Corporal Hardy

I

IN those days, during the haying season, it was my duty to keep the men in the fields supplied with sufficient cooling drink to enable them to support the heat and burden of the day. According to our established practice, this cooling drink consisted of cold water from the spring, flavored, for some obscure New England reason, with molasses, and it had to be freshly renewed every hour. We had plenty of ice in the icehouse, but there was a stubborn tradition that ice water was ‘bad’ for men working in hayfields under the hot sun.

So every hour I carried down a brown jug containing the innocent mixture of ‘molasses ’n’ water’ to the hands, each one of whom would pause in his work, throw the jug over his upper arm, drink deeply thereof, wipe the sweat off his forehead, say ‘Thanks, Bub,’ and go on making hay. I was only ten years old, but it was no hardship to carry the jug, and it was fun to see their Adam’s apples working as they drank.

This was routine practice on our Connecticut farm. Mostly the farm hands — ‘hired men,’ we called them — came back to the house at noon and ate in the kitchen, after washing up at the pump outside. But in haymaking season each man sought a patch of shade, and his meal was carried to him there, to be eaten in the fields. I suppose the men’s overheated bodies cooled off in the wisps of breeze drifting across the scorching ‘mowings’ more effectively and comfortably than would have been possible in a hot summer kitchen. I am sure that my father did everything he could to make their lot as comfortable and healthy as possible. He worked with them, under the same conditions, setting them an example of careful, efficient labor. He differed from his men only in the fact that he was always cleanly shaved, that he gave orders and directions, and that he wore a silk shirt even in the hayfields. Nobody objected in the least to this token, for he was ‘ the owner,’ and he had been to college, and everyone admitted that he was fair and square.

On such occasions, when the men were given their ‘dinners’ out of doors, I always carried his victuals to Mr. Hardy, because I liked to sit with him while he ate and listen to his stories. I think he enjoyed talking, in his racy Connecticut vernacular, to such a fascinated audience of one. He was a Civil War veteran, like my father, who, however, had been too young to enlist until the last year of the war and had seen almost no active service. But Mr. Hardy was a soldier. Congress had given him a medal — of honor — and all men regarded him with respect.

As I look back and remember his stories, I think he must have been the most modest man I have ever known. Certainly he never thought of himself as a hero. He would accept no pension. ‘I’m able-bodied. I can work, can’t I?’ But, alas, he was not really able-bodied. He had been grievously wounded several times, and in 1895, when I fetched and carried for him and sat at his feet, it was pitiful to see his valiant efforts to fork hay on the wagon or do the other farming tasks which require muscular strength. He was thin and bent, but his face was brown and clean and his blue eyes bright and indomitable.

My father employed Mr. Hardy whenever there was work to give him, and treated him — I did not, at that time, know why — differently from the other hired men. He was poor, he lived alone, he was unsuccessful, and in New England then we rated people by their comparative ‘success.’ But he worked stoutly and asked no favors of anyone. It was generally conceded that Mr. Hardy, if a failure, was nevertheless a good man.

I remember the last day I served him. I brought him his dinner in a basket — cold meat ’n’ potatoes, ’n’ bread ’n’ butter, ’n’ cold coffee, ’n’ pie. He was seated in the shade of an oak tree, leaning against a stack of hay. I put the food down beside him and sat down, hugging my knees and rocking back and forth. It was pleasant there, with the smell of the hay and the drone of the bees, and the good, warm feeling of the earth.

Mr. Hardy lay back against the haymow. ‘Thanks, Jackie,’ he said. ‘I don’t seem to be hungry to-day. It’s hot and this tree don’t give much shade. Why, dammit, it’s like that mean little oak tree down to Chancellorsville.’

I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Hardy, you’ve told me about Antietam and the Wilderness, but you’ve never told me about Chancellorsville. What was it like?’

He said slowly, ‘I ain’t never told nobody about Chancellorsville, and I don’t aim to tell nobody — grown-up, that is. But I’d kind of like to tell somebody that don’t know nothing — like you — about it, for the first and last time. You’ll forget it, and it would kind of ease my mind.’

II

Mr. Hardy hoisted himself a little higher on the haymow and made a pretense of eating some bread and meat.

‘Chancellorsville,’ he said, ‘was a bad battle, an awful bad battle. We did n’t fight good and they was too many of them and I lost my captain.’

‘Who was he?’ I asked.

