Copyright
Sam Elmore

R. I. P.


His ragged uniform was sweat-soaked and stiff with mud; yet, he knew as soon as he stopped running, the sweat would probably turn to ice. It was a cold Autumn night, and the enemy had been dogging them for two days and nights without pause. His small group of Confederate soldiers had become separated from their main unit during the last fracas.

He was a young Captain...barely out of his teens. But, that was not unusual during the Civil War. Many Confederate officers of even higher rank were mere youths. His lack of age had nothing to do with the enormity of his responsibilities, though.

He had eleven men left, out of an entire company-strength unit; and they were on the run, with the enemy just hours behind, if his judgement was correct. They'd lost most of their unit in a deadly exchange of artillery fire. He had ordered their own artillery pieces spiked and abandoned, just minutes before their location was over-run.

Since that time they had been on the go, yet not a single man had complained; despite the fact that they had not eaten or rested. In unfamiliar territory, they had, with good luck, evaded capture thus far. But, the Captain knew there was a limit to his men's endurance, and to his own as well. He had to find a time and place to lay up, and give the men a chance to rest and sleep; if only for a little while.

It was three o'clock in the morning when he saw something looming ahead. Halting his men with a hand signal, the Captain crept forward to investigate. What he saw was the side of a battered old church, with a small cemetery in back.

He returned to his troops and waved them into a kneeling huddle around him. His heart went out to them, as he looked at their rugged, determined faces. Quietly, he ordered everyone to go and lie down in the cemetery and rest until daylight. Hard-tack was the only available ration...no fires allowed; besides, they had nothing in their rucksacks to cook.

Quietly, the soldiers moved into the cemetery and dispersed. They each had an issue blanket in their pack, which they spread on the graves as groundsheets. In minutes, the exhausted soldiers were asleep. The Captain eased himself down to sit, and rested his back against a grave marker. He MUST stay alert, he cautioned himself; for the sake of his admirable soldiers.

In mere moments, his eyes were closed. In his exhausted, bewildered state, he wasn't even aware that he had wrapped his muddy field coat around his head and shoulders, to ward off the chill of that early morning.

A half-hour before daylight, the Captain was jolted awake by a whispered warning from one of his men.

"Sir! Wake up!.....but DONT MOVE!"

The Captain opened his eyes, but had the presence of mind to be still, as cautioned. Glancing around him in the dim half-light, he could barely discern the huddled shapes of his troops, lying on their ground-sheets.

"Sir, pass the word along...wake everybody up, but make sure they DON'T MOVE! please, sir!"

The Captain did as requested and, soon, all the soldiers were awake, eyes open, and within a fraction of PANIC. Every one of them had RATTLESNAKES either curled on their chest, or lying on the blanket against their body! The snakes had detected the warmth generated by the soldier's bodies on top of the graves, and had sought out this source of heat.

It was the longest half-hour of their lives but, when daylight finally came and the warm sunshine spread across the cemetery, the rattlesnakes crawled off, and slowly made their way BACK INTO THE GRAVES from whence they had come.

According to the story that's been passed down in my family:
"It was the scared-est I've ever been in my whole LIFE", avowed my Grandfather, Andrew Jackson Dodson. He was one of those weary Confederate soldiers who rested in that cemetery on a cold Autumn night.