Sample from Road to Antietam

Chapter One

Picket Duty

 

 

Private Christopher Galloway of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry stood alone in pitch darkness, looking out on what appeared to be an empty field. It was a moonless night, and he couldn’t see anything before him but a flat landscape broken up by darker shapes he hoped were trees or large bushes. Behind him, a woodlot thick with second growth trees separated him from the camp.

Fresh out of training, this was their first night in the field. Christopher had the two-to-four shift for picket duty, which was the worst shift because the enemy could sneak up on you, unseen, and kill you before you could react. Or so he’d heard.

The feelings of isolation and fear reminded him of a hunting trip he’d gone on with his father and brother when he was ten. His first time camping, he did not know how easily he could lose his bearings in the woods at night. It had been a moonless night then as well when he woke needing to pee. Careful not to wake his father or Daniel, he got up and left the camp. When he finished, he turned to go back and realized he didn’t know how to retrace his steps. He froze, afraid of going the wrong way. The longer he stood still, the harder it was to breathe, and the heavier his legs became—taking a step suddenly seemed impossible.

The trees seemed to lean over him as they swayed in the wind, the sound of their rustling leaves like beasts pawing the earth. In his mind, every tree and bush hid a bear, or wolf, or worse-an Indian. It didn’t matter that there hadn’t been a hostile Indian in the area for almost fifty years, or that bears and wolves were nearly extinct. He knew they were out there, waiting to pounce. Christopher turned in circles, looking for any recognizable landscape marker or ferocious attacker. He saw neither.

His father, Jack, found him the next morning, curled up in a fetal position with his thumb in his mouth. Jack carried him back to the camp and set him next to the fire. When he tried to move away to put more wood on the fire, Christopher reached out and grabbed his coattail, shaking his head, his eyes wide and mouth open in a silent scream. Jack sat back down, draped his arm over Christopher’s shoulders, and squeezed him tight against his side.

Daniel built up the fire, cooked breakfast, and set a plate of flapjacks at Christopher’s feet. He sat down next to his brother but didn’t touch him or say anything. He just sat there, poking the fire with a stick.

After several minutes, Christopher’s hunger got the best of him. He crawled out from under his father’s arm, picked up the plate of flapjacks, and wolfed them down.

“There’s my boy,” Jack said, patting him on the back.

“Want some more?” Daniel asked.

Christopher nodded and looked up at his father. “I’m sorry, Da. I went to pee and didn’t know how to get back.”

“No harm done, son. You weren’t far from camp. You shoulda just hollered—one of us would have come got ya.”

“I was afraid,” Christopher whispered.

“Bah, there’s nothing to fear in these woods, son. In fact, with me and your brother about, you have nothing to fear from anything.”

“That’s right,” Daniel said, looking him in the eye. “Nothing as long as I’m around.”

Now, as Christopher stood in the dark field, he knew Daniel was somewhere nearby on the picket line. Their first time in the woods together in years. And, for the first time in years, Christopher remembered what it felt like to be alone and afraid, conjuring up hostiles behind every bush and tree. Only now they weren’t wild animals and Indians, but rebel soldiers.

Despite a chill that settled in as the night progressed, Christopher’s collar was wet with sweat, and he ran his finger under it to dry his neck. He wiped his hands on his jacket several times, but they still seemed damp and slippery, and he feared dropping his rifle.

A breeze came through the trees and set the landscape in motion. Christopher’s grip on his rifle tightened.

The tension combined with the quiet of the night and lack of sleep took their toll and Christopher started to sway, then jerked upright with a start. He tried marching back and forth, but it didn’t help.

Sleep filled his every thought—a sweet surrender from the fatigue, fear, and isolation that enveloped him. But if he slept, he might be killed or captured by the enemy or, if caught, shot by his own side. But worst of all, if they were attacked while he slept, he would be responsible for the destruction of his regiment.

Christopher closed his eyes. Only for a moment.

He smiled as he recalled the train ride from Camp Dennison. The men drank, sang, and bragged non-stop for two days. It was his first taste of alcohol and, once he got past the burning sensation, he found he liked it. It made him feel confident and in control.

In every town, people came out to line the tracks and cheer them on. In Zanesville, the citizens had even prepared a feast for the regiment. They were heroes, revered by all.

It was in Zanesville where he’d met Susan—who, unfortunately, bore the same name as that harpy Daniel wanted to marry. Though they only had a short time together, it was full of passionate affection that brought a tear to Christopher’s eye. When they parted, she’d given him a silk scarf and an apple pie she had baked herself. The last of the pie was consumed with last night’s supper, but the scarf was still in his pocket.

He retrieved the kerchief and ran it through his fingers. Its softness made him think of Susan’s hands in his as the train whistle blew and the drumbeat called him away. He held the cloth to his nose, closed his eyes, and breathed in her scent.

They parted with promises to write, and Christopher said he would stop and visit her on his way back from the war. Susan. Sweet Susan. Susan…His eyes flew open. He didn’t know her last name. How would they correspond if he didn’t have her full name? Angrily, he shoved the scarf back in his pocket.

The realization he’d been stupid enough to leave without getting Susan’s full name gave Christopher a brief charge. His thoughts flew from berating his forgetfulness to doubting Susan’s intentions of ever writing. But soon, even that couldn’t keep his eyelids from drooping and his head from falling down on his chest.

He jerked upright. He would not sleep.

He should have listened to Daniel and slept that afternoon instead of wandering the camp with Ezra, taking in the sights and visiting with the soldiers who’d already been in the field and seen action.

Christopher stamped his feet, shook his head and slapped his cheek. Though against regulations, he unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and jacket, hoping the cool air would help keep him alert.

“Well, Chris old boy, your first night in the field,” he said aloud. “Somewhere out there are men willing to kill you on sight. And all you can think of is sleep.”

Then he saw something move. A jolt of electricity shocked his body. All thoughts of sleep disappeared.

What he thought were bushes appeared to be moving. He brought his rifle up to the ready position and leaned forward, squinting to see better. Even after having plenty of time for his eyes to become accustomed to the dark, he still couldn’t make out anything specific in the landscape before him.

There it was again! He was sure now that something had moved. The “bushes” were no longer in the same place.

His rifle was loaded with ball and powder, bayonet fixed, so all it needed was a percussion cap to fire. Christopher reached down, unlatched the cap box on his belt, and reached inside with shaking fingers. He pulled out three caps and dropped one. He tried to put the extra cap back in the box but missed and dropped both the remaining two. Cursing, he reached in again and pulled out a single cap. He brought it up to his rifle, then realized that the hammer was down on the nipple. He had to secure the cap between his fingers before he could pull the hammer back to half cock. In doing so, he dropped that percussion cap.

“Dammit!”

Christopher looked up to see if whatever was moving had gotten closer. His breath caught in his throat when he realized it had. Whatever-or whoever-it was, it/they had covered half the distance to him while he was fumbling to cap his rifle.

Christopher made sure the rifle hammer was half cocked before pulling out another cap. He pushed it onto the nipple before he could drop it.

He brought the rifle butt up to the crook of his shoulder and raised the barrel until it pointed at the ground about five yards before him.

“HALT! Who comes there?” he cried. His voice cracked on the word halt and he felt his cheeks burn. He sounded like a frightened child.

No response, but now he had no doubt something was out there. The whole landscape appeared to be moving. What he thought were bushes were growing larger as they approached his position.

“HALT!” he repeated. “Who comes”

They charged. The ground shook and he heard metal clanging. In his minds eye, the shapes became a line of rebel soldiers, their canteens and tin cups beating against their sides as they ran. They let loose a mournful cry-almost as if they regretted having to kill him…

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