1863 Boy Among Men

Holden McElroy, guest writer


June 29, 1863. “Wake up, McKinley!” One of the company generals screamed while I struggled to open my eyes. The train smelled like fear with thousands of men playing out the possible scenarios that could happen in Gettysburg. I sat in my chair with nothing but a faint memory of my dream to ponder on.

I was back home in New York where the air was thick and the people were mean. I thought of a time where racism was over and an emancipation proclamation didn’t exist. A time where men like Jefferson Davis and Lincoln didn’t haven’t many differences but rather similarities. Reality hit me hard as I woke up and remembered what a horrifying world I live in. America wasn’t at peace and hadn’t been in a long time.  There were hundreds of skirmishes this year before now and the Northern states had nothing but hope and Lincoln to cling too. Many people lost faith in the idea of a perfect America and had become used too the thought of two separate countries that would always be engulfed in war.

I reached up to grab my backpack when I heard someone scream from the back of the train “I’m ready to kill some confederate bastards!”There are two types of men in war, I thought to myself, while I struggled to stretch with barely enough room to breath, their are the ones who show fear and then there are the ones who are good at hiding it, the men in the back have the appearance of warriors, yet on inside they are no better off then the women they left at home. I, on the other hand, choose to keep quite, while trying to disguise the horror and panic that wants to stretch across my face.

We stood up and started to make our way off the train, every man pushing back and forth trying to just get their first refreshing breath of fresh air in days, or the relaxing tingle of the sun beating down on their skin. I turned to my right to just get a glimpse of a group of men praying before exiting the train, “What fools believe in God when there is such horrific evil as war in the world?”


June 30, 1863. I sat on a half—decayed tree stump around a fire so puny that it could barely make my soup warm. Accompanying me were my two newly acquired buddies who enlisted with me: Rick and Will. I was put with these men as a responsibility, each of us would have to check and make sure we made it back to the tent each night, in one piece preferably.

Rick was a small man about thirty five years old with such a gruff appearance that only a mother could love; he had white hair that stretched around the sides of his head and a beard so patchy it was a wonder why he didn’t shave it. His mouth was so rotten that the teeth he did have looked like small pieces of gum that he’d been chewing on for years now.

Will was in his mid twenties and stood 6’4 and weighed 155lbs soaking wet; he had such a soft face that he could be mistaken as a teenager; his hands were long and clammy, and his whole body was so lanky that he looked like a living skeleton.

We sat in silence with nothing but the sound of crickets and the slurping of soup to break the awkward quietness between us, until Rick spoke up.

“Charles, why do you not say grace before you eat?”

I stared at him with a puzzled face not knowing what to reply, “Well, uh, it’s because I don’t believe a God exists, Rick.”

Will and Rick stared at me with a startled face, flabbergasted at the fact that I was an atheist. Will looked at me straight in the eyes and said something that I’d never forget, “You will!”



July 1, 1863. The Army of the Potomac stood over 100,000 strong. I stood in the 3rd row back of one of the first groups to march forward. I was so nervous my legs could barely hold me up while my hands were shaking so bad that I felt like my rifle could go off. To my left was Rick and on my right was Will. Both men had a sense of peace that surrounded them while they stared death in the face. My body slowly started to fall apart as my nerves got the best of me, my eyes became moist, my skin started to crawl, and I lost breath while I stared into the eyes of the men my country used to be united with. “Fire!” General Meade yelled behind the Potomac.

Boom! The sound of gunfire rang out. The sound of war was silenced while my ears started to bleed. I was so distracted by the gunfire from the Potomac men that I forgot what came next. I heard the faint noise of Confederate fire. Cries filled the air while bullets whizzed past my body. Blood sprayed my face while the man in front of me fell to the ground. Men who were thirsty for the blood of our enemies hours ago were on the ground screaming for their mothers to save them.

Will grabbed me by my arm and screamed into my face, “Fight or die!”

I grabbed my rifle and pointed it at the enemy, my sights not on a single man but directly in the middle of a group of Confederates. I pulled the trigger and felt my gun force itself against my shoulder.

