A Novel of the Civil War
I have just completed a novel set mainly in a Civil War hospital just after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Rather than talk about the novel, I’d rather let the novel speak for itself, so I am including here some lengthy excerpts consisting of complete chapters. Below you will find the first and second chapters of the novel.
Louisa smelled them before she saw them. She wrinkled her nose and snatched a handkerchief out of her apron pocket, pressing it against her nostrils. She had grown up with the barnyard smells of manure and stale urine—a perfume compared with what suddenly billowed up into the spacious room, as if out of the bowels of hell.
The doors of the once grand hotel had been thrown open, and the first of the wounded—hobbling on crutches, staggering, limping— jammed the lobby. The cold outside air swept up the stairs and into the ballroom, carrying the stench of them with it.
She glanced around at the other nurses who had been hastened to the ballroom. Eight or ten of them in their long black dresses stood in a line at the windows, looking down into the jumbled, noisy scene below. Ambulances, carts, and wagons rumbled on the cobblestones, loaded with the wounded. Mounted officers pulled up, pointing this way and that, shouting commands. Wounded men slowly, carefully, climbed down from flat bed wagons, or lay waiting to be carried off.
In the ball room, the hiss of gas lamps, a tense silence. More and more doctors, nurses, attendants and guards made their way into the spacious room. Some joined the line of nurses at the windows staring down into the commotion. Others nervously double-checked the carefully prepared cots: sacks for the removed soiled clothing, clean nightshirts, scissors, rolled bandages, hemostatics, tourniquets, pitchers of water and tin mugs.
Mother Pickles swept into the room, her heels clacking, two attendants in tow. “Why are you dallying at the windows, ladies? We don’t need gawkers. Let us bring these men into the wards.” She clapped her hands. “Step lively now! Help them up the stairs, and bring them to the cots at the east end first. Tourniquets are in the boxes on the floor at each cot, along with lint, and bandages. Come now, let’s bring them up, straightaway.”
A hospital attendant, an elderly man, lurched into the ballroom, pushing a cart heaped with ceramic pitchers of water and porcelain basins, rattling and swerving around cots, around nurses. First, the men would be stripped and scrubbed. He was followed by another cart, and another, all spilling and dripping. The center aisle slicked, and one of the attendants slipped and brought his cart over with him, pitchers exploding. Louisa started toward the mess and Mother called out, “Leave it! They will clean it up. Downstairs, now.”
Louisa started down the steps, breathing in gulps, gagging, as the first in the column of wounded were half way up. She had never seen men looking so bereft. Her first day in Washington, she had seen rebel prisoners herded down Pennsylvania Avenue. Skinny and gaunt, long hair tangled, wrapped in filthy blankets, most barefoot. A mangy cur weaved among them, barking. Only one even bothered to swing a lame kick.
But, oh, these poor souls. They stared straight ahead, faces black with dirt and burnt gunpowder. Their red eyes did not focus or move. For many days now they’d pinched out energy, stingily rationed, intent on what they needed to do next, and then doing exactly that, and not one thing more. Those who had attempted too much—carrying what should have been shed, hurrying their pace when they needed to slow— were roadside corpses.
Right now this steep stairway presented the task before them: to climb to the top. Each man paused a moment at the foot of the steps before launching the attempt. Gripping their crutches, squinting out from rags of bandage, tongues out the corners of mouths, coughing, grunting, they struggled upward. They did not speak. They made their way, a tottering column, with the doggedness that at Mayre’s Heights had taken them across an open field of crossfire in charge after charge.
Louisa’s eyes darted from one to another. A jaw and cheek blown away, white teeth and a blob of tongue. The end of an arm bone protruding from putrescent flesh. A thin, steady line of blood from the stump of thigh. Every bandage was black and stiff with old blood. One after another, they made their way up the steps. Here and there, one leaned on a comrade, arm wrapped around his shoulder. Two boys passed Louisa holding hands, one of them praying aloud, head back, eyes closed, as he climbed.
They had been beaten. Again. That was the worst of it. Everything else could be attended, bathed, sutured, nursed. But humiliation was deeper than any wound. It gnawed the heart of their manhood. Folks at home would read newspaper accounts of failure and slaughter, of charge after charge cut down, their soldiers in bloody stacks across the battlefield. Mothers, wives and sweethearts who had tossed roses and carnations as they boarded trains to go off and whip the rebs would learn that in this great battle at Fredericksburg, their men, their heroes, had been thrashed. Yet again. Fingers over their lips, they would scan lists of the dead and wounded. And some would collapse upon their skirts.
In the midst of the men, like a rock in a stream, stood Louisa. She reached for one scrabbling up on all fours. But she could not in that moment puzzle out how to grab him, how to lift him, so she let him go by her. Behind him a small arm and hand dangled off a stretcher. A child, oh dear Lord, the arm of a child. The bearers passed carrying a boy—not more than twelve. His eyes closed.
