A War To End All
By: Ophilia LeNoir
A/N: This was my entry for a local writing contest based on Tom Sawyer or the World of Mark Twain. I won for my age category (18 +).
If you read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn way back when you ought to know me. A man called Mark Twain wrote all about my adventures with Tom and Jim. I'm Huckleberry Finn- though most call me Huck. You might remember Mr. Twain writing at the end of my adventure that I had had enough "sivilizing" and that I thought I would head out west. Well, I stayed in Hannibal after all. I thought I'd feel powerful sorry to leave the Widow Douglas after how nice she'd been to me, and after how Mrs. Watson died and left her all alone. I wish I had gone out west anyway. Maybe if I had I wouldn't be in the mess I am now.
You see, Tom and I grew up. Tom's aunt Polly insisted he go to away to school. He had some help from a well to do uncle who made it big out west. With how many "stretchers" Tom told, Aunt Polly figured he'd make a fine lawyer. I decided staying in one place was a bit much for me and I decided to sail steam ships up and down the Mississippi. Things were fine for a while, but then the war broke out.
The worst thing for me was that the river got blocked up by the Union soldiers and I couldn't sail it anymore. So, I decided to join the Confederate Infantry to fight for my water ways. Tom was all crazy to join too-though he wanted to join for the "Honor of the South" and the "Romance of Battle," but his Aunt Polly wouldn't hear it. He was to stay in school until he graduated, then he could do whatever he wanted.
I didn't know if Tom got his way. I hadn't heard anything from home for some time. The Widow passed away shortly before I enlisted and I had been at war for three years. I have to say, I had never seen any of Tom's "romance" in battle, I've only seen blood. My division had marched across Tennessee and Kentucky by the winter of 1864 and we were getting ready to meet up with an artillery unit in Virginia.
It was December 18 when we met the artillery unit in the Southwestern tip of Virginia- in a place called Saltville. The Confederate troops had just been defeated in Marion and the Union soldiers were heading down and we were planning on meeting them. We set up camp and as soon as I could, I went to get some bad coffee. The taste was awful- like we had brewed dirt instead of coffee grinds- but it was warm and it would keep me going. I had just got my cup and was warming my face with the steam when I heard a voice behind me. "Hey, Huck! Is that you?"
I turned, surprise and saw Tom Sawyer in a gray Confederate uniform. His was significantly less worn that mine. I don't know how many patches I had put in my uniform and my shoes were almost worn through. His still had a shine on them. His face was bright and still had that light enthusiasm he had when we were boys. He hadn't been in battle. Not really. I could tell by his looks.
"Tom... when did you join up?" I asked.
He grinned, widely, "Oh, about 5 months ago. Aunt Polly insisted I finish school, so I had to stay put. But as soon as I could, I high-tailed my way out of there and into the Confederate ranks!" he proudly showed me his insignia, "I'm in the artillery. Joined up here in Virginia."
"You seen any battles yet?" I asked.
"One or two," he said, "I've been firing the howitzer. I'll teach those Yankees not to mess with the South!"
There was a gleam in his eye. A lot of the men and boys I came in with had that look at at them beginning, but now they all just looked tired- the one's still alive anyway. I wondered if I had that look when I joined up. I must have. After all this time, I had to wonder if I'd been in my right mind when I had enlisted, or if I had caught Tom's fever for glory. I wouldn't have been the first time if I had. Tom's enthusiasm was contagious and used to have an incredible effect on me. Even if I knew better than to follow along with what he dreamed up, I always seemed to go along with it. Things were so different in Saltville. I felt untouched by his excitement for battle. For the first time in my life, Tom Sawyer had no effect on me.
"You're lucky you got to enlist so early," he was saying, "I bet you've been in tons of battles! How many have you fought in Huck?"
"Too many to count," I answered.
"And you haven't whooped those Yankees yet?" he said jokingly
I smiled grimly. "It's not as glorious as you think it is Tom," I explained, "things are a lot more complicated than you think."
Tom looked surprised. "What do you mean it's not glorious? We're fighting for southern liberation!"
"Tom, you don't understand. Battles aren't like the game we used to play. People die. Where's the glory and honor in that?" I tried to explain.
"It's an honorable death isn't it? Fighting for honor- Like the knights in the crusades."
