Rally ‘Round the Flag
We caught up with the regiment near Front Royal, and Captain Reynolds delivered me to Colonel Martin so he could determine what to do with me. Reynolds had said they were so short on men, they’d take anyone, no matter what they did, but that was Reynolds’ opinion. He was not in charge. I waited on a stool while Reynolds went in. He came back after about a minute. “The Colonel will see you now. Good luck.”
I went in and recognized Martin from being with the regiment before. I saluted, and he returned the salute and said, “Sit down, Duncan, if that’s what your name is. What’s your story? Why were you away for so long?”
I gulped and decided to tell the truth. “Sir, my name is Caleb Dillard, and I was a Virginia regiment when the war started. I was captured and put in prison.”
Martin didn’t seem surprised by this, and I wondered why. “It’s a long way from being a prisoner of war to ending up as a lieutenant in the other army. How did that happen?”
“Well, sir, I learned to play baseball there, and at one of our games I noticed a young woman taking an interest in me. To make it short, her brother, who was in a Confederate prison, looks enough like me to be my twin. She helped me take his place in this regiment so I could spy on what you were doing.”
“I see. Did you succeed?”
“No, sir. I gave her some inconsequential matters, so minor that the became upset with me and threatened me.”
“What did she threaten you with?”
“With killing my family. She is very rich, very powerful and has a long reach. Recently she burned our cabin because we weren’t there and she couldn’t hurt us.”
“So you deserted and took your family away.”
“Yessir, we were gone for months, and then came back. I went to town to mail a letter, and that’s where Captain Reynolds found me.”
“And you’re back in the Federal army right now.”
“Yes, sir. That’s right.”
Martin sat back and studied the ceiling of his tent for a moment. “You know I could have you shot for desertion, but I think I understand why you did what you did. We’re getting ready for a big push to try to block Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, if my information is correct. We need every man we have to do that, so I’m going to let you re-join your regiment. There could be further consequences for you, so behave yourself.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Yes, sir, I will sir,” I said, not really knowing what I would do. But once again, I was a Federal soldier.
“Yes, sir,” I said as I saluted. “Thank you again, sir.”
Martin waved a hand. “I have bigger problems than you, Lieutenant.”
I went back outside where Martin told me where I would be issued a uniform, rifle and everything else I would need. As soon as I did that, our marching orders arrived, and we drove hard for Leesburg, where we crossed the river at Harrison’s Landing and went over to the north and the east, through Maryland toward Pennsylvania. The coming battle would take place wherever the two armies met, and no one knew at that time where it would be.
I was marching beside Abner, and we talked as much as we could while we were moving almost at the double.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up,” said Abner.
“Me, either. I wonder what the gol danged hurry is.”
“We’re not generals, so we wouldn’t know.”
“We’re going to be dead not-generals after a while if we keep this up.”
We reached Emmitsburg on June 30 and slowed down. Abner looked serious. “I would be glad of an easier pace, but I believe it is a sign that we are nearing the site of the battle.”
“I have had little experience with such things, and so I trust your judgement.” I wondered how I could get through the coming battle and see my family again. I prayed to God that I would be spared.
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes, of course. I pray for safety for me and my friends, but I know that is no guarantee that we will come out of the fray alive.”
“I am the same way.”
We camped out overnight, and, sure enough, our officers told us that scouting reports indicated that Lee’s troops were to the west and north of us and could be expected to make a turn soon to meet us head on. They also told us the battle likely would be near the town of Gettysburg, a place I had never heard of. It was soon to be renowned throughout the whole world.
We heard of an encounter that morning between Confederate infantry and Federal cavalry near Gettysburg, and we made ready to move forward. Lee apparently arrived in Gettysburg mid-afternoon, but as we drove forward, we were met by our troops. We retreated, expecting to meet the enemy coming after us. That attack didn’t materialize because Ewell hesitated to press his advantage. This gave the North time to bring up fresh troops like us and to set up artillery.We held our position as night fell. We heard that Meade had ordered all the troops under his command—more than 90,000 of them—to Gettysburg. And so we lay down on our blankets but did not sleep, awaiting the dawn and a certain battle.
Abner and I talked for a while, but not too long, since there might have been people sleeping, although I doubted anyone got much sleep anyhow since everyone must have been like us, unable to sleep for thinking of what was coming the next day.
“Caleb,” whispered Abner. “Are you afraid of what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t scared. Someone I know said those who aren’t afraid before going into the battle are either stupid or just don’t understand the situation.”
“Have you been in many of these?”
“No. The ones I’ve been in I managed to avoid any heavy fighting and usually spent the time behind a tree. Some might say I’m a coward, but I say I wanted to see my wife and child again. I keep doing that, and then I’m wrenched away from them time after time. I don’t know what’s going on most times.”
“That’s understandable. I’ve heard fellas talk about the confusion of war, and I certain believe that.”
“Let me ask you something now. What do you think happens when you die?”
“I don’t know: I’ve never died.”
We chuckled at that, and then I asked again. “What do you think happens?”
