Into the Fray
The spring day was fine, with soft breezes, bright sun, a clear sky and apple trees in flower all along the road that we marched down. Both sides had broken winter camp, and we were moving toward the east, to an area near Orange. From what some of the locals said, it was overgrown with thick brambles and bushes, and heavily forested with trees. They called it “the Wilderness,” and I had no doubt it would make for some difficulty maneuvering for both of us if we could meet them there.
The word was that some of our scouts had seen Grant’s army as it crossed the Rapidan, and that is why we moved to meet them. I couldn’t help but contrast the beautiful weather and scenery with the terrible carnage that was sure to come, imagining that unbidden. I did not know if those images and sounds would ever leave me. I said a prayer for our safety, as I imagined many others were, including the prayers of those on the other side, knowing some of the prayers would not be answered in the way the troops wanted them to be. I wondered how God sorted out who would live and who would die, realizing that some in a state of grace would be with Him before the day was over. I thought that God’s choosing who would join Him was a grace-filled moment, and so it was difficult to know how to pray. I finally decided to pray that God’s will be done. That was the prayer of our Savior in the garden, and it was good enough for me.
We had been on the move for about 45 minutes when, ahead of us, in the nearly impenetrable woods, we heard the sound of drums and then of rifle fire, and knew the battle was joined. There was nothing to do but press on. At that point, we had no other choice.
As we came across a clearing just before we would go into the shrubs and brambles, I saw some drummer boys retiring from the field, as were their orders. Some of them had looks of terror on the faces, while others seemed remarkably calm. Once they had summoned the troops, their job was done, and they could move to the rear. I could not tell if any had been wounded or killed. That grim discovery would come after the battle, and I couldn’t help thinking of Hiram and hoping that he was well.
Just then, I recognized one of them as Hiram. “Hiram!” I called. “Hiram! Over here!” I waved my cap in hope that he would see me, and, sure enough, he came over to us. This was his first battle and he was wide-eyed at what he had seen.
“Caleb! There are so many soldiers who are against us, I do not see how we can begin to defeat them! They kept coming and kept coming!”
“We will do our best! You may be sure of that! You need to hurry to the back. We’ll see you later!” I hoped earnestly that we would be able to. Hiram ran back to catch up with his fellows, and did so just as we went into the thickets.
Once there, we could hardly see, much less move, and soon came across Federal soldiers. They were as hampered as we, and so we shot without really knowing who—or what—we were shooting at. We knew when our bullets had struck home by the horrible screams and cries coming at us. We hammered away at each other the whole day without ceasing, not stopping for food, and only taking sips of was as the sun reached its zenith and then started back down. The conditions of the battlefield seemed a perpetual dusk, and, as darkness fell, we knew no more than we did before. The only thing I knew for sure was that Adolphus and I survived, and I thanked God for that. We withdrew to the place where we had started, and made our beds as best we could.
“Adolphus, do you think there will be another day of battle?” I asked. I could barely see his face.
“I cannot tell that. Indeed, I cannot tell anything about this meeting.”
“Nor can I. I pray that we will not be attacked in the night.”
He chuckled. “I do not think we will be, given we can see less at night than we did during the day.
We slept only fitfully for the thought of what the morrow would bring. One of the times I awoke, I studied the moon, which was nearly full. Even then it gave little light, and I wondered if Laurel were looking at the same moon. This thought calmed me some, and my next interval of sleep was deeper and more restful. It was the only sleep of that sort I had all night.
Rifle fire woke us early the next morning, and we scrambled to prepare for the day’s battle, throwing on our clothes and readying our weapons. We were soon at it again, hammering away at a foe which, again, we ofttimes could not see. I visited some of the fields I had been on after the war and was astounded at the number of bullets that were lodged in trees and fences, so many I do not think it would be possible to count them all. This is a testament to the ferocity of the fighting as men on both sides shot time after time after time in a mad rush as if their lives depended upon it, which literally they did.
