“Off to War”
Jacob scrambled for cover as shots rang over his head. The battle had been raging for what seemed like forever. He was surrounded by cannons exploding and men screaming in pain. It was nothing like he had ever imagined. This was the worst kind of horror he could have pictured. He wished he could recall some of his training, but it was all a blank, replaced by images of bloodied soldiers. One by one, he saw his comrades fall. Blue uniforms stained with red littered the ground around him. In the distance, someone shouted commands, but he couldn’t make out anything clearly amidst the muskets firing.
As he moved through the field, he kept low. Bullets whizzed past his head left and right. It was surreal. He was a target in this open field and his eyes searched in the haze created by weapons’ fire to find a safe haven. His drive to survive pushed through the shock until that’s all there was. Survive. Moving almost by instinct, he made his way, stumbling, through the field of bodies. By luck, he came upon a ditch protected by a berm and he ducked into the safety it offered.
Many other soldiers lay in this ditch, fighting from this position. They had crawled up onto the berm on their bellies and were firing into the enemy line. Leaning back against the cool earth that made up the wall of the ditch, he took a few moments to catch his breath. His emotions washed over him. He was alive! And that was all that mattered.
Having survived the first wave and made it to a safe position from which to keep fighting, the thought to remain here throughout the rest of the battle was tempting. But he knew those men on the berm needed him. They counted on him to help them defend their position or else they would all be lost.
After he got a hold of himself and steeled his senses, he climbed out of the ditch and up onto the berm, staying on his stomach lest he create too much of a target. The man to his left nodded as he took position and began firing at the Confederate army. He did his best to aim at targets, as hard as they were to see. On occasion, he saw a glint of steel in the distance or the profile of a soldier running. And he tried his best to hit those targets. It was difficult to tell if he was successful.
That’s when Jacob spotted a dip on the far left flank. The Confederate line had shifted to the right in response to the Union’s first wave offensive. As the minutes of realizing he was alive passed, his confidence began to return. Then he remembered the briefing from his unit’s commander and the mention of flanking the Confederates on that side. It seemed their offensive had started to work, but something had gone wrong.
Jacob cursed himself for not listening more closely and instead assuming his platoon’s sergeant would be here to keep things in order. Then he remembered the plan of attack.
“The left unit. Hey! Where is the left unit? Aren’t they supposed to be moving in on the second wave?” he shouted to the others crouched with him behind the berm.
They looked at each other, more confused than he.
“I think they got pinned down back there,” one soldier responded, his thumb pointed behind them.
“What’s your name again?” Jacob asked.
“Daniel.” His voice broke for just a second.
“The Confederates have responded to the first wave and are moving to the right. It is up to us to move in to that dip over there and flank them from the left.” Jacob pointed to the weak spot in the enemy’s line.
Daniel nodded, probably ready to take orders from anybody. Jacob had a renewed sense of purpose, thinking that his ability to run fast might just pay off.
“We’ll split in half. Daniel, me, and you,” he said, tapping the soldier to his right. “We’ll make a fast run for that spot while you continue to cover us. When we get there and start shooting, the rest of you will follow. That may hold back the Confederates just enough for the rest of our unit to catch up and take ’em!”
The rest of his new war brothers nodded in quick agreement.
“I’m Steven,” the soldier he had tapped said, his voice shaking.
Jacob shook hands with him. He and his small crew loaded their Springfield muskets and gathered up to the left edge of the berm. With a quick visual signal to the others, they broke out in a fast run. Jacob’s legs flew. It was as if he rode the wind. Jacob soon noticed how far their target truly was. Could they make it? I’ve made it this far, we are going to get there!
Loud artillery fire boomed. It was deafening as it hit a spot they had just passed. The shock knocked him to the ground. Daniel and Steven were just as startled. They both looked to Jacob. Their courage and morale hinging on his own, he dragged himself to his feet and continued, as fast as he could. His comrades were close behind. As they ran across the fury of the battlefield, they wove around fallen soldiers. It was a bit much for Jacob, but he somehow held it together and kept moving.
How far is that dip in the line? How long does it take to get there? It seemed like an eternity. A moment later, he saw it! Jacob had pulled out well ahead of the others when a piece of shrapnel ripped through his jacket. Falling to the ground, his eyes feverishly sought out the direction it came from. Here he was, sprinting like it was a race, forgetting that they were fighting for their lives. Steven and Daniel caught up to him with wide eyes. Looking at the spot where he had been grazed by a ball, he felt a sting of pain. And he saw a torn part of his uniform near his shoulder, but then realized it hadn’t penetrated anything. Instead it had just missed him. While it left him a noticeable mark, it hadn’t entered his shoulder.
Jacob picked up his musket and started running again, at last diving into the dip in the line. Steven and Daniel had closed the gap enough to jump in right behind him. They raised their weapons, looking for targets. One enemy soldier looked in their direction. Was that the man who almost hit him? Before he could react, Daniel fired, and the man fell. Another Confederate moved up from behind the fallen soldier, and Steven took him out.
Jacob was shocked into action, eyeing his men as they hastily reloaded. Picking up his Springfield, he trained his sights on another Confederate rushing in. His fingers twitched, almost as if he couldn’t decide whether to accept the fate of killing another man. Everything had been surreal. Marching, inspections, field stripping, rations. Almost like a dream. But now it was real. This was what war was about: killing another man. In the instant it took him to trace his thoughts, he understood one thing: if he waited, he or one of his war buddies would be dead, so he pulled the trigger. He started to reload his weapon, when he felt the shakes and couldn’t keep it down anymore, vomiting on the ground.
“First kill?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah,” Jacob said, wiping his face with his sleeve. His legs were weak.
“I did the same.”
With that, Jacob crossed a threshold he never knew existed. His father had told him he looked like a real man. Those words echoed true. Jacob didn’t get lost in thought though. This plan would be a complete failure unless they provided enough cover for the rest of his unit to take this position. Having dropped three soldiers, there weren’t any more nearby. Most of the Confederate unit was much further down the line and just didn’t know they were about to be flanked. Filled with excitement, Jacob was about to tell Steven and Daniel to finish loading their Springfields when he noticed they were way ahead of him. Time to give the signal for the rest of his unit to join them and hold this position.
Jacob stood, more than he liked, but knew the men behind the berm would be looking for a signal. He took off his hat and waved, calling back to them. They were not quite visible, but as they grouped together on the left side, he could tell they had gotten his signal. Reaching over and grabbing his weapon, he put his hat back on.
The sound of more artillery firing in the distance shook him. Was it closer or further away? As he slid into the dip, seeking better cover, the crack of a rifle was followed by a hot, piercing pain in his left leg. Looking down, a lot of blood covered his leg. Stunned, his gaze shifted to take in his surroundings. The man he had hit earlier wasn’t dead, but had gotten in a final shot with his loaded weapon. Jacob let out a loud cry while Steven attacked the man with his bayonet. Then things started to swirl. Jacob’s vision blurred. As if everything was in a daze. Daniel came to his side, applying pressure to his leg. As he started to fade out, he kept looking back, wondering if the rest of his unit had caught up to them. And then, nothing.