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Igms issue 20, p.5

IGMS Issue 20, page 5

 

IGMS Issue 20
 


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  "All right," Bailey said. "That's fine. Wonder when that last man will go down. We got maybe two boxes of rounds each, a couple barrels of powder per platoon. I haven't been up to artillery to see how they're doin', but they've been shellin' without a breather for six days now and must be runnin' low. And for food - hardtack and beans, and of course what the city has to offer." He snorted. "We'll be eatin our damn boots, Ashby, just you see."

  "Hey," I protested. "It wasn't my call!"

  "Course not," Spencer said.

  I handed back the jug. No one seemed to want to drink. "Where's old Jarv?" I asked.

  Bailey got out a little field glass. "Look." I looked. "See out on the field? See that old oak standin' all alone about a third of the way between our line and theirs?"

  "Yup."

  "See that little heap of rags? Near the gutted horse?"

  "Yup."

  "That's Jarv. Union shell, special for him."

  I sat, feeling sick. "I smoked my first pipe with him."

  "Joseph and Mary," Spencer said. "He came down here for a pick-me-up and we've gone and depressed him. Awful sorry, Ashby." And, God bless him, he was. The more shame for me. While I stood at Pemberton's side and worried about my own skin, my boys were getting blown to hell.

  Mumbling some excuse, I rode back up the hill. As long as Pemberton wasdetermined to hold out, we were all as good as corpses. And even though I had nothing at all to do with his decision, I couldn't help but feel that Bailey was a little bit right in holding it against me. Sure, all I did was shine his shoes and write his letters, but I still had the General's ear. I reckoned I had an obligation to do everything I could to help my friends. There wasn't any sort of valor in the battle. Without Johnston coming - hell, with Johnston - we were still outgunned and outnumbered. Vicksburg would fall, one way or the other, and the only question was how many bodies would stack up first. If I could convince Pemberton to lay his ego aside, maybe Bailey and Spencer and I could walk away and not end up like Jarvis.

  I turned my mare and looked down the hill, with our earthworks and barricades swarming with grey uniforms and our artillery banging away, sending huge plumes of smoke into the clear summer sky. All that thunder wasn't having any effect on the bluecoats in their trenches below. On the lowest earthwork, gangs of snipers scanned the field with spyglasses, waiting for a soldier to pop his head up; on the far side of the field, their men did the same.

  I'd do it, by God. My heart lifted in a rare flight of joy. I cupped my hands and hollered. "Fear not, boys! George Ashby will see you through! I guarantee you'll be home with your sweethearts before the month is out!"

  No one heard me, though, because the enemy picked that moment to answer our artillery barrage with one of their own. The long line of guns boomed, shaking the ground beneath my feet, and I heard a long keening whistle that made my spine shrink, my fingers curl into claws, and my eyes clamp shut. "Oh, God, oh, God, have mercy on your son," I said. No time to run.

  The earth exploded upwards, a volcano of shattering stone and pelting mud. I felt it rather than heard it. All I heard was that whistle, but it changed timbre in such a way that I knew I was deaf. The whistle became a tangible thing that crawled inside my skull and tore into my brains until I could barely stand. Another shell, and the house on my right was a swelling and fiery cloud of splinters; another bone-breaking concussion and my horse faltered and fell, with me under it. My legs were broken for sure. I could feel the long fissured bones grinding on one another. My ribs, too, were razor shards that raked my lungs and sent fire through my every capillary.

  The shelling stopped, and I twisted like a headless snake. I couldn't moan. I couldn't scream. I could only try to suck air into my leaking lungs.

  "Ashby's down!" I heard Spencer cry.

  Thank God for you, I thought, as he and Bailey gently lifted me and bore me to the field hospital. Good old boys. That was the last thought I had for a long time.

  Darkness. A benighted landscape, the only contours of which were agony. An awful deep night, where something huge and terrible moved.

  "Nurse, a tourniquet on this one."

  ". . . where?"

  "Right leg - bone's severed the femoral artery."

  "Doctor Collier, there are many other wounded."

  "Most critical cases first."

  "But only if viable."

  "That your decision to make?"

  "Nossir."

  "Then put a tourniquet on that leg."

  "Sir."

