The Nurses and Staff of My VA Hospital
By StevenMiller Miller, Army
Writing Type: Prose
By Steven Miller
As the Civil War raged to the south, the 82nd Indiana Infantry was formed in August 1862 to be prepared to meet the threat of Confederate forces moving north through Kentucky.
Ethan Newkirk had left his home in Pike County, Ind., at age 18 and joined the 82nd. His father had been killed in a hunting accident, and the following year his mother had died of pneumonia, leaving him and his 14-year-old sister to survive on the small farm. He had wanted to get away. So, he left his sister in the care of his grandparents and joined up. Like many of the young recruits, it was an opportunity to escape the farm and embark on an adventure. The politicians had told them that rebels would be whipped and that they would probably be home within three months. The adventure turned into repeated drills followed by endless marches southward through heat, rain, mud, sleet and snow.
In September, they joined Union Gen. William Rosencrans’ forces as they pursued Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg south toward Murfreesboro. There was a pitched battle at Perrysville, but the 82nd arrived as the Confederates pulled back. The men were assigned the task of digging graves and burying the bloody and broken bodies, both Union and Confederate.
The Union forces had caught up with the Rebels near Murfreesboro, and the two armies faced off early in the morning of Dec. 31. Bragg threw his troops against the Union forces. It was a day-long battle of flanking maneuvers, advances, retreats and more advances, each leaving the fields and woods littered with dead and wounded. In the Round Forest, Union troops had dug themselves into rock formations and repulsed one advance after another by the Rebel forces. At many points during the day, the Union army was virtually on the brink of folding into itself and losing it all but was saved by the fact that the Confederate forces had taken terrible losses and were literally exhausted from the day-long fighting. The day ended with the battered Union Army digging in along the Nashville Pike, preparing for another push from the Rebels early the following day.
Ethan had survived the bloody fighting of the day and curled up in the trench, and in spite of the cold wet uniform and blankets, fell fast asleep. It was a little after midnight when his corporal kicked his thigh to wake him up.
“Git up, Newkirk.” he said. “You got picket duty.”
Ethan slowly dragged himself to his feet, gathered his gear and followed him into the darkness. As sleepy as he was, his senses went on alert immediately, realizing that he could easily blunder into Confederate pickets in the dark woods. He gripped his musket firmly and squinted to see all around him into the dark woods. Finally, the corporal stopped.
“This is your post,” he said, pointing down the slope through the trees. “You hear anything coming from that way, you shoot first and talk later, you hear me?”
Then he turned around and slogged back up the hill through the thick brush.
Ethan settled down and leaned against a tree, sliding down to a sitting position. Through the treetops, he could see the clouds breaking up, and the moonlight helped the woods around him take shape. He knew that if he fell asleep, he could be shot, or worse; some Rebs might slip past him. It was times like this when his thoughts turned to home and his sister Rebecca, who was living with her grandparents. He doubted they would recognize him now. The dirty whiskers that now covered his gaunt cheeks felt like they had been there forever. The damp, cold uniform felt stiff and musty.
He sat for a while until he noticed the sound of running water of a stream to his front. He thought that he could fill his canteen and splash some water on his face. He decided to make his way to the creekbank. As he knelt by the water, in the darkness, he heard the sound of movement on the other side of the creek. He gripped his musket and peered into the darkness of the bushes.
“Easy, Yank,” a quiet voice warned from the shadows. “I aint’t fixin to shoot you unless I have to.”
Ethan squinted into the bushes across the creek, and the form of a man materialized from the shadows.
“I just come down to get some water.”
“Me, too”, whispered Ethan, still gripping his musket, thumb on the hammer. As his eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight, he could see a young man in a slouch hat, whiskers covering his face. He saw the man lean his musket against a log and squat beside the creek to fill his canteen. Ethan cautiously did the same and dipped his canteen into the clear creek water. The man sat back and took a drink.
“Where you from, Yank?” the Ref asked.
Ethan was silent for a moment. “Indiana,” he replied.
“I don’t rightly know where that’s at.”
“Just on the other side of the Ohio River, north of Kentucky.”
“Yeah. Heard of it,” said the Reb. “Never been there, though. Never been much of anywhere I guess.” He took a swig from his canteen. “What’s it like?”
Ethan thought a minute and looked around at the dark woods.
“About like here, I reckon.”
“Why’re you here?”
“You mean here in Tennessee?”
“I mean here, in the army.”
Ethan thought for a minute.
“My ma and pa died last year, and I didn’t have much else I could do but try to stay there and work a little piece of land.” He took a sip from his canteen. “I heard the army was recruiting and thought I could sign up for a few months and get some money.”
“A few months? That’s what they told us. Said we’d whip you Yanks in a few weeks. We’re still here and so are you.”
Ethan just shrugged.
“Sorry to hear about your ma and pa,” the Reb said. “You got any other kin?”
