© 2003 Quarterly West

Shooting Booth: The Confession of Boston Corbett
R. T. Smith

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    I'm daft. I know it. All the doctors say so, but what they mean by daft is touched by God. Take up arms against a sea of troubles. It says that somewhere in the Bible. He speaks to me, you know. I understand you may even be of the demon's party and in disguise, but you are chosen to receive the tale. Even unto the Isles of Chittim and into Kedar they would know of my fate and how I wore the avenger's mantle.

    After the capture and his death, I signed the affidavit, and they gave me sixteen hundred dollars, my share equal to the other troopers, but I alone fired the shot. I was the chosen one, the one with the wound.

    We had just reached Front Royal, horses tired, us sleepy in the McClellan saddles. Lt. Doherty said surround the barn, and we did. One came out, the other dawdling back with a crutch. We could see his shadow. Just the two of them, and the twenty-six of us, all veterans from the 16th New York, but he taunted us and spoke in fiendish ways till torching the tobacco barn seemed to put him in his element.

    Since the Gehenna called Andersonville God had spoken to me directly. He said I was exchanged to bring the message to troops on the front, so I stumped the camp and told of the she-dragon's mission, her fetid breath. I chastised and blew the trumpet of the Lord not to sow discord but because the Word was my fruit better than gold, yea, than fine gold and my revenue than choice silver. They called me the Glory-to-God Man, but Christ walked in my tunic with me; I could feel the wounds. I moved among the sons of man and raised my tongue for Zion. When Butterfield blasphemed, I rebuked him, and they threw me in irons. My old injury flared, and dreams of garish women came. My sleep was a castle of screams.

    It was memory retrieved me. Some brevet major recalled how I fought Mosby in the valley, snapping pistols till a dozen of his ghost men retreated. That polluted Rebel mentioned my bravery in dispatches our scouts captured, so I had that sliver of celebrity and was set free.

    Andersonville was akin to Hell, our water downstream from the guards' latrines, maggots in the meager cush and only the ragged shebangs to keep the Georgia sun from off our brains. Despite the misery, I held my heart as a lamp and stooped to begging medicine and greens from a sentry, for better a living dog than a dead lion. I whispered gospel to those who perished and blessed their passage. The secesh swapped me out because it was a poor-kept secret, how the rebel infidels were treating our boys, and since I looked hale and not a scarecrow, they thought I was one of a few who would give the lie to starvation rumors. I took the pardon pledge and broke it. I told all I had seen.

    The curing burley caught like tinder, and he was circled by fire the color of October leaves, though it was April. The smoke rose, and he stood in the door port with a crutch and rifle calling, 'Give a lame man a chance.' So he and I shared the misery of damage. Then I saw he lifted the weapon to answer our words, and that was when the voice came back, itself a thing of smoke and the thin light of dawn: 'You must smite the unholy in his fire as he dances.' It was familiar, a tone my father might have used when I was English and a boy. 'Send him to his destiny now.'

    They say I shot with a revolver, but no man could have risen to that demanding a performance with a short gun. I used my carbine, and even then, I was off the mark. His shoulder was my target, but he moved, himself taking aim, I now believe, and the lead went to his neck. One detective with us said the actor was a beauty in that moment, Apollo framed in flame. I know idolatry when I hear it. Newspapers proclaimed him the handsomest man in America, and since Ford's Theater, we all knew he was crazed, moved by some force beyond the human. When I heard that voice, I knew the infernal was working through him, that he would rend the world.

    I am not a good man, only a vessel. It is the hatter's madness makes me strange. The mercury in our felt treatment emits fumes that take us all by the mind and turn us peculiar. Grief complicated my situation. My wife Rachael died in giving birth near Troy, New York, and the daughter we would have called Cass went with her. I turned to strong drink and heard no voices to stay me, for I was still a vile man of the earth, a brother to dragons and a companion to owls, and when the two harborside doxies with soot in their laughter took me to their shed, I reveled with the brimstone drink. The words I told myself next morning were Old Testament: 'Howl, O Heshbon for Ai is spoiled.'

