L i f e   S t o r i e s   o f   C i v i l   W a r   H e r o e s

March 9, 1864
Just outside of Tennessee

Dear D,

I am sorry it has been a few months since I last wrote. I am well, but mostly weary these days. Even though I haven't written, I think of you often and pray that you are keeping safe.

I have some news: I am now promoted to 1st Sgt. in our company. Our numbers have become fewer, and some of us have been moved up to fill the gaps. Captain Dawes is now a Major, and Sgt. McHenry is now a Lt. My faithful companion, Dan Morris is still beside me, but remains a Cpl. We have been riding all over this country for some time, but now find ourselves at the same place we were a year ago. Do you recall the camp floating in a lake of mud where I wrote you last March? We have returned there. This time, however, I cannot complain of the weather. The sunlight is bright and steady, and the mud we swam in last year is now baked to hard-packed clay. It is a pleasant rest from our normal rigors. A funny thing happened to me a day or two ago, and I thought you might enjoy hearing about it.

I had been at this place but a few days when the paymaster caught up with us. I eagerly received my money, and just as eagerly sought a way to spend it, thus sparing me from the added encumbrance of its weight. In the nearby town, there is a widow that has a thriving business established: she bakes. The smell and taste of her bread, cakes and pies bring every soldier a reminder of home where his sweetheart, wife or dear mother lovingly toiled to provide him these same poignant and delicious symbols of comfort and love.

Now my messmates and I had eaten nothing sweeter than a bitter dried green apple for weeks, and our diet had not ventured far outside the dreary confines of rancid pork and coarsely ground cornmeal. So we were looking for a change of menu. It was my intention to visit this woman, and expend my pay, my entire pay, if necessary, to procure the most magnificent item in her inventory, and bring it to my companions for consumption.

Knowing the general location of this good woman's home, I only had to follow my nose to her doorway once I had entered the proper neighborhood. She had created a rather convenient arrangement by placing a large table near the window in her kitchen, and the aroma of her good work floated through the street, beckoning even the most particular appetite. Riding up on horseback, it was easy to see the diversity of her wares by peering through the open window. Laid out on the sturdy table were rows of pies, cakes and loaves of bread. Issuing forth from the window was a fierce blast of hot air from the tireless oven that must have been stoked all day and night, judging by the number of its prolific products on the broad table. The warm air carried with it an aroma that would make any army countermarch in an instant to seek its source.

As I sat on my mount and looked in the window, my eye was instantly drawn to the largest item on the table: a cake as big as a hatbox. Its sides rose in an impressive display of cylindrical symmetry, and its color was the deep golden brown of a ripened acorn. The lacy-white trails of the sugary icing collected in great puddles atop the magnificent cake, and streaked down the sides in swift and sweet races to reach the plate on which the cake rested. I stared, I dreamt, I sighed, and fell in love. I resolved that I must have that cake.

The woman stood over a bowl stirring some ingredients, wearing on her forehead and cheeks the powdery white war paint made of flour that is displayed by all great bakers. Noticing my impolite stare, she asked me what I wanted. I could only point at the cake and murmur, "How much?" Without hesitation she named a number that expressed a much higher percentage of my humble pay than I expected, but equally without any hesitation of my own I shouted, "Sold!"

A moment later, her young son appeared in the yard with the cake in one hand and his other hand extended to receive my hard earned pay. We did not speak, but only made the exchange in silence, as I began to wonder how I could transport this heavenly creation back to camp in one piece. I gently and lovingly cradled it in the crook of one arm, while holding the reins with the other. Oh, so slowly did I walk that horse and cake back to camp.

As you can imagine, my arrival caused quite a stir, and the boys crowded all around with outstretched fingers, hovering to scoop out a sample of my treasure. I swatted them away with my quirt-I wouldn't allow it. A gift such as this had to be presented in grand fashion by me, and then solemnly devoured by all with due appreciation.

I ordered an armed squad to escort me to a small supply tent at the edge of camp. In the canvas-filtered light, I carefully placed the cake atop a wooden box and stepped out of the tent. Two sentries were posted at the entrance to the tent, and ordered to shoot, without question, anyone who approached within ten paces without giving the watchword. The watchword was only known by me. I did not impart the watchword even to the guards, to ensure no one could touch the cake, and also obligating one guard to shoot the other should he invade the sanctity of the cake.

Although we had been promised an afternoon with no dismounted drill, the Major had suddenly decided that the ground surrounding our camp, though hard and dry, had not been trampled enough in the preceding week. We were called out for a hot session of marching, wheeling and turning, all the time with intoxicating visions of heavenly cake swimming in front of us, drifting on the shimmering heat waves that rose from the ground.

As I wearily trudged back to camp, there suddenly came a clamorous shout and alarm from up ahead. "Enemy, the enemy!" they shouted. "The enemy has OVERRUN OUR CAMP!" My dragging steps turned to an urgent run as I raced to our camp, carbine in hand, ready to repulse the foe!

Once there, I came upon a horrible sight that made my blood run cold in my veins. The enemy's attack had been planned with cunning precision and timing. They had cowardly attacked in force while we were away. With great stealth, they had slipped past the guards that had been left behind, and had immediately taken every salient and strong point, and captured every crossing. They swarmed in numbers too large to estimate, their streaming lines moving endlessly and swiftly with ever growing numbers. Even as they spread across our front, overran our flanks, and threatened to envelop our rear, there was a sinister logic to their frenzied assault: they were all converging relentlessly on one point. Their desperate objective was clear to us now, and only a few of us stood between them and certain victory. The base of their target had been surrounded en masse, and they were now charging up the sides to claim the peak. Some already swarmed about the crest, beckoning the legions below to join them.

We immediately plunged into the fray, unheeding our own safety. Grabbing any weapon we could find, we tried to sweep them away. No matter how many we killed or wounded, a hundred more came to take the place of each fallen foe. Again and again, we were beaten back, but pressed on, finally reaching the steep hillsides where their forces still continued making their way to the top.

Pursuing them relentlessly, we ultimately arrived on the wide plateau where they were assembling. This is where the fighting became especially desperate, and horrible to behold. Having nothing left with which to fight them, we were forced to fix bayonets and dispatch them one by one. The enemy found themselves trapped and mired in sticky morasses that captured and held them fast. They squirmed and struggled, but it was no use; they were immobilized and had no choice but to flail helplessly in terror awaiting the point of our cold steel as we methodically confronted them one by one, impaled them, and flipped their still-writhing bodies to the depths below. None were spared; no prisoners were taken.

Although it seemed like hours, the battle was over in a matter of twenty minutes. We were tired, but victorious. Our honor had remained unstained. We could rest easy tonight, safe and proud in the knowledge that we had saved our cake from the vicious and savage invading ants that had tried to capture it!

That evening, we again ate pork that was all fat and no meat. We again ate cornmeal that contained more cob than corn, but we had our cake. We carved away great slices with our knives and filled our mouths and stomachs with the heavenly manna. It was well that we were eating in darkness, because who could tell how many of the enemy still remained in the hidden crevices and caves of that tasty terrain? But we did not care. We had fought hard and well to claim our prize, and we were determined to enjoy every crumb.

I hope you enjoyed my story, and I hope you are able to write me soon. Take care and give my love to all.

Yours truly,

Dutch Hoffmann


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