They were back in Southern territory, and word was that the enemy was on the other side of these woods. It was spring, and the day had started cool but ended warm. Will was coated in sweat in the late afternoon when orders came to halt their march and set up camp for the night. As he opened his pack and began to pull out his sundries, Will felt a presence behind him and turned. It was Ole Jeremiah, the man with the salt and pepper beard and skinny, crooked fingers. He wasn’t actually very old–maybe twenty-nine or thirty–but Will and several other guys were replacements, men who had been recruited in 1863 and sent to units where losses had been heavy. They were all eighteen or nineteen while Jeremiah’s group had been with the unit since the beginning and had aged beyond their years.
“Got a pipe?” Jeremiah said.
“Sure do,” said Will.
“When you’ve laid out your bedroll, bring your pipe, you and the younger fellas. Me and Joseph will show you around.”
“Show us around?” said Will.
“Sure, boy. I know this place like the back of my hand. Can’t forget it.”
“You been here?” said Will.
A gleam stole over Jeremiah’s eyes. “Me and Joseph and Robert fought exactly right here.” He pointed to the northwest. “Stonewall’s men weren’t a hundred yards from this very spot when we brought them to a halt finally late in the day.”
“Robert?” Will said.
“Sure, Robert,” said Jeremiah. “I’ll tell you about him. He might be around here somewhere.”
With that, Jeremiah stepped away to lay out his bedroll. Will shrugged and worked on his own bedroll and camp. About fifteen minutes later, he rounded up Samuel, David, and Jonathan and headed over to a log where Jeremiah sat with Joseph.
“Got your pipes, boys?” Jeremiah asked as they walked up.
Samuel patted his pants pocket. “Yes, sir.”
Joseph stood, offered Jeremiah a hand, and pulled him up. “Let’s walk,” said Joseph.
The sun was dipping behind the trees, as they walked from the small clearing into the woods. The light dimmed as they stumbled under the canopy of white oaks and new-growth pines and into the thickets of scrub brush and thorns.
“Chancellorsville, wasn’t it?” David asked. He was fresh-faced and almost too young to grow a beard. His was nose was small and pointed, his cheeks pinched and thin.
“Uh huh,” said Joseph.
“You fought in this mess?” said the sandy-haired David as they picked their way through thornbushes.
“We did,” said Jeremiah. “Me, Joseph, and Robert among others.”
They edged their way slowly through the brush and dimming light, and Will felt thorns snag his shirt and pants as he went.
“Can you see any better during the daytime?” he asked.
“Maybe a hundred yards,” said Jeremiah.
Will could see an area ahead where the undergrowth had been thinned and where patches of earth were free of thorns and brambles. Then he noticed a tree just ahead of him had been split in two with the top half toppled over into the branches of another tree. Now he noticed trees speckled with shell fragments and bullet holes. Some trees had feet of bark that had been shot away, while others’ trunks were intact but their branches had been blown away. And then they stumbled into the area of thinned out trees and bumpy soil.
“Here,” said Jeremiah. “Let’s get a little fire going and get these pipes lit. Just watch where you step.”
Will shrugged and stumbled around looking for dry sticks, then stopped short and looked at his feet. Staring up at him was a bleached white skull with hollow eyes, a hole for a nose, and a smattering of teeth grinning at him. Shreds of a blue cap lay a foot or so away. Will shuddered and looked across the broken clearing, now seeing that similar white lumps dotted the ground.
“Were you here?” Will asked suddenly.
“Good lord,” David suddenly exclaimed. “There’s bones everywhere.”
Jeremiah sat on a rise in the ground, a pile of tinder and kindling already at his feet. “Me, Joseph, Robert, and a bunch of guys were all here. We made the stand that finally brought Stonewall to heel after the flank attack. He got shot not far from here. A lot of our friends are still here . . . somewhere.”
Jeremiah struck a match and set it to the tinder, and a small fire began and flickered against the creeping darkness. Will and the other men gathered on the rise near Jeremiah and sat down. The day’s light was nearly gone. Will accepted a match from Jeremiah, struck it, and lit the tobacco in his pipe. His pupils tightened with the flames, then widened as he stared into the darkness. The men were quiet as they lit up, and a heavy stillness surrounded them as they listened to the annual cicadas and to the crickets and croakers.
