I wrote this story in high school, just dug it up on my hard drive and thought I’d post it here. I think the assignment was to base the story on a picture, and I’m pretty sure that this is the photo I used but I’m not 100%. Hope you like it!
Birds sang over the farmlands around Sharpsburg. Wind rustled the leaves of the trees, and a deer leaped through the grass, startled by the scent of man. The Honorary Captain Alexander Gardner sat not twelve yards away, and the deer veered away from him, and bounded into the trees. Gardner drew a shuddering breath. This far away from the camp, away from the gibbering horror of the surgeon’s tent, one could close their eyes and imagine that nothing had happened on this tiny rural plot, that nothing had changed. The sounds, the gentle September breeze, all reminded him of his home in Scotland. The deep russets of the lowland trees, the rich, mahogany scent of his jeweler’s workshop in Paisley, each called out to Gardner as he sat amongst the grey coated dead.
Peace was elusive in an army headquarters, and nearly nonexistent after a battle. In his darkroom, where the scents of silver halide and wetting agent masked the burning odor of blood and powder smoke, Gardner could find some solace from the conflict outside. Now, sitting with his eyes closed, far from the frantic movement of the camp, Gardner felt some of that serenity fill him, eclipsing the horror of the past two days around the Antietam creek.
And horror was all that remained after battle, Gardner reflected. For almost two years now, Gardner had been an ancillary to General George McClellan, and it had never changed. Before a battle, men were full of fear and excitement. A strange silence would engulf a unit, Gardner would notice, a pause pregnant with anticipation. Mathew Brady, Gardner’s superior, had once said to Gardner that the 7th New York’s Chaplain would often hold prayer meetings with the entire regiment the night before a battle. Men would talk about their victory, about how this time McClellan would drive straight through Lee, and how they would march to Richmond and string Jeff Davis up by his heels.
Battle itself was an indescribable phenomenon for Gardner. Battle was bravery and cowardice, the thunder of guns and choking clouds of powder smoke. Battle was men who had once been countrymen blasting lead at one another, one standing close enough to see the terror in the other’s eyes. Battle was blood, the fragility of life, and the futility of death. Battle was often heroic, desperate charges, stands, and furious pursuits. Gardner had seen Burnside’s men hold the stone bridge with such tenacity and ferocious will that it had made Gardner want to pick up a rifle and join them. Gardner was captivated, fascinated by battle, and that was one of the reasons he loved to photograph the fighting, to capture the stubbornness and bravery of men, and the glories of war.
But if Gardner was captivated by war, it also was repulsive to him. War left no glories for those that lay around Gardner, twisted and broken in the mud. The only reward they could expect for their heroics, their courage, and their service was glassy eyes and a shallow grave. Gardner had not known them, except as members of the faceless rebel host. Gardner knew that history would not know these men. Their names would fall into oblivion, and be covered as their bodies would be covered with soft Maryland earth, far from their homes.
Gardner opened his eyes and studied the scene before him. The grey September sky wreathed the fields in saturnine gloom, echoing the grey of the rumpled uniform coats on the dead men. The cold wind rustled the leaves of a few scattered trees. The dead lay in a rough line, having been dragged or carried there for burial by triumphant northerners. The dead were limp, their faces upturned, their eyes reflecting the swirling iron of the clouds. ‘Looking for God’ Gardner thought. How these broken, limp things had once been living, breathing men was hard for Gardner to fathom.
Gardner stood, primed his camera, and took a picture. Later, when he displayed the picture in Brady’s gallery, he would think that as long as the picture was displayed, people could remember those who fell that day on Antietam creek.