Under a copse of oaks, a mile or so from the ridge, we sit well hidden from the enemy. Yet we’re less concerned about the Yanks than finding relief from the stifling heat. Hot, humid, and not a hint of a cloud in the sky. The woolen uniforms are no help either.
Will stands up, and leans against the tree where we’ve been sitting, and tries to peek through the leaves toward the ridge where we both know we’ll march against before this day is done.
“Can’t see nothing up there, John,” he says.
“Good,” I say.
“If you can’t see him, he can’t see you,” I say.
Several in the regiment sitting near us join in a laugh. And it tends to cut the tension while we wait. Couriers on horseback have raced by the past few minutes, but no one pauses to tell us anything. No doubt they carry important news for those who’ll lead us into battle shortly. Maybe we’ll know more when Colonel Marshall shows his face around here and gives us the word.
Will sits back down, a twig in his teeth, and begins to rifle through his knapsack. Will and I’ve been together since we left adjacent Wake County farms to muster in up at Crab Tree.
“What do you think’s going on up on that hill now, John?” Will says.
“Same as us. Looking for shade and waiting,” I say.
“Wonder what’s going on back home today?” he says.
Small talk takes our minds off the day’s coming offering and helps to kill time until we move out.
“Topping the crop, I suppose. Maybe close to finishing that,” I say, “Unless we had a dry spell in the spring and the plants went in late.”
“Yeah, my fingers ache just thinking about it.” he says.
We’ve asked about each other’s families so often we no longer bother. I’ve got a sturdy wife and a precious five-year-old daughter. Will has two boys. Neither of us has had a letter in weeks.
Blalock, a fellow in our regiment from up around New Bern, sits alone reading an old letter from home. He’s had it a fortnight, but he studies it each day without fail before we set out. Blalock pulls a piece of hardtack out of his knapsack. Will sees him and follows suit, offering me a piece.
I shake my head, grin, and say “Will, that hardtack got anything in it?”
“Probably, but I ain’t stopping to look,” he says.
Each day just before light the regiment stirs fires for coffee and eats hardtack. We drop the biscuit in the steaming cup and up float little white flakes we know are larvae. We skim that off and eat the hardtack with our coffee. But no one wants hot coffee now. And it’s a fact that hardtack and water settle the stomach jitters we’re apt to get just before a battle. No one talks about it, but everyone knows.
My eyes close and I can see Mae in the kitchen kneading biscuit dough and humming. Effie, our daughter, is now old enough to offer a bit of help to her mom and is waiting to help shape the biscuits. Old Blue sits over on the hearth bricks where it’s cooler, his head on his paws, his eyes open for any stray crumb that may land on the floor. Eventually, he’ll be rewarded with a nibble of the finished product on the sly from my daughter, so he bides his time, ever alert. Soon I’m half asleep and dreaming of squirrel hunts in the woods with Blue at my side and cool breezes that lace across our porch after dinner.
Around 2 PM we’re brought to consciousness by our batteries of Alexander’s cannon far to our rear. It has begun. We listen to the echoes of the roar of cannon fire as our artillery homes in on the ridge ahead of us. And they seem right determined about it, so our time can’t be too far in coming. Everyone in the 26th soon gets a serious face and commences to check guns and shot. Nobody says much. We’ve all been through this before.
Colonel Marshall shows his face finally and fellows begin to gather around for news.
“Men, we’re gonna take that ridge from the Yanks once the cannonade ceases. Remember to dress smartly and close rank toward the right flank where the Virginians aim to be.”
We know he means General Pickett’s men, fresh troops, some of them green. Once Colonel Marshall moves off to consult with other officers, word gets around the Virginians must be the center of the line. Heaven knows we’ve lost enough men these past two days and shouldn’t be in the center or even on the front line. But instinct tells us we will be.
Once we start to shoulder up, I hear someone shout, “Three cheers for the old North State,” and we give hardy yells as the line straightens.
Colonel Marshall soon returns and tells us to break ranks and wait for the guns to go silent before we line up again. So, we sit and wait. And wait.
Over close to a thicket on the far edge of the shade I see our color guard playing with a cricket in the sandy soil. He says he’s fifteen, but I know his folks and he’s more like twelve, thirteen at the most. Yet I know better than to embarrass him with questions. He’s as brave as the next one in the regiment…
Riley, who’s on sentry duty near the edge of the copse toward the ridge, spent the morning wiping down his gun, barrel to stock, over and over again. His way of passing the time, I suppose. Others find minor diversions such as tossing pebbles into root pockets at the base of trees or taking off their shoes or boots to empty sand from them. Anything to bridge this suffocating wait we’re forced to ensure.
After two hours of swatting gnats from my sweat-filled face, I realize it’s suddenly quiet. And I spot Colonel Marshall returning to rally us for the coming fight. Out ahead I can see a field of wheat, and God as my witness, there’s a light breeze rolling about in it, a breeze evidently wary of shady spots.
The metal sound of guns checked, and bayonets fixed become muffled by wagons racing back and forth behind us. And horses snorting, no doubt carrying officers who’ll lead us into battle.
