PREFACE: No war in American history resonates like the one we fought against ourselves, as this story reminds us. In a battlefield littered with dead bodies, two mortally wounded men discover they were fighting for different armies, though perhaps for the same purpose. (Nicholas Deshais)
Somewhere near Jeff, another dying man was moaning.
“Will you shut up and let me die in peace?” he shouted.
The battle had ended a few hours before, with one of the armies retreating and the other giving chase. Jeff wasn’t sure which side had been the winning one, and he didn’t care anymore. He had taken a bullet to the gut and was slowly dying in the encroaching evening darkness.
“I’ll do as I please. We’re all the same now, jus’ men dying in a field.” A pained response came, but the moaning quieted down a bit.
The deep, rich voice of the responder prompted Jeff to wonder who it belonged to. With a grimace he sat up slightly and looked in the direction of the voice. Lying about 10 feet away, next to some rose bushes bordering the field, was a black man whose uniform betrayed him as a Union soldier. He was clutching a bleeding wound on the left side of his chest, and from the man’s wheezing voice it sounded like the lung had been punctured slightly, but not so much that the man couldn’t talk or breathe.
“You. It’s your kind’s fault that this whole war started in the first place.” Jeff said angrily, but the work of dying made him weary and he could only muster a halfhearted hate.
“I didn’t start no war, but I’m glad to be dying here a free man.” The man responded promptly.
That shocked Jeff a bit. He’d never thought blacks cared anything about freedom. He had always thought that slaves didn’t care either way, and were better off as slaves.
“You sound like you’re from down here, how did you end up fighting for the Yanks?” he asked, surprised by the man’s bluntness into a genuine interest.
“I escaped when I heard them Yanks was offering freedom for any blacks who wanted to join and made my way up north. Didn’t have to go far before I ran into a Union army and joined ‘em.” The man looked proud, reflecting on how he’d attained his freedom.
“You betrayed your people, the people that fed you and housed you your entire life! Damned Yanks — whole world’s gone to hell when they make coons soldiers.” Jeff’s anger was building up again, but he still had a wary respect for the honesty of the man.
“My people? To you white folk, we’re like a cow or an ass. We work all day and at the end of the day all we get is some food and a barn to sleep in. Maybe a man a bit mo’ expensive than an ass, but it’s the same thing.”
Jeff didn’t have a retort for that. He milled it around for a bit. A sudden sharp pain hit him in the stomach and he groaned. Taking his hands off his wound, he glanced down and was sickened to see his innards poking out of a gaping hole in his belly. He quickly covered the wound again with his hands.
“Do you have any family?” Jeff asked, trying to take his mind off of his wound and change the subject.
“I had a wife and a son, but they were sold years ago,” the man said, his bitterness coming through his pain. He coughed and winced, clutching his side harder. Jeff could see a trickle of blood coming out of a corner of the man’s mouth.
Jeff thought of his own wife Annie. He realized that he was never going to see his wife again either. The pain of that was even worse. But he had chosen this for himself; this man had had his wife and child taken away from him without any say in the matter. He had always taken the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery as a matter of fact. He’d never had slaves; most people he knew didn’t, but everyone took it for granted that one day, they’d be rich and prosperous and own slaves themselves. The Negro was being helped by the white man to become civilized, to have a better life than they ever would have had free. Surely it was the right way to do things? But this conversation was taking him down an uncomfortable line of thinking.
Looking around for a distraction, Jeff noticed a man not far away, leaning over the body of a Union soldier. Because the man was dressed in rags and absolutely filthy, Jeff knew instantly he must be a scavenger. The man quickly rifled through three bodies for valuables. He was only looting Union bodies. That made sense, Jeff supposed. He’d forgotten that they were in Southern territory when the battle happened, and the man must be loyal to the South.
The man turned and looked at the black man Jeff had been talking to. A visible shock appeared on his face to see a black Union soldier, but the look quickly turned to pure hatred. The scavenger started walking menacingly toward the Union soldier, pulling out a long knife as he did. The Union soldier noticed, moaned and then closed his eyes looking resigned. When he was nearly to him, Jeff spoke:
“Get away from that man, or you’ll die here with the rest of us today.” He had taken one hand off of his wound and was now pointing his officer’s revolver at the scavenger.
The scavenger stopped and stared at Jeff. He glanced back and forth between Jeff and the Union soldier, seemed to think better of it, and turned to walk off.
“You’ll be both dead soon enough,” the scavenger said, walking off toward some other bodies.
“I thank you kindly, brother. Even though I know I’m going to die here, when I saw him coming at me, all I wanted was these last few minutes I have.”
“It was nothing. I’d have done it for any fellow soldier,” Jeff said dismissively as he lowered the revolver. But then realized that he’d acknowledged the man as a soldier. “So what?” he thought, “Of course he’s a soldier — he’s in a uniform dying right here next to me. What more proof do I need?”
“Still, thank you.” The man smiled proudly, noticing Jeff’s acknowledgement.
“Do you believe in heaven?” Jeff asked, suddenly wondering in earnest about what the next world held.
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you think God will let me in after all of the terrible things I’ve done?” He had never been much of a believer himself, and still didn’t know what he thought. But he desperately wanted to believe there was something else now.
“I think he forgives all of us who truly repent.”
Jeff awoke some time later. It was completely dark, and from the position of the fat full moon, around midnight. The front of his uniform was completely soaked in blood from his chest to his crotch, and he was even weaker than before. Jeff realized he didn’t have much time left. He thought back and realized he must have passed out while the black soldier was describing what he thought heaven was like to Jeff.
“I am sorry, I must have fallen asleep while you were talking. I meant no offense,” Jeff called, his Southern manners taking precedence even near death. He realized that he had never asked the man his name.
He heard no response from his friend. With all of the effort he had left in his body he sat up again and looked over to the man.
In the bright light of the moon he could see that his friend had died. His eyes were staring blankly, but he had a link of serene calmness on his face.
“I’ll see you soon, brother.”
Jeff collapsed and began to weep. He wept for the man. He wept for Annie, and how he’d never see her again. He wept for himself. Most of all, he wept for his ignorance, and for all the stupid reasons for which people go to war.