Welcome to Fifth Minnesota Fiction!
Update 1-26-15: Ladies and gentlemen, the show is coming to an end. For all of you who have read, supported, and encouraged this blog and my writing--thank you. While many of these stories have already been previously published in book form, I am about to join the 21st century and publish in electronic reader format. As such, this blog will vanish into the ether March 1st. Thank you all, I hope you have enjoyed my meager offerings.
This is a blog dedicated to the essence of what my experience doing Civil War living history is all about--telling a good story. In the case of the Co. A, Fifth Minnesota, we strive to tell the stories of history--everyday lives caught up in the turmoils of strife and change. Our purpose, is to give room for some of those stories to grow, and find an end for themselves. The process of good Living History is much the same as that used to write a story, the difference is that with the written word it is the reader that acts it out in their head. With Living History, the participants take those great narratives and give them life themselves in action and word.
Here those stories we have begun can go on. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do writing them! A word of warning though--be patient with me. Posts may be spread out a bit (I write these whenever real life allows) but something new is almost always cooking; it simply may take time to get them served up at the table.
A. Wade Jones
Sunday, October 18, 2009
My Brothers Keeper
Three bottles had been too many. Down right greedy he realized, but he told himself that he had noble motives in order. That was the ticket! He wasn’t taking them just for himself after all, if he had been then it would have been greed. Sergeant O’Malley wasn’t adverse to scrounging in the least, often as not he led the parties sent out by command. But at the same time, he tended to resist scrounging items not immediately necessary for operations--such as the three bottles of fine whiskey he had taken from the cabinet before they had fired the house. They jingled a bit in his haversack as he moved around the side of the large buildings to ensure that the firing of the structure was being done properly. His trouser and blouse pockets bulged with items he had had to shift in order to make room for the bottles, but it would be worth it. Finding any real comfort at this time of year, a month off from Christmas and the unstoppable approach of cold weather and cramped living, went a long way to making his job easier. Mick O’Malley, sergeant in the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, was at the heart of it, his brothers keeper. Every man in his company felt related--and every man in his platoon was most certainly thought of as a brother. O’Malley didn’t always like his job, but he gave himself too it with energy all the same--doing his best to keep morale up and discipline solid. He worried about them all--even those he didn’t particularly care for--and that was why he had stowed the bottles in his haversack. Conscience clear after his short session of self-examination, the sergeant made his was around the back of the house.
“Lord god, if ye want to cook a chicken--then ye gots a goodly fire there, break out that glass there will ye, and set the draperies!”, shouted the sergeant to a pair of soldiers struggling to apply their torch at a small window. The men looked up from their work, and made again to accomplish their task whilst O’Malley stood with his fists on his hips. Shortly, the fire was set properly, and the sergeant slapped both of them on the back.
“Well done boys! Along then to corporal Dills–and quick now.”, said the sergeant with a nod. He watched the soldiers make their way around the house, and then turned his attention to the burning house. Within the sergeant, a terrible guilt surged which churned his stomach and made his emotions well dangerously close to the surface. He shook his head, but couldn’t avoid the momentary sensation of being 7 years of age again--watching his grandfathers house burned by the landlords men. The smell of smoke and the burning articles of someone’s collected lifetime washed over him, as he made himself march back to the front of the building to rejoin the squad. Sergeant Stephenson was there with the men, waiting for his return as the once majestic home and barns of the plantation were consumed by whirling flame.
“You alright sergeant?”, asked Stephenson as he resumed his place in rank. O’Malley wiped the tears from his eyes with his sleeve.
“Oh, fine. The smoke in me eyes--cloud something terrible back there!”
The order was given, and the squad marched away. Behind them, flames roared and embers were carried by the evening breeze. The November night closed in, trying to overcome the fire.
O’Malley glanced about the gathering of sergeants and Officers, taking in with a critical eye those in attendance. Outside the tent, the early evening was blustery and cool. He removed from his blouse his notebook and pencil, with the preparation of a man trained as a clerk in his life before the army, to make copious copy of the briefing to come. It was mid-November, and the cool nights had surprised a great many of the far northern boys--who still believed in the stories told of how ‘winter never holds court in Dixie’. Another lie to add to the heap, O’Malley thought to himself. Alabama and Georgia might not tend towards blizzards of snow, but when winter came you felt it all the same. Cold damp nights, raining days and yes even light snow on rare occasions. Some of the newly arrived boys regretted more than ever now their foolish act of casting off greatcoats and such cold weather wear--but then they’d find ways to sort that out. O’Malley figured that was all part of his job; to see to the needs of his boys, even when they had done the worse part of the damage to themselves. He made a note in his book to look into heavy socks, and see what might be scrounged up. He returned his focus to the briefing to come with a short yawn--everyone knew what would likely be said. With the cold weather coming on, more permanent winter camp would be established. They would hunker down, set up semi-permanent dwellings--all the while maintaining what the officers like to call “fighting readiness” by conducting drill, drill, drill. It was the army way, and like the army, only deviated from it’s well trod path if absolutely necessary. Their local campaign, at the suggestion of General Sherman, had been successful in robbing the local crop of Sesech from supplies and aid. It had made some enemies of course--people rarely loved you for burning their homes and farms--but then they had not exactly been loyal
Unionists to begin with.
“Hey, Mick--are you evening listening to me?”, spat Stephenson at his side. O’Malley suddenly realized that Stephenson had been talking to him and he hadn’t heard him.
“Sorry mate, I was thinkin’”, smiled O’Malley, turning to look at his friend. Stephenson gave him a look, impenetrable as always, and repeated his question.
“I wonder what the hold up is--powdering their noses you ‘spose?”, laughed Stephenson. O’Malley smiled and shrugged.
“Not sure, but why wonder? Enjoy the break, I say!”, at which the sergeant stood up from the box he was seated upon and settled on the grass. Leaning back against the box, he slipped his cap over his eyes and sighed heavily. Several of the other NCO’s in the large tent laughed and suggested that the Irishman had the right idea. It was at that moment that the officers entered the room, and everyone jumped to their feet.
“Attention!”, someone said--jolting O’Malley to his feet leaving his cap eschew upon his head. The Colonel gave O’Malley a sharp look, to which the sergeant corrected himself with a guilty look.
“Be seated, gentlemen.”, said the Colonel as everyone made for their seats and the officers settled into their places behind a long table at the front. The Colonel turned to captain Darrt of Co. A and motioned to him. “Darrt, since your people saw the lay of the land--,” Hubbard said, pausing to give light to a cigar, “I'll look to you for leadership on this.”.
The captain nodded, clearly reveling in his moment in the sun, drew himself up to his full height and spoke with a dramatic flair. "Yes Sir, you may depend upon me colonel."
Hubbard leaned forward on the table, looked about a moment at the assembled men and spoke. “General Sherman, given the fine performance of our battalion during the latest raids and maneuvers, has requested that the 5th perform a special evolution before winter quartering.”, said the colonel. There was a slight murmur in the room, as he continued. “This will cover an area Co. A operated in at the start of the month. Colonel Hansen's squadron was sent out to do the initial scouting two days ago, and the ground has been plotted as far as this crossroad. The target, is a railhead just 5 miles beyond this town here--Hampton. So far as we know, there isn’t much beyond local resistance--and that is expected to be sporadic at best. Of course we know how this can change, but so far as we know that is the situation.” Hubbard stood, and blew a cloud of smoke.
“Gentlemen, I am sure that you are somewhat surprised with this request. I am also fully certain that each of you will take it in stride, and ensure that the men understand fully the importance of this action. It is somewhat unusual for us to go into action so late in the year--but not unheard of. Indeed, it would seem that this war shall be one to defy all of the long held ideals regarding how war is fought.”, said the Colonel, falling silent at this last for a few moments. At length he continued, with a renewed spirit which caused him to begin pacing before the assembly. “This mission is of the utmost import, Gentlemen. The rail head--known as Ward Yards--is the objective. General Sherman is planning an offensive for the coming year, a move which will drive towards Atlanta, and eventually a wedge from here to the sea. If successful, his offensive could very well expedite the completion of this whole affair--and I don’t need to tell you all what that would mean for us, and the men.”
