M. Sandra Babcock
This story came to me one afternoon as I observed Civil War re-enactors. I discovered a rarely known fact about the soldiers who fought. After four months of research, this one soldier's fictional story evolved.
For the first time I believe my parents were right.
They forbade me to join, insisted I hadn’t the fortitude to withstand the slaughter. Now, after two years and countless battles, I long to hear their voices, touch their faces, taste their sweet wisdom, tell them, yes . . .yes, you were right.
The fog lifts slowly this early July morn making it difficult to both see and ward off the unknown that lurks in shadows. The air above Gettysburg is filled with gunpowder that lies thick and milky on my tongue, soaking into my skin like the stark brutality of the battle just fought. James is wounded, severely I fear. His head bobbles in my lap and the eclipse of death appears in slow advances. Dark sticky blood trickles from above his eye gluing the hair that has fallen in his face. The vital fluid drips steadily on the weathered barrel of my Enfield. The dirt of war engulfs the rifle like a quiet burial. I touch lightly the wound with what cloth I can find off my person or rummage from my kit bag disrupting the worn cartridge box slung over my shoulder, scattering the Minnie balls to the soft earth below. James moans and I ache to kiss his lips revealing a passion that would, undoubtedly, send him reeling into the nether world far quicker than the wound he has suffered.
He does not know who I am. After two long, treacherous years, I have also forgotten. But I well remember the course that brought me to this battle and slashed the cohesive bond between its citizens. In his acceptance speech, President Lincoln spoke words of unquestionable truth; a country can not survive half-free and half-slave.
I believed him.
The First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 brought devastating news to the O’Harra clan. A letter from our Wisconsin cousin Aaron spoke of our beloved Joseph succumbing to the Rebel attack and the vile realities of war struck deep. This sad event began a letter writing campaign between Aaron and me as we shuttled correspondence betwixt New York and Wisconsin. We secretly confided to each other our belief of a strong Union. The nonsensical notion of individual states forming a new Confederacy sometimes led us to sarcastic written wit and sometimes set in the pit of our bellies like soured milk. Our desire to avenge Joseph’s death and to see these United States stand strong ignited an idealistic flame within us that could not be denied despite my parents’ supplications.
“You will not join this war!” father roared, his normally serene banker’s face tinged scarlet.
Mother surveyed the pained grimace carved on father’s face as the thought of his first born heading to war sank in. Wifely duty commanded her response despite what I knew to be her beliefs.
“Surely you cannot take this upon yourself,” she said.
“I will and I must!” I shouted back. Strong-willed children were part and parcel of the O’Harra upbringing.
“Dear, you’re too fragile for this!” mother responded.
“Too fragile?!” I was outraged. “Both of you instilled in us to champion the battle between right and wrong. Our family rose from Irish poverty to American prosperity. Others deserve the same chance! Secession will allow aristocratic control to persist and yet I am to ignore this war because I’m ‘too fragile’?”
Mother took my arm and led me down the hall. The pride in her demeanor increased with each step despite her attempts to conceal them. Father followed close behind, his forceful Irish voice filled the hallway, “The slaughter will kill you even if a bullet doesn’t!” I found myself locked in my room with nary a rebuttal in my defense to their decree. My parents knew of my frailties, but the naiveté of youth surged forth, leaving frailties mere defects to be ignored.
Defiantly I saddled my horse on a brisk September day in 1861 and rode to Deer Park, St. Croix County, Wisconsin in such a fevered state I thought I would succumb to illness. Alas, I did not. Upon my arrival and after much persuasion on my part, Private Aaron J. O’Harra and Private Montgomery B. O’Harra enlisted in Company I of the 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Corp of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Colonel Joseph Vandor. Indeed, luck was with me as the Army recruiters only searched for visible handicaps and attributed my small stature to youth although I was twenty years of age. Aaron was sworn to secrecy, faithfully keeping his word even when the devastating wound that took his life and the lives of almost 5,000 others at Antietam, struck a chord of concern for my safety.
“Go home!” Aaron whispered. “Promise me you’ll go home.”
“I promise I will see this through in your honor,” I responded with a fool’s heroic bravado. Aaron eyed James and motioned him to draw near.
“You gave your word, cousin,” I said through tears. Aaron’s slender fingers touched my cheek, but his blue-gray eyes wandered past me as the call of God consumed him.
My secret remained secure.
“Monty, I can’t feel my legs. Tell me my legs are still . . .oh Lord in heaven, I don’t want to die half a man,” James says. His pitch heightens with each word.
“You’re fine, James. After all we’ve been through; do you really think I’d let a Reb bullet take you out of this life? Sir, what kind of man . . . friend do you think I am?”
“The best kind of friend. One I will surely miss.”
Tears sting my eyes; my heart aches. I must tell him.
“James . . .”
“All quiet along the . . .” James mumbles, his mind drifts. The burn of blush is upon my cheek, for these words whisk me to a night over a year ago when I first saw Private James Buchannon.
“All quiet along the Potomac,” James announced through camp mocking the New York Tribune’s account of General Fitz-John Porter’s defeat during the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. The heat from the fire burned hot on his face releasing a boyish grin, a man’s presence. His uniform hung squarely on his shoulders. He unbuttoned the dark colored frock and the connection I felt was so intense I could taste the brass buttons as they slid through their restraint. His strong hands moved down to his Enfield and he held it as if it were a woman. I imagined that embrace on my body and wanted nothing more.
Joseph’s death weighed heavy on Aaron when we heard of the second defeat. The sutlers’ whiskey erased the memories for a time. A soldier’s life is devoid of the glory and honors that so many of us conceived. Days were spent in boredom, waiting for the next battle. We invented dance, songs, card games, spoke of home and hearth . . . waited for a loved one’s letter. Drunkenness and camp brawls were commonplace. Many deserted.
Aaron and I were known as the Inseparable Cousins as we helped each other through this horrible war. I dressed his wounds, which were drawn to him during battle as if he were a magnet, and he stood guard when I tended to necessities. One morning, sleep overtook my cousin and discovery was as close as the hair on my chin.
I wandered toward the water, finding a rock to hang my clothes upon and began untying my brogans, sliding off the dark blue trousers, unbuttoning the shirt.
“A morning swim my good man?”
I swung around to meet the crystal blue eyes of James; his black hair tussled, un-kempt. An unnerving moment for one who wanted to bed the man!
“Mind if I join you?”
I don’t know how I retreated from this awkward event, but I did and in haste. As I dashed up the hillside, Private Randolph Blackburn plowed headlong into my stride. His mannerisms toward me of late raised the hairs on my neck whenever he came within sight. Now his unshaven face was flung into mine, belly bulged over his pants, shirt untucked and most unbecoming. He smelled of whiskey. Randolph grabbed my arm and in his drunken state began a ranting that left me little recourse.
“I know your kind. Had a cousin just like you, I did,” he said wiping the spittle from his mouth. “Do ya really t’ink you’re foolin’ anyone, pretty boy?”
My mind recalled the courage of father’s words from childhood, “Anyone gives you a wink’s notice, you ball up that fist and smack ‘em right on the nose. The cartilage breaks easily and stuns a body long enough to spirit away,” he said.
“O’Harras never give up,” mother’s words burned in my soul, “never back down.”
Randolph fell to the ground; blood oozed from his nose like molasses by the time Aaron came upon us and completed the thrashing. Randolph kept his distance thereafter, but his stare was intense and his hate for me known throughout camp.
It took me two weeks to forgive Aaron for his careless slumber, despite the black eye I placed on him for good measure. I did not know then that our time together would soon end. Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 spoke of freedom for slaves in rebelling areas of the South by January 1863 and the war suddenly had a vital cause.
“The fight for freedom is really a war of finance,” Aaron said to me soon after we enlisted. The South claimed Northern interference jeopardized their financial livelihood however, deceptive words in their Declaration of Causes of Secession spoke of inequality which slithered across the underbelly of the diverse North like a rattlesnake ready for strike. Aaron would never know of this Proclamation nor see the realization of the one issue he believed the war was about. On September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam was fought and Aaron and I parted ways one last time.
“Monty, I so wish Aaron survived. I know how lonely you’ve been,” James says. I watch a small trickle of blood seep from his mouth and marvel at his compassion that shines like a bright star in the heavens. The Buchannon compassion, as inherent as the O’Harra strong will, held firm in the aftermath of battle when we came face to face with General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Army.
Lee’s voice broke through the mist as his steed cantered toward us after a skirmish at South Mountain on September 14, 1862.
“Soldier,” he shouted to his guard, “leave this to me.”
“But, sir, the enemy . . .”
“Leave this to me,” Lee responded. His majestic white hair moved with the rhythm of the horse’s body. James was disengaging a bayonet from the arm of a Reb who clumsily fell on it in retreat.
“He looks so like my brother, John,” James said to me as he flawlessly maneuvered me into helping him. Bandages from my kit bag were strewn over the dirt bloodied by both armies. Lee’s horse slowed and we believed the end was near as he drew his sword from its sheath. He dismounted and moved toward us. Fear and awe kept us locked in position.
“You are an honor to that uniform, gentlemen,” he said and raised his sword in salute.
