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This story involves the spirits from a Confederate Artillery Regiment, whose bodies were buried together in a Society Tomb. The memorial in question is real. The story is fictional. War is hell, as General Sherman said, but it doesn't always end when we think it does.
by Jason Phillip Reeser
Early mornings in the Firemen’s Cemetery are notoriously shrouded in mist. Educated men might explain this by pointing out the land’s elevation in relation to the nearest waterways as well as the role played by local weather. Those of a particular engineering bent would add the importance of Interstate 10 running along its western border. Spiritually minded men might suggest that regardless of such natural influences, these sacred grounds are a nexus wherein heaven and earth join, allowing the passing of so many souls that a certain residue is inevitably to be seen with the aid of the day’s first sunlight.
The Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association had consecrated these grounds in the year 1852 and tourists might believe the more mischievous tour guides who spin tales of ghostly smoke and water-sprays from spectral hoses. The awkwardly dressed men with cameras enjoy the idea that firemen of old still battle it out with ancient fires for all eternity. Their wives tend to shudder at this image; some of them familiar with the dread of waiting for a husband to return from a hazardous job, and some simply burdened with an ingrained human alarm towards house fires.
Educated men scoff at notions of this kind and even spiritual men hesitate to give it credence. And in the end the tourists will tuck their photos away in a box along with the tour guide’s fanciful tale and forget all about it. Neither the scholars, nor the religious, nor the tourists will ever understand just how close to the truth such tales do come.
Before the first ray of each new dawn, just as it seems as if the grip of night’s darkness will never be broken, those who sleep lightly in the Fireman’s Cemetery are disturbed by a muffled racket coming from a great, square society tomb. Standing along one open lane, deep within the field of the dead, it is rather plain in appearance, and by starlight is dreary looking—a heavy, squat figure resembling a rundown tenement or forgotten bureaucratic cellblock. Across the top edge of this monument, if the darkness were pulled away, one would see these words: Soldiers’ Home.
A man’s tired voice murmurs a few words, the only reply a sharp clank of metal on stone. Shuffling steps echo against the neighboring tombs, and then someone coughs. There is the sound of running followed by jeering laughter. A lower voice, wide and powerful, demands an answer. For the first time, distinct words are heard. “Yessir!”
Now, a great many footsteps can be heard. Rattling and clattering mix with coughing and veiled curses. It is evident that as many as ten or twenty men are moving about in the dark. If they are all of one purpose, it does not sound so. A short quarrel, muffled by the shroud of pre-dawn but no less violent than if it were conducted in sunlight, is cut short by a harsh command. The runner returns at the same time. Most of the clamor is now out on the open lane, in front of the Soldiers’ Home. There is less noise, though a few more words are clearer now.
“Watch that,” a husky voice warns.
“All right, all right.” The lower voice concedes.
“Battery,” a quick whisper. The last of the muted clanks and shuffles comes to an end.
All is silent now save for one figure who cannot stop coughing.
“Battery.” This time, the voice carries more authority. The coughing stops for a breath, but begins anew.
The low voice issues an order. The coughing figure moves away from the others, back towards the dark block.
“Battery.” There is no more noise. The black morning air holds for a collective pause.
The forms of men can now be seen as the first bit of grey is mixed into the atmosphere. There are four rows of men, five abreast, facing the Soldiers’ Home. Before them stand two men, off to one side stands a thinner man. By their silhouettes, it is obvious that the men are standing at attention, arms held at their sides. Each man’s head is covered by a misshapen cap. A few exceptions are bareheaded. All are uniformed, though most of the blouses ill fitting.
The thin man steps forward, facing the Battery. He bows his head and speaks.
“Our Father, which art in heaven…” his voice is as thin as his shadow.
The Battery joins in. The words of the prayer echo down the grassy lane, swallowed by the lingering night. When they finish, they are silent for a full minute.
From out of the Soldiers’ Home comes the sound of a stifled cough.
