Through the travail of the ages
Midst the pomp and toil of war
Have I fought and strove and perished
Countless times upon this star
The following comes from a dream I first had many years ago. I woke up drenched in sweat. I could taste the gunpowder in my mouth and I could smell the sulfur based black powder on my fingers. I was in a cold sweat but at the same time I felt strangely calm. Over the twenty years since I first had this dream, it still occurs a few times a year. Always the same. I feel a strange kinship with the author of the above verse, General George Patton. I think maybe he and I would have much to talk about.
I stand in a line of battle, gazing out across the valley. It is a beautiful Indian summer day. The temperature is cool, but not cold. The sun is beginning its descent in the west, leaving a crimson streaked sky behind. A sign of things to come perhaps. I, along with the other men in my regiment, am angry. Schofield and his Yankees gave us the slip down at Spring Hill. I don’t know which of our officers made a mess of that. We were close, so close, to bagging the lot of them. But now the bird has flown. Word has trickled down the line that the Yankees are dug in and waiting for us. Now more good men will die because of some general’s mistake. Unfortunately this is not the first time in this d—n war that this has happened. General Bragg had a particular talent for that sort of thing. Hood has proven himself equal to the task too. Folks say he is a Texan, but I also heard he was from Kentucky. I’m not sure which is true or why that even matters. I saw him a few days back, perched in his saddle with his wooden leg sticking out at an odd angle and his useless arm limp at his side. Hardly an inspiring sight. Now here we stand.
If I crane my neck, I can see the whole Army of Tennessee stretched across the valley, one brigade behind another. I think there’s something like 20,000 of us now. Far fewer than just a few months back. I marched off to war in 1861 in a company of 100 men and a regiment of over 1,000. Now there’s just about 20 of us left in the company, and a few of them are replacements. Our regiment numbers around 350. The sickness has carried off a good number of us, though that number has grown fewer over time. Yankee bullets and artillery have done in the rest. But through it all, we’ve given a good account of ourselves. I’ve already lost a brother and two cousins. And I’ve marched through more states than I can count. We’ve shed and spilt blood in places with names that no one had ever heard of until we died there; Shiloh, Perryville, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, and more that I can’t remember myself. I’ve come close to meeting my maker a few times. A spent musket ball gave me one hell of a headache at Missionary Ridge. Another Yankee put a round through my calf outside Atlanta. Another inch and it would have taken out my shin bone. I count myself fortunate to be among the living. But as I look across the valley, I don’t know for how much longer.
Two places down in the ranks, Charles O’Neill, an Irishmen, is performing his usual pre-battle ritual of entertaining those around him with a ribald tale of lewd conduct in a New Orleans brothel. He does this before every fight. I guess it calms his nerves. Behind me, our resident expert on tactics, Haywood Galloway is prattling on about our chances for success. When he boasts that we will drive the heathen Yankee into the Harpeth River in a half hour’s time, I turn and remind him that he also said that we would never lose Atlanta. He admits that he was mistaken as to that point but reminds me that we met the Yanks at Kennesaw Mountain and “smote them hip and thigh.” Henry Ferguson, the man on my right, hands me his rifle. He steps out of the ranks, bends over, and vomits the contents of his stomach onto the grass. Then he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, takes his rifle back, and resumes his place. No one says a word to him as this is his usual pre-battle routine. I wish Charles would do more vomiting and less talking.
I can no longer remember why I enlisted. They tell us we are fighting for “The Cause” but no one seems clear on what that cause is anymore. My family never had no money. We scratched out a living but we ain’t exactly in high cotton. The d—n planters look down on us just as they do their slaves. You ask me, I’d trade most plantation owners for a Yankee any day of the week, even if they do talk kind of funny. I’ve met a few of them while on picket duty. They don’t seem like bad fellows. I can’t consider them the enemy since we speak the same language and pray to the same God. I do know one thing, they can put up one hell of a fight if they have to. All that talk about one Southerner licking ten Yankees that the newspapers were full of when the war started has proven to be a lie. No, I can’t remember why I signed up. But I know why I’m still here. I fight for the boys on either side of me and behind me in the ranks. We’ve been through hell on many fields together and I’ll stay with them no matter what. If that means I have to die today then so be it. I can’t give up on my friends. Our battle scarred regimental flag floats proudly above us. I’d die to protect that too, as it is a symbol of the only thing that matters to me anymore, the regiment and my comrades.
Some of the boys are reading versus from little Bibles they carry with them. Others are absently staring into space, lost in their own thoughts, as I am. Down the line, one officer is reading the Bible aloud to his men. His passage is from the book of Psalms. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall nigh come near thee.” I think maybe he could have picked a better verse. And since I am to the right of them, I can’t help but feel a little nervous. But death in war is random. It is all by chance. One step sooner and you’d have missed the round that hit you. One place to the right of where you stood in line and the cannonball would have missed. I’ve seen the man to my right take a musket ball in the face mid sentence. It could have been me, but I don’t like to dwell on that. So far, I’m grateful for the fact that when it comes to me the Yankees have poor aim.
I hear another regiment singing softly, in unison, with their chaplain leading them. I recognize the hymn but as I was never much on church attendance before the war, I can’t say I know the words.