The Colonel let that sink in, as the assembled group murmured quietly. When the voices became quiet, the Colonel strode to the map and continued. “Now, the Ward Yards--these must be taken. Normally we simply overrun such an objective and do our best to destroy them, but not this time. This line will be imperative when the General makes his move next season, as forces north of us secure points vital in Tennessee. Given our, particular talents, we have been tasked with taking and holding this objective. We will be driving close to the Georgia border, so while our expectations of resistance as we drive towards the objective may be light--I think we can all expect to face opposition in the end. All the same, it needs doing. It’s up to you men to do what you do best--convince the boys that they can accomplish this task. Specific details will be given to the officers, but we thought it wise to ensure that the entire command staff was aware of the objective. Gentleman, this concludes the portion for the NCO’s. Officers, please remain here yet--the rest of you, dismissed.”
The NCO staff stood and departed silently, remaining so all the way into the cool misty evening outside the tent. A heavy, subdued quality remained on O’Malley and Stephenson the whole of the walk back to their street--where a group seated around one of the company fires awaited them.
“Lord, we thought you had deserted or somethin’, for all the time you were taking getting back.”, said Ayers with a smile. The two sergeants smiled quietly and shook their heads, coming up to the fire and holding out hands eager to ward off the dampness.
“I told you!”, spat Charles Dills, “it’s not good news. I could feel it, like a chill.”
His brother, Daniel Dills, wandered up behind the two sergeants. The corporals had not been asked to join the meeting, but had been left behind to keep an eye on the men. As such, Dills was very eager to know what he had missed. He waved his brother down, and looked around at the gathered soldiers with a paternal sternness that brought them all to a hush. “Let’s just listen boys, and find out before we get all uppity. Well Sergeants, what awaits us?”
O’Malley looked to Stephenson, and Stephenson motioned for the Irishman to go ahead. With a sigh, O’Malley spoke. “We’ve been requested to do what we 5th lads do best--it’s a rail head some ways walk east--an’ talk be that like as not it’ll mean a scrap afore it’s over with.” Stephenson nodded and rubbed his hands together.
“It’s important too, damn important. Sounded like the next push could well hinge on our success or failure to take and hold the rail junction.”, Stephenson said with a nod.
“Wait, wait–hold a rail junction?”, asked Honan with a frown.
O’Malley and Stephenson nodded as one. There was a silence all around, and the soldiers sat looking to one another. Battles fought on some farmers field generally were awful, but rarely left whole battalions destroyed. Having to take a location from the enemy that they wanted to keep, tended to be bloody affairs. But having to make sure that the enemy didn’t wander back over and take the territory back again (which suggested further that there wouldn’t be reenforcements right away, so they’d have to take it and keep it themselves) meant one thing–hard scrabble, bare knuckle fighting. Granted, this regiment had gained a reputation as being good at such things–but that didn’t mean that they ran headlong into such affairs without a second thought.
“So we go, take it–and hold it? No support?”, asked Corporal Dills, voicing the question on everyone’s mind.
“Like as not, we’ll have support in one manner of the other,” responded O’Malley, “but then, they also weren’t free in tellin’ us that either. So the likely answer be yes–but when and how close that support would be, we aint yet bein’ afforded to know.”
Honan smiled. “So, like normal then?”.
O’Malley crouched down closer to the fire.
Stephenson warmed his hands and gave a lop-sided smile.“Yep, just like normal.”.
The next morning the whole of the battalion was aware of where they were going, and the seriousness of that move. The daylight dawned damp, and grey--and this only further served to add to the somber quality that hung over the camp. Men went about their morning routines with grim efficiency, conversation was subdued and quiet. Word was, they would depart later that afternoon--so their morning freedom became very important indeed. Between bites of breakfast (which for a change was pretty good, given the herd of swine that had been scrounged from one of the farms they had raided the days before), Ayers scoured the lock of his musket.
“I don’t know why I bother sometimes, the way these things foul.”, growled Ayers. Sitting across from him, Henry shrugged as he too a sip of coffee.
“If it works, then that’s what matters. No sense to a pretty musket that won’t fire.”, added Henry at last. Ayers nodded, and halted his scrubbing for a moment. Johnson, who was helping Iverson get his sling strapped on properly to his musket, laughed.
“Boys, I tell you--even if it works, if that musket don’t shine proper you know they’ll have your ass for it!”
Iverson chuckled and nodded. Ayers just shot Johnson a look, and then resumed his scrubbing. Henry started looking over his musket for fowling, but finding none wrapped it up in his gum blanket and stowed it in his tent. The moisture in the morning air was heavy--no sense leaving ones musket uncovered until necessary. Turner, trying out his new pipe, sat upon a stack of cracker boxes swinging his feet.
“So this is likely to be a hard piece,” said Charles Dills from near the fire. Charles Henry Dills, and his father Corporal Daniel Dills sat nearby. Charles Henry, whom the boys called “Fullhouse”, looked up to his uncle Charles.
“From what I hear of some of the ‘A boys’, the first leg will be cake.”, said Fullhouse.
Ayers shook his head and smiled grimly. “Yeah, the problem isn’t the first leg though. It’s the taking and keeping that is gonna be rough.”
Everyone grunted or nodded in agreement.
“Still,” spoke up Corporal Dills, “if anyone could handle it, it would be us.”
Again they all agreed, and the conversation grew silent. They took inspiration form one another, even if each doubted silently how the days before them would truly unfold. Each knew the mettle of the other--they had now fought together for more than a year, sometimes in such frantic close quarter engagements that it was a wonder that as many of them remained as they did. But it was always the same before such actions--a part of the process of going into battle. The self-doubt, the apprehension, the wild boisterous comments attempting to cover their fear. Doing his best to shave despite the numbness set into his fingers by the gnawing damp cold of the air, Silas Stephenson winced as O’Malley clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Careful now, that razor looks sharp.”, smiled the Irishman as he sat opposite Stephenson.
“Yeah, do that again and you’ll find our just how sharp it is--you bog Irish twit!”, smiled the sergeant shaking the blade at O’Malley with a friendly grin. Stephenson resumed shaving, as O’Malley helped himself to some coffee that was bubbling on the fire.
“You’ll be right fine and adorable when yer done there Silas--looking to catch the ole’ Colonels eye are we? Why, ye sneaky devil!” , laughed O’Malley toasting the other with his cup.
Stephenson made a gesture of appreciation towards O’Malley that bespoke of his appreciation for the latters commentary. Sergeant O’Malley simply chuckled, and sipped his coffee. The small fire crackled and popped loudly, and the Irishman shifted his seat to avoid the drifting smoke. “It’s for certain, I’ve just come from Fobes; last briefing in 2 hours. Captain will be officiating the meeting--which should be entertaining--then attend to our companies an’ march out”, O’Malley sipped his coffee, “so ‘bout 3 hours then afore we go out to play. They done sent out one of them troops of them precious dandy cavalry to do some peeking about ahead, so I figures they means us to really do somethin or other.”.
Stephenson smiled, and nodded. He motioned for a towel, which O’Malley passed him, and wiped the remaining shaving soap clean from his face. “What do you think. How’s this going to be?”, asked Stephenson.
O’Malley shrugged. “Silas me boy, you knows well as I does. My opinion--it’ll be tough but we’ll handle it. The boys know their work, an’ I have no reason to doubt this trip will be any different.”
Stephenson looked troubled a moment, and snapped the razor shut before putting it away. “At least someone had the sense to send scouts ahead of us, but I just have a feeling--I think we’ll have to be cautious. I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as everyone wants it to be.”
O’Malley chuckled and nearly choked on a sip of coffee. “When has it ever been as easy as they say it will be?”
“I know, I know. Which squadron was it–of cavalry I mean, do you know?”
“Wisconsin boys I thinks, so decent enough for that lot. Look, ye just have the nerves likes all of us. It aint no different than anytime, is it?”, said O’Malley. Stephenson nodded and shrugged. “Don’t ye stop worryin’ though,” said O’Malley as he got up to go, “shows ye gots more sense than most.”.
