Field of Scarlet: The Battle of Antietam

by Helyna A. Derickson

I do not recall hearing the shout to open fire, though surely it must have come, as my world was suddenly plunged into mind-whirling chaos and deafening noise. It seemed that I was engulfed by a wave of yelling, oath-screaming savages, the likes of which the tame counties have never beheld. No warring pack of dogs could have possessed such wild abandon and bloodlust. I was swept by this heaving mass into tall stalks of green, and it took me but a heartbeat to realize that our lines were migrating into a field of corn. The waving columns of plants reached well above the heads of the tallest men, and towered over the upturned face of I, this woman hidden beneath a blue Yankee uniform.

As the Confederates returned fire, screams and shouts arose from the front of our lines, where soldiers began to fall. As the first shots whizzed past my head and blew the cornstalks from mid-air, I was seized by a rather wild and absurd indignation at this thoughtless annihilation of crops. This field was the product of a hardworking farmer, not unlike my own family back in New Hampshire. Lord, how far away my fields and fruit trees seemed now...However, I did not dwell long upon my righteous anger, as one of the next shots clipped the edge of my too-large uniform. I stared a bit stupidly at the hole in my sleeve, barely comprehending the fact that Iíd nearly lost a limb, and trigger arm at that. But then one of my comrades gave me a sharp nudge between the shoulder blades, and I stumbled forward to march shoulder to shoulder with the others. Bang, crash! More shots assailed us like stinging rain, more men fell like the shattered cornstalks. I felt something fly past my face, grazing my check with fiery pain, and realized that I had again come close to losing my life.

I felt my anger boiling to the surface as the Rebels materialized toward the ends of the cornrows. My burning check lent fuel to the blaze within me, and I no longer wondered what madness had drawn me from the safety of my beloved farm. This time, my hands flew faster to reload than even the most competent souls beside me, and I was poised in readiness as the general bellowed, "Fire!" The smoke of our guns turned the sky an unnatural purple-gray, and it was the Rebelsí turn to howl and curse as their lines were hit. They fired back almost simultaneously, however, and I found myself standing with no one at my shoulder, as both my marching companions had been struck and killed. I stared at their suddenly and terribly lifeless forms, my vision swimming from the smoke and my mind numb with shock. However, I heard a voice, the owner of which I did not know shrieking near my ears, "Donít break the ranks, stay in line, shoulder to shoulder!" This raucous command seemed almost pesky to my muddled brain, but when someone pummeled me again, I snapped back to the present and stepped up to brush shoulders with the nearest men.

The early morning light was almost blocked out by the furious clouds gun-smoke, which burned our throats and lungs and made it difficult to glimpse anything of much use. Again and again our lines were slammed by a seemingly steady flow of Rebel fire, until the ground was carpeted with a grisly array of dead and wounded, with a sickly backdrop of obliterated, blood-splattered corn. We advanced upon those traitors, only to be driven back by volleys of curses and missiles. Back and forth, back and forth, like some sort of gloriously savage waltz. As our aching arms swiftly reloaded, my gaze momentarily locked with that of a Rebel fighter at the front of the section. My hands faltered for a split second; I was close enough to see that the hue of his eyes was like that of an oak leaf in late summer. In a single gut-wrenching moment, the face of my enemy transformed into that of Flying Ben, the only man Iíd loved enough to promise my hand to, and who I had left behind to join this frightful and necessary cause, which I now saw was a fruitless bloodbath. My gun slipped from my nerveless hands, and then our line fired. The young soldier who I had been staring at with such intensity jerked back violently and convulsed as he was struck by a multitude of shots. A strangled cry rose in my throat, and I toppled backwards as the soldiers around me were thrown to earth by Confederate fire. I felt hot blood spatter across my face, and I knew not whether it belonged to my foes, my friends or myself. As the noise began to crash in upon me once more, I curled into a tight ball, eyes squeezed shut as though to deny the reality of the horror taking place all around me. I think I may even have begun to whimper deep in my chest, though not even I could have heard it over the terrific din.

Suddenly, I became aware of a collective movement away from the Rebel lines. I peered along the ground from one squinted eye and saw the Union forces beginning to pull away. What was this? Were we retreating? Some of our soldiers defiantly turned and shot as they fled, before enemy retaliation snapped at their heels like the avenging Hounds of Hell. I scrambled upright, dragging my gun with me, but as I rose, my leg was impacted with a sudden and unbelievable agony. The force of it knocked me flat, but the sheer terror flooding my body impelled me to struggle upright once more. I actually took several jerky steps before something crashed into my skull with bone-shattering force, and I knew no more.

I do not know how much time passed by me as I lay in that decimated cornfield, senseless to all around me. As if from a dream I slowly floated back to consciousness, and blinked open my sore eyes to a strange and confusing world. Above me the sky, no longer strangled by smoke, had faded to a dull blue-gray, turning to glowing orange at the edges of my vision. My mouth was dry and swollen, and on my face there was a cloying stickiness. The sharp, metallic smell told me that it was blood. I slowly moved my arm to touch my temple, and it was then that the awful, throbbing pain washed over me in a crashing wave. My jaws rattled with the scaring agony in my skull, and I would have screamed had I the breath to even cry out. I waited until I had a better grasp upon the pain, and then slowly began to sit up. I gasped and almost began to weep as my shaking fingers brushed the terrific lump erupting from the back of my head, but it was with great relief that I realized I had not received a musket ball in my brain. Someone must have clubbed me from behind with the butt of his gun, the coward...I had only a few moments to consider this matter before another, much more serious pain entered my awareness. It was with cold dread and quaking hands that I slowly pulled back my ruined legging to reveal the hideous wound garnishing my thigh. The ragged flesh around the musket ball was swollen and hot with fever, and blood had formed an oozing, blackening crust. As the pain in my head and this second affliction merged like two darkening clouds, I felt a burning rage thrusting its fiery head through my horror. For a moment my fury numbed the pain, and in my suddenly enraged state I made the terrible mistake of trying to stand. My leg buckled and burned with the white-hot intensity of a branding iron. The pain in my head came rushing back as well, and I nearly fainted again. Clutching my limb, I let out a long and colorful stream of vile expletives, cursing the ancestry, character and very existence of the wretched Southerners. As quickly as it had come, my burst of energy ebbed away, and hot tears began to sting my eyes. I sprawled in the wreckage of vegetation and pondered what to do. I had clearly been left behind as our forces retreated, but to where had all the fighting moved? Judging by the light, it was nearing dusk, and the fate of the two sides had likely been settled by now. Oh Lord, where had they gone?

At that moment, I detected a strange sound that made my hair stand up. As I listened, I realized that it was a soft, agonized moaning. I lifted my aching head, looking toward the noise. It was only now that I realized that the cornfield was strewed with the huddled, motionless forms of countless bodies, bathed in the reddish glow of the dying sun. As I stared with growing horror, I saw that almost none of the ground could be glimpsed, such was the thickness of death upon it. I could now hear more faint cries and groans of pain, the labored pants of those close to joining the stone-still forms around them, the last dragging breaths of the dayís ill-fated. The moaning that I had first heard rose again, close by. I identified the shadowy shape from which it issued, and painfully dragged myself, inch by inch, over my small patch of ground and then over the unbearably quiet bodies that still lay in their marching rows. As I reached the figure, I managed to heave myself partially upright, striving to look upon his face. I pushed back a tawny lock of hair and found myself gazing into the now-clouding, forest-green eyes of the boy I had seen be shot down in the thick of battle. His Rebel garb was soaked a deep crimson from the multiple wounds he had sustained, and his face was fading to a ghostly, pallid hue. Though not half a day before I had waged bitter combat against this boy and his comrades, something strange welled up within me and I slipped an arm beneath his back and held him as best I could. He moaned again, face contorted with untold suffering, and then his eyes slowly shifted and fixed upon my face. Our gazes locked again as they had that morning, but lacked the scorching fury of dire enemies. His breath rattled faintly in his chest once, twice, and then expelled in a long, whistling third gust. The light in his eyes flickered, and with his last breath, it went out. As gently as a caress, brushed my palm across the lifeless stare, closing the eyes forever. My gaze shifted to the rest of the demolished cornfield that had been our mad battleground, now eerily shadowed in the dusky glow. My eyes roamed over the rolling hills of bodies, searching for a distinguishing feature, a familiar sign, but saw only dead, battle-scarred bodies. I could not tell the Rebels from my own fellow soldiers; in this half-light, blue and gray did not look so different.

As I sat looking upon all of the death, this destruction, I felt a deep shaking growing from my core. As it surfaced, I looked down upon the still face of the Rebel soldier, and in that moment I felt a heart-wrenching grief threatening to tear me apart. My face turned to the scarlet-painted sky and a harsh cry of anguish tore itself from my throat, ringing over the bloody field as I clutched my enemy to me and sank into oblivion.