That Damned Battle By Bert Benmeyer
Zeke was my best friend, had been for 20 years or so but now I planned on killing him. There was no other way of protecting Sally Sue from his advances--it was either that or drag him into the army with me. I could tell he had lust for her even though she was mine, or would be once I returned from battle. In a drunken haze he had expressed lewd interest in her and it was either shed his blood or join him up. Still in that liquored-up daze, he made his X; I could sign my name. They issued us some grey pants, a jacket and a cap, a rifle and other military stuff and taught us to shoot. Of course, we knew how, what Southern boy didn't? The marching and digging weren't much fun, but we did it all. He loved the South and the war and looked forward to battle. Me? I never figured out what we were fighting for, something about our heritage and freedom and fake words like such. Slavery stuck in my craw. The rich folk need slaves to do their farming for them, but working men couldn't compete with free labor. But, to protect Sally Sue's honor, I was there.
On a sunny day in April, I had decided to mash Zeke. He had again spoken out of turn about my untouched beloved and knew it. He tried a few I'm sorrys, but he grinned like an ape; she had to be defended and I was her champion. I hammered him a few times. Each time he got up I hammered him again and was prepared to continue through the afternoon when a group of horsemen approached. Officers rode horses, but who? They came closer and there was Old Pete, General Longstreet, and some of his lesser generals, but all formed a mighty powerful group.
Hold! he shouted. Someone called attention and we snapped into rigidity.
As you were, stand easy. I need someone who can read and write, and I'm in a hurry, so don't lag, boys. Step up! This last was shouted because we all dawdled: we knew volunteering could lead to misery. But Zeke shoved me hard and I stumble forward and, of course, fell. Old Pete grunted a laugh. That's a hell of a way for a learned man to volunteer. Can you really read and write, or was that just a bit of nonsense?
No point in lying. My mother's teaching and two years of college left me with a pretty fair hand. No sir, I can do 'em both pretty fairly.
Let's see, and he reached into an inner pocket, pulled out a document, and tossed to me. I unfolded it and read: To General Longstreet. Sir, please move your corps to the left so that it faces the enemy's right flank. Exploit any opportunities you might find. Robert E. Lee, Commanding General, Army of Northern Virginia.
I must have did... done it right because he said, "Come with me."
Sir, I have to get permission....
Son, he roared, "I'm second in command of this whole damned army so I get to tell everyone except Master Robert what to do. Somebody get this man a horse, we have to get moving. With that he rode off, his generals behind him. A sergeant rode up with a horse for me and off we went. That was the battle around Chancellorsville when the damned Yankee right flank was exposed and we rolled them up...and where poor General Jackson died, shot by Confederate guards who thought him a Yankee.
I spent my time with the general riding all around the army, handing out dispatches, covertly observing the condition of the troops: their readiness for battle whether they had proper food, clothing, equipment, and other such. Sometimes I'd give covert messages to a reluctant general too. Sir, I shouldn't tell tales, but you were kind to me, and the general wondered why you were slow in advancing yesterday. Please sir, don't let on that I told you. This avoided an official rebuke and got the job done, and I was a hero around the camp.
But I reported a shortage of shoes. Many men had rotting shoes tied on to their feet, and too many had none at all. Old Pete scowled. Well, nothing much we can do about it. Dismissed.
We had invaded Pennsylvania, and the men didn't worry too much about shoes. The excitement was that we would move southeast, take Washington and Dishonest Abe, and end the war. But a brigdier learned that Gettysburg held a shoe factory, and he was, by God, going to get shoes for his men. He sent a small column toward the city with that purpose in mind but ran into the Yankee General Buford. The commander of the Yankee Army, General Meade, had interposed himself between us and Washington. General Lee was looking for a place to fight him.... and break through. General Buford, in command of cavalry, saw the column moving toward the city. That shouldn't have been happening, and he stopped them with cavalry dismounted and fighting behind stones and brush and every possible concealment. Of course, our general sent for reinforcements and Buford retreated.
