The Seven Days
Following his defeat at Winchester, General Banks was sent to New Orleans to replace General Butler, and General McClellan assumed command of troops in Virginia. He determined we would take Richmond and make a quick end to the war, which had already gone on too long to my way of thinking.
Eleanor had written me, also in code, that she was pleased with the information I had been sending her. I found myself wondering if the Union defeat at Winchester was made possible, at least in some way, by what I had been sending to her. I was helping my side, but I still felt it wrong. There is something dishonest and disreputable about spying, and I strove to be an honest man of good report. The whole business was tearing at me.
I thought often of Adolphus, and wondered where he was and if he were well. I could not write to him, so I had no way of finding out what his situation was. I would have to depend on chance encounters such as the one we had had in the past month.
On this campaign, I had taken up with a fellow named Jenkins, who could not read or write, poor fellow, He was from some isolated place in Kentucky where there were no schools. Some might have called my community primitive, but Jenkins showed me that there were worse places.
Before we went to bed one night, he came over to me. “Would you do something for me?” he asked.
“Of course, Jenkins. What is it?”
“I want you to write one of them letters you write for the other fellows.”
“What kind of letter would that be? I have been called on to write various sorts. Would it be one to your wife?”
He ducked his head. “No sir, I ain’t married. It would be a letter to my Mam and Pap that they could read in case I am killed.”
Then I knew what he was talking about. It was the same kind of letter I asked Austin about when I caught him writing one before the disaster at Winchester.
“I should be mighty glad to write such a letter for you. I’ll get my writing material and then you tell me what to say.” I went to my tent and came back with paper and pencil and a little board I used as a desk. It didn’t take up much room in my pack, and made writing so much easier. I sat down next to Jenkins on the log we were using for a seat and said, “All right. I am prepared.”
“How do I start out?”
It occurred to me that he had never written a letter before since he did not know how to proceed. And he could not read one to gain that knowledge, either.
I placed the paper on my board. “It is customary to begin, ‘Dear So-and-So.’”
“I don’t know anyone by that name. I want to write to my Mam and Pap.”
I tried not to laugh, since I knew it would make Jenkins feel bad. “I apologize. ‘So-and-So’ is used as a marker, something that may be changed at will.”
“‘So-and-So’ is not a real person?”
I shook my head. “Not that I know of. Anyhow, you would start your letter, ‘Dear Mam and Pap.’”
“All right. Put that down.”
I did so, and sat there waiting. He made no move to speak.
Finally I said, “What do you wish me to put down next?”
“What is customary?”
“Tell them how you are and how much you love them so they’ll now if something happens to you, which we will pray will not.”
He screwed up his face as if he were thinking hard and then said, “OK, write this: ‘I am doing good. Our food is not bad, and there are fellows to help me with things, such as Caleb here who is writing this letter for me. We do a lot of marching and sleep on the ground in tents. I expect to go into battle soon, and if I should meet my Maker, I want you to know how thankful I am for all you did for me and that I love you both.’”
He looked at me. “Is that good?”
“That is very good, Jenkins.” I didn’t tell him that I changed some of the words to make it sound better, just as Adolphus did when he wrote to Laurel for me. “Is there anything else you want to tell them?”
“Nothing I can think of.”
“Fine. What is your parents’ address?”
“The place they live.”
“They live in a cabin in the woods.”
I knew he could not tell me anything further, but I also knew I could get that information from the private who distributed the mail so I left him alone. I think that private was the most popular man in the unit.
I wrote that letter and some others for Jenkins, remembering when I could not read or write and was helped, chiefly by Adolphus, although there were others.
The next day, we had a new man sent to us as part of a prisoner exchange to help with the general effort. Joel had been in Belle Isle prison in Richmond, which, you may recall was where I spent a brief time. Brief was more than enough for me or anyone else. I talked to him when he first joined us.
“Joel, are baseball games were being played between the guards and prisoners as they were during my time there?”
He shook his head. “No, it is hard to think of playing a game when all involved have seen so much death and suffering. And the food we were given was meager and of poor quality.”
“I see. It sounds like things have become much worse since I left there.”
“You cannot imagine the conditions there now.”
“Well, I am pleased that you are no longer there. My days at Capital Prison were easy by comparison, although we were not, of course, at our liberty.”
We loaded onto a train and were taken close to a place called Oak Grove where McClellan determined we would encounter the Federals. We arrived when it was dark, so we set up camp without benefit of any fires since that would reveal our position to the other side. There was much grumbling about having to eat hardtack with only water to soften it. Troops on both sides depended on coffee for a number of reasons, but there was none to be had that evening.
We set up our tents and fixed our sleeping arrangements. We knew the attack would come in the morning, but I for one did not sleep much, and from the rustling and mumbled conversations all around me, I don’t think many of the men did. And so I passed the time watching the moon in its transit from one horizon to another.
Dulce et Decorum Est
We were roused from our tents an hour before dawn. Notice that I did not say we were awakened, for, as I told you, few had any sleep. I heard much grumbling as I and the men around me had their breakfast of hardtack and water. I must admit that it would not be my first choice, but it was food, so I ate it without complaint.
We prepared ourselves as best we could, and when it was almost time, Jenkins came over to me.
“Are you ready?”
“As ready as I can be.” It occurred to me that I did not know Jenkins’ first name, so I said, “I don’t ever recall hearing your first name. I assume you have one.”
He nodded, looking around him. “Yes. It’s Caspar. My mother loved Christmas, and she told me that was the name of one of the wise men.”
I shook his hand. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Caspar.”
He looked puzzled. “I already met you.”
“I meant it was the first time to know you by your first name.”
“Oh. I suppose that’s all right. Look, they’re calling us.”
We moved out of our camp and into a skirmish line. I positioned myself on the right flank, thinking I would do as I had done at Winchester. I hoped there was some place I could hide myself behind a rise or declivity in the earth, but it didn’t look promising. All I could see in the dawn was flat fields with no cover whatsoever.
We began our march to face the enemy, and it was then I spied a small grove of trees. If the other side met us soon, I could hide among the trees. We had advanced to within fifty yards of the grove when I heard an unearthly sound, like a large number of foxes wailing. “What is that?” I asked Caspar.
He looked grim. “It’s the rebels giving their yell. They’ll be upon us soon.”
“I’m going to cut through this grove. I’ll see you on the other side,” I told him, hoping he wouldn’t follow me.”
I moved toward the trees and had just about reached them when I heard a shot. I turned around to see Caspar fall over. He did not get up, and I knew he was at least badly wounded. I was sorry for that, but it meant I could hide in the grove. In a sense, if he were dead, he gave up his life to save mine. I said a silent prayer for his soul and pushed on, hiding myself under a large oak tree that had fallen, leaving as space I could wiggle into.
Perhaps you think me a coward, and it would certainly seem so, but I have already told you that I did not wish to harm anyone and certainly I did not want to be harmed myself. So I hid until the firing stopped. It was then I came out from my hiding place.
The first thing I did was go over to where Caspar lay. I examined him, and he was dead, all right. I closed his eyes and said another prayer standing over him.
Joel came over. His face was blackened around his mouth from tearing open the cartridges with his teeth. “Caleb! There you are! You must have been in an area without much action. I can tell you haven’t fired your weapon.”
I tried not to look guilty. “Yes, I was off to the right and came to a gully and went down that, thinking I could fire from behind the edge, but I fell backwards and knocked myself out. When I came to, the battle was over. What happened?”
He looked disgusted. “We advanced maybe three hundred yards. It was not worth the sacrifice of so many lives.”
“So there were many casualties?”
He nodded his head. “Yes. Far too many, at least on this part of the field. I do not know about the others, but I suspect it will be the same.”
We stood there, surveying the scene. Some of the wounded were being helped back to camp by their comrades. Others, more seriously wounded, required the use of a litter which was brought up by two soldiers from the medical corps. The stretcher party nearest us put a poor fellow on. We could see he had taken a minié ball to his leg, and would probably lose it. He was screaming with the pain, but the only thing they could give him for it was whiskey. I did not want to think about how they would take his leg off. I had seen the surgeons’ saws and knives, and knew how they would be used. I turned away and was sick.
Joel and I joined the others who were dragging back to camp. “At least we don’t have far to go,” Joel said.
“Yes. I, like you, wonder if it was worth all this.” I swept the field with my arm. I knew the graves unit would come along and bury the dead where they lay. Later on, they would be moved to a proper cemetary.
We got back to camp and I did what little cleaning up I had to do. Our officers told us we could build fires for the time being, so all up and down the line, We lit our small fires, and made coffee. A welcome silence fell over the camp as we sat around the fires and drank our coffee. Many of the men held a vacant stare, no doubt thinking of the horrors they had seen and wishing there were some way to erase those scenes from their minds.
I crawled back into my tent, and, exhausted by the events of the day, soon fell asleep, tormented by images of dead and wounded soldiers.