A Short Story by Pvt. Joshua Provan, 2nd Florida Volunteers
He stood there, waiting for death, he and five hundred other souls stood there, rooted in military discipline waiting for oblivion. Five hundred men; fresh faced farm boys, tougher laborers from the same fields, artisans from cities like Richmond and Charleston, veterans with sun tempered skin from the heat of Mexico and older men with the first flecks of grey invading their beards.
Waiting for death; the youth wipes sweat from his brow with his sleeve and replaces his kepi, low murmurs of conversation echo eerily along the line of grey and butternut, they stand on the edge of a forest of trees, dead leaves scatter the ground; a good place to fall? Comfortable. His gut is jumping and tying knots, the undersides of his arms feel wet and his lower legs and feet no longer have feeling, though he does not know it his pulse rate has shot up to an abnormal degree and his breathing is irregular and fast.
He keeps his gaze on the uncertain future, immediately through the trees, the thump and boom of guns has been echoing on for some time now; here and there a whoosh and snapping of twigs heralds a cannon ball zooming overhead and the line is peppered with debris.
He licks his dry lips with a sticky tongue, flinches for his water canteen but thinks better of it he may be of need of it later.
"Steady boys" the sergeant cries "It'll be soon now" and he stalks off, the boy's first taste of battle was blurring into a distant cacophony of sound and fear, gripping his British Enfield rifled musket tighter he listened to the whisper of battle, to his right the crackle and pop of musketry and the thump of guns.
To the left more gunfire and to his front, nothing, nothing but tree's. It was as if the whole span in front of him had been deprived of life, all death and thunder, nothing in front but foliage, nothing to the right but men and nothing but the flag to his left, a small square of red white and blue bunting, the blue St Andrews cross speckled with thirteen white stars on a blanket of blood red. Was this what he was fighting for, what he would shed his blood for? Was this the physical manifestation of the cause that they were now engaged, all enfolded in those sacred banners?
Officers strolled the line or stood smoking their pipes, waiting, "Oh God let it be over" he murmured softly, and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine. A rumble of horses hooves on the soft ground thudded from the left, heads turned all. The man said something to the Colonel, pointed to the front and waved his hand in a sweeping motion as if indicating a large force, for a time he stayed there just explaining, the ground maybe? The boy breathed in, closing his eyes as the man saluted, reined around and kicked off, whipping his horse on to further exertions.
"Here we go" said the man next to him, staring ahead of himself; into the void.
The Colonel, a fine tall man turned to his men, "Attention battalion!" the relaxed attitude of expectant fear and anticipation was snapped away, with a rattle of arms and the clink of equipment the line bristled to attention. "Men we are moving forward… Give me a cheer"
The high pitched shrieking yell coursed along the line of parched throats, the boy tried but his voice had deserted him all that issued was a hoarse howl. "Prepare to fix bayonets!"
He fumbled for the socket of his viciously sharp spear point, grasping it, breathless. "Fix…" with a swift rasp of steel on hardened leather they drew their weapons, positioning them over their musket barrels. "Bayonets!" Bellowed the colonel as the clatter of sockets grinding on the lugs on the barrels. "Shoulder arms!" The motion was carried out with a clatter of weapons, closing his eyes the boy clasped his stock tightly and reopened his lids, every sense was becoming sharper, Colors clearer, hearing crisper, and it scared him.
"Battalion, forward" Off went the Colors, hoisted high, Bolor parties of other regiments advanced also, "March!" Another howling shriek as the regiment stepped off, officers with swords drawn, if any of them could have panned up above them they would have been struck by the majesty and professionalism of the scene below, a long brownish grey line broken up by red flags tipped with gleaming shimmering steel advancing in somewhat ragged lines towards the tree line.
Step, step, step, step, his feat moving slower than the beat of his heart, he was losing all sense of time and space, instincts instead of mental actions ordering him forward, stumbling over roots and swerving around trees. All around the sound of snapping twigs and the brush of clothes on snagging branches. Daylight; he had always been sensible it, but had not recognized it, light spilling onto green grass ahead, through the slits on the forest edge, the slits growing larger with each passing step, a cannon ball whipped overhead leaves and twigs fell, the boy flinched, dropping his Enfield to both hands, before collecting himself and returning it to the shoulder. The slits were now gaps, the gaps were now passages, and they were through; staggering and disordered, every man looking for an officer to lead, "Dress ranks." "Dress to the right," "Form on the centre," "On the Colors form." Swiftly the line was made afresh, with much shuffling and barging, but no sooner had the files closed and steadied then were they opened once more, with a sickening series of thumps the boy watched as a battery of Federal artillery exploded in smoke, four twelve pound iron spheres whined towards them, he never knew how many hit, he just knew that some did, screams, he jammed his eyes shut.
"Close up," "Keep it tight boys." The field was stretched out before him, green and lush, had families maybe picnicked here before this, he tried not to think about his family, home.
The field, sloped gently up into a pine wood, he could see no infantry, just guns, belching flame and acrid gun smoke that wafted across the lush green land. All of a sudden it was painfully clear what was expected of him; of them, more gun fire and spherical death whizzed across the field bouncing, kicking up plumes of dirt pile driving on and toppling men like so many worthless skittles.
Something jumped in his stomach as the drummers finally struck their instruments and rapped out the march. "Forward March." The howl of the rebel yell shrieked down the line, banners held high and they struck off. The boy felt no fear now, not of battle, for he knew not what a battle was he was responding to the hours of drill that had been kicked into his head, his eyes staring ahead up into the pines at the top of the crest, he could taste smoke in his mouth, pinching the back of his mouth with a bite like a large stinging insect.
The guns roared again this time he did not flinch, he was not conscious enough of what he was doing understand that his movements were rushed and fumbling, that his mouth was hanging open in awe of what was going on around him, officers making the pace, swords held out from them, pointing to the enemy, was there an enemy over the crest, unseen, waiting, more cannon shots, they were hurling death at them every minute, the strange muffled metallic clang of the smoothbore Napoleon guns mocking them to get within canister range.
Now they were at the foot of the ridge, it was time, the guns re positioned themselves slightly, loading the deadly canvass bags into their pieces.
"At the double quick," the line started to jog forward, billowing from the centre, battle flag flapping as the momentum of the pace waved it, "Charge bayonets" another yell that this time did not die, but continued like Indian war whoops or hounds baying for the kill, "Froward!"
They were mounting the shallow incline quickly, then suddenly the guns fired, Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang a whoosh and screech of flying metal and, the line fell, front ranker's sprawled upon the grass with the nicest precision imaginable, men toppled over backwards or slumped over with a slap.
"Chaaaarge!" The yell increased in pitch as the gunners blasted them again, frenzied cries of "Close on the Colors boys,"
"Keep it tight!"
They were sprinting and they were going to make it, he was still alive unknowingly terrified but still alive, his eyes wild and shrieking like the rest, his bayonet lowered an thirsty.
Then it was as if a wall hit them, as if from out of the bowels of the earth emerged flags, larger then theirs, one blue the other, red white and blue, a bronzed eagle frowning down at them, then rose the wall of blue.
They hesitated, stalled, officers out front screaming at them to push on, men started shooting, disorganized spurts of uncontrolled fire, the boy raised his piece to his shoulder, aimed down the sights, aiming at another human being, he squeezed the trigger, the hammer came down, kicking him in the shoulder a plume of flame and smoke spat from the barrel.
He did not know whether he had killed the man or not for his own discharge hid the results from him, he fumbled for his cartridge box and with his hand shaking retrieved a small roll of greased paper, he bit the end off and poured half down the barrel, clenching the ball between his teeth, spitting the ball into his hand he dropped that down, followed by the rest of the charge and then the paper, with a clatter, out came the ramrod.
