Welcome to Fifth Minnesota Fiction!
Update 1-26-15: Ladies and gentlemen, the show is coming to an end. For all of you who have read, supported, and encouraged this blog and my writing--thank you. While many of these stories have already been previously published in book form, I am about to join the 21st century and publish in electronic reader format. As such, this blog will vanish into the ether March 1st. Thank you all, I hope you have enjoyed my meager offerings.
This is a blog dedicated to the essence of what my experience doing Civil War living history is all about--telling a good story. In the case of the Co. A, Fifth Minnesota, we strive to tell the stories of history--everyday lives caught up in the turmoils of strife and change. Our purpose, is to give room for some of those stories to grow, and find an end for themselves. The process of good Living History is much the same as that used to write a story, the difference is that with the written word it is the reader that acts it out in their head. With Living History, the participants take those great narratives and give them life themselves in action and word.
Here those stories we have begun can go on. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do writing them! A word of warning though--be patient with me. Posts may be spread out a bit (I write these whenever real life allows) but something new is almost always cooking; it simply may take time to get them served up at the table.
A. Wade Jones
Sunday, October 18, 2009
What the War could not take from them
armor of the soldiers clothing. He approached another sentry, and the two halted beside one another.
“I’d worry for being caught out by the mad little Prussian Colonel of ours, but you can be damn sure there aint a peacock out this night! Ruffled feathers will be making best thoughts for sparking with their stoves tonight!” The clouds of breath seemed to freeze in midair, the wind swallowed the voices of the sentries.
The other soldier chuckled. “You got a way of speaking Callahan, but you’re right. Aint no officers gonna be out looking after us this night. What do you think about where they are sending us? How’s that for luck?” Hamer clapped his hands together, and rubbed them vigorously. Callahan, shifted from foot to foot trying to keep the cold from his toes.
“Sure enough, to the forts here--but the way they are raising men now, I am sure that we’ll get our turn soon enough! We can just hope they save some war for us, faith knows I want a tug at old rascal Davis’ heel and scrap before this is through!”
The men bobbed in a vain attempt to find warmth somewhere within their greatcoats, but finding that standing still seemed the enemy of comfort, they set back to pacing their sentry walk. Unaccustomed yet fully to “Army life”, their arms ached from the weight of their muskets. When they came to meet again and once more halted briefly to chat, their Mississippi
Rifles slid to rest atop their brogans.
“Lucky fellows in company A get to ship south right off, straight to the fighting!”, grumbled Hamer as he brushed snowflakes from the muzzle of his weapon. Callahan nodded and smiled.
“Sure indeed, they do. But those poor boys gots Colonel Borgesrode alongs for the ride, so it aint all gonna be lovely and grand, now is it?” . Both men laughed despite themselves, and that was their undoing. A sharp, “What’s this then?!” cracked into the cold air about them, and the ominous figure of a noncommissioned officer appeared. Neither man know his name, but it was one of the regular Army lads who served to help teach the recruits-officers and enlisted alike-their business at war. Hamer and Callahan stood to attention, but they knew it was already too late for that. The Sergeant-Major, looking every bit the part, stood very close to each man in turn and gave them the look over. For a full minute, the Sergeant-Major said nothing. He stared at them, then paced a full circle around them. Death was preferable to what undoubtedly was coming, and both privates knew it to the depths of their soul. At long last, the moment came.
“Are you ladies finished then with your conversation, or shall I oblige you a bit longer to allow you to conclude your discussion?”, came the terrifyingly calm tone of the Sergeant-Major. The relaxed demeanor had it’s intended affect, and both privates--despite the cold--started to sweat. The trouble was, that this feeling affected both men slightly differently.
Hamer, fully aware that he was an inch from various and sundry punishments, was determined to do whatever it took to escape with as much of his person in tact. Callahan however, although aware of his peril, failed to recognize it for as mortal as it was and instead responded; “We’re quite finished”. The Sergeant-Major smiled and even chuckled briefly.
In retrospect, being assigned to peeling mountains of root vegetables for hours at a time broken only by near permanent assignment to guard duty was a fairly light punishment. Every so often, Hamer could swear he could smell that earthy scent as strong in those days spent scowling at Callahan over the mound of potatoes. A mosquito buzzed into his ear, and brought Private Nathaniel Hamer back from his memories. He slapped at his ear, eliciting a chuckle from a pair of soldiers approaching along the company street. Green and Harper, shirt sleeves rolled up, called out to him.
