Scene # 1: The Pennsylvania Railroad
What reveals the most about a man’s character? Ask a hundred men, and prepare to receive a hundred answers in return. The clothes on his back, the way he carries himself, the manner of his speech, the prestige of his occupation, the list goes on. From what minimal experience I have, I find that the bulk of who a man is can be revealed simply by evaluating those that surround him.
I wonder what that reveals about me, surrounded by Germans and Irish, sodden with grime and coal dust.
“You were hired to work Jonathan. You understand that?”
“Sorry Miller, I was merely catching my breath.”
“You can breathe while you work. Now get to it.”
Miller wasn’t the most agreeable supervisor, however I had stood idle for too long.
Workers bustled about, removing hundreds of tons of earth with a combination of shovels, wheelbarrows, mules, and black powder. With axe and adz others transformed countless trees into ties, bridge timbers, and lumber for cars. Large logs and unfinished railroad track were positioned across the expanse of the worksite. The site established itself just past the outskirts of Philadelphia’s industrious streets in a more arcadian area, containing sparse, verdant trees and tall wild grasses.
We worked from sunrise to sunset clearing the terrain, cutting down trees, removing stumps or other impediments, cutting stone when necessary, leveling the land, constructing drainage, assessing the land for erosion, blasting tunnels with the black powder, and building bridges or walls to shield the track from floods or landslides.
A fair number of my fellow workers took pride in their profession, which remained an enigma to me despite their explanations. I suppose when compared to tedious factory work or following a mule and plow for a lifetime, the railroad offered genuine challenge, advancement, and a unique work environment. If a man followed the rules, served faithfully, and remained vigilant in regards to his safety, he could remain employed for life. Perhaps the hard-nosed and impersonal style of industrial relations blinded me to its perks.
Scene #2: The News of Fort Sumter Spreads
The grueling, labor-intensive afternoon finally came to a close around 3 o’clock, leaving the remainder of the Saturday to my leisure. The cedar-shingled abode I called home lay but a mile west of the worksite, so I navigated the narrow, gravel road to reach my residence.
The scenery surrounding my home mirrored that of the worksite, with spring-green trees and a carpet of wildflowers and grasses encompassing the area. The large, central chimney that jutted out of the steep roof directly behind the front door was the heart of the home, providing heat to all the rooms clustered around it, as well as light and, of course, supper. Two windows lay on each side of the door, and a dormer was built on each side of the chimney to open up the attic. Weathered gray cedar shingles adorned the house on the sides and the roof, helping to cut the cold.
“How was work?” Mother asked this question every day like clockwork, though the answer always remained unchanged.
“Work’s pleasant enough. Has Mark gotten home yet?” Best not worry her with stories of workers blowing themselves up with black powder.
“He hasn’t arrived from work quite yet. He should be home by dinner along with your father.”
Both my father and Mark worked as boilermakers for the railroad, a job I lacked the skill to perform. A shame, since the profession paid a sizable sum and carried some prestige.
There wasn’t much to do while Mark was away, so I busied myself with a few games of solitaire. I had hauled up in my room for several hours focused on my building piles, not noticing at around 6 o’clock Mark’s and my father’s arrival. Only when my father raised his voice did I note their presence.
“Ain’t it like those Confederates to do this. First they secede after Lincoln won the presidency, now they’re firing on Federal Forts. If those seceshes want a war, they’ll certainly get it!”
I descended down the Captain’s stairway. Father frequently bad-mouthed the Confederates and Southern Democrats, however, his face rarely flushed crimson when he talked of them.
Father climbed the first few steps to meet me and handed me a newspaper. The words on the page were lamentable, but not surprising.
“The ball is opened–war is inaugurated.
The batteries of Sullivan’s Island, Morris Island, and other points were opened on Fort Sumter at four o’clock this morning. Fort Sumter has returned the fire, and a brisk cannonading has kept up. No information has been received from the seaboard yet.
The military is under arms and the whole of our population are on the streets. Every available space facing the harbor is filled with anxious spectators. The firing has continued all day without intermission. Two of Fort Sumter’s guns have been silenced, and it is reported that a breach has been made in the southeast wall…”
The text continued, however, my mind only seemed to register the first sentence. War is inaugurated. Perhaps it was silly of me to expect the South to end their vendetta with secession.
