Releasing September 17th, 2018, here’s a snippet from Chapter 2 of The Soldier
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September 17th, 1862
West Woods Behind Dunker Church
March. March. March. Just keep marchin’.
Ben focused all his energy into taking one step after another, following the man in front of him with his rifle propped against his shoulder. All around, the thunder of canons, the faraway shouts of troops, and the general stomach-turning fact that he was about to join the fight, made him want to turn tail and run.
But he couldn’t allow himself to think. He took Brigadier General George Anderson’s advice and stayed all hands and all feet. Alert and yet numb to the battle and the dizzying thoughts of what they were getting themselves into. He couldn’t think about the shredded bodies of his old pals. He couldn’t think of Thomas Brittain who was shot at Manassas just a few weeks ago. Nor could he recall Henry Hester’s death mask when he lay dying from his wounds after the battle at Malvern Hill in July. And he couldn’t replay the last conversation he had with Jack Wilson back in June at Garnett’s Farm where he died at the hospital.
He briskly shook his head and began muttering to himself, “March. March. March.”
He, along with the rest of Anderson’s Brigade had been guarding Boonsboro Pike with the other regiments that made up D.R Jones’ Division. But that’s not where the fighting was. Farther north toward the cornfield he had seen when they arrived, the battle having commenced early that morning. The ground, wet from last night’s rain and the sky still overcast to give the day a gray and somber feel, it was proving to be a miserable dawn that would no doubt turn into a bloody day.
Lee – whom they teasingly called Granny Lee for his snow-white beard and grandfatherly deportment toward his troops – made a habit of riding up and down the field of battle, assessing every situation carefully and coolly. Rarely raising his voice in anger toward the privates and giving clear instruction to his subordinate officers, Ben knew he would never serve under a better general. He was the picture of military strength and leadership. Under Lee, they couldn’t possibly lose.
And that’s why when he ordered Anderson’s Brigade north to fight back an encroaching band of Union soldiers who were ready to take a good piece of strategic ground, Ben didn’t quake in his boots as some of the other men did.
Already the victor of several battles, Ben had the good fortune of never sustaining a wound. He had been shot, but never in a place that mattered. Twice through his cartridge box, and once through the sleeve of his jacket. Each one narrowly missed its intended mark and each time, Ben thanked the good Lord above that the angels were looking out for him, even in the midst of so much death and carnage.
Anderson’s Brigade had been ordered to join ranks with McClaw and Walker’s divisions, so Ben and the seventh Georgia infantry made their way toward a patch of woods. To their right, he could hear the roar of canons and feel the earth tremble beneath his bare feet with each deafening volley. Farther ahead and to the left, came the hurried orders from officers and a procession line of wounded men being carried to safe ground.
The few glimpses of their beaten and battered bodies emboldened Ben. If Lee thought them capable of plugging this hole in his line, then he would do so and stop any advancing Yankee. Pride for his state, his country, and the cause for southern independence galvanized his courage.
Ben trudged through the thicket – rather loudly due to the constant crackle of parched leaves and fallen branches beneath their feet – and could see the white brick of the church building they had passed the previous day. Empty of all its congregation and riddled with holes from artillery fire and rifle shot, it remained standing on the edge of the battlefield. He heard some other soldier say it belonged to some pacifist Germans. How ironic.
Ahead, coming in at a slow and casual march, he could see the line of Federals through the trees. As soon as they spotted one another, the orders were given. Halt. Load. Aim. Fire.
The air became alive with bullets as the enemy fired upon them.
Ben, now a seasoned veteran of war, loaded his rifle with mechanic accuracy, speeding through the nine-step process. All those summer days spent hunting turkeys and bucks back home in Georgia with his older brother served as practice for shooting down his fellow men as he did now. He wasn’t quite as good as any of the sharpshooters in the army, but he rarely missed his target.
Giving leave to take cover behind trees and bushes in the patch of woods to the left of the church, Ben shoved the soldier beside him – a man by the name of John Beck, who was also part of the Franklin Volunteers – into a cluster of tall pines.
