The Long Ride to Destiny
The company of infantry stood in formation east of Durham Station and waited. It seemed to Seth that most of the time, all they did was wait. The battle seemed to be over; at least no one was shooting anymore. They were waiting on the Captain. Waiting gave Seth time to think, and he didn't like what he thought about.
Seth frowned as he remembered how he was three years before. The naive farm boy he'd been then was excited that the Confederacy was asking for young men to form an army for the defense of Virginia. He was eighteen then, and remembered the pride with which his grandpa had talked about the war with the British in 1812.
Grandpa Moore never said much about the fighting. Seth had once heard him speak of a friend who'd been killed at the Battle of Baltimore. Grandpa Moore was very ill when he told that story to Seth. His voice had been quiet, and wavered just a little when he spoke of the friend.
Seth remembered that story, but the boy Seth didn't really comprehend what Grandpa Moore was saying, so he filed that story away in the back of his mind. He chose to instead remember Grandpa's other stories about the bravery of the militia and how they'd defended the homes and property of the residents and finally defeated the British. Seth longed to be able to speak of such experiences to his own grandchildren someday. As sometimes seemed to happen in his life, he'd been provided the opportunity to experience, and he hoped, be a part of just such an event.
News of the issues leading up to the formation of the Confederacy and cessation of Virginia and other states from the Union didn't often reach the small farmhouse where Seth lived with his mother and father. They didn't have time to be concerned with the politics of the rich landowners anyway. There were crops and garden to tend and livestock to care for, wood to cut for the fires, hay to be put up to feed the horses and cow through the winter, and in the fall, hunting for meat for the winter. From the time he was ten, Seth had done his share every day, and then gone to bed tired as the last light of evening slowly faded into the black of night.
Seth hadn't heard about the worries of the plantation owners concerning their rights relative to owning slaves. His father didn't own slaves. Their small farm produced only enough to sustain Seth's family. They did sometimes barter for things they couldn't make, but never sold any grain or meat, so he didn't understand what the traveling medicine man had said about tariffs on tobacco and cotton.
What he understood was that the people of Virginia had decided to join with several other states to form a new government. That new government was threatened by the Union, said the medicine man who stopped to sell them a tonic that smelled like rotten fruit, and men were going to be needed to defend the homes and property of the residents of Virginia.
Seth left his home the next day for Abingdon. His mother cried on his shoulder and begged him to hide in the hills until the war was over. His father didn't cry, but his voice was halting and unsteady when he hugged Seth and told him he was proud. Seth shouldered the bag with an extra set of homespun woolen clothes, a Bible, and some ham and cheese to eat along the way.
About a mile from his parent's home was the small cabin where the Dorset's lived. Seth had known Elizabeth, their seventeen-year-old daughter since he could remember. The both went to the same little church on the ridge, and they'd played together every Sunday after services while the womenfolk were getting the noon meal ready.
As they both grew older, Seth began to have feelings about Elizabeth he didn't understand. He knew he liked her. He didn't know why just seeing her on Sunday made him so happy. If she came close to him for some reason, and she seemed to do that often, his every sense intensified and his body seemed to tingle all over. He also noticed that on those times, her eyes seemed to sparkle more than others.
His father noticed how Seth acted around Elizabeth and hinted she would make a good wife. That suggestion had taken Seth aback at first, but the more he thought about it, the more the idea pleased him. He would have to find land to farm, of course, but there was twenty acres of woods on the farm he could clear and plant. Seth didn't know if Elizabeth felt the same way about him, but he'd been going to ask her that Sunday. Now, he was going to tell her he was going off to defend her and her family against the Union Army. He thought she'd be proud of him. Instead, a tear rolled down her left cheek, then another down her right.
"You'll be gone for three whole years?"
"Probably not. That's just the term of the enlistment. General Lee wants an army of four hundred thousand men. Can you imagine that many men? The Union can't stand up to that and they know it. I'll probably be back home in a few months. Even if it takes longer, I'll get paid eleven dollars a month. If I don't spend any of it, and I don't intend to, I'll come home with some real money, maybe enough to start farming on my own."
"I think it's just dumb. What if you get shot or something?"
"I'll be in a fort, so the Union soldiers will have to show themselves and I'll shoot them first. Don't worry, I won't get myself shot."
Elizabeth didn't say anything more. She just stood on her tiptoes, kissed him on the cheek, and then ran back into the little cabin. Seth heard her crying, and then her mother saying something about men doing what they had to do. He turned back down the road and started to Abingdon.
Seth arrived in Abingdon that afternoon and walked into chaos. There were men in uniform, men on horses, men trying to thread teams and wagons through the mess, and lots of men like himself trying to find out where to go. Seth saw a man in a gray uniform with three blue stripes on each sleeve and asked him where he could sign up for the army.
