Last night, I dreamed of Laurel.
Lying on my bedroll on the hard ground, I became lost in sleep and then in this dream.
She was standing across a lake near our house. I recognized that body of water as one I had fished in often, sometimes bringing home a yellow perch or a bluegill for our supper. But I wasn’t fishing in my dream, I was just standing there, waiting for her to speak.
When she did, it intensified my yearning for her, my need to be near her and with her and continue the life we had before I went off to war. And although she was sixty feet away, her voice seemed to come from a great distance. She called, “Come to me, Caleb. I have missed you so. Come to me.”
I started to walk around the lake since I had no boat and am not much of a hand at swimming. She spoke again.
“No, don’t come around. Walk to me. Come to me.”
I stopped, puzzled. Did she really mean I was supposed to walk into the lake?
“Do you want me to walk in the lake? I can’t swim that well.”
“No,” she came. “Not in the lake. On the lake.”
This caught me up short. “Only our Lord could walk on water. I’ve misunderstood you.”
“No, you haven’t. Walk on the lake. Have faith in me.”
As I recalled my Bible, that’s pretty much what Jesus said to the disciples. When Peter tried to walk on water he didn’t have enough faith, so he sank. Was Laurel Jesus in another form? And if she wasn’t, was I committing blasphemy by having faith in her?
I hesitated a moment, and then decided to try in. I stepped into the lake, and to my shock, my foot didn’t go into the water. I walked on the lake.
“That’s it. Come to me. Just keep believing.” Laurel held her arms out, and I thought how much I wanted to be held in those arms. I focused on her face, thinking of her arms.
She frowned. “You are thinking of something else. You must keep believing in me.”
She was right, of course. I couldn’t help but think of her after I had not seen her for so long.
I felt the water give way, and I slid into the lake. I struggled, trying to swim to the surface, but it was as if something was pulling me down. As darkness closed in, I heard Laurel’s voice: “Because you have disobeyed me, you will never see me or our son again. This is all your fault.”
Then all went dark.
Back into It
As Travis had said, we were in camp for two weeks, not really doing much besides drilling and trying to occupy ourselves as best we could. I heard some fellows say that they couldn’t wait to see some action. I myself could wait a long time for that. I did not have much experience in combat, but the little I had taught me that I did not like it and would have avoided it if I could. Of course, I had signed up for it, although I had signed up for the Confederate side, but as far as anyone knew, I was a Federal. I wonder how it would go with me if I did not fight since I did not enroll in that army, but decided that would be a bad plan. I would keep my eyes open and if possible find my way to a part of the battlefield where little was going on. My mission was to stay alive and report on the actions and plans of the Northern troops. How I would convey that information to Eleanor, I did not know, but if she could find me where I lived, I had no doubt she could determine where I was in the army.
I had found the troops on both sides were about the same: there were braggarts and bullies, holy Joes and fellows who could cuss the paint off a barn, some who were old enough to be my grandfather, and others who were so young they hadn’t shaved yet.
My little group in the Union regiment consisted of David, who was a teacher; John, who mended shoes for a living; Roger was a tailor; Fred, who worked in a dry goods store; Paul, who was a seminary student like Alphonso; and William, who was a grocer. They all came from some place near Pittsburgh. I told them I came from Maryland, but David looked at me hard and said, “I never heard a Maryland accent like that one.”
I thought quickly. “My parents were German,” I told him “I believe that’s what you’re hearing.” He seemed to be satisfied with that. We got along well, and John was willing to fix our shoes when they needed it, and Paul was always willing to talk with anyone about spiritual matters. We teased William about going to get us some better food, and he said, “Boys, it’s a long way to that food you’re asking for, and it would spoil before I could get it here. You’re better off with what you have. At least it isn’t rotten.”
Roger said, “But it does have weevils and maggots at times. Rotten might be preferable to that.”
I allowed as how I didn’t want any of those in my food, and they all laughed and wished me luck.
