The regiment was ordered off the road to camp for the night in this field of death. We moved slowly among the corpses, carefully trying not to stumble over them in the darkness or tread on any flailed appendage. Some of the men were fortunate to find enough room to spread out their rubber blankets and build campfires, but for most, the stiffening, bloating corpses of the enemy dead had to be moved aside and even stacked one upon the other to clear sufficient space. It was the first time I had seen dead bodies like that. I had been to several memorial services in our church, but the body of the deceased was always someone known to us, possibly a loved one, and the body was always laid out carefully in a simple coffin, making it easy for the viewer to imagine the person asleep rather than dead. But in that field, the pale moonlight revealed the bodies of those pitiable soldiers to be grotesquely contorted in every imaginable way, a terrible testament to the agonies suffered in the last moments of their struggles with death.

“Michael?” John Robinson, my closest and dearest friend since childhood, was by my side, as he had been during the last seven days of hard marching from Fort Ethan Allen. “Could you ever have imagined this just six weeks ago?”

“No, I never . . . I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought it would be like. War means killing, but this is so . . . terrible.” John and I roamed the field in search of an unspoiled place.

“Here, this looks all right,” John said. “It’s soft and grassy and the closest body is a few yards away.”

We began to unroll our rubber blankets. “Nobody forced us into this,” John said. “We volunteered. We talked about it over and over.” John paused for a response, but I offered none. “Are we still agreed that it’s God’s will for us to be here?”

“Yes, you heard me say it. Reverend Preston was most convincing about the evils of slavery.”

“Easy to say in church on Sunday. But what about here and now?”

“I know, John. Death is suddenly so close — I’m face-to-face with it. I can reach out and touch it, feel it reaching out to touch me.”

“Unless we crawl under a rock, staring death in the face is something we’ll have to get used to. That will be my prayer tonight, that God will calm and steady me.”

Perhaps the worst was the smell of the freshly dead. The sickly sweet odor of blood spilled upon the ground and the more powerful stench of bodies blown apart with their entrails cast to the four winds combined in a reeking aroma that, perhaps even more than sight, spoke sickening volumes of the gore all around.

As I lay on my blanket, I could look only upward at the heavenly host above me, or I could close my eyes tightly shut against the hideous specter of those bodies, but I could not shut out the smell. I turned over, face downward to the earth, and tried to will myself to sleep. I buried my face in the crook of my elbow, hoping the odors of earth and grass and India rubber would crowd out the sickening odor of death. At last, I remembered the words of the psalmist and repeated them over and over until they grew into a drumbeat for my troubled heart, Thou shalt notbe afraid for the terror by night . . . Thou shalt not be afraid for the terrorby night . . . Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night. . .

An Eye for Glory
Copyright © 2011 by Karl Bacon
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