The world was a land of white smoke, ebbing and flowing across the field in front of him like some great milky sea, coming closer and closer to envelop him. He waited for it each time he opened his eyes but it kept faltering at the copse of trees. They were still trying to fight against it, tear at the boys in blue beyond, give a punch that would travel all the way to the ears of Washington, but those same boys in blue kept rising from the smoke, bursting through like ghosts of this terrible, terrible War.
He wanted to move, raise the sword aloft again and charge right alongside them, lead the sweeping force, yet he was pinned down, some invisible power making him stay, slumped against this cold cannon. It should have been theirs, they could still win this day, they could still win this War, all they needed was to get past that copse of trees…Get past that copse of trees…
He couldn’t feel the pain anymore, the sharp screams in his shoulder that had been so vicious mere minutes ago. A sense of numbness had come over him and all he could feel was the hot breeze against his face, damp with blood and tears.
He had thought of Hancock for a long time. There were so many men around him, his own men, the other men they called the enemy, yet he felt the loneliness deep inside, the same he had been trying to fend off all day, maybe a sign, a foretelling. He had tried to see through the smoke, look for the figure on the horse, and he thought he saw him once before the smoke stole him away and he wasn’t sure if he’d seen anything at all. He closed his eyes, tried to find a place of peace, but he could only see California. If I ever raise my hand against you, may God strike me dead. It was coming now, he knew it. May God strike me dead…
There was suddenly a voice through the smoke, close by but still very soft. He murmured Win’s name, still in California, and tried to turn his head, see the man who was still holding him steady. It wasn’t him. It was a young Yankee officer surrounded by other Union men. ‘’Sir…’’ he was saying and he saw he had kind eyes, concerned. He couldn’t have been anything over 20. ‘’Sir, can you hear me?’’
He tried to say something but to begin with, nothing came out. His eyes rolled back to the heavens momentarily, then back to the young man beside him who was squeezing his hand, attempting to comfort him or keep him on this Earth. ‘’Sir?’’
‘’Can you – help me up – please?’’ he heard himself say, then wondered if he had said it at all.
‘’Sir, can you tell me what your name is? Who you are?’’
For a moment, he couldn’t think of his own name. He stared at the officer, his vision clouding suddenly so all he could see were soft, coloured shapes and the fuzzy line of that copse of trees, so very close, but still so very, very far away. His name…No, that didn’t matter. Win. Where was Win?
‘’I would like to speak with General Hancock. Do you know where General Hancock may be found?’’
Through the blur and smoke, he saw the boy’s expression change. What is it? Tell me, tell me… ‘’I’m sorry, sir…’’ he said. ‘’The general’s down. He’s been hit.’’
The sharp pain that had faded for a while now came burning back, attacking his chest and throat, and he choked on its horrid grip, tears rolling down his cheeks. ‘’No!’’ he cried out. ‘’Not both of us! Not all of us! Please, God!’’
The hands held him steady, squeezing softly and he felt it again. May God strike me dead… No, Win, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry… He tried to close his eyes, say a small prayer, anything, anything, but the words wouldn’t come and suddenly, all he could hear was the sound of the guns, the screams of his men, this War…this terrible, terrible War…Not like this, please God, not like this…
‘’Sir…’’ the boy’s voice was back, feeble words amongst all these horrible sounds. ‘’-the surgeon’s coming as quickly as he can…’’
No. Not like this… The smoke was appearing again and he thought he saw a figure watching him by the wall. He looked again and it was just the copse of trees, a strange illusion in the hot afternoon sun, before the haze cleared it away. A cold deafness descended upon the world along with it. ‘’Can you – can you hear me…?’’ he managed.
‘’Yes, sir, I can hear you…’’
Win, can you hear me? ‘’Will you tell – General Hancock that – General Armistead sends his regrets…’’ Maybe for years, maybe forever… The words choked him. ‘’…will you – tell him – how very sorry I am…’’
There was a pause where the boy just stared at him, eyes soft. Slowly, he lowered them and then bowed his head, removing his hat. ‘’Yes, sir…’’ he said quietly, mournfully. ‘’I will tell him…I will tell him…’’
Tom felt an immense heaviness as he walked away from General Armistead and the surgeon who had recently arrived to tend to him. He had seen grief on many levels, on so many fields, in the eyes of many men and women and sometimes even children in the towns they rode through, victims of the war without ever knowing anything about the battles until one raged outside their front door, but he couldn’t erase the vision of the look of helpless despair on General Armistead’s face when he had heard of General Hancock’s fate.
Will you tell him how very sorry I am…that General Armistead sends his regrets…
The words swarmed in his mind. He wondered if this was something that a farm boy from a little town in Maine barely out of his teenage years should be getting involved in – wondered how it had ever come to this – but with every step he took, passing each man wounded or lying with the fire gone from their eyes forever on the ground, he couldn’t help thinking of the two men. At his feet, he saw boys in blue who no doubt had friends on the other side yet it had always been that. The other side, like a deep chasm separated them.
He had never realised…that it could be like this.
And now he had been given this message. He had promised he would deliver it, promised it to a man who he could see was slowly slipping away. The thought made him bow his head, made his throat tighten. The image of his despair came again – he hasn’t seen him since this War began, he could see that, he hasn’t known…And now…He began to think of Lawrence, tried to imagine what it would be like to suddenly come face to face with him on either side of that stone wall…One in blue, one in grey. He couldn’t see it, didn’t want to.
This message. It had made him a part of all this now and he suddenly felt a great loyalty to the two generals and…this. He would see this through.
At his side, he noticed one of the young officers who had also been with General Armistead walk up and fall into step with him. ‘’Lieutenant…’’ he said. Tom paused and turned to him, barely remembering to salute when he saw the insignia on the surprisingly clean uniform. ‘’My name is Captain Henry Bingham, and I am on General Hancock’s staff. General Armistead is a dear friend of his. If you would like, I could deliver his message to the general.’’
For a moment, Tom looked the man up and down. He appeared to be hardly any older than himself and had soft, kind eyes, must have also seen what Tom saw in General Armistead. He meant well, Tom could tell. But General Armistead had spoken to him directly. He had seen the despair and now felt this slow, deep heaviness. He had to deliver this message.
‘’No,’’ he said. ‘’No, I feel like I should…General Armistead spoke to me…’’
Bingham looked at him hard for a second or two and Tom felt like he was being scrutinised and judged. However, Bingham soon nodded. ‘’Yes,’’ he said. ‘’Yes, of course. I understand. And I’m sure General Hancock will appreciate it too.’’
There was another pause and the cries of the wounded started to rise up around them, horrid sounds from what sounded like miles around. Tom suddenly had the disorientating and unnerving feeling that he was standing right in the middle of it all. He looked up and saw the sun going down, a purple tone shading the sky. He wondered how such a bloody, terrible day could end with such a beautiful evening.
‘’ – I would take you to the general now,’’ continued Bingham, his eyes still on the ghastly field, ‘’ – but, as you know, he is wounded badly. I would rather he gets to a hospital before…before he is told. But I can soon find you – what is your name?’’
Tom returned to the captain, away from the colourful sky. ‘’My name is Lieutenant Tom Chamberlain, 20th Maine Regiment.’’
Bingham nodded. ‘’Lieutenant, I will find you.’’
A formal salute and Tom turned to walk away across the field, back to try and find Lawrence. Behind him, he heard Bingham mutter his surname, as if trying to remember something he’d forgotten.