  A sound of tearing gauze, and then a sun-bright flare of pain.

  "Doctor, by the sound of that scream, he's got a ruptured lung."

  "You finished with that tourniquet?"

  "He's a goner, Doctor. It's a waste of my time. I'm sorry."

  "Get to the other tent, see if you can help there."

  "Sir."

  A moment later, I felt a cool hand on my forehead.

  "Look at me."

  I levered my eyelids open. An older man leaned over me, maybe fifty years or so. He had white-streaked hair that curled in all directions, a thick moustache, and a twitching left eye. His skin was sweat-slick and of a paleness bordering on translucence, his thin hands trembled, his eyes were bloodshot and something caught in his throat when he inhaled - all signs that said clearly "Here is a dying man" that even as I fell towards death, my first impulse was sympathy.

  "Can you talk?" His voice was grave.

  I opened my mouth. No sound, just the tortured gurgle of blood.

  "You can talk," he said, and something shifted in my chest with a sound of stretching sinew. I felt my ribs break in reverse, splinters melding one into the other, the fragments grinding into alignment. Air filled my lungs.

  "Mother of God," I said. "Holy Mother of God."

  "Yes," Collier said, removing his glasses. "Your leg is broken, too, above the knee. The femoral artery is severed." He cleaned his glasses with a filthy handkerchief. "Get up and walk."

  Another excruciating moment of movement within my flesh, and the pain in my leg disappeared. I fled from the dark kingdom of death; the jaws of the black beast closed just behind me, grasping nothing.

  "Grave, where is your victory?" I whispered. "Death, where is your sting?"

  "Shut your mouth with that nonsense," Collier said sharply.

  I sat up. I felt like I had never sat up before. Profound amazement at living muted me.

  Doctor Collier slumped in a chair. If anything, he looked worse than he had only moments ago. It seemed that there was more white in his hair. He grasped the arms of his chair. A thin rivulet of spittle forged a path on his stubbly jaw. The doctor wiped it away with shaking hands, then heaved a rattling sigh.

  Words came to me at last. "How?" I said. "Why?"

  "Never mind the how," Collier said. "And the why's my affair. Just go back to your business, boy, and try not to get under any more shells."

  "How can I thank you?" It sounded trite but I was sincerely at a loss. I owed the man too much to comprehend.

  "By going back to your business and not getting your stupid self killed," he snarled.

  I swung my legs off the cot and stood, a little unsteady, and tripped over to the doctor. His eyes were closed and his hands white-knuckled on the chair. I imagine he was suffering tremendously. I pried his hands from the chair - how they shook! - and knelt, overcome by gratitude that denied expression. I clasped his hands in mine and bowed my head.

  "I thank you," I said, "and I thank God for my deliverance."

  He flung off my hands with an annoyed gesture. "God doesn't enter into it," he said.

  "How then?" I said. "How, if not by the grace of God, could you heal me?"

  He shrugged. "Healed only to die later," he said. "You'll catch a bullet or another shell. Maybe you'll starve as this damnable siege drags on or maybe typhoid or cholera will get you. Maybe you'll die under my own knife like so many have. No escaping this slaughter."

  "The war won't go on forever," I said.
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  "I don't mean the war," he said, and turned away from me, after which he would say no more.

  "Hallelujah, hallelujah, praise God Almighty," I said. "I will never forget this." I left, my head filled with wonder, my heart filled with praise.

  The shelling that got me had marked the beginning of another Union assault, so it seemed no one knew of my wounding beyond Spencer and Bailey. The camp was still fairly chaotic when I left the hospital and I was able to slip back to the General's office without alarming anyone.

  "Where the devil have you been, Ashby?" Pemberton said crossly when I entered the office. "Pen and paper, right away."

  "Do you want me to draft our surrender, General?" I said. McNoughton frowned at me.

  "Of course not, Ashby." He cleared his throat. "A letter. 'Dear Mr. Beasley, I regret your treatment at the hands of my soldiers; however, firing on trespassers in your vegetable garden, even during wartime, is hardly proper' - no, scratch that - ugh! I'm a busy man! I don't have time for this." He flopped in his big, well-cushioned chair. "Tell me, McNoughton, do we have a chance in hell here?"

