The Reconstruction of
“Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?”
-- Homer, 8th Century B.C.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
From the beginning of history, men have marched off to war at the behest of men more influential and powerful than themselves. They have seen things no one should have to see, done things no one should have to do, returned with scars and memories that no one should have to bear. They have returned with conditions, both psychological and physical, that have remained surprisingly constant over the centuries, even if the names for it have changed.
War is a common but unnatural event. Someone decides that someone else has something they want, and gathers enough power and men to go take it. People who have that something gather their men together and set them off to keep it. Those who gathered the men on both sides merely pull the strings and pay the bills. The men who fight partake of actions which they cannot then, or ever, place in the confines of their morals, ethics, or consciences. They “do their duty.”
Eventually, wars end, men go home, borders, languages, and cultures are realigned. Societies as a whole are able to absorb the changes, no matter how drastic they are. Men who suffer are not so fortunate. They never completely recover, never bury the memories so deeply that they do not come silently in the night or awkwardly in the day.
This book is about one man, Baldwin Pierce. His experiences are as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, his efforts at recovery in the defeated and demolished South. He is treated as those with Soldier’s Heart were treated. His struggles are the common struggles of the men who were recruited with promises of glory when they returned victorious, but were given or offered no such thing when they returned broken and defeated to a land which they no longer recognized, run by the very people who caused the war.
His is a struggle, not just to abolish the memories of what he has seen and done, but also to reclaim himself as a man, to once again be able to walk the streets as a “normal” person. A string of failures leads to being committed to the Milledgeville Asylum; a string of successes leads to being named Boss Man of one of the largest plantations in the county. He struggles to earn the respect of his two friends, Perry Clooney and Frenchie Voiseau, and the affections of two very different women. From the carefree happiness of his childhood to the shocking conclusion at his old homestead, The Reconstruction of Baldwin Pierce is a story you will not forget.
Whatever you call it, Soldier’s Heart seldom is a happy story. It is, however, a story which must be told, and then told again and then once more, told until we finally get it.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865
So this is the end. Two men who never actually shot someone or stuck someone with a bayonet or ran a knife across someone’s neck in the last four years decide to sit at a table, sign a paper, and declare that the killing is over. There was no warning, at least to what is left of my unit. We have been on the move since the Yankees broke us down at Petersburg, but no one that I know was actually ready to call it quits.
Retreat, regroup, fight again. How could we quit before we die? At least, let us have the privilege of fighting to the death, dying honorably, instead of just giving up.
The last time I remember giving up, I was five years old. My father told me to chop the remaining wood so we could be ready for winter. He had not asked me if I cared to, or if I wanted to take time out of my busy day of playing, just said chop the wood. I could not raise the ax above my head and then swing it, so I figured out that if I started with it in front of me, and then swung it around behind me, using it’s own momentum to help me lift it over my head, I could actually make a swing with it.
I missed the wood with the first swing. And the second, third, fourth, and fifth. On the sixth, I hit the wood with all the might I had, and the ax just bounced off. I missed two more times before hitting the wood just right and watching it split perfectly in two. As Father had ordered, I had “split some wood.” I laid the ax down, and went to more important things.
When Father returned and saw that I had split but one piece, he was not pleased, to say the least. He called me to the chopping block and asked why I was not chopping wood as he had ordered.
“It’s too hard,” I said with as much feeling as I could muster.
I could see him pondering whether to pull his belt off and give me a whipping right there, or do some more talking. Luckily for me, the talking won.
“You quit?” he asked.
“It was too hard,” I repeated.
“You quit?’ he asked again.
“It was too hard,” I said a third time.
He looked hard at me. I could see in his eyes that he was more disappointed with me because I had left a chore undone than he was angry that I had disobeyed. “If you want to be a man, this must be the last time you ever shirk a task. You can either be a man or quit when things get hard, but you can’t do both. And you can’t go back and forth, choosing when to quit and when to keep going. Quitting becomes too easy. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir” I replied, although I understood the words but not the implications.
He picked up the ax, swung it with one hand, and stuck it fast into the chopping block. “Decide now whether you are going to be a man or a quitter,” he said, turning to walk away.
Even at five, boys want to be men some day. All of them. My Father had told me how. Just don’t quit. Ever. I picked up the ax, and swung it until my hands bled and I could no longer lift it. I shortened the grip on the handle until I was holding it but a few inches from the head, unable to gather enough leverage to make more than a small crease in the wood I was trying to chop. I looked at the pile. I had made but a small dent in it. Never, before or since, have I wanted more to sit down and cry.
