As the light faded, so did the sound of artillery, and the musket fire was only sporadic. The sounds they had been masking all day now pierced the night–the moans, howls, screams, and curses. The man was sitting up against a tree, his left thigh useless from a wound, his right shoulder blade also immobile from another wound. The ground was wet from the days of rain before the opening day of fighting, and his gray pants were soaked in water, mud, and blood. He had packed his thigh wound with a cake of mud to stanch the bleeding and had tied a piece of his shirt around the wound to hold it in place.
Fortunately, his shoulder wound hadn’t bled much, though he was pretty sure his shoulder blade was broken. The two wounds together had made his gradual trek toward the rear excruciating; he couldn’t have gone more than a couple hundred yards from the front by the time night fell. The temperature was falling, and the thickness in the air told him more rain was on its way. He had settled under the tree hoping it would be a bit of shelter, knowing it wouldn’t matter much if the spring rains from the previous days returned.
He saw shadows and dark figures moving around him, heard men cursing their wounds and the blue bellies that had delivered them along with the damn fools who had ordered charge after charge against the Union’s fixed position. He also heard sounds in the distance near the river–boats docking; men unloading; distant orders, shouts, and curses.
One young fellow was being helped toward the rear, and the man heard him say, “But y’all will whip em tomorrow, won’t you, Pa?” Pa? Damn fools had come to fight together? If one of y’all was in a spot to get killed, both of y’all was. Then again, the man knew that most of these people didn’t really understand how the world worked.
Twenty-five years old, William Love supposed that they had made him a sergeant because he had been in charge of a lot of people over a lot of acres. He had a handwritten letter from the planter about being the best overseer the man had ever known, that he had extracted the largest crop of cotton, which had then gotten the best price ever seen out of Walker County, Texas.
All of that might have been a Texas tall tale. Sure, he had been an overseer, but his twin, Henry, had worked on a bigger farm. Henry had gotten the job from fellow Alabamians who had moved from Pickens County, Alabama, to Texas in pursuit of their own acreage and their own chances to grow their fortunes. Joseph Harrell wasn’t but seven years older than William–could have been one of his older brothers, even. He had started with a small farm of less than fifty acres, but a good crop and good land prices allowed him to expand up to one hundred, helped him get more field hands. And that’s when he had asked Henry if one of his brothers back home could come out to help. William had come with Robert, who had gotten a similar position on a nearby farm.
William drifted off to sleep, not fighting it, knowing he’d need strength to get himself back to the doctors. He didn’t figure anyone would help him get back–he didn’t know where his brothers were, and if you didn’t have family on the field and you was healthy, you’d best be sleeping on your musket ready for ole Billy Sherman’s boys to move in the morning. The sounds of the field mixed with the sounds stuck in his memories from the summers in the cotton fields, and he hovered somewhere between the two worlds for at least a couple of hours.
Being a sergeant, bringing men into battle . . . well, wasn’t too much different from the cotton fields. Sure, a field hand was a field hand, and a white Southern soldier was supposed to be a different sort. What he had seen, though, told him that both colors responded about the same to the same sorts of things. Have a man stare down a barrel and what he does next is pretty much a sure thing, no matter what color he is.
He had learned this from Henry. Henry had invited him to stay at the Texas farm where he was overseer and do rounds with him for a couple days to learn about the job. The first morning together, William had told him, “I sure appreciate this, but I know how to farm. Don’t wanna put you out.”
Henry rolled a chaw of tobacco, tucked it in his lower lip, and spit out some of the remnants. “Ain’t the farming that you gotta learn. You gotta learn how to handle the black folk and the planter and his family. The people and the animals is the tough part. The plants do what they do.”
“Reckon you know more’n I do,” William had said.
Henry’s farm had a driver–a senior field hand who helped the overseer with the black folk. One of them. Made it easier to deal with em.
“Why’s it hard to deal with em?” William had asked.
“What’s in it for the darkie?” said Henry.
“Gets his food, clothes, shelter.”
Henry grunted at him. “Ain’t but one thing that moves the coloreds.”
“The fact that I got a whip, a pistol, and a musket.”
