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.

Sometimes, I sit about and think about what it was like for the people we portray; how they coped with those issues that are touched on at an event, but never quite get to live out. I know I have always wondered what those first days were like for those companies of the 5th that had initially been left behind in Minnesota, upon rejoining their regiment in the south. Were they accepted? Did people question their skills, and ability to handle the pressures of battle? This is what spawned the idea for my first short story about the Fifth Minnesota; and this collection.

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

The Scroungers

The soldier was sweating, a droplet of the fruit of his strenuous exertion falling from his brow and vanishing into the greedy dust below. There was movement as he pushed, his musket slung over his back, hands gripping the edges of the prize he and his partner sought to free from that which held it fast.

“Are you pushing at all?”, panted Charles Dills to his brother Daniel as they fought to free a moderate sized chest through the window of a ruined house. Daniel grunted in return, his face appearing suddenly around the side of the box red faced and gritting his teeth.

“That’s not the trouble, you gotta twist it to the right I said! To the right blasted all, you’re just runnin’ it into the casement you fool--an’ you near took off my fingers!” responded Daniel Dills with a growl.

“Will you two stop your bickering! Lord almighty I have never heard two fellas that go on as you two do--and what in blazes are you doin’ with that that box anywise?”, said Johnson, as he wandered around the corner of a nearby barn with a pair of chickens in one hand and a coarse cloth sack that was bulging with something whose shape suggested apples, “You both heard the ‘tenant, food stuffs--no trifles!”.

The Dills brothers laughed, and worked their box out of the window at last--dropping it with a clatter before the feet of Johnson. Charles Dills kicked the top open to reveal all manner of pots, pans, and a lovely large coffee pot. Daniel Dills shoved a pointed finger at the treasure within, and chuckled.

“That’s within the pale, Johnson, we could use some replacements to our cook box--and I’m sure the Lieutenant won’t complain!”, smiled Daniel Dills, as his brother nodded with a self-satisfied grin.

Johnson shrugged and went on beyond the brothers. When he was out of sight around the barn, Charles Dills turned to his brother and hissed in a fervent whisper.

“You think he bought that?”, said Charles.

Daniel Dills shook his head and smiled, and gestured to his brother to take the box up again. They hefted the it with a creak, and shuffled off a little ways into a copse of trees that lay not far across a half barren dirt field, that likely would have filled with autumn harvest awaiting tending had not the whirlwinds of war left this farm abandoned. They were most of the way across and into the shelter of trees when a voice rang out sharply.

“Halt! Where’d ye two think ye are going then?”, came the call of sergeant O’Malley. The Dills stopped and looked back, catching a glimpse of the sergeant with a rough sack in one hand and his musket in the other.

“What’s that then? Find ye-selfs some dainty relics did ye? Come on over boys.”, O’Malley said with a smug smile. The Dills looked at one another, but there was no point in resisting now that they had been seen. Without a word, they turned about and made their way back to where the sergeant was standing with an expectant look. They set the box down before him, and O’Malley kicked it open saying, “Let’s have a peek then!”.

The Dills looked to one another with dread, Charles closed his eyes.

O’Malley bent over, and began to rummage though the contents within--the clank of pot and pan tumbling over one another punctuated by the occasional “Mmm, that’s nice then”, or “Come in hand, that will no doubt”. All of a sudden, and much to the Dills disturbance, the sergeant let out a long knowing “Aaaahaaaa!”, and stood up with a short dark brown box in his hands. He opened the lid, looked within and whistled, closing it again and chuckling. O’Malley pressed his finger tip atop the lid of the box and smiled roguishly at the brothers.

“Now, now boyos! Ye know that orders was given to takes only foodstuffs and the like, and yet ye two seems to have stumbled ‘cross this trinket all the same. A fine one too, and seeing as I rank ye both I would well within me rights to acquisition it from ye.”, said the sergeant with a feral smile. But before either of the brother could respond, O’Malley was smiling and gently handing the little box over to the corporal.

“Thank you sergeant. We appreciate your kindness.”, said Daniel Dills with a nod and a smile. The sergeant waved him off and hefted up his musket and sack again.

“Like as not it will be me undoing down the line, jest makes sure you don’t get caught--cause I aint goin’ to bail ye out. Orders was certain of no scrounging beyond eating and supplies, and that--though pretty enough a prize--aint either. I won’t even ask what kind a money you two will gets for it--or what ye will use it to trade for. Bring back some eats too though, as ye are supposed too! And hurry up, we’re heading back in 20 minutes.” With that, the sergeant wandered away shaking his head--and the Dills brothers breathing a sigh of relief.

