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
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Smoke drifted overhead like phantoms through the blue sky. The acrid tang of powder was thick in the air and it could be tasted; smelled; even felt against the eyes as a burning annoyance. There was an explosion close by, and dirt and grit pelted him on one side. He could feel this, but yet couldn’t. Minneballs made a noise like angry hornets as they zipped overhead; one striking a ruined artillery caisson with a hard thud and the sound of splintering wood. Somewhere the bugle call to advance was sounded, and he felt the unconscious motivation to obey. He was beyond that now and he knew it. He felt no fear, which he thought was strange yet a wonderful surprise. Corporal George Barnes had long worried more about how he’d act if he’d ever been hit than the fact of becoming wounded itself. He felt numb and a bit cold, but no real pain. With a certainty he could not explain, he knew he was dying. He felt passing regret, a momentary sadness which pricked at his awareness. How could he have ended up this way? How had this happened? He remembered how the battle had raged around him and his friends. Sudden worry for them crowded out his thoughts for himself. How had they faired? He couldn’t move to look about him, so he wondered with dread if any of them might lie nearby. Did they, even now, endure this inner struggle he was going through? He felt, more than knew with the evidence available to him, that this was not so. He had been the one who had fallen from their line; he suddenly recalled with vivid awareness the memory of David Williams stopping and bending over him but being shoved back into the line by the file closer. Now he remembered everything, as though his memory had been corked into a green glass bottle but suddenly set free. Yes, yes the green bottle. Its cork eschew, and the precious contents pouring out onto the ground. He remembered--that bottle of wine which Murray had surprised them with this morning, only to be knocked over by the ever clumsy antics of young Olaf Carlsberg.
Private Collin Murray swore a blue streak, and grabbed up the bottle before most of the wine had spilled into the greedy dirt and grass below.
“What the hell are you doing Carlsberg!? God damn Jonah! Mind your stupid Norwegian feet!”
Carlsberg frowned. “I am a Dane, not Norwegian!”
Murray shook his head and sneered. “Well whatever, mind where you are walking!”
“How long have the two of you been married anyway?” asked Private David Williams with a smirk.
Murray just shot a dirty look at Williams, and handed what was left of the bottle to their friend Trestain, who along with Barnes smirked and shook their heads at the feuding pair.
“Thank you Murray and Olaf don’t worry. It was an accident!” said Private John Trestain soothingly. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion gentlemen! Besides, Corporal Barnes is here and you know what a hard case he is about fighting in the ranks!” Everyone laughed at that, and Murray and Carlsberg made peace.
Barnes watched them with the same strange wonder he had since their first days at Fort Snelling. Had he not known better, or had he happened upon them as a stranger, he never would have suspected the deep and abiding friendship which flourished between these men. They fought like cat and dogs, and indeed that was what had led to their friendship from the start. They had met in barracks, and in no time at all were trussed up and thrown into the stockade for fighting. They’d been bosom companions ever since, in truth like brothers in many respects. Funny how men related to one another sometimes, and how much like a family of a great many of brothers they tended to act when forced to abide one another in situations such as they were in. Now they had something truly grand to celebrate. John Trestain, who in many ways acted the older brother or even father of their group, had somehow met and fallen in love with a woman who lived nearby where they had spent their winter camp. Now, despite the war and everything else--they were to be married. Given that the season was upon them when the generals took their armies into the field, Trestain and his bride to be--Charlotte--decided they couldn’t afford to wait much longer. While they wouldn’t be able to throw a grand affair, they did at least have Henry Herrick, company A’s Chaplin to do the service and Charlotte’s parents small farm to host. This was the reason for the wine, or what was left of it, to be had in a pre-celebration toast for Trestain. They had to be careful, since alcohol in camp was forbidden. This of course meant that it was everywhere, but so long as you didn’t get drunk and do something stupid or flaunt your spirits for all to see, you were relatively safe. This was simply how life if the Army worked; everyday a contradiction in some way.
“Well, there’s still plenty for a good toast--cups boys!” said Trestain with his usual positive approach to all things, taking up the bottle and raising it up in salute. Murray tossed his cup in the air and caught it; Carlsberg went looking for his; Williams had his out and presented it for his share of the wine. Barnes smiled and rose up to go back to his tent for his cup.
“Be right back, have to fetch mine.” he said as he strode the short distance to his tent. Behind him, Trestain joked.
“Why even the mighty corporal Barnes is going to toast! The fates be praised!”
Barnes smiled and made a rude gesture back at his friend, who simply laughed. Trestain, Barnes thought once more of many times, should have been made a corporal over him. Trestain was a calm and reasoned man, and brave. Barnes always felt that he was playing his part more than being it. Not that being a corporal really made all the difference really in ranks; the amount of authority the two stripes on his coat amounted to only as much as privates were willing to give him. In essence he was little more than a marker in the line; a convenient reference point for the men to follow during maneuvers. He gave his thoughts over to happier subjects as he returned, and offered up his cup to be filled. When everyone had their share, Williams held his cup aloft and the others joined him.
“This toast to our companion, to our brother” said Williams, his eyes shiny with emotion, “the only man I know who could meet, court and win such a beauty in the midst of a battlefield!” They all chuckled as Williams went on. “Brother, we wish you and she happiness and health; but most of all we wish for this war to end--and soon--that you two may be together always.” Everyone cheered that, clanked their battered tin cups together and threw back their wine with gusto. This was followed closely by coughing and sputtering from everyone but Murray, as the not so pleasant wine burned and fought its way down their throats.
“What in God’s name was that?!” shouted Williams. Murray looked into his cup and frowned.
“Wine. What? You didn’t like it? It was a bit strong I’ll admit, but I thought it was quite good!”
They had celebrated together that whole afternoon, until evening roll and chow was called. Standing in roll call, Trestain had plucked at his sleeve. Barnes looked over.
“Barnes, after roll and everyone settles to start their mess; I’ll need to wander to the farm for dinner. Will you cover for me?”
Barnes nodded and smiled at his friend. “You know I will. Ready for tomorrow?”
A warm smile came over Trestain’s face. “I know I am lucky fellow--and not just for Charlotte, I have good friends too.” He lightly cuffed Barnes in the shoulder and nodded. When the rations had been apportioned by the first and second sergeants to the company, Barnes and his mess wandered to their cook fire. Trestain followed them along shortly, but vanished through the tents shortly and was away. He would enjoy a good dinner with his very soon to be in-laws and bride, and no one could deny him that pleasure. Indeed if anything, they all lived vicariously through Trestain; each man recalling his own family, wife and children. Of course officially there was and would be little tolerance for Trestain being out of camp as he was, but this was the risk soldiers took and lived with. Besides, Williams was on picket duty, so their friend had a safe route through their line. So long as he was back before roll in the morning, no one would be the wiser.
More smoke drifted over him, the smell of wood burning brought back focus briefly. The sounds of musket fire had moved from where he thought he had remembered them. He found it was increasingly difficult to place himself in the tumult of this battle. A horse went skittering off somewhere nearby, without a rider the animal darted in a circle for a moment before vanishing over the hill. Barnes thought the color of the horse very lovely. He felt sad for the animal which was clearly wounded, and wished someone would put it out of its misery.
Miss Charlotte Ward--now Mrs. Charlotte Trestain--stood beaming at her new husband. She wore a simple but very nice dress, hoop and all. Barnes knew very little about women’s fashion, but he rather thought this pert beauty was well--beautiful. Her hair was braided in a way that made him wonder after the natural engineering skill she must have possessed, but the color was what struck him most. A lustrous brown, deep and faceted in tone. Her eyes matched, and looked now at her older but still comely mother; he could see that the apple had not fallen far from the tree. Herrick slapped Barnes on the back and smiled in that wide grin of his.
“They make a grand couple, eh Barnes?” he said enthusiastically.
“They do, they do indeed Chaplin.”
“In the midst of all this, it’s nice to have helped give life to something wonderful--something that will build and with Gods blessings--and grow.”
Barnes stropped watching his newly married friend and bride accept the well wishes of those few of the company in attendance and looked at the Chaplin. Nodding, be put his hand on Herrick’s shoulder.
“I can imagine so. Ever do a wedding before?”