“Have to use em much?”
“Only as often as it takes to the get the message across. Go around killin em all, and you won’t harvest no cotton.”
“Think they know that?”
“Course they know that. And there is more of them than there is of us.”
“So you gotta show em now and again.”
“Uh huh,” Henry had said.
They spent a week together circling the farm, working with the driver, and making sure the work was keeping pace. William never saw Henry hit anyone, but Henry carried the whip and pistol wherever he went, with the musket in a saddle bag. Halfway through the week just before noon, William spotted buzzards circling and dropping near the south end of the farm.
“You lose a sheep or cow?” he asked Henry.
Henry pulled binoculars from his saddle bag and looked. “Nah,” he said. “Just ole Carson. Finally knocked off.”
“Mmm hmm,” said Henry. “Been with the family a long time. Been complainin about being sick a while.”
“You think he’s dead?”
“Mmm hmm,” he said, lowering the binoculars. “Sure looks like it.”
“And the vultures are on him?”
“Yup. Crows too.”
“Damnation, brother. Anyone gonna get him?”
“Sure,” said Henry. “The rest of em will get him tonight after the work is over.”
“After the work is over?”
Henry looked at him. “Cotton’s high, brother. We don’t stop the work for no cattle or for no darkie. The dead bury the dead on they own time.”
The first sprinkles of rain woke William. The dead bury the dead. Bible saying, he learned later while in camp. Never had been much for praying, but there was preachers everywhere preachin salvation in case you was to be killed.
He had brought his men against the Hornet’s Nest over and over. At times, the men seemed to fall in bushels. After they took it, another sergeant asked how he had kept his men going. “Two things,” he said. “The men know that if the blue bellies don’t kill em and they run, I will. And when they fall, we don’t think nothin of it–the dead bury the dead. We’ll chase Billy Yank to hell.”
The rain and the air were cold. Between the bleeding and the cold, he supposed he could die. Would a burial detail reach him before the vultures and crows? Probably depended on the fighting the next day and who was left in charge of the field. Would they try to ship his body home? Or bury him here and mark his grave? How would his brothers find out? Or would he just disappear without anyone knowing?
As he pondered this, he rubbed his wet face with his left hand, then squinted at the darkness around him. Were those . . . lights? Soft, blue lights floating through the darkness? He shook his head and looked again. Yes, two soft blue lights hovering in the darkness around shoulder height, then a stretch of blackness and three more around calf height.
“Ain’t never believed in no ghosts or afterlife,” he muttered softly. “But I believe I’m seein spirits. The spirits of blue bellies. Am I in hell?”
Then he heard muffled voices coming from the blue lights. He strained to hear and finally made out one sayin, “How much further, you reckon?”
“Just gotta keep movin, boy,” said the other voice.
Did you have to cross through darkness to get wherever you was goin in the hereafter?
The rain slackened, and now he could see blue specks of light that seemed to hover about six inches above the ground. They were in odd clusters, and he stared, trying to understand. His breath curled in front of him, and he shivered. Were you cold in heaven or hell or wherever you went? He must still be alive if he was cold, right?
He heard a strange cackle about thirty yards off to his right, then a man bellow, “Someone light me a fire! Imma die of cold out here. Any y’all around to light a fire?”
William sighed. Wasn’t no point tryin to light a fire–too much rain. He leaned his head back against the tree trunk and shut his eyes. Total darkness. So the blue light was something, not just his imagination. Right?
He decided to sleep again. You ain’t supposed to sleep in the cold–might never wake up. But if he couldn’t move much anyway and didn’t know his way to the rear, he had nothing else to do. And if he died, at least he’d go quietly. He took deep breaths and tried to ignore the drizzle. Images of the blue lights danced around his mind, sometimes interrupted by images of exploding cannon or flashes of daytime musketry that would remain with him for as long as he lived.
Now, he lay on a cot at the Old Tishomingo hotel in Corinth. Cannonading had awakened him just past 5 am on the second day of fighting. Finding himself still alive, he had staggered to his feet, put all his weight on his right leg, and ambled along slowly, as stray balls occasionally whizzed past him. The morning light was just breaking when he had happened upon a wagon full of wounded men headed to the rear.