Old Pete roared all that out to his staff. Goddammit, that fool has dragged us into an inconvenient battle. We keep sending reinforcements, and they're gathering their army, and they've got the high ground. He shifted into lecture mode. Boys, it's rarely advisable to attack high ground, but it looks like we're in for it. He turned to a map. Here's the city, here's Cemetery Ridge, and that's where they'll wind up. General Lee will fight here, and there'll be hell to pay. He looked gloomily into the ground. Well, General Ewell ain't no Jackson, but maybe he'll crumple up their right flank and it'll be an easy win. Ewell needs tight orders, none of that 'if this or that'. He needs to be told what to do. I hope General Lee remembered that. Ah, the hell with it. Try and rest your troops, we're going to have busy days.
"Where's my courier? Aaron, where the hell are you. There, is that you? Here's what you do. Get over to General Ewell and tell him to fight like hell; he's got to drive that right flank off the ridge. We've got to take Cemetery Hill at all cost. Tell him that, at all cost. AT ALL DAMNED COST!
I ran to my horse with his shout tailing me. But I was too late; Ewell had already given the order to stand down.
The next morning Old Pete shouted for me again. This time I figured he was angry about something. Nothing surprising about his being angry, but at me? Hell, I'm not the most respectful of men, but I figurer he had gotten used to that.
Aaron Bufkin, why the hell didn't you deliver my order to General Ewell? You might have lost us this battle!
I didn't like his yelling at me, but had learned not to quake in his presence. This time, the hell with him. General, the reason I didn't deliver it was because I got there too late and I got there too late 'cause you sat on your ass stewing about this and that, and by the time you got busy General Ewell had already called off the fight. I guess you're stirred up about that, and I s'pose I'm the only one you can chew on, but don't accuse me of dira, uh, dereliction of duty 'cause that ain't me.
Dumbstruck, he stared at me as I stood at attention. He stared and stared. I thought it was a court-martial for me, when suddenly he burst into laughter. Well, Aaron, I guess you got it right. I did sit on my butt so you couldn't get there in time... but son, might you not have been a bit gentler? Nah, I deserved it. Without Jackson we lost punch and daring. For sure, war takes curious twists and turns, and we poor generals got to make the best of it. Dismissed, but don't go far away.
Meanwhile, my old pal Zeke was AWOL. He'd ran off from the field of battle, and if he didn't get back real quick he'd be tried as a deserter. Good riddance, what a skunk he turned out to be.
Old Pete and the generals met with General Lee to decide the day's action, so I had some time to wander over to the camp followers. They were mostly women, prostitutes or wives or sweethearts who couldn't bear to be away from their beloveds. I saw a woman pulling a cart, a heavy cart, so I went to help her--and stopped dead. Sally Sue, my sweet, adoring light-of-my-life, a woman of the tenderest sensibilities--a camp follower?
What in God's name are you doing here? Before she could answer I understood everything. Zeke, that ruffia, had somehow transformed her into a soiled dove and brought her with him. That's why he went AWOL: to have a toss with her on a blanket.
Don't look at me that way!" she cried. "I was never a woman to you but some kind of cut-out doll who never should be touched lest she swoon to the ground. No, you'd be there, full of apologies, to catch me, but always worried about where your hands grasped my body, Zeke never treated me that way. I'm a woman and he knew it; so we ran away, got married, and here I am! I'm glad you're still alive, but we have no business together. She turned and pulled her cart away.
Zeke, my drinking, whoring buddy had to die. Then she'd come back to her senses. I began to plot how I might accomplish the deed when the trumpets called me back. Military business was in the make.
Old Pete was in the center of a hubbub of officers and soldiers all astir, some running to him and some away to follow orders. Aaron, where the hell are you? Sergeant Bufkin, he shouted in his formal voice, "get over here. With DISPATCH! I did so Damn, we're stepping deeper into it and maybe there's a chance on our right flank. Get over there real quick and find the general in charge. Hell, I forget his name but keep your mouth shut about that. Tell him Little Round Top is bare of the enemy, not Round Top, but LITTLE Round Top. He's to get up there and hold it tight and drag some artillery up, and pretty soon he'll be able to rake the whole enemy line. Sergeant Bufkin, did you get that? Tell me."