“Lincoln’s called for 75,000 men. I intend to be among them.”
Mother’s eyes widened.
“Leland, you’re acting impulsively.”
“Mother’s right Dad. You’re needed here. The Union army can result to conscription if there aren’t enough volunteers.” I couldn’t imagine what Mark was thinking, however, his shallow, rapid breaths gave some indication. Father put his hands into the pockets of his frock coat and straightened his posture as if to appear taller.
“Mark, I need both you and your mother to understand why I’m doing this. How can I denounce the act of slavery, and when given the opportunity to combat it in a substantial way, choose to let it pass me by?”
I couldn’t understand father’s reasoning. “Choosing to stay with your family does not make you a hypocrite. You’re a devout Quaker. Everyone would understand you wanting to avoid a violent war.” I glanced at mother to see if she could sway him, though she appeared defeated.
“Leland, if you wish to enlist, you may do so. I understand why you wish to and while a may firmly believe this the wrong course of action, I can’t dictate your choices.”
Tears began to stream from her eyes and father crossed the room to embrace her.
Mark had positioned himself in the corner, his back hunched. Shadows created by the hearth moved across his pale face, however, they couldn’t mask the look of distress that shown through his widened eyes.
“If father is dead set on enlisting, I’m going as well.” Mark’s decision was perhaps more impulsive than father’s.
“No, you won’t. I can’t support our family if both you and father go.”
“You wouldn’t have to. Both father and I will be compensated for our service, and we can send a fraction of that to you and mother.”
“Your brother’s right, Mark. We can’t both volunteer. Besides, your mother and I both want you far away from danger.”
“Then you shouldn’t enlist either. I shouldn’t have to be content with you putting your life on the line!” Mark stormed up the Captain’s stairway before father could stop him, his face flushed red. I hadn’t witnessed him this aggravated in years.
Father enlisted in a matter of days, departing for West Virginia to drill under the command of one Irvin McDowell. Mark didn’t leave with him, though I never learned why. Perhaps he had merely been bluffing to strongarm father into remaining in Philadelphia. Perhaps someone or something had swayed him. Regardless, I was relieved one of them had stayed. I doubt I would be capable of supporting our family without them.
Scene #3: The News of Bull Run Spreads
Father’s absence was a hole that was impossible to fill. Mother would experience fits of anxiety when letters didn’t arrive within a matter of days. Mark grew more withdrawn with each passing day. Father rarely ventured outside Pennsylvania’s borders, so I could understand Mark’s difficulty coping. The war had already begun to divide our family.
Throughout the spring season and a portion of summer, little of consequence occurred. Mark and I attended work as per usual, mother remained home completing household duties, and father sent letters a couple times a week along with small amounts of money. However, on July 21, 1861, father sent a letter home that divided what remained of our family.
My dear Evelyn,
On the 21st, McDowell crossed at Sudley Ford and attacked the gray-backs’ left flank on Matthews Hill. Fighting raged throughout the day as we drove them back to Henry Hill. At around 2 o’clock, Confederate reinforcements (one brigade arriving by rail from the Shenandoah Valley) extended and broke our right flank. Our retreat rapidly deteriorated into a rout. Although victorious, those seceshes were too disorganized to pursue. I can only pray our regiment reaches the safety of Washington. I thought this war to end swiftly and without costly affair, however, now I am unsure. I hope to return to you and our children soon, however, I know not if that is realistic.
I could predict Mark’s response before he had finished reading the letter.
“I’m going to enlist. I understand both of you will protest my decision, but I need to do this.”
“Explain to me why you need to do this. Your father’s explanations were vague enough, however, you only brought up enlistment in the first place after you couldn’t sway him.”
“We all thought the war to be a swift one. Now that we know it will not be, men must take up arms to protect their families, country, and values. I want to be a part of that, and I hope you and Jonathan will honor my decision.”
“May I enlist as well?” I recall my reasons being less noble when compared to Mark’s and my father’s. I felt joining the Union army would give me purpose I couldn’t receive from railroad construction. Plenty of Mark’s more righteous reasons contributed as well. The act of slavery has repulsed me since I learned of the practice and protecting our country’s values was important to me. However, I doubt I would have enlisted based solely on these reasons. How selfish I was then, placing my own life above the millions who lacked freedom. I suppose I was finally beginning to understand father’s reasoning.
