Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Many Wounds of War

Journal Entry: Ashland, Virginia; June 4, 1864
   President Lincoln has placed General Grant in charge of the Federal Army and I am told that he will never retreat, which was confirmed after his defeat at the latest Wilderness battle. Instead of moving back across the river, he turned to his left and continued on toward Richmond. The Federal Army has unlimited men and supplies, so if ten thousand fall, he will bring twenty thousand; if they fall, he will bring a hundred thousand. Grant will outlast his enemy, leaving a scythe swath of sorrow throughout this state, my home. Our leaders will attempt to hold off the inevitable; it might be a month, it might be a year, but with that turn to the left, the outcome was determined. Within a year, we will return to what we once were, though that seems impossible now. My home, the Wilderness is no longer what it was; even the trees are riddled with battle scars, as though ten thousand downy woodpeckers had explored every oak and maple. I am scarred as well; beyond my sutured war wounds, I am torn terribly each moment between a hope and a despair that split me down my middle.

   I am not who I once was; none of us are that. I remember boys who were assigned to the cavalry merely because they rode into town that first day on a horse. If you owned a horse, you could be a cavalryman. Many of those boys had never ridden faster than a trot and their horses were more adapted to the furrowed field than the battlefield. Most of those boys are dead now; the rest learned quickly the awful lessons of war. Our mothers’ lessons were left at home; here on the field, duty requires another mother’s son to kill you, so you act first. Even our tools are not what they were; our plows replaced by pistols.

   After six weeks recovering at home in peace, I now see my fellow troopers differently. I look around the camp and see an army of doppelgängers; each of us is who we are and who we were; all twins to ourselves, almost ashamed to acknowledge one another, so different are our passions. I am both kin and killer, both the one and the other; I know every person is my brother, but I ride fiercely into battle, even as I regret it in that same moment.

   I, who had never even raised a fisted hand against another, now carry three revolvers; one holstered on my hip and two in pommel holsters on my saddle. When possible, I won't shoot to kill; a wounded man requires another man to carry him from the field, thus incapacitating two men at the expense of one. That carries some small bit of consolation, that the second man will live another day. Having the power to take a life is an impossible ordeal; I am damned if I do, and dead if I don’t.

1 comment:

  1. "we will return to what we once were."

    we can never do this, even after the simplest, most innocent of days. forward is the only direction that exists, time moves forward and changes us constantly.

    in the face of death, those wheels turn ever faster, I can't even imagine the effect of that on the psyche. but you do a great job of portraying that here.

    love that last line.


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