“Just a little sister. She’s living with my ma’s folks. I send her money when I can.”
Ethan sat for a minute. “Where you from, Reb?”
“How far’s that from here?”
The Reb looked at him carefully. “Fer enough.”
“You got any kin?” Ethan asked.
“I got a wife. I think she’s had my baby by now. Don’t hear much.”
He was quiet for a minute. He tugged at a scarf tied around his neck to keep the night chill away.
“She sent me this scarf. Said she knitted it herself.” He tucked it into the collar of his coat. “What’re you Yanks doing down here anyways?”
Ethan sat back on a flat rock by the stream.
“President Lincoln says that it ain’t right for the Negroes to be owned like cattle. Says they should be free like everyone else.”
There was a silence between them.
“I don’t own no Negroes,” said the Reb. “I’m lucky to own a mule.”
“You don’t own no Negroes?”
“Hell, no. Only rich folks own slaves. Most of us are just dirt farmers like you. “
“That don’t make much sense,” said Ethan. “Why’re you fighting for something you don’t even have?”
The Reb looked at him across the stream. “I really didn’t have no choice. They passed a law in Richmond that said we all had to go. All except kids and old men, that is.”
“Even if you don’t have no slaves?”
The Reb laughed a bitter laugh. “Hell, the law says that if you have more than 20 slaves, you get to stay home and watch ‘em. You don’t have to go and fight. The rich folks that started this goddam thing don’t even have to fight.”
Ethan shook his head. “I still don’t know why they wanted to fight a war.”
“You know, Yank, I guess Southerners just don’t like people who don’t understand us telling us how to live our lives. What if a bunch from Tennessee or Atlanta came up there across the river and started telling you what the hell you can and can’t do?,” he said, pointing up the hill. “What if some important man in Nashville started telling folks in Indiana what they can own and can’t own. What would you do?”
Ethan thought for a minute. “Wouldn’t like it much, I reckon.”
“There you go,” the Reb said, nodding. “You’d fight to run ‘em off.”
Ethan took a sip from his canteen and thought for a minute. “Yeah, I guess I would.”
“So, if all you Yanks would just turn around and head back north, this would be over and we could all go home.”
“Maybe. But it still ain’t right to own other folks like they were farm animals.”
The Reb began to gather himself and get to his feet. “Well, I don’t know about that.” He picked up his musket. “What’s yer name, Yank?”
“Ethan,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“I hope you get back home to see your baby soon,” Ethan said.
The Reb looked at him for a minute and nodded. “Well, Ethan, you sound all right. I shore hope I don’t have to kill you tomorrow.”
With that, he disappeared into the woods.
Before dawn, another corporal came through the trees with Ethan’s replacement and told Ethan to return to his unit. Ethan trudged back uphill through the wet underbrush and back to the camp. As he approached, he saw his sergeant barking orders to men in the trenches as they were gathering up their gear.
“What’s going on?” he asked Gritz, his best friend, as he stepped into the muddy trench.
“Them artillery boys under General Crittenden have set up on a hill over by the river,” Gritz said, “and they’re sending some of us from E Company over to set up and protect them.”
“Protect the artillery?”
“Yep. We need to set up between the guns and lay down cover fire if they need it.”
“Believe it or not, Hoss, they think we’re the freshest troops around here.”
The men followed the sergeant for a mile or more through the breaking dawn to a hilltop overlooking the river. Ethan looked through the early mist and saw a row of field guns lined up almost wheel to wheel along the ridge, their muzzles trained down the hill toward the river that flowed through the trees below. Past the river, to the east, he could see Union troops dug in along a small hill, waiting for the Confederates to do something.
“God,” Ethan said, looking down the line of artillery, “there must be fifty of them.”
“Listen up!” the sergeant barked. “You men find a place between these guns where you have an open field of fire down toward that river. These artillery boys are gonna have enough to do and ain’t got time to fight off a charge. You’re gonna make damn sure no Rebs come up this hill.”
There wasn’t much cover for them, so Ethan and Gritz settled in between two of the cannons and put their knapsacks in front of them to rest their muskets on. Then they waited, shivering in the cold air. The day passed slowly, and Ethan could hear the sounds of battle off to the west.
“I hope the Rebs aren’t pushing our boys back to the point where they’re behind us,” Ethan said.
Gritz looked back over his shoulder, then back down the hill toward the river.
“We best not think about that,” he said.
Late in the afternoon, the weather began to get worse again. Thick, dark clouds rolled in and settled low. Suddenly, the scene in front of them became alive. The Confederate forces had launched a full-fledged frontal assault against the Yanks on the far side of the river. The Union forces were badly outnumbered but held for a while. The artillery began to fire over the Union troops at the advancing Rebel line. Using the artillery for cover, the Union troops abandoned their position and retreated across the river, up the hill and past the artillery batteries.
