“This Wretched Thing…”
"We talked the matter over and could have settled the war in thirty minutes had it been left to us."
(Unknown Confederate Soldier, on meeting with a Union soldier between the lines)
28 August 1862
Near Bull Run Creek
“Am I in hell, then?” he wondered, as the pungent aroma of sulfur filled his nostrils. “Is this the ‘brimstone’ the preacher warned of?” He smiled inwardly as his mind drifted back to his youth and the Sunday sermons he endured. “What is that smell?” His mind tried to process it. It was the heavy stench of burned black powder which now forced that sense awake.
He was coming to now. The trees above him swayed with the wind. From his vantage point, lying on the ground on his back, the perspective was mesmerizing: tall oaks tapered toward the sky, their tops moving back and forth in the darkening sky. Yet it was silent.
Suddenly he felt nauseated. His field of view began to spin. He fought it by closing his eyes and taking stock of his current circumstance. He had been shot. He remembered that much. From the sound, it had to have been a Colt revolver. That meant he was close to the shooter. He was still conscious and he was thinking, so he wasn’t dead. He took that as a positive sign.
But the question concerning him now was where had he been shot? He tried to raise his head to give himself a look-over. His head was pounding. Oh, yes. Now he remembered. He had been shot in the head. A flash. He remembered a flash. The Confederate officer’s revolver. That’s what it was. He had seen the flash of the Colt firing. Yes, he certainly had been close!
He slowly raised his hand to where his head hurt worst, fearing what his fingers might find. No raw, gaping hole; just a gash. Not deep, just a neat furrow from above his right eye back through his ear where the .36 caliber ball from the Colt Navy revolver had seared his flesh.
But why was it so quiet? Was the battle over? Or was he deaf? Slowly the sound of the wind blowing through the branches came into aural focus, but in his left ear only. But still he heard no cannons roaring. No muskets bellowing. The battle was over. But where were his men? All dead? Retreated? Surrendered? Moved forward victoriously? The sharp pain in his temple interrupted his self-interrogation. The queasiness returned, accompanied by the whirling landscape. Not ready to rise just yet.
He laid his head back on the cool ground. He tried to focus his hearing. There now! That sound! He heard something for certain. Was that a moan? Or the wind? Again, he raised his head and tried to force his ears to hear. It seemed that, from his right ear, he could hear only a high-pitched whine, like someone playing the highest note on a violin, but constant. Constant and maddening. From his left, he heard the leaves and wispy branches bowing to the will of the wind.
No, there it is again. Not the wind, a moan. It sounds like a man. A man in pain. But wait now—was he the moaning man? Was he hearing his own moans of pain? And now he wondered if he truly had gone insane.
Another moan now, and this time, facing to his left and listening intently, he was sure it wasn’t his own groaning. He pulled himself up to a sitting position, fighting the churning in his stomach.
He tried to piece together the events that led to his quandary. Where was he when he had been shot? He began to recreate the battle sequence in his mind.
His company had pressed the attack through the cornfield. They had made it across the field—a field that had once boasted a promising crop but which now had been laid low by canister and musket fire, in addition to the tramping of retreating and attacking armies. He had led his company to the edge of the field and the cover of the abandoned enemy breastworks. He remembered raising his saber to finish the charge—where was his saber now?
Again the vertigo visited him, rolling over him in waves. He closed his eyes and lay back down and tried to remember. His saber. Where was it? He continued playing back the battle. There had been a flash. He remembered hearing the ball buzz through the air nearby, like a fat bee streaming past him at the double-quick. He had lifted the flap on his holster and drawn his Colt. Where had the shots come from? Quickly he had held the revolver close enough to see one good percussion cap remaining on the nipple of a chamber in the cylinder. A quick glance at the chambers confirmed that he had but one shot remaining. Another flash, and this time a sharp snap as the ball passed close to his head. He strained his eyes, trying to see through the smoke. There, over there by that tree! He was right there! So close! The adrenaline flowed as he raised his Colt and drew back the hammer, pointing at the shadowy figure. Then a final flash.
Now, looking up through the trees again, he took a moment to pull it all into a coherent memory as much as was possible. He noticed then that the wind had ceased and the tree branches had danced the finale of their choreographed concert. Night would bring stillness. Perhaps he could rest. Rest would do him wonders. He turned his head and his eyes scanned the ground around him. There lay his uselessly empty Colt revolver nearby, just out of reach.
Again he heard the moaning man. Close. This time, he cursed the nausea and pulled himself quickly to his elbows to look in the direction of the sound.
At that exact moment, a figure silhouetted by the setting sun in an ever-darkening sky sat upright across from him.
“You there! Identify yourself!” he shouted forcefully at the silhouette.
He could make out the image of a man, sitting close to him, only a few feet out of arm’s reach, holding a hand to his left temple.
“I say, identify yourself!” He squeezed his eyes into slits, as if by squinting he could improve his vision.
“You’re a fortunate man, Billy Yank!” a raspy voice answered. “For if I could lay hand on my saber or find my pistol, I’d finish ye fer sure!” the figure snarled through grunts and moans.
“And if I could stand without retching, I’d put an end to you, Johnny Reb!”
A moment passed, heavy breathing from one and painful moaning from the other the only sounds to be heard.
“You shot me!” the moaning man cried out finally.
“And you me!” he said in response, sounding more defensive than he intended.
Another minute passed, the stillness broken only by the breathing of the two wounded men.
“Are ye hurt badly?” the Confederate queried, an unmasked hint of rancor in his voice.
“I don’t think so. I’ll have a nasty scar I suppose, and my ear is mangled...You?”
“My leg’s broke from a canister round. I’m hobbled a bit. And then your pistol shot near did me in. I think I may lose a eye.” Then, somewhat defiantly, “But I ain’t dead. You ain’t kilt me, if that’s what you’re a-hopin’ for!”
There was no response for a moment. The Union officer was not yet willing to sympathize. He pondered his next move for two full minutes.
“What shall we do about this situation?” he finally asked, almost rhetorically.
“Well, I ain’t exactly familiar with the protocol!” the Confederate officer shot back, mockingly.
“I’m afraid this is new territory for me as well,” the Union officer replied, pulling a kerchief from his blouse and pressing it to his wound.
In the gathering darkness, the two wounded men began to consider each other. Perhaps a half hour passed before the Confederate officer broke the awkwardness.
“Ain’t this a fine thing? Here we are, two men—soldiers on opposin’ sides—and can’t neither of us do nothin’ agin’ the other, and us a-sittin’ here close enough to talk like we was at a Sunday picnic.”
“It’s as odd a situation in which I have ever found myself, that is certain. Nothing I ever trained for, to be sure.”
The Confederate officer spat forcefully on the ground beside him, attempting to rid his mouth of a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, ash, and the chemical taste of blood. He grabbed a fistful of the gray wool foot trousers covering his broken leg and groaned as he pulled the wounded limb to a less painful position.
Taking in his immediate surroundings, he discovered that he was next to a log that had been dislodged from the breastworks in the battle. He rested his arm across it. Stretching his neck upwards, as if to open up his airway, he let out a long sigh. Several minutes of quiet passed, and now his mood turned melancholic.
“If the truth were to be said, I would not be too unhappy if this wound made it so’s I was finished with this thing once and fer all,” he finally said, spitting on the ground again as if to emphasize his feelings. The silence revisited the men for a moment.
“I got two boys,” the Confederate offered suddenly, “both wantin’ to get their own farms once this nonsense ends.”
The Union officer was taken by surprise at the sudden sharing of personal information. He considered the conversation and tried to think of a proper response. “Two boys, then?” was all he could manage for a bit, and then awkwardly he asked, “Will they be farming from your land or their own?”
“I ain’t got no land but scrub!” he shot back. “They’ll be a-workin’ for their own plots…not a day’s ride from this here spot.”
“Are they in this fight?”