"Tom have you seen anybody die? Up close?" I asked.
"I've seen a couple union soldier go down and we had one or two die in our division-" he said.
"But did you watch them die?"
"Well, No, but-"
I cut him off. "Then you don't know what you're talking about. These deaths, they're not honorable, Tom. They're violent and they're painful." I was getting agitated.
"Huck, what happened to you? You used to be the boy we all looked up to. You sound like you've turned yellow."
That did it. "You don't get it, Tom," I growled angrily, "I've been fighting this damn war for three years. I've watched my buddies fall over dead beside me, in front of me, and a couple time, they landed on top of me. Yeah, maybe I am scared, but you're not scared enough. You see all these guys here? See how tired they are? They used to look just like you. This is war. It's not our childhood games. This is for real and people die. People with loved one's at home. Wives, kids, parents."
"Hey, I don't need to hear this from you!" he shouted back at me, "I'm going to fight this war, and I'm going to lick those Yankees. I can't help it if you and a few other guys are homesick."
"Homesick!" I laughed bitterly, "When was the last time I had a home to be sick for? I had a drunk Pap, and didn't want to stay with the Widow. The last home I had was the river. You had a home, Tom. What about your Aunt Polly? Huh? What about Becky? You ever give a thought to them?"
Tom got quiet and recoiled. I had hit a nerve. He promised Becky Thatcher they would get married as soon as he finished school. I would put my money on a bet with anybody that he hadn't gone home to marry her before he enlisted.
Finally after a long silence and avoiding looking at me, Tome looked up and hissed, "You've changed, Huck." and walked away.
"You haven't, " I said to his back, "more's the pity," I added softly.
Tom wouldn't talk to me the next couple days. He apparently though I betrayed him in some way. His ignorance came from having been sheltered his whole life from real hardship. He would learn soon enough how awful battle could really be.
The Union troops attacked on December 20, 1864. We were vastly outnumbered, even with our small artillery division. They had more men and more guns and they attacked us with just as much fervor and determination as we attacked them. We were there to defend the salt works- without which our rations would be severely cut- they were there to destroy it.
The battle raged around me and I fought to preserve my life. I heard Tom's gun chief, Cpl. Bradford, shout orders to fire. The ball exploded into a group of union soldiers. I ran through the battle using whatever I could for cover as a shot at my "enemies," the union soldiers. I probably had more in common with them than with most of my fellow confederates. Least-ways I was probably one of the few who actually thought slavery was wrong. I learned that on a raft on the Mississippi.
Gunfire exploded in every direction. It's easy to lose your head in the heat of battle. In spite of however else I felt, I was a good soldier. I could keep my head as I killed. It's a matter of separating yourself from the moment. But sometimes emotions get the better of all of us.
I was deep into the battle when I heard Tom's voice crying out. Panic gripped me and I ran blindly back to him. I feared the worst, that Tom had payed for his ignorance with his life. It's a wonder I didn't get shot myself. I made it back to discover Tom, kneeling over the body of Cpl. Bradford. Toms hands and uniform were covered with the gun leader's blood. He must have grabbed the man as he fell. Cpl Bradford has a bullet hole in his ribcage, he was just barely holding on and not able to breath. His blood spread in the dirty snow beneath him as he tried to gasp for one last breath. His body twitched and convulsed before going still.
Tom cried out again, "Luke! Luke, no not yet! You've got to hang on Luke!"
We were going to get shot standing here if he didn't get a hold of himself.
"Tom, come on," I said firmly. He didn't move.
"Tom now," I tried again. He looked up stubbornly, refusing.
I grabbed Tom under his shoulders and yanked him to his feet. He gave a cry of protest when I tried to drag him away from the corporal's body.
"Do you want to wind up like him?" I yelled. We didn't have time for this.
He shook his head. "Well, then move it. Either shoot more shells, or clear out of the way, 'cause you're no good like this."
He stood shocked for a minute, then nodded and went back to work. His innocence had been taken in that one shot. He wouldn't see glory in war again. Not after that. Maybe it was for the best, if he was going to fight in this war, but that old bit of Huckleberry inside me that always listened to Tom felt sad to see that light die in him. I had changed, but only because I grew up. Tom changed that night because he saw death firsthand, and it wasn't romantic.