“I truly don’tknow. I wasn’t brought up in any religion. My mother read these pamphlets that said that all of life is what we see here and there isn’t any heaven or hell, either. That doesn’t seem right to me, but I don’t know what to put in its place. What do you believe?”
“I did go to church, and so I believe that because I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I will be with Him in heaven through all eternity.”
“That sounds good. And you came to this by going to church?”
“Indirectly. I believe that going to church or reading the Bible doesn’t save you. They’re like good soil. Nothing grows unless a seed is planted, and that seed is the Spirit of God coming into our lives. It can’t do anything with us unless we ask it to. Are you thinking about accepting the Lord?”
“I am, but I want to think about it some more.”
“As our preacher used to say, ‘Tomorrow will be too late.’ I wish you would take the Lord and see how good it is.”
“From what you’ve said, I’ve noticed your life hasn’t been exactly good.”
“Yes, I have had some trials and temptations, but I have overcome those because Jesus was guiding me. I don’t want to try to force you to believe. That is strictly up to you.”
“I’ll think on it. Right now, I think we should be quiet and let anyone who wants to sleep do so, although like I said, there can’t be that many that are.”
“That’s fair enough. Good night, Abner. I enjoyed talking to you.”
“And I did you. Goodnight, Caleb.”
As I lay there awake most of the night, I thought about the battle and about Laurel and the boys at home. I prayed that they were all right, and I prayed that I could come through the upcoming battle in good condition. Thinking these thoughts, I closed my eyes and, to my surprise, fell asleep.
We were awakened by the sounds of artillery, and we scrambled to ready ourselves. Men and horses were running everywhere in such haste that it was a wonder that no one was hurt before the battle began. “Caleb! Where do we go?”
“Over to the right!” I shouted. “Be quick about it!”
We joined other soldiers in our regiment and those from other groups and began advancing toward the sounds of battle, which now included rifle fire. We topped a rise and there was the line of gray-clad soldiers with their rifles raised and shooting at us. I never got used to the idea that someone was trying to kill me or that it could very well happen at any moment. The Union lines cheered (why I do not understand) and started firing.
And so began the worst three days of my life. Anyone who has not been in a war cannot begin to understand the effect that the sight and sounds produce—the deep thunder of cannons, the crackling of rifle fire, the screams of the wounded and, worse yet, the groans and prayers of the dying. I saw many things too horrible to describe adequately—men with half their faces torn off, men missing arms and legs attempting to find them (to what purpose I do not know), soldiers blown high in the air by explosives, horses shot from under their riders, crushing them before dying themselves. All this I witnessed and more, and the next two days passed in a rapid succession of scenes pulled from a nightmare. I soon lost track of Abner in all the noise and confusion and wondered if I would ever see him again. That would have to wait until the battle was over, and even then such an outcome could not be guaranteed. It was extremely difficult to identify some dead soldiers, such was the damage caused to a human body by our horrid weapons.
On the last day of the battle, I was at the far end of the line when General Pickett ordered his troops to charge. In truth, they did not charge, but walked into a murderous hail of shot and shell which cut soldiers down like wheat before the reaper. I did not understand then why Pickett would order a maneuver that was bound to fail and at great cost of life. I found out much later that it was Lee who ordered him to make the charge, and he never explained what his thinking was. Possibly there was no thinking behind it, just a desperate attempt to make the invasion succeed. I think Lee knew somehow that Gettysburg would be his last chance to at least bring the North to the treaty table, since he understood that defeating them would be impossible.
Halfway across the field, I looked at what was going on and could bear no more, so I hid behind a huge rock, vowing not to add to the carnage, enemy or no or soldier or no. I lay there, listening to the screams and moans, when someone came over my rock and landed right in front of me. I brought my rifle up to shoot him, not wishing to die myself, when he called out to me. “Caleb! Caleb, is that you?”
He asked because both our faces were begrimed with gunpowder streaked with sweat, and, in my case, tears. “I am Caleb Dillard,” I said, and then I recognized him. “Andrew! What are you doing here?”
We put down our guns and he slid over to lie beside me. “A group of soldiers came by the day after you disappeared and gave me a choice: either I could go with them or they would shoot all of us. Of course I went with them and found myself part of the army.”
“But you’re so young!”
He smiled sardonically. “There are some younger than I. Boys, really. They are so desperate for soldiers, I am surprised they do not take women.”
I had heard of women in the military on both sides, but believe they did so voluntarily, to be near their husbands or lovers, but I said nothing. He was speaking of a different case. “Well, I am glad we found each other. Now we need to figure out how to get away from this and go back home without either of us being shot or arrested.”
He nodded. “I am mightily in favor of that.” What little of war I have seen has convinced me I want to see no more. I am with you.”
“Before you agree so readily, I have a question for you.”
“Certainly. Please ask it.”
“Do you know what desertion is?”
“And if we leave without permission and they catch us, they can have us executed.”
“I am aware of that. I would rather take my chances with being caught that with being on a battlefield with all its uncertainty and violence.”
