Overall Union commander Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was hoping to steal a march on General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia when the Army of the Potomac left its winter camps near Brandy Station, Virginia, and headed toward the Rapidan River in early May 1864. Sharp-eyed Confederate lookouts observed the movement, however, and soon battle-hardened Southern legions were heading east from their camps near Orange Court House to do battle.
Horrific fighting broke out on May 5 in a large tangle of small stunted trees, vines, and brush that one Union soldier called a “rank and heavy…jungle” and that locals referred to as “the Wilderness.” The Battle of the Wilderness, as it came to be called, was a particular type of hell that lasted until May 7, claiming nearly 30,000 casualties and temporarily stopping the Union offensive. The dense growth disrupted battle lines, made it nearly impossible to see beyond a few feet and, worst of all, caught fire from shell bursts and musket flashes, adding oppressive smoke to the surreal confusion.
BECAUSE THE LIGHT IN THE WOODS faded, 19-year-old Summerfield Hayes knew that time was passing. In all the battle depictions he’d heard from veterans, he’d never known anyone to describe an engagement of such relentless ferocity and duration. He witnessed no wounded soldiers retreating or being carried to the rear by stretcher-bearers, no color guards, no visible colors ahead or behind. No Rebels charged the Union line, and yet he sensed, at his back, some distance away, a chaotic ebb and flow of troops, fresh regiments arriving piecemeal as spent infantry withdrew.
One thing remained clear—to stand up meant certain death, and so Hayes stayed put and fired his two weapons 67 times.
As he was loading the 68th, a bugle sounded somewhere off in the woods to his right, and the dozens of dead soldiers sprawled on the ground before him rose in unison onto all fours and began to crawl forward. Hayes felt the skin on the back of his neck contract. He burst out laughing and turned to confer with Clahane about this extraordinary sight—but Clahane, hatless now, was stretched out flat and peaceful, his weapon beneath him, his cheek resting against the barrel. The boy might have been sleeping but for a bloody furrow that incised one side of his scalp and the fingers of blood that had flowed down from the wound and streaked his face.
Only a trick of the mind: When Hayes looked forward again, the dead soldiers were properly dead once more, and stationary. The forest itself, on the other hand, enlivened by gunfire, continued to pulse and shiver. A gray-green rain of shattered leaves wafted down from the canopy, a thing of simultaneous beauty and horror, and Hayes was struck by the coldness with which he observed it. Something deep within him had gone numb, and then, for a moment or two, he lost touch with all the certainties, small and large, that made him known to himself. It was a kind of blankness, for sure, the result of obliterative noise, but not entirely without character: Nothing in the world mattered, nothing in life possessed any value, and all human endeavor was as foul and menacing as the scavenging of wild pigs in the street.
THEN, AS IF THESE EMOTIONS had opened some sort of channel, he heard his sister speak his name, and the world was once again bizarre and recognizable. The shattered leaves rained down from trees. His country was at war with itself. He fought for the Army of the Potomac.
In the smoke and confusion his squad had wandered astray, and he’d got caught between the lines. He’d gone unmoored; it was the best he could do to place himself in one spot like a piece of artillery and wage his singular offensive. But now he longed to find his own comrades, his own officers, and rest in the self-abandonment that came with following orders. He could go toward neither line without being taken for the enemy and shot, so he resolved to try a lateral move and see where that would take him.
As he gathered his gear, there came a lull in the fighting, and the deafening barrage slowly abated to the sporadic popping he associated with picket skirmishes. He thought it dusk now, but a dusk like none other, a failure of light that lacked the promise of darkness. He could hear the enormous thunder of combat farther away and then the deep rumble of more combat farther away still. What had seemed to him so convincingly the heart of the war was but a single lesion on the leprous body of a giant. He began to creep into the thicket. The sulfurous vapors that filled his lungs caused a hot tingle inside his chest. The ground before him sank gradually and then gradually rose beneath a bewilderment of vines and brush, strewn with bodies. Now and again, he crawled alongside a pair with limbs variously intermingled. Though he made no attempt to identify any of the fallen—indeed, he kept his eyes half closed most of the time—he did recognize the mangled corpse of his sergeant resting against the trunk of a tulip tree.
He gathered ammunition from the dead, as well as weapons, trussing with belts a bundle of muskets and dragging it along like a disabled companion. Wood smoke mixed with gun smoke, and the dusky air grew hotter and darker still. He took a canteen from a dead comrade, drank from it, and poured the rest over his own head. He inched forward, sometimes through thorny brambles and patches of slime. His bundle of firearms got snagged repeatedly, and he found himself cultivating patience toward it, as he’d always tried to do with those who muffed balls on the playing field. For a little while he was back in New York, among his club mates after a match—music, speeches and laughter, chicken potpie and champagne.
