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Prophecies of Shiloh
My mind wandered off aimlessly, as it seemed, though somehow retained a queer sense of direction. Uniformed soldiers in ranks upon ranks, standing upon a green, dreamy plain, the brass of their armaments and uniforms glittering in the light of an ethereal sun; the picture my mind painted swam around my head, lighting all fires of aspiration and determination, hope and longing.
Perhaps it was the heat that was affecting my mind, but then again, perhaps not. Kentucky mornings couldn't prove so terribly warm in the middle of September. But judging by the amount of perspiration on my neck and forehead, it might as well have been a hundred and twenty degrees.
The tremendous drive to be involved in this historic endeavor kept me in the line that seemed to stretch for miles. There were even multiple lines, all creeping along, every man in them waiting to pay a visit to the desk at the front. The lines at first moved with the speed of a half-dead turtle, but then the pace increased somewhat, and soon after there were just a few men between me and the clerk sitting at the simple hardwood table.
After the man in front of me had completed his recruitment, I strutted up to the desk.
“Name?” The clerk asked, in a tired and depressingly uninterested tone.
“John Clark-David, sir,” I replied. The clerk wrote down my name rather quickly and scratchily.
“Port Oliver, Kentucky, sir.”
“Twenty-two.” The clerk picked up a piece of paper that he had apparently repeated to each man before me, and read in a monotonous tone:
“On this day, the 13th of September, 1861, you, John Clark-David of -” he paused and looked at the list where he had taken down my information, “of Port Oliver, Kentucky, are hereby agreeing to recruitment into the 1st Kentucky Brigade, 4th Infantry Division of the Army of the Confederate States of America?”
“Yes sir, I am.” I replied, my face expressionless, but my heart racing.
“You understand that The State of Kentucky has not succeeded from the United States and is still officially a Unionist state, and as such you will be obligated to not return to home for the duration of this conflict, for fear of capture or death?” I paused...
“Then sign here, please.” the clerk said, passing me a pen and a sheet of paper. I signed my name as best I knew how, but it still looked like the tormented carcass of a poor woodland creature, and it appeared to read “JOhh Clorh~Dowib” and I hoped the clerk wouldn't pay excessive attention.
“Thank you for joining the Confederate Army.” The clerk said in an entirely unstirring manner. “Please continue on to the clerks behind me, and receive your issued equipment, then report to Major General Breckinridge. NEXT!”
I felt rather boastful of myself, being officially inducted into the Confederate Military. I'd show those dumb Yankees a thing or two! I swaggered past the first table a few dozen feet, where there stood a chain of men behind a long table, handing out kepi's, coats, guns, and so on. I made my way through, until I came to the end of the table, where a big, bald, scruffy man rushedly handed me the sorriest looking firearm I had seen in all my days.
“A beat up old smooth-bore musket?!” I exclaimed, my dreams of establishing myself as a shining soldier with the latest and brightest of everything...hopelessly shattered. The stock was nicked to splinters, the barrel was tarnished, and the hammer was loose. It was quite possible that it saw service in the Revolution, almost 90 years ago. “You might as well just give me a spear,” I said sarcastically. “The only obviously functional part of this gun is the bayonet!”
The man grabbed my shirt and pulled me in close. I noted to myself that his acrid breath smelled of rye bread and onions.
“You jus' watch yer mouth, you little bullyrag. Yer mighty lucky you got here earlier 'n some o' m' still in line up der. We's almost outta' even these old muskets, an' sometime soon here we's gonna hafta start hannin' out the pikes layin' under this here table. So you jus' be grateful't you get somethin' that at least has a chance to fire.” He shoved me back upright, and I walked on sheepishly.
'Hey Bullyrag!” the man said again, pulling me back. He whispered in my ear,
“I been hearin' roomers of a new ship'mnt o' those fancy new Enfield rifles getting' her within the week. So keep yer chin up, and jus' bare with that sorry old cooter for a little while yet.” He winked at me, and smiled a yellowed, toothy smile. I smiled back at him timidly, and walked on towards a group of men. They were gathered around a stately man with a long mustache in a grey Confederate uniform, sitting on a tall, muscular horse. General Breckinridge appeared idle, but I assumed that he was simply waiting patiently for all of his new recruits to arrive, ready for duty. I noticed that he exhibited a chilling set of features. His chin appeared to stick out nearly past his nose, and his eyes were so clear and glassy, and employed such a peaceful yet intense piercing, that one would wonder if he was really alive at all, and not some troubled ghost of our heritage. It sent shivers down my spine to gaze at him, so I occupied myself with inspecting my issued clothing and equipment. Despite the fact that most of it was inhabited by various peculiar and unidentified odors, I felt the irresistible and compelling desire to try my uniform's fit. All that I received in the form of clothing was a gray wool coat and kepi hat, therefore I resorted to the assumption that I was apparently required to furnish all of my other necessary clothing. But I had no complaints. I was a soldier now: Private John Clark-David, 1st Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.
