"When Men's Hearts Beat Faster"
by Vernon Cross
It was a loud intrusive sound he heard as consciousness started to return, it was very close. He could feel his body being moved roughly. The flashing pain in his head felt as if it were split in two. A peculiar smell seemed to dominate his senses and his ears rang loudly. Again the searing pain shot through his brain. He raised his right hand and placed it to his head. He could feel the warm blood, and he touched and felt a large deep gash in the side of his head starting at the end of his eyebrow and running back to his ear. He felt himself being lifted and heard the sounds of men's voices as he was jostled around. He tried to open his eyes but only one responded, the other was swollen shut. He saw that he was being carried on a canvas stretcher toward a wagon drawn by two horses. Other soldiers lay crammed in the wagon with various wounds. Many had bloodstained white bandages on one or more parts of their body, some were unconscious, others moaned in their misery and pain clutching their injuries. Other wagons being loaded with wounded men were on the field as well. Medical corpse personnel moved through the grim scene assessing the injuries and calling for stretchers. As they lifted him up to the men in the wagon, his bayonet slipped from it's sheath and fell into the tall field grass. The wagon moved on about its business of collecting the wounded from the battlefield. Men who were able held up their hand to signal for help, it would be a long night for those who were missed. Crows called to one another in the distance as they headed for their roost; it was the last thing the solider heard that day as he gazed into the setting red sun. He felt himself drifting back into unconsciousness, a twirling downward vortex into blackness.
The Civil War Battle of Cedar Mountain took place a few miles outside of Culpeper Virginia. The year was 1862 when this heated engagement, also known as "Slaughterís Mountain", was fought on a hot August day. Almost 25,000 troops were involved resulting in nearly 3000 casualties. I walked these same fields with my detector that so many fought on and died that day.
Little has changed in the last 140 years, the land is now a corn field and may very well have been one back then. The old farm house that is shown on Civil War maps of the time still sits upon the treed hill and cattle graze peacefully in this now idyllic setting. I swung my coil over the ground where on that day so many years ago, men's hearts beat faster. Cannons thundered and white smoke drifted heavily across the field. Hot lead flew thick through the air and the smell of burnt gun powder permeated the valley. Cannon balls exploded or sped and bounced along the ground cutting a deadly swath through the ranks. Distant crackling musket fire carried on its rolling cadence up and down the lines of held positions. Bark and limbs showered down from trees as heavy musket balls slammed into opposing positions, many of the balls finding their targets with sickening thuds. The deafening roar of returning musket fire rolling up and down the defending lines, made for a foreboding rhythmic dance of death. A line had been drawn in this field that day and those that came would step across it.
As I detected, I listened and tried to hear the shouts of the officers and screams of wounded men above the pitched tempo of battle, surely the sounds still echoed through the valley, riding forever on the winds of time. Surging waves of humanity rushing this way and that. Sword wielding riders on screaming wide-eyed horses crashing to the ground their hoofed legs flailing the air. Exploding aerial canister rounds raining shrapnel down from the sky and hell itself rose up to claim its due.
My XLT sounds off loud... bringing my thoughts back to the present. It had been silent for quite awhile, only the faint hum of the threshold through the headphones merged with my thoughts of so long ago. But now the machine spoke to me, shaking my senses. I looked at the screen, the VDI number read 52, that could very well be another Civil War bullet. 12 inches of red Virginia dirt I took out of the hole before the white coated lead projectile was mine, I lifted it from its grave. This was not just any old bullet, this was a bullet immortalized the second it was fired. A Union solider took it out of his ammo box in the heat of battle, his adrenaline rushed as he shoved it down the barrel of his weapon with a ramrod. Caught up in the swirling insanity of war and the fear for self preservation, he cocked the musket, took aim at another American... and fired it. This bullet I held in my hand was a piece of that history . A minute part of the essence of the Civil War itself. Last touched by that soldier... or the unfortunate body it went through.
It was a gut wrenching war. A nation laid open and bleeding, inflicting deep and horrendous wounds upon it's own-self, leaving the country exhausted and bone weary after the merciful end finally came. So many lives lost. Many of the great southern cities lay in ruins. Whole families, farms and plantations gone. It was responsible for the assassination of one of our most beloved presidents. Hundreds of thousands of brave and gallant officers and enlisted men on both sides gave the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs and their cause. Many forever immortalized in the annals of time, while a few became outlaws having lost all. It left an ugly scar seared across the face of this land and history will forever bear the memory of those trying times.
There has been more written about the Civil War than any other event in Americaís history.More memorials have been erected to it than any other American war. It was so different from other wars where a foreign power comes against a nation united, for the most part, in the defense of the nation as a whole. The Civil War caused a nation to be torn apart, each side willing to fight and die for their beliefs... and die they did; The Battle of Chancellorsville saw over 24,000 casualties. The Battle of Gettysburg had 51,000 dead or wounded in three days of fighting. The Second Battle of Manassas saw over 22,000 casualties. The Battle of Chickamuga cost over 34,000 dead or wounded. Shiloh 23,000, Spotsylvania 30,000, Wilderness 29,000 and the list goes on and on. The Civil War claimed the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. More lives were lost during the Civil War than in all other American conflicts combined.
My thoughts about the war continued to flow as I swung my coil over the historical ground. At times the detector would call out to me excitedly; "Here... here is another"! I would kneel on the ground as if in reverence and carefully retrieve the relic from the ground, this one was a round musket ball probably fired by a rebel. Early on in the war the south was poorly armed, their weapons were inferior and still fired round balls of lead. Other artifacts came to the surface as well after 140 years of silence. They spoke to me of fear and sorrow, courage and honor, suffering and death. Union 58 caliber bullets and more musket balls surfaced into the light of the twenty first century. Date era Indian head pennies, horseshoes, iron rings and canister shot rose from the ground like ghosts from the past. An old brooch, perhaps a soldiers keepsake and a couple of unidentifiable coins or tokens saw the light of day after their long exile.
A bayonet emerged from a depth of 5 inches near the edge of the corn field in the tall field grass were it had lain for 140 years. Its sinister looking form now covered in rust and caked with red dirt. Crows squawked out their haunting calls in the distance as I wiped off the dirt from the cold bayonet. A chill ran down my spine as my mind raced through scenarios of how it came to be here and the fate of its owner. These were not just inanimate objects, some spoke softly of a time in the past, while others like this bayonet shouted with urgency of the history they were a part of.
The loud intrusive calling of a crow startled me from my thoughts. I turned to look at my tormentor perched in the limbs of a huge old oak tree a short distance away. That old tree was standing there when this battle took place. The crows black eyes blinked rapidly as he cocked his head in puzzlement at my activity, I felt sorry for its lack of understanding. Itís life hinged on the next road kill or corn bin raid, what would it know of war, sacrifice and sorrow.
I rose from the ground, placed the bayonet in my pouch and gazed out across the miles of harvested corn field into the setting red sun. Crows called out to one another as they headed for their roost. I would swing the coil over the ground in measured rhythmic swings. My back ached and my arm was stiff but there was no time to rest, the next lost piece of history was just up ahead waiting somewhere in that vastness.
Vernon Cross is a painter of nature and it's situations.
He is a longtime prospector and expert detectorist.
His work can be seen here: Vern Cross...Alaska Mining Artist