The morning wore on, and the men were called into assembly. Roll-call followed last minute updates, the consolation is that no one was assigned any fatigue details. Company by company, the men were issued with fresh ammunition. Soon, the streets were filled with soldiers assisting each other with stuffing cartridge boxes full, as leathers creaked and caps jingled in filling cap boxes. Though not given the direction to do so, some of the older and more experienced soldiers loaded their weapons–instructing newer recruits to do the same.
“Trust me boys,” said Corporal Dills to a trio of replacements who looked hardly old enough to be Federal soldiers, ‘you don’t want to wait for the officer to order you to load if you get ambushed. Especially since oft as not in an ambush, your officer is either the first to be targeted or too busy to give you orders.” The metallic clank of powder and ball being seated in the breech, the return of the ramrod into it’s housing–like a thousand bladed drawn and sheathed again. Sergeants O’Malley and Stephenson wandered their streets admonishing those soldiers not about the brisk task of preparation, praising those enveloped in the vaunted ritual of experience. They prepared not only their equipment, but themselves for what was to come. Looking about, Stephenson could see it in the men–a stiffening of body that gave clear indication of a resolve to do what was required of them. The men who had only recently joined them could see it too, the
lessons of two dozen skirmishes-engagements-and outright slaughters visible in the men about them. They seemed hardened, not impervious to death or fear–for many showed a nervousness that was bourne of fear of the unknown to come–but as though their flesh was stone, heavy and intractable. O’Malley wandered up and nodded to Stephenson.
“Since we’re all goin’ on this one, I gots our leavings safe with a fella I trusts in the 110th Ohio. I expect you an’ I will collect them ourselves–but if an’ it aint so, sergeant Billingsley is his name. Company B, 1st Platoon.”, said the Irishman with a casual ease that bespoke how many times they had thought along these lines.
Stephenson smiled in return “Like you say, we’ll collect them ourselves when this is over.”.
The sky grew ever more grey, and a cold wind whipped through the camp, whistling through the tents and howling around the guide ropes. Time came for the final meeting, and in each set of company streets officers gathered their NCO’s together in little knots . Captain Sheehan, running his hand through his combed back hair, paced amidst the gathered men.
“Now, I don’t need to tell you men what is expected of all of you,” Sheehan said in his most dramatic manner, “and I assure you I have been assured that we will have support as we need. Personally, I don’t see where we ought to need it if we apply ourselves.”
Orderly Sergeant Blackmer cleared his throat. “All the same Sir,” he said respectfully, “ what regiment has been assigned in support?”
The captain looked at Blackmer a moment, as though trying to understand what his question was before answering at last in a short tone. “Not that we should need it,”said Sheehan, “as I have already remarked to the Colonel and he to the General–but if support is needed the 12th Illinois have been assigned.”
Everyone nodded, and murmured their assent. The captain looked about for anything further, but with no one stepping up, Sheehan stood stiffly and nodded. “Right then, good luck gentlemen. Hurrah for the fifth!”
The gathered men saluted and shouted in return to the captain’s cheer. Sheehan returned the salute and stalked away, followed closely by his lieutenants. When they were gone, the NCO’s began to break apart, and head to finish preparation for marching away. Several very realistic impressions of the captains speech drifted through the group, followed by strangled laughter when those participating realized that Blackmer, the orderly sergeant was watching them with hardened eyes. The long roll began to sound from where A company was quartered, and spread as each command took up the call. The drum roll inspired speed in men all about the camp, as busy movement became directed chaos. Looking around, O’Malley felt his pulse quicken–they were going into action.
There was some question about whether they would directly return to the established winter camp or not--the fact that no one seemed to know giving O’Malley a turn of upset digestion. Everyone understood what it meant that the officers hadn’t considered if they would come back to camp or settle somewhere knew--there had been no provision for “afterwards”. Like as not this meant slow arrival of any resupply, slow arrival of provisions brought forward--empty muskets and bellies all around. This really wasn’t anything new, indeed it often worked this way; but that doesn’t mean that they liked it. O’Malley made a mental note to himself to encourage scrounging en route as much as possible providing it didn’t slow their advance. The first hour that they marched, the colonel remained steadfast in his conviction to remain diligent to possible threats. But as time went on, and the land proved to be just as reported, the heightened
awareness began to flag. Soon, the pickets and flankers set out by captain Darrt wandered closer into the column--their attention began to falter. The men were halted some 3 ½ hours later, at the edge of the previously scouted territory-5 miles still from their target. In the distance, they could see the slow drifting smoke of chimney’s from the small town of Hampton. Sitting in the cool grass in small knots and bunches, the men ate their field rations. The earlier lack of attention was replaced once more with diligence, as the flankers and pickets were rotated out for the next company in line. The lads from B (in whom O’Malley had a bit more confidence for both leadership and experience) took over and quickly vanished into the landscape about the battalion as they took up their posts. Stephenson took a seat next to corporal Dills, and nodded. They were joined shortly by Charles Dills and Fullhouse, who was doing his best to chew through a piece
of dried beef.
“How’s the beef?”, asked the sergeant with a smile.
“Dried,” said Fullhouse between bites, “and desecrated.”
“You mean desecated?”, asked Stephenson.
“Nope”, responded Fullhouse as he spat a stream of brown to the grass and swished his mouth with his canteen, “no, definitely desecrated.”.
Fullhouse tossed the hunk of dried meat into some nearby scrub, and started in to a dried cracker instead. Charles Dills took the cracker from his nephew’s grasp and dunked it into a handy cup of water with a half grin. Taking it from the cup some short time later, he handed it back to Fullhouse. “That’ll keep you from grinding those teeth of yours into nibs trying to saw through sheet iron like that hard bread.”
Fullhouse chewed noisily, loosing various crumbs as he smiled in satisfaction at the improved quality of the cracker. His Father chuckled, and shook his head. “I don’t know how you can eat those things that way boy,” said the corporal, “I can’t take mine anymore without soaking and frying them in as much belly pork leavings as I can find.”
At that moment, a rider from the direction they had just come went along at a good clip towards where the Colonel was holding court. The men watched the rider go by, before looking about at one another. The late afternoon sky was dreary, and in the distance it looked worse still. Stephenson arose from his seat with a grunt, and slapped some grass from his trousers.
“I wonder what the rider has to say?”, asked Charles Dills aloud to no one in particular. The sergeant shook his head and started to wander towards another group of the company, saying over his shoulder as he did–“I don’t know, but if you boys are smart, you’d best eat up. I have a feelin’ we may be moving real soon.”. Meanwhile the rider, having reached the front of the resting column, leapt effortlessly from his saddle as he came abreast of the colonel and his aides. The young man, well made and with an air of someone who knew it, snapped a salute and waited until the colonel returned and quit the gesture before ceasing his own.
“Sir, with compliments, I am to convery the generals compliments.”, said the young rider, with a strong voice which bespoke that he was used to being listened to when he spoke. The colonel nodded and responded, “thank you lieutenant,” and made to turn back to his officers.
The young lieutenant, clearly vexed that the colonel had dismissed him without hearing the whole of his message, cleared his throat loudly. “Sir,” he said when the colonel had turned about, “The general wishes also to inform you that you are to ensure he is kept aware of the situation at all times once you engage the objective. Whatever resources you need to hold this objective will be yours to ask. He has placed the troop from the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry under your direct order–when they return from their reconnoiter, you will use them as messengers. Here are the written orders, Sir. May I carry any dispatch for you, colonel?”
Colonel Hubbard looked at the young man for a moment, before shaking his head. “No thank you, tell the general I understand and will comply. Dismissed.” The young lieutenant saluted, and then threw himself into the saddle of his horse. Turning the animal around, the rider sped back the way he had come and was gone.