Oh land of rest for thee I sigh
When will the moment come
When I shall lay my armor by
And dwell in peace at home
Henry nudges my ribs and says “I think that moment has come.” I chuckle and earn a glare from the Lieutenant who commands our company as he paces back and forth in front of us like a caged animal. He is young and wholly incompetent. Part of me hopes that he catches a bullet soon before he gets more of us killed than necessary, though I suppose that goes against my upbringing. And then I hear it, a single cannon shot from behind us atop Winstead Hill. The orders echo down the line. “Shoulder arms.” “Forward march!” Here we go. Behind me, Charles begins to recite a Hail Mary. He does this every time as I am sure he wants to ensure he goes to heaven after telling his lurid stories. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve memorized the prayer after fighting in plenty of battles with him. I join in, silently, just for good measure.
The valley shakes with our footsteps. Each shrunken regiment moves behind their flags and it gives the impression that we march behind an ocean of red. Up ahead of us, I catch a glimpse of what looks like a small unit of Yankees out in advance of their main line. We are going to overlap their lines with ease. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought. “At the quick step!” We pick up our pace. And then it starts. Whooooooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Whooooo-eeee! Our yell. I’ve heard the Yanks cheer moving forward, but nothing like our Rebel Yell. Prisoners say it scares the daylights out of the Yankees. With good reason too. As I join in, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. If we can’t drive them out with force, then maybe we can yell them out.
We get so close that I can see the individual faces of the Yankees in the advanced line. They stare at us with eyes wide with a mixture of fear and awe. I hear their officers urging them to open fire. Then all hell explodes in our faces. I feel sudden space to my left but I don’t turn and look. Someone else slides into the place. We quickly fire one volley into their ranks though I don’t think I heard the order to do it. The Yanks turn and bolt for the safety of their main lines. Our officers are yelling at us to follow them and we do, matching them step for step. We even pass a few of them. I imagine someone will be along to gather them up and direct them to the rear.
There is a road that runs through the Yankee lines and they didn’t bother to block it though they erected pretty extensive breastworks everywhere else. The Yanks hold their fire, not wanting to shoot their own men who are running between us and the Yankee positions. We smash into them like an ocean wave. It is mass confusion. Soldiers are running in every direction. The powder smoke is thick and I have a hard time seeing much of anything in the gathering twilight. Suddenly, a phantom group of Yanks looks like they appear from the very ground itself. Screaming like demons from hell they run towards us. For the first time, I feel fear.
My hands shake as I try to load my musket. I manage to get one shot off and hit a young private in the chest. There’s no time to reload. Jesus Christ it’s going to be hand to hand. I hate this. Killing at a distance is one thing, but killing up close is something quite different. A Federal soldier lunges at me with his bayonet. I parry his strike and smash him across the jar with the butt of my musket. The air is filled with the sounds of desperate men. I can hear the screams of enraged men, the shrieks of the wounded which always turn my stomach, and the roar of gunfire. I turn and see a Federal battery preparing to fire into another advancing regiment behind us. First I hear the roar of the cannon. Then I can hear the crushing sound of bones shattering under the impact of double canister rounds. Body parts fly dozens of feet into the air. My ears bleed from the concussion of the blasts.
There is a tug at my elbow. I look down and see Henry kneeling by my side. He pulls at my sleeve with his left hand while he tries to stuff his intestines back into the gaping hole in his stomach with his right hand. I drop my rifle and grab him under the arms. I try to pull him away to the safety of the other side of the breastworks, but as I pull him his intestines snake out of his stomach forming a trail. I set him down. His eyes are glazing over and I know that he won’t be much longer for this earth. I grab the nearest rifle and locate a large Federal sergeant who is kneeling atop our hapless Lieutenant, hands locked around his throat. Oh the temptation to turn away. But it isn’t the Lieutenant’s fault that he is an imbecile. I plunge my bayonet into the Sergeants back and give it a quarter turn to the right. He stiffens and screams as I withdraw it. The Lieutenant scrambles out from under him, picks up his sword, and stabs the sergeant through the neck. He is covered in spurting blood. As the Lieutenant turns to move away, he drops to the ground without a sound. He doesn’t get back up.
As I try to load my rifle again, I see soldiers weeping hysterically as they try to do the same. Some are wandering around in circles laughing, their minds broken by what we are doing to each other. Two officers in the middle of the road are fighting with their swords as if they are medieval knights. But that is officers for you. They always have to be the center of attention. I look to my left and right and notice a few of my company and regiment still in the area. We move to seek refuge on the other side of the Federal positions, facing the spot where we started our attack. The Yanks dug deep ditches there and I think we’ll be much safer.
We keep up as steady a rate of fire as we can over and through the wooden logs at the Yankees just on the other side. But our losses are mounting. Blood is starting to fill the bottom of the ditch. The air is thick with the acrid, sulfuric stench of the gunpowder that smells, I imagine, like hell itself. The coppery scent of blood makes me want to vomit. I gag involuntarily as I try to load my rifle with shaking hands. Some of the men are praying aloud as they go through the motions of firing their rifles. Others are screaming curses at the Yanks, at the Confederacy, at General Hood, or at all three. “God have mercy on us!” I hear from down the line. As I turn, I see the Yanks preparing to fire a cannon down the length of the ditch. Then I feel nothing.
So as through a glass, and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises
Many names but always me
So forever in the future
Shall I battle as of yore
Dying to be born a fighter
But to die again, once more
Through a Glass, and Darkly by General George S. Patton
P.S. I cannot logically explain why I have this reoccurring dream. Or at least not in a manner satisfactory to most people. I do have a decent hunch though……