I told him, getting his verbal orders right as usual, and dashed off. I could see that the hill was bare of the enemy and we could win there. But some wide-awake Union officer had seen the same thing, and I could see their troops moving toward the hill. We had to get there first and we had plenty of time. I found the general, rode straight up to him. Sir, Old Pete says take Little Round Top before the blue bellies get up there. You've got time, but you need to move quick because they're moving toward it.
He didn't like receiving orders from a sergeant and sputtered a bit. My men are occupied elsewhere, Sergeant. It'll take a bit of time, but I'll get 'er done.
Sir, send up what you have. General Longstreet says the battle could depend on it. Of course, this last was a fib, but I was pretty good at reading my general's mind, and this oaf wanted to dilly-dally. I couldn't stir him, and on the way back I saw the Yankee troops had got there first. Later, I told Old Pete what had happened. After threatening to murder the sluggish general, he described how we made four charges up the hill. The Yankee colonel in charge knew what to do with his good troops fighting against an enemy below him. At one point we almost ran around his right flank, but he stuck some troops right angled and facing to the left of his line. Some of our men got there but not enough. The fifth time we charged up, he fixed bayonets and counter-charged straight at us. That ended the battle. We had failed, another case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
But I didn't care too much. I wanted to find Zeke and kill him. He had returned, got screamed at by some captain, given some extra duty, and was welcomed back with open arms. He was, after all, a marvelous soldier, too wild to promote but steady as a rock in a fight. But he wasn't where I went; and everyone seemed to know not to find him for me. He was in General Armistead's brigade. Still, I would by God be his destroyer.
The morning promised another lovely day. July 4th with birds swooping overhead, rabbits hopping, and cows peacefully grazing in the distance. And, of course, nothing to retard the reality of man killing man. I came early to the general's tent, but he was earlier than me. Bufkin, there you are. Write this down, a message to General Lee. Sir, We have faced the enemy twice on his own ground and failed to take his position. I strongly urge that we go around him, get between him and Washington, and thus force him to attack us on our chosen ground. We will beat him handily and we will have won the war. Do it now, right now, and get it to him immediately.
I sat to compose the message when a rider came up. Sir, he shouted to Old Pete, General Lee awaits you for a discussion of the utmost importance. He stressed the importance of speed and hopes that this urgency does not discommode you. At the general's nod, he rode away.
Damn, damn, damn, he's made up his mind. Abruptly, General Longstreet called out to me. Sergeant, forget that message, accompany me and let us hope.... He stared vacantly for a moment; then, Ah hell, let's go.
We arrived at General Lee's headquarters and found him astride his favorite horse, Traveler. We rode up and saluted, He returned the salute and for the moment sat quietly. General Longstreet, please ride a bit with me; Sergeant, if you would wait here." But he must have wanted me to hear the discussion, because they didn't ride far.
General Longstreet, we must win this battle, and we can. General Meade has repulsed on the flanks. Yes, there were lost opportunities, but the battles have forced him to take troops from the center and left us with our main chance.
I swear I heard Old Pete groan, but he later denied it. Sir, he started, but Master Robert (we loved General Lee and that's what we called him) waved him to silence. General, do you see that clump of trees? He pointed straight out across an open field, almost a mile deep, to the trees that seemed to stand at the center of the Yankee army. "Take that position and the war is over. I can find almost 15,000 fresh troops, Picket's division and units from other divisions, and they'll do the job."
Sir, Longstreet said, and again Lee waved him to silence--but this time he could not restrain his old friend. Sir, you have provided us an impossible task. General Stuart's cavalry has not been here to inform us about Yankee reinforcements. We don't know how many they have received and what dispositions they have made. Sir, there are not 15,000 men who ever lived who could take those trees. Please, no more frontal assaults. We must go around them, get between them and Washington, and force them to attack us. That is the plan for victory.
Lee stared gravely at Longstreet. Finally he sighed. I know your love for me, for Virginia and for the Confederacy, but sir, I must declare you wrong. We can achieve those trees, and it would please me if you arranged the attack. That ended it; he rode away. Poor Old Pete sat on his horse, crestfallen, and finally, without a word, stirred his animal into motion back toward his headquarters. His head was down; his horse knew the way. I rode alongside, vastly troubled by this rift between them.