“Assemble the officers”, said the colonel over his shoulder to his adjutant, to which the major set off quickly to accomplish. Colonel Hubbard wiped his brow, and stared off in the direction of the town of Hampton. He watched the dark clouds on the horizon roll towards the distant drifting haze of the smoke stacks, and thought about the Ward yard. The objective, he told himself. He unfolded the written orders, and read through the flowing hand within–dread and relief flooding him simultaneously. Hubbard steadied himself mentally, allowing his moment of nervous energy to pass as it always did. They had their orders, and they would do what they always did–accomplish them smartly. Perhaps not in the most elegant way (but was war really ever elegant, Hubbard thought to himself), but the men had never yet let him down. He was truly proud of his regiment, even if sometimes he didn’t always show the men directly. They must know it though, the colonel
thought to himself. Hubbard saw his role like a stern father of a very large family, and whether the men saw his pride in them or not–he knew how he felt. His actions, his use of them showed this much. That was all that mattered. He closed the orders, and turned back to greet the arriving officers. Sheehan was first, which was no surprise to the colonel. The captain was a good officer, and had helped found the regiment with Francis Hall after being plucked out of the 4th Minnesota. Still, the captain was ambitious–sometimes recklessly so it was said. He had a habit of wandering off and leaving his men behind, when others suggested it might have been his place to remain. Fort Ridgely was when that had first been whispered–leaving his exhausted men to attend the burial and scouting mission that had ended in that battle at Birch Coulee. He had been a lieutenant then–and no one could dismiss his valiant leadership during the siege of Ridgely
himself. Hubbard ceased his thoughts, and returned Sheehan’s salute.
“Colonel, the boys surely are ready for this action–as am I!”, spoke the captain with a gleam of excitement in his dark eyes. Hubbard smiled quietly and nodded. Ambitious then, after all.
“I am glad to hear it captain. When the rest of the staff arrives, we will consider our orders. The situation is yet perilous, but I am happy to note that both support and communication shall be much easier than expected. A good lesson I suppose, in trusting the wisdom of general Sherman.”, spoke Hubbard as the remainder of his officers appeared close by from their places in the column. When all had gathered, and the colonel had accepted and returned salutes, he waved them all over the a group of stumps to sit.
Holding the orders before them, Hubbard took a breath. “Gentlemen,” he began, “keep a sharp eye, we're about to cross into the lions den.”
The town of Hampton would have been an idyllic town, even someplace one might imagine themselves being from or returning to after the war. The little houses--modest but well kept and tidy--formed largely around a simple town square and white clapboard church with a high steeple. The streets were wide, and although dirt, free of garbage and ruts. As they marched along, the men could see their own towns in far away Minnesota in the charming village of Hampton--or they might have had the populace not turned out as a jeering and contemptuous mob. The troop of cavalry had warned them just a short time before they began to pass the small farms that marked the edge of town, not to expect to be welcomed as they passed through. Yet, the mix of obvious fear and loathing displayed by those citizens they passed struck deep in some of the soldiers.
“Well, this is a fine welcome!”, said Turner rolling his eyes, “At the end of the day, we’re all Americans by holy–somebody ought to remind these folks of that!”
“Oh sure Turner,” smiled Hunt at his side, “I’m sure they appreciate our all being one happy family right well–except for when some of us have likely as not shot at some of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands!”
“Well,” replied Turner not to be diverted, “that’s a matter of war, isn’t it? And all that aside, not like their bunch aint got muskets too! I mean, that’s war–it aint directly against them, is it?”
Oh, you mean like burning their houses, or barns?”, asked Harper behind them in the column, “you mean, directly like that?”
Turner spat, and ignored the staring and jeering civilians–he said no more the whole of their passage through Hampton. Further up the column, Colonel Hubbard saluted as a sergeant from the troop of cavalry he had been assigned sidled his horse up alongside.
“Sergeant, how are we settled?”, asked Hubbard.
“Colonel, beg to report,” said the sergeant slightly out of breath, “no contact with opposition as yet. Half of the troop is holding the bridge a mile ahead--I believe we made you aware of its’ position in our last report?” The Colonel nodded and looked to French, his adjutant, then back to the sergeant.
“Very good sergeant, are your men at the bridge well deployed? If we loose that bridge...”, said the colonel with a worried tone. The sergeant interrupted him, a tired annoyance creeping into his voice.
“Don’t worry colonel, my troop knows it’s work,” said the cavalryman, “They are deployed in good order, and well prepared to collapse across the bridge and displace on the opposite bank. They have plenty of ammunition, revolvers and carbines--the boys are spoiling for a scrap.”
The colonel nodded, and stroked his mustache. “Good. Sergeant, form up your remaining troop and take up our flanks. You boys can move faster than my lads, so I would appreciate your assistance.” The sergeant saluted with a crisp “Yes sir!”, and peeled away from the column to carry out his orders. French sighed, and watched a woman push her children inside their home as they column passed on the road.
“It’s all too easy Lucius, don’t you think?”, said French without turning from watching the houses roll by slowly, “We’ve had nothing but a little profanity and dirty looks shot at us thus far--frankly our luck isn’t this good.” Major Becht, the other side of the colonel grunted.
“Alpheus, you’re the only officer I have ever known to complain that he wasn’t under fire.”, said Becht with a slight chuckle. Hubbard stroked his mustache again and sucked his teeth.
“Mmm,” said Hubbard quietly before turning to Major Becht in the saddle, “I understand your meaning John, but Alpheus is right. I’ve been trying to convince myself that this trip was simply going as planned and that there wasn’t anything to worry about--but experience has taught me otherwise.” The colonel turned to French, who was looking at him now intently. “We need to push the boys on, and get to that bridge. That’s the first step--because if we have to fight from there, or God forbid retake the bridge before we can move on the objective, this whole operation is likely for naught. Major Becht--pass the word along to the battalion, no dallying.” Major Becht saluted, and turned his horse about to pass on the orders. The battalion made good progress, and within the hour they had left Hampton behind them and achieved the bridge. The day was waning, and with the season so late the light had begun to fade. They would use the dusk to their
advantage--or so went the plan--and take the rail yards when any resistance would be thinking more of dinner and sleep than defense. The cavalry troop had been sent once more to scout ahead, aware with each moment that the objective drew dangerously close. Room for error and mistake grew thinner with every step, and a tension settled upon the men.
“Where the hell is this place we’re going anyway? Feels like we’ve been marchin’ for days already!”, groused Cook to no one in particular.
Hall pulled his coat about him closely, and elbowed his friend. “Quit complaining, we’re almost there.”
“Who asked you anyway, Hall? All this waiting for something to happen, almost worse than what we is waiting for!”, grumbled Cook, raising his voice a little. He sighed loudly, and went on in silence for a few moments before looking at his friend. “Sorry, I wait the waiting.”
Hall smiled. “It’s alright, I know you’re an irascible snot--probably why I like you.” Cook smiled crookedly, and chuckled.
“One knows another,” spat Cook.
The infantry crossed the stone bridge by company, the slow stream below slightly engorged by the intermittent rains of the last few days. O’Malley somehow felt colder looking down into the swirling waters below, and as if on cue the grey skies suddenly opened up with a cold slushy rain mix. A groan from the battalion, soft but audible, was elicited as the first slushy drops struck shoulders and hat brims with wet splashy sounds. “Arms at will! Watch those muzzles boys!”, shouted first sergeant Dorsey from up the column--repeated by company sergeants down the line until the whole of the battalion had heard the orders. O’Malley stopped briefly as he got to the other side of the bridge, and passed his musket over corporal Dills so that he might tie his brogans.
“What a day,” said Dills with a sneer, “Army weather!”
“What, this? Soft, gentle weather no doubt--,”responded O’Malley, “Reminds me of the old days in the streets of Cork city, running about wit me brothers.” Their company had moved along the track through the spindly trees and thorny scrub that passed for vegetation here; while D, E, and F where making their way with haste across the bridge. One the of the sergeants from company E was just passing them as O’Malley was standing up and retrieving his musket when there was a blast from the woods that grew up along the right side of the sloppy road that the battalion was traveling upon. A bullet zipped through the air like some hell-spawned hornet and tore through the left cheek of the man before corporal Dills, knocking the soldier back into his comrades and effectively halting company E on the end of the bridge--with company F running into them from behind. The other companies in the rear--realizing what had happened--dove for cover on the far side of the river before another shot rang out from near the first; which ricocheted off the stone bridge loudly. O’Malley and Dills dove for what little cover they had, and rolled around to face the direction the shots had come from, but no more came. Within minutes, the officers had the men up and moving forward, as the Colonel and several of his officers in attendance rode back to find out what had happened. Several men of company F had started out to investigate the position from where the shots had come, but were recalled loudly by the adjutant French. Hubbard spied O’Malley and Dills as they started on to catch up with their company and called out to him.
