An Excerpt from Once They Wore the Gray:
An icy February wind from the Mississippi whipped between the metal bars of the coffin wagon, which creaked and groaned on its preposterously laggard journey toward the railroad. Thirty men had been crammed into the vehicle -- which trailed a wagon hauling another thirty men -- with nothing but their rags and lice-infested long hair to protect them from the cold. A few stared blankly outside at the drab Illinois sky, others huddled among themselves to keep warm.
Gil Metairie looked up. He crawled weakly to the rear of the wagon, over long legs and soiled clothes, and stared sadly at the youthful private whose head was cradled in the thick arms of redheaded Irishman Peadar Flann. Death's pallor had replaced the sooty tone of the Alabaman's face. He lay shivering, lips trembling, ice already forming on the ends of his sweat-soaked curly blond locks.
"I think the lad's dying, Gil," Flann said in a choking brogue.
1st Sergeant Gil Metairie, 15th Arkansas, Govan's Brigade, bowed his head. Gray salted Metairie's thick brown mane and unruly hair, his pale eyes were hollow and bloodshot, and his face and hands felt leathery, hard. He looked tired. Ancient. Yet he was barely thirty-one years old.
"It don't seem right," Flann said. "Not now."
Gil nodded. It wasn't fair. He looked through the barred door at the end of the wagon, saw the guards in their blue greatcoats and mufflers, and shouted. He attempted to yell, at least, but his scream seemed barely audible. Metairie swallowed, tried again.
"Hey! Stop this thing!"
The wagon crept along. Metairie moved to the door, pulled himself up. "Stop. We got a sick man here!" The soldiers ignored him. Gil turned, saw an artillery man from North Carolina nearby. He tried to think of the gunner's name. "Rogers," he said. "Hand me your brogan."
Rogers answered with a curse, and Metairie lashed out at him. "Now, Private. I want that brogan!" The Carolinian drew up, frightened. Metairie knew why. Peadar Flann once told him "a body can see death in your eyes when you're riled, Sergeant." Rogers quickly unwrapped the putrid woolen cloth around his left foot, pulled off the rotting piece of leather that once resembled a high-ankle shoe and tossed it to Metairie. Gil pounded the heel against the metal bars, ringing them as loud as he could, and screamed at the tormentors.
"Stop!" he pleaded. "Stop this now. You have to stop!"He kept at it until he felt as though he had been lung-shot, and collapsed against the door. But the coffin wagon had halted, and as Metairie slowly turned, he looked into the cold black revolver of a .44 Army Colt.
"You're gonna shut your lousy Reb yap, or I'll shut it for you, damn it," the mustached lieutenant barked. "You're takin' orders from this man's army now."
Metairie jerked his head at Flann and Private William James. "The boy's sick," Gil said hoarsely. "Needs a doctor bad."
The officer's black eyes glanced at the Alabaman. He holstered the revolver and backed away from the door, withdrawing a ring of keys from inside his greatcoat. "Corporal!" He barked out a few orders, and the troopers behind the wagon dropped from their saddles and cocked the long Springfield rifles.
"Stand back!" the lieutenant ordered the prisoners, and slowly unlocked the door. "Anyone of you sons-a-bitches moves, dies." The officer nodded at Metairie. "You and the Irishman, haul that boy out. The rest of you stay put."
Snow crunched under Gil's bare feet as he laid William James on the side of the road. He heard the lieutenant curse, then whisper to the corporal, "Why did they let this piece of secesh trash out?" Metairie dropped to his knees, felt the dampness and cold of the ice, and pushed the wet bangs off the Alabaman's forehead. William James opened his eyes.
The private's eyes flickered, lighted on Flann. "And good mornin' to you, Corporal Flann." The lucidity passed. James cried out for his mother, shook his head rabidly and screamed, "The Yanks! The Yanks. Oh, for the love of God, General Johnston's dead!"He began babbling something insensible before falling into welcomed unconsciousness.
Metairie glanced at the officer in charge. "Can you send one of your men back, Lieutenant? Fetch a wagon to haul this boy to the hospital?"
"What for?" the Federal replied. "He'll be dead in ten minutes."
Flann barked out a curse. "Mother of Mary, sir, show some decency. Some compassion."
The officer held out his left arm, revealing the stump where a hand should have been. "My compassion," he said bitterly, "died at Stones River."
Copyright 2001 by Johnny D. Boggs