CHAIN OF DESTINY - Excerpt
1 JULY 1863 – GETTYSBURG: THE EVE OF BATTLE FOR AMES AND HIS XO
Sitting back in his spot, coffee tin in hand, the Ranger found that the nearly full moon provided a vaporous light by which he could see the lumpy, dark forms of many of his men at rest. Gazing over them, feeling as though he were a shepherd tending his flock of sheep, Ames began to feel a tight ball of fear constrict within his stomach. The fear was not only for what the next day might bring for him but, more importantly, it was a fear of what the next day
would bring to them. For many, this sleep, even if he were to take action and attempt to change what was to occur, would still undoubtedly be their last before the eternal sleep of death.
“Robert,” softly called Ames, knowing that the lieutenant was still awake. Remarkably enough and try as he might, it seemed that Ames could not recall a single moment when he had ever observed or encountered the man to be tired. Matter of fact, he had never seen him asleep…apparently going to sleep after and waking before Ames did.
“Yes, Nathaniel,” immediately replied the lieutenant in a strong voice without taking his eyes off the sky above.
“Do you believe many of these men know why they are fighting in this civil war? Of why some of them will most probably die tomorrow?”
For a few brief moments, there was no answer, then, slowly, Wicker rolled over on his side to face Ames.
“Why do Southerners fight in ‘The War Between the States’ against Northerners who fight in the ‘War of the Rebellion?” rephrased the reposed man, employing the precise terms used by each of the warring sides to describe the conflict.
“I’ve heard from many erudite men and scholars,” subtly mocked the officer with a slight emphasis of an upturned nose, “that these men are fighting for States’ rights…”
“And, what do you believe?”
“Personally, I think it’s doubtful whether any of them either understand or care about the Constitutional issues at stake in this conflict. For most of these men, the majority of whom are uneducated, there seem to be two issues that have brought them here. The first is the threat to slavery, though it is an institution that contradictory enough does seem to be resented rather widely by nearly all. It is a threat, though, that they do not see in the context of States’ rights but in the context of an unwarranted deprivation of property rights by those who own slaves…and, by those who are none slave holders, they see it as a northern wedge or initiative for, what they term, ‘nigger equality.’ When it comes to the issue of slavery, the Yankees are seen as a race of godless hypocrites who keep millions of white factory workers in conditions far worse than slavery.”
Uhm…thought Ames to himself, not necessarily agreeing with everything Wicker said but also realizing that some of what he’d been taught in school was most likely wrong or misguided.
“The second issue?”
“That’s less philosophical or even intellectual,” smiled Wicker. “The common soldier simply hates the men in blue, believing them to be an loathsome sort of people who come from a base and vulgar background. In conjunction with that hatred is also the belief and conviction, simply put, that Yankees are cowards.”
With that last statement, the reclining man let out a light and easy chuckle.
“What do you find so humorous?” inquired Ames.
“Well, based on my own personal experiences, it is certainly nonsense for anyone to say that Federal soldiers are cowards. They have fought as boldly as men ever fought and they’ve fought well every time I’ve been in front of them. It’s not the Yankee soldier…it’s his leaders.”
Ames certainly had to agree with that.
“You know, Nathaniel?” reflected his friend, rolling over to his back to gaze once again up at the stars, and seeming to speak to himself, “there will be a day when Union leaders come of age, inspiring and leading their men to accomplish what they truly can accomplish. When that day arrives, we will be in serious trouble. One has to wonder if that day may not have been today?”
Only the fact that Ames was still leaning back against a tree prevented him from physically reacting as though he’d been hit with a fist. Today, had, indeed, been that day!
But, Ames knew that from history. Wicker had no such advantage. Just how perceptive was this man, anyway?
“If today were that day, it would seem we’re in for a real fight tomorrow,” hesitantly offered Ames. “Looks as though there will be much blood shed.”
Wicker remained quiet, continuing to admire the sky as Ames gazed over the field littered with still forms of sleeping men. Here and there, a log or branch burst in a small display of nature’s fireworks as an advanced guard of flame slowly made its way along previously virgin wood, inducing hard knots of somewhat petrified kindling to pop as they were consumed. In the grass, where the men slept, crickets chirped, oblivious to the historic events the soldiers they serenaded would soon be called upon to perform.
“Are you scared?” came the question from out of the darkness.
“Am I scared?” thought Ames, not really surprised by the query that had been posed for he had asked himself that very question on more than one occasion…past and present.
“At times, yes, though I believe it may be somewhat less fearful for officers than for the common soldier” was his response to the topic he had mulled over a number of times in another life.