As the months went by, I underwent vigorous yet suspiciously rushed training, was moved from camp to camp, and through a series of long marches and important conversations between officers, I found myself in Corinth, Mississippi, my brigade joining with others and becoming a part of a much bigger army, headed by General Albert Sidney Johnston, a Kentuckian himself. By this time, the world had progressed itself to April 2nd, 1862.
Corinth was the type of town that I would assume most individuals would try their hardest to get away from, rather than make a pointed attempt to pay a visit to. Yet there I was, wasting away in a camp amid an expanse of hot and hopelessly inexorable marshes. But I was slightly optimistic in the knowledge that I was at least in the same situation as roughly fifty-five thousand others.
Over the next couple of days, the entire army was plunged into a march to Pittsburg Landing, a tiny town along the Tennessee River. The heavens poured forth pelting rains throughout the whole march, and when we occasionally received a break in the downpour, a thick, mucilaginous mud covered the roads, keeping us moving at a steady tortoise's pace. We sloshed into our destination on April 5th, tired, utterly saturated with mud and rain, and entirely unwilling to accomplish anything but eat and sleep. But I became sincerely positive that the commanders hated us and wanted us to die when we were alerted that no fires were allowed that night. It was said that the verdict was given due to Yankees just close by, that we planned to surprise-attack the next morning. But I stared at my cold, hard, stale biscuit, and refused to care.
I woke the next morning in an indescribable tizzy of excitement, and apparently my fellow infantrymen had too. The whole of the camp buzzed and we had a feeling of urgency to get out and do something. Namely, to fight Yankees. It was quite early on the morning of April 6th, practically in the middle of the night. I think I heard someone say it was 4:07 AM when my brigade moved out from camp (the army had been split up into sections for the attack). We couldn't see much at all, except for what was lit by the silvery-blue glow that the moon casts on the world, before even the first inklings of dawn approach. We marched for almost an hour I would guess, but when we reached a place known as Fraley Field, we were suddenly halted, and a call for quiet swept through the mass of men. We crouched silent for a few minutes, and occasionally heard small rustlings in the trees in front of us. Then out of the darkness, we saw several flashes of orange and white, and the crackle of musket fire sounded in the ears of every man present. The man in front of me started at the noise, and then crumpled to the ground. I assumed he had fainted from the anxiety of the surprise, until I noticed where a musket ball had forced itself through his chest. Even while we were peppered with projectiles, the entire brigade stood in a stupor, blinking and looking at each other as if to ask “What do you think we should do?”. But then, to answer our question, the lieutenant called to us,
“We've been spotted men! Orphan Brigade- open fire on the darn Yankees an' show 'em what the South is made of!” (actually he said something else in the place of “darn”, but Mother always told me to not let it escape my lips, even when I became a man.) The men of the First Kentucky Brigade suddenly remembered the long weeks of training, and hastily and fumblingly loaded their weapons, except for the poor fellows who had been alloted the pikes. The front row of soldiers, which contained myself, knelt in front of the second row, guns raised parallel with that blessed American soil that was currently being trampled by hundreds of feet and pock-marked with musketballs. The second row raised their guns over our heads, and the lieutenant screamed,
“FIRE!” Our armaments boomed in the dark. We then proceeded to reload as hastily as possible. I grabbed a powder cartridge out of my shoulder bag, ripped open the end of it with my teeth, leaving the horrible, mineral taste of sulfur on my tongue. I dumped the cartridge's contents down the barrel of my gun, and discarded the wrapping. I slung out my ramrod and stuffed the powder and bullet down tight. O then returned the ramrod, and raised my musket again. The man on my other side fell, a bullet through his neck. After another volley from our side, the fire from the forest halted. We heard men rustling through the leaves hurriedly- the Union was withdrawing. After a moment of silence, the Orphan Brigade exploded in cheering. We had beaten back a company of Yankees and managed to survive the skirmish. Soon the officers rode in front of us and ordered us to get back in our ranks and keep marching. The lieutenant reminded us that we still had a long day of fighting ahead of us. I decided to acknowledge him, for I had heard stories that he had been through other battles before. We resumed our northward trek, with a vigorous desire for more. More battle.
