The Great Chessboard

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2004

By Will Ilgen, Illustrated by Andrew Smith

A Story of the Civil War


It was early dawn on July 1, 1863.

The cool breeze crept through the hills. Sunlight swarmed over the long and copious lines of tents. Not a soul stirred. It was, without a doubt, a sight for the human eye to behold.

A lone shadow sat upon a tree stump, a few yards from the line of quiet tents from which he had come, staring off into the hills, awake, yet still dreaming. It’s all like a dream, the figure thought lullingly. All like a glorious dream. But the dream turned him to reality which may if it chooses come as a complete and disappointing surprise to many. Why must there be reality? Why cannot everything be one, wonderful, everlasting dream? A bugle sounded four notes, a pause, and two more: reveille, the wake-up call.

Corporal Benjamin Ryan of the 3rd Minnesota Volunteers of the Union Army rose from the stump and trudged down toward the camp. Alas, Ryan thought, the dream must end someday, and we must face the harsh truth of reality. Men of his regiment began to rise from their tents and the calm sleeping ground was soon filled with noise and hustle. Ryan walked amongst the men, himself already dressed and ready for any order. Another hour or so, he thought, and we’ll be on the move again. He could feel it. Within the men, in the sky, in the rising sun, everywhere. He could picture it in his mind: row upon row of trudging, tired men in blue uniforms, kicking up dust, their heads low, muskets hunched over their shoulders. It was not a nice sight. They knew they were losing the war.

The Great Chessboard looking at a photo

He picked it up and looked closely at the tall, muscular figure of his father

The American Civil War had been raging for over two years now; who could know how much longer it would last? Every passing day brought more death, more sorrow, more mourning. Corporal Ryan was in the Union army, the army of the northern states. The Confederate army had control of the southern states. With General Robert Edward Lee as their commander, the Confederates, or the Rebs, seemed invincible, and time and time again they had reminded the Union army of that. The army of the North had gone through many commanders, the latest being Joe Hooker, but President Abraham Lincoln resigned him from command after the Union disaster at Chancellorsville, and thus Hooker was replaced by General George Meade. Meade was known by his officers as the “snapping turtle,” for his aggressive reputation. Ryan wished that General John Reynolds, the commander of his corps, was in charge of the army; he’d win the war over a day or two if they’d picked him first. Ryan knew that General Reynolds had in fact been offered a commission for Major General, and had turned it down. It was his choice, but Ryan still thought he was the best man in the army. But there were other things to think of now.

The rest of the men in the regiment lined up for a brisk breakfast. Ryan found that he wasn’t hungry; he went to his tent. After he ducked in, he sat down on the grass. He ran his fingers through the fresh green, then through his hair. He looked around at his belongings. A canteen, some rations, a diary he’d written in every day since he’d enlisted, his bedroll, a quilt his mother had made for him when he was very young, an oil lamp, paper for letters, his musket, ammunition, a baseball, and, carefully laid on the quilt, a photograph of himself, his mother, his younger sister, his father, and his auntie. His most prized possession: all he had left of his family. He picked it up and looked closely at the tall, muscular figure of his father. He would have been proud, Ryan thought, if he saw me now, in the army. He was a lieutenant during 1812, and would tell a younger Ryan of his many different engagements. Ryan lived for the excitement of his father’s stories of war all the while his father was alive . . . and now, his father dead, himself finally enlisted, Ryan found what a nightmare war was. Ryan thought hard to remember the day the nightmare began.

*          *          *

“Thank you, Reverend,” Ryan had said. “I’m sorry my mother couldn’t be present for the memorial, she . . . is not herself.”

Ryan had nodded to Reverend Mitchell and strode away from the sanctuary of the deceased. It had been a dull, cloudy day in January. No snow fell. No person walked the lonely Minnesota streets except Ryan, who was not certain what to think. He refused to face reality: he refused to face the fact that his father was dead. But he knew it was true. That was reality. The harsh, harsh reality.

Ryan came to his home. He slowly walked up the front steps, and entered the door. His sister was in her room; he could hear her crying. She hadn’t stopped for three days. Ryan went to his room and looked out the window. His mother was out there, tearing up grass and dirt and showering herself with it, screaming, sobbing, cursing the Lord for her husband’s death. Ryan knelt beside the bed and prayed silently for his mother and his father’s spirit. He rose, looked to the ceiling, and cried, “Why?”

He ran out of the house, into the deserted road, seeking solitude, seeking peace with himself. He could not find any peace within him. He was flushed with emotions. He was in rage, in despair, in mourning . . . where to go? What to do? To whom must he turn? Unanswered questions. Too many unanswered questions. He just stood in the center of the road, helpless, for about an hour, and then, suddenly, he knew what to do. Where to go. He went back to the house, gathered his belongings, slipped a note under a vase in the dining room, and set out the door. He was off to join the Union army.

