Granddaddy placed me on his knee, he fuzzed my hair and smoked his Bing Crosby pipe. The world smelled like Prince Albert in a can.
“The year was 1862,” Granddaddy began his story. “The day was Christmas. The place was eastern Virginia.”
East Virginia. God’s country. Where the Rappahannock River traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains, then dumps itself into the Chesapeake like a pitcher of ice tea. The War was on. The landscape was torn up from war.
“And it was so cold,” said Granddaddy.
Paralyzingly cold. The winter of 1862 was brutal. You could break a tooth eating a bowl of soup.
Eighteen-year-old privates were sleeping on barren earth, huddled together like puppies beneath woolen blankets. Grown men—military men—spooned together, just to survive.
But this cold snap was nothing compared to the hunger. Some soldiers were so hungry they were eating their tobacco. There are stories about soldiers eating their own shoe leather.
Christmas morning came with fresh misery. A wet snow had fallen overnight. Gaggles of army boys awoke with frostbitten noses and frozen
earlobes. Others were coughing themselves to death.
The opposing armies were camped on opposite sides of the river. Gray coats on one side. Blues on the other. Before evening, these countrymen would probably be killing each other. “It was a hell of a time to be a soldier.”
I interrupted my Baptist grandfather. “Grandaddy, you can’t say ‘hell.’”
My grandfather, the grizzled veteran who spent his youth dodging shells in Anzio, Italy, said, “Son, there is no other word for war but hell.”
That morning, a few young soldiers were on patrol near the banks of the Rappahannock. They stopped patrolling when they saw the enemy on the other side of the river, also patrolling.
Both groups halted.
Soldiers on both sides of the river were skin and bones, with sunken eyes and the pallor of cadavers.
It was a stare down between adversaries.…