Authors: Tim Bowling
Tags: #Historical, #General, #Fiction, #Literary
For my sister and brothers
and the river that shaped us.
Urge, urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
In all the relations of life and death,
we are met by the color line.
September 17, 1862, near Antietam Creek, Maryland
As the darkness continued to lift, Anson Baird, an assistant surgeon in the Union Army, knelt in a shallow, broad hollow off a rutted dirt road. Uneasily, he unpacked his rolled muslin bandages and small glass bottles of chloroform and whisky, but no matter what tasks he concentrated on, he found it hard to leave the dream world of the night entirely behind.
It had been as black a night as any he'd ever known. At some point in the early hours of the morning, in a steady, dripping rain, the crack of a picket's rifle had forced him to climb stiffly out of his bedroll and peer into the darkness. But he had seen nothing except the bundled black forms of the soldiers sleepingâor trying to sleepânearest to him. In fact, the night was so dark that Anson could barely recall the terrainâa bucolic valley of limestone ledges, the Potomac River to the west, a winding creek to the east, a long and dusty turnpike running away to the south, past several farms and a small, square, whitewashed church. Ordinary enough, except for the two great armies bivouacked less than a mile apart with only that dusty turnpike running between them.
Anson shuddered. After a year's volunteer service, during which he'd experienced the brutal realities of several battles and hundreds of operations, he was no longer simply a sleepy country doctor, fond of the
and prone to fanciful thoughts. And yet, now, he could imagine that turnpike stretched taut in the dawn air, like a dew-dripping thread with two massive spiders poised at either end to advance their terrible appetites toward one another. The startling, grotesque image properly belonged to the vague dream world of broken sleep, not to a real night on the real earth where a man, if not for the danger of being shot, could walk out across a rolling pasture to an orchard, pluck a ripe apple or peach from a bough, bite down, and taste the tang of juice on his tongue.
A wave of homesickness washed over himâfor his quiet little practice and his solitary bachelor ways that a year's military service had almost reduced to phantasms, memories that some other man had once lived as sensual experience. Almost. For Anson still held in his palms the smooth curves of the small mahogany globe his late father had given him upon Anson's earning the two-year medical certificate from Haverford College, he still breathed in the wet fur of the Labrador retrievers that always shared his parents' home, each successive dog named Fetch because his father sought always some foil against mortality, and, finally, he still saw the glorious, broken-cloud spill of apple blossom along the deeply grooved lane he had walked so often as a boy to visit his grandparents.
Family. History. The simple comfort of such continuance. For what other reason should a man leave his home to bloody his hands and trouble his senses in the service of his country?
The last of the darkness had almost dissolved, and now Anson could see more clearly. Stretching away along both sides of the hollow, the deep columns of men prepared for battle. Many soldiers used the fronts of their uniforms to wipe the heavy dew off their muskets, while others adjusted their knapsacks, putting the canteen and haversack well behind, to give free access to the cartridge box. Closer to him, Anson watched a skinny private named Orson chew furiously on a piece of hardtack. Other men smoked. Behind the troops, horses whinnied continuously and the mules employed to haul the artillery wagons brayed just as often. The animals doubtless wanted their morning feed, but Anson suspected they wouldn't get it. The sight of mounted orderlies galloping along the lines with orders for their regiments confirmed the imminence of battle.
With a sigh, Anson stood and tightened the flannel band around his waist. It didn't help his nerves that he was still stricken with the common plague of the Army of the Potomacâwhat the soldiers called “a case of the shits.” Ever since the swamps and miasmas of the Virginia fighting in the spring, he had been forced to minister to his own intestinal sufferings. But no matter how large the doses of calomel or how many opium pills he swallowed, no matter how much the flannel band fought off the infecting cold, he rarely knew any relief. A dozen times a day he had to bolt for the nearest ditch, the cramps almost crippling him in his hunched progress. It hardly inspired faith among the similarly plagued to see their surgeon, a man of thirty-five years, old enough to have fathered many of them, caught in the ignominious throes of the malady. But then, Anson knew what most of the soldiers thought of medical men: “quacks” was a mild epithet, and “butchers” a more common one.
He turned and saw his orderly wringing his hands, as if to drain a sponge. Even in this dimness, Anson could tell the young man's lips were trembling.
“It will be all right, Felix,” he whispered, leaning close. “The worst is the waiting.”
The orderly did not turn. “No. It isn't.”
To Anson, such a small slap of truth felt like a hard blow, for he had not expected it. Fear, and any kind of battle experience, made all platitudes of comfort banalâhe supposed even as simple a boy as Felix understood as much. Anson chose to settle into the safest place: himself.
“Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant.”
He had begun to call up his Latin during the long hours of surgery following his first battle. The simple memory work helped keep him awake, and, besides, the classical age possessed a rare calmâits violence, ennobled by its poets, somehow put this War of Rebellion into a more comfortable perspective.
Sharp cracks of musketry sounded somewhere to the west. Now in the grey air, the patchy ground fog broke at the soldiers' legs. Some of the men pointed to the sky ahead of them. Anson looked up. Not far beyond the southern edge of the woodlot, a thick river of coal-black smoke rolled straight heavenward, ominous in its motion; it seemed almost like a living creature. The rebels had likely set some farmhouse or barn on fire for tactical purposes. Anson dropped his eyes to the woodlot, a few rods ahead of the troops. Beyond that colourful stand of oak, hickory, and beechâa stand no more than a hundred yards in lengthâlay a gentle, bucolic landscape of head-high corn fields, low pasture fences of stone and Virginia rail, and several farmhouses and barns nestled against abundant orchards. And less than a mile away to the south, if all the rumours were accurate, waited tens of thousands of rebels.
An officer barked orders. The musicians' brass and drums shivered and rattled in preparation. All at once the pearl sky flared and ripped. Shells crashed to the earth like cord upon cord of wood being unloaded. The motion was sea swells. The soldiers shifted, foot to foot, their taut faces already drained of colour. Anson watched one heavily bearded man open the case of a cameo locket, whisper into it, then snap it shut with an almost fierce resolution. But his movements, and all others, were weirdly silent now. The men rippled slightly, like grass underwater. Some sloughed off their knapsacks entirely, and in doing so seemed tiny, even more vulnerable. How many lead balls might those knapsacks have deflected or slowed to a less deadly impact? Anson shuddered and made to turn away from the line.
But just then, the line began to move, like a chain made of flesh and muscle. The soldiers advanced as steadily and slowly as the black river of smoke above them. Soon blue and white coils shrouded the treetops and swallowed the troopsâa few soldiers emerged in glimpses. As dawn broke, visibility decreased.
Pressed into the earth now, his head just above ground level, Anson peered into the tattered air, waiting for the first retreats of the wounded or the first advance of the enemy, hoping the two events would not occur together. He had given orders for the stretcher-bearers to clear the field, but where exactly was it? And when should he motion the bearers forward? The woodlot loomed like an iron gate between him and the battle. He heard the rippling and
of musketry between the concussive explosions of the artillery, breathed in the battle's rolling smoke, watched men plunge toward it, but could only wait to see the first staggering effects.
Minutes passed quickly, slowly. The wood was but a dozen rods away, far too close should the enemy surge through. But if that happened, at least a retreat would come first, some small advance warning of the need for Anson to gather his supplies and fall back until he could better do his duty in the field hospital a mile to the rear.
He did not fall back. The wounded appeared, blue shadows helped by other blue shadows; the ripping of artillery seemed to tear the shadows out of the smoke itself. Anson jumped up and ran forward; he shouted at the stretcher-bearers to go into the woods. If they waited much longer to aid the fallen, too many men would leave the lines, damning the Union's cause and rendering his own charges almost useless. He shouted again, and to his surprise the men sprinted for the woods.
Within minutes, he saw Everitt and Cole emerge from the smoke. Moving their heads like horses struggling against the reins, they staggered to the hollow; all Anson could see of the soldier on the stretcher between them were his dangling arms.
“Put him here!” Anson shouted into the din. Failing to hear his own voice, he gestured to a spot below the lip of the hollow, which was itself no more than two feet deep and thirty wideâa meagre protection, but better than nothing.
The stretcher-bearers lifted the wounded soldier off the stretcher and onto the ground. Anson immediately dropped to his knees to shelter the man from a spray of dirt and rock thrown up by a shell.
The soldier, a man named Rufus Troy, was near Anson's age, with a thick beard matted with dirt and a hairline so receded that the shocked and trembling face, greasy as butter around the black smudges of gunpowder, loomed unnaturally large. Troy's lips glistened red, as if bloodied, and his dark eyes, though fluttering with pain, never completely closed. Through chattering teeth, he gasped, “FootÂ .Â .Â .Â it's my foot.”
Anson pressed a flask of whisky to the man's mouth and watched the Adam's apple throb four times in rapid succession. Then he gently removed the fragments of boot and inspected the wound. The left foot had been shattered, likely by a shell fragment, and resembled a dirty, bloodied sack filled with shards of chalk. Despite the urgent need to act as quickly as possible and to stay focused on the present, Anson's thoughts raced ahead to the work he'd do at the field hospital. The foot would have to come off, a very difficult procedure he'd attempted only once, albeit successfully. He'd have to disarticulate through the ankle joint, saw off a thin slice of the end of the tibia with the malleolar projections. Grimly, Anson splinted the leg as best he could, then waved an ambulance-man over, all the while running the operation through his head. The trickiest part, by far, was shelling the os calcis out of the heel pad. If that wasn't done properlyÂ .Â .Â .Â
But he also understood that the circumstances of battle might not even bring this soldier into his presence again. Mere seconds after the ambulance-man had borne the soldier to a nearby wagon, another victim of the conflict, this one much younger and a stranger, collapsed over the lip of the hollow, almost scattering Anson's precious supply of bottled chloroform.
For two hours the artillery pounded and screeched: it let up only long enough to allow the crackle of musket fire, shouts of men, and severed neighs of horses to penetrate the sudden, eerie silences. At one point, out of the frayed rags of the battle, several cows lumbered straight toward Anson. Blood hung from them in broken strings and ropes, their heads swung wildly, their eyes resembled lead balls sticking out of fresh wounds. Anson threw himself over the body of the wounded man on the ground in front of him as the cows bellowed past, a sudden flash of light throwing their red-frothed hides into a vivid relief that lasted but a second. Then he raised himself from the oblivious soldier and, with his index finger, pushed into the messy hole beneath the clavicle, searching for lead. The soldierâa young man with corn-gold hair and beardâgasped as Anson's finger probed deeper without success. But where, then, was the exit wound? As gently as possible, Anson turned the soldier onto his side. From previous experience, he knew that the trajectory of the minie ball was erratic; so much depended on the angle of deflection by the bone. In this case, the ball must have remained within the upper chest or neck, for he could find no corresponding exit wound. Frustrated, he ordered another ambulance-man over and then turned to the ginger-haired youth on the ground with the lead ball lodged in his lower maxillary and the eyes soft and brown as a newborn calf's.