"Farm boy, see that tent over there, the one with the table in front? That's where you go to sign up. They'll tell you what to do after that."
The rest of the day was a blur of people in uniform telling him to go here, go there, or stand still. A doctor looked him over and pronounced him fit, then sent him to a large wagon with a tent nearby. There, Seth was issued two gray uniforms, a kepi cap, and a pair of ankle high boots. He changed inside the tent, and stuffed his old clothes in his shoulder bag. When he came out, the man in charge directed him to a building guarded by several men in gray uniforms.
Inside the building stood rack upon rack of Fayetteville rifles. Seth left the building with a rifle, a bayonet in a sheath, a small pouch for rifle caps, and a wood box on his belt with holes for paper cartridges. His orders were to form up with other new recruits in a field just outside of town.
He found over a hundred men there, some his age, some almost old enough to be his father. They were standing or sitting around the tall, conical tents laid out in a grid. Another uniformed man with three blue stripes yelled at him to go find a tent with fewer than twenty men, put his bag inside and wait for orders.
The next several weeks began in excitement but soon became boring. It was up at sunrise to eat and then drill. Drill meant marching in formation and starting, stopping, and turning when the company sergeant yelled at them. During these two hour long exercises, Seth sometimes remembered plowing with his father's team, Jim and Jake. It was the same as drill – giddup, gee, haw, whoa, except Jim and Jake didn't complain under their breath as did some of the men in the formation.
After drill, the sergeant would have them clean up the camp, then they'd drill some more. After eating, they'd practice shooting their rifles, or practice fixing bayonets and stabbing burlap sacks full of sand. Then it was more drill. After two weeks, Seth didn't have to think much anymore. His body reacted to the commands of the sergeant without much conscious effort on his part.
Each night after supper, two squads of ten men each were designated to guard the camp, although Seth couldn't figure out what they were guarding against. Guard duty was two hours of walking around the camp with his rifle and two hours of sleep, two hours walking and two hours of sleep, until the bugle sounded the next morning.
When not on guard duty, Seth read his Bible as did some of the other men. The rest would play cards, wagering their meager pay or tobacco. If they had a pass from camp, they could go into Abingdon. In Abingdon, those so inclined could drink beer or whiskey, or if they had enough money, engage in what Daniel Dodd, a private from the Richmond called "horizontal refreshment." When Seth asked what that was, Daniel grinned.
"You got a pass and a dollar?"
"You be out here by the gate right after supper, an' me and a couple of my mess mates'll show you.
The four men showed their passes to the sentry, and when he told them to pass, they walked down the road toward Abingdon. Seth could see the houses of the town when Daniel said, "Here, this way", and turned down a narrow dirt path through the trees. At the end of the path was a small cabin, much like the home Seth had left. Daniel stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door. A few seconds later the door was opened by a red-haired woman, who peered around the door, then smiled and said "Come on in, gents."
At the door end of the cabin was a table, three chairs, and a bed. At the opposite side was a fireplace. A pot of something that smelled like beef stew hung over the coals. After days of salt pork and potatoes, the smell made Seth's mouth water. He hoped they'd come for a good meal.
"Sally Ann, Would you be of a mind to give some poor soldiers a little of your talents?"
Sally Ann smiled at Daniel.
"If you'd be of a mind to give this poor girl a dollar of your pay, I would indeed."
To Seth, Sally Ann looked to a little older than his mother, and was a little on the plump side. He was thinking she was also not as pretty as his mother when he saw Daniel hand the woman a one dollar Confederate bill. Sally Ann walked to a shelf on the wall beside the bed and put the bill in a small wooden box. Then, she turned, smiled and untied the drawstring of her skirt. After working it over her hips, she let it fall to the floor, stepped out of the pile of fabric, and laid it on the end of the bed. Sally Ann quickly undid the buttons on the front of her blouse, slipped it from her shoulders, and laid it on top of the skirt.
Seth stood there with his mouth hanging open. He'd never seen a woman take off her clothes, not even his mother, but he was certain women wore something under a skirt and blouse. He'd seen his mother's pantaloons and chemise when she did the washing.
Sally Ann was naked except for her stockings. Her large breasts moved softly as she breathed, and the nipples sitting on the darker skin of her nipple beds seemed to get larger. Sally Ann laid down on the bed, rubbed her belly and then let her hand move down to stroke the mass of dark red curls between her thighs. She smiled and said, "Come here, darlin' and let me make you feel a whole lot better."
In seconds, Daniel had walked to the bed and pulled his pants down around his ankles. Sally Ann opened her thighs revealing more dark red hair covering her sex. Daniel stroked his hardening shaft until Sally Ann used her fingertips to gently pull apart the lips hiding in the red curls. He knelt between Sally Ann's thighs, inserted his manhood between those lips and slowly sank into Sally Ann's depths. Leaning forward, he sucked one of Sally Ann's nipples into his mouth.
