“If anyone, no matter who, was given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.” (Herodotus) Putting down his copy of Herodotus’s Histories, Thomas Watts sighed. It was a warm spring day, and the Alabama countryside was bursting into bloom after months of cold, desolate winter. He gazed out over the fields of his family’s plantation, where slaves were busy planting rows and rows of cotton. On days like these, he could think of nothing better than sitting on the big front porch of his house with a good book. Today seemed like a superb day for Herodotus. “Thomas, come on in.” His fourteen-year-old sister was calling him to dinner, but he didn’t feel like moving. “I’m coming, Ann. I’m coming.” He still didn’t budge, and continued reading intently. “Mama says that if you don’t get in here right now, you aren’t eating.” Reluctantly, he parted with Herodotus and dragged himself to the present, through the door and into the large white house. Everyone else had already taken their places around the table by the time he walked into the dining room. His mother shot him a brief glare as he took his seat. Meals were one of the few times of the day where the whole family was together, so often the day’s news was related as they ate. They began to say grace. As the last of the chorus of “amens” died out, the whole family began speaking at once. “Did you hear about the…” “Flowers everywhere! And when I tried to pick one…” “One of the slaves had a baby boy last night. They’re both real healthy…” “ ’Cept I don’t think apples grow in the spring…” “Oh well, I guess it’s for the better…”
After their meal the whole family drifted outside on the porch to watch the sunset. Suddenly one of their neighbors, Mr. Calvert, came running down the road towards them. “The war has started! The war has started!” he shouted excitedly. “Everyone’s saying that we took Fort Sumter a few days ago, and that President Lincoln is gathering troops.” Thomas’s father stood up quickly and gave Mr. Calvert a big bear hug out of sheer excitement. Then he began to yell. “We’ll lick the Yankees and the war will be over within a few months! I am going over to town this very moment to enlist before it’s all over!” Now it was his mother’s turn to protest. “But you can’t! Have you forgotten about your leg injury? You simply cannot go marching off to war.” A few years ago, his father had broken his leg when he fell off a horse, and he had ongoing problems with it. But Thomas knew the real reason why she was so against his going: she was scared. Her whole life’s goal was to make him happy; therefore, he was her life. Without him she would be miserable, and there was no guarantee that he would come back. They went back and forth for several minutes, but his mother, as always, had the upper hand. “Well, some Watts should join,” Thomas’s father stated sulkily. “Someone to defend our land from those darned Yankees, and I’m the only man in this household old enough.” Something in this statement struck Thomas. He imagined their precious plantation in Yankee hands- the house raided, the livestock taken, the cotton burnt, the screams of terror- and he shuddered with disgust. He couldn’t let this happen to the Watts family’s land, to his land. “I’ll go,” he said softly. There was a split second of shocked silence. Then a chorus of voices piped up. “But Thomas, you’re not old enough.” “You barely know how to hold a gun properly.” “You’ll get killed!” He stood his ground. “But I want to go, and I could lie about my age. Sure I’m only sixteen, but I could pass off as an eighteen-year-old. I’m tall enough. Plus, they’ll do drill and training exercises, so I don’t need to know how to shoot a gun perfectly to sign up.” “But…” his mother began. “No, Sarah, let him go,” his father cut in. “If he wants to go, he should be able to. This boy can handle himself just fine.”
