A Letter to Laurel
My dearest love and my wife,
I am writing this sitting in a ditch that we dug to better protect ourselves. I am well, as are Adolphus, Andrew and Hiram. They continue the same as we await another attack. It is inevitable, as, so it seems, our ultimate defeat. That is just a matter of time, and I will be glad to not have to fight any more and to return to you, my beloved, and to our son. I miss you both dearly, and long to be with you.
My plan is to hide this letter on my person when I have finished it.That way, if they worse happens and I am killed, I pray that someone will discover these thoughts and make sure that they are sent to you. Be assured that if I die, my last thoughts will be of the both of you. I assuredly will see you in Heaven, not out of any merit that I possess, but only through the suffering and death of our Savior Jesus Christ.
I had a vision in which I saw Heaven and the angels and our Lord himself. There was no fear in this, but rather a calm assurance that it is so. I was told that it was not my time to die yet and that I had many other things to do before that final sleep. I take this to mean that perhaps I will see you again, but no one knows the hours of his death. Such knowledge is vouchsafed to the Father , who lives and reigns forever.
I know that you believe and understand all this far better than I do, but I want to assure you of my belief, world without end, amen.
I know that you have the garden in, and pray there will be sufficient rain and that the sun will not bake the soil. I have a feeling that I will be there to help you with the harvest. This I join you in praying for most devoutly.
I suppose it is time now for me to rest so that I may assume my guard duty in a couple of hours. I think of you often and have a love for you so deep and strong I can scarcely believe it is mine. Be well, my dearest Laurel, and know that I am yours in live and in death.
I love you.
I finished the letter and read it over once, finding that tears welled from my eyes as I looked over my tender thoughts. I wiped my eyes with my bandanna. Adolphus observed my actions and asked, “Have you written to Laurel?”
“Yes, indeed. How did you know?”
“There’s no mistaking the deep emotion that you were feeling. I trust that you commended all of us to her.”
“That I did, and right gladly, but now I believe I will lie down so as to be well-rested for my guard duty.”
“I will join you in that.”
We both lay down, but I found little sleep. Thoughts filled my head of all I had experienced in the past four years, of the people I had met and the places I had been. All these were numerous, and I thanked God, in the words of the favorite hymn of Laurel and me, that he had “brought me safe thus far.” And it will be by his grace that He will lead me home.
The time of my rest passed too quickly, and I found myself peering across the field beyond which lay our enemy. There had been no shooting the whole day, and I prayed that would continue, although I knew it could start at any time.
Almost as if someone had read my thoughts, firing started up to our right, and soon spread to the whole area in front of us. “Here they come!” I yelled. “Up! Up and to arms!”
All along the line, my fellow soldiers positioned themselves and started firing at an enemy they could not see for the woods spread before us. After a short while, soldiers in blue burst through the trees, firing as they came. We felled some of them, but more and more kept coming until we had no choice but to retreat again. We tried to fire as we did so, but to little effect.
As I ran, I saw that soldiers were also on both sides of us. They tightened the trap, and about 20 of us were captured. I have had captivity much too often, I thought, but that did not stop me from being taken again.
The bulk of the soldiers continued to press on, leaving ten or so to guard us. They marched us at rifle point to a meadow we had just passed through. There, they out us to work felling trees, which we then trimmed into poles. Some of us dug holes for what would become a palisade, while others took the poles and rammed them into the ground. We finished in short order and then we herded into the place of captivity we had just made. I thought having to do so was was adding insult to injury, but no one asked my opinion.
I soon found Adolphus and Andrew. “Here we all are again,” I said.
“Yes,” Adolphus. “This is all too familiar.”
“Do you think we might be able to escape?”
Adolphus looked around furtively to make sure no one could hear what he had to say. “I managed to hide one of the shovels in a shallow trench by yonder wall. If our captors are none too diligent in their manner, we can tunnel under the stockade and so make our way to freedom.”
“Do we not run the risk of being re-captured?” Andrew looked doubtful.
“We run a risk of all sorts of things just by being here. This risk is well worth the venture since we stand to gain so much.”
“I’m still not sure,” Andrew said.
“You don’t have to come with us,” I said. “We will leave you here and only hope we will see you again. So much could happen to you.”
“I will have to think on it.” Andrew looked down.
“Do so, and you will come to the correct conclusion.” Adolphus spoke with confidence.