Sally Ann began to moan and rock her hips up and down. Daniel stroked his stiff shaft in and out of her body, slowly at first, then faster. After only a couple minutes, Sally Ann cried out, "Oh, I am gone." and began such a rocking of her hips that Daniel gasped. He made three more strokes, then plunged his shaft deep and made a few short, quick strokes. He eased down into the cradle of Sally Ann's thighs, breathing hard. Sally Ann pulled his face to her breasts.
A few minutes later, Daniel eased off the bed and pulled up his trousers. He grinned at Seth.
"My boy, that is horizontal refreshment, an' I'm feelin' refreshed."
Sally Ann reached under the pillow, pulled out a piece of cloth, and wiped between her thighs, then looked at the three other men.
"Would any of you other gentlemen care for a ride in my soft saddle?"
Seth watched as one of Daniel's friends handed Sally Ann another dollar and dropped his trousers while she placed it in the same box. She layed back and beckoned the man with her outstretched arms.
"Come to Mama, Honey. Mama wants that root between your legs inside her little nest."
Seth stepped outside the cabin. He was shocked, disgusted, and ashamed to have seen what he'd just witnessed. The Bible said it wasn't right for a man to lie with a woman before they were married, and yet, these men were doing just that. They would burn in hell, of that Seth was certain. He wasn't sure just watching was as bad, but he knew it was still a sin. As Seth walked back to camp by himself, he wondered if being killed defending your government would give him at least some pardon when he stood before the Creator.
The next morning, Seth was standing in formation, daydreaming about home and Elizabeth when the Sergeant yelled "Attention". He snapped to the stiff, upright position he'd been taught as the Captain took his place in front of the formation. He announced they had been given a unit name and were going to change locations. Seth and some others thought that meant they were going north to keep the Union out of Virginia. Seth was very happy. He'd signed up to protect Virginia, and now he was going to be a part of history. That afternoon, after breaking down the camp and packing everything into wagons, the Sixty Third Infantry Regiment of Virginia formed up and marched out of town. Unknown to any of them except the Captain and his staff, they were marching to Tennessee.
Seth's first experience of what it meant to be a soldier came at Stone's River. It began with excitement as the company moved into position, changed to awe at the sight of both the Union and Confederate armies strung out in battle lines over the land, and then became unspeakable terror as the first cannon rounds burst in the middle of the Confederate lines. The grizzled corporal to his right said "Seth, old son, them cannon balls is a'headed our way, I think. We'd best move to the side a bit." Seth heard the "Whoosh" of the cannon ball and dived to the ground. When he heard the "whump", he looked up.
For a second the corporal stood upright and quivered as his heart pumped streams of bright red blood from where his head had once sat on his shoulders. Then, he fell to the ground beside Seth and the shooting streams of blood splattered into Seth/s tunic. Seth quickly rolled away and got to his feet, then crouched down as the whizzing sound of mini balls filled his ears. The rest of the company was running toward the sound of rifles and cannon. Seth didn't know what else to do, so he followed them.
As Seth ran, he prayed that God would somehow spare him the fate of the man with no head. When he reached the battle line, three more men fell at the front. Two lay still on the ground. The third clutched his leg and screamed in pain. Seth prayed that the fighting would end soon. It didn't.
After the first row of the Confederate line had fired their rifles, two of them pulled the man to the rear. More men fell as the second line raised their rifles and fired, but Seth didn't really see them. His legs were weak as he stepped in front of the second row of riflemen, raised his rifle and tried to aim.
It was impossible to see the Union line. There was so much powder smoke from the rifles and cannon he only caught fleeting glimpses of blue uniforms. Seth pointed his rifle in the general direction and fired, then stepped back to reload. How many times he did this, he couldn't have said, but he wasn't terrified any more. Seth became a pounding heart and a brain doing what it had been taught to do over those long weeks of drill and rifle practice.
The battle lasted three days, on and off, before the Sixty Third made a tactical retreat. After that, the fighting stopped ... The Sixty Third was convinced they'd defeated the Union and were celebrating as best they could. Seth kept thinking of the man with no head, and of the hundreds of others he'd seen fall during the battle. Some fell and lay still in death. Others fell screaming in pain and holding what was once a hand, arm, or foot. They were carried back to the surgeon's tent for even more horror. As he'd walked back off the line to eat, Seth had seen the pile of hands, arms, feet, and whole legs that men had lost.
After Stones River, there were more battles than Seth cared to remember. Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Nashville, Bentonville – all began as sheer terror and ended in exhaustion. Sleep was no comfort to him, for the faces and dismembered limbs of other men filled them.
