It was a remarkable episode in the novel, Gone With the Wind. Scarlett. Melanie and a newborn baby are trying to escape burning Atlanta. Prissy, the vexatious maid, is with them. Rhett Butler, the cynical blockade runner, is driving them in a tiny, rickety wagon. As they pause at the railroad tracks, a silent, marching force emerges from the dark. Silently, meaning no chatter, no singing, they march forward at route step. Route step means they are walking, while maintaining their formation.
All the soldiers were ragged, so ragged, that Margaret Mitchell tells us, there were no distinguishing insignia between officers and enlisted. Other veterans relate that in the latter stages of the war, you could distinguish between an officer and enlisted soldiers by the patches. The officers had just one patch on their trousers. Enlisted soldiers would have two or more. Contrast that with today’s Army, where we never patch our uniforms. If you get a tear, you turn in those trousers and receive a new pair.
On that awful night in burning Atlanta, many of the boys were barefoot. Many had a dirty bandage wrapped around a head or an arm. They walked past Scarlett and Rhett with no word, no looks cast toward the unexpected civilians. The soldiers were too tired, too worn. By this time in the war, they had been fighting for a straight 90 days. Civilians do not appreciate the severe physical stamina required for fighting. Running, crawling for hours at a time. The physical exhaustion compares to running a marathon. Not to mention the emotional toll. Now, this night, the boys in gray and butternut were walking to their next battle position, too tired to glance about, as Atlanta burned.
Rhett pokes fun at the soldiers. He mocks the “Glorious Cause.”
Put Me Down
As the tail end of the column passes their small wagon, a small figure in the dark, hesitates and then stops, his rifle butt dragging on the ground. He is barely taller than his rifle. Scarlett guesses he is 16 years old at the most. The boy stares at the column walking away, unblinking. Scarlett says he looks like he is sleep walking.
The boy’s knees buckle. He falls in the dust. Two soldiers, without a word, walk back to him. The first soldier, with a beard down to his belt, hands his own rifle to a second soldier. He then hands the boy’s rifle to the second soldier. Then the bearded soldier picks up the boy, slings him over his shoulder. Still no word is spoken. The two soldiers start walking toward the column. The boy, now awake, screams, “Put me down, damn you! I can walk!” Silently, the two soldiers just plod on around the bend.
Margaret Mitchell was very talented. But, she could not have made up this story. It has the ring of truth. The soldiers communicate wordlessly, like family. Because, they are family. They know each other so well that they know the boy may tire. They know what he will say. But, they are too tired to talk. Communication requires too much effort. They just plod on. They will talk later.
In the book, soon afterward, the cynical Rhett Butler decides he will join the army. The same army he has been mocking for the prior three years. Seeing that selfless devotion aroused guilt even in the most selfish. Ms. Mitchell was describing the Army of Tennessee.
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York: Scribner 2011), p. 369-370.