“Don’t forget your cap!” Ben told him, mostly out of a need to be helpful. He had wished some fellow soldier had reminded him of that during his first battle at Manassas. So often in the chaos of firing round after round, a man forgot one step or two in loading his own rifle, no matter how many times he had done it before.
He grabbed another cartridge from the hard leather box on his belt, tore off the paper tie, poured the powder in and chased down the bullet with his ramrod. And taking his own advice, he made a point to grab a percussion cap from his other pouch and positioned it before taking his hastily aimed shot. All the while, he felt the vibration of the occasional bullet hitting the trunk of the tree he leaned his shoulder against. Splinters of wood and bark stung at his cheeks when the adjacent pine was struck in the same way. Beside him, John fumbled constantly with his ramrod. Once, he cursed himself for forgetting the bullet and accidentally firing nothing but powder.
One by one, the Yankees in blue were mowed down as the cougar-like, explosive roar of the rifle fire split through the woods. Some Confederates fell and let out shrieks of pain or moans of agony, but Ben tuned them out. He had to or he’d lose his concentration for sure. The dead began to litter the ground, blood soaking into the earth and staining the grass around the fallen.
The order was given to advance. Ben and John darted out from their safe cover and ran toward the enemy, firing off one more shot each while others fixed bayonets to the end of their rifles. The color bearer of the seventh Georgia Infantry preceded them, the red and white thick bands lazily waving above their heads, rallying them forward.
“We got ‘em on the run, boys!” shouted Lieutenant Colonel George Carmical.
The rebel yell swelled and rattled the very leaves in the treetops as the units realized they had taken the ground for the Confederacy. The Yankees turned tail and retreated from the woods, falling back to Hagerstown Pike and the open field beyond where the rest of the battle seemed to be drawing to a close.
Hurriedly trying to load while sprinting through the brush, his pulse hammering in his ears like the booming sound of the artillery units to the south, Ben hardly noticed when he was no longer running with John Beck. He slowed and turned to look behind him as the rest of his company and regiment filed ahead, shouting in their small but glorious victory over the Federals.
There, trying to scramble out of the way of the stampede, was John with a gaping hole in his chest. Blood seeped from his wound and decanted over his torso to darken the butternut brown fabric of his jacket. Risking a severe reprimand or punishment from his colonel, Ben ran in the opposite direction of their charge.
John gasped for breath, a trickle of crimson oozing from the corner of his mouth as arms flailed to grab at the air. Ben was by his side, his gun dropped for the moment beside his comrade. He caught the desperate arm and held it tight, staring at the wound that he knew was fatal. There was no use in screaming for an ambulance or a stretcher to carry him to a hospital tent behind the lines. John Beck wouldn’t survive this day.
“They still runnin’?” John choked out, wide eyes staring up into the face of the man who had enlisted with him on the same day in Atlanta.
They stuck by one another in almost every battle, at every skirmish and engagement. They even tried to request furlough together and agreed to help one another with the train fare for the ride home to Georgia. Those requests were never approved, due to the sheer impossibility for the paperwork to please each and every officer in the chain of command whom it passed through. But they had tried together, and if they had gotten that furlough in the springtime, they would have gone home together too.
Now, there would be no more chances for furlough.
“Yeah,” Ben answered, forcing every ounce of strength he had left to be there for his friend in these final moments. “They’re still runnin’.”
A mocking smile spread over John’s lips, which were colored a deep red by the blood he coughed up. “Bunch of cowards,” he wheezed.
Ben tried to return the smile, but knew he had failed miserably and only nodded. “They sure are.”
With shaking effort, John reached up and unfastened two of the brass buttons on his coat. It took him a couple of clumsy tries since the metal was slickened by his blood, but once they were undone and he was admitted access, he pulled out a piece of folded up parchment.
“Give this to my folks,” he ordered to Ben, handing him the letter. “You’re gonna make it through this hell. I know it.”
