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Death on the River






























I pull back the thin blanket and swing my legs over the edge of the bed. When I stand up, the tiled floor feels icy cold on my bare feet, but that’s good—it reminds me that I’m alive.

There’s a pile of clothes on the table by the bed. They’re not mine; they were dropped off by a smiling nun who went round the ward asking if any of us needed anything. I said I wanted clothes and a pair of shoes, and her smile broadened so far that I thought her face would split. The guy in the bed beside me said he wanted his legs back, and she hurried off to help someone else.

I begin to dress, slowly because my hands are still sore. The legless guy turns his head. “Where you going?” he asks.

“Home,” I say.

“Where’s home?”

“Upstate New York,” I answer as I painfully button my pants.

“That’s a long way from Memphis.”

I nod.

“You walking all that way?” he asks.

“Expect so.”

“Lucky bastard,” he says.

I pull on the shoes the nun brought. They’re a surprisingly good fit.

“City shoes,” the man says. “Won’t last long on the road.”

“I’ll worry about that when I have to.”

I shake his hand. It hurts, but then I’m used to pain.

“Think about me when you get blisters,” he says with a bitter laugh.

“I will.” I smile back.

I plan to walk north until I get home. It’s not much of a plan. I’ve got some money, my discharge pay and a piece of paper that says that Jake Clay is no longer needed by the Union army. I’ll scrounge or buy what food I can and sleep rough when I have to.

Walking all that way is a strange thing to do, but it’s perfect for me. I want to go home, but I’m scared of getting there. Walking is slow enough that I can feel I’m going home but still postponing the arrival to the distant future.

At least I won’t be alone.

The War between the States has been over for only two months, and the roads and rivers are clogged with men traveling in all directions. Most of them will make it home one way or another. That’s the easy part. It’s what you bring home inside your head that’s the problem.

My hope is that the long walk will give me a chance to sort out what is going on in my head. Walking has always calmed me, helped me see things rationally. Maybe the miles and the dust will wear off the past I carry like a weight on my back. Make me forget the twelve months since I first went into battle that hopeless, bloody day at Cold Harbor. Make me forget the things I have seen, the things I have done, the ghosts who haunt my dreams. I can never go back to being the naïve kid I was before then, but with luck I can move forward.

I hope, but I don’t know. Perhaps it’s not possible to forget that you’ve been to Hell.

JUNE 1864



“Pin this to my back and I’ll do the same fer you.”

I don’t know the name of the man standing beside me in the shallow trench. I’ve only been a part of Baldy Smith’s XVIII Corps for a few days. I arrived just in time to move up the James River to these crossroads at Cold Harbor.

“What is it?” I ask, looking at the sheet of paper he’s holding.

“You’re one of them new fellas that joined just afore we come up here?”

I nod.

“Ever bin in a fight?”

I shake my head.

“Well, I’ve bin in plenty,” the man says. He’s missing one of his front teeth, which causes his voice to whistle slightly as he speaks. “And this’s the way it is. Soldier al’ays knows afore a battle if ’n he’ll be on the winnin’ or the losin’ side.

“Now, bein’ on the winnin’ side don’t mean that you ain’t gonna get kilt or have yer leg blowed off, but bein’ on the losin’ side makes it more likely, and we’re sure as hell on the losin’ side this day.”

“How do you know?” I ask in shock. I had assumed the attack we had prepared for all yesterday would win us the battle.

The man gives me a look of pity. “What’d we do all yesterday?” he asks.

“We dug these trenches,” I say.

“And disturbed the bones of a good few of the boys who fought here two years back at Gaines Mill,” he says. “That weren’t good luck. Where’re the Rebs?”

I point through the trees into the thick dawn fog.

The man nods. “And what d’you think they was doin’ yesterday?”


“That’d be right. Diggin’ like their lives depend on it, ’cause they surely do. Now, me and a few of the boys went forrard yesterday evenin’ and saw them diggin’s. They got log breastworks zigzaggin’ all over hell’s half acre with cannons pointin’ through them every few yards.

“In a couple of minutes, we’re goin’ over there, and as soon as we walk out of that fog, them breastworks is gonna light up like a Fourth of July picnic and there ain’t gonna be space fer a mosquito ’tween them Minnie balls and canister shot. That’s why we’re on a hidin’ to nothin’ in this fight.

“Now, I plan to die facing the enemy, and I want my folks to know what happened to me. So you pin this paper with my name on it to the back of my jacket so’s they’ll know whose corpse it is after the fight, and I’ll do the same fer you.”

I feel like an undertaker, pinning the paper to his back. I notice his name: Zach Moore, written in a childlike hand.

Zach tears a page out of his diary for me to write my name on. I notice the last entry in the same scrawl: June 3, 1864. Today I was kilt.

