Looking Past a Face This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

October 16, 2012
Looking Past a Face

(Based on a true story)

His steel, unwavering stare pierced directly through her, as Major General Rosecrans strode down the rugged line of exhausted, blood-weary soldiers, he seemed to study her intently, Emily avoided his gaze hoping that he would look away. What few men remained of her regiment and company stood at attention, the past few days at Stones River had been a bloodbath of battle, noise, and cruel death, now the day was worn and motionless, like the soldiers. The drizzling Tennessee weather was a great deal different than the frozen gales she had been used to back in Michigan. The earths mire, covered the countryside around the river she imagined the fields as they once were, rolling meadows of olive grass, yellow daises speckling the ground, like freckles, and she wished she could have visited Stones River before the skirmish. Now her uniform was spattered with mud, grime, and a deep scarlet stain that would never be washed from her clothes or her heart. Emily’s outward appearance was identical to the other men, her uniform was just as filthy and ragged; surely she would pass as the same. She had no idea what she would do with her life if she was to be discharged. She determined right then and there that no matter what happened she wouldn’t go back to wearing those horrid frilly costumes that her mother forced her to wear. They were a frivolous luxury, disrespectful to the men who barely had enough clothes on their back let alone shoes to save their feet from the daggers of icy snow. She had never realized how truly horrible her corset was until she had trashed it back at the recruiting office, the Army issued blue wool uniform was itchy and hot, still, it was a thousand times more comfortable. She never regretted hiding her true identity by enlisting in the Federal army. When her best friend, John told her that he was going to enlist, she had followed him, enlisting in the drum corps of a Michigan regiment. John had only asked her why once, and then she never answered him, it was something she couldn’t explain.

Her attention was jerked back to the deserted battlefield, General Rosecrans stood directly in front of her, “Private Wood, step forward”, he ordered. She jumped to obey his command, by now she had gotten used to obeying orders in a split-second; it had taken her a while to get used to her new name though ,Kade Wood, it was her father’s name and she had always liked it. Now her secret was found out, and she would be humiliated in front of all the men she had fought with for the past four years. Emily closed her eyes, ready for the general’s harsh language. Instead she heard a tone of admiration in his voice. “This solider is to be honored for bravery beyond the call of duty; he risked his life to save a fellow soldier. I’m sending a letter of recommendation to Washington for the Medal of Honor, well done soldier.”Anger stabbed her heart; she was not a hero. She was numb, she wanted to scream and yell and accuse the world, show them what their pride had done. Emily had wanted to die with her friend but she had not. The only cheerful feeling she had at the moment, was a subtle relief that no-one had guessed that she was not a man. She stood at attention waiting for dismissal.

After dismissal Emily staggered to her tent, she no longer felt human, her chest was like stone, and her eyes refused to shed their weight. She desperately wanted to cry, her father used to tell her that tears were as sign of healing; a cleansing of the soul. Emily was no-where close to healing. She wanted to scream out but her shriek was bound within, causing a swollen lump in her dry throat. Her mind wanted to hate the soldier who had murdered John, but her cloudy heart could not. The haze of gunpowder and mist had cleared slightly that day, and she had seen him, the boy who had shot her friend. He looked no more than fourteen, his face was covered in dust, his uniform was drenched in blood, and dirty brown tears ran down his face. No, Emily could not hate him; instead she despised herself for not being the one to take the bullet. She still dreamed of that moment, she loathed sleep; it brought no relief only the torturous pain of reality. The horrid pictures were still so real in her mind. A gaping puncture torn in John’s chest, his blood spilling out onto the great grey rocks they had been using as cover from the shell of deathly rain. Before, she had always ignored the shockingly mangled, lifeless corpses that lay all around her, it was better if she refused to think of them, to pretend they weren’t there. Now she was forced to acknowledge the fact that death was real. With-out any thought for herself, she clutched her friend, shell and mortar exploding around them, she suffered the stinging explosives as they hurled past her face. Another slug struck John’s side as they moved. In a last effort, John lifted his head; his lips were dry and chapped, he tried to whisper something, then his head fell to his chest. Dragging his 150 pounds of burdensome weight across the line of fire, it was a miracle she made it to the emergency station alive; Emily knew that he was dead. His limp form and frozen face gave it away; still she waited for him to wake up. When she was a little girl, Emily had always believed that when someone died they would look like one of the serene angels from the picture in her mother’s Bible. She wiped the sweaty dirt from his face with the last little bit of musky water that remained in her rusted canteen. It wasn’t true; his expression was horrible, twisted like the bullet that had made its way through his body. She imagined having to notify John’s parents of his death, and she could not. Yes, it was better not to tell them. Reaching into his jacket she discovered a small grey Bible in his front pocket; it was discolored from his blood but for some reason Emily shoved it in her pocket, planning to look at it again later. She remembered someone from her regiment, coming hours later to drag her away. The battle must have come to an end, but she had no recollection of it. Emily followed without protest, without emotion.