The process of scrounging is one of delicate moral balances for those with a desire to tred life as an honest person--and this Private Louis Johnson tried very hard to do. On one hand was necessity of food for yourself and your fellows. Most of the time there was a good supply from the Army, but sometimes not. Sometimes what the Army sent wasn’t worth considering as food, and oft as not was buried with all the reverence one can muster for rotten beef and wormy bread. In such times, scrounging became a part of the necessity of Army life. Private Johnson accepted this, he was a rational man after all. War required the ability to live outside the safe framework of peace and civilian civility. Still, as a farmer himself, Johnson couldn’t help but always feel a slight pang of guilt and remorse for taking foodstuffs that were not his own by labor or purchase.

He was finding that being a good soldier sometimes required that he ignore the qualities that made a good citizen and christian. Johnson was a simple man in many ways, and he knew it. He felt he was a good soldier; “eager” lieutenant Fobs had called him once. But as the squad of men marched along behind their wagon and the spoils of the mornings scrounging--called a “foraging detail” by the Army, thieving by many of those from whom these goods were taken--bounced with every rut in the road, Private Johnson thought that deep down he didn't much care for soldiering. He was lonely for home, and today was his birthday. Not that birthdays at home were much to do; most would have been spent working the day away with the fields or barns. But at least then he was home, and passing the anniversary of his birth being productive and purposeful. Here, the purpose was survival; supplementing their rations so that they needn’t starve another day. Somehow, that made his birthday seem all the less of importance. Private Iverson, a lad Johnson suspected was really closer to 16 than 18, was ambling along next to him and occasionally assaulting the weeds with terribly accurate salvos of juice from his chewing tobacco.

“You ought to be in artillery, with that accuracy of yours.”, smiled Johnson as they walked along. Iverson nodded, he wasn’t one to talk much but he was friendly as they come.

“Yep. If that weedy patch was Jeff Davis,” said Iverson with a smile as he spat and stuck the spot he’d marked, “then the whole thing would be done.”

Johnson laughed, and reached for his pipe. Not finding it where it always was, his melancholy returned. It had been lost the week before, slipping from his pocket to tumble somewhere along one of the many roads he had wandered along on this detail. The boys called him “Smokehouse” because of his fondness for his pipe; being without was unsettling. It was a bad habit, his wife had always gone on about it, and somehow being away from home exacerbated his craving for tobacco. His thoughts were interrupted but a sharp shove to his arm, and he realized Iverson was still talking to him.

“Did you hear me? Sakes alive, you’re about as good for conversating as talking to a fence post!”, scowled Iverson. Johnson frowned and apologized, explaining his thoughts had distracted him. Iversons expression softened a bit, and he offered up a chunk of his chewing tobacco. “Want some? Ain’t that dried out stuff what Turner got stuck with before--this is the good stuff. Southern I’m sure, or should be for all I paid when we was through that town a piece back.”

Honan, who was behind them with Henry, shoved his hand forward over Iversons shoulder.

“I’ll take some of that there junior, if ye be looking to share it. How a sprat likes of you gets such delicacies I’ll never guess; an’ if ye found some proprietor able of selling such goods in that town of Salisbury Landing we done come from--ye are a better scrounger than the Dills!”, laughed Honan, as Henry joined in with a loud chuckle.

Iverson shook his head, but stuffed a bit of the chaw into the open hand of Honan, and cursed him under his breath. There came a call from the front that quieted the group, as the drover of the wagon called back to O’Malley.

“Hey, sergeant! Somthin’ brewing, get up here!”, said the burly McCall from his seat in the wagon. The mules were restless, ears twitching forward towards a drifting column of smoke just over the trees where a bend in the road obscured the view. Sergeant O’Malley made his way forward saying, “keep sharp boys, watch the flanks then”, and climbed up top of the wagon for a better look. He conferred with McCall briefly in hushed tones, before returning to the assembled group.

“Honan, take Turner, Iverson, and Henry and watch over the wagon,” said O’Malley clapping private Honan on the shoulder and turning back to the rest of the squad, “the rest of you come with Me.”.

