Waiting Is Hell
Russell D. James
The following story is fictional, but the main character was real.George Patrick
was my ancestor and he really was in the 60th North Carolina and the events
of his wartime service depicted here really did happen. He was illiterate,
so there is no extant writing to let us know what he felt at Appomattox.
The fog was finally lifting off the field after blanketing the troops since reveille sounded at six o’clock. No breeze was present, so the mist lifted slowly and dissipated among the trees on the north and west sides of the field. George had finished burying the dead of his regiment in the early morning hours and had only a few hours sleep under his threadbare blanket under the stars. Because both armies had camps set up in the large field, there was no silence, at least not enough for a normal man to fall asleep and dream peaceful thoughts, as if dreaming was peaceful anymore after four years of war and death. Now he just waited, like the men on both sides, for the truce to be signed, the war to be over, and the troops to be given the orders to muster out and go home.
Home. If asked, almost every man around him would say the same thing, that home was a foreign concept, but one they all sought after. Some, he guessed, had been home within the past few years. He had not. For two long years, he had no communication with his family. Neither he nor his wife, nor any of their relations or friends, could read and write, so letters were nonexistent. His only knowledge of North Carolina these past years came from his marching through the state from town to town, only to camp each night in a field somewhere, or a forest. Sure, some men got newspapers from home and spent their hard earned wages on the postage to retrieve them from the postmaster, but what little was read to him about his home state concerned Raleigh and the cities and towns around the capital city. Nothing of his home town, or county, or anywhere near where he wished he now could lay his head.
Commotion stirred up the contingent of soldiers near him, only to die down as fast as it arose. He could see them playing a game, probably dice, something he discouraged as their sergeant (it went against the Good Book, after all). But since the war was going to be over in a few hours, he hoped, there was no need, he thought, to discipline his men. They had served well in the 60th North Carolina, and he hoped when they returned home that they would remember him as a good leader, someone who was not iron hard in his discipline, but who could lead men into battle and get them out of it safely, or at least only slightly wounded. The same group of men saluted him with their words, saying, “mornin’, S’gent!” George returned their salutation and again reminisced on the past, the present, and the future.
The past. He had joined the Confederate Army, actually the Army of North Carolina, in the summer of 1861. He didn’t own slaves and neither did anyone he knew. In fact, he figured that no one in Ashe County, North Carolina, owned slaves, but he didn’t know that for sure. George joined the regiment for the money. He was offered a signing bonus of five dollars, all of which went to his wife to keep the household going, and given a uniform and provided with bullets for his rifle. He in turn provided his rifle, a rucksack containing a mess kit, his hunting knife, soap, some rags for washcloths, and odds and ends like fishing line and hooks for fishing, thread and a few needles to darn his uniform and other clothes, and a flint to start fires, kept in a small burlap bag of its own. The salary for Private George W. Patrick was one dollar a month, half of which he arranged to be given directly to his wife while he was gone.
His wife had encouraged him to join up, but she too was ambivalent about the war and its causes. She too hoped its effects did not concern her or her husband. She arranged with George’s brothers, who were too young or too old or too scared to join up, to care for the small farm they kept. Of course, she would be out in the fields with the men each day during the planting and harvest seasons, as would their small children. Life would be hard without George around, but he would bring in almost six dollars a year in extra income for the family, almost half of what they made in a given year off of selling the crops they didn’t keep for seed or for their own consumption. Six dollars would buy some cloth to make clothes for the kids and maybe some more dishes so everyone in the family had their own plate, knife, fork, and spoon to eat with. Usually, the family took turns eating off the same plates with the same utensils. Of course, his wife hoped he would not be hurt or killed and eventually come home a hero like his fellow soldiers, a hero with responsibilities to the family and the farm.
The pastor of his Missionary Baptist Church congregation had also joined the 60th North Carolina, hoping to be named chaplain. But he too was made a private and taught to drill and march and shoot like all the other regular men. George’s cousin and three best fishing buddies also joined up with him, all wanting the money, none of them understanding why the war was so important and none of them knowing anything about secession or state’s rights. They just donned their uniforms, took up their arms, and marched away into the mist of the Smoky Mountains, traveling through valleys and over mountains and across streams. Not long after they started, they fought in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse, where George and two of his fishing buddies were captured and taken to Fort Columbus way up north in New York, along the harbor. But it wasn’t so bad up there. The commandant of the prison was nice to the men, especially the enlisted men, who he knew had no idea what the fighting was about, and he let them fish off the walls of the fort, right along the short of the harbor. The men caught fish every day and the commandant and his men let them eat some of them. Six long months there and then he came back to his regiment, released on parole. Parole meant he promised to not fight anymore, but he needed the money and wanted to go home a hero, not a washout.
