Muskets fell like two waves of dominoes atop stone walls on the Blue and Gray sides of a quiet little creek. The instant the rifled barrels hit the horizontal they fired, burning men’s eyes with the pungent smoke of spent black powder. The lethal twin wave faltered at the end where the stone barriers leapt across the water to kiss atop a sturdy arch. There Union and Confederate soldiers converged on foot, shooting as they came, and men fell on the roadway from both sides.
When the belligerents were too close for shooting to make any sense the men in the van of the attacks resorted to bayonet thrusts and even fisticuffs. The Federals had the greater initial momentum and they nearly got across the bridge before the rebels drove them back over a layer of bodies one man deep. Some of these men were dead, others were moaning and writhing with a lead ball lodged in their innards. Tragically some of the fallen boys in blue had survived Shiloh, where the war first attained its presently high but stable plateau of savagery.
Waiting for the counter-attack of the Army of Northern Virginia was a cannon which the Union colonel leading the assault has ordered to be lined up on the long axis of the bridge. The piece was loaded with canister shot, which mows the onrushing men down like grass to form a second layer of bodies. Some of these fallen boys in gray had survived the artillery hell at Malvern Hill during the Seven Days.
Waiting in turn for this cannon were two guns on the Confederate side positioned on a bend of the creek upstream. One fired bursting shells that killed or maim the Union gunners and another fired several rounds of solid shot. Some of the rounds found their mark. The ones that did not hit the cannon bounced up the slope and assailed the walls of a pretty little white church. Eventually the giant shotgun on the Federal side became a useless pile of splinters and a prone tube of dented steel. Then another Rebel attack gained most of the bridge, which has become an abattoir.
The colonel leading the attack from the Union side was shot off his horse, but to the wonderment of his own men he immediately stood up and saw how the Minié ball was stopped by the leather cover of his little pocket Bible. Taking this as a divine go-ahead, the colonel ordered a fresh wave of troops to assail the bridge. Rebel troops were soon driven entirely off the bridge by the new Union assault.
Hearing that his boys were almost out of powder, the lieutenant colonel commanding the other side ordered bayonets fixed and led one more charge. After the furious carnage that ensues the rebels briefly regained sole occupation of the bridge.
Seeing that the colors of the United States have fallen, the colonel took them up again himself and led his men back to the fight. Against a foe which has spent all its powder, the Union men soon attain the high summit of a mass of twisting bodies on the bridge. There they continued to fire, swapping their empty muskets for fresh ones handed up to them as though on a conveyor belt, firing again and again. The last of the rebels were captured or ran away.
When the colonel reached the other side of the creek at last and saw the retreating backs of the enemy, he said to a lieutenant, “Tell the commanding general we won a bridgehead here.”
The junior officer saluted and turned to obey, but he saw the bridge was stacked with bodies from both sides. Unwilling to desecrate the fallen, he splashed on foot across the creek, which after all is only ankle deep.
A Confederate division commander watchef the Federal lines through binoculars from the saddle of his horse. Even before the butcher’s bill has been tendered he knows it has been the bloodiest single day of the war. Neither side seemed eager to extend the carnage to a second day. Turning to his superior, mounted on a tall gray horse next to him, he said, “General, sir, it is my considered opinion the enemy is not making ready to attack.”
The general commanding the Army of Northern Virginia nodded in agreement yet he appeared to be anguished. His face was flushed as he realized the invasion of the North has failed. He knows the Union commander is overly cautious, but if the enemy did decide to move a large fraction of the Confederate army would be captured or killed before it could be moved to relative safety south across the Potomac River. So he sighed and came to a conclusion, the only possible conclusion, painful as it was with so much precious blood already invested. “General, your orders are to move the army back over the river. But this is the most important thing: The retreat must be in good order. I do not wish to give those people over there the satisfaction of witnessing this army in a rout.”
The division commander snapped off a perfect salute, then motioned to subordinates and began to issue his own orders. Soon all over the battlefield men began to break down their tents. The Confederates started to cross back south over the Potomac on pontoon bridges stretching from the little tongue of Maryland they continued to hold. And still the short little Union commanding general, watching and waiting somewhere on the long slope up from the Potomac, refused to budge. Were the forces ten-to-one in his favor, he would still wire Washington complaining of being outnumbered.
Back on the Virginia side of the river one sergeant ordered his men to form back up, but some of the less-seriously wounded men ignore him and walk on, making for their own homes.
The white church near the bridge, or what was left of it, has been turned into a field hospital for the Union army. Dried blood stains the interior walls, overlaid with sprays of fresh blood. A doctor used ether to sedate a man. Other men used saws to hack off limbs, which they throw into a pile. Men outside the church on stretchers moaned with post-op agony.
A messenger arrived at the church by horse and addressed the doctors. “These orders are from the commanding general. Get your wounded on hoof or wheels and get them the hell out of here.”
So the amputated legs and arms were thrown into a large pile and burned. Wagons carrying wounded men began to roll away. Every bump in the road elicited screams from the men inside. No man or woman who witnessed the passing convoy of suffering would ever say again they loved the glory of war.
The last ambulance wagon passed a group of black-clad farmers and their wives riding homely mules, their horses having been prudently moved to a place far away from men of either army who would “borrow” them. On these mules the parishioners of the white church have ridden out, as soon as they deemed it safe, to see what has become of their meeting place. They halted and everyone gasped, for they saw the structure was riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, and glimpses of the inside revealed what looks to be the interior of a slaughterhouse.
Suddenly, perhaps even mercifully, before their very eyes, their beloved church collapsed in ruin.