“Ya get ‘em Hamer? Or just trying to knock some sense into yourself?” , laughed Harper, setting Green to hysterics. Hamer only smiled and gestured dismissively to the pair of them. The pair continued on their way, Green looked back over his shoulder.
“Gonna come to the match? I hear it’s gonna be a good one today!”, called out Green, his youthful voice seemingly absent of care. Hamer got himself to his feet, nodded and followed after. He was feeling his years today, though he still had plenty of vinegar to spare. The night had been blustery, but this day was proving sunny and hot with the humidity that only Dixie could muster. They had been given a rare day at the rear of the siege lines and if nothing happened to spoil conditions, it might be a good day to catch up on some rest. A needed thing, especially after the misadventure of the attempt to dig a series of canals for the gunboats through the swampy, malaria infested bogs around Vicksburg. The desire to save the Navy from shelling by the big guns which traversed the river meant that the Army paid in sweat and blisters. In the end, it was a series of battles overland--though desperate and violent--that proved the most productive. Now, entrenched and hurling bullet and shell back and forth, Vicksburg lay besieged. All of this proved that Army life was a hard existence; and that harshness worked itself on Hamer by disturbing his ability to sleep. He supposed that might have been part of why he found himself reminiscing about their first days in uniform. Making his way along behind Harper and Green, they soon came to join a gathering crowd near the sinks. In the distance, the salvo of cannon drifted like impotent thunder; but no one seemed to notice. Here were men of several states and numerous regiments, and a wild jubilant atmosphere reigned supreme. There was an observable absence of officers here; though Hamer did spy first lieutenant Forbes along the edge of the crowd looking interested. All at
once, Daniel Dills and his brother Charles appeared at his elbow.
“Hamer! Good to see you down! We got a lovely spot set aside with a great view just over there-come along before one of these whelps usurps it!” Cheered Charles, taking Hamer by the arm and shouldering his way through the crowd with brother Daniel in their wake. Hamer smiled over his shoulder at Daniel and freed his arm from the others grip as they made their way to their seats.
“How's the guts today Dan? Not turning into a hospital rat now, are we?” , ribbed Hamer of the other elder man. Dills and he were near in age, both in their 40's. Daniel Dills frowned and rolled his eyes.
“Plenty of those around, but I don’t mean to be one of them. Orderly gave me something to help put off the quickstep, but all it seems to have done is slow it.
My son is going by the sutler today to see if he has any Hanson’s Elixir, but I’ve warned Charles Henry about taking care around that old muggins. Wouldn’t put it past him to package something else in a Hanson’s envelope and sell it at profit!”.
They had come to their spot, and with a little effort they all three climbed atop a great pile of cracker boxes. They soon had company, but being at the top their view was very good of the sport to be had. Before them, surrounded by a crowd 5 men deep, was a makeshift boxing ring made of cavalry horse lines and cast off planks. A stump sat in one corner and upon it--being given fervent direction by sergeant O’Malley–sat James Honan. Honan was stripped to the
waist, and looked ready to take on the world. In the opposite corner, accompanied by his compatriots, sat a large artillery man with wild red hair and great drooping mustache. Hamer raised his eyebrows and gave a low whistle.
“Holy saints! That man looks like a hard case! I wonder if Honan is up for this?”, he whispered to the two brothers Dills.
Daniel looked at Charles, the pair exchanged a wry look before turning back to Hamer as one and answering, “Honan will be fine. Everyone knows in a fight, you cannot judge on looks alone.” .
Someone was calling for quiet and attention, and looking down there stood Private Rose with his hands raised over his head. “Welcome boys, today you’ll have a treat! A fine contest between two branches of our glorious Army of the Mississippi--and two titans of pugilistic prowess!”.
