Billy Morgan couldn’t sleep. The night was pitch outside, and only a lantern now and again lit some of the rooms or corridors while cooks, nurses, and doctors kept doing their work. Of course, there were still moans coming from the sickest or most wounded patients. Sometimes, a man having a nightmare would scream out. Any of these could wake a man up or keep a man awake. But they weren’t what was bugging Billy. He was on the floor where the less injured were, his knapsack under his head and his coat around him for a blanket.
He rolled over and faced the man to his left. “Hey, Jimbo,” he whispered.
Jimbo was lanky and tall, his limbs spilling out in different directions as he lay away from Billy on his side. Jimbo kept breathing steadily but didn’t move otherwise.
“Jimbo!” Billy whispered again.
Jimbo stirred a bit but didn’t roll over.
“Jimbo! You awake?”
Billy heard him take a deep breath. “Damnation, Billy. I am now.”
“I thought maybe you was havin trouble sleepin like me.”
“Well, I wasn’t.”
Billy pulled his jacket up tighter around his chin with his right hand. “Sorry. Go back to sleep then.”
“Lord, Billy. You woke me up. Whadda ya want?”
Billy closed his eyes, then opened them again. “You hear that sound, Jimbo?”
“A lotta miserable men here, Billy. I hear lotsa sounds.”
“Them others is the normal ones. Not them. I mean from the feller in the corner.”
“Room’s got four corners, Billy.”
Billy rolled his eyes. “Come on now, Jimbo. You know which’n I mean. The feller behind them curtains over there.”
Jimbo rolled onto his back and put his hands behind his head. He listened for a moment. “I guess I hear it now. Hadn’t noticed it before.”
“Hadn’t noticed it?” said Billy. “He sounds like he been dragged from a swamp and they cain’t get the sludge out of him. All raspy and wheezy and bubbly and stuff.”
Jimbo pursed his lips and exhaled. “That’s what you woke me up about? All the sounds we hear all day and night, and that’s what bothers you?”
“Taint natural,” said Billy. He wanted to prop himself on his left elbow, but the wound just below his clavicle stopped him.
“Yeah, well, gettin shot the through the head, back to front, ain’t natural neither.”
Billy twitched. “Shot in the back of the head, huh. How you know that?”
“When they brung him, Nurse Kate and the doctors was talkin about it. That’s why they put them curtains up.”
Jimbo sighed. “You damn fool. Cuz his brains is leaking out his head.”
“I’ll be damned,” said Billy. “How’s that man still alive?”
Jimbo shrugged. “Hell if I know.”
“You reckon he turned yella?” said Billy. “Ran from the enemy? Got hisself shot in the back of the head?”
“Nope,” said Jimbo. “I reckon one of our own couldn’t aim his damn gun and shot him in the back of the head.”
“Aw come on, now, Jimbo,” said Billy. “We shoot in lines for that reason.”
“Was we not in the same fight?” Jimbo said, irritated. “Billy Sherman’s boys got they dander up and everything went to hell. Avoidin balls was like tryin not to get rained on in a thunder shower. Everyone shootin from every direction. Poor ole Pinkerton just got unlucky, I guess.”
Billy gulped. “That’s Pinky?”
Jimbo shook his head. “Didn’t say that. Said Ole Pinkerton. Pinky’s older brother.”
Billy nodded. “Well that makes more sense. Pinky’s so short I don’t see how no one could shoot him in the head.”
“You know we train to aim at the legs, right?”
Billy was quiet for a moment. “It’s too bad for Ole Pinkerton is all.”
Jimbo yawned. “We all good now? Can I get some sleep?”
“Guess so,” said Billy.
He stretched out on his back and was quiet for several long moments. But then, all he could hear was those awful sounds Pinkerton was making.
Finally, he whispered again, “Jimbo?”
“Lord, what now, Billy?”
“How long you think he been like that?”
“Two weeks, I guess. Since the battle.”
“But they just brung him in a few days ago?”
“Yeah. I dunno. Maybe he made it through the battle. Maybe they was more fightin after we got back here. I dunno. What’s the difference?”
Billy swallowed and took a deep breath. “How much longer you think he gonna make it?”
“How would I know that, Billy? I ain’t the Lord Almighty.”
“Don’t seem right for him to be sufferin like that for this long.”
“I don’t think he’s sufferin,” said Jimbo. “I think he’s senseless.”
“But he’s gonna die, right?” said Billy.
“Of course, he gonna die. Man’s plum shot through the head.”
Billy started to roll toward Jimbo, but the wound sent a searing bolt down his arm. “Well, taint right for him to just lie there like that sufferin when he just gonna die anyway.”
Jimbo pulled on his wounded right leg to adjust its position. The bullet that got him hadn’t hit bone, but it had passed clean through his thigh and torn up his muscles. “Well, we ain’t the Good Lord, so I guess He’ll come get Ole Pinkerton when He’s good and ready.”
“Now that’s the thing,” said Billy. “That don’t seem right.”
“Well, if you got a huntin dog and he gets old and senile and blind and he’s pissin himself all the time, you don’t just wait around for the Good Lord to come get him, do you?”
“Lord Almighty,” said Jimbo. “A man’s not a huntin dog.”
“Well, if he’s better than a huntin dog, shouldn’t we do better by him? Ain’t no good that he’s just over there gurglin away senselessly.”
Jimbo propped himself up on an elbow. “What you wanna do, Billy boy? You wanna find us a gun somewhere in the middle of the night and go shoot Ole Pinkerton?”
“Well, not a gun exactly.”
“Are you stark-ravin mad?”
“Maybe I am. I just don’t see how him blowin blood bubbles is doin him good.”
“Ain’t you read the Bible? You supposed to fight the good fight, run the race, finish the course. You can’t just go check out early. His soul’s at stake. He gotta make it to the end.”
“How you know his soul ain’t gone to Jesus already? Maybe Jesus done come and got his soul already and just left his body behind senseless.”
Jimbo lay back down. “You sure you ain’t still sick from that bullet you took? They say them bullets had poison.”
“I don’t see no kinda reason that a dog oughtta be treated better than a man. If you bein merciful to a dog by puttin him down, you ain’t be merciful to a man by not.”
Billy stared into the darkness above him. And above all the breathing and twitching, he could hear that gurgling and rasping coming from Ole Pinkerton.
“Maybe the trial ain’t for him no more,” said Jimbo. “Maybe it’s for us to see how good we take care of him. Like he’s the least of our brethren.”
Billy shook his head. “It just plum don’t make no sense.”
Jimbo sighed. “Well, we can’t do nothin about it no how anyway. Can we go back to sleep?”
“Guess so,” said Billy.
He listened as Jimbo turned on his side and tried to take deeper breaths, but his own mind was wandering. His eyes darted around the darkness to see if there were patterns or anything that could distract him from the noise of Ole Pinkerton. A moan came from another end of the room, and he heard feet shuffle up a hallway. Through it all, Ole Pinkerton kept on gurgling.
“Jimbo?” Billy whispered.
“Ah, hell,” Jimbo muttered as he flopped onto his back again. “What now?”
“I can’t sleep with him like that.”
“You best try.”
“I been tryin for hours. I can’t do it. It gives me goose flesh and makes me sick to my stomach. I gotta make it stop.”
“Well, you can’t make it stop, so you better think of something else.”
“Couldn’t you help me, Jimbo?”
“Help you with what?”
Billy took a deep breath. “If I help you up, we could go over there together. I can help you walk, and you can help me since I got a bad arm.”
“You ain’t no priest, Billy. Ain’t no use goin over there to pray over him. You can do that right here.”
“I ain’t talkin about prayin.”
“Then what are you talkin about?”
Billy licked his lips. “You could do the easy part since it’s hard for you to stand. You just hold his nose, and I put my hand over his mouth–“
“Billy Morgan, we ain’t goin over to murder Ole Pinkerton!”
“Tain’t murder, Jimbo! You said it yourself. He ain’t gonna make it. He’s senseless. He ain’t here no more anyway. His soul might already be with Jesus, and if it ain’t, we helpin it get there!”
Jimbo rolled toward him. “The Bible says we can’t kill.”
“That a fact?”
“You know that’s a fact.”
“And you don’t see nothin wrong with what you sayin right now?”
Jimbo slumped onto his back. “I ain’t helpin you murder Ole Pinkerton.”
“I can’t do it alone,” said Billy. “And it ain’t murder. The man that shot him is the one that killed him.”
“Ain’t no reason to what you sayin,” said Jimbo, “and I ain’t helpin you.”
“Come on, Jimbo,” said Billy. “I can’t take it. It might be him or me. I ain’t slept in days.”
“I think you got the brain fever,” said Jimbo. “You gonna die from that if anything.”
“I might have it,” said Billy. “And if I don’t get no sleep, yeah, I’ll die from it.”
“Ain’t doin it, Billy.”
