Sunday, February 17, 2013



The next day dawned clear and cold, but quickly warmed. The snow melted and left mud, which we marched in, and stood for inspection in, and passed in review in.  There’s a taste of history, right there. As the men warmed, steam rose from their bodies as it did from the puddles on the ground, giving a ghostly opacity to the scene.  A unique feature of the second day’s review was that the Yankee commanders rode in and sat their horses, with their colors, beside our commanders.  Their infantry fell in behind our third battalion and passed in review with us.  A sense of shared hardship and passion, even of brotherhood, came later, but that morning we held ourselves aloof from them, trying to make either them or ourselves invisible.  They were the enemy, and we had no desire to pussyfoot around with them there in the ice and steaming mud.  To their credit, I saw very few clean Yanks that day.

We replenished our cartridge boxes and haversacks from our stores. In the late morning, the army was formed and we marched out on a different road.

The battle of Sayler’s Creek, that afternoon, is a mixture of poorly focused, swirling images, as if the subjects were moving too fast for the camera,  and incredibly vivid scenes, in full color and excruciating detail.  Our battalion faced off against a much stronger Yankee force, and they pounded us.  Still, we stood better than we had right to, until a company of their cavalry, with repeating rifles, flanked us at about 40 yards.  Their muzzle flashes made it look like the woods were on fire, and the old second battalion fell apart.  Men scrambled in every direction.  My best friend, Earl, and I found ourselves with about a dozen other men, crouching behind a bank, with a blackberry bog at our backs.  There was a terrific firefight going on in the field on the other side of that bank, and we were in the middle of it. In our state of mind, the fact that there were not thousands of bullets buzzing a few feet over our heads was not entirely obvious to us.

A lieutenant looked at me and said, “First Sergeant, you and I are senior here.  Do you see any point in fighting it out?”  I looked at the worn out men around me, and remembered the sense of terrible waste that was still fresh in my mind after bayonetting that boy the day before.  “No, Sir.  I do not.  Let the men choose to try to escape or surrender.”

We looked in each other’s eyes, shook hands, and about half of the men took off. There was no judgment on either part.  The lieutenant moved to an opening in the hedge that topped our shelter, put his cap on his sword and held it over his head.  “Men, hold your rifles in front of you, muzzles down.”  A minute or so later another one of those babyish faces under a blue cap peeked over the bank.

“You Rebs surrendering?”  he asked.  The lieutenant said that we were.  The boy gestured behind him, and shortly he and about 15 others came cautiously over the bank.  They gawked at us in awe, as if we were circus animals that had sprung our cages, and might very well be dangerous.  I can only imagine how we looked to them:  dirty, ragged, grim-faced.  No, we weren’t starving scarecrows as Lee’s men were that awful day in 1865, but compared to their freshness, cleanliness, and youth, we were a sorry lot.  Now comes one of those moments when history reached out her hand and touched us.  One of the Rebs asked, “What troops are you?”

One of the Yanks said proudly, “First Minnesota!”  We had not discussed this at all.  In fact, other than Earl and I, none of them even knew each other. But in unison, every one of us said, “Thank God it’s not fucking Massachusetts.”

They took our rifles and cartridge boxes and marched us out of the draw and up a hill, where we sat in the grass while they guarded us.  Below, we watched the climax of the battle of Sayler’s Creek.  The Virginia line was to our left, in perfect dress, about 500 strong.  From our right came a battalion of Yanks, about the same strength.  Virginia shredded them in a series of the most exquisite, savage volleys I’ve ever seen.  CRACK!  500 rifles, a single shot. The survivors of the Yankee battalion fled, leaving windrows of blue bodies on the field, marking every point where they’d stopped to fire.  A moment later, another Yankee battalion came from the right, and Virginia shredded them again, but this time, there were fewer Virginians than before, and as they were pushed back a little, they, too, left a pathetic row on the ground.  The second Yankee battalion broke and fled, and another came up, and then another, and then another.  By this time, the field was carpeted in blue, right up to where the carpet turned gray.  The remaining few platoons of Virginians melted into the trees behind them, and the firing died to a desultory, spiteful popping, like the last kernels in a bowl of popcorn.  As the remnant of the Virginians withdrew from the field, from our right appeared a full Yankee brigade - as many bluebellies as were laying on the field.  Hell, you could kill 'em all day and all night, and there'd be as many coming at you the next day.

Earl and I turned our backs on the field, and fought back the tears.   A Yankee corporal came by and gave each of us a piece of hardtack without speaking, and walked away.  I still have half of it.  I will never forget the stand those Virginians made, nor the heartbreak of seeing them literally buried under an unstoppable avalanche of blue.  The Yankees had just bred us into submission.  Speaking for myself, there has never been a feeling of having been whipped, but we were defeated, and no mistake.

The attitude in camp that night was melancholy.  We spoke of memories of the past four years, and sang a few songs.  I sang “Lorena,” and stopped where I always do, at the line, “It matters little now, Lorena.”



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