There was a chorus of catcalls and whistles to Rose’s speech, but despite it all he went on. “On my right, the mighty arm of the Emerald Isle--James Honan, infantry!”. There was a roar of support as all the infantry lads about cheered and Honan stood to grandstand for the crowd. Rose finally got the noise down, and Honan resumed his stump. “And on my left,” Rose said gesturing to the great read-headed artillerist, “a man made of the same iron and steel of the guns he mans--Samuel Chase, artillery!”. And equal wave of noise greeted this announcement, as the artillery men in the crowd cheered their candidate. Up on their cracker box seats, Hamer and the Dills sat sharing a packet of candied fruit which Charles had come up with from somewhere. Meanwhile down below, the introductions complete, someone gave a good whack to a tin pot to signify the start of the match. There crowd became ever more animated as Honan and Chase leapt to their feet and circled one another. Each man danced about, bare knuckles poised to strike out at the other, and the crowd moved with them in voice. Chase was the bigger man, looking like a mountain before Honan–but the infantryman was made of granite and fleet as a fox. Honan dodged a flurry of jabs, then a mighty right hook which would have felled an Army mule had it connected. Chase was going red in the face with effort and clear rage at his opponents ability to evade him. Some of the crowd for Chase joined in shouting against Honan’s style, and then cheered as Chase connected at last. Honan was thrown back, staggered briefly and shook his head. The crowd was hesitant, a collective breath was drawn and all eyes were on Honan for a reaction. O’Malley, nearly dancing just outside the ring shouted, “Faith Honan! By gawd, ye shouldn’t toy with ‘em so--lay the bastard out and win me bet then!”.
Like a horse to whom the spur has been put, Honan stepped back towards his opponent, and began laying punches of his own. The Irishman was a blur of violence, the artillery man doing his best to dodge or block but to no avail. Honan ducked a mighty swing from Chase and landed his own to the mans chin, snapping his head back hard. For a moment, the read-headed giant stood as he had, then like a tree toppling as it is cut, down he went with a might roar.
The crowd, already wild with partisanship for the combatants, broke into various squabbles of it’s own as supporters of either side took their pride and anguish out upon one another. Rose stepped in, and looking over Chase briefly and giving him a nudge with his brogan, declared Honan the winner. Breathing hard, his brow bleeding slightly, Honan helped his groggy opponent up and the two embraced as friends. Money changed hands, betters cursed and praised their luck, and a smiling lieutenant Forbes could be seen counting his winnings as he made his way back to the officers section of camp.
Hamer rolled over, and finally gave up trying to sleep anymore. He crawled out into the inky darkness, and went to sit by the fire. The embers still glowed with intensity, throwing waves of heat into the cool air. Hamer tossed a log into this vortex and watched as the flames burst within seconds from the bark. This sudden light cast long shadows about him, as he sat alone by the fire pit. Hamer felt the warmth work into him, and became slightly drowsy. Leaning his head forward and resting his chin in his palm, he considered the flames and the shadows briefly. He realized that he wasn’t really alone, one was so rarely alone in the Army. Even now, there were hundreds of men all about him. Sentries were walking in the shadows beyond the tents and wagons behind him; pickets skulked beyond them to ensure the rear and flanks of the siege-works were not surprised by enemy movement. Before him in the dark muddy trenches and bomb-proofs from which they were being given a short reprieve huddled men sleeping fitfully, for fear of the enemy creeping across the divide to waken them with violence. Hamer felt himself doze off slightly, shifted, but sleep crept over him again. He woke with a start in the coolness of early morning, the night having passed in an instant. The fire had gone out at his feet, and a dampness was starting to settle upon him in little gem like beads. He was startled to note a figure seated across from him, very still and watching him. It was private Philo Henry, a calm and quiet man the boys called “shoe” for some misadventure with his brogans back in the early days. Henry nodded, and made to start the fire. Within a few minutes he had it going smartly, and the big coffee kettle was simmering.
“You having trouble sleeping?”, asked Henry quietly as he worked. Hamer cleared his throat, and shifted his feet.
“I just couldn’t sleep and got tired of rolling about in the tent; I must have dozed off out here.”. Hamer stretched and yawned. His body protested having slept sitting up all night. Henry smiled and passed his a cup of hot coffee, fresh from the top of the kettle. Others in the camp were moving and awaking now; those who had stood watch being replaced as the great rotation of Army life went on. In the early morning light, the first shots of the artillery as they resumed pounding the city to dust signaled the start of a new day.
Hamer gave a feeble smile, and shook his head. “I just don’t sleep well out and about, never have. I ought to have thought of that before I joined I suppose.”. Henry nodded and sipped his coffee.