‘Why,’ he said, incredulously, ‘you oughta know that! He was Captain William Armstrong, commandin’ Company B, 39th Connecticut. ’N’ his twin brother, Ezra, was lootenant. He was younger by an hour or so, and they was identical twins. They never was two men as much alike — in looks, that is, for they was quite unlike inside. The lootenant was always stompin’ around an’ shoutin’ an’ wavin’ his arms, an’ the captain, he was always quiet an’ softspoken an’ brave an’ gentle. He was a good man — he was an awful good man. I guess he was the best man I ever knowed.’

He paused and took a sip of his cold coffee. Then he said, ‘Why, when we come to leave town to go in the cars to Hartford and then to Washington, their father — he was old Judge Armstrong, who lived in that big place up on Armstrong Hill — the Judge come up to me and says, “Nathan, you look after my boys,” he said. “They’re younger than you be. You kind of keep an eye on them, for my sake,” he says. “They is good boys,” he says. “I will, Judge,” I says. “I’ll do my best.” An’he says to me, “I know you will, Nathan Hardy.” ’

‘But tell me, Mr. Hardy,’ I broke in, for I was not interested in the Armstrong twins, ‘what happened at Chancellorsville?’

‘It was a bad battle, as I said. Them Rebs come charging out of the woods, hollerin’ and yellin’ and helligolarrupin’, and they was too many of them. The lootenant, he kept stomping up and down, shouting, “Never give ground, boys! Stay where you are! Take careful aim! Never retreat!” Those was his words. I wall never forget them, because he meant them. But my captain — I was next to him — says, “They’re too many; we can’t stop ’em. Tell the men to retreat slowly, firing as often as they can reload.” Just then it hit him right in the chest. Thunk! was the noise it made; just like thet — thunk! I caught him as he fell, and the blood began to come out of his mouth. He tried to speak, but he was vomiting blood dreadful, so all he could do was to make faces, and his lips said, “Tell Elizabeth . . .” and then he died. I put him down and noticed we was under a mean little oak tree on the edge of our trenches.

‘Then they was around us, hairy men with bayonets, stabbin’ and shootin’ and yellin’, and we soldiers had kind of drifted together in groups and the lootenant was shouting, “Don’t retreat, men!” and he got hit right in the knee and fell down; and so I picked him up and put him across my shoulder and started for the rear. He kep’ hittin’ me in the face and swearing, “You damn coward! You left my brother there and you’re making me retreat!” I says to him, “Ezra, be reasonable; I’m takin’ you to an ambulance. You ain’t fit to fight, and as soon as I can I’m goin’ back to bury William. They ain’t goin’ to shovel him into no trench,” I said. So he stopped hitting at me.

‘I was strong then, and I must a carried him a mile or a mile and a few rods when we come to some stretcher men near a house, and I said, “ You take this officer to the nearest surgeon. They got to saw his leg off.” And they said, “ We ain’t carryin’ no wounded. We ’re a burial detail.” I. said, pulling my pistol out, “You will be if you don’t carry this man. I’m kind of tuckered, but I ain’t too tuckered to shoot.” So two of them carried him, and I went along with my pistol till we come to a place where surgeons was carving men up and I handed over the lootenant. He come to as I did so, and said, “You scoundrel, you made me retreat. I’ll never forgive you!” I said, “Ezra, they’re going to saw your leg off and you ’ll never fight again, but I’ll bury William if it’s the last thing I do.” He says, “Is that a promise?” And I says, “That’s a promise. But it ain’t a promise to you — it’s one I made to your pa.”

‘So I stayed with him and helped hold him while they sawed his leg off. They havin’ run out of chloroform, it took four of us to hold him. And when it was over he was unconscious, and they put him in a cart with some others and took him away. So I went back to the house where the burial men were loafing. It was pretty ruined, but I found a shingle that was almos’ clean and I wrote on it, in the light of a fire, ’cause it was dark then: —

CAPT. WILLIAM ARMSTRONG

COMMANDING Co. B., 39 CONNECTICUT

He was an awful good man

‘Then I borrowed a spade from this burial party. We had an argument about it, but I persuaded them with my pistol and I started off toward the Rebel lines. I had n’t gone very far when I come to a place which was thick with men moanin’ and screamin’ and lots that was n’t sayin’ nothing at all. I did n’t want to walk on them an’ I could n’t help them, having nothing on me but a shingle and a spade and a pistol, an’ I decided I could n’t find the captain in the dark anyhow, so I set down and tried to sleep, for I was tuckered. I threw away my pistol. I set there the rest of the night waitin’ for the dawn. It was a long time comin’.

III

‘ When it come gray, I started out with my shingle and my spade and I went along till I was challenged by the Rebel pickets and sentries. I answered, “Union burial detail. I’m comin’ for to bury my captain.” They begun shootin’ at me and I don’t know as I blame them. I was comin’ out of the mist and they could n’t see that I was alone an’ was n’t armed. So they shot real hard, and one bullet struck me in the left thigh and I fell down. Fortunately I had a belt, and I sat up and took it off and strapped it real tight over my wound, and my britches was tight at the waist so they did n’t come down, and I got up and went on.

‘They stopped shootin’ and a man with a bayonet got up and said, “Yank, you’re my pris’ner.” And I said, “I know I be, but I ain’t your pris’ner till I bury my captain.” And I held up my shingle and spade. He said, “Where’s he lie?” And I said, “About quarter mile from here and maybe a few rods, under a mean little oak tree; and,” I says, “you take me there and I’ll bury him and then I’m your pris’ner. They ain’t goin’ to stuff my captain into no ditch,” I says. He says, “You may be crazy, Yank, or you may be a spy. You come with me an’ I’ll turn you over to the captain.”

‘“Your captain alive?” I asks.

‘“I reckon so,” he says.

‘“Mine’s dead,” I says, “and I aim for to bury him.”

‘So he tuk me away with his bayonet in my back and the blood was squilchin’ in my boot, but I got along to where his captain was and the captain asked questions, and the Rebel soldier, he tol’ all he knew, an’ the captain says, “Where’s he lie?” An’ I says, “By a mean little oak, where our lines was yesterday mornin’.”

‘An’ the captain says, “That ain’t far away. I’ll send a detail to bury him.” I says, “Ain’t nobody goin’ to bury the captain but me,” I says. “After that, I’ll be your pris’ner.”

‘They was a young man dressed up all pretty with gold braid on his uniform, and he laughed kind of loud and he says, “Saves us the trouble of buryin’ him!” an’ the captain turns on him, real stern, and says, “Lootenant, this is a brave soldier,” he says, “who come back under fire and was wounded to bury his company commander and give himself up as pris’ner. I will not have him insulted or laughed at,” he says. Then he turns to me an’ says, “ What is your name an’ rank? ”

‘“Corporal Nathan Hardy, Co. B, 39th Connecticut,” I says.

‘An’ he says, “Corporal, you and I an’ these men,” turnin’ around to the five or six Rebs who was listenin’, “will go together to find your captain.”

‘So we went and I found him, underneath that mean little oak tree, and he looked dreadful. His eyes was open and they was an awful lot of blood on his shirt where his coat was open, and he was lyin’ all sprangled out an’ undignified. An’ the first thing I done was to straighten him out. I spit on my sleeve and wiped the blood off his mouth the best I could. An’ I closed his eyes an’ buttoned his coat an’ crossed his arms. They was kind of stiff, but I done it, an’ I brushed him off and layed him out regular.

‘Then I started diggin’, an’ it would have been easy if it had n’t been for my leg and all the blood in my boot. Six foot four or thereabouts it was, and three foot deep — not as deep as I wanted, but I could n’t dig no deeper, I was so tuckered. But it was an honest grave, for I was real handy with a spade in them days. Then I stood up and said, “Will two o’ you Rebs hand the captain to me?” Which they done, and I laid him in the grave. An’ as I stood lookin’ down at him lyin’ there, I says to myself, “Ain’t nobody goin’ to shovel no dirt on the captain’s face — nobody, nobody, nobody at all, not even me!” So I took my coat off and laid it over him, coverin’ up his face best I could. I did n’t want to go to no Rebel prison in my shirt, but I would n’t have no one shovel dirt on the captain.

‘Then the two Rebs pulled me out of the grave, real gentle and considerate. An’ then I noticed they was a Rebel general there settin’ on a blood horse. How long he bin there I don’t know. He looked at me and see I was wounded and peaked, and he says, stern an’ hard, “Captain, what’s the meanin’ of this? This man’s wounded and weak,” he says. “ Do you force wounded men to bury the dead?”

