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
The air was very still, and the first light of the morning was just starting to burn through the hazy mist that hung heavy in the sky. Corporal Moran, awake but comfortable under his blanket and greatcoat, hardly dared to stir. His mind was occupied with thoughts, and the unease of change. The war was winding down, at least as far as the country and the press was concerned anyway. General Lee was closely pursued and on the defensive for a change, and the war was said to be nearly over in the press--never mind that General Forrest’s irregular cavalry were fighting on in the west! No, as far as many of the war weary people of the country were concerned, it was only a matter of time. Moran let his eyes wander over the many sleeping comrades in the barracks they occupied--some form of long shed converted for their needs--and thought that maybe soon he would leave this behind. Of course, how many times had they been told that the ‘war would be over by christmas!’, or that ‘the end was in sight!’--only to have it drag on yet again? He decided to remain skeptical this time, if only because as good as old Grant was, Lee had proven even better at wriggling free when cornered. Moran looked to the window and yawned. It wouldn’t be long before the musicians started sounding first call, and the quiet room of gently sleeping men would be jarred awake. They would rise up, as he had seen hundreds of times since he joined the army some three years before, and complain--whine--poke one another and laugh loudly--grumble about the early hour of the day--a thousand rituals bourne of this soldiering life. Moran realized how he would miss that, even as he chided himself for thinking so. How many times had he daydreamed about being home again, complained about the
food--conditions--wondering all the while if he would live to see his 20th year. The musicians sounded their call, and men began to stir around him.
“It can’t be!”, said an annoyed voice half yawning.
“Somebody go kill them musicians...kill ‘em!”, said a voice that was immediately muffled as he pulled covers over his face.
“Quit yer bitching an moanin’ ya ass! Aint ya used to it yet?”, came a sharp accent from the far end of the room. Moran sat up in his bunk, twisting himself about trying to relieve the stiffness which seemed to seize his young body like sudden age. Army life was hard, and he knew that the experience had aged him beyond his years. He was regularly mistaken for much older than he was--the lines in his face were deceptive. A face suddenly appeared at his left, hanging upside down. It was his young friend Patersen, who was assigned to the top bunk above him.
“So, do you think it’s true? You really think we’re going to be discharged soon?”, said Patersen with an excited smile.
Moran laughed, and shook his head. “No. I think there are still plenty of rebels who don’t care a wit for what happens to Lee one way or the other, and who plan to keep fighting. Now, if we were in Virgina--maybe we might be looking at walking sooner than later. But we aren’t, we’re in the west--and despite what the papers are prophecying the war is still very much enaged out here.”
Patersen frowned. “You are spoiled as Army beef--you know that Moran?” With that, he vanished from sight, and Moran only chuckled. He set to getting dressed, knowing that they would be expected for roll call shortly. Patersen was ratting about above him, and suddenly he plummeted from the top bunk to land loudly on the floor. The lanky blonde youth stretched his back with a loud groan and started working at making his rack up for the day.
“Damn blasted tick was twisted tighter than Kentucky tobacco--and not near so smooth. Cramped up my limbs somethin’ akin to knots on a ships line!”, complained Patersen. Moran watched his friend with a smirk, making his bunk opposite from him.
“Matthew Patersen, I have never heard nobody with a habit for such phrases! When you get home again, nobody is gonna recognize you for the soft, gentle boy you were before the Army!”, said Moran shaking his head. Patersen only waved him off and scowled. It was a morning ritual for them it seemed, more so since the news had begun to suggest an end in sight. Moran thought it rather funny really, that having now lived beside these men for almost three years, they had taken on the habits expected of siblings and loved ones. They argued, bickered and fought over the silliest things--but then would immediately close ranks if someone from outside of their company, platoon, or squad dared insult or transgress upon one of their member. Moran sometimes found himself contemplating this bond between them all with a curious humor, and that would set him to contemplating the enevitable end of it all. As he stood in his place in ranks, his mind wandered to what life would be like when that moment came. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go home, had he not dreamed of that nearly every day since he had begun this adventure? Of course he wanted to go home--to see his parents, his home and his beloved sisters. Yet despite his longing for home, he felt torn between two worlds--even a little disloyal that his connection to these men around him could begin to challenge his desire to be home. The roll was called, each man answering as a matter of routine. Until, that is, the sergeant read out a pair of names which were not answered for. There was a brief pause as the spell was broken, and every man in formation looked about for the missing men.
