When my son went off to graduate school, he left an old worn leather purse on my bureau in my room. It smelled of saddlebags and horses. You can verify this by smelling it yourself. Folded out it consists of twelve individual pouches, six on each fold.
I called him to ask him where it had come from. He said it had come from my father, who he suspected had gotten it from his father, and that he, my son, had stolen it to make sure it was preserved.
I thanked him and said I would care for it until he needed it again. Then he told me there had been a letter stuffed into one of the pouches, and he was keeping it safe from the rest of us. I thanked him and said, fine, but could he send me a photocopy of it. He said, sure, and eventually a manila envelope arrived in the mail – with a note, saying the letter had no first page and that it was an historical document and that I should preserve it carefully, in case something happened to the original – which he did not think would be likely, since it was in his keeping.
The letter, written on October 6th, 1864, was to Edwin Bennett from his son Edwin Clark Bennett, my great-grandfather, who was then 35 years old and a captain in the Massachusetts Volunteers, Army of the Potomac.
“[… we next rode our horses to the picket line to inspect and found the majority were washing their clothes or fishing with improvised tackle in the Chickahominy, which was then quite low and only about thirty feet wide, though a malarial swamp almost everywhere else. The Confederates were similarly engaged on the other bank. A soldiers’ truce existed. We went along our line. The rebels could see by our spurs that we were officers, and they merely gazed placidly upon us, making no audible comment. These truces were always faithfully observed. Notice of intention to fire was invariably given, as it was the next morning, with bugle calls and raising the colors and the two marching bands striking up in discordant opposition. Their reinforcements had come up, and it was just after our breakfast, which in my case had been nothing more than a cup of tea and the crumbs of a few wormy biscuits.
I will spare you what followed, Father, but by mid-afternoon both sides were exhausted and had broken off, with the Confederates pulling back, carrying their wounded, and floating corpses of their friends behind them at the ends of rope. We could see from the drag marks in the muddy areas.
Later, while the sun was still high and hot, and our hearts had begun to slow again, a private by the name of Wilson approached me and wanted to know if the land was sacred. I didn’t know what he meant. I assumed he was disturbed by the battle that went before. I said, no it wasn’t. I meant by that, for myself, it didn’t belong to the enemy, since they appeared to have left.
Keep you head down anyway, I told him. The felt in your hat will not deflect a Minnié ball, even a three-ouncer. He gave me a stern look, which said as much as, How old do you think I am, anyway?
Well, I knew he wasn’t very old. He was another of the new Massachusetts Volunteers. He said he had seen the elephant from close enough but still hadn’t shot anyone I found him unnaturally awake. Although he was dirty like the rest of us, he was by no means tired enough, and I thought it likely he had slipped through the turkey drivers, who come along behind the men, with bayonet and saber, and keep them moving, in spite of their fear, toward the front.
I had ordered him and about thirty other men to fan out in a line in front of us. That way, if the enemy returns, they fall on our pickets first, and we hear the muskets shots and have time to form a firing line.
By sacred territory, I realized, the boy might have meant the sunlit island about five hundred feet out in the dark swamp that lay in front of us. Our dead and wounded had been carted off, leaving a thickening trail of blood behind the wagons. A disturbing peacefulness had settled on the woods, with no sign of enemy. Men knelt beside the water, washing powder from their faces, the dark circles around their eyes and mouths that come from ripping cartridges open with the teeth. The rifles were propped in a circle, their bayonets pointing upward. Men squatted behind trees. Others had not been able to contain themselves and were washing out their trousers.
The afternoon stank of stale sweat, human waste, drying blood, and an odor that men give off when they are exhausted by fear. Earlier, I thought I saw a pig down by the main channel, eating on a detached leg or an arm, but when we got there, hoping to eat him instead, there was nothing, no tracks at all, just the panicked boot prints of attack and retreat. The heat was oppressive. Battery horses blew out long slow nostril-flapping comments. The mules made higher fluting noises, perhaps in greeting, even for another mule, who they knew was dead but whose scent was still in the air. They thumped their hooves. You could hear it through the spongy soil, if you were lying down, which I know I was, whenever I could, from pure exhaustion and troubled spirit.
The willows, scrub oak, hawthorn, and lacy cypress rustled and whispered, and generally everywhere a great sleepiness sat on the brigade, pressing us down against the earth. Those whom ball and shot had missed curled up like children in afternoon naps. I lay my Colt pistol at my head, carefully pointed away, and where no one could step on it by mistake and discharge it at me. The sun lifted the smell of wool from my blanket. I folded it into a pillow for under my neck, lay on my back, and hoped to sleep for a while. I wondered how far pickets had gotten, wading slowly over sunken logs and brush, toward the sacred island.
A din of cicadas rose and fell, and I was just drifting toward oblivion, when I heard a raised voice and a sharp challenge. I rolled up onto one elbow, but that arm was afflicted by a strange numbness, and I sat up and rubbed it and thought of Grandfather pressing both hands to the center of his chest just before he died. Was this how I was to complete my nap? I wondered. Was this how it was all to end? After all the balls that had missed their mark? With this cold sweating, the urge to vomit, and the air too thick to breathe? And the pigs that would come along and eat me?
What I saw when I looked up was Wilson. In all of this, the picket line had not advanced that far. He stood knee high in the black water, holding his Springfield .58 at the shoulder, aimed at a young Confederate, who, also armed, held his musket half-raised, but slanted downward, at a clump of water lilies half way between them.
Stand down! I heard Wilson order, as if he were an officer. I could see beneath his gray blouse the dark patch of urine spreading on his wool trousers, below the round of his buttocks. The other, also no more than sixteen or seventeen, seemed paralyzed, with his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide, and swaying ever so slightly from side to side.