We continued to march north, until sometime about 9 o'clock, when we discovered a peach orchard to the immediate north, where a division of Union soldiers was prepared to make a stand. We received orders to halt, apparently to allow all of the brigade to arrive and regroup. The lieutenant made sure everyone was in order, and without wasting any time, wheeled around, drew his saber, and yelled,
“Charge men! Chaaaaaaaaaaaarge!” Our adrenaline skyrocketing, we launched forward. We sprinted through the trees and out into the field, hooting and screaming at the top of our lungs, bayonets gleaming in the morning sunlight. When we were a hundred yards or so away from the Yankees crouching among the blossoming peach trees, they unleashed their wrath on us. The whole orchard in front of us exploded with the firing of scores upon scores of Yankee weaponry. Bullets whizzed and whirred around me, and dozens of the men that had just been so exhilaratingly charging at the enemy slammed to the earth, never to rise again. It struck me that what we had faced earlier had just been a small skirmish that the Union had nonchalantly tossed upon us. But this was radically different. This was no few muskets firing here and there. We were charging right into the face of the enemy, and in turn, they were releasing hundreds of bullets at us- bullets that seemed to hungry for rebel blood. I was only a few dozen yards from the edge of the orchard, when they fired again, as massive as before. My reflexes forced me to duck just in time, for a bullet hit the top of my kepi, and knocked it clean off my head. More of my blessed fellow “orphans” fell. Someone then called,
“Brigade, fall back!” I was only too happy to oblige. I immediately started running from whence I had just come. I only hoped that I could be out of range before the cursed Yankees had time to reload. As I darted back over the tall grass, I noticed that already hundreds of the 1st Kentucky lay dead or dying on the ground. When I was almost to the forest, I heard musket fire again, and clouds of dust at my feet let me know that I had just escaped their third volley. I had been at the front of the charge, and therefore at the back of the retreat, so just as I reached the trees with the rest of my brigade, the officers were lining everyone up again. Another charge was obviously on our doorstep. My chest was heaving and my stomach was cramping horribly from running so much at an alarmingly quick notice. I felt much less drive to charge at the enemy another time. But as a mere private, I didn't really have much say in the matter, so I got in line. I was only too happy to be in front again, because I would either be shot first and not have to live through the whole day, or be the first to reach the enemy and give them a bayonet demonstration. We were then ordered to charge once more, and we ran out on to the field a second time. As we were running though, we noticed all of the twisted and lifeless bodies of our brethren, some with wounds so terrible that no one could have told whether they were white or Negro, their bodies so covered with blood. Our dash fell to a glorified trot, as the full realization of what had happened to our comrades slammed into our hearts. It made me want to throw up. Our minds were lost to the battle, and that was about the time that the Union fired again. The brigade's now significantly unmotivated members went down miserably under the onslaught. I lay on the ground, wondering what had happened, and among the grass I realized that a bullet had glanced off of my right eyebrow, which now leaked blood into my eye. My sorrow suddenly turned to rage as that of a wounded bear, and I threw myself onto my feet, grabbed my gun, and rushed at the enemy with more fire than the first charge. As I was approaching the orchard the second time, they fired again, but I was ready for it. Just as I heard the Yankee commander give the order, I threw myself to the ground, and the bullets flew angrily over me. One grazed my back, but I hopped up and continued my almost personal charge against them. I and a few dozen of my comrades who had managed to survive dashed into the orchard, among the very men we had waited so long to face. We did not care that we were outnumbered probably a hundred to one, all that we cared about was showing our abhorrence of those Yankees. I slammed the butt of my gun against the first blue coat I saw clearly. It's wearer knocked into a tree, sending pink peach blossom petals sprinkling down, then turned around and after stumbling forward, swung his gun at me. I threw my own up and counter blocked what I viewed as a puny attack. I shoved my bayonet at him, blood spilling into my eye, my heart bursting with the exhilaration of battle. This is what it meant to be a soldier, not glory, not shiny gold on your uniform, but simply the irresistible drive to go through whatever it takes and give your all for what you believe in.
“NEXT!” I heard out of nowhere. “NEXT!” I heard someone call again. I walked up to the man sitting at the table, sweat collecting on my forehead, and my heart racing.
“Name?” he asked.
“John Clark-David, sir.”