The present. The Battle of Appomattox had ended yesterday after a long, grueling fight. You could still smell the gunpowder and the blood, still see the blood, in fact, as it lay nicely on top of the leaves of the bushes and the petals of the flowers. How many men in his regiment had died yesterday, he wondered, never really caring too much before because he couldn’t count very high and a hundred was just as much to him as a thousand. When the battle ended, George just sat right down in the field and cried, like he did every time a battle was over. They had fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg. The 60th North Carolina had been there at the beginning, getting their marching orders from Stonewall himself, and it was only fit that they were present at the final battle, too. Now they all just sat around waiting.
Off to his left there was another group of soldiers, he thought maybe from a Georgia regiment, who were telling tall tales of their fighting prowess. George laughed to himself because he knew these men had probably not even been a part of the fighting, as they were seated so far from the actual battle lines. George had moved as far back as he could in the ranks so as to get a good jump start when he went home. Home. Again, that word brought a bitter sweet taste to his mouth. How would he get there? Probably walking, as he had no horse or mule to ride or pull a wagon, no wagon either. George presumed the other men in the 60th North Carolina would be returning home the same way and wondered if he could join them in their long trek from eastern Virginia to north-central North Carolina. Of course, his cousin and three fishing buddies would not be walking home, as they had been killed in the battles of the previous three years. His cousin, William, had died in his arms on the battlefield, handing him his prized possession, a copper coin with a depiction of some famous person. George treasured that coin and no longer thought of it as money. He wouldn’t spend it when he got home. Neither would his wife.
A few minutes passed and he heard some cheering from a distance away. At first he thought it was a cheer for the end of the war, but noticed right away that some soldiers had formed two teams and were getting a base ball game on. Upon further glance, George noticed that one team was wearing gray, the other wearing blue. Just like the lulls in the battles they’d fought before, and just like after other battles, both sides, winner and loser, were passing time by playing this new game. It didn’t matter which side had won the battle, usually, as the teams formed and the game played, sometimes on into the dusk of night. Usually no one kept score. Officers were pressed into service as referees, or umpires, as they were called. They judged fairly, usually, with little complaint, and the boys who weren’t playing, especially the bandaged wounded, cheered on the players, sometimes rooting for the enemy’s team! George got off his behind and wandered over to the game, sitting on a grassy knoll just far enough away from the game to not be a part of it, wanting to just sit and mull over in his mind what the days and months ahead might bring.
The future. Celia, his beloved wife of so many years, was waiting at home for him. She doesn’t know if he survives. He is the same for her. They will have to fall in love again, but he still loved her with all his heart. And his sons and daughters will be so old now, almost four years older than when he left them. As he stood there thinking, however, he realized something else about the possible future.
Rumors abounded in the Confederate Army. One that seemed to be gathering steam was that officers and NCOs, like himself, were going to be imprisoned, some hanged. He could endure another prison, but he so wanted to be home with his family. He wanted to fish in his favorite spot along the creek, not because he was hungry but because he was happy. Does anyone still remember him? Will he come home a stranger or a hero?
A swell of clapping that started nearest the courthouse and came back toward George was getting louder and louder. Someone in front of him yelled, “The war is over! We can go home!” George hoped this was true. Although armies are pretty organized, this one had a hard time getting its units together. George walked back to the part of the green where the 60th North Carolina was camped and got his men into formation. The colonel gave a speech and told everyone to muster out and go home.
Home. Past, present, future. They all led to home. The fighting was over, the needless death was over. The South had lost, but George and all the survivors of the Confederacy had won because they get to go home. Waiting is hell, but when the wait is up, you realize hell isn’t that bad a suffering if you get to go home.
Russell D. James is an author, editor, and literary agent with James Literary Services of Pensacola. He is the author of three nonfiction books (including two history books with Southern themes) and various articles and short stories in multiple genres.
Russell D. James