Fragment of a Bill Merrit Story

I wrote this a long while ago, when I thought I could be a writer. I kind of like it…but it never went anyplace:

It is 1863, and we (James and me) have been in the army for, oh, almost a year now, within which we have fought in three major battles and marched hundreds and hundreds of miles. As I watch the steam rise from my breath in this frigid air, and watch the steam rising from the breaths of my ‘enemy’ across the way, it seems amazing to me that we survived this long. We were always in the thickest of  the fighting we participated in, except for Fredricksburg where we had a great show of our brave boys being slaughtered on Maryes’ Heights. More than once I heard the grim whistle of death as that thick pellet  of lead whistled past my head or plucked at my coat or pants. Fortunately,  neither me or James have been wounded yet. I wonder how long that will last. We have lost a passle of friends already. Will our names be joining that tragic roll within the coming years? I don’t know. I don’t know why I stay in this. It is supposed to be for God, Country, family and friends, I know. But what does that mean? Who really cares if I die here?  If I go now and hide away until they stop looking for me, I can live my life married with my wife and kids around me and, assuming my conscience lets me, have a wonderful life. If I stay here, I will probably die, and my mother and family will be grief stricken. Who would stay with those choices to be made? Yet I stay.

The night was cold and silent. Though it was the middle of  the watch, say, about 10 o’clock, it wasn’t dark. With the moon out, the light reflecting off the snow was enough to give a twilight feel about the woods. It wasn’t exactly silent either. The silence was that of a winter night, silent but overlaid with the various sounds of  the woods, the occasional sounds of  footsteps in the snow and the wind whooshing through the trees.

I was standing picket post; that is, outermost fringe of this great army gathered together to fight the Great Rebellion. The post was a rough semi-circle of logs and dirt facing South, an embankment to protect me from the hostile intentions of the Southernmen standing in exactly the same kind of post a few hundred yards south of me. It’s not that they would really shoot me if they saw me. There was a rough code of ethics about this thing evolved around the simple fact that it was uncomfortable to have to huddle behind the post, uncomfortable for both sides and that the war would not advance one iota if I shot an enemy picket. Nor if he shot me. So there was usually an informal truce around the picket posts which allowed us to get up and walk around occasionally, even to meet with the other side in-between posts to trade tobacco, newspapers, coffee and news. No, the embankment was for the sake of  the officers who occasionally walked around to see if we were doing our jobs. When such an unpleasantness came about, the side in question would call out, “hey Yank, officer coming. Duck or I’ll have to shoot.” Then we would huddle behind our logs and pretend that there was actually a war going on until the officer left. Occasionally a new man would not understand this way of life and would not duck in time. In which case a bullet whizzing by his ear made it all to clear where is rear end should be. These were usually warning shots, but sometimes they weren’t.

My brother James was sleeping next to me. That is, he was trying to sleep. He was not the type who likes the cold ground, and he never quite got the hang of sleeping in 10 below weather next to a fire with a thin blanket over him. Me, I could sleep anywhere if I was tired enough. For James these picket posts were hell. He never got enough sleep, ate rarely and came back from the week-long stint exhausted and, more often than enough, sick for a week after. The schedule was 4 hours on and four hours off, 24 hours at a stretch, and it was very trying on a soldier’s health. Especially in the winter.

I signed up for this thing for God and country, to have a lark and to be with my brothers James and Welcome in the Noble Fight. It seemed so innocent then. I never thought I’d be dead. I’ve aged a century in the past year and now I know I’ll be dead. Maybe not soon, but some day. While I love life even more for having witnessed so much death, I wonder why I care so little that I might be dead tomorrow. Is it the comfort of comrades and friends? Or is it the fact that I am dead inside and I truly don’t care.

It is hard to discuss this with other comrades and friends. No one really speculates like this here. Each of us is here for different reasons, and none of the other’s reasons are terribly relevant to me. They are not terribly deep. Some of  the guys are here because they were told to be so, either by the government draft or by their wives or by their inner voice which told them they had to go and fight for their country. Few of these think about questioning this type of command, but accept it as their due in life and go to the slaughter with an ignorant innocence I find scary.

I wonder when the change occurred. Was it at Chancellorsville, when we were cut off and looked as if the whole Corps was done for? Gettysburg, when we were ordered to stand at all costs, and charged a Confederate line that overlapped ours on both sides and looked endless from the middle? I don’t know. Somewhere at either end of those two time lines, or in the middle some place, something died, or was born, inside of me and I was a different person. I grew up, or aged, or something of the sort.

Chancellorsville was to be the end of the war. a few months before the army had suffered major defeats. First at Fredricksburg, where the best of us were slaughtered in futile attacks. Then a few weeks later during the ‘Mud March,’ where we never got anyplace, stuck in mud, but were further humiliated by the Confederate taunting from across the river at our impotence. We felt impotent, and thousands deserted at that point feeling, quite rightly, that the country had abandoned us, sacrificing us at the altar of political expediency.

