Sit a while and I'll spin a yarn about the Civil War
|winner of the Once Upon a Time -- History Contest - 2800 wds - 1863
I believe I am the only person living who remembers Ira Howard. Ira had been a widower for many years and lived in a small house that occupied a corner of my father's farm. He was in his seventies when, as a boy of twelve, I used to rush down the lane to spend the evening with him on the porch swing. A thin man with a rough-hewn face, soft gray eyes, and snow-colored hair, he was a hero to me, a very old, very gentle hero.
Ira's weather-beaten porch was not just a porch to me, but a time machine Ira used to transport me to another era; to step there was to pass through an invisible threshold into the past. I shared his life with him on that swing.
I noticed an uncharacteristic tenseness about him as I bounded up the warped steps on that hot evening of July 1, 1912. Ira was sitting stiffly, staring across the lane at something in the cornfield. The swing was motionless and he seemed to hardly notice my presence as I sat beside him.
After a few minutes of silence he asked, "Do you know what night this is?"
"Yep. Monday," I said, as my eyes scanned the field hoping to see what held his attention.
"That's right. But it's something else," he said, "Something that happened a long time back."
I thought for a minute, but could find no answer. "What?"
"I’ll give you a hint. It happened forty nine years ago this day."
I grew impatient and slightly angry; he never teased me this way. "Tell me!"
Ira nodded and with a deep sigh, set the swing in motion. "It's the forty-ninth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg."
"That's where Lincoln made his speech. Did you see him! Was you there?" I asked, hoping I had stumbled onto the answer to his riddle.
"No, I wasn't there," he answered. "But I fought in the battle on the first day."
"You never told me about that one."
"It seems I haven't."
"Sometimes a man does things he feels he must keep hidden from others. A secret he cannot share. Do you understand what I mean?"
I merely shrugged, but I think I did understand, even then. Our times together were relaxed and cordial, but on this night a veiled wall separated us. Ira was a truthful man and never seemed to think of himself as a hero, though he had won promotions for gallantry during the Civil War. He never glamorized his stories with the bloodshed and violence so popular today. Not until I became older and saw the prints of Matthew Brady's daguerreotypes did I realized the extent of the carnage of the battles in which he participated.
"It's been plaguing my mind for a time, now," he continued, "And I guess this is the right time to talk about it. You are still young enough that you will soon forget what I am about to tell you. Beside we are best friends and best friends shouldn't keep secrets from each other."
With that statement, all my anger dissipated and with a gentle push against the deck of the porch, we began our journey back to Gettysburg.
"Gettysburg was a tidy little town, set upon an open, rolling plain, nestled among the mountains that surrounded it. Not a large town, but it was neat and prosperous.
"We rode in on the afternoon of the thirtieth of June, 1863, the day before the battle started. We had been ordered to find out what General Lee was doing and where his troops were, but not to do any actual fighting. That was because our infantry support was still ten miles away.
"The day was a hot one. The dust roiled in clouds as we rode. And just as we entered the town itself, we saw the flags of the Confederates on the ridges on the western edge of town. There weren't many of them, but enough to make us stop and wonder for a minute. We sat on our horses waiting for General Buford to decide what to do next, but before he could, them rebels began to withdraw, moving slowly toward the mountain pass to the west. We followed them for about a mile. Then Buford ordered us to make camp.
"We were strung out in a long, thin arc that stretched to the north of Gettysburg. My brigade, the 8th Illinois, stayed on a low wooded ridge called McPhearson's Ridge, just behind a trickle of water named Willoughby Run.
"We was thankful for being so close to water because after riding all afternoon, our throats were dry. Everybody slipped down there for a drink or to wash the grit off their faces. It was almost like a picnic, so quiet and peaceful. But we all knew it couldn't last. We expected the rebel skirmish line to be attacking at any moment across the fields of wheat and grain that lay in front of us.
"Usually we finished the necessary chores of making camp quickly so we could have time to play cards and talk. But not on that night. The whole brigade sensed something peculiar in the air and couldn't settle down. The darkness seemed to be only a mantle that was covering something extraordinary. Something to be revealed with the light of day.
"Just before dawn the sergeant came by and woke me. He told me to be especially watchful while on sentry duty. That General Buford expected the rebels to engage us in full force at the first light and I was to fire a warning shot as soon as I saw their skirmish line advancing.
"I went to my post reluctantly. I went because it was my duty to go; I could not disobey orders. On my way to the spot among the trees, I began thinking about what could happen to me when the sun rose. Thoughts like that are deadly to a soldier because it makes him worry about things that are better left to God's Will, but I was overcome with a haunting sense of foreboding.
"Shortly after taking my position near Marsh Creek, I grew very thirsty and disobeyed orders by leaving my post to make my way to the creek. I kept peering into the darkness for movements, but saw nothing unusual. I leaned my rifle against a nearby tree and knelt and cupped my hands, filling them with cold water. I was getting a second drink when I heard the rifle cock. The rebel must have seen me coming and waited for the right moment, for I was unarmed except for the knife sheathed in my right boot.
"I surveyed the woods without moving and spotted him well hidden in the dark shadows of the trees across the creek. He had his rifle aimed directly at me. He motioned for me to come and pointed west, toward his own troops.
"I was overcome with fear as I walked. My mind flooded with the thoughts of the grisly rumors I'd been hearing about life and death in the southern prison camps. It don't take much thinking along those line to make a man wonder if he'd be better off dead than in a place like Libby Prison. But I had been thinking too much on that night, with not enough concentration on being a soldier. As a result, I had made a dangerous and stupid mistake. Now I was a prisoner of the enemy. I suppose I could have yelled or done something to alert the other pickets, but that would not have brought about my rescue, only my death. I knew that the rebel's commanding officer would want to interrogate me and that he would want to keep me alive any way possible. That and my knife were the only hopes I had.
"The sun was just sending out its first rays when we came to a long, low rock wall separating two fields. As I threw my left leg across, the Reb spotted my new boots.
"I shorely do like them boots, Yank," he said.
"He was admiring them lustily, for despite the mud and water stains from crossing the creek, they were a real fine pair. And they gave me an idea. He was dressed as most of the rebels we had captured that year; like a tattered scarecrow, but I could make out nothing of his face beneath his brimmed hat except the slight flickering of his eyes.
"Reb," I said to him, "I'll give ya these here boots and twenty dollars in greenbacks if you'll turn me loose."
He pointed his rifle at me right then and said; "Don't try to escape or I will shoot y'all. And I will git them fancy cavalry boots and them there greenbacks and anythin' else ya got when I am ready for 'em, so y'all jest hop on over that there wall and keep agoin."
"Up till then, I guess, I must have thought the whole ordeal was only a bad dream and I would wake up at any moment. But after speaking to him, I realized that I truly was heading to Libby Prison. I had to stall him somehow and hope to find a way out of the mess.
"Reb," I said, looking at him as boldly as I could, "I don't figger on dying in no prison camp. If I am to die, I want to die in battle. I ain't goin' any further." Then I swung my leg back over the wall and sat down.
"He didn't say anything for a minute, then, "You must be crazy, Yank."
"Take the boots and money right now. Then let me go," I said.
"I caint do that, Yank. General Heth will want to talk to you about how many of you'uns' is over there, so I caint let you go. And I don't want to shoot an unarmed prisoner, but I will if y'all makes to escape."
"I will die either way," I told him and stood up.
"Our boys die up North, too," he said, pointing his rifle at my chest. "My troops will be moving this way soon, so we'll just wait for 'em."
"We both knew that I was trapped; all he had to do was outlast me. I sat down again, wondering if he would really kill me if I just started walking away, but he watched me warily, shifting nervously from time to time, and I realized that he would.
"Then, carrying distinctly on the clear, hot morning air, came the unmistakable sounds of troops moving. As General Buford had predicted, the Confederates were coming with the first light of dawn and were looking for a fight.
