The worst war in our history, a meatgrinder.
Terrific waste, epic blunders.
And the men knew it, unhappy, yet stoic.
The last campaign — most lethal of all.
The two armies stumbled into The Wilderness.
An uncoordinated jumble; death flashes
from an unseen enemy, the woods ablaze,
trapping the wounded at night.
One man, at least, heard their dying screams,
and determined not to share their fate.
A simple blacksmith, this ancestor of mine,
28th Massachusetts, Co. B.
Hit before he could act, Private Connors
perhaps sensed his good fortune.
The battle now over, the wounded were retrieved,
not left to burn and torment the boys in their final agony.
No limbs lost, he could live to fight another day.
But not this day, thank God. Bloody Angle, Cold Harbor,
the breach at Petersburg awaited the living.
Grant was committed to using his resources.
The army moved on, the wounded taken away.
Packed into springless wagons, like spoons, the men
suffered anew on the rutted, jolting roads.
Fifteen endless miles to Fredericksburg.
Michael Connors, the Irish-born draftee, weighed his chances.
The newspapers, naively untreasonous, spoke of “triumph.”
But he saw the fresh arrivals of the newly broken,
the shocking casualty lists, and he knew.
With an unhealed wound, and murderous guerrillas,
he couldn’t walk through Virginia.
The steamboats finally arrived,
the survivors taken to Washington.
Overcrowded field hospitals, but out of danger.
Lincoln may have come one day, or Clara Barton.
The kindly Whitman, with tobacco and stories.
But Connors could only hear the mournful cries of May 5th.
Long, steamy days, the war continued.
Suddenly, another dashing Confederate stroke.
Jubal Early at the gates of the Capital!
Will they bayonet me here, in my bed?
The danger passed, but Michael was finished.
His war was over: “deserted from Gen’l Hospital,
place unknown.” A blot on the family name?
He lived, and so do we.
If we still possessed a moral universe
with fixed reference points,
a judgment could be made.
As it is, who will cast the first stone?
Levell grew up in the Boston area and graduated from Northeastern University. After attending graduate school for a year he spent two years teaching history and three years working in the National Archives. After 23 years of travel, work and living, Levell and his wife have settled in Princeton.
Editor’s Note: This poem was originally published without the final four-line stanza, as the readers who judged the entries in the Summer Fiction issue felt that it was better that way. The writer, however, felt that his poem was worse off without those four lines. So, we’ve added them here and will leave it to our readers to decide which version they prefer.