Gone For A Soldier

Chapter 7

When Theophilus had said that Luke’s “time would come,” he was right, for it did come a few nights later.

Word went around after supper that we were “gonna git” Luke. Soon a crowd of about fifty or sixty privates had gathered. Half of them went to collect Luke and his gang while the rest of us went to the parade ground. A short time later the boys dragged Luke to the middle of the ground while holding his friends at bay. He sneered at us, yelling, “Not one of ya can beat me man t’ man.” But nobody accepted the challenge.

First, those who held him stripped him. He fought like a bear, but soon he was naked. Then some held him from behind while, one after another, the others began to hit him. When they stopped, his face was a bloody mess, his eyes were nearly closed, and his chest and stomach were a quilt of bruises.

Finally, they threw him on the ground and invited others who had been beaten by him to join in. Some did, hesitantly at first, but then increasingly savagely. Among others, Billy, Tony, Theophilus, and I stood by and watched.

Tony asked me, “Why aren’t ya joinin’ them? He sure as hell beat you.”

“Cause it just ain’t right. It’s like a mob gone wild. It’s savagery.”

The three of them agreed, but still we watched, and I wondered if we were somehow complicit even though we weren’t beating him.

The mob pounced on him, kicking him and beating him until he was bloody all over. At first he cried out, but his protests grew fainter, and I’m sure by the time they stopped, he was unconscious. Slowly, they all drifted away, leaving him alone in the middle of the grounds. Even his friends disappeared.

“Ain’t nobody gonna help him?” I asked.

“Nope. This is camp justice,” Theophilus replied. “And don’t git any ideas about helpin’ him yerself. He wouldn’t thank ya and he’d hate ya for life.”

“But what if he dies out there?”

“Then he’s just one more war casualty. Besides, I doubt his friends are far away. When we leave they’ll probably come back and take him to the first aid tent.”

I couldn’t believe it, but we left him there. In the morning we learned that he had survived the night having indeed been taken to the first aid tent. Sweeney, of course, read us the riot act and demanded that we all do a hundred pushups, but nobody counted, and there were no more repercussions. Perhaps the officers decided that Luke deserved what he got.

Unfortunately, it seemed as though I was always breaking some little rule, often one I didn’t even know about, and Sweeney seemed to have it in for me for no apparent reason. So I was often one of the ones who had to clean the latrines; I was one of the ones who had after-midnight guard duty; I was one of the ones who had guard duty in the rain. Of course, others did as well, but it seemed as though I was assigned these duties more often than the others. For any little thing I did wrong I was punished. And the thing was, I began to realize that most of the officers, including the Sergeant, were clueless and knew no more about fighting a war than I did. Most had gotten their positions not because they could fight but because they had bought them. They were political appointments.

But like it or not, we had to follow their orders, and that was very difficult for us to learn. Those of us who were from farms were used to being independent. I couldn’t remember many times when my father had given me an order, at least once I was old enough to work. We worked together. We figured things out together. Maybe sometimes he wanted to tell me what to do, but he almost never did. And the few times when he did, it was a suggestion, never an order. I suppose it was because he wanted me to learn how to run the farm and not just be like a hired hand. So taking orders from people whom I often thought were at the least wrong and more often idiots took a great deal of self-discipline, which was slow in coming.

One evening I was reading a letter from Josiah and tears were in my eyes and on my cheeks when Theophilus came up and sat beside me. He was silent at first, just keeping me company, but in time he asked about home, so I told him about Ma and Pa and the Parkers. It seemed to help to talk about them. He told me that he had volunteered for three months in ’61, been discharged, and had gone home to work his farm. But as the war continued he grew restless and decided to volunteer again. So he did and was now in our regiment. He told me that his only living family was a brother who was fighting for the South. He sometimes wondered what would happen if they ever met on a battlefield, but he had decided that, with all the thousands of men on both sides, the chances of that happening were slim.

Theophilus, Tony, Billy and I often ate together. He taught me and Tony how to play a card game called poker. Again I wondered about my parents’ approval, but I continued to play anyway.

One evening as just Theophilus and I were playing poker and idly talking, Theophilus asked if I was in love with anybody back home. At first I said nothing, but finally I told him that I was.

“Josiah?” he asked.

“H…h…how’d ya know?” I stammered.

“From the way ya talk ’bout him. Ya make him sound very special.”

“He is,” I replied. Theophilus never pried, never asked what Josiah and I did. But when I was missing Josiah, Theophilus always listened as I talked through my pain and homesickness. I’m not sure I would have survived in Baltimore had it not been for him.

Another evening, just as we were bedding down for the night, Tony staggered into our tent, calling for me. I called him over and he flopped down beside me. I could smell the liquor on his breath.

“Oh, God, who gave ya that?”

“I…I don’t kn…know his name. I thought it’d m…m…m…make me more grown up, like the smoking, but all it d…did was make me sick. Like now!”

