Few battles of the War Between the States have captured the attention of people as much as the Battle of Gettysburg, PA. This is an excerpt from one of my stories in my collection of short fiction entitled, Stories of the Confederate South. The soldier is in the 15th Alabama, and an Irishman from Connemara. You can read more about the book the story comes from by clicking on the book’s link/icon on this page. The story was inspired by a song of Jed Marum.
A Prayer from Little Round Top
Jim leaned his back against an oak to catch his breath, and used its broad trunk as a shield while he reloaded. Bullets bored into the tree, chewing off chunks of bark and notching its edge until the side of the tree resembled a saw blade. The torrent of lead dug into the ground about him, and the Minnie balls slashed branches and saplings and brush, and ricocheted or flattened against rocks. At least there’s a breeze, he thought, and he sucked a deep breath into his lungs. It’s Southern air, he thought. Blowin’ my way.
He watched his friend, Sean, scramble to the left of him in bare feet across the slick, moss-covered rocks, his Enfield slung across his back. The hillside was steep, so Sean’s hands clutched branches and bushes to steady his ascent. Even over the rifle shots and cannon, Jim heard Sean wretch after he too found a shield-tree.
He and Sean had woven their way to this point through the boulders and trees, past the dead, past their own wounded friends, relatives, and comrades who would be abandoned to the Federals’ mercy if the battle were lost. Behind them, black-powder smoke crept along the ground like a malignant fogbank, veiling the blood staining the moss and leaf-covered ground and congealing in puddles on rocks. Giant boulders rose above the clumps of slain men like tombstones.
Like the other soldiers of the Fifteenth Alabama on this Pennsylvania hilltop, Jim coughed and gagged and choked on his swollen tongue. He licked his parched and split lips, wishing he had a canteen. Hours before, the captain had gathered all their empty canteens and sent a squad of men to fill them. The squad had not returned, meaning that they had been caught in a firefight or had been captured. He and the other men of the Fifteenth had now gone six hours without water, and the heat had steadily increased. Many men had fallen out due to heat exhaustion. Having already taken heavy losses, Colonel Oates was now left with only 400 men and officers to make this crucial assault on the Federal flank.
Jim tore open a cartridge with his teeth, and the acrid taste of the powder only made his dry mouth pucker even more. He emptied the powder into the barrel, squeezed in the cartridge, and rammed it home. Jim rolled down the hill to get closer to Sean, then called out, “Who are we facing, Sean?”
“The green uniforms are Vermonters. I think the blue are Maine men.”
“Those Vermonters are crack shots. They’ve got the eyes and patience of hunters.”
“Aye, that they do.”
“Where’s Sergeant O’Connor?” Jim asked.
“Ahead of us.”
“He’s a fierce man.”
“Aye, there’s no fiercer Irishman for sure.”
Jim studied the side of the mountain, littered with the scattered forms of his comrades in their Tuscaloosa gray uniforms. We’ve got the Yankees on the run, but many of us are going to die here, he thought.
“Well, you rested up enough to move closer?” Sean said.
“Aye, Sean.” Jim picked out a tree, about fifteen yards ahead. He blew out his breath, doubled over and ran to it. A green uniform rose on the summit, and some lines from Sir Gawain floated through his consciousness. He raised his Enfield, steadied its barrel against the tree, and fired. The green uniform tumbled backwards. He fumbled inside his cartridge pouch for another bullet.
The firing intensified—Spencers, Sharps, Enfields, Springfields—and he heard bullets pass overhead in waves of muffled sound. A rebel yell echoed as the rapidly thinning ranks of the 15th rallied and neared the summit. He marked and started for another boulder a few yards in front of him. A lead fist burned its way into his chest and knocked him on his back. Damn good shots, those Vermont boys, he thought.
He closed his eyes. Ellen’s face materialized, and he wondered how she would take the news of his death, wondered if she would know, wondered who would win this battle. Ellen, I love you so much. God Almighty, I do. And, as he always did in moments of stress, he thought of his sister. He reached into his canvass haversack and his shaking fingers found Sarah’s small daguerreotype. He looked at his twin, and saw her as he liked to remember her, before the famine and the sickness, before they had locked her from his sight in the coffin.
Through his blurred eyes he could make out the blue-tinted outline of Big Round Top about 1,000 yards away. The mountain’s base was shrouded in smoke. A Federal in the signal corps stood on its bald, weathered cap and flagged some distant artillery, and heat waves refracted the man’s form and the blue haze of the sky. He remembered contemplating the two Round Tops as they marched on the double for this attack. The two rounded mountains seemed like stiff sentinels in the gently rolling hills of Pennsylvania, stone children spawned by ancient volcanoes in a forgotten turbulent age.
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