All Stories, General Fiction

Silent Retrieval by Tom Sheehan

The day had a head start on young Liam Craddock, he could feel it, and all that it promised. Across the years, on the slimmest sheet of air, piggybacking a whole man’s aura on that fleet thinness, he caught the sense of tobacco chaw or toby, mule leather’s hot field abrasion, gunpowder’s trenchant residue, men at confusion. If it wasn’t a battlefield in essence, or scarred battle ranks, he did not know what else it could be. And it carried the burning embers of memory.

The yellowed pages of a hand-written Civil War journal had fallen open at Liam’s feet, almost 146 years since the first shot was fired in that war. The calligraphy grabbed at him first, faded in areas and yet sweeping with an old-line flourish making him wonder about the tone and meter of the language, sensing an initial presence of old-fashioned pompousness or posed dignity. Practically nudging it aside at its birth, he quickly discarded this hastily formed opinion. With deep interest pushing at him, coming from an unnamed and limitless source, he had been scrounging in the attic of the old farm house in Bow, New Hampshire, a long way from battle sites near Richmond in Virginia, Baker’s Creek in Mississippi or Shiloh or Spring Hill in Tennessee.

For more than 125 of those years an arm of the Craddock family had lived here at Bow, in a colonial farmhouse with seven rooms, two huge chimneys, a hogback out back and wide fields out front and riding up near hills like a lease extension. Now, just turned 20, a good looking student, wiry and athletic, dark Irish complexion possibly inherited from an early Spanish sailor overboard off Ireland’s coast, Liam loved to read about the Civil War, anything he could get his hands on. It had settled into him, geared his interests like a smart gift, when he was young boy. And here, an unexpected present, was a first hand account, from his great great great-grandfather, Ronan Craddock, Sergeant, Company C, 43rd. Georgia Infantry Regiment, Army of Tennessee.

The war was real, for both of them, the writer and the reader, the crucible of unbelievable deaths, mounds of dead men, fields strewn with dead men, row on row of dead men, the smell of death floating uphill like a pot of evil at a boil. He cringed and came abreast of his courage again. And there, deep in his genes, complementary, he felt the tug of the sea where the rough tide had brought ashore the Spanish sailor his grandfather talked so often about, as if he himself had met that Armada seaman.

“We have all been warriors,” the old man said on many occasions, his pipe lit on the porch letting off an Edgeworth cut, a soft breeze whispering in the cornfields, “since that swimmer caught up a lass. And your turn will come, Liam, in one manner or another. You may never know the shape of its coming, but come it will, and bring you to conflict. If you never wear a uniform, you’ll still be in the ranks.”

It was promise more than omen, more legacy than habit, and had long settled in place. All this time the journal had been so close to him and yet so far. He wondered where his attention had been, if anybody left had known of the journal’s existence. Then, in one flame of awareness, he was sure his grandfather knew of this “find,” had seen it coming to him.

Awareness crammed him, knowing he nursed a brooding hunger about “things unusual.” This was like other sensations coming home in his mind, taking deep root. Liam could feel the message coming toward him, almost ascribed, not as swift as a shot, but unerring in its aim. The stilted handwriting, dense in some places as if battlefield artifacts were in tow, or faded in others portions the way a sleepy hand might write, scrawled often with afterthoughts along the narrow margins, came alive and gave this readable account:

“Lord, I believe it is 30th April, 1864. Wravel Grane died in these arms this day, from a minie ball lodged in his neck and tearing apart a huge vein profuse in bleeding. A gentle man he was, and dear friend and comrade, who never once let an alcoholic drink pass his lips. The man knew no curses, and if they had ever sounded in his head, he never once in my company managed them to use. His last words to me, of any personal approach, came on this bright dawn where we looked out on the Virginia countryside stretching before us a greaten and resplendent new birth of the land. As they did in Pickens County, back home in Georgia, forward slopes of hills proved quicker at greenery than backsides, but spreading fast, and maple’s aroma swam full to the air. The sun struck all a goodly light the whole while.

Wravel and I were west of Richmond but few miles, in sight of the James River, and had but a canister of bread found in the trappings of a dead Union soldier, nearly at our feet toward sleep. His left eye and cheek were missing and made him grotesque so near to that dread sleep. Lt. Griggs said to kick him aside, kick that human instrument You used to grant us Your bread. Wravel had said earlier that You would provide for us. You did provide a burial place for him locally, after we received your bread. Lord, I thank You for that. As we scanned the far hills at dawn, smoke rising from a hundred positions, life moving ever on, Wravel came aware that certainties and grimalkins or Old Harry himself were piling atop him. “Do not get separated from me ever, Ronan,” he had implored, in the awful goodness that was owed in him. Know all that Wravel’s words haunt me yet, about that separation and know they ever will.”