We then found a place to sit along one of the walls, near to the hidden shovel. “This way we can keep an eye on it,” Adolphus explained. “And distract anyone who comes near.”
Sure enough, not ten minutes had elapsed when one of the guards decided to take a tour of the interior walls of the palisade. He poked his bayonet into the dirt at several places and, finding nothing, continued his progress. As he came toward us and our secret treasure, Adolphus whispered, “Andrew, I believe you will soon have another manifestation of a terrible intestinal disorder inside your body. Give it your best dramatic effort.”
“Should I act as if I have another tapeworm?”
Adolphus shook his head. “That maybe subject to proof. Your malady should have an unknown cause, incapable here of proof.”
Andrew nodded slightly and then suddenly fell to the ground and writhed in the dirt, moaning all the while. The guard looked at him. “What’s the matter here?”
Adolphus stepped up. “We don’t know, but some of our fellows manifested the same symptoms last night before the attack, and some among us said that it was highly contagious. I would stay away if I were you.”
I saw fear in the guard’s eyes. “I will stay away, but I’ll have to send for someone to remove him, and that won’t be until tomorrow morning.”
Tomorrow morning we’ll be gone if all goes well, I thought. Until then, we’ll have to bide our times and hope another guard, one who is more perceptive, doesn’t discover our shoulder.
We were given hardtack and brackish water for our evening meal. One fellow next to us said, “Don’t you have anything else? This had worms in it and the water is undrinkable.”
The soldier dealing out the food straightened up. “I’m so sorry that the banquet we had ordered for you has been delayed. Perhaps it will be here tomorrow.”
The soldier who made the complaint said something to the server that I couldn’t hear, but the Yankee took the pot that the hardtack was in and hit the complainer in the head. He fell over, insensate.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Adolphus.
“You didn’t hear what he said to me.”
“Whatever it was, it didn’t warrant striking him with such force.”
The soldier came over to us. “I’ll strike all of you as hard as I can if you don’t be quiet.”
We said nothing more to him, and he went along his way.
“When do we make our attempt?” Andrew whispered when no one was near.
“There’s a new moon tonight which will give little light, so we should start digging with that appears. I have noted that our guards remain outside unless they come in for a purpose, and I do not think they will have much occasion to do so all night. That should give us plenty of time to accomplish our deed.”
Our guards did come in and pass out blankets. The one who struck our fellow came by. “See how well we treat you. Of course, if I had my way, I shoot everyone of you disloyal, reprehensible, traitorous vermin.”
“It is well that you have neither the sense not the aptitude to make those decisions, else we should have a hard time of it.” Adolphus favored the man with a defiant look. He came over and clipped Adolphus in the head and my friend fell over onto the grass.
I went over to him. “Have you no other way of controlling us?” I cried. We are enemies, yes, but once we were countrymen and will be again soon.”
“Animals are not my countrymen,” spat out the soldier, and went his way.
I raised Adolphus’ head. “Would you like a drink of water?”
He shook his head. “I would rather die of thirst than drink that foul stuff again.”
“Tomorrow, after our escape, we can drink the dew from the grass.” Andrew looked hopeful.
“That is a long time to wait,” I mused.
“Nonetheless, it is our best hope.”
A few minutes later, the guards came back in. “We require that you be quiet during the night. Whether you sleep or not is your business. Anyone attempting to escape will be shot without warning. If you do escape, you will be surrounded by our troops, so don’t try anything.”
We received these words in silence, and then for our part made as if we were preparing for sleep. The guards left us alone and, according to their own offices, would not disturb us as long as we kept quiet. We remained lying down for what must have an hour but which seemed an eternity as we listened for the sounds of anyone coming in. No one did, and Adolphus raised himself up on one elbow.
“I believe it is time to begin digging.”
“I agree,” I said, and the three of us crawled over to where our shovel lay buried. Fortunately, our fellow prisoners slept soundly and so took no notice of our activity. We excavated the shovel and, choosing a less populated section of the fence, began digging, as quietly as possible. Fortunately, the dirt was loose from the excavation done by the Federals, so they helped us in spite of themselves.
“We won’t need much,” Adolphus whispered as Andrew dug. “Just enough for us to squeeze out.”
