Their run to the guns…

Posted on July 22, 2011 by


Before I left Manassas yesterday, I had to do just one more thing. Yes, I was hot and miserable at the time, but, it didn’t matter, I had to do it.

This is the first place that I’ve visited this year, on the 150th anniversary of an event in which my people were present, 150 years to the date… and lots of my people were there, in Confederate units.

The thing is… while I remain grounded in my history… conscious of the complexities and aware of all that goes along with looking into the past (which, of course, includes the people of the past), and self-disciplined against any inclinations to lose myself in the “romancification” of the past due to ancestral connections… I haven’t, because of this grounding, lost my fascination and passion with/for familial connections… or the thrill of being at places where those people felt some tremendous life moment, many years before.

So, then… there I was. I stood on the ground where many of my kin stood, 150 years to the day… to the hour… many a distant uncle, and many a cousin. I have no written accounts of how they felt, why they felt they were there, or what thoughts ran through their minds as they stood there… but there they were… several kin. One of those present was my great-great uncle Michael Shuler, an 18 year-old 2nd lieutenant… who was also a son of John Shuler, my gggg grandfather, who I mentioned in an earlier post as one who had given stump speeches against secession earlier in the same year. Another present was Martin Van Buren Koontz, a simple private… and, it’s to Martin that I’m particularly drawn this day.

It’s not as if I haven’t been there before, standing in the same spot, thinking about Martin as I walked toward Charles Griffin’s guns… but it’s being there on this day. When I snapped the photos yesterday, I was hot and miserable, and imagined that he was as well. I had little time for intense thought on the walk, and imagine he had little time to think as well. But, for a few minutes yesterday, he and I walked together. Again, today, as I write this, and flip through the images, we make the walk again, he and I, together, but conscious of the impossibility of any connection other than that through family.

He remains silent, and, honestly, I do all of the talking… a quiet sort of talking which is more thinking, really… reflecting… wondering. Again, I remain grounded. The connection to the past, through family, is as impossible to grasp as the fog in the morning. It’s there, but fleeting; as we reach out, and make the effort to bring a little of it back to us, we open our hands and see that nothing is there. It’s not physical. Our imagination is the only real time portal. To some, that is real enough; to others, it is impossible to fathom.

It might sound silly to some… perhaps even, to some degree, a romanticized waltz with Civil War memory… but this will be one of many walks that I make over the next four years, and many one-way conversations that I have with people who lived in those days. I will get no answers in these “conversations”, and my imagination will prove to be my only guide across hallowed ground… ground that once was red with the blood of my people, whether they be in gray or blue.

Still, I walk…

Members of the 33rd reacted instantly to the cry of “Charge”… the men swooped down the hill and into the Federals.

He was just a boy. A year and a month almost to the day, the census taker recorded him as living in the household of his parents/my fourth great grandparents, John J. and “Polly” [Mary Bingaman] Koontz. He was listed with no occupation.

His family homestead was near the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, near what was once known as Columbia Mills, near Alma, in Page County, Virginia. I can only imagine that, a year before, while he was listed with no occupation, his father, a farmer, kept the boy busy with chores. Meanwhile, in between, he may have spent time what boys typically did… even for an 18 year old in the mid-19th century.

I wonder, as he began to pick-up the pace, here, on the Plains of Manassas, if he wished he were back at home… tending to those chores, or fishing on the banks of the Shenandoah. As his pulse increased on the run, did he feel pride in the defending something? Or, if he was filled with boyish dreams of patriotism before this day, before this hour, was he now terrified beyond words? Any regrets, second thoughts, or was it, rather, the excitement and madness of combat that made your pulse race?

Griffin fired only two rounds before members of the 33rd, scaling a snake-rail fence, burst through the cloud of smoke on his right. As the 33rd halted briefly, an officer delivered a short speech, and the rush to the guns continued. Uncertain of the identity of the approaching mass of men, mostly in blue, Griffin held his fire.

What were his boyhood interactions with his siblings like? In earlier days, did he play pranks on his older sister, Elizabeth, my ggg grandmother? Was he into mischief? Was he a good boy? What did his parents think of him? Were they proud? Did they think his decision to enlist, foolish, and reflective of a boy’s silly dreams? Were they back in the Valley wondering where he was at; what he was doing… on this hot July day? Was his father in the field working, when his son was rushing headlong toward the guns? Was his mother doing something typical of women in the mid-19th century, in the home that day? At what time, what hour, what minute… did they think about their son?

They did not see us until they were within fifty yards of us, as we were under the brow of the hill, and they were ordered to fire, but we were too soon for them. We fired first, and advanced, and then they fired. We then charged bayonets, yelling like savages, and they retreated, and our regiment took their artillery; but they were reinforced, and we had to fall back, exposed to two heavy fires, when we were reinforced by a North Carolina regiment; then we charged again and they retreated, and that part of the field, with the famous Griffin’s battery, was ours.

John O. Casler

Where did you fall, Martin, between the pines and the guns? Where, in this short walk, did you go down? Where were you struck, how many times? Did you reach the guns? Did you reach out and touch a gun in symbolic gesture of victory? Did you see your commanding officer, Capt. Rippetoe crying out, after the fight, that his command had all been killed. Who quenched your thirst with their canteen? Who tried to give you comfort as you lay in pain?

A diarist from Front Royal reported on July 23…

By an extra train, Capt. Rippetoe brought 3 of his Page Grays, seriously wounded in battle. One of them, Mr. Coontz [Koontz], died in the evening.

Front Royal is but a day’s wagon ride from the Koontz homestead. Martin was likely brought home, and buried in the family graveyard near the old Koontz place. Even so, the site of his grave is without marker today.

Ultimately, what do we see when we follow the steps of our people in the past? What about when we follow those in the Civil War? The “cause”, in relation to the people at war, really, is only part of the story, and one that we cannot often, honestly answer. He left us nothing that states, clearly, what he was fighting for. As some struggle to make sense of one’s death through “cause”, it is often a failing effort, especially over the generations, and often one only that gives us some strange satisfaction. Often there is less truth involved, and more a desire for self-comfort, self-satisfaction… that one died for a just and good cause. It, therefore, remains nothing more than speculation, on our part, to say why he was there.

What we can say, with much more confidence, reveals his story as a human being. As he died, a father and mother had lost a son; sisters and brothers had lost a brother; other family members had lost a uncle, nephew, cousin; friends had lost a friend. A boy, otherwise with much life ahead, was gone. One person lost, yet so many felt the loss of that one person. To some who reflect on the war, in terms of numbers killed, he was no more than a number; to a family, as a human being, he was much more.