Up From Corinth
By J. Arthur Moore
From the fighting at Perryville
A few quiet hours passed as the armies rested where they had halted along the landscape. For some, there was relief from the long dry march as they gained water from wherever they found it in creek beds, shrunken ponds, puddles, or farmer's wells. Food had to come from whatever might be left in the haversack. The discomfort of the dust remained. To most, the foulness of the stale puddles was tolerated in the need to satisfy thirst. Yet when morning light revealed the carcasses of mules, livestock, or wild creatures, those who had drunk from those waters felt a repulsiveness that turned their stomachs. The hours slipped quietly by as the velvet black of the night sky faded in the growing light of the new dawn.
The sun rose on the new day, but a strange quiet hung on the air. The expected battle did not open. The armies did not engage. Periodic light skirmishing continued as small pockets of conflict contested water rights. Activity picked up in the early morning hours as General Sheridan prepared to move into Perryville. By mid-morning, one brigade was on the road and the remainder was forming up to follow when all were suddenly recalled. The defense of the ridge was quickly reestablished.
The ambulance train and medical baggage wagons were assembled in a field alongside the Springfield Pike. All was in readiness to move forward with the division and at the moment, no one near Johnny's wagon knew the cause of the delay. Several of the officers were gathered in a small group remarking on the weather, the water, the likelihood of an engagement. Teamsters and other personnel remained in relaxed formation exchanging opinions on the true strength and location of the enemy.
A corporal in his twenties slapped the dust from his cap with one hand as he briskly rubbed it from his dark matted hair with the other. "I truly think Bragg and his army are miles from here," he offered. "We've just come up on the rear end of one of his columns."
"Could be," another observed, leaning on his musket. "Could be, too, this is his meetin place and the whole of his army is just in front."
"Then why ain't they attackin?" the first asked.
Still another commented, "I'd wonder that, too. The sun's comin on to noon and nothin's happenin."
Duane had dismounted and was leaning against the shadowed side of the wagon. Johnny had wrapped the reins around the brake handle and was sitting on the side of the wagon seat. The two followed with interest the conversation of the company gathered beside the wagon. But neither offered an opinion. Internal rumblings reminded Duane how hungry he was. He hoped the armies were miles apart and that they would remain here long enough to eat something. Even hard tack and coffee were better than nothing. But the information from the Arkansas soldier suggested otherwise -- a heap of Arkansas regiments.
To the north, the midday quiet was shattered as artillery opened and began a bombardment in preparation for an attack.
"Something's happening," Johnny observed as he sat up to listen.
To the east another battery commenced firing.
"Sounds ta me we're in fer it," Duane added.
The artillery to the east concentrated its fire on the center of Sheridan's front. There was a sudden flurry of activity as Duane mounted his horse and Johnny unwrapped the reins. The company formed up quickly as the officers returned to their units to await further instructions.
A half hour passed as the Confederate artillery continued to fire upon the Union center. The units with the ambulance train could see the smoke rising from the landscape forward and to the right of their position. But the ground itself was just below their line of sight. Nonetheless, they heard the sustained clatter of musket fire and the Rebel yell and they knew the enemy was advancing rapidly in their direction. The quiet along the Union line was quickly shattered as Sheridan's regiments opened with musket and artillery fire.
The battle rolled onto the ridge like an early afternoon storm. The heavy musket fire poured out sheets of flame and a roiling cloud of smoke as bullets buzzed like hordes of bees tearing at the landscape, ripping at flesh, and shattering away bone. The Union line put down a heavy fire, tearing great gaps in the approaching Confederate lines. Yet still they came relentlessly onward, killing, maiming, wounding, threatening. As the roar and cry of battle rose upon the air, the walking and crawling wounded began to work their way toward the rear in search for help.
The men about the ambulance train quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the number of wounded. They were loaded into wagons and rushed to the nearby barnyard where the field hospital had been established. Others were attended on the spot and left to fend for themselves or lend a hand. Many collapsed in their efforts to seek help and remained where they fell as the battle raged about them.
Duane was kept busy helping those he could to hobble to a wagon or a gathering place where an assistant surgeon might help. He would locate the living lying about the area and call for help to move them. For some, all he could do was share a drop or two of water and a brief conversation while they died. The noise of battle wrapped the landscape in an awful envelope of deafening sound which cast such a spell on the boy's mind as to blot out fear with reflex reaction. He felt alone in a sea of combat which stretched about him like the sands of a desert.
He had knelt by a dying soldier, had given him water, had seen the picture of his family, had talked to him about the dry dust, had seen the breathing stop. As he stood to move on there came a tearing thump and a company's captain stumbled back against the boy. He broke the man's fall as he caught him in his arms, felt the blood, and saw that a cannon ball had torn away half his chest.
As the two fell back toward the ground, the boy caught his balance and broke their fall.
"Is it fatal?" the captain asked.
"Oh, I hope not," Duane replied. "But it sher does look bad." Yet to himself, the boy knew the wound was too severe to survive.
In an instant a corporal from the company was at their side.
"Help me git him ta a wagon," Duane ordered. The two moved the wounded officer to an ambulance which was nearly filled and was about to go bouncing off to the hospital.
