Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Bastille Day Celebration

Rachel Beauchene's idea of a Bastille Day picnic was her way of distracting Charleston's citizens from the serious business that had everyone worried. The date was July 14, 1861, and the Civil War had just broken out. It was a great idea, and for the most part, it worked. But the war had a way of intruding itself into the most peaceful of activities. This passage from Henrietta's Legacy describes one of those moments.

As the heat took its toll and activity slowed to a more languorous pace, the soft murmurings of summer gave way to a rhythmic drumbeat and the steady sound of marching footsteps. From the dock end of Queen Street came a small parade. Leading the way was the horse-drawn wagon of the German Fire Company. Then came a squad of uniformed firefighters carrying a banner proclaiming their name in German: Deutschen Feuer Compagnie. Next, a row of drummers beat out the cadence for all. In the following row, four soldiers carrying Austrian Lorenz rifles performed a series of precision moves. And bringing up the rear came a band of musicians, most of whom carried brass wind instruments of various kinds. Not quite believing what she was seeing, Rachel pushed her way to the front of the crowd and gestured for Roger to join her.
“What’s going on? Who are they?”
“Those are the firefighters who will shoot off your fireworks later. Smile and applaud them.”
“But those outfits! They look like a band of invading camel drivers left over from my Christmas pageant.” Her voice wavered as she struggled not to cry. 
“My dear girl. Those are their new dress uniforms, modeled after those of the famous French Zouaves, who are light infantrymen in Algeria. Elite troops all over Europe have adopted that costume of baggy red trousers over leather boots, topped with a short blue jacket and a red, tasseled fez. It’s the latest thing.”
“But they aren’t infantrymen. They’re firemen. Why are they putting on a military display of weapons in the middle of our Bastille Day? I wanted this to be a day to forget all the war talk, and they are beating drums and whirling their guns around.”
“Ah, but they are proud soldiers with approval to form a company of the First South Carolina Infantry Regiment under the leadership of Peter Gulliard. They are only volunteering to fight fires until war breaks out and offers them real battles. And this is Bastille Day, Rachel. You need to remember the storming of the Bastille was the start of the French Revolution—a military attack directed against a tyrant’s fortress. Guns and drums are appropriate. Besides, I approved it.”
“Without asking me?”
“I didn’t think I needed to. What they are doing is harmless. And look, they’re getting ready to serenade us.”
At that moment the band struck up the first chords of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Their audience stood at attention, and a few voices sang along. Members of the church choir moved to the front of the crowd, and, by the end of the refrain, everyone had joined the chorus: 
Marchons! Marchons! 
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
The people cheered and applauded. Then they took up the chant. “Again! Again, Encore!
The band director looked at Roger for approval, and seeing his nod, gestured to the band to reorganize their music. Band members flipped pages of the small booklets attached to their horns and drained their mouthpieces. Drummers gave a flourish, and the music started again, this time with everyone singing along.
At last the musicians dropped their instruments to their sides, and the firemen on the water wagon worked their pump. They pointed the nozzle of their hose straight up into the air and let loose a spray of cool water. By the time the droplets came falling onto the crowd, they were nothing more than a refreshing mist, but the children raced toward the wagon to see it spout again. The accordions played a polka, and before long people were dancing in the streets.
“You see?” Roger whispered to Rachel, “Everyone’s happy. You have nothing to worry about. Your party is a great success.”

Want to read more? Henrietta's Legacy is available in both paperback and digital formats at:

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