“Why is that?”
Ames hesitated a moment, recalling the first time he’d been alerted for an actual combat operation as a Ranger.
“Well…as an officer, at least from what I vaguely recall experiencing,” noted Ames, remembering to carry off the persona of someone still affected with amnesia, “we’re so busy being concerned about doing the right thing…successfully completing our mission and taking care of our men…that there really is little time to think about our own mortality or the personal ramifications…except during times like this,” he added with a smile from the shadows.
“Unfortunately, our most junior men have little on their minds given the reduced responsibilities. Thus, they have much more time on their hands to sit and worry about things to come.”
“There is some truth to what you are saying, Nathaniel,” acknowledged Wicker as he continued to stare overhead, “but, even though the men do, in general, have more time on their hands I tend to believe that the specter of fear that hangs over one’s first conflict gradually losses its focus of panic and horror with the passage of time.”
“Passage of time,” thought Ames, “now there’s a statement that means nothing to me at the moment.”
“By the second and third battle, especially in an active campaign, I’ve noted the men face danger with greater composure and reduced recoil. As a matter of fact, it is no longer uncommon to see our Johnny Rebs walking about in a hail of bullets with no greater concern than a man taking a relaxing stroll on a warm summer day amidst a few annoying mosquitoes.”
“Well,” conceded Ames, “you’re right. One can grow insensitive and indifferent to fear, danger, and human suffering…especially as a result of war.”
“How does the human condition survive war, then?” mussed the lieutenant, a question that seemed to Ames to be more philosophical and academic in nature as though Wicker already knew the answer and was just testing his friend, who opted to take the offered bait.
“Fortunately…if there is one thing the human condition can do it is to adapt to any given condition. The instinct to survive is the greatest of all and adaptability seems to be the greatest of long-term survival mechanisms within us,” Ames concluded as he watched the previously reclined man rise from his bed roll to take a seat on a stool by the fire that had been placed there for a quick meal and left behind by Stewart.
“Fortuitously, though war is….,” then Ames abruptly stopped. He was going to say “War is hell,” but that was a well-known phrase that Major General William Tecumseh Sherman was yet to be credited saying and Ames couldn’t bring himself to steal the quote as his own.
“…terror, it is brief periods of terror surrounded by long stretches of boredom and monotony. It’s a good thing it’s not a daily event. But, then again,” he thought out loud for a moment, “if it were, who knows. Maybe, as a species, we’d grow less fond of it and realize it’s the most destructive form of conflict resolution known to man.”
“Do you fear death?” came the second, soul-searching question.
“Do you?” redirected Ames.
“No, can’t say that I do, actually. As a matter of fact, I must perversely admit that I find the whole aspect of personal combat somewhat…stimulating and thrilling.”
“You’re right,” agreed Ames. “That is rather perverse…even unnatural and demented.”
Wicker let out with a quiet laugh.
“Given that is true, I am just one of a large fraternity who feel that way. The sight of a dead man no longer effects many, leaving us with no worse a feeling than if we’d seen the carcass of a dead hog or horse. That lack of fear we discussed earlier has inured us to the most traumatic scenes of suffering and bloodshed.”
Momentarily, Ames thought back to his own personal experience. And, while he had to admit he had no problem feeling that way about a dead terrorist, he hoped that he would never feel indifferent to the sight of one of his own men dead or seriously injured.
“Just how does this…transformation take place? I can understand feeling that way about a dead Yankee but, one of your own comrades? How…?”
“A good question with no answer that I’m aware of. It is a hardening process that seems to mystify. At some point, those who undergo the change view a horrible sight and realize that it no longer effects them as it once did. As to exactly what the change is or when it took place…it seems impossible to describe. I’m not sure, myself,” confessed Wicker, “as to when it happened to me. Maybe, I’ve just been that way from the start?”
“Maybe Robert but, even though I’ve only know you for a few weeks, I don’t believe you’ve been that cold from the start. Maybe,” offered Ames of his own theory, “part of the process is a function of philosophical indifference. As the conflict wears on, many of the men may have consoled themselves with that timeworn axiom that relatively few die in battle and that they will be part of the lucky majority to survive. But, it’s a circular logic. One can go into battle not expecting to be killed because a majority of men that go into a battle are not killed. Thus, why should he not believe himself to be one of those to escape death? But, given that every bullet has a billet, as they say, when it is a soldier’s time to go, one of those men who thought he would not die, will. Perchance, in the end, they may just convince themselves what more glorious death could they wish than to die on the field of battle?”