“Well, alright. But you come back home the instant the war’s over, you hear?” “Yes, Ma.” That night, Thomas couldn’t sleep. “Am I right to want to fight? Why did I agree to go? They’re right- I’ll be killed!” Suddenly it occurred to Thomas why his instinct was to fight. “Defend our land” echoed through his mind. Wasn’t that very similar to what he was reading about? In the Persian Wars, the Greeks, who fought with each other often, united to defend Greece from a common enemy: the Persians. They did it to defend their land, their home, their way of living. Wasn’t that what had sparked his desire to fight? Finally, after brutal hours of tossing and turning, he fell asleep. The next day, Thomas awoke early and journeyed to the nearby town when enlistments were underway. He got in the back of the long line of men also eager to go to war. A few boys ahead of him got thrown out of line because they were deemed underage. Thomas began to worry. “Hello.” The man in front of him had turned around. “Oh, hello.” “Charles McRae. Nice to make your acquaintance.” “Thomas Watts.” They shook hands. Charles scanned him thoughtfully. “I’m assuming based on your height that this is your first time fighting and that you are not yet eighteen.” “Why, I, I mean…” “Don’t worry, I won’t tell. So just how old are you?” “Sixteen, about to be seventeen.” “Really? Me too! Pa really wanted me to enlist, but my mother absolutely refuses to let me lie about my age. That’s my pa over there, and if they give me a hard time, he’ll talk them into it.” Thomas was even more worried. If Charles could tell that he was not yet eighteen, how would he get away with it? He decided to think about something else. “Do you know what training’s like?” he asked. “Well, I’ve heard rumors. But most of them are too crazy to be true. Probably started by some darned Yankees, you know.” “What have you heard?”
“They say that there’s not even no target practice, that they just run drill exercises over and over again.” “Why would they do that?” “I don’t believe any word of it, but I’ve heard that we’re already low on ammo.” Charles began to laugh. “They say- get this- that Confederate soldiers train with cornstalks instead of guns.” At this, they both began to laugh. “That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” Thomas managed to say between peals of laughter. Then, it was Charles’s turn at the table and they both resumed serious faces. As Charles predicted, his father had to come to his son’s assistance, and after prolonged arguing, he was able to get him enlisted. Finally, it was Thomas’s turn. He approached the table trying to stand up as straight as possible to seem taller. “Name.” “Uh, Thomas Watts, sir.” “Age.” He paused. “Age.” “I’ll be nineteen next February.” The recruitment officer scanned him with a skeptical look. Thomas began to sweat. After what seemed to Thomas like forever, the officer finally spoke. “Sign here.” Relieved, Thomas picked up the pen and signed the papers. He then walked over to Charles and shook his hand before he began his journey home to get his possessions. As he rode his horse home, many thoughts crossed his mind. He was officially a Confederate soldier. He was going off to defend his homeland from the invading army, just like Herodotus had written about so many years ago. The lingering image of a mighty Greek warrior preparing for battle filled his thoughts. He, Thomas Hill Watts, would be a Greek warrior soon enough.
Thomas looked around. It was early in the morning on a clear day. The brilliant sunrise shone on the metal helmets and breastplates of the soldiers around him, and it almost hurt his eyes to look at his comrades. Far below him was a vast, calm ocean. On the horizon Thomas could make out several swiftly- approaching Persian ships; as they drew nearer, a magnificent fanfare of battle horns pierced the stillness of the silence. At once the soldiers around him began shouting: “For our families!” “For our homeland!” “For our freedom!” “For Greece!” Thomas began to join in their passionate war cries. Suddenly he heard his name called. “Thomas, Thomas, wake up!” It was his old friend Charles McRae. “You can’t be sleeping at a time like this!” “At a time like what? What’s going on?” Thomas asked, confused. “I’ve heard rumors that our unit is going to meet the Yankees soon. We finally get to have our turn at lickin’ their hides.” It had been several months since Thomas had bid farewell to his family and headed out to join the Confederate army, and he had yet to actually encounter a Yankee in combat. His unit, which fortunately was also Charles’s, had spent the time in a small camp fifteen miles west of Manassas. “Charles, when’s breakfast? I’m starving. Haven’t had hardly anything ‘cept cornmeal cakes for the past seven weeks.” “Me neither. You have any extra money for the sutler? We could split a can of fruit.” “Won a few coins in a game of cards and got this.” Charles produced a small bag of raisins, and he and Thomas sat down. Charles eagerly shoved as many into his mouth as possible, but Thomas nibbled thoughtfully on the fruit, savoring every bit. The next day was scorching hot. As Charles had predicted, the unit was going to move out to, as Thomas hoped, attack the approaching Yankees. Gradually, the excitement and eagerness of the band of soldiers ready for combat disintegrated into exhaustion, sweat, and misery. It was not until much later that their commanding officer finally ordered them to halt.
Twenty thousand weary men dropped their equipment simultaneously, and for a few seconds the army was surrounded by silence and a deep reluctance to begin moving again. Eventually, a few summoned enough willpower to begin setting up camp. “Where are we? Where are the Yankees?” Thomas asked Charles at the fire a few hours later. “They say we’re right outside of Manassas, near a river called Bull Run. Yankees are headed this way to attack. They’ll probably be here by tomorrow.” “And we’ll be ready for them!” shouted the rest of the men accompanying them. Later that night, after a pitiful meal of cornmeal cakes and bacon, Thomas tossed and turned in his tent. He was too worked up to go to sleep from extreme homesickness and excitement at finally getting a shot to defend his home. He made rough calculations of the probability that they would actually meet the Yankees within the next few days, how far they would have to travel to do so, how long the battle would take. He pictured himself fighting in the battle. He would attack the Yankees fiercely and valiantly. He would emerge a hero, surrounded by shiny soldiers shouting bold battle cries, overlooking a deep ocean in the early morning. After what felt like forever, he finally drifted off to sleep. Thomas awoke to the sound of firing thirty-pounders and shells blasting in the distance. He put on his boots, grabbed his rifle, rushed out of his tent, and ran as fast as he could to the source of the sound. Excitement and anxiety filled him as he sprinted across the rough terrain, and after what seemed to him like forever, he reached the scene of the battle. Thomas looked around. It was early in the morning on a clear day. He was standing on a hill surrounded by his comrades, but the magnificent armor had become dirty, worn coats. Before him lay not a deep blue ocean but a sea of red. Across this, he could make out several hundred swiftly-approaching Yankee soldiers; as they drew nearer, the sound of gunfire grew louder. At once the soldiers around him began shouting, but not of the joy they felt in defending their homeland. Instead, an awful, loud noise filled the air that seemed unnatural to Thomas. “What are you doing?!” he screamed over their shouts. “It’s the rebel yell!” Charles was approaching him rapidly. Thomas was glad to see that his friend was still alive, but he was scared. The scene around him was nothing like how he had pictured it in his mind. He reluctantly stepped forward and began to fire his rifle with hardly any aim. Guns fired across the field, bullets whizzed close to his body, cannons shot endlessly, shells exploded everywhere, men fell to the ground, and the sun scorched the whole scene, all while the grass turned ever redder. Thomas’s world shattered. War was absolutely terrible. And he was caught right in the middle.
A line of weary soldiers stumbled through the countryside of Pennsylvania. Thousands of wounded or sick were stuffed inside old wagons; those who could stand were made to walk. These tired soldiers had just suffered a final, major blow at a little town a couple dozen miles back. The Confederacy, the glorious Cause, and along with it, the South, were dying. Stumbling along beside the sweaty and bloody bodies heaped in the wagons was a man who, now, would be unrecognizable to his own family. His hair had grown long and tangled, and his face now bore a beard. His eyes, once bright and hopeful, were now tired and sad. He turned to one of the men in the wagon beside him. “How are you feeling, Charles?” “Oh, my leg hurts, but I’ll be alright. I hope the doctors won’t have to amputate.” “Naw, they’ll be able to fix you up real good.” “Thomas, how far are we going to retreat? Are the Yankees still chasing us?” “No, they stopped after we crossed the Potomac.” “Gosh, they really licked us, didn’t they? I can’t believe we’re losing to the darned Yankees.” Thomas was silent for a moment. He hated this war, hated it with every bone in his body. It had been almost two years since he realized that fighting was a terrible thing. That was the day he accepted that he would have to grow up and leave all his childish dreams behind. That was the day his old life of comfort and the spirit of the South died within him. That was the day he came to know that the world was full of evil and misery. Looking back, Thomas understood that the Confederacy had been licked long before the war started; the South was not prepared to undergo such a long war. The soldiers continued marching. Hours and hours went by, and sometime in the middle of the night, the soldiers were told to set up camp. Thomas awoke in the broad sunlight the next day. He stumbled out of his tent and went to go find his friend. He located Charles with the doctors, who had just removed a bullet and a piece of cloth from his wound. “How does it look?” he asked one of the doctors. “Not very bad; the bullet wasn’t very deep. If it becomes infected, though, we might need to resort to other measures.” Thomas eyed the large saw resting on the nearby table as he walked outside.
