Smoke clung to the earth, releasing its grip only when the stray soldier punctuated the shroud. The air screamed, echoing the screams of men dying, wrapped in darkness. Men who just two hours earlier joked about quick victory and “beating the Rebs” littered the ground. Few moved, either out of fear for or because of Death, whose anorexic head blinked here and there amongst the fallen men. His shadow darkened the sky.
I was there. I remember.
My leg was numb. I soon saw that it had been blown across the field, becoming its own casualty of war. Today I walk with a cane and a wooden leg, a reminder of that day, that ugly July day, when Hell and Heaven both stepped aside and let men regress to their inhuman roots.
I had joined the Army of the
That was not the story I wanted to tell. This story involves “Dagger John” and his stand against those Prodies who sought to pester us out of the city. The churches were burned. Children were not able to go to school without being insulted and mocked. Then Archbishop John gave a speech. Stop the violence, he said, or else
Just like that field. How I wish I could forget. Yet at the same time I know I can’t.
As I said, I joined the Army expecting a quick finish to the war. My friends Colm, Dominic, and Daniel went with me to volunteer. Archbishop John stood outside, shaking our hands and patting us on our backs, thanking us for serving God and our country. The Army man explained to us what we already knew:
My mother was silent. She looked at me for a moment, then went into her room.
I smelled whiskey on her that evening.
When we left the city to march south, there was a great parade. Everyone came out to send us off to the front. I kissed my mother and sister goodbye. Mother’s eyes were red with suppressed tears. I could tell. My sister could not control her eyes, and her face gleamed. Both gave half smiles as I kissed them, but I saw their fear. Then we all lined up and turned towards the Archbishop. He seemed tired, but he still stood smiling, his face alive with a faithful hope in us, in our brigade. Everyone had hope in us. We had hope in us. We were the sign of change, the sign that an Irish Catholic from the city was just as American as those Know-Nothing idiots.
As I laid on the bloodied field a couple months later, I saw that all that hope was gone, was worthless. And I wept, not for the fact that I was missing a leg, but because I had failed everyone. I had failed my family, the Archbishop, my friends, everyone.
I was failure.
Some dirt hit my face, the product of a wayward cannonball. I shut my eyes a second too late, and I felt the burning sting as some sort of dirt or another snuck into my eye. I tried rubbing it out, but that did nothing, so there I stayed, eyes closed, unsure of what else to do. I tried to remember what had happened that day. At first, all I could hear was guns and cannons; that, and screaming. Then I started to block out those sounds, and I found myself remembering the day’s events.
What day was it? Sunday? July 21. We had been to Mass that morning in the camp, the whole Brigade. We received Communion; the priest reminded us of how God would help us if we trusted in Him. I remember praying for my mother, knowing she was doing the same.
As soon as Mass was over, we heard the trumpet. It was the call we had longed to hear, and at the same time dreaded: to arms. “Fighting on a Sunday,” Daniel muttered, his thick accent making his comment almost unintelligible. I agreed, and we moved to where the troops gathered.
I remember how beautiful the morning was. The rising sun bathed the world in changing colors – pink, orange, and even a hint of red. One soldier mumbled about sailors, or something. Colm laughed at him. Colm’s father had been a fisherman from
The two of them stood there, with the other troops, not the boys we were ten years before. They had changed, maybe even became men. Their eyes were stoic, listening to the command. I never would have expected it from them, yet there they were, standing with fierce attentiveness. This was their life, or death, and they were determined to see it to the end.
I whispered an Ave, because I felt some dark prophecy that we would not see each other at the end of the day.
Meagher told us the generals’ plans. Meagher was a big hero among the men. He had fought in
The battle plan went like so: the other Union regiments would be sent in first, attacking the main line of the Rebels. We were told to hold until the first wave fell back. We would then replenish the soldiers who retreated, would route the remaining Rebels, drive them back, and then chase them back to
That was the plan.
That didn’t happen.
