For a few more seconds his eyes gripped me, holding me like a vice, and then they rolled back into his head, and he fell face first into the mud, still holding the flag.
Oh, God, it was like someone reached inside and jerked out everything that made life bearable. First I lost Billy and then Matt. Isaiah, Captain Jenkins, and Colonel Gibson had fallen too, and who would be next, John, Frank, Charlie who? And I was scared.
But a few minutes before, Matt had told me that he was afraid, and he’d come back. He’d come back for his friend Nick. And Billy had been afraid. I could still picture his dark eyes mov-ing back and forth, and the sweat beading across his forehead, but he hadn't been so afraid that he couldn't take a minnie ball meant for his best friend.
Matt and Billy had both been scared, and never tried to say different. No, I was the one who wanted to rush up Missionary Ridge so I could have an adventure. I was the one who wanted to be a hero.
And I might not have understood the president's beautiful words, and I sure didn't care about General Grant's battle plan, but I knew what I owed my friends. Slowly, I let go of my rifle and reached out and took the flag from Matt.
The staff was muddy and slippery, but I kneeled there in the trench and raised it above the bank again. And, oh, I was scared. The cannons were bursting all along the line behind us shaking the ground every time they hit, blowing mud and dirt every-where.
Meanwhile, the Reb riflemen were taking their toll, but like Matt, I stood straight and lifted the flag and began to wave it back and forth. Above me, the Rebs were yelling from the mid-trench, and in a few seconds, I saw a group of them pointing at me.
They began to reload their muskets, but I wasn’t going to duck because all along our line the men were looking at the flag and taking new heart.
Oh, it was frightening. The air was filled with minnie balls that buzzed all around, spattering dirt and thudding into the bank on both sides of me.
Worse, the cannon balls were landing closer and closer to the trench jarring all of us with their terrible explosions. In a minute or two, they'd have us sighted in, and then they'd start dropping those babies right into the trench. It would be a real slaughter then.
The Rebs wouldn't have to counter attack once the cannon could rake the trench. We'd just run back to the woods leaving the best part of the army behind, and I didn't know what to do.
My knees were knocking so hard that they actually hurt, and I was breathing heavily, in and out, a hundred breaths a minute, and I was scared like no man should ever be.
Another cannon ball crashed into the earth not twenty yards behind me, exploding and spattering chunks of dirt all around, one clod hitting me right in the back of the head, scaring me even more.
The next shell might be right in the middle of the trench, and that's when I understood that we couldn't stay where we were, and that we couldn't retreat.
We'd never make it back to the woods if we tried, and up and down the line men were returning the Reb fire while others screamed and fell, and the minnie balls were flying thicker than bees chasing a honey robbing bear, and there was no going back.
Again, I looked around and saw the men still looking at the flag. I knew then what Matt was starting to do, and he was right - it was up to me, and there was only one direction to take, one place to go.
I reached up and out of the trench and slammed the flagpole hard into the soft ground and began to pull myself out of the trench. Half way up, my right knee slipped on the damp soil and I went spilling forward. Just as I did a volley of minnie balls flew over me.
“Count to twenty and duck,” I yelled aloud, and then I kneeled and lifted the flag high and stood up straight.
When I was standing, I crouched and started toward the ridge, holding the flag in front of me. It caught the breeze, and its stars and stripes whipped out for everyone, Union and Reb to see.
“Don't go, Clarence, you can't make it,” I heard John scream.
“You can't do it, Clarence, come back,” Charlie yelled too.
In another second, ten, twenty more voices were screaming for me to return, and then an Ohio colonel jumped the trench and started pacing the line while waving his sword toward the Rebs.
“Cover him, lay down a field of fire,” he yelled.
And I was leaning into the breeze and slope as I began to climb while above me, from the mid-rifle pit, twenty or thirty Rebs were yelling and pointing at me while aiming their rifles.
“Get the flag bearer, get the flag bearer,” I thought they screamed, but the roar of the cannon and rifles drowned them out, and I couldn't be for sure.
I didn't care. I was past being scared. I was going to carry that flag all the way to the top of that ridge or die trying. But I hadn't climbed ten feet when I don't know what, a minnie ball, a rock, something slammed hard into my left foot, hurting and throwing me off balance, and again I fell flat on my face.
I lay stunned for a few seconds, face forward in the mud, and then I rose to my knees and shook myself.
Still kneeling, I took the flag and lifted it high and then braced myself on one knee. I knew that as soon as I stood, I’d be shot, but I had to keep going, the men in the trench were depending on me, and all I could think of was Billy and Matt and how they had been afraid, and I stood and lifted the flag and started up the slope again, and that’s when I heard them.
Sounding like a wounded beast that had turned to fight, their cheer went roaring up and down the line, rolling out and over the entire valley, so loud that for a few seconds it drowned out the cannons and muskets and the shouting Rebs.
Above me Reb officers and soldiers stood - so stunned they quit firing. I couldn't understand what was happening, but I had to find out.
Looking around, I saw a boulder ten feet from me. I ran over and took cover behind it. Shielding myself, I looked back to my left and then to my right. As far as I could see, the whole damned Army of the Cumberland was climbing out of that trench and starting up Missionary Ridge.