The order is given to move out and I hear Will whispering next to me. I never look his way, but I know what he’s doing. I’ve heard all kinds of prayers out here, but the most original I ever heard was from Billy Everheart, who fell dead a couple of days ago. He said, “Lord, just give me fightin’ room.” Odd I thought because he’d just taken a minnie in the chest and that was the last thing he ever said.
My mind is jolted to the moment by a ravine just ahead that has a branch running through it and thick underbrush on both banks. The line breaks as we make our way down and through the shallow water and up the other side. Low hanging thorns rip pants legs and beggars’ lice attach to clothing for the long climb ahead. On the other side of the ravine, we reform shoulder to shoulder and move out again as one long snake. Although most of us know where we are and how the line is formed, we’re taught to look straight ahead. If a man trips because he isn’t watching his step, he’s forced to race back to reform in the line. And, more important, if a man falls next to you, you’re told not to look back. Check the line and close the gap toward the right. We know to obey orders, but there ain’t many among us who won’t look if a buddy falls. You’re hoping he’s tripped on a rock, even if you know better.
Once in a while, one of Alexander’s cannons booms and we hear a shell whistle over us. He’s just assuring us he’s back there and ready to lay down more if it’s decided we need it.
Just ahead is a road flanked by post and rail fences on both sides, barriers we must break lines to cross. This is not good. By my reckoning we’re about three hundred yards from a stone wall atop the ridge and any man here can tell you, a good sniper can pick off a soldier at that range. We move over the second fence and commence to reform when with the force of Thor, grape shot and canister rain down on us from up on the ridge. Our lines begin to break badly. Cries of agony follow knees and legs that wobble and give way. Will slips off my shoulder and I cringe when I see what was once his face.
Someone up the line to the left yells, “For the old North State”. We shout and break into an open run. The air is full of choking smoke and sulfur and its difficult to see ten feet ahead, but we press on. A volley of minnies shrill above our heads and we realize the Yanks aren’t yet properly sighted in.
It’s tempting to shoot too early, but despite the murderous shots shrieking into our ranks, we’re seasoned soldiers and trained to wait until we’re close enough to see them down our barrels.
Dull thuds of bullets strike flesh and deep throated groans follow, something I’ve learned to erase from my mind. And out of nowhere from our left flanks comes cannon and musket fire. God, somehow the enemy has flanked us. In a dead run, through the thinning smoke, my gun at ready, I can see the stone wall ahead. Just as I pause to raise my weapon to fire, a searing pain cuts through my middle. My legs shudder and give way, and I’m face down before I realize what has happened. Oh God in heaven, I’m gut shot. In vain I try to turn over and open my shirt to see where I’m hit, but I cannot move. My body refuses to respond to my wish. My back must be broken. I hear the line that was behind us pass over me with blood-curdling yells that soon turn to screams of horror and curses as they go down. Others just gasp.
Soon I hear boots move over me headed down the hill and I know it’s over. In less than an hour, this fight has come and gone. But hell, I’m shot, and the pain has become a throb that mirrors the pounding beat of my heart. God help me, I’m bleeding out.
Blessed darkness blankets the landscape as guns cease to taunt our boys into the maw of hell. For a moment it is quiet. But in my memory moans of agony and desperate calls for help remain. And then it begins. The first drops on my neck feel like the caress of baby fingers attempting a purchase. Rain storms always follow major battles. Don’t know why, but any seasoned soldier will verify what I say.
Exhausted and light headed, I lie cheek down on the grasses and await the cooling rain. Thunder rolls across the sky and lightning brightens the expanse round me. Big drops thump across my back and morph into a steady downpour.
More loud screams emerge below where I lie, and I wonder why. Soon I know. A river of water rolls down from the ridge and covers my face, my nose, and mouth. Dear God.
A few clouds slip across the eastern horizon to welcome the returning sun. And small birds add cheer to the meadow as wider wings high above ride the currents in a timeless game of patience. I peer down on what was my life, now peacefully laid out in a bed of soft clover that sparkles in the new light.
Up on the ridge, I see the twisted body of our boy soldier wrapped in the banner he carried so bravely to the wall, his angelic face warmed by the morning sun. And down the gentle slope toward the road we crossed, Will’s supine body lies toward the east, his arms outstretched, his hands splayed as if directing shadows across the fields into new dimensions. All seems quiet save the song of the field larks at play in the soft breezes that will soon vanish in the coming day.
South toward home, I see hilled plants of tobacco, sturdy sentinels awaiting leaves almost ready for warm transformation. And Mae in the yard gathering eggs for sustained life and a cake for Effie, her special day looming. And sounds of feisty hens and snorting hogs and the neigh of our mule, all in a sequence announcing a recurrent need. And all around I see signs of an awakening and new directions unfolding across this lusty land.
Fred Miller is a California writer who specializes in penning short stories with eclectic themes. His first was selected by Constance Hunting, the New England poet laureate in 2003. More than fifty of his stories have appeared in publications around the world in the past ten years. Many of his stories may be seen on his blog: Pookah1943. Fred lives in Southern California with his wife and two Cocker Spaniels.