The Chaplin shook his head. “No, though I have heard a great many deathbed confessions.” He grew quiet for a moment, his face serious. Suddenly he smiled and laughed. “I thought I was going to faint doing the service, I was so nervous!” Barnes laughed.
They left Trestain with his new wife that evening at his in-laws farm, the Chaplin having worked some deal with the Captain, and returned to camp. When roll was done that evening and Trestain’s name was called, someone had answered--’engaged in matrimonial maneuvers!’--which got a very good laugh. Even the Captain smirked and nodded from his place overlooking their ranks. The fireside conversation that evening proved sedate and introspective which was not at all surprising to Barnes, though the civility between Murray and Carlsberg was remarked upon.
“I’m not in the mood for antics tonight” Murray had explained “I’m too occupied thinking of my dear wife.”
“As am I.” remarked Williams with a rue smile. “She’s not exactly a beauty mind you--not like that moonbeam Trestain got for himself! But, I love her.” Everyone nodded.
“You have what--three children?” asked Carlsberg.
“Yes--Bartholomew, Theodore, and little Henrietta. I miss their antics, though with you lot around I have a close reminder!”
Barnes sat and listened to their reminiscing of home and felt as he often did as an outsider. He was not married, nor did he have anyone waiting for him at home. He had grown up an orphan, adopted late in childhood by a family in Ohio and put to work on their farm. He had left that all behind as soon as he could, and moved West in hopes of making his own life at last. For him, these men where his family.
Someone bent over him, a face he did not know. He knew the man was speaking to him, but he couldn’t quite seem to understand. It was a Negro, and he smelled of dried beef and wood shavings. Suddenly he was lifted up, and the world around him shifted and blurred. He wondered briefly if he was being buried, or taken to a field hospital. The terror of being buried alive shook him, and he tried his best to let it be known he was not dead. He willed himself to thrash about, but didn’t notice that anything happened. Perhaps, he thought with a start, I AM dead. But then he saw the edge of an ambulance and he realized he was alive. He wanted to thank this Negro for carrying him to safety, but he had no words. Instead, he felt the wagon sway and lurch as it started off, and then all was darkness.
Charlotte Trestain was a strong woman, but the horrors she had seen that day made her question a great many things. She lifted the hem of her work dress and made her way around to the soldier who lay moaning in the open bay of her fathers threshing barn. She took to heart that each one was somebody’s darling, and if she could bring comfort she would. She didn’t care what color the boy’s uniform was, just that he was suffering and that it was her duty as a Christian woman to tend to him. She knelt down and whispered into his ear, as she lifted his head for a drink of water.
“When can I go home?” the mud spattered boy asked her. His eyes grey and pleading with inner pain searched hers.
“Soon, don’t you worry.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t clean out them stalls like you asked Mother.” Charlotte gasped quietly, her eyes filling with tears. She shook her head, caressing the soldiers face in her hands. He simply stared at the roof above them. She stood up and wiping her eyes with her apron started slightly when someone called her name. She came up towards the log house where still more wounded lay in the grass and was ambushed in the embrace of her husband.
“Oh John! I have worried so for you!” she cried as her drew her tight into his arms, kissing her forehead and lips.
“Are you alright Charlotte? Where are your Mother and Father?”
“They are helping with the wounded--oh John! So many!”
Trestain smiled grimly and nodded. “I’m sorry they took your farm for this.” She shook her head.
“No John, Father offered. We wanted to help anyway we could. I’m just so glad you’re alright!” she said hugging him tightly again. They heard someone call out his name, and turned together. The dirt and powder residue of his face smudged neatly across her forehead and cheek. Williams, Murray and Carlsberg came trotting up from the road. Each man was disheveled and filthy, muskets slung over their shoulders.
“Trestain! Did you hear, they brought Barnes in here!” shouted Murray. Carlsberg tapped his friend on the shoulder and put a finger to his mouth. Murray frowned and turned back to Trestain, looking sheepish.
“Sorry! A shell went off overhead and all I can hear is ringing, so I can’t tell how loud I am!” he spoke loudly.
Trestain nodded and the group went in search of their friend. They found him a little ways back behind the granary, under the shade of a large spreading oak. When they saw him there, Carlsberg gasped quietly, for their friend was very pale. They gathered close around him, as Barnes opened his eyes.
