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I remember the burning men. Wounded, and caught like the damned at the reckoning. In brush and bramble lit by battle's sparks. They cried for help or death, for wives and mothers. Some begged God's mercy, while their fellows cursed. They smelled sweet. It is a scent no man forgets, once it has filled his nose. The fragrance of the pyre. The flames crept up and over stranded souls. Turning men into a twist of fire. Wild hands withered black. Uniforms burn quicker than the flesh, but hair blazes. Boys wore crowns of flame. That day I understood the pain of martyrs.
They burned in a poor-struck land, above a river. I have known many rivers. And many burnings. The heathen roasts the living wife along with her dead master. And when they burned the niggers dead of cholera, in great piles, you would have thought the heavens scorched with sugar. The Hindoo and the Musselman burned, and here and there a Christian gone astray. A rancid sweetness will connote the damned. It clings.
That muddy river made me think of India. But this was in America, and now, and white men burned.
I saw them in the smoke but yards away each time I shouldered up to aim and shoot. Those hit in the legs crawled on their elbows, but could not get beyond the spreading flames. Some raised themselves enough to catch a ball. I fired and bent to load and heard their screams.
A man beside me rose to make a rescue. I yanked him down. Another boy in blue, torn by the cries, ran out to help. Ignoring my command. He fell to no effect, and burned himself. In that storm of lead and hateand heat. I gave them the devil then, the lads I had gathered from the ruins of a dozen regiments, and hoped they heard me through the crash of battle. I shouted that their duty was to fight, and damn the rest.
Thus I became a judge of life and death. For battle has to do with here and now, and I would waste no life where no hope lay. That is the soldier in me, a dreadful thing. I shall need much forgiveness. But let that bide.
The men in gray and rags rushed on and fell. Embers of spent wadding spread the fires. The damned in Hell will sound like burning boys. Our boys and theirs. For that is war. There was no succor, and death gleaned those who stood in the wrath of the day. If I shrieked in your ear in your safe parlor, it would mean little, for no art tells the agony of such. My words are shreds of nothing. Those men between the lines died hard and lonely. As lonely as Christ. I had heard screams before, of course, of brown men and of wounded friends in scarlet or in khaki, but never knew a chorus such as this. Dozens burned alive. Dozens and tens of dozens. A multitude. Crying.
And that was Shiloh.
They could not budge us so they brought up guns. I heard the horses first, the whinnies of the teams. Then came the harsh commands and grump of muzzles, the sharp report of powder packed and lit. I could not see the cannon for the smoke. But branches broke and fell about our legs, and splinters killed. I thought I heard the bark of Whitworths in battery, recalling sepoys maddened with rebellion.
In all my years of marching, fear marched with me. But there is a fear that vanquishes itself, and makes of man a brutal, killing beast.
The cannoneers lowered their aim. Blasting through our feeble scraps of cover.
We were a pack of shrunken regiments, of companies pared down to ten and less. I knew no names, and pennants there were none. Any flag raised up fell back again. Men lay close, almost atop one another, dying by strangers. I worked my rifle like a common soldier.
The Rebels used the trees. Feeling for a gap beyond our flank. And they would find one. For never was a battle more confused. A broken army fought a breaking one. All combat is a boiling stew of chaos. But this fight was disordered through and through.
I should have been away from all such doings, as safe as this, our fragile life, allows. I meant to disembark five miles downriver, at General Grant's headquarters. I was no longer called to fields of battle. Not since my misfortune at Bull Run. No, I had come upon a criminal matter, at Washington's alarm. Twas murder of a sort so sensitive that telegraphic code would not suffice to tell the half of what I needed to know. They only said it was an urgent crime that might disturb the nation and our cause.
Dear God, what crime is greater than a war?
The steamboat that carried me docked at the breakfast hour. Below a town set on the eastern bluff. A high, white house shone above a cloud of tents. That would be headquarters, and no question. For generals do not like to sleep in shanties. But the mansion was no happy place that morning.
Staff men on the bluff stared south and pointed. Ignoring my vessel's arrival, with its whistle, bulk and smoke. I had heard guns along the Tennessee and knew a scrap had gotten underway. I was dismayed, for this was on a Sunday, and that was brazen insult to the Lord. But now I saw the matter was not planned.
Oh, not by us.
Upon the mansion's sloping lawn, an officer too stout to be less than a colonel cursed to astound. Profanity may be weakness, but his oaths roared above the grumbling boilers, above the splashing wheels and creak of ropes. You would have heard that fellow in a battle, but now his wind was wasted on his peers. A signals...Call Each River Jordan. Copyright © by Owen Parry. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.