Sunday

If One Falls - Part I

A Civil War Tale
by John Jenkins and Mark Weaver

"By God's good grace, Stonewall Jackson's done won the day!"

So exclaimed one of the two Confederate soldiers pulling the small wagon in which I, and a second wounded soldier, bounced about.

I did not agree with that happy soldier in gray that Brigadier General Thomas Jackson turned the tide of battle by God's good grace. But I could not deny that General Jackson had rallied the vastly outnumbered Confederacy and had routed our Union forces out of Manassas and back to Washington.

I grimaced, tightening my grip on the wagon's splintered sideboard as it slipped into a deep rut. The two Confederates struggled to free the wagon, then paused. They wiped their hands on their soiled gray uniforms, then seized the cart and yanked with all their strength, popping the wagon out of the muddy ditch. The jolt snapped my head and I nearly lost my powder-burned blue cap.

The young Reb sprawled beside me slid sideways over the red-stained wooden planks of the wagon bed. He clutched his bloodied right pants leg and cried out. He grabbed my dirty shirt sleeve. With great effort, he lifted his head and stared at me. His mouth twisted; his eyes flashed. From anger? Hate? Or just the agony of his terrible wound?

But I knew the truth before I heard the answer.

"Yankee!" The name shot from between his clenched teeth. He pulled again at my sleeve, but I pried his bloody fingers free and pushed his hand away. He groaned loudly, then fainted into silence. His head fell back with a dull thump against the floorboards. His blond hair was caked with a mix of blood, dirt and gunpowder.

The two soldiers pulled us further toward the crest of the sloping hill. I caught sight of our destination: the small, white-washed church at Sudley Springs.

Swaths of dark gray clouds swept across the blue sky like predators on the prowl, looking for someone or something to devour, drawn to the hunt by the scent of fresh blood. And here, just a few miles north of Manassas, Virginia, on this late afternoon in July of 1861, there was plenty of fresh blood.

"Hold the line, boys!" Captain Ricketts had desperately cried just two hours earlier. He had held his revolver high as he urged his battery of eleven cannoneers. Though I was the artillery brigade's bugler, I could not rally our battery over the roar of cannon and the blistering crackle of rifle and musket fire. For as I raised and pressed my bugle to my lips, a musketball struck and wrenched the shiny brass instrument from my hands with a ring that stung my ears.

However, my bugle could not have saved the day this afternoon. With blood-curdling yells that made the hair on my neck stand on end, a wide line of rifle and bayonet-wielding Confederates poured from the dense woods on our right flank. We were caught flatfooted, our cannons facing the wrong direction on top of the Henry House hill.

Musket balls and bullets hissed loudly around my head. Weaponless, I threw myself behind one of the field cannons. As I did, an unseen but deadly projectile struck one of my fellow soldiers, knocking him to the ground at my feet. His rifle spun from his hand and discharged with a white cloud of smoke. I tripped, my head and shoulder slamming against the hot, black barrel of the cannon. I awoke to found myself slumped in the back of a rattling wagon beside a wounded Reb, my right leg bandaged. What had happened to my comrades from Captain Ricketts' artillery brigade, and to Captain Ricketts, I didn't know.

The two Confederates brought our wagon to a halt in front of the Sudley Church, now serving as a field hospital. Four soldiers in gray approached us from inside the church and helped the young Reb beside me. One supported him at each shoulder and one under each leg. The Reb scrunched his face and clenched his teeth as he was hurried inside.

I pulled myself to the wagon's edge, keeping my eyes low and avoiding the angry stares of the two soldiers who had labored to bring the wagon up the hill. I tried to lower myself to the ground using only my left leg, but could not-until a supporting hand reached beneath my right elbow. My momentary surprise faded as I looked up and was greeted by a man twice my age. His blue eyes were clear and sympathetic. He wore a sandy brown moustache, with hair of the same color parted to one side. He slipped my arm over his shoulder and we started slowly toward the church. He was not dressed like a soldier or doctor, and his once white shirt and tan vest were stained with streaks of brown and red.

He glanced down at my leg, then returned his gaze to mine.

"The name's Sam MacDonald. I'm a reporter with the Charleston Observer traveling with General Jackson." Small wrinkles fanned outward from the corners of his eyes. "And you?"

"Robert Simpson," I replied. "Artillery Brigade Bugler serving under Captain Ricketts. What's happened to the Captain and my fellow battery mates?" Sam's gaze remained steady.

