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Trigger

Late October in Georgia was pleasant. Except for the occasional light breeze, the
air was still. The sun’s warm rays contrasted with the damp coolness of the intermittent
shade. Birds seemed to be hiding among the lush vegetation, and if one listened
carefully, they might have chanced to hear a cricket or even the seldom seen cicada.
Gentle rolling hills, if they could even be called hills, covered in rich emerald green
pasture were dotted by clumps of wood. I felt lucky to be placed on patrol during such a
fair day.

However, in many ways the land seemed unnaturally contrasting within itself.
The countryside appeared to have grown out of a swamp. Upon closer inspection,
Spanish Moss could be seen dangling off of overhanging branches. At the bottom of
each hill, the Earth tended to be muddier, soggier. No animals could be seen nor their
presence felt. Almost as if they were all hiding, waiting, watching in the shadows.
Infrequent sounds jutted out of every wooden haven. Had I been alone, the insect calls
would have easily startled me. The lack of noise might have appeared eerie if it had not
been replaced by the ever rhythmic sound of boots marching against solid dirt road and
the clinging of tin canteens. For this, I was quite thankful.

Soon we came upon a clear stream bordered by short squat trees. Relieved to be
under shade once again, the troop slowed and anticipated a break. The water slugged
along lazily except where it met the dirt trail. Here small rocks or perhaps boulders
attempted to dam up the stream, instead causing a miniature rapid. It whispered
soothingly offering safe water to drink. However, just past the little rapids the water once
again grew calm and nearly lay stagnate.
I managed to spot several pear and apple trees along the stream banks. The faded
green bearded Spanish moss clung desperately to the dry wood. Many of the trees
protruded out of the bank at odd angles creating a tunnel for the stream. The wooden
cavern presented itself much like a cave with the same dark, dank, lonely feeling one
feels inside a cave. The trees spread a few yards up and down the road but grew
everywhere the water touched. Still, I felt as though I could travel lost and
unaccompanied for ages.

Sergeant Walter promptly drew his pocket watch (I heard it was a family
heirloom) and proceeded to gruffly allow us, or rather he ordered us to break. Though
tough, I knew there was a good friendly side to him. From Massachusetts and a devout
Christian, Sergeant Walter strove for equality among his men and punished wrathfully
those that broke his regulations. On one occasion during a general retreat, I personally
watched him run back to carry a wounded comrade under fire during a withdrawal
towards the fort at Allatoona. I also heard that back in the winter of ’62, the sergeant had
shot a man he claimed was deserting without any official permission. But, that’s only
what I heard.

I fell in with the rest of my comrades and relaxed in the cool shade along the bank
of the stream. Corporal Shaw pulled out a map and met with the Sergeant a small
distance from the rest of the squad. Unlike the stern, blunt Sergeant, Corporal Shaw was
a pale timid boy of twenty. Shaw was not our corporal because he inspired courage in us
nor because he was valiant in battle. He was intelligent it was true, but that was not why
we made him our corporal. Being a noncommissioned officer, he was chosen by the
majority of his men out of trust. If Sergeant Walter was the father of the men, Corporal
Shaw was undoubtedly our mother. His features were softer than most of the other men
save for the young boys. However, his appearance did not make him look more boyish,
instead he reminded me of a young maiden. His smooth hands did not know work, and
his white skin easily reflected the light. He was fair skinned but not to the point of sickly
paleness. Malleable brown hair, falling just above his eyes, danced wildly in the wind
whenever he performed any task quicker than a walk. Dark brown almost black eyes
rested on opposing sides of his rather small nose. His eyes were far from dull but not so
far as to be piercing. Now that I think on it, I’d say Shaw’s eyes were rather receptive.
They displayed a perceptiveness that remained unchallenged. Any man beneath his gaze
immediately relaxed.

The Corporal was our unit’s confidant. On the eve of battle men will so often
come to the realization that they are mortal. Upon this foreboding feeling, they may
write a last letter to their loved ones and typically deposit them into the hands of our
corporal. Nobody ever had the notion that Shaw could be shot much less killed.

While the corporal and sergeant decided on a course of action, I observed the rest
of the men. All nine of them were clean and looked spotless in their fancy union blue.
Ages varied from the seventeen year old Private Thomas Ackers to the twenty-five year
old Private Michael Lent. None seemed frightened in the least; however, all were eager
to be free of the boring camp life and they obviously enjoyed their freedom as a patrol.
Their sole duty to watch for Ol’ Johnny Reb, to take any amount of supplies that a man
could carry back to camp, and to feast on the juicy bright green apples alone managed to
raise morale among the ranks.

Sergeant Walter made his way back to the rest of his squad, with the corporal
following close behind. His loud voice echoed between the trees as he said, “We have
but five hours till dark. I believe another hour of walking before setting back with a
report of the area will do.”

Presently we fell in line and resumed our tiresome march. We didn’t march long
before seeing a house situated on a flat hill to the left. I gathered the sergeant thought it
was a good idea to check it out after saying, “Let’s go ‘round to that farm yonder,” he
pointed, “and check to see what we can scrounge up.” So with wild grins and cheerful
voices, we continued on towards the house to end our patrol and then be on our way
back.

As we neared the house, I could make out a square, white two story Tezcuco
plantation home. The white roof was supported by six large white pillars. Behind the
pillars was a faded yellow-green wall with four large windows with green shutters, a
porch just off the ground, and steps leading up to the door.

