A Hush In The Willows
Copyright 2005 by Dante A. Cinelli
The Civil War was nearing its end. The dark earth had been rent and torn for four years. Much American blood was spilled for good or naught on both sides of the Mason Dixon line. The last battle between Lee and Grant was terminating near Appomattox. Many feet protected by gray rags or bare were only one indication of the prodigious factors influencing the outcome.
Grant constantly moved to Lee’s left. Grant’s bulldog determination was something Lee never before faced with other Union generals. Even when Lee was bloodied at Antietam by McClellan and Meade at Gettysburg, they broke off the attack and let his tattered army escape to fight again another day.
However, now, a
tenacious bulldog of a general hung close and tightly to his ragged,
hungry army. Grant wanted an end to this long conflict and was about
to have it. Two scant miles away from the main battle, the Blue and
Gray aligned on opposing hills guarding a dirt road next to a
powerfully flowing creek of melting Spring snow. A wooden bridge was
buffeted by slushy water and small chunks of ice, but it held. That
crucial road protected Lee’s left flank. The fighting was
bloody for two days, then it settled into firing across the road
until a strange welcomed quiet entwined itself abound the sound of
the rushing waters.
As the orange sun lowered to the breasts of the light green hills, a Confederate officer on a pale mare approached the Union line. He bore a white flag of truce in a gloved hand. The wooden shaft rested in his left stirrup.
He was guided to the commanding officer’s tent. They saluted each other and then shook hands and embraced. They had been classmates seemingly a century ago at West Point.
Confederate Major Jonathan C. Blanchard was offered a cigar and a glass of southern brandy by his classmate. They spoke of the old days at the Point where the discipline and demerit system played havoc with both their nervous systems and sleep. The intermittent soft laughter and chuckles now were easy to vent. But in those days, the chuckles were far from being realized.
“So Johnny, what can I do for you? I know you too well to entertain terms of surrender.” “Val, my men are in poor straits. We were bloodied mightily today…and no, you’re right, we‘ll not surrender, unless you want to," he joked with a slight smile."No, that’ll be up to General Lee. I know your medical officer, John Strickland is with you. I request a short truce so he can attend his cousin and the rest my wounded. We have no doctor or medicine, Colonel.”
“Of course, John..... Sgt. Tipley!” he yelled to the sergeant at arms outside the tent... “Get Doc Strickland and load medical supplies into a wagon. He’s to go across the lines with this officer. Also, inform Captain Sweeney that as of this moment, a cease fire is in effect until further orders.”
The sergeant entered, saluted smartly and left.
“Anything else, Johnny?”
“No, many thanks, Val…..How’s Eden?”
“She’s fine…We have a little girl now. Her name is Jeanie. I always call her, ‘My Jeanie with the light brown hair’ ”, he smiled. “Are you married?”
When Jonathan did not elaborate, he dropped the issue. They smoked and chatted after pouring another drink.
As the burnished light copper sun was about to touch the highest hill, the doctor opened the flap to the tent and casually saluted both officers. Major Blanchard arose to return his salute. He studied the young doctor’s craggily handsome face with a mustache and goatee of dark brown. He was average height and slight of build, but his speckled hazel eyes bore an almost hidden sadness. He wore the white waist coat of the surgeon with a small amount of blood coagulated near the grayish pockets.
The colonel explained the situation and told him to take all the supplies and medical whiskey he had.
“Your cousin, Benjamin, is with me” said the major, " and he’s been badly wounded. I know you two are more like brothers. I have a score of others that need your help, Doctor.” The hidden sadness flashed from the eyes and around the mouth and then disappeared -------- and again locked away.
“I’m ready,” he said as the loaded medical wagon bearing a second flag of truce rolled up to the tent. It crossed the wooden bridge as half the sun disappeared behind the lowest crest. The darkening verdant hills, like blood in moonlight, were slowly losing their color.
The wagon pulled up an incline where there was a copse of willows and white poplars where the wounded and dying were being attended by comrades and non-commissioned officers. They were building small campfires by a kerosene lamp for warmth and light. Strickland jumped off the wagon and ordered as much hot water as could be obtained. More men joined in quickly without words.
