The Battle for Little Round Top
The sun came up over the Pennsylvania hills like a great big burst of heaven. James took some water from his canteen, and stared at it for a moment, wondering if it would be his last. He was a private first class in the 20th Maine in the summer of 1863. James was just seventeen. He had enlisted a month earlier because of pressure from his family, but he felt a strong sense of patriotic duty to the Union. He also believed the slaves should be free, but he wasn’t an adamant abolitionist. Boot camp was cake compared to what was about to be James’ first battle. He was terrified. He couldn’t eat breakfast, so he lay down in his tent, doubled over in anxiety. It was hot and humid, and his uniform clung to him like a wet T-shirt. He didn’t want to die, as he imagined what war would be like: terrible, ruthless, charged with adrenalin, and unforgiving. James could taste the grave like it was dry brown sugar.
“Redding! What the hell are you doing?” asked fellow private Ross. They were tent buddies and friends since high school. Ross had been in the service for over a year, and was much more experienced than James. James was green.
“Are you alright?” Tim asked as James sat up from his cot.
“No, Tim I’m not alright.” James squeaked out a solitary sentence. His hair was disheveled and he looked as though he were about to vomit.
“You know James it helps to not to think about the game until you are actually playing it; over-anticipation can be a sin.”
“I can’t get it out of my head. I can’t help it. I just know I’m gonna turn yellow and run,” James worried. “How did you make it the first time around?”
Tim sat down next to James on the cot and took off his hat. His hair was red and sweaty, and his face was dirty from much toil. He liked to keep it that way. Tim had not risen through the ranks to corporal or even sergeant because of his lack of respect for the rules of combat. He didn’t obey orders and he didn’t make many friends, but he was a hell of a soldier. He declined several decorations because he felt he was just doing his duty—he was a very complex character; and the men had a profound respect for him.
“When I saw my first action I wet my britches. Bullets were zinging by left and right; I wanted to drop to the ground, and I did, but only because I got hit in the arm. While I was freaking out on the ground, now this was at the 2nd Bull Run, I looked up at God and thought it could never get worse than this, and it didn’t. I got up and opened fire over twenty times before our retreat. God was watchin’ over me, you see?”
“Now I see that St. Christopher’s Medal you wear over your heart, James, and I know you’ll be traveling on the right path in no time. So buck up partner! Oh, and another thing; try not to look at them straight in the eyes. It’s easier that way, believe me.”
The marching horn came over the tents like a ripple of cold water. Tim and James got their gear and got into formation, but James took one last look at the sun through the trees. He felt better; looking at what he thought would be his final sunrise.
What James soon learned was that the Union would have the high ground in this battle. That seemed to relieve him some. The whole 20th Maine was the far left flank of the division on the second day of battle. They had to hold, or else the Rebels could charge the whole division from behind. The regiment was in a mass of tall trees, standing on grass and huge granite boulders. When they reached their line of demarcation they loaded their muskets. James was getting nervous, but Tim was on his right, and he put a hand on his James’ shoulder. James wanted to flee. He had so many conflicting thoughts. He had trouble loading his musket because his hand was shaking; he guessed that that was the way it was in battle, with screaming Rebels shooting back at you. Tim could see James was visibly distraught.
“Remember James, these Rebels want to destroy the Union that our forefathers laid down and died over. They’re nothing but skunks, slave-drivers and haughty, high and mighty assholes. Give them a good volley in the chest if they come runnin’ up that hill, but remember, don’t look in their eyes.”
“What happens if I look them in their eyes?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
James primed his musket, getting ready for the fight. He also said a prayer to St. Christopher who had always led him on the right path. He guessed he was destined to be there, just as Tim was there to help him overcome his fear.
The sun had risen to almost noon and there was silence across the whole line. Tim gave James a swig of his whiskey, of which he always kept, and it helped to calm his nerves. The quiet was almost unnerving. The lieutenant had said they should be expecting a full frontal assault. But when?—nobody knew. James dug his boots into the earth and licked his lips in the pure Pennsylvania heat, and all the men said their prayers.
