It’s like being a leaf on a tree, or in a hot air balloon, or maybe it’s like being dead. I don’t think being dead is like anything at all and the idea of ghosts or spirits is an idea worn totally out like a wheel spinning forever and going nowhere at all. But I see the small campfire, and I see the men, and I see the earth below me, and I sink into the scene as if it were a movie that my mind has made for me to play a part in. I’m an extra here. I have no speaking parts. I don’t move in front of the camera to take orders or run in panting to deliver some message from the battle.
I lay against the shattered remains of a chimney and I do not care about the soot. I can feel the grime on my face from a hundred days of war with no time off for civilization. No clean clothes, no real food, no sort of sanitary conditions in any regard for nearly four months. Some of the men talk about how the fleas and mosquitoes and the lice start to give up on a man after a couple of weeks without bathing. There is no chance to take a dip in any of the creeks we come to because twenty thousand men make a mess of everything when they descend upon a valley or take up in a forest. We eat everything that is alive or that was. Men from the woods know what can be eaten and whole plants are pulled up by the roots. Bird nests are robbed of their eggs or their fledglings. I saw a man eat a sparrow raw, with just its head pulled off and the feathers plucked. We have scorched the earth of all living creatures to feed ourselves and our waste piles up as monuments to the glory we once sought. We are a monster making our way towards another monster to fight for the rights of Hell.
It’s odd the detail, the things I see here that a movie couldn’t show. There are men here who have never worn shoes or boots before. They wouldn’t own a pair if they were given the choice because bare feet are better footing than boots. The soles of their feet are thick and leathery. They make fun of those of us who desperately need footwear and these are the same men who are nearly immune to the cold. They live in the open much better than the rest of us, and they are better shots with their rifles, too. These men carry weapons that are patched together from a war seventy years long dead, when their forefathers fought not for the nation but to save themselves from war. Pick the winning side and make sure the winning side wins, is the old joke they tell but now it is wearing thin. These are men who have begun to reach their limit in this war. Some have melted away already, never to be seen again. There is no real effort to catch deserters now, and there are too many of them anyway. Men don the bloody uniforms of the recently killed and limp South to get away. The story of three brothers who pretended to be blind, with one who was faking being half blind, is told again and again. These stories are spoken in hushed voices lest an officer wander up at the wrong moment, or a stray Sergeant who might be fraught enough to try to instill discipline on a dying army could arrive. These are men who have run out of miracles and almost out of bullets.
There is a raid and some volunteer so they can slip towards the north in the dark without being seen. Surrender alone and they might feed you. You might pass for a Union soldier if you play mute. They might pass you by and you can make a new life there, where towns aren’t burned and fields aren’t blasted. You could find the widow of a dead man who needs a field hand and you could start all over again. One man out of ten on this raid slips away in the dark. Half will return to camp and claim they got lost. The truth is known; they just lost their nerve to go on, or get away. The other half will try to escape in the dark, and if they are found they know they’ll be shot by either side, but they have to try something. Men try to hide in holes like animals but after four months of fighting they smell worse than death. They’re found out and they die in the holes, like animals, but at least they get buried.
There’s a joke that has been going around since ’62 that the wild pigs that follow us taste better than those that follow the enemy. They’re wily animals, staying well far enough away so they don’t get shot at or eaten, but near enough to close in after the battle. “Pig Stickers” is what some men call their knives because it is the last weapon you’ll have to keep them off of you if you’re wounded. At Sawmill Hill they put the wounded in a cave to keep them safe and the back part of the cave was filled with pigs hiding from the war. The battle pushed the line past the cave twice, but when they went to get the wounded all was left was the eye glasses and teeth and some bones. Some of the men think the pig stories are lies made up to keep men from crawling off to die, but I don’t think dying men would get lied to like that.
Sometimes you’re where you are because that is where you wound up. Say what you want but every man getting ready to go on the raid knows it’s an act of desperation and each one knows the war is already lost. Each one keeps fighting for his own reason, and maybe for no reason other than this is where he is. You might argue with that and you might be right. But this is where I am, and I cannot leave. I can’t help but wonder how many of us are like this.