They sleep uneasily, tossing and turning as they have nightmares of the waking world, nightmares which pursue them even in their rest. Every so often, one of them wakes, shifting and shuddering, and I kneel beside the lad to reassure him that all is safe and the enemy is not yet at our gates.
It is a lie, but it is one that eases their sleep. It is a trade I am willing to make, daily, though my thoughts wander sometimes, and I wish there was one to do the same for me.
Six months ago, we were fighting an even war, one where our cannons and men numbered just as many as theirs and we all believed we had a good chance of winning. But six months ago was before we were handed miserable defeats left and right — Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Farragut; there was no battleground that favored us, it seemed. Almost all were total routs, with the loss of twenty or thirty thousand men in each seventy-two hour bloodbath. And then they pushed us back, and back, until we were deep within our own land, and some of the men already knew their houses were burned and towns ransacked.
The boys in blue who chase us are the wolf who has gotten his fangs on the doe's haunch. They pursue us with such a vigour that we are always but one step before his slavering jaws. Worse, we are three hundred against their thousand, and any mistake will be our last.
It's almost dawn, and I slip off to my own tent to grab the two hours of sleep that must carry me through the day. The enemy will not attack tonight, it appears, and I must be ready for when they do.
Four hours later, they catch us, but we are ready for them. Though one the scouts I had sent out is missing, the other saw the advance prepared and got word to us in time. We could've run, but this was a good place to make a stand.
As the blue lines advances on us from across the field, our men ready themselves. Our central line stands at the edge of the forest, ready to receive theirs, but we are also concealed on both sides and will pay back each shot with three of ours.
The battle starts, with the sharp crack of muskets and, quickly, the screams of the dying. The smoke builds, curling around the leaves, but it looks that our strategy is working; for every man we lose, we are making them pay more than triple.
It doesn't last.
Cannon fire changes everything as it rips through men and trees alike, rendering our natural cover useless. Under the sharp booms, the blue line advances and our losses climb. The tide turns.
My men are disciplined, though, and none of them run, even as trees explode around them and the hail of gunfire increases. But to stay is to die in vain, and I will not allow that.
I sound the whistle, which is repeated across the line, and we leave more of our own behind, denying them the burial they deserve. I can only hope that the enemy grants them that honor, as we would — and have — for their fallen.
Five miles away, on brisk run to put more distance between us and them, I wonder at what drives us to feed the grass with so much of our blood. Thousands have been left in makeshift mass graves, or worse, simply left for the crows, and now more my own lie among them.
That night, another hundred miles away, we mourn the men we lost and eat meagre rations and scraps in silence, mostly. But we do not all mourn in the same way. There is one, a plucky sergeant, who speaks with fire and courage — the fire of youth and the courage of whisky.
"If only we had two hundred more men, and a cannon or three, lieutenant. We would've completely destroyed them! We were taking down five men for every one of ours!"
I almost remind him of what it means — for every man we lost, a total of six fathers, brothers, or sons didn't make it home to their families — but one of the older sergeants jumps in before I do.
"Yes, and if only we had better guns, maybe we'd be able to shoot them from distant mountains! Maybe if we had better boots, we wouldn't be freezing! If we had better food, we wouldn't be starving! If we had wings—"
I raise a hand, and he quiets, drawing back. For a moment, I simply stare into the fire, gathering my wits and my words.
"We fight with what we can, gentlemen, and we will fight whether we have one gun or three hundred, and we do not throw our lives away. Seventy two men laid down their lives today, fighting against a superior foe. Can someone tell me why?"
"Because they knew that their sacrifice wasn't going to be in vain," someone new calls out, and I turn to face him — a private, but older, with the lines from many winters etched on his face. "They trusted that you would use their lives well, and that you will beat back the Union from our lands."
will," I correct him, "As long as Providence is wth us, we will indeed win the day."
I wonder at my own words, though, even as the others nod. If Providence were with us, the Union would have left us alone when we declared our own independence. And yet, I dare not voice these thoughts, not now, when the men need encouragement, not doubt.
