combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2003

The Homecoming

            The stillness held him as closely as his blood-soaked coat of blue. His thoughts turned inward. The incessant thwack of soft lead finding human flesh and the sobs of the mangled and disfigured faded as Benajah lay on the packed Virginia dust, staring skyward through the early summer canopy of oaks and poplar. For him now, time stood still. A moment before – maybe longer – he was running, yelling, lunging for the colors that fell from the dying hands of the color guard of the 14th New Jersey Regiment. Benajah remembered reaching down, grabbing the bloodied staff and clutching it tightly across his chest as he turned to race into the sheet of flame belching from behind the heavy logs of the enemy’s barricade. Only a curious bystander now, Benajah saw himself holding the flag aloft as he unconsciously crouched to duck under the wall of shot and shell filling the early morning air. The noise of battle grew dim as he remembered pushing forward into a storm of lead and glancing up to see those white stars in a diagonal cross of Saint Andrew on the blood-red field waving defiantly over the log and earthen trench works of the Confederate lines.

            Those trenches had not been there yesterday. Benajah recalled the sounds he’d heard throughout the night of picks and shovels at work. Then he remembered Spotsylvania Courthouse. Lee’s boys had become experts at throwing up fortifications such as what stood before him as he fell. When this day dawned, Lee’s entire army was behind reinforced breastworks commanding the high ground at Cold Harbor. Interlocking fields of fire poured lead from multiple directions into Private Benajah Coates and his comrades in the 14th New Jersey Regiment.

            Hours passed. Benajah fought to stifle a cry that would alert the rebels and draw more shots. With his every turn, every moan, every sign of life, the ground around him exploded anew with clouds of dust from the .58 caliber Minié balls splattering against the hard-packed dirt. His tongue, as dry as sawdust, filled his parched throat. His one thought, my canteen, where is my canteen?

            The heavy woolen jacket, soaked with blood, added unbearable weight on a smoldering summer day. Benajah slowly inched his right arm down to his side and felt for the canteen. His lips were cracked. The burning in his gut needed more than water, but his thoughts were only of one cool sip to quench the thirst searing his dust-clogged throat. “Just one sip ....”

            Whack! The Enfield bullet smashed into the canteen, knocking it from his weak grasp. As if chastening him for his attempt, two more rounds dug into the ground above his head, covering his face with dirt. Benajah closed his eyes in despair.

            Awakened by a sound, Benajah whispered, “Who’s there? Help ... Help me, please.” Then as his mind cleared, he heard it again, not the voice of a rescuer, but the plaintive cry of another wounded soldier. His mind raced. Where is he? There? No, over there, to the front, towards the enemy. Benajah whispered again, “Who’s there?”

            The only reply was a raspy plea, “Mother, mother ...?”

            Benajah’s mind wandered to his own mother waiting in their six-room farmhouse back in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He was the oldest of five children born to Jeddah and Ruth Coates. Jeddah was a Quaker, Ruth a quiet but insistent Presbyterian. They came together in their staunch belief in abolition, but parted ways again in the manifestation of those beliefs. Jeddah could not abide the taking up of arms. Ruth believed it to be the only way to bring freedom to the Negroes and end the Southern rebellion. Benajah followed his mother, not so much for her theology as for a means of answering his own call to adventure.

            The stench of corpses already rotting in the June heat filled his nostrils as Benajah remembered back to the day he had left home. It was in ‘62. He remembered Father sitting in the sparsely furnished parlor, rocking quietly and denying every indication that his only son was going off to war. Father would not speak and did not come to the door to see him off. Mother packed for him a small valise with a sweater, two pairs of socks, and a small pocket Bible. The tear on her cheek belied the strength in her voice as she hustled him off with a packet of biscuits wrapped in a kerchief and a light-hearted jab about becoming one of “Mister Lincoln’s boys.”

            Benajah thought about going home. He wanted to talk to his father again. There was unfinished business between them. Father was a staunch Quaker, but now Benajah realized, he was also a man of the heart who had loved his Ruth so deeply that he defied his own father many years before and married out of the faith. Benajah felt a pang in his chest as he realized a special new bond with this old man. There was more of his father in him than Benajah had ever realized, and the thought brought a quiet smile to his lips.

            Smoke? Why am I smelling smoke? Benajah could only lift his head an inch or so off the ground, but that was enough to see the brush several feet beyond him burning from the flame and blast of the battle. Screams. An animal? The thoughts raced through Benajah’s mind. Not animals, but the horrible, primal cry of a man burning alive. Now the sounds of cartridges exploding – not from the barrel of a rifle, but cooking off in the soldier’s cartridge pouch. The fire was doing what the rebel sharpshooters couldn’t. Benajah prayed that it would finish its gristly work quickly.