There was no response. Ames placed his elbows on his drawn up knees, his head in the palms of his hands, as he took up Wicker’s favorite past time of viewing the stars overhead. The pause grew as Ames tracked the white streak of a shooting star overhead…supposedly a good omen, but for whom? Certainly not for the Army of Northern Virginia, tomorrow, as circumstances now stood.
Looking back at the man sitting across the fire, Ames just shook his head, not sure if his action could be observed in the shadows.
“Fearless…indifferent…uncaring…unfeeling. In reality, inhuman. My God, what kind of people will we be?”
“Ah…God. Now there is a topic of discussion.”
For a moment, Ames was surprised by the change in subject matter but, he had to agree, if there was to be a discussion of war, the moralist implications of God would have to be considered, also.
“Where do you believe religion plays a role in all this?” inquired the Ranger, rather curious as to the Wicker’s response given the fact he’d never been one to participate in any sort of religious activity or even own a Bible in his well stocked personal library.
“What do I think?” questioned Wicker with a large smile as Ames intently watched him.
“What I think is a bit different than that thought by the fundamental Southern Baptist, I will concede. There is this mystical belief that an omnipotent God has created the world and maintains the smooth running of the cosmos overhead and this planet below through an orderly succession of events. He is believed to be infinitely good, that He would not deceive Mankind, that He created man in His own image with the ability to reason and experience from our senses, that He is a rational and consistent God.”
“But,” indicated Wicker with a casual wave of his right hand over the sleeping men all about them, “if we are created in His image, if there are causal laws ordained by God, and if He is a God of infinite good, how can there be this?”
“Ah! The Devil…the serpent, the archfiend, the demon, the fallen angel, the Prince of Darkness, the Monarch of Hell, the hybrid Prince of Hell, Old Gooseberry, Old Nick, Old Scratch, Mephistopheles, Moloch, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan! God’s whipping boy and the scourge of Man’s existence by a host of other names!”
Uhmm…thought Ames, almost taken aback. Hit the mother load on this one! He’d never seen his friend so alive or animated over a point.
“Must admit, Robert, that’s a hell of a laundry list of names…no pun intended. But, if one believes in God, if one believes in the Bible, one would be led to believe in the Devil…or Lucifer…or Satan…or Mephist…whatever… And, if one does believe in all that, one will also have to believe that the Devil is the root of all evil.”
Wicker leaned back on his stool, this time his right knee raised and encircled by both of his interlocked hands. Even in the fading light of the fire, Ames could make out another of those large, seemingly smart-assed, know-it-all smiles painted across his face.
“Answer me this, Nathaniel. If God has created Man in his own image, if He has allowed Man to experience and learn from life, if He has allowed for Man to be independent of thought and independent of action, is Man, by himself, not capable of evil? Does Man, himself, have no responsibility, no accountability, no culpability in all of this?
“No…ah, shit,” labored Ames, not knowing how to answer the question.
“So you see the fallacy of the argument? At what point must Man accept liability for his actions and not blame those very actions, his own actions, on some boogie man?”
“Damn” muttered Ames shaking his head, unable to come up with a retort other than the lame fact “boogie man” had not been one of the aliases for the Devil that Robert had spouted off seconds before. The man seemed to have a very valid point. When did Man accept responsibility for his action and not blame it on ‘someone’ or something else?
“Look about you, Nathaniel. Give it some thought. All of Mankind’s history is nothing but a legacy of brutality. One does not even have to search back through history. We live it now, a manifestation of this war. Look at the invention of the Minié Ball by the French Captain C.E. Minié. As a function of its greater range and accuracy, this bullet, alone, has overwhelmingly increased the lethality of the battlefield and evil it inflicts on Man. Is that the Devil’s doing?”
“Take another topic, that of slavery. One can either start at the source, of Negroes in Africa who enslave each other to market to the white man or one can just look to people…like me,” he acknowledged, “who ‘own’ another human being, as though that individual is no more than a piece of property. The Bible, itself, notes slavery…take Moses and his people. Again, is that the Devil’s doing or Man’s? I tend to believe that it is Man who makes men slaves and it is there the responsibility and accountability must rest.”
“And the issue of the Negro is not just one of slavery but of pure hatred…a hatred that moves from Man’s heart, to Man’s mouth, then to Man’s hands where it becomes a manifestation of Man’s evil. Perhaps the greatest antipathy I’ve heard demonstrated towards the black is by our soldiers. Recall my observation just minutes ago that many of our men fight out of concern for nigger equality? While our men’s abhorrence for the white soldier in blue uniform is considerable, it literally pales, pardon the expression, when contrasted with their hatred of a Negro in blue. You cannot tell me you have not heard our men exclaim that they could not be a ‘Christian’ soldier if they were ever to see a Negro in uniform. How can such a statement square with Christianity? Or, is that Satan’s doing, also?”