I did not call out, for fear Wilson would turn his head and take his attention away from the Johnny Reb, who must have been sleeping or dreaming, or lying stunned out of sight on the little island, and then had gotten up and started walking the wrong way. The other men around me began stirring and sitting up. Gazeley, handsome as a girl, was an object of skepticism for many in the Brigade, for his fortunate good looks, the blue eyes, blond locks, soft full mustache, and his nervous hunger to kill.
I could no longer sit, because of the pain in my left arm, and lay down on my side, but in such a way that I could watch what was happening. I threw up and pushed the mess away with pine needles and dirt, gagging at the smell. I felt deeply sad and cried and felt like I was going away farther and farther. I was glad you and Mother were not with me, because you would have been sad, too, and I think that would have made it harder to leave you.
Better to have someone like my Sergeant Clemens with me, who would make puns and make me laugh, and soften my sadness with the ironic language he is so good at. What I saw next was in fact his hand, coming across my view, slow as a snake, reaching for the stacked muskets, taking the one closest to him, a heavy Enfield with rifle bluing and brass fittings. He rolled toward me and put his face close to mine and said in his horse, low voice, “Are you alright?” He winked an exaggerated wink – I knew it was to make me laugh – and with his thumb and forefinger wiped the crying from the corners of my eyes, touched me on the shoulder, and said, I’ll be right back.
He stood up and walked out into the swamp. He spoke in a steady, calming tone, the way drivers sweet talk battery mules spooked by too much war. The cicadas had stopped, and his voice carried on a slight breeze coming in our direction, and I could hear all of it, and it took my mind off my dying.
Wilson, take it slowly, Wilson. I’m coming up behind you, Private. Keep it nice and steady. Take a long breath, boy. Take a long, long breath. Let your stomach hang down like mine, Wilson. That was the way he talked. Good. Now you ask him slowly if he would like to surrender. Breathe, Wilson. Johnny, you breathe, too. Wilson, ease your finger off the trigger. Johnny, you, too. Easy. Point your fingers out. You’re young. No more dead bodies today. There’s no more war this afternoon. Wilson, he just wants to surrender. Don’t you, Johnny? They’re just as hungry as we are. What’s it been? Two days and a night, and not a goddamn thing to eat, just a few miserable mosquito biscuits. And the food trains are coming. Tonight. We know that. There’ll be coffee and beef. Beef, not mule meat, and who knows, maybe even chicken – and sweet things and coffee. We’ve got time. We could find a pig. Breathe, boys! You get some too, Johnny Reb. No one’s going to shoot anyone. I’m right here. What we need is sleep, boys….”
I should have been on my feet and in the middle of this, my dear Father, but I could hardly breathe, let alone stand up. I saw some looks from the men cast in my direction. But all I thought about was how I didn’t want them to know what was happening to me, an old man at thirty-five, on the edge of the grave. And then, in a sudden movement, Clemens tripped on something in the water and staggered to regain his balance. Wilson’s musket discharged. The rebel boy looked surprised, then fired from his hip. Sergeant Clemens fell forward on his face in the water. Wilson leapt ahead with his musket raised, for a bayonet thrust, when his victim – mortally wounded and still wide-eyed with surprise, sitting in the water, pointed upward with a small silver-plated Henry Derringer, and fired.
I raised my head to see better. Wilson dropped his musket, looked down at his killer, cried Oh God, and fell forward on top of him, submerging the Confederate boy entirely and floating there on top of him, face down, with just the back of his head and a little bit of his shoulders and his buttocks showing.
Neither of them moved. Not a ripple, not a bubble. And Clemens, my dearest friend, floating there with them, head down, a little closer to us. The cicadas began all at once, as if on signal, putting time in motion again, and filling the very center of my head with their noise, denying what had just happened with their indifference.
Others, with angry looks at me, dragged them out and lay them on dry ground. A young Massachusetts Volunteer stuffed blankets under their necks, as if at last they too were going to nap and be close to the ones they loved. Though it cost me much I crawled over to Sergeant Clemens, to be beside him. And I lay my head down, too, and felt the blanket being placed under my neck, and I looked up at the blue that arched above me beyond the tree tops and felt that I must also be on my way, with my friend, to wherever it is we go, when we finally leave.
But I awoke the next morning covered with a blanket, my boots off and placed neatly beside me, along with my Colt and my dispatch pouch – and the pain in my left arm entirely gone. My friend Clemens and the two boys were no longer there.
On October 3rd, 1864 I left the Brigade to join my regiment at City Point, as it was about to depart for Boston to be mustered out. Colonel Gregory was very cordial, in his expressions of regard, and offered to aid in securing me a field officer’s commission from the Governor of Pennsylvania. He said there had been a report from a junior officer that I had faked a heart attack in order not to have to take charge of a dangerous situation. I started to speak, but he raised a hand that trembled – perhaps from pop skull, the tremble disease, perhaps from war – and said, There are men who will deny the vulnerability they feel toward the possibility of an untimely natural death. Or something very much like that, which I wasn’t sure I understood at the time. He said he knew from other sources that I had made an effort to be as close to my sergeant, as I could, as soon as I could, and within my capability at the time. And that the junior officer who had made the report had not even been present. And that there was ample evidence I had acquitted myself in a satisfactory manner, and he would see to it that, from other acts of mine, which he had a record of, I would be appointed a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, U.S. Volunteers – probably to be in effect before I ever set foot on your front step in Putnam Street.
And so, my dear father, your son returns to you with the earlier wound – the piece shot out of my left cheek, which you already know about – and very much alive still, thanks to what may or may not have been a heart attack, but what surely, by any other name, all would agree was an assault upon the heart, from which I am not sure I will ever recover – or even want to.
Your loving son,
Edwin Clark Bennett
October 6th, 1864