RETREAT FROM GETTYSBURG
by Scott Ward
“Retreat from Gettysburg” is excerpted from a book-length poem titled Rebel. The main character, Garland Cain, is from the Alabama Wiregrass, a place where the war was not especially popular, and is conscripted for service in the Eighth Alabama Infantry Regiment, Co. H. The woman mentioned in the piece, Duessa, is an octoroon with whom he has fallen in love, thus complicating his view of southern military prospects. He has been wounded on the second day of the Gettysburg battle.
July 4, 1863 Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Dawn, a vapid light leaking into darkness, and sleep returned with morphine comfort. He dreamed of beautiful Duessa, bold as Circe naked, her brown sorceress body beguiling his senses, the baked bread of her skin he craved to break and taste, her cataract of hair washing his face, revelation of his body inside her body, her eyes in his, hers full of southern indolence and ease, mystery intriguing as the shadow tree inherent in the live oak, clothed in new leaves shivering gold, shading serpentine mosses in the watchful bayou. In the ivory gate of dream, they were embracing, locked in love’s delightful privacies, his power flooding out and striking him with Philistine weakness, who had been strong and whole, but fantastic pleasure made him shift his body, bayoneting his thigh; gasping, his eyes shot open to the cabal of blood, the shock and humiliation of the sun, where now on the second day the incapacitated lay in the wracking stench of feces and urine. Two staffers stood at his feet, one sharing a twist of tobacco with his comrade. “When they gonna start?” “I don’t reckon they gwine to attack today. Not on the glorious fourth. Round about noon we’ll likely hear they guns,” he said, picking bits of tobacco from his palm, and placing the orts on his tongue, those bits he used to slap his hands and scatter. Garland waited but the sun went well past prime with no reports, and he lay, watching summer cumulus build towering architectures, grumbling bolls emerging from bolls, climbing the wispy heights of space, pristine in the light. All morning details were loading patients for transport. Rain began to fall in stinging drops, the wounded taking what cover they could find, which for many was holding a blanket corner, a tent fly, a soiled dressing across their faces, all gone silent now as even the effort to moan was being husbanded to thwart the shivering rain. He had to urinate. All the staff were busy filling ambulances. Knowing he was to be put on the road for hours, he had to act, loathe with the prospect of pissing himself and lying in stink and shame. He rolled on his left side in torment and unbuttoned his trousers. He pulled his blanket back around his hip, so not to soil it, and purposed to make an effort to start his stream as far away as he could. He felt bad for the soldier lying next to him, but he was dead. He wouldn’t care. He let it go and almost screamed in pain, the act of contracting his bladder causing a lightning zigzag of heat, burning from knee to groin. The pain seized his stream. He clutched a handful of mud and strained again, agony striking once more, the intensity blurring his vision, which faculty ebbed and flowed, his left hand gripping mire, his member grasped in his right. And if this were not enough, an added torment, his abdomen sparked with vexation and lower down. In another rack of pain, he pushed a hand in his pants, with delicate touch scratching an eruption of itching flesh on his belly; then lower, he cupped his hand around his scrotum and when he touched himself it were as if he’d thrown a match to his privates. He fumbled his belt, opened his trousers, discovering a biblical plague of chigger welts. He squeezed his blanket in fists to keep himself from scratching parasite mansions of burrowing pests. “Storm and hail in Beulah land,” he shivered. He only lay in the rain a couple of hours before two staffers hoisted him up on a stretcher, the details slathered in mud and haggard, weariness weighing every countenance of the brave and beautiful servants of the damned. They dropped him in a wagon bed, adding his shocked cry to the agonized choir. No straw for comfort, no axle springs, at least the bows were stretched with canvas, and he lay wedged tight as a canned fish, among ten ruined souls in two rows of five. The man above him urinated, the stream coursing bed boards, soaking his hair and blouse. Beside him lay a boy with wavy forelocks, no more than seventeen, and furious pain abated for a moment on account of the stranger’s face demanding appreciation, the cheek bones’ sturdy structure, the lips’ angular sepals, all gorgeous though his flesh were pallid from being bled down, his blanket so sodden he could not tell the blood from water to guess where the boy was wounded. A voice was droning outside the canvas, languid above the impatient whinny of a horse. —“In case