He had passed two weeks in the makeshift hospital, wandering in and out of consciousness as his body tried to fight off diseases from his wounds. In the last two days, he had found himself more alert and more conscious of how badly his wounds hurt. It was morning, and Nurse Kate had helped him sit up. She handed him two slices of bread and a bowl of beef broth.
“Good morning, Sergeant,” she said.
“Mornin, ma’am,” he said, as he slurped a spoonful of the broth.
“Are you feeling more yourself?”
He glanced at her dark eyes, then looked back down at the broth. “I reckon. For now, anyway.”
She patted his right knee. “I do believe you’re makin progress, Sergeant.”
William glanced at her hands. They were not delicate like those of the planters’ wives and daughters. They weren’t calloused either, but they were worn from the constant preparation of food, binding of wounds, laundry, and other daily chores. Her neck and forearms were milk white.
“You’re observing my hands, Sergeant,” she observed.
“No, ma’am,” he said.
“I grew up in a household of good Southern ladies and gentlemen. I have chosen to wear out my hands and life in the service of our cause and of our Lord.”
William tore a piece of bread and dipped it in the broth. “The Lord bless you for that, ma’am,” he said.
Nurse Kate stood and walked around behind him. “Do you believe in our Lord, Sergeant? Many of the men do not. Or they did not before their time in the service.” She placed one of her hands on the skin of his neck, gently creating space between his shirt and his back. “Don’t mind me. I’m just going to look at that wound in your shoulder.”
“Didn’t have much time to know the Lord, ma’am,” he said.
“Are you a farmer?” She leaned close and took a breath.
“My brothers and I farmed in Texas for different planters. Came home when the war broke out.”
“And home is where?” She let his shirt fall back into place. “Still infected. Maybe a little better, though.”
“Pickens County, Alabama. Got lots of kin there. Brothers, cousins.”
She moved back to sit in front of him. “We share a homeland and not just our cause.”
He looked at her from neck down, and he wondered. On his third day with his brother, as the sun had been setting, they had been watching a number of the younger female field hands when his brother had said suddenly, “You fancy any of them?”
“How you mean?”
His brother had rolled his eyes and brought his horse up close to his. “Hear what I’m sayin to you,” Henry had said softly. “If you get a planter’s daughter or some nice girl in town to take a likin to you, she’s gonna look to you to know what to do. And you wanna know what to do. So take one or two of these and get some practice.”
He had looked from Henry to the girls in the field, then back.
“Just say which. I’ll arrange it. You can get a different one each night, if you want, the rest of the time you’re here.”
He had looked back to the field. “We ain’t really supposed to–”
“Ain’t harmin nothin,” said Henry. “In fact, you doin her a favor.”
So William had shrugged and pointed at three different girls, one for each of the days he had left.
Now, he looked at Nurse Kate, wondering if it was that much different with a white woman, assuming it probably wasn’t. She wasn’t especially pretty, but she wasn’t ugly neither. Of course, with his leg being what it was, it probably didn’t do no good to think about it anyway.
“Have you found the Lord during your time fighting for the cause?” said Kate.
“I reckon not,” he said. “Not yet anyway.”
“The God-fearing types,” Henry had told him, “them’s the ones that look to you the most. They know you know, and they wanna be led.”
“I thought they didn’t do that sort of thing,” he had said.
Henry had laughed. “They all just like any other red-blooded Southern boy or girl. They just pretendin they ain’t.”
So was Nurse Kate pretending?
“Do you want to know the Lord?” she asked.
William shrugged. “Never saw much cause.”
“Sergeant, what happens if you die from your wounds? What will you say to the Lord when you see Him?”
He slurped down some more broth and then tore off another piece of bread. “Ain’t seen nothin to make me think I’ll see anything if I die from my wounds . . .” But then his mind wandered, and he remembered that rainy night out on the field. “Except one thing, I suppose. I seen one thing I can’t explain.”
“What’s that?” said Kate. She settled on to her left hip.