*          *          *

That had been January, 1862. Now it was July, 1863. After nearly two years at war, Ryan, in his own strange way, had found some solitude. Of course, he had no idea where his mother or sister were, but he frequently wrote letters to them, and upon finishing one, he would take it outside, and let it be carried away with the wind. He would stand there for a while and watch it float off to the horizon, until it was but a speck in the distance. He thought of the old life in Minnesota, but stopped; it was just too painful. That was all Ryan had: painful memories.

He rose from the ground and left the tent. The sun was up now, and most of the men were finished eating breakfast. Many were taking down their tents. Yep, we’ll be moving today, thought Ryan. None of the men really knew where the army was headed. Some said they were pursuing the Confederates to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ryan carefully packed away his few belongings and took down his tent.

“Ben! Benjamin!”

Ryan looked up to see Peter Simon walking his way. Good ol’ Peter, Ryan thought. Ryan knew Peter’s intelligence wasn’t the highest, but, as Ryan figured, it doesn’t take brains to be a good friend.

“Well, Ben, I reckon we’re off to chase the Rebs,” Peter said.

“I dunno, Peter,” Ryan said. “Don’t believe everything you hear in the ranks.” But Peter was right. And little did Benjamin Ryan know what they were in for.

*          *          *

Ryan marched with his regiment: a thin, curving line, like a snake weaving its way through a patch of grass. Peter and Ryan walked alongside each other. It was murderously hot, and wearing a blue wool uniform didn’t help at all.

“So, Ben,” said Peter. “You ready to beat them Rebs?”

“Now, Pete,” Ryan replied, “just remember there’s an even chance we’ll lose.”

“That’s what you said all them times before.”

“And tell me this, was I ever wrong?”

Peter kicked up some dust and muttered, “No.” Ryan smiled and looked up ahead. The regiment had been marching for hours now, and Ryan could hear faint gunfire up ahead. Ryan had a small nausea about entering a fight, and the sounds of this one weren’t too welcoming.

Ryan heard much cheering behind him and turned to look. Someone on horseback was riding down the line. Ryan recognized who the rider was almost instantly: it was General John Reynolds. The men had great respect for Reynolds. As he rode down the line, men tipped their hats and waved. He was a tall man, even taller in his saddle. He had a long, groomed beard and sat up high, looking onward with determination. Ryan grinned. He really believes in us, he thought.

He turned to Peter and said, “Where’s the fight, anyway?”

“I hear it’s up by some town called Gettysburg.”

*          *          *

Cannon shells burst all around. Ryan felt the heat of battle. Men fell all around him, screaming. He crouched low to the ground, having to dodge bullets here and there. He turned and saw Peter, on his belly, firing away.

When they had gotten there, they saw the cavalry of General John Buford lined up, warding off the Rebels. And they had done a good job. The infantry had gotten there just in time.

Ryan crouched behind bodies, firing. He turned around and spotted General Reynolds, away a few yards, shouting, waving his hat, and then the general stopped, and fell out of his saddle. As he saw Reynolds lying on the ground like that, Ryan knew the harsh truth: General Reynolds was dead.

Ryan kept on firing for a goodly while. A thousand questions grew and filled his mind: with Reynolds dead, who will lead us? How long can we keep firing? How long can we hold? They sure are firin’ at us hard.

And then he saw the Rebs come up, start to charge in their direction, and he rose to his feet, turned, and fled with the rest of the regiment.

*          *          *

Darkness surrounded the Federal camp. The light of day was no more. Ryan sat around a campfire with Peter, and a few other soldiers he hadn’t met, warming his hands. He stared into the flames, searched within his soul for solitude, but he could find none.

After Reynolds had been shot, the command of the first corps was given to Abner Doubleday. Soon after, when the rest of the corps had fled, they had stationed themselves on a rise named Cemetery Ridge, which was below the town of Gettysburg and opposite the Rebel camps. The rest of the army would soon join them. But for now, all was quiet throughout the camp. The stars twinkled in the sky. The wind floated upon the clear sky. The moon shone bright over the long ridge. The fire was warm, welcoming. But Benjamin Ryan was still not at peace.

The Great Chessboard surrounding a fire

“It’s just a game of chess, is all. It a game of strategy”

Ryan thought long and hard. What was this war really about? Was it for the slaves? States’ rights? Or was it all simply a huge misunderstanding? Why were all these innocent people dying? Ryan found himself saying this out loud. He blushed. An older soldier sitting across from him spoke.

