(excerpted from Chapter Three of Nostalgia
Just as the land began to level off, they stumbled into a surprising pocket of clear air. For the last several minutes they’d been struggling, almost blindly, toward a continuous clap of musketry, which now suddenly ceased. In the abrupt quiet, a nearby soldier whistled the first phrase of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Hayes saw a fragment of the ragged line of his squad zigzagging away into the thicket, and then Leggett, not more than six paces forward. “Truman!” he cried, and Leggett turned, met Hayes’s eyes, quickly shook his head, and sighed, an assessment of the situation they found themselves in: the ground immediately beyond was littered with dead and wounded Union men. Half a dozen panicked soldiers brushed past Hayes, headed in the opposite direction (one jostling his shoulder), and then a solitary bullet zipped low through the trees and struck the barrel of his musket with a loud ping!,
knocking it from his hands and onto the ground. He threw himself at it, prone, a reaction that likely saved his life, for in the next instant a fierce volley from an invisible enemy felled the still-standing soldiers on either side of him. The sound—unlike anything he’d ever heard, a mixture of concentrated gunfire, inhuman shrieks, and the dull drumroll of bodies hitting the ground—seemed to shake the earth. Arms outstretched, he gripped the weapon and squeezed his eyes shut. Amid the din rang a muffled chorus of “Down down,”
and then he saw Leggett again, who now lay flat with his head thrust back, as if gazing at something high above and behind him in the trees.
Hayes wriggled forward as two undulant walls of blue-white smoke crept toward each other across the forest floor, closing in from either side. It occurred to him that he and his comrades had wandered astray and were now caught between the lines. The earth under his belly felt hot and damp and smelled of burnt pine. Beneath the battle-roar, which sprang from every direction and penetrated the soles of his feet, he could hear, from inside himself, the strangely poignant whisper of his own breathing.
Leggett had been shot in the mouth. Jets of blood pulsed into a brown mat of pine needles beneath his shoulders. Hayes, turning Leggett’s head to one side, saw that the ball had exited the nape of his neck. Two broken amber-colored teeth lay in the rising pool of blood, glistening like gemstones. Hayes slid his hand beneath Leggett’s neck and staunched the current—with the result that the tattered gaping cavity at the lower half of his face filled and began to overflow. Beneath the modest brim of his forage cap, which still hugged his brow, Leggett’s eyes were as wide and vacant as a trout’s. Ten seconds had passed since Hayes had spotted him and called his name, and now he was gone, utterly; the wet and ghastly thing Hayes cupped in his palm bore little that even suggested the man.
Hayes removed his hand, warm and sodden, brought it to his nostrils, and sniffed (rust, weak tea in a tin cup). He touched his lips to his palm (salt, a nickel on the tongue). He wiped his hand on his trousers, looked up to his right, and watched a trio of saplings twitch and quake as their gray bark was gashed and scarred, their new leaves sliced and splintered, by an unbroken tempest of bullets. From a bearing he now perceived as behind him, three or four commanders were shouting Fire at will!
which, though it struck him as a kind of nonsense—exotic owls screeching in a jungle—did supply a feasible objective.
He unbuckled Leggett’s belt and roughly freed it from beneath him, rolling the body one way and another as required. A short distance away, he saw a soldier burrowed in a shallow recess behind a clump of earth and rotting logs. Hayes crawled forward, dragging his weapon and Leggett’s belt along the ground. The blare of combat, from both front and rear, was like the toothed jaws of a giant vise. He nestled in alongside the other soldier, whom he recognized as a private named Lynch, from West Cambridge, Massachusetts, and who turned out to be quite dead, though Hayes could not locate any wound. With a little adjusting, he put the man’s broad back into service as a table on which to rest his musket. It was easy enough to discern the rebel line—some two hundred yards through the trees, the screen of smoke sparkled with repeating bursts of yellow fire—but he had no way of knowing who among his comrades might lie between that line and himself. He resolved to aim high enough to shoot over any such soldiers, and then he was loading, firing, reloading, and firing again, keeping careful count of his shots. He found he had to think his way through the series of loading steps only the first couple of times, and then he acquired the cold efficacy of an automaton.
A private from another company, a round-faced boy Hayes knew only vaguely, landed next to him, wide-eyed and sweating. He looked at Hayes with wonder and shouted (for it was the only way to make oneself heard), “I’ve lost my squad. I don’t know where I am. What should I do? I don’t know what to do.”