“Detail.” The word cuts the silence like an alarm, and the black forms break formation. Each line of men makes its way to one of the corners of the Soldiers’ Home. Most of the black night has been replaced by a heavy gray that allows the men to be able to see shapes but nothing more. It is all that they need. Each corner of the blocked structure is composed of a cannon barrel standing on end. In the middle of the east and west walls stand two other cannon, though there are not enough men to work these. The men toil swiftly, their carefully plotted routine insuring that each cannon is lowered without injury to the men or damage to the stone artillery pieces.
As this is being done, two men from each detail pull open the nearest bottom vault and withdraw a stone cradle which will hold each great barrel. As their comrades set the cannons into the cradles, they already begin to withdraw bags of gunpowder, as well as the rammers, cleaning worms, sponges, lanyards, and friction primers. As one man seals each vent hole with his thumb, they first worm and swab out the barrels, removing any bits of masonry chips and dust that fell in during the process of removing the cannons from the monument. The vent holes are then cleaned out in the same manner. By the time the cannons are secured to the cradle, each team is ready to load their gun.
A bag of powder is rammed into place, and the brass friction primer is loaded into the vent hole. A stone cannon ball, from a stack on the monument’s corners, is rammed into place. The five men now come to attention as one of them chuffs “Ready to fire!” One of the details is slow, and finishes ten seconds behind the others. An officer fidgets with his pocket watch.
“They’ll make it, Colonel.” The husky voice tries to reassure him.
“All right, all right.” The Colonel’s low voice betrays his aggravation.
“It’s Vincent’s men. There’s only four of them. Theirs was the man with the cough.”
“Yes, I know that, Major.”
Enough light has crept into the field to allow the two officers to see facial expressions. The Colonel tries to smile. The strain is unmistakable even in the dim light.
“I don’t like the men to be slack, Major. I was easy on them. Too easy. It’s why we’re all here.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but that’s foolish. You’re not to blame.”
“Battery!” The Colonel’s command cracks out sharply, ricocheting off the nearest crypts. The men stiffen, each gunner’s hand grasping tightly to his lanyard.
“You know I’m right, sir. This melancholy of yours comes and goes. You’ll think better of it. Just give it time.” The Major gently touches his commanding officer’s arm. “We’ve been over this hundreds of times.”
The Colonel ignores the touch and the comforting words, staring instead at his pocket watch. He draws in a deep breath and then, without pause, barks:
The four cannons belch smoke and thunder as well as stone chips and plaster dust. Quickly, as if their former lives depend on it, the men reload. Vincent’s detail keeps up with the others and a second volley is fired. They fire a third and fourth volley as the smoke obliterates what little light the morning has to offer. Their world is no longer black. It is grey and white, the air thicker than the silk lining of the finest coffins.
“Shall they reload?” the Major asks. His men wait for his order. He steps closer to the Colonel in an attempt to see him clearly through the haze.
“Why do you always insist it is not my fault?” The Colonel snaps his pocket watch shut and rams it into his jacket. “I told Division they were ready. I volunteered them. Insisted they be sent forward. You call me a fool? Only a fool would deny me this judgment.”
“The men, sir?” The Major waits for his Colonel’s decision.
“Again, Major. They’re off this morning. And the sick man is not to blame.”
“Battery, reload!” The Major’s shout lacks conviction and carries emotion he had hoped to keep hidden.
“Do not worry, Major. I know you disagree. You think I’m too hard on them.”
“On yourself, sir.”
The men are grimy with carbon, grout and sweat. The chalky residue from the stone guns is smeared across their faces, making them appear all the more ghostly. They work with determination, dragging out more bags of gunpowder, swabbing out the barrels, and ramming the loads in place. It is hot work. The cloying humidity, even in the early morning, attacks them. They press on, knowing there is no respite unless they improve. The Colonel has been known to push them until the late morning sun has finally forced them back into their graves. They fear this as much as they fear real combat. The sun is painful, and cuts deeply into their souls.
Yet, in the face of this toil and pain, they persevere. If they are ever to find peace, they know they must satisfy their Colonel. They must show him that his will has driven them beyond their limitations. That he has forced improvement upon them to such an extent that time can be reversed, they can be saved, and he can be redeemed. By his own sheer resolution he must drag them out of the pit that he himself dug for them.
