A Confederate officer stood alone at a crossroad goading his horse to move on in the aftermath of the Union retreat at BULL RUN. Sensing danger he glanced over his shoulder. A Yankee raced over the field tramping the freshly cut hay. As the Yankee drew closer he struggled to pull something from behind his back. The Confederate, with heart thumping through his uniform, pulled out his revolver and took aim.
The Yankee waved a white flag, stopping abruptly at some distance. He wavered there for a few minutes until the Confederate swore he would do him no harm. Looking to his left and then right, the Yankee weighed his options and moved forward.
The Confederate noted the man’s flushed cheeks and face not yet ready to be shaved. The boy could not be more than twenty yet he was a lieutenant from a New York regiment.
“I give my word to you, sir. If you let me go I’ll never pick up a gun again. I’ll leave at once for my father’s farm,” the boy begged.
The Confederate kept silent and the boy on his horse soon followed, resigned to his fate.
The Confederate and the Yankee may not have realized at this early stage of the war that to be a prisoner was as deadly as fighting on the battlefield, but something in the young man’s cowardice already worked on the Confederate’s conscience. We don’t know if this Confederate officer cursed the angel on his shoulder as the two men walked ten yards.
“Go back to your friends, boy,” the Confederate ordered. “One more prisoner will hardly make a difference.”
When the Confederate met his own scouts they asked what had happened. When they set off in search of the “escaped” prisoner, the Confederate officer refused to join them.*
I wonder about the young New York lieutenant. The other night I happened upon our cat devouring the skin and fat of a just killed chipmunk and was surprised to see the organs still in movement. What moving things did this young man see at Bull Run? Was he a shy boy having trouble fitting in? No. There was something of a leader in him to be made lieutenant. Did he run all the way home or just to his friends?
A Confederate officer stuck on a stubborn horse gave the New York lieutenant his life back. Like a fish released from a net there was no time for gratitude. The currents of war and blood and peace move men along with hardly a moment to consider a chance meeting at a crossroad.
Why did boys on both sides enlist? CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS Their Expectations and Experiences by REID MITCHELL presents the uplifting and awful traits that make us human. Mitchell shares the forgotten stories of individual men. Each one of them (unlike fish unable to escape mere instinct) left marks on others they encountered only briefly and never met again.
How did that New York lieutenant live and die? His fear, his youth, his innocence touched a Confederate soldier once. The man was never the same.
*A re-telling of one of the many poignant stories written about in Civil War Soldiers.
**Image courtesy CIVIL WAR TALK
4 responses to “Taken Prisoner”
such a touching, poignant story. would that all wars could be fought be men of conscience, would that all soldiers could weigh the human heart – theirs, and that of their enemy’s.
I’m so grateful to Reid Mitchell for unearthing these wonderful stories for us. His book is full of them.
Thank you for sharing this moving story…I’m very touched by it…I wonder what became of the two men later. Think if ordinary men were left to decide on the battlefield. The story from WWI when the troops on both sides stopped fighting at Christmas has always stayed with me. Putting down arms to sing together, swap their meagre provisions, play football.
I think it’s why I’m so opposed to celebrating our ethnic, regional and color differences. It makes it so much easier to hate when one feels the other groups are so different. This story shows that even in 19th century America when most people north and south were white and Protestant the soldiers were able to be convinced that the other side was somehow alien and depraved. It’s always inspiring to see people who get past all that and act.
I think of MLK’s famous quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Anyway, have a great day, Annika.
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