“The older boy is somewhere or ‘nother with General Pickett. Don’t rightly know where they be fightin’.” He poked at the ground with a stick he had found next to him as he spoke. “The other’n is with Floyd and the 45th. Or was. Heard he may have been captured at Carnifex Ferry.” He lowered his head. “Can’t say for sure.” He tossed the stick aside.
The Union officer felt a shudder as he thought of his own brother, a presumed prisoner from the battle of Malvern Hill just a few weeks prior. He wondered to himself, when will this thing be over so I can see my family again? He composed himself. “What does their mother think of their volunteerism?”
There was an uneasy stillness for a moment, and then the Confederate officer spoke, weakly.
“She passed, givin’ birth to my youngest.”
The Union officer sought to change the subject quickly and cover the awkwardness of the moment. “Where is your home, sir?” he asked, shifting his weight to find a more comfortable position.
“South of here a ways. Morrisville. Born and raised. Where’s your’n?”
“New York. Albany.”
Each man silently contemplated the fact that he had never been farther than the borders of his own state, much less even heard of the other’s hometown.
The Confederate attempted to reposition his mangled leg and the sudden sharp pain of the broken bone jabbing into the muscle caused him to cry out suddenly. He cursed and mumbled something angrily in the direction of his enemy.
“What was that you said, sir?” the Union officer asked accusingly, his voice rising.
“I said you should-a stayed in New York!” the Confederate snapped back, his anger coming out in a sudden acrimonious blaze.
“And you should’ve sta—” The Union officer caught himself as the reality of his current geography registered. His own indignation diminished as he reconciled himself to the truth.
Composing himself he replied, “Yes. I suppose now I wish that I had.”
The air between the two combatants thinned as the tension subsided. After a moment or two, calm had returned.
It was as though each man, in their respective contemplation, had allowed the mood to turn, both seeing that their outrage did nothing to change their situation.
The Union officer thought for a moment about whether or not to share any more than necessary with his official enemy. But before he could stop himself, he said quietly, “I have three girls, one boy…The girls are the spitting image of their mother—all beautiful! And my boy is just as stubborn as my wife.” A smile covered his face for a fleeting moment. He suddenly longed to tell this man—this enemy combatant all about his family. But reality pulled him back.
“What’s her name?” the Confederate officer pressed.
Again he balked before giving in.
A pause, and then the Confederate officer responded quietly.
Quietude returned, as each wounded man reflected on his own home. It was the Confederate who breached the calm.
“Lordy, she would be madder than a wet hen at me fer allowin’ myself to get in this predicament!” He laughed and shook his head as he imagined the scene.
The Union officer could not stifle a chuckle, and he coughed loudly to try and mask it.
Several more minutes of mutual meditation passed.
Finally, the Union officer spoke, his voice much softer now. “I hope I cannot locate my sword, for I would be compelled by duty to finish you, sir.”
“Well, sir…I ain’t got no weapon in reach at all. And I’m fairly certain I cannot even will my busted leg to let me stand…” Then, managing quieter tones himself, “Nor do I have much of a inclination to do you in no more.”
The Union officer paused briefly. “Nor I you.”
“It don’t seem fittin’ that we should just—let it go this way.”
“Well, what do you propose as a solution? It is nightfall now.”
The Union officer noticed that the nausea and lightheadedness were held at bay as long as he didn’t try to move too much. Touching a finger to his forehead, he felt a crusty wound which was no longer bleeding.
“I am tired.” He lay back down on the dew-damp ground. “I cannot hope to find my regiment in the dark now. I still cannot stand without this unsteadiness overtaking me. Nor do I wish to fight through the enemy--uh, through your lines.”
The Confederate officer had torn a piece from his ragged butternut shirt and fashioned a bandage for his eye. “What are you a-bargainin’ fer?” he asked his counterpart in a flinty voice.
“If I sleep, can I trust that you will not murder me?”
The Confederate’s voice raised sharply, “Now why would I—Just look at me! Ain’t I got trouble enough of my own? It hain’t like I can even stand up myself without this leg a-turnin’ against me and lettin’ me fall!” He turned his makeshift bandage to the other, non-bloodied side.
