In 1862, Levi Lewis, Noah Harrell, Miles Jackson and Will Thompson enlisted at Bainbridge, Georgia.
With comrades from Baker and Mitchell County they composed Company D, 17th Georgia Infantry led by Captain James McGregor and Lieutenant Virgil Parker. A year later they were weary and hungry as they lit the night’s fire. As veterans they knew something big was coming but looked forward to the bounty foraged from the Pennsylvania countryside.
With chicken roasting on the spit, Levi broke the silence complaining about his shoes not fitting. “It ain’t your boots, Levi. It is puttin’ one foot in front of the other,” said Noah Harrell. “You know we ain’t washed in days. The whole army must stink like a pig pen. I bet them Yankees would run from the smell quicker than a bullet.”
Miles Jackson raised his head from between his knees and said, “Noah, Yankees do not run no more than we do. Besides what are we doing all the way in Pennsylvania?”
“We up here to kill Yankees,” snarled Noah. “An’ protecting southern honor”.
Miles deliberately answered,” I ain’t never killed no Yankee and I will not be killin’ one. Tell the truth, Noah. You ever killed a Yankee?”
“Naw Miles, I really ain’t, sumpin always happens. At Antietam I fell in the creek and my powder got wet. Then the lock broke on my gun’s hammer at Fredericksburg. It ain’t that I do not want to kill Yankees. Tomorrow I will be ready.” Levi and Will also admitted they had never killed anyone either.
More irritated now, Miles asked, “Why are we here and why we should want to kill Yankees? We fightin’ this damn war to keep things just like they are. Nobody, ‘cept Cap’n McGregror owns slaves. We fightin’ so thangs can stay the same. Remember that day back in Bainbridge: the bands were playin’, flags was wavin’ and next thing all us joined up. We supposed to be killin’ Yankees but all the Yankees I seen look like us. Ain’t no Yankees in Georgia. Cud’n Teddy sez boys is hidin’ in the pine barrens near Eucheeanna to keep from gettin’ drafted.”
“Quiet down Miles,” Levi warned. “That kinda talk getcha in trouble”
“I ain’t so sure about things no more,” Miles whispered.
The men ate silently and rolled on the bedrolls hoping for sleep. While Miles stayed up all night long poking the fire and gathering extra firewood, Levi kept his back to the flames and stared into the night.
Late the next afternoon they formed for battle and moved up a boulder strewn hill indelibly etched in military lore as Devil’s Den.
Company D men led the charge through the hail of bullets and Lieutenant Parker fell early. There were no formed lines as the men moved up the hill, crouching from one rock to the next. Levi made the top of the hill and saw Noah step from behind a boulder. Suddenly Noah’s face exploded in a red haze as a Minie ball shattered his forehead.
“Oh God, oh God,” Levi screamed over the roar of battle. He looked to his left for his other friends and saw Miles laying prostrate, pointing his weapon toward a copse of woods where the Yankees poured fire into Company D. Levi knew Miles had loaded his weapon but would he fire? The hammer on Miles’ weapon fell, answering Levi’s question. Then Miles dropped his gun and sprinted toward the Yankee lines. Levi followed and found Miles beside a dying Yankee, blood spewing from his jugular vein.
“I killed him, Levi, I killed him,” sobbed Miles. “I meant to fire over his head. I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. I should have never loaded the damn thang. Look, he was not even aimin’ at us!” In the dead soldier’s hands were blood-soaked rosary beads. No percussion cap was on his rifle. Both knew he meant them no harm.
“What have I done!” Miles screamed then he fell on his knees vomiting uncontrollably.
“Noah’s dead; where is Will?” Levi yelled over the whine of bullets.
Through the gunpowder smoke, Will limped past them, grimacing in pain, blood squirting from a leg wound. They tied a tourniquet around Will’s leg and took him to a surgeon’s station. Levi then turned to Miles and saw him trotting through the melee of supply wagons, men, caissons and ambulances. He chased his friend, yelling for him to come back but Miles was too far ahead. Miles climbed on top of a fence, waved to his friend then disappeared.
Levi knew his friend was gone forever.
Later that night an orderly came around compiling a casualty list. He called for Miles Jackson. Levi thought for a moment and said, “Miles Jackson, Killed in Action.”
“Didn’t he come back with you?”
Levi sat silently and stared into the distance. He knew the stigma of deserter would stain his friend’s legacy. Levi made eye contact and shook his head.
Levi later learned Will never recovered from his wound and died on the retreat from Gettysburg. For the rest of the war things were quiet for Levi Lewis. He made corporal, training raw recruits and conscripts. He caught pneumonia during the winter of 1864 and spent the balance of the war convalescing at home, never killing a Yankee.
In later years he farmed, living by the seasons but often thought about his friend, silently admitting the Miles had been right. Southern states saved their honor but lost their sons. Slavery was soon replaced by economic, legislative and political servitude.
After the war, Levi had little use for bravado; it cost him dearly. With a lump in his throat he remembered the day he lost all his friends. Over the years he found peace in Lincoln’s words, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
In this story, all names are fictional save James McGregor and Virgil Parker. 150 years ago this week, Virgil A.S. Parker was killed in action at Gettysburg and James McGregor lost the use of his left arm from wounds received there. He is Buz Livingston’s great, great, great grandfather. This story was excerpted and edited from a short story by my father, Mayo Livingston, Jr.
Buz Livingston runs an investment management firm in Blue Mountain Beach. He wrote this column as a “signal milepost” to the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America.