He had begun making his way back to his tent when he heard shouts coming from the other side of the camp. At first, he thought it was just a bunch of drunk soldiers who would get shut up soon. But the shouts continued, so he ran to the source of the noise to investigate. Thomas saw a large band of men wearing blue coats running around, shooting at the soldiers. “Yankees,” he thought. “We’re under attack.” He grabbed his rifle and began shooting at the blue coats. A few fell to the ground, but a volley of bullets came rushing at him. He turned and ran, occasionally shooting randomly behind him. He reached the far end of the campsite and dashed into the woods to hide. Thomas was just as terrified every time he faced a Yankee as he had been the first time so long ago. Holding his breath, he watched the Yankees through the underbrush and trees. He saw them near the medical tent, and the realization crashed down on him that Charles was defenseless within. He sprinted out of the trees and rushed towards the tent. He was immediately seen, and the volley of bullets resumed again. The hand in which he clutched his rifle was brushed by a bullet; not enough to severely injure him, but enough force to make him drop his gun. Thomas did not stop to pick up his gun. When he peered inside the tent, he gasped at the sight before him. The Yankees had gotten there first. A few hours later, Thomas and Charles were surrounded by marching Yankees, [their fear increasing with every step to certain horror awaiting them] – a prison camp far away from their homes. Thomas dreaded the thought of dying far away from his family and home and being laid for eternity in a nameless grave. He shuddered. “How far away is the prison camp?” he whispered to Charles. “I don’t know…” “Hey, quiet over there.” A Yankee soldier slapped Thomas. They continued to march. A while later, Charles fell to the ground. “Charles, are you alright?” “What’s going on over there?” “My friend, he needs help. He got a bullet in his leg a few days ago, and…” “We’ll take him to the doctor.” The soldier inspected the wound. “Looks pretty nasty. Must have gotten infected and become too painful to walk on.” Thomas watched his friend be escorted away and disappear into the crowd of Yankees.
It wasn’t until after several days of strenuous marching that Thomas saw Charles again. At first, he didn’t recognize him. Only from the knee up remained of his right leg, and his face was twisted from the terrible pain and lack of medicine. “How are you feeling, Charles?” “It hurts a lot.” Charles looked at his leg and sighed. “I won’t be able to take walks across the fields, ride my horse, or dance at the balls when I get home. I’ll miss that.” Thomas didn’t think they would be going home. And if they did, he knew that it would not be the same place they had left two years ago. He did not voice his thoughts to his friend, however. “Halt,” they heard a Yankee soldier yell. “We’ll set up camp here tonight.” Thomas had spent the long march scheming of ways to escape, but looking again at Charles’s leg, he knew that his plans had now become impossible. But he could not go to that prison camp. He would not go there. But how could he avoid his seemingly inevitable doom? Thomas thought long and hard that night. The soldiers took shifts to constantly guard them. Of course, escape at night was preferable because most of the troops would be asleep, and it would be dark enough to disappear once into the forest on the opposite side of the field. But the forest was a good quarter-mile away, and if the guards were alerted to their escape, it would become a race to reach the woods in time. A sprint that Charles could no longer handle. So they would have to make sure the Yankees did not notice their disappearance until they had a reasonable head start. But how to get this much-needed time? The next day, Thomas observed the soldiers who guarded him, looking for a fatal flaw which could be used to his advantage. Most of them were pretty alert; only one of them, the solder who had the shift around dusk, proved promising. Thomas noticed that he always kept a bottle of whiskey in his back pocket. Maybe Thomas could trick him into becoming drunk? But how would he get this soldier to take over a night shift? Maybe he didn’t need to. He just needed to delay the guard before him by about a half hour so the sun would have set by the time the next guard took his post. The next day, Thomas spoke to this guard. “So, are you good at any card games?” The soldier sneered. “You don’t have anything that I want to gamble for.” “I have this.” He showed the guard a silver ring his younger sister had given to him for his birthday long ago. The guard examined the ring suspiciously. Thomas held his breath. Finally, he spoke. “Alright, you’ve got yourself a game. And I’ll bet this.” He pulled out a few silver coins. Thomas was after something different.
