The Battle of Olustee: A Tale of the United States Civil War, Part IV

Henry woke up to the smell of dirt and pine needles, his face partially buried in a mixture of both. Slowly, consciousness crept back, and he became aware of a sharp, throbbing pain in his head. He suddenly remembered the battle and jumped to his feet. His eyes revolted at the sudden movement by releasing a swarm of small, angry lights that left him both dizzy and nauseated. He tried to take a step, but was unable to find his footing and fell backwards again onto the carpet of pine needles. This time he stayed there.

“Are you alright?”

The deep, unfamiliar voice sounded as though in came traveling down from a long tunnel. Henry stirred on the ground, still feeling the effects of the dizziness.

That voice came again, “Hey! Are you alright?”

This time, When Henry opened up his eyes, he was startled to find a large black man leaning over him. Everything about him was big, even his face, which was beaded in sweat; large drops of it forming across his forehead and dripping down his cheeks onto his chin. Henry noticed the man’s Union jacket and could see that the left shoulder of the uniform was covered in blood. Henry couldn’t move or speak. He lay there motionless, expecting the worst. Then, he spotted his rifle lying on the ground a few feet away.

Following his eyes the dark stranger said, “You don’t need the gun. I ain’t gonna hurt you.”

Though trembling with fear, Henry spoke bravely, “Why don’t you go ahead and kill me?”

The man pulled his big face closer to Henry’s and said, “If I wanted you to die, I would have let you fall into those rocks. Besides, I seen enough killin’ today.” With much difficulty, he sat down on the ground across from Henry.

Henry’s head was still spinning slightly, but he was slowly regaining his senses. He propped himself up on one arm to watch the man, surprised by what he had just heard. “You…kept me from hitting the rocks? Why?”

“Because you could have been killed!”

“But we’re at war!”

“I told you, I seen enough killin’ today.”

The answer wasn’t what Henry expected, but in a peculiar way he understood. Why were they trying to kill one another, anyway? Because they had different skin colors? He thought about the war, and tried to remember why it had even begun. When it first started, everything seemed so clear, but now the reasons seemed blurred and unimportant. A big part of him wanted it to be over so he could go home to his family.

Henry looked out onto the battlefield. From where they sat, he could see hundreds of dead soldiers, many so badly shot up that they were horrifically disfigured. Cannon balls had ripped through the trees, and large branches were scattered about, some still giving off wisps of gray smoke. A heavy thump caught his attention, and he looked toward the other man. He was lying on his back and there was a large blood stain on his trousers just above his left knee. It was clear that he was badly injured, and Henry thought about the gun. He could easily reach it and finish the man off, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he said to him, “What’s your name?”

The man sat up painfully, and said, “James.”

A movement caught Henry’s eye. Their position in the woods wasn’t too far from the railroad tracks, and through the trees, he saw three men walking down the tracks toward them. From the jubilant sounds of their voices, he realized it would be the first of the Confederate troops on their way back from the chase. A decision had to be made quickly. James was badly wounded, and it would be easy to jump and run to the other men. But Henry couldn’t escape the fact that the man had saved his life. James heard the voices, too, and an uneasy look came over his face. Henry could think of only one thing to do. He whispered, “You got to hide.”

There was a large patch of palmetto bushes nearby, and Henry motioned toward them. He went in first and helped James crawl across the rough trunks and through the noisy fronds to the center of the largest bush. It didn’t offer a lot of cover, but at least it was on the outer edge of the battlefield. He looked at James; his huge body twisted to fit in the tight area and said, “Stay here. I’ll be back soon.” Then he turned and exited the makeshift hideout.

James whispered out, “Wait! I don’t know your name.”

Without slowing down to look back he answered, “Henry.”

By now, the other men were drawing closer, and one of them heard the noise coming in the bushes. He pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and yelled, “Who goes there?”
Henry called out, “Don’t shoot! I’m on your side.” Then, in order to keep them away from James he rubbed his stomach and said, “I wouldn’t go that way if I were you. Breakfast didn’t set well.” The three soldiers laughed, the one lowering the gun, and they walked on.

It didn’t take long before more men filtered back in, filling the woods with Confederate soldiers. Henry tried not to draw attention to himself or run into anyone from his company. He listened closely to the conversations around him, trying to learn what direction the Union troops were headed.

When dusk finally started to settle in, Henry breathed a sigh of relief as the troops started lining up to head back to Olustee Station. He managed to gather some supplies and creep into the woods without being noticed. The air was turning cold when he came back to the palmetto bushes. He called out quietly as he drew near, “James, are you still here?”

A deep voice answered back, “Yes.”

Henry made his way through palmetto bushes as quietly as possible. It was almost eight o’clock, and the crescent moon barely gave off enough light to see by. He crouched in front of James and handed him a canteen and a few pieces of salt pork. James took the food and water greedily and ate and drank as Henry laid out the plan, “After you finish eating, we’re going to crawl out of these bushes. When I’m sure it’s clear, I’m going to help you down to the railroad tracks. From there, we’re going to walk along the tracks at the edge of the trees until we find your camp.”

James responded with a pained look on his face, “I don’t know if I can make it. I’m hurt pretty bad.”

Henry assured him, “Yes you can. I’ll help you.”

After a few seconds of silence, James asked solemnly, “Why are you doing this?”

Henry’s answer was hesitant, but sure, “I owe you for saving my life, and I always pay my debts.”

The pain in James’s leg and shoulder was starting to get worse, and he knew he could never make it back to the camp alone. After a moment, he answered with a simple, “Okay”.

They sat quietly as James finished his meal. When he was done, they crawled out of the palmetto bushes, and Henry said, “If you need to, put your weight on my shoulder.”

Then, with the battlefield to their backs, the two men slipped out into the darkness.


Editors’ Note: This short fiction was in four parts, and author Tom Hames gave us this background information, which was so interesting we decided to print it along with his work:

Henry Shaw was my great-great-grandfather. His biography starts out, “A short history of my life written April 27th, 1927, for my children and grandchildren.” In it, he writes of his service during the Civil War, and makes a very short mention of the Battle of Olustee, which sparked my interest in the battle, so I began to research it. I found out that his company had been positioned directly across from the “8th Colored” during the battle, which meant that he had to fight against them. Armed with this information, I proceeded to create my story, using as much of Henry’s character as I knew.

James Lyons, however, is a completely fictional character, though I did get his name from another great-great-great grandfather who served in the Civil War. He was from Florida, but enlisted in the Union Army. In order to keep from embarrassing his family over his choice of sides, he enlisted under the alias ‘George Lyons’. I’d thought about creating a story where these two meet in battle, but changed my mind to go with the racial aspect instead. Still, it made me think that if one of them had killed the other, then I might not be here today. The photo above is of the real Henry Shaw, and his wife, many years after the American Civil War.

Last 5 posts by Tom Hames

Last 5 posts by Tom Hames