The Ballad of Josh Henry
by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
To my folks, July 1861
Ma and Pa,
I take up pen in hand to rite. First I want to sure you that I am well. As we thought they would, them Yankees fled before our guns. I am proud to have served in the first stand-up fite of this war. We sure made McDowell howl, oh did we.
After the battle we marched for three full days going back and forth expecting trouble every day but then things cooled a bit and we made camp. You were wrong to think Josh Henry would be a hindrance to me. Every time we marched north he almost couldn’t wait to get there. He marched as hard as any man in the regiment.
I had a touch of fever but Josh Henry stepped up and did all he could. Many men in our regiment has brought slaves but none as helpful as my good childhood friend Josh Henry.
You know, Pa, there are many many tasks out here besides just fighting the enemy. There are trenches to be dug and uniforms to wash and iron and there are water fetched and other tasks besides planning and such.
Like I said... I had a touch of fever on Thursday and took to bed and Josh made me some real hot tea and got me some blankets and oh how did he pile them on. He said Ma told him about the best way to bust up a fever. He did just like you said Ma... kept me warm and alternated that with brisk walks outdoors when he dipped me most naked-like in a real cold stream and then he dragged me back to bed and put me under them covers good and wet like your advise. I couldn’t even move ’cept shiver so he kept draggin me out agin and agin.
The dedication of this good man... staying up all night and taking me outside every time the hour bell rang up for my medical treatment a-plunging me deep up to my chin and a-workin me like a bad mucked shirt and then a-fishin’ me out oncet more. He must love our dear family to take such care of one of its least sons.
I’m not alone nor am I skard.
Your son, John
Ma and Pa how are you? I was sorry to hear about Aunt Ida. I know she meant a lot to you Ma. As you know we are now close up to the river and we may bite into Maryland agin soon. It will feel good to take this war up north.
I wanted to tell you about a little adventure we had in camp. I was playing cards one late evening (not for money Ma) and up came a lot of my mates with Josh Henry hard in tow. They had rope about his neck. They said he was carrying my rifle which it was plain to see was true as they had my rifle with them.
They said they seen Josh with my rifle nested in the crook of a tree and he was leaning all his weight on the stock like he’d been trying to break ‘er. Now for one thing carrying of guns is not allowed by just anyone, so Josh didn’t have no right touching my rifle, but when he explained how he thought my rifle was slightly bent and he was trying to fix it then I took my eye and sighted along that spine and ol’ Josh was right. It was bent!
“I just wanted you to kill more Yanks.” he said with his head all down and his feet scuffing each other. And we all laughed and moved that rope we even let ol’ Josh have a cup of hard cider which most about made up for our being hard on my ol’ friend. I’m glad he’s here Ma. He’s looking out for me. It was a good day when we bought him, for sure.
See... even in camp we have some diversions.
Your son, John
We took a big loss. You probably heard that we’re back across the river. We’re on the defensive for a while. Ma and Pa plees don’t think less of our men because of this. The Federals just have too many guns and too many supplies and too much of everything. Some of our men don’t even have no shoes. It’s getting very hard.
We’ve been digging trenches for defence. It is hard to sit behind a trench and simple wait. We wait all day for the enemy to attack and we are ready to repulse them. Faithful Josh Henry has gone out almost every night and he’s been takin’ a shovel with him and a pick. He comes back every sunup muddy and exhausted.
Today he finally showed me what he’s been doing. You’d be so proud of him were you here. He has dug me a very deep fortress all of mine own. He’s lined the floor with fence rails and he’s put a very big window-sized loophole right in the front with a sandbag for me to prop my rifle on.
I do see a small drawback however. The hole he dug me is about thirty feet in front of the other works. He said it’s so I can have a good field of fire and won’t be disturbed by them other men if they can’t do their work like soldeers.
Pa, do you know what an abatest is? Ma do you know what an abatest is? I’m gonna teach you some soldier work here Ma. It’s a big log with lots of spikes sticking out. Like a mile-long bristle pig or a tree without no leaves sitting on its side. Good ol’ JH has about thirty of them out in front of my new nest. Off to the right there’s fifteen trees down and all in a straight line and all angled off to the right that way. And on the left there’s fifteen more same way.
Pa, if you stretch your arms wide and started walkin’ at Ma like you was goin to hug her that’s about the angle them trees make. I asked Josh what was to happen if we got charged and he said them trees would natural funnel them Yanks right onto my gun and I could see how he was right. If we had men as bright as Josh Henry in command I do believe this war would be over by now. I can’t wait to see if he’s right.