Mother covered her face with her hands, as though if she didn’t bear witness to the conversation we were having, it would cease to exist. From behind her palms, she rattled off every conceivable reason as to why we should stay. Her words grew more and more distorted as tears welled up in her eyes and her body racked with sobs. We both embraced her as she wept.
Scene #4: Drilling
Mother reluctantly permitted us to enlist, albeit with little choice since Mark and I had asserted we would go regardless. Following a medical examination and recruitment, we were both sent to Springfield, Illinois, Mark as part of the artillery while I joined the infantry. Here Ulysses S. Grant had begun drilling volunteers.
The trees in the area were skeletal in structure, with but a few leaves still clinging to their branches. Fallen leaves blanketed the earth and the wild grasses were cropped close to the ground. We had been given our traps and appeared uniform with the other soldiers who wore nearly identical uniforms of dark blue pants and jackets, complete with kepi hats.
Few I knew had ever been in a true war. The Mexican-American War was all I had to compare, however, I knew few who participated. I had anticipated the Victorian-era style of warfare; two expansive armies marching across an expansive battleground, only to meet and battle for honor and victory. How naive I was.
Marching and fighting drill was part of our daily routine. We drilled as squads and in company formations, each man getting accustomed to orders and arrangements. We spent hours on end marching in column and in a “company front”, learning to face properly, dress the line, and how to interact with fellow soldiers. After hours of drill on that level, our company moved onto practicing regimental level drills and parades, guard mount, and other procedures. Thanks to continual drilling, I could recite the steps of loading and priming for many years after the war. Oddly enough, drilling took precedence over marksmanship. William Tecumseh Sherman, who had overseen our drilling, believed that each man would shoot accurately when told to and the exercise would waste ammunition.
“I suppose we’re parlor soldiers then. Well, ain’t that just swell.” Sherman peered down his hooked nose at the private. He appeared to be around my age and had an impish look about him.
“What’s your name boy?” The private appeared reluctant.
“Well Richards, perhaps you could elaborate on why you feel my methods to be inferior to yours.” I found it hard to tell if this Jude Richards was bold or a dolt.
“I do believe our job as part of the infantry is to engage in military combat, not to rag out and prance about the battlefield. Perhaps if McDowell spent less time drilling and more time shooting, he wouldn’t have felt the need to retreat back to Washington.”
Definitely a dolt.
Throughout the month of August, an insubordinate sign became a temporary feature of his uniform, though his humiliation wasn’t evident.
Drilling continued up until February. Grant marched us into Tennessee around this time, attempting to divide the Confederacy in two by occupying the Mississippi Valley. The captures of both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson had given me optimism for a Union victory. I have few tales of these victories, as I had remained in camp drilling with many of the other infantrymen.
I anticipated that once in the ranks, the glorious combat I envisioned would begin, though patriotic zeal blinded me and most of the volunteers to the hardships we signed up to experience. Many of the men were killed not by bullets, shells, or bayonets, but from succumbing to disease. Our days were filled with nearly interminable drilling, punctuated with brief periods of entertainment in the form of music, cards, and gambling, although this activity I never took part in. The arrival of newspapers or mail from home — whether care packages or letters — in the diggings was cause for celebration. Though these diversions often preoccupied us, much time was still left for exposure to the noncombatant foes of poor shelter, malnutrition, and a poor hygiene.
Grant set up camp near Shiloh, Tennessee at April’s start. Little changed, however the supply chain of wagons and railroads was finally able to catch up to our daily needs. At about this time I befriended Jude Richards. I’d never been much good at making friends, and considering Jude’s reputation with Sherman, he had few options as well. Having someone to play cards with made time in the army slightly more bearable.
Scene #5: Skirmishes of the Yankees and Johnny Rebs
Of all the uses for the Lord’s house, gambling seemed one of the most ironic. However, during the early hours of the day shortly after reveille, that was precisely the use of Shiloh ‘s rustic one room, hewn-log church. “Do you plan to complete your turn before or after the day’s end?” I pulled my eyes away from the jack and four that lay on the hardwood floor before me and looked up at Jude.
“Did it not occur to you in the past few minutes that that’s what I’m trying to do?” Jude smiled knowingly at me.
