TITLE: Valley of Decision
By Arlene Showalter
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Robert McCarthy, former private of the 6th Michigan Infantry, pulled his forage cap low as he watched the approaching dust cloud, made by marching feet. Beyond, the burning city blackened the skies. Soon the bluecoats would be upon them.
As sweat gathered under his worn coat, Robert recalled when he’d been desperate for warmth. He and his comrades had dug into the red earth for shelter against a harsh winter. Day after endless day they lay huddled together in their hole, seeking a bit of coveted warmth.
Bleak days of cold and starvation merged until Robert lost all concept of time. Life consisted of drawing one agonized breath after another to survive. But survive for what?
Daily, he watched the death cart circle the yard, stacking corpses like cordwood, for mass burial just outside the fence. More than once, Robert felt they were the lucky ones. Suffering had lost its hold on them. Their eternal sleep would never be interrupted by lack of food, water and shelter. Never again would they experience the agony of lice crawling over every inch of their tortured bodies. Yes, Robert nodded. Definitely the lucky ones. Only his mother’s dilemma had kept him from joining the lucky dead.
As passing geese drew a noisy line across the sky, Robert thought of the moment he’d signed the paper. His hands trembled so much he could scarcely hold the pen. Was it hunger? Shame? Briefly he glanced into the seated officer’s eyes. Was that pity? Contempt? Even as the pen scraped across the parchment, the tempest raged in his soul.
Tears threatened his vision as Robert mused on what the next few hours would bring;
survival of another battle, with or without wounds, capture, or even death. He clenched his fists. Death would almost certainly remove any opportunity to explain everything to his mother. Unconsciously he caressed his breast pocket in which a final letter to her rested.
April 11, 1865
I write this to you on perhaps the last evening of my life. Yanks now camp at the outskirts of this doomed city. Only God knows what the morrow will bring.
Should we fail to hold the town, our orders are to protect the railroad bridge just north of here, essential to the South's survival.
I know this writing will confuse you, so I hasten to explain all. I hope our government has informed you of my capture and imprisonment here. I cannot describe all the horrors we have endured. No food or shelter. So many lice our rags literally crawled. Desperate men robbing and even killing their own comrades for a slice of moldy bread.
All I could think about was you and how much this war has already taken from you. First Pa and then my brothers. I had to find a way to survive to help you on the farm when this nightmare is over.
Confederate officers came to the prison offering freedom to those who would swear allegiance to their cause. Was I a coward to sign the oath and get out of that stink-hole, Mama?
I signed it for you, Mama. I hope you can understand and forgive me. Or would you prefer another dead son who died on the right side to a live one who turned traitor; even though you have no sons left to give? Perhaps four dead with honor is better than one left in dishonor?
These questions torment me day and night. But, you need to understand that I didn’t sign just for you, Mama. I also signed for the townspeople here who have shown us real kindness. When my friend, Hugh, was too sick to ship out with the other Union prisoners, a Mrs. Johnston nursed him in her own home until he died. She had him buried in her own garden, knowing his body would be thrown in with the other nameless dead in those trenches right outside the prison. Because of her, his mama can find his body after the war. You’da done the same, I’m sure of it, Ma.
This war can’t last much longer. The South is beat. She’s outta men and outta food. The soldiers in the field are starving. The townspeople are starving. I can’t let the Union destroy that bridge and increase the sufferings of this town. I just can’t.
If I die in battle, Ma, I can only pray someone will have compassion on you and send this letter. Otherwise you will never know why I swore against the Union and for the Confederacy. That would be too awful for you; the shame of our kin and neighbors not understanding why I did what I did, and me not having the opportunity to explain it to you.
If I die, Mother, please know how much I love you. I know how much you need me to live, to care for you now that Papa and the twins are gone. But will the shame be more than you can bear?
Ever your loving son,
As the nearing cloud took on the form of blue-clad Yanks, Robert resolutely lifted his rifle and waited for the command to fire.
“For you, Mrs. Johnson and all the other kind souls of Salisbury. May God’s will be done. Amen.”
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