"The reb glanced at the sky, which was reddening steadily as the sun crawled over the saw-toothed mountains to the east. "Hope there's a plenty a you blue bellies over yonder. Cause it sounds like our boys're on the way."
"The darkness was retreating rapidly and I saw his face fully for the first time. His voice was a deep as my own, but he was not nearly my age. He was probably still in his teens.
"His eyes are what I remember best; they were much older than the rest of him. They had seen too much violence and bloodshed for a boy his age.
He kept looking uneasily at me, then toward his own army. All of a sudden he said; "Let's have them boots, yank!"
"I slid off the left boot and held it out to him. He smiled when he saw how really fine they were made.
"Just then a rifle spoke out sharply and was immediately followed by four or five shots in quick answer. We both looked toward the north from where the sounds came. "Reckon it's a-startin, Yank," he said and made his fatal mistake; he wanted to make sure he had the boots on before his fellows reached us so nobody else could claim them. He leaned his rifle against the stonewall so he could use both hands to force his foot into the boot. He got so busy that he paid little attention to me, so as I pulled off the right boot, I slid the knife out and concealed it against my thigh.
"I suppose I could have hit him in the head with a stone from the wall, or just hit him with my fist and made my escape, but he was just too close to his rifle. If I didn't hit him just right, he might have been able to get to it and shoot me. And waiting to decide which to use meant a dark and foreboding future in Libby Prison.
"So, while he was wrestling with the boot, I lashed out with my knife.
"He didn't scream or cry out. He grunted and sank to his knees, holding himself upright by clutching the wall with one hand, while I stood there staring stupidly at the spreading stain of blood on his chest. I was shaking as though I was freezing cold. Then I started blubbering about how sorry I was and how I was just so scared of dying in a prison camp.
"He didn't talk to me. His eyes closed and when I saw his lips moving, I knew he was praying.
"I ran then. Made it back to my own lines and fought in my bare feet all day. I can't recall much about the battle itself that day, except that we fought until nearly eleven o'clock before we were relieved. And then we were called back again in the afternoon, after our troops were routed and the Confederates were about to take Gettysburg itself.
"The fighting was severe that day and I didn't have time to dwell on what I had done, but it all caught up with me that night. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that with such heavy losses, he might have been killed anyway. What I had done was not the same as being on the line, shooting at and being shot at by forms many yards away. On the line, fate chose who was a casualty and who wasn't. I was no different from anyone who fought in that war. I only wanted to survive and get back home. But I cannot use that desire to excuse myself for doing such an evil thing. And since that day I have often wondered about that young rebel. Wondered who he was and what sort of life I had kept him from."
The swing stopped. The cooling breeze carried the sounds of chirping crickets through the still night. After a long, rigid pause Ira relaxed a little.
"I never answered anybody when they asked why I didn't have boots on. I never told my wife this story in all the years we were married. And I had to tell someone. I told you because you are young and will soon forget what I've said."
He held his right hand before his face and looked at it as if it weren't a part of his body, then dropped it back into his lap, "I vowed to return to that stone wall after the battle and maybe find him still there. I hoped that he carried a letter or something with his home written on it so I could write his family and tell them what had become of their beloved son. And to ask for their forgiveness. But we were ordered into Maryland the next morning and I never got back to Gettysburg. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of that day and I have saved enough money to take the train to Pennsylvania. I am going back to that stone wall."
Ira sighed deeply and massaged his temples with his fingertips.
"It's getting very dark. You best be getting home before your mother begins to fret." He leaned over and hugged me. "You forget the ramblings of an old man, hear?"
But Ira Howard had laid bare to me a part of himself that no other living creature had ever known and I could never forget him.
He didn't get to return to Gettysburg the next year; he died only a few weeks later.
I am old now, with grandchildren and a porch swing of my own. I sit with them when they visit and tell stories of my younger days. However, on the first day of July of every year, I sit alone on the swing and stir my memory, giving life again to a nearly forgotten man named Ira Howard.