She reached for the elbow of a blonde boy whose other arm was in a burlap sling. But he turned the arm away, shook his head and said, “I am not needful, thank ye, M’am, “ and stepped past her. All the feet were caked with mud. Mud up to the knees, to the hips, thick and cracked, dropped off trousers and great coats in hard lumps, covering the stairs. And here and there, drops and gouts of blood.
Louisa slowly picked her way down the steps, against the flow. A boy—They are so young—missed a step and stumbled into her, almost knocking her over. She lifted him from under his arms and held him up, close against her in the tide of bodies. He felt like disconnected bones in a loose bundle of stitched clothing. His complexion was translucent. She took his arm and, falling in beside him, led him up the stairs one at a time: Both feet up on one step. Balanced there. Then one foot up to the next step. Steady. And the other foot up.
He wore only a frock, no greatcoat, which clung to him as if with a plaster of filth. The bandage around his forehead had slipped up and back on his head, almost off. And his hair, there was something strange about his hair. She held him, climbing slowly. “Splendid. We almost have it now.” His scalp, matted with blood, seemed alive. “Just a few more.” A black patch of it … pulsed… roiled…. She gazed at the strangeness of it, and then she made out in the dark pudding wisped with strands of hair, stubby, wriggling maggots. She missed the top step and went sprawling on the landing.
In a second she sprang to her feet, and took the boy’s arm again, firmly. Something took over in her, some deep down power of will triggered by sheer panic. She could not do this. – Yes, oh indeed, yes, she could. These boys needed everyone and anyone. At this moment, they needed her. She reached around his back and took him under the armpit with her free hand. Across the landing and into the ward she half-carried, half-lead him.
She laid the boy down on a cot at the far end of the ballroom, near the stove. Covered him with a woolen blanket. Then she went back to the stairway for another. And another. After an hour of this, all the arrivals had been placed into cots in the main ballroom, and in a spacious adjoining parlor as well. The parlor was for those shot through the lungs, or gut shot, or too far gone from blood loss – the hopeless cases. They would be given opium and made as comfortable as possible until they would be carried to the white brick dead house beyond the outdoor laundry.
When she returned to the first boy she’d helped in, his eyes were closed. She watched his chest rise and fall. Splendid. Now, to begin.
She had never before undressed a male beyond childhood. Orders were to strip them, and put the clothes into the burlap sack beside each bed. Attendants would collect and burn the sacks. Then the patients were to be bathed, head to toe. “Mind the lice,” Mother Pickles had cautioned. “They will be crawling with vermin. Fleas. Ticks. You may be sure the lice will find their way onto your clothing and your skin. Wear old clothing, and put everything into the sack when you are done. Hair up in a bun on the top of your head.”
She pulled off one untied brogan with a sucking sound, then peeled the stiff woolen sock off a foot like white stone. The other was a foot-shaped lump of mud that she cracked open, but found no shoe. She broke off the brown rind chunk by chunk. No sock. The bare skin blue with cold. Two toes were black and shriveled.
Her eyes kept returning to the writhing mass on his head. What she had thought extruded brain matter she could see now was just a maggoty clog of blood. She could make out no broken bone. She took a long, deep breath.
She unbuttoned his frock, to which his cotton underwear adhered as if with a glue of filth. With a scissors she cut the underwear right up the middle of his chest, and drew it apart. The lad opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Maddy, “ he said, “you did come.” Louisa brushed stiff, dark hair away from his eyes and said, “Yes. “ She smiled at him. “As I promised I would do.” Wife or sister? Sweetheart? She looked for a tag with his name. Some of the boys pinned papers to their collars before battle, with name and regiment. She wanted to say his name to him. But, there was nothing. “Now rest. All is well. Rest, my dear. I am here.” He closed his eyes again.
She saw no wounds on his torso. Gently she lifted and began to peel back the clothing over his left shoulder. Then she would pull it down, and off—
A hand reached down, grabbed him across his face and turned his head. The surgeon leaned in closer to squint at his wound. It was Dr. Valentine. Louisa had not met him, but knew who he was. Amid the odors, Louisa smelled alcohol.
“No, no,” said Dr. Valentine, as if rejecting shoddy merchandise. “This one to the other room.” The room for the dying. The boy began to shiver, a tiny, tight quivering from his belly to his shoulders. His hands twitched.
In the other room he would receive opium and nothing more. He was coming back to life. In the other room, he would die.
Valentine stood and signaled an attendant with his hand. Then he looked at the stack of papers he’d held in his left hand and began shuffling them, rosters of the men to be admitted to the hospital.
Louisa knew better, but couldn’t stop herself, “Doctor Valentine, sir, if I may. I think the wound may be merely to his scalp.” Then she added, “It looks much worse, indeed. But the bloody matter…. If you examine it yourself….”
Valentine stared at her.
“Please pardon me, sir.”