Waiting for the Yanks.
Your son, John
Ma and Pa them Yanks came on jus like we planned. In no minutes at all about two thousand were up and running right at me! I was loading and firing as quick as a grease fire near a chicken coup and them Yanks bunched up and poured right at me like a cider barrel turned over to my own sweet direction and I knew myself as ‘bout almost dead.
I pulled my gun up one last time and fired and damned — Pa, don’t read that part aloud — if a hundred blue soldiers din’t fall near at my feet and I was — Pa, here come another one — almost damned def and has all the hair singed off the right side of my head. My ear most melted.
But can you guess what happened Pa? The men behind me had pulled a cannon right up next to my right shoulder and they fired it at just the same time when I aimed my bent Sharps rifle so I still cant hear good but them Yanks all lay down or run off. General said he wanted to see the man who was brave enough to sit down in the neck of that work and I’m to see him tomorrow after roll call.
Each day gets better and better.
Your son, John
You are now receiving letters from an officer by which I means me. The general was a nice man from Louisiana and he knows Uncle Littleman ‘cause they do business at the same store. All at the end he gave me what he called a field promotion. Seems we been losing officers quick and he said he needed a man like me who leads other men.
He pointed out my plan what led to a good battle and he pointed out my burned ear and he made a joke about my hair. Pa, can you guess who smiled the most at my news when I got back to my tent? Josh was so happy I was premoted and he smiled so hard there were tears comin up in his eyes.
Ma, did you know Josh can so? He burned up a candle and sat up all night and he soed me one of the finest garments you ever did saw. Its white. Bright as the cloud that the sun finds out its own back yard every once in a while midday. Yo’d not believe how white it is.
And there’s a great pink sash that lays over my shirt and under my coat a peekin’ out like a cat past a barn door. I thought the sash too much till Josh remembered me how some of those Washington generals wore sashs. Even that best general himself wore a sash which I’ve seen in pictures myself.
Ma, are you ready to hear some more army terminations? The uniform he made had some of the biggest eupullets you ever saw. Pa tell Ma what that is. That’s them big slacks of wood on an officers shoulders. Well Pa, the ones on my coat are ‘bout ten pounds each. The buttons on my new coat are all goldlike! Better than that coat what Joseph wore in the Bible. Ma I shine like the top of the Chrysler building!
An officer and a gentleman.
Your son, John
Well I been captured. Funny story bout how it happened to. Well this time I got mad at Josh a little and it goes to show why Negros shall never be part of a army. I was up near the wagons as they most keep the wagons back past the creek to keep people wandering off with vittles.
Sudden out from behind us came some Federals like they was lost but there were enough of them that they must of had a plan and they were firing and I was within so close I could see the buttonholes on their shirts.
They looked started to see me. A few even laughed at my attire. One said they’d met Pope but he says it like a joke ‘cause Pope is that general and he is also that guy in Rome. Then I reached into my leather pouch for something to load in my gun and all was there was a note from Josh. It says...
WINT TO GIT YOU SUM OFFSIR BOLLITS.
CANT HAVE YOU UZIN OLD LISTED MENS BOLLITS.
ILL BE BACK IN A MINUT
That’s what it said, Ma.
Ma, did you know Josh Henry could do cart-wheels and back jumps? A minute after me was surrounded Josh Henry came from the woods and he went into mediate action dancing and doin wild moves. I never seen him do so much.
I do know what was in his mind. He was tempting to distract them Yanks that were holding me but there wast too many of them and it didn’t work and as desperate as he was he grabbed up a pistol from one of them northern basterds and he rushed at me with it shoutin’ “I gots sumpin for ye yes I do!” he screamed. I think so as he could put it in my hand but them Blue bellies tripped him up and dragged him away.
I hate what this war hast done to us. I hate brother fighting brother and our land torn sunder but most as how I hate that it has torn me from Josh Henry who was like a brother to me since when I was little.
How I’ll miss the way he used to fetch me water and tend my horse and polish that leather saddle wes got when we traded his sister off to Deke Janfield six years ago. I may be a while getting home. If Josh gets there first have him clear that bottom sixty acres. That’ll keep him busy and out of mischief. You know he ain’t got sense God gave a goat. You know how idle he gets off on his own.
Your son, officer John
Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith