Sunday, February 20, 2011

Furious Wind

Journal Entry:
December 10, 1864;
Jarratt's Station, Virginia.

At dawn, the soft whisper of wind rose, awakening the restless among us; winter coming on, a new season of whispers, new voices from the north. By mid-morning, it had blown every cloud from the sky, leaving a beautiful blue vault of heaven and the warm white sun. And then, the wind picked up.

By noon, I knew this furious wind was working to blow these two armies away from the banks of the James River. This has gone on long enough, said our natural mother; war is at a standstill, something must move, so the gust blew harder from the north.

It is one o’clock and men who have walked headlong into the hornets’ nest hold their collars and beg mercy from the blast. What tents they had are tattered; the spikes tossed into the air, the cots scattered, tumbling down the embankment. What hats they had, are pulled down and tied like Sunday bonnets. The infantrymen hunker down in the trenches, the gunners cling to the south side of the battery wagons, but even the heaviest wagons rock and creak, the panels lift and slam; the tarps shiver, as though they are alive and afraid.

The fury rips at the regimental colors; flags of every stripe pop like whips in the wind. It claws at the scars of every battle, at every hole from shot and shell. Our identity, our flags, so painstakingly mended with horsehair by the coarse hands of the color bearer, who sews with the care of a Charleston seamstress. The north wind returns the scars, the holes, the rips and it then blows harder.

Herds of horses huddle in the makeshift corrals, except for a few stallions that stand, head up high; their manes and tails appear as if in full gallop, though they are standing still. They face the wind as they would the battle; they know no other way.

The winter wind rises, the white pine gives, the weary redbud breaks, but the maples are dancing in a hands held high hallelujah to the sky. Brown leaves tumble and blow by, like field mice scurrying for shelter from this red hawk wind.

This moment takes me back to hurricanes of my youth; the gales so hard that the strongest oaks behind the blacksmith shop swayed like saplings and my mother whispered - keep together - it will pass in time. And it did.

I tuck my papers in my pocket and stand, eyes closed, arms outstretched, face front to the wind, and wish; wish to be blown away from here; wish to lift in the sky and fly to my home. It feels like flying; flying on this fast current, barely off the ground, but fast, faster than I‘ve ever ridden, right on to my home.

The whispers have returned in the air, lifting me; the whispers of Fredericksburg are calling, becoming more urgent here, crying, even wailing, so loud that I forget my flight, and falling, open my eyes. I am still south of Petersburg; still in this hell beneath the vault of heaven. But for a moment, I could handle it; for a moment, I was high on the wind and home. If I hold that moment for each moment hereafter, for each moment that I have; I could handle hell, and it could be my home.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Morning’s Doves

Journal Entry: Sept 23, 1864; Cat Tail Creek, Virginia
The siege is set, yet the 9th Cavalry is always in the saddle, riding in reconnaissance; we slip in and out of the Federal lines like a grey wind; the bluecoats pull their collars up tight around their faces to fend against our certain chill. They know we are there, somewhere close, but they shield their eyes, that we might pass in peace, for they have previously felt the wrath of our veterans. Just last week, we rode around the left of Grant’s army and up alongside his rear lines into Coggins’ Point on the James River to capture 2400 cattle, 300 horses and 11 wagons, with no loss of our troopers. This week, we eat well; next week, maybe not.

This entire region from The Wilderness to Richmond has become a lawless landscape of deserters, raiders, and ne’er-do-wells. At sunrise, we follow the smoke, over a ridge, to find burning homes where soldiers and looters are leaving with as much as they can muster. I have seen so many mothers starving; left with only the clothes they carry, holding hungry babies on their hips. Mornings find them foraging along the roads, like mourning doves, sorrowful in their song, scratching in the soil for bits of seed and sustenance. We give what small rations we have in our haversacks, but cannot give them the peace they seek. They do not cry or complain; their eyes hold no tears for themselves. If they hold hope at all, it is for the future of the children.

I tell them that soon life will be better, but my eyes betray me, having seen the life leaving from too many children of other mothers.

It will be better, morning dove, it will be.