I was recently inspired to write a short story based on a true event that happened in my NY hometown during the Civil War. A train of Confederate prisoners of war came through en route to a POW camp and left a dead Confederate behind. The townsfolk debated over what to do with the boy. The men didn't want anything to do with the Reb while the women thought that the boy should be buried in their cemetery. Unknown Confederate soldier buried not far from me .... hmmm, this is prime writing material! So without further ado, my little story about a Confederate soldier boy.
(If I'm going to give him a face it might as well be a handsome one.)
By Emily Ann Putzke
The Tennessee boy sat on the floor of the train car, his back leaning against the rough wooden interior. The stale air reeked of urine and sweaty wool, undertoned with the nauseating sweet scent of gangrene and disease. He lifted his face to a knot in the wood, squinting to see the world outside the crowded hell he inhabited. Trees whipped past, mere blurs of brown and green. It made him dizzy. He reclined his head against the wall once more and took deep, painful breaths.The boy longed to stretch his cramped legs, but prisoners of war were packed around him, leaving no room for the boy to do anything but hug his bony kneecaps to his chest. He no longer fit in the trousers his Ma had made him. He swam in the fabric, and the hem now reached the middle of his shins. His white cotton shirt hung off his limbs, and his boots were worn through. A young blond haired soldier standing to his left began singing a camp song, slow and mournful: “From the bright sunny south to the war, I was sent, e'er the days of my boyhood, I scarcely had spent. From it's cool shady forests and deep flowing streams, Ever fond in my mem'ry and sweet in my dreams.”
“Ain’t we goin’ through enough torture with you singing atop of that?” Someone’s yell cut through the melancholy tune. The voice was bitter.
“Go on,” a bearded soldier beside the singer urged. “He’s just homesick. Keep singing.”
“Oh, my dear little sister, I still see her tears. When I had to leave home in our tender years—”
“Stop it! Someone gag that bastard!” the man screamed.
A scuffle began, and the singer disappeared into the men, getting pummeled by the bitter soldier. The boy leaned his head into his knees, shutting his ears to the misery. A cold sweat slathered his youthful face, and his body trembled and convulsed with fever. He was going to die. He knew he was going to die. The question was—when?
The noise gradually settled down and the boy heard someone sobbing. He wondered if it was the bitter man or the singer. He glanced up at the soldiers around him. They were stoic, staring at the walls as if in another world. What were they thinking of, the boy wondered. Home? The future? The past?
“Got typhus, don’t you?”
The boy searched for the voice. It came from the bearded man. His cap was tugged over his eyes.
“I reckon. I feel … I feel sick as a dog.”
“How old are you, boy?”
It took the boy a moment to reply. His head swam. “Seventeen.”
“Lordy,” the bearded man shook his head in sorrow, “So young. So much life yet to live.”
Tears tore at the boy’s throat. So much life to live. He was already mourning a future he would never have. “I’m saying goodbye,” he said, closing his eyes to the spinning room. “In my heart, I’m saying goodbye.”
“To whom, boy?”
Pain racked his throat and seared his chest. “Ma, Pa … my sisters, Violet and Annalee. My girl … her name is Belle … I never told her how much I love her.”
“You are your parents only son?”
The boy nodded, raking his shaky fingers through his lice infested hair. “Ma cried when … when I left her. I’m just a boy, she said. Maybe she was right.”
“You are just a boy.”
The boy rested the side of his face against his knees. “I fought for my country … I did what I thought was right … my moral duty.”
The bearded soldier pushed his way past two arguing soldiers to get closer, and managed to knee down beside the boy. “Your parents must be right proud of you.”
The boy stared through a blurry haze. The bearded man became two men, then merged into one fuzzy image. “I hope so.” His voice was raspy. Death-like.
“Look, boy, you gotta lay down. You’re pale as a sheet. Boys, move over. This kid is dying.”
The bearded soldier shoved his elbows at the men crowding around them. They inched back, mumbling in irritation as the bearded soldier helped lay the boy in a fetal position. “We’re all gonna die,” one disgruntled soldier said between gritted teeth. “Why does that runt get special treatment?”
“Scrape up some humanity from that soul of yours and move out of the way,” the bearded man ordered.
With his ear pressed against the wooden floorboards, the boy could hear the train screech against the tracks. The car rumbled and jolted the boy’s head, sending him spiraling deeper into the whirling dark abyss that was rapidly devouring his young life. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … He leadeth me beside still waters … He restores my soul …” the boy breathed the words to a prayer. He could feel his throat constricting, grower tighter and tighter. The bearded soldier placed a hand tentatively on the young boy’s arm as he began to violently toss and turn. The boy’s chest heaved, his cornflower blue eyes turned wild. “Mama!” he screamed. “Mama, please ... please help me!” He turned to the soldier, gripping his arm savagely. “Mama. I don’t want to die.”