“Very well,” the Union officer replied. “A temporary truce, then.”
“So be it.”
Both men succumbed to the weariness of war, the exhaustion of physical battle, and the weakness brought on by their wounds.
Sleep came surprisingly quickly, considering the two enemies were almost within reach of each other. But the night brought no further dialogue; no interruptions. Only sleep.
The Union officer awoke first, feeling the pre-dawn dampness beneath him. He noticed that the squeal of the violin was no longer present in his right ear—nor were any other sounds. In his left ear, he heard the leaves of the oaks nearby beginning to react to the early morning breeze. He raised himself on his elbows and tilted his head backward to pull in a long breath of the already-wet Virginian summer air. After a moment, he cleared his throat and addressed his unconventional camp-mate.
“You there…wake yourself.”
The Confederate rose on an elbow, moaning as he held his temple. “Well, look-a-here…We ain’t neither one kilt,” he said, with an extra helping of sarcasm delivered in his gravelly voice.
The Union officer decided that the rest had done him well enough to try standing. Hesitantly and cautiously, he pulled himself up on his hands and knees.
“Hey now, where you figure on goin’?” the Confederate suddenly found a ration of strength and sat fully upright.
“I have to find my regiment. It will be light enough soon, and surely this thing is not over.”
After a moment’s consideration, the Confederate officer gave way and replied dejectedly.
“Oh, all right then. Go on. I ain’t in no position to stop you.” He picked at the bark on the fallen log beside him.
“If you feel up to it, I recommend you do the same. We should make the attempt, at least, before—that is, before one of our armies finds us both this way.”
There was another awkward moment of neither one speaking.
“Will you be all right?” The Union officer tried to see the man’s face through the soot and beard covering the man’s face.
“I reckon so. I still got me one good eye.” The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he grinned sheepishly.
“And I one good ear.” The Union officer not only returned the grin but expanded it into a full smile until he realized what he was doing. He quickly looked away, taking stock of the geography in his field of view.
Not knowing the outcome of the previous day’s battle, he could only guess where his regiment was now emplaced. His thoughts turned to his adversary, on the ground in front of him. After more thought, he spoke again.
“I want you to know that I hold no ill will against you. And I hope your sons can have their farms. And—well, I also hope that you survive this war.”
The Confederate, moved by the obviously sincere sentiments of his enemy, searched desperately for the right words to say in response. His mouth moved but no words came forth.
Before he could put his thoughts together into speech, the Union officer had risen to his feet.
The Union officer stumbled slightly as he attempted to gain his footing, then taking a step toward his enemy, he continued speaking. His voice conveyed more emotion now. “I am sorry. I am sorry for both of us. This war…This—this wretched thing. If we could but—”
A distant flash.
The Minié ball tore through his wool shell jacket and cut a path directly to his heart before the sound reached his good ear. He reeled, falling forward and crumpling to the ground across the fallen log next to the Confederate.
Shocked by the sudden change to their peaceful environment, it took a moment for the Confederate officer to comprehend what was happening. He pulled himself up as high as his sitting position allowed.
“Hold yer fire!” he yelled hoarsely, pushing the palms of his hands against the ground to raise himself even higher. Then, as loudly as he could, “Just hold on, we ain’t—”
The big .58 caliber bullet scorched into his brain, killing him instantly and knocking him back down where he sat. His upper body flopped awkwardly against the log next to him before unceremoniously hitting the ground.
The two dead men now lay staring into each other’s lifeless eyes.
A hundred yards away, the battle was beginning to ramp up once again in the not-quite-light of the early dawn.
Behind a makeshift breastwork of red oak and mockernut hickory, a blue-clad soldier lay on his belly. He pulled his Springfield rifled musket back, rolled over to one side, and announced loudly, “Did you see that? Holy Lord, I got me two of ‘em! I got me two Rebel officers! I cleared them ol’ boys off as sure as—”