A/N: A prompt from my "Creative Non-Fiction" class at DYWC. The guidelines were 1) The piece had to be about a real event, 2) It had to include at least three people who were actually involved, and 3) It had to include four facts. This piece is dedicated to Dasan, my Creative Non-Fiction teacher, and Berna, with whom I joked about the Pickett's Charge of charges.
"Ready, men?" General Armistead said.
"Yes," said every private, shaking his head "no". No, no, no, we were not ready. Never ready for this death march.
"Hot today, ain't it, Will'm?" my friend Tommy said to me. I nodded as we lined up. "Heard it was about ninety degrees."
"Dear Lord," said Johnny, who was on my other side. "I can't wait to go home after this. Whereabouts are ya from, Will'm?"
"Richmond," I answered, smiling at the memory of my hometown.
"Me too. You got a gal waitin' for ya in Richmond?"
Tommy laughed. "She's all he thinks about."
"What's her name?"
"Betsy," I told them.
"How come ya went off ta fight, then? You're about, what, seventeen?"
"I'm nineteen," I said indignantly. Pa said I had to join up if I wanted any of the family property. My dad, he's a veteran an' real firm in what we believe."
It was July 3rd, 1863. I'd reckon there were about two thousand soldiers of the Confederate States lined up to fight under General Armistead. The troops following Generals Garnett and General Kemper would be preceding us into Gettysburg for the third day of battle. I hadn't seen any action yet, having started out under General Pickett, and I desperately hoped our numbers would be enough to overrun the Union fighters. Our division had no weapons. Jim, who stood next to Tommy, had his head bowed in prayer.
We started to march and, Lord, was it hot. Once the Union soldier caught sight of us, we had to keep walking through a barrage of canister and musket fire. In front of us, Garnett and Kemper's men were dropping like flies. Then I noticed that my fellow soldiers were falling, too. I saw Jim go down, but there wasn't time to think about that. Beside me, Johnny took a bullet to the leg and fell. At least it wasn't his heart, I thought.
Cemetery Ridge was getting closer and I thought we might have made a successful charge. But then, right in front of us, General Armistead got shot dead and I knew there was no chance for anything like a victory. I don't know who yelled "Retreat!"—maybe it was me—but it seemed very logical and everyone started to walk backwards. To be shot in the back was a coward's death, a Unioner's death. The reversed walk was sweltering, and more of our men fell down. Lord, don't let me be next, I prayed, and Tommy suddenly collapsed.
I didn't hesitate to grab my pal's arm and sling it over my shoulder. Tommy was older than me, bigger than me, and it was hard to carry him backwards amidst the enemy fire. A bullet bounced off the ground near my foot and it scared me half to death. Tommy stirred and lifted his head.
"Will'm?" he groaned hoarsely.
"Yeah, Tommy, I'm here," I replied, still dragging him backwards. "Were gonna be okay, Tom. We'll get back home—to Virginia."
Tommy shook his head weakly. It ended up lying limply on my shoulder. When he spoke, the words were slurred. "I don't think I'm gonna get home, Will'm."
"No—no, c'mon, Tom—Tom?—Tommy!"
He grinned slightly. "You go on back to Richmond. Go back to your Betsy, Will'm."
"Naw, Tommy, c'mon—,"
"Let go, William," Tommy said, and I realized for the first time how completely blood-soaked his clothes were. "I'll be all right, just put me down." His raised head dropped to the side for the last time, and Tommy was just dead weight hanging on me.
Add one letter to "corps" and you get "corpse". I laid Tommy's down as nicely as I could and kept walking in reverse. I ended up getting shot in the stomach, and I had to keep telling myself to continue marching and not look at the painful damage. By the time we reached a remotely safe place, I was about to pass out and black spots were invading my vision. I pulled my hand away from my wound and saw that it was slick with my own blood. Feeling I was going to be sick, I stumbled and was about to fall when someone grabbed my arm and pulled me upright.
"Lord Almighty, Will'm," they guy who'd saved me said, "ain't you in a state?" I looked at him, struggling for recognition.
"Johnny," I exclaimed feebly. He nodded and eased me into a lying-down position. "Johnny, but I seed you get shot…"
He pointed at his bandaged left calf. "The Doc fixed me up. I'll get him over here for ya. Hey!" he yelled over his shoulder. "Kid over here got shot in the stomach, he needs some medical help!" Johnny knelt next to me. "He's comin', Will'm, just wait." His face swam with black spots and was suddenly replaced by someone else's face. It was the field medic.
"What happened, kid?"
"Been shot," I said, lifting my lead arm to pull up my blood-drenched shirt. My stomach was a red ruin. "Oh, God," I said, unable to look away. A wave of nausea swept over me. Doc forced me to lie back down. "We failed, didn't we?" I asked. Doc and Johnny looked grim. "Armistead's dead, I saw that. Tommy died, too, Johnny. I couldn't get him back—argh!" Doc put a stinging ointment on my wound. "Johnny, how many of us are left? How many from our group made it to the Ridge?"
Johnny pressed his lips together. "About two hundred men," he said finally.
I raised my head weakly. "General Picket said he was gonna call it off. It shouldn't have happened, it wasn't supposed to happen…"
"General Lee didn't give him clearance to stop the charge," the doctor informed me. "The pair of them are over there." He pointed to the side, and I flopped my head in that direction. I saw two men there, recognizing one as my former commander, General Pickett, so the other one had to have been General Lee, who the Confederacy had put in charge of the Battle of Gettysburg.
When I looked, General Lee was telling Pickett to rally his division for a counterattack from the Union. Lord, not a counterattack. We couldn't handle one. Besides, it'd be a waste of the Union's time to come after us—no one here would last more than five minutes under another attack.
To my surprise, General Pickett looked General Lee square in the eye and said, "General Lee, I have no division now." I laughed real hard at that, but I guess no one else thought it was funny 'cause Johnny and Doc were stone silent. I felt light-headed all of a sudden, and the docter looked between my stomach and my face and spoke.
"What's your name, corporal?"
"Ain't a corporal," I mumbled, shaking my head and noticing how dizzy it made me. It took a great effort to recall my title. "Private…Private William Rowland…hey—hey, Johnny. You're from Richmond, right?" Just like Tommy, I knew I wasn't going to get home. "Tell me family I'm sorry. And Johnny—it's real important you find Betsy Wilson an' let her know I love her, all right?"
"All right," he said with a thick throat. "You just…just close your eyes, Will'm."
I did. The last thing I heard was Doc saying, "Private William Rowland, deceased with honors. That's two short of five hundred of Pickett's men that have died. What a bloodbath…"