“Sergeant! What in blazes happened here? Who fired without orders?”, as Hubbard spoke he saw the wounded soldier being assisted as best they could by his pards, and frowned. “Blazes! That man is wounded!”
“Yes sir,” said O’Malley, “we took some fire sir--I be guessing there was but the two of ‘em, what since we aint had more. Either ways sir, it like as not means that our element of surprise be lost--they ran soon as they had fired.”
Hubbard looked to French and then at the companies still making their way across the bridge, slapping the pommel of his saddle in frustration. He rounded on O’Malley and Dills, then on the officers ushering their men along the track. “Well, what are you two waiting for? Back to your company--at the double!”, he said to O’Malley, “and you lot, get moving! We have no time to loose!”.
A new sense of urgency gripped all of them, especially after Hubbard dispatched a group of the cavalry to see what they might discover about their assailants. It seemed from what signs could be found that these had been mounted troops, but likely a mounted scout or infantry. The remainder of the cavalry deployed forward, with the hope of catching the scouts before they might report--but there was little chance for success, and everyone knew it. Writing a dispatch, Hubbard sent it to the general with all speed. Watching the courier streak down the track the way they had come, Hubbard found himself a prisoner of his thoughts. It was unorthodox on the face of it surely, but then the general had proven himself long before now to have keen insight in these things. Sherman had a sense for the enemy, though his tactics still rattled Hubbard a bit. To target the civilian infrastructure, their homes--their very will to continue the fight--it made sense in a cold calculating way. Yet still, it didn’t make it any easier to reconcile the conscience sometimes. But now they had a job to do, one which command had entrusted him to accomplish because of the tenacity of his men. He knew that the men felt that they were being sent to do an impossible task with too few men--but if only he could make them see the bigger picture. Lucius Hubbard wrestled with this often, though he never shared such thoughts with his staff. Even if he had opened himself up and asked advice of French or Gere--they would have conclude the same that he did. The average infantry soldier needs to stay focused on the objective, and showing them the broader spectrum of the operation
they were engaged in would only serve to cloud that focus and make them more prone to mistakes. Better to leave it as it was, his boys seemed to do best when faced with a challenge anyway. The troop of cavalry that had been sent out to try to intercept the scouts returned, threading though the trees off to the left and falling in alongside the head of their column on the wet track. The light was fading fast, and colors seemed to have been washed from the world. It was getting colder too, as the breath from the horses made hot gusts of steam.
“Sergeant, any sign of the enemy?”, asked the Colonel as he returned the cavalryman’s salute. “We were able to overtake them sir, and got one--the other was wounded but eluded us. We took some fire with no injuries, but I’m afraid they know we’re coming. You understand sir that we were not in much of a position to reconnoiter--but I got a look towards the junction. It looks to be defended, but no so much as we might have expected, of course they will likely be reenforcing now.” The sergeant removed a crude drawing from his breast pocket and passed it over to the colonel.
“Hmm...no entrenchments, what’s this marking here?”, asked Hubbard looking at the picture.
“No sir, though they have plenty of wagons and freight on the platform to stack for defense. That mark is the roof of the station there--they have it stationed with some marksmen. As for numbers, there are three long buildings here to the north-east, I think they may be barracks. Looks like most of a battalion at least.”
Hubbard looked up at the sky, and sighed. This was never expected to be easy, but he hoped that the many parts of this plan that they were but one piece worked as planned. His experience had taught him never to expect any movement of men to go without a hitch--so the next few hours would be very interesting. “Thank you sergeant, you and all your men. You’ve done extraordinary under the circumstances. I would like you have your men cover our right flank, but stay close and ready to move if needed.”
The cavalry sergeant nodded and saluted. “Can do, colonel.”
They were less than a mile from the objective when the order was given to halt and skirmishers were deployed. The woods were still somewhat thick here, though short clearings began to show here and there. Kneeling down beside a tree covered in bright green moss, McNeil was cursing the dampness and quickly fading light.
“How they expect us to do any fightin’ in this, I’ve no idea at all!”, grumbled McNeil.
“Stop your whining, could be worse!”, shot back a voice from down the line of the skirmishers.
“I don’t see how,” responded McNeil sourly, “what be the sense anyway of sending a battalion fer a job like this? An’ so late in the day too afore we set up here! Damn blasted officers--lot of ‘em not fit to fell a tree what already been felled.”
“That’s got to be the strangest expression I’ve ever heard,” chuckled Henry down to McNeil’s right, “you just make that up this minute?”
McNeil simply shut his mouth, and resumed peering into the gloom beyond. Stephenson made his way through a tangle of dead branches, and kneeled down alongside O’Malley--who was leaning against a tree in the rear of the skirmish line with his eyes closed.
“Wake up you Irish sot!”, said Stephenson with a hard push to the Irishman’s shoulder.
“I’m awake--so leave off you yankee bugger. There are plenty eyes lookin’--aint nothing moving in this copse of trees to be seen. I was listening. Aint heard a bird, a squirrel, nothin’.”
Stephenson looked out into the gloom, and frowned. He was quiet for some moments, before responding. “You’re right, “he said quietly, “that don’t sound quite right. So still, what do you think it is?”
O’Malley opened his eyes and looked up to Stephenson. “Nothing good, that’s fer certain and sayin. I thinks we gots company out there--creeping quiet enough wheres we aint awares, but them animals and such is. Even with the cooler weather, there ought to be beasties about.”
Stephenson nodded and waved over to corporal Haltzdahlen. The corporal wandered over, and stood nearby. “Let command know we might have contact shortly, and ask for orders going forward.”, Stephenson halted and turned to O’Malley who now was standing and leaning on his musket, “I know they wanted us to wait until closer to dusk, but we may have to start the ball before schedule.” Stephenson motioned and the corporal scurried off to take his message back to the captain.
“Lord knows I have faith in the general if any man, but I true and greatly hope that this whole wandering about fer a rail yard aint going to prove to be as wise as a picnic lunch in February.”, said O’Malley, shaking his head, “Like as not, there’s more going on here--but it feels like a cocked hat, and that’s the face of it!”.
Stephenson only nodded, he had nothing he could add. They had had their share of offenses, skirmishes, and such that proved to be ill planned or down-right made to order disasters. Some of them, he still wondered how they had come out with as few casualties as they had. Now they were sitting on the other side of a tangled but narrow copse of woods, waiting for dusk to surprise and take a rail junction where the defenders likely knew they were there and were being given the time to prepare. For that matter, despite what they had been told, the whole objective seemed trivial--but then to be honest many if not most of their objectives seemed so to the soldiers. I suppose it was all a matter of where you stood. Being at the bottom and actually doing the work tended to make one reluctant to get excited over what risking death in this battle would achieve for someone else in another part of the war. The officers, and more so the generals could see the bigger
affects of this movement or that--but in the end men still died. Stephenson shook his head, and frowned--such was the nature of war.
There was a snap of twigs some distance off in the growing gloom, and muskets all along the line were brought up and sighted into the muddy light between the trees. It looked more and more that rather than assaulting the junction by the cover of dusk, they would end up fighting to the junction. The enemy had been warned, and they were coming.
“Steady on boys, “said O’Malley as he leveled his musket, “hold yer fire as long as possible...we want to wait fer the order..but we also don’t wanna miss the buggers!”
Stephenson was moving along the line checking that all was ready when the orderly sergeant stepped up with corporal Haltzdahlen in tow. Stephenson nodded, and waved O’Malley over. The first sergeant gathered up the NCO’s, and a few moments later he began a meeting in earnest.