He gave an exaggerated bow. “Oh no, please pardon me. Is this your brother? –Or your son, madame? Or”—he shook the sheaf of papers in her face— “one of the hoard that we need to get into these cots and treat? The ones that have a chance of living.”
The old German stepped up to the cot. “Get a litter,” Valentine told him. He held both fists down at his waist and bounced them to mime a stretcher bearer and said again, “Litter. Carry him to the other room.” The old man shuffled off.
Louisa stood tall and turned to him, all in now. This was a matter of life or death for this boy. “Doctor, I don’t mean to trouble you. It would only take a minute….” She was going to add, “if you would just look.” But that clearly was not working. She tried a different tack. “We have cots enough…” she trailed off.
Valentine drew himself up, started to say something to her, then squinted around the ward, his lips twitching. Louisa knew that the imminent eruption would be ugly, and just as she was about apologize again, someone picked up the wounded man’s wrist and held his fingers on it. “Oh, Doctor Holt,” Louisa said.
Louisa felt she had nothing to lose. Perhaps she would be dismissed. Dr. Valentine had the authority to simply tell her to leave. So be it. “Doctor Holt, this soldier….” Holt held up a hand to hush her. He leaned over the boy and tried to lift the stiff bandage off his head, but some of the skin was stuck fast. He probed in small increments from above the boy’s eye, directly over the maggots, to the back of his head. Then with a swatch of gauze wiped the boys hair, examined the result, wiped his fingers, and dropped the mess in a pail.
“Doctor Valentine, this is nurse Louisa March. Nurse March, Doctor Stephen Valentine. He is our chief medical officer.” Louisa gave a little curtsey. Dr. Valentine did not look at her. “Doctor Valentine, this boy’s wound does indeed appear to me to be superficial. The skull is intact. Please see for yourself, sir.”
Valentine looked from one to the other. “His skull isn’t… can’t you see….” He waved his hand, turned on his heel, and stalked away.
“My apologies, Miss March,” Holt said.
“Oh no, all my fault. Please forgive me. I should have held my tongue,” Louisa said.
Dr. Holt nodded. “I will take responsibility for this patient—and for this episode.” He began coughing, and held a handkerchief up to his mouth, coughing into it. He was a small, frail man, and Louisa had noted the cough that plagued him.
He wiped his mouth, glanced at the handkerchief, and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “The boy will stay here. You may continue with him, if he lives.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
The boy all at once opened his eyes and in a surprisingly strong voice said, “Bless us oh Lord, for these… Thy blessings… that we are about to receive….“ He paused for a breath that he drew with several hitches. His voice softened to a whisper, “in Thy name.” He ended with a long exhalation. His cracked lips widened a bit, stuck to his dry teeth. Louisa realized that it was a smile. Then his lids half closed, his eyes rolled.
“Doctor…” Louisa said.
The two attendants appeared at the bedside with the litter Valentine had ordered.
Holt touched the boy’s neck, then bent over him listening for a heartbeat. He straightened slowly, and closed the eyes with his fingertips. “The dead house,” he said softly to the attendants.
They laid the stretcher on the floor parallel to the bed, and picked up the boy at shoulders and feet. Holt looked at Louisa, who stood with her hand over her mouth, and gave his head a little shake. She watched him walk off, into the commotion of suffering and death.
Dr. Valentine came walking back with another physician, whom he appeared to be instructing, as he handed him papers out of the stack and pointed to various spots in the ward. The attendants caught his attention, and he stopped and watched as they lifted the boy’s body onto the stretcher, and carried it away. Then he looked at Louisa and grinned. She could hardly believe her eyes.
The next one had a small sheet of white paper folded in half and pinned to his great coat lapel: Cole Morgan, Private, 151 New York, Company C. Before Louisa had even been able to move away, he had been taken off a stretcher and laid on the vacated cot where the boy had just died.
Nurse March began stripping him. “I hope,” she said as she lifted his shoulders to pull off his great coat, the wool wet and heavy, “that I’m not hurting you.” He did not reply. He looked at her with an intense gaze, then closed his eyes. She took a deep breath when she got down to his trousers, unbuckling the belt, unbuttoning the fly front, lifting his hips and pulling them down slowly and gingerly, because his left pant leg had been cut off at the hip, exposing a reddened, swollen, sutured wound on the inside of his thigh. His other pant leg was stiff with dried blood down its entire length. From the sutured thigh’s femoral artery.
He must have received medical treatment—tourniquet, sutures—at an aid station near the battlefield. Otherwise he would have bled to death.
“Private Morgan,” she said as cheerily as she could, “welcome to Washington. How fortunate that you are here.” As she undressed and washed him, she asked, “Would you like some water or hot tea?” “Are you from New York?” “Are you in much pain?” Every time she asked a question, she followed the silence with “Splendid,” as if he had responded, and continued right along cutting free his underwear and bathing him. As she worked, he opened his eyes from time to time. He did not so much as move his head. He looked as close to death as the young boy just taken away.