Father came out of the house, gently grabbed the ax from me, swung it again with one hand to split the piece of wood, sticking it back in the block. He put his arm around me, said, “Let’s go have some dinner, son. You have done good.”
We have committed the most horrendous and awful acts upon other men, as they have upon us, each time we have met. We have become animals, no, worse than animals, immune to the death and grievous wounds of the battlefields, and unlike any other animal which hunts and kills, knowing what we were doing. We prepared for it, lived for it, gave ourselves completely to it, experiencing both the fear of dying and the guilt of surviving. We feel no regret for the killing we have done.
None of us is unscathed. The scars we have on our faces, arms, hands, legs are small compared to the hidden but ragged scars we carry inside. How can any of us, how can I, be expected to reverse myself and revert back to the ignorant and idealistic child who signed up for this war on the promise of future glory?
We stand at attention, the Yankees just a few yards away. I can see in their eyes the arrogance and haughtiness which has propelled them each day. They stand there better than us, and it shows. We stand here, breathing deeply, like dogs on chains. If only Lee would pull a pistol out of his belt, stand up and shoot Grant, order us to charge, we would, and we would win this time.
But no, he would never do such a thing. As good as he is at drawing arrows on maps and putting units in the places which give them a hope of victory, he does not really have the stomach for it all. Instead, he has honor. He will be remembered for how polite he was as he surrendered our army, OUR army, not his, to the annals of history. He will be remembered for his grace; we for our inability to defend our homes and land against an aggressive invader. History will not be kind to us, if it remembers us at all. We will not be men, but numbers, so many thousands met so many thousands in a field in Virginia, and so many thousands were killed and another so many thousands were wounded. It will record that the Yankees fired their grape shot and chains across an open field, but not what it was like when the man next to you was torn to shreds by them.
History will not record the coldness in our souls. It will say that we “had camaraderie,” that we “loved our brothers in arms,” but that is not true. We count on them, we fight for them and they for us, but we do not love them. We have already lost too many men we loved. It is almost as if being close to someone is a curse of death for them. In our actions we say that we love them, but in our souls, we do not. We can watch our fellow soldiers die, but no more of our friends and loved ones.
History will also say that the Yankees were right, and we were wrong. How else could it be? Both sides implored God’s help and protection daily, sending innumerable prayers of supplication to the skies above, so many that eventually He had to choose a side and help them win so that we all would know. This will be hardest on the Baptists, as they prayed the most fervently, and spoke often of how God would deliver us from the evil from the north, that He would “show Himself strong in our behalf,” that He would show all men for all time that we were the righteous and the Yankees were the sinners, forever and ever, Amen.
They have signed the papers. They appear on the porch of the house. Lee does a slight bow to Grant, turns, looks defeated. There is now a smirk on every Yankee’s face as they look across at us. It is a smirk that says we will go home as heroes and you will go home as goats. It says we will dictate the rest of your lives to you, and to your descendants for all time and forever more. Our feet will never be off your throats, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Lee quietly speaks to an officer, who speaks quietly to another, who speaks to us. He tells us that the war is over, that we have surrendered to the inevitable, that our glorious General Lee had decided that it all is worth no more of our blood being shed for an outcome which is now obvious.
“What about the blood that has already been shed,” the man next to me asks. “Are we saying that their blood was not worth it?”
Such talk would never have been made just a few moments ago. One of the first things we learned was that officers are small gods, that they hold you in their hands, that if they don’t kill you by telling you to run at the Yankees, or marching you for miles in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Virginia summer, they can kill you for being insubordinate.
The officer is perturbed, his face beginning to flush. His hand reaches for his sword, but it is not there, as the Yankees have confiscated it for the time being. He moves closer to the offending Private, looks him in the eyes.
“Private, it is only by my respect for General Lee and this historic occasion that I do not have you sent to the brig for at least five years. You shall keep your thoughts and your mouth to yourself.”
The Private says nothing, leans slightly, spits on the officer’s boots. I can see that the officer is now going to do something. He does not know yet what it is, but his mind is swirling.
“Don’t mind him,” I say to the officer. “He’s been crazy for quite a while now.”
The officer looks at me, tells me that no one has given me permission to speak, and that he is going to sentence us each to the brig.
“No, you won’t,” I say calmly.
He is surprised by my rebuke. He is now even more determined to do something.
“And why is that?” he asks.
“Because if you touch any one of us, I will kill you,” I say far too calmly.