Then came Joe Hooker. Hooker was a boozer and a womanizer, from everything I’ve heard, but when he was placed in charge of the army, the whole mood changed within a few days. Suddenly we had decent food, decent clothing, we were drilling regular and we felt like an army again. No one said anything, but you could see it on the faces of the men, more smiling, joking and card playing than sitting around carping. I remember saying to James that Joe Hooker was a fighter, and that the next one would be the beginning of the end of the war and we nodded our heads and really believed it. James never commented much at these ‘strategy sessions,’ but agreed with most of what I said. I, of course, in my youthful arrogance, had already planned how to end the war, if only the top brass would listen to me. Surprisingly, they must have because what happened in truth followed closely what I had written in the sand that one night. At least the first part.

In any case, May 1 the long roll sounded, and we gathered our equipment and marched off to the fray, me and James and the 350 or so that was left of the 1000 who had followed the regiment from Goshen, NY last August. We were the hardy ones, the tough ones, the ones who had survived the heat and the cold and the marches and the disease and the dying just for the sake of dying. We were going to end the war. We left the camp with our hearts almost singing, our voices raised in song – ‘the Union Forever, hurrah boys hurrah, down with the traitors and up with the stars oh, we’ll rally round the flags, boys, rally once again, shouting the Battle Cry of Freeeeeedom. It was a glorious day, the sun shining, the flags flapping in the wind, the trees just getting their leaves.

I’m sure you’ve all read of the battle of Chancellorsville, so I won’t go into detail here. It’s still confusing to me anyway, what happened and all. What I am clear about is this. Around 3:00 on May 2 we were ordered out to go chasing after the Confederates. The word was that they were retreating, and we were going to go chasing them. Now, that was new, and while we were gratified to hear of it, somehow to me there was something odd about it. The Confederates had whipped us every time we’d met. Confederates retreating without a fight? It felt odd to me, but, who knows, maybe Joe Hooker HAD stolen a march on Bobby Lee, and maybe we were going to have a race to Richmond after all. In any case, ours was not to question.

So, we set off on the road south, passing other troops of the Second Corps sitting idly by (which was odd too; was this a pursuit or what)?. We heard some sharp skirmishing, then sounds of what appeared to be a brisk fight up ahead of us, and we were hurrying up to join the fray when we heard fighting and shouting off to our right, then the long steady roar of infantry fire, then the booming of cannon to our right. This was not as it was supposed to be. WE were supposed to be chasing the Confederates. Then we were ordered to stop; I took the chance to build a quick fire and get my coffee going. But we were ordered up again too soon for me to enjoy it. It was getting dark by this time, the commotion in the West was still going on, and our officers were passing down our line cautioning us to be very quiet and very quick in our march. This made us very nervous and, as events turned out,  we had a right to be, because our situation could not have been more desperate.

Here is what happened. What we saw as retreating Confederates were actually the tail end of a column of Confederates who were sweeping around the right flank of our army. As we were skirmishing with this rear-guard, Stonewall Jackson was preparing his troops for a massive blow against us. He struck like a thunderbolt and caved in the right flank of our army, sending the 10,000 men of the eleventh corps fleeing as a disorderly rabble and leaving no organized force to oppose his cutting off our army from the Rapidan river!

Even worse, unbeknownst to him (apparently), the Third Corps was completely cut off and, as it turned out, completely surrounded by the Confederate army. If they had had an inkling of this, they could have captured us lock stock and barrel. If WE had had an inkling of this, it is very likely the Corps would have dissolved into a fleeing mass of very scared soldiers. There is little that will disorganize a mass of soldiers more than the rumor that they are flanked and/or surrounded. We were in as desperate a pickle as any Corps of the Army of the Potomac was ever in. The only hope for us was to quietly try to make our way back to our main lines; that is, 8,000 of us had to sneak unobtrusively through the woods in the middle of the night, with all our guns, canteens and metal-ware silenced, because the slightest noise would have awakened the Confederates to what was in front of them. On top of this, it is quite probable that the officers in charge didn’t know where the main line was! Which meant we could just as easily have blundered into the Confederate main line as the Federal. And either main line, jittery in the night as they were, were more than likely to open up with every gun they had as a large body of men approached them in silence, as we were doing. I don’t think it hard for anyone to imagine what desperate straits we were in. It is hard not to be proud of the officers and men of a Corps that could have successfully pulled a feat like this off.

This is where I learned what fear was. We all have had a more or less intimate acquaintance with fear. In the middle of the night, as children, we wake up and think of monsters hiding under the bed, huge hairy monsters just waiting for us to slip our head out from under the covers to gobble us up. We hide under the covers in terror until the morning light brings peace. There are the nightmares which wake us up suddenly from sleep, shivering and sweating, heart beating until we calm ourselves down, or maybe don’t calm down for a couple of days. There is the fear of falling, which most of  us have had; I know that I have a hard time going up a ladder. heights make me dizzy, and I won’t go near to the edge of a cliff if I don’t have to. There is the fear of losing a loved one, the fear of a mother waiting for her son to come home from the war, the wife as she receives a telegram from the war department.