His sex was shriveled and even paler than the rest of him. She passed the washcloth over it lightly as she washed his abdomen and hips, pleased that she felt no embarrassment. She took up a wet sponge and pressed it lightly on the jagged wound in his thigh and held it there to soften and loosen the drainage that had hardened around the stitches. She squeezed the sponge to wash some of the slough away, holding a towel under to soak up the spill. There was fresh pus, a good sign. But inside the purple-black bruise from crotch to knee, the redness and swelling were troubling. “All right, then.” She dropped the sponge into a basin and pulled a fresh white cotton sheet up over him. Then, over that, a woolen blanket.
And on to the next cot.
Next to Cole was a drummer boy, not more than eleven or twelve years old. The child she had seen carried up the stairs. A chart had been tacked to the wall above his head. It would list his daily treatments, and the observed results. Now it consisted just of his name and military attachment. She peered at it and then said, “Willie, how are you, my dear boy?” He said, “Very well,” without opening his eyes. She lightly caressed the side of his face, and he opened his eyes a moment. “My brave boy.”
She went about removing his clothes, stuffing them into the sack on the floor, and bathing him. He had been struck by two fragments of a shell: one in his shoulder, a gaping wound that had bled much. And a small wound in his left calf, just above the ankle.
Louisa worked quickly and efficiently, talking less. She did pause from time to time to smile at Willie, comb his hair with her fingers, and pat his cheek. His face was flushed with fever, but at last he smiled back at her, so she felt hopeful that he would heal and survive.
In a little more than two hours she had taken care of about a dozen patients. By evening, all the wounded were in clean cots, bathed. The sacks of clothing and bandage had been carried out, and were being burned in the fire pits of the outdoor laundry. The nurses now began the slow process of cutting infested hair and beards, and shaving the men. Doctors tacked up charts, dispensed opium pills, and, cot to cot, began evaluating the patients and formulating treatments. From a scene of filth, stench and confusion, the ballroom was transformed into something very much like a hospital ward.
A small group of wounded stood around the coal stove at the end of the ward, holding out their hands palms down, now and then clapping and rubbing them. A couple puffed pipes. They did not look at one another. No one said a word.
In the cots, the men snored, coughed and, half conscious, moaned. Before the war, few had ever been twenty miles from their farms and villages. They had only a vague idea where they were, exactly—Washington – except that they were far from their comrades, far from home and family. In the middle of the night, in the dark, some held blankets over their faces and wept.
Through the night, Louisa and the other nurses moved among them, bringing mugs of water, hot cider and tea. Most of all, they brought a maternal caring and encouragement, which the men needed almost as much as water.
Just before dawn, she collapsed upon her bed without even removing her shoes. As the first rays of sunlight streamed into her room, she rose, took a deep breath, and marched down to the kitchen.
Louisa was more right than she realized about Private Cole Morgan’s good fortune. That he had made it alive to the hospital in Washington, D.C., defied all the odds. His last day on the battlefield should have found him tallied among the 1,500 Union soldiers killed, rather than among the 10,000 wounded. As Louisa knew, few survive an opened femoral artery. But what Louisa did not know was that the deadliest sharpshooter in the rebel army had his sights on Cole’s company all morning.
Eustace Light of the 1st Confederate Infantry lay on the roof of a smithy barn across the river, where he had spent the night wrapped in a blanket. Flat behind the clay chimney, propping his rifle on its protruding sticks, he could not be seen, even through binoculars. And what if he were seen? There might be only two or three in the whole goddam yankee army that could shoot with him. Maybe none. Probably none.
His weapon was a British-made rifle, a Whitworth, with a beautifully burled walnut stock and an octagonal barrel that fired an octagonal bullet. It had been custom fitted with a two-stage trigger. The first break was a six-pound pull, requiring a firm trigger press. The second was a hair trigger. Just the intention to fire, the thought itself, seemed to do it.
The Whitworth and Eustace worked together in a perfect partnership. The rifle told him when to trip the hair trigger.
The rifle said—
And Eustace inhaled slowly and evenly through his nose, laying his front sight on the target. His whole body fell still, like a viper about to strike. Then, just the tip of his finger moved. The two-stage trigger broke like a thin glass rod to its second stage.
He exhaled slowly without forcing his breath, like tipping a cup over and letting it spill. With the front post aligned perfectly in the rear buckhorn, he adjusted his point of aim for distance, wind, angle of fire, temperature, humidity—all intuited in a flash. The rifle said—
And he fired.
Almost always, with every shot, a Union soldier fell.
And so the rifle had spoken to him yesterday afternoon. At sunset Light targeted a cavalry officer at just under 900 yards. To kill with a black powder rifle from that distance should be next to impossible. The full figure of a man so far away is a dot. Subtle influences—such as an updraft from the hot cinders of a burned down barn—could tip a bullet over its mark. A reverse breeze, called a zephyr, just in front of the target might nudge it away.
Light listened to his rifle.
