One big hoss in the company ahead, a man with a full beard and a neck like a hog's, started yelling for the band to give us a tune. He stomped his feet and rattled the bayonet he had at his side, and then some other of the boys did the same thing, and pretty soon we were all yelling at the band to play "The Bonnie Blue Flag," to give us a tune and be useful for once. The band even got a few notes off before one of the company commanders rode by, snatched up a trumpet, and threatened to beat them with it if he heard another note. That was funny to watch, and it was about as good a morale lifter as hearing "The Bonnie Blue Flag" straight through, on account of our band wasn't very accomplished.
The thing I kept thinking about was the nightshirts and the pots of jam, lying there on the roadside. They made me wonder whether we'd been fighting in the same war.
And then the order went out to get on line. They just up and stopped us, and I couldn't help running into the man ahead of me and getting a whiff of the sweat and stink rising up off his homespun shirt. The men quit jabbering, and then the thousands of us were moving to either side of the road, all bunched up at first but then thinning out as the line got longer and longer, like a ball of twine unwinding. There wasn't any stomping of the feet then, no bayonet rattling. We picked our way across the hills, some units stopping at the edge of a tree line, most of us out in the open. It took me a few moments to realize we were going to stop and fight right here, rather than chase the Yanks all the way to Nashville. It looked like a mighty long way to the Union lines, which were up on a rise. I could see men way up there in town tossing dirt around. The sunlight flashed off their shovels and picks, and sometimes it seemed like you could actually pick out the sound of their work a few seconds after you'd seen their tools go chunking into the dirt. It was so damn hot for late November. What had General Hood said when we crossed the river into Tennessee? No more fighting on the enemy's terms. I looked at those battlements up ahead over a mile distant, and I thought, We must be the greatest army in the world if these are our terms.
I'd been fighting for three years by then. I'd been shot once, and my left arm still didn't feel right. Sometimes I had a hard time lifting my rifle and keeping it steady. I thought about this and began flexing my arm to get it limbered up. We sat down in place and began the long wait.
It always seemed a long wait before the fight, no matter how long it took. Officers rode here and there conferring with one another, and then they'd come back and huddle with their sergeants, and word would come down about what was happening, and then they'd do it all over again and the word would change. This drove some of the men crazy every time. Shit, let's just go, they'd yell to no one in particular, and they'd jump up and pace around and kick a tree or something. Sometimes you didn't know what they meant by "go": fighting or running. I'm quite sure that both options crossed the minds of most men. It crossed my mind every time, and I'd been in a lot of fights and hadn't run yet. Well, I hadn't run until everyone else was running. I had that rule.
The thing I'm about to say, you might not understand unless you've been in war. But in those moments before the fight, if you were a smart man, you'd figure out a way to convince yourself that it didn't matter to you if you lived or died. If you're safe in your house, with your children running around underfoot and with fields that need to be worked, it's an impossible way of thinking unless you're sick or touched in the head. Of course it mattered if you lived or died. But if you went into a battle caring what happened to you, you wouldn't be able to fight, even though you knew you were as likely to die as the next man whether you cared or not. There wasn't any logic to who got killed and who didn't, and it was better that your final thoughts not be of cowardice and regret. It was better not to care, and to let yourself be swept up in the rush of the men beside you, to drive forward into the smoke and fire with the knowledge that you had already beaten death. When you let yourself go like that, you could fight on and on.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Hicks
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