“To selflessly tend to an enemy soldier on hostile territory takes courage. I commend noble acts!”
We thanked Lee with a touch to our kepis and faced a Colt barrel as the Lieutenant took his duty seriously.
“Holster that weapon,” Lee commanded. The Lieutenant obeyed, returning the pistol to its holster beneath his gray shell jacket. The leather strap that restrained the revolver trailed down his leg like a snake. We placed the soldier on the horse and Lee took his mount.
“May God be with you,” he said. His eyes hazed over as he viewed the full battlefield of where we stood. “And with all of us,” he whispered wearily.
With a kick of his heels the horse bolted up the hillside. I looked at James, fear and relief etched in both our eyes and our thoughts joined as one – the enemy was as human, as compassionate, as those were in the North.
“I hope I’ve helped you in some way,” James says.
“You have James. . .” I whisper to him allowing the tears to flow. The reasons that brought me to this moment are fading in the mist, as is the reason to care if I am discovered. Lincoln’s words are suddenly empty.
I long for home and hear my parents’ echo from two years hence.
“It’s unthinkable that you would defy us! We raised all of you to be strong, but good heavens girl, not like this!” father said.
“Would you say that if I were a man?”
“If you were a man and possessed a soul as passionate as yours, yes, by God Almighty, yes! The destruction you’ll witness will sweep away the joyful heart, the willing spirit.” Father placed his hands on my shoulders and faced me square.
“It will tear you to pieces,” he said, his eyes brimmed with tears. “I know what I speak of child!”
Father’s words held truth, but I heard in mother’s eyes, in the turn of her hand, the cock of her head, women’s silent words that told me to go, stand strong, be proud.
“Will you take me back to St. Croix County, Monty?” James whispers. “It’s sad that I will never know the love of a woman, never be a father. . .”
It is an impulsive response, yet meticulously constructed for over a year.
“James, you’ve known the love of a woman, from afar,” I say and remove my kepi. My hair, the color of roasted chestnuts, tumbles past my shoulders. James sees me with a man’s eyes.
“My name is Margaret Maureen O’Harra and I’ve loved you forever.” I lean over, brushing my lips gently across his. Tears disrupt the dirt of battle on our faces and I meet his mouth with a woman’s kiss.
“Know that my love is with you always. You are not alone.” His crystal-blue eyes dull and wander past me to the serene sky above.
I am no match for God.
I buried James as I did Aaron. When I was done, I gave thought to the path stretched before me that began in idealistic belief, proceeded in courage with an infinite supply of brutality and, finally, apathy. I set my foot in the direction of New York to begin my journey home.
Behind a tree, in the mist shrouding even the most ostentatious, Private Randolph Blackburn steps forth, blood dripping from a poorly bandaged leg.
“A woman! Wait’ll the Commander hears this!” Randolph seethes with satisfaction knowing my dismissal is imminent.
“Sure you ain’t one of General Hooker’s women?” he questions in a despicable manner. “All this time, a piece of ass right under my nose and I didn’t see it.” Blackburn licks his lips and continues, “I figured you to be one of dem pretty boys. Guess I was all wrong, eh Maureen?”
I raise my Enfield, cocked and ready for fire, at Randolph’s head. Hate can rule even the most feminine of hearts, but the fear in his eyes is enough on this warm July morning of 1863. I lower my gun.
“That’s Miss O’Harra to you, sir,” I say with a challenging look.
Spittle flies from Blackburn’s clenched teeth and hits me square on the cheek.
In the same instant, my finger pulls the trigger and the Minnie ball enters his foot at close range. His brogan boot is blown in every direction carrying a good portion of his foot with it.
“O’Harras never give up,” I say to a stunned and screaming Private Blackburn, “never back down.”
It matters not if Randolph survives and blabbers to the Commander. Assuredly, he will describe his wound as one received in battle, not one received by a woman. Military dismissal is no longer a dreaded fear, but welcome relief.
Aaron has been cut off. James is now gone. It was believed the Battle at Gettysburg would end the Civil War and if we fought courageously, the Union would see glory. Alas, I fear this is not so. As I walk the field, the human and animal destruction sickens me. In the deep hollows of my soul, I know this war will continue to rage.
I will walk the long miles home, taking refuge in the knowledge I have gained. I will honor those who fought this battle be it Union or Confederate, for war affects all and devastates many. And when I arrive, I will take my rest, shed tears long denied and work toward rebuilding this fractured country.
And when I arrive, my parents will open wide the door, and my outstretched arms will reach for them with a mind that has seen much. And I will again taste their sweet wisdom with a heart that searches for healing.
And I will tell them yes. . .yes, you were right.
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