The bullet dropped as it flew and drifted right in the wind. The updraft from the smoldering rafters of the barn lifted it a touch. The zephyr tapped it left. And it slammed through the head of the mounted Colonel.
Just below his left eye the bullet bored a .451 caliber hole. But the mushrooming, tumbling lead exited at the base of the skull in a spray of blood, brains, and splintered bone, leaving a hole into which one could fit a fist. The Colonel never heard the shot.
As he lay on the roof of the smithy barn and surveyed the field before him, Cole’s company on the hill to his right was another matter. Protected behind the slope and the stacked bodies, they would be hard to hit. So long as they stayed down flat.
Sooner or later, though, some would rise up. To suck on a canteen. Call out to someone. Or just look around stupidly.
Light’s frost-blue eyes raked the fields. His hair hung in white hanks from the back of his slouch hat. His beard wisped below his breastbone. The paperlike skin of his face held the circles of punctures, and the jagged scars of slashes.
“Well, dammit,” he thought, looking at the dead scattered across the field, “they look like bats.” Their greatcoats and capes spread like batwings.
But in the breaking dawn, color was beginning to seep into the uniforms. Blue, not black. Yankee blue. Patches of melty snow were splashed red. In swales, blood puddled around bodies.
Here and there he heard sharpshooters finding targets. He sighted down the barrel of his Whitworth at a bluecoat sitting up in a field—or was he kneeling?
Albinos usually have dim eyesight, even near blindness. But for Light this negative was turned inside out into an astonishing positive. He could see that the bluebelly was kneeling. Well, anyone with sharp eyes could see that. But Light could see the three buttons on his coat. And on each button the crossed cannons of the ordnance corps.
He aimed for the missing second button down. Bang, Light said aloud. You’re dead. He lay the Whitworth on the roof.
Like pissin’ in their ears.
Then Light noticed that stretcher and burial details were beginning to move out from the distant riverbank. He turned his face toward the Heights and listened hard, but all was quiet. So the yanks must have pled a burial truce. Well, shit on that. Yesterday he’d watched a regiment of cavalry gallop toward Banks Ford, and he’d hoped with all his might that this new commander, damn fool that he surely was, would send even more yanks to their slaughter.
On the hill, bodies had been stacked two and three high. Springfields lay at the ready across the top. “Come on you bats. Stick up a head. Gimme just one.”
His rifle was grooved to receive a scope, but he preferred sights and his preternatural eyes. He would wait for a bit more light, and for a bat head to come up.
“Come on,” he begged, rubbing his cheekbone on the slick stock. “Gimme just one.”
“Is it day?”
“It is getting to be.”
“Two days. Two?”
“This is the second day, that is right, pard.”
The two men lay side by side behind the stack of bodies at the top of the hill. An unusually big man held the other close, his greatcoat unbuttoned and spread across the other’s stomach and thighs.
“Water. Wish we had,” Cole said, his tongue making little clicking sounds in his parched mouth. The “we had” came out as “weet.” “Wishweet.”
“Maybe we will get some. If those damned sharpshooters leave us be a while.” Some of the canteens of the dead contained water. But to move was suicide.
“John. Listen. Go.”
“Go? Ha! And just where do you advise I go, sir? We’re all stuck fast here. Why…” –a bullet slapped heavily into a dead body and John ducked his head. “Damn! I would cut in a minute if I could do so. I so much as sneeze three sombitches will ventilate me.”
He moved the flap of his greatcoat and looked at his comrade’s thigh. Despite the improvised belt tourniquet, blood continued to seep into a slushy puddle between his legs. His face, pale yesterday, was a bluish white.
“You lay quiet now. We be fine, pard.” He re-tucked the greatcoat and whispered, “Be just fine.”
Mat O’Grady was hungry, but he would have to trade off coffee and biscuits for a couple of good battlefield ambrotypes, for he noticed that the stretcher bearers had begun to move into the field. Dearly did Mr. Brady want photos of a fresh battlefield—not three or four or five days after— and dearly would he pay. At five dollars per photo, the two that O’Grady planned this morning would fetch him almost as much as a soldier earned in one month. And he planned several trips to the field.
He had just sensitized glass plates with silver nitrate, standing over trays of chemicals in the moveable dark room of his hitched wagon. The wagon provided him swift travel to battlefields, or expected battlefields. True, in the past most of his excursions proved false alarms. But here, at Fredericksburg, events had unfolded slowly and perfectly as predicted. He was ready.
One shelf on the floorboards of the wagon, carefully padded with folded leather, held finished ambrotypes, the negative images rendered positive by a coat of black paint on the back of the glass. Each ambrotype was in a wooden case. The wooden cases were bundled in canvas in groups of four. The entire shelf was then surrounded with crumpled newspaper to protect them in transit. The bundles were numbered, and, in ink, each photo identified by a letter and a short description of its content: A. Confederate sharpshooter dead, reclined B. Same, with Bible C. Breastworks with flag D. Battery in breastworks.
