My Brother’s Letter
For days we slept little, ate gruel while marching, pissed only when necessary, and slept little. We were weary, exhausted, dirty and hungry, and then we had to take a detour to avoid the enemy’s scouts. We had been trying to reach McClellan’s army somewhere near Washington to help stop the damn Confederate invasion into the north. We and finally reached the Union Army of the Potomac, outside Fredrick, Maryland. They appeared well organized and efficiently assigned us an area to camp in and we slowly but doggedly set up camp in what appeared to be a horse pasture near an abandoned farm house. After a tasteless meal, though one that appeared to actually include small pieces of meat, we hit the sack and slept through the night.
At first light the bugle sounded and we dragged ourselves from our dilapidated tents to find the lieutenant looking at orders from the General’s staff. The angle of his head and the furrow lines in his forehead indicated he was furious, probably at being given orders without a chance to rest. But, I wasn’t surprised given the dire situation with Lee’s army moving towards Harrisburg where it was thought they would try to cut the railroad line that supplied the northern armies. LT, as we called him, looked up at us and said, “Get something to eat, we move out in thirty minutes.” I heard some of the men sigh and a few grumble until LT remarked casually, “You know that won’t do any good, just get going.”
I smiled at how matter-of-fact LT was, followed the other men towards the mess tent, and thought about my brother Joseph. There was the possibility that Joseph was with Lee’s army. I touched my breast pocket briefly recalling his last letter, stored there, which I had received via his wife, Ana. He had received a field promotion under General Longstreet, who was one of several generals under Lee. I wondered if, given his position, he kept himself better than I did. We looked almost like twins with light brown wavy hair, short wide noses, and dark brown eyes that looked contemplative. But, I had grown my hair out and enjoyed a long scraggly beard whereas I imagined Joseph maintaining a respectably trimmed beard and shorter hair and he probably bathed more often than I did.
He always was a more capable kid and competing with him as a child was challenging because he was three years my younger, but he seemed to be better at almost everything. It was still depressing to remember the argument we had about him going into the Confederate Army. He was so adamant that states were sovereign and if they wanted to secede from the Union, they had the right. Worse, he didn’t seem to care about the situation with the niggers and he certainly didn’t think Lincoln should have divided the country over such a disagreement.
Recalling the moment when I realized that I might be fighting against my own brother, the intense pain in my stomach and the pure heart ache returned. The pain back then was palpable and it hadn’t diminished much since. As we neared the mess tent, I tried to calm myself by reasoning that the likelihood of fighting him was small given the relative size of the armies and the type of assignments each of us might have. I shook my head at the thought of running into Joseph in battle and someone distracted me with a nudge and pointed to the food.
After breakfast and relieving ourselves, our platoon of almost fifty men set out north from Fredrick to scout the area. Longstreet’s brigade was supposed to be northeast of us somewhere, so we would have to be careful, but there shouldn’t be any contact, except possibly with other scouts. We were still sore and tired from the previous forced march and it took us a while to warm up. We had been told to march one day straight north, scout the area, and return the next day. The march north was uneventful and we made camp just inside the edge of a wooded cove backed up by steep hills, figuring we could detect anyone approaching. Guards were posted and we ate jerky and cold gruel because we didn’t want to risk fire. LT scheduled the guards and I was happy to find I wasn’t included and was able to hit the sack in relative peace.
The next morning we woke to find autumn dew on the ground and a small flock of annoying birds in the trees overhead. We broke camp as LT and Sergeant Brown worked out a scouting pattern for the area. We headed east and then north around the small hills and finally west towards the confederate army. The expectation was that by late morning we could head south and reach the main army by nightfall to report.
The only sign of life around the hills turned out to be some deer we startled just as we started to head south again. LT was debating trying to shoot one for food, but the long march would be difficult with the weight and it wasn’t our mission. Just as we turned away from the deer I spotted a confederate scouting party coming towards us from the east. I shushed everyone and got the LT’s attention and pointed to where the group was emerging from a rocky outcrop, partially hidden by shrubbery. LT quietly told us to hide and we all looked around for cover when the shouts and frantic movement from the gray backs told us it was too late.
Both sides quickly pulled their rifles off their shoulders and raised them to fire. It was haphazard and disorganized and no way to fight a battle, but there was little choice. We fired as we could and my first shot actually hit one bedraggled man in the chest just as I saw my good friend Samuel take a shot in the leg and go down. Most of the men started to reload while I went to help Samuel and then I heard the LT yell “Charge!” With the confederates behind rock cover and us with nowhere to safely hide, we had to close the distance to fight hand to hand, attaching bayonets while on the run. On the way, a couple more of our men were shot and went down, but then we reached the outcropping and saw that there were only a dozen or so of the enemy with one of them shot, apparently dead, on the ground.
As our determined advance and superior numbers frightened them, they panicked and turned to run. We pursued them, but the LT yelled at us to halt because our job was to scout, not engage. I stopped just short of the man I had hit during our first volley and cocked my head as I realized he seemed familiar. I stood their staring in surreal denial as awareness slowly dawned that the man’s build and the back of his head looked like my brother. I put my foot under his side and kicked to flip him over; knowing that my feeling was false and I would find some stranger. The face was dirty with a ragged beard and the hair was too long, much more like mine than I would have expected, but I stared in horror at the face of my only brother. My mind went numb as I mumbled, “I killed him” over and over. After what seemed like hours I fell to my knees in front of him and took him in my arms.