Later, Old Pete called his generals, General Pickett among them. He took out his map of the terrain and showed them the attack, where it would start and its goal. The artillery would start with a massive bombardment to soften the defense, and off we would go. When they understood it would be a massive movement, a charge into the teeth of the enemy, they cheered. By God, we'll whip them!one of them shouted. Glory, hallelujah, the day of the Lord has come! cried another. Another said, Finally, we'll show them our stuff!" Several yips and yahoos served as a chorus.
Old Pete stood dourly, his frown not at all unnoticed; but it could not dampen the general joy of his staff. All right, return to your posts, get your men ready. General Pickett, please let me know when your preparations are complete. Jubilant, they rushed out.
Old Pete stepped out of his tent and sat on a log. Sergeant," he said to me, "we're gong to be whipped. That damned position is impregnable, and we can't rely on any Yankee mistakes. The bastards have learned to fight, that's why we are still down here and they are up there. That colonel on Little Round Top was magnificent. In the past they would have run like rabbits but they knew what they had to do. We're faced with leaders and men like that. Goddamn! Go, check something out. Do something.
I thought considerably about the battle to come and what he had said. Was he right? I thought so, but I had to admit I didn't know much about such things. Then I realized without thinking about it that I had to be part of that charge. After I argued with myself for about an hour, pointing out all the reasons I shouldn't go, maiming and death being the principle ones, I approached my general.
Before I could speak, General Pickett rode up. Sir, we need the order to advance.
Longstreet just sat without acknowledging the request.
Sir, we are ready, shall we go?
This was a demand. Longstreet looked up, stared and looked down. Pickett shouted, Yes sir! and dashed away.
Softly I said, Sir, with your permission I will join General Armistead's brigade. I wanted to be with Zeke; either the blue bellies would get him or I would, but also, also... I could not pass up the glory of that charge.
Are you mad? he roared. Absolutely not! Or when you come back, if you come back, you'll be a private and I'll leave you with Armistead for the rest of the war!" He glared, I saluted, and ran off to find Zeke. I didn't report to anyone, just joined the mass of men ready to move forward into the open field.
Our artillery smashed the air with its thunder, and we could hear the cannonballs rip overhead, destined to destroy blue bellies. Meanwhile, I searched for Zeke, Really, it wasn't hard, everyone knew him. Finally, there he was.
Hey, old friend, what are you doing here on the road to hell? he greeted me.
After a pause, he said, Yeah, you found Sally Sue and feel cheated or something like that. Sorry, but the race is to the swift, the turtle really loses and that's the story of life. He saw my scowl. Don't be mad, old friend, you just didn't understand her and that's all I've got to say."
None of this--not of his reasonable attitude, not his call on our old friendship--had any effect on me. He had stolen her from me, debauched her, and today he would die if I had to shoot him in the back.
Nothing I could say would alter the situation. I was getting ready to attack him when the cannonade stopped and we were ordered forward. At that moment I left my animus behind and moved with the great mass of men. We were dirty, our uniforms ragged, some in tatters. What gray there might have been had long since been bleached out by the sun... and so many men had no shoes, walked on feet so thickly calloused they could not feel pain that might have disabled me.
It was a slow march toward that clump of trees. No one called cadence, and the terrain quickly broke up our marching order, but that was meaningless. We knew our destination, the goddamned Yankees, and we walked toward them. At times in the past, they would drift away at our approach, but not this time. And part of my brain noted that our heavy artillery barrage had not damaged their position at all... and then the cannon fire, the goddamned Yankee cannon fire, blasted at us, the cannonballs crashing through our massed troops and plowing straight furrows through our lines. The balls moved lazily, we could see them float through the air until they hit men and body parts flew into the air. Blood spurted out of headless necks, limbs were mangled, and screams told the full story of horror.