"Your battery was overrun nearly to a man. Only a handful of Union soldiers survived, including Captain Ricketts, though he was severely wounded. Confederate General Beauregard sent his personal surgeon to treat Ricketts, a long-time friend from before the war. Nonetheless, Ricketts will shortly be sent to the Confederate capitol in Richmond where he will become a prisoner of war. Other Union soldiers captured today will follow him there or be sent farther south, to Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, where this terrible war between the states began."

As Sam's words sunk in, I could hardly keep my eyes focused. We entered the church and my weak and bandaged right leg almost buckled beneath me. Dazed, I considered my fate as a prisoner of war. How those Rebs hated us Yanks! Would I be starved? Tortured? Would I survive and return home to my aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania?

Now I regretted sneaking away from home against their wishes and without goodbyes. But how could I have stayed to farm and care for livestock? Had not my brother already joined in the cause to save the Union and set the slaves free?

My thoughts were cut short by an agonizing groan.

Both Sam and I stopped and looked up. The cry had come from the young Reb who had shared the wagon with me.

I blinked, stunned by what I saw. Then I remembered that we were in a church. The pews had been pushed to one side of the rectangular room. Pots of steaming water, trays covered with long strips of white cloth, and small tables with open surgical kits surrounded the now motionless young Reb. I could see forceps, probes, knives and saws of various sizes. A Confederate surgeon stood on one side and a Union surgeon on the other, the church's altar their operating table!

Sam turned me away from the grim sight and led me to a nearby pew. He sat down beside me and studied my face. "You're barely 16," he said softly without removing his eyes from mine.

I looked down but could not deny him the truth. "February."

"And you left home without permission." Sam folded his hands in his lap. "Lied about your age to serve in this war. Don't you think your mother and father are worried sick about you?"

I could not look up. "I live with my aunt and uncle and brother in Gettysburg. He's 18 and enlisted on April 13, the day after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. I pleaded with my uncle, but he forbade me to leave."

Sam nodded. "And now you're here: wounded, behind enemy lines, and unsure of the future."

I nodded silently in return as the throbbing beneath my right knee resumed in earnest.

"Unsure of the future," Sam continued, his voice nearly a whisper. I glanced up to see his blue eyes fixed upward, moving as if searching for something beyond the wooden rafters and roof.

"Just like our nation-unsure, divided north and south. We no longer seek a way, except by blood. Our preachers and pulpits, once a sure source of God's Word, have lost their power to change men's hearts. Once, we debated in the halls of Congress. Now, we assault each other on the field of battle. And the table of the Lord, instead of offering the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, offers the surgeon's knife. Lincoln understood the truth of God's Word that a house divided cannot stand. How long until our nation finally understands?"

We sat unspeaking for several minutes. I didn't know what to make of Sam. He seemed more a preacher than a reporter. But for whose side? A Southerner praising Lincoln? And he did not speak in favor of either army, Blue or Gray. Instead, he seemed to pass judgment on all-shepherds, statesmen, and soldiers alike.

Then one the surgeons signaled us. Sam turned and faced me. His troubled eyes were red and watery as he helped me up from the pew.

As I rose, a sharp pain speared down through my leg beneath the knee. When I looked up, I found myself being guided toward the two surgeons and the communion table. The young Reb who had shared the wagon with me had been taken away and the table wiped clean.

I pressed my lips shut to hold back the fear fighting to burst through. I'd heard about the horror of gangrene. But that had been camp talk, stories shared by veteran soldiers sitting around a fire. But now, here- Sam laid a firm hand on my shoulder. "You must lie down. And don't worry about your aunt and uncle-my brother John lives in Gettysburg. If needs be, I can contact them through John."

I swallowed hard and obeyed. If needs be? What would happen to me? Would the doctors take my leg?

One of the surgeons pressed a wet cloth over my nose and mouth. The burning sweetness of ether swirled into my nostrils and swept over my tongue.

Images of my aunt's and uncle's saddened faces swam into my thoughts. Then my brother's face too. What if he were killed? My aunt and uncle would be left alone to tend for a useless cripple.

Tears sprang from my eyes. Dear God! What had I done! How could I right my wrong? Whether I shouted or cried out loud or only prayed those thoughts in my mind, I cannot say.

But as I did, Sam's lips started to move. Though his gaze was locked with mine, he was not speaking to me, nor to the surgeons, but to God. As his face began to fade into a sheen of pure white, Sam's faint words yet somehow reached my ears.

"He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. . ."

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