The Wilderness, May 5, 1864
The time for sleep was short. Predawn glow had just begun to redden the eastern horizon when gunfire erupted to the northwest. It was 5 AM as the battle was renewed. Within minutes, a clattering of musketry announced the advance of skirmishers as General Birney’s division moved to the offensive. More than 20,000 Federal troops advanced against General Lee as the noise of conflict awoke Duane and Johnny. Suddenly the woods exploded with the roar of violence as the mile-wide wave of battle surged relentlessly forward. During the next two hours the Federal line continued to push forward. At first, the two youths worked together as the ebb tide of wounded stumbled to the rear in search of help. Along the Brock Road from the north of the aid station, troops and artillery flowed southward into the battle. The immediate crossroads hung thick with the rolling dust of their passage and the noise of the moving masses and their vehicles, spurred on by the shouts and commands of their officers. Word came that the battle line was nearly a mile to the front of the breastworks. “Dee,” Johnny shouted over the din of activity, “you stay here with Joshua and Micah. I have to go forward with the brigade!” With that, Johnny was gone. Wagons of ammunition and medical supplies rumbled down the road. Duane heard all this feverish movement of battle and worried in the back of his mind that Johnny would be killed. He was sure something terrible would happen. Nevertheless, he continued to help dispense materials from supply packs and to follow the guidance of the two bandsmen as he assisted them in whatever way they needed.
The roaring tide of battle continued in the distance for most of the morning. For a time, numbers of Confederate wounded and prisoners were brought in as the Union line had collapsed the Rebel line and forced it back upon itself. Then, as the sun neared its high point at noon, there came a distinct crescendo in the fighting. The tide was turning and the Confederates were pushing the Federals hard toward their own breastworks. A great rush of activity spilled from the woods as retreating infantrymen dashed to the rear and a vast horde of wounded was brought in. Shortly after noon, the retreat was complete as the Federal forces returned to their breastworks and Johnny rejoined his friend. The smell of burnt powder became strong in the air as it blended with the smell of blood. The ground about the aid station was littered with the mix of wounded, both Union and Confederate. “The surgeons are having a real rough time of it,” Johnny observed as he helped Duane distribute stiptics, bandages, and splints. “Just as fast as one poor fellow is cut and moved another is on the table. The blood is so deep, the ground at their feet is a red slime. The bloody pieces of bodies are stacked in piles knee high.” “Damn it ta Hell, Johnny, but this be one time I’s glad I cain’t see ‘n I really ain’t needin fer ya ta say as how bad it is. The pain an’ screamin ‘r bad ‘nough. Ma nose an’ ma ears is tellin a real heap a horrifyin sufferin. I reckon too, as I hears Reb voices in the wounded likewise.” Hundreds were occupied with the task of treating the wounded. The fighting continued along the first line of breastworks as the brigades of General Birney’s division continued to withdraw to the line of defenses. The momentum slowed and the battle line settled in a stalemate just a few hundred yards from the field medical activity. By mid afternoon there was a welcomed lull in the fighting during which General Hancock directed a rearrangement of troops for greater strength and in preparation of a concerted charge to be mounted in the late afternoon. As fast as they could, the non-combatants at the aid station loaded the wounded who could travel onto ambulances to be transported off to Fredericksburg. “Hey, Dee,” Johnny called. “What was your brigade at Gettysburg?” “Thirteenth Alabama. Why?” He tied off a bandage knot, then stood to face the voice. “There’s a wounded Reb here from the 13th, a kid named Matthewson.” “Jamie!” Duane shouted. “Is he bad hurt?” Johnny moved to guide the boy to the lanky youth who lay among the wounded. “Looks bad.” “Dee, is’t really thet yer alive?” the faint voice called weakly. “I is fer sher,” he knelt beside the sixteen-year-old. “Ya got back from the fightin thet day?” “Yeh,” pain cut him short.