I see the slightest movement of the eyes of the man on my left, enough to tell me that he will join in anything that is about to happen. I notice that the officer has seen it also. He weighs it all, concludes that he cannot win here, moves on. I think that his return to his old life will be as difficult as ours, but in a different way. He will no longer have the power over other men that he has now.
We are marched back to our lines, carefully watched by Yankees. We are told that it will take another day before all of the jots and tittles are taken care of, and then we will start with our actual motions of surrender.
April 10, 1865
We find out that the supply train we were trying to meet was actually captured by Sheridan on the 8th. We have had nothing but parched corn for three days, and in insufficient quantities. We are told that efforts are being made to get us some rations.
Little of the conversation is about relief that the war is over and how anxious men are to get back home. We all know that it will not be as heroes, and that the way of life that we left no longer exists. Instead, quiet conversation centers around the armies which have not surrendered.
“I’m going to head to North Carolina and join up with Johnston,” Frenchie says.
All heads turn toward him.
“Johnston won’t never surrender. He won’t tell his men to lay down their arms and go home until every Yankee is dead.”
“I heard we have to sign a parole that says we won’t ever raise arms against the Union again,” Clooney responds. “And they are of course taking our guns away from us anyway.”
“Mine’s a Yankee gun anyway,” Frenchie continues. “Got it at Fredericksburg. And besides, five seconds after a battle starts, there’s guns available all over the place. Hell, I can just wait until the man on my right or left go down, and take theirs.”
“But it’s an oath, Frenchie,” another man notes.
“I’ll have my fingers crossed, then, or my feet pointed outward, or anything else you can do to make an oath not binding.”
And so it goes into the morning, until the food finally arrives. It is bacon, hard tack, some potatoes, some coffee. We each mark our own potato and toss it into the pot to boil. Most men drape their bacon over a stick and cook it. We all eat ours before it is fully cooked. We eat our potatoes more slowly.
“I wonder if this is Yankee bacon or Southern bacon,” a man poses.
“What difference does it make? A pig is a pig. He don’t know which side he’s on.”
“It would make a difference to me,” the man says, in a prideful way.
Clooney jumps in. “It’s Yankee bacon for sure,” he says. Then, quick as a cat, he snatches the man’s bacon and puts it into his mouth. “Yup,” he adds. “And them’s Yankee potatoes also. Grown by some Irishman in Pennsylvania.”
In the afternoon, we are assembled to hear the reading of Lee’s General Order Number 9. It seems heartfelt, as one would expect from the General, but it also seems forced. I says that he doesn’t have to tell us of any hard fought battles, that we can go home now, and that he bids us an affectionate farewell. We are dismissed. I know that I should feel some sense of relief, that I should be more happy than sad, but I am neither. How can a man be happy and relieved when he has been told that he has lost, that The Cause for which he gave his life is now history, and that he is to return to the land he left four years earlier, which is now as broken as he?
On April 11, we are assembled, and for the first time, given orders by a Yankee officer. He is doing his best not to act arrogant and prideful, but still, it comes through, and who could blame him? It is to his credit that he keeps the mouths of his men shut. They say nothing except what is necessary to explain again the terms of our parole and get our signature. I am thankful that he does not say something like that we are all brothers again. We aren’t, and never will be.
“Do you agree to these terms and conditions?” a Corporal asks Frenchie.
“I’m not sure,” Frenchie replies. Here we go.
“If you aren’t sure, then I would suggest that you aren’t,” the Corporal replies calmly. “Please step to the side, where your questions will be answered. Next.”
“In that case, I guess I understand them.”
“Then sign your name right here.”
“I don’t know how to read or write.”
“Then make your mark.”
“How would anyone know it was me, then?
The Corporal’s face is beginning to turn red, but he still tries to remain calm. “Again, Private, please make your mark on the line or step to the side, so you can be escorted to the brig.”
This goes on for nearly ten minutes. The Corporal does everything he can to get Frenchie to make his mark on the paper, and just when he thinks that Frenchie is about to obey, Frenchie comes up with something else. He has forgotten what his mark looks like, with all that has happened. He needs the pencil to be sharper. He asks a question about the terms again. Finally, the Corporal calls another Corporal and two Privates to escort Frenchie away. Just as they reach him, Frenchie says, “I changed my mind,” and calmly signs his name to the paper. I can hear low giggles behind me.
I step to the table.
“Name?” the Corporal asks.
“Do you understand the terms and conditions of your parole?”
“Sign your name on this line.”