“Well, son,” he began, “I dunno what it’s all about, but I will tell you this whole thing is just like a game. A game that don’t never end. It’s just a game of chess, is all. It’s a game of strategy, and you must learn to cope with casualties. Men are the players, and the world is the board on which this gruesome combat is fought. There are grand victories, there are great losses; there are mistakes . . .

Ryan listened intently. The man heaved a great sigh and shook his head. “Sooner or later,” he said, “if the game keeps up, there will be no more players . . . and nothin’ more worth fightin’ over. But it won’t matter. Men will just keep on fighting over nothing, probably. It’s just the way we are. And nothing will change.”

The man rose and left the fire. Ryan watched after him. Then he lowered his head, and stared into the flames once more.

*          *          *

Soon came dawn on July 2, 1863.

Ryan and Peter were out on the ridge, entrenched, ready. Ryan gazed out over the open field, the untouched plain. Beautiful. He looked toward the opposite ridge, Seminary Ridge, and saw the Rebs lining up, getting ready to advance. He turned to Peter and said, “Time for another round of chess.”

Ryan lay down on the cool earth, resting, waiting for the Rebs to come. And they would come, he thought; and we will meet them. He closed his eyes, again thought of the house back in Minnesota, of his mother, wherever she may be now, of his father.

No, he thought to himself. I will think on that no longer. Painful, too painful. He opened his eyes, sat up. He turned to gaze on Seminary Ridge. There was now much noise coming from there. And through the thick mass of trees, he began to see the Rebs form for the assault. It was time.

When the Rebs stepped out, advancing on the Union line, they were being bombarded by cannon shells and a hail of bullets, but kept coming. Ryan couldn’t figure how; he was almost out of ammunition, and still they came. He knew it was General A. P Hill’s men coming at them, and Hill’s boys were known for their courageous fighting. At Antietam, in 1862, just as the Rebel line was giving way, up came Hill, just arriving from Harper’s Ferry, to save the battle. And they were indeed coming hard now, just as they had before.

Ryan looked down the Union line, which was in the shape of a fishhook, and saw a small company, the 1st Minnesota, charge out at the Rebels. He couldn’t see much; it was just a large cluster of blue and gray. Ryan finally saw the company stumble back. But out of the whole company that had charged, only a few seemed to return.

Smoke rose all over the battleground. Shells seemed to burst up from the ground, sending debris flying in all directions. The speed of the bullets rang in Ryan’s ear. The Rebel line in front of them stopped abruptly, let loose a round of bullets. He heard a man scream, and it was very close to him, and he turned and saw Peter, lying on the ground, blood gushing from his side.

*          *          *

Ryan rushed to Peter’s side and said, “Pete, Peter!”

Peter looked up into Ryan’s eyes. “I’m . . . I’m all right, Ben . . .” he stammered. “I . . . I think I’ll make it . . .” Ryan saw the blood; he wasn’t sure what to do, the same mix of emotions and confusion he had felt at home in Minnesota.

He tried to cover the gash with a bandanna, but the blood merely soaked through. Now Peter was shuddering, fighting the pain, fighting to breathe. He lay still for a moment, then looked up at Ryan.

“I’m all right, Ben . . .” Peter sighed.

Ryan bit his lip, trying to fight back tears.

“No . . .” Peter said. “Too late. This is it. I’m a casualty of chess. Ben . . . tell my mother, please—don’t forget, now. All I want to do . . . is sleep . . .”

Peter tilted his head back, and Ryan knew he was gone.

*          *          *

That night Ryan slept out under the stars. He stared out into space, pondering the great mystery of death. The Union army had been able to ward off the Rebs, they had not taken the ridge; but Ryan did not care about that, nor about anything at the moment. His mind only seemed to focus on Peter’s death.

He stared out into the infinite dark, and he thought he could see the stars dance, merry in their place. His father had once told him that the stars were the souls of those passed; and as he looked, he believed in himself that he saw his parents, Peter . . . and all others long passed.

He stared and he thought; he thought for a long time, on many things he had not since thought on, and slowly shut his eyes, and drifted into a peaceful sleep . . .

*          *          *

Ryan was up on the ridge early the next morning, July 3, 1863. And the day after would be Independence Day. How tragically ironic that the new nation that had declared its independence from England in the 1770s was now at war with itself. A horrible, bloody war that would not end.

He walked along the camp, looking out to the foggy fields. It was no longer the beautiful, untouched plain he had seen before, but now a worn battleground. Bodies lay out in the open, horribly mangled. Blood was splattered around them.

Ryan wandered from the campgrounds. He walked to a rise with a wooden cross and a mound of dirt beneath it. This was where Ryan had buried Peter. He did not stand too close, for fear he should step on the mound which covered his companion. But he knelt, and prayed. He would not break his promise to Peter, and he would tell his friend’s mother, once he had the chance, once this was all over. But would it ever end? No. There will be more fights. Many more. This war would go on, never stop, and eventually Ryan would die, a man of old age, never to have put down his rifle.