He thought he might be dreaming again, but seeing the concern in the eyes of those gathered over him convinced Barnes he was quite awake. “Well, I imagine you’re all wondering why I asked you here” he joked before her coughed and asked for a drink of water. Charlotte knelt down, taking her husbands canteen in hand and giving him a cool sip of water. She was beautiful, Barnes thought. If he had had a sister, he would have wanted someone with the depth of caring this woman showed.
“How are you corporal?” asked Williams with worry in his face. “I wanted to stop for you, but they made me go on forward.”
Barnes smiled quietly. “It’s alright, I saw you. You did your duty, as I have done mine. Did we win?”
Murray looked close to tears. “Yeah, we whipped them good. Sent them scattered and scared.” Carlsberg nodded but said nothing. Barnes realized how bad he must look, but he had found he felt nothing but calm. He thought that must mean he didn’t have terribly long. That didn’t matter anymore though, he was among his friends--his family.
“We should get back” said Trestain hesitantly, looking first at him and then to his new wife “can you stay with him until we can come back to visit him?”
Charlotte Trestain smiled warmly at her husband, and nodded. “Of course I will. Go on, I’ll watch over the corporal.” She stood, and hugged each of them, kissing her husband who stayed back a little with a sad smile on his face. When they had gone, she sat down beside Barnes again and cocked her head to one side.
“You’ve been a good friend to John, corporal, thank you.”
“Just George” he said quietly, “you’re family now.”
“Alright then--George. John talks about you all the time, I feel I already know you.”
“Well, he loves you more than life.”
She smiled and laid a hand on his, a momentary look of surprise betraying what he could not feel--but suspected long since.
“Sorry I’m so cold, but I haven’t long.”
“Don’t talk that way! Shall I fetch you a blanket?” she made to rise but he shook his head slightly.
“No, please just stay with me. I was born an orphan, and I’d rather not go alone.”
Tears welled in her eyes, and she sat back down. She leaned closer, taking his hand in hers. He could feel her warmth, the softness of her fingers. He felt such a welling up of affection for her, for her kindness that a tear trickled down his face.
“Are you afraid?” she asked, her voice breaking a little.
“No.” he said quietly with a thin smile “But I will be sorry not to see what is to come from this war. Things will be so different when it is finally over; I wonder if any of us will even be remembered for what we did here?”
Her lip trembled ever so slightly, but then she smiled warmly. He could feel her strength then, and he smiled too.
“They’ll remember--John won’t let them forget!”
“He was like the brother I never had, you know. Funny how as terrible a thing as war is, it gave me a family and brought you and he together.”
Barnes nodded, coughing again. She gave him another drink from Trestain’s canteen, before replacing the cork.
“I wonder where I shall be buried?” asked Barnes looking about. She patted his hand.
“Right here, under this oak. That way, I can come and visit you. Then someday, John and I can come together with the children. Introduce them to brave Uncle George, tell them all about their Father’s friend from the War.”
She sat awaiting his response, but there was none.
Years later, John and Charlotte Trestain watched their children place flowers upon the grave of a fallen friend for Decoration Day.
“It seems so long ago.” She said looking up at her husband and embracing him. He kissed the top of her head gently, and squeezed her back.
“Another life, when you’re young.” Came his quiet response. She watched her children play around the tree’s massive trunk, skipping and singing with glee. Barnes had been right; so much had changed in the years since those days of fire and turmoil--some for the better, some not.
“Mother! Can we have something to eat!?” said her youngest, tugging at her apron. She laughed at her husband’s exasperated sigh, and took him into her arms.
“Of course, but not too much or it will spoil your supper!” she said with delight, shooing the other two on to return to the house. John Trestain waited back briefly, laying his hand on the simple stone which marked the grave of his friend. He spoke very quietly to himself, a deeply personal message which he always felt sure his old friend could hear.
The great oak spread it’s leaves as white puffy clouds drifted overhead like phantoms through the blue sky. The sweet aroma of a magnolia tree was thick in the air, and wafted with a serenity which spoke of a land at peace. Overhead honeybees zipped in zigzag patterns, intent upon their work.
At last John Trestain turned from his memories, and returned to the warmth of his home.