I hastily grabbed my tin bowl just in time to catch his vomit. I told him to stay there and went outside to empty the bowl. Back and forth I went for the next half hour. Finally, all he had was the dry heaves and then he stopped.

“I’d best git back to m’ tent,” he whispered.

“No, ya’d best stay here. Ya caint be found wanderin’ around in the night.” So he snuggled up next to me and soon fell asleep while I lay awake. It was the first time I had snuggled with anybody since Josiah, and I felt myself automatically growing hard. I didn’t love Tony, at least not that way, and I knew he was too young to do anything anyway, but I just couldn’t help it. It had been so long. Finally I pulled up my shirt and opened my trousers and without even trying I exploded on my stomach. I cleaned myself off with an already-filthy sock, put myself back together, and fell asleep.

In the next few days I tried to figure out my feelings for Tony but eventually concluded that what had happened was just my body acting on its own. I knew I loved him, but it was the way I loved Eddie or Tad, not the way I loved Josiah. Love was very confusing.

In June, word went ’round the regiment that measles had broken out. It spread quickly through the camp with lethal consequences. In the first week, five of my tent mates died, a couple of them friends if not close ones. In the second week, three more died. We had no idea how measles spread, but they were virulent and often deadly. Pa had told me once that measles had killed off more Indians than settlers’ guns had.

One morning I awoke feeling rather strange. My forehead was warm, my mouth was dry, and I was coughing, so I went to the first aid tent. A doctor had me take off my shirt and pointed out the red spots on my chest. “Measles,” was all he said.

More tents had been erected for the sick, so I was put on Company Q, which was army talk for the sick list, and placed in one. At least there I had a cot. I lay there, sweating, vomiting, itching terribly, and very afraid. I had joined the army to fight, not to die from disease. My fever continued to rise and from time to time I was out of my head and nearly unconscious. I couldn’t bear the daylight so lay most of the time with my eyes closed. People bathed me with cold water but there was little else they could do. I would either die of the fever or it would break and I would get better. In my delirium I cried out for Ma or Pa or Josiah, but of course nobody answered.

One night — why did my fever always go up at night? — I was sweating and shivering at the same time. The doctors and nurses kept bathing me in cold water, but my fever continued to rise. Delirious, I cried out again, “Ma! Ma!” and then fell unconscious. I have no idea how long I was out, but when I awoke, I felt cool. The fever was gone; the sweating and shivering were gone. And, while I had a terrible headache, I knew that I would live.

A few days later I was up and about, still very weak, but able to return to my tent. I was excused from drill for another ten days — for me the only good thing to come from the measles. I have no idea how many men died altogether, but it was rumored to be more than half the regiment.

Measles, however, did not affect Sergeant Sweeney, and soon he was once again making my life hell. And so life in camp went on.

Once, when I had some rare time off, I dressed up as clean as I could, slicked my hair down, and went with Theophilus to a photography studio in Baltimore to take an image. I had two tintype portraits made, one to send to my parents and one for Josiah. As we walked through the city, I noticed a number of fancily dressed women and asked Theophilus about them. He laughed and said they were ‘ladies of the evenin’”.

“What’re ‘ladies of the evenin’?” I asked.

Looking at me incredulously, he asked, “Ya don’t know?”

I shook my head.

“Well,” he sighed, “have ya ever heerd o’ prostitutes?”

Again I shook my head.

“OK. I guess there’s no polite way of sayin’ it then. They sell themselves t’ the soldiers for sex.”

“Oh,” I said quietly, thinking that over. “Are there many of ’em?”


“And they all git…git…business?”


“Have ya ever…?” I stopped, embarrassed to go on.

“Nope.” And with that we dropped the subject.

And so we drilled and waited. We waited through the summer heat and rain, and we waited through long nights and boring days of more and more drill. While I made a few more friends, mostly in my tent, it was Billy and Tony and Theophilus who saw me through the summer.

Camp gossip tried to keep us informed of the war news. We learned that all but one division of the Army of the Potomac was on the Virginia Peninsula trying to capture Richmond. The General leading that army was McClellan, who had been called east after some small victories in western Virginia and had been given command of the army in Maryland. The army fought several battles as they neared Richmond and then tried to lay siege to it. Eventually, when they were not successful, they began to retreat down the peninsula.

Meanwhile, a second army under Pope had been dispatched from Washington to meet up with the Army of the Potomac, but when the soldiers arrived near Manassas, the Army of the Potomac had already gone. A short time later, Pope and his army were soundly defeated at Manassas, our second loss on the same battlefield.

I won’t try to go into all the changes of command that happened during that time, but at one point McClellan was relieved of most of his command and a General Halleck took over. Theophilus was upset because he liked what he had heard of McClellan. Soldiers who knew him called him “Little Mac” and believed he was the only man who could lead us to a victory.

There were rumors that the Confederates, who were now under a general named Lee, might try to attack Washington. At least that never happened, but we guessed that those in charge were trying to figure out what Lee’s next move might be.

At the end of August we were ordered aboard trains and moved to Washington to be incorporated into the Army of the Potomac.