Follow a civil war soldier through a battle and you find that you are studying two incomprehensible paths through space.
One is the trajectory of the bullet that kills him and the other is the trajectory of the man.
If these two trajectories meet, they both end and one who looks on at a safe distance is likely to begin an unsatisfying speculation. The short life of the bullet’s flight caused it to be at one particular point in space one foot above the top rail of a fence along Farmer Jones’s cornfield say, at precisely twenty-one minutes past nine o’clock on a certain Tuesday morning in September. The man’s own flight, leisurely and whimsical and all but purposeful, guided by forces whose complexity we can never understand, brought him from afar to that same place at exactly the same moment. If any of the infinite chances by which life is guided had made him veer one foot the other way or had delayed him by one second, his trajectory would not have crossed the trajectory of the bullet and he would have lived.
Suppose his company had been two seconds late in falling into line that morning when it was time to break camp and take to the road. Suppose his regiment had swung a yard further to the right, suppose, suppose, suppose.
Although the riddle is insoluble it does not stop us from studying the man’s trajectory, because the riddle of the soldier’s fate is the same riddle that is common to all of us whether we are in the army or not. The human trajectory is eternally incalculable, beginning in deepest mystery and going blind to a fate no one can predict.
But the business is best studied in wartime because then we do not have to admit that the terror and the tragedy are personal to ourselves. So we consider the life of the soldier and we reflect that it does not go according to plan. It bumps and drifts and sometimes it lies in military backwaters waiting for some eddy to take it out into the mainstream; some soldiers drift on inexorably to that final appointment while others go past it and get to the end of the battle and the end of the war with the end of life still lying somewhere far ahead. This of course is not to say that the soldier who survives for a quiet old age is the same one who enlisted when the war was young. He has lost something; if not life itself, then the dreams and illusions of youth which once seemed to give life its meaning. He has come down to earth ahead of time.
Probably that is why the old Civil War veterans on their final years seemed so clannish. They stuck together as much as they could because they shared an understanding other folk did not have. Like Adam, they had been cast out of the enchanted garden, leaving innocence behind. This, to be sure, happens to everybody sooner or later, but the point to remember about these Civil War soldiers is that they came from a much less sophisticated age than any soldiers who have appeared since then. They had more innocence to lose, they had farther to fall and if the actual shock was not really greater, they were less well prepared to adjust to its effects.
Today’s soldier ceased to believe in the great garden long before he ever left it; the Civil War man for the most part lived happily in it up to the moment when the flaming sword was swung and he came out into the workaday world all unprepared.