I daresay that little of this can come close to the fear a soldier lives with day and night as he hears the boom of the cannon. This is a blind fear, a numbing fear, a fear which paralyzes the muscles and, at the same time, energizes the feet to fly, fly away from the danger as soon as one can. It freezes the blood and tightens the skin and causes the bowels to loosen up and let go. The horror of it is that the soldier never loses this fear. It is with him constantly, maybe not at the fore, but always lurking in the shadows of his being. Some of us have no control over this, and are termed ‘cowards’. Some of us manage to continue on despite of it, and some of us triumph over it and perform feats of daring-do, becoming ‘heroes’. I’ve never found it in my heart to condemn those who run from the sounds of guns. Who is smarter, the one who stays in the thick of bullets flying, plunging on into certain death for reasons which can’t be explained, or the one who takes flight, following his primitive instincts for the safety of silence? I can say, after three major battles and many many minor skirmishes, that the urge to fly has always been with me. Why I don’t heed it, I don’t know, except I’d be deserting my brother and friends who are also in danger, because I can’t shame myself in front of them by flight. Intellectually, to me, these seem like foolish reasons to face death. I do it, but I’m not proud of it. To me it makes me a poser, one who seeks to show his bravery off to his fellow soldiers.

In any case, this was the first battle I was in where my life was in danger, and, even though I didn’t know the full situation, the danger was real enough so that I can honestly say the fear was greater at this time than it has ever been before. It could not get worse. Somehow, I found myself moving, doing the right things, but it was not on a conscious level. It was like in a dream, as if someone else was moving my limbs. The nightmarish trek through the darkened woods, falling over vines, ruts, logs, branches slapping us in the face, trying to keep oh so quiet, but hearing the sounds of curing, crashing and the tramp, tramp, tramp of thousands of feet nevertheless. It seemed to me that everyone for miles around should have heard us, yet there was no sound in our immediate neighborhood.

And, in all, the sounds of battle ahead of us, welcoming us and warning us what we had to face in the future.

As happens in life, the reality of what faced us was, in the same turn, better and worse than our fears. As we debouched from the woods, ahead of us we saw an amazing sight. To our left we saw the Confederate lines, disorganized but forming up to charge. Ahead of us we saw General Sickles, head of our Corps, frantically waving the infantry up as we came up from the woods, directing us to form line behind the guns that he was desperately getting into line to face the Rebels. We had nothing to fear from friendly forces firing at us; there were no friendly forces at all to face the soon-to-be oncoming Rebels. We were it, and we were not in any position to stop the Rebels. All there were were a few cannon, with more coming up, but not in position either yet. We needed at least a half hour, and it was obvious the enemy wasn’t going to give us the time. We started off at a trot, tired as we were, desperately racing for our position, knowing that it was hopeless.

Then we saw, in our exhaustion, one of the most wonderful and horrible sights I had yet to see. A troop of cavalry was forming up ahead of us, and we saw these brave troopers charge the Confederate lines. Outnumbered as they were, they charged off in gallant style, trumpets blazing, down the narrow country road into their certain death. Forming up in columns of fours, they began trotting towards the Confederate line, down a narrow dirt road, trees hemming them in on both sides. They could barely be seen in the gloom, in the moon-lit night they looked like a large reptile, glinting and sparling. Then the Rebels opened fire, and gaps appeared in the reptile, but the reptile kept on moving. Onwards, onwards they went, great rents tearing into the fabric of that coiling body, yet they never paused or stopped until there was little more of them left to go on, then they slowly retired. We cheered and cheered the bravery of these few heros. But they didn’t hear our cheers. For few of them survived this futile charge. Their line of attack was marked by the huddled bodies of the dead, the writhing, screaming shapes of the wounded men and horses. They had done their job, stopping the Rebels for a critical half hour, in which time our cannon was ready to fire. And, in a little more time, we were in line ready to oppose anything which came against us. I later learned that these men were of the 8th New York Cavalry, and a finer group of men never existed. I hope when the final judgement is called, they will be there for me to shake their hand. They probably saved my life that night, certainly saved the army and most likely the Union cause. They were brave men.

There is something about a man on a horse. Men who are taller than their fellow men seem taller in real life. Put that same man on a horse, and he feels that he owns the world. That, at least, is how we felt about the cavalry. The old saying around the troops is that we never saw a dead cavalryman. These guys were the kings of the army, sauntering around on their horses with the assumption that they were better than the common infantryman….

For day now the cavalry had been gathering for the big raid on Brandy Station. This was to be their big show, the big showdown between the oft belittled Union Cavalry and JEB Stuart, the bold knight, the Confederate Cavalry commander who had so dominated the war from this point. Stuart had humiliated our cavalry from the very beginning of the war, often riding around our army with impunity. This time we would show him up!

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