The boy went slowly, his limbs relaxing, his hand falling from the soldier’s arm. His vivid blue eyes, a moment ago so wild with fever, were now empty and dull as his soul escaped from his lifeless body. The bearded soldier sat with the dead boy, feeling an ache that was foreign to him. He had witnessed death after death in the battle fields, seen his comrades fall in the struggle, but this felt different. He had looked into the eyes of a mere child as his life drained from his body.
The train screeched against the tracks in a violent protest as it jolted to a complete stop, sending the men falling all over each other. The boy began to roll around.
“We gotta get him outta here!” the bitter man said. “One less body. Guard!”
The door cracked open from the outside landing where a federal soldier stood, his musket ready. “What is it?”
“Why are we stopping?” the bitter man asked.
“For fuel. Sit back and get comfortable. We have a long ride still ahead of us, Reb.” The federal soldier had begun to close the door when the bitter man plunged forward.
“Wait! We gotta corpse in here.”
The federal soldier eye him suspiciously, his mustache twitching. “Where?”
The man pointed to the corner where the boy’s body lay.
The federal soldier pushed his way through the group, two more soldiers following suit. They picked up the boy by the arms and legs, stumbling to the caboose and off the train. A crowd of townsfolk had gathered at the site of the POW train, curious to get a glimpse of a Reb, or perhaps mock them to their faces if they had the chance.
“We have a dead Reb here,” the federal soldier said as they set the boy in the dirt beside the tracks. “Do with him as you like.”
“Let’em rot there,” a farmer said, swatting his hand as if the boy were an annoying gnat. “Let’em rot.”
Widow Hudson pushed through the surly men as they cursed the young boy who lay on the earth before their feet. Her breath caught in her throat when she realized how young the boy before her was. His face was smooth, his full lips were parted and his golden hair was tousled about his head as if he were just a child sleeping.
“You mock humanity.” Widow Hudson turned to glare at the men. “You mock God.”
“Excuse me, ma’am?” The farmer stepped forward, his arms folded.
“You toss out insults at this dead boy, condemn his soul to fiery gehenna, decide among yourselves to let him rot where he lies instead of giving him a decent, honorable burial. You mock goodness and decency.”
The farmer gritted his jaw. “Boys like him killed my three sons and left my youngest one maimed for life. He’s our enemy. Our enemy, you hear me, woman?”
“I hear you loud and clear, sir, and I don’t agree. I lost my husband and son in this war. I have every right to be as bitter as you. But I’m not.”
“Then you’re batty!” The farmer turned to leave, but Widow Hudson placed a hand on his arm to stop him.
“Aren’t you curious to know why I’m not bitter, sir?”
The farmer turned, shrugging his shoulders. “Not particularly, ma’am.”
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway.” Widow Hudson kneeled beside the boy in her black mourning gown, ignoring the dirt and filth around her. She placed a hand on the boy’s soft head of hair and stroked it gently. “My boy fell in Virginia. They couldn’t send me his body. I can only pray to God that someone buried my boy properly … honorably. Perhaps a southern woman had pity, knowing that he was someone’s son. Well, this boy in front of me is someone’s son … someone’s brother, grandson, nephew, friend. His family is mourning him as much as I mourn my own husband and son. The least we can do is bury him … this child. We have no war with him. He is no different than our own sons who marched off to defend their family and their homes. Do not take your anger out on him unless you would have the same anger thrown upon your loved ones who die on the fields. Have some humanity. Have some respect.”
A hush fell over the men and women gathered. The only sound was the trainload of prisoners rattling away, leaving behind the dead boy to be debated over.
“She’s right,” one woman offered, stepping forward to stand beside Widow Hudson. “You can all see for yourself, this is just a child who was far from home and fighting for what he thought was right.”
“Yes,” another woman said. “We must bury him in our cemetery. It’s the decent thing to do.”
The men shifted, mumbling among themselves. “I won’t stand by and see this traitor honored like some war hero. Never!” The farmer stormed off in a cloud of dust.
The men followed him, equally embittered. “That boy’s our enemy. He’s a traitor. You would dishonor our own boys in that way?”
Widow Hudson watched with horror as they walked away, leaving her and two other women with the boy. “I’m afraid I have underestimated their decency and humanity.”
“We’re with you,” one woman said. “We’ll help you bury him. We’ll get a coffin.”
Widow Hudson nodded, hot tears trailing down her cheeks. She placed a hand on the boy’s cold face. “I wonder what his name was.”