“Soldier’s Heart” by Gary Paulsen Chapter 6 – Farming
The fight had been called the Battle for Manassas Junction by some newspapers Charley saw but it quickly was called Bully Run by the men, for the creek that ran nearby.
They withdrew and set up camp in Washington, where all they did was drill and stand guard duty and wait for the Rebs to come and take the city – which most everybody said they could do with a good company of men – and Charley went to see some sights but it rained most of the time so he went back to the camp before his pass expired.
The Rebs did not come, and replacements poured into all the units. They were issued new uniforms – heavy wool, proper blue, with black leather belting – and, more important, they were finally paid after nearly three months.
Charley was given thirty-three dollars in gold coins. It was more money than he’d ever had, more money than he’d ever seen, and he was sorely tempted to spend it all on himself. He did not think he would live much longer – not past another battle – and he thought of all the things he could get with the money.
The sutler had come and there were pies for the outrageous sum of twenty-five cents each and he’d been on salt pork and beans for over a month. The thought of a pie was too much and he spent the money for one of them – an apple pie – and sat in his tent alone and ate the whole thing with his fingers, licking the juice from the pan until it was clean. He instantly wanted another.
This he bought, which he also ate alone, and with that his stomach was full at last and the desire to spend money was gone with the fullness. He kept four dollars for possible expenses and sent the rest home by registered mail with a letter to his mother:
“Here is some money. I’ve been in a battle. I was scart some but it’s past now. I can’t come home.”
And now he waited. They all waited. They drilled and cleaned and cleaned and drilled and were given a new army commander named McClelland that many of the men, Charley included, held in high regard because he sat a horse well and took care to mind the conditions of his soldiers.
IN a little time they marched again and some said it was to be a battle but now they had been waiting for so long that many of them did not think there would be a battle at all. They thought they would just keep waiting and waiting and never fight again. It was, of course, a dream, a hope, and for many of them, a prayer.
Charley was not among them. He had waited with them, of course, and had settled into camp life and even marching life, but he still believed in the inevitability of battle and most of all believed in the absolute certainty of this own death. He could not live. Many others would die with him a nd many would live but he knew one thing:
He would die. In the next battle or the one after that or the one after that he would die.
But for the moment, he kept his equipment clean and in good order and as they marched south he found time to look at the country.
There were settled farms now, more prosperous looking than the ones he’d seen from the train. There were chickens and cattle and pigs and barely ripe fruit in the trees. The Minnesota regiment already had a reputation. They were called “cool under fire” and “well disciplined” but although they had been ordered not to forage – steal food from the population as they marched – most men ignored the order. After all, they were passing through Rebel territory and if they left the food the “dirty seceshes” (for secessionists) would just eat it.
The men called if farming. Charley “farmed” several chickens and helped slaughter a pig and a cow and agreed with the men that “secesh liberation meat” tasted as good as any homegrown goods.
They ate fruit constantly, picked largely green from the trees, and most of the men had bowel troubles. Charley cam down with such a case of dysentery he couldn’t dig toilet holes fast enough and had to go to the hospital at the back of the march. This was an old school building filled with sick men. There were some wounded soldiers there was well, but he quickly learned that four men died of dysentery and disease for every man who died of battle wounds and he decided not to stay.
The doctor, a kind officer named Hand, gave him a shot of whiskey and some powder to mix in his water and he went back to his company and arrived there in the late afternoon as the men were preparing for action.
“You’re just in time,” a private named Nelson told him. “We’re going up to that line of trees and kick the Rebs out.”
Charley studied the trees that lay two hundred yards off. Nelson was a new man – had come in with a batch of replacements from Minnesota that had caught up to them in the camp around Washington. Charley looked at him, saw the innocence and felt his own age. Not in years. He was only sixteen. But in meadows. He was old in the art of crossing meadows. He wanted to tell Nelson about it, about what would be waiting when they went up tot that line of trees to “kick the Rebs out.” He opened his mouth, started to say something, then stopped. There was too much, a world too much to say. You couldn’t say it. You had to live it. You had to see it.
“You don’t know nothing,” he told Nelson. “You don’t know as much as a slick-eared calf.”
Nelson stopped working on his rifle. “Well, ain’t you one to take on airs? I guess I know enough – I know all I’ll need.”
Charley began to say more but instead just hsook his head and walked away, looking for some cartridges to fill his box.
It started the same way again, this third time. The officers dismounted and moved to the front with their sabers, the sergeants just to their rear screaming at the men.
“All right! Form on me! Line-of-battle here!”
Charley stepped forward with the rest. He did not think of fear, did not think of what would happen, what he knew would happen. He stepped forward in line, checked the cap on his rifle and fixed his bayonet, and when they ordered, he started walking across the field with the rest of the men.
There was no sound except the clink of metal against metal on their shoulder straps, and Charley heard Nelson’s voice whispering next to him.
“Lord, there they are, right there. See them?”
Charley said nothing but Nelson was right. He too could see the Rebel soldiers. This time they were not behind earthworks but were forming in ranks in front of the trees just as the Union soldiers had done.
“They’re going to come at us,” Nelson said. “They’re forming to attack us.”
And even as he said it the Rebel soldiers began to scream and run forward at them. There was still no firing – the distance was too great – but the scream could easily be heard. It was the first time Charley was to hear the Rebel yell and for a moment it frightened him, but everything had to be compared and he thought of the fright of the first day, first battle, and the yell was nothing.
These were men, only men, no matter the yelling, and as the Rebels came running toward them the Union officers stopped the marching soldiers.
Charley raised his rifle.
“Ready – aim low, aim at their legs – fire!”
The men fired as one and the front rank of advancing Rebels went down.
“Reload and fire at will!”