“Ward, Henry!”, repeated the sergeant sharply, looking about. It was dead silent at first, and the name being repeated drew attention of a sergeant-major. The sergeant-major spoke in low tones and directed the other sergent to search the probable hiding spots.
“Willhelm, Erich!”, read the sergeant-major with a stern tone. Now the ranks broke into murmurs, but these were silenced rather quickly with the arrival of Captain Dartt.
“Attention, battalion!”, shouted the sergeant-major and everyone stood eyes front. The captain paced back and forth for a moment, his hands in fists at his side. The absence of these two men was jarring, not because it had never happened before--people were always dawlding, in hospital or simply trying to dodge work. Every company had it’s shirkers and ‘hospital rats’. What was of worry to those who knew these two was the fact that they had, not the day before, spoken of their thoughts of quitting the whole affair. No one had taken then seriously, lord knows every last one of them had threatend to desert more than once through the years. It had become a way for some men to blow off steam, venting around a company fire at night that “this is the last time you see my face! I’m quitting and going home!”. But no one had ever done so, the same men had always turned up the next day for roll.
But now, here were two who had not. It was the first time that the declaration and the after affect had ever transpired, and the mood it cast on the company was one of disbelief, worry and a sense of betrayal. The sergeant who had gone in search of the men returned with a frown, but his report was heard clearly by all--perhaps spoken loudly enough to serve that very purpose--that both men were in the infirmary and that fact had simply not been reported properly or in time for roll. The tension eased, and the captain stalked back towards his quarters--but not before admonishing the sergeant-major for the lack of discipline regarding proper reporting of sick call amongst the men. In the typical and inevitable way of the Army, this then led to the orderly sergeant being dressed down once the captain was out of earshot--followed by the sergeants--and ultimately the entire company.
John Moran, not even quite twenty years of age, suddenly felt very old. The morning’s rituals passed into midday, and not assigned any specific duties for a change, other desires called.
Late March, this far south, was balmy to say the least. Moran, digging with a borrowed spade behind the mikes-shift barracks, dripped perspiration. Patersen and Cole were sitting nearby on a pair of stumps, taking turns trying to hit an old tin cup with juice they spat from their chaw. Moran was trying his hand at gardening--though everyone had told him it was daft. Deep down he know they were probably correct, like as not they would march on somewhere else and leave all the fruits of his labor behind. Still, it passed the time--and if they did remain here long enough the garden might well supply them with some fresh additions to the mess. He wiped his brow with his sleeve, set his spade aside and retrieved his sack coat from where he had laid it in the grass. The week before had been cooler, rainy and overcast--now most of the men went about in shirt sleeves as much as possible. There was a shout of victory from nearby and a soft ‘ping’ noise as one of the pair scored a hit on the tin cup.
“HA! Beat that, Patersen! You can’t never make a shot like that!”, shouted Cole with a slap of the knee and obvious wild joy. Patersen was all grimace and frowns, looking like a thunder head waiting to burst open.
“You just wait you toad, I’ll show you yet!”, and Patersen moved to the line they had torn in the grass for his turn. Shaking his head, Moran simply resumed his work. He started wondering how long they would be quartered here, since the Mobile Campaign was not yet complete. That August the navy had run the bay, and through luck and sometimes reckless bravery taken victory. Since then, the rebels had been confined in a group of fortifications and still held the city of Mobile itself as well. To a casual observer, surely it might appear that the Sesech were bottled up and trapped--weak even. The truth was, while they might have a narrowing field of operation, those fortifications would still prove tough assignments. Everyone knew that the storming of those ramparts would be hot work--and that most likely the 16th Corps would one of those get stuck with it. As he dropped some seeds into a small hole and covered it over again, Moran spoke.