“You’re right. It was ludicrous of me to think that you could say hit or stand within the course of 5 minutes.”
“Perhaps if you dedicated half the time you spend talking to thinking about your hand, you could actually win a round.” I spent approximately 30 additional seconds weighing my options before asking for another card. The utter delight expressed on Jude’s face when I got dealt an eight was perhaps more sickening than the loss itself. I could at least take solace in the fact that we weren’t playing for money.
Before Jude had the chance to gloat about his victory, Mark entered the church with a worried look on his face. It was strange seeing him here, as the artillery generally stayed on the opposite side of camp. Without saying a word, Mark grabbed my wrist and led me to the church’s threshold. At first glance, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. The backwoods terrain was ablaze with bright sunshine, fragrant flowers, and verdant, spring green vegetation. The weather felt almost as warm as July in Philadelphia and wildflowers carpeted the ground in a stream of color. Save for the usual bustle of camp life, Pittsburg Landing was at peace. Upon closer inspection, I saw what was troubling Mark. Near the edge of the adjacent woods stood around 30 men. 10 of them wore grey uniforms and were encircled by a small band of Union troops.
“You’re troubled by captured rebels?” Mark looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
“Major General Sherman said we didn’t have to worry about the Confederates up in Corinth launching an attack. Now here we have a group of rebels starting a skirmish mere miles from the encampment and you’re not worried in the slightest? These are likely not the only Rebels near the camp. General Johnson probably sent them here in the hopes of launching an attack and reclaiming Forts Henry and Donelson.”
The rumors began circulating shortly before breakfast. According to what Jude heard from a volunteer of the 5th Ohio Cavalry, one of the lieutenants and half a dozen men on picket duty were captured by Confederate cavalry. When a detachment went looking for them, it’s commander hurried back to report a whole Rebel line of battle, complete with artillery, within two miles from Shiloh’s church. A rumor perhaps more troubling was that Sherman was taking no action to prevent an attack and that he believed that the closest Rebels were still up in Corinth, Mississippi.
All through breakfast, I hoped that Jude’s information was about as credible as everything else he says. Unfortunately, Jude chose today of all days to be candid. Before many of the men had finished their salted pork and “teeth dullers”, a sergeant rushed into camp hollering about how he and a couple other soldiers had seen Confederate cavalry, infantry, and artillery near the line of trees. Sherman grew irritated and ordered the sergeant arrested for sounding a false alarm. Jude seemed to find the situation somewhat humorous.
“Glad to see that the disgraceful coward of Louisville has blossomed into the pompous idiot of Pittsburg Landing. In all honesty, I quite miss ‘Nervous Nellie’. At least he would entertain the possibility of an attack.”
“Do you think the gray-backs will try to attack the camp?” Neither the early morning’s doomsaying nor Jude’s perception of our military leadership had done much to put my mind at ease.
“They’d be stupid not to. Neither Sherman nor Grant have made any attempts to entrench or erect any fortifications. Our camps are spread out helter-skelter with immense, forested gaps between them and even when they come right to the line of trees, Sherman disregards them and instead focuses on his drill formations and his spit-and-polish dress parades. The only general who wouldn’t take advantage of Sherman’s buffoonish nature and cowardice is a man who’s an even greater buffoon and coward.”
The idyllic surroundings of Pittsburg Landing that had once stripped me of my worries no longer set my mind at ease. The dense, forested area just past our shelter tents now housed Rebel artillery. The unfortified creeks and rivers that encompassed our encampment no longer provided the illusion of sufficient protection. April 4th was perhaps the first day of the War in which I didn’t feel safe.
April 5th was just about as reassuring as the day that preceded it. A rumor began circulating within a few hours after drilling. The story was similar to those that came before; a report was filed that affirmed infantry dawning the grey uniforms of the Confederates were spotted in the densely forested regions adjacent to the camp. When the Confederate activities were reported to Sherman, he told those who had filed it that the Confederates remained confined to Corinth, Mississippi. Another rumor circulated that Sherman was a traitor, however, this I found infinitely more far-fetched.
“Is it really that much more far-fetched than Lincoln allowing a complete and utter halfwit to gain the position of Major General?” Jude looked at me from above his cards, anticipating my answer.
“Considering the other option is Lincoln promoting a traitor under the guise of a simpleton, I find it far more believable.”
Jude sighed, likely due to his conspiracy theory not taking root. “Fair enough. We’re still in peril either way. Hey, how much do you want to bet the camp will be attacked within the next week?” It’s not often that I am surprised by the words that come out of Jude’s mouth, however, his wanting to gamble on our survival wasn’t one of these instances.
“Isn’t that a bit morbid? Setting aside the fact that I rarely gamble in card games, are you really proposing we place bets on our security.”
Jude laughed as if I were joking. “Of course not! Everyone in camp would bet on an attack, save for Sherman. Not a particularly high-stakes wager.”
“Can you just finish your hand?” Under normal circumstances Jude’s comments wouldn’t be so bothersome, however, due to the recent skirmishes near the camp, everyone was a little on edge.
“Look on the bright side. The irony of a battle commencing in the “place of peace” after incessant assurance it wouldn’t perhaps proves the existence of an all-powerful god, albeit one with a dark sense of humor.”
I’d stopped paying much attention to Jude’s mindless banter and focused on a conversation at the adjacent side of the church. The gray-back prisoners, who for the most part had remained silent while in the confines of Shiloh church, became talkative with their guards and began boasted about a great Confederate army poised to attack the next day. One of the guards began laughing hysterically as if the prospect of a battle was ludicrous. He turned to one of the prisoners, who appeared to be a private.
“Hey Rebel, do you reckon there are enough gray-backs wandering about to make for good hunting?” The Johnny Reb gazed at the guard resentfully.
“Yes, and there’s more than you’uns have ever seen, and if you ain’t mighty careful, they’ll run you into hell or into the river before tomorrow night.” The guard continued laughing, however, his grin couldn’t mask the fear behind his eyes.
The rest of the day continued as per usual; tedious drilling, boredom, rifle maintenance, meals of bread and salted meat, and the occasional game of 21. Jude became more reserved following the Rebel’s warning, which seemed rather uncharacteristic of him. I suppose the confirmation of his suspicions had made him less conversational. Taps couldn’t have been more welcome, however, rest evaded me. The anxiety over what would come to pass tomorrow left me in a prolonged state of apprehension, which prevented my eyelids from becoming heavy. Only when the Sun began to peek over the horizon did I begin to fall asleep.
Scene #6: The Battle of Shiloh
With reveille came lethargy. The dark circles underneath Jude’s eyes indicated that sleep had eluded him as well. Fortunately, the day’s breakfast was served with coffee, which helped to restore some of my vitality. The men idled about the embers of their fires; some preparing breakfast, others evaluating the condition of their rifles; still others were chatting apathetically on the end and goal of the campaign. For the time, the camp appeared no different than previous days.
The Union flag hanging limp and lifeless in the center of camp appeared to lift itself from the flagpole. At the same instant, I could make out a dull, distant sound like the heavy breathing of some great animal below the horizon. The flag lifted as if to listen. The human swarm that was our camp momentarily ceased to make a sound; then, as the flag became limp, the hush died out. But there were some hundreds more men on their feet than before. The strange behavior of the troops caused my heartbeat to quicken.
Again the flag raised to warn us, and again the breeze bore to our ears the same dull, distant tone. The division sprang to its feet, as if it had received the sharp word of command, and stood in groups at “attention.” Officers came ducking from beneath their tents and gathered in groups. Pittsburg Landing had become a swarming hive of anxious soldiers.
The sound of Confederate guns came in regular throbbings, creating a pulse for the fever of battle. The cavalry seemed to materialize from nowhere in particular, and on the instant rose the sharp, clear notes of a bugle, caught up and repeated, and passed on by other bugles, until the level reaches of the fields, the line of woods trending away to far hills, and the unseen valleys beyond echoed with the bugle’s notes. The farther, fainter strains were partially drowned as the men ran to arrange themselves behind the stacks of arms. I struggled to breathe, feeling as if my heart was lodged in my throat, preventing me from inhaling.
A flood of gray-backs emerged from the dense forests adjacent to our camp. The sight of the Confederates approaching with banners fluttering, bayonets glistening, and lines dressed on the center conjured up feelings of both awe and dread. The soldiers began yelling something unintelligible, though it sounded like a fox’s yip mixed up with the cry of a banshee.
