My regiment? The New York 156th, B Company.
I’d left the farm in the hands of my wife and her uncle
(Polly and I never had children,
Something I’m grateful for now.)
We’d boarded the train in Kingston,
Figuring we’d have a picnic, see the countryside
Fire a few shots at the Rebels and the odd squirrel
And be home before snowfall.
The picnic was spoiled damn quickly, and not by ants;
We took fire within a half-day of meeting up with the main body of the corps,
And couldn’t get our heads back up until damn near Appomattox.
Truth told, I don’t remember exactly how many men I killed
(And in some cases, that’s stretching the truth,
As some of them looked like altar boys from the church,
Same age as the sons I’d never had.)
You find after a while it’s best to lose count,
Do what you can to forget faces
(Now that the beds are soft and the fields are quiet,
The faces come back to disturb my nights then and again.)
Fact is, I’m convinced I survived only because
I rode down what was human about me, or at least the good part;
Best to be like cows or oxen—eat what you can where you can,
Sleep when you might have the option,
And, like the other poor dumb bovine bastards waiting for the cudgel,
Don’t let your thoughts stray elsewhere
Until you’re more kin with the animals than anything else
(I remember Tommy Dunbar from over Esopus way
Brought his dog with him; it marched with us all the way to Pleasant Hill,
And the only time I cried between enlisting and mustering out
Was when that mongrel snuffed it.)
Anyways, that is all over, and good riddance to it; I’ve no desire
To mount up with the Grand Army of the Republic types
And wave the bloody shirt in some convention hall in Albany,
Nor am I inclined to meet up with fellow graybeards
From the other side of the line to sleep in tents
And mock-shoot wooden rifles and imaginary minie balls.
It’s over, and I prefer to keep it that way.
Funny thing, the colonels and chaplains always insisted
That God was on our side, and I suspect their boys did the same.
I suspect (though I’d never tell preacher, of course)
That He left the field quite early in the proceedings.
(As the portion of my brain which comes up with ideas is apparently out of commission for good, I’m grateful for the prompts at Real Toads. In this piece, I’ve given the un-named Kane brother from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a first name, and to hell with the consequences. As a tip of the hat to the late Mr. Helm, the 156th New York most likely had a few boys from his adopted home town of Woodstock.)