“Oh well, if any of us had thought about it more we wouldn’t be here now, would we?”, he smiled over the lip of his cup. Hamer smiled and nodded. Both men were quiet then, and others joined them to seek coffee and commiserate as soldiers do first thing in camp. Hamer stood up and wandered away towards his tent intent upon a little more sleep before the day began.
It took most of the day for the cramps and aches of sleeping out to work themselves from his joints and muscles, and Hamer felt that he had been foolish to set off on this adventure at 42 years of age. He was assigned to fatigue duty, and took his turn digging at new sinks, and later in the day chopping and stacking firewood. Many of the boys complained bitterly, considering this was supposedly their chance to rest. But the amount of labor needed to keep the Army going was staggering, and when they were finished with their rotation of work Hamer was worn and tired. He gathered his mess and went to the regimental cook line for chow. A hearty stew of some kind with rice, potatoes, carrots, and bacon in what seemed to be a beef broth greeted him and he was glad to make its acquaintance. While some of the lads in the company were not too terribly awful cooks, the central preparation of food in these regimental kitchens seemed often to be staffed with fellows with ingenuity and even real skill. Hamer sat down in the knot of men that he had spent the morning toiling with, and shared a quiet meal. Charles Henry Dills, the young son of Daniel that some of the boys called “Fullhouse” after a spectacular hand at cards, sat down nearby. Fullhouse smiled at him, and dug hungrily into his stew.
“My father says to say hello,” mumbled Fullhouse around spoonfuls of broth, “he’s laid up in the hospital again. He has the Mississippi Quickstep pretty bad, but his spirits are as good as can be. Uncle Charles even came up with some remedy from somewhere”, Fullhouse gave a slightly disgusted look, suggesting his disdain for the art of scrounging at which his father and uncle were experts, “but doesn’t seem to have made much difference.”.
“Your father is a tough fellow, he’ll shake it off and be fine.” Said Hamer sopping up some the broth with a piece of heavy bread. Fullhouse was quiet, but continued eating. Sullivan, who was sitting opposite them with Roth, nodded. Private Harris, a long faced youngster with a feathery whiskers he liked to call a beard, sat down with a grunt next to Fullhouse and set to eating with dedication. After two or three shoveling movements into his mouth, Peter Harris launched into his news, sputtering bits of potato.
“You boys hear the news? I guess our rest is up, they’re sending us back up to the lines tomorrow morning. Them boys they set up there in our place didn’t know enough to keep their heads down, and a couple of them buckeye’s caught lead for it.”. The young soldier smiled, and dug back into his food. This report helped to lift the previous mood, and now everyone was talking at once. Sullivan laughed incredulously and challenged Harris.
“How do you know anything about it? Were you there?”, sneered Sullivan.
“On account that James Rice told me! He was talking to Frank Houldan, that fella from near Bancroft who is an orderly over there at the hospital, and he told Rice first hand. Said that this dumb pair of buckeye’s were fighting over a tin of beef of all things up there in the lines
and it gets knocked over the lip of the trench and rolls a little way into the open. Well, before anyone can stop him, one of these poor fellas climbs up after it and gets hisself shot straight in
the mouth and out the back of his head. So down he goes in amongst his comrades, and you can imagine the fuss that made!”, Harris paused, relishing the attention of all eyes.
Roth was shaking his head and muttering quietly, “For a tin of rotten beef, what a waste.” Harris, resumed with ghoulish relish.
“So then, the other fella, he gets all worked up for the death of his friend now of course. Of course the argument is all forgotten too, and so he starts screaming like a madman and cursing a blue streak and charges up at the lip of the trench as well but his pards get a hold of him and start dragging him back again.”
“Wait now, you said two fellows got themselves fitted for pine,” started Fullhouse before being shushed with a paternal air by Harris, a boy no older than he.
