A Backwards March
Adolphus looked over at me. We were hidden in a grove of trees about five miles behind our previous installation. Parts of our army regrouped following the Union assault, and I did not see that we could mount much more than a delaying action. There were too many of them and too few of us.
My friend Bullard and I had made our way back to our lines, where we were nearly shot by a jumpy boy who couldn’t have been more than 15. We were so desperate we were putting children in the front lines.
And so, without the benefit of ramparts or walls, we stood behind trees and waited.
“Alphonso,” I called.
“What do you suppose happened to Andrew?”
“That is difficult to ascertain. If he survived the assault, he would need carrying, and that would have slowed all their paces and made them more likely to capture. No, I fear we will not see our friend until the war is over, and even then, such are the vicissitudes of combat that we might not see him again this side of heaven.”
“I heartily pray that is not so, although I treasure your honesty and the way you withhold nothing from me.”
We resumed our watch. The waiting is the worst part, I thought, not knowing what will happen. Just then a rider came up on a horse. “You men!” he shouted. “Orders from the captain! Move to the south and west. The Federals are massing there and likely to attack. Do it for Jeff Davis and for Virginia!”
Honestly, at that point I didn’t want to do anything for anyone except my family and friends. But, then, my friends were around me, so we gathered our goods and weapons and moved as directed. The forest became thicker as we did so, which is good for cover, but problematic when it came to making rapid progress to the potential battle. Indeed, we had not fought our way very far through the underbrush when we heard the sounds of muskets. The battle had indeed been engaged.
“Adolphus! It has begun! What shall we do?”
“What else, but press on toward the fray! If not for Jeff Davis and for Virginia, for each other!”
“Those were my thoughts exactly. For friends and family!”
“Amen, my brother.”
We moved as rapidly as we could and came to a bluff overlooking the battle. We had managed to gather together enough troops that, at least in this circumstance, we outnumbered. I know this was not universally true, but it boded well for a slowing if not a downright stopping of the enemy.
“Look, Adolphus! We outnumber them!”
“Yes,” he said grimly. “For the present. Lay on!”
We trained our rifles on their troops, and soon almost all of them lay wounded or dying. We suffered few casualties, and someone along the line, someone was leading his neighbors in a round of huzzas. I could not bring myself to do so, so piteous was the sight, enemy or no.
The shooting over, Adolphus and I sat with our backs against the same tree. “What now?” I asked.
“We fall back and prepare again,” he answered. “There are more where these came from.”
“Yes, and such a pity that so many feel.”
He looked around at me. “If they had not, it would be our deaths they would be talking about, not us speaking of them. You know that.”
“I do, but that does not stop me from feeling as I do.”
He stood up. “Ah, well, with God’s grace, we will come through all of this and it will seem but a bad dream.”
I loved Adolphus as a brother, but I knew that I would never forget all I had seen. It was too extreme, and there was so much of it, how could it be any different?
I joined him in standing up, and together with our brothers in arms, we made our way to the rear. The faces of the men around us looked much as I imagined we did: tired, haggard, and horrified by what we had seen.
After a short while, we came upon a small meadow which was beginning to fill with all manner of soldiers. There was a period of confusion as like tried to find like, but after a few minutes we had sorted ourselves into infantry, artillery and cavalry, with the medical corps standing to one side. We did not bother to try to find our units: we knew we had to form up as quickly as possible to prepare for the counterattack.
I looked around and there came Andrew! Adolphus and I rushed over to him and gathered him into a huge and heartfelt hug.
“My boy!” Adolphus exulted. “Seeing you is like the experience of Mary and Martha seeing their brother come from the tomb, alive again!” (Adolphus could always find a story from the Bible to suit a present situation.)
“Yes!” I cried. “How is it you were so stricken and now here you are, if not the picture of help, much improved? Did the good doctor also work a miracle?”
Andrew grinning. “Of sorts. He got me back to his surgery and laid me down. The pain in my abdomen became more and more pronounced until I feared I would burst. The doctor knew what was happening then, so he called for a basin, pulled down my long johns, and delivered of me a lengthy tapeworm! That was all the cause of my distress, and, once delivered from it, I felt as well as I could, under the circumstances.”
Adolphus raised his face to the sky. “It is a miracle of sorts!” he cried. “You who we thought were dead are alive. It is another kind of resurrection.” Adolphus does get carried away, I thought, but then concluded he had good reason to do so.
I clapped Andrew on the shoulder. “I guess some of our smoked pork was not smoked enough! But you are so much better. It makes me happy to see it.”
Just then a bellowed at the top of his lungs, “All right, you gray backs! We’re going to fall back and build some defensive positions! And we need to hurry! The Yanks are beginning to gather even now! Hope to it!”
We along with all the other troops double-timed it to the west. Soon we came on a small hill that looked to me as if it would make a good place to dig in. We fell to it in a flurry of dirt being flung from shovels and had made decent progress toward our defenses. Then the Northern artillery started.
“How did they regroup so quickly?” I asked. The same sergeant said, “They quickly replaced the ruined cannons. They have more than enough to do that!” This does not look good, I thought.
The cannonballs were landing long, but it would only be a matter of time before they found the range, with terrible effect.
A captain appeared on a horse. He rode up and down among us, shouting, “Fall back! Fall back!”
“But we just got here,” Andrew mumbled, but I noticed he put on his pack and grabbed his rifle. Now we all ran even faster to avoid the cannonade. Unfortunately, some ran into a line of exploding ordnance, and once again I witnessed bodies being torn apart and men thrown through the air to land and lie still in the mud. Then I ran. I ran as I had never run before.