The Union army had shrunk even before the battle had begun. The campfire rumors had been true: enlisted men left when their time was up. They served their time, received their pay, and left. Some stayed. Most of us Irish stayed a little longer. There was just something about leaving a job unfinished that seemed unbearable. Wives waited for some, but they knew, you could tell, just how important it all was. Those who stayed did so with honor and pride. I myself knew a man, not Irish, who stayed after his term was finished. His name was Archibald Jefferson, a Prodie, but a good Prodie, the kind that would not hate someone based on your Catholicity. We talked about home, and he talked about his wife, Rebekah. She is the greatest woman in the world, he would repeat. He wrote letters talking about everything in the camp, from marching to eating to sleeping. I know because he let me read over one. He kept a bundle of them folded together in his pack, which he kept with him at all times. He feared death if he lost the letters. We laughed and sang together, and when his time of service ended, he shocked everyone by not returning home. When I asked him, he looked at me, a sly twinkle in his eye, and responded with a sentiment I have not yet forgotten: If you love your wife, you love your country. You fight for both.
It was not the most compelling sentiment, to be sure, but I have remembered it now for over fifty years.
He died that day, fighting with us. His regiment had failed, and he crossed over to help ours. He saw our flag had fallen, and he picked it up, and then dropped again. A bullet had burst his heart.
I remembered him at the Requiem Mass.
We stood that day, awaiting the start of the battle. The first shots happened soon after we had heard Magher’s orders. Down the field from where we waited, smoke filled the plain, and soon it floated over to our position. We could no longer see the battle, but we could hear it fine. Our cannons would fire, then the Rebels would respond in kind. At first we waited wearing our packs and coats, but as the day wore on, we got warm in the July heat, and tossed the coats aside.
The messenger came unexpectedly. He was a drummer, one of the young aides to one of the generals. He told us to move out; the plan had failed. We were no longer the second wave. We were the emergency reinforcements. We grabbed our guns and charged. It was only after we charged that I realized we were missing our packs and coats.
We’ll get them when we get back, I thought then.
As we charged, I glanced to the higher hills that flanked the plain. Earlier that day, the hillside had been filled with civilians who came to watch the battle, as one pretty girl giggled to Dominic. He joked with the girl about the battle and about he would wave to her as he killed a Reb, and I felt a sick feeling. War was not a playhouse affair. This girl came to watch death rape the battlefield, all while enjoying her delicate lunch.
It still disgusts me.
Onward we charged. Bullets stung the air. Men dropped around me. There was a horrible thickness in the air, suffocating our movements. At one point, I tripped over a body, or rather, part of a body. It was some poor soul’s torso; the rest was gone. I saw Dominic to my left. He dropped to the ground, followed by an explosion from canon fire. I ran over to him, terrified that I would find him another lifeless corpse. I was relived to find him alive. He pulled me down next to him, behind a make-shift wall built of human remains.
“I’ll outlast the battle here,” he shouted, the only way to communicate when gunpowder starts exploding. I mentioned cannons, but he waved me off. I angled right, but then flew down. I didn’t realize at first what had happened. A cannonball had landed just to the left of Dominic. The earth sprayed, and Dominic joined the company of his building materials. I never found his body.
Forward, cried Meagher. He stood on the ground, his horse a mound of flesh behind him. His saber cut through the smoke, somehow finding the last glimmer of sunlight in the midst of the hellish battle. His blade flashed, and his shouts for
Ahead! Ahead! We charged towards the Rebel line, meeting their forces at full speed. Down fell our flag bearer. For a moment, a panicked confusion grasped my chest. Then, as if in a dream, the flag reappeared. It was Jefferson, who had made it over to the fallen colors and was now hoisting them into the air. He shouted something about the Irish and their Church, and charged towards the Rebels. He too fell, a bullet piercing his chest.
He too clung in my mind during the Requiem Mass.
Am I repeating? Oh well. Some things bear repeating.
