Cold Harbor: June 3, 1864
My grandfather’s grandfather died at one a.m.,
eight hours (the army letter says) after a minie ball
entered behind his left ear and ranged up,
and four hours (the letter does not mention this)
before seven thousand Union soldiers were killed
in seven minutes. He had, we know, seen oak trees felled
by musket-fire, but nothing like what he’d have witnessed
had he lived those few more hours: blue coats
emerging from the cool foreshadows of dawn,
wearing the faces of men trying only to die
as men. Pinned to each back: a name and address
on a fresh slip of paper. By the order to fire,
they had come so close he would have seen the breaths
of dust, at impact, fogging out of their uniforms.
A few more days, and he might have stuffed
his nostrils (many survivors did) with green leaves,
as the entrenched living, awaiting further orders,
stared at each other across the ripening field of dead.
“Cold Harbor: June 3, 1864” first appeared in Sewanee Review, fall 2000 (vol. 108, no. 4).