After a cursory examination of the more severely wounded, he found Benjamin. The doctor immediately went to work on the young soldier. But there was little he could do for the handsome nineteen year old boy. A .50 caliber musket slug had torn through his intestines and liver . He knew it was just a matter of time. But he packed a wad of cotton onto the wound to allay the profuse bleeding.
“Ah got to leave for a spell Benny-boy, but a’ll be back as soon as I can, all right?” He brush a tuft of sandy hair away from Ben’s cheek.
“You goin’ta be just fine, boy.’” Ben closed his eyes and nodded with false affirmation. Then we goin’ talk bout old times and how we going back to Missouri. War is jist about over, ya know that, Benny-boy?”
As the doctor tearfully worked through the night, he attended to the rest of the wounded without surcease. Much of the whiskey was consumed in the amputation process of a leg and two arms.
Four ragged soldiers died during the night, including Benjamin.
The doctor kept working through the next morning, but for a brief respite to fold Ben’s arms and stroke his face with the back of his knuckles. He heard an uncontrollable whimper in the back of his tightened throat. How could he tell Aunt Clara? Why did God allow this boy to be laid low so cruelly?…so very cruelly near the end of the conflict! How could he ever have the hollow pit of his stomach purged of the pain of never seeing him again? Most unusually, these cousins had been closer than brothers as they grew on the same farm in Missouri where there were great political and social polemics in the philosophies of slavery and anti-slavery. When the cannons finally roared at Fort Sumter, the cousins took separate paths to test the wills of North and South. Nineteen year old Jonathan had left earlier and attended medical school in Boston. He joined the army immediately. At first he hadn't known that fourteen-year old Benjamin joined the Confederate army after running away from home. But eventually Strickland made contact through his Aunt Clara who was just as much his mother as his aunt.
In the early afternoon of the next day, when most of the screaming and moaning subsided to tears and supplications to wives, mothers and God, he was brought a tin cup of watery brown coffee and a boiled egg by dirty hands; he only sipped the coffee looking down into it for memories of boys riding hard, wrestling in the grass and fishing. The memories were fleeting, but they were warm. He had done all there was to be done. He no longer cursed God; he was too tired to the bones to curse,…..and forgiveness for God and for himself perhaps lay in the far, far-distant future.
He went back to his camp that afternoon. The colonel told him that a general cease fire was now in effect entreated by Lee himself. "It’s finally the end, John. How's you cousin faring?" Strickland just faintly shook his head.
The doctor asked for permission to leave and bring Ben’s body home to rest in the beloved hills of Missouri. To his amazement, permission was granted and arrangements were made to have the tightly wrapped body put in the wagon the next morning. At that moment, General Lee was riding his white charger, Traveler, to Appomattox in full military splendor to hand his sword to Ulysses S. Grant. But Grant, out of respect and admiration of his vanquished adversary, would refuse the sword.
Lee only had one officer with him. With quiet pride and humility, he stepped into the selected home-site where Grant and his coterie of generals awaited.
The wagon stopped by the bridge and waited.
The boy’s body, slung over a mule, was tightly roped within a heavy canvas. Major Blanchard had a few men load it into the wagon where it was forcefully secured, knowing the trek home would be over rough roads, winding hilly paths and surging streams. The major saluted twice and turned away with his men.
As the reins gently slapped down on the rumps of the horses and began its long journey West, again the marriage of rushing water and silence permeated the valley. The sound of eight hoofs softly clopped on the hard dirt of red soil with only now a hush in the willows and poplars.
A score of gray cadaver-like men appeared out of the bushes.
Some stood where they were sitting, waiting, dreaming, remembering…crying. Some saluted as the wagon passed, some merely removed their tattered hats. A one- legged ghost on crutches made of freshly cut poplar saplings touched his bare head with two fingers and held it until the doctor fully passed without acknowledgement.
As the wagon diminished and disappeared, most turned
back to face whatever future awaited them at home.
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