The Pain of Leaving

The call sounded, drums beating in the background, men pulling on uniforms and leather as fast as their fingers would allow. NCOs started shouting as feet hurried by and muskets were brought to arms. The enemy had been spotted and a battle was imminent.

A scout had ridden into camp a short time before with a report. The enemy was just a few miles away, and their number was larger than ours. They would be coming down the nearby road and they planned to destroy the bridges we needed to get our artillery and supplies across if we were going to continue the push toward the North. With the report received, moments later the Colonel gave orders and the camp became alive with activity, like someone had kicked over an anthill.

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Photo credit: David Brooker

The last of the men ran for the line as the flap to the officer’s wall tent was thrown back, and my sweetheart stepped out. He came around the tents to the fly, pulling on his coat and buttoning each brass button as he prepared for battle.

“This is goodbye. I may not see you after this.”

He buttoned the last button and tied his crimson sash around his waist, securing his sword belt on top. Then he stepped forward and wrapped me in a hug. Not too tight, nor too long, but one that lingered even as he pulled away. Stepping back, he looked at me with eyes deeply full of expression. Love, pain, and uncertainty all crowded together there. I knew he wondered if he would make it off the field alive or ever see me again. With one more long look at me, he turned toward the battlefield and his men.

I took two steps after him and stopped. I could not follow him, though I wanted to. I had to urge him forward. “Stay alive, you hear! Stop those Yankees, and do us proud!” I called after him. With a slight hesitation in his step, a quick look over his shoulder, and an almost unnoticeable nod to me, he was gone.

I stood there for a moment as emotions reeled through me. I knew what I had seen in his eyes. I wanted him to come back, to walk back off that battlefield after the dust had settled and right back into my arms. I wanted him to avoid the battle that may very well claim his life and come back to me now, but his men needed him to lead them. I was also proud of him for fighting- fighting to rid our land of the leeches known as the Union Army, fighting for our freedom, fighting… for me. My heart willed him forward as my mind screamed for him to come back. My stomach rolled as fear nearly consumed me, rising more as the last column of soldiers disappeared from view.

Soft, but strong arms enveloped me. “Have faith, Dearie. Never lose faith.” I rested my head against Martha’s cheek as the other camp followers joined us, also willing their men forward, knowing that some of our number might be widows by nightfall.

Martha gently stroked my hair. “Be strong, Dearie, and pray. The Lord may see fit to return him to you.”

I held Martha tight. I didn’t know if I could do this. After losing everything to a Yankee raid, my parents killed and our home looted and burned to the ground at their hand. Then surviving the journey to find him, and finally getting approval to be a camp follower due to Martha generously sharing her tent and taking responsibility for me, an unwed woman in camp. I couldn’t lose him now. He and Martha were all I had left in the world. Well, and the other women I guess. Dear Martha. She had become like a mother to me these last hard weeks. Now, with my head resting against her cheek, her soft but sure arms around me, I knew I had a decision to make. I had to decide if I was in this for good; if I could survive watching him go into battle after battle. He had a job to do, and so did I.

“Lord, encamp your angels around him. Train his arms for battle and his fingers for war. Give him wisdom and bring him home to me.”

“Amen,” the other women murmured around me.

I didn’t know how I would do it, but I suddenly knew I was in this fight until the end. Whether that was doing laundry and cooking, nursing, or becoming his wife as we had planned. I would be there as long as my man lived. I straightened, turned toward Martha and looked her in the eye. With a soft and trembling smile, she wiped the tears from my eyes. “You are going to make it, Dearie.”

I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. “Yes, I will,” I whispered in her ear. “Thank you.”

She pulled away and held me at arms length, studying me for a moment. “Well then, shall we make preparations for their return?” I knew she was asking me to step out in faith as she had done month after month of this war, watching her son walk into the fray time and again until she lost him, and then staying to take care of “the rest of my boys.”

I looked into the compassionate eyes of this dear woman and nodded. Taking her hand, we walked into the camp.

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Night fell, and campfires blazed. The battle was over, but with it came the influx of tired, hungry men, discouraged men, and of course, the wounded. It had been a costly victory. Around the corner stood the hospital tent, the doctors working ferociously to save the wounded. I couldn’t bring myself to enter it, to see the blood and the mangled bodies altered by surgery. But I couldn’t leave them suffering either. Martha and I had made broth during the battle. With pails laden full of the life-giving fluid, I walked between the wounded, gently holding my ladle to each man I passed. Some drank thirstily. Some choked it down. Others were too weak to swallow. I prayed they could be helped. Dipper after dipper of broth was offered until my legs trembled and my back ached fiercely. So many of our men were down, but thankfully, I hadn’t found him among them…yet. The campfires cast eerie shadows all around, at times, making men appear as ghosts.

A shadow approached me, but it appeared like all the others, just shadows passing in the night. Then it stopped. “Darlin’?”

I froze. That was his voice! I looked around quickly, praying he wasn’t among the wounded and I had missed him. My eyes settled on the shadow near me. He stepped into the light and I cried for joy. He was filthy, covered in dirt and gunpowder, the acrid acidic smell clinging to him. Sweat had run tracks of flesh tone through the dark shades that covered his skin. But he was alive!

Escaped hair hung in my face, I was completely disheveled, and tears slid down my face as my whole body trembled in relief. There was so much I wanted to say, but could not get the words out as my knees began to shake. He stepped forward and took hold of my arms, keeping me on my feet. My eyes brimmed with tears I could not contain. His face was blotchy in black and brown tones, but to me, he never looked more handsome. I touched the side of his face and smiled. I saw things haunting him behind his eyes, but I was so glad he was there. Suddenly, he took full possession of me, wrapping his arms around me and kissing me as he never had before. In that moment, I knew the very instant we were allowed to get married, I would say, “I do.” He was in this for the long haul, and so was I. Whatever it took to rid our land of those horrible Yankees and to keep him going, I would support. With a look to Martha, standing amongst the wounded with a gentle smile on her face, I laid my head on his shoulder, and stood, united with the man who held my heart.

*****

Though this story is purely a work of my imagination, it was inspired out of a set of questions. “What did the women feel when their men left for war? How did it affect them? What was the emotional toll on these women? How did the family members among the camp followers respond after watching their men walk into battle after battle? We know of many women-wives, daughters, and sweethearts, who followed the army during the war, particularly during the first half of the war. Though there were other camp followers, including sutlers, the nurses from the Sanitary Commission or Christian Commission on the Union side, nurses and nuns on both sides, Vivandières – such as Annie B. Etheridge on the Union side, and Sarah Taylor or Lucy Ann Cox on the Confederate side, women of ill-repute, laundresses and more. I have chosen to focus on the wives and sweethearts and a small part of what they went through.

When most people think about the War Between the States, they think about the battles, the generals, the bloodshed, slavery, or the wounded. I find that many times, the home front, and the sacrifices of the family are forgotten. As we enter this month where we cherish our family time and family memories, let us not forget all that these women sacrificed in their fight for freedom.

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