  "Grant is committed to the battle. He has lost too many troops to leave without a victory. But if he attempts to overrun us, we'll take three men for each of ours. We'll show him that Confederate men do not sell their lives cheaply."

  I broiled in my hatred for the Major General. "Speak for yourself," I mumbled. McNoughton had not recently glimpsed death. The thought of that black pit filled me with terror.

  "He'll destroy us only at a great, great cost. If we hold out, we can cripple his army, and though he might take Vicksburg, the Union's operations in the western theatre will be severely hampered. In fact, I believe that if we inflict casualties in sufficient numbers, Grant will withdraw to reconsider his strategy. Furthermore, every week that we hold out here gives Lee's offensive in Pennsylvania that much more chance of success."

  "But he'll destroy us eventually."

  McNoughton's eyes glistened. "A hero's death, sir. Our legacies will endure immortally."

  How appealing that must be for Pemberton, I thought. His loyalty to the Confederacy would be forever beyond question.

  The experience of the past few hours had given me unwonted courage. I had toed the brink of the abyss and it was horrible.

  "Sir," I said. "If I may say a word on behalf of the men of the 3rd Tennessee."

  Pemberton arched an eyebrow. "Go ahead."

  "And on behalf of the men of the 39th, 43rd, and 59th Tennessee regiments. And the men from Georgia and Louisiana and Alabama and all the many little children gathered under your command."

  "I think that's enough," McNoughton said.

  "Just this, sir!" I held up a finger. "Just one thing. We don't get legacies."

  "What do you mean?" Pemberton said.

  "My papa was a farmer, sir," I said, my face reddening under McNoughton's glare. "My mama knits sweaters. And if I die here because you say it's glorious, nobody will know or care beyond her. I'll be just one more of the Vicksburg dead. And I'm very much obliged to you for the opportunity, Major General McNoughton, but my little life means a lot more to me than your legacy."

  "Insubordination!" he hissed. "Pemberton, I'll have this man hung by his thumbs."

  The thought of that cruel punishment, formerly so terrifying, stirred nothing in me. I stood, clicked my heels, and saluted. "If that's what you want, sir. Hung by the thumbs is not dead. I said what needed saying."

  "Come off it, McNoughton," Pemberton said. "Forget it. Ashby, get out of here."

  McNoughton gave me one last searing look that told me that he would not soon follow Pemberton's suggestion, and returned to the conversation. "Now, I believe that with the first assaults so bloodily repulsed, Grant will settle into a siege. The city has provisions for a month at least . . ."

  McNoughton had his way, and the slow slaughter of seventeen thousand men began. For the next two weeks, the Union guns gave us hell and we gave it right back, and snipers on both sides stood at attention twenty-four hours a day, combing the opposite line for any head foolish enough to show itself for a half second. Once a snow-white mourning dove fluttered down from the heavens and rested on the skyward hoof of a slain artillery horse. The moment its wings stilled their movement, four or five shots from each side tore it to pieces, leaving only a settling cloud of bloody feathers. So the broad verdant land between the lines that had once brought forth sustenance now rendered only death.

  Once I crept up to the field hospital. I wanted to see Collier. I felt like one of the first disciples creeping back to Golgotha, the site of my salvation, to pry a splinter from the Holy Cross. I peeked inside. He was standing over a fallen soldier, red to the elbows.

  "Now keep that in his mouth. Hold it down good," he said, and picked up a bone saw. Muffled screams followed me back to headquarters.

  Three weeks, then four weeks went by. After one visit, for which I wrapped my head in gauze and borrowed a pair of crutches, I didn't see the boys anymore. How could I, when I ate at the General's table, and they chewed bones from unknown animals? No one had seen a cat in weeks, and I couldn't recall the last time I heard a dog bark. In the trenches men were cutting slices of leather from their boots, until they had to walk around in bits of sack tied up with rope. And then they ate the rope.

  McNoughton never rested. Every day he reviewed the troops, riding the lines on one of the few remaining horses and barking orders. A soldier might have his ribs sticking out, but he'd better have a tidy uniform and he'd better jump to his feet when Our Lord McNoughton rode in. The Army of the Mississippi was in shipshape order, a perfect creation in which McNoughton could entomb himself.