A part of my mind heard men asking me what was wrong and then they all moved away excited at something the LT had found. I squeezed harder and then Joseph coughed and I realized with joy that he wasn’t dead. I looked up and thanked God for his life and went to hug him, but he put a hand on my chest, looked into my eyes, and pulled a letter from his breast pocket. He handed it to me and collapsed, dead. I wanted to curse God for the betrayal of taking him away again. The emotions going through me were more than I could handle and I went blank, rocking back and forth, back and forth, oblivious to the men around me. All of my being was focused on the feeling of my brother in my arms and the steady stream of tears streaming down my face.
After some period of time I must have fallen asleep with Joseph in my arms. When I woke up, the platoon was gone and I had a feint recollection of them trying to get me to go with them, but me refusing and pushing them away. They had said something about finding some Confederate plans wrapped around three cigars, proclaiming they had to leave even if I wouldn’t go. I must have ignored them or told them to leave without me, I can’t remember.
I looked down at my brother and felt drained of emotion. I slowly got up, straightened Joseph out and found rocks to cover his body and then I began to walk. I wasn’t going back to the platoon. Seeing my brother dead, at my own hands, had brought all the frustration and anger about this war back to the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t condone or participate any longer. I didn’t know where I was headed, but it wasn’t back to Fredrick.
I walked for days, sleeping when I couldn’t stay awake any longer and eating the jerky and nuts I had in my bag. I could have hunted but that would have meant I wanted to live and I wasn’t sure I did. After almost a week of this I remembered the letter Joseph had handed me. I pulled it out of my side pocket, sat down with my back against the dead stump of a tree and began to read. And the tears flowed. The letter was to his wife and was about how he was going to quit the Army and return home and ask me to do the same because he couldn’t stand the thought of fighting against me any longer. It portrayed all the same feelings I had about this damn civil war. It went on about how much he missed Ana and the kids and how he looked forward to seeing them again.
I leaned over and fell asleep with the letter in my hand. When I woke up, I read it again and cried myself back to sleep. On waking the second time, I folded the letter and put it back into my pocket. At least now I knew where I was headed; back to Ana to deliver the letter. And then I realized that I had been headed that direction the entire time. Maybe part of me knew that that’s where I should go.
I still didn’t hunt and didn’t want to. I rationed what was left and ate only a mouthful or two a day. It would take me a week or more of walking to reach Ana and the food in my bag had to last that long.
A few days from Joseph’s and Ana’s home, or so I expected, I was walking a well-worn path and heard someone up ahead of me. I jumped aside, not wanting to interact with anyone and fell down a small ravine. I scraped my left side and sprained my right ankle. After letting the men pass, I tried to stand and found I couldn’t put much weight on my ankle and my side was bleeding. I ignored the blood, as best I could, found a long walking stick that was, luckily, within crawling distance, and made my way back to the path towards Ana.
My progress was slowed and I was getting light-headed from lack of food, but I trudged on. Some number of hours later I fell again, mostly from exhaustion and rolled off the path to sleep. I awoke at sunrise, soar and wondering if the letter was worth it or if anything was worth it. Not sure I wanted to go on, I pulled the letter out and took one look at it and realized I couldn’t quit. I put it back in my pocket and forced myself to stand and keep walking. It was hell. My ankle was swollen and red and the scabs on my side had broken open with the fall and began oozing blood and puss. That couldn’t be good, but what did it really matter?
I lost track of time, sleeping when I had to and making slow progress the rest of the time. At some point I realized the terrain was looking familiar and I looked up to see a path I knew near my brother’s house. I followed it, ever so slowly, until I reached the edge of the property. I walked to the side and sat down with my back against a large tree, staring at the house I remembered building with Joseph, and tears came to my eyes again. I was so tired that I decided to sleep there until I had enough energy to get up and make it all the way to the house and to Ana.
The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of children playing. I sat back up against the tree and looked towards the house to see three children, Joseph’s, chasing each other in the yard. The older boy, Peter, was acting like a monster and chasing the two girls, Elise and Veronica. I smiled and realized it was the first time I had smiled in a long time. Joseph was right, I mused, the war wasn’t what mattered; family, children, friends, those mattered. I started to get up, but my body wasn’t responding and then I looked at the children and decided to sit and watch them play a while longer.
I must have fallen asleep while watching them because I woke up and they were no longer there. Instead, I saw some hands unloading hay near the barn. I watched them for a while and fell back asleep. The next time I woke up it was night time and I realized I couldn’t go see Ana until the morning, so I went to eat some food and realized my bag was empty and wondered how long it had been like that. Oh well, there wasn’t much I could do about it until morning, so I leaned over and went back to sleep, though it was restless sleep with horrible images of me looking at my brother in the eyes and shooting him in cold blood.
At sunrise, I woke up and pulled out the letter to read it again. As I was reading it, I heard the children making noise and looked up to see them and Ana dressed for church. They boarded a wagon and began to ride towards the front gate. I looked at the letter and back at them and tried to command my body to stand up and get up to the house, but it would no longer respond. I lifted my arm to wave at them, but it went up only a few inches and went unnoticed.
I read the letter through over and over as I dreamed of my brother and the good times we had had as children; the fighting and playing and competitions and the hope for a bright future in great nation. And then I opened my eyes to see the wagon returning home from church. I smiled at the life they had and wished I hadn’t taken their father away. I was a traitor to my kin, my own family. How could I face them? How could I tell them what I had done? I felt utterly exhausted, totally drained, and cold.
And then as I heard them yelling about a man sitting against a tree, I closed my eyes for the last time and thought; I’m glad they’ll get their father’s letter.