‘The captain went over to him and began talkin’ to him low and earnest, seemed like, all the time I was fillin’ in the grave. An’ when I had patted the mound even, so it looked good, and had stuck the shingle in the new earth at the head of the grave, I come over to where the general was, limpin’ and leanin’ on my spade, an’ I saluted, — could n’t help it; I kind of forgot he was a Rebel, — an’ I says, “General, I’m your pris’ner. I buried my captain. I ain’t a great hand at askin’ favors, an’ your captain and these Rebs has been real good to me. But I wanta ask one more. I was raised Episcopal, which was unusual in our town, and so was the captain. I’d kind of like to say a prayer before I surrender . . .”’

IV

Here Mr. Hardy seemed to doze for a little. ‘Where was I?' he asked, rousing after a few minutes.

‘You had just gone up to the general and asked if you could say a prayer before you surrendered.’

‘Yes, yes, so it was. The general said, “Corporal Hardy, I am an Episcopalian too, and you shall say your prayer.”

‘So he dismounted and took off his hat, and he and I kneeled down by the grave, and it was awful hard for me to kneel. And when we was there kneelin’ I looked up for a minute and all them Rebs was standin’ with their caps off and their heads bowed, nice and decent, just like Northern people. An’ then I had a dreadful time, for to save my life I could n’t remember a prayer, not a line, not a word. I had heard the burial service often enough and too often, what with Pa and Ma an’ all kinds of relatives, but my brains was all watery an’ thin, seemed like, an’ I could n’t remember nothin’ at all. I don’ know how long ’t was till somethin’ come driftin’ into my mind. It wa’n’t from the burial service; ’t was somethin’ we used to chant in Evenin’ Prayer. So I says it, loud as I could, for I was gettin’ awful feeble.

‘“Lord,” I says, “now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word . . .” An’ I could n’t remember or say any more. The general, he helped me to my feet, spade an’ all, an’ I looked him in the face and, by creepers, they was tears in his beard. Soon as I could speak I says, “General, you’ve been real good to me and I thank you. An’ now I’m your pris’ner, wherever you want to send me.”

‘An’ he says, “Corporal Hardy, you will never be a pris’ner of our people as long as I live and command this corps.”

‘An’ I broke in, awful scared he had misunderstood, and I says, “General, you don’t think I was prayin’ for me to go in peace! I’m your pris’ner; I’m not askin’ for no favors. I was thinkin’ of the captain — and me too, perhaps, but not that way. I can go anywhere now. I—”

‘ He cut me short. “ Corporal Hardy,” he says, “I know to Whom you was prayin’ and why, an’ I have n’t misunderstood you at all. Captain,” he says, “I want a detail of six men an’ a stretcher and a flag of truce to take this brave soldier an’ — an’ Christian gentleman back to the Union lines; an’ I want this message, which I have dictated and signed, delivered to the commanding officer to be forwarded through channels to the Secretary of War or the President. Those people can hardly decline this courtesy, under the circumstances. . . . Wait, Carter, I wish to add a few lines.” So he put the paper against his saddle and he wrote for some time.

‘Then, kind of in a dream, I heard the Rebel captain say, “Sir, if the General permits, I would like to lead this detail to the Union lines and ask to be blindfolded and deliver your message to the Division Commander.”

‘An’ the General says, “Captain, I am very glad you made that request, and I commend your behavior. It is only fittin’ that the officer escortin’ Corporal Hardy with my message should be of field rank, and I shall put in my order for your promotion. You are a pretty good soldier, yourself,” he says — only he did n’t say it that way.

‘All this time I was kind of waverin’ around, but I heard most all they said; and because I was feeble from losing blood an’ the battle an’ buryin’ the captain an’ a kind of feverish feelin’, things begun to spin around, and I started walkin’ this way and that way with my spade, tryin’ to stand up, knowin’ I could n’t much longer. I heard someone yell, “Catch him!” An’ the next thing I knowed I was in a bed of straw and they was probin’ for the bullet in my leg. Then I don’t remember nothin’ till I woke up in a bed, a clean bed, with a nice-lookin’ woman leanin’ over me, wipin’ my head with a cold, wet towel. I says, “Where am I?”

‘An’ she says, “You’re in the hospital of the Sanitary Commission in Washington. An’ oh, Corporal Hardy,” she says, “ I’m so glad you ’re conscious, for to-day the President is comin’ to give you the Medal of Honor.” An’ I says, “Listen, sister, I gotta get out of here. I don’t care for no President or no medal — I gotta bury the captain. He’s lyin’ down there under a mean little oak. Gimme my clothes,” I says; “I want a spade and a shingle.” An’ she says, “Corporal, you buried your captain an’ buried him fine. That’s why the President is comin’ to see you. Now you just drink this and go to sleep for a while, and I’ll wake you when the President comes.”