An older man around fifty years evidently noticing our Union blue stepped out
onto the porch and yelled at us, “You damn yanks! Get on out o’here! Your kind ain’t
welcome here ‘n’ don’t take another step!”

“Sir we need to search your land and anything on it—I suggest you remove you and your
family from the home,” replied the sergeant as he took out his watch, and turning to us
he ordered, “Corporal take Daniels, Lawrence, Lent, Cunningham, and Martin over
‘round back to check things out. The rest of you into the house and take anything we’d
need.”

Wordlessly we obeyed command and I went to the back with the corporal. There
was a small stable, a shed, and a small cottage with a chimney. Out came three negro
men, two negro woman, and five children. They looked awfully frightened and I walked
over with the corporal to try to console them. “Look here,” I said softly, “We’re union
soldiers, you don’t belong here, come back with us to camp and you’ll be set free.” One
of the negro men turned to a companion and said, “Deys fed’rals! We’re gwyne to git
considable trouble stay’n here, so I’d say we git up en run de resk o’ bein caught agin.”

The negroes talked it over among themselves while Lent came over to report to
the corporal. Just then, we heard shouting coming from the front. “Lent take charge
here, Martin come ‘round front with me,” the corporal ordered. “Yessir,” I replied and
followed him to the front. I heard more shouting and then a gunshot. I had just made it
to the source of the commotion when I saw Ackers lying in front of the steps with Private
Williams bent over him. A boy with a pistol stood in the doorway. He had a crutch
under his left arm and the pistol in his right and wore a tattered confederate uniform.
Sergeant Walter quickly brought his rifle to bear and fired into the boy. His body took
the lead ball momentarily sending him backwards. The crutch collapsed beneath him and
his lifeless body crumpled onto the stairs not a yard from Ackers. A women let out a
scream and began shouting, “Murderers, murderers! You killed him! You killed my son!”
The father and I presume to be the younger son stood next to the mother trying to console
her as she cried. “You Yankee bastards!” he yelled as he turned toward us.

Sergeant Walter bent down next to Williams and inspected Ackers. After
checking his pocket watch, he got up. “The rest of you into the house and get what you
can find. Hurry now!” Sergeant ordered. He then faced us and said, “He’s dead and
gone.”

I looked in disbelief as he said this. Too quickly had his life been stolen and rage
welled up inside me. Nothing but intense hatred could be felt towards enemy. No longer
was the enemy a grey mass of men with unseen faces and unknown identities. Now he
knew the face of the enemy, and now the enemy was every person, every man, every
woman, every child that defied his comrades.

Sternly the sergeant asked, “Shaw what is in the back?”

“A stable with one horse and a couple of negroes but not much else,” replied the
corporal.

“Good take it all back with us.” And turning towards the men clambering out of
the house, he asked, “Is it clear yet? Find anything valuable?”

“Only some silver, a little jewelry, and some food, sir” replied one of the men.
The negroes and men from the back now came as well. After the initial confusion and
anger upon seeing Ackers’ corpse, Sergeant Walter quickly took charge and ordered,
“Everything out? Now set fire to the place! Nothing stands!”

“Yes Sir,” came the all too eager response.

“But sir,” pleaded the corporal, “these people are just civilians—we have no right
to burn their home.”

The sergeant glanced at his watch once more and then looked up at the corporal.
“They opened fire on Union troops, they are criminals, and these are my orders corporal!
Obey them or you will be charged with insubordination,” was the sergeant’s only reply.
“Lent, Martin, and Daniels,” he ordered, “Discharge your weapons into those criminals
o’er there.” Sergeant Walter pointed at the small trembling family with his right hand
while he fondled the revolver in his holster with the left menacingly, angrily.

Today, he will be our fair and rightful justice. Today, we will be his cold, swift
executioners. Today, will see more criminals put down for their evil actions and their
evil intentions.

“Sir, I must protest,” pleaded the corporal, but his begging fell upon deaf ears.
Lent and Daniels slowly took aim at the family, but I held back for a moment. For a brief
second my gaze met that of the corporal’s. In that instant, guilt and shame washed over
my soul. My anger was poisoned and no longer pure. It was a confusion of things and of
emotions whose natures I understood little. From there, my eyes wandered and found the
small boy’s eyes full of fear. Fear of death, fear of the unknown. Among the angry jeers
of my comrades, I felt only pity.

The sergeant held out his watch and before lifting my rifle I too looked at it. I
clearly saw the minute hand pointing at the terrified family, while the hour hand firmly
pointed away, back down the road, past the wonderful scenery, and to safe, boring camp.
3:45, I thought. Next to me the house crackled, and smoke seemed to engulf me. I had
felt confused and undecided, but now something died inside, something that was
obstructing my thought. I felt angry and frustrated. My mind went numb; I felt a painful
pounding inside my head. In my heart and in my mind I knew what was right. As I lifted
my rifle, I felt an iron box creak across my soul. Suddenly, I felt relief. Suddenly, my
guilt, my frustration, my anger was gone, empty. In its place was cold, unfeeling justice.

And then there was a silence.

I lifted my rifle, and my finger eased on the trigger.


I looked down the barrel at the enemy but then felt a sudden chill sweep across
me. More smoke engulfed me as my rifle recoiled. Through the smoke I made out three
silhouettes fall to the ground. Three more people dead.

But I did it.

No.

And then I realized, I didn’t pull the trigger.

They did.

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