The Wilderness Virginia, 1864

The woods were dotted here and there in the clear places with blue. Some clearings were filled with blue troops who had bunched up after finding no way through the thicket of trees and brush that lay before them. The noise of their movement echoed eerily amongst the trees and brush that lay all around them, swallowing up their whole regiment.

Occasionally there was the quick pop of a single musket, the smoke lost also amongst the trees, then the sharp crack and dull thump of the ball hitting flesh, a man would fall, and the men would keep going. The dead or wounded man would simply be moved off the path, bandaged if he may survive, and given a few words of encouragement. The officers didn’t need to give any particular orders, all of them knew what would be said if they did; “keep moving, press on.”

First Lieutenant Michael Rudd tripped over yet another root, catching himself with his left hand and the butt of the Spencer carbine he carried. He swore softly to himself as he fealt the jarring pain in his wrist. The shock of breaking the butt of his Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver on a Confederate’s skull had also done damage to his wrist which, at least so said the doctors, “should heal with time”.  He pushed himself back to his feet and looked back over his shoulder, behind him he saw the thin line of Union soldiers making the slow and treacherous journey through this landscape.

He’d heard Sullivan, an Irishman who’d served in Mexico and was now a sergeant, say that God must have been preoccupied when he set to making this land. Rudd didn’t particularly believe one way or the other about God or any of that, but he had to agree, He did seem to have other things on his mind at that exact moment when He’d been creating this part of Virginia.  He caught himself grinning, his hometown on the Middle Peninsula wasn’t much to look at, but he’d never thought he’d wish for those woods to cross through. Especially since his was the lead platoon in the company advance. He heard the pop of another musket from up ahead, the man five in front of him went down, the back of his head blown away. The man behind him moved him unceremoniously to the side and took out his handkerchief to wipe the blood from his face. Nothing was said, what good would it do the poor soul now?

Rudd gently nudged the man in front of him, a new man from New York who’d never seen combat before. He didn’t envy the poor boy of this being his first taste. He wondered what he must be thinking at the moment. Probably so full of fear that if he saw his own shadow he’d shoot at it. Rudd looked up and couldn’t see the sun at all, no, no shadows to shoot at, lad, just keep moving, he thought. There was a dull boom from what sounded a great distance, no way to tell how near or how far. He wondered if it was a Rebel gun firing for the sake of firing, or perhaps they’d seen the movement of the tree tops.

He decided to make a note of that as the trees twelve yards to his right exploded in a shower of earth and bits of woods, a solid shot now tearing up through the air again and then bouncing once more toward the rear. The man in front of him flinched violently, then stood still, a look of shame upon his young, yet to shave features. “Sir, I…” He began, but he didn’t need to say it, nor could he in his shame. His trousers were darker through the groin area, a little trickle down his leg also. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, lad, same thing happened to me first time a ball came that close.” Rudd said, not much encouragement, but what did the boy expect? If he’d wanted reassurance he should have gone to Church instead of the enlistment office. The boy turned back around and kept walking, slowly, ever so slowly. A creeping, stumbling kind of march that in and of itself was far worse than actual battle.

The uncertainty of whether it was just a shadow or a man aiming right at you, waiting for the perfect moment to fire and kill you. There was another pop, another man fell, this one screaming like all the damned souls in Satan’s collection in Hell. As the wounded man was moved he saw that there was little if anything that could be done. His stomach had a large hole in it now, bleeding profusely. Another man, thinking he was doing a kindness started to give the man his canteen. “Stop! Don’t give him that, it’ll only make it worse for him.” Rudd heard himself say. He’d learned that the hard way too, just like everything else these poor fellows had to learn through going on four years of war.

He’d learned in the Crimea the agony it could cause a man with a stomach wound just to have one sip of water. That seemed long ago now, even further back than his days at West Point, just before the war. He wondered if anything would ever be the same after all he had experienced.

He knew she was back home now, back with her family in that small town on the Peninsula. She’d left just before the war, their home in New York empty after she’d packed her things to leave. He tried to force it away but couldn’t fight the images and sounds of their last argument. She declaring it was either the United States Army or her, demanding that if he were to say in the Army and fight against his own that she wanted, no, demanded a divorce. He’d not raised his voice, not struck her, though she had pushed him that far. He’d simply said; “I am a soldier in the United States Army, my duty is to my country, not my place of birth”. She’d wailed like a lost soul in torment and collapsed. Her tears and crying hurting far more than any words she ever could have said. He’d told her he would give her the divorce if that was what she truly wanted of him, that though he loved her he would not shackle her to someone she was now loath to even look at. She’d cursed him in a way that not only would no lady employ, but which was also surprising for her and her seeming inability to hate that much.

Even now his ears rung with the sound of her curses, then the hollow voice, his own, “I am a soldier in the United States Army, my duty is to my country, not my place of birth”. He faintly heard a sound from in front of him, then a great shout which drove into his mind with the force of a thousand cannon. “They’re right in front of us!” It was Sullivan and the others in front of him who knew it first. The Confederates had placed themselves behind a low rise of earth, fallen trees and roots. Then he saw the flash of a sword, the gleam of bayonets as they rose to the shoulders of at least a battalion of men, then he waited, holding his breath without realizing it. Then he heard the drawl of the shouted order, simple, horrible, and final all in one word of condemnation for any who stood before it’s effect.

“Fire!” The line of bayonets disappeared as the flame and smoke of the volley erupted from the muzzles of hundreds of rifle muskets. Then came the sickening, terrible sound of the balls passing by, some finding flesh and bone, others tress, some just continuing on on their deadly way. He flung himself to the ground, pulling the lad in front of him down by his pack. “Spread out! Take cover and return fire!” He shouted, raising his Spencer up to do precisely that. He sighted in on a small patch of gray just visible through the smoke. He breathed in, let some of it out, holding the rest in, steadying his nerves and his whole body though they cried out for reason, for him to turn and run from this assured Death that lay before him.

 But he would not heed them, a hundred reasons flashed through his brain, his duty as a soldier, his own self respect, and finally, the one that meant the most, he couldn’t leave his men. He squeezed back on the trigger, felt the hard recoil of it, automatically working the lever and pulling back on the hammer again. The gray spot disappeared from his sight, dead, wounded, he didn’t know, or perhaps just swallowed up by the smoke of the fight. It was then he knew this march hadn’t been one of advance, not even close, it had been their own walk with Death.