“Here he comes. Glad you could find your way, Pickle,” came the satirical tone of one of the sentries, “Henry was getting antsy!”.
“Well seeing as I am early, he can settle hisself and stop being in such a rush.” Quipped Dills, taking a seat on a stump near the crackling fire. The orange glow wavered and swayed, pitching two rumpled soldiers from shadow to bright illumination. The dull glint of the fire light reflected against those steel additions to the men; cold creatures that awaited their moment of need and requirement. Very few of them had understood what it was truly to wield the powers of a soldier when this all began. Now the muskets were held with an air of absent awareness which belied the true understanding within each man. This casualness spoke more of how fully man and musket had joined in purpose since their muster.
“Sleep much?”, asked Sullivan as he poured steaming coffee into a battered tin cup and passed it to Dills.
“Some. Too damp, who’d have thought in this neck of the woods?”
Henry blew on his own coffee, then thought better of it and poured it back into the large tin and bailing wire pot over the fire. “Drink much more and I’ll be searching out the sinks when I ought to be sleeping”.
There was a snap of a twig, and all three rose as one-muskets at angles, eyes peering into the gloom. “Just me”, spake a shadow that materialized in the firelight as corporal Ross, “Dills your turn-Henry skiddadle already. Anymore of that coffee hot, Scratch?”
Sullivan busied himself with the coffee as Henry made his quiet exit from the fire. The corporal sat in Henry’s place and sipped his coffee quietly. Dills and Sullivan resumed their places.
“Why do the boys call you Scratch, any way Sullivan? What’s it for?”
Sullivan smiled and glanced a moment at the corporal, who in turn was quietly considering him over the steaming tin cup in his hands.
“On account that I burn everything I fix for chow like the Devil himself, or so they say. Myself, I think you’re all just lucky to have me. Never worry about underdone salt horse with me around!”
All three chuckled, and the fire crackled and sputtered in the damp air about them. Ross kicked at the embers, and Dills carefully set another knot of wood to the fire. All was so still, that the night seemed to pour in about them like tar; sticking to everything in an unhealthy way. Each man sat such that the fire was not the center of their vision, habits learned by some from a way of life in other places; by others from hard taught lessons of the suddenness of danger and the advantage of forethought.
Such nights are often haunted, ghosts in the form of memories of other places and moments swirl in the distant shadows and tease the senses to resurrect them in thought or speech. Each man knew this, each felt the cool specter approach from out of the pitch about them and recalled-almost against their will-another place and time when they came to understand better what might lurk in those shadows which inhabit the hearts of men.
There was a pause, Sullivan broke first.
“You know what this feels like? Snelling. By God if this doesn’t remind me of doing our first guard at the fort.”, said Sullivan pulling his greatcoat closer about himself.
“When was that now?” remarked Dills.
Corporal Ross shook his head. “Ages, ages ago.”
“No, really-I cannot now recall. When was that?”
The fire popped and sparks danced into the blackness a short ways. Sullivan coughed. “Just short of a year, then to now.”
“I wonder how our little Prussian is? All that bluster, and didn’t last out the summer. Remember how he used to prattle on-spose that’s what Colonels do though.” Smiled the corporal. The others nodded.
“How eager we all were for the fight back then too.” Dills sipped his coffee. Sullivan groaned. “I was never eager, but happy to get away to something of my own choosing, that’s for certain!”
“Oh well, nice choice! Away from school and good prospects for the Army! Well done Scratch!” Laughed the corporal. Sullivan just shrugged.
Private John B. Miller cursed under his breath. He was not so used to the soldier’s life yet that his ease and comfort with profanity passed without a flicker of guilt, though the pang seemed shorter each day. He crouched in the tangle of brambles that made his post on the picket line. 15 paces to his left, was his neighbor Dan Hunt.
“Hunt, you listening...Hunt?” whispered Miller to the darkness, but there was no reply. Miller strained his ears, feeling a sudden sense of semi-panic grow in his guts. He made a step towards where Private Hunt would be, when a voice reached out and halted him like a brick wall.
“Hold up there you dern fool. I’m here, now hush up. Whatcha want?”
Miller, resumed his spot and turned back to look out over the dark woods beyond. “Just checking if you were there is all...it’s cold.”.
“Cold.” , was the quiet reply.
“Not so bad as back north though”, whispered a voice off to the right of Miller, “but cold.”.
There was long silence, and then suddenly a sharp snap of a twig some 300 yards out before the line of pickets. All eyes focused upon where the sound seemed to come from, though the night quickly played them for fools with the magic to confuse that darkness possesses. Slowly the seconds crept by, the dark seeming to deepen and then grow shallow. In their places, the pickets had become like stone-motionless, muskets sighted into the abyss. Experience showed itself upon this them, and their sudden coiled violence. Out of the swirling pitch of that damp cold materialized a butternut coat and forlorn shapeless hat which seemed to float in air-the man within them only a gray ghost in the darkness. His eyes seemed to reflect something, a faint white glow which darted as he swept the area before him for threats. The pickets tensed, fingers sliding to triggers as the butternut was joined by several others-the rebel muskets held low but ready. The glint of the enemy bayonets like sparks in the eyes of private Miller and his fellows. As one, the pickets shouted out oaths together, and flames leapt out as though to devour the butternut ghosts. The air hummed, and the crack of the muskets echoed out like thunder in the heavens. The smoke clung to the underbrush, though Miller hardly dared look until he had reloaded in a flurry of grunts and sweat, and brought his musket back up to pour death upon the enemy he expected to be close now. His aim found nothing, and he looked up and down the line a moment. The thudding in his ears drown out the quiet gasping from the thicket before them. There was no movement, no shadows fleeing the sudden violence of the Federal picket line. Gradually the stillness brought Miller back to feel the damp earth at his knee, and that the full awareness of the moment.
He had a sudden care for himself, and felt over for wounds. Had the sessesh even had a chance to fire? His next care was for his neighbor, and he risked a quiet call to Dan Hunt.
“You all right? Hunt..”
“Fine, Miller..”, came the reply.
Sergeant Stephenson was there suddenly, checking the ruckus. He went out with a pair of soldiers and the corporal of the guard, forward of the picket line briefly. He went only a short ways from where they had last seen the rebel skirmishers, before returning to the line.
“Well done boys!”, he said in a steady, quiet tone, “you got them out in the open and put a proper twist on the lot. Eyes sharp now, and be ready. If there are more, they’ll be coming shortly.”.
The sergeant conferred quietly with the corporal of the guard, and a runner vanished towards the camp. Private Miller peered out over where a moment before the enemy had been, a dryness growing in his mouth. There were sounds behind the picket line now, from where they knew the camp was. In the sky, a subdued dawn was slowly approaching from somewhere over the hills.
Miller took a gulp of water from his canteen, and tried not to think of the fact that just a short way before him lay men for whom night had fallen forever.