“Night after I got wounded,” he said before pausing to swallow the dry bread. “I was sittin out there at night and I fell asleep. Was tryin to get up my strength to get to the rear. The rain woke me up and I was just starin into that dark, terrible night. Wasn’t real sure if I was alive or dead. And then I saw these glowin blue dots. Soft blue light just floatin around and moving across the field. Some wasn’t movin much, just hangin a bit above the ground. A couple was higher and on the move.”
“Blue light?” Kate said. “You saw it?”
“You saw the angel glow.”
“The what?” he said.
“The angel glow,” she said again. “The men from the field talked about it. Some of them got it that night.”
“How do you mean?” said William.
“Some of the men that first night got it in their wounds. Night came, and after some time, their wounds were glowing soft blue. At first, they thought the Yanks had done it to them and given them some sort of evil. But almost all the men who got it are out of the hospital now, their wounds mostly healed.”
“Healed, huh,” said William.
“Did you notice your leg glow?” Kate said.
William shook his head. “Nah. Nothin like that.”
“The men called it the angel glow because if you had it, you mostly got well.”
William nodded. “You reckon the angels was really lookin after them?”
Kate shrugged. “I never saw it myself, but the men talked about it. And kind of like the Good Book says, ‘Where at once they were hurt, now they are well.'”
William nodded and put the last of his bread in his mouth. “I didn’t know the book said that.”
“A blind man said it after Jesus healed him. The rulers wanted to kill Jesus, and they asked him if Jesus had done something evil to him. He said he didn’t know but, ‘Whereas I was blind, now I see.'”
“So I guess it don’t matter if the light was blue,” said William.
Kate shrugged. “Not if it healed a man.” She stood. “I best be gettin to the other men. We will keep praying for you, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said William. He watched her walk away, and took particular note of the swaying of her hips.
Then he lay back and took a deep breath. Could his own wounds have glowed at any point? He shook his head. He had no memory of that and didn’t believe that they had.
Two days later, fever struck him, his leg smelled worse and worse. Before they could amputate, William fell into delirium and died a day after.
Kate Cumming noted that she met a young man from Texas named Love. According to her, he was one of nine sons fighting for the Confederacy and that he believed three of his brothers had been killed at First Manassas. The most likely fit for the Love brothers is here. These don’t match completely with Kate’s recollections. The family does not appear to have nine boys. But as it turns out, the Loves of Pickens County, Alabama, were a large family with overlapping names. One genealogist noted, “John O’Neill, Henry O’Neill & Robert Blackburn Love were brothers and sons of the old Robert Blackburn, born 1775 in Ireland. These military records can be confusing, due to these brothers naming their sons after their brothers! Often records for my Henry O’Neill Love born 1838 are confused with John’s “Henry 1835″. All three of these brothers have sons named Robert Blackburn, John O’Neill and Henry O’Neill and William is another add.” This sort of family linking might lead a wounded young man in bad shape to refer to all the men in his family as “brothers.”
Whatever the case, William definitely died during the war. Some genealogists believe that he died at Andersonville Prison, though I think this is mistaken, because the record for that William Love is a man from the North. So my best guess is that his death happened shortly after The Battle of Shiloh. William was a member of what became the 50th Alabama, which was known to have fought and lost heavily at the Hornet’s Nest.
The 1860 Census notes that William was an overseer in Walker County. The planter who employed him does not have his wealth noted in the census; hence, it’s likely that he fit the mold of smaller farms with twenty or fewer enslaved people and fifty to one hundred acres of land.
Overseers were often notoriously violent, difficult men. It might be said that they were the outward manifestations of the genteel planters’ internal avarice. They were tasked with extracting profits by managing an unpaid and recalcitrant workforce of slave labor. Violence and rape were common. Larger plantations also had a driver–an enslaved person who had been elevated to a position of authority among his fellow laborers.
One of the oddities of this story is angel glow. This was an actual phenomenon at The Battle of Shiloh caused by a combination of bacteria and cold weather.
Finally, as with other stories, while William and Henry Love were actual twins, the events of this story are entirely fictional. There’s no evidence that William or Henry engaged in the violence and rape implied in the story; rather, they are representations of known abuses cataloged during and after the War.