At first, Will thought he was seeing things. But the more he stared across the dark clearing, the clearer he could see soft glowing white shapes. As he focused, he realized at least thirty skulls dotted the ground and glowed in the dark. Near the skulls were arm bones and thigh bones, some lying on the topsoil, others sticking out of the dirt.
“Not much of a burial, huh,” said Joseph, surveying the scene. “Pick a few of them bones up, and you’ll find some of them cut clean in half.”
“Animals?” said Samuel with wide eyes.
“Nope,” said Joseph. “Damn Rebs will cut up Yank bones and keep pieces as souvenirs.”
Jonathan puffed. “Maybe I’ll get me a Reb tomorrow and do the same to him.”
“Maybe you will,” said Jeremiah. “Or maybe you’ll spend all day shooting at smoke and fire and never know whether you hit anything.”
Will glanced at Joseph and saw him poking around in the dirt with a stick, shifting leaves around.
“The winners don’t care nothin for the losers’ dead,” said Joseph. “Just get somethin over em so you cain’t smell em as much. And you only do that once you been through a man’s pockets, gotten his watch, taken his knife, gotten his greenbacks, pulled out his letters to his sweetheart and read em to your buddy. If you need shoes and he’s got em, well, they’re yours now. It’s the order of life in reverse. You was born naked and crying. Out here, you go out crying, then naked.”
“Dust thou art,” said David.
Jeremiah glanced at him. “A man is a lot of blood. And a lot of guts. And at least some small part of brains.”
They all fell quiet again, and Will half closed his eyes, paying attention to the night insects and the faintest breeze that cooled his damp skin.
“So who’s Robert?” he said at last.
“Oh yeah,” said Jeremiah. “Robert. Well, we grew up together, same small town in Massachusetts. We might be cousins, sort of. A couple of our distant cousins married each other at some point. Used to hunt and fish together. I was a better shot. He was better at coaxing bass out of fishing holes. We enlisted together, trained together, went through Second Bull Run and South Mountain and Antietam and Fredericksburg together.”
“I got a few friends like that,” said Jonathan.
Jeremiah smirked. “I used to,” he said, and Jonathan fell quiet.
Jeremiah waved toward the west again. “When the 11th Corps collapsed, we heard the cannons and muskets, and then men went running through our lines. We got lined up, realigned our cannons, and then the Rebs were on us, and it was a pitched fight till dark. And after dark, there was still random firing, random cannon shots, fires burning in the woods, men screaming. And sometime in the night in these woods, Robert got separated from me and our unit.”
“Separated?” said David.
“Didn’t make muster roll next time we took it, and that night is the last I remember of him. His face was covered in gunpowder and sweat. And we were firing together, and then I have no memory of what happened to him.”
“You s’pose he got killed?” said Samuel.
Jeremiah shrugged. “I wrote his mother like he had, but I dunno. Some guys suddenly break. They run. They ditch their uniforms and wander the countryside. Some guys get captured and we don’t know it. The Rebel prisons aren’t places you want to wind up.”
Joseph nodded down at the fire. “Now look here at this little fire. You all seen how easy it was to light. Tomorrow when the shooting starts, the fires will also start. A good many wounded men burned to death in fires those nights at Chancellorsville.”
“Nothin worse than that,” said Jeremiah.
“I still hear them screaming in my sleep sometimes,” said Joseph. “Always wondered if Robert was one of those.”
Jeremiah looked at each younger man, one by one. “I’ll tell you what, fellas. I don’t mind the idea of being shot. I don’t even mind dying too much. I do mind the idea of burning to death.”
Samuel looked away from Jeremiah and muttered, “We got a little pig pen back home. Raise a few every year. When I was twelve, it caught on fire and a couple of the pigs couldn’t get out. Their screams were terrible.”
Joseph nodded. “Now imagine that being men.”
“I can’t,” said Samuel.
Just then, Joseph pried from the dirt what he had been pecking at with his stick. He pushed a dirt-covered skull to Samuel’s feet and said, “Tomorrow, you won’t have to imagine it. We’re all headed toward this. For some of you, you’re headed there tomorrow.”
A light gust of wind chilled Will again, and he shuddered and tried to block from his mind the images of men and pigs being surrounded by fire.
Will did not sleep well that night. He slept in his bedroll and outside any tent. He listened to the snores and breathing of different men and wondered which of them were in the last sleep of their lives. He watched fluffy white clouds pass across the night sky and obscure the stars, and he listened to the insects making their calls. The early bird gets the worm. Which worms were in their last night? Which crickets? Were any of the crickets and cicadas aware they were playing their last? Which of them might play too long and attract the bird that would take them?
