This tale is based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce who served in the Union Army as it fought its way through Tennessee and Georgia in 1864. I followed the theme and story line of Major Bierce’s story, but I rewrote it in my own words to make it shorter and more compact. In doing this, I hope I have kept the flavor of Ambrose’s original short story.
Killed at Resaca – Based on a Short Story by Ambrose Bierce
General Sherman and I were going over terrain maps of near Resaca in northwest Georgia on the morning of May 12, 1864 when a handsome young cavalry officer rode up, saluted me and asked where he might find General Sherman. The general was dressed in a well-worn uniform not bearing the stars that would have identified him as Lieutenant General and was not offended that the young cavalry officer did not recognize him. The general looked up and said in a casual voice:
“I’m General Sherman, Lieutenant; what can I do for you?”
The lieutenant saluted sharply and said:
“I Beg your pardon, General, I’m Lieutenant McMartin; I asked for a transfer to your command and was told to report to you.”
The young officer was a handsome, well-built young man with deep-blue eyes and a head of long blonde hair, the picture of youth and energy.
General Sherman said, “why do you wish to serve in my command, Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant said, “because, sir, I hear you are a fighting general, and I want to be at the point of attack as your army moves on Atlanta.”
The general said: “Good enough reason for me, Lieutenant”, and turning to me said,” Major Mason, can you take care of the Lieutenant’s records and see he gets checked in?”
I said, “Yes sir, General, right away.”
That was mid-morning, and by mid-afternoon the young Lieutenant had joined the cavalry troop he was assigned to lead. When informed that a dozen or so Confederates had been seen lurking nearby in the woods, the Lieutenant spurred his horse and rode straight for where they had been spotted. His charge was so sudden and dashing that his troopers just stood by and watched in curiosity. The confederates were able to get in only a shot or two before they turned and high-tailed it back toward the Confederate encampment.
The next day Confederate forces under the command of General Joseph Johnston attacked the union line at the point where Lieutenant McMartin’s troop was deployed. The Lieutenant led his cavalry troopers into the Confederate line, opening a wide gap through which Union foot soldiers poured, but the Confederates counter attacked and drove the union forces back to their original line. There was hard fighting that afternoon, and when darkness stopped the fighting, two regiments from each army faced each other across a large open field that had been burned over several years ago.
Lieutenant McMartin was up early the next morning and after breakfast rode to a point half-way between the two armies and began riding along a line parallel to the two armies. I surmised that he was in musket range of the Confederates, but no one fired a shot. He turned about and rode hard back along the same line holding a flag and his long blond hair flying in the wind. He repeated this maneuver three times while soldiers from both armies cheered and waved their caps. It was a salute of honor to one of the bravest men I ever knew. His audacious show of honor and courage made me suspect that he wished to draw fire, but for what purpose?
My suspicion was confirmed when the Lieutenant drew his saber and rode straight at the Confederate line. Dozens of muskets went off in one ear-busting sound, and I could see the Lieutenant’s jerk as dozens of mini balls ripped into it. Still, he rode on and stayed in the saddle almost to the Confederate line, before he and his horse fell in a heap within a few feet of Confederate soldiers who had only recently cheered his courage. Soldiers from both armies stood at attention while this brave young soldier’s body was carried back to the Union line.
It fell to me to write a letter to the Lieutenant’s closest kin and to send them his personal belongings, but I kept a letter that was in the Lieutenant’s wallet that was from his bride-to-be. In the letter the writer mentioned that an officer she knew was on leave recently and that he had told her he saw the Lieutenant at the battle of Shiloh.
She wrote: “He said he saw you cowering in a ditch during the heat of the battle. I love you, my dearest darling, but I cannot stand the thought of being married to a coward.”
After the war ended, I was reassigned to a unit in Washington until I was discharged in early November 1865. On my way back to my home in Michigan, I looked up the address of the letter’s sender. The house was in an affluent neighborhood in a small town in Southern Ohio, and the lady who came to the door was a portrait of female beauty. She and Lieutenant McMartin would have been the envy of every social gathering far and wide, and their children would most surely have been handsome.
I told the lady who I was and that I had come to tell her how the Lieutenant had died. She invited me in and led me to the parlor where she stopped in front of a large fireplace. She turned and looked at me, and I saw what I perceived to be child-like anticipation on her face. I tried to hand her the envelope that held the letter I had found in the Lieutenant’s wallet. When she reached for the envelope and saw it had blood on it, she fainted and fell into my arms, causing the letter to fall into the fireplace, which was ablaze. I could hardly hold back my anger as I watched the flames consume the most precious blood that was ever spilled on a battlefield. I managed to get the lady into a chair, and when she gained her composure, she looked into my eyes and said, “sir, please tell me how my darling Lieutenant died.”
I looked into that lovely face where I saw the twinkle of anticipation in her eyes and the cold casual cruelty in the curve of her mouth, and said, “he was bitten by a rattlesnake.”
She fell back into a chair, sobbing, and I walked out, leaving her alone in her despair.