Without even looking to the right I could feel that my side was open and bare without protection. I looked down to see Will laying on the ground with a lifeless stare fixed toward the sky. I dropped to my knees shaking him to wake up and yelling for him to come back, “Will! Wake up! Wake up!” Tears filled my eyes as reality set in, it was no longer the enemy I was worried about, but rather the death of a friend.


July 2, 1863. Rick and I woke up to the sound of silence. An erie presence surrounded the camp as we were missing 1,000 of our brothers. There was no talk of the dead since it was in the past. Our minds were set on one thing and one thing only—staying alive. Rick and I shared faint glimpses of eye contact; we didn’t have to talk to know what we were thinking about. My mind was no longer set on how frightened I’d be in battle but on winning this battle, not only for Will, but for the other men who died for the Union.


I faced off against the enemy once again at Cemetery Ridge. I stared into the face of death yesterday and survived. As far as I was concerned, this was just another day closer to the end of this hellish war. Rick and I were on the front row of the first group of men to fire against the confederates; there was little to no hope that we’d survive, but hope is what I’d been living on through this war. I raised my rifle and shot my first round along with the men beside me. Each shot became more ear piecing than the other.


There had been non—stop gunfire blaring for the past two hours. Layers of bodies coated the ground. Rick and I pushed forward as the Confederates numbers started to dwindle. Fire, reload, repeat were the words running through my head over and over. Out of nowhere to my right a bullet grazed past Rick hitting me straight in my side. “Help!”I screamed as pain shot throughout my body. Rick turned around to help me when a shot pierced his neck causing him to collapse. I sat in the dirt covered in blood and sweat with my friend beside me trying to hold on to his neck to make the bleeding cease. I turned my head to just see the last glimpse of life leave Ricks eyes as he gripped his golden crucifix around his neck. I tried to stand up but collapsed because of loss of blood and exhaustion.


I woke up to the sound of medics running on the now silent battlefield trying to help the injured and clear bodies. I looked at Rick and opened his hand to see the crucifix sitting there with not a speck of blood, dirt, or rust covering it. I knew I had minimal time left as every breathe felt more and more like a weight was being pressed on my chest. I remembered the words Rick said to me about being a follower of Christ and the courage and hope both men had from their belief in God. I was completely wrong the whole time about Christians and their faith. War didn’t show how God was fiction but proved how he was real. Evil—like war in this world— shows how God has something for us, something better than this earth, something heavenly. I gripped the crucifix, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and with the last couple ounces of energy in my body, I prayed to God.

“Lord, forgive me for I have sinned, I have lived a sinful life without your presence and regret every second of it. Lead me now from temptation and deliver your servant from evil, Amen.”


July 3, 1863.  General Meade’s journal. Today, the Union successfully drove out the confederates from Pennsylvania and back into Virginia, “Defeating General Lee and the Army of the Norther Virginia” (History). The Union states should find hope and cling to it in this victory, for I pray that it comes to an end soon. America and its states have been separated for far too long and I believe they’ll be reunited once again. The battle of Gettysburg, “often described as the war’s turning point, was the most horrendous battle this world will ever see” (Ward). I commanded the  Army of the Potomac that stood over “100,000 strong at the beginning of the battle of Gettysburg” (The). By the end of the three days, the army of the Potomac had “3,000 men killed, 14,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured or missing” (Civil). On the third and final day of the battle, we attacked on cemetery ridge which is known as Pickett’s Charge, “The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great loss to the Confederate army” (History). On July 3, 1863 General Lee and his army retreated back to Virginia from Gettysburg, leaving the union army of the Potomac victorious.

Works Cited

Ward, Geoffrey C., Ken Burns, Ric Burns, and Don E. Fehrenbacher. The Civil War: an                           illustrated History.


“Civil War Battles.” HistoryNet. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

History.com Staff. “American Civil War History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009.            Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

The History Place – U.S. Civil War 1861-1865. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

“This Day in the Civil War.” Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.