HE REACHED THE CREST OF AN INCLINE just as a young lieutenant colonel rode out of the smoke—lowering his head to clear a branch, teetering in the saddle—and stopped about 10 yards away. Hayes couldn’t think if he’d seen the man before, for so many of the young dark-haired officers looked alike. He watched as the man (obviously drunk) removed a flask from the pocket of his coat and took a long drink. He wiped his mustache with the back of his hand and then struggled so forcefully to screw the cap back on he broke the hinge and sent it spiraling to the ground. Rather than looking down after it, the man cast his gaze heavenward, as if to reprove a tiresome and trying God, and at that moment a bullet struck him in the left ear, knocking his hat into a nearby tangle of vines, where it lay cockeyed, suspended. He slumped violently forward, his face smacking the mane of the beautiful honey-colored mount, which danced two steps forward and back.
A second bullet struck the forehead of the horse, whose front legs buckled, catapulting the officer headfirst over the poll: a rag doll, an unseemly heap, buttressed by a sword. Third and fourth bullets struck the horse in the breast, and it shuddered and fitfully pivoted its hindquarters in an arc, so that when at last it collapsed, the full weight of its girth flattened the lieutenant colonel to the ground. The beast’s long and final expiration sent dry leaves skittering toward Hayes, and then its lower lip sagged open, discharging a gluey braid of spittle.
Hayes crawled forward and uprighted the officer’s flask before all the contents had spilled out. He found the cap, sniffed it, and screwed it on: bourbon, which he’d never cared for.
A BREEZE SWEPT THROUGH the woods, agitating the smoke, and the air went grayer, whiter, and grayer again. Hayes heard a rat-a-tat of drums, then a sound like heavy rain, rapidly approaching, and half a minute later he was being carried forward by a great wave of Union troops, Pennsylvania men from his own brigade, who were accompanied by a sudden onslaught of artillery some distance toward their right flank. Two veterans quickly lifted Hayes’s bundle of guns (one shouted, “Well done!”), and soon the line dug in and a new inferno was underway.
Through the trees down to the right, Hayes could see vertical bars of paler light that indicated a clearing, most likely a road, where shells whistled and exploded above the roar of musketry. The man closest to Hayes, an older gentleman with gray whiskers, called out to him: “How’d you get so far out in front, son?”
“By accident!” shouted Hayes, and the older man laughed.
Hayes forgot to keep count of his shots, but he didn’t mind. He thought of them now as countless, and he was sure he’d developed bruises up and down his right arm. The blister on his hand burst, and a new one formed alongside it.
THEY CONTINUED FIRING and advanced now and again in small increments, but every inch of gained ground cost them; men lay wounded all about, moaning or silent, half hidden in the underbrush. Hayes could tell that no significant progress was being made, and he thought the seemingly endless supply of Union soldiers worked almost to a disadvantage—the troops were jammed up against one another too close in the woods and resulted in an atmosphere of chaos. As the forest continued to grow darker and they drew ever closer to the opposing line, it became clear that the Rebels occupied a higher ground. Even if the Union troops outnumbered them, as long as the Confederates had ammunition, they would hold their position. Each time they appeared to be weakening—and some small hope arose that a real advance might be made against them—they quickened with renewed vigor, always, always punctuated with the hideous Rebel cry.
The gray-whiskered soldier who’d asked Hayes how he’d got so far out front took a bullet through the neck and bled to death in a matter of seconds. Careful to keep his head low, Hayes dragged the body a short ways to the rear where the dead were being piled. Many years ago, he’d watched longshoremen at the Atlantic Docks drag big sacks of grain down the gangplank of a barge and heave them onto wagons. Now, as he laid the gray-whiskered gentleman onto the heap, he recalled how he’d admired the muscle and workaday composure with which the longshoremen had toiled and how, for some time, he’d aspired to become a dockworker.
Soon after he returned to the line, an Irishman with a runny nose fell in next to him. His face bright red, he looked at Hayes, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his coat, and said, “Christ Jesus, I wish night would come!”
Dennis McFarland has written seven novels, including The Music Room. His short fiction has appeared in the American Scholar and the New Yorker. This excerpt is from his most recent novel, Nostalgia. Copyright © 2013 by Dennis McFarland. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.