On the Other Side
I stood with my rifle, leaning against the earthworks, trying to see across the river through the fog. This time I was on the southern bank of the Rappahannock, with Lee’s army.
“You’re wasting your time,” Adolphus said. “It won’t clear for another hour. At least they can’t see us, either.”
It was great to be with my friend again after all I’d been through. I told him about seeing him across the river and thinking there was no way I could get over there then. But Eleanor let me go and, after a visit home, I joined up with the troops on the south side of the river. I remembered when I first reported to command headquarters. “Corporal Caleb Dillard, reporting for duty, sergeant!”
He looked at me as if he were trying to place me. He gave up and said, “What division are you with?”
“I’m not with any division. I’ve been away for quite a while, and I don’t know if the division I joined still exists.”
He sighed. “If you tell me what division you were with, I can tell you if it still exists.”
“It was the 8th Virginia Infantry Regiment.”
He dug some papers out of a dispatch case and shuffled through them. He pulled one out and read over it. “Dillard was the name?”
“I show you missing from the battlefield. No one knew if you were captured or dead.”
“I’m not dead.”
“I can see that, Dillard, and don’t get smart with me.”
“Sorry, sergeant. Just trying to be helpful.”
“So, you’re obviously not a prisoner and you’re not dead, so what happened to you?”
“It’s a very long story, sergeant, and I’m sure you don’t have the time to listen to it.”
“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said. And I guess it’s good for you that that 8th Virginia is still intact, although there have been so many replacements and deaths that you won’t know many people.”
“I think one of my friends is still in the unit.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just have a feeling.”
“Now you’re back to not being sensible.” He took another paper and wrote quickly on it. “Take this and give it to the commanding officer, whoever he may be. I haven’t read the dispatch for today yet, so it might be your mother. Carry on.”
I saluted and he returned the salute. I turned and had taken two steps when something occurred to me. “Sergeant?”
He glared at me. “What is it now?”
“How do I get to my unit?”
“Oh. You confused me by flip flopping from being sensible to I don’t know what. Follow this line of tents, and when you come to its end, turn left until you come to a stand of trees with a clear space beyond. Go over the hill, but be careful, because you’ll be in range. You’ll see the earthworks, and your unit is somewhere along them.”
“Thank you, sergeant.”
He waved a hand. “You can thank me by never coming here again.”
“I can do that, sergeant.” I had to smile at the man’s obvious discomfort with me, but he had no doubt been through a lot, as had so many other troops.
I followed his directions and found the earthworks and saw the Rappahannock beyond and, making a guess, followed it downstream. I hadn’t gone too far when I came to a line of tents. A drummer boy was sitting on a stump throwing rocks at squirrels. He screwed up his face when he saw me.
“Hey! Who are you?”
So much for military discipline, I thought, but answered him. “I’m a replacement.”
“That’s good. We’ve had a lot killed or dead.”
“I can only imagine. Where’s the commanding officer?”
“That would be Captain Simmons. He’s in the tent at the end of the row. Do you like squirrel?”
“I’ll kill you one and we can eat it.”
“That would be great! I’m sure I’ll see you later.”
“Sure thing.” I turned to walk away, thinking the squirrels were safe, when I thought of something.
“Did you ever think about using a sling to kill squirrels?”
“No. What’s a sling?”
“It’s a pouch on a length of cord. You put a rock or something similar into the pouch, twirl it around, let the rock go, and BAM! No more Mr. Squirrel.”
“That sounds like it would work.”
“I know it would I have a friend who killed a man with a sling, so killing a squirrel would be no problem.”
He jumped up from the stump. “I have some cord and material in my tent. We’ll have some good eating!”
I had to smile at his enthusiasm, but thought again, so much for military discipline.
The boy ran the opposite way from the one I was going, and disappeared over a small hill. I kept going down a line of tents and came to the last one. I stopped and called, “Permission to enter, sir!”
A voice came. “Hold your horses! You literally caught me with my pants down. A man can’t relieve himself around here unless someone comes calling.”
I hadn’t come at t a good time, I could tell. “Sorry sir. I didn’t know what you were doing.”
“Some enlisted think we don’t have to do this, but we’re like everybody else. I’ll be right with you.”
I smiled and waited a few minutes. A short, stocky captain emerged from the tent. I saluted and said, “Corporal Dillard reporting for duty, sir!”
He halfway returned the salute. “I’m Simmons, as I’m sure that no-count drummer boy told you. He’d rather hunt that do anything else, but he’s no good at it. It would be one thing if he killed a few animals, but that’s not going to happen.”
That’s going to change, I thought, and I didn’t know if it were for the good or not.
