Tuesday, July 14, 2015

June 3, 1864 - Cold Harbor: I am Killed by Charles Howard Wise

A Yankee soldier in the American civil war watches the aftermath of the battle in which he is killed; by Charles Howard Wise.

At 4:30 in the morning, the muffled sound of bugles urged our brigade from its trenches into the morning fog to charge the enemy line. At 4:31, a bullet ripped through my heart. I was hit twice more before my body struck the ground. As I was falling, I'd swear I heard my dead mama cry.

I was surprised to feel myself coming to after a while. I was looking down at everything. The fog had burned off and the gap between the lines was covered with blue uniforms stacked three or four bodies high, a grisly harvest to be sure. There was only a little shooting here and there - the Johnnies had apparently run out of moving targets or we had run out of men to shoot. I'd stayed hovering over my body. It was lying face down: anyone could tell by the size of the jagged hole in the middle of my back that I must've died right away.

At least I wasn't lying wounded in the damned sun waiting to be brought back under a flag of truce. It was 'specially bad for the wounded boys lying on their backs who could watch the buzzards drop from the sky to fill their craws. The buzzards down south were as ugly as the ones up north but the skin of their heads was all black and they looked even more devilish than their northern cousins did.

I'd been a soldier for Father Abraham since Bull Run back in '61. I'd fought through most of the army's big brawls including the Seven Days, and Antietam. I'd lived through the slaughter of our boys on Marye's Heights, been wounded at Chancellorsville, missed Gettysburg but fought in the hellacious battles at the Wilderness and Spottsylvania. To have fought that many battles and lived to tell the tale was a miracle in itself. Even so, I was surprised to finally git killed.

Since I had nowhere in particular to go, I figured I'd hang around the battle and see how things turned out. Already being dead took the worry out of the whole thing so it had more the feel of going to a horserace and betting on your favorite to win. Another funny thing was we got along just fine with the dead Johnnies too. Not that there was all that many from this fight, the harvest being a hell of a lot lighter for them than for us. Still and all, they were right neighborly when there was no point in tryin' to kill us anymore with us already being dead and all. We sat on branches up in the trees or crossed our legs and just hung around in the ether playing at cards or swapping our Yankee coffee for some of that good southern tobacco. A steaming cup of coffee and a good smoke was enough to make any dead soldier grin. Of course the first couple of days the dead officers tried to boss us around, but we told 'em all to go to blazes and asked 'em if they was gonna have us shot for disobeying orders? They thought on it a little bit and sat down and started playing cards and jawing like the rest of us soldiers. Some of 'em was right fine men once they saw that there weren't no point to being jackasses no more.

After a couple of days of wandering 'round and loafing, some of the boys got to wondering why they hadn't had a truce to pull the dead and wounded off the field. To tell the truth, they were starting to git mighty ripe in the June sun. The live Johnnies were feeling mighty ornery and shot at anything that moved so much as an inch. I talked to a couple of my new Southern friends and they told me the problem was that damn fool Genr'l Grant of ours wouldn't admit that Genr'l Lee had whupped the tar out of him and ask for a truce to recover his wounded and bury his dead. Genr'l Lee didn't like the stink anymore than anyone else did, but the rules was the rules and he didn't think Genr'l Grant was actin' like a gentleman. After a couple days out in the sun with no care and no water, the wounded boys were starting to drop like flies and was joining our ranks in droves. Meanwhile the stink would make a maggot gag. One thing was for sure: the damned buzzards were having a feast. I'd swear I saw one just walking around rubbing his belly. Some others just stretched out and fell asleep right there using a dead man for a pillow. Some of the live Yankees tried to shoot at the buzzards, but the live Johnnies would start shooting back at them and the buzzards just ducked, yawned and went back to their napping or picking at the bones. It was like late afternoon after a turkey dinner.

After several notes were exchanged 'tween the commanders, a time was set for a short truce and the Yankees commenced to carrying the dead out on litters. The burial parties wore cloths and bandanas over their lower faces to keep out the stink and the clouds of flies that rose up whenever a body was moved. Men in back of the lines dug long trenches and laid the bodies out in rows. They shoveled a few inches of dirt over 'em as quick as they could. The bodies was in such a state that nobody could tell who was who: they'd have to let God sort 'em out. When the fighting was done they'd dig 'em up again and give 'em a proper burial. There warn't too many left alive and they figured the dead numbered about seven thousand.

Not much happened for a few days and at one point one of the live boys put a hat up on a ramrod and nobody fired at it. He peeked his head up a little and he saw a live Johnnie stick his head up a little. Still no one fired. So the feller in our lines stood up on the works and so did the Johnnie and still nobody fired.

The Johnnie yells out, "If you fellers don't shoot us, we won't shoot you, for a while anyway."

It warn't too long before both sides was lying on the works sunning themselves and in the middle twixt the lines talking and trading coffee and tobacco, shaking hands and swapping stories like they was back home chewing the fat with their neighbors. Of course, it didn't last long. Some damn fool officer comes riding along and orders all the men from both sides back to their lines and much as told 'em he'd have the reserves come up and shoot 'em all if they didn't start acting like soldiers. Well they all parted company shouting over their shoulders that they'd have to start shooting again and them shouting back that was all right but to aim high. They all got a laugh out of that, dropped behind our works and commenced to shooting just to keep up appearances. All us dead folk got a good laugh outa the whole show.

They say that all good things come to an end and so did our rest after the fight. When night fell on June 11, the army started to move south toward the James River. Grant was stubborn as a bulldog and wasn't about to retreat. The Fifth Corp that was posted to the far North of the line shifted out of their trenches and headed down behind the lines as quiet as stalking cats, followed in turn by the Ninth Corps and so on down the line. Our Corps of the Dead got up and started marching off too, but not with our former comrades. We were headed off to the east and kept on marching. We was joined along the way by other columns until we was a mighty host heading off past the shore and over the foamy sea ever toward the rosy dawn. Some of the boys said we was heading to hell to stoke the fires for the devil, but I didn't believe it for a minute. Whether we was going off to Beulah land to be with the Lord or was off to somewhere else I didn't know. But I did know I'd done my duty as a soldier as best as I knew how and I had no fear of the consequences.

4 comments:

  1. A gritty yet poetic evocation of the hell and waste that is war, emphasised by the common bond between men, and men's spirits, when the they are free of the power of so-called 'leaders'. Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Not only is the story very well written, but the battle was obviously researched and realistic. Great work

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  3. Hi Howard, War and death go hand in hand you make that clear in your story. It also raises a very philosophical point, how the dead lose their responsibility for the future, but yet want to know what happens when they've gone.

    James McEwan

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  4. Great story. I live not far from Cold Harbor. In fact, Richmond is still fighting the Civil War (and still losing.)

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