Most soldiers’ enthusiasm for the Cause had run out along with their original enlistment contracts. After all the ‘reorganizing’ back at Corinth, Mississippi, and the harsh discipline since, soldiers were sick of war and of the Southern Confederacy. After shooting men by scores for desertion, it was no wonder the army needed reorganizing.
A breath of wind stirred from the east, and Watkins inhaled the fresh scent of rain. The terrain hid all but the most immediate weather from a man in this rolling country with its tall, close hickories and pines, but now the trees rustled and sighed in anticipation.
Soldiers like Watkins had enlisted for twelve months, and had done their duty faithfully. But since the Confederate Congress passed the Conscript Act, a soldier became nothing more than a machine. March, dig, load, shoot, fight, march, etcetera, with no end in sight.
Watkins looked skyward at the prospect of a cool shower but saw only turkey vultures in the distance. Above the oak, a pair of mockingbirds were driving away a crow. He gathered his gear, put his hat on, and walked down the little knoll.
The law that really gave conscripts the blues, passed on the heels of the Conscript Act, said any man who owned twenty negroes could go home. The saying, “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” echoed around every campfire. All the original First Tennessee Regiment officers from Maury county had resigned. They could resign. They were officers. The Glory of the South, the war, and the pride of volunteers had no more charm for the conscript.
Yesterday, Private Elias Wright of General Marcus J. Wright’s Brigade, the general’s own nephew, had taken it upon himself to make a point. He emerged from his dog tent one morning announcing to all within earshot that his enlistment was up, and he intended to start his journey home that very day to Purdy, Tennessee. Everyone had laughed and gone about fixing their bacon and Johnny cake.
The wagon driver had set up the water barrel on the back of the wagon, and the Corporal Gordon waited his turn while the other two men of their detail drank. Watkins tossed the spade into the wagon beside the still-seated Private Wright and got in line. Wright hid beneath his hat, picking at his fingers.
The story on Wright was, he was a connected man who could have had a lieutenant’s commission, but enlisted instead to rise up the ranks on his own merit. Watkins had always liked that story. Fair-haired, handsome, and educated, Wright was a fool in Watkins’ book, but an admirable one.
Wright had started walking after breakfast that day, while the rest of the outfit pulled up stakes and prepared to march. Nobody else could have done it, but Wright got out of camp. A couple of picket sentries arrested Wright and, recognizing him, returned him to his uncle’s headquarters before the breakfast grease had set in the skillets.
This was all a by-play, of course. There would be a pardon. The execution would be faked, their little detail would sworn to secrecy, maybe somebody else buried here. No shackles. No Home Guard overseeing the detail. A man could afford to be a fool with the cards stacked for him like that.
The Confederacy had a proud history of corruption and nepotism. Maybe the general would send his nephew down to Old Mexico to wait out the war. The way things were going for the southern states, he wouldn’t have to be abroad long enough to learn the lingo.