He also saw in his dreams the first man he knew he killed. There probably had been others his rifle ball had struck down during the mass of rifle fire from the front line, but he hadn't seen their faces. The man in the blue uniform charging Seth with fixed bayonet looked young and scared. When Seth's rifle shot opened a hole in the chest of his blue uniform, the man's face changed from scared to wonder, and then went blank as he fell to the ground. Seth still remembered the man's eyes staring up at him, and those eyes came back to him in his sleep.
After that first one, Seth didn't look at their faces or allow himself to think of the men in blue as men. They were no more to him than the squirrels and rabbits he'd shot for food back home. He would just aim, fire, and then reload and look for another man in blue.
By the end of 1864, most of the confederate soldiers had given up. They'd been beaten too many times. Food was scarce and they were forced to forage in the fields and towns for something to eat. Even as they took what little was offered, or just took what they could find, they understood some of their countrymen would probably go hungry that night and the next. It pained Seth to know he was taking food from women and children, but if he didn't eat, he couldn't fight. If he couldn't fight, he'd die.
Clothing was a problem too. Seth's two uniforms had worn to tatters and his boots had rotted away in the mud of the Tennessee spring rains. He was sure it wasn't right, but after seeing one of the older soldiers taking the boots off a dead union soldier while saying, "He ain't gonna need 'em anymore, and I do", Seth began stripping the dead for things he needed to stay alive and healthy.
He wouldn't strip the dead Confederate soldiers of their uniforms. It seemed disrespectful to leave them on the battlefield in their long johns. Some of them carried homespun shirts and pants in their haversacks, and he took those. He wouldn't wear the blue of the Union like some did, but he had no problem wearing Union boots.
The bowie knife at his side had come from a Union sergeant with a hole where his right eye had once been. The holsters and Remington pistols he wore once belonged to a Union Captain. He carried an extra haversack that a Union corporal had used to carry his rations. Inside it were powder flasks, patches, and balls to fit the Remingtons along with several tins of percussion caps and four spare cylinders.
Riding inside his trousers and tied tightly to his belt was a leather pouch with Seth's other prize of battle. As the war had worn on, the paymaster seemed not to be able to find the Sixty Third very often. Even if he did get his eleven dollars plus whatever back pay they gave him, it wasn't worth anything. Seth heard the other men talking of the sutler selling a pair of trousers for two hundred Confederate dollars, and even a plug of tobacco cost twenty.
Seth remembered telling Elizabeth he'd come home with enough money to start farming. After the paymaster missed him three months in a row, Seth began making a search of the pockets of dead Union soldiers after each battle. He quickly realized the Union enlisted men were not being paid regularly either, but officers, even the lieutenants, sometimes carried coins. It was a dollar here, a half-eagle there, but Seth had amassed a little over a hundred dollars throughout the many battles. Union gold coins hadn't lost any value, and like the revolvers and boots, their owners didn't need them anymore.
The Confederacy was in its death throes and most of the soldiers understood the end was near. Some deserted even though they knew they'd be shot if caught. A few partook of the devil drink more and more often until they were unfit for battle. Others turned to the company chaplain for guidance. It seemed every night there were prayer services.
Seth didn't go to the services and his Bible lay unread at the bottom of his haversack. Though he'd tried over and over, he couldn't find any passage that explained how a God who loved man would allow such suffering as he'd seen and experienced over the last two years. Seth had been lucky, but he hadn't escaped the wounds of war.
At Chickamauga, a piece of iron from a cannon ball had put a gash in his head. Seth was too busy staying alive to do anything but tie a bandanna over it. By the time the battle had ended, the bleeding had stopped. The cut left only an odd part in his hair. At Missionary Ridge, he'd been shot in the arm and at Nashville, in the hip. Both wounds had only gone through flesh and had healed, but Seth had threatened to shoot the surgeons if they tried to amputate his arm or leg.
Seth had seen officers he'd trusted continue to order men to charge a much superior force of Union infantry in spite of the bodies already lying on the battlefield. He'd seen men from his company capture Union soldiers, search and strip them of weapons, and then shoot them dead while they stood there with their hands up. He'd seen Union soldiers tie Captured confederate soldiers in front of Union riflemen as shields. Seth decided he could only trust himself to get him through this trial of body and spirit. After that, he withdrew from everyone in hopes of just staying alive.
He stayed alive, but being alone didn't save him from the nights. On the nights he was not slated for picket duty, he had to endure lying awake and trying not to think. When he did finally close his eyes, he had only a few minutes of peace before the faces would come in his dreams. They were the faces of men he'd watched die, the faces of the men he'd killed, and the face of one man Seth had managed to keep in the darkest corner of his mind when awake. When that man's face invaded his dreams, the face tortured him with the same vision of the barn outside Franklin, and then left him shaking and dripping with sweat when he woke.