They group of four fanned out, muskets at the ready, and made their way through the thickets diagonally so as not to fall prey to an ambush which would have focused upon the road. These men, with whom experience had been a harsh educator, were aware of more than they would have thought themselves possible a year before. They had grown, become hardened and capable. Halting at the edge of where the thickets gave way to the road and the clearing, they found the source of the smoke. It was another farmstead, slightly larger than the one they had scrounged hours previously. The house itself was in the process of blazing brightly, and from around it’s foundations several figures could be seen carrying torches. Johnson took a sharp breath.

“Johnny's, by god! Raiding and stealing, those rogues!”, whispered Johnson at the sergeants shoulder.

“Yeah, you mean like we were this morning boy?”, said Dobbs, kneeling beside a dead tree and sighting along his musket at the figures below. Johnson looked at Dobbs, but said nothing. The sergeant was studying the scene quietly, when Charles Dills spoke up.

“Sure would be something to catch those buggers unawares. They’re not paying much attention, and I bet we could drop a couple at least before they even knew what was what. Or maybe take prisoners--”, corporal Dills shushed his brother, which the latter frowned at but took the hint. The sergeant was quiet as the rebels below moved about, finally turning to corporal Dills and whispering his orders.

“You and your brother stay here and get ready to open fire. I know you two can hit what you aim at when need be, so do your best not to miss. The rest of ye, follow after me quiet and quick.”, and with that the sergeant rose up and was followed after by Johnson and Dobbs.

Daniel and Charles watched them moved down the short slope from the woods and across the open field, using the barn to screen their presence from the rebel scroungers. Charles followed them with his muzzle, grumbling.

“Can hit what I’m aiming at when I need too...what’s that supposed to mean? I hit whatever I aim at everytime.”

Corporal Dills looked at his brother and followed the group as the paused behind the barn.

“No you can’t. Charlie, you aren't a bad shot, but sergeants right--you aint exactly a sharpshooter neither.”

Charles Dills shot an angry look at his brother. “What poppycock! I can hit any thing you damn well...”

“Will you hush your mouth!”, responded Daniel Dills, quieting his brother who had gotten steadily louder as he ranted, “you want to bring the whole of the southern hoard down on us here? Now keep your eyes peeled, and get ready. I think I know what sergeant has in mind.”

About that time, O’Malley waved over at them, and Dobbs crossed to conceal himself back behind a granary. As the Dills brothers sighted, there was a sound behind them. Daniel looked back sharply.

“Did you hear that?”, asked Daniel.

“I have better ears than you. It was a squirrel or something, don’t be such an old ninny--ooh lord, where’d they go?”, responded Charles, noting that the sergeant and his party had gone out of sight when they weren’t looking.

The brothers scanned the buildings, but no one was visible.

“Well that’s just fine! Now what do we do?”, asked Charles in a loud whisper. Before his brother could answer, the unmistakable click of the hammer of a weapon being cocked filled the air--followed by a firm and calm voice.

“If you two could be gentlemen and put yer hands up, we’d be most obliged.” The brothers Dills looked back over their shoulders, and into the muzzles of two rebel muskets. Holding them, two grey-brown clad men sat smiling in a grim sort of way. The muzzles of the muskets motioned for them to stand, and leaving their own weapons at their feet they did so. “Turn around boys, lets go down and join the rest of our party. Corporals’ gonna be might surprised when he sees what we done caught! You boys must be with someone–-where they at?”, said one of the rebels.

“We’re scroungers like you Johnny.”, responded corporal Dills in a dry voice, “and by ourselves. Our captain likes eggs for his mess, and don’t care for sharing much. He sent us out quiet.”.

The rebels laughed. “Sounds like a major we got too Billy, army life is army life-–eh?”, said the one who had yet to speak, “Well too bad you all picked this farm. You’ll be sittin’ the rest of this whole mess out.”.

They broke the tree line, and started across the open field towards the farm buildings. The Dills didn’t know what had become of O’Malley and his group, alive or dead or captured as they had been-–the world was out of control. As they walked, Charles tripped and lurched forward-–spinning on his left foot so as to fall facing his captor. As he did, the reality of his motion became suddenly, and violently clear. His hands shot back as he went down and wrenched the musket that was prodding him along to the right. As it’s muzzle moved so, it swung into the ribs of the other rebel, and discharged. The other rebel spun and fell, his coat smoldering from the closeness of the blast and a loud grunt issuing from the now wounded mans throat. Corporal Dills wasted no time in tackling the surprised rebel headlong, while Charles Dills-–his left hand injured from powder burns–-scrabbled through the dirt to lay claim to the wounded rebels loaded musket.
rebel, spitting blood and writhing, resisted only briefly as Charles rose up with musket in hand to assist his brother. There was no need, for the corporal had had the element of surprise with the wild movement provided by the actions of his brother. Daniel Dills rolled off of the rebel, who was neatly pinned through with the formers bayonet, and moved back several feet panting. Charles touched his brothers shoulder, causing Daniel to flinch slightly. Charles looked about them, and slapped the corporals back.

