published in Volume 12, Issue 1 on November 12th, 2006I carry the dead. It is a task reserved for those of the lowest rank, or in my case, assigned as a punishment. The charge was insubordination, and I was found guilty only a few short days before one of the greatest battles in American history. I saw nothing great in it, though. I just saw the dead; the torn and brutalized bodies of what were once soldiers. I find it almost comical, this macabre use of the words great and greatness. That is why I am not a general, and will never become one. Death, mutilation, murder; I could not so openly lie about such things. These leaders, these commanders; they do not see what I see. No, they only venture down to the field from their high perches after I have done my work. They only see the remnants of war after the bodies of the dead and soon-to-be dead are gone. The battle-scarred men are quickly removed, either to the morgue, or to the red-stained tent to be dismembered by the surgeons. "Back to work, Private." This is a command that has haunted my days of late. Sergeant Stock, commanding officer of my unit, a group known by the men as "The Ghoul Gang", does not believe that I am much of a worker at all. He is right. Of my own admission, I am prone to fits of senselessness, moments when I lose track of my surroundings and stand or sit as motionless and dense as a cow before the slaughter. The men in my new unit say these fits happen to all new stretcher-bearers, and have even coined a name for the condition. They call it "Lookin' through the eyes of the Reaper." I move from shell to deceased shell and try my best to give what care I can to the men. Human vultures victimize nearly all the dead and dying long before I can retrieve them. Most of the corpses possess little of what they took onto the battlefield. Some are stripped nearly to their bones. All are stripped of their lives. This is no honorable death, I think as I come upon the body of a bootless child. There is a garish wound through his neck and a terrorized look that will be forever etched into his features. A puddle of blackness has gathered next to him. It is too large and too thick to sink into the already blood-soaked ground. The ground refuses the blood like a river cresting over its banks when the rains are just too heavy. There is a point when it can hold no more. "Hurry up now," Sergeant Stock says. "The general will be here within the hour." Blood runs down my arms and collects for a moment at my elbow before dripping in a steady trickle to the grass. While dragging the bootless child to the waiting cart a short distance away, I manage a reply. "Tell the General he can plant his colors over here. There's a right soggy spot under me where his flag should stand up nicely. Seems a fitting place, no?" "Watch yer tongue, boy," the sergeant replied, "or the firing squad'll have you yet." I meekly take his lead and continue my work, not eager to have my fate revisited. War does strange things to a man. He becomes a beast, and often a scavenger. In the few days that I have been assigned this wretched duty, I have seen every manner of dishonor visited upon those fallen. Somewhere, in the ranks of the men I have been told to call enemy, a young soldier is bragging about the boots he has taken from this brave lad. To the victors go the spoils. It is a disgraceful thing, for sure. I cover the unmoving soldiers with blankets when I can, then I carry them with the help of some other unfortunate soul, usually another man being punished. Together, we deliver the dead to the place where they are boxed up and prepared for shipment home. The process lacks the dignity that one would expect to follow a soldier's death. It is unceremonious, but quick, often clearing an entire battlefield in a single day's labor. I have discovered in my days as a soldier that musket balls and bullets do strange things to a body. They break bones like twigs and tear through tissue and organs as efficiently as a fish swims through water. Efficient; yes, I believe that is the word. We have developed the most ingenious ways to dispose of life, and as a reward for our cleverness we have declared ourselves the masters of death. This boy lying at my feet in a dried pool of his own innards, twisted and bent in an unnatural mess of broken limbs; he is the product of our genius. Damn the generals. Damn them all. May they burn for their deeds. May they burn in their fancy uniforms and plumed hats for what they have done here. They should all wear the hood of the executioner while sitting atop their grand steeds. It would be more fitting of their role in this. That is why I struck the officer. That is why I now clean up the war machine's leavings. I am ridiculed and ostracized by some of the men and all of the officers, but I feel no shame. I would do it again if this boy would just stand up and ask me to. He's just a child. I move on to the next poor soul. I have since decided to strike anyone who dares to use the words valor and battle alongside each other while sitting on a horse, watching from a hill in the distance. They seldom see the death from as close as I do. Valor is vanity, and the dead never speak of greatness. Those were my thoughts as my fist slammed into the lieutenant's jaw.