The Rebels, seeing the men in blue falling back, felt victory was in their reach. They continued to advance across the river and charged up the hill directly toward the line of Union guns.
“Load the cannister!” bellowed the artillery commander. The cannoneers brought the bags of grapeshot from the wagons and began to ram them down the barrels.
“Good God,” said Ethan. “Those Rebs aren’t going to keep coming toward these guns, are they? They’re gonna be slaughtered!”
“Sure looks that way,” said Gritz, as he sighted down the barrel of his musket. “But I’m fixing to shoot any of the bastards that are still standing.”
As the Rebels crossed the stream, 45 Union cannons opened up on them at near point-blank range. The results were beyond horror. The pieces of metal that comprised the grapeshot tore through the men, shredding their bodies. The stream immediately ran bright red with their blood and pieces of their bodies. At that moment, the clouds opened up, and wind-blown sleet pelted the men on the hill and in the river below. Rebels that somehow survived the rain of steel were blinded by the rain of ice. The cannons continued their merciless barrage, and the Rebel troops turned, struggling desperately to escape back to their positions east of the river.
Through the cannon smoke, the mist and the sleet, Ethan could barely make out the scene below. But he saw well enough.
“Dear God,” he said as he put his head down on his knapsack in front of him.
“I don’t think God’s anywhere near here right now,” Gritz said.
The Rebs continued their retreat, and the cannons fell silent. Ethan’s ears rang from the sound of the guns, and his nostrils burned from the acrid smoke that hung thick in the air.
The only noise was the sound of the screams and cries for help from the human wreckage below.
An artillery captain hurried along the line.
“Ok, men,” he said, surveying the carnage. “We have wagons coming. We’re going to hoist the white flag and see if we can get down there and help any of those poor devils and get them back to the hospitals. Let’s go.”
Ethan and Gritz looked at each other for a minute, then stood and began to walk down the hill toward the river. The sleet had stopped, but the footing was slippery. As they approached the stream, they saw up close what direct cannon fire can do to a human being. The bloody bodies, and parts of others, lay in heaps. Rebs who were still alive reached out and begged for help. A few, with injuries too horrible to live with, begged to be killed.
Ethan and Gritz began to push the dead aside, lift wounded men from the heaps and carry them to the west bank, where several hospital wagons were approaching.
Darkness was falling, so they worked as fast as they could. The Union men lit torches and lanterns to see what no man should ever see. They worked into the night to help as many as they could, but the dead far outnumbered the living. Lantern in hand, Ethen waded across the stream through the bloody pieces of humanity, looking and listening for any sign of life. He stepped out on the east bank and almost stumbled over a body lying in the wet grass. He held the lantern close and saw the body of a Confederate soldier. His head had almost been severed by the steel shot, and the features of his face were damaged beyond recognition. Snug around his neck was a blood-soaked knit scarf.
It was well after midnight before Ethan and the others were sent back to rejoin the 82nd. They settled into the line behind the newly constructed breastworks. Ethan saw Ronald Covert sitting in the mud, back against some logs, chewing on a hardtack biscuit.
“What’d we miss?” Ethan asked.
Covert continued to chew for a minute and said, “We were in it. The Rebs came at us several times, but we sent ‘em packing.”
Ethan asked, “How bad did we get it?”
“Not bad. We were lined up in two lines with all them Ohio boys. One line would fire, then lay down to load. Then the other line would fire and load. We had the Michigan boys behind us with the cannons. The Rebs took a pretty good lickin’. Most of the worst of it was off to our left flank. They got hit pretty hard.”
Ethan looked over the logs toward the Rebel position and saw nothing but darkness.
“Does the lieutenant say they’re going to try again tomorrow?” Ethan asked.
“Hell, we’ll probably charge them. It’s like two stupid bull deer butting heads.”
He looked at Ethan. “Where’d they send you?”
“They had us up on a hill over yonder a piece, with the artillery boys. The Rebs tried to take the hill where we were.”
“Was it bad?”
“The crazy bastards just charged across the river into the guns.” He took a deep breath. “The most God-awful thing I’ve ever seen. The artillery slaughtered them.”
His thoughts went to Ben, the young Rebel at the creek, and felt himself begin to tremble. As he sat back against the muddy logs, he pulled his hat down over his face to sleep. And to hide the tears that were leaking into his whiskers.
When the sun came up the morning of Jan. 3, the men of the 82nd checked their ammunition pouches and prepared for another day of fighting. But as they looked out at the Confederate lines, they saw no movement. The Rebel forces had left during the night.
The Battle of Stones River was over, leaving more than 13,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate dead or wounded. General Breckinridge’s troops that charged across Stones River into the Yankee cannons had lost almost 1,800 men killed or wounded in less than an hour.
Notes: This is historic fiction. The characters are fictitious, created with the historic context of the Battle of Stones River