“Now, now Charles,” clucked Harris, eliciting a frown from the latter, “wait and all will be revealed. So, as I said, his comrades are dragging this other poor dumb buckeye back telling him to quit fighting but of course he isn’t at all. Anyway, he breaks loose, stands full erect to give them a piece of his mind and it happens! Seems that sesech what shot his friend wasn’t satisfied with the one, and was just waiting for some fool to line himself up in his sights. Bullet
took his jaw clean off they said, just like what happened to poor sergeant Blackmer at Ridgely, except this fella died of it. So there, how’s that for a grave piece of wickedness for you? I tell ya boys, we better watch ourselves now. Two in the space of as many minutes! That’s some marksman!” The group broke into murmurs but Harris was quickly disregarded for a “pup, and a young one at that”. In truth, no one wanted to pay credence to the possibility that some
Mississippi or Arkansas backwoodsman with the skill of a squirrel hunter might be sitting across from them waiting for a target to cross his sights.
In the distance, the cannonade went on in a steady thunder that long since lost the power to make them pay the least attention. Instead, the boys were arguing the purpose and wisdom of the settling down into earthworks and blasting away at one another. This succeeded the short, but violent discussion of the work on the canals and which regiment involved had dug the most. As Honan was about to interject his opinion, the high whining sound of a mortar shell alerted them all to take cover. It exploded short of them, but did a fine job of scattering copious amounts of dust and clay about them like rain. Before the last of it had settled, Honan was already back up and speaking his mind.
“Engineers, I figure you give them their due for being clever--but give a war over to ‘em and you’re asking for trouble!” He said, brushing dust from his shoulder. There were some cheers of agreement to this, but Johnson cackled derisively as he sat lighting his pipe.
“Yeah, it’s so much better to have some fella with pumpkin rind for brains instead of on his shoulders lead us through the lead and over the defenses in a valiant charge to perdition.” He scoffed, sending up a curling wisp of pipe smoke into an oddly chalky sky for early June. It seemed the weather was of the same mind as their moods, obstinate and pithy. They had had
two hard days of mortar fire and determined assaults as the rebels tried to break the Federal line; and between this the harassing attentions of a sesech sharpshooter whom the boys had taken to calling the “Barber of Vicksburg”. He had gained this name because of some spectacular shots, which led to the suggestion that he was so good he might ‘shave a man from 400 yards with an aimed shot’. This particular sharpshooter seemed to have marked out the sight lines well indeed, though his favorite haunt was a portion of the trenches 100 feet to the south west of where company C was stationed. It was here that he had taken two lads from company D, a corporal from a Michigan regiment, and a less than prudent Major of the Artillery who had seen fit to offer ‘The Barber’ an easy mark whilst he sat upon his horse despite warnings against it. The boys (ever superstitious about such things) came to say when they had to traverse this portion of the lines that they were “going to see the Barber, but don’t tell Mother.” Some swore this granted them special protection, whilst others just did their best to stay as low as possible.
There was a shout from off to the right of “Here they come again!”, which was quickly swallowed by the now all too familiar screech-wail of the rebel soldiers charging towards their lines. Everyone scrambled to the lip of the trench, mindful always of the chance that doing so might well prove fatal if someone far across the divide was waiting for a target of opportunity. The Texans, which the boys of the 5th had decided were some of the most recklessly brave fools they’d ever seen, were pounding towards them again with guns blazing away. Reckless or not the enemy wasn’t stupid, and when the Federal lines opened up and a great swath of men were cut from their number, the assault quickly evaporated and those able dove for the safety of their own trenches. Honan scanned the distance as the smoke and dust cleared slowly, Rose beside him doing the same. Their muskets, the bayonets fixed and dull from the light brown of dust, remained ready as they scanned and watched for the enemy to reemerge as they so often did. All that was before them was the dead and wounded; some of the latter crawling towards their own lines or crying pitifully for aid.
“Well, what was that about?”, whispered Harris from somewhere down the line of men in the trench, “What’s the point of running out where we all can see, and shoot ‘em down like that?”
“Something got messed, no doubt”, came the Irish lilt of sergeant O’Malley, “I’d be betting that they was to have some artillery support but it went awry, and them poor bastards got left out afore our lines to fend for themselves.” There was a low thud, then several others
and O’Malley shouted “Get down!”, as the whine of mortar shells falling close were followed by a terrible ‘WOOOSH’ as they exploded everywhere. The world become a brown and white cloud, and Hamer felt himself choking, having gotten half buried by cascading dirt when the mortar round exploded to his left. He realized quickly that this wave of earth had probably saved his life, for as he got up again he felt the limp form of Harris leaning against him. He had stood opposite Hamer when the shell hit, and had taken the brunt of its awful force. As daylight returned through the smoke and dust, rebels came screaming down on them again. One of the wild Texans had emerged from the dust where the new lip of the trench was and had just started to level his weapon towards Hamer when Charles Rose exploded into view before him and lashed out with the butt of his musket, felling the man violently. Three more blows and the Texan, a captain to look at his uniform, would move no more. O’Malley was organizing the dust covered soldiers and giving the swarming enemy no quarter. Rose came and helped Hamer to his feet, handing him his dusty brown musket. The two soldiers stood looking sadly a moment on the wretched form of Harris. Hamer realized then Rose and Harris had been much of age, though Rose seemed to take on the withering age of experience before his very eyes. Wiping dirt from his face, Charles Rose returned to the fight.
Meanwhile, they had held their line and beaten back the rebels. Sergeant Stephenson arrived with men to bolster them, and as the dust settled fully and Federal batteries fired a withering salvo at the trenches of the enemy, Hamer saw at last the full havoc of this attack. Johnson, with the help of Sullivan, was dragging a dead rebel off the parapet of the trench. Several of the enemy were strewn about, felled in those awful moments of close quarters vehemence. The enemy was not alone in the debris at their feet. Private Thomas lay shot through the chest, pale and dead, while Henry bent low over him. Harris lay in a shattered heap nearby. Leaning in a corner--with O’Malley holding a rag over a shoulder as scarlet blood seeped through it--was Honan. He looked pale, but his eyes darted about and he spoke.
“I’m alright. Clean through it went, bugger got lucky is all! Bayonet through the shoulder, but I made work of him!”, said Honan in a funny wispy way. O’Malley turned and shouted to Rose, displaying a right ear that was oozing bright blood as he did. Rose came over and helped carry Honan out of the trench and away to the surgeon. Sergeant Stephenson took command of the line, and went about checking each man. Several had cuts and bruises, both from the fight as well as the exploding mortar shells; but by a miracle they had largely come through well enough. Lieutenant Forbes came bustling along to convey congratulations to the men, and to acquaint them with the fact that the “Captain is proud as whiskey punch” for their spirit and resolve. Hamer shook the dust from his greying beard, made sure the percussion cap was yet on his musket, and took his place again in the trench. He stared out across the divide as the day slowly edged towards dusk, and thanked God he was yet there to see it. Daniel Dills was pressed up against him on the left, scanning down the barrel of his musket across the distance. Dills must have felt Hamer’s eyes on him because he spoke quietly to him, without moving his gaze from his weapon.
“Hamer, taking up farming did you? You look like you were digging potatoes. Hope you saved me a couple.”
Hamer smile ruefully. Dills, a week out of the hospital after three days in, was pale. He looked tired, and as though years had crept upon him in the space of days. Some had started to talk that “Old Pickle” wouldn’t last much more. Hamer knew better. Dills was a tough, tenacious fellow who was happy to leave if it was his idea; but to blazes if it wasn’t. He tried to clear the dust from his eyes as best he could with his sleeve. The dusk lead to evening, and except for the occasional aimed shot and chance mortar shell, rare peace settled over the trenches. Yet despite the absence of fighting, only the dead slept peacefully.
When morning came, O’Malley returned with Rose and said Honan would be fine. The wound was shallow and that he’d be back to normal with rest. Stephenson had brought up spades and they set their backs to repairing the trench and parapet as the early morning sky slowly went from grey to a brilliant blue, . By mid-morning, the heat was already stifling, and the air thick with humidity. As they group sat in the dirt for a rest they heard a voice from the rebel lines call out. “Hey, Yanks!”, shouted the voice. Everyone looked at one another, and no one moved for a moment before O’Malley suddenly cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted back, “Hey, Johnny! Whatcha want?”
“Heya Yank, you talk funny-you foreign or something?”, returned the voice. The boys chuckled, and O’Malley smiled.
“Irish, but I answers to Yank all the same, you barefoot ragamuffin!”, responded the sergeant. They could hear laughing from the rebel trench before the
“I was a teacher before all this Yank, if you like I could learn you to speak proper english!”
The boys laughed hard at that, Johnson only scowled. “That dirty traitor has sand to speak to us like that!”, he grumbled. O’Malley only gave Johnson a lopsided grin.