I do. As I am writing, life itself seems to drain out of me. Each drop of ink I drag across the paper is as painful as each drop of blood I have shed. I become queasy, nearly vomiting. I have quit a task. I have not fought to the death, have not given my all. A few names and hundreds of faces come to my mind. They ask me what I have done, what I was thinking, how could I leave them there unatoned for. Their voices get louder, more demanding, more questioning. “Kill them! Kill them!” the voices scream. “Coward! Worse than a coward!”
I walk a few steps, become weak kneed. I see a group of the men who have preceded me in the line, grouped together under a nearby tree. I walk over to them, collapse to a sitting position, put my hands in my face, sob uncontrollably. “Welcome to the Loser’s Club,” Clooney says.
We look around, count men as well as we can. We know that we showed up for our first engagement at Gaines’ Mill with over eleven hundred under trained, overly eager men and boys. We count one hundred and sixty today. Over nine hundred of my friends and neighbors killed and wounded, and I believe I was on the field with every one of them. I see their faces every night.
I am not allowed to take my rifle with me, even though it belonged to my Father, and I have had it since I was young. The men with horses or mules of their own are allowed to take them, but no one can have a gun. How am I supposed to feed myself? How am I supposed to hunt?
I walk over to where the horses are being loosely kept, tell the Yankee there that I am there to pick up my horse. He asks to see my bill of ownership. I tell him that I lost it at Monocacy. “No bill, no horse,” he says. Another man comes to pick up his horse. He hands the Yankee a slip of paper, which the Yankee looks at closely, and then carefully puts into a stack on a desk, under a fair sized rock. They go into the corral to search for a horse.
I walk to the table, reach to near the bottom, pull out a slip of paper. It says that I am Charles Hobgood, and that I am the lawful owner of a bay gelding. Another Yankee comes out of the corral with one of our men and a nice horse. They exit the corral.
“Next,” the Yankee says, even though I am the only one standing there.
“Bay gelding, named Rebel,” I tell him. Could have used a better name.
“Lots of them,” he notes.
“I think I saw him on the other side a few minutes ago,” I lie.
We enter the corral. I walk around until I find a calm horse that fits the description, look at the brand to make sure it doesn’t say CSA. He is lean, nearing scrawny from the lack of food, but appears to be young and otherwise without fault.
“Hey, Rebel,” I say to him. I toss the halter rope over his head, lead him out, sign for him.
“You men was tough as hell,” the Yankee says. Our eyes meet. He nods ever so slightly, a nod of respect. I nod back.
It is not real, none of it. They tell me I am free to go, return to my home, pick up my life where I left it a lifetime ago, but I am not. I am not free at all. Things get blurry, voices and noises distorted. My head swims, swirls. I get so dizzy I have to go to one knee to keep from toppling over.
A canteen appears in front of me. A Yankee is holding it, telling me that if I take a drink, I will be okay.
“Been a lot of you boys feeling lost today,” the man says. “Can’t say as I blame you, though.”
I look up. It is an older man, a Sergeant, probably in his thirties. It’s hard to tell with anyone now. We all look old. I grab the canteen, thank him, take a drink. It is warm, slightly sour, like me. I pour some on my head, rub my hair and face. The dizziness subsides.
Hands gently grab me, pull me to my feet. It’s Clooney. He says something to me that I don’t understand. The sound comes from a distance, perhaps inside a cave, from across the valley. He grabs my shirt with both hands, pulls me to face him, gives me a light slap on the face. I try to focus my eyes but they won’t hold still. He slaps me again, harder. My legs give way again, but he won’t let me fall. I hear Frenchie Voiseau’s voice. “Let’s get him out of here.”
They take me away from the crowds. Although we are only separated by yards, we are also separated by miles and years. It is just the three of us. All else is a distant echo of things past, sounds from a minute ago, a year ago, a lifetime ago, all mixed and inseparable.
“No one asked any of us if we wanted to continue, to fight to the death of the last man. They just decided, the two of them, that we had had enough. I sure as hell haven’t,” Frenchie says.
“Let it go, Frenchie,” Clooney replies. “Nothing you can do about what’s already been done. It is a frightening reality for all of us.
In a war where we died not in the tens or hundreds or thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands, all of what we have done, all of the blood that has been shed is now in the dung heap of history. There are no stories of heroes, no ballads written, no monuments carved for the men who actually did the fighting. Surely Lee and Jackson and Longstreet will have streets and towns and colleges named after them for sending us to our deaths, but we won’t. We won’t even get to go home and have people say thank you for keeping us free. We will go home in shame and embarrassment that our best brought us nothing except a few million gallons of blood shed worthlessly on the fields and farms of our homeland.