Trial of Strength

By Emily Wright


September 1861

The black locomotive screeched its final warning. Tom Murphy slung his knapsack over his shoulder, his throat burning from the smoke. There was no turning back now. The crowd was full of mothers clinging to their children’s hands, fathers smoking their pipes as they impatiently checked their pocket watches. Tom pulled his hat brim down lower over his eyes, silently praying that no one would recognize him. The crowd was moving slowly, too slowly. His heart began to pound rapidly in his chest, echoing in his ears. He didn’t regret his decision. He just hoped he could get out of Mobile before it was too late. When it was finally Tom’s turn to board the train, he didn’t look back. He grabbed onto the cold, steel railing and mounted the steps.

After two days aboard two different trains, Tom finally arrived in the town of Jacksonville, Illinois. He began to follow the crowd of people that moved in the direction of a large red brick courthouse. Men were standing in an orderly line in front of a large gazebo that was decorated in patriotic red, white, and blue bunting. As Tom made his way closer, he could see wives letting go of their husbands’ hands, mothers clinging to their sons in an effort to keep them from signing up. Tom pushed his way past a little boy no older than ten begging his mother for permission to join up, heard a youth whooping and hollering in exhilaration at having just signed his name to the recruitment paper. Tom suddenly felt his hands beginning to sweat, the pounding of his heart making him feel vulnerable. The age for joining the army was eighteen. He was seventeen. Tom took his place in line behind a large bear of a man who smelled strongly of whiskey and grime.  Soon, a lanky boy of about Tom’s age came to wait his turn in line, scribbling on a slip of paper. Tom shifted his feet, looking down at his brown leather boots. He suddenly saw the young man quickly remove his shoe and place a slip of paper inside.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked, immediately seeing guilt on the young man’s face.

“What? Oh, the paper,” he managed, hurriedly shoving his foot back into his shoe. “I—I’m not eighteen yet,” he whispered.

“Neither am I,” Tom admitted quietly, furrowing his brows and glancing down at the man’s—boy’sshoe. “Pardon me for asking, but why’d you put paper in your shoe?”

“Well, you see,” came a low whisper, “I heard a lot of boys talking about how they weren’t eighteen yet, and they got it in their heads to write down the number 18 on a paper and put it in their shoe. That way, when they get asked their age, they can say, ‘I’m over eighteen.’ I thought I’d do it too…since I don’t want to lie.”

Tom looked down at his own shoes. He’d lied so much these past few days, and he knew it would only get worse as time went on. But being “over eighteen” didn’t sound quite so bad.

“Do you have any more paper?” he asked, seeing the surprise on the young man’s face.

“Next!” came the sergeant’s hoarse bark. Tom’s heart thudded hard in his chest, the deep breaths not helping. He stood ramrod-straight, looking the tired and irritated sergeant in the eye. The sergeant glanced at him briefly, then turned his full attention to the paper resting on the table in front of him.

“Name?” he grumbled, holding his pencil stub in a ready position.

“Thomas Murphy, sir.”

“Where’r you from?”

“Perryville, Kentucky,” Tom lied, maintaining a steady gaze on the sergeant. The man looked up at him, brows raised, making Tom’s stomach churn under the scrutiny.

“Kentucky. A border state,” the sergeant mused, the pencil stub scratching against the paper as he wrote. “Can you shoot a gun?”

“Yes, sir. I never miss.”

“How’re your teeth?” he asked gruffly.

“My—my teeth, sir?”

“Your teeth,” he repeated, opening his mouth and tapping his own front tooth with his fingernail. “You can’t open a paper cartridge without good teeth.”

“They’re…fine, sir.”

“Good. Are you eighteen or over?”

“Yes, sir. Over eighteen.”


“Howdy! How are you?” came a voice. Tom jumped, looking up at the tent flap and seeing a lanky young man with a newly issued haversack packed so full it seemed like it would explode its contents at any moment.

“Hello,” Tom said, getting up from where he was kneeling on the ground getting his bedroll ready. “Who—who are you?”

“Oh, I’m the fellow who stood behind you in line when we signed up, remember? Name’s David Greene,” he replied, extending his hand.

“Yes, the one who is ‘over eighteen’ like me,” Tom joked, shaking David’s hand and eyeing the huge bedroll strapped to the young man’s back that make him look like a turtle. “I’m Tom Murphy.”

David ducked into the large bell-shaped Sibley tent, removing his bedroll and haversack. They landed on the ground with a thunk.

“I’m exhausted. Nothing like a train ride to wear a man out,” he said, looking down at Tom.

“Yes,” Tom replied absently, finally lying down and immediately feeling his eyelids drooping.

“They’re going to start drilling us tomorrow. That’ll wear us out for sure,” David said, beginning to arrange his own bedroll. “Where are you from, Tom?”

Tom let out an annoyed sigh. “Perryville, Kentucky. Since it’s decided to be a boarder state, I hopped a train so I could join up,” he lied, hoping the answer would make the chatty tent mate stop talking.

