https://www.nps.gov/places/salem-church.htm, Image from National Park Service, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania, Salem Church. The photograph shows a group of veterans visiting the church after the Civil War
The Battle of Salem Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia was fought 3-4 May 1863. It was part of a larger event called the Battle of Chancellorsville. Included in the battle was the 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, of the 6th Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac. In Walk by Faith, the New Jersey 15th is the regiment to which Patrick McCoy (Frankie Blaine’s beau) and Edgar Lape (Lydia Blaine’s husband) are attached. Following the 15th are newspaperman Eli Smith and writer Chester Carson, who are working as war correspondents.
On 3 May, when Union solders advanced upon Salem Church, Confederate sharpshooters fired on them from the upper gallery of the church. As the federals reached the crest of a ridge and approached the church, the Confederates counterattacked, driving them back down onto the plain. A Union soldier described the battle, saying, “A tremendous roar of musketry met us from the unseen enemy, one hundred feet away, posted behind a fence and a ditch. Men tumbled from our ranks dead, and others fell helpless with wounds.”
On 4 May, Sedgwick’s VI Corp retreated across the Rappahannock River. Eli and Carson try to beat the soldiers to the ford, but all is in a state of confusion. With shells and bullets flying around Eli’s news wagon gets stuck in the river’s shallows. Eli hops out and works to push the wagon free, while Carson tries to urge the horse on. However, the horse is spooked by a nearby explosion and takes off with Carson unsuccessfully trying to reign her in. Realizing that getting back to the wagon momentarily is a lost cause, Eli makes his way to the shore. Just as he gets onto dry land, a shell lands nearby, throwing him into the air. When Eli lands, he strikes his head and loses consciousness.
Eli regains consciousness in Salem Church, which has become a field hospital. A contemporary witness described what the field hospital was like:
“Hundreds upon hundreds of wounded were gathered up and brought for surgical attention…. After the house was filled the spacious churchyard was literally covered with wounded and dying. The sight inside the building, for horror, was perhaps, never equaled within so limited a space, every available foot of space was crowded with wounded and bleeding soldiers. The floors, the benches, even the chancel and pulpit were packed almost to suffocation with them. The amputated limbs were piled up in every corner almost as high as a man could reach; blood flowed in streams along the aisles and the open doors.” (https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/historyculture/sc.htm)
I cannot say that I love this scene, exactly. Rather, I think that I like it because it is powerful.
The voice was familiar.
His head hurt like hell. His leg didn’t feel terribly well either. Nevertheless, he forced his eyes open. Everything was blurry.
He croaked, “Patrick?”
The young man heaved a relieved sigh. “Thank God! You took a real bang to the head, man.”
Eli swallowed. He was dry as dust. “What happened?”
“You tell me. Someone found you near the ford. Lucky you didn’t land in the water and drown.”
Eli squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. The light from the lamps hurt. When he opened them again everything was still blurry. “I can’t see.” He felt himself begin to panic. “Patrick, I can’t see!”
The younger man smiled easily. “Relax. Your eyeglasses are in your pocket. Don’t know how they managed to stay on your face, let alone not break.”
“It’s ‘cause they hook over my ears.” Eli realized his reply was utterly stupid. “Am I missing any parts?”
“Nah. You’re just bruised. I’m more worried about your head.”
“So are a lot of folks,” Eli joked lamely and tried to sit up.
But Patrick gently pushed him back down. “Listen to me. You’re damn lucky. Got it? Damn lucky. The fact you’re alive and in one piece is a jo-fired miracle. I want you to rest. You’re not going to feel too well, believe me. I’ll see you get some water. Just don’t get up.”
“But I shouldn’t be taking up a soldier’s space.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just get some rest.”
Gradually Eli became aware of the sound of men talking. Others were groaning. And someone somewhere was crying piteously for his mother. He could feel people all around him and smelled blood, urine, feces, and vomit. He wrinkled his nose and tried to ignore the stench.
He was lying on army blankets on the floor. It was dark inside the building, save for the lantern lights. So, he thought, the sun has set. He wondered how long he had been unconscious. After fumbling in his pocket, Eli found his glasses and put them on. To his great relief, his vision was clear again.
Someone new drew near and stood over him. It was someone wearing skirts. “Private McCoy said you needed water.” The woman knelt beside him. She looked to be in her twenties, a pretty young thing with a weary, worn expression on her face. She was holding a tin cup.
Eli propped himself up on an elbow and let her put the cup to his mouth. He drank gratefully and then squinted up at her. “Thanks. I should be out of here soon. I’m sorry to be a bother.”
She smiled sweetly. “You’re no bother, sir. No one is.” Her voice was soft, and her accent said that Virginia was her home. “How on earth did you get here? You’re not a soldier.”
“I’m a reporter. We were trying to get across the ford before the army. Guess I didn’t make it.”
“You surely did not. How do you feel?”
“Not bad. I think I’ll get up.”
“Not quite yet. Private McCoy gave strict orders for you to remain lying down.”
Eli knew Patrick was right. His head was throbbing badly, but he figured many others needed a spot to lie down. It angered him that he was taking up their space. “I’m such a fool,” he muttered. “What am I doing running around a battlefield?”
The woman patted his arm. “Don’t worry.” Then she stood up and left to attend to someone else. As he watched her go, he let out a long self-loathing breath. He had to be mad. He had dragged himself and Carson into the middle of this hell, and for what?
Eli lay there listening to the crying, pleading, and groaning of the men around him. Anger rose up again. This time, he directed it heavenward. Dear God, he thought, have you no mercy? Don’t you hear them? They’re suffering! He felt impotent, useless in the face of it all. He was tilting at windmills, a Don Quixote without so much as a lance.
Despite the noise, the stench, and his pain Eli went to sleep. The next thing he knew Patrick was shaking his arm. “Hey, wake up!”
Pulling himself into a sitting position, Eli realized that his head felt better. “What’s the matter?”
“Something’s happened.” The young man’s voice was grim. He reached down and offered Eli his hand to help him stand up.
“Thought you wanted me to stay down.”
“You need to get up now.”
With Patrick’s assistance, Eli struggled to his feet, but his left leg was tricky and threatened to buckle. He knew it wouldn’t hold him without support. “My cane didn’t come in, did it?”
Patrick shook his head. “Put your arm around my shoulder. I’ll help you.”
As they moved through the dimly lit room, Eli realized he was in a church. The pews were packed with injured soldiers. Every space was covered with men. Some lay on cots, others on the floor. What Eli couldn’t see were piles of amputated limbs lying in the corners of the sanctuary nor could he see the blood creeping down the aisles.
“They brought him in a little while ago,” Patrick was saying.
His chest tightened. “What happened?"
“Belly wound.” Patrick stopped walking and stared grimly into Eli’s face. “He’s not gonna make it.”
“No?” Eli heard himself say.
“No.” The low lights caught the glint of tears in Patrick’s eyes.
The scene goes on much longer, but I need to cut it off here. Edgar does indeed die, something that leads an angry Eli to cuss God out and begins his struggle with what we now know as post-traumatic stress.
Pray for peace, friends. Because the alternative is horrific.
Be kind. Be understanding. Work for peace.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder