“Diamond Courage,” Part 15

 

Chapter 16

Front Line

August, 1862

The train did come, of course, and all too soon I found myself back with my original outfit. It turned out that the Peninsula campaign was over when I was speaking with Colonel Bryon. He did not have that information, and so the train took us up by Strasburg and through Manassas Gap. I wasn’t that far from where I was captured in the early days of the war. It seemed like so long ago.

I joined up with my old outfit near Front Royal. They came marching through, and I recognized Adolphus among them. I hurried over to him. “Adolphus! It’s me! Caleb!”

He set down his pack and embraced me, then held me at arm’s length. “It’s good to see you, my boy—” He called me ‘my boy’ even though we were about the same age—“but I’m glad you said who you were, otherwise I would have thought I was seeing a ghost. What have you been up to since I saw you at Front Royal?”

“There’s a lot to tell, so I’ll talk to you while we march along. Have you heard where we’re headed?”

“It’s more of the same. Jackson wants to seize the rail junction at Manassas, so it looks like we’re going to fight in about the same place we did just over a year ago.”

Because I had wanted to keep myself safe, I had very little experience with combat. I would have to tell Adolphus.

“Do you remember when we shared that knoll earlier this year?”

He nodded.

“I have to tell you that I never engaged in combat, but stayed hidden there until the battle was over.”

“Did you ever fight?”

I shook my head. “I was at first battle of the Seven Days, and did the same thing. Then I was taken to Washington where I was held against my will, but I escaped and made my way to Winchester, where I took my wife and son and attempted to run, but we were caught by some Confederate cavalry and I was sent to join up with our outfit.”

Adolphus shook his head. “With all that, it’s a wonder you know who you are. What happened to your family?”

“They were sent back home with an escort. I of course have heard nothing about how they fared. I will have to trust them to God.”

“Hmm. That is certainly the best plan. I will pray for all of you.”

“Thank you, Adolphus.”

We marched along until about six, when we stopped to eat. I of course ate with Adolphus, who fended off those who were curious about the new recruit. He kept saying, “This is my cousin Caleb,” and that seemed to satisfy them. I told him in detail about Eleanor and her evil scheming. He sat back when I was done. “You couldn’t make something like that up, so I have to believe you. Not that I wouldn’t in any case, for you are an extraordinarily honest fellow.”

Adolphus admired honesty among all the virtues, so I was surprised when he said I was his cousin. I suppose that could be called a small and necessary lie. Adolphus knew more about moral systems than I did, and so I had to think that he considered the matter carefully before he acted.

Word filtered down that we were going to camp overnight in our present location, and I surmised that meant we would be in the thick of it the next day. I hoped I could sleep.

***

The next morning, I awoke groggy, on account of not being able to sleep at all. The air was filled with groans from men uncomfortable with lying on the group, talk, and an occasional scream as some poor soul was lucky enough to sleep but unfortunate in having a nightmare. We dressed ourselves and had a quick and not very good breakfast of hardtack and coffee. There was not time for more. Our officers told us we would move out in half and hour from the time we arose.  And so, breakfast done, we marched off against the enemy.

I remember the day as one of confusion, with smoke from cannons obscuring our view, the screams of wounded men and horses, the continuous discharge of our weapons, and the unearthly screeching that is called the Rebel Yell. Although intended to confound the enemy, it was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck. I wish I could recall if I loaded my rifle. I know I fired it, but I do not think I struck anyone. At least I hoped not. As I have said, I was sick of war and wished not to do anyone any harm, or to have anything like that visited upon myself. To those who would judge me for this, I say that you have not experience the confusion, noise, emotion and horror of men inflicting wounds and death on each other with implements of destruction. I do not need your judgement. I have God to judge me, and He is just and merciful. I will throw myself on his goodness when that time comes.

And so I went through the battlefield in a kind of daze and found myself at the end of the day watching my fellow soldiers drive the Yankees from the field. I felt no joy that the battled was over and that we had won, only relief that it was finally over. But I knew that if I continued in this way, there would be other and perhaps more terrible battles, although it was hard to see how there could be a worse case.

I sat down, unable to move for a while, but then bestirred myself and went about discerning who was wounded and who was dead. For the wounded, I signaled the litter bearers making the round of the field. For the dead, I closed their eyes and commended them to God. There was nothing else I could do for them, and I left them lying to wait for the coming of the burial detail. It was a hopeless feeling to think that their wives and children and  friends and comrades in arms would no longer see their animated faces or hear them laugh or marvel at the stories they told or share meals and holidays with them on this earth.

Adolphus found me doing these things. “Caleb! Come away! There are others who can do what you’re doing.”

“I must be of service.”

“No, you must rest. We are going back to Leesburg, and you will need your strength for that journey.”

“Back to Leesburg? Why not pursue the Federals?”

He chuckled and put his hand on my shoulder. “My boy, you have been away from the fight for too long. Since we were captured, the Yankees have heavily fortified the capital. Not all the armies of the South could overcome them where they are. As to why we are going back to Leesburg, the word is that Lee is planning an invasion of the North, most likely next year when we can manage it.”

“I see. Alphonso, do you find all this hard, nearly impossible to bear? Were it not for you and our fellows, I would desert in a minute.”

His face grew sober. “Yes, what we are a part of wracks me to the deepest parts of my soul, and I will tell you more if you swear before God you will not tell any living soul.”

“I so swear, before God.”

“I have been studying Scripture, particularly the Gospels, and I am no longer convinced that owning human being is what a Christian should be doing.”

I caught my breath. My family was too poor to have slaves, and independent enough to do our own work, with all that entailed, including not owing anything to anyone, slave or free. “I am with you on that.”

“Then what are we doing here?”

“Do you forget the sovereignty of states? Is that not important?”

Alphonso gestured to the destruction that lay all around  us. “Is it worth this? I think not. There are surely political solutions to this madness.”

“What would you have us do?”

“Continue to do what we have sworn to do, and look for every opportunity to influence those who are able to bring this conflict to an end.”

I scratched my head. “You have come a mighty distance since first we met.”

“Yes, and we all have a long way to go. Right now, let’s go a lesser distance and start for Leesburg.”

He helped me up, and together we started walking.

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