The reward for not voicing them, it seeems, is Providence demonstrating that He is indeed on our side: the missing scout returns, rushing to our gathering and bringing with him news of the Union overextending in their desire to catch our force, leaving some of their artillery pieces and extra calvary horses very lightly guarded.
It is an opportunity we can not pass up, though it will mean a long, hard march through the night, and worse, a bloody, bloody tomorrow. But my duty is to my men, first, before it is to all men, and I sound the call to move.
Battle is joined the next day at noon, on a two hills and the valley between. The sky was a beautiful sapphire in the morning, though now the storm clouds gather and turn the sky a dark grey, as if they know what is to happen and refuse to let the sun see.
Once again, the ground starts to run red with blood and the peaceful silence is punctured by the screams of the dying.
Our remaining troops have been split, and sixty men are with me as we ride forward on stolen horses and drag long cannons behind us. Some from the Yankee forces see us, but with our also-stolen uniforms, they don't suspect a thing as we set up in position.
In the heat of battle, when bullets are flying back and forth and the collective smoke from the rifles starts to obscure your vision, it is often hard to know exactly where the shots are coming from. There is a chaos that must be fought off as much as any enemy force, a chaos that grows exponentially when unexpected events occur.
We set up the five cannons close — close enough to fire through
their lines, instead of simply at them, even though it means we will be open to the counterattack. The men look to me, and after a long moment, I nod.
The cannons roar and the first volley takes down no less than fifty men, ripping through the neat lines of their left flank. Our calvary force charges towards the right, and the enemy breaks and scatters as we hit them from behind. They run forward, only to be mowed down by our forces on the hill, who turn their attention to the other side as they see the calvary. They charge down towards the remnants of the enemy's left side, now one third of what it was before, with most disoriented or wounded, the rest dead.
What was their attempt at an easy victory turns into a massacre as we break both of their flanks and surround their center force on all sides, with our cannons continuing to fire into the mass of bodies. We've killed more than four hundred, and every passing moment another enemy falls. We have lost men too, but we have every advantage.
And yet, they fight on.
After ten minutes, they finally understand where the largest threat is coming from and start to charge the cannons, but by then, it's too late, and our force is in position all around them, breaking the charge before it gets twenty feet and killing a score of men, some struck multiple times before they have a chance to fall.
For ten more minutes, the steady boom of fire and crack of rifles continues as we shoot at every movement we see, and it truly is a massacre.
There is still no white flag, and they still keep shooting, even surrounded, even in a hopeless position. Give up
, I plead silently, surrender and walk away with your lives
They do not hear it, though, and they continue to look out, shoot, and inevitably die. There are fewer and fewer shots from them as time passes, and eventually, none and no movement.
The rain starts, slowly washing away our sins, and I call for a cease-fire. We approach the ridge from all sides, stepping over some bodies torn in two and others where it seems like they are only sleeping, and we search for survivors.
There are a few, though they are wounded, and I kneel besides the most lucid I find, and resist the urge to shake him as I ask the question that bothers me the most.
"Why? Why didn't you surrender?"
He coughs, a wet cough, and a red trail appears at the corner of his mouth.
"We were fighting for our homes, greyback. You burned them, months ago, when you came over the border, and you kept burning them as you went. Only after Chattanooga did you retreat, and by then, many of the men didn't have any homes left to go to, so we pursued you, and would pursue you to hell and beyond."
He tries to spit, though it simply trickles down his lips, and then is silent.
I turn, silent as well, and walk away.
We have orders to return to defend the capital immediately, but I will disobey those orders and accept the consequences; I have something more important to do, first. I, and anyone that wishes to join me, will spend the next few days burying the fallen, all of them, side by side, as brothers who fought to defend their homes from an invader.
We will erect a monument, a cairn, so that world will know of the men that have consecrated this land and never forget what they did here. And then, only then, will we move on.