Jacob's War | By: Bob Quigley | | Category: Short Story - Self Realization Bookmark and Share

Jacob's War


Jacob Hatch was big. Rugged big. At age eighteen, he stood just shy of six feet, tall for a male in the 1860's. He had been born on a farm up in Waldo County, Maine, in the little town of Montville. His father had 15 acres of relatively fertile land down near Bolen Hill. Most was tillable with a 3 acre woodlot running to the edge of Muddy Pond.


Jacob had helped his father work the land since not long after he could walk, taking on more responsibility the older he got. Today, he could outwork many men his senior, giving the land the long hours it demanded. But Jacob's heart was not that of a farmer. Instead, he craved the adventure he found in the books he devoured. In them were the friends he didn't have at the common school where he was the source of ridicule. You see, Jacob was a stutterer.


The other kids loved to pick on him saying “J-Jacob, t-tell us a s-story”, or “s-sing us a s-song”. He would not get angry, and, given his size, it was probably good that he didn't. Instead he would just walk away and retreat into his books.


At night after chores and dinner, Jacob would go to his room and practice reading aloud, trying hard not to stumble over the words, and getting frustrated when he did. “Why”, he would silently ask “can't I be like everyone else”. “Why won't what I want to say come out right”.


Every Friday, Jacob would hitch up the rig, and take the wagon to the general store at McFarland's Corner. He always looked forward to it as it was a departure from the norm, but also provided a chance to see if any new books had found their way onto the shelves. There was one thing that he did try to avoid however. That would be Tom Dutton.


Tom, unfortunately worked right next door at the blacksmith shop and loved to amuse himself by mimicking Jacob's speech. He would ask one of the smithy’s “how many legs on a horse”, to which the other would reply “four”. Tom would then say “nope, they's eight. I asked Jacob and he said “fo-four”. And so it would go until either Jacob walked away or Tom tired of the game.


On one such trip, Jacob noted a broadside hanging just outside the store. Upon closer inspection he saw that it said To Arms! Citizens! Our Country Calls!! Come on Sons of Maine! NOW IS THE TIME! Best Chance Yet Offered! Col. Shepley's Regiment & General Butler's Grand Division. Needless to say, Jacob was intrigued. Signing up could be his way out of here. Away from those who treated him as a lesser person because of the way he spoke.


Down the street by the bank sat a table, surrounded by several local men and two officers in blue uniforms. Jacob decided to check it out, and upon arriving, one of the officers asked him if he was there to “fight the secessionists”. Jacob said I d-don't know. W-What do I h-have to do”? What's your name son” he asked. “J-Jacob Hatch” he said “How old are you” the officer asked. “Eighteen sir” he said. “Are you healthy son”the officer asked? Again Jacob said yes. “Can you shoot” the man asked”. “Yessir” he said, “I'm a p-pretty fair shot”. “Well” said the officer, “I hope you can shoot faster then you can talk. All you have to do is place your X here”. Jacob stepped up and said “ I c-can write m-my own name, and did. The officer told him to go home and collect his things and report back to the town square. They would be leaving for Augusta that very night.


Jacob couldn't wait to get home and tell his folks what he had done. He knew they weren't going to be as pleased as he was, but he didn't care. He was overcome with the sense of adventure. This is just what he had been waiting for.


He was right about his folks. As all mother's do, she cried, while his father asked how Jacob thought he could work the farm alone. Jacob had been ready for the question. He said he would send money home that his father could use to hire some help. “It would all work out fine” he said. Besides, there was no backing out now. Ultimately, his father gave his blessing and drove Jacob back to town.


The trip to Augusta was rather uneventful. That was until, there among the throng of men, he saw Tom Dutton who unfortunately had also seen him. Pushing his way through the crowd, Tom called “J-Jacob, what the hell you doing here”? “I didn't know the Army took crips”. With that, others began to turn around and stare. There was nothing Jacob could do but try to ignore the comments. He was trapped.
They couldn't get to Augusta fast enough for him.


Jacob and the other new sworn recruits arrived in Augusta in April of 1861 where they joined new enlistees from all over the state. The next few days were filled with mustering in activities. Uniforms and rifled muskets were issued, along with canteens, backpacks, and rations. Jacob quickly found out his life was not his own anymore. From dawn to dusk, there was always someone telling him what to do and how to do it, and it seemed the marching never stopped. Evenings around the campfire were riddled with conversation about the whupping they were going to give Johnny Reb. Spirits were high and tall tales of past exploits were numerous. So, unfortunately, were the cutting comments issued by Tom Dutton, and now, several others, toward Jacob. Jacob, consequently, began to spend more time by himself, reading a pocket scripture his mother had given him, and frequently writing letters home.