As we came closer the musket fire started, then rose to a crescendo, a ripping sound without pause. The minie balls tore into our front ranks. Some men just fell on the spot. Others spun in bizarre pirouettes. The wounded screamed for momma or cursed the Yankees or just grunted. But we moved forward. Somewhere along that cruel walk I picked up a rifle, powder, and balls. Their cannon switched to cannister, canvas bags filled with minie balls and whatever cruel stuff the gunners could devise. Such cannon loads could not be evaded. It was like walking into a giant shotgun, and we were the pigeons. Men fell in swaths.
Then we came to a fence. Some men had gone as far as they could and just hung there, bodies riddled, The rest of us climbed the damned thing and started to move more swiftly toward the bastards who were slaughtering us. We would get there, we would kill them.
A sunken road impeded us. More men just lay there, having reached their own limits of endurance, but General Armistead screamed, Let's go boys, we've got them now! He raised his hat on the tip of his sword so we could all see him going forward. Who could ignore that bravery? Not Zeke, not me, not the rest of us who had survived; we ran forward and...
... the Yankees ran, they pulled away from their works and turned and ran! We had won, we had beaten them, they were running!
We surged into the gap. There was a cannon pointed at us but unattended. Quickly, some fellows grabbed it, turned it toward the enemy. But the retreating bastards had taken powder and ball. The damned thing was just a lump of metal. But it made no matter, we had breached their line and hey could not stop us! Hordes of our troops had come through the gap and would roll them up. Victory! Victory!
But it never happened. An alert Yankee officer pulled some reserves into line directly ahead of us. Their blue uniforms were clean; fresh troops faced us! They faced us, front line on one knee, second line shooting over them. Volley after volley ripped into us. Armistead went down. Zeke was shot to pieces. It was the end.
Like the rest of our ragged few, I turned and walked back. With all the fire behind me, I was not struck. I walked because my legs had no strength. I left my musket somewhere on the field. Men ran past me, others helped a wounded companion, but I walked. Did they miss me on purpose, was I just lucky, did God wave death away? I didn't know, how could I know?
Some maniacs among the survivors begged General Lee to send us back. We would do it this time. Later I learned we had taken almost fifty percent casualties, roughly sixty-five hundred of our men had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. As the survivors begged our general for death, the goddamnedd Yankeess chanted "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg!" in grim reminder, in revenge for what we had done to them at that battle.. Their general had been no less stupid than, dare I say it, General Lee today.
In spite of my exhaustion, all I wanted to do was collapse to the ground, but I knew my general needed me. I staggered to him. You survived. Good, I need you. Get on your horse and get to each command post. Tell them to prepare a defense against an impending attack. That was another silly command. When General Lee commanded Pickett to reform his division, Pickett said, General, I have no division, and walked away.
For the rest of his life, Pickett expressed nothing but rage about the man who led him and his troops into disaster.
Old Pete could rise to any occasion and did his best to form a rearguard. But Meade, he who had fought us off, was happy to sit back and enjoy the day and let us off scot-free.
I realized the war was over; so did Old Pete. I don't know about Lee, but he would have to have been mad to avoid that conclusion. The North would crush us with men and arms. The numbers meant we were doomed.
I had had enough of war. I found Sally Sue. She had learned about Zeke well before I saw her slumped near her cart.
It seems to me you have two choices, I told her. "You can remain with the army, and I'll protect you until I die, or you can return home. I'm not sure which I prefer, but you need to decide quick.
My words shocked her. She stood, faced me with disdain. You never knew anything about women, and now you think you know everything, but, you're just a man with idiot ideas about gallantry and petite, fragile girls trembling with pleasure at the sight of you. You have no idea about women as tough creatures. Idiot!. She sighed as if her burst of words had exhausted her. You could at least say you're sorry.
I laughed. First, I'm not sorry. Whatever you saw in him, he brought you here, and you didn't deserve that. No woman does. You're not fragile, okay, but you're the idiot if you believe that being here means you're more of a woman. You have your choice. If you can think of another, good luck to you. I turned and walked away. That was the end of the goddamned battle.
Copyright 2010-2012, Bert Benmeyer
About the Author
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and blogs at Meshuggeneh Meanderings. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.
Tell Bert what you thought of his story!
Return to Current Issue Return to Rational Magic Home