Time stopped. I remembered being back at home and waiting for the war to start. I remembered how it felt when I heard the horses coming, and I knew they were coming for me. I wanted to go so badly. I was the oldest, nearly fifteen, so it was my place to go. It was my duty to go. Pa didn’t want it, and Ma threw a fit, but this was what I was supposed to do. This is what had to be done. Rickfield was leading a group up to Virginia and he, the old man himself, came for me. I would even get a uniform, and maybe a new rifle.
The first battle went hard at first, then Jackson led us forward and it seemed like the war as over already. A man could walk around the field and pick up any rifle he wanted. There were new boots on some of the yellers that gave up. We didn’t think about robbing the dead, but later on we did just to survive. That first battle, that first day, if only we had lost; I wish I had died in battle that first day, thinking we had won, and there was nothing to stop us from marching right into Washington, if we wanted to.
They never stopped coming. No matter how well we did against them there was always more. They always was well fed and they always had bullets and boots. We’d pick over their dead and there would be pocket watches and crosses around their necks. The uniforms were new and clean. We were dressed in rags and dead men’s boots. Every year it got worse and worse. When Vicksburg fell we knew we had been cut in half. Then it got to where a man couldn’t talk to another about what was heard about the war. But we didn’t have to hear to know. All we had to do is look at who was living and who was dying.
We went on a raid and marauded a wagon train. There was more food there than we had seen in months. There were blankets and powder and there was medical supplies as if the war was just starting for them. Their mules was better fed than our officers. We stuffed bread into our mouths as we herded the train back to our lines, but I knew then we had lost the war. You could see it in the eyes of the men who scrambled around trying to get to the hard tack and bacon. This train had gotten took because the Yankees weren’t scared of bringing things in close to us now. They could lose this much and it was nothing to them, and it was everything to us. They even had jars of pickles in their train and all manner of food we thought had been quit made. It was like watching buzzards the day after a battle in the Summer the way we went after that food. The officers tried to get us off of it but what are you going to do with a thousand starving men when there’s only enough food for five hundred? Men ran off the line when they heard the word “food” and when the attack came there was a mob of us not an army.
I saw it, in the end, and I wasn’t surprised at all. They let the train get taken from them. They knew how bad off we were, and they knew when them groceries hit the line no man would stand to post. They had followed the train back in and now they poured cannon fire into where their own wagons stood with our men swarming over them. They hit the lines in a dozen places at once and we held them in ten. Even as caught as we were, as starved as we were, as weak as we were, it almost didn’t work. They had to come in fast and light, and very nearly, we held. But there is no nearly in holding. You either win or you lose, and I got back to the line and watched them charge a hundred yards away, at the left flank, and I saw our men running again. Some knew it was far too late to do anything about it. Atlanta lay behind us and if we ran we would be fighting in Georgia next. But there were so many of them, and the shells were landing all around us. I picked up my rifle and ran.
Running gets easier. The first time is hard and you know you’ve left men to die, but you go anyway. You fight the next battle saying you won’t run again, but you do. You get to know other men who run, and you stay close to them so you can have somebody to run with. You’ll stop running sometimes long enough to fire once, maybe twice, to keep them from following close, but sometimes a man will stop running, to die fighting, and he will.
The sound of cannons was where we ran to, knowing if we made it close enough they wouldn’t chase us into that, but we didn’t make it. There was more and more and more of them. We got to the edge of the woods to see them taking the guns out on the hills. They had come in hard and with more than we could have thought possible. The first bullet damn near took Willis’ head off. I ran back into the woods, but I knew it was over.
They was using us for target practice. There was four of us, then three, then Calvin and me left. We got down in a shell hole and they stood back and laughed as they shot at us. They took turns, yelling and hollering when they got close, or one of us got hit, and I could feel the bullets hitting close as I hugged the ground. Calvin got hit and he jumped. They peppered him good for it, and I pulled his body over closer to where I was, and I wondered how much longer it would take. They opened up good then, and I wondered if they were trying to cut him to pieces to get to me, and I could hear the bullets hitting Calvin, and then one tore through him, and then another.
Time began again and I could smell nothing but blood and fear in the hole, if it could be called that. I stuck my head up to get a quick look and there was a dozen or so of them standing looking back at me, but none of them were shooting. I started to stand up, to try to surrender, then one of the dozen or so guys did this odd little dance, swaying back and forth with his arms. I couldn’t figure it out, and they all broke out laughing. I heard a twig snap and realized it was a ploy, but I couldn’t get turned around quick enough. The bayonet caught me in the right side and I screamed. I felt in all the way inside of me, more of me than I thought there ever was, and I was louder than I thought I could be. Time slowed down again, to a crawl, and I heard them knifing and sticking other hold outs and runners as I bled out, and died.