“To the Edge of a Chasm”
Sunday evening, 14 July 1861. Along a windswept ridge top high in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia, ragged and exhausted soldiers lay in wet grass and on flat boulders as they struggled to catch a few hours of fitful slumber. Many huddled under scraggly laurel and spruce trees as a frigid rain poured down, spattering on already drenched uniforms. The kindling of fires to soothe tired muscles was impossible; dry wood for fuel was nonexistent.
Seated amidst the miserable, disheartened men was Corporal Nathan Pugh, a member of the Walker Light Infantry, late of Augusta, Georgia. Pugh sat hunched over his diary, hands shaking from the cold and wet as he reviewed his entry from earlier in the day. “This morning at day light we started on our march through the hills, weak from hunger, and somewhat discouraged with the gloomy prospect of finding food to-day. It is thought by those of our company having maps in their possession that we are within twelve miles of the turn pike, and that we will reach it this evening. Marching through a laurel range of mountains, almost impassable, nearly all day, we halted in the afternoon, and ate freely of birch bark, and a kind of grass or weed called “sheep-sorrel.” It will be remembered that a large number of our company have had nothing to eat since Thursday morning, and have been on a tedious and tiresome march since that time.”
Pugh probably took a few moments to massage his shivering fingers while mentally sorting through the rest of the day’s events. “After a brief rest,” he wrote, “we renew our gloomy march, eating bark and grass as we journey. Night finds us in a rough, rocky ravine near one of the many small, swift mountain streams that course their way through the laurel forests of this cold, dismal, and uninhabited portion of the mountains of northern Virginia. It is raining. Who can imagine our condition? our feelings? We are only kept from suffering severely from the cold, during the day by the most active exercise; and now night is upon us, and such a night! Nothing heard except the falling of the rain drops, the running of the aforesaid brook, and the croaking of a raven in some hollow tree farther up the mountains. Here we must rest for the night. We cannot move, or we might pitch from the top of a precipice into eternity. How shall we sleep? We have no blankets! We have divested ourselves of everything except what we wear, and many have had their clothes nearly torn from them by the brush in passing through the laurel thicket.”
Despair welled up as Pugh continued to scribble. “What would our mothers and sisters think, and say, if they knew our condition? I have just heard a member of the Walker Light Infantry say that he would not have his wife know of his present sufferings for a million of dollars; another said he would not have his mother made acquainted with his present situation for twice that amount. I feel around in the dark for a place to sleep. I prop myself against a tree to prevent my rolling down the mountain, and soon I am asleep. I dream–but not of HOME. Here I shiver with cold, half sleep, and half awake, until morning.”