He had just finished, it had taken him about half a minute, his sergeant would have been swearing at him about now, when he heard "By battalion, make ready," with a clicking sound the federals hoisted their muskets high, "Present" with a clatter they were leveled, the boy discharged his piece, "Fire" suddenly everything turned into suspended motion, men all around him dropped, clutched wounds or had their legs taken out from under them, the flag dipped and was raised anew, somehow though the regiment had not been wiped out, somehow he was still alive.
"Come on boys, up and at em" bellowed the colonel with a yell born of the will to do or die the depleted horde of grey and butternut swarmed up the last few dozen yards, men stopping to pepper the Yankees with musketry and then rush on.
"It's a trench" someone yelled as they gained the lip, indeed it was, dirt had been pressed up high to the crest and covered with turf, men were firing into it, "Give em' southern steel boy's" yelled the colonel as he plunged in, with a whoop the grey tigers were in at them, the ferocity of the charge, their almighty gall at attempting it convinced their blue clad opponents that all was lost. Some fought, but whole bunches ran into the woods, abandoning the guns and their braver comrades alike.
"Their a runnin’!"
"Their a runnin’!"
Cheers resounded over the field of strife, the boy was breathless, staggering forward he collapsed next to a pine, clenching his eyes tightly he tried to stop shaking, still quivering he reached for his canteen an raised it to his lips, several drops of water trickled into his needy mouth, frustrated he examined the bottle, and started, a hole ha been driven right through it, he looked down his left trouser was soaked, in irritation he unslung it and chucked it away.
"Hey sonny, take mine," The boy looked up, around and then down a Yankee soldier, his head resting against a tree several feet away his hand clutching his left shoulder, he was looking at him with a kindly expression on his sweaty face.
"Come on boy I don't bite" He obeyed and took the canteen, he drank, long and thankfully, he then cupped the man's head and poured some into his mouth, the Yankee gasped gratefully, "Thank ye son" he said. The boy nodded dumbly, "You ever been in a fight like this son?" asked the wounded soldier, he shook his head, "I figured, listen sonny, you cant relax yet, cause we'll be a 'coming back soon" The look on the boy's face made the soldier pity him, he bobbed his head, "There's another regiment in those tree's, an you can probably here em' a coming" he could, the snapping of twigs and the clink of equipment was becoming more audible by the second,
"Were you from?"
"Huh I never met anyone from there… Listen you just stay calm sonny, it'll be fine, it was the same fer me the first time, it'll be fine"
Bullets started to smack into the trees, men of his regiment were planted against the tree line, muskets ready, officers and NCOs prowling the line,
"Steady boys, it'll be over soon" More shots, smoke filled the forest, the boy crouched lower, comrades from his battalion around him and the wounded soldier next to him. Dark forms appeared en masse, "Battalion, fire at will!" Fire spat along the line, tongues of flame leaped and jumped along the line, splinters of wood exploded off tree's and piles of pine needles exploded in shoots from the ground as bullets slammed into it.
The boy squeezed the trigger, the downed Union whispering calming things in the lad's ear, he was immediately lost in the swirl of battle, firing, loading, firing, aiming, loading and firing again at wispy targets that threatened to obliterate him, he was a part of a hundred little dramas, somewhere a soldier spiked himself on his bayonet, an officer was shot in the hand and held it away from himself so he might not stain his uniform, soldiers were shot down and wounded, stunned and carried away.
He could feel the subtle bond that ties a regiment together in battle, the Brothership of black powder welding them all together in a strange fraternity, the flag floating behind him as he mechanically loaded and fired, loaded and fired; time, he lost all track of it, he was possessed by a will to survive and be able to remember the thrill and the fear of this most terrible ordeal.
He was still firing when he felt a hand on his shoulder, he turned round shaking, his cheek and mouth black as pitch, and just as dry, and wounded soldier was staring at him.
"It's all over sonny, it’s all over.