He picked up a piece of paper and looked at it. “I see you have experience as an observer in balloons. Fortunately or unfortunately for you, we don’t have any, and if we did, it wouldn’t matter since we’re going into winter camp. No one will do much of anything for months except drink and fight. It’s another kind of war that we have, except it’s with ourselves. I almost would rather not have it, but the troops would hang me.”
“Yessir,” I said.
“‘Yessir’ what? You’d rather have winter camp or you’d like to hang me?”
“Well, no,” I sputtered. “I hardly know you, so I don’t want to hang you.”
“That’s good. There are those who would.”
Now I wonder what than means, I mused.
“All right. You probably talked to the sergeant when you came in, but I’m going to have to send you back to him. He’ll tell you where you’ll be billeted. If you can what we have billets. Any questions for me?”
He sighed. “Well, thank God for that, because I don’t have that many answers. You’re dismissed, Corporal.” He snapped off a salute, possibly to make up for his earlier half-hearted effort.
I returned his salute and went back to the sergeant, who told me I would be staying in the twentieth tent down from his. I walked back down there, counting the tents off until I came to the right one.
“New posting,” I called.
“Come on in,” a voice replied, and I thought it familiar. I went into the tent and saw a soldier sitting on a bed with his back to me.
“I’m Corporal Caleb Dillard, and I’m new.”
He turned around and said, “Not to me, you’re not.” It was then I saw it was Adolphus, and a more welcome sight in my life I had not seen, with the exception of Laurel, of course.
I rushed over to him and we embraced like brothers, which in a sense we were.
“I am so glad to see you,” he said. “I thought I never would behold you face again.”
“I’m in a transport of happiness to be with you. But I must tell you, I did see you about a week ago.”
He looked puzzled. “I’m sure you haven’t been here, and I haven’t seen you. How did you see me?”
“By looking across the river.”
“Yes. I was with a Northern balloon outfit and saw you through my binoculars when we were aloft.”
“What were you doing in a Northern balloon and how—” he started, but caught himself. “No matter now. We’ll have plenty of time to talk now, my friend.”
And so we would, and that is how I came to be with Adolphus again, some would say by chance and happenstance, but I would disagree with that. It was God who brought us together once again, and if it was His will, we would stay together the whole time we were on this worth, and be with each other eternally after that. If I had to be in a war (which I was), there is no one I would rather be with than my old friend, with whom I had experienced so much.
Our sergeant called from outside the tent. “Corporal Dillard and Corporal Custis!”
“Yes?” we answered together as he came into the tent.
“You have guard duty in half an hour, so be ready! You’ll watch right here, so I’ve made it easy on you! You should be grateful.”
“We are, Sergeant. So very grateful.”
He frowned. “Are you being smart with me?”
I shook my head. “No, Sergeant. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, so being on watch will allow us to talk.”
“Oh. I see. Well, don’t become so involved in your talking that you forget to keep a lookout. Anything happens while you’re out there, I’ll have your hide.”
“Understood, Sergeant,” Adolphus said. “We’ll get ready as soon as you’re finished talking to us.”
“I’m finished. What more did you need to know?”
“Nothing, Sergeant,” we said together.
“That’s what I like to hear. Half an hour, remember?”
“We will, Sergeant,” we chorused together.
“Do the two of you always answer in unison?”
“No—” we started to say, and then we laughed. Adolphus spoke for us.
“Sometimes we do, Sergeant, especially when we haven’t see each other for a while.”
The Sergeant scowled. “That’s just damned odd. I’ve never heard of such,” he said, and walked off, muttering to himself.
We watched him go. “I think we confused him,” I told Adolphus.
“Either that or made him upset with us. It was hard to tell.”
“Yes. Well, let’s get ready for what we have to do.”
We quickly made ready and took up our positions along the line. Either the evening was calm and quiet enough that we could hear the voices of the Union pickets across the way, or they were talking more loudly than we were. I suppose that would be the cause: I had no way to compare how strongly they talked as compared to our volume.
“Say, what do you suppose they’re talking about?” I asked Alphonso.
He thought for a minute and then said, “Judging from the tone and unhurried pace of their conversation, I would judge that they’re talking about the same things we are—their chances in this next battle, their families, when the war will be over, that sort of thing.”
“I think you’re right. I have come to believe that we are more alike than different, which makes this war even more difficult to understand.”
“I think you’re right. It’s almost as if we’re making a start toward a time when the war is over, and that bodes well for us and for the country.”
“I pray that may be so.”
“And I add my prayers to yours.
We kept our watch through our time without seeing or hearing anything until it was our turn to be relieved. This has worked out well, I thought as we came back into the tent. We would need all the sleep we could get for the next day. And then we’ll see what else happens.