“Clahane,” Hayes said, for he’d suddenly recalled the boy’s name.
Stunned, he said, “Oh, you’re Hayes, the ball player! I guess I best go find my squad. Trouble is, I don’t know if they’re forward or back.”
“We’ve got ourselves between the lines,” shouted Hayes. “If you go looking for them, you’ll be shot. I’m surprised you got this far.”
“Maybe I’m shot already,” said the boy, knocking his fist hard against the side of his own head, as if to jolt himself from a trance. “Maybe I’m already dead.”
He reached out a hand and pressed his fingers three times against Hayes’s left cheek. Still, he didn’t appear entirely convinced that Hayes was real. His gaze fell on the soldier whose back served as a fulcrum for Hayes’s rifle. “Who’s that?” he said.
“Magnus Lynch,” answered Hayes.
“Is he dead?” asked the boy, dreamily.
“Clahane,” said Hayes, “stay here and dig in, like me. Fire your weapon.”
“Fire my weapon,” said Clahane, looking down curiously at his musket. “Yes, but are you sure that’s the thing to do, Hayes?”
“We’re engaged in battle,” shouted Hayes. “You’re supposed to fire your weapon.”
Clahane craned his neck and looked out over the terrain directly before them. Hayes quickly put a hand on top of the boy’s head and pressed him down.
“Do you suppose they’re all
dead?” said the boy.
“Fire your weapon,” repeated Hayes.
“But what do I aim at?”
“Like this,” answered Hayes and demonstrated the upward tilt of his barrel. “Watch what I do and follow.”
Hayes led Clahane through the loading steps, which seemed to come back to the boy immediately, and soon, lying on his belly a musket’s length away, he was grinning and firing, yelping delightedly with each blast. Hayes put his finger to his own lips to hush the boy—the colonel had instructed them that such squealing was secesh behavior and altogether unbecoming.
Hayes resumed firing and soon forgot about Clahane. Soon his right arm grew sore, and a blister formed in the tender flesh between his thumb and forefinger. Soon his weapon grew so hot that the powder would flash before he could load the ball, and so he began alternating his musket with the dead Magnus Lynch’s. And when he’d exhausted his own ammunition, he opened a tin of Leggett’s.
Because the light in the woods faded, he knew that time was passing. In all the battle depictions he’d heard from veterans, he’d never known anyone to describe an engagement of such relentless ferocity and duration. He witnessed no wounded soldiers retreating or being carried to the rear by stretcher-bearers, no color guards, no visible colors ahead or behind. No rebels charged the Union line, and yet he sensed, at his back, some distance away, a chaotic ebb and flow of troops, fresh regiments arriving piecemeal as spent infantry withdrew. One thing remained clear—to stand up meant certain death, and so Hayes stayed put and fired the two weapons sixty-seven times.
As he was loading the sixty-eighth, a bugle sounded somewhere off in the woods to his right, and the dozens of dead soldiers sprawled on the ground before him rose in unison onto all fours and begin to crawl forward. Hayes felt the skin on the back of his neck contract. He burst out laughing and turned to confer with Clahane about this extraordinary sight—but Clahane, hatless now, was stretched out flat and peaceful, his weapon beneath him, his cheek resting against the barrel. The boy might have been sleeping but for a bloody furrow that incised one side of his scalp and the fingers of blood that had flowed down from the wound and streaked his face.
Only a trick of the mind: when Hayes looked forward again, the dead soldiers were properly dead once more, and stationary. The forest itself, on the other hand, enlivened by gunfire, continued to pulse and shiver. A gray-green rain of shattered leaves wafted down from the canopy, a thing of simultaneous beauty and horror, and Hayes was struck by the coldness with which he observed it. Something deep within him had gone numb, and then, for a moment or two, he lost touch with all the certainties, small and large, that made him known to himself. It was a kind of blankness, for sure, the result of obliterative noise, but not entirely without character: nothing in the world mattered, nothing in life possessed any value, and all human endeavor was as foul and menacing as the scavenging of wild pigs in the street.
He looked at the barky vertical things that constituted what was called woods, and he couldn’t think of the name for them—the word book
came to mind, though he knew it to be wrong. He noted the scorch-marks on the back of Magnus Lynch’s sack coat, and he felt a boyhood remorse at having ruined something good and the dread of being found out.
