Robert McCarthy, former private of the 6th Michigan Infantry, pulled his forage cap low, watching the approaching dust cloud, made by marching feet. Beyond that, the city burned. Soon the bluecoats would be upon them.
Clutching his rifle in one hand, McCarthy unconsciously caressed his breast pocket with the other. In it lay a final letter to his mother.
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 didnít 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. Youída done the same, Iím sure of it, Ma.
This war canít last much longer. The South is beat. Sheís outta men and outta food. The soldiers in the field are starving. The townspeople are starving. I canít let the Union destroy that bridge and increase the sufferings of this town. I just canít.
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.
ďFor you, Mrs. Johnson and all the other kind souls of Salisbury. May Godís will be done. Amen.Ē
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