In his patched and soot-stained tent, Colonel Elihu Leslie, his arm draped over his eyes, heard the single muffled drum outside in the twilight.
“Oh, Lord, already?” he said, for he knew what was about to occur. Colonel Leslie arose from his cot, bumping into his field desk where the letter to his wife lay. He pulled up his braces, buttoned on his tunic and stepped outside just as the seven soldiers and a lieutenant were about to march past. He raised his hand and the twenty-two-year-old lieutenant called “Halt!”
“Good morning, sir,” said the pink-cheeked lieutenant, who a year before had clerked at his father’s mercantile in Columbus, Georgia. “Firing party ready to execute your command, Sir.”
Colonel Leslie returned the young officer’s salute and looked at the single soldier, his arms bound and his hands tied in front of his waist, standing between the two files of soldiers with rifles. In the gathering light, Leslie could see the young soldier’s eyes darting right and left, his entire body shaking as if they were back in the snow at Fredericksburg last December.
With a look of pity in his eyes, Colonel Leslie approached the man.
“Soldier, you do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” Colonel Leslie said.
“‘Cause I left my sentry post two nights ago, sir? But nothing bad happened. No Yankees or spies came through. I just needed some coffee to shake off the cold and keep me awake, sir. We been marching for three days straight an’ I ain’t slept since…”
“None of us have, son. But your comrades all managed to stay awake.”
“Yessir. But do that mean I have to die? I been with this army since the bells rang in Atlanta calling us all to defend Georgia and the Confederate states. Why do I have to die this way, sir? I’m a decent soldier,” the condemned man said.
“Son we do this because we have to. Military discipline and all that. But I feel you’re missing the point of this procedure. You shouldn’t look at this as punishment, but as your sacred duty,” the Colonel said in a flat tone.
“Sir, I don’t rightly understand. How’s me gettin’ shot by my own boys line up with my duty?”
“Private, the execution of deserters, and you are by definition a deserter, has been a tenet of strong military discipline since the time of Joshua, the time of the great Assyrian kings, why even the great legions of Rome knew that skirting their assigned duties was punishable by death,” the Colonel said, his voice rising and a crowd of soldiers beginning to mill around the firing party.
“Sir, I don’t know about no Legions from Rome, just a couple of fellers from elsewhere in Floyd County. The Benteen brothers. And I still don’t think I should be shot,” the soldier said.
Leslie bowed his head and smoothed his mustache with his fingers. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then put his hand on the condemned soldier’s shoulder.
“I see your point son, but let me explain some more about what you’ll be accomplishing today. You will not be dying because you left your post, leaving a section of our line without guard. No, you will be going to our Creator as a sign of your fealty to our Cause, protecting your home and family, since all these men here you’ll be leaving behind will see your demise and understand that such a fate awaits them, should they desert their comrades. That is a noble thing, son,” Leslie said.
“Really, sir?” the soldier said, his shoulders straightening and their shaking subsiding.
“Brave soldier, you will be laying down your life for your comrades, as much as if you fell with them in battle. Your name will be spoken of as the impetus of their never shirking their orders, never challenging the authority of their officers, nay, never giving an inch in retreat unless so ordered. Son, if I could, I would give you a medal for this brave act you’re about to commit,” Leslie said as he placed his hand on the soldier’s now-steady shoulder.
“I think I understand now, sir. I’m gonna die so my friends will be better soldiers, makin’ them better able to protect our state and country from the Yankee invaders.”
“Exactly, Private, Private, uh…”
“Hutchinson, sir. Ezra Hutch…”
“Private Hutchinson. Young warrior, I cannot salute you, but allow me to shake your hand, wish you Godspeed and send you on your way to obey your final orders,” the Colonel said.
“Yessir. Thank you, sir,” Hutchinson said, his bound hands clutching the Colonel’s hand. He squared his shoulders and stared straight ahead.
“Let’s get this over with, boys,” he said.
“Firing party, shoulder arms. Forward march,” the Lieutenant ordered. The small group marched down the remaining row of tents and through a treeline to a field outside of camp. About a hundred other soldiers who had witnessed Leslie and Hutchinson’s exchange followed in ranks as if marching on parade.
Leslie watched them until the last soldier disappeared behind the trees, then he reentered his tent and stared at the letter to his wife he had almost finished. He dipped his pen into his inkwell and scratched out a final sentence and signed it, “Your loving and devoted husband, Elihu.”
He unholstered the Navy Colt he had used during his days on the prairie with the 2nd US Cavalry before the war and sat on his cot. He thought of all the men he had ordered into the hail of steel and lead at battles for the past year and a half. Thought of his son, killed at Chancellorsville, who had thrilled at the chance to serve with his father, leading other young Georgians in battle against the Federals. He recalled his brother Josiah falling at his side at Gettysburg. He remembered a few of the faces and names, but the rest had become a blur, and that vexed him sorely for the past three weeks.
Leslie heard the volley of six Enfield rifles crack through the trees. There followed the cheers of one hundred men who had witnessed Private Ezra Hutchinson’s passing into the oblivion of a bastardized heroism of the Colonel’s own devise.
As the cheers echoed and faded, he carried out the last of the executions he’d ordered for that day, in that camp, in a war he never wanted to fight. In light of all his decisions, he knew his joining Private Hutchinson in honorable dishonor was an order he could never disobey.
Man, this was a long time coming. First draft, but it gives me a feeling of accomplishment I didn’t think I’d feel for some time. In any revision, I’m not sure if it would get bigger into a more full short story or pruned down into official flash fiction (1000 words or less) territory. I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve written us a story that feels like something different…and that’s a good thing. Be safe out there, erstwhile CSA friends!