combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

I Don't Know — Summer of 1864

          I am named Wilhelm Grenville. You must excuse please my English. I am foreign born. I just learned English. I come from Switzerland.

          I moved to this country, but my wife I find in this land. Mary is her name. She was born in Virginia, but she told me her mother is Indian. We have many little ones.

          First we live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Everything is so good. Then war begins. Yankees in the north fight Rebels in the south. I ask my Mary why? She says not to worry, it is not our fight. My Mary was born in the south, but she says that with her Indian mother, she cannot be a Rebel.

          I live in the north but I am Swiss, I am not a Yankee. My Mary tells me that I have so many little ones, that I must stay out of this awful war. I don't know.

          My Mary says we must leave this war, we must go west. We must go away from this bloodshed and this killing. Somehow my Mary, she finds us an old boat. I load all we have on this old boat. We take our little ones with us. We must find a new life. We float down the Ohio River.

          First our trip is good. The river is wide but is so pretty. Steamboats fly past us all the time. We hear the hiss of steam, the wooooo of whistles, and the wooosh of paddle wheels as steamboats go by. My little ones always wave at boats.

          On our left we see Louisville, Kentucky. My Mary asks is this not a good place? This place is full with Yankee soldiers. We just want to stay out of this war. We go through the Falls of the Ohio. But we are fine.

          Five miles past the Falls, a gunboat stops us. My Mary said these are Yankees. The captain will not let us go down the river. He said it is not safe. He said we must land at this town called Brandenburg, Kentucky. We must stay there. We have no money. We must stay on the boat.

          Every day I fish in the river. Catfish we eat everyday. We get by but this is not what I want for family. My Mary is not happy. I don't know.

          We must stay. My Mary has another baby. Now we have seven little ones. Our boat, it is leaking. I fear to move our boat, it may sink.

          Our first year we see Yankees with blue coats. They always look for Rebels with gray coats. They do not bother us. We have no neighbors. It is lonely but my Mary and me, we have our seven little ones.

          Always we hear stories about these Rebels but we never see them. Some folks call them devils. Other folks call them angels. I don't know.

          The next year we stop seeing Yankee soldiers. Folks tell me they go south to Tennessee. They fight Rebels there. I try to patch my boat. I want to leave Brandenburg. But still my boat leaks.

          Our money is gone. My Mary says we are poor. I keep fishing. I try to catch rabbits and squirrels. I have only a small knife. I do the best I can. It is so hard with seven little ones but I am trying.

          My Mary goes to the woods. She gathers nuts and berries. She makes bread with acorns. It feeds the little ones.

          Then one bad day we see men with gray coats. My Mary says these are Rebels. They have horses and guns. I fear for my little ones. I fear for my Mary. My heart aches.

          Rebels ask me for horses and other animals. I tell them I am a poor man who lives on this old boat. I have nothing. If I had a pig, I would kill it to feed my little ones. They are hungry.

          They ask me for guns. I tell them I have no guns. I must fish always.

          They ask me for money. I want to laugh. I tell them if I have money, I would not live on this old boat. I could have a real home, I could have a farm.

          Last they ask me for food. I tell them I have no food. My little ones want food. These rebels are mean. I still fear for my little ones and for my Mary.

          Soon these rebels are back on their horses. They ride away. From me they get nothing. I tell my Mary that these mean men may come back. They do not like my answers. I don't know.

          I tell my Mary bad men like this will come back. When they come back she must do one thing that is so important. She must run with the little ones into the woods. The two oldest little ones must carry the two babies. My Mary must drag the other three with her. They must hide. She tells me yes, she will do this for me.

          Many days later more men visit us. They ride horses but they have blue coats. My Mary says yes, these are Yankees. I tell her to take the little ones and hide in the woods.

          They run into the woods. I go to meet these Yankees. The leader wants to know about Rebels. I tell him only many days ago. This man acts like the Rebels. He asks me about food and money. I tell him I have no food and no money. I tell him I would not live on this leaky boat if I have food and money. I lie to him. I tell him I live alone.

          This man asks me about guns and horses. I tell him like I tell Rebels. Can he not see that I am not a rich man? He stares at me. He likes not my answers.

          They look around my boat. Finally they go. I fear so much for my Mary and my little ones. I think these bad men may return. I don't know.

          A few days later my Mary starts coughing. There is blood. More and more she coughs. Soon she coughs all the time. She says she has something called consumption. Her momma has it, her momma dies, she tells me. Now it is my Mary's time. I have no medicine. I have no money. There are no doctors. I worry and worry. She never gets better. My heart breaks. I don't know.

          Then one day more men on horses come. These men are strange. They are dirty and wild like beasts. They have no uniforms. Who are they?

          My Mary is so sick, so weak, she stays in bed. I hand the two babies to the two oldest little ones. I tell them to run into the woods. I tell the other three little ones to follow. I tell them to not look back, to not come back. They all run towards the woods. They hide like I tell them.

          I go out to the leader. He says he is militia. I ask where are his uniforms? He tells me it is none of my business. I ask him Yankee or Rebel? He tells me not to talk, it still not my business. I think him to be a very bad man.

          This bad man, he asks me about bluecoats and graycoats. I tell him not for many weeks. He maybe does not believe my words.

          This man looks around. He asks me for food. I tell him we eat so little. This awful war has gone on for so long.

          He tells me he must have money. I tell him if I have money I have food. He does not believe me, maybe. He tells me he will look inside my old boat. I say yes to him. No choice do I have.

          He tells me he must have guns, he must have horses. I cannot give these to him. I have none. I tell him.

          This man is angry. He tells me I am hiding everything. I shake my head no. I say no. I do not lie. I have nothing, I am poor. He does not believe me. I am so afraid for my Mary and my little ones. I don't know.

          What do I do? I have no one to help me. I have no one to help my Mary. I have no one to help my little ones. I try to think. These men are very bad.

          I hear something. I look behind me. I see my Mary. She tries to stand up. She leans on the boat. She is so sick. She tries to talk but coughing stops her. Go back, I tell her. She coughs and she does not hear.

          Now many men stand in front of me. They point guns at me. They have mean looks on their faces. I am afraid to move. I am afraid not to move. I must do something. I don't know.

          My Mary tries to run away. There are men yelling. There are men shouting. I hear guns fire. Black smoke is in my face. My Mary screams. She falls down. She is crying. She is bleeding. There is so much blood everywhere. I kneel to help her.

          I feel a terrible burning in my belly. I feel wetness on my fingers. I must fight these bad men. I swing my fists. I kick. I am angry. I am shouting. I am crying.

          I cannot stand. My legs will not work. My arms will not work. My head hurts me so. My chest hurts me so. There is fire in me but I am so, so cold. It is so dark. I cannot see. There is wetness everywhere. I wonder about my little ones.

          Oh God! I want to cry out. Why my Mary? Why me? Why? I don't know.

Historical Note: This story is loosely based on a family history from Brandenburg, Kentucky. William and Mary Greenfield were killed in 1864. Brandenburg, the county seat of Meade County, was hard hit by guerrillas during the Civil War.

by Charles T. Suddeth
... who is currently an MAT graduate student at Spalding University, and is also working on two historical novels.

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