The last entry, in the inch-thick journal with dust as an extra cover, read: I say Amen, Lord. I was wounded at Jonesboro, Georgia, 31st August 1864 and was at home on furlough, unfit for further service, at the close of the war, my fated comrade Wravel Grane so soon gone aground. Will You will a reunion?

In between those two entries, Ronan Craddock, of Company C, 43rd. Georgia Infantry Regiment, Army of Tennessee, had been captured at Baker’s Creek, Mississippi on 16th May 1863, exchanged at Port Delaware, Delaware, and re-entered the military. The above entry followed there in place and pulled Liam deeper into the mix, cocking his interest to a higher pitch, and penetrating him as deep as a bayonet wound.

He felt at odds with the world, as though its elements were plaguing him only. The autumn chill settled atop him, though smooth as a plastic cover. An October wind talked at the lone window, yet the dust on the hinged travel trunk appeared undisturbed for a long time. Whorls of dust were petals on the trunk lid, and the brass lock obviously had not been opened in years. For the next three hours, autumn’s touch running its full gamut on him, day slowly falling beside him in another pile dim under bulb, Liam Craddock read every word written by Sgt. Ronan Craddock, of the Army of Tennessee. As far as Liam knew, Ronan was the first in a line of family soldiers this side of Ireland and that other war.

Excerpts of the journal were absolute horror shows on every page: about the death around the sergeant, who could count bodies and limbs at day’s end separated by the hundreds and hundreds; who had seen headless men fall directly beside him on the skirmish line, their heads elsewhere unknown; who had seen dead men near dusk sitting horseback or astride a mule grazing among the bodies; who had seen his best friend come to a bloody pulp in a matter of seconds.

Liam’s body would jerk uncontrollably at each of these descriptions of mortality, as though taste and smell and sound, and the awful forbidden touch, had found him company in the attic in a last stab of unearthly silence.

He was somehow surviving a horrible day.

At length, darkness full on him, his mind completely blown away by journal revelations, seeing Ronan Craddock practically come alive in a hundred scenes, Liam put the journal back into the trunk and closed the cover. A thumping kept time at his breast, bringing a hollow echo to the back of his head, the kind an empty canyon emits, a still room, a dark hallway. Ideas and approaches of every sort leaped upon him and he had to get away to sort all the efforts of his mind as they tried to tell him what to do, what path to take.

“Whoa, man, you are something else,” he said at one point, dipping his head in solemn salute to that old patriarch of battle, whose war scenes, as full of life as though he had been there to experience them, kept crossing his mind swift as movie reruns. They banged out a code of conduct for night listening. Lines of march and deployment came to him, shadowy, at edges of the attic room. Campfires lit up darker corners, though shadows ran loose again. The rustle of a night at war triggered other visions right on the edge of certainty. The footsteps of a camp guard sounded faintly but surely in the midst of an otherwise eerie silence. Then, loose in the dusk of evening, a horse’s hoofs tattled far whereabouts, a messenger in flight or a runaway. Gunfire residue rose as sharp as skunk odor on the air, cosmoline odor just as persistent. The senses amuck.

All the parts of war came as real as a brick in the hand, a wash of wind, the smell of flesh at discord.

Liam’s father, Desmond, lone son of Padraig, in the line of lone sons back through Lucas, Brendan and Ronan, had died the year Liam was born. Desmond was 53 and had tried for years to have at least the one son that for a half dozen generations had filtered down through the family of lone boys. He never saw his son Liam. He died in a car crash seven months before Liam was born. The young boy hungered all his young years for some family history to grab onto, a grasp on male ancestors all locked to their own wars.

When Liam finally came down from the attic, his grandmother said, “See anything you like? You have your pick. Anything at all.”

Liam nodded. “There’s an old war journal in a trunk in a corner up there. I’d like that.”

“Get it now before anybody else lays a claim on it. It’s yours.” In his eyes she saw that he already had claimed ownership, knew he best fit it.

Liam ran up the stairs to get the journal. In the middle of the attic room he could feel someone there with him, a presence making a statement. He tried to hear the words coming out of the stillness, from the far corners and under the twin gables. He realized he was repeating some of what he had read; the words, as if spoken to him, hanging out like echoes.

 And here he was now, less than a week after reading the journal, still adapting his life to a new influence; he was staring at an artist’s paintings for long hours at an exhibition of the artist’s Civil War work. The artist, Jeff Fioravanti, had noticed Liam the very first day almost in a trance, eyes squinting, body taut, locked by an internal force on an external object.

From the outset, when first plagued by a vanity’s reaction, Jeff sensed some other impact working on the younger man whose attention he saw was rigid, who could stare at a painting for a full half hour without moving. Jeff thought that a painter’s sensitivity could best understand that reaction. It had happened to him on occasion, but he hungered for any background information, the way he searched for reasons to start a painting.  In the middle of the third day of the exhibit, hundreds of people having passed through the 55 paintings only of Civil War battle sites but not battle scenes, a number of people having returned for a second viewing, he approached the mesmerized viewer.

Jeff did not know about the earlier discovery by the young man of the journal written by  Ronan Craddock, born 1844, died in bed in 1925 just before his 81st birthday. For almost half a century the journal, supposedly unread by anybody in the family, had been bedded in a trunk in the corner of the old family farmhouse in New Hampshire, until such time as the family farm was going to be sold off for a huge development.

Liam, still haunted by the journal, was in turn entranced by the paintings. Jeff guessed accurately his age to be no more than 19 or 20 years, saw he had no discerning marks about him, no scars, no prominent feature, no describable sense of being other than young, healthy, interested in either the art of painting or the Civil War itself. Jeff was not sure of the latter options, but he was aware of some deep connection working on the young man. He thought it to be as strong as the many Civil War battle sites and their impact had been on him, Ground Zero acknowledgment, as Jeff called it. And he also noted that the young man kept coming back to one painting, so he thought he’d best check it out.

“Excuse me,” Jeff said, “but I’ve noticed your interest in the exhibit for three days now, and your particular interest in this painting. My name is Jeff Fioravanti and I know something about it. I painted it.” He put out his hand.

“My name is Liam Craddock. I’m sure my great great great-grandfather fought there and his best friend was buried nearby.” And Jeff listened as Liam told him the story of the journal and the impact it made on him. “It’s so real to me, but especially in one place where he wrote a few words that keep ringing in the back of my head: ‘Do not get separated from me ever, Ronan.’ I don’t know what they mean, but they won’t let go of me.”

Creases on the young man’s forehead inclined his thinking. He said, “Is there near that battleground a cemetery where the dead were laid to rest, Confederate dead? One that’s still there, being tended?” He looked back upon the painting. “Where is this place?”

“I’ve been there,” Jeff said, finding some of his own memories leaping to the fore. “It’s the Hollywood Cemetery. There are thousands of soldiers buried there, and it’s well cared for, exceptionally well. It’s a large tract of land that holds some famous people. I spent a couple of days walking the grounds, noting some of the more famous names, but there are privates and generals there. He did not immediately tell Liam that he had been hit by another impact at Ronan Craddock’s words, which brought back something that he heard recently; some survivors of the battleship U. S. S. Arizona, downed at Pearl Harbor in 1941, insisted they be buried with their comrades when their turn came. He felt the connection would come with awed association.

“I’m going down there,” Liam said, the oath traveling with his voice. “I want to see if more of the journal hits me, if there is some action to be commissioned, if it’s for me.”

In a pause loaded with information Jeff could not fathom, yet was aware of, Liam Craddock continued; “I know I am being called upon. It’s always been there. My grandfather said it best; ‘Your turn will come, Liam, in one manner or another. You may never know the shape of its coming, but come it will, and bring you to conflict. If you never wear a uniform, you’ll still be in the ranks.’ I’ve heard that echo for years on end.”

Three months later, painting a new scene of a battle site at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield at Dallas, Georgia, Jeff Fioravanti saw a local newspaper headline leap at him; Yankee descendant desecrates CSA cemetery.

It was the story of Liam Craddock, a student from Keene, New Hampshire, who had been discovered, late at night, digging up a grave at Hollywood Cemetery in Virginia. Police had been alerted by a man walking his dog late at night through the cemetery, as he was accustomed to do four or five nights a week.

