Mud and Mire
The next morning, reveille sounded earlier than usual. William and I arose from our cots, but Clinton kept sleeping. No doubt he was exhausted from his long walk. Since he had not bee able to practice with the drummers, his orders were to stay in camp and make himself useful, ig he could.
Hiram was nowhere to be seen. “Where is he?” I asked.
“The drummers likewise had an early call. He’s with them, receiving his orders.”
We dressed quickly, trying not to wake Clinton, but Andrew dropped his canteen and woke him. He sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“What’s happening? Why are you dressed like that?” In his soporific state, he did not recall the coming battle.
“We’re off to fight. I’m sure you remember our talking about it.” Andrew looked at him.
“Oh. All right, now I remember. Be careful and come back.”
“We will. You get dressed and make yourself useful around the camp.”
With that, we ran outside. We could hear artillery and rifles from over the hill, and so we knew that the battle was joined. We knew we could kill or wound thousands of Northern soldiers, but Grant always seemed to have more to replace them, so they ended up overwhelming us. At one point that afternoon our lines were breached, and we all broke and run and kept running until we had gotten to the other side of the river. We gave up Richmond and withdrew to Petersburg. It was a hard loss, but one I expected.
Andrew and I caught up with Hiram and Clinton, pleased to see that they had not been harmed. “I could tell it was an awful big battle,” Hiram said. “It must have been terrible.”
“It was,” I said grimly. “It was horrible.”
When we reached our stopping place, a wagon came by loaded with shovels. “What are these for?” Andrew asked of the driver.
“They’re for you to dig trenches with,” the man said. “And the deeper the better.”
We fell to it, digging as if the devil were after us. I looked over after about an hour, and asfar as I could see soldiers and anyone else who could be made to dig were working on trenches as far as I could see. It would have been a sight to marvel at, but I couldn’t waste much time looking and went back to my digging. We stopped for twenty minutes, and then went at it again
Hiram had joined us in digging. He could move an amazing amount of dirt by holding his shovel with his one good arm. He was an inspiration to all of us.
We were still digging when a familiar figure came along the line. Hiram saw him first. “Look! It’s Adolphus!”
And so it was. “How did you get out?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “We received word that the Federals were coming, and every—prisoners, guards, commanders—ran for their lives. And their freedom, ironically. I ran with them and didn’t stop until I had crossed the James. I made my way here, and here I am.”
“We’re happy to see you.”
“I’m glad to be here. Now give me a shovel!”
I think Adolphus had never done a bit of manual labor in his life, but he fell to it, understanding the urgency of what needed to be done.
When I lifted my head again, the trenches around us were so deep I could only see the dirt come flying out of them. We’re like moles, I thought, except that our tunnels are on the surface. I wonder how much protection they would provide. I was trained in ways to find cover on a battlefield, but this was a different kind of cover. I wondered how it would all work out.
We finished digging about noon, and the four of us gathered to eat lunch and talk.
“What do you think will happen next?” Andrew asked.
“I think we’ll sit here until the other side does something. Lee can’t afford to lose many more of us and attacking them now would be best way to do that.” Adolphus looked pensive.
“Adolphus, do you still think we can’t win this now?” I looked at him.
“I don’t. I think it’s as good as over, but none of the uppers want to admit it. They’re a proud bunch. My family knows some of them, and their pride borders on arrogance.”
“What should we do then? Leave?”
Adolphus sighed. “I suppose that would make matters worse all around. No, I am committed to stay. Maybe that is in part because of the time I spent in prison. I don’t want to go back.”
“Do we even have enough to bring back deserters?” Andrew wanted to know.
“I don’t think we can tell. It would be taking a chance to leave, and that’s one I don’t want to take.”
We sat silently, mulling over what we had talked about. Then, because no one had more to say, we went in different directions to try to find some wood that we could use to afford some shelter from the elements—and from the enemy.
I went with Hiram and Clinton since I felt a special sense of responsibility for them. We searched for an hour and only found two planks from what was left of a barn. The problem, of course, was that thousands of other soldiers were doing what we were doing, and most the wood had disappeared quickly. “Clinton, you and Hiram take that plank, and I’ll take this one.”
We made our way back to our trench to find Adolphus was back already. “How did you do?” he called.
“Not well. We have two planks.”
“I found four. We’ll have to see how Andrew has done.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t find much. Most of it was gone when we go to where we found this.”
We started using the planks to make a shelter, and had been at it for ten minutes when Andrew came, bearing five planks. That was all we would need, with material from our tents. I had never lived in a hole in the ground before, and I wondered how it was going to work out.
We moved our possessions into the trench after we had placed some pieces of canvas for a floor. Adolphus surveyed it and said, “This won’t be good in the long run. It will get muddy and wet, and we will be miserable. We must find more boards tomorrow or try to think of something else.”
We settled in and, lying on the floor, talked and speculated about what would happen next as it grew dark and bedtime drew near. “We also need something better to sleep on,” Andrew said. “I wonder if there are any cots available.”
“We’ll have to find that out,” Adolphus told him. “Right now, I’m planning to go to sleep.”
He went over in an angle of the trench, and soon was snoring. I made the best “bed” I could with some planks and canvas. It wasn’t much, but it beat sleeping in the mud. I hoped our conditions would improve, but at that moment, I couldn’t see how.