    You have to seek your own apt punishment, they say. I took the scissors ' this was long before the war ' and slit the bull sack, removed my two manly chestnuts in which the devil may reside, then went back to blocking hats with fury. And yet, I bled. Infection set in, and I suffered on the brink in Massachusetts General for weeks after. At odd moments the ache comes back, and it can rise to anguish, so I can never forget transgression, even if I am anointed. In the saddle I am forever in reminiscent pain.

    We carried him under the apple tree, and Miss Lucinda Holloway, a local beauty, bathed his brow. We gave him brandy the color of dawn that was streaking the east, and he spoke, gasping, already a ghost. 'Oh, Kill me, kill me,' he said and, 'Tell my mother I died for my country. I did what I thought was best.' He wore no moustache, and I stood leaning against a tulip tree because I was tired and because I feared we all had made an error, but the voice makes no mistakes in mortal matters. That man was doomed and I the instrument only. God told me, 'Rejoice, for you have broken the bow of Elam.'

    'Useless,' he ended, 'useless, useless,' and that was it. Conger and Baker from the War Department rifled through his effects, the diary, the candle-splattered compass, penknife and pipe. Pictures of women fell out of his book, and I knew why he had been the devil's vessel and darling. The old stain, he carried it too. The harlots summoned him, and he answered. His end was written with a pen of iron and a point of diamond. I have heard his faithful, those struck by his passion on the stage, wore his hair in silver lockets. Woe unto them, for they shall suffer in the shadow of the scythe. Akin to scissors.

    We were too far from the Rappahannock to hear the water glisten that morning, but something akin to its shimmer washed over all us soldiers, and we knew the war had truly come to its final curtain and cost us Father Abraham's justice and our nation's soul. Booth lay upon a straw mattress, and apple blossoms drifted down on the slightest breeze. He looked peaceful, and somebody pinned his coat with a new rose, but not for pity.

    he conspiracy frenzy was up, everybody wanting a target for the blame, so they arrested me shortly after, said I had to be in league with the others, deputized to silence the ringleader. I chafed in the chains, but God spoke how this was Babylon and I the emissary. 'In due time,' he said, and it was so. They released me and handed over a wallet of money. I knew I was no Judas. It was the same reward they gave my comrades. Duty to the flag and to His throne. I would not hang myself from the redbud's limbs.

    'Glory be,' I thought, and left the army.

    They say I began to be a mystery, to move as an apparition, but it is not true, for I returned to Boston, the city I was called to like Paul to Antioch, and I set my weapons aside to resume the hatter's humble trade in the shop of Samuel Mason. Everywhere I stepped was filled with heathens and Jezebel women, so I spoke out with strife in my words and promised the tribes would swallow them up. The Lord would make that city a desolation and an hissing, but they painted me a fool and paid no heed.

    New Jersey, Ohio-I wandered then, speaking my gospel of the New Covenant and the Second Coming, and some thought me mad, though you can see I've come full circle, as sane as a babe. And when I fell hungry and needed some of the ready cash, I showed my discharge papers and the portrait Brady's apprentice made. I wrote autographs for money. I raised my Ebenezer, then visited with Richard Thatcher whose sweet acquaintance I had made in the stockade at Andersonville. One cold evening in that pit he showed me an ambrotype of his sister, and I told him they are all deceivers. Still, he saved me when I nearly crossed the deadline in a fever. The guards were only boys, but Wirtz had told them to shoot any man who strayed over that mark. Dick set me up with W.W. Garritt and Sons, so I sold patent medicine from a Conestoga briefly. It was not my calling. I was meant for lamentation.

    Concordia, Kansas became my wilderness, my site of trial. So as you see, there is no Seward in my story, no cabal or midnight legions. He had me released from the brig, but only from a distance. Conspiracy? They make me laugh. I was there in Virginia on military orders and God's blueprint, thus needed no self-seeker to guide my hand. I did not know when Lincoln passed that he would be a saint, yet I mourned him a prophet: we shared that. The coven they hanged in vengeance was poison enough to kill a king.

    I lived in the dugout outside Concordia and shunned all contact with the weak sex. There I earned a reputation for shooting hawks and crows. I kept sheep and went to town only for provender, but it was '78 and Barnum came to me, offered to display me in a tent with Jenny Lind and the Feejee Mermaid. I read him scripture and said the curtain of his temple would be rent. General Tom Thumb and me, indeed! I am no ordinary gelding.

    Despite Booth, it is Andersonville that has haunted me, the prisoners like so many lean kine in a pharaoh's dream. I learned to dry pemmican on the prairie and kept it in my boot so I would not be hungry again. I made my salves from forest plants and squaw recipes. This pilgrim had had his fill of men, as well, their lusts and rough talk, the addiction to swift fiddles and the scents of Sheba, but still the voice led me upon soapboxes to preach. They treated me roughly and would not heed the warnings. I took God's Glory to the streets and was cast down, all to remind me of my transgressions. And when has a man worked out his salvation? I was anonymous again.

    I sent a letter east to Booth's sister Asia, who was not the spinster I thought. She answered in calm words and said her family considered me their deliverer, as her brother's atrocities had to be stopped. She said I should have no regrets. Imagine. As if excuse from coy skirt-wearers were needed when divine instruction guides a man.

    The GAR had it in mind I should be rescued. How strange that Lincoln, once so reviled by soldiers, would become their martyr and the amusing Booth the shibboleth. They obtained a post as an assistant gatekeeper that I might have a sinecure, and as always my handiwork with firearms was admired, for my eyes had not yet dimmed. Perhaps they thought I might protect their windy orators from other assassins. At least it was a chamber where no women ventured, though the statesmen embraced plagues and pestilence.

    The story of my arrestment is exaggerated. I never fired a single shot that afternoon in Kansas, but only demonstrated with drawn weapons. No one was in danger, but it was a holiday and the pages were performing their mock session for amusement, which did not trouble me until one preening jaybird of a fellow mocked the prayer I myself had often been called upon to render when some veteran was assigning the day's offices. I will not hear God mocked. I thought to pistol-whip the whelp, but others dragged me down and wrapped my wrists in bootlace. I spoke of Migdol and Tahpanhes and reviled the golden calf, but they claimed I was only raging.

    The Topeka asylum could not hold me a year. It was more Andersonville than you imagine, and the warden put me in mind of that German hanged as a war criminal for letting prisoners rot and starve. Some half-wit postman left a horse beside the entrance, and I was up and gone, just dust in their benighted eyes.

    It was '88, and Booth himself only a rumor then, a bogeyman to frighten children. I went north, hoping the Lord would let his ice salve my sore groin. Minnesota. I lurked in the forests near the logging camp at Kettle. They needed venison, and I could still shoot. Half a decade I lived in a sod house underhill and spoke seldom to men or beasts. I was like unto a wild ass used to the wilderness that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure. The voice came rarely, and then only to tell me I should stay safe in the bosom of the outland. When the Great Hinckley Fire struck in '94, I was wandering on a hunt, bringing down buck elk and salting them, caching till I could return with the wagon. I saw the billows of smoke greater than any tobacco barn and heard the rush of birds and creatures through the brush. Rehearsal for Apocalypse. I knew it was time again to move, though history says I stayed and became a cinder.

    That was when I came here, and here is where I fell ill with the feeling of wool in my lungs. It's a smaller story than many would suppose and no secret. I thought to make a clean breast of my narrative to someone, dredge up the dregs, make my report, and you seem a kind and educated man. History is in us woven with our Creator's plan, and His Voice is the lodestone. Come closer and I will tell you the password for the Golden Kingdom. Closer still, to preserve my breath. It's Booth's, the last word, the key to paradise. 'Useless.' It rides the serpent's hiss, and why that is I will never be able to say. The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not any of us saved.

R. T. Smith's most recent collection of poems, Messenger, received the Library of Virginia Poetry Award in 2002. His next two collections, Brightwood and The Hollow Log Lounge are forthcoming in 2003 from Louisiana Sate University Press and Illinois University Press respectively. He has published stories in The Southern Review, New Stories from the South, and Missouri Review.