Authors: Iris Penn
A Place of Peace
Copyright © 2013 Iris Penn
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher
"Mars is not an aesthetic God."
John Brown Gordon, commanding an
Alabama regiment at Shiloh, Tennessee
When the troops came
over the hill they were met by a blistering round of grapeshot that thundered over them and scattered the men along the ground. After the smoke drifted away, Colby Dalton wiped the sweat out of his eyes, trying to catch his breath. A sharp pain in his leg told him that one of the rounds of lead had found a new home, and as he debated whether to try to run, another burst exploded overhead. He knew to lie still, if he moved he would be a target, and those Yankees over on top of the next hill were crack shots.
He saw the tattered remains of the battle flag fluttering like a dead thing in the stale wind. He figured that Watkins was already gone, for the boy had been the first to crest the hill waving the banner and had probably been the first to go down. The Yanks took special pride in taking out the one who waved the colors.
The lieutenant was to Colby’s right, and Colby could hear him shouting at what was left of their regiment trying to get them up, but Colby noticed many of his troops weren’t moving, and it wasn’t because they were scared. His fingers clutched at the cold barrel of his rifle as he tried to remember if he had put a cartridge in. He knew the Yanks would pound at them a little while longer before they charged. It was the lieutenant’s plan to rush their cannons before they could mass enough of a line to make that charge, but Colby suddenly saw all kinds of faults with that plan: namely that the cannons at close range had just taken out about three-quarters of their men.
The lieutenant’s name was Rivers, and he wasn’t much older than Colby. Rivers was a little man who had a big voice that was useful in situations where he had to shout over the crack of gunfire. Colby noticed the little man crawling over the bodies to get closer, probably so Colby could hear the command, but Colby’s leg was on fire. He didn’t think he would be able to make the charge.
“Son, are you hurt?” Rivers shouted. “We’re going on three. Get ready!”
Colby shook his head and pointed at his leg. A spreading dark patch was turning his gray pants black, and he was afraid if he moved his leg, it would break. Already he could feel the pressure on his leg bone where the lead round had embedded itself. Before he could wonder how his hurt leg would affect his farming back home, if he ever made it back, Rivers was right beside him and shaking him furiously.
“I’ve got two choices, son,” Rivers yelled beside Colby’s ear. “Those Yanks are going to pound us into the dust if we stay here on this hill much longer. We either die here like rats, or die out there trying to help our boys down in the woods. We’ve got to take out those guns, and I’ve got no one left!” There was a mixture of horror and remorse in the lieutenant’s voice, as if he was trying to justify the death of his men.
Another explosion and a cloud of dirt rained upon both men. Colby coughed a little at the choking dust that swept over him. When he looked up, Rivers was staring at him blankly, his eyes wide open.
True fear finally washed over Colby as he watched what was left of Rivers slump over. Was he the only one left? He tried to look below at the bottom of the hill. Gray lumps littered the grass. Sixty men had crested the hill with Rivers, now it seemed fifty-nine lay dead or dying along the hillside.
The cannon fire suddenly stopped, and Colby crawled up to the top of the hill, peering across the impossibly wide expanse between him and the top of the next hill where three cannons sat pointed in his direction. They were smoking faintly as the gunnery crews doused the barrels with buckets of water to cool them off. Colby cocked the hammer on his rifle and pointed. It might have been over a hundred yards, but he had been squirrel hunting all his life, and he could knock a squirrel out of a tree in full coverage at almost that distance. With no wind, he figured he could make the shot, but then what? There would be one down but wouldn’t the survivors start their barrage again? He might not be so lucky as to escape with just a shrapnel wound in the leg. The next shot might let him join his brothers-in-arms in the great hereafter.
Behind the gun crews were the caissons holding their canisters of shot and powder. The cannons still steamed, and Colby saw the soldiers beginning to load them up again to prepare for the next round of shelling. He had one shot, and he would be taking a chance it wasn’t going to work, but he didn’t have much to lose if he tried.
He aimed for the wagons and fired.
His bullet hit one of the small barrels of powder and there was a sudden boom as the powder ignited and exploded in a burst. The wagon splintered and disappeared in a shower of wood and smoke. The gun crews scrambled out of the way as the remains of the wagon pelted them. The rest of the powder blew, disintegrating the wagon and their canisters completely. The Yanks scrambled off the top of the hill as the flames licked the last bits of wood from the wagon. Colby closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, trying to stop his hands from shaking. He could hear the faint trumpet call sounding the advance, and he knew the boys down in the woods were at least safe from the cannon fire.
The pain in his leg was greater now, and he knew he was losing a lot of blood. He knew he couldn’t walk on it, so his only hope was to stay alive long enough for them to find him. He listened to the trumpet calls in the distance and tried to gauge the direction the battle was going in. He waited for the sound of the retreat, but none came, and Colby knew they had won the day.