“Alright professor,” responded the Irishman at last, “you just lonely, or is there purpose to this then?” There was a pause, and the ‘professor’ responded at last.
“Wondering if we might get out there in the open to fetch back our dead, and see if any are yet amongst the living. Any chance, Yank?”. O’Malley had hardly looked to Stephenson when the other man was already moving off at a crouch to inform the Captain of the parlay underway. Setting aside his spade and brushing himself off, O’Malley got up and risked a glimpse over the parapet before answering.
“I should think so professor, just wait a moment though while we let the boss know. You know how it is in the Army!”.
“I do, Yank, I do.”, came the reply. Stephenson returned with Captain Sheehan, who accepted the hasty salutes of the gathered men and went to the parapet. Removing his hat, he peeked out over the divide and conferred with O’Malley. In the end, the terms agreed upon, the rebels were allowed to go out under flag of truce for their dead. In their own trench, company C watched them work to reclaim the dead. The affair was somber, and no one spoke, knowing that it could just as easily have been themselves laying out there in the dirt. It wasn’t as though they felt direct pity for these men that had died, they were the enemy after all, but there was a sort of respect for them all the same. When the grim task was finished, the war resumed in earnest.
Stripping their gear and brogans, the men hurled themselves down into the grass and gravel with the exhaustion bourne of the terror and boredom of laying siege to a determined enemy. They laid about in a state of half unconsciousness, spattered in dirt and blood, stained with sweat. Over head, the sky was a brilliant blue. Here and there, great cotton like clouds floated lazily above them with complete disregard for the troubles of humanity. In the weeks since Harris and Thomas had been lost, life had gone on. Men tried hard not to forget their faces, but found that war robbed one of memory as easily as it could rob one of life. Charles Rose let out a great sigh and settled his head on his haversack. In moments, he was fast asleep, something Honan and corporal Haltzdahlen sat contemplating.
“How does he do that? Three seconds, if it was one!”, griped Honan leaning on one elbow and gesturing towards the sleeping Rose. Behind Honan, Johnson pulled his coat over his face and mumbled, “I’m trying to sleep here, if you don’t mind!”.
Haltzdahlen shook his head. “I suppose when you haven’t much in the way of brains, it doesn’t take much! Sleep, wake, eat, sh--”, but before the corporal could finish, Johnson interrupted. “Will you be quiet! I want to sleep!”. Honan shrugged, and laid back to stare at the sky. His shoulder was still tender, but in the weeks since he had been wounded, he had healed
well. He had yet to be able to draw a new coat from supply, and so the hole remained where it had been made. He found his left hand wandered to trace the hole now and then without realizing it, and decided to patch it at the first opportunity. The wounding had made him feel less invulnerable than before, a sense which Charles Dills had told him was simply maturity
“As one ages, the reality of your mortality sinks in,” he had said, “and that’s when you become a man, in my mind.” At the time, laying there in his hospital bed, he had brushed off the comment as simply Charlie Dills attempt at sounding wise. In the weeks since, he had come to recognize the true wisdom those words belied. He glanced over to where Charles and his nephew Fullhouse were resting, and wondered how Daniel Dills was. He was laid up in the hospital again, brought low once more with his chronic bouts of dysentery--though he wasn’t the only one. The Army seemed constantly plagued with such illness; not to mention the malaria from the swamps, yellow fever, and a host of other complaints. Now Hamer too was laid up with something which sapped him of strength and conviction. There was talk that he might soon take the hospital steamer home, if his shakes didn’t abate soon. Honan closed his eyes, and wondered how many men he had stood with now lay dead or confined to their sickbeds. Young men made old before their time; older men devoured by war and pestilence. He tried to put these thoughts out of his mind, and instead determined once more to patch up his coat as he fell into a light slumber.