Then, as if these emotions had opened some sort of channel, he heard his sister speak his name, and the world was once again bizarre and recognizable. The shattered leaves rained down from trees.
His country was at war with itself. He fought for the Army of the Potomac. In the smoke and confusion his squad had wandered astray, and he’d got caught between the lines. Without his anchor (Leggett), he’d gone unmoored; it was the best he could do, to place himself in one spot like a piece of artillery and wage his singular offensive. But now he longed to find his own comrades, his own officers, and rest in the self-abandonment that came with following orders. He could go toward neither line without being taken for the enemy and shot, so he resolved to try a lateral move and see where that would take him.
As he gathered his gear, there came a lull in the fighting, and the deafening barrage slowly abated to the sporadic popping he associated with picket skirmishes. He thought it dusk now, but a dusk like none other, a failure of light that lacked the promise of darkness. He could hear the enormous thunder of combat farther away and then the deep rumble of more combat farther away still. What had seemed to him so convincingly the heart of the war was but a single lesion on the leprous body of a giant. He began to creep into the thicket. The sulfurous vapors that filled his lungs caused a hot tingle inside his chest. The ground before him sank gradually and then gradually rose beneath a bewilderment of vines and brush, strewn with bodies. Now and again, he crawled alongside a pair with limbs variously intermingled. Though he made no attempt to identify any of the fallen—indeed, he kept his eyes half closed most of the time—he did recognize the mangled corpse of his sergeant resting against the trunk of a tulip tree.
He gathered ammunition from the dead, as well as weapons, trussing with belts a bundle of rifles and dragging it along like a disabled companion. Woodsmoke mixed with musket smoke, and the dusky air grew hotter and darker still. He took a canteen from a dead comrade, drank from it, and poured the rest over his own head. He inched forward, sometimes through thorny brambles and patches of slime. His bundle of rifles got snagged repeatedly, and he found himself cultivating patience toward it, as he’d always tried to do with those who muffed balls on the playing field. For a little while he was back in New York, among his club mates after a match—music, speeches and laughter, chicken potpie and champagne.
He reached the crest of an incline just as a young lieutenant colonel rode out of the smoke—lowering his head to clear a branch, teetering in the saddle—and stopped about ten yards away. Hayes couldn’t think if he’d seen the man before, for so many of the young dark-haired officers looked alike. He watched as the man (obviously drunk) removed a flask from the pocket of his coat and took a long drink. He wiped his mustache with the back of his hand and then struggled so forcefully to screw the cap back on he broke the hinge and sent it spiraling to the ground. Rather than looking down after it, the man cast his gaze heavenward, as if to reprove a tiresome and trying God, and at that moment a bullet struck him in the left ear, knocking his hat into a nearby tangle of vines, where it lay cockeyed, suspended. He slumped violently forward, his face smacking the mane of the beautiful honey-colored mount, which danced two steps forward and back.
A second bullet struck the forehead of the horse, whose front legs buckled, catapulting the officer headfirst over the poll: a rag doll, an unseemly heap, buttressed by a sword. Third and fourth bullets struck the horse in the breast, and it shuddered and fitfully pivoted its hindquarters in an arc, so that when at last it collapsed, the full weight of its girth flattened the lieutenant colonel to the ground. The beast’s long and final expiration sent dry leaves skittering toward Hayes, and then its lower lip sagged open, discharging a gluey braid of spittle.
Hayes crawled forward and uprighted the officer’s flask before all the contents had spilled out. He found the cap, sniffed it, and screwed it on: bourbon, which he’d never cared for.
A breeze swept through the woods, agitating the smoke, and the air went grayer, whiter, and grayer again. Hayes heard a rat-a-tat
of drums, then a sound like heavy rain, rapidly approaching, and half a minute later he was being carried forward by a great wave of Union troops, Pennsylvania men from his own brigade, who were accompanied by a sudden onslaught of artillery some distance toward their right flank. Two veterans quickly lifted Hayes’s bundle of guns (one shouted, “Well done!”), and soon the line dug in and a new inferno was under way.
Through the trees down to the right, Hayes could see vertical bars of paler light that indicated a clearing, most likely a road, where shells whistled and exploded above the roar of musketry. The man closest to Hayes, an older gentleman with gray whiskers, called out to him: “How’d you get so far out in front, son?”
“By accident!” shouted Hayes, and the older man laughed.