He had photographs of general officers and their staffs in front of tents, of drummer boys and small bands, of batteries at the ready, of overturned caissons and dead horses. A common inventory. But this morning he would bring back jewels.
In rubberized tongs he held a glass plate, turning his face away from the noxious fumes as it dripped into a tray. Now, in first light, he would carry his camera among the stretcher-bearers. “Bravely Killed on the Field” He could ask ten dollars for such a photo. Maybe more.
The bearers moved amid a jumble of ambulances and wagons— Conestogas, farm flatbeds, supply wagons, whatever could be impressed into service. Ambulances with springs on the axels held stacked stretchers, two on top, two on the bottom. But ambulances were far too few.
Horses stamped and snorted. Officers checked rosters. Drovers swung axe handles and barrel staves. They cracked their long whips, their blacksnakes, and cursed braying mules.
Dirt roads were rutted and potholed. Some were surfaced with logs laid touching side by side, called corduroy. Many of the wounded, bounced and jostled over such roads, the ends of broken bones gouging flesh, would beg for a bullet to end their torture.
The details moving now onto the battlefield consisted of two men to a stretcher and a water carrier with bandoliers of tied-together canteens. For every ten or so stretchers a surgeon or surgeon’s assistant carried a field kit of rolled bandages, tourniquets, hemostatics, and bottles of little white opium pills. The stretcher-bearers carried the poles rolled into the canvas and slung over a shoulder.
Mat O’Grady fell into the ragged line of bearers heading out into the field, carrying his box camera on its tripod over his shoulder like a stretcher.
Sniffing the wind, gazing at the distant stonewall at the base of Mayre’s Heights, from which bristling rifles had mown down charge after charge, O’Grady thought that no photograph could capture the stink after battle. Twice before he had smelled it, right after battle. The metallic smell of blood, the sour of stomach contents. In a day, the stench of gas-bloated bodies. Every time he photographed regiments of recruits marching through town in their new blue uniforms, brass buttons glinting, silk banners snapping, rat-a-tat-tat drumming, the ladies waving handkerchiefs, tossing roses— he thought of this stink. Sometimes, developing the glass plate of a new enlistee’s photograph, he wished he could paint on the noxious odor. “Here is glory,” he wanted to tell the celebrants drinking their lemonade with ice at rallies. “Get a good whiff of what you so prize.”
He wished, too, that he could have photographed the oddity he saw at Antietam: in the middle of a sunken road, without a body near, a solitary heap of insides. But who would want to view such a photograph? Certainly no one would buy it. Did they yearn to see the immediate aftermath? He wished that he could photograph the detached hands, legs, feet and unidentifiable chunks of flesh that he carefully stepped through this morning, among the corpses and wounded of this great slaughter pen. But the good citizens sitting by their fires with magazines did not want truth.
Fine, then, he would sell them what they wanted. The camera’s putative honesty added value to its lies.
So, he always carried a Bible or two to lay in dead hands. Photographs of wives and children in gutta percha or morocco cases were also good for dramatic effect. He had recently sold a photo of a dead soldier holding a photograph of his dear wife, or someone’s dear wife. As a lithograph, it graced the pages of Harper’s Weekly, over the caption, “His last words, the whispered name of his beloved.”
“Yes,” thought O’Grady, viewing the page in a New York City tavern over a pitcher of beer and a platter of oysters, sprinkling vinegar and black pepper on the chilled morsels. “His last words, the whispered name of his beloved. Very true that is, if the name of his beloved be ‘Water.’” He lighted a cigar in a candle, blew out a great blue cloud, and smiled to himself. “Perhaps somewhere there is a lady named ‘Aqua.’ Or, maybe, ‘Eau.’ I have heard it whispered, moaned, and screamed all across fields of battle. ‘Water! Dear God, please, water!’”
“Water,” Cole said again, half dreaming.
John O’Connor, called Big John, again scanned the bodies that made up the wall for a canteen in easy reach, but—again— saw none. The first night on the hilltop he had pulled over and stacked dead bodies as cover when he saw that Cole could not be moved.
Their regiment had lain in the mud on a hilltop south of the town of Fredericksburg as pickets in force, in advance of the main line. In the sun, the mud melted to loose mire. At night it froze solid. They lay side by side on the hilltop through the night, and then all the next day, and that day’s night, as their leader, General Ambrose Burnside, suffered a nervous collapse.
Red faced and sputtering, Burnside wanted to mount his horse and personally lead yet another suicidal charge. Fifteen charges had left the field covered with dead and wounded, stacked high in places. “We will kill all or all be killed!” he shouted, as if a rhetorical trope constituted a military plan. Normally a quiet, brooding man, good hearted and well liked, he strapped on his sword with dramatic flourishes, squared his shoulders and turned on his heel. He ordered his mount brought to him. His staff took him gently by the arms, firmly sat him down, and brought brandy.
