Monday, January 24, 2011

Final Threads

Journal Entry: Sept 14, 1864; Cat Tail Creek, Virginia
Camping alone tonight near Petersburg; crickets stand picket at the perimeter to protect me. Their rhythm will stop with any unfamiliar movement; I trust in the nature I know. The nature of man; I am not as sure of that. Thousands of tattered men now stand in a death stare across the lines, waiting, watching as more and more Federal troops cross the James River in the last deadlock of this war; no final feint to slip away, this is the endgame that could last months.

This is a new way of war; not a battle and then a respite. General Grant does not rest; he fights and moves, still fighting; the battles have different names, but it is one continuous fight. It has been this way since May, and our lines are pulled as thin as twine, unable to stretch any tighter. Once Grant finds the frayed threads; the cut may be quick, but it will not be clean, and that day will end it all.

Letter: Sept 17, 1864; Cabin Point, Virginia
Dearest Marianna,
I have not heard from you since I returned to my duty; I know the postal system at this point is less effective than a message in a bottle sent down the Rappahannock. I trust you have moved westward to join Cousin Betty at Lexington and not returned to the hospitals in Fredericksburg.

The rumble of the railcars, the rattle of the battery wagons, and the noise of war keeps a man from thinking beyond the battle ahead. That is why we camp together, to keep the comradery. I am not cut from that cloth; I am reclusive and my search for silence has brought me to the river once more to hear the calming rush and roll of water; that is the only way I can collect my thoughts, which are always of you. Here, by the water, under the black walnut, with the scent of sassafras, I can find brief passage to another time, a September, ages ago, when you would simply seduce every sense I possess.

This fight is nearly over, and soon, you and I will gather up our loose threads to sew our life back together; as beautiful a double ring quilt as has ever been seen.

Until then, I remain
yours beyond the ages.


Friday, January 21, 2011


Journal Entry: Nance’s Shop, Virginia; June 23, 1864
I am becoming more and more aware of time; the days, the months, now years spent away from home. Soon, I will turn twenty-four, but I feel as tired and worn as a hobbled greybeard, as though my life has passed; I should be home. I should have lived life, as it was promised. While this war has dragged on and on, approaching its fourth year, there are so many opportunities I have missed. I should have lived a quiet life, instead of riding with the firebrands. I should have watched the red-winged blackbird near the river run, instead of watching red blood turn black on the banks of the Antietam. I should have shared an ale at the Wilderness Tavern with my friends, not buried them there. I should have farmed with my brothers, instead of fighting my other brothers from the northern states. I should have lived by now.

By now, I should have taken on my role as adult, to take care of my mother and father, as they cared for me. I should have built my own home, a small cottage down near the run. By now, I should have married, and danced many a Virginia Reel in the parlor with my dearest Marianna. I should have started a family; the tiny tickle of babies laughing should have filled my rooms, filled my heart.

I should have built a red bank barn and raised a fine stable of Morgan horses by now. In the three years that I have lost, I should have planted and harvested, planted and harvested, and then, planted once more. I should have seen the seasons, the spring growing, the winter resting; all that, I should have lived it.

My list of should could go on and on, but I should not dwell upon it. I will have my time to live that life of simple treasures; I will take note and honor every moment. It is a time that hundreds of thousands of boys will now never have; hundreds of thousands buried far from the life they should have lived.

I should live; I could have died.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Poet of the Past

Journal Entry. Ashland, Virginia; June 6, 1864

Many evenings, when I am able to visit my journal, it is a calming experience; an old friend to share the joy and sorrow of this journey. I try to find balance by revisiting letters from family or remembering the old way of the world before war. Today, though, I keep returning to a letter given to me when I was last home. It came from a boy that apprenticed in the blacksmith shop with me several summers ago. A man now, he lives in Pennsylvania, a blacksmith with his own prosperous shop. I had written him a year ago to explain that I had joined the cavalry to protect my farm and family; I bore no animosity toward the North and hoped he was safe from the horrors of this war. These are his words that he wrote in return:
~Someday, my old friend,
Someday, your life could be better. You sit there with your pencil, and your paper, and your pitiful candle scribbling some nonsense about nature. Nature won’t help you, it won’t hold you up. Your precious sun quits halfway through the day and leaves you cold in the dark. But some day; some day soon, we will have sun all day, all night. We are on the threshold and there is a door; behind that door is the solution; a powerful solution in the iron that makes the steam engine, the iron that forges the cannon. We will wield that iron, as a hammer, and batter that door to bits. The steam engine that drives the railroad will drive everything. Someday, there will be prosperity for all that follow, and mark my words, everyone will follow. Who would want to stay behind; who would want to stand behind a plow and horse. Steam will power an engine to plow the fields of plenty; fields so large that one farm could be the size of ten, of a hundred. Let me tell you, many people make this war out to be about ending slavery, but, I know, the future promises more slaves than you can imagine. Men and women of every stripe will flock to our shores, begging to be among us, begging to purchase a portion, however small, of our prosperity. They will work their fingers to bone for the promise of a future here, and they will do so without force or fetters. They will be slaves to the idea of an easier life.

You are a poet of the past; you have been on the land too long. Grand ideas are rising up from the ashes of this war. The old agrarian society is being burned away, and industry will rise in your fields. When this war is over, there will still be slavery; we would not call it that, for every man will be legally free, but this new chattel will embrace their position, because of the promise that each and all have an equal chance to rise and prosper. Whole families will rush to share in the crops they harvest, share in the industries they work. This is America; we do not need to hold men down by force; men can be held down by fortune’s promise.

So, you may sit in the dim light of your candle writing in your journal; your pencil will become a stub; your candle will burn out, but the forge that is the future will burn forever and there is no limit to land’s resource or the power of the fire.

I believe you have talents that can take you further than the fields of Virginia; I am enclosing a rail pass. Come to the city and join us.~

I keep his letter in my journal and think, how a man could be so wrong, and then hope that it is he that is wrong, not me.

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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.