Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
The topographical engineer of a Union brigade during the Civil War, the narrator recalls campaigning in Georgia. He particularly remembers Lieutenant Herman Brayle, a recently added officer in the geographically heterogeneous unit, who came from an Ohio regiment. Tall, handsome, with blue-gray eyes and blond hair, Brayle displayed foolhardy courage during the Battle of Stone River. He did such things as sitting like a statue on horseback, exposed in the open air, and standing like a rock without cover. Mindless of hissing bullets when he carried messages to front-line commanders, he would hand his much-valued horse to an orderly and quietly walk on his perilous errands without ever even stooping down for safety. Once, when his puzzled admirers remonstrated, he smiled amiably and said that if he were mortally wounded, he hoped that the captain would whisper in his ear, “I told you so.”
At Resaca, Brayle’s brigade was part of a Union arc protected by trees. Beyond an open field, Confederate earthworks formed a chord to the Union arc. The general ordered Brayle to go from one end of the Union arc to the other in order to tell a certain colonel to move closer to the enemy. The general advised Brayle to leave his horse behind, implying that it would be safer for him to go through the woods on foot. Instead, Brayle galloped straight into the open field, proceeding parallel to the enemy line two hundred yards away. He made a dramatic picture with his hat blown off, his long, yellow hair rising and falling rhythmically, erect in the saddle, reins in his left hand, his right arm dangling at his side. Enemy rifles began to spit at him, triggering a spontaneous, thunderous, and deadly but inconclusive artillery duel.
The narrator spotted a gully at right angles to the enemy line in which Brayle might easily have taken refuge after his horse was killed. Instead, he merely stood beside it, declining to move. Riddled with bullets, he soon fell. Marveling at him, both sides ceased firing, and his corpse was honorably removed—to the accompaniment of a fife-and-drum dirge from behind the awestruck enemy lines. Afterward, when the general distributed Brayle’s effects, the narrator received a leather pocketbook.
It is now a year after the end of the war and the narrator is on his way to California. He idly inspects the contents of Brayle’s pocketbook and finds a letter to Brayle written by a woman named Marian Mendenhall from San Francisco that is dated July 9, 1862. Signed “Darling,” the letter alludes to a soldier wounded at a battle in Virginia who told the writer that he saw Brayle taking cover behind a tree during the battle. The woman adds that she could stand learning that her “soldier lover” has died, but not that he was a coward.
The narrator calls on Marian Mendenhall at her San Francisco home, confirms that she knows of Brayle’s death, and returns her letter. Telling the narrator that his errand is unnecessary, the woman accepts the letter indifferently, but blushes when she sees a stain on it. The narrator tells her that it is the heart’s blood of a true and brave man. Recoiling, she says that she cannot stand the sight of blood, tosses the letter into her fireplace, and asks how Brayle died. Noting that the woman is both exceptionally beautiful and “detestable,” he replies that Brayle was bitten by a snake.