Late in the day, we saw a soldier coming toward us, firing as he came. At that moment, Adolphus and I were lying in a small declivity, using it for the meager cover that it afforded. When the soldier drew near enough, we saw that it was Andrew. We had not seen him for a while, since he had finally been assigned to a unit about a mile away from us.
“Andrew!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing over here? Why have you risked your life?”
He shot at some unseen target, and then slid into our hole next to us. “I am sorry to tell you that I come to bring you bad news.”
“What is it?” It could have been any of a number of things, and for a moment my imagination took hold of me and I feared the worse, that Laurel or little Caleb had been killed, although I did not know how such news would have reached Andrew in the midst of a battle.
“It’s Hiram. I fear that he has been shot in the arm, and I regret to say that I do not know how badly.”
“Oh, no, not Hiram! That’s terrible. Do you know where he is? Tell us if you do!”
“He was taken to the field hospital back along the main road. I came here as soon as I saw it was he.”
After this exchange, we noticed that the firing began to slacken, and it seemed that the Union troops had started to withdraw. This meant we had won the battle, but that seemed of little consequence, save that it allowed us to go see about Hiram.
The three of us made our way back to the main road in the company of exhausted soldiers, some of whom had lesser wounds and who wanted to see a doctor. As we went along, we collected more and more, until there was a steady stream of the wounded, which we became a part of. We walked down the main road for about half a mile before we came to the hospital, which was in a church at a crossroads. As we drew nearer, I saw that the surgeons had thrown amputated arms and leg out of a rear window into a huge pile. I had seen this before, but never with so many limbs stacked up. The sight made me nearly sick, but we went in.
“We’re looking for a wounded drummer boy.” Adolphus spoke to a young orderly who was covered in blood. He looked exhausted as well.
“We have a couple of those. How was he wounded?”
“We’re told he was shot in the arm.”
“Oh. In that case, he’s over there toward the back, left side. I don’t know if we had to amputate or not.”
As we made our way to the back past a score of soldiers lying on pews, I saw that many of them were more badly wounded that I supposed Hiram might be. I did not think most of them would live long and said a silent prayer for them. As if reading my mind, Adolphus whispered, “I do not believe most of these brave souls are long for this world.”
“Nor do I,” I answered.
As we continued down the aisle, we were assailed by the groans of the wounded men, with an occasional scream as a surgeon probed a wound. The table where amputations were performed was to the other side of where Hiram lay, and I saw that four orderlies held a sergeant down while the surgeon wielded a wicked-looking saw. The man they were working on shrieked horribly, and I cannot imagine the pain he was in. The only thing that the doctors could do for that was to administer whiskey, and I do not know if this poor soul had any or not. If so, it seemed to make little difference in the agony he was suffering. I could bear to watch no longer, and turned my eyes away.
We came up to the pew where Hiram was lying with his eyes closed. “Hiram,” Adolphus said gently. “We’ve come to see you. Wake up.”
His eyes fluttered open. “I hurt something awful,” he said.
“We know. Is there anything we can do for you?”
He began to cry. I had never seen him do this before, and he said, “You can give me back my arm. How can I be a drummer with one arm?”
Adolphus put a hand on his good shoulder. “We must trust the providence of God. The same One who healed the leper will provide for you.” I saw there were tears in his eyes as there were in Andrew’s and mine.
“I don’t see how that will be possible. Why did God allow this? It hurt so much when they took my arm off.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand, but we shall when we see God face to face.” Adolphus regarded him with tenderness.
“I want to understand now! I want an answer!”
Adolphus stepped back from Hiram. “You’ve been through a lot, but try to rest and we’ll be back to see you.”
We turned and went back outside. I hoped never again to see such sights, but I knew that as the war continued, I most likely would. It didn’t seem right that so many men should suffer so much, but there was little I could do about it except pray for them, which was a mighty act. Still, I felt sadder and sicker than I should have.