It wasn’t morphine they
gave him, but whiskey. Colby awoke briefly when they began dragging him off the field, mistaking him for one of the dead. It was only after he began shouting at them, did they realize he was still alive, and they had immediately carted him off to the field hospital where they had cobbled an array of tents together.
He lay on a blanket in one of the tents as he waited for the surgeon. They had given him whiskey, but he found he couldn’t drink the stuff without gagging. From the other tents he could hear the surgeon at work, along with the accompanying screams of the wounded. Would the doctor take his leg? A wave of nervousness crept over him. He couldn’t drink the whiskey. There would be nothing to deaden the pain. Colby debated whether to try to crawl out of the tent and take his chances with his wound. It wasn’t hurting as badly as it did before; it had grown into a dull ache that throbbed with each heartbeat.
They brought another man into the tent on a stretcher. Colby could see right away that the man was not going to survive much longer, but the man was still and quiet, and Colby figured it was merciful if the man died while unconscious. The orderlies dumped the man on the ground and left.
The man was older than Colby, and for all he knew he could have been his father’s age. A grizzled black and white beard covered a cragged and scarred face, one that had seen many conflicts in its life, but beneath the scars and the beard there was a look of gentleness on the man’s face, and Colby tried to piece together this man’s life by looking at him while he lay dying. The man’s hands were thick and rough: a farmer from the looks of it. Colby had the same calluses on his hands from working in the fields, and the skin was brown from years of working in the sun, just like the man across from him. Colby had long since gotten past the point of sunburn, now he tanned, and the dark hair on his head bore the streaks of being touched by the sunlight on many summer days.
The dying man’s hair had probably been the same color as Colby’s once, but now it had swirls of gray mixed with the dark brown. Colby reached over and touched the man on the shoulder, letting him know that he was not dying alone. However, the man’s wounds were too deep, and although Colby would have liked for the man to speak to him, no words came out. Colby forgot all about the pain in his leg. His leg was nothing compared to what the man beside him was suffering through.
“Hang in there, old boy,” whispered Colby. “Just hang on.”
He noticed a slip of paper sticking out of the man’s pocket. He pulled it out slowly and unfolded it, unmindful of the red streaks that lined the edges of it. It looked to be a letter.
Colby hesitated, not knowing if he should go ahead and read it. It might tell him the man’s name, and that would be something he could tell him to make him feel like he wasn’t alone. The man twitched and let out a deep and resounding sigh. Colby saw the man’s chest deflate with its last breath and not rise again.
Colby crawled back onto his own blanket as the pain in his leg flared again. They had bandaged it, but the white of the bandage was now crimson with blood, and the lower half of his leg was tingling as if it had fallen asleep. He looked over at the bottle of whiskey and almost reached for it, but he hesitated and instead looked at the letter in his hand.
It was dated with today’s date and the time on it was this morning’s. Colby estimated that it was probably before the first advance, before Lieutenant Rivers had decided to take out those guns, written during the quiet hours of the early morning, even before the morning fires were set and they brewed the coffee. He had addressed it to someone named Melinda, and whether or not Melinda was the man’s wife or daughter, or sister, or some other relative was unknown. All Colby knew was that today, this morning, this man had written to Melinda as if he knew it was going to be his last chance.
As he read the letter, it was as if he could hear the man’s voice in his head: his voice loud and strong.
April 6, 1862
6:30 in the morning.
My dearest Melinda,
We have just arrived here in Tennessee and are now encamped on the banks of the great river that flows beside us. I do not know what the day has in store for me, but as I do before each battle, I feel I have to write to you. Getting mail from home to us is impossible, so this letter will be one-sided. The boys in the brigade are young and scared, and as I look at them, I am both saddened and angered that our cause has come to recruiting such youngsters. I have learned from the colonel that we are going to be pushing north past the river to dig in a defensive position, but I fear it will be for nothing. They have ordered us to hold a grove of trees at all costs. My camp is sleeping all around me. The poor lads walked all night to get here. If we go into battle, it will not be with a fresh heart. It will be with weary eyes and tired feet. I miss you and our home, and most of all your mother. Share this letter with her if you get it. I hope it will be accompanied with more letters, but I am uncertain when they will let us send them. You are always in my thoughts and prayers, and we must put our faith in God that we will see each other soon.
He had signed it with a scrawling name that filled most of the margins at the paper’s bottom. Colby carefully folded the paper and placed it in his pocket. He stared at the whiskey bottle beside him and wanted to drink it all quickly before the orderlies came and carted him off to the surgeon. The ordeal of drinking the whiskey would be slight compared to how he would feel if the surgeon decided to take his leg.
He reached with a trembling hand and took the bottle. There was time for a small drink in memoriam for his fallen comrade in the tent, and he drank to the dead man beside him and his wife and daughter back home. By the time the orderlies came for him, he was passed out and dreaming of his own home just up the road near Nashville and how good it would be to see it again.