An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
The Coup De Grâce
The fighting had been hard and continuous; that was attested by all the senses. The very
taste of battle was in the air. All was now over; it remained only to succor the wounded
and bury the dead--to "tidy up a bit," as the humorist of a burial squad put it. A good deal
of "tidying up" was required. As far as one could see through the forests, among the
splintered trees, lay wrecks of men and horses. Among them moved the stretcher-bearers,
gathering and carrying away the few who showed signs of life. Most of the wounded had
died of neglect while the right to minister to their wants was in dispute. It is an army
regulation that the wounded must wait; the best way to care for them is to win the battle.
It must be confessed that victory is a distinct advantage to a man requiring attention, but
many do not live to avail themselves of it.
The dead were collected in groups of a dozen or a score and laid side by side in rows
while the trenches were dug to receive them. Some, found at too great a distance from
these rallying points, were buried where they lay. There was little attempt at
identification, though in most cases, the burial parties being detailed to glean the same
ground which they had assisted to reap, the names of the victorious dead were known and
listed. The enemy's fallen had to be content with counting. But of that they got enough:
many of them were counted several times, and the total, as given afterward in the official
report of the victorious commander, denoted rather a hope than a result.
At some little distance from the spot where one of the burial parties had established its
"bivouac of the dead," a man in the uniform of a Federal officer stood leaning against a
tree. From his feet upward to his neck his attitude was that of weariness reposing; but he
turned his head uneasily from side to side; his mind was apparently not at rest. He was
perhaps uncertain in which direction to go; he was not likely to remain long where he
was, for already the level rays of the setting sun straggled redly through the open spaces
of the wood and the weary soldiers were quitting their task for the day. He would hardly
make a night of it alone there among the dead. Nine men in ten whom you meet after a
battle inquire the way to some fraction of the army--as if any one could know. Doubtless
this officer was lost. After resting himself a moment he would presumably follow one of
the retiring burial squads.
When all were gone he walked straight away into the forest toward the red west, its light
staining his face like blood. The air of confidence with which he now strode along
showed that he was on familiar ground; he had recovered his bearings. The dead on his
right and on his left were unregarded as he passed. An occasional low moan from some
sorely-stricken wretch whom the relief-parties had not reached, and who would have to
pass a comfortless night beneath the stars with his thirst to keep him company, was
equally unheeded. What, indeed, could the officer have done, being no surgeon and
having no water?
At the head of a shallow ravine, a mere depression of the ground, lay a small group of
bodies. He saw, and swerving suddenly from his course walked rapidly toward them.