attack or breakdown causes a separation, you will proceed to Chambersburg by way of Cashtown. Thence you shall take the south road via Hagerstown and cross the Potomac River into Williamsport, which is your destination.” A domino popping of whips, vehicles surged, and a wave of curses crested toward their ambulance, their own cries timed to the peak of lamentations, as their wagon jerked forward, the ecstasy tapering rearward as they jostled on cringing axle shrieks. And now, at every tug and hold back, each time a wheel pounded in pothole or gully rut of washed out road, at every brake, there rose a spasm of tortured voices as clothing matted in dried scabs pulled open edges of mended flesh and rasped inflamed wounds, putrescent, oozing, and ends of broken bones grated. A man in front repeated, “God let me die,” and many swore, enjoining their driver to stop. “Please, can’t you jess put me out in the road?” “God, just put me out and let me die!” “Stop, goddamn it, stop for just a trice.” The teamster only applied more violent curses, urging the mules into braying, grudging paces, and Garland felt a pang of pity for him. Hour after faltering hour, with every carom and jigger of the wagon bed, pain and wailing abraded his resolve to bear, and he swore to himself, “I will not cry out; by God, I will not cry out.” He encouraged himself to endure, telling himself it was only a span of time he must suffer torment until he was looking back on a sorry episode, the pride for having survived replacing the hurt, the suffering of which was always cleansed by memory. He braced himself and raised on an elbow, looking beyond the tailgate at the road scything away and ambulance wagons far as he could see. He wondered how many miles the thing stretched out, how many men to the mile of abject suffering, and cursed the human lot that acquainted a man with eternity in a wretched hour. He lay back down in stink, trying to shift his hips on the rough hewn boards of the bed to make his hurt leg easy if such were possible. Shifting ever so slightly, he found the boy’s eyes open and felt accused by the irises’ lustrous blue, his vision residing beyond the ravishing torture in mercy of diluted consciousness; an expression, a faint, ephemeral smile, the way a June breeze cools one’s face and passes, and that was all for him. His war was ended. He stroked his cheek and closed his eyes. Then rocking his body forward, accepting the blade thrust deep in his groin, he brought his face to the boy’s and kissed his lips, the loss of all he had relinquished keen in his heart for that they must have shared so much in common, desire for wife and children, for work, for seasons of joy and mystery of years. To rob this boy of life was a positive evil, and he buried away the injustice festering sore as chiggers and trauma gored his anguished flesh.
July 5, 1863 Harper’s Ferry, Virginia
The ride had been a trial, endless hours of incessant, maddening caterwauling, the nerve thrilling jolts of the road, suffusing tissues with sudden conflagrations, the only respites coming when the trains bunched up. At last they stopped, he near delirium, his senses frayed as a piece of unwhipped hemp, so weary from the ride, he felt himself closer to death than he’d been brought by injury and loss of blood. That night he was roused by searing pain in his thigh. Someone had touched his wound. He flinched, was gripped by several pairs of hands, his eyes attempting to focus in glaring light; a figure was holding a lantern. He lay on a cold, hard surface, naked from the waist, crowded by strangers. Someone spoke, “Copious suppuration—that is good. Probe.” A bloody hand produced a long, thin stick and passed it to another bloody hand, which held it poised like a paintbrush or pencil and inserted the blunted end in the swollen purple crater in his thigh. He came up off the table. They pushed him down. Somewhere beyond himself, he heard himself moaning, a fiery stake nailing his thigh, and catching up the flesh of face and torso. Faint and nauseous, he tossed his shoulders, rolling his eyes around the benighted chamber, gnashing his teeth and telling himself, I will not cry out! He grasped the side of the table on which he lay with the strength he had and found a projection there. He lay on a door they’d taken off its hinges and propped upon two chairs. He was gripping the knob. It looked more like a catafalque than it did an operating table. “There it is! I feel it!” “What is the depth?” “At least five inches, Sir.” “Make the incision here.” Garland craned his neck and watched the scalpel glide through flesh, tracing fire. He huffed through gritted teeth and saw his tissues open, for all the world just like a slab of fat back. Another stab of hurt, a knock on the floor. The ball had rolled from the wound. “Nice cutting, lieutenant.” “Thank you, Sir.” “Max, bandage the wound. We’ll take him next.” They yanked the probe out quickly. Garland fainted.
July 6, 1863 Harper’s Ferry
He woke, lying on the ground late in the morning, to coral streaks of day exhuming the world. He felt odd, changed, something he clearly recognized apart from his weakness or pain. He slept a lot. A medical staffer had staked a piece of canvas, lean-to style, to shelter him and half a dozen others from sun. Day after day, in waking moments, he would look up and out at the portion of sky he could see. The daily build of cloud swung shadows across the yard, and now and then he stared at winged black vortices riding lazy above the tree line. The sun at prime felt good, and being settled, they were given hardtack every day, which fortified body and mind. He couldn’t see the house behind the fly, but the hillside fell away in treetops smothering the bend where the Shenandoah fed the Potomac. The man to his right with whom he had not spoken saw him gazing at the town. “See down yonder, the engine house with them three tall winders. You know what that is?” “Nosome.” “That there is John Brown’s Fort. That crazy son of a bitch has cursed us all.” That afternoon beneath a stack of Alpine cloud, a nurse made rounds, doling out papers to patients able and well enough to read. His lip and jaw were filthy with stubbled beard, his cheeks sallow, abraded, conforming to bone, wasted from constant labor attending to ordure and pain. He handed Garland a Richmond Whig, saying in a hangdog voice, “Vicksburg’s fallen. Pemberton’s done surrendered his army wholesale to U.S. Grant. Lot of folk’s saying hit’s treachery. Now why you reckon the President put a Yankee in command of a Rebel army? That dog won’t hunt.” “They’ve got the Mississippi. We cut in half.” The nurse furrowed his brow and spoke to the yard, “Boys, hit’s official. The Confed’racy’s sucking hind tit.”
July 14, 1863 Richmond, Virginia
Garland lay in a cattle car in a siding, with other invalid soldiers midst scattered clods of cow manure, the reek of which intensified in the car’s close heat. They had rocked all yesterday and all last night. Then they’d stopped. He’d heard the sound of men uncoupling cars, the engine chuffing, then silence till the peep of morning birds, their small wings fluttering in and out of the car, a slatted ladder thrown across his body. The heat was baking his flesh, swirling in steaming currents, pressing down on his eyes. A desert wedged in his throat. He tried to speak but speaking required a god like strength. Then in languishing reverie, voices came beating gently, moving up and down the ladder, the stirring cooling his face. The heavy ladder slid away, the soldier lying next to him was crucified by sunlight. “Oh my God, this car is full of men!” “This is an outrage. They should find the men responsible and hang them all.” An idea broke in his mind an unhinged, silent laughter: his pillow was shit.
July 15, 1863 4th Alabama Hospital, Richmond
Along in the afternoon, he opened his eyes and found himself in a long hall with high windows, sunlight slanting through panes behind him, the fetid air more pungent than the livestock car’s. A woman approached with a jorum and poured a drink for the man in bed beside him. A ragged soldier stalked across the ward, dragging his steps. From across the way, someone said, “You walk like a frost bit chicken.” Garland raised his head, the patient had one arm and a Texas accent. The soldier gave the Texan an empty look. “I’d trade my wound for yourn.” “How come’iz ‘at?” The soldier regarded the female nurse then moved his languid eyes back to the Texan. “When my girl back home finds out where I been wounded, she won’t be my girl for long.” “Pard, you should a wore you a Kentucky button.” “To hail from Texas, you talk like a flannel mouthed Dutchman.” “That’s enough of good advice, Mr. Fleming,” the nurse intervened, placing the sweating pot on a bedside table. She approached the hobbled soldier, placed her hand on his breast, closing his top blouse button and whispering, “Now you don’t know that’s so, Gabe. She’ll be kind to her hero, you’ll see.” She came to Garland’s bedside. “Your eyes are open,” she smiled pouring a cup of water at last. “I’m Kate. I’ll be in charge of you for a while. If you need anything, just call. I’m never far.” Garland snorted the well water down, cool and sweet, and Kate dispensed him another cup, which she gently pried from his hand when he fell asleep.
Scott Ward, Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, M.A., University of South Carolina, is a poet whose first book, Crucial Beauty (Scop Publications), won the 1990 Loiderman Poetry Prize. His most recent volume is Wayward Passages (2006, Black Bay Books). He has served as associate editor of Southern Humanities Review and Shenandoah. His poems have appeared in anthologies such as American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon) andBuck and Wing: Southern Poetry at 2000 (Washington and Lee) and journals, including America, Southern Humanities Review,Shenandoah, and The Christian Century. He teaches creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.