Suddenly there was a commotion to the north side of the line. A Confederate advance was surging into a gap between the positions of General Sheridan and General McCook. There was a flurry of activity as batteries of cannon were rushed into position and set up to fire obliquely at the approaching enemy. Other artillery, already in position, was turned to block the attack. The guns opened fire with deadly results, cutting great holes in the Confederate brigades and forcing them to pull back.
Couriers were riding furiously up and down the two miles of battle from General McCook's division further north to General Sheridan's position in the center to General Crittenden's further south. Gradually the regiments along the center began to push forward. By mid-afternoon the attack was faltering and Sheridan's division was beginning to force the enemy back. By late afternoon the center had moved forward with one brigade entering the outskirts of the town itself before realizing it was dangerously overextended.
As darkness fell, the conflict dwindled to scattered firing between pockets of opposing troops in a mixed up battle line which saw units from both armies intermixed with each other.
As nightfall came a nearly full moon rose above the countryside. Scattered gunfire continued along the battle front. An eerie stillness hung on the carnage-littered landscape where the afternoon's fighting had been fiercest. Non-combatants roamed the blood-stained fields to find the living.
In the barnyard along the pike, surgeons and a corps of nursing personnel attempted to care for the wounded. The operating theater had been set up in one end of the barn while the rest was lined with rows of cots. As the ambulance wagons arrived, the living were brought in and laid out on the cots. The dead were laid out in neat rows in the barnyard. Even as the dead were unloaded from the wagons, others who had died in the hospital were being carried out to be added to the lineup. First care was given by nursing soldiers and a company of women nurses who traveled with the army. The surgeons were busy with amputations and suturing. They were fortunate to aid the suffering with chloroform which was used to saturate a cloth which was in turn placed over the victim's nose and mouth.
Duane knelt by a cot talking to a newly arrived soldier.
"Thanks," the man spoke as the boy helped him with a cup of water. "They took it off, didn't they." He tried to push up and look at the bandaged stump where his left foot once was.
"No sense ta movin much 'n gittin on the pain more," Duane placed a light hand on the man's chest. "It were shattered right smart an' weren't no way ta savin it. They's jest clor'formed ya out, saw'd off the mess, burned up the bleedin, 'n sew'd ya shut. Right smart work, too."
The man relaxed, then stiffened suddenly as pain shot up the leg. "Hurts like hell, Boy!" he squeezed through clenched teeth.
"Yes, Sir. I ain't no stranger ta bein shot up none. But ya bein the one thet's hurtin now, maybe I kin help some. Could be ya kin tell me yer name 'n unit so's we kin let som'on know as where yer at."
"Sure, Boy. But tell me where you got shot."
The two talked on while the activity of the hospital bustled about them. Duane wrote down the identity information requested of each wounded soldier, then excused himself and moved on to another.
As more wounded were brought in, a number of Confederate wounded were scattered about the makeshift ward. The level of commotion began to settle as night wore on and those who could, slept. Duane continued to move among the wounded. He heard a voice nearby.
"Boy," it whispered, "it ain't right." He motioned to the bandages around his abdomen. "It ain't stopped bleedin."
The boy paused, set down his bucket and dipper, then leaned over to inspect the bandages in the dim light. Crimson red had spread throughout and the saturated fabric was dripping blood onto the cot beneath.
"I'll fetch a surgeon," Duane said as he stood to go.
"Ain't much use ta thet, Boy. I figer it's pretty near blow'd away." Pain cut him off. Duane took out his pencil and paper and knelt by the head of the cot. "Boy," the youth whispered, "could ya git word ta ma folk 'n maybe git me shipped home?"
Duane waited while another wave of pain passed. He ain't much older 'n me, the boy thought. "What's yer name?" he asked aloud.
"Name's Avery, Avery Hill." He was so young. Long dark curls of hair wrapped around his ears and lay across his eyebrows. His face was so smooth. He couldn't be more than sixteen or seventeen. The dying youth continued, "Ma folks is good people. Pa couldn't fight none no more. He'd been with Price in Missouri an' was shot up bad. They sent him on home so's ta die. But he come round right smart." The voice stopped. It was such a soft and gentle voice. How could one so gentle be involved in all this killing. He went on. "Now they run the dry goods store an I go off an die in this place. Please," pleading eyes, the color of emerald, focused on the boy's, "if'n ya kin, tell ma folks what happened 'n where I'm buried. They's Warden an Emma Hill in Bendton . . ."
"Arkansas!" Duane cut in.
"Yeh. How'd ya know?"
"I'm from north a there." Excitement knotted his insides as the boy asked, "Ya know my pa? He's Sergeant Andrew Kinkade."
The youth smiled. "Wish I'd time ta hear yer story." His voice grew faint as he barely whispered, "He ain't no more. He's a captain now." A smile creased the lips as they stilled with the last knowledge of having shared good news. The light left the eyes as the young body settled in the silence of death.
A painful lump caught in Duane's throat as he fought back his tears and reached out to close the sightless eyes.
* * *
Arthur Moore is an educator with over 41 years experience in public, private, and independent settings. He is also an amateur photographer and has illustrated his works with his own photographs. In addition to Journey into Darkness, Mr. Moore has written Summer of Two Worlds, "Heir to Balmawr", a drama for his fifth grade students, a number of short pieces, and short stories. His latest work is a short story titled "West to Freedom."
Learn more at www.upfromcorinth.com.