“I’m from Harrisburg, Illinois. Nice little town. I’ll sure miss it,” David said, settling down on his bedroll finally.

Tom turned over on his side away from David. He felt guilty, lying to everyone like that. Yet he couldn’t let anyone know he was actually from the South—

“Good night,” David said.

Tom pretended not to hear him. He closed his eyes, feeling them sting with exhaustion.


The day began with bacon, biscuits, and bitter coffee. After that, Tom fell in line for roll call, then went with his company to learn how to march in line. There were orders shouted, terms that Tom had never heard before. He did what the officers told them, turning at the appropriate time and following the man in front of him. Just an hour later, the regiment came back together, beginning to practice parade formations that Tom thought seemed pointless. What good would formality be while on the battlefield? The regiment took a break for lunch, which consisted of salted pork and a potato. Tom eagerly sat down in the grass with his plate and tin cup full of water, resting his tired legs and feet. Food would certainly give him energy. He hadn’t finished his potato before the order was given to form up. The regiment drilled once more, learning the Manual of Arms, loading and priming their newly issued Springfield rifles. After hours of this, drills were finally over, and Tom ate the same meal of salted pork and a potato for dinner. This time, he lay down on the grass, propping himself up with his left elbow as he shoved down his supper. He felt as if he could sleep right there in the grass and never move until the next morning. Tom shed his blue wool uniform coat, finally being rid of the thick fabric. His entire body felt sticky with sweat, his unkempt brown curls stuck to his forehead. He folded the coat and set it on the ground next to him, closing his eyes as he felt a blessed autumn breeze.

Tom opened his worn leather Bible, not knowing what he was looking for. They were on board one of five steamers, plodding their way down the choppy river and escorted by two gunboats, Tyler and Lexington. Rumors of coming battle swirled, the entire regiment seeming to be itching for a fight. Tom’s stomach was tied in knots, making him feel sick. Very soon, he would be shooting at Southern men, some just as young as he was. They would be from Tennessee or Arkansas or Alabama. Tom closed his eyes, hearing the pointless chatter of his fellow soldiers swirling around him and tried to drown it out. He remembered the conversation with his father that night almost two months ago, one he would never forget no matter how hard he tried. He’d walked into his father’s office, insides trembling, praying against all hope that he would understand. Tom had known what would happen, and it had made everything in him want to turn and remain as silent as he had been all his life. Yet he had to do this. There was no way around it. He’d told his father everything, about how he hated slavery, about the time he saw his father beat one of the field slaves with a whip. He’d seen the welts, seen brown skin stained crimson as it was being ripped to shreds. Tom had asked his father why a Christian man could do such horrible things, how he could possibly call himself a follower of Christ. His father had risen from his mahogany desk, his face red with rage. Tom had argued further, telling his father that he had his mind made up to fight for the freedom of the slaves. His father had pounded his fist into the polished desk, snarling, “You willingly betray your state and your family! You are no longer my son!” Tom’s mother had rushed into the room in a flurry of skirts, demanding to know what was happening. Tom had rushed out of his father’s office, running blindly to his upstairs bedroom. He’d thrown a few belongings into a red knapsack, put on a brown floppy hat and ran back downstairs, hearing his mother’s wracking sobs coming from the office, his father’s voice booming throughout the house. Tom’s brother was coming down the stairs…He’d closed the front door and run. Tom bowed his head, willing the memory to be gone. He rested his head in his hand, closing the Bible with the other. He hadn’t told a soul that he was from the South, was afraid that he would be accused of being disloyal to the Union and a spy. Soon, it may not even matter. He felt a lump in his throat and allowed the tears to flow.

Pinks and purples streaked the morning sky when the regiment landed in Missouri. Tom shouldered his rifle as he stepped onto the muddy ground. They were in a marsh, surrounded by tall trees and thickets.

“Form a line, remain silent,” Colonel Logan instructed them, walking toward a man atop a brown horse. Tom took his place in line, watching the man on the horse, seeing a wildly unkempt beard and muddy knee-high boots. All the officers were going to him, and Tom caught a few words like “gunboat” and “the 31st.”  Tom shifted his feet, his hands beginning to tremble. He would see his first battle today. The knots in his stomach made it impossible to eat the hardtack cracker he’d saved for breakfast this morning. Suddenly the order came, “31st Illinois! Move out!”


The regiment was hidden by trees and thick bushes, the ground shaking from the sound of nearby artillery fire coming from the direction of the river. It was louder than any thunder Tom had ever heard, each cannon blast making his insides quake. All he wanted was to close his eyes and pretend it was all a nightmare. He watched as David pulled out a Bible from his coat pocket with shaking hands, his lips quivering as he mouthed words. Tom knew he could never concentrate on reading now, instead gazed up at the gray sky above them, remembering some verse from somewhere…If it is possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but Thy will be done. He jumped as another artillery shell was fired, wanting to hide, to run. The sound of approaching footsteps from behind him made Tom turn his head in fear, then was relieved to see a major dressed in blue.