Charlie Boatwright (“spell it wright, sir”), an Army veteran of the Korean War, was walking his Golden Lab, Lee Bong Ha, on one of the perimeter roads of the cemetery, when he heard what he believed to be a shovel hitting a rock. “It had that affirming sound,” he said. “You’d know it from gardening, grubstaking, or digging a well. I was infuriated and thought I’d better rush the culprit, but my knees don’t do me as well as they used to, so I slipped off to a neighbor’s house and called the police.”

“Then I went back to see what was going on, trying to get there before the police, get in a viewable position. I saw the young man, the one the police eventually arrested, working on a hole about two feet deep, handling a long-handled shovel like it was an old friend, like he knew what he was doing. Because they could not find the letter he claimed he was “finally delivering to a comrade in arms” the authorities charged Liam Craddock with desecrating a national cemetery and eventually fined him one hundred dollars.”

Most people of the area thought it a proper and fitting fine and wanted to let it go at that.

The ruse about the letter to be delivered satisfied them. It was only later the whole truth was revealed.

Charlie Boatwright, on a visit from Jeff Fioravanti, subsequently volunteered the following information: “Before the police got there, only a few minutes as I recall, the

young man in question retrieved a sort of golden pot in a somewhat ornate shape from a large bag, and with a quiet ceremony of his own, a kind of minor ritual I suspect, slipped it with care down into the hole. He placed several shovels of earth in on top of the pot. That’s what he was doing when the police showed up, lights flashing all over him and the cemetery, throwing those weird shadows I’m sometimes anxious about. You never know about cemeteries, where I try to be friendly all the time because you never know who else might be visiting at the same time. The police asked what he was doing and he said he was trying to leave a letter down there for the buried person to read, but it had blown away.

 Most people laughed at him but to me there was quiet sincerity about the young man that perked my interest. I did not think he was a vandal. That was obvious to me, even though he was in pretty bad pickle, if I may say so. That’s why I did not tell the police when they showed up that he had already put something down in the hole. They did not look for it, nor did they ask me. I was reserving judgment on the situation. It was not until later, when the police brought me down to the station, that I knew I was right, that I had done the right thing. It was then I heard the cemetery workers had filled the hole in and replaced the grass sod, which, I must tell you, was most carefully lifted out of place in the beginning. It was evident to me that there was a plan at hand, and I was in on it. Months later, young Liam wrote to me, thanking me for not giving him away, and telling me the whole story.

This is what Liam wrote to Charlie Boatwright, once a sergeant in Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, Korea 1951-52, one of the Polar Bears:


I want to thank you for what you did for me at Hollywood Cemetery that night, and how you held back some information from the police. It is appreciated very much, by me and by Sgt. Ronan Craddock, of Company C, 43rd. Georgia Infantry Regiment, Army of Tennessee. A few words in his Civil War journal really penetrated me. He wrote what his best friend and comrade Wravel Grane said to him on the morning he was to die, as if he knew it was coming: Do not get separated from me ever, Ronan.

That simple statement hung over me for a long while, but I knew what he meant, just as  it came to me when I learned about sailors who survived the sinking of the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941; asking that when they finally die they be brought back aboard their  ship at Pearl Harbor. Such things haunt my soul, shake it loose, and always have. In that extent I am most fortunate regardless of being in a compromising situation, seeming without reason or good excuse. Somehow I knew what that draw was, that literal magnetism, between the sergeant and his comrade. So, after much thinking and a vow that took hold of me in an instant, I got a job in a mortuary, learned a few tricks of the trade, dug up my ancestor’s body and cremated him. I swear he was lost up here in Bow on the side of an overgrown hill that now holds only his sweat of years. Others in the family must have known, but it became my commission. Ronan Craddock’s ashes went into the grave beside comrade Wravel Grane before the police got there, and were well-covered at their arrival. Those two soldiers are now together, as bidden, their arms at rest, peace within and without them, comrades into the face of eternity.

I trust this will put to rest any lingering doubts about your participation.

Liam Craddock, Army of the World

Tom Sheehan


3 thoughts on “Silent Retrieval by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Hi Tom,
    Your words take us along as usual but the strange thing is, if you simplify this all down to the basic story – That is what is so touching.
    The thought of comrades being buried together is respectful and touching.
    You excel at this type of story Tom!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, digging up his ancestor seems a bit over the top, but wholesome in an odd way, he’d never known his father and was looking for male guidance. Most kids of today aren’t interested in history until they’ve lived a bit themselves. The Hollywood cemetery as a place for civil war dead… interesting name. I like the name of Charlie Boatwright’s golden lab.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.