“I see. So Ole Pinkerton over there is already dead, but you ain’t willin to help send him to heaven to keep your old boyhood friend alive. Now you wanna kill us both.”
Jimbo sighed. “I ain’t killin no one.”
“You done killed a lotta men already. Now all of a sudden you got a conscience.”
“They’s a difference between war and murder.”
“I’m sure that’s exactly how the Lord Jesus sees it,” said Billy.
“Hell’s bells, Billy. Leave me alone and let me sleep.”
Billy rolled to his right side. “Least one of us can do that.”
Jimbo propped himself up again. “Know what might help you sleep?”
“How about you pray for poor Ole Pinkerton.”
“Pray for what? He ain’t gonna make it and I don’t know about the state of his soul.”
“Just maybe that Jesus will come take him home.”
“Oh that’s a great idea. ‘Dear Lord, I could send Ole Pinkerton home to you if my buddy Jimbo would help me, but since he won’t, could you just come get him?'”
“If that’s what’ll do it for you, yeah. Say that to the Lord over and over in your mind until you fall asleep.”
Billy pulled his legs up to his waist. “Imma remember this, Jimbo. The night you was willin to kill me for Ole Pinkerton.”
“Just pray, dammit!”
And so Billy did. He said that prayer that he had told Jimbo over and over and over. The pain in his shoulder flashed off and on, and sometimes, the gurgling would break through his prayer and his anger would burn hot. He’d stew over how pointless it would be for him to die of sickness that he had almost beaten. He could go back and fight for the cause if he could get well! Saving him was way more important now! Or maybe if he didn’t get all the way well, he could still help out at home, take a load off Pa and Ma. But he was helpless. Without both arms, he couldn’t do it himself. So there he lay just praying that Jesus would end Ole Pinkerton’s misery and thus end his own misery. Come on there, Jesus. One of us is gone anyway–ain’t no sense killin us both. Surely, you can see that!
Sometime before the first pink edges of morning, Billy drifted to sleep. He didn’t wake until the cooks and nurses were coming around with breakfast.
He sat up at the smell of coffee and the rustling of Nurse Kate. He yawned and said, “Jimbo, I think you’re prayin worked.” He looked left, and Jimbo was gone.
He looked at Kate. “Where’s Jimbo?”
“Private Johnson?” said Kate. “He wasn’t with us anymore when we made rounds this morning. The men came and took him.”
Kate pursed her lips. “Uh huh.”
“He was healthy as a horse last night.”
Kate shrugged. “I don’t know. His leg was bad. Sometimes, those infections go to the heart and you go fast.”
Billy felt a terrible sinking in his chest. The sound was gone. He turned to the corner. The curtains were pressed up against a wall, and the cot was empty.
“Ole Pinkerton’s gone too?”
“Bless that poor man,” said Kate. “I don’t know how he lasted as long as he did.” She handed him a coffee cup. “Coffee?”
Billy took it and gently rested it on one of his legs. “Ain’t nothin right and no justice in this world,” he muttered.
“What’s that?” Kate said handing him his plate with his food ration.
“Shoulda been me instead of Jimbo,” said Billy.
“I’m sure you’re both good men,” said Kate. “The Lord has His own plan for each of us.”
“I’m sure He does,” said Billy as he took his first sip of coffee.
About two weeks after Shiloh, Kate notes the tragic case of “Mr. Pinkerton” from Georgia who has been shot through the head and is surrounded by curtains because his brains “are oozing out.” How anyone lasted that long in that condition is unknown. Fighting happened sporadically as the Union marched toward Corinth, so it’s possible he was wounded in one of those skirmishes.
There were only two small Georgia units at Shiloh. A possible candidate for this person seems to come from the John Pinkerton family of Cass County, Georgia. We later find James Pinkerton and William Pinkerton serving in the 24th Tennessee, which saw heavy action against Sherman’s men. Other genealogists have associated this Pinkerton with a James Pinkerton of Troup County, Georgia (two hours by car today from the former Cass County), who lived into the 1900s, but I’m skeptical given the distance. Another possibility is this Pinkerton family. These Pinkertons would have been more likely to have enlisted in the 24th Tennessee, but they have no apparent connection to Georgia (at least from the records). It’s also possible that Kate recorded where the man was from incorrectly. It’s also possible that the man was from the Georgia Washington Artillery Battery, where several men were wounded in the head when ambushed by Union soldiers from a small trench. If that’s the case, that man’s military record hasn’t been captured. For the purposes of the story, I’ve gone with our Cass family candidates but can’t back them up definitively.
Jimbo and Billy are entirely fictional.