“So how’d you ever get out of fatigue duty?”, he said to Patersen.
“Quiet!”, responded the youth sharply, “can’t you see I am about to take my turn?”
There was a soft noise in the grass, and Cole laughed himself hoarse, while Patersen merely growled loudly. Moran turned his head and was about to comment when the hurtling frame of Patersen knocked Cole to the ground. Dropping his spade, Moran lent himself to the massive task of trying to separate the pair, only becoming embroiled in the wildly flailing fists and kicks each was aiming at the other. As they rolled around, each calling the other various names and calling into question the lineage and circumstances of their conception, Moran finally got the better of the other two. With his hands knotted into the collars of their shirts, he held their faces into the grass shouting–“Are you two done yet? Or do I have to thrash you both to get you to behave?!”–just as the captain and 1st lieutenant happened to turn the corner of the building. Corporal Moran saw the captain’s eyebrows knit together, as the lieutenant stood frowning, and let go of the collars of Cole and Patersen with a sudden jerk as though they were hot to the touch. The two men, still prostrate beneath the corporal, lifted their heads and spat out grass and dirt almost as one. Cole just laughed to himself, as Patersen caught view of the officers before him and sighed heavily.
All things considered, they had gotten off lightly. Captain Dartt, while a competent officer overall, was known to be a bit of a pistol when it came to discipline. Still, all in all their “punishment” could have been worse.
“This is the worst possible thing ‘Old Marm’ could’ve done to us!”–said Cole with a grumble as they sat in the forward outpost facing the enemy fortification just a short 1200 feet distant. Moran frowned at him, especially cringing at the use of the nickname some of the men had for their captain. The name had come about innocently enough, when someone had made the comment that Dartt looked remarkably like a teacher they had had in their youth from the profile. Moran had made the mistake of making this comment before Patersen, who in turn began calling the captain ‘Old Marm’.
“Believe me, this isn’t so bad,” chided Moran as their small fire burned in the earthen hearth of the short trench, “I’ve seen what the captain can give in punishment. And as far as that nickname–you keep it to yourself! He ever hears that, and he’ll make you pray for outpost duty!”
“Ah, you’re just worried he’ll find out it was you that came up with it!”, laughed Patersen taking a sip from his canteen.
They’re conversation slowed, and soon everyone was left silent around the small fire. Someone had had the brilliant notion of digging a bell shaped indent into the side of the trench here, shoring up the sides of earthen hearth with some bits of scrounged brick. To complete the affect, a crude chimney was dug down into the top, which allowed the fire to draw--though not very well. All things considered, it worked relatively well (despite some occasional excessive smoke) and was a testament to the growing ingenuity seen amongst the rank in file in improving life when engaged in trench warfare. This adaptation of the men to trenches made corporal Moran strangely displeased--an awareness that getting used to something uncomfortable resulted when one accepted that discomfort wasn’t likely to end any time soon. He held his hands to the flames, warming then and driving the dampness from his joints. As warm as the late march days could become in Alabama, the evenings tended to be damp and cool--especially with the water so close.
Cole, his head nodding against his chest, was gently snoring. Patersen sat beside him, puffing quietly on a short pipe. Moran stared up into the darkness above, his eyes affected by the glow of the fire and making the sky appear a great dark smear without variation. He had just closed his eyes, when Patersen spoke.
“You ever think about what you’re gonna do when this thing is really over, Moran?”
The words were soft, but the question itself lingered loudly in Moran’s mind. This was not the way Patersen usually spoke, so he looked up and fixed his friend with an attentive gaze.
“What do you mean what will I do? I’ll go home I suppose, same as you.” Patersen drew his feet up, his knees near his chest and shook his head. Moran stared at him, as the pause lasted longer than expected.
“I don’t know if I’ll go home, I mean I want to go home--just maybe not right away.”, said Patersen looking down the trench and then back at his feet as though her wanted to avoid his friend’s gaze. “Sometimes”, he continued as Moran listened intently, “I can’t even imagine the war ending--then I realize it will, it has too eventually. Funny, how you pray for something to end so long and then when it might you find you’re almost afraid of what that would be like!”.