Sometime in his reflection, he heard Jonathan whisper, “Will? You up?”
“Mmm hmm,” he murmured back.
Will waited for whatever was on Jonathan’s mind for several long moments. Then it came.
“I can’t stand the thought of maggots and worms eating me.”
“We’re all gonna be that at some point.”
“I think it’s gonna be me tomorrow, Will. I hope it doesn’t hurt bad. And I don’t want those little buggers to eat me. You seen all them skulls and bones. I don’t want those buggers eating me.”
Will closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “Most guys live through battles. Chances are you will, too.”
“Come on, Will,” said Jonathan. “I can’t sleep for thinking about this.”
“Just think of what old Job said in the Bible. Worms destroy my body, but in my flesh shall I see God.”
Jonathan fell quiet, and for several minutes, Will thought that must have done it and Jonathan must have gone to sleep.
Then Jonathan said, “I don’t want the worms part, Will,” said Jonathan.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Will.
“When they get me, you can’t leave me here out on the ground for the worms and the coyotes. You gotta get me and put me in a proper box and get me home to my parents.”
Will rolled his eyes. “The worms will get you in the box too.”
“You gotta promise me, Will,” said Jonathan.
“Promise you what?”
“That you won’t leave me out here. You’ll get me a proper box and send me home.”
“How do you know I won’t be dead?”
“Will, just promise me.”
Will shook his head and sighed. “Fine. I promise to put you in a proper box.”
“Thanks, Will. It means a lot to me.”
A few minutes later, Jonathan was breathing deeply. Who knew? Will thought. Knowing you could be in a box would help you sleep.
They were in line of battle well before sunrise, and as the black sky turned to a soft gray, they were ordered forward. Within two dozen yards, they were in the thickets, the thorns and brambles tearing at them. Jeremiah was on Will’s right, and Samuel was on his left. Jonathan was a few men down from Jeremiah. The other guys were spread out left and right.
The formation could not be held together as they advanced, and Will soon found himself knocking thorns away while straining to see the shapes of men and make out whether he was ahead or behind. At one point, he sensed Jeremiah ahead and he hurried forward to catch up only to trip over a root and splat into dew-soaked leaves.
“Easy there,” Jeremiah said softly while stepping back toward him. “The Rebs aren’t goin anywhere. No need to go too fast.”
Off to their right, the cannons roared to life, and Will knew today would be unlike anything he had experienced. He had been in skirmishes before, felt the blood pound in his ears as bullets flew around him, but he had never known such brisk and thunderous artillery.
The first shots whistled above their heads, clipping branches and leaves, and in the case of a man a few yards down, one bullet found its target with a sickening thwack. Will heard the man crumple without a word or groan, but he didn’t turn to see who it was. Instead, he focused at the darkness ahead, making out moving shapes, smelling the heavy gun smoke hanging in the woods now. Flashes burst in front of them, maybe a hundred yards away? Aim for flashes if you can’t see anything else, he had been told.
Bullets again whistled past, snapping branches, smacking trees, and sometimes finding a man. Along the line and without orders, men paused and fired into the gray clouds. Will cocked and put the cap in its spot, shouldered his weapon, saw a flash, aimed for it, and fired. The Springfield kicked hard against his shoulder, and he tried to make out whether he had hit anything, knowing he had little chance of seeing anything. He reached into his cartridge box to reload and heard Jeremiah’s voice.
“Easy, boy. We’re gonna be here all day and so will the Rebs. No need to shoot it all too fast.”
They kept picking their way through the thickets, and all order in the line broke apart. Will heard a whoosh as a shell flew past him. A tree splintered behind him, and Will turned to see leaves fluttering in the air, descending, descending, falling . . . and coming to rest on the headless torso of a blue-clad man.
“Don’t look back!” Jeremiah called from several yards forward.
Will nodded, turned forward, and kept moving. Another volley of musket fire ripped through the bushes and trees, and Will heard more smacks of bullets into trees and men. All around him, he heard the bellows of men in pain. Smoke and gunpowder filled the air and limited visibility to moving shapes and flashes of muskets. Will took aim at another musket flash and fired.