“By God Dan! By God! Lets out of here while the getting is good! Get that sticker of yours and lets get the blazes away from this place!”, half shouted Charles Dills, feeling the injury of his hand suddenly more acute. He swore shortly, and wrapped a handkerchief around his hand. Corporal Dills suddenly returned to himself, and rose upon shaky legs to start back towards the woods where their muskets lay. Charles watched his brother wander past his bayonet without a glance, and halting to pull it free, he wiped the blade upon the dead rebels coat-–the man was past caring about his clothing. Charles started off at a trot to catch up to his brother, when a shout from behind him froze his blood.

“You two, hold it! Where do ye think your going?”, rang the voice clearly-–and with a familiar tone. Charles turned to see O’Malley motioning for them to come towards the barn. Daniel vanished into the woods briefly, then came back towards his brother with both muskets in hand. He handed Charles his back, and noting his bayonet in his brothers possession-–took it back with a word. Charles watched the corporal make his way towards the sergeant only briefly before following after, tossing the enemy musket down into the dirt. Charles noted that his brother walked past the two dead men without a glance. Somewhere far off, a group of crows set to calling loudly. To corporal Daniel Dills, it sounded like coarse and unkind laughter.

Dobbs was prodding the three rebels who had been tied to one of the posts in the barn. Two had angry bruises which were swelling over their faces, attesting to the manner in which they were subdued. The third was pale white and sweating visibly. He had wet himself, and looked to be barely 16 if he was a day past school books.

“You three just keep quiet, and you’ll live out this fine,” said Dobbs in a matter of fact tone that suggested such things as silencing disobedient prisoners was not beyond his experience, “your two friends are gone to their judgment--up to you how soon you go to yours.”.

Johnson was up in the hay loft, keeping an eye in the direction that the rebels had come. The smell of the burning house was pervasive, mixing with the homey and familiar scents of dry hay, animal dung and pine wood. Watching the little house burn and smoke, Johnson felt a pang for his own home, and wondered about the people who had lived here. There was no sign of the owners, he had looked about after they had fallen upon the rebel scroungers and taken them captive. Upon initial question, the Johnny's had not seen any inhabitants either; but the national colors displayed prominently in the window of the house had been impetus enough to make them burn the place. Johnson watched the road to the east, but couldn’t help but wonder after those that had lived here. The feel and smells of the barn made him ache for home, his wife and child. He wondered how the farm was; he knew that the letters he received told only partial truths of conditions at home. Once
more, without thinking, he felt for his pipe only to be reminded it was lost.

“See anything?”, asked corporal Dills, climbing into the loft behind him. Johnson looked back and shook his head. Dills nodded and took a seat in the hay, leaning back his head back and closing his eyes. Johnson looked at Dills for some time before turning back to the road.

From below O’Malley called up, “How’s the outlook Johnson? Anything brewing?”.

“All clear sergeant, road’s clear.”, called back Johnson.

“Get yerselves ready then, we’ll be movin’ out very shortly. Corporal, come down and take charge of our prisoners.”, responded O’Malley.

Dills rose up and started down the ladder, and Johnson followed after him. Dobbs, with Charles Dills assistance, got the rebel prisoners to their feet and tied them in a line so they could travel. With one last look about, and those not watching the rebels gathering up what foodstuffs that they could carry, they started back to the wagon. They made their way along the rode this time--simply for the speed it allowed--so they did not pass by the two dead men in the field behind the barn. Charles thought this for the best, given the odd behavior of his brother. He made up in his mind to check on him as soon as he might do so privately, and turned his attentions back to the prisoners he was watching. When they got back to the wagon, Honan and the others were surprised by the “goods” they brought back.

“Almighty! You go off through the woods and come back with three lost sheep! You all all right, nobody hurt?”, asked Honan with an wry smile.

