Our Commander

We rise a few minutes before dawn. “Start the day before the sun,” our commander preaches to us. In the past, many of us rose before dawn because we had to. Now we are learning to do so because we want to. Even if we’re getting up for training, as we are soldiers, members of a black regiment in the Union Army.

We train with much vigor. “One should never look to battle,” is more guidance. “Discipline, discipline, discipline, men.” Our commander is a perfectionist. Every aspect of soldier life is a craft. And every thought he delivers is done with much calm. He approaches life with a calm demeanor.

Some men scoff at our commander. Some call him a fool. These men have lived difficult lives. Many lived enslaved for most of their years. But our commander doesn’t discipline the troublemakers. He talks to them, tells them stories of the Civil War battles he’s fought in, what he’s seen in this war, and past Army life. He treats them with respect.

At night, he writes letters to his wife. “How you feed your soul is what you become,” he tells us. “A wise Native American chief taught me that lesson.” He begins teaching the men reading and writing at night. Somehow even secures funds for a teacher to help. “There will be life after this war and you men will be free for good,” he says. There is no doubt in his mind who will win the war.

Our commander calls us together. “Men, we’re going to battle.” A loud cheer erupts. The next day we march out.

The men are nervous. Some attempt to hide their nerves with tough talk. Our commander gathers us before the battle. “Men. You have prepared. You’re ready.”

We are in awe of our commander. He is a white man who has never been enslaved. Who grew up wealthy and could live his days in a large home on a lake with servants and ease. But here he is, in front of us all, leading the charge. His courage is contagious. We cannot help but follow. And follow we do. With the spirit of men fighting for a cause. For our families and friends. We charge.

During battle, our commander is hit. He falls. The same men who once spoke out against our commander now rush to him. They cover their commander. Many of them perish trying to save him.

The battle soon ends. We are not victorious. Most of the men who survive escape. We know that all captured men are treated poorly, but black soldiers are treated worse. The men don’t want to take their chances. We hide from a distance and watch the rebel army gloat as they bury everyone in a mass grave. This is the standard treatment for black soldiers. And into the mass grave, they throw our commander. They mock him, not realizing that this is how he would want to be buried. “These are my men,” he would say.

All of us stare out with tears in our eyes. For our fallen friends and for the man we were lucky to call our commander.

Notes

“Our Commander” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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