Site of Wilderness Battle Field. Near the Orange County Plank and Brock Roads. Photo by Michol Polson, 2008.
Chapter 1: Unwilling Recruit
A shell suddenly exploded above them. Its concussion hammered eardrums, plucked at unraveling nerves. Shattered pine limbs and branches rained down. Bullets zipped past—carpenter level to eyes, gut, and crotch. A low roar resounded through the thick underbrush and ravines. It sounded like distant, storm-tossed waves to the green recruits from the Great Lakes and Atlantic states.
Ghostly morning humidity hovered above the undergrowth. Dampness fused the reek of wet wool uniforms to the odor of human fear. The soldiers felt disoriented, lost. No open landscapes here. Just crop patches, muddled roads, crowded pines and solid greenness. The local folk called this second-growth woods the Wilderness. Those better traveled referred to it as the Jungle.
It was a horrifying place. The two largest armies ever gathered in America grappled each other in a frenzied death struggle.
Not far from the main Wilderness crossroads, a six foot, stocky private in his early 30’s peered searchingly through the brushwood. He repeatedly mopped his dripping forehead and eyes. Wiping away the sweat did little to quiet the tremors in Myscal Taylor’s hands. Quivering, his fingers danced at times on his new-issued Springfield rifle.
Two yards ahead of him, he heard the crack of a thick bullet penetrating a soldier’s skull. It exited explosively through the back of the man’s forage cap. Fragments of blood mist lingered on the air. Turning his head away from the ghastly sight, he looked over to the right. Some forty yards distant, Myscal could see a narrow gap in the woods marking the Orange Plank Road. It intersected the meandering east-west Brock Road less than a slow mile to the north.
A keening yip, yip, yip Rebel yell burst out from the scrub some thirty yards ahead of him. Other disembodied voices took up the cry. An unseen officer’s hoarse shout roll up them blue bellies recoiled in his ears. Smoke spurted from the brush, thickets, and wind-felled trees ahead. Bunched dry leaves began to smolder from glowing cartridge wads.
The clustered men around Myscal struggled to catch sight of Rebel soldiers concealed in the forest gloom. Just one would do. They knew the Johnnies were there.
Immediately ahead of them. Waiting. Hammers cocked, rifle sights searching for blue uniforms filled with anxious flesh.
They heard lead zooming past, the explosions of near and distant iron shells. Death flew about their ears, the trees, the barely seen sky above the forest canopy. Myscal unconsciously rubbed his thigh around the scarce-healed gunshot. The red scar still thick and pain-streaked.
A hand suddenly placed itself quivering on Myscal’s shoulder. The blue eyes of a teen peered at him, searching for hope—a plea for reassurance.
Are we goin’ to make it through this day?
Myscal’s frazzled brain could not respond, could not provide the assurances the boy desperately wanted. His thoughts turned instead to what was the date today? Anything to turn his thoughts to ordinary events. Something to dilute the fear.
The 5th of May?
Maybe it was the 6th or even the 7th?
It was so peculiar. Even the year—1864—proved difficult to retrieve out of a suspended corner of his mind. How had he ever come to hunker down in this hellish place? This instant, this right now, he should be far away from here. In Britain. Not here. It was all such a wicked farce to find himself here.
Myscal recognized this area of the Wilderness. Well.
Truth was, he had once lived here for several months. To pay for his board, he had worked long hours placing rough planks on that Orange Plank Road yonder. The planks kept the heavy wagons which once freighted iron ore hereabouts from miring in the mud. But that was ten years ago. An eternity to this encircling moment.
His heart ached for the clean outlines of the American West—his home—the mountains rearing sharp against the sky; the odor of sagebrush filling his nostrils after a rain…the joyful laughter of his children….
How had it ever come to this…?
Joseph Taylor: Mormon Battalion, Donner Party, Utah War Militia Officer