He had been the first, after all, to inform Lincoln of how completely unsuited he was to take command of the Army of the Potomac. He had argued, almost begged. Now, having demonstrated beyond dispute how right he was, he slipped into irrationality, refusing to acknowledge the most catastrophic defeat of the war.
Bobbing his great bald pate over a stack of crumpled and torn maps, he hatched a scheme to attack with cavalry across the Rappahannock. With tight lips the orders were passed along.
The troopers saluted, regretting the lack of time to write a letter of farewell to loved ones, and began to move grimly down the bank toward two fords. The move would have sent them directly into Stonewall Jackson’s hands, now clasped in white-knuckled prayer. Jackson was entrenched on high ground, praising The Lord for the open fields that offered not one spot of cover, not a tree, not a rock, not so much as a swale. Here could he mount a crossfire of artillery and rifles worthy of the thunderous wrath of God the Almighty. He pressed the balls of his thumbs on his eyelids, shook his head and gasped. On his knees he beseeched the only blessing not yet granted, great numbers of the enemy on that open ground. The Lord Himself would crush their heads and hairy scalps— via the minie balls, cannon shot, aerial shells, and double loaded canister with which he, Thomas Jackson, The Lord’s servant, would rend the earth. And maybe one bayonet charge.
In the nick of time, the Commander in Chief himself finally intervened by telegraph from Washington, calling off any further action. Days later Lincoln said, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
But there was an even worse place than Lincoln’s worse place than hell. Big John and Cole were in it.
Moving into position through clouds of black powder smoke, firing blindly at muzzle flashes, Cole had been hit by a shell fragment that smoked in the dirt beside him. He was knocked to the ground, unconscious, as much from the concussion of the blast as from the shock of the shrapnel hitting him.
He came to, unable to quite focus his eyes. He pulled himself up on an elbow and saw the spurting gash in his thigh. John was beside him on one knee, pulling a belt around his thigh above the wound, tightening it through the buckle and doubling it back to hold the tightness. And saying something…his mouth was moving… but Cole realized that the blast had deafened him. John held up the end of the belt and shook it and Cole took it in his hand and kept the improvised tourniquet cinched tight as John fought on.
Although the shrapnel ripped almost the length of his thigh, it had merely nicked the femoral artery. Only if Cole tried to move did the blood flow copiously.
After days and nights on the hill, John looked down at the hollow-eyes of his comrade and knew that he was dying. Yesterday Cole was shivering, his teeth chattering. But now his freezing body was motionless.
Big John had pulled part of a dead soldier’s cape over one side of Cole, and draped his own greatcoat over the other. He held Cole close. Bleeding on this frozen ground… unless he had some kind of nourishment, he would soon be dead.
–What is this? Light watched a man in civilian dress up on the hill. Walking full up. A stretcher bearer. No. Not carrying a stretcher. He saw arms rise up from the ground at his feet. A wounded soldier entreating him. But he did not respond.
Carrying … a camera. A goddam camera.
In both hands he held the folded tripod, the great box upon his right shoulder. Eustace rarely angered, at least not in a flustered way. Instead, his eyes narrowed and locked on, and his breath came not faster, but slower. His attention concentrated, like the concentric rings of a target closing down to the bullseye.
When Light was a webfoot in the First Tennessee, a Colonel arrived in camp one morning with a collection of fine rifles from England. A competition was organized, with trophy Whitworths to the very best shooters. Eustace Light was new to Company H, and friendless because of his drained-dead skin and wispy white hair. They could not decide whether he looked like an old young man or a young old man. And though his pupils were not slits, they were the eyes of a viper. No one knew of his shooting gifts.
The boys puffed their pipes, watching four of the best shooters hit planks driven into the ground and painted with bulls eyes, a line of four targets at 200 yards and a line at 300 yards. Three rounds at each distance. One laid his rifle across a tree limb, two others used shooting sticks, and the other lay prone, propped on his elbows. A captain looking through a telescope called out the best shots. “Target two at two, plumb center. Target four, on the edge, down at three.”
It might have been the rifle reports and the clouds of burned powder that caused a rabbit to break cover up on a hillside. Someone pointed and called out. Light, not in the competition, shouldered his Enfield and in one quick motion—bang!— dropped the rabbit. At about a hundred yards.
There was a moment of total silence as men snatched pipes from dropping jaws, pulled off hats and pointed up the hill. A lad jogged up and back, holding the rabbit high by its hind legs and pointing at its head. Or, rather, its lack of a head. Eustace had shot its head clean off. The men raised a cheer. Those nearest clapped the strange looking man on the back and waved their hats.
On the spot, the Colonel picked a Whitworth out of its crate and marched over to Light, grinning. He handed the prize rifle to him with a low bow and a flourish as the company laughed and applauded.
For the first time in his life, Eustace Light was not a freak. He was a marksman, a sharpshooter, and nothing else mattered to these fighting men. Unsmiling and still, he savored the moment in his own way, as if with the flicks of an invisible forked tongue.
