An Eye for Glory
- Wednesday, April 13, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from An Eye for Glory: The Civil War Chronicles of a Citizen Soldier by Karl Bacon (Zondervan).
Over the Mountain
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
and why art thou disquieted within me?
General Reno’s corpse was the first I saw during the war. As the hour approached midnight on Sunday, September14th, 1862, the thoroughly winded green recruits, amongwhich I was proud to be numbered, crested South Mountain atTurner’s Gap. The march from Frederick, Maryland, had beenlong and hot, with few breaks for coffee and rations. When, duringthe course of the afternoon, the men heard the din of fightingerupt, and when they saw battle smoke enshroud the long ridgeahead of them, each untested man looked about at his mates. Hesaw jaws clenched, faces drawn, skin pallid, and eyes wide withfear and uncertainty, countenances that mirrored his own.
With nightfall the battle clamor ebbed, then stopped altogether as the men toiled up the mountain toward the gap. All were eager to end the day with a hot cup of coffee and a peaceful night’s sleep.
An ambulance was parked in the grass next to the road. A mule hitched to the front of it stamped nervously as we passed.
At the rear of the ambulance a single torch of pitch blazed and alone soldier stood guard, head low to his chest, stoop-shouldered.
He stirred at our approach, raising his head slowly, as if with great effort.
“What unit you boys with?”
“Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of French’s Division,” someone answered.
The sentinel stood with his back to the torchlight, his black slouch hat pulled low, casting his visage deeply in the shadow of the half moon. He appeared a faceless phantom, breathing and moving as one of the living, but when he spoke, his voice was hollow and lifeless.
“Did you hear about General Reno?” He waved at the ambulance behind him.
No one said a word.
“Major General Jesse Lee Reno — a great patriot, a soldier’s soldier, a true fighting man, not like some of these other dandies we have. We loved him like a father.” The man spat at the ground. “Now he’s dead.” The man shook an upraised fist at the darkness to the south. “My general. He’s dead and I wouldn’t believe it unless I’d seen it myself. We’d already whipped those devils, but they just shot him down as they turned to run.” The man lowered his head to his chest again, his voice a murmur.
“He died with the setting of the sun.”
Still none of us had any words for him. Our feet began to shuffle forward, leaving the sentinel to resume his mournful vigil.
“The night will be long and dark,” he called to anyone within earshot. “What will become of us now?”
A few minutes later we came upon a large field. Gasps of horror arose from the column as spectral shadows flitted from place to place about the starlit meadow. But as our eyes adjusted, the shadowy figures turned out to be some of our own troops.
There had been a great and bloody fight upon that mountain and our boys had won it, but there had been many casualties, both Union and Confederate. Burial details worked by torchlight on both sides of the road, moving from one black heap to another, checking for any signs of life before tagging the body for interment.
The bodies of our Federal comrades would be the first to be retrieved. If time and will allowed it, the enemy dead would also be buried, albeit in cursory fashion. Otherwise, their corpses would be left to the elements and their rotting flesh would see yet another battle, this time between the birds of the air or the beasts of the field over which would carry off the choicest parts.
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