Sunday, June 04, 2006

Short Story: Coward

Last nights few hours sleep did not lift the burdensome cloud of fatigue. Neither did the rain that now pelted anything unlucky enough to be out in this weather. Moving forward to his assigned position, he sloshed through growing streams of muddy runoff swelling in the streets and then over the soggy fields past town.

Trudging on, he thought that their battles always seemed to end like this as if nature wished to separate herself from the deeds of men by washing the stains of war from her soil. He wondered if perhaps God commanded a drenching, belated baptism to save the numerous dead. He walked on. The rain, normally a nuisance, provided some welcome relief from the past days sweltering heat. The downpour cleansed his clothing, skin, and hair of the thick dust and acrid smell of sulfur. That it soaked everything he wore seemed a necessary price to pay.

Taking his place on the picket line, he sat on a rock, his thoughts wandering as his eyes panned the open spaces to his front. He wondered if a similar man in gray looked back at him, rifle at hand. They would soon move in pursuit, he supposed, but for now, the three days of hell had ended. Their adversaries had silently withdrawn during the night, leaving the good townspeople to eagerly encourage them back onto the streets through which they had retreated just a few days earlier.

Gazing around him, he thought that perhaps the cooling rain would slow the bloating of the thousands of poor souls who now lay dead on the recently contested ground. "May it also soothe those", he prayed to himself, "who among them still held to life." Battle was an old acquaintance, a familiar but unwelcome guest who always returns, invited or not. But the scale of these fights continued to grow. He had seen battle before, but not like this. Just three days ago, they had proudly marched through town in orderly, disciplined columns, determined to erase the taint on their name that seeped deeper than the chill from this pelting rain. Two months prior, the foe put them to flight, an inglorious, unmistakable rout. They had failed at their primary task to secure the right flank of the Union Army. Thankfully, the townspeople either did not know about or had forgiven their lapse. The local citizens had welcomed them on Wednesday as they strode for the fields north of town.

That they continued to be called cowards seemed unjust and stoked a simmering anger that he fought to keep hidden. But even this downpour could not entirely extinguish the flames of resentment which that name, that insult fanned. They had not been so well led if you asked him. He certainly could not have changed their disposition on that Saturday in May. With thousands of screaming men in butternut and gray bursting upon them from the dense woods, leaden messengers of death whistling by, swarming like angry hornets, what could he have done? He had tried to fight. He stood his ground. But despite his determination, the crushing numbers compelled him to leave. At least he had not blindly run through friendly into enemy lines as some others had. Nor had many of those who tried to stand with him. Yet, he now had the humiliating brand of coward, as yellow as newly churned butter. Without thought, he griped his musket tighter, pulling it closer to him. Water continued to drip unnoticed down his back.

Did his army comrades look upon the dead of his Corps as cowards? Did collision with a bullet save the fallen from that taint? What of his once boyhood friend who, during the battles in the Valley, had pulled him to safer ground after a ball pierced his thigh? Three days ago, on these fields, he had watched his friend collapse in agony to the ground, shot to the stomach, and could not help him. The man who had saved his life lay nearby writhing in pain. Yet he continued to load and fire as ordered. When they fell back, he knew that leaving his friend doomed him to the slow agonizing death typical of those gut shot. Did the bullet or the suffering remove his friend’s stain of cowardice?

And what of the wounded? Could anyone justly call men cowardly who now missed a hand, arm, or leg? Did those who survived the butchery of the surgeon’s tent rightly deserve such aspersions? What of the long marches, 20 or more miles a day, at times without water or food? He recalled the thirst and the layers of dust on his teeth as they endured these forces marches, as blind to their destinations as to the trials to be asked of them. The rain now would have been very welcome then.

Just a few days ago, this place offered the chance to earn anew the privilege of holding their heads high. After the fight to come, no longer would others call any member of his Corps yellow dogs. Thoughts drifted to his family. How he missed them. As much as he loved them, since May, he could barely stand the thought of writing to them as he had done so faithfully since he enlisted. He recalled the decision to fight for his adopted country to earn their acceptance, along with the needed $13 a month in pay. One year ago, he thought to fight to shed himself and his family of the tag "immigrant". Now, he would fight to erase the name "coward" as well. He sadly remembered the letters from home that he had so eagerly sought with each mail delivery. Now they scared him. What if they too thought him a coward, not quite a man, lacking in honor?

Eager to rid his mind of these torments, he forced himself to look up and out over the rain battered fields. Could any of the small nameless shapes scattered about the muddy, wet ground yet hold life? How much better off than they was he? Glancing back down at his shoes, the troubling words crashed back into consciousness. Yet now, defiance swelled in his breast. Damn it, he was not a coward. Their Corps had fought Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. They saw over 1,600 of their own fall at 2nd Bull Run and more than 1,500 at Chancellorsville. No. These were good men.

This battle could have brought them salvation. This battle could have made things right. But, despite their losses, no one granted them the laurels given the rest of the army. How could they be so deprived of the honor they deserved, the honor they earned? On the first day, their commander ordered them to take position to the right of Reynolds’ Corps in an open field void of protection. Resolutely, they marched into those fields. But, the artillery fire on that blasted hill kept them from joining with their comrades to their left. That left a gap, dangerously exposing their left and right flanks. When the assault came, nothing but clear space stood between them and the surging force he had known waited beyond the trees in their front.

Men in gray and butternut waved flags and shrieked as they always did, the sound penetrating as solidly as the balls. The dull thuds of bullets hitting flesh sounded as numerous then as the rain that now fell. He grimaced as he recalled the slashing shards of exploding shells that gashed and tore men’s flesh. The agonizing cries. The pleas for help. The blank empty eyes that stared skyward. The irreparable sorrow enfolding another family, now without a father, brother, or son.

The deadly battle re-appeared to him as if he again held his musket towards the onrushing gray lines. Their own blue ranks stretched thin, they could not hold their ground. With southerners again coming on their right, surging in their front, and moving on their left, they gave way, some fighting, others running through the town on whose streets they had so proudly marched just a short time ago. He again felt the stain growing, the name ringing in his head. Coward. He had not heard the numbers but he knew that they had lost in both killed and wounded more that they had in any other battle. He knew from the ominous silence that came in response to the names called at roll. So many now gone. If these men were cowards, then with pride he would call himself one of them.

He pulled his hat down over his face. The saturating rain continued. Next time, he would show them all that he was worthy of the uniform, of the 11 Corps’ insignia, and of being a United States Volunteer. He was no coward.



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GettysBLOG said...

Dear God! every entry you post is better than the last.

You need to write a book!

Jeff Fioravanti said...

Another great post Randy!!!! I echo the sentiments of "Gettysblog" you need to write a book!! Congrats on the CWi inclusion too; very well deserved. Here's hoping we enjoy some good conversation again one day soon. Until then, keep up the excellent work my friend.