“I want a bottle of whiskey,” he said. “Well, alright. You should have chosen the coins while you had the chance. They’re worth more,” the guard laughed, proud of his seemingly superior cleverness. They played for a long time. Thomas, thankfully, was good at this kind of thing, but the Yankee was a worthy opponent. Finally, after a few hours of playing and rematching, the guard realized that his shift had ended a while ago just as Thomas pocketed the whiskey. Thomas’s plot was going according to plan so far. When the next guard arrived, Thomas waited until the sun had set until he offered the guard the bottle. The guard accepted it eagerly and drank both this bottle and his own bottle of whiskey. But he took his time. “His shift is over in ten minutes! If he doesn’t fall asleep soon, I’ll have another guard to deal with, and all of this will have been for nothing,” Thomas thought. Finally, with only a few minutes left, the guard fell asleep. Thomas aroused Charles, who was lying next to him, and helped him out of the tent. Then they slowly started to make their way across the field. As they were approaching the trees, they heard shouts coming from the camp. The Yankees had realized what had happened. Immediately groups of soldiers began searching around the camp. “Thomas, just leave me here. I’m slowing you down, and the Yankees are going to find us!” Thomas did not respond but instead quickened his pace. They only needed a minute or so until they were home free. Soon the Yankees spotted them and began chasing the slow-moving pair. Charles and Thomas reached the woods about a half a minute before the Yankees. Thomas located a spot behind some bushes where the pair could easily hide. They lay underneath the leaves and soon spotted a Yankee search party. The soldiers moved closer and closer. Thomas held his breath, watching them. But the Yankees passed by them, and a couple of minutes later, Thomas deemed it safe enough for them to continue moving. They slowly creeped through the trees, holding their breath when they heard any sound. It was almost morning when they began to hear voices and searched frantically for a place to hide. But they were too late. A group of Yankees appeared and, upon seeing the pair, fired their rifles at them. Thomas started to run away but quickly realized that Charles could not follow. He was not sure what to do. Suddenly, a big gust of wind blew a soldier’s red handkerchief out of his pocket. For a moment, the red cloth floated in the wind, and Thomas thought of the red banners in his dream so long ago. He had joined this war to defend his homeland, but fighting for his plantation had become meaningless to him in the ugly, twisted face of war. But maybe that wasn’t why he had joined the war. Looking back, Thomas realized he had done it for his father and his mother and his sister. The realization came crashing down on him that Herodotus had not literally meant the land, his plantation. He had meant that, above all else, mankind values family. And Charles had become family. He wheeled around and, seeing a Yankee point his gun at Charles, he knew what he needed to do. Just as the trigger was pulled, Thomas leapt in front of the cowering and helpless Charles. Thomas finally possessed the same spirit as the Greeks so long ago. He would never understand why evil and war existed, but he finally realized how one could endure it. As Thomas fell to the ground and the world around him grew dark, he saw the lingering picture of a mighty Greek warrior shining in a bright, expanding light.
“A Confederate Napoleon Gun Used in Defense on Atlanta- 1864.” Civil War Photos. N.p., n.d.Web. 8 MarchA 2016. <http://civilwarphotos.net/files/images/061.jpg>.
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler. “Battle of Gettysburg.” ABC-CLIO. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016. <http://americanhistory.abc
“First Battle of Bull Run.” ABC-CLIO. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
Herodotus. Histories. Trans. Aubrey De Selincourt. London: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.
Murphy, Jim. The Boys’ War. New York: Clarion, 1990. Print.
-By Madeleine Roberts, Fiction Submission
Madeleine Roberts is a student at Maclay School in Tallahassee, Florida with a special interest in the classical era and its influence throughout history.
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