Bottom Rail on Top, Part 1

This tale of Henry Kaltenbach's military life didn't fit into the published version of Sister of Mine. I thought that readers might enjoy reading it nonetheless.

Henry Kaltenbach, wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, had risen from his hospital cot too soon. After an hour of marching through the Virginia countryside, his leg ached so badly that he had to rest. He told his men to go on ahead and that he’d catch up with them, but he sat so long that he lost them. They’d been walking on a narrow dirt path lined with scorched young trees, which obscured the ability to see on either side, or far ahead. He lost his bearings. He walked slowly, not knowing where he was, or where he was going.

He saw a glint through the saplings, then the gun barrel, then the flash of a dark blue tunic. There was a Union picket in the woods. The man came closer, and he looked so familiar that Henry nearly called out his name. Slight and light-complected as he was, he wasn’t Freddy, but a stranger. There was a fierce scowl on his fine-featured face, and he held the gun high and ready, saying, “You dirty Reb, I should shoot you.”

Even if this man were bluffing—which he probably was, a serious soldier would have shot first, and talked later—Henry could not bring himself to unsling his gun and defend himself. He could not bear to shoot at a free black Union soldier. He put up his hands and called out, “Please don’t shoot. I want to surrender.”

The man came closer, still holding the gun ready, but he was close enough for Henry to see that he looked confused. He was very young, not more than eighteen. He said again, “I should shoot you now, you dirty Reb.” He was a local; he had a slave’s version of Marse Robert’s Virginia accent.

His hands still in the air, Henry repeated, “I’d like to surrender to the Union Army. Please don’t shoot.”

They heard a man approach before they saw him, long loping steps, more like a scout than a soldier on the march. They both saw the brass buttons gleam in the sun before they saw the blue coat. He was tall, and broad of shoulder, and medium brown, and he moved with an easy grace. He strolled up to the Union man and said, in a voice as easy as his gait, “What have you got here, soldier?”

“I’ve captured a Reb, sir,” said the young man, his voice sulky. “He says he wants to surrender. Should I shoot him?”

He wore a sergeant’s chevrons on his sleeve. He put a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder and said, “Private Byrd, we fight according to the rules of war, not for revenge. You won’t shoot a man who has surrendered, and you won’t shoot a prisoner of war.” He was a Northerner, with a Northerner’s accent. His voice was relaxed, almost humorous. He could have been on a picnic in the country, not part of a regiment patrolling Virginia after one of the worst battles of the war.

“They shot our men. Shot them in cold blood after they captured them.”

The sergeant said, “We’re better than that, Private Byrd. Put your gun down.” He turned to Henry, and said, “I’ll have to disarm you, sir.”

Shaking, Henry said, “You can take my rifle.”

“No, I trust you to hand it to me.” He watched as Henry unslung the rifle he had carried every waking day for the past four years, and relinquished it to a Union soldier. The Union sergeant slung it over his shoulder and asked, “Do you have a sidearm?”

Henry unbuckled the holster around his hip and gave him the holster with the pistol in it.

“Do you have a knife?”

Henry said, “I have a pocket knife.”

With a glint of a smile, the man said, “We’ll let you keep that. You’ll need it to cut your meat.” He stood tall, a military bearing, and said, “I’m Sergeant Daniel Shaw of the 43rd Pennsylvania Infantry, United States Colored Troops, and this is Private Ambrose Byrd, of the same. Who are you, soldier?”

Henry was too tired to echo Sergeant Shaw’s military stance. He slumped as he spoke. His voice hoarse and low, he said, “I’m Henry Kaltenbach, captain of Company H, 18th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, Confederate Army.”

 “Confederate officer?” Shaw asked. “I think our commanding officer, Colonel Fox, would like to speak to you. You can help us. Come with me.”

Henry said, “Aren’t you going to handcuff me?”

“Why?” Sgt. Shaw asked. “Are you planning on running away?”

When Henry bought his first slaves, he refused to let the auctioneer put them in manacles. They said to him what he now said to Sgt. Shaw: “No, sir, I’m not planning on running away.”

And Shaw said to him what he told the slave auctioneer: “I trust you won’t.”