Duane remained beside his Confederate comrade while Johnny left to continue his work. The youth went on, “I come to near evenin an saw as they was takin in wounded. I made like I was dead an waited fer night ta git back ta the company. I sher did think as ya’d met yer maker when I last saw ya layin in yer blood.” A fit of coughing overcame the wounded youth. The younger teen sought his friend’s face with his fingers and explored gently to see how bad he was hurt. “Hey,” Jamie whispered, “it tickles. What ya doin?” “I cain’t see, Jamie. Lost ma sight thet day when a powder charge blew in ma face.” He felt the sweat and dirt of battle and the long curls of dusty hair, but no indication of a wound. Wait. There was a trickle of blood at the corner of his lips. “How bad hurt is ya?” “There’s one as burned ma arm. Another grazed a shoulder. Wu’st one’s in ma gut — broke a rib an’ got ma innards. Weren’t so bad fi’st off. But the Yanks had already gone by an’ the only way out an’ not bein shot agin, was ta the Yank side. I started ta walk ‘n only went a few yards an’ had ta crawl. Some with a litter carried me out.” “What’s this?” Duane asked, wiping blood from his friend’s mouth. “Banged inta a tree branch durin the fightin. Kinda dumb, I s’pose.” Duane slipped his hand to the bloodied shirt around Jamie’s abdomen. Ripping it open, he gently explored the wound, first where the bullet entered; then, by sliding his hand around the older boy’s side, the exit hole on his back. “Oh God! Thet hurts!” Jamie gasped in sudden pain. “I’m gonna put some bandagin ta hold ya tageth’r, Jamie,” Duane explained as he searched his pack for more fabric. “It ain’t wo’th yer tryin, Dee. I know I ain’t got much time left. Jest stay with me an’ talk some.” The wounded youth fought hard to control his voice and to keep the pain from taking over. “Sher, Jamie,” Duane agreed as he gently withdrew his hand from the pooling blood beneath his friend and laid the front of the shirt back across the broken body. “But I ain’t wantin fer ya ta die.” His voice cracked. “I ain’t a’fear’d none, Dee. I ain’t wantin it neith’r, but I knows it’s a certain.” His voice quivered and a tear slipped free to course its way through the powder which blackened his face. “Jest stay with me a piece.” As the two continued to talk and Duane learned the fate of some he’d known, the hour slipped away. Suddenly, at four o’clock, the air was rent with gunfire as a fierce Rebel charge burst toward the first line of breastworks. The Union line exploded in destructive volleys of riflery and thunderclaps of artillery fire.
The two teenagers shook at the sudden explosion of activity. They were quickly enveloped in the smoke of battle as a breeze blew the sulphurous cloud in their direction. “Kin ya see how fer the fightin is?” Duane asked. “’Bout two hundred yards,” Jamie answered. As the battle erupted all along the Brock Road defenses, the woodland once more burst into flames. The wind blew them toward the Union defenses and soon Jamie reported to Duane that the Federal breastworks had caught fire. “The Yanks is fallin back an’ ar people ‘r comin through the fire ta the wall!” Jamie described while the bullets whined overhead. “The two armies ain’t twelve paces apart shootin each other through the flames,” he continued. Shouts of orders, the roar of cannons, the rattle of frantic wheels, the whinny of horses, the raking volleys of musket fire, screams of pain and panic, rose to a numbing intensity. “Get down!” Johnny shouted as he rushed to Duane’s position. “We’re holding them!” The leading edge of attacking Confederates mounted the breastworks, but the fighters were cut down as fast as they came. Finally, the men of General Birney’s division were rapidly reinforced as new troops were brought into the conflict. The line held. Frantic activity behind the line kept everyone busy who was able to help as the new flood of casualties fell in the immediate front. Eventually, the fighting subsided as the sun sank low in the west and twilight dimmed the woodlands. A crackling red glow moved eerily through the wilderness. As the fighting ceased and the moans of the wounded rose on the air, fires raced about the underbrush. Moans turned to screams. Scattered gunfire popped about the wilderness as pockets in the clothes on the dead and wounded, filled with rifle cartridges, ignited, and the charges exploded. The troops settled warily as the wagons raced about to re-supply ammunition and caissons were brought in with fresh munitions chests for the artillery. The work among the wounded was constant. Hundreds had gathered and lay about the area waiting to be attended. Once more, the nurses and non-combatants worked into the night. Duane took a break around midnight and asked Joshua to guide him back to where Jamie lay. “Sorry I bin so busy, Jamie,” he spoke as he knelt. “Want some water?” There was no response. Duane reached out to be sure his friend was there. His hand touched a shoulder. But it was hard as rock. His fingers searched for the face.
“This ain’t the right one, Joshua,” Duane stated, as he felt the cold hard flesh and the soft curls of hair. “Damn this war!” he exclaimed quietly to himself. “Damn it all ta Hell!”
The Journey Into Darkness series views the Civil War from the experience of a boy soldier, wherein the young reader lives the events of the war through the life experiences of a peer. While Duane and Johnny and Jamie are fictitious, the fighting on Brock Road during the Battle of the Wilderness, is very real. Boys in the war are also very real as over 200,000 boys age seventeen and under served in the two armies. As for a blind boy serving during the war, there is historic documentation of at least one in the Confederate Army.
At the end of the third book, Duane was seriously injured resulting in the loss of his sight. In the final book of the series he had become a thirteen-year-old blind drummer boy, serving with his friends in the medical corps.
Historically: Thomas Ranson, the youngest officer in the 52nd Virginia Infantry, wrote to his cousin, “I was the youngest officer in the fifty-second Infantry, and the youngest man except one – our little blind drummer, Maurice.” He was thirteen years old at the time of the incident about which Ransom wrote, referenced in the letter as “not yet fourteen.” [Susan R. Hull, collated by, Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy, (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1905), reprinted (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1998), 150.]
-By J. Arthur Moore