by Dave Hoing
Tom Beecher was just a boy from Tennessee who fought for the Union Army. In August of '64 he decided to go home to his sweetheart, but soon as he hopped the Dead-Line fence, a Reb sentry put a musket ball in him. The fence wasn't even waist high, narrow planks nailed end-to-end on posts that circled the camp inside the stockade wall. Tom staggered, then fell back over it onto the prisoner side.
Our regiment's sergeant had no doctor schooling, but what he did have was a knack for setting bones and binding up wounds. Me and him rushed to the fence. Tom was breathing in gasps and hiccups. Sarge rolled him on his stomach to have a look. When he saw that the ball had gone in the ribs and out the spine, he just shook his head.
Tom had shit himself something awful. Wasn't his fault. "Can't feel nothing down there," he said, his accent Southern even if his heart wasn't. His nostrils flared. "That me?"
The whole camp smelled like that, so what was one more stink?
"Why'd you do it?" Sarge asked. "You know what happens we cross that line."
"In my pocket," Tom said.
The Rebs stole our money after Chattanooga—Union greenbacks was worth ten times theirs—but they let us keep most our personal things. Sarge reached under Tom and pulled out a watch with a tintype of his gal inside. She might've had the blessed soul of an angel, but Lord, that girl was plainer than a wood stump. Tom was no particular friend of mine, which I figure was why he never showed me her picture before.
"She's pretty," I said. Sarge handed me the watch, then plugged up Tom's wounds with strips he tore off his own shirt.
"No she ain't," Tom said, and his breath bubbled in his chest. "But she's the light of this world."
Then he left this world for the next.
Sarge turned Tom on his back and palmed his eyelids shut. The sun was just rising, but already the Georgia air was hot and wet as a swamp. Sarge squinted up at the pigeon roost. "Bastard," he yelled, though he'd been fighting too long for real anger anymore.
"Mind your tongue, sir," the sentry shot back. "Want someone to blame, blame him. Anybody else runs, I'll give him the same. Now, throw him over. Wagon'll be along directly."
The boy talked tough, but his voice was shaky. Must be new to the war. He stood at his station and lifted his eyes to the sky.
Back in January, when we heard we was being transferred from Danville down to Georgia, we was happier than swine
in corn. It was so cold in Virginia that the Jim River had froze solid, and anyway, we was plenty sick of eating
wharf rat soup. Georgia was farther away from our homes, but being deep South, it wasn't so prone to villainous
winters. The camp was big, they told us, with beautiful forest all round, wooden shacks for us to live in, and
three squares a day.
I remember me and Tom riding down in the same car. We sure was pleased to be out of that cramped train and into the fresh warm air. But one look at the camp and Tom said, "Christ almighty, can this be hell?"
The forest was pretty, all right, but for the rest . . . .
The prisoners was covered head to toe in all manner of filth, more skeleton than flesh. They had scurvy and the bloody flux and God only knows what other infirmities, forty-five thousand souls stuffed onto twenty-six acres. Wasn't no shacks, and not enough tents for a tenth of them. Those fevered boys had dug holes in the ground to get out of the sun. Nothing they could do 'bout rain but take it as it came. The stream they used for drinking, bathing, and relieving themselves was a sludgy ribbon of sewage and flies. For food they was given a brick of johnnycake a day and scraps of salted pork twice a week, only the South was short of salt, so they tried preserving with ashes, leaving more maggot than meat.
The Rebs took a roll call of us Illinois men, then herded us into the stockade. The commandant, Captain Wirz, was surely the meanest scoundrel to ever walk the earth. He warned us right off about the Dead-Line. Since then I personally seen some twenty Yanks shot down making a run for it.
Wirz wouldn't let us bury our dead, or even hold services. Soon as someone passed, we was to push him across the Dead-Line. A wagon clattered by every morning to collect the bodies. They was then taken to a field and thrown in a hole like common beasts. There wasn't room for the living, never mind the dead, but goddammit, we wasn't beasts. People deserve Christian respect without regard to the color of their coats.
Me and Sarge rolled Tom under the fence. Seeing his face in the sun, all handsome and dead, I thought about the news his sweetheart was gonna get. That poor gal had waited all this time, loving her Tom, hopeful, scared, heartsick with not knowing. Then one day a letter would come. First she'd think it was from him, and when it wasn't, I could almost see her sink down onto her Daddy's porch and look out at the hills and the crops and maybe a little barn, all the things she and Tom might've had themselves, and now wouldn't.
Made me want to jump the fence myself, climb the pigeon roost and teach that sentry what killing meant. But there'd be no sense in that. Plenty of Reb gals had sat down on their porches, too. Sarge touched my shoulder and said, "Come on."
I hummed a hymn for Tom. A quarter hour later the wagon took him away and dropped him in the hole.