The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Guest Of Honor

By Wm. Axley Allen © 1985

Issue: January, 1985

"Well now, it's quite an honor for me to be asked to speak to you all here today on the anniversary of the battle that was fought here between the blue and the gray. I suppose the greatest honor bestowed upon me though, was the good Lord seeing fit to keep me around long enough to make me the last known living survivor of the hell that took place on this ground 70 years ago today."

"The committee in charge of these here activities told me I was to be the guest of honor today, but I told 'em I'd settle for the right to tell you folks of the honor I saw here 70 years ago. It was a bad time when family was killing family, amid the smoke and roar of cannon barrel loads of grape shot. It was a confusing time when boys were scattered over these fields moaning and dying while they watched their brothers die and prayed for death themselves. There were deeds of daring and courage performed here that only those who witnessed them could ever understand or 'preciate. But those acts of violence by men against their brothers, no matter how brave and noble the cause, are not the acts which brought honor to this place, not in my eyes at least."

"I was a lad barely 17 years old the day this battle was fought and to tell you the truth, I was scared to death the morning it began. By noon the dead and dying were covering the very ground where you folks are standing. They lay so thick you could barely see the ground. The barrel of my rifle was white hot and the tree I was hiding behind contained more lead than wood."

"Then along about 4:00 in the afternoon, a silence descended over this place that was broken only by the moans and crying of those who lay wounded and dying across this field. They were Confederate and Yank alike laying side by side awaiting their final night."

"The Yanks had taken up position in the woods on that side of the field over yonder and us Rebs were along the edge of the woods over here. The tree I was behind was no more'n 14 inches through then but today it's this huge old oak that's providing the shade for this speaker's stand I'm standing on."

"The officers, Yank and Reb alike, had given orders that the wounded couldn't be helped til after dark for fear of losing more men to snipers and it seemed as if the cease fire was a lull that lasted for eternity as we waited to help those laying on the field. It was all that was on my mind and most of the men I knew, I can vouch for that. Then I noticed that those wounded men on the field were reaching to help each other. Canteens were being passed from Rebel lips to Union lips and all of a sudden, side didn't make much difference. The wounded were helping those laying beside them whether they were gray or blue. Men and boys that hours before were trying to kill each other were now trying to bring comfort to fellow human beings."

"One of our boys that was hurt real bad, couldn't a been over 17, was crying for a drink of water and the Yank next to 'em didn't have a canteen. The Yank managed to crawl over to one of the dead and find a canteen that he could give our boy a drink from but there was only a drop or two in it and the boy's thirst wasn't quenched."

"The Yank put the empty canteen under the Reb's head to comfort him some, but the boy needed a Doc if he was going to live till dark."

"Now I don't know to this day how a man wounded as bad as the Yank could do it, but he managed to pick up the Reb and carry him over to our line near my tree. It was a slow 50 yards for the Yank, and it looked to me like he was going to fall with each step he took, but somehow, he managed to get that boy to safety. Johnny Fitzsimmons was laying over there to my right and me and him both broke cover to help the Yank the last few yards. The Yank was a big man and from the looks of 'im, he'd spent a lot more time plowing than fighting in his lifetime. He handed the boy to Johnny and I tried to catch the Yank before he fell, but he was more'n I could carry. I did manage to help 'im down easy though, and I sat beside 'im while he died. We didn't say a word, but the look in his eye was more meaningful than all the words in the world; he had tried to bring some comfort to a dying boy and he was glad the killing was over for him."

"As that Yank died in my arms right here on this exact spot, I cried for him and for the boy and for the rest of us that were caught up in the insanity of war.”

"I cried while I scraped out a grave with my bayonet and my hands here beneath this old oak tree and I cried as I rolled a good man's body into the cold earth of this battlefield. Tears ran down my cheeks like a river for a man that only hours before I'd been trying to kill and I made up my mind then that just because the world had gone crazy weren't no cause for me to go crazy too. I laid my rifle in the grave beside him, and along with that Yank, I buried all the killing I'd ever do."

"Now the celebration that's taking place here today is more like a county fair, with your mock battles and dress uniforms, and it's a long way from what ought to be our purpose for gathering here today, 70 years after so much death and destruction. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the organizing committee starting to squirm a little, wondering where an old man's words are leading, but ladies and gentlemen, you can rest easy the worst is over. I've about finished my say."

"When I left this battlefield 70 years ago, I still had the dirt from the Yank's grave on my hands and his blood hadn't yet dried from my arms and clothing. I said a prayer for the good men like him the world over and I rose up off my knees and walked home. I didn't look back till this day and I never fought another battle. Some folks would say I deserted, but that's all right. I've lived with myself these last 70 years knowing I walked away from a battle to join the ranks of reason. Now you folks that have come here today to celebrate, don't let my recollections hold you back, but instead of celebrating and commemorating a place where men killed one another, celebrate the fact that here among the hell of a battle men rallied to help one another regardless of side or cause. They found compassion for one another. That was the honor of them and this place 70 years ago today. Thank you ladies and gentlemen for hearing me out."