When the light came up and formed into a cloudy winter day with a sky like cold porridge, Hunt and Miller got a look at their ghosts. The tense night had given way to a slow realization that these poor souls had simply chosen the wrong place to wander whilst foraging. It meant, of course, that the rebel army was closer than desired, but likely as not they were unaware of the Federals, so no one expected any major attack. Officially winter was not as wild and wooly as the warm months for fighting, but it happened sometimes. The Colonel wasn’t taking chances, and had the camp bustling. The skirmishers would be deploying forward to take a look, and get a better idea where these 5 rebels had come from. Miller studied the man at his feet, who lay twisted and stiff. He had a light dusting of frost upon his eyes, which struck Miller with a pang of terror and made him blanch to gaze at the mans face. Instead, he pondered after the mans feet; wrapped in burlap and wool.
“No shoes. You hear of some of these sessesh going without, but you don’t expect to see it. I wonder how long he’d gone without?” Wondered Miller aloud.
“Bet they ate ‘em. I hear that these sessesh have it worse than we do for shortages.”, answered Hunt.
“That’s speculation Danny boy,” , interjected Sergeant O’Malley, seated on a stump behind them, “besides, if they were eatin’ their clothing he might a started wit that hat of his! Faith! What a sight!”
Miller wandered over to the seated sergeant, leaving Hunt still studying the dead rebels. The sergeant, was stuffing a pipe absently.
“Sergeant O’Malley, you mind if I ask you something?”, started Miller quietly.
“It don’t get no easier. Not that I’m any expert mind ya; but I suspect it’s that way anyway-and it’s meant to be so. The day ye get used to it is the day you need to worry.” The sergeant began to puff upon his pipe, clouds of smoke growing like a thunderstorm about him.
“You hear anything about today? We’re scouting forward, yeah?” Added Hunt, giving up on his morbid fascination to join the conversation.
“Seems so, peek about and see what mischief we might find. Beats sitting I suppose, and the Colonel has himself set to do it so there it is.” O’Malley dusted himself off, and clapped Miller on the shoulder. “You two best be looking to getting set then.”. Miller and Hunt nodded together, as the sergeant made his way towards the guard post. Hunt followed a moment later, but Miller lingered briefly, before finally joining the group. Rounding the bend, sergeant O’Malley stopped when Captain Josiah R. Dartt of Company A appeared through the brush, attended by his officers.
“By Gods sergeant, mischief afoot then?” Boomed the captain, receiving the salute offered by O’Malley.
“Yes Sir, though it wasn’t many of ‘em-looks like they might just have been scrounging or...”
The captain grunted and interrupted the sergeant.
“Well, you just show me where these rebels are-some of us have been fighting the Sessesh since last summer, I’ll trust to such opinions before I simply assume your perception of their intentions are correct. These aren’t red Indians sergeant, these are rebels!”. Captain Dartt and his entourage pushed past the sergeant with a huffy air, leaving O’Malley gritting his teeth and shaking his head. Miller and Hunt, trying not to laugh caught the sergeants eye and elicited his wrath.
“Get going you whelps, shut yer gobs-bad enough to have to deal with one peacock as to have a gaggle of cackling hens too!”, barked sergeant O’Malley as he turned on his heel and followed in the wake of Captain Dartt, leaving two laughing privates greatly enjoying themselves.
The day proved to be as exciting and inspiring as the weather. Captain Dartt returned to Colonel Hubbard and reported that indeed, it appeared only that these rebels had been seeking forage and had probably no idea what hit them when the pickets opened fire. Nonetheless, skirmishers were mustered and sent out to feel for the edges of an enemy presence. The pickets, whom had all been of Company C, were sour when they discovered that they would not be included in the fun. Amidst the company streets, grumbling could be heard in every colorful turn of phrase available to the soldiers tongue.
“You’d think we’d never fired a shot, or ducked one the way they carry on about any but themselves!” spat private Bolinger as he took a place on a stump near the company fire. Corporal Haltzdahlen and private Honan nodded and mumbled in agreement as they busied themselves with the mess. The great pot of slum roiled and gurgled steam, the gray broth swirled as it boiled.
“What are you all grousing about anyway? Let them all tramp about in the damn cold and risk their hides for some Mississippi birding gun, we’re better off.” Grumbled Private Roth, dipping his cup into the pot and taking a portion of the slum. Roth looked them all in the eye in turn, and sat unceremoniously on a overturned stump and dove into his meal. The gathered soldiers were silent, before as a man saying in unison; “Shut up, Roth!”.
The exchange released the tension, and the boys laughed despite themselves. The pot was dipped into over and over, and soon the whole mess was eating with hungry satisfaction. Miller and Hunt wandered into the ring, and took their places amongst the rest. Honan looked up, and addressed himself to the new arrivals.
“So, how many was there then Hunt? Roth swears it was a section at least-but I heard tell it was only five or six...”
“I never said such a thing, Honan, you Irish pig! I only repeated what I heard!” Interrupted Roth with a sneer, wiping his beard of a glistening drop of slum.
Honan shot up, scattering his cup and spoon with a clatter, and stood with his fists clenched and all eyes trained first on him-then to Roth. Roth simply smiled at Honan, and set his mess things behind the stump he sat upon. Corporal Haltzdahlen stood, hands out. “Let’s all be calm then...”
“What’s the matter Irish, did you hear something you did like?” Smiled Roth in a mocking tone.
“Roth, you shut your blasted mouth!” Rounded the corporal, stepping between the two men, “Quit setting fires just to see the smoke rise!”
Roth shrugged, Honan sat back down and was handed his cup and spoon. Hunt, leaned forward and dipped into the pot for seconds.
“It was only five or six , not that we knew that in the dark. They just seemed shadows, got real close before we fired. Poor goobers probably never knew what hit ‘em.” Hunt’s words hung in the space around the gathered men for a few minutes. Only the sounds of life about them, and the clink and scrape of tin on tin could be heard. Bolinger kicked the cold dirt at his feet.
“Wish they’d let us in it already. It’s this waiting, I hate it. Never had a way for be patient when I knew someone is out in the yard waiting to thump me as soon as I make out the door. I wished I had been there on that picket Hunt! You and Miller were lucky, that’s plain enough.”
Miller turned a little pale, sitting back on his stump and rising to his feet. He turned from the group and made his way away from the fire. The corporal looked to Hunt. “What’s with him?”
Hunt looked a moment in the direction that Miller had taken, before answering.
“I expect he isn’t so certain he likes being lucky.”
Miller stopped by a crooked tree to be sick. At first he was a little alarmed that he might have contracted something, like a lot of the boys did upon arriving down here. But he knew it wasn’t so; and the acceptance of that fact brought a shudder that gave him cold sweats. His stomach lurched again, bringing tears to his eyes. A hand dropped onto his shoulder, and Miller shrugged it off hard-more from surprise than anything else. Hunt stepped back, hands at his side. Miller steadied his footing and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his woolen coat. Hunt cocked his head to one side.
“You alright?”, asked Hunt.
Miller nodded, and leaned back against the tree.
“Yeah, something in that slum didn’t sit well-too used to home meals yet I’m afraid.”, answered Miller patting his stomach gingerly.
Hunt only nodded, and Miller felt suddenly ashamed of his lie. He knew what the real trouble was, and clearly so did Hunt.
A thousand thoughts blurred behind Millers eyes, as he stared at Hunt. He found himself suddenly angry at no one in particular; then at Hunt for guessing at what was churning about within him like a turbulent sea.
“Who the blazes asked you to fetch along after me? Are you my nursemaid now, Hunt?”, yelled Miller, surprising himself with the energy of his words. They seemed to echo briefly, then vanish into the grey sky. Hunt’s pale blue eyes just stared into Miller’s, unwavering. Miller felt it coming, the incredible urge to beat Hunt with his fists. To beat to a pulp the self hatred that was growing within his heart; to stamp out what Hunt could obviously see so clearly within him. Miller stood up, fists clenched, and strode towards Hunt with the rage blinding him when the other man spoke. Hunt’s voice was calm, and penetrating despite the softness of its’ tone.
“Everyone’s scared John. We are all of us pent up with the frustration for this whole bloody mess. Wasn’t one of us that joined to get stuck first fighting in our own state and then plunked down in this place. You think you are a coward because you feel badly for killing those rebels, for not feeling lucky you had a chance to kill the enemy. You know what? I think I wish I felt like you, John. You aint got a thing to be ashamed of...not a damn thing.”
Miller slowed his approach towards Hunt, then brushed past him without a word. Hunt stood for some minutes, before finally turning back towards his quarters. He made his way through the company streets, past the many semi-permanent huts thrown up by the men in various forms. Hunt nearly was run down as a man came bolting out of his hut, clouds of smoke erupting in billowing masses from the door way and every conceivable spot in the roof and walls. Hunt chuckled and grabbed the man by the arm.
“Johnson! Whatcha doing, setting up a smokehouse?”
Private Johnson scowled and grabbed a bucket that lay near the front doorway of his hut which began to rapidly vanish in a cloud of acrid white smoke. “Let me go you fool! Can’t ya see I got a chim’ fire?”, and with that He dashed off for the small stream that ran a short ways from the camp. Others were taking up the fire call as well, though as many men stood about and observed the calamity with mirth and an eye for opportunity.
“Odds! Lay your bets down gents! Here you are, markers taken! Good odds to be had on the fire! For or ‘gainst! Right here lads, honest wagers with Anders!” Shouted Private Anders over the din of the crowds. Hunt shouldered up to him, and stood watching as the old pork barrel was knocked down from where it had stood as a makeshift chimney for Johnson’s hut. It smoldered and smoked, but little real fire was to be seen. There was a collective groan from many in the crowd, and Anders began collecting the dues from the losers. There was only one winner it seemed to Hunt, and that was Anders.
“Any wonder we call you “Jackass”? Taking bets on a man’s hovel burning or not. How’s that for comradeship then?”, spat Hunt shaking his head and watching as Johnson and his fellow hut-mates did their best to vent out the remaining smoke.
“Oh, Hunt, you know business isn’t personal! Do I make the boys bet, do I twist their arms to get ‘em to wager on whatever sport I see odds in? You know better then that!”, smiled Anders with an air of hurt feelings. Hunt grunted incredulously and looked away. Anders laughed at Hunt’s response, and gathered himself up before wandering off towards his own hut.
“You’ll pardon Me Hunt, but I have louse races to officiate. A business man can’t ignore his responsibilities if he expects to make good!” , called Anders over his shoulder. Hunt smiled despite himself, and resumed his march back to his own hovel in search of sleep.
Colonel Hubbard stared hard at the map spread before him, tracing the lines of the river and the converging roads. He rubbed his fingertips through his beard, and scratched his head. Lt. Colonel Gere, head cocked to one side and seated across from Hubbard, watched his commander with the eyes of a man well studied in the others reaction and mood. The moments ticked by, Hubbard tracing a line on the map, clicking his tongue quietly before finally sitting back and shaking his head.
“Well, well. It’s a pickle thing, isn’t it Will? Not when we want to be engaging the enemy, but then we can’t let them sit where they are either. I can’t figure how they can’t know where we are as yet.”, sighed Colonel Hubbard.
Lt. Colonel William Gere nodded, and cleared his throat. He brushed some dust from his boots. “If they don’t know, yeah. To my mind, they know well enough, and mean to sit as they are to keep us pinned under their thumb when the fighting starts.”, Gere stood and stepped over to the map. “Here, look-we know that they are encamped here, and here. Right?”, he said, pointing to the map, “But we aren’t fully sure what might be just over the hills here to the East, and southeast. Last we heard it was open, but that was about the same time we’d been told the northeast was clear too-and we know that is no longer true.”.
“I was considering that too, as were others. Still, it is what it is. The orders are there,” Hubbard gestured to a set of papers folded on his nearby camp desk, “and they are specific.”.
Gere slowly rose to his feet, and retrieved the folded orders. Hubbard drew a pipe from within his coat, and absently poked at the tobacco within. He drew from a matchsafe a stumpy lucifer and snapped it into sudden life. A cloud of sweet, subtle tobacco smoke shot up into the air as though a tiny locomotive had issued into the room. Hubbard watched Gere as he stood quietly reading the orders, knowing well what was within them.
Hubbard cleared his throat. “It’s not as though we’ve never had tough orders before Will. Since we’ve been here they’ve thrown us at every stubborn stump in the meadow, and we’ve done fine. We don’t really know what we’ll find.”
Gere nodded, and turned back to stand before Hubbard. “Yes, we’ve had tough work Lucius, but what bothers me is we don’t know what’s out there. We have three companies that we don’t know the mettle of truly...don’t give me that look, you know I’m right! Lucius, we’ve had reports of the affairs up there, but how will they fair against the rebels?”. Gere stared at Hubbard for a good minute, before smiling quietly and resuming his seat. Hubbard quietly puffed his pipe silently. Gere folded up the orders and passed them back to the Colonel with a chuckle. “Okay, I’ve had my rant then. Thank you for hearing me out Lucius, you know I need to speak my mind before I can set myself to a task.”.
Hubbard nodded. “Sadly, I don’t fully disagree with you Will. You’re quite right, we don’t know what is out there really. We haven’t seen what B, C and D can really do down here as yet-though those boys showed toughness enough last summer. If reports can be trusted about what went on back home, we may find ourselves having to keep up with them. Besides, it was boys from C that are at the start of those orders anyway; it was they that laid out those rebs who came calling.”. The colonel stood, and stepped over to the map again. Gere joined him, standing opposite, leaning against the table. “Well then Will,”, spoke Hubbard rapping his knuckle against the map, “let us look to our duty, and may fortune and providence provide us luck.”.
An hour later, the Adjutant went about the camp to pass the world along to the captains of the regiment to assemble for an officers briefing in an hour. This news traveled along the many channels, as news in an army camp will, until each and every foot sore private and mangy teamster had it on “good authority” that the powers that be were preparing for something.
“Not just somethin’,” swore private Dougan, “but somethin’ serious, and like as not hazardous.”
Hunt nodded, seated in the gaggle of soldiers at the company fire. Miller sat opposite, but seemed determined not to meet anyone’s gaze. Instead, he focused on the embers of the slow, smokey fire glowing at the groups collective feet. Hunt heard a familiar derisive chuckle, and looked to the tall soldier in the slouch hat with his arms crossed.
Mcfall smiled and shook his head. “Dougan, you don’t know any more or less than we do. You’re just dreaming that up of your own speculation.”. There was a general grumbling of adherence to this point of view, and Dougan sat tight lipped and dejected. Charles Henry Dills, the young son of Daniel, clapped a hand on Dougan’s shoulder in consolation. His father, Daniel, and his uncle Charles, sat to the left of the young soldier, absorbed in thought. Bolinger chewed on a corner of indelibly hard bread, and with a shower of crumbs retorted his thoughts on the matter at hand.
“Speculation is all any of us has got just now, but it doesn’t take some pigeon toed General to figure what it could be. Like as not, our guesses are closer to scripture anyways-seeing as it’s us that do the work of it anyhow!”, there was universal pleasure with his mentality, and “Bear” as he was known for his manner and stature, was roundly appraised as something akin to the soldiers’ Socrates. Sullivan, who had had a bit more reading of the Greek than what most of his comrades had absorbed from various common school primers and readers, simply shook his head as a wry smile crossed his lips. Discussion continued, with the debate being pushed from the announcement that there was an all out assault in the works to the lovely but improbable thought that perhaps old Jeff Davis had finally decided to give up all the fuss and simply challenge Uncle Abe to a pugilistic display, with the winner taking the prize of a victory in the war. Sergeant Stephenson and private Honan took decidedly different views on how many rounds it would last, but not on whom would be the victor.
Stephenson shook his head and laughed. “You’re crazy Honan if you think old Jeff will last so long! I think he’d be lucky to make 2 rounds with an Illinois back-lander like Lincoln!” Honan smiled broadly.
“Oh, I know Abe would win-likely as not split that rascal up for rail fences-but I say ole’ Jeff is slippery enough to squirm out a few of the scrapes all the same. If we can get ‘em together for a match, I’d lay currency down I’m so certain!” The crowd burst into laughter at this thought, and as the mirth died down a silence replaced it. As though every man gathered was willing the joviality to go on without halting, even knowing it was determined and bound to do so. Hunt looked up to catch Miller glancing at him before looking away. Men sat and rubbed hands, fiddled with buttons needing attention, and swung their feet absently as they sat on logs and various castoff flotsam of camp. Charles and Daniel Dills both rested on a pair of worn and nicked chairs, items they had scrounged from somewhere-cementing their common fame as Master Scroungers. The youngest Dills, who’s joining up had apparently started the rolling stone of the inevitable enlistment of Father and Uncle, was a seemingly more serious student of the volunteer army and didn’t partake in such activities. Private Rose and Henry had arranged themselves such as to start a game of cards for matchsticks, when 1st Lt. Forbes appeared around the bend of tents in the company street.
“Sergeant! A word if you please!”, came the crisp, urgent tone of the first lieutenant. Every man in the circle reached out as best they could with their ears to catch what was up; their eyes risking glances and long stares. The conversation was brief, but that made for greater urgency amongst the group. Bodies grew taught, movement ceased, and all eyes without the least hesitation, fixed upon the sergeant as he made his way back to them. Forbes had turned about and marched back the way he had come with some speed. What could it mean? Every man gathered pondered a thousand possibilities in those long seconds as sergeant Stephenson came to a halt and spoke.
“Alright, boys, here it is.”, he paused, and looked around. Private Rose and Honan looked about ready to explode with anticipation. “The officers sinks are in a bad way, and I need some strong backs to get them sorted. Who’s going?”, barked the sergeant, looking from man to man. There was silence, until a long groan issued from the mass of blue clad men.
“You’re not serious! The officers sinks?, shouted private Rose, “they’re cracked, and that’s for certain!”.
Stephenson started scribbling in a small journal. “Alright then, Rose, Honan, Henry, Miller-it’s you bunch. No arguments, you all know it has to be done and that’s it. Get along then, I fear Forbes has a need and is expecting you. Likely as not the lieutenant will be dancing by the time you finish.” The assembled group scowled, but with a sharp look by the sergeant, the detail moved away as ordered towards where the officers had their sinks. The remaining group resumed their vigil about the fire, as the camp continued to live and breathe like a living thing about them.
“It’s bound to be soon,” mumbled Charles Dills, twiddling his thumbs as he sat hunched over in his chair some time later, “unless the rumor is just that...a rumor..and the cause of all this unease really was only the necessaries of the officers being in a poor way.”.
“Hurry up and wait, wait and hurry up-that’s how it is here! Make a man mad, the way they do things!” Groused Dougan, leading to all round agreement. They had just begun to commiserate this further when Hunt looked up and saw O’Malley coming their way from the company street.
“I think it’s wait and hurry up. Here’s O’Malley.”, said Hunt, standing up. Everyone looked, and sergeant O’Malley pointed to the group.
“Boys, get yerselfs together, and on the quick! We are to form up and present ourselves in 10 minutes! Be sprightly, couter’ up!”, O’Malley walked right past them and on to where his hut was to started getting ready himself. As the men rose to their feet, they could see others around them coming to life. Groups of men, seated about fires like stone figures, suddenly were transformed from dark colored rocks into living beings. There was no reluctance or slowness to them now, but simply determined action. The long roll was sounding, the company drummers beating out the signal to prepare for duty and assemble. The camp, already a hive of activity, doubled in its frenzy. Everywhere the excitement of the moment hummed like a low rumble, a grim and set quality to every movement and preparation.
Within a half hour, the whole of the regiment was assembled; but it took a quarter of that for the final word on their destination to make it’s way through the ranks. Ironically it was lads on the officers sink detail who came back with the full story, having easily overheard the Colonel discussing their orders whilst answering the call of nature. Private Dougan, feeling vindicated at last, was grinning ear to ear and making sure to remind everyone around him that he had predicted this. This spawned a general debate about what Dougan had actually said, which might have gotten heated had not Captain Sheehan not appeared and put an end to it. “You men, quiet in the ranks!”, Sheehan shouted, striding back and fourth along the line, glaring daggers at the assembled company. The affect was something akin to a splash of cold water in the face of a groggy man; and shortly the group was aware and sober. This all slowly spread to the collected group, until finally only the quiet sounds of so many men gathered and awaiting some great event could be heard. There was only a moment or so before Colonel Hubbard appeared on a chestnut colored horse, and reigned in a little before the head of the regiment. He stood up in the stirrups and fixed the assembled men with a sharp look, before sitting back down in the saddle and turning to his adjutant.
“Attention, Battalion!”, shouted Major Hall; a call taken up and repeated down the line until everyone stood awaiting the Colonel’s address. Nervous, Hubbard’s horse paced back and forth a bit before halting and pawing the dirt. Colonel Hubbard looked over his gathered men briefly, wetted his lips and began.