Well, let them come, then.

He was soon on the ridge, watching the Rebs. But the strange thing was, they weren’t doing anything. They just crouched in the trees, like rabbits hiding from a fox. They did not seem to have any reason for assault. This troubled him. He knew the Rebs, they weren’t like this.

By now, most of his regiment was out on the ridge, loading muskets, setting the artillery chatting, writing a final letter home, in case this should be their last day. If the Rebs did come, they’d be waiting. Ryan looked back toward Seminary Ridge. He noted the Rebels were setting up an artillery line. It was the longest row of cannon Ryan had ever seen. Lord, Ryan thought, they must be setting up every battery they have over there!

Ryan moved forward for a closer look to . . . BOOM!

A shot rang out. An artillery shot. And Ryan knew it hadn’t come from the Union’s cannon. BOOM CRACK ZING! Shells flew everywhere, soaring overhead, hurtling to the ground. Ryan dove into the earth. He covered his head with his hands. He heard yelling and screaming everywhere. Someone shouted, “It’s the Rebs! They’re bombarding us!”

Ryan turned and saw clearly: the Rebs were firing at the Union line, nonstop. Ryan did not move, did not think, just waited, waited for the thundering to cease, waited for the assault he knew was coming, to come.

*          *          *

About an hour later, the firing had stopped. Now Ryan was on the ridge, rifle in hand, waiting for the Rebs to attack. And then he saw them, moving out from behind the trees, forming, and beginning to march. Ryan estimated about three divisions or more were coming. And he was ready. He remembered Peter.

The Great Chessboard soldiers marching

And then he saw them, moving out from behind the trees, forming, and beginning to march

He remembered the shot, the scream, and the sight he would never forget. He remembered it all in one long, painful moment, the last words: “All I want to do is sleep.” Ryan began to shed painful tears.

Good night, sweet prince,
And may flights of angels
Sing thee to thy rest.

And as the Rebs advanced, Ryan felt something he had never before felt in battle; it was not sadness, nor worry, it was anger. Hate. He felt great hate now, toward the Rebs, as they came. And he was now very ready to fight, for Peter.

The Union artillery thundered like clockwork. Men on the other side flew in the air, came back down to earth dead. Some of their lines began to fall apart, but still they came. The Rebs began to come quicker now, advancing at a greater speed. The heavy bombardment could not stop them. Soon their casualties were high, and yet, somehow, in a way that seemed to defy logic, they kept coming. They simply would not stop.

They were now about half a mile away from the Union line. The heavy artillery was now joined with the steady beat of musket fire. More men fell. The Rebs stopped, returned fire. Now they were falling by the dozen; a haunting scream seemed to fill the air. And although he wished to, Ryan did not fire. He could not. No; let them rest. They have come this far. Wait.

Everything was chaos, all around him. Men on both sides screamed, fell, flew into the air. Ryan could do nothing. He simply sat, unmoving, as the whole world flooded past. And he knew he was alone now. He could see the Rebels charging, but in his mind, everything was still. He washed away the screams, the horrible sounds of battle. He saw blurred shapes rush past him, the Rebs had reached the line, but he could hear nothing, and the battle went on without him, thank the Lord, and there was a flush of faces and colors, and before he knew it, it was over; all over.

*          *          *

Ryan could not sleep at all that night, and so he went up on the ridge, in the heavy rain, watching the sun creep up over the Pennsylvanian hills, watching the dawn of July 4; Independence Day. He looked out over the ridge and saw a sight to behold: the Confederate Army was retreating. They were fleeing back to Virginia, their home. They deserve home, Ryan thought. They lost many yesterday. Let them go. We’ll catch up.

The battle of Gettysburg was won. Ryan smiled, and walked away, down the ridge, under the great clouds of gray, on the great chessboard.

*          *          *

Gettysburg was the largest and bloodiest battle in American history About 50,000 men were either killed, captured, or wounded through July 1-3, 1863. The American Civil War would go on until 1865, when General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army surrendered his forces to the Union army’s commander, Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become a president of the United States. The slaves were freed when the war ended, but it would take generations afterward for African Americans to be granted equal rights. Corporal Benjamin Ryan is a fictitious character in this story, but to me, he is most certainly real.

Related Posts

Stone Soup colleague Jane Levi timing Israeli archeologist David Eitam as he grinds grain in a...

Reviewed by Nandini Sai Krishnan Imagine having to leave the place you grew up, the only place...

By now, we all know about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 17 students and teachers are...

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: