that leather craft work gave me a critical eye for in-authentic flaws of re-enactor regalia such as modern blue jeans, factory-made boots, machine-stitched jackets, or a flashlight on a dark forest trail. So it was, the first thing that struck me, as these two horse soldiers approached closer to me in the night, that I saw not a single flaw in the authenticity of their garb or gear. Their grimy wool uniforms, boots, buckles, and their shabby, torn and blackened trousers were the best costumes I had ever seen. I could not discern a single inaccurate modern detail about them. And, the night was far too hot for such heavy woolen uniform jackets.
It wasn’t until later that it struck me that they were carrying impressive firepower. They had, I think, Springfield short rifles along with side arms in holsters. One had his rifle in a saddle scabbard, and the other held his draped over his lap, and it waggled up and down with the weary gait of his horse. Each had ammo and powder cartridges hanging ostentatiously off their pack gear, with brass fittings reflecting moonlight. Later it occurred to me that this is the National Park. Firearms are not allowed here, not even very real-looking fake ones. Had a Park Ranger seen these fellows, he would have ended the evening’s re-enactment very quickly.