For the first time I feel real fear. Not nervousness, worry or a vague sense of dread, but cold, specific, gut-wrenching terror. I can almost feel the lead balls ripping their way through my stomach and chest, shattering bones and turning vital organs to mush. I begin to breathe rapidly and hold on to the dirt wall of the earthworks to stop from falling over.

Zach spins me around and slaps me hard across the cheek. The pain brings tears to my eyes but it gives me a focus. Gradually, my breathing calms.

“No point in becomin’ a shiverin’ coward,” Zach says. “If ’n yer time’s up today, ain’t nothin’ you can do ’bout it. Now come on, let’s get this thing done.”

Zach and I clamber out of the trench and form up with the rest of the division. I feel better with others around me, especially Zach. I’ve only known him a few minutes, yet he already feels like a brother. I have the stupid idea that if I stay close to him, I’ll be all right.

We walk forward through the trees. The sharp smell of wood smoke from a thousand campfires catches my nose. It’s a comforting smell, reminding me of fishing trips back home.

The division is moving forward in grim silence, only the rattle of equipment and the occasional shouted order or curse reaching me.

We walk out of the trees, but I still cannot see the enemy fortifications through the fog. Off to my left, a roll of musket fire sounds like the clack of Mother’s new Willcox and Gibbs pedal sewing machine. Then we are in the open. A flat field stretches away to another line of trees, along the edge of which the Rebels have dug in.

Zach’s right—the breastworks do indeed look formidable. Rebel flags hang limp above the solid wood and earth walls, but behind them is a hive of activity. A forest of muskets, with long bayonets glinting in the rising sun, points at us, and the black muzzles of cannon are being pushed forward.

“Come on, boys,” the officer in front of me shouts as he raises his sword and breaks into a rapid trot. Almost immediately, the breastworks explode in a solid wall of fire. The roar reaches me a split second later, but above it I can hear the whine of Minnie balls. Large gaps appear in our formation where canister shot from the cannons rips men to shreds. The battlefield disappears in a rolling wall of thick gray smoke.

The enemy cannot possibly see us through the smoke their cannons and muskets are throwing out, but it doesn’t matter; as long as they keep on firing, they cannot miss. We hurry forward, many men hunching over as if pushing against a strong wind.

The crack of the muskets and the roar of the cannons are irregular now but still constant. We have been told not to fire our muskets until we are almost at the breastworks. Good advice, if any of us make the breastworks.

Men are falling all around. It’s not as theatrical as I imagined in my childhood games. Men in battle don’t usually throw their arms up, pirouette dramatically and throw themselves to the ground. Usually it’s just a grunt, a sagging to the knees and an almost apologetic collapse.

Everything around me seems incredibly vivid and real. Every sight I see is sharp and every noise and smell the strongest I have ever experienced. I see a man’s arm fly off and spiral slowly through the air in a red spray. I hear the soft thud of lead balls hitting the flesh of the man in front of me. I smell his blood.

I feel Zach grip my arm. I turn to see him smiling at me. A small tear in his shirt is already seeping blood. Before I can decide what to do, there is a dull cracking sound. Zach’s head jerks back, his cap flies off and a small dark hole appears in his forehead. The smile is replaced by a puzzled expression, his grip loosens and he slips sideways.

“Zach?” I say stupidly as I crouch over him. He’s already dead, lying on his back with blood covering half his face and his shirt front. I roll him over so that someone will see the paper on his back.

“You there. Get on.”

I look up to see the officer standing over me. He’s still holding his sword in the air, but the blade is just a stump, shattered by a Minnie ball. He’s not a lot older than me, but he’s trying to look older by growing a mustache. It’s not working; his hair is fair and his mustache looks like the fuzz on a peach. Before I have a chance to reply, the officer groans quietly and sits down.

Strangely, I don’t try to help him. He has ordered me on, and that’s what I do. I get up and keep going forward. I’m in a daze. I can still see and hear what is happening around me, but it’s happening to someone else. I don’t even care that Zach’s dead.

My cap is torn away, and I feel a Minnie ball tug at my trousers. The smoke swirls and I see the Rebel lines. They are surprisingly close. I can see enemy soldiers clambering on top of them to get a better shot at us. I swing my musket around, cock it and aim at a large bearded man slightly to my right. I pull the trigger and he disappears in a cloud of smoke. I wonder if I hit him.

I rush forward and begin to scramble up the breastworks. The wood is sticky with sap, and green shoots still grow out of the fresh-cut timber. There’s a man on top and he lunges down at me with his bayonet. I knock it aside and stab him in the thigh. He yells in pain and falls backward.

I only see the musket butt as a dark shape out of the corner of my eye. It catches me on the right temple. I hear a loud crack and hope it’s not my skull breaking. There is a sense of falling backward into space, and then everything goes black.


I’m back home, down by the creek, at the fishing hole I used to go to with my older brother Jim. It’s a beautiful calm summer day. There’s barely a ripple on the surface of the deep water under the far bank where we’ve tried countless times to lure out the big old trout we’re certain lives there. Insects are buzzing in the warm air, and a squirrel is chattering at me from the tree above.

