By Nyri A. Bakkalian
Gettysburg, 2 July 1863
Even with the sun down at long last, it was still terribly, disgustingly hot.
The men were beyond tired, all of them: tired as hell. Exhausted and hungry and bloodied and reeling after the long hard slog through that Pennsylvanian hell on earth. Now the day’s battle had receded to either side’s artillery providing an undertone of distant thunder peppered by the sporadic pop-pop-thwack of pickets. The weary men sat to rest in the vale, amid the ghastly forms of fallen friend and foe among the growing shadows that crisscrossed the mighty blood-stained rocks. Battle-scarred trees, that’d been another source of so much shrapnel and debris that day, towered overhead.
Captain Walter Goodale Morrill sat near his resting men, utterly exhausted, carbine set down beside him on the dirt as he listlessly looked on. He keenly envied the ones who could sleep despite it all. Given everything he’d seen, Morrill wasn’t sure he’d have been able to get there. After all, to say the day was absolute murder would’ve been a severe understatement. Would Morrill ever find the words to express what he and the regiment had seen and endured? Would he ever be able to properly comprehend what he’d done, in all of its grim detail?
He could still see the scene, hanging invisibly but close around him in the little vale, like the battlefield haze. Detached to protect the flank, when the shooting grew hot, they’d risen from the stone wall in time to see the rest of the regiment of Mainers careen down the rock-strewn hill, a tidal wave crashing down on the men in gray, a mighty, mingled roar piercing the battle’s deafening thunder.
Morrill’s little company, amply armed, unexpectedly reinforced by the professional soldiers of a passing regular Army sharpshooter company, quickly chose to act. They fired and hollered like mad, even as they charged into the rebels’ flank. In a moment, they’d rejoined their regiment in its breathless, swift charge, into the bloody maelstrom. They were so close to the enemy, even amidst the enemy’s retreat, that at times it felt like they’d strayed too far into the gray lines, but the momentum was theirs. The rebels were running as fast as they could, out of the dense forest and across the sweltering fields of Adams County, with the pride of New England close behind them.
The exhausted captain rubbed at his eyes. Distantly, scattered sharpshooter fire continued in the lengthening evening shadows. It simply boggled the mind. How could he ever hope to do justice to this, and to tell this story?
Morrill started at the sound of snapping twigs and crunching gravel, fingers instinctively closing around his waiting carbine. A little knot of men approached him out of the growing darkness. Then they were close enough that he could make out their faces, and when he saw the stand of banners that followed them, the tension suddenly dropped off.
“Colonel Chamberlain, sir,” Morrill greeted the mustachioed officer who led them. He rose to his feet with a perfunctory salute. Thank God, he thought in silent relief. Good to see friendly faces. Close behind Chamberlain followed the color guard, bullet-torn, flame-scorched banners rising out of the shadows. Morrill could just barely make out the words beneath the eagle on the blue regimental standard: 20th REGIMENT MAINE VOLUNTEERS.
“Captain Morrill,” the professor-turned-colonel greeted him, “Been quite a day.” The men loved him. He’d come in as green as anyone, but had quickly proven himself more than capable of leadership and more than worthy of their trust. After all, he’d stood right with them through that terrible battle, just like all the other battles that’d come before.
“Ayuh, ayuh,” Morrill replied briskly in the Mainer affirmative, “that it has, sir, and a long day too. But I’d say we’re in mighty fine shape considering.”
Chamberlain turned and pointed up the big hill that sloped skyward to Morrill’s right. “It’s been a long day, but you know we’ve still got work to do. The enemy pickets, probably still men of Hood’s division, still aren’t that far. Orders from Colonel Rice are that we’re to secure that summit there.”
Morrill wiped the sweat from his eyes and glanced over his shoulder, through the treeline and up the steady, rock-strewn slope.
“Securing the summit,” he echoed distantly. “Yes, sir.”
Their gaze met through the murky twilight. Morrill saw a moment of fatigue in Chamberlain’s eyes. The man was good at hiding it, but there were moments like this one when Morrill could see through the carefully cultivated mask of command the man so prized. When, the captain wondered, had the colonel last slept?
But that glimmer was only a moment, for just as quickly, the steel was back in his voice.
“Those are our orders, so I’m heading up there. Any of your men who can follow should do so.”
Morrill saluted. “Sir.”
He hurried to rejoin his men, back where they still rested at the end of the vale. When Morrill was close enough to see them clearly in the ever-gathering darkness, he saw that those who’d been within earshot of his conversation with Colonel Chamberlain were wearily rising. Others, catching their meaning, were following them. The ones with ready ammunition had already begun reloading rifles and pistols. Others were picking over the detritus of the day’s slaughter, hunting for any stray rounds they could salvage from the abandoned cartridge boxes of the dead.
For a moment, the captain found he envied those who had fallen, who kept his men company in silent, final vigil. After all, the dead’s own part in this ghastly work was done, and they had no worries about orders and ammunition and provisions and enemy pickets. Would his turn to join them come next?
No. There was no time for such ghastly reflections. Morrill shook his head, sighed, and took a knee beside the company and set to reloading his carbine.
Yes, morose reflection could wait. For now, there was work to do.
Nyri A. Bakkalian, Ph.D. is a queer Armenian-American and adopted Pittsburgher. A military historian by training, she’s an artist and writer whose work has appeared on Inatri, Metropolis Japan, Gutsy Broads, and Queer PGH. She has a soft spot for local history and unknown stories, preferably uncovered during road trips. When not hunting for unknown history, Nyri can most often be found sketching while enjoying a good cup of Turkish coffee. Check out her blog at sparrowdreams.com, and come say hello on Twitter at @riversidewings.