“Boys, it’s a pickle and you know it. Why pretend otherwise,” began Dorsey with a frown, “so this is our course. We’re looking at a total waste if we don’t pull this particular fat sausage from the flames, so we haven’t a moment to loose. The Colonel is meeting with the officers now, so I’ll bring you to up on the arrangements. The companies deployed already as skirmish will remain so, and prepare to advance when the word comes. The other units in reserve, will flank--here,” he said as he drew best he could in the dirt and scrub at their feet,”--so it’ll be your job to keep the Rebs busy for us. I aint gonna comment thus far, as I think a common opinion is this whole trip has been about as ripe as a three day dead mule. Be that as it may, we have our orders and we will see them through. Keep your gripes tight boys, and when the enemy shows his face you just vent that frustration on him.” The orderly sergeant looked about at
the sergeants assembled, waiting for a snide comment--he knew his men well--but for a change they resisted. Nodding, Dorsey turned and returned to where the reserves were. No one said anything--what was there to say? They’d all been sent of to do things that made no sense to them before now, plenty of times, even suffered some pretty piss-poor adventures at the hands of eager but unprepared officers. Charges no one ought to have ever made, objectives no one should have ever in their right minds tried to achieve--those canals at Vicksburg. This seemed more hare-brained though than usual, but give the Army time and it would eventually get around to every possible misadventure.
“Orderly sergeant, have the orders been passed on?”, asked Lieutenant Gere as Dorsey emerged from the tree line and rejoined the headquarters staff. The sergeant nodded and saluted.
“Good, to your post then orderly sergeant.” Dorsey saluted again, and turned to find his place in the company which was forming along the track.
Captain Sheehan slapped his thigh and paced back and forth in frustration. The first sergeant tried to keep up with the captain at first, but then stopped and stood to the side.
“Foolish mistake, we should have been allowed to take the assault to the enemy. It’s a waste of our talents to divert the enemy here--I should be with the Colonel.”, grumbled Sheehan. A call came from the lines, and sergeant Blackmer turned to answer the summons. Sheehan watched as Blackmer returned to him with a grim nod.
“Sir, the line reports contact. The enemy is closing on our position. Shall I call company commanders to you?”, said the sergeant looking back towards where the dark tangle of woods would soon reveal the enemy beyond. Sheehan nodded and stood tall, brushing his mustache. He had been put in charge of the units deployed as skirmishers, and he was doing his best to be worthy of the role.
“Pass the word then on to our boys, to D and E to prepare to engage. See to it personally Blackmer, no need to separate the captains from their men. Makes sure that fool Amos in E understands he is our flank, and that as such he needs to keep me informed of the situation. This will require careful control if our diversion is to remain successful.”, said captain sheehan with a serious look in his eye. Blackmer saluted and set off at a good clip, whilst the Captain moved forward behind the line of his men. As he joined them, it began--as a shrill yell went up from the gloom of the trees and a line of grey-brown men let loose with a volley which obscured them in a cloud of smoke. Captain Sheehan dodged to the left as balls screamed past him, and sneering at the enemy shouted “Pour it into ‘em boys! FIRE!”. Erupting all along the line, the world became a smear in the closing darkness of thick acrid smoke and long lithe fingers of flame and
sparks. As the light faded, and the enemy closed to where they were no longer simply grey and dark smears, the battle became a confused chaos. The enemy charged in a ragged order, betraying their lack of discipline and sheer abandon to lay hands on the enemy. With a start, many realized that these men must be militia--not the regulars they had expected at all. Everywhere sergeant O’Malley looked were men struggling, snarling faces and the choking clouds of discharged muskets. He ducked a moment too slowly and nearly caught the butt of an enemy musket, loosing his balance and tumbling backward as the rebel began to move over him to make another attempt at the sergeant. But before he had the chance, O’Malley had recovered and driven his bayonet into the man with a shout of anger and fear. The rebel fell back, and O’Malley withdrew his bayonet before stumbling forward to encourage the line again. He saw young Turner out before the line, loading his
weapon and oblivious to the dangers about him. As the boy prepared to take aim at an enemy before him, another was charging up at him from behind. Drawing his musket to his shoulder, O’Malley aimed and snapped off a shot--praying for accuracy--and was rewarded when the rebel dropped as he ran and tumbled into Turner from behind. Turner fell to the ground, thrown down by the impact and looking suddenly terrified and aware of the dangers about him. O’Malley charged out and grabbed the boy by the collar, pulling him back to the line chiding him at the top of his lungs.
“What the hell do ye think ye is doin? I gots enough grey as it is wid-out a sprout like you makin me chase ye through the hail of bullets and all! Stays in yer line, ye gobshite or I’ll have to kick yer arse to hades!”, spouted the sergeant, letting loose of his charge with a growl. Turner straightened himself, and only nodded. The enemy were falling back now, and all along the line men were taking stock of the situation. Captain Sheehan was slightly down the line from them, roaring praise loudly for their performance. Though it had lasted only moments, the fighting had seemed to go on forever in slow motion for O’Malley, and even now he felt as though he was moving either too slow or too fast as he checked on the well-being of his men. Everywhere he found them well and intact, cheerful faces with powder smudged chins and cheeks. Orderly sergeant Blackmer came along, limping slightly and waved towards O’Malley.
“We’re preparing to move forward, and sweep those bastards out of in front of us. Any wounded men in your platoon?”, said Blackmer with a quickness born of the adrenaline still surging through them all.
“We’re very lucky sergeant, all my boys are well and did well. Seems Johnny didn’t have a real grasp of what he was doing, or maybe he’s afraid of the dark! Either way, they didn’t seem that interested in hitting us hard as expected. I don’t think they were regulars either, but a local militia.”, responded O’Malley scratching his head and replacing his cap on his head. A hand on his shoulder made the Irishman turn slightly to take in the grinning face of Stephenson. Blackmer looked to him over O’Malley’s shoulder, and nodded.
“We did well, sergeant. The enemy stalled on our end of things, and aside from Roth and a shoulder wound--we came through well.”, spat Stephenson with a calm efficiency that never seemed to waver in him. 1st Lieutenant Fobes marched up to the gathering of sergeants and received the salutes offered. Fobes sheathed his sword, and nodded impatiently.
“Yes yes, sergeant enough of that. The Captain wants you, if you have passed along the orders. Off you go!”, said Fobes with urgency and the orderly sergeant saluted and made his way back towards Sheehan. Lieutenant Fobes smiled and crossed his arms.
“Gentlemen, well done. I’m sure you’ve heard now, but we’ll be moving forward shortly. Keep tight control of your platoons, 2nd Lieutenant Brown and I will be towards the center to allow for the easiest relay of report. Good look gentlemen!”, Fobes received their salutes, and turned with precision. O’Malley and Stephenson shook hands and wished one another luck, as the bugle call to advance played sharply. With confident steps, the lines moved forward into the thickets.
The grey skies had started to clear at last when the sun set, and was replaced slowly by a deep blue followed by the deepness of the night sky. The enemy had simply evaporated into nothing as they advanced through the tangle of trees, helped on perhaps by the flanking movement of the rest of the regiment and their troop of cavalry. The resistance everyone thought would be fierce for the Ward Yards proved nearly non-existent, and a great sense of accomplishment surged through the men. This sense of victory was cautiously embraced by the Colonel, too surprised by the ease of the operation to accept the outcome. Looking about as best they could in the dark, pierced only here and there by lanterns, O’Malley initially couldn’t for the life of him see what made this place so strategic. But as they came into the yards, they realized that here was not only the junction of three major lines--but switching facilities, a locomotive shed for repair and stores
of sand, wood and water. They had taken not only a junction, but the means to operate locomotives.
“Well then, that makes sense. Deprive ole’ Jeff of this, an he has a harder time gettin’ about!”, said O’Malley nodding.