  With July came a new sort of hopelessness. Everyone had eaten everything that could be eaten, and many things that couldn't. Bones of fallen horses were ground for broth, and many times I caught my comrades looking sideways at the heaps of freshly dead soldiers.

  The bodies stacked up. Cholera and typhoid, just as Collier had predicted. Starvation hung like a specter over the city.

  To compound this, the Union seemed to be preparing for a final assault. Reinforcements streamed in. Some weeks ago, Grant had cut through a sandbank, allowing him to bypass the guns overlooking the river and bring in fresh men by boat. Heavier artillery arrived. Most homes had been bombed out. There wasn't a single window left in Vicksburg. The civilians had long since relocated to the earthworks.

  We all waited for the final assault.

  It began with a vigorous shelling on the first day of the new month.

  They walked their aim up the hill, raking the ruins of houses and searching for our own artillery. A stray shell found a powder magazine and the hill shook with a series of explosions.

  "Oh, hell, no," I moaned, as a shell landed near the earthworks where the 3rd was quartered. Then the shell I had feared hit their dugout squarely, collapsing the sod ceiling inward. "No!" I ran down the hill, coughing on the smoky air, and a handful of troops joined me. We dug with our hands, not wanting to use shovels for fear of cutting our friends, and soon we found a foot protruding through the earth. We hauled and out came Spencer, gasping for breath.

  "I'm okay," he said. "Bailey's inside still."

  We flung handfuls of dirt over our shoulders.

  "I've got him!" I shouted.

  Bailey was in a bad way. He must have been near the shell. His face was burned, one eye gone completely, and his left hand was crushed. Blood streamed from a hundred cuts on his face. Spencer and I took him by the feet and armpits and ran him to the field hospital.

  "Doctor!" I cried, throwing back the tent flap. "Don't worry, Spence, this guy'll fix him up. No worries, Spence!"

  We deposited Bailey on a blood-stained cot and I searched for Collier. I found him one tent over, sleeping in a chair. He looked bad. His hair had gone entirely white. He shook in his sleep, his mouth contorting in wordless mutters. I can't imagine what dreams of death and dying played in his head.

  "Doctor,"
I said, "wake up. My friend - my friend!"

  "Of course," he said, and gathered his tools.

  "Doctor, no," I said. "No. No tools. Do what you did for me. He may not live."

  He brushed past me.

  Bailey was conscious by now, screaming something awful. I don't think I've ever heard anyone scream that way, before or since. He kept reaching up to touch his disfigured face and jerking his hand back. "Give me a mirror," he said between screams.

  "No, Bill, I won't," Spencer said.

  "Damn you then," Bailey said.

  "Get the nurse in here," Collier said, and I ran for that man.

  "That hand's gotta come off."

  "No!" I said.

  "Look at the burns. Look at the mess. It'll turn by morning. Hold this over his face." He soaked his handkerchief in a clear liquid and gave it to the nurse, who clamped it over Bailey's mouth and nose. Soon he stopped his struggles.

  Collier prepared a tourniquet on Bailey's forearm and reached for his bone saw. He went work.

  When Collier had wiped his instruments clean and ordered the nurses to take Bailey away, I approached him, my heart raging. He must have seen it on my face.

  "I did what I could for your friend. The wound will suppurate properly now." He was clearly exhausted.

  "Why didn't you do for him what you did for me?"

  He sighed. "Look at me, boy. What do you see?"

  "A dying man."

  "Dying of what?"

  "Consumption, it looks like."

  "Yet I'm not tubercular. I have no blood in my cough nor pain in my chest. That's not it."

  "What then?"

  "Simply, my life has run away from me. A year ago I was a healthy man."

  "What happened?" My curiosity overpowered my anger.

  "This war." His lip twitched in disgust. Or maybe it was just one of the many spasms that marked his internal decay. "I first discovered what I could do a year ago. I was at the great bloodletting at Antietam. A soldier was brought to me with a bullet in his liver. I extracted it, said, 'Live, damn you!' and the skin closed over the wound. He walked away. But I coughed all the night through, and that cough has never left me. Soon I found myself unable to do tasks which were within my strength only days before. In giving that soldier his life, I surrendered a piece of mine."

 
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