Hell,” remonstrated Wicker with an even bigger smile, obviously reveling in the pun, “there is no need for the Devil here on Earth, Nathaniel. Man’s inhumanity to Man just inflicted through the cruelty of war and human bondage, alone, has bettered that of the Devil, putting him out of business!”
For nearly a minute, there was silence, with only the sounds of dying fires, a cricket or two, and the slight rustle of a light breeze through the limbs and leaves of trees. Ames wrestled with his thoughts, attempted to reply, but finding no coherent counter argument forming in his thoughts.
“Try as I might, Robert, I cannot argue with what you’ve stated. I’ve never considered life from the perspective you’ve discussed. I suppose it’s time I did…and, I suppose it’s time to turn in. We’ll be gettin’ up in an hour or two,” he noted with a glance by firelight at the face of his pocket watch, another of the many gifts from his friend.
“Yes, Nathaniel, I suppose you’re right about that,” agreed Wicker, rising to his feet as Ames did, “and, I must admit, it has been a most enlightened evening of conversation.”
Each man stood where he had risen, Ames grabbing his tin of coffee that had been sitting on the ground by his side before rotating his hips a bit to loosen the kinks that had set into his back while he sat propped up against the tree. Wicker stood tall and erect, looking as he always did, comfortable and relaxed, despite the time spent perched on top of the field stool.
“As for what the remainder of this day will bring, you need not worry about resolution and judgment, my friend,” suggested the lieutenant. “If there is a fear of death, it is only because we are afraid of what may lie beyond. One is afraid of the unknown and, trust me, I know you can conceive of a future life.”
Ames stopped in mid swivel of his hips and slowly glanced across the feeble campfire at Wicker as that familiar, eerie, prickly feeling raised goose bumps all over his body. Yes, it was a bit cool this evening but the bumps were not a result of the temperature.
Ames’ eyes narrowed, again, as they always did when he focused on an objective or thought. What was it about this man? Much of what he’d say, at times, seemed to dwell with a double meaning or was Ames just reading too much into what was being said?
Wicker stood, partially illuminated by the dying, nearly flameless fire, an expressionless look on his face as though he were waiting for Ames’ next comment. Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, Ames was struck by an earlier thought he’d had but never asked. It now needed an answer.
“There is a question I’ve never asked Robert, but I am rather curious about the answer. Whatever happened to the previous company commander?”
“Captain J.J. Hatcher? He was struck down and killed the final day of battle during the Suffolk Campaign. A truly unfortunate…and untimely…loss for our men.”
“How did he die?”
“From an artillery round.”
“When?” pressed Ames through tight lips, already sensing that he knew the answer.
“Why late morning of 3 May, if I recall correctly.”
Ames knew that Wicker always did seem to recall correctly. A knot snapped on a smoldering branch at their feet and a tentacle of flame momentarily reached into the air. Ames could not help but note the red highlights of Wicker’s hair and beard. There was more, also. Was that a red glow in his eyes? Or just a reflection from the flames. The continued expressionless look on his friend’s face was of no assistance. As quickly as the campfire flame flared, it died and along with it, any further desire on Ames’ part to talk.
Numb, the captain raised the cup in his hand to his lips to find its contents cold and nearly empty. He stared into the mug, unable to make out the dark coffee grounds swirling about in the remaining half inch of liquid…but, knowing without seeing them that they were there. If he could see them, though, would he have been able to seek his future in their arrangement in a manner similar to a mystic’s fortune telling reading of tea leaves? Devoid of any feeling or much thought, he flicked his wrist, tossing aside the remaining blackened water.
“Goodnight, Robert,” and, without further word, Ames made his way over to his bedroll, placing his cup beside him as he stretched out.
By now, the only sounds were those of men breathing and snoring heavily, shifting about uncomfortably on the hard ground. Flames long gone, there were the light crackles of dying embers. Even nature’s symphony, the animals, babbling brooks, wind through trees were absent, as if spent from the discord of the past day’s events and in preparation for the new dawn soon to rise.
Ames, though, was oblivious to all this. He had asked a question and he was now trying to figure out how to live with the answer for the previous company commander, the officer he had been selected, supposedly by random, to replace had been killed the same day and time that he had appeared in this era, and the same day and time he’d departed from the other. Preordained? Destiny?