“I know what you mean,” remarked Moran, “I wonder sometimes what it will be like. We’ve all gotten used to life this way, and none of us is the same as when we joined up.”
Patersen nodded, blowing a slow cloud of smoke into the air as he did. “Living with my mother now will be a trial,” smiled the youth, “what with all habits I have taken too. I figure she expects me to come back still her boy, and I don’t know how she’ll take to the man I am instead. I feel badly about it, since she missed my growing so.”
Moran nodded. “You’re not alone in that feeling you know. There isn’t probably a man in uniform that doesn’t fret for all those same reasons when given the chance. I’ve done it too--wondering if I will get used to going back to the regular life. Not that this is high living here,” said Moran with a laugh which Patersen joined with heartily, “but I kinda like the Army too.”.
Patersen gave him a look of disbelief, and shook his head. “You like this? I knew you were crazy, but--what do you mean, like a career?”
Moran shrugged. “Maybe, I haven’t thought it out fully yet. I’m not saying I like all of it, but at the same time this ordered existence kinda suits me.”
“How do you know they’ll even be an Army when we’re done? I mean, what if they disband it all like before, and there aint no room for men beyond what they need to replace the lost regulars?”
“Then I suppose I’d join the regulars--or not. But either way, I understand what you are feeling about the afterwards of this whole affair. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about all that just yet. In case you haven’t noted, there are still some pretty juiced up rebs out there in forts we have yet to take.” Moran smiled quietly and Patersen leaned back against the trench wall. Movement from along the entrance to the trench caught their eye, as a sergeant wandered up and motioned to them.
“Alright, it’s you lot--previous watch is about ready to be relieved. Get up and follow me.”, said the sergeant who turned and hardly waited for them to rouse Cole from his sleep. In short order they were following after him, Cole a little wobbly from being so suddenly roused, and moving quietly up to where the observers post was. The post--50 yards closer to the edge of the enemy fortifications--was basically a short trench with a packed earthen lip facing the enemy augmented with a short wall of sawn logs. One climbed a short ladder up to the observation area, and peered out through the darkness by way of rifle ports cut into the logs. Unlike the rear outpost, the observation post couldn’t afford the luxury of a fire--as the light too easily gave away their position and tended to make seeing in the dark difficult.
“Here you boys are, don’t fall asleep or I’ll skin you.”, said the sergeant in a husky whisper as the previous watch filed past them and vanished into the darkness. In a moment Patersen, Moran and Cole were left quite alone to man the outpost in a swathe of darkness which closed in about them like tar. Stumbling about momentarily as their eyes slowly accustomed to the low light, the three decided to do their turn on post with two observers on and one resting. Cole and Patersen decided to go first, leaving Moran down below to sleep. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable fit, as this trench had been dug with practical minds in charge and not those thinking about anything but keeping an eye on the enemy. Moran shifted about, only to disturb more of the loose dirt behind him which then cascaded down into the neck of his coat and shirt.
“Bugger!”, he said rather more loudly than he had intended. The noise sounded like a cannon blast in the silence of the dark night, and seemed to carry forever. Two ghostly white ovals he knew where Patersen and Cole shot over the lip of the trench and a soft hissing issued from their direction.
“What the blazes you doing down there!?”, spat Cole’s voice. Moran shrugged, brushed the dirt from his shoulder and was silent. The ghostly forms vanished, and Moran resumed trying his best to find some position which he might be able to sleep in.
He thought he might have found it when the other voice called out, but this wasn’t from their lines. It was a rebel.
“Hey over there! You aint asleep, we heard you all before. Come on Billy...aint you gots no manners?”, called the shrill voice. Moran was up, musket in hand, and the other two were busy scanning the darkness. Coming along the trench was the sergeant who had brought them up, followed by a lieutenant none of the knew.
“What goes on here then boys? Who gave orders to make contact with the enemy?”, asked the lieutenant firmly. Moran saluted and came to attention, the sergeant giving him a deep frown as the officer moved forward.