Charles Dills held up his wrapped hand, but chirped cheerfully that, “not bad though, overcooked is all. With my luck, the sawbones will wanna take my hand off!”. Honan laughed as as Iverson and Turner loaded the appropriated foodstuffs into the wagon. But as they moved to push the prisoners into the wagon, McCall raised a hand.

“Not havin’ them in my wagon. They can walk.”, he said, with a steely glint to his eye. Honan looked to O’Malley, who shrugged.

“Fine then, tie ‘em to the back so they can pad along after the wagon--Dobbs you get up and keep your eye on ‘em from there. We’ll be behind them.”, said the sergeant, with a jerk of the thumb to Dobbs to get it done. All the while, the sad faced rebels said nothing.

An hour later, they were well on their way back to their lines. The wagon creaked and groaned, with McCall doing the same at his mules. Dobbs watched the prisoners with the eyes of a hawk, and for their part the rebels gave no trouble. Moving along in the route step behind the wagon, the rest of the group chatted quietly and passed the time. Johnson was gabbing away at the corporal, who was listening but not saying much in return. Suddenly, Johnson went quiet and said with a worried tone, ”Hey Dills, are you hurt or something? Looks like blood on your hands there.”.

The corporal looked down at his hands, and shook his head. He wiped them on his pant legs, though the dried brown spatters remained. Behind him, his brother Charles watched and listened, a knot growing in his stomach. It was a knot of fear, since he had never seen his elder brother distressed in his life, and it churned and made his heart race. But then suddenly, Daniel spoke. His voice was even, if a little sad, but strong and resolute in its tone.

“No Johnson, I’m not hurt. It’s not my blood you see--Charles and I had to get the jump on a couple of them rebels before we joined back up with you lot. Charles shot the one, I killed the other with my bayonet. This would be that mans blood.”, Johnson nodded as the corporal spoke.

“With your bayonet? For true, really?”, asked Johnson with wide eyes, “What was it like?”.

“Awful, Louis--it was awful. That’s war.”

Johnson nodded and felt, without thinking once more for his pipe. He swore, and shook his head. “Sometimes I have tick stuffin’ for brains, surely do miss that old pipe.”

Corporal Dills smiled his old smile, and turning over his shoulder said to his brother, “I can’t stand it anymore, should we just give it to him now?”.

Charles nodded, and with exuberance born more from his joy at seeing his brother recovered than the situation at hand, laughed aloud and said, “Hells bells, if nothing else it will keep him from wearing a hole in his blouse front looking for the old one!”

Corporal Dills called up to Dobbs for a small vegetable tanned leather pouch, which was stuffed under two large skillets in the dark wood box that they had spent so much time freeing from the ruined house. Dobbs tossed it down to corporal Dills, who passed it to Johnson. Charles Dills poked Johnson and cheered, “Happy birthday Louis, we saw this and we thought immediately of you.”.

Johnson unwrapped the pouch and drew out a simple, but very handsome pipe. He smiled from ear to ear, and cheered aloud. “If that doesn’t beat all! This is perfect, great! Thank you boys, thank you. I don’t know what to say!”.

“How about,” responded Honan from up forward, “shutting yer trap and simply puffing away like we is used to from you?”. Everyone laughed, and Johnson set about loading his pipe with his precious tobacco. Within a short time, the soft crackle of his pipe issued a soft billowing cloud of smoke--and Johnson was humming some song to himself. He thought about being a soldier, and how it took and gave from a person. How simply having a new pipe to smoke changed his perception of his lot at this particular moment; and how fleeting these moments of calm and joy tended to be. His gaze fell on the rebel prisoners, and he realized fully that corporal Dills was right--war is awful. War requires innocent men to become thieves to fill their bellies; it moves soldiers to burn homes for the presence of symbols not their own; and it rewards and uplifts the spirits with niceties taken from the ruins of others lives. As he watched the prisoners shuffle along after the wagon, Johnson felt he would never know just how to explain the things he had seen and done in the war to his loved ones. He realized that in peace, men have the freedom to choose and follow the morality they desire. But in war, they must ever be the competent scroungers.

1 comment:

  1. This story actually grew from an event my then Company C participated in at a living history museum in Minnesota. I was sergeant, and I took the Dills out to scrounge since our cook in camp screwed up the food and we literally NOTHING to eat for dinner. We ended up stealing a pie from one house, and a whole mess of goodies from a food vendor (Those we were GIVEN for the record). In the midst of this, someone snapped this photo of myself and the dills with out loot, and it looked so compelling this story was born.