We fought on the same way, first charging, then falling back, then regrouping and charging again. I myself took out my fair share of men. It is an unsettling feeling to kill a man. I have never known a worse condition. At first, I felt nothing. My first kill fell a good distance from me. I never saw his face. I shot two more from that same range. Then two came, side by side. One fired, then affixed his bayonet. The other raised his gun to shoot. I shot him first. The other paused a second or two, realizing his friend had fallen. I charged. He turned, saw me, and likewise charged. I somehow deflected his weapon, then hit him with the butt of my rifle. His body sank, and almost without thinking I stabbed my own bayonet into his chest. His eyes rolled in their sockets, and he shook a couple of times. I stabbed again, and he moved no more. It was as if the battle had stopped. I looked down at the soldier and saw a man my own age. I heard shouts for retreat, along with the accompanying bugle call. I turned and ran back, running away from what I had done.
Then I fell, tripped again over a body. It was Jefferson, his face pale, his body soaked in its own blood. His hand was on the pocket where he kept his letters. They were still there. I slipped them into my own pocket. I heard the whistling sound; then there was silence.
Then I awoke.
I was on my back. My leg was gone, as I mentioned earlier, and I could see very little. The screams and gun shots were further away, and I suddenly felt very alone. I touched my pocket, satisfied with the presence of
“Oh God,” he said when he saw me. Daniel never spoke like that, and I felt a wave of terror ripple through me. He heaved me up, leaning on his shoulders. It felt like fire ignited beneath my skin.
“What happened,” I gasped.
Daniel dragged me along, grunting as he went. “We lost,” came the punctuated answer. There would be no discussing that topic today.
We made it to a dejected camp of haggard men, shells of the fine soldiers who stood and fought earlier. Here were the survivors. Here were the poor souls thrown into war, but neither Mars nor Hades wanted them. Here were the warriors who fought like heroes from Norse legends, but the valkyries rejected them. They were rejects, broken and shivering. Evening started to sneak in as the bloody-red sun slipped away, as if the sun was ashamed at what he seen.
The doctor, or what passed for a doctor in a camp, looked at my leg. “Lucky lad,” he said. “Lucky you ain’t dead,” he said, cleaning the stub that once formed my left leg. “Peg leg,” he snorted. “Should limp around alright.”
I didn’t thank him.
We sat in the camp; more men came, some bringing more wounded, others wounded themselves. A general came and thanked us for our bravery. It made us feel a little better. Melancholy suffocated us. We needed to breathe. Some tried singing, but each song fizzled out at the end.
Daniel sat quietly alone. I moved over to him.
“They’re gone,” he said without looking over at me. I didn’t ask who he meant. I knew. We sat, just us, wanting to scream, neither of us speaking.
Then came the chaplain. He was wearing black vestments, the most perfect, pristine vestments I have ever seen. They weren’t flashy or exaggerated, nor were they ugly and unsophisticated. The priest set up a little altar, his back towards the setting sun. Men walked over, most limping. One came carried on a stretcher, his mouth moving without sound. The sky bathed us in warm colors. Sweat clung to our faces. Daniel and I made our way over to the impromptu congregation. The priest turned and looked at his flock, then turned back to his altar, inhaled deeply, and began chanting the Introit for the dead. I closed my eyes, and prayed for all of them, for
I whispered the prayers, hoping for life, hoping and praying.
Years later, I went back to the field. Between the day of the battle and the day of my return, much had happened. I had watched
I am old now, and I know I have little time left to me. My prayer now, crippled in my old age, is one of sorrow for my sins, relief in virtue, and happiness in hope for the hereafter. My prayer is simple: that Jefferson, Dominic, Colm, Daniel, and I might chat again, like we did the Saturday before the battle, when we laughed at the thought of death.
I went back to the battle field. I looked out at the grass, the trees, the dirt. I felt dead again. I felt the loss I hadn’t felt since that day. I felt empty, and yet at the same time, I felt completeness. I know that, if I die tonight, after telling you this story, that it will be the end of another story, one more grand and beautiful than any I could ever tell, and at the same time it would start another story, one brighter and more alive than any I have ever lived.
But now I’m tired, and need to sleep. We can talk in the morning.