*****Lieutenant Meehan, just a sprout of a man and not over twenty-three years of age, spoke of war as if all that lay before him were just another lesson in one of his West Point texts. He took over the company after our beloved Lieutenant Sparrow was shot and killed at Upperville, Virginia. The battle at Gettysburg was to be Lieutenant Meehan's first engagement as our commander. I was an infantryman in his company, if only for a short while. "Y'all just wait 'till the mighty 21st Ohio gets into the fight!" he boasted to his new peers. "Then we'll see who the REAL men are 'round these parts." The cocky little sprat was actually looking forward to it. I was holding the reigns of his horse, and before I could gain my composure, I got sick all over the front of my uniform. "You there," he called to me. "You sick?" "No Sir." The artillery began its barrage in the background. I shuddered. "You some kinda coward, boy?" I've been wounded three different times, and even lost a finger to an unfortunate ricochet. I couldn't find a mark on him. I vomited again. Lieutenant Meehan dismounted his horse and stood before me, five-and-a-quarter feet of shiny authority glaring up at me in disgust. He used the back of his leather-gloved hand to smack me across the face. I was meant to be his example. I accepted the blow, and met his cold stare with one of my own. Then came the best commanding tone the little man could muster. "Pull yourself together, man! I'll have no cowards in my company!" I do not remember striking him, but the men say I got him a good one. However, I do somewhat remember the sound of his saber in its sheath. It made a distinctive rattle as is landed on the wet morning grass alongside its owner. I looked up at the group of mounted officers, half expecting one of them to unholster a Colt revolver and shoot me dead on the spot. But none moved. They all sat on their horses, either uninterested, or very interested in how the situation was going to end. I wanted them to understand, so I pointed my finger at my commanding officer and spoke. "I will not die for this man." I looked to the eldest officer, a gray haired man atop a matching horse. He wore a magnificent hat with a white feather in it. He wore the hat of a colonel, I believe, and he sat very still and unflinching through the whole affair. "This man has no honor," I said to the colonel. Lieutenant Meehan shot up from the grass, his face red as a ripe apple, and stormed over to me again. I stood with my hands at my side, content with both what I did and what I said. I expected to be struck, and struck hard, but no punch was thrown. Instead, the little man called for Sergeant O'Rourke, an Irishman widely thought to be one of the very finest soldiers in the whole company. "Take this man from my sight," the lieutenant commanded. "I'll decide what to do with him later." I believed that punishment would consist of a short stand in front of a firing squad. That was the required sentence for crimes such as mine. It's what I expected. That's why I found it so surprising when I learned I would be spared. As it turned out, Sergeant O'Rourke spoke at length with the new commander on my behalf, and I was allowed to live. Now I carry the dead. It is considered the duty of a coward. Those who can not, or will not carry a rifle, carry a stretcher, and I was considered unfit for combat. It is both a blessing, and a curse. A day later, my company was sent to a place the history books will surely call the site of one of the war's great battles. I carried stretchers during the fighting, shuffling the dead and dying from the front to the back, as a dealer would shuffle cards. I was not there when the 21st Ohio was overrun. I was attending to a dying fifteen-year-old boy. The boy had been hit solidly by the blast of a cannon, and it had left him with both an arm and leg hanging by mere skin to their trunks. He cried and called out for his mother, and I wiped his brow with a wet rag. Each shriek rang softer than the one before as the blood and strength left him. I doubt he even knew I was there, but I continued my work as his breathing slowed. There was nothing more I could do but bear witness to his death, and paint his face into my memory. That is the duty. That is what cowards do. After his screaming ceased, I brushed my palm over his face, closing his eyes for the last time. The scared expression he wore as he died will stay with me for the rest of my days, like so many others. They are a family of sorts, a family of men who share their most pained moments with a caring stranger. I left the boy there on the ground and walked toward the now quiet battlefield. I had friends to attend to.
*****As I look upon the corpse of Sergeant William O'Rourke, the man to whom I owe my life, I think that a death at his side might have been an honorable thing. Not firing a shot in his defense, and the defense of my fellows, is my only regret. I do not regret being alive, but I do wish that I could find the sergeant's boots and give them back to him. A man of his worth should have his boots on when he goes home. Instead, I cover him with a blanket and place him as gently as I can on a stretcher. I plan to make sure he is cleaned up properly before he is boxed and shipped. I came upon Lieutenant Meehan a while back, but I left him for the birds.