Charley bit a cartridge without taking his eyes off the Rebels. They were still coming, but slower, the charge broken by a first volley, and he reloaded and fired four times, each time aiming low, and was reloading the fifth time when an officer to his front raised his saber.
“At them, men!” he screamed. “Give them steel!”
He started running at the confused Confederate line, and the Union soldiers followed, bayonets extended to the front.
Where’s your yell now? Charley thought, and then realized that he was screaming it. “Where’s your damn yell now?”
The Confederates started to hold, tried to stand. They fired once at the charging Union soldiers and out of the corner of his eye Charley saw men fall. But five smashing volleys of accurate fire had demoralized the Rebels, cut their numbers at least in half, and when they saw the blue line coming at them through the powder smoke, saw the glint of the bayonets, it was more than they could stand and they turned and ran.
“Look – they’re showing tail,” a man next to Charley yelled as they ran, and Charley glanced at him, surprised. Nelson had been there. Cocky Nelson. He was nowhere to be seen and Charley hadn’t seen him get hit, hadn’t seen him fall. Charley ran on.
Some men slowed, satisfied that they’d won the fight, but Charley couldn’t stop running and soon found himself in front of the line. He would have been shocked to see himself. His lips were drawn back showing his teeth, and his face was contorted by a savage rage.
He wanted to kill them. He wanted to catch them and run his bayonet through them and kill them. All of them. Stick and jab and shoot them and murder them and kill them all, each and every Rebel’s son of them. Not one would be able to get up. Not one. Kill them all.
Before they could kill him.
He was out of himself, beside himself, an animal, and it is difficult to say how far he would have gone; certainly he would have caught up with them and since he was nearly alone, and would have been alone when he did so, he would have been killed. But one of the sergeants stuck the butt of his rifle between Charley’s ankles and brought him down.
“Better hold up there, gamecock – you can’t take the whole Rebel army. Besides, they don’t want any more of you. Let them go.”
Charley sat on the ground, still snarling, watching the retreating Rebels. “We have to kill them…”
“You’ll get another chance,” the sergeant said, smiling. “Now re-form and let’s get a line fixed again.” HE turned away and yelled at the other men. “On me – line-of-battle! Form line-of battle!”
Charley got up and reloaded his rifle. The Rebels had gotten back into the trees and were firing, sniping at the Union lines, but the bullets all went high.
“Withdraw!” the sergeant yelled. “In formation, in good order, withdraw!”
They moved back across the field and had gone perhaps forty paces when Charley saw Nelson.
He was sitting on the ground, one hand holding his stomach. Charley broke rank and went to kneel beside him.
“Where are you hit?” HE already knew the answer. Blood and other matter slid through Nelson’s fingers onto the ground.
“Belly,” Nelson said. “I got me a belly wound. Wouldn’t you know it? First fight and I get me a belly wound.” He gasped the words. The pain was already making it hard for him to breathe and Charley knew the real pain hadn’t truly started yet.
“You’ll be fine,” Charley said. “The ambulance will come here and get you and you’ll be back in Minnesota in no time – “
“Don’t,” Nelson said through his teeth. “Don’t like. They don’t pick up men with belly wounds and you know it. They’ll give me some water and leave me to die.”
Charley didn’t say anything but knew it was true. Stomach wounds were fatal. The surgeons could do nothing. The ambulance drivers would go through the wounded – when and if they got to the field – and jerk shirts up checking for stomach wounds. Those soldiers would be left. The surgeons were too busy with amputations and treatable injuries to spend time on those with stomach wounds.
It was an agonizingly slow death – it might take two days – and the pain left men screaming until they were too hoarse to make another sound.
“I don’t want to die like this,” Nelson said. “Just laying here waiting for it…”
Charley didn’t say anything because there was nothing to say.
“Load my rifle, will you, Charley? I fired it just as I was hit. Load it for me just in case the Rebs come back, will you?”
Charley hesitated, then nodded and picked up Nelson’s rifle, tore a cartridge off with his teeth, poured the powder down the bore and settled the bullet on the powder.
Charley pinched a cap and set it on the nipple, pushing it down tightly with his thumb. He put the hammer on half cock.
“Just put the rifle next to me, with the butt down by my foot. Yes, like that. Now cock the hammer, will you? Thank you. That’s right kind of you, Charley. Just one more thing. I can’t reach down to my foot and there’s a powerful itch on my right foot. Would you take my shoe off before you go so I can scratch it?”
Charley unlaced the shoe and pulled it off. The foot was white, so white it looked like marble, as if it wasn’t alive. Well, he thought, soon enough.
“I got me a letter back in my haversack where we put them down before we formed up,” Nelson said. “Would you see that it gets mailed back to my folks in Deerwood? And tell them, if you see them, that I died with my face to the enemy, will you?”
Charley nodded and was surprised to find that he was crying. He did not think he could cry any longer but the tears were sliding down his cheeks. “Do you have water?”
“Thank you for this – after I snotted back at you that way.”
“That was nothing.”
“Thank you anyway.”
“IT’s nothing.” Charley took a breath. The sergeant was coming back across the meadow toward him. One of the rules, he knew, was that you didn’t stop for the wounded. When a man went down he was alone, even if he was your brother. “You want me to stay with you?”
Nelson shook his head. “They might be ready for another attack.”
Charley stood and waved the sergeant back. “Well, then…”
“Yes – you’d better go.”
Charley nodded but his feet didn’t want to move. He had to force them, think about them moving, and with that he walked slowly. It was strange, he thought, the crying. I don’t even rightly know him – still don’t know his first name – and here I am crying. With all the men I’ve seen drop and I don’t even know him and –
The sound of the shot stopped him. He stood for a moment, the tears working down his face, stood for a long moment and then started walking again. HE did not look back.