“Sergeant! Take a detail and ensure those buildings are cleared out!”, shouted lieutenant Fobes. O’Malley gathered a group, and started off at a trot for the closest building. Everywhere the men were thrown into preparing for any possible retaliation, and under the light of lamps and torches began in earnest to fortify. Realizing that the prospect of trying to defend the junction presented a logistical nightmare for the sheer size of the area, they concentrated instead on the station facilities, switch tracks and the track junctions themselves. Wagons, crates, barrels and just about anything else was put to use as barricades and redoubts. The station building became the center of an improvised fort, so that a mere two hours after the Ward fall into their possession--all was prepared.
Leaning against a portion of the barricade and turning his collar up to help ward off the coolness of the night, private Johnson puffed his pipe and looked quietly at his comrades about him. Honan was chewing quietly on a piece of hardtack, while next to him Iverson slept. Turner and Henry picked their way through the group and settled into spots along the barricades with heavy sighs. Everyone was exhausted, and it was beginning to show. They had finished their turn on watch, and tension was running high--some almost longed for an attack simply to break the mood.
“What time is it? Anyone have any idea?”, asked Charles Dills who was sitting down on the end of the group with his arms crossed and his hat over his face.
“Feels like middle of the night to me.”, remarked Hunt with a tired sigh.
“I meant the o’clock, you fool”, shot Dills with irritation in his tone. Iverson, roused from his sleep by the discourse, sat up and looked around bleary eyed.
“What’s going on?”, he asked, sleepily.
“Nothing”, said Henry tying his brogan, “go back to sleep.”
“Well then why all the noise!?” growled Iverson, leaning back again and pulling the hood of his great coat over his head. There were sparse chuckles and then all grew quiet again. O’Malley, musket slung over his shoulder, shuffled along the group quietly checking in here and there. When we came abreast of Johnson, the man blew a plume of smoke and hailed him in a loud whisper.
“What do you know sergeant? Any word from those of authority?”
The sergeant smiled quietly, and halted before the private. “Nothing I’d repeats here in the companies of tender ears as yourselves!” The men chuckled and nodded, and the sergeant stretched. “No”, he continued, “no official words of wisdom as yet--but I can tells ye that they is plenty put out that it would seem they went to all manner of planning but the rebs aint obliging by being as tough or as worried about this junction as they thought they’d be.”
“So, we might have walked all this way”, said Honan, his voice rising slightly in anger, “for nothin’?”
“Figures!”, spat Grandy elbowing the barrel behind him with frustration, “what the hell are they using us like that for?”
“Now calm down boys, I don’t likes that thought anymore than ye all does--but first don’t go gettin’ lathered until we knows for sure and for certain of the facts.”, said O’Malley, hands up before him in an attempt for control, “all I am sayin’ is that things aint what were expected an’ that’s got some dander out of command.”
The men murmured, but kept their peace. With a nod, the sergeant continued down the line to check on his platoon. Shortly, resting against the axle of an overturned wagon, he came upon Stephenson.
“Mike.”, said sergeant stephenson with a nod, before turning his gaze back out into the darkness.
“Silas,” O’Malley sighed and leaned his back against the wheel, “long day, eh? Don’t much care for such hours at the office.”
“Yeah, working so--maybe we ought to ask the boss for a raise.”
“Have to receive our pay first, afore a raise be in order.”, Stephenson nodded to O’Malley’s comment--it was quite apt, as payroll was over a month behind.
“Yeah, your men as fired up as mine?”, asked Stephenson drawing out a portion of dried beef and offering a piece to O’Malley. The Irishman took what he was offered, and nodded in quiet thanks.
“Yeah, my boys is lathered up al right--they aint fools enough to not notice that this tough nut we thought we was aiming to crack proved tough as oatmeal. Think this whole thing was just some fools errand then?”
Stephenson chewed for a moment before answering. “Could be. I think the General isn’t the type to suffer wasteful use of troops or unnecessarily showy movements without purpose. So, I imagine this whole thing is just as troublesome to staff as it is to the men.”
“Just life in the Army, I suppose.”, smiled O’Malley turning to lean against the barricade and stare into the night as well. The hours of morning were clearly not so far away, judging from the slight purple mixing with the sky on the horizon. The sergeant found himself wondering what would come with the day–would they simply stay the required days to allow the Army the needed time to consolidate and assign someone to take control of the junction? It was almost as though they had dressed up all nice only to discover that there wasn’t a ball to attend at all...only a little mucking of stalls to do. O’Malley started thinking that he would have to attend to morale shortly, lest any bad feelings ferment and become issues of discipline later. But that could happen later–now it was time to get what sleep he could. Finding as comfortable a spot as possible, and laying his musket over himself, O’Malley closed his eyes in hopes of finding some rest. He didn’t expect to find rest easily, but the days work were laying in wait for such an unguarded moment and very shortly the dark whirlpool of sleep overtook the sergeant without mercy.
The colonel finished his dispatch in the orange lamplight, and handed it to the cavalry corporal. The corporal saluted, which the colonel returned before the dispatch and its messenger turned and left the small depot office which had been turned into the headquarters. Hubbard sighed heavily, behind him Adjutant French turned and stared out the window into the darkness, while Major Becht sat doing paperwork at the desk along the far wall. Without looking up, Becht spoke.
“Look at it this way, we took the objective quickly and with next to no opposition. We had two wounded, though the fellow Parker will likely be a casualty before long. Even so, you must admit Hub’--it came out well.”
The words hung in the air for a moment, and Hubbard nodded. French leaned against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest and clicked his teeth. He breathed out noisily and Becht looked him over with a frown.
“Oh, not you too!,” said the Major with a scowl, “you two are the saddest little war-mongers I’ve ever seen--so we crept about for no reason, had to prepare for a counter-assault that appears won’t happen--so what? Take pride in a victory won cheaply for a change man!”
Hubbard leaned back and scratched his chin. “You’re right, of course Becht. Absolutely correct. Give me a nights sleep and like as not I’ll see things clearer.”
It seemed no more than moments to O’Malley before someone was shaking him awake. It was well into morning, and though cold–the sky was clear and muffled sunshine was visible in patches all around. The men were aware, but not alert about him–and suddenly he wondered how long he had slept. Stephenson stood back from shaking him, and frowned.
“Time to rise up, we’ll have roll soon. The captain is fit to be tied, says we were sent on a fools errand. Anyway, the engineers are supposed to be here this afternoon along with our relief--so it looks like we did hike to take a junction someone forgot to tell the rebels they were supposed to defend. Not that I think we ought to complain but, well–seems a lot of bother over nothing, doesn’t it Mike?” Stephenson shook his head as O’Malley got up to his feet. He cursed himself for sleeping after his men, and for the mess this excursion had become. Not that he had any control over any of it, but he knew all the same that moods and discipline in the ranks would be less than optimal now. Standing up with a groan, he nodded to the nearby Dills brothers and smiled crookedly.
“Come with me, ye scoundrels–“, said the sergeant rubbing sleep from his eyes, “gots some work fer ye two to set your talents to.”
A bit later as the sun worked valiantly to burn through the heavy greyness of the waning morning, steam from a great kettle they had scrounged from somewhere in the yard swirled and drifted about the gathered men--followed closely by a hearty scent of broth and boiled meat. With the word going about of their relief soon to arrive--and the general opinion of the whole event strongly camped in negative terms--O’Malley and the Dills brothers sought to provide something to improve the mood. They had found it in the form of a farmstead nearby with cooperative– though not initially willing--inhabitants who supplied them with a sack of rice, 5 chickens, and a bag of potatoes. The Dills produced onions and a battered tin of pepper, which combined with the rest had become this afternoon’s meal of Slum--dubbed “Heaven in a Pot”. Stephenson, it was decided, was the only man amongst them trust worthy enough to stir the pot without tasting it too often. The platoon stood about with cups, plates and bowls to hand--eager faces and excitement all around. The day was proving cold and damp, so the promise of hot food and broth did the lion’s share of improving moods and morale. Sergeant Stephenson made one clockwise stir, before ladling up a portion of the golden broth and offering it to corporal Dills as the tester.
A hush fell over the assembled group.
Daniel Dills, took the spoonful with a quiet slurp, smacking his lips. He stood thoughtfully for a moment, before turning to the assembled group and smiling. “Perfect! Heaven in a pot!”, said the corporal with this arms raised in triumph. The platoon cheered, and O’Malley pushed and guided everyone into a line to receive their share.
“Alright you buggers,” said O’Malley with a smile, “get yerselfs into a line then--plenty o’ the good stuff fer all of ye! Fill up boys, warm and full to fight the damp an’ cold!”
The clouds drifted thick across the sun again, and the greyness intensified. O’Malley looked up and scowled, a sudden sense of dread creeping over him. He looked about him, seeing nothing that seemed out of place or wrong. He shook off the feeling, smiling broadly as a pair of soldiers heading towards their share of the ‘Heaven’ slapped him on the shoulder.
“Thanks sergeant, this is well appreciated!”, said the first as the second private nodded and smiled.
“You’re welcome boys. Ye go on an’ get yerself some slum,” responded sergeant, ”Full cups now, eat hearty!”
As the two men turned back into line, there was a funny “thunk” noise from somewhere off in the tree line north of them where the track vanished into the distance. Many heads turned at the noise, which was followed shortly by a whistling in the air.
“Everyone down! Everyone--”, shouted O’Malley shoving men down around him as the mortar round struck at one of the barricades some distance from them. The explosion was sharp, and punctuated by the clamor of wood splintering and clattering to the ground. As men rose up again, a second mortar whistled closer and exploded loudly beyond the barricade throwing cold dirt all about. O’Malley brushed away debris from his sleeve and rose up, shouting to his platoon to get to cover. Men scurried everywhere, sergeant Stephenson rushing away with his men to take up positions along the barricade as a third mortar fell amongst a group of the cavalry assigned to their group who had been racing in the direction of where the attack seemed to be coming from. There was a horrific scream of horses, a fine red mist erupted from the expanding dust cloud and then all was twisted wailing men and beasts. One horse, it’s rear legs gone from the blast, thrashed about with it’s ride trying desperately to escape–only to be crushed and mangled as the frantic animal rolled over him. O’Malley found bile rising in his throat, and turned to watch those cavalry who had survived the blast racing with vengeance upon the tree line. Officers, running along their company lines, shouted for order and attention.
“By Hell’s bells!”, swore Honan from behind the sergeant, “the whole slum gots dumped in the scramble!”
O’Malley turned and frowned on the still steaming kettle, its’ contents overturned and seeping into delicious smelling mud at their feet. A shot rang out, and the screaming horse beyond the barricade was silent. Then there were more shots, three–then four. Suddenly, with an unmistakable roar, came the sound of mass musketry. Everyone turned to the north, just in time to see the 5 surviving cavalrymen racing for their lives towards the barricade–and a long line of brown and grey issue from the woods. The world had been tilted--thrown violently off kilter–and men found comfort in instinct alone. The barricades suddenly became the most desired spaces, cover and safety all in one. Officers shouted orders, but men were too busy about the obvious business of defending their lives to listen–though in the end the result was the same. The enemy, clearing the trees fully, let out a wild shriek and came on quickly firing as they went. Bullets splintered with loud vehemence through upturned wagons and barrels, skittering like hell spawned hornets through air and a few unfortunate men. Sergeant O’Malley watched three men from company E fall from the barricade; two crying out while the third simply slipping backwards to fall like a stone. He turned back to his own men, pacing to and fro behind them, calling out encouragement and direction. The rebels had smashed headlong into the far end of the barricade with the greatest of their forces, but the flanks of that line had wrapped around along the defenses and now threatened O’Malley’s position. As the line of brown clad men drew closer, bullets shattered a corner of a large barrel and sprayed private Elliot with splinters. Elliot cried out loudly, and threw his hands to his face in agony.
“Fix bayonets boys, they be comin’ an we’ll have to dissuade ‘em!”, shouted O’Malley as he drew his bayonet, and shouted at Turner and Iverson to move Elliot back from the barricade. Iverson, a young man whom O’Malley had managed to steer clear of many of the worst of the fighting so far only grumbled and scowled as he and Turner obeyed the order.
“Never fails! Always missing the scraps–take his feet Turner!”, grumbled Iverson as Elliot was dragged clear.
A enemy cap appeared suddenly over the edge of the wagon as Johnson was reloading, and snapping his musket to his shoulder O’Malley fired. As the smoke cleared, Johnson–startled by the shot–was cursing blue but the enemy was no where to be seen.
It wasn’t to last.
Honan struck a rebel officer across the face with the butt of his weapon, sending him back with a cry--only to slip and fall into the mud at O’Malley’s feet as a thunderous blast of musketry tore through his side. The sergeant, fearing he had a dead man at his feet moved close, only to have Honan sit bolt upright and curse loudly.
“Damn! Them bastard’s ruined me haversack and took a piece of me canteen!”, exclaimed the irishman holding up his ruined gear, “rather they poked me than me kit! Easy enough to sew me back–but ye know how long it’ll take to get new kit from the quartermaster?!”
O’Malley frowned and pulled Honan to his feet, and shoved him aside. “Shut yer gob–and get back to it!” When Honan rejoined the line, O’Malley shook his head and reloaded. It wasn’t long before it became apparent that things were going much worse on the far end of the barricade, as those company’s assigned the North end began to fall back and fire in retreat. Discipline as yet reigned, and O’Malley could see the Colonel standing firm as the lines collapsed in an orderly fashion–but it was painfully clear that the rebels were going to have their junction back. Another line of the enemy was marching now from the Western side of the barricade, as those on the North spilled over the works like rats. As yet, the boys firing in retreat were keeping them at bay, but paying for it. Men fell, some dead as they collapsed, but many crying out in agony of wounds and even trying to crawl after the steadily retreating line. O’Malley tore himself away from the sight of it, and returned his attentions to his own boys.
“Lads!, we’re going to be firing in retreat–push back from the barricades whens I gives the order–then it’s quick as luck an into line ye forms up with me! Understood?”, shouted O’Malley, with a quick look towards the approaching line from the North. When he was sure they had heard, he gave the order and his men sprang down and formed into line with him–they formed as the refused left flank of the retreating regiment, firing as they marched slowly backwards. The smoke and taste of powder dulling the senses–Colonel Hubbards strong voice, issuing orders and encouragements–crossing like a sturdy bridge over the wild currents of the river of noise and confusion all around them. O’Malley stumbled over a fallen man who cried out in pain and anguish. Along the line, men fell, bullets ripped through the air between flesh and struck with wet angry slaps. Some men began to shout at the rebels, curse them, even as they loaded and fired. All at once, they had reached the south end of the defenses, and the order came for all to clamber over and reform on the far side. O’Malley halted, standing as calmly as he could while men scrambled over–as the enemy poured over the western barricade. A man was struck in the back, falling against O’Malley with a grunt. The sergeant passed him to another to assist over the barricade, noting that the enemy was not advancing further towards them. The last few men started towards the barricade and O’Malley waved them along, determined to defeat panic by not showing it himself. Charles Henry “Fullhouse” Dills was one of the last over the barricade, proof of how confused and spread out the regiment had become in the tumult of the mortar attack and infantry assault. Pushing Fullhouse and a private from company A towards the top, O’Malley had a moment of realization as to why the enemy was not pursuing–when the muffled “THUNK-THUNK!” sounded behind them.
There was no time to think, hardly time even to act. Michael O’Malley had never considered himself much of an deep thinker anyway–all the better in a moment such as this one. He pushed the men before him hard, willing that the mortars would miss them all–but if nothing else that at least they might be far enough out of the way to be spared. He felt a bullet pass very close to his left ear, just before there was a great roaring of sound behind him. The sound, a clamor which seemed to climb higher and change as it came on, was followed by a sensation as though a giant had slapped him across the back. Splintered wood, and great clods of mud and soil showered over him for what felt like forever before the world went utterly black.
Somewhere else, beyond the blackness, the sky rolled on with dark clouds. The sun, having made a valiant attempt to burn its way into the cool November day, admitted defeat.
To be continued in “A night amongst the Fallen”...