The period between the start of the onslaught and nightfall registered as a blur in my memory; due either to my disorientation or perhaps my determination not to remember the day’s bloody spectacle. All I can recall with certainty is that mere hours after the Johnny Rebs began their attack, I and many other Union troops were positioned near the edge of the Tennessee River, having been corralled there to avoid Confederate rifles. Before us ran the turbulent Tennessee River, peppered with plunging shells and obscured in spots by blue sheets of low-lying smoke. Two little steamers came over to us empty and went back filled to the brim, sitting low in the water, approaching the point of capsizing.
The far edge of the water couldn’t be seen from where I stood. The steamboats came out of the obscurity, took on their passengers and vanished in the darkness. But on the heights above, the battle burned brightly; a thousand lights kindling and expiring each passing second. Broad flushings streaked the sky, against which the branches of the surrounding trees appeared black. Sudden flames burst out here and there, with fleeting streaks of fire crossing over to us. These expired in blinding flashes and fierce little rolls of smoke, accompanied by the ring of bursting shells, and followed by the distinct sound of their fragments striking into the ground on every side. Cheers could faintly be heard as if to announce a momentary or partial triumph. Occasionally, against the glare behind the trees, black figures could be seen, distinct but no larger than a thimble. I found myself wincing each time the metallic pitch of shells passed my ear, despite never receiving a bullet.
The dead of night had put a temporary end to the struggle and by this time, what remained of my regiment had arrived. The feeling of assurance when Jude arrived amongst them was the only positive memory I retain of the battle.
“We’re headed towards the fields.” The words came from an officer I did not recognize.
“Why the fields? Shouldn’t we be boarding the steamboats?” Jude’s words rang true for most in our regiment, who appeared baffled by the officer’s request. Retreat appeared imminent, with steamboats traversing the Tennessee to carry us away from Pittsburg Landing and the confused mass of humanity positioned almost to the river bank.
“The men boarding those steamers are deaf to duty and dead to shame. The death those deserters refuse to meet by the enemy will be delivered by their officers. Those of you who refuse cowardice, accompany me. The fainthearted among us can flee to the steamers if they wish.” None of the men left for the steamboats. If one of us were to run away, all of his neighbors, friends, and family would either see it happen or hear about it. Better to risk death by the enemy and be praised as a hero than face death from the officers and a legacy of humiliation for your premature flight.
There was no rest for the weary. Step by step we trudged through the dusky fields aimlessly. Troops surrounded us, but no campfires were aflame; to kindle a blaze would have been madness. Those we saw were of strange regiments; they mentioned the names of generals of which I couldn’t recognize. Clusters gathered, asking eagerly of our numbers. They recounted the depressing incidents of the day of which I wished to eradicate.
While the accounts from the soldiers I could rid from my memory, the low moans from within the tents and the long rows of dead layed straight in the fields remained ingrained in my mind. These tents were constantly receiving the wounded, yet never seemed to reach their capacity, for within moments of a new arrival, another body was carted out to join the dead. It was as if the hopeless had been carried in and slain so that they might not inhibit those whose business it was to fall the following day.
“Do you reckon we’ll survive the night?” Jude had remained quiet since the river and was visibly troubled.
“We have the Lord as our fortress to deliver us from our enemies.” Wrong answer. Jude snickered at my naivety.
“Glad to see God’s got his priorities straight, sparing two trivial privates while hundreds of others are bled dry. Thanks for the sermon by the way.” I wanted to reassure Jude, however, an officer shut my mouth with a sharp word as he passed. It was apparent Jude didn’t want enlightenment on the gospel anyway.
Rain began to pelt our backs when we began moving again. The silhouette of some unknown officer began to place us in position. Inch by inch we crept along, treading on one another’s heels in an effort to keep together. Commands passed across the lines by means of whispers; more often than not, none were given. At times, the lines could not advance and we stood at a stand-still, sheltering the locks of our rifles with our ponchos. Evidently, the head was being piloted at a snail’s pace by some man who felt unsure of his ground. Often we struck our feet against the dead; more frequently against those who had the vitality to resent it with a moan. Some had sense enough to ask for water. A strange request; soaked were their clothes, their hair dank; their pale faces, dimly recognizable, were clammy and cold. The rain, which had for hours been a dull drizzle, fell with an abundance that stifled us; we moved in running water up to our ankles. The torrent of water and the bitter chill that accompanied it averted any chance of rest; and as the long night wore away, I stood alert, anticipating the new day.