“Good. We understand each other, then.” I looked over the rock and wished I hadn’t. The carnage was beyond description. “Let us stay here until the fighting is over, and then we can make our escape.”
“But how? The field will still be swarming with soldiers.”
“I have a way. I believe the North will win, and I can act as if you are my prisoner and am taking you to the rear. Does this sound as if it will work?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Most surely, but I would alsoagree to a less clever plan if I thought it would take me away from here.”
We lay there for hours, listening to the battle rage, and then a blessed silence quickly fell over the scene. From the cheers in the direction of the Northern troops,I could tell that they had won, and it would be safe to take my “prisoner” away.
“Let’s go, Andrew,” I said, “and remember to act as if you had been captured.”
We stepped out from behind the rock, and, while I had looked out at the field not three hours before, I still could not believe the number bodies strewn over the field. Why Lee had all those brave lads walk toward those murderous guns, we will never know. I said a silent prayer for all of them, Southern and Northern alike. The slaughter of the war had continued with this confrontation, and there likely would be much more of that to come.
A group of Union soldiers came toward us. “Hey, I see you got you a Johnny Reb!” called one. He walked up to us. “How’d you survive? Hide behind a rock?”
That, of course, was exactly what we had done, but I said, “I captured him over yonder, to the far side. He didn’t put up much of a fight.”
“Yeah, I’d say he was a coward,” the man said. He raised his fist to strike Andrew, but I stepped between them.
“The Colonel wants our prisoners to be able to talk to find out what they know. If you hit him in the face, he’ll find that will be difficult to do, so leave him alone. He’s my prisoner.”
The other fellow narrowed his eyes. “If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d say you had some sympathy for this coward. What outfit are you with?”
“Seventy-first New York.”
“I’ll just have to check with the colonel to see if your story’s true. If not, you’re both going to get a beating from me.”
I leveled my rifle at him. “I can fix it so you won’t be checking with no one about nothing.”
“You wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
“Try me. Say you won’t follow up. You won’t be the first man I’ve shot today.”
He hesitated, and something in my eyes made him reconsider.
“Well…well,” he said. “All right. This time. But if I catch out alone, it will go badly for you.”
“I welcome the opportunity,” I said, surprised at my boldness, but I had to get Andrew to safety.
The soldier muttered an oath and rejoined his fellows. I could see him gesturing as he talked, and knew he was relating the story of our encounter, but no doubt leaving out the part where he agreed not to check up on me.
“Come on, Andrew,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“I don’t know. Make it up as I go along, I guess, just as I did back there.”
We walked toward the rear, and we excited nothing but the most ordinary of interest. I was glad for that. We would need a lot of luck like that to make our plan work.
A lieutenant stepped in our path, and I saluted him.
“I see you got one.”
“I did. And he didn’t fire a shot.”
He nodded. “We’re holding prisoners down by that barn yonder. Go down there and turn him in.”
“Yessir.” I saluted again, and started walking with Andrew toward the barn. “Look around,” I whispered to Andrew, “and tell me if that lieutenant is watching us.”
Andrew turned his head and then said, “No. He’s walking off.”
“Good. I’ll think of what to do between here and there.”
“I hope you can.”
“Do not worry. I have become quite adept at last-moment fantasies.”
As we neared the barn, a plan occurred to me. “Here’s what we’ll do,” I told Andrew. “I’ll tell the officer in charge that you have valuable information and that I am under strict orders to take you to headquarters.”
“Do you know where headquarters is?”
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll get away from here and then figure out what to do next.”
“More fabrication will be needed. All right. You haven’t failed me yet.”
“And I pray I don’t this time.”
We stepped into the barn and went up to a table where two sergeants sat, taking information about each prisoner. “All right,” one of them said, “What’s this one’s name?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He says he’s under strict orders to talk only to generals.”
I repeated myself as if I were talking to a child. “He’s only supposed to talk to generals because he has important information for us.”
“What kind of important information would an ordinary soldier have?”
“I don’t know. He won’t tell me because I’m just a corporal.”
“Are you being clever with me?”
“No, sergeant, just telling you what I was told. The colonel told me.”
“Which colonel? We have a lot of them.”
“He didn’t say. But he said if I didn’t get this prisoner to headquarters, it would be both of our heads.”
The sergeant sighed wearily. “Go ahead, then. Just when I think I’ve seen and heard it all, something else comes along.”
“Thank you, sergeant.” I saluted and turned to Andrew.
“Come on, Private What’s Your Name. Let’s go.”
“That’s not my name,” Andrew said.
“You won’t tell me your name.”
“Well, then.” I looked back at the table and made motions that signified that Andrew was simple minded. The two sergeants nodded, trying not to smile, and we went on our way to try to find out how we might get away from the war.
“They must have thought I was dumb,” Andrew observed.
“You did well to make them think that.”
“Just believe me.”
“All right. I will.”
And so we went off to look for some place in the lines we could get through and make our way home. I did not know how we would do that, but at least we would have to try. I have been in harder places than this, I thought, so I am certain we can work something out.