“Colonel Logan, sir,” the major said with a salute, “Orders from General Grant. He has requested the 31st come up to the front.”

“Yes, thank you Major Hudson,” the colonel replied, saluting. Major Hudson turned, making his way back to where he’d come. Colonel Logan wasted no time in giving the order, “31st Illinois! At the double quick, march!”

Tom stood in the line of battle, gritting his teeth as he saw David beside him. He should not be here. It would be better to keep our distance. A blood red flag waved in front of them, two crossed blue bars with thirteen stars staring back. The men in gray were there, across a small space in the wooded marsh, marching toward them in their own battle line. Tom clutched his rifle, the world seeming to stand still as he saw the Southern men stop, dressing their line, flag waving. He stared, wide-eyed, hearing men from his regiment loading their guns, the tearing of paper and clinking ramrods. Tom had done this countless times in the past two months, had shot a gun ever since he was a child. His mind was numb, couldn’t bring his trembling hands to reach into his cartridge box—

“Load! Load this rifle!” Colonel Logan ordered him, staring at him with wide eyes and red face. Tom nodded dumbly, pulling out a paper cartridge and ripping it open with his teeth. He dumped the powder into the barrel, remembering the steps when suddenly rattling gunshots filled the air, and men from the 31st began to drop to the ground, some shouting, others staring at the sky without uttering a sound. Tom gaped at them. Men he’d seen in camp now lay there with holes in their bodies. Colonel Logan shouted, “Ready! Aim!” Tom automatically raised the Springfield to his shoulder.


Tom pulled the trigger, the deadly bullet missing its target, hitting a tree trunk. He placed the butt of his rifle on the ground, reaching into the cartridge box once again, grabbing a paper cartridge, loading again. Taking aim. Firing. Tom’s body shook violently, forcing himself to stand there, to keep loading, keep firing. Every sane fiber of his being told him to run. Yet insanity told him to go forward with the regiment, taking a step, then another, gaining ground, moving slowly. Tom wanted to weep, hating himself for what he was doing. What if they aren’t ready to die? Suddenly the booming sound of artillery fire shook the ground, coming from in front of them. Tom saw the shell as it sailed overhead, and he threw himself to the ground as it blasted a hole in their line. The motion had knocked his kepi hat off, chunks of mud hitting his back and head.  Tom closed his eyes as he heard chilling, blood-curdling screams that he never again wanted to hear for the rest of his life.

“Lie down! Lie down, men!” Colonel Logan shouted.

The regiment lay down in the cold mud. Tom clutched his rifle to his chest, feeling as if he didn’t know what to do with it anymore. Tom heard Colonel Logan give the order for the regiment to reload, and automatically he propped himself up upon his elbows, pressing the butt of his rifle against his shoulder and pulling the trigger once more. It would be over soon. It would be over, the Confederates would flee, and the 31st would fight another day. Oh, God, let it be over! Artillery shells shot over their heads, the earth trembling. Tom covered his head each time, shaking and holding his breath. Suddenly, the order was given to rise up. Tom obeyed, seeing the Confederates falling back. The 31st surged forward, emerging out of the woods and into a cornfield. Tom carried his rifle in his hands, marching with his regiment as they surely would carry the day, and it would all be over—cannons were waiting for them, ripping holes in the line, throwing up dust and mud and grass. Tom once again dived to the ground, closing his eyes, his body quaking. Screams, shrieks that were otherworldly.

“Fall back! Fall back, men! Back to the trees!” Colonel Logan yelled.

Tom stood and did what he’d wanted to do since the start of this battle. He turned and ran, fleeing to the safety of the woods, wanting to hide under the thicket and stumps and never come out until it was over. He carried his rifle with both hands, his breath rapid. Almost there—The bullet whizzed past him, and suddenly David reeled backwards, falling hard onto the ground below. He stared up at the sky, and Tom could do nothing but stare down at him in shock, hearing the swirl of voices around him. Men dressed in blue ran past him, eyes fixed upon the safety of the trees. Tom knelt down, feeling his knees sink into the mud.

“David!” he urged, feeling his entire body tremble. “David, come on!”  He grasped his friend’s arm, trying to pull him up, noticing for the first time the limpness of the body. Tom saw the blood stains littering David’s chest, the lifeless eyes staring at nothing. Tom felt his entire body go numb as he let go of his friend’s arm. An artillery blast from close by made him jump, and he lay flat over David’s body, feeling mud and dirt spray over him.

“He’s dead, son! Come on!” urged an officer. Tom looked down at David once more, mind not processing, tears stinging his face as he took up his rifle and ran into the safety of the trees.


Emily Wright received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English in December of 2014 from Union University in Jackson, TN. She is currently an English teacher at Halls High School, where she loves to educate her students about how history and literature collide. This is her second publication.

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