As the glimmer of morning crept in through the forest we found ourselves in a more open country. Not a sign of battle could be observed. The trees were neither splintered nor scarred, the underbrush hadn’t been trampled, no footprints save for our own scattered the ground. It was almost as though we had broken into a glade sacred to eternal silence.
“Jonathan, Old Scratch hasn’t taken me yet!”
“Just you wait Jude. I presume the gray-backs are preparing to ambush us promptly.” Jude’s smirked stretched from ear to ear.
“I recall you claiming the Lord would preserve me from my enemies. Suppose you wish to retract your doctrine?”
“That protection doesn’t extend to the sawbones. I reckon you wish to keep your legs.”
“Ain’t there always a catch? For the life of me, you’ll never catch me in the chapel.”
The long, peculiar note of a bugle sounded, borne to us on the raw morning air to interrupt our conversation. It rose with a low, clear, warble, and seemed to float in the gray sky like the note of a lark. As it died away, I perceived that the atmosphere had changed; despite the equilibrium established by the storm, it was dynamic. The men thrust forward their heads, expanded their eyes and clenched their teeth. They breathed arduously, as though strangled by yanking at the leash.
“Hoof it.” The source of the order remains an enigma to me, however, the men marched in subordination towards the source of the bugle.
In moments we had left the solitary haven that had so miraculously escaped the desolation of battle, and now the indications of the previous day’s struggle were present in abundance. Small pools—mere discs of rainwater with the crimson tint of blood—dotted the landscape. Branches of splinters jutted out every which way from the trunks of the trees. Like hands, the fingers above the wound interlaced with those below. The bark of these trees, from the roots upward, was so heavily pierced with bullet holes that one could not have placed a hand on it without covering several punctures. Jagged segments of iron, sticking in the sides of muddy concaves, revealed where shells had struck.
Men littered the earth; all lifeless save for a Federal sergeant, though he may have preferred a swift end along with his comrades. The man lay face upward, inhaling in convulsive, rattling snorts, and exhaling in rapid, consecutive sputters. A stray bullet had slashed a groove in his skull, just above the temple; from this his brain protruded, dropping off in long, bloody strands.
The expressions on the men’s faces ranged from horror to disgust. More than a few averted their eyes to evade the gruesome scene that lay before them.
I couldn’t bear to gaze at the sergeant writhing around any longer. “Do we have any nurses?”
Some unknown private gave me a look of disdain. “What would a nurse do? The man’s brains ‘re falling out his head.”
“We could at least give him morphine instead of watching him bleed out like a stuck pig.”
“Well, we ain’t got no nurses. They all prob’ly got up an’ left on the steamers. Feel free to jab him with a toad sticker. That’ll put the bloke out of his misery.”
None of the men followed through with the private’s cold-blooded proposal. Even those who wanted to follow through for mercy’s sake refrained due to the hundreds of onlookers who could inform higher-ups. Within minutes the sergeant parished, finally at peace in his Lord’s embrace.
Trampling through the underbrush, we continued to march, seeking the source of the bugle’s warble. We scoured the forest, finding neither friend nor foe.
“Do you suppose the Rebs fled to Corinth.”
“As if you care. You’ve taken to snapping every twig scattered about. Those that haven’t retreated must be deaf.” Jude’s face flushed red.
“Aren’t you one to talk. You’ve rustled every leaf since we began marching.”
Perhaps the gray-backs overheard the commotion, for the forest seemed at once filled with the sickening sound of lead against flesh. A dozen men toppled over, struggling to their feet, only to go down again. Those who remained standing fired into the brushwood.
We had expected to find, at most, a line of skirmishers similar to our own. Instead, we encountered a line of battle. Little could be done but retreat across the open ground, every yard of which was throwing up spouts of mud provoked by an impending bullet.
The layout of the earth offered minimal protection. I lay flat on my face, obscured by a dawdling row of brambles, marking the course of an obsolete fence. “Lie down, there!” a captain would shout, and then get up himself to see that his order was obeyed. “Captain, take cover, sir!” the lieutenant-colonel would shriek, pacing up and down in the most exposed position that he could find. Despite the contradictions, I remained behind the bramble barricade, firing at the streaks of grey that peeked through the nettles.