            If I can raise my rifle, I’ll end his hell, but he couldn’t move. Benajah’s legs were without feeling. His belly burned with an internal fire that made him grimace to imagine the other flames not thirty-feet away. His arms, could he move his arms? He tried. Only the right arm responded. His left arm lay limp at his side, bone protruding where the elbow had been. A sob shook his shattered body, blocking out the hellish sounds of a forest turned inferno. Mercifully, he slipped again into unconsciousness.

            The late afternoon sun bore down on him as Benajah awoke to his pain. He was thirsty – just one sip, one small drink to wet the dust in his parched throat. With his right hand he slowly reached across his stomach in search of the canteen that was no longer there. He recoiled in horror as he touched the warm sticky mass of guts and realized he was torn wide open. He knew then that he was dying. His thoughts turned to the mundane and practical. Would they be able to identify him? How would they know where to send his body? Then he remembered the piece of paper.

            Not always, not before every battle, but at certain times, the soldiers had a premonition. They saw what was to be and quietly prepared. June 2d was such a day. Without a word being spoken, soldiers up and down the Union lines had pulled out scraps of writing paper and quickly scribbled their names and hometowns. Benajah had done as everyone else, pinning his scrap of paper to the inside of his blouse. Anyone finding his body would know that someone in New Jersey was waiting. Remembering that scrap of paper brought a moment of quiet comfort to the dying boy.

            He heard the flies more than felt them. They were swarming around the gaping wounds on his stomach and his arm. When he opened his eyes, he could see the dark specks flitting about his face. He thought about catching one with his tongue, much as a frog would do, and wondered how much moisture such a tiny creature could hold. It didn’t matter. With no control over the cracked and swollen muscle now filling his dusty throat, he couldn’t even lick the parched edges of his dried mouth.

            In time darkness shrouded the forest. Hours ago the sounds of birds had been replaced by the noises of suffering and battle. Benajah remembered Jacob, the color guard, and wondered how far away his body was. Had he suffered? Was it Jacob burning in the underbrush? Jacob had earned his place on the honor roll of the regiment this day. Benajah wondered if he had as well.

            The darkness brought respite from the enemy sharpshooters, but not from his pain. His gut was still on fire, torn open by the one-inch iron canister balls that turned a cannon into the most horrible of shotguns. Benajah watched the moon slowly light the eastern sky and wished he could see it rise once again over the pastures back home.

            A shot. Too close to be rebels. Who was trying to get those trench lines stirred up? Another shot, farther away but still between the lines. Then he understood and silently agreed. The wounded, lying between the lines, unable to move, and desperate in their pain, were doing the only thing they could to end their suffering. The Springfield rifle was unwieldy to use against oneself, but many Union soldiers that night found a way, and Benajah only wished his arms could move and allow him to join them.

            It settled over the battlefield like a soft blanket. Neither taunting nor arrogant, it was like a quiet prayer. Some Johnny Reb was coaxing the melodic strains of Dixie from a mouth harp. Benajah listened and thought how beautiful was the haunting melody. He wondered if the reb playing it had a mother and father back home, wondered what he felt and what he thought of when he looked out into the ravine that had become a no-man’s-land between the lines. Benajah was startled to find he did not feel anger towards that reb. He wanted to meet him, to talk, and to understand. Benajah hoped the rebel playing the mournful dirge was a good man, and he quietly asked a prayer of mercy for the stranger.

            As dawn was breaking in the east, a smattering of rifle fire began again from both sides. Benajah shuddered uncontrollably as a chill swept his body. He had faced the elephant. His hands had been the last to carry the regiment’s colors in the great assault that was to destroy Lee’s army. The pain in his stomach was gone, replaced by a cold numbness. His fear had quieted. His war was over. It was time for Private Benajah Coates to return to the New Jersey farm, to hold his mother tightly to his breast and feel her tears of joy. It was time for the disobedient son to go home to the quietly rebellious father and talk about life, about choices and about a manhood they now shared. The hours of hellish heat, searing pain and unspeakable fear had ended. As a last heavy breath rattled from Benajah’s broken body, his hand reached to his breast pocket and clutched the small Bible. Private Coates quietly closed his eyes, crossed the river and went home.

In 1885, wracked with cancer that would soon claim his life, retired President Ulysses S. Grant wrote, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made ... no advantage was ever gained to compensate for the heavy losses we sustained.” Against 2,500 total Confederate casualties, the Union suffered an estimated 13,000 casualties at Cold Harbor, some 7,000 of which occurred in the first thirty-minutes of the assault on the early morning of June 3d, 1864.

by Jeffrey H. Andrews
... who is a retired Marine Corps officer, and is completing a roman à clef; this is his first published work.