Late in May, things started happening. Our lieutenant called us together. “Boys, Jackson has captured our garrison at Front Royal and likely is going to make a try for Winchester. It will be up to us to stop him. Are you in it?”
The troops responded with cheers and huzzahs, just like it was a baseball game or the like. This thought made me realize that I had not thought about baseball since I had been sent on my mission. Some fellows who had been released from Southern prisons said that no one seemed to have the energy or the heart for any kind of game, including baseball. I thought that was too bad, because playing while I was in prison took my mind off my circumstances.
We were to move out the next day, and I with the others made my preparations. I saw one fellow named Austin concentrating something beyond the normal on a letter he was writing. I decided to ask him what he was doing. I walked up to him where he sat on a log, holding his paper on a plank so he could write on it.
“Austin, you are going at it hard there with your writing. What is the occasion of such industry?”
He looked up at me. “I am writing a letter to be delivered to my next of kin should I perish in the battle. I will secret it in my clothes so they will know my thoughts of them.”
“Is this done by many fellows?”
He nodded. “It is honored in its purpose, so, yes, many of us do this. Is this something you plan to pursue?”
“This is a new practice to me, so I will have to think on it a while.”
He regarded me oddly, as if my giving the matter some thought were unusual. In truth, I had a strong sense that I would survive this war, and be reunited with my Laurel and our son. I cannot say why I thought this. Certainly my dream of Laurel the month past would seem to argue against it. But I believed that dreams were only dreams, and had little to do with us here.
We prepared ourselves and set out through first Thoroughfare Gap and then Manassas Gap and up toward Front Royal, where we engaged the Confederates. I was in a fix. I didn’t want to shoot anyone on my true side, and I certainly didn’t want to be shot myself. I hit upon a plan. I would charge my rifle but leave the ball out. That way, it would look like I was shooting, but no harm would come to anyone. I also decided to find some secluded spot where I could wait out the battle and then rejoin my comrades.
We set up across the road and Jackson’s troops were on us something fierce. As soon as I could, I made my way to a little swale back where no one could see me. I lay there, holding my rifle and breathing hard. Fighting was not for me, I decided, but I would certainly have to do some of it.
As I lay there catching my breath, someone tumbled into the place where I was. He was a Confederate, and at that close range, I knew I would have to use my bayonet, as distasteful as that might be. It would be killed or be killed, and I wanted to see Laurel and little Caleb again. As I fumbled with my bayonet, I looked up to see if the other fellow was fixing his. I dropped my bayonet in shock. “Adolphus?”
He lay down beside me. “Caleb, what in the name of all that’s holy are you doing here?”
“Trying not to get killed.”
“No, I mean, what are you doing in a Union uniform?”
“It’s a long story which I will tell you in its totality later, when we are not so beset, but it is sufficient to say that Eleanor has involved me in a scheme of espionage, and that is why I am here, thus arrayed.”
He was silent.
“What are you doing with Jackson’s army?”
“Some of us were taken to add to his forces for his Valley campaign. We are set to rejoin our regiment when all is done. Have you done much spying?”
“I have noted numbers of troops and weapons, yes.”
“How do you convey your observations to your spy mistress?”
“I use code. All believe that I am her brother writing to her as a good brother should.”
“I must admit though this scheme is diabolical, it is also clever.”
“The Devil has all the good lies, I hear, and I think that is so.”
Suddenly the noise of battle increased on the other side of the outcropping where we were. Adolphus stuck his head up so he could see over it. “I have bad news for you—it appears we are winning and your fellows are running toward Winchester. You must go.”
“I will.” I clasped his hand. “I pray for you and also for this war to be over.”
“No time for speeches—go!”
I ran parallel to the road behind a longish berm until I could tell I would be among my troops and then I joined them. It is not accurate to call them “my troops,” but I am certain a reader of this account will understand what I mean. I joined the flight, which turned into a rout. We did not stop until we were across the Potomac and had exhausted Jackson’s troops. And so my first engagement as a Union soldier came to an end.