As matters stood, we were now very evenly matched, and God only knows how long we would have remained. But all at once our men had somewhere pierced the enemy line. Moments later the entire Confederate front gave way and springing forward with fixed bayonets the Union infantry pushed them in utter confusion back to their original line.
A long regiment with fixed bayonets and rifles on the right shoulder swept past and over us into the open field. Another followed, and another; two—three—four. I found myself pondering where all these men had come from, and why they hadn’t arrived earlier. The lines swept across the field like long cerulean waves of the ocean, chasing one another to drown out the Confederate onslaught.
Minute after minute ran its course as I waited for sound that ceased to come. For the first time in the battle, the silence was outright. I peeked just above the line of brambles, praying no Confederates remained to open the ball. A stretcher-bearer entered the field, then a surgeon, even a chaplain! The battle had finally ceased.
Scene # 7: Resolution
Perhaps the most trying aspect of war is not the battle itself, but the destruction and devastation one must face at its conclusion. April 8th was spent hauling cadavers and identifying those that had perished. During the battle, I’d focused my mind on my own safety, but had not considered Mark’s. Perhaps I assumed he would survive. Or perhaps I was too selfish. Regardless, I would never see him again.
Sherman had sent his artillery just West of Hornet’s Nest, where the heaviest fighting had taken place. After hours of heated fighting with numerous Confederate frontal assaults and artillery barrages, the Union forces at the Hornets’ Nest were overwhelmed. The collapse of right and left flanks meant that the attacking Confederates enveloped the position entirely; some Federals got away, some were captured, and others like Mark perished on the field.
“You don’t have to write her immediately.” Jude had sat with me in the shelter tent for the past few hours, though I wasn’t much in the name of company.
“Her eldest son just died. She best know now.”
“Perhaps you could wait until you’ve come to terms with his death?.” I stared at the blank page before me, refusing to meet Jude’s gaze.
“If that were the case she’d never know.”
“Can you at least look at me?” I reluctantly turned my body to face him.
“You can’t hope to comfort your mother about Mark when you stare blankly at paper for hours deep in your own self-pity.”
My jaw clenched. “And what do you propose I do? Prance around like a gal-boy pretending all is well?”
Jude pulled me out of the shelter tent. Disoriented, I stumbled a couple of steps before I got my footing. He let go of my hand, which had turned pale where his hand had grasped it, and led me through camp.
Our destination was a small hill bordering the camp. From its top grew a black oak tree, with skeletal branches that spread outward like an open palm. Jude positioned himself awkwardly between the massive roots and waited for me to sit beside him.
“Care to enlighten me as to why we’re here?”
Jude pulled out his cards and shuffled them into a neat stack, with one card facing upward. I narrowed my eyes at the ten of spades that lay before me on the grass.
“Why in God’s name are we playing 21?”
“You can’t stop thinking about Mark and when I’m not preoccupied comforting you, I’m thinking about the sergeant and the copses and the wounded. Cards’ll do us both some good.”
To say all was hunky-dory after that would be a falsehood, for Jude and I each struggled with our own hardships.
Dead bodies, wounded men writhing in agony, and the hum of bullets frequented Jude’s nightmares and bled into the daylight hours. While Jude tried to hide it through banter and sarcasm, he was frequently on edge, made apparent every instance in which he peered over his shoulder, searching for an enemy that long ago had departed. He improved with time, though his under eyes always appeared heavy from lack of rest.
Mark’s death had left me hollow, with pleasure and joy seldom presenting themselves within the months that followed. Concentration was near impossible to maintain as I frequently felt fatigued. A grey veil seemed to separate me from the present, forcing me to dwell in the past. I never fully recovered, however, I learned to cope for the sake of mother and father. They’d lost their eldest son and I felt it cruel to allow them to lose me as well.
How long ago it was that the world appeared so beautiful and strange; when foreign constellations burned in Tennessee’s midnights, and the mockingbird poured its heart out. My memories I retain of Shiloh contrast the vibrant and horrific. The grotesque and the picturesque. The peaceful and the chaotic. Perhaps in time the world will return to the raw majesty I had once visioned. More likely, however, my fine, far-away memories will forever intermingle with the harsher features of this later world.
Scene # 1: The Pennsylvania Railroad