He is demanding the impossible but they do not balk in the face of it. Yes, it is hard work. It is madness. But they soldier on.
Smoke rolls in every direction. It filters down each adjacent lane, spreading its nauseating stench over and into tomb after tomb. Many of the dead, long used to this barrage, keep quietly in their crypts, content to wait out the Colonel’s self-inflicted fury. On this day, there are no new arrivals to annoy him, demanding that he stop. The newest residents in the nearby crypts have already tried this and learned that the old soldier is as unmovable as Stonewall Jackson ever was. They will hate him for a long time. Eventually, as with the older dead, they will come to pity him.
“Cease fire!” The call is as loud and punishing as his earlier order to fire. And it does not mean the soldiers will now get their rest. Now they must move sharply, and attack the cannons in reverse, lifting the great barrels back into place, and stowing the cradles and tools without delay. If this is not done right, they may be forced to do it all over again. They work feverishly, both desiring to please their Colonel and fearful of his retribution.
“You see, Major, responsibility must rest somewhere. It cannot be passed along indefinitely. Even if it could, it should not be. Someone has to step in and take the weight of it. You must surely see that this is so.”
The Major watches his men struggle to lift the stone cannons. In a way, his task is just as difficult. Just as repetitive. He has argued this point countless times. But he has never given in.
“Someone does take responsibility, Colonel. Someone of a much higher rank. You would not presume to make yourself His equal, would you?”
“Look closely at these vaults,” the Colonel steps closer to the Soldiers’ Home. The large memorial consists of five stacked rows of burial vaults. There are four vaults to each row. “As you are well aware, there are no names here. Only numbers. These men were destroyed beyond recognition. Twenty men on this side, twenty on the south side. Yet, we are only able to cobble together enough pieces to make twenty-four men. My God! I’ll be damned if I’ll stand for it.”
The Colonel puts out a hand and leans heavily against a marble vault. His breaths are short and awkward.
“You insult your Superior by this proud obduracy.” The Major is not moved by the Colonel’s emotion. He once was long ago, but he has not been for a long time. He makes an effort to win the argument nonetheless. “Step aside, and admit your limitations. You are not God, and He never expected you to be one. There are times when other men’s actions—even sins—affect us. We have no control over them. We simply do what we must and the end comes out all of its own accord.”
The men of the Battery, constructed from the detritus of war, reassemble on the grassy lane, now at attention. Their eyes wide with the terror of expectancy. Their ears still ring with the cacophony of their exercise, they tremble with an excess of adrenaline. They only wait now to hear their commander’s judgment.
The Colonel eyes them with weary assessment. He has seen them perform better. He knows it. They know it. But he is also aware they have done the best they could for that day. The larger question he must answer is whether or not it is enough.
“Step aside, you said?” the Colonel asks softly. “How that I wish I might.”
He tugs at his buttoned collar and looks over the heads of his men. The smoke has spread out over the burial ground now, a white mist in the rays of the morning sun. The smoke will clear eventually, and the sun will burn them if they do not get under cover soon.
“Battery, fall out.” His order is nearly a whisper, but the men hear it plainly enough. They break ranks and step out of the wide, grassy lane.
In the miasma of smoke and sunlight, the weary soldiers climb into their stone barracks, making little jokes as they go. They need rest. And at least for a day, they will get it.
“Thank you, Major. That will be all. For this day.”
The Major disappears around one corner of the large tomb. His quarters are on the south side. Left alone, the Colonel stands erect as the smoke begins to clear. He endures the sunlight for a short time. It burns, and he imagines it is necessary.
“Not God.” The Colonel chafes at the Major’s impudence. “The man’s got gall, I’ll say that for him.”
And then he is gone. The Colonel lies in his vault, just another corpse in a tomb that he has built with the power of his pride.
A cough is heard inside the Soldiers’ Home. Then nothing more.
The sun rises. Early morning tourists remark upon the mist that lingers over the burial field. Another day begins.
To all of those men and women who have given of themselves for our country, I say thank you, and may God grant you the peace that passes all understanding.