Emily rested alone in her tent. John had always made sure she had her own, and that she had complete privacy, always sticking up for her when someone complained. She shook her head, trying to free herself of unwanted memories, out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of John’s Bible where she had thoughtlessly hurled it the night before.
Wanting to break-away from the past, Emily clutched the Bible and strolled down to the creek; believing that being alone would somehow calm her, give her hope. Staring past the brook into the distant battlefield, she heard their voices, the bloating dead bodies of her fellow men had disappeared in the night, but their everlasting wail remained. A thousand moans riding the wind begged her for a cause, she had no answer for the dead it was bloody war. Plugging her ears to the sound ghosts, the swelling trees, and the rippling creek, everything around her became silent, except for her heart; it constantly pounded a question that could never be answered. A sudden rustling danced through the leaves, Emily whipped around, but saw only an empty stillness. Staring down the muddy shore, Emily noticed a stone with strange coloring, it stuck up in the murky creek bed, mocking her because it was beautiful and she was not. She bent down and seized it from the loose sand, the crystals of melted ice flowing over her hands, as she bent over the creek John’s Bible fell from her hands, she didn’t even care because for a moment she glimpsed John’s face reflected in the pebble. All her pent up anger and hate washed over her at that moment, covering her in a cloak of bitterness. With all her might she flung the stone out across the rippling water letting out a scream as it sank beneath the water. Emily suddenly felt more exhausted than she had ever been and threw herself down on the river-bank, then she happened to look down at the bible, it lay sprawled out where it had opened, to the side of it lay her mother’s picture of the angels. As she gazed at the picture, it began to rain; big tears swept down her face and washed over the Bible cleaning away the blood.

Epilogue: Her letter of recommendation was lost in a mail train that was blown up by a rebel scouting party; no records exist to prove that a letter was sent. Emily never saw her family again, during the Battle of Chattanooga, in Tennessee she was shot in the side. It became clear that she would not survive, her wounds were fatal and the doctors discovered through her mutilated body that she was a woman. At first she refused to speak or disclose her real name, but when it became clear to her that she would not survive, Emily asked to dictate a telegram, which was to be sent to her father who was in Brooklyn at the time. It read,
“Forgive your dying daughter. I have but a few moments to live. My native soul drinks my blood. I expected to deliver my country but the fates would not have it so. I am content to die. Pray forgive me……Emily.”
She was only nineteen years old.

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This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

NerdGirl said...
Oct. 22, 2012 at 1:29 pm
wow. just one question. did they really have the medal of honor back in the day?
SamanthaKate replied...
Oct. 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm
Thank you.And yes,they did have a Medal of Honor,they just weren't technically awarded until the end of the civil war.And they weren't as prestigious,or regarded as highly as they are today.Good question though=)
SamanthaKate replied...
Oct. 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm
Thank you.And yes,they did have a Medal of Honor,they just weren't technically awarded until the end of the civil war.And they weren't as prestigious,or regarded as highly as they are today.Good question though=)
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