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Brave Young Soldier Boy
The smell of gunpowder invades my lungs, choking me. I claw at my throat as I remember that tender clicking sound, just before smoke erupts from the chamber. The quiet ping of a bullet entering a man, his uniform now sullied. A cry of an animal bubbles out of the man, who is now tumbling to the ground. I fight the urge of to get sick as I realize what I’d done. I have killed a man. The men in my brigade laugh at me as I retch, telling me I was too young to stomach the war.
Colonel Bennett shouts, “Get a hold of yourself, private!” He turns to the rest of the troops and bellows, “Reload!” The troops echo his call, the cry reverberating off the trees. I wanted to drop my gun, to scream that this wasn’t right. My body began to shake and my gun tumbles out of my hands. The whole world began to tremble; I feverishly whipped my head around, trying to find the source. “Thomas, Thomas!” the company began to shout, their eyes pointing blame at me.
“Get up lad. Quick that screaming and wake up!” a voice called, pulling me to my senses. My eyes flashed open as my living h*ll disappeared. I cautiously looked around, gasping for breath. Joseph’s eyes were filled with concern as he grimly smiled at me saying, “Welcome back.” The other men I shared a tent with, however, did not look as concerned.
“S’too early for dat,” grumbled Ethan rubbing the sleep away from his eyes. Paul groaned in agreement, trying to hide his head under a wool blanket. Joseph glanced at me once more before turning over to go back to sleep. I pulled my knees up to my chest and sighed.
At the ripe age of sixteen, I had no idea war was going to be like this. The enlistment soldiers who came to my town said that I would become a hero, fighting against the Union. My other brothers were too young to fight, and my father was too old to fight in the war. So, my family sent me, telling the enlistment soldiers that I was eighteen. I was handed a scratchy, wool blanket and a uniform, and was told to get in line. My fellow townsmen were excited to go to war; they wanted to kill some Yankees. Yet, while I stood amongst the other recruits they snickered at my stature and age. I was told right off the bat that I wouldn’t last a day.
“Dis is a man’s war, son. Go back home,” one man told me as we were started walking to Fort Henley, where we would be trained. A blush covered my face as I gritted my teeth and retorted, “I can fight just as well as you can.”
The man’s thunderous laugh jolted the surrounding men as leaned down to me and said, “We’ll see ‘bout dat.” The training was long and rough. I still have the scar from when a man’s bayonet sliced my shoulder. But I proved myself worthy of being here. Now I regret it.
The sounds of men beginning to stir around the camp sight brought me back to reality. I quietly rustled around the small tent, gathering my uniform. As I got dressed the rest of my tent mates woke up and began to do the same. Ethan attempted to tame his unruly blonde hair by running his fingers through it. Paul accepted there was no hope for his curly locks and shrugged. Joseph ignored the two as he got dressed and put on his cap.
I grabbed my bag and looked through it for my hard bread covered with brown paper. Hard bread is like biscuits, but much more disgusting, with little to no taste. I cracked off a chip from my hard bread and attempted to make breakfast from it. Our rations were very small; usually we would try to hunt food down that surrounded the camp to conserve what little we had.
Ethan foraged through his bag for his coffee beans, but sighed when he realized there were none left. “Hey, Paul got any chicory root?”
Paul yawned as he pulled some out from his bag. Using the water he had left in his canteen, Ethan put the root into the water he poured into his tin cup. He placed it over the small fire that we shared with the other tents around us. I watched with mild interest.
Paul glanced at me before venturing to the other tents, trying to find someone who had peanuts he could trade for using tobacco. Joseph pulled out his iron slab and placed it over the fire next to Ethan’s brew of poor man’s coffee. Joseph was the most experienced out of all of us. He actually had cooking supplies, and knew how to ration all of his food.
“You should ask Lieutenant Johnson for some more rations, you’re almost out,” he advised me as he put on some of his salted pork onto the hot iron. The tantalizing sizzle of fat made my mouth water. Joseph chuckled and pulled a piece off for me as well.
“Stop pitying ‘em, Joseph. He needs to learn how to take care of himself,” Ethan reproached now sipping on his mock coffee.
“I can’t help it. He’s around the same age as my boy,” Joseph sighed and smiled sheepishly. He handed me some meat and he ate his own. The grease was still hot, and it burnt my fingers a little, but I didn’t care. It tasted too good to care.
Suddenly the echo of, “Attention!” sounded through the camp. We all scrambled to get up and salute the colonel. Colonel Bennett was a proud man with a thick black moustache and beard. His beady brown eyes reminded me of rat’s eyes. As he walked his booming voice commanded, “All men must be ready for battle in one hour.”
Shock sent a chill through my body as I remembered my dream. It was not really a dream, but a memory. As I tried to calm down I knew that killing again was unavoidable. I was a soldier now.
It only took us a few minutes to put our tent in order and line up at the front of our camp. Our camp has about forty men, and our total company is about one hundred men strong. As we marched northward, we were met with the rest of our company. I marched alongside Joseph on my right and Ethan on my left.
We did not talk while we marched. The only sound was of heavy footsteps in beat with each other. Most men had stern or excited faces. Personally, I probably looked very pale and green. The colonel shouted for us to stop advancing and ready weapons. The movements had been drilled into my body as I prepared my gun. We waited until the colonel shouted to attach our bayonets before finally finishing. I was among the first line troops, so I stooped down to one knee.
My heart raced as I began to hear the footsteps of the enemy approaching. Holding my breath, I counted to ten slowly, knowing the colonel would wait to attack. I only got to eight.
“FIRE!” the colonel shouted from on top his horse, racing behind the front line. I shot but missed. The shouting of men made me cringe as our commander told us to reload. I shot again, hitting a man in the shoulder. Someone behind me fell, crying out in terror. I swallowed hard and reloaded my gun. I heard Ethan shout as he was hit with a bullet, but continued fighting. That bullet could have easily hit me.
“Charge!” Our captain told us as he raced ahead. We followed shouting fierce war cries. I was still dazed but quickly pushed off the ground and started to run forwards. Quickly, I glanced back to see that Ethan had stayed behind, now lying on the ground. I informed Joseph of what had happened, but I don’t think he could hear me over the sound of his own battle cry.
I was about to use my bayonet to defend myself, when I heard Joseph cry out in pain. Turning around I ran to where my comrade had fallen. Red stained his chest, and as he coughed blood dotted his mouth. I panicked and pushed my hands as hard as I could over his wound, trying to stop the bleeding. “Bradley stop, I’m okay,” he whispered to me. I was confused, but continued to press my hands down.
“No you’re not. Just hold on and I’ll get help,” I told him but he shook his head. Tears streamed down my dirty face as I tried to heave Joseph up. I didn’t have the strength to lift him.
“Retreat, everyone fall back!” Colonel Bennett called, pulling his horse in the other direction. I looked down to see that Joseph had closed his eyes; I knew he would never open them again. Leaving his body behind, I ran away, and lost my hat as I darted around the tree branches.
When we returned to camp, the company was in sorry conditions. Many of our men had been wounded, and I could tell we were missing quite a few men. I walked back to the tent. Paul was inside cradling his arm. It was covered with a blood-soaked cloth.
“Go see the doctor,” I told him. He shook his head.
“They’ll think that there’s no way of saving it, so they’ll try to cut it off,” he told me. “Doctors are for the weak.” I disagreed, but let him be. I looked around our tent. Ethan and Joseph didn’t come back. It was very lonely. This is my new life as a soldier. I covered my face as tears gathered in my eyes.
I want to go home.
Oil Springs, Kentucky
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