“Indeed,” I replied. “For once I am glad that we eat so poorly. If we had eaten copious amounts of rich food, we would never be able to excavate a hole big enough in the time we have.”
We spoke no more until Andrew had dug a hole sufficiently large for us, and then he squeezed through. “It’s fine,” he whispered. “Come on out.”
Adolphus and I followed him, and found ourselves not ten yards from some dense woods.
“This will provide excellent cover,” Adolphus noted, and we slithered on our stomachs to the first of the trees. Once there, we stood up and, stepping carefully, made progress more deeply into the copse. We went in about thirty yards, and Adolphus said, “Let’s run!” So it was that we went as fast as coursers through the dim moonlight.
We ran hard until we had to pause to catch our breath and then, figuring we were far enough from the enclosure, stopped and rested with our hands on our knees.
“I believe we have gotten cleanly away,” Andrew said. “I hear no alarms or other noise.”
“I hear nothing myself,” Adolphus added. After a short rest, we resumed running.
After a short while, Adolphus called us to a halt. “If I remember correctly, we are about to approach our lines. We must proceed carefully because of the risk of being shot if we come upon them in haste.”
We made our way carefully through the underbrush until we came upon an area that had been trampled and that still had the smell of gunpowder in the air.
“I believe we are nearly there. Slowly, now.”
We inched along until Andrew called softly, “Stop. I hear voices.” Although he was only several years younger than I, his hearing was much better than mine.
We stopped, and Adolphus said, “If we are at the lines, we’d best hold up our hands as we walk forward. They’ll know someone is surrendering, and when we get close enough, they’ll see we’re on the same side. But we have to be careful.”
As Adolphus advised, we raised ours hands and walked slowly forward. We had gone about a hundred yards when a voice came: “Halt! What unit are you with?”
“The Eighth Virginia. We were captured last night and put in a stockade, but we escaped.”
“Advance and be recognized. And if you’re not who you say you are, I’ll blow your head off.”
We came forward slowly when another command came. “Halt. Let me get a look at you.” A few seconds elapsed, and then the speaker said, “What is the name of General Lee’s horse?”
“It’s Traveller,” Adolphus answered.
“Everyone knows that. What kind is horse is he?”
“He’s a grey American Saddlebred, about 16 hands tall.”
“Come forward. My offer to separate you from your head is still good.”
We crept forward until the voice came again. “Stop there. Let me look at you.” I could see the glint of moonlight off binoculars.” There was a few seconds’ wait, and then, “All right. You look all right to me. Come ahead and welcome.”
We went weak with relief but managed to walk the rest of the way to the ramparts and climb over it. There a rough-looking sergeant shook our hands. “It’s good to see you boys! You know we need every man we can get. And sorry I put you through all that—we just can’t be too careful.”
“We understand,” Adolphus said. “We’re glad to be here.”
“How’d you boys escape?”
“We found a shovel inside the stockade the Yankees built that had been left during construction. We buried it to hide it, and when the time was right, we dug a hole under the fence and went out that way.”
“And no one heard you?”
“We wouldn’t be standing here if they did.”
“Yes, excuse me. That was an ingenious way to get out.”
Adolphus shrugged. “We just made use of the tool we found and the opportunity that we had. Say, can we get something to eat? They didn’t feed us very well.”
“We have salt pork. You can have some of that.”
“Thank you. What about something to drink?”
“One of the boys discovered a spring, and we filled our canteens. You’re welcome to some of that.”
Spring water! I thought. That will taste like wine compared to the slop we had to drink last night. Then I smiled at myself for comparing the water to wine. I had never had a drop of alcohol, not even wine, so I had no idea what it tasted like. But I’ve heard from those who do imbibe that it is wonderful.
We went over and helped ourselves to the pork and water. “Even the pork tastes good,” Adolphus said.
“Adolphus, something is wrong with your taste mechanism,” I said. “It is the same as always. The water, though, is like the drink of the gods.”
“I was going to say it tasted like the finest wine to me.”
“I cannot contest you on that, for I take no alcohol.”
“You must try some sometime.”
“No need of that. I have the water.”
The sergeant came back to us. “Come with me. I’ll show you where you can get a little sleep.”
We followed him to an area in the back of the palisade. We lay down, and I do not know about the others, but I fell asleep and slept until the sun came up into my eyes. We were lucky again to have escaped, I think, but I wondered what lay ahead.