‘So I drank it and kind of slept, and when I woke up there was Old Abe, the ugliest man I ever see, leanin’ over and pinnin’ something to my nightshirt, an’ he says, “Corporal Hardy, even the enemy call you a brave soldier and a good man. Congress has voted you this medal. God bless you,” he says.’

V

Mr. Hardy yawned and closed his eyes, and leaned against the haymow. He had told the tale he had to tell — once, to one person.

‘But, Mr. Hardy,’ I said, ‘what happened to the lieutenant, and who was Elizabeth?’ I wanted the story all tied up in ribbons.

‘Who?’ he said. ‘The lootenant? Oh, Ezra come back and married Elizabeth and they went to live in Massachusetts. Seems he went aroun’ sayin’ he could n’t live in no town where people pointed at him and thought he had run away leavin’ his dead brother. Naturally no one done so or thought so. But, for all his stompin’ and shoutin’, he was sensitive, an’ he bore me a grudge for takin’ him away. I don’t see as how I could a done different. I’d promised the old Judge I’d look after his boys an’ I’ve allus aimed to keep my promises.’

Just then my father came up to us. It was unlike Mr. Hardy to sit in the shade while other men had started to work again, and Father looked worried. ‘How are you feeling, Nathan?’ he asked.

‘Why, John, I’m plumb tuckered out, and that’s a fact. I don’ know as I can do much more work to-day. Seems like I never did fare good under these mean little oak trees,’ and he glanced sharply at me with an expression that was almost a wink. We shared a secret.

Father looked startled, as if he thought Mr. Hardy’s wits were wandering.

‘I tell you what, Nathan,’ he said, ‘You’ve had all the sun you need. I’ll send the wagon and they’ll take you up to the house, where you can be cool and rest for a while.’ And, for once in his life, Mr. Hardy made no protest over having ‘favors’ done for him. Father took me aside. ‘Jackie,’ he said, ‘you run up to the house and tell your mother to make the bed in the spare room ready, and then you go to the village and tell Dr. Fordyce he’s wanted. I don’t like Nathan’s looks.’

Before I started running I glanced at Mr. Hardy, and I saw what Father meant. He was pale and flushed in the wrong places, though I had n’t noticed it at all when he was telling me about Chancellorsville.

So Mr. Hardy was put to bod in the spare room, and given such care and aid as we knew how to give. For several days he lay quietly enough, and, as I look back on it after all these years, I think that the weight and burden of his long, valiant struggle must suddenly have proved too great. He could n’t go on forever. Mr. Hardy was tuckered out.

Then for some time he alternated between unconsciousness and a mild delirium. He kept mumbling phrases: ‘Take that quid out o’ your mouth. ’T ain’t soldierly!’ . . . ‘Ain’t nobody goin’ to bury the captain but me.’ I knew what lots of his bewildered sayings meant, but there were many which were obscure. I sat with him every day for an hour or so when the rest of the household were busy, and I had instructions to call my elders if Mr. Hardy needed help or became conscious.

One day he opened his eyes and said, ‘Here I am and I’m real easy in my mind — but I can’t just remember what I said.’ I went out and called my parents, who told me to stay outside. But I listened and I heard Mr. Hardy say, ‘Call the boy in. He knows what I want said and I can’t remember. He’s young and ’t won’t hurt him and he’ll forget.’ So Mother beckoned me to come in and I said, ‘What can I do, Mr. Hardy?’

‘You can say what I said for the captain when I knelt down with the general.’

So I knelt down, and, having the parrotlike memory of childhood, I said, ‘ You knelt down and so did the general, and then you could n’t remember any of the words of the burial service, but you did remember something that was sung in the evening, and you said, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word..."' And I began to cry.

‘That’s right,’ he said very faintly, ‘that’s right; that’s it. Yes, Captain . . .’

My mother gathered me up and took me out and held me very close, rocking back and forth with me while I wept out how I loved Mr. Hardy and what a good man he was.

And that was why I was sent to my aunt and cousins at New London, where I could swim and fish and forget about battles and wounds and Mr. Hardy. But I did n’t forget.