Sure enough, they heard cries coming from the bottom of the hill. At first, James could see nothing but silhouettes dancing in the light, ghosts running through the trees, howls skipping through the thick, sultry air. Their craze was intimidating. He was terrified, but he got off a shot and it made him feel better. “That’s it greenhorn!” Tim shouted. “Now put your back into it!”
There was chaos all around. The din was suffocating. The smoke was everywhere. James was swimming in it. Somehow he managed to lodge his cotton, gunpowder, and miniball in his barrel, and he pulled the flintlock. He couldn’t tell if he hit someone, so he just prepared and fired again until he could see their winding bodies almost forty yards from the Union line. The Confederates were being annihilated by the volley of miniballs and they forthwith, retreated.
Tim said, “Keep on your guard, they’ll be coming again. Those Rebels never know when to stop.” So James loaded his weapon again and waited quietly. He felt awkward. It was fear that drove him at first, but soon a certain confidence filled his actions. He was prepared to die, and yet he was managing three shots per minute—staggering. His hands had long stopped shaking, and were firm and adroit. When the Rebels had stopped advancing he felt entirely relieved. He had found his nerve.
Tim gave James another swig off his whiskey and started talking about his old girlfriend from Freeport, Maine. He wrote her almost every week. He said she had the most beautiful hair he had ever seen—long, blond, and like water.
“You did good, greenie,” Tim said. “Let’s hope you can fight off another enemy charge the way you did the first, because they’ll be getting closer and closer every time.”
“They’re comin’ again?”
“You bet your ass they’re comin’ again, and crazier than ever. Stay low and aim for their chests. You got it?”
“Yeah, I got it.” But James didn’t really. He felt the fear creeping in again. It was like he couldn’t hear anyone speak at all. He thought about home, his mother and father, his bedroom, where he would most like to be. It was all about where he would most like to be. Not here, on this dreadful hill spilled over with corpses, of the good and the bad. And what was good and bad? He now felt that slavery was as far away from him as England. What divided such a nation? Culture he decided; it must be culture. We’re killing for culture. James inner voice vacillated. Why couldn’t he be more like Tim—driven, courageous, and single-minded? James’ conscience would kill him before the Rebels would. He had been taught how to think analytically by his professors at school, and James had absorbed much of it. Then he decided that everyone should be given such opportunities, and James awoke from his deep brooding. The South was wrong, and hypocritical. All men were created equal. They were destroying our nation. And here he was defending the red, white, and blue with his life. James decided then that he was a soldier first and foremost. There was no time for hypothesizing in the heat of battle. High school was a dream.
Now that James had his allegiance in order, he could pay attention to the practical concerns of battle. The holes in the line were filled with new soldiers, and Colonel Chamberlain paced back and forth shouting passages the bible to try and invigorate the boys. The smoke had cleared and the men stood by probably thinking of pleasant things. Chamberlain had ordered a group of men to form a right angle at the end of the line to stop the Rebel advance. It would prove to be a very wise decision. Then they all heard the cries again.
James fired his musket repeatedly at the enemy. He could hear the miniballs whizzing by his ears, and the screaming was getting closer. James could almost see their eyes they were so close. Tim was a machine; he was undaunted and brave, filling holes where he could and howling like an animal. He was an inspiration. However, there was one problem. James was running out of ammunition, and it disturbed him. He began picking up dead men’s muskets and using those, until the Rebels receded yet again. He felt he was very lucky, indeed. Tim was still alive and kicking, and it made him happy, but much of the Union line was decimated.
“Well James, it looks like it’s you and me!” Tim shouted and then laughed heartily. “We’ll have to hold them off ourselves if they come again… and I think they just might.”
“I’m out of ammunition,” replied James.
“Don’t worry so is everyone else.”
“So what are we gonna do?”
“I guess that’s up to Chamberlain.”
And indeed Chamberlain had made the decision… to fix bayonets. They had to hold their ground, by any means possible. Tim thought it was it great. He said, “That colonel’s got real brass balls.” James was about two wet his britches. Physically he wondered if he could stand up to the Rebs. He was five-eleven, of medium build. Tim was even smaller. “But hand to hand combat… that’s nuts,” he thought to himself. He secretly prayed those Rebels wouldn’t charge again. This time he was really frightened. He felt like the reaper had just drawn his name out of a hat. “Bayonets! You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Then the order from the lieutenant came. “Fix bayonets!” James put the shiny tool on the tip of his musket, he couldn’t take it anymore. The Yanks had plugged up all the holes in their line and were ready for an advance. Tim took one look at James and thought his friend was going to have a nervous breakdown then and there.
“James, relax. Take a deep breath. Now here’s what you do. Run like a bat out of hell until you find the enemy, then jab him in the stomach. If he dislodges your weapon, beat the living shit out of him, because remember, he’s not going to show you any mercy, no more than he does the coloreds. If they had the chance, they’d stab old Abe right in the back. Feel all that hate and adrenalin pump inside you, and unleash it. And remember, try not to look him directly in the face.”
James tried to remember what would be the longest five minutes of his life. He took another sip of whiskey, and then a long sip from his canteen because the heat was unbearable. He rolled up his sleeves on his arms and legs, so as to keep his limbs free. Then he clenched his fist over old St. Christopher and asked him for guidance, but there was no answer. Tim meanwhile was now spitting tobacco and getting all giddy. He hadn’t had hand to hand combat since the second Manassas. He was going to kill those fuckers. Tim was a real soldier. James was just a confused mess. How did he find himself out in the middle of nowhere in extreme heat about to risk his life for his country? James thought it best to stop thinking. He could hear the rustling of soldiers next to him. Weren’t they human too? Weren’t they scared too. James soon found out to give up was worse than dying to them. And that sun kept banging on top of his head! He was getting dizzy. He began to cry. Tim gave him a big hug and said that it’ll all be over like lightning so pull yourself together, and stay behind him when the time comes.
The charging horn burst through the air and they all were off, down the hill and into destiny. They emitted cries and howls and bad language. They met the enemy with clinking of sabers. James summoned all the hatred he could find in him and ran by Tim’s side. He knocked a musket out of a Rebel’s hands and stabbed him in the chest. It went in smooth and softly, and came out just as easily. There were muskets going off everywhere. Tim was acting like a madman, killing left and right. James was sparring with the Rebs and took a miniball in the side, but he kept going. The cries were coming from everywhere, and the smoke was thick. James used his musket as a weapon itself, cracking the enemy’s muskets with all his strength, and then stabbing them when he got the chance. He felt the adrenalin pumping through his body. If he was going to die, he was going down fighting.
James lost track of Tim, but he was sure he was alright. And then a funny thing happened. James saw the eyes of the enemy when he was stabbing him. A shudder went through him. He stopped dead in his tracks. The Rebels were retreating, thank God, but James was mesmerized. He looked for Tim and found that he was mortally wounded.
“Tim, Tim, are you alright?” James knelt down beside Tim and covered his wounds with his hands.
“No, my friend my time has come. Heaven awaits me, but I don’t know if they’re ready for me.”
“Tim, I looked in their eyes.”
“You idiot! It told you so. And what did you see?”
“I saw myself.”
“Of course you did—Tim was sputtering out sentences now—this war is incestuous. We’re fighting ourselves… no more, no more.
Tim died in James’ arms then and there. James never felt so alone in his life. The Yanks had taken their victory, but at a high cost. The regiment was moving out—what was left of them—to the center of the Federal line where they could rest and recuperate.
But James couldn’t leave. His friend was gone, all for the Union flag, all for the months of sitting behind wooden fortifications, sweating and worrying for your own life, all for an enemy that was really ourselves in disguise. The blood was warm from Tim’s wounds, and his body was getting cold.