Now, squinting at the photographer, Eustace thought, “Look here, at this yankee. The fight not finished. Comes this here tallow-face clerk to make a business of the killing. All starch and spectacles.”
His hand reached out for the Whitworth.
“I have a couple crackers.”
Cole shook his head. A bullet whistled just over the top of the bodywall.
“See now, you could of made it hot for these goddam rebs. Made a couple of sharpshooters pay the piper. Were I hurt, not you. Most of ‘em’s just popping off. But there’s a shooter out there has a pretty good bead on us. Maybe up a tree. You must eat something, Cole.”
“Can’t chew.” Canshoo.
“You must try.”
Cole closed his eyes.
“Well then, I can chew,” said Big John.
He pulled a hardtack biscuit out of a coat pocket, three inches square of almost wooden hardness, broke off a chunk with his teeth, and with a great crunch began to pulverize it in his massive jaws. There was less than a cup of water in his canteen, but when the biscuit was chewed down, he tongued and blew it into his cupped hand and carefully poured a bit of water over it, stirring it with a fingertip into a thin paste.
John carelessly let his head rise a bit over the corpse wall. Not more than a few inches. A bullet whistled—not the usual buzz—past his ear. He jerked his head back like a turtle’s into its shell. “Shit. Some sumbitch down there can shoot like the devil,” he said. He considered for a moment putting his forage cap on his bayonet and raising it up. If he did so, just as it was blown off he might quickly peek out to spot the gunsmoke. But he was not the marksman to return a fatal shot. Cole might do that in better circumstances.
He lifted Cole’s head a touch and said, “Here is a little water for you.” Cole’s eyes opened at the word “water” and John carefully tilted the mouth of the canteen against his cracked lips. Cole sputtered, but got most of it down. Then he said, “Here, eat this now” and daubed a bit of the paste behind his bottom front teeth. Cole worked his tongue and lips, gagged a bit, but swallowed. Big John continued until the crackers and the water were gone. “We get back to the shebang, I’ll make you some regular army pie.”
Cole smiled at the thought of a steaming tin cup of coffee with crackers broken thickly into it, sweetened with sugar and milk, and spooned out. “Mother John,” he tried to say, but only “mother” was audible.
“Wisht your mam was here.” John had wrapped the scarf Cole’s sister had knitted for him around his head. It was flecked and glittery with snow and ice. The dark gray wool heightened Cole’s pale face. He straightened it over Cole’s ears, retying it under his chin. “Wish t’ hell your mammy was here and sissy was here and an auntie or two. You do make yourself nuisance enough scratched up.”
The last few drops of water were an almost irresistible temptation. Chewing the cracker had left his mouth utterly parched. Oh, to wet his tongue, only to moisten it. But John turned the canteen upside down and shook it over the remaining crumbs.
Suddenly the arm of the soldier John had thought dead—and the tail of whose cape he’d pulled across Cole’s legs—flew up and he squawked “Water! Here! Oh god!” Then another cry, from another nearby prostrate body. John looked up at a figure approaching. Stretcher detail.
“Praise the Lord, Cole.”
But the tall figure was not carrying a stretcher, and he was alone. A few feet from them, he stopped and began to open the legs of a tripod.
John stared. What in the damn hell?
The photographer looked up at the sky and turned the field tripod, pulling the legs wide and locking them in position. He unlatched the front of the camera case, which dropped down to form a base for the retractable lensboard carrier. Drawing forward the bellowed lens, he pointed the one-eyed face at the stack of bodies that Big John had arranged. He went about his business slowly, deliberately, retrieving a wetplate from his knapsack and carefully sliding it within its lightproof wooden carrier into the back of the box. His face was completely shaven. From time to time he jabbed back the spectacles slipping down his nose.
He retracted a slide from the front of the wooden frame, so the glass plate would be exposed when the lens cap was removed. The cries, moans, pleas and curses rose and swelled. A hand clawed out and closed on his cuff. Deliberately, carefully, he kicked his foot free, frowning as if he had stepped in horseshit.
“What?” Cole asked, trying to raise his head.
“It is nothing, never you mind. It is nobody, ” Big John answered. “Keep down,” he said, but without conviction. He himself raised his head to view the scene, dumbfounded by the quiet from the sharpshooter who had been dogging them. Must have mistaken the photographer for a stretcher bearer—probably just as planned.
The photographer ducked his head under a shroud at the back of the camera, composing his photograph. The lens cap was still in place. The pleas continued for water, water.
John said, very slowly, “Sweet Mother of Jesus, I wish I didn’t have no sense. I’d shoot the bastard.”
The photographer began to back out from the canvas, carefully, so as not to jostle the camera and spoil the composition. He lifted the canvas off his head, folding it upon itself, and just as his boot toe slid back, heel up, there came a whistling sound.
The camera box exploded, flinging him backward into the air, feet up and head down, in a shower of splinters and blood.