A Fortuitous Meeting
We arose with the dawn, and hearing nothing from the other side, set about readying ourselves for the coming day. We had eaten breakfast and just about finished our preparations when I saw our captain riding toward us. We saluted and he returned it. “Any of you men had any experience riding a horse?”
“No, sir,” replied Alphonso. “We mostly used carriages.”
“We were too poor to have a horse,” Andrew said.
“I’ve never ridden a horse,” I said, “but my parents had a mule, and I rode that sometimes, but never very far. The stubborn thing would stop after about half and mile and refuse to go any further.”
The captain rolled his eyes. “I’m fresh out of orderlies who are about other duties and need someone to take a message to headquarters.”
“I thought you were at headquarters.” Andrew looked puzzled.
“Saints deliver us,” the captain moaned. “Not our headquarters—big headquarters where the generals are. I need the dispatch given to General Lee, and, Dillard, since you have at least some experience with an equine, you’re elected. Here—” he handed me an envelope. Give this personally to the General. He doesn’t need to reply. The information you give him will be all he needs.
He looked serious. “It goes without saying the you will not open or otherwise tamper with the message. The contents are for General Lee’s eyes only. If, God forbid, you are captured, you will eat the message, including the envelope. If the enemy sees this message, our bad situation will get much, much worse. Do you understand?”
“Good. Take my horse. I’ll find another one somehow. And good luck, solider. Report back to me when you return. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Yes, sir,” I said again. I too the envelope and, when our captain had dismounted, I climbed into the saddle.
“Being up there befits you,” Adolphus said. “Do you know how to steer?”
“Well, with the mule, I kicked it in the side I wanted to go.”
“Don’t try that with this animal or you’ll end up on the ground.”
“Get going!” the captain shouted, leaving the question about how I was to control the horse up in the air.
I took a guess and pushed on its sides with my feet. The animal sprang forward, and, guessing again, I pulled on one of the reins and the horse turned in that direction. So far, so good, I thought, but I had a ways to go.
Headquarters was about three miles in the rear, so I urged the horse to a trot. I had forgotten to ask his name, but that didn’t seem to make any difference. The day was warm and fair, and I have to confess that I had thoughts of making a right-hand turn and going all the way home where I would stay with Laurel and little Caleb forever. Of course, I did no such thing, but only entertained myself with thoughts of escape and loved ones.
I reached my destination quickly and easily found the tent where General Lee had to be. It was the largest one there, and I made my way up to it. Two sentries stood at the entrance. “Halt!” one cried. “Dismount and state your business!” They both had their rifles trained on me, and I guess that they couldn’t be too careful.“Corporal Caleb Dillard with the Eighth Virginia with an important message for General Lee.” I held up the envelope.
The larger sentry came toward me. “Give it to me. I’ll see that he gets it.”
I shook my head. “I am under strict orders to deliver it into General Lee’s hands personally.”
“Give it to me,” the man insisted.
“Not a chance.”
“We can take it from you.”
“You’ll have to.”
As we stood there glaring at each other, I heard a soft voice. “What seems to be the difficulty here, gentlemen?”
I turned to see that General Lee had come out and was standing behind us. He looked smaller than I thought he would, and very, very tired.
“General Lee, I am under orders to deliver this envelope to you personally.”
He smiled. “And I would wager my sentries don’t want you to do that. They were just doing what I told them to, but won’t you join me inside the tent for a moment?”
I couldn’t speak for a moment but I did nod once. The sentries stood back, giving me an ugly look. I tried not to smile so as not to antagonize them.
The General held the fly open and motioned for me to go in. This is something, I thought. A general showing me in.
I went in and saw about ten ranking officers standing around. They eyed me curiously, but General Lee escorted me to a large table where he indicated that I should sit in a chair near the head. I took my seat, as did he. “Would you like something to drink?” he asked. “All I have to offer is water.”
“Water would be fine, General,” I said. “Thank you.”
An orderly heard what the General had said and brought over a pitcher of water and two glasses on a tray. He poured both glasses full. As I took it from him, I thought, I bet this is spring water. My first taste told me it was.
After I drank, I offered the envelope to the General. He took it and bowed slightly. “Thank you. I have been waiting for this.”
“You are welcome, sir. And thank you for the water. It’s much better than what we have to drink.”
Lee opened the envelope and read quickly down the page. He frowned when he had finished and indicated that one of the colonels should come over. He conferred with the officer for a moment, and then the colonel took the letter and went off.
“I’m sure you understand why I cannot share the contents of the letter with you.”
He sat back in his chair. “How are you and your comrades getting along?”
“In truth, sir, we are growing weary of retreating and having to build new earthworks. And it seems to us that the end of the war is drawing near with bad consequences for us.”
He put on a melancholy look. “That is what I believe, although I have told no one, although I think that will become clear to everyone shortly. I am of the opinion that we cannot last much longer than a couple of weeks. Then we shall have to see what happens.”
He stood up, as did I. “Thank you again for delivering the message. And my God protect you and all the troops. I must be off on some business related to the letter.”
“You are welcome, sir.” I stood at attention and saluted. He did the same thing, even though he didn’t have to.
I went out of the tent, reclaimed my horse and rode off, headed for the front line. I took my time, enjoying the day and not being in anybody’s line of fire. The flowering trees and flowers seemed to welcome me as I went along, and I thought how I would share my little mission with my fellows. Surely they would be interested that Lee felt the war would not last much longer, and that would make them glad.