“I know you boys have likely heard something of what we are set to do today, so I won’t keep you here standing about for an unnecessary speech. We have been chosen to move out and seek to know the disposition of the field before us; to discover the intentions of the enemy and if possible uncover their position. Some of us have carried out such orders previously; for those that have not I know you will prove yourselves capable.”, Colonel Hubbard paused a moment, then suddenly drew his sword and brandished it aloft and finished with a shout, “The honor of this work is granted to us, let us not falter!”.
The Battalion took up a cheer, but quickly the sergeants made to suppress it and make everyone ready. Shortly thereafter, the regiment marched from their camp with those others of their corps watching intently, and calling out the occasional encouragement. The musicians music accompanied them to the edge of the camp, playing a smart version of “Old 1812”, which filled Hunt with a pride he could not quite explain. To be a part of such a show of power and martial intent as the full regiment marching together, swelled many a head and gave not a few the sensation that invincibility rode like angels upon their shoulders. But each also knew better, and felt like a cold breath of air upon the backs of their necks, that danger awaited them. When they reached some unseen marker, the musicians ceased their playing, and only the sound of many men on the move was left to fill the strange stillness of the morning. At last the order moved along the line for the route step, but while the pace became more relaxed, the mood of the men did not. With every step, the hills and tangled thickets grew closer, and the quiet whispering and conversations along the line drifted to full silence. Looking over the columns of soldiers, Honan frowned and elbowed Roth at his shoulder. “Hey, you notice something about them boys up there?”, whispered Honan as Roth scowled at him.
“Aside from the fact that they walk along like they are all headed off to work the fields, I can’t say I do Irish. What’s you getting at?”, spat Roth in reply.
Sullivan, to the other side of Honan, watched the men of Company A briefly before emitting a low whistle. “I see what you mean Honan, they’re hardly paying any attention at all.”.
Honan nodded, and Roth’s smirk vanished. Looking about he realized it for the first time; recognized suddenly what he had been doing as well while they marched along. Roth looked over his shoulder, and looked back to Company D. The men of companies B, C, and D were moving with an eye to the thickets and underbrush. Watching with rapt intent upon those places from where ambush and attack might likely come, whilst all those of the regiment who had come directly south simply walked along seemingly without a thought to anything but what their orders required.
“Well then,” grumbled Roth, “let’s hope the rebels are kind enough to wait to attack until these other lads are given the command to pay attention!”.
There was agreement all about, as slowly the dark tangle of thickets gave way before them.
“Alright you men, take your rest! Sergeants, set your men over in those trees but don’t wander off-we’ll be moving out soon.” Instructed the Major, as he made his way along the lines of halted men. He had been the captain of company C just months before, and many of those who had served under him previously nodded and exchanged a smile as the Major went by. The sergeants directed them as required, but the men were happy to take a rest and required little coaxing. Private Rose, Honan, and Johnson collapsed in a clump around the base of a mossy oak. Men grouped themselves in little knots, conversing quietly.
“Well lads, here we are. Think we’ll find mischief?” Johnson spoke between stifling a yawn.
“Hope so,” sighed Rose, musket laid across his lap, “hate to take a walk for nothing.”
Sergeant Stephenson wandered along the line, musket slung over his shoulder, quietly speaking to the group. “Just waiting for our support to come up boys, few minutes and we ought to be heading out.”
Up ahead a little, Private Lyman Grandy called out to the sergeant as he passed. “Hey sergeant, get the Colonel to let us go already! We don’t need no one else to put the sessesh on the run!”
A collective chuckle was joined by several other shouts, but the sergeant waved them down with a wry grin and made his way along out of sight shaking his head. A slight wind rose and whistled through the mostly barren limbs of the trees, sounding lonely and mournful. The men sat, listless and anxious, the ground cold beneath them-the stiff winter grass prickly and sharp. Hunt, near the front of his companies line, watched a soldier of company A twirling his cap on the end of his musket. Another near him was doing his best to take a nap.
“I envy that fellow,”, spoke a voice at Hunt’s elbow. Looking over, there sat Miller with his legs pulled up to his chest and musket leaning at his right shoulder. Hunt nodded, and Miller looked back over their own company line.
“I do too,” responded Hunt at last, “I don’t think I could do that if I wanted too anymore. I wonder-do you think that makes him braver, or more foolish?”
Miller smiled, and shook his head. “Probably both, if I’m any judge of these things.”
Silence reigned between the men for a bit, but both could feel the building momentum for what Miller said next.
“I’m sorry about before,” Miller began.
“Don’t think on it Miller, really.”, said Hunt, but Miller pressed on.
“Naw, I have to say this and get it from spinning about in my head anymore. Something about how that dead boy looked that morning, it reminded me of Mark Greer.”.
“Wait,” spoke Hunt, “from last summer? At Ridgely?”.
Miller nodded, and shook his head a little. “Not to look at of course, they didn’t look a thing alike. But something about the way that boy was laid out-the expression of his face-, struck accord I guess. I was right near Greer when he was killed. Seems forever ago now, haven’t really thought on it until I saw that reb laying there.”
Hunt shifted about to face Miller, laying his musket across his lap. Miller went on.
“What bothers me is that when Greer was laying at my feet, with that look of surprise so set on his face, I felt numb. No, I wasn’t numb, I just felt nothing-at least at first. If anything, all I felt was anger, and a desire to avenge the death of one of ours on those devils trying their best to have our hides. Not that we could easily vent such desires on a body, the way they attacked from concealment and surprise-well you remember how it was.”, Hunt nodded, and said nothing. “But to feel something, to feel that lurch in my guts over that rebel! Why him, and not Mark Greer? Someone I had eaten with, and frozen with at Snelling!” Miller stopped suddenly, and looked about. He realized that his voice had risen without his meaning to do so, and many eyes had come to rest upon him. Sheepishly, Miller frowned and mouthed a quiet ‘sorry’, to those about him.
“You’ve no reason to feel guilty John.”, spoke Hunt quietly. “Though I’m not sure that any of us will have much control over such things; I’d even suggest that we’ve a great many more unbidden experiences to live through yet before this is all said and done.”
Miller smiled weakly, and then went slightly pale and serious. “I reckon you’re right about that. Dan, tell me true, do you think I have the fortitude to be a soldier? I mean, do you think I might be proving too cowardly for all this?”.
Hunt looked his friend in the eye a moment, and then clapped a hand on Miller’s shoulder. “You’re vexing yourself over the fear that you aint got the constitution for all this? That your being afraid and feeling sick over seeing that sessesh might mean you are a yellow coward?”.
“Don’t mince words Dan, say what you think!”, retorted Miller slightly angry.
Hunt laughed, and punctuated his response with gentle push to Millers shoulder. “I’m trying to, you fool jackass! Look, you think anyone here is any braver or more stalwart than you are? Wasn’t any of us joined up in this war with reality in mind, not a one. The lot of us marched off to Snelling to learn the rough business of war thinking it would be fun, and exciting. Fool boys thinking that they would march off with pomp and clamor to fight the battles of our childhood games amid the orchards with wooden muskets.”.
Miller just stared at him, his mouth open slightly. Hunt sighed, and went on.
“What I mean is, I think what we thought we knew about war and being a soldier comes to naught. It’s aint about proving yourself some unstoppable scion of war; or the sharpest uniform or any of that. War is dirty, and profane and painful. It’s terror and boredom. Miller, you aint any different than the rest of us. We’re all afraid. We’ve seen things men ought never see, we know the secret all soldiers know. We know how sudden and meaningless it all can be; and that when the ruckus begins it ceases being some glorious struggle and just becomes survival. You’re no coward Miller, you just aint a boy playing at war anymore is all. We’ve seen it. You’re just sensible enough not to like it.”.
Miller nodded, and smiled slightly at his friend. “You sure can talk a man’s ear off when you get going.”. Hunt laughed, loud enough that a corporal neither of them knew from company A told then to quiet down. Drawing out a checked cloth and a lumpy muslin bag from his haversack, Miller and Hunt settled down for a game a droughts.
It wasn’t more than an hour before reports came that the supporting units from the Brigade had come up at last. There was a fair amount of grumbling on some quarters, both for having to act in support and having to been made to wait to move because of a need for support; but in the end the monstrous machine that was the Army began it’s inevitable advance. The 5th Minnesota was assigned to the duty of the first regiment in line, and therefore deployed skirmishers and flankers for their advance. The regiment broke their lines by company, with the first half moving directly into the southern tangle, and the second at a left oblique going South East. The regiments in support formed up to the rear, and sat eagerly awaiting news of what Hubbard and his lads might scare up. It was slow going for those moving east, with a mass of tangled and snarled roots and heavy brush met them at every turn. After an hour, they had covered less ground than the companies on the south east, but at least they had also not come under attack. A halt was called, and every man took cover as skirmishers are want to do. Laying on the cold ground amid several dark sections of two large fallen trees; Privates Honan, Rose, Johnson, and Burke pulled their greatcoats about them tightly to ward off the chill. Not far away, they could hear Private McFall and Kellogg bickering in whispers.
“Not my fault, you fool! I told you we’d be out and about long enough that you’d feel the cold. Next time listen, I have more sense then you do Kellogg!”, came the sound of McFall’s voice over the damp, rotting log.
“Damn fine mess this! Mississippi, half way to perdition for heaven’s sake, and it’s cold! I hate this damn thing! Stuff the officers, just making us do this on account of spite! I heard tell that they knows right where the few rebs are planted, but we got the job of ensuring there weren’t more of ‘em. I bet they know there aint no more, just wasting time!”, came the angry whisper of Kellogg in response.
Burke, a ruddy faced boy of eighteen or so and a propensity for preying on anyone who displayed a sour disposition, started to taunt Kellogg on the other side of the log.
“Hey, Kellogg-why don’t you quit your nagging and save all our ears.”, sniped Burke, with a wicked gleam in his eye.
“Yeah, “ came the response, “you stuff it too Burke. When I want to hear from your like, I’ll hang about the sinks after the men have beans!”
Everyone broke up with laughter, despite the cold and where they were. Rose called over with his estimation that Kellogg had in fact approximated Burke’s personality fairly closely. Honan, and Johnson simply chuckled. McFall was quiet, then emitted a small laugh and congratulated Kellogg on making “one of the best comments he’d heard all day.”. Burke, understandably was far from pleased, and he shot angry looks at the group near him. Then he turned that bile on Kellogg.
“Yeah, think you’re pretty clever don’t you Kellogg! Try and say that to my face, and see how long you laugh about it!”, Burke gritted his teeth. From off to the left Corporal Haltzdahlen called out, “What’s the matter down there! keep still and quiet!”. But Burke wouldn't let it go, he was set to have Kellogg out one way or the other.
“Nothing smart to say now, eh, Kellogg? Huh?”, needled Burke, rising slightly to his knees. Honan, fearing he meant to throw himself over onto the unsuspected Kellogg, called out, “Burke, get down then! Let it go!”.
Kellogg started to say something, but no one ever knew what that might have been for what happened directly after. Burke, face ugly with anger, jumped up to make at Kellogg on the other side of the log. He was silhouetted against the grey and black of the sky and sprawling branches of the wood about them for only a moment, but that was all it took. There three or four staggered snaps, not so loud as one would think, and then a hiss that seemed to reach out and strike at Burke as though some unseen serpent had leapt through the air to have at him. Burke’s head lolled to one side, and blood ran from his nostrils before he came crashing to the ground. His musket clattered over the log, and vanished from sight. The shot echoed through the woods for what seemed like forever, as every man came to life and made themselves as small a target as possible. Laying only inches away, Burke’s angry lips were still curled in rage. McFall’s voice was stern and quiet. “Burke, is he dead then? How’s everyone else?”.
“Plum through the noggin, and aside from new drawers maybe-the rest of us are alright.”, whispered back Johnson.
“Anyone see where it come from?”, came a whispered voice from off to the right.
“Walked right into ‘em, or else they were poking about like we were and come up on us.”, offered a voice off to the left.
They lay quiet a few moments, soldiers chancing a peek into the thickets ahead from time to time. At last, word came along the line that they were to prepare to advance, and that their support was drawing up close behind. The tension rose amidst the soldiers rapidly, and no one wanted to be the first to stand up when the order came. At last, a first sergeant came striding along the line as easy as though he were on a nice afternoon stroll; drawing O’Malley in his wake at a slightly less enthusiastic gate.
“Rise up boys! Rise up and as skirmishers, forward march!”, sang out the first seregant, his great mustache near obscuring the rest of his face. O’Malley grabbed and physically dragged up Anders, who was complaining of illness quietly, but moved along at the insistence of the sergeants brogan to the seat of his trousers well enough. Three steps forward, and not one more, before the enemy let loose with seven rapid shots towards the advancing line. The men, startled by the sudden eruption of fire, ducked and flinched in place. The enemy lead, hissing and whistling like some hot weather insect bent upon their blood, zipped past ears and shoulders without striking flesh. Suddenly apparent, the rebel skirmishers made to relocate through the thickets, but now they were all too tempting to the vengeful eyes of the 5th Minnesota-and a hail of returning shots sought them out as they ran. The gnarled tress and vines proved secessionist conspirators, halting the path of many of the federal bullets-but not all.
“I got one! Take that, you rascals! That’s for Burke!”, shouted Kellogg with a fury.
With a cheer, and a sudden surge of fearless abandon, the line leapfrogged forward. It was as though the boys had suddenly recalled their work, and knew better than their enemy how to press the land into service of their advantage. Again and again, the rebels would swing about and open fire upon the advancing union soldiers; only to be fired on in return with a voracious clatter of musket leads seeking their lives. An hour later, when faces were powder smudged and brows dripped from exertion; a bugle sounded somewhere to the rear, and Stephenson’s voice rang out calling the men to halt and form on the center. Jogging back to the rally point, lines began to form, and each man of the company began to look about to see that everyone resumed their place. A murmur went through the gathering as first Burke was noted; but then Anders; Wahlberg; and Miller. Captain Sheehan went striding past with Lieutenant Forbes calling to the boys for the good job they had done, telling them to stand ready for whatever might be needed of them next.
“I bet Anders just pissed hisself and found a hole to hide in!”, hissed Charles Dills behind Hunt from the rear rank.
“You’re just jealous he found that hole before you, Charlie!”, responded private Grandy with a good following of cheer from Johnson who was nearby. Charles, began to retort when suddenly a look of frustration crossed his face. At last he responded, “Devil if I can refute that, you’re right!”, and the nearly the whole company burst into laughter.
“Poor Burke, though he was a tiresome nag, my Providence be kind.”, lamented Honan. There was a general murmur of agreement, with someone adding words for Wahlberg.
“Miller, though, what a lion! Did you see his dash up amidst the enemy to snatch away that fool from company A?”, said someone down a ways from where Hunt stood. He leaned out, trying to hear the rest. When this proved unprofitable, he called out, “What’s that about Miller?”.
It was Henry, standing with the easy manner he carried from camp to battleground. He nodded, and eyes shining he went on.
“Miller was a lion, if ever there was one in this army! When the first shots rang out this fool of A company was just standing there, drinking of his canteen like he was in the middle of the parade ground and no enemies about, and took a wound to the shoulder. He spun about like a top, and sure and Dougan and I though he was a dead one for certain. But up pops Miller from his safe tangle of downed trees, slings his musket and drags this boy away to the rear. Two or three more rebs did their best to make sure of ‘em both, but not a one was a match for ole’ Miller then!”.
Dougan leaned out nodding as well. “It’s true, Lord strike Me if it aint! That boy he was carrying bleeding at the shoulder and crying out to his Mama for the pain; and there’s Miller as solid as stone and fleet as a hawk. Miller always was a good fellow, but I never expected that!”.
“Alright you men, left face!”, came a shout from off to the left. The company ordered themselves into columns of four, men moving forward to occupy the few places vacated by the previous inhabitants. This brought Hunt into line with the three Dills, replacing Wahlberg. Then, without explanation, they set off at the quickstep.
They moved off to the South East a little and were rejoined by the companies of the 5th that had probed in that direction. Once the runners had been sent to report the situation, the regiment was allowed a short rest while the support units were brought up. It was becoming clear to everyone that they were going to do a determined push into the East, since the South East appeared clear. The men were told to check their ammunition and water, to be sure that all was in as good a state of readiness as possible before moving out. The further end of a stream that ran through their own camp jutted its way amongst the trees nearby, and several boys gathered up canteens and proceeded to fill the lot. Hunt passed several canteens onto Roth, who was kneeling down near the water when Miller, came upon them. Several voices raised at his arrival, and Miller smiled but looked grim. He nodded to Hunt and started filling his canteen.
“Same fool we saw earlier, lazy and relaxed,”, started Miller, looking up at Hunt, “Seems them other boys aren’t quite so inattentive as we were thinking-anymore I suppose than they think we are green for not having been here since last summer. All the same, that boy is inattentive, and he took a wallop. Likely loose his arm, but he’ll live.”
Hunt slung several of the now full canteens over his shoulder and got to is feet; followed by Miller and Roth. Together they wandered back to the assembled knots of men, and returned the canteens to their owners. Miller was given a great deal of congratulations, and even a little awed appreciation for his actions. To all of this attention, Miller modestly deflected their praise best he could. The afternoon wore on, and the grey skies opened up into a cold misty drizzle. Over an hour they had sat, waiting for the order to move-but it didn’t come. The moisture worked it’s way into the men, into their souls, so that when they spoke their voices became water-logged echos of the sunnier dispositions that had arrived here. When at last many were on their filthiest oath yet regarding the Army, officers, and Mississippi weather; the sergeants called the men to their feet in the growing mud and ordered them to load. Many of the men were already so prepared, but those who had not did so quickly.
“Alright boys, keep them muzzles down lest that rain get any more into ‘em than it already be.” Grumbled a muddy and wet sergeant O’Malley who lacked his normal zip-clearly a casualty of the weather’s offensive. He moved along the line, followed by corporals Ross and Haltzdahlen and issued a handful further of cartridges to each man. “Get into yer boxes right quick boyos!”, snapped O’Malley, “don’t need the rain spoiling it!”.
There was a hush on the men, as the drizzle soaked into their clothing and leathers-the moment had served to do what no amount of threat and punishment by those in charge had ever accomplished before. The lively nature, the mischievous quality of these westerners had been dulled, and reigned in by what they all sensed awaited them. An ominous, expectant mood. No jokes, or commentary. Just the soft sound of the wet trees moving in a slight breeze, the gentle patter of moisture dripping to the cold ground and brittle grass. When every man had done whatever he could to pass the time, they were left with the waiting. Some paced, some stood and rocked on their heels; other yet found bits of shelter or sat with their back to another and conversed in quiet tones. At last, the word was passed along to fall into line, and every man went to it with purpose. The gnarled and twisted trees prevented them from seeing the whole of the group down the long line, but the energy in the air made it clear they existed. The two elder Dills, Daniel and Charles, were reminding the younger, Charles Henry, to “be smart, not some ‘Periodical’s Tiger’ charging out before the line as those tales in weekly publications vaunted”. Dills, the younger, seemed unamused with his Father and Uncle. “When the time comes,” the youth replied with a dubious air to their wisdom, “I’ll follow orders and prove myself as I already done last summer.”. Elder age could only shake their heads, and pray. Everywhere in the lines, soldiers made their religious, superstitious, and habitual incantations for their safety-as soldiers are want to do. When once more it seemed that the war had called the ball to begin but the musicians had missed the cue, the command came to advance.
They didn’t have so far to go as they had thought. The first minnie-ball buzzed past private Honan’s ear and set him to cursing a blue streak just about the time of his fourteenth step. He yelped, and slapped a hand to his left ear just to be sure it was still there, as the shot had passed so close to his head. Amid the tangle of twisted, wet trees, they watched their enemy materialize from the darkness of the wood. Bayonets glistened with a dull glint of cold, unrelenting purpose. A desire to rush forward and tear the enemy asunder was palatable amongst the Federals; this line of grey, brown, and butternut clad men seemingly the only obstacle between them and escape from the rain and anxious anticipation of violence. Now the cause of this whole affair was before them, or at least a corporeal portion of it, and these Minnesota boys wanted at them. Captain Sheehan was obliged to restrain the men, whose difference in actions showed against the more resolute solidity of the other companies of the 5th. “Hold boys, you’re anxious to scrap, but hold for the order!”, shouted their officers, as men strained the lines forward like dogs at the leash on sight of their quarry. Ever closer, drizzle running in their eyes, hearts beating hard and fast. Closer, closer until the enemy ceased to be uniforms and became men. They could all feel the command before it was given, and stopped on the spot as the words rang out on one side-then the other. The deafening pounding of their hearts surged into their ears, drowning out yet intensifying sound as well. Their eyesight grew into blurred tunnels allowing only the alarming view of the enemy raising their muzzles as though to touch the Federal line; declaring their intention to do their best to deprive wives of husbands, children of fathers, communities of the best and worst of future generations. All at once Hunt, knew he too was sighting along the barrel at a man some 150 yards distant before him. Stephenson and O’Malley, pacing behind them were yelling, “Aim low boys, and don’t waste your volley on the trees beyond!”. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and the thundering of the pulse in Daniel Dills’ ears was overtaken with the beating of his heart. He felt at his shoulders a brother and a son. The generations of one family standing in the sights of men from Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. His grip tightend on his musket, as a prayer tumbled through his mind. Private Rose, gritted his teeth as the order rang out in the heavy air, and his finger pulled the trigger. Their muskets roared to life just as time seemed to catch up with them, and a sheet of orange and yellow was devoured by the thick white foam of smoke as both sides fired. The angry buzz of bullets whipped by, but seemed to seek every space unfilled by mortal flesh and bone. Both sides reloaded, men doing as drill had taught without thought; their muscles taking over and pushing their shaken mentalities from a place where rote lessons only might ensure survival.
The enemy line swayed, then lurched forward to wards the Federals. It looked as though the rebels suddenly couldn’t keep upright, and then the butternut-brown and grey wave crashed into them and the world became tumultuous. Muskets flung through the air, bayonets clashed and slid across one another. Elbows, legs, fists, and feet swung with violent force. Muskets discharged so close that men fell away with clothing smouldering and smoking from the blast, voices cried
out in terror and pain. Then, as soon as it had begun, the bodies disentangled themselves from one another, and the enemy was falling back. Miller loaded, ignoring the great gash across his forehead, and sighted at a man doing his best to escape from their lines. Before he could fire, the man cried out and tumbled sidelong to the ground. Down the line, someone else was cheering his marksmanship. The sergeants and officers were drawing them back into line, forcing the men back to discipline and order. Miller realized how far forward of their lines he had been drawn by the sessesh tide that had washed over them, and stumbled his way back. He stepped over several men laying sprawled in the cold dirt, and felt a sudden overwhelming joy that he was not amongst them. When he had rejoined the line, he was met by Honan whose face was so blackened with powder that his blue eyes looked wild set against the soot of war.
“Lord and all, that’s a nasty cut Miller!”, said Honan handing him a handkerchief and making him press it against his forehead. It stung, and this further helped Miller’s eyes to focus. Over Honan’s shoulder, Daniel Dills was strongly embracing his son. Not far from them, Charles Dills was kneeling with Bolinger by the body of Kellogg. Roth’s voice was to be heard from somewhere off to the right exclaiming, “Bloody damn thing ruined my canteen! Look at that, empty! Ball went clean through!”. Rose and Henry were exchanging extra caps for cartridges; Rose with his left arm bound from a grazing wound. The lines were brought back under order again, and the sounds and glimpses of other regiments being brought into formation greeted
them. Soon they were moving forward, and for some ways they clambered over the fallen of the enemy; men who had so recently drawn breath in a vigorous attempt to rob the boys of the 5th of life and future. Hunt looked at them; twisted and broken forms of humanity laid out as death had caught at their coat and shirttails, looking as they had fought to shake off the cold of the grave until the last moment. At last, they were beyond the bodies, and pressing into the grey lands beyond. The trees slowly gave way to a shaggy, brown field which rose unevenly on the right
side into a long sloping hill. The drizzle began to slow as they moved into the open, and faded into the grey-white clouds which seemed to drift lazily only as short distance above them. A few shots rang out as they started across the field, but it seemed clear now that the rebels wanted nothing more than to slow the Federals advance. The shots went wild and high, not aimed at all but simply snapped in panic at the dark living mass which pursued them. As they mounted the
flank of the sloping hill, the company halted and took aim at those flying before them. Muskets rattled and thundered in one great volley, all along the exposed line from right to left which echoed in the hollow day like ungodly wrath. As the smoke cleared, more rebels lay broken before them amid the long brown grass. A wind came up, swirling the mists and bringing with it
more cold drizzle. The men stood at the ready, breath visible as the temperature of the air slowly dropped. After a short while, when it become more than obvious that their work was finished, the regiment was recalled from their lines to be replaced by a fresh reserve arrayed in a line of skirmish to serve as the Federal Army’s new extended picket. As the 5th Minnesota made their way back to camp, Roth swapped his shot through canteen for a new one from those laying at their feet.
“Roth, you ghoul!”, spat Dougan at Roth as the latter relieved the fallen rebel of his canteen. Roth caught up with the line and slung both old and new over his shoulder.
“Keep your noise, you hooligan. That fellow don’t need it anymore.”, came the reply.
In the grand scheme of things, it had been little more than a skirmish. Corporal Ross suggested that skirmishes only become battles when the Generals are on the field. There were few that dissented from this opinion. All agreed that while history might not record the day, they would not soon forget it. When they returned at last to their camp, the efforts of the day smote their ruin upon them and men collapsed without even removing their gear. The drizzle grew heavier into a light rain and mixed with the mud, spattered blood, and sweat. Men were reassigned huts, to help fill vacancies and even out distribution. Overall, their losses had been quite light, though there were several badly wounded in one of the regiments from Ohio that had been on the left flank of
the advance. Company C buried four; Burke, Kellogg, Wahlberg, and as a surprise to them all, Anders. He was found amid a knot of rebels afterward, stabbed through by bayonet. The outpouring of grief for someone so universally despised surprised them all, but Anders’ burial proved the most wrenching. It was some time before gambling in the camp resumed the levels
Word came that General Grant and a Major General Smith would be arriving in several days to
review the entire expeditionary force, and that led to the rumor mill working overtime about what such a visit might mean. Many suggested that it meant they were destined for some heavy campaign, or that they were about to change Corps commanders yet again. Life meanwhile, returned to the monotony of fatigue details, guard duty, and hours spent existing in camp. As time wore on, no one could recall the bluster and impotent ravings of Burke, few referred to Anders any longer by his more colorful nickname. When General Grant, accompanied by the sternly quiet Major General Smith came, the rumor went quickly that “on good authority” they were going to have a knock at the Gibralter of the Mississippi itself-a fortified town called Vicksburg. Many boys had heard of it, and the awareness of the determined fortification of this “Modern Troy” cast a gloom on the men shortly after which was mirrored by the weather.
Second Platoon, or most of it, was sitting about a company fire one night, watching the stars in the cold sky with silent attention. Roth approached from his guard shift, and room was made for him. Hunt looked up.
“I’ve been meaning to ask Roth,” he said in a half whisper, as though not to disturb the darkness, “Why you went and hung that old canteen of yours on your hut. A remembrance of your near creasing is it?”.
Roth was quiet for a long while, until not a few eyes diverted from the heavens to rest upon him. Hunt, thinking Roth hadn’t heard, was about to ask again when the latter responded in an earnest tone which did not seem to belong to the man they thought they knew.
“I keep it to remind me how precious and precarious our lives are,” spoke Roth from the darkness, “and to keep me from forgetting that despite the filth, deprivation and boredom-that I joined for a cause. My close call, reminded me of that.”. The night filled in around them, and the fire crackled and flared with a short gust of wind. They sat there in the dark, all of them shoulder to shoulder around the orange glowing flames. In the shadow of the dancing light of the fire, the men seemed as one. A great circle of brothers, unbroken.