A moment later, the earth shuddered around him and seemed to tilt off its axis as cannon from both sides blasted into the thickets. The smoke was so thick now that Will could see no further than six or seven feet in front of him except for the flashes ahead. Between the cannons’ thunder, he heard the swearing of men all around him and the bellowing of Confederate officers just ahead of them. In thinner patches of smoke, he saw shadowy forms moving around, caught glints of light off of sabers. He kept loading slowly, methodically, and firing. Jeremiah, Jonathan, Samuel . . . all were gone somewhere in the smoke.
From somewhere ahead came the snaps and crackles of fire. With burning eyes, Will looked up through the tops of the trees and saw the light of flames arcing toward them. He paused and considered the fire, thinking of Jeremiah not wanting to die in fire. A minie ball whistled just past his ear and snapped a branch behind him. He stepped forward again, then tripped again. This time, he didn’t topple, but caught himself and looked down to see a severed leg between his feet. Another burst of musketry pushed him forward, and now he saw the rest of the man sprawled on his belly, twitching and trembling.
He edged around the body, then paused as he heard the shrill cry of the Rebel yell. Forms appeared to be closing the gap between him and the firing in front. Will aimed at a moving form, fired, and saw it disappear. Ahead of him, men stabbed at each other with bayonets. Will reloaded, and just as he finished, he saw a blue coat just ahead. The man was reaching in his cartridge box when the box exploded and blew his abdomen apart.
Will moved to him, saw the man fling himself onto his back, stretch his mouth wide but make no sound, then cease moving. It was David.
A yell forced Will to look up. He sidestepped an onrushing Reb and plunged his bayonet into his ribs. The man went limp, trembled, and slumped to the ground next to David.
Will moved to his right, found an oak trunk, and dropped behind it. He breathed huge gulps of smoke-filled air and coughed and hacked until he coughed up phlegm. He peered out from behind the trunk and saw little but smoke and flashes. Bullets whizzed past him and he tucked back behind the trunk. Suddenly, a shell burst in the limbs above him. The concussion knocked him senseless, and metal and limb fragments rained down on him. The earth seemed to shiver left and right, his grip on his rifle slipped, and the rifle toppled to the wilderness floor next to his leg.
He lost track of time. He must have closed his eyes at times, while at others, he opened them and saw the world shaking and shivering. At one point, he spotted a man in gray creeping through the thickets where Will had walked earlier that morning. Had the Rebels broken through their line? A whistle and a thwack, and the back of the Reb’s head exploded. He crumpled into a heap next to the body of a Yank. To the left and right, other Yanks crept forward, ducking under limbs and hugging up against tree trunks when shells came whistling through.
It was a cauldron of powder and smoke, explosions and fire, screams and curses. Over the next few hours, forward movement mostly ceased. Now and again, someone would call a charge, muskets would open up, and the charge would beat a retreat to its earlier place. Once or twice, Will lifted his musket, loaded it, and squeezed off a shot into the smoke. He didn’t believe he was hitting anything, but he felt he couldn’t just sit here doing nothing.
Why was he so sluggish, though? His ears rang, his vision shook, and his mind was muddled. At times, he definitely drifted off to sleep only to be jarred awake by an explosion or the whistle of minie ball.
Then, after what seemed interminable, total darkness settled around him . . . well, except for the fires. The sky through the trees was illuminated with the soft glow of flames from other parts of the Wilderness. Will could hear shouts, artillery, and musketry well off to their left—attacks that he would later learn were flank attacks by Longstreet. In the meantime, the darkness and smoke enveloped them, and he listened to the howls of the wounded all around him. Sometimes, a cry was so close he wondered if he might roll over and touch the wounded man. How could he be so close and not see anyone?
Then, from the Rebel direction, he heard someone bellow, “Fire!” But it wasn’t a call for men to shoot—it was a cry of terror. Will poked his head around the tree trunk, and well off in the distance, he saw the glow, heard snapping and crackling of flames and burning branches, observed that it was moving quickly their way. Then, a few minutes later, he heard screaming as wounded men began to catch fire. Now came the smells of burning flesh, and he thought he might never eat beef or pork again if he ever escaped this hell.
Above the growing din, he heard a man holler, “The fire’s comin for me, Yanks. Any of y’all Christian enough to shoot me?” There was quiet, then, “My legs is broke. The flames is comin. Can one of y’all shoot me?” More quiet. “Please shoot me!” Someone hollered back, “Is your arms broke, Johnny?”