A light breeze wafted through the tent, and though the air was humid and hot, Hamer felt chilled. His mind was clear one moment, and lost in a fog the next. Days had slipped by without notice, nights lasted years. He had been stricken in the aftermath of another attempted assault on the rebel lines, passing out as they returned to their own lines in the wild dismay of retreat. They had thought him shot, or stabbed from the way he stumbled down into the trench,
and much fuss was made in trying to find his wound. At last, half naked from being stripped in a search for the source of his collapse, his comrades had brought him to the hospital. Since his arrival, men had come and gone from the cots about him. Some had recovered, some had passed in the dead of night and early morning. Hamer felt himself aware, the chill subsided, and he sighed quietly. “Got the shakes, huh? Them’s bad”, spoke a voice from his right. Looking over, he noted for the first time a man who had arrived when he was in the throes of his fever. His head was wrapped close with bandages, covering entire top portion of his head and covering his eyes. There were yellow and brown stains on the one side of his head, and by the accent of the man he suspected this was a wounded rebel. Hamer studied the man, quietly.
Before he could speak, the rebel spoke again. “Hope the idea of resting so next to a ‘Josh’ aint
too disagreeable for ya; as ya keen see I aint got much ability to move myself even if I wanted too. Well, not without tipping myself over things and stumbling a lot anyway”, smiled the rebel calmly. Hamer laid back, a chill running through him again that made his teeth chatter.
“Arkansas huh?”, responded Hamer at last, “I don’t mind, though I can’t say I’ve had much opportunity to speak socially with any of your neighbors you understand.” The rebel chuckled, and offered a hand blindly to be shaken. Hamer reached a clammy fist out to take it, though he had to lean over far to the right since the rebel’s inability to see had put his sense of where things were quite off kilter. They shook hands, and the rebel nodded.
“My brother had the shakes when we was young. It was rough on him, but with rest and care he recovered. Once you got the malaria though, you are never full and free of it. He still gets reminders of it now and then, but it’s manageable.”
“If that’s me, then what happened to you?”, asked Hamer. The rebel folded his hands quietly, and sighed.
“Artillery shell burst in the midst of our line during our assault. All I remember is running forward with the others and then this flash and a roar of sound filled my ears. Next thing I know someone is talking about me and no matter how hard I try I can’t see him. Turned out some of your lads found me looking for wounded yanks and brought me out . I suppose that makes me a prisoner now, but at least I aint dead.” They were quiet for some time, before the rebel spoke again. “Where are you from?”.
“Where’s that at?”, responded the rebel.
“Up north of here, north of Iowa.”
The rebel chuckled, “You come a piece then to get here. What’s it like way up there? Bet it’s cold most of the time, huh?” Hamer smiled, and shook his head.
“In the winter it gets to feeling beastly sometimes yes, but our summers can be glorious. It’s a very green country. Lots of lakes, forest and prairies.”
“Sounds beautiful.”, the rebel was quiet then awhile, before speaking again. “You ever wish this war aint never started? You ever regret that folks couldn’t have figured some way of behaving more as the preachers and Sunday schooling teaches?”
“Turn the other cheek, forgive and love thy neighbor?”, asked Hamer. The rebel nodded quietly, and Hamer studied the man briefly. “Yes”, he said, “I do wish it. But by the same token, I also believe this war is about more than that.”. The rebel nodded.
“I suppose they always are, these wars that folks fight. For you and I, that fight is up. This war done used us up and left us at the side of the track, while it goes on over the next hill.”
“I suppose you could say that, yes.”, said Hamer.
“I hope it all will be worth it when it ends.”, whispered the rebel. Hamer, sighed and turned to look up at the ceiling of the tent.
Several cots over, his face pale and sallow, Daniel Dills quietly interjected.
“It shall have been a mighty price for us all to pay,
if it isn’t. God help us then.”
Nathaniel Hamer’s war would come to an end shortly after, discharged for medical reasons towards the end of June. He would later die in transit from a bought of pneumonia just short of his 43rd year. Not long after on July 4th, as General Lee was being defeated at Gettysburg, the city of Vicksburg finally fell. The boys of the 5th Minnesota were one of the first regiments to march into the ruins of the ‘Gibralter of the Mississippi’, singing and cheering as they went. Daniel Dills, still weak but determined not to be left out, marched with them. His son and brother at his side, it would be the last action he would see. Within a week, so frail he could not stand, Daniel Dills was shipped home. The siege had been hard and costly, for everyone involved. The Confederacy was now effectively cut in two; and the old promises of “home before Christmas” made the rounds again. No one was fooled. The night that the city fell, the Federals gathered in their camps and celebrated Independence Day as best they could. Many a toast was made to their country, to the victory at Vicksburg; and to those of their regiment whom lived on only in those few things which the war could not take from them.