Weeks passed quickly, and in June, their Colonel assembled them and advised that their Regiment had orders to proceed to Washington, D.C., where they would be attached to the Army of the Potomac. The trip to Washington was a killer. Long days spent on rail-cars in cramped quarters, getting off to stretch only when the engine required water and the tender needed wood. Meals were scarce and hurried as were trips to the latrines. Many men, never having traveled before, became ill from the motion of the train, adding to the discomfort of everyone.


Life in Washington was not bad. Jacob and his Company were assigned to guard duty, patrolling the parameters of the city. Most days were uneventful and often became monotonous. Between assignments, there was always more marching and drilling. Everyone was growing restless. This is not what they had signed up for and they were not happy. Jacob however, took it in stride. He had wanted to see the world, and Washington was a good place to start. He was in no hurry to leave.


In early July, the call came down for all troops in his division to break camp and prepare for a march down to McLean, Va, in preparation for an assault against the rebs. The activity quickened and the excitement grew. Their time had come. They were primed and ready to show the graycoats what a Yankee looked like. They couldn't wait.


They had only enough time to regroup, fall in, and board one of several southbound trains. At last the war had come to Maine, so to speak. Jacob's emotions ran the gamut from guarded anticipation to the first prickly needles of fear. And it appeared he was not alone. Many of the men, so boisterous just hours ago, were now exchanging furtive glances. Jacob however still could not escape the wisecracks and jeers of Tom and the others. It was as if they used that to deflect their own insecurities.


Falls Church was teeming with troops. Encampments filled the landscape and the air was charged with a sense of urgency. Calvary officers rode randomly through the town while grizzled sergeants pushed their charges into formations and marched them with purpose to unknown destinations. One had to believe that there was a rhyme to all the activity, but it is fair to say that any semblance of organization was difficult to perceive.


After three days of rest, they were ordered to break camp and fall into columns for a twenty five mile march to Manassas. This was the first time that the men had been subjected to a march of this duration, made even more difficult by the badly rutted road they were forced to follow. Too often it seemed, one of the supply wagons or cannon caissons would become mired or would break a wheel, requiring the physical strength of many troops to help rectify the problem.


Gunfire could be heard in the distance and, after not too many miles, the sound of artillery more loudly rippled through the air. The reality of an impending battle gripped the men. Soon the orders to form into a battle line were relayed down the ranks. Conversation slowed, and for the first time that Jacob could remember, Tom Dutton was silent.


Men moved furtively to the left and right, with tentative steps forward. Through the brush they walked, searching the landscape for their first sign of gray. The wait was brief. The undergrowth and trees opened onto an open field with a gradually sloping hill running before them. On the horizon, puffs of smoke stained the sky, followed shortly by the roar of cannon placed strategically on the hills crest.


Behind the forward ranks of blue, at the edge of the treeline, the union artillery pieces were being swung into place and unlimbered. Soon, they began to echo the call from across the field, searching for the right elevation to silence the rebel guns. Under cover of the protective fire, Jacob's captain, accompanied by the Company guidon bearer rode to the fore and, with sword in air, gave the command to advance.


Slowly, like a locomotive gaining speed, the long blue line began to move. As they crossed the field, they were subjected to small arms fire emanating from troops concealed in the billowing grasses. “Return fire” their captain shouted, and Jacob, like all those around him, began to take aim at the tiny puffs that revealed the location of a rebel soldier. The line continued to advance, stopping only long enough to shoot and reload. By the slow and varied volume of responding volleys, it soon became evident that Jacob and his comrades greatly outnumbered the southern forces, giving new courage to those engaged. As such, many of the men broke into a run, closing quickly on the forward riflemen, who, after some resistance, chose to seek the safety of the hill.


Jacob didn't know when he first realized it. It was more of a feeling then a conscious observation, but suddenly, he had an air of foreboding. This was going awfully well, perhaps too well. And then it happened. Appearing on the right flank of the union line was a sea of gray, rushing forward with an ear splitting yell that , once heard, would not be forgotten. Fresh rebel troops, recently arriving by train, had been rushed up to reinforce the outnumbered southern infantry before them. The tide quickly turned as hundreds of men came rushing down the line, forcing the union body to turn. As they did, the Confederate artillery renewed it's assault. At the shorter range, the guns had now been loaded with canister which, while not as accurate as solid shot, was tremendously more deadly. Soon the whistle of the canister could be heard before exploding over the troops, driving hundreds of fingers of death into the battle line.


Carnage was rampant. Cries of anguish and pain filled the air. Men cursed and cried as they expended every bit of energy to avoid death. But the onslaught was too daunting to survive. Slowly, Jacob and those around him were forced to fall back, firing randomly in their haste. The retreat became a rout as those able to do so, fled the field, stepping and tripping over the human debris beneath them. The fear that the reinforced troops may follow hastened their departure until, reaching a cut, they forded a small stream called Bull Run. There, at the urging of their officers, they began to regroup and assemble, and as dusk approached, found a place to encamp.


Jacob had just finished striking his tent when an officer, accompanied by a wagon approached and called out “Winthrop, Brown, Hatch, Conner, Feeny and Walker”. “Get on the wagon. I need litter bearers”. Jacob, with the others, hesitantly climbed atop the wagon for the lurching ride back to the battlefield. Upon arrival, they split up in pairs, each with a stretcher and a lantern. Picking their way into the field, in the dim light they surveyed the destruction that lay before them. Bodies ripped apart, limbs dismembered, frozen eyes, staring vacantly. While the sights were repulsive the sounds were even more so. Men, crying out in pain, begging for water, asking for their wives, or just calling for help. Many in shock were incoherent in their demands, too far gone to save, in reality already dead.


Jacob and his partner SamWalker moved among the dead and wounded tentatively, looking for any that were not so seriously wounded, that they may have a chance. They would stop at each body, hold the lantern close, and try to determine if there was hope of survival for the soldier before them. It was during this search that Jacob shined his light on a soldier and found himself looking into the eyes of Tom Dutton. “Tom” he said, “c-can you h-hear me”?. “Jacob, is that you” Tom said. “Help me Jacob”. “I've been gut shot and I can't feel my legs” “Please help me”. Jacob asked Sam Walker to help him lift Tom onto the stretcher and together they carried him back to the wagon, with Jacob assuring Tom he was going to be alright. Throughout the night Jacob and Walker continued to perform their grizzly task.


The next morning Jacob sought out the little church that had been made into a makeshift hospital, the pews having been moved into the yard. He walked among the wounded, looking for Tom, finally finding him out some distance from the building. He appeared to be sleeping, but when Jacob called his name, his eyes opened and a glint of recognition appeared. “Jacob, I'm dying” Tom said. Jacob, in his halting speech, tried to reassure him, but Tom just shook his head. Tom reached out and weakly grabbed Jacob's arm and said “Jacob, I want to say goodbye to my wife”. “Please help me”. Jacob said” let's sit you up Tom”. I have some paper and a pencil stub that you can use to write her a note”. I promise to see that she gets it”. “No” Tom said. “I can't, I can't read or write Jacob”. “I know you write good”. “Will you do it for me”. With that, Jacob rummaged in his knapsack and withdrew a piece of rumpled paper and the pencil and without further delay, began to transcribe Toms farewell to his wife. He had to keep leaning closer as Tom's voice grew weaker, until it finally trailed off into silence. Jacob looked up from his task and realized that Tom had gone on ahead. Jacob reached over and closed his eyelids and said “Goodbye T'Tom.


Jacob survived the war, returning to Montville in the spring of 1864, a seasoned veteran of many campaigns. As promised, he found Mrs. Dutton and gave her Tom's letter and told her how brave he had been in the face of battle. He also gave her a button that he had cut from Tom's coat on that day three years ago. “I th-thought you m-might like t-to have this” he said.


Jacob returned to the farm and took up his chores as he had done before the war, while listening to his father tell all the neighbors about his son the hero. Jacob rejoined the community and for the most part, received the respect of the townsfolk. But no matter, the occasional jibe no longer bothered him He had come to realize that all men, each in their own way, suffer infirmities.. As such, Jacob decided he'd do well to focus on the gifts he had been given, instead of those that had been denied. He had Tom to thank for that.




R. J. Quigley





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