It’s a dream. I know that, but it’s a good dream and I don’t want to leave it.

“Stand there as long as you want. That old trout’s not going to jump out of the creek into your pocket.”

I turn to see Jim standing at the top of the bank, a smile playing on his face. He’s three years older than me and much better looking. He inherited Ma’s straight nose and high cheekbones, while I got stuck with Pa’s wide fleshy face and snub nose. The girls all watch Jim go by when we go into town, and he’s the favorite at the harvest dances.

In fact, everybody loves Jim, always have. When we were little, Ma would buy him candy when she went to town, and he got the better pony when we learned to ride.

“He’s older than you,” Ma would say. “Your turn will come when you get to be his age.” But it never did. By the time I got to that age, Jim had moved on to something else and whatever it was that I was supposed to get had been quietly forgotten.

I should have resented Jim: he got everything and life was always easy for him, but I didn’t. You couldn’t resent Jim. I worshipped him as much as everybody else and was happy to tag along after and pick up his leftovers. And he was good to me. He didn’t mind his annoying little brother tagging along and chattering aimlessly. He taught me to fish the streams and lakes all around Broadalbin and how to shoot and hunt deer in the hills above the farm. Once, he even took me the forty miles down to Albany to see the traveling diorama show about the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.

“But there’s no time for fishing now,” Jim says. “We’ve got to get this War between the States over with first.”

I glance over at the fishing hole. I can see the curved, speckled back of the trout as he swims just below the surface. It’s the biggest fish I have ever seen.

“He’s right there,” I say, turning back to Jim. “Just one good cast will get him.”

But Jim shakes his head. He’s in uniform now, the smart blue one with red trim he got when he went down to Albany to join up. “I’ve got to go,” he says cheerfully, “but don’t fret. As soon as I get down there, this war’ll be over before you can whistle Dixie.”

I feel an immense surge of pride. “Can I come too?”

“I’m afraid not, Jake,” Jim says. “You’re not old enough. I’ll write you though.”

A movement on the stream catches my eye. The surface is covered with floating sheets of paper. I fish one out.

September 14th, 1862.

Dear Jake,

Great news. Two days back, my company came upon some Rebel pickets in a wood. I led a charge and cleared them out. You should’ve seen them run! It was like chasing jackrabbits. Great fun and only one boy was slightly wounded, but for it they are going to make me a full lieutenant.

Imagine that, your brother a high and mighty officer in General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. We’re heading up to a town called Sharpsburg. That’s where we’ll catch Lee and chase him clear out of Maryland and all the way back to Richmond, you see if we don’t. Then I’ll come home and we’ll catch that fish.

Give my love to Ma and Pa and tell them I will write longer in a couple of days.


I look back up at Jim. A puzzled frown has replaced his smile, and Pa’s standing beside him.

“There’s been a fight,” Pa says, “in a cornfield over by Antietam Creek.”

“Did Jim win?” I ask excitedly.

“Jim’s still in the cornfield,” Pa replies sadly.

“Why?” I ask. “If he won, he can come home now and we can catch that fish.”

Pa shakes his head, and Jim turns and walks away. An overwhelming sense of dread descends on me.

Ma and Pa are now both standing on the riverbank. Pa looks serious and distant. Tears are streaming down Ma’s face. Neither is looking at me.

“I’m here,” I say. “Jim’s gone, but I’m here.”

It makes no difference. They won’t look at me.

“I’m going to join the army,” I yell. “I’ll be as good as Jim. I’ll be better. I won’t get killed.”

They still won’t look at me. I have to crawl up the bank and shake them so that they see me and understand that I’m going away to the war to be as good as Jim, but I can’t. Someone is holding my ankles and pulling me in the other direction.

“This’un’s still alive,” a voice says in a heavy southern accent.

“Well, drag him in and put him with the others,” a second voice pushes its way into my dream. “The blue-bellies ain’t gonna attack again tonight.”


I come to with a pair of Rebel soldiers holding an ankle each and hauling me, upside down, over the breastworks. I feel like my head is going to explode every time it bumps against a log. It doesn’t, but I keep blacking out.

When I finally wake up, it must be the next day. I’m surrounded by about thirty other Union prisoners, most with a bloody rag wrapped around some part of their bodies. I don’t recognize any of them. My head is pounding, there’s dried blood all down my cheek and my right eye is almost closed from the swelling.

That morning we are forced to stagger the two miles to Gaines Mill, where we are locked in an old barn. We are held there for several days. It’s hot, uncomfortable and stinks of the animals that were here before us, but it gives us a chance to recover. The pain in my head eases and the swelling goes down. There is even a water pump outside that we are allowed to use once a day, so I can clean the dried blood off my face. There’s not much food, and the Rebel soldiers tease us about how easily they beat us, but for the most part, they’re decent and share what food and tobacco ...

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