Hayes forgot to keep count of his shots, but he didn’t mind. He thought of them now as countless, and he was sure he’d developed bruises up and down his right arm. The blister on his hand burst, and a new one formed alongside it.
They continued firing and advanced now and again in small increments, but every inch of gained ground cost them; men lay wounded all about, moaning or silent, half hidden in the underbrush. Hayes could tell that no significant progress was being made, and he thought the seemingly endless supply of Union soldiers worked almost to a disadvantage—the troops were jammed up against one another too close in the woods and resulted in an atmosphere of chaos. As the forest continued to grow darker and they drew ever closer to the opposing line, it became clear that the rebels occupied a higher ground. Even if the Union troops outnumbered them, as long as the Confederates had ammunition, they would hold their position. Each time they appeared to be weakening—and some small hope arose that a real advance might be made against them—they quickened with renewed vigor, always, always punctuated with the hideous rebel cry.
The gray-whiskered soldier who’d asked Hayes how he’d got so far out front took a bullet through the neck and bled to death in a matter of seconds. Careful to keep his head low, Hayes dragged the body a short ways to the rear where the dead were being piled. Many years ago, he’d watched longshoremen at the Atlantic Docks drag big sacks of grain down the gangplank of a barge and heave them onto wagons. Now, as he laid the gray-whiskered gentleman onto the heap, he recalled how he’d admired the muscle and workaday composure with which the longshoremen had toiled and how, for some time, he’d aspired to become a dockworker.
Soon after he returned to the line, an Irishman with a runny nose fell in next to him. His face bright red, he looked at Hayes, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his coat, and said, “Christ Jesus, I wish night would come!”
A minute later they advanced a few yards more, and the Irishman was cut down by a blast seemingly from very close range. Collapsing onto one knee, he shouted at Hayes, “Hey, what’d you do that for?”—evidently thinking that Hayes had struck him somehow and caused him to fall.
Hayes peered through the smoke and saw a dark mound straight in front, not a dozen paces away. Crouched, he ran forward and found there a little frayed old rebel in a droopy hat, who’d positioned himself behind a blind of dead Union soldiers, set sideways like so many logs. The old man—skin and bones; barefoot in yellow-brown rags—yanked out his ramrod and pointed his musket at Hayes, but before he could get off a shot, Hayes kicked him with the sole of his shoe. The man went flat on his back, like a sheaf of straw, and Hayes came down hard with the stock of his rifle, crushing his nose and rendering him apparently unconscious.
Hayes took the Confederate’s weapon and began to scurry back to the line, when, from behind, he heard the screech of a banshee. He turned and saw the old man charging, blood pouring from his face; he leaped for Hayes, arms outflung, hands like claws, but midleap the old man was felled by a bullet to the chest.
Now Hayes knelt beside the wounded Irishman, who’d taken a ball in the knee and lay bleeding and ashy. The man braced himself against Hayes, twisted round, and yelled at the old rebel’s corpse, “That’s for taking me drumstick, damn you!”
Hayes tore off the Irishman’s trouser leg below the wound and made a tourniquet of the cloth. “Oh, Christ Jesus,” said the man, rocking back, “how I wish night would come, how I wish night would come.”
Hayes reached into his coat pocket and took out the flask of bourbon. “Here,” he said, passing it to the Irishman, “drink some of this.”
“Good heavens, lad,” said the man, staring at Hayes in awe. He tipped the flask to his lips and took a long drink. His eyes brimming with tears now, he said, “That’ll lift me, sure.”
Hayes was thinking about the old rebel who lay dead a few feet away in last year’s fallen leaves. All afternoon the murderous force that had wreaked such havoc against the Union lines had remained entirely invisible, behind a tangle of forest and a wall of smoke. It was as if Hayes had earned his bruises and blisters firing his weapon at the idea
of an enemy (though unquestionably an intractable one). Now, at last and for the first time, he’d come face-to-face with the foe, and the fearsome warrior—not even identifiably military, but elderly and indigent—weighed in at about ninety pounds. There had been a fraction of a second, just before he’d bashed the man’s face, in which he’d thought to offer him a hand up from the ground. After all, but for the tattered CSA garb, he might have been the withered Methuselah who sat in the front-most pew Sundays at Trinity Church and snored and wheezed throughout the homily.
Excerpted from Nostalgia by Dennis McFarland. Copyright © 2013 by Dennis McFarland. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.