Rachel Sees the Elephant

All of my excerpts from An Eternity of Four Years have featured scenes with Ethan. Rachel is still very much in the story and has an even stronger role than she had in The Last Day of Forever. In An Eternity of Four Years, the two are separated and have very different life experiences.

Why is that? Well, you will have to read the book to find out.

In this series of excerpts, you see her experiencing the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. Until this point in the story, she has been largely isolated from any direct effects of the war, but it has now caught up with her. The battle was fought all around her, and in its aftermath, she gets to experience the horrors of a battlefield.

*****

Book 2 115 July 1863 (From diary entries recording earlier events.)

Both armies are gone, and we are left with the remnants of the great battle. Words cannot begin to describe what awaited us as we ventured out of our homes and hiding places after the armies left. Broken wagons, gun carriages, caissons, abandoned muskets, canteens, sabers, ration boxes, ammunition—all manner of military equipage is everywhere, not to mention all the damaged or destroyed buildings.

Men must relieve themselves even during war. The smell of urine and human excrement can be encountered almost anywhere, unless it is overpowered by the smell of death, which is often the case. The entire town is permeated with the stench of corruption. Dead animals and dead men have lain out putrefying in the hot July sun, some for as long as five days! One cannot escape the smell. It seeps into everything, your home, your clothing, your very being, it seems.

The flies have descended upon the town like some Biblical plague. They are everywhere, and you cannot escape them! They are in your face, in your nose, and even your mouth if you open it too wide to speak. Eating a meal, if one can stomach food with the smell of death so strong, is a battle with the flies.

Rats! Rats are everywhere! Where have they come from and so soon after the battle? They feed on the dead and seem not the least concerned when humans approach them, sometimes even behaving aggressively if you venture too close.

It has been five days since the battle was joined; four days since Cemetery Hill, and three since the great Southern charge against the Union’s center that some are calling “Pickett’s Charge,” so named for the general who led it—and they are still finding wounded men on the many fields and in the woods and buildings all around Gettysburg. Poor hurt men incapable of escaping the heat of day, dying for want of a sip of cool water to quench their thirst, exhausted from crying out for help, or unconscious from the pain of it all.

*****

The sun fully set and our charges removed to the church, we joined Doctor Anderson in an ambulance for the short ride to Cemetery Hill. As we approached, we saw men with lanterns moving over the north face and the top of the hill. With the weak ethereal light of the lanterns casting ghostly dancing shadows as the men moved about the hill and examined the many bodies there for some flicker of life, it looked like a picture out of some hideous nightmare.

We dismounted near the gate of the cemetery. They had tents set up, and in the light of lanterns, we saw litters of wounded men lying out in the open air for as far as could be seen in the weak light.

And the stench of death! It was even stronger there!

Doctor Anderson brought us inside a large tent set up as an operating room with several tables for conducting procedures, each held a wounded man with orderlies or surgeons tending to them. I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to fall down and weep for what these poor men had been going through, but I steeled myself and called upon the Lord to give me the strength to endure what I knew I would be facing. And I needed every ounce of help He would give me.

Doctor Anderson assigned Doctor J to one of the tables. An orderly and I assisted. This went on through the night. As soon as one man was attended to, his wound treated, his arm or leg amputated, they carried him off and brought in another, one long stream of broken men, one after another.

With the coming of dawn, Doctor Anderson brought us coffee and suggested we rest for a while. I took my coffee to go outside and get away from the blood and gore to hopefully enjoy the sunrise. Doctor Anderson followed me. “Miss Rachel, I would suggest you remain inside,” he cautioned.

I ignored his warning. “I must see the sun!” But when I stepped outside, and my eyes adjusted to the light of the early dawn, I dropped my coffee! What was hidden by darkness during our arrival was now fully visible.

Death! It was everywhere! I looked to the north and saw the bodies of men clad in blue and gray, some stacked upon each other, some sprawled across broken gun carriages, some with their bodies twisted into positions God never intended them to ever assume, and still others only a part of a man with missing arms, legs, heads, and sometimes missing a whole half of his body, his entrails spilled out on the ground.

I fainted! Doctor Anderson caught me as I went down.

*****

He literally took me by the arm and escorted me from the tent and instructed an orderly to take me home. I was too exhausted to resist.

Once back at the house, the mess in which we had left it days before was still there to greet me: dried blood on the floor, the table, and even the walls. Bloody bandages and sodden bedding had been left by the wounded. The house stank nearly as bad as Cemetery Hill. Tired as I was, I set about cleaning it up by first throwing open the windows to air the place out. I then set about scrubbing floors, disposing of the refuse left by the wounded, and changing our bedding.

I don’t know how long it took, but I got the house clean enough I could tolerate it (my standards of cleanliness were, by then, greatly reduced from what they had been before the battle). After getting a good fire going in the stove, I fried our last two eggs and very nearly inhaled them. I then boiled water, made myself a cup of tea and poured myself a steaming hot bath. With my cup of tea in hand, I slipped into the tub and sank into pure heaven on earth. That bath felt better than any I had ever experienced in my entire life. I soaked until the water was tepid then washed with soap from head to toe—three times to be sure I was completely clean! I put on a clean nightgown, fell into a freshly made bed, and was fast asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

*****

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