“Shell blew the gun outta my hands! Can’t find it! Please shoot me! Hurry! I’m fixin to catch fire! Please! Please! Puh-leee . . .”
A single shot rang out, and the man fell silent.
Will shuddered and pushed himself lower against the tree. In the midst of the din, he heard an owl hoot. How could an owl be here in the middle of all this?
The fire changed course and moved laterally along the line and stopped advancing toward Will. Still, throughout the night, he heard men scream as they burned to death, heard random shots as men ended their lives before the flames could get them, heard an occasional man plead to be shot.
At some point, his senses overwhelmed, Will drifted off to sleep.
He awoke to his shoulder being shaken and the hot breath of a man in his face. “Come on, boy,” the man was hoarsely whispering. “Get up! We’re pulling back. Replacements are coming up.”
Will focused, tried to make out the soot-covered face and beard, then realized who it was. “Jeremiah?”
“Come on, boy, let’s get going.”
“David’s dead,” Will stammered. He gradually pushed himself to his feet.
Jeremiah steadied him. Will stepped back from him and felt the blood rush through his legs. He looked Jeremiah up and down, and Jeremiah said, “You’re the only one of the group I’ve found alive.”
Will said, “You’re covered in blood, Jeremiah. You’re wounded.” Jeremiah’s shirt was saturated with blood and sprinkled with dried tissue and brain matter.
Jeremiah shook his head. “Nah. I’m not hurt at all.”
“But you’re covered in blood.”
“Yes, boy. Now get moving.” Jeremiah started toward the rear.
Will started to follow and whispered sharply, “Is Jonathan dead?”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah.
“I gotta go back for him,” said Will.
“No point,” said Jeremiah.
“I promised him I’d get him and put him in a box.”
“Well, you can’t,” said Jeremiah, “and we can’t stay here.”
Will stopped. “I promised him.”
Jeremiah turned and came storming back. He grabbed Will’s shirt at the collarbone. “You see what’s on my shirt?”
“That’s it. That’s Jonathan.”
“What do you mean?” Will whispered.
“That’s all that’s left of him. He got hit by a shell that disintegrated him. You want to put him in a box? You can have my shirt.”
Will stared at Jeremiah, stunned.
“Now let’s get out of here. I found Robert, and I gotta get him back to the rear.”
“Yes, from Chancellorsville. I found him. Gotta get him back to the rear, and the replacements are coming up.”
“Where is he?”
“Damnation, boy, move!”
Will finally shut up and advanced, puzzling over what Jeremiah meant. How could he find Robert a year later?
At the rear, they wandered among other dazed men scrounging food and water. Jeremiah kept wandering to older soldiers who had joined up with him and telling them, “I found Robert out there!” Most of them looked at him blankly. Now and again, a man would mutter, “That’s good, Jeremiah. I miss the guy.” No one asked him where Robert was.
Will separated himself from Jeremiah, found a patch of grass near a wagon wheel, and sat. He pulled from his pack a square of hard tack and chewed on it, and he watched the men milling around. The sun was up, and firing had commenced again. A column of blue-clad soldiers whose uniforms were clean filed down a road that narrowed to a trail headed into the Wilderness. These were the youngest and freshest of the men yet—a portion of the eighteen thousand men who had thus far spent the war in the defenses of Washington, D.C. Grant had ordered the defenses stripped and these men, who had enjoyed a boring and soft war thus far, marched to the front in support of the full combat units.
Will now felt far older than those men, far more seasoned than they were. He knew he had acquired the far-off look, the powder on his face, the memories that would horrify him for a lifetime. His best friends were gone. These men? They had lost none of that yet, but they were marching into that dark Wilderness where hell awaited and where they would lose similarly.
Then, Will began to notice how the men rounded a slight bend just before the road became a trail. It was natural to slow a bit at a bend, but the replacements were bunching up far more than they should and they were pointing and staring at something just off the side of the road. Will stared and studied a man at the bend. He focused harder, listening carefully.
Now, he got it, comprehended it, and shook his head slowly. There stood Jeremiah. In his left hand, he held a pair of long white bones. On the bones rested a gleaming white skull. Atop the skull was a blue Union army cap. In Jeremiah’s right hand was another bone, and with that right hand, he continued to wave that bone at the new men. Jeremiah wore a wild grin, and his eyes were wide, and his voice carried across the field:
“Look, men! I found Robert! You’re going where he was, boys! Say ‘Hi, Robert!'”