Ben swallowed hard, and though he didn’t want to take it, knowing it would be as if he accepted John’s inevitable death, he couldn’t deny his friend this last request. He took the letter and tucked it into his own jacket, a bit of blood transferring from John’s fingertips onto his own in the exchange.
“I’ll give it to them,” Ben assured, squeezing his arm tighter as his friend became racked with coughs and gasps that told him the end was near.
He remembered where John stowed away the tintype of his mother and younger sister and immediately fished it out of his haversack. He remembered they had talked about wanting to see their families one last time if the end should ever come on the battlefield. Obviously, John wasn’t in the position to remind Ben, and he was even surprised that he could recall the moment himself as bullets continued to whiz past him. One struck his kepi and knocked it clean from his head. Another lucky miss.
But by the time Ben found the tintype, John had gone still and his arm no longer tremored. The spark of life in his dark eyes faded. Ben stared, taking the moment to recollect his last words. You’re gonna make it through this hell. I know it.
How he wished they had a few more seconds, just one more minute so Ben could lift the tintype to Johns’ eyes. He knew that once this battle was over and his body was laid to rest with the other fallen soldiers, Ben would write a letter to John’s mother and tell him all about how bravely he had fought that day. He’d talk about how they’d driven back the Yankees and reclaimed the church for the Confederacy.
Just as these thoughts entered his mind, as soon as the voices and tramping feet of the army moved on through the maze of trees, Ben heard the report of a gun from not too far away. At almost the same time, he felt the bullet pierce his side. He let out a cry and fell back with the impact, reflexively reaching for his gun as he searched for the one who had shot him.
Twenty yards away, he saw the wounded Union soldier propped up against a pine just as his arms became too weak to hold his rifle.
Ben, feeling a burst of panic, kicked at the ground to help him crawl toward some sort of cover. His back hit a bush, the tips of its branches jabbing into his shoulders as he lifted his rifle. Despite whatever wound kept him from retreating with the rest of his regiment, the Yankee gathered up what was left of his strength to slowly load his rifle one more time.
Already two steps ahead in loading, Ben took aim. Just before he did, through the pain that blurred his vision, he remembered the percussion cap. It wasn’t seated.
His fingers wrestled with the flap of his cap box and fished out his last one from the very bottom. He let out a tight breath as he took his final aim and shot the Yankee. The man jerked and then went limp against the tree, leaning to one side as blood ran out from the hole in his forehead.
Now, with the last threat eliminated, Ben reached for his side. So much for his lucky streak. His whole body went cold at the sight of the wound. Part of his jacket was ripped open, showing the gory mess of blood and a gaping hole where the bullet had plowed through him.
It was the worst pain he had ever felt in his life. Worse than when his brother broke his arm with the blunt edge of an axe blade when they got into a scuffle about something – as boys so often did. He felt the shakes spread through him, just as John had before he died and Ben refused to let himself think it. He couldn’t let his friend’s last words be a lie. He’d make it through this hell. He just had to hold on long enough for another regiment to pass by and find him. Then he’d go back to the field hospital.
However, the longer he sat there, the jabbing bed of broken bush limbs digging into his back, he couldn’t hear his company returning. And each new marching regiment that happened to pass between the patch of woods and the church couldn’t hear his pleas for help. Pain and weakness had stolen his voice and every shout came out as a hoarse whisper that he could hardly hear himself.
Each time he tried to lift his arm to wave for their attention, he realized it took far more effort and exacted more pain in his side with each movement and he gave up. With his rifle laid across his lap, Ben decided to be patient and wait a little longer.
Every passing second felt like an hour, and every moment like a day as he suffered in this pain, feeling his hot blood chill the skin around his stomach. Trails of blood curved around his hips to soak the seat of his pants. Each labored breath left him hurting even more than the one before. But he had to keep breathing, had to stay awake and listen for aid that would surely come soon.
He had to make it through this war. He had to make his family proud of him.