“We didn’t sir, they called out to us.”, responded Moran. The officer nodded, and scrambled up to the trench observation post. As soon as the lieutenant was up and conferring quietly with Patersen and Cole, the sergeant moved close to Moran and stared him hard in the eye.
“Just called out huh?”, said the sergeant with a growl. Moran nodded, and tried to look blankly ahead. The rebel voice cried out a second time, and the lieutenant motioned for the sergeant to attend him With a last glare, Moran was free, and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Billy! Come on now, we just lookin’ to chat a spell...promise..aint no tricks or nothin’!”, came the voice again. The lieutenant looked to the sergeant, and then suddenly said loudly; “So, what is it you want Johnny?”
There was a long silence, before the voiced sailed again through the darkness. “Ha! I knew you was over there. How do?”
“Well enough, better if you boys would surrender and let us all go home.”
“That’s rich yank!”, laughed the rebel,” you know well as I do you aint never gonna take these forts! Why don’t you all quit, go on home and we’ll call it even!”
“Didn’t figure none.”
“So, what is it you want then?”
There was a long pause, before the voice came back again. “You tired of all this yet Billy?”
The lieutenant didn’t even hesitate. “Damn tired, Johnny. I think it’s coming to some sort of ending though.”
“Like as not, you’re right yank. Aint wanting to agree, but cause or not we aint blind--there’s writing on the wall for sure and certain.”
“Anything else you need then, Johnny?”
“No, I suspect that’s all. Nice talkin’ to you though yankee. You get your rest tonight boys, we aint coming. I promise.”
The lieutenant yelled back his goodnight as well, and turned to the sergeant. “Make sure these men are fully alert. I wouldn’t trust his word anymore than necessary. Sound a good alarm if you see anything.” With that, the officer departed, and the sergeant glared at them all and nodded.
The night passed along quietly, and the events served to give them all a wakefulness that held them through their watch. By the early prickling of dawn, it was clear that the rebel had been good to his word--no mischief was attempted along their lines.
The morning was warm, humid. Sitting upon a stump atop a short rise near the camp, Moran considered the men about him. He cast a long gaze along the nationals encampment, taking in the distinct separation of the white commands from those the colored regiments. They had fought alongside colored troops for going on almost two years, and he still couldn’t say that he really knew any of them. The only time they really ever mixed was in the heat of battle, and then no one seemed to notice any difference. Federal blue was federal blue--irregardless of the man within. He felt a slight pang of guilt, thinking that he had never tired to make acquaintances with the negro soldiers. Of course they never wandered our way much either he thought a moment, before wondering if they could even if they wanted too. He was disturbed by movement, as Patersen collapsed beside him in a heap.
“Whatcha gnawing at now? Lord, never knew a man so given to thinking a hole in the ground he occupied!”, laughed his friend looking along where his friend had been staring a moment before.
“You know me, always thinking.”
“What is it, wondering what the Negroes are cooking for their supper? Like as not something awful, they eat almost anything I hear. Bits of animals no self-respecting man would ever think of chewing on!” Patersen scowled, and shook his head. Moran smiled tightly and started picking at gravel to toss at a spot in the grass which seemed a distractive target.
“Well, maybe. Maybe,” responded Moran after his third pebble, “they never were given much else to eat. You don’t get much fancy eats, I imagine, when you’re someone’s property.”
Patersen was about to respond and seemed to think better of it, picking pebbles as well. After a short time had passed, the young soldier looked up and out towards the horizon. “I think we’re going to be hitting the fort soon, just have a feeling.”
“I suppose it makes sense.”
“Couldn’t just sit here forever, Mobile is one of the last cities of the confederacy never occupied by National troops. Symbology I suppose.”
Moran chuckled. “Symbolic you mean.”
“I know what I mean,” answered Patersen sharply, “either way--it means there’s really a chance it’s almost over.”
“Maybe so, but I aint decided what I plan to do with myself yet! What will I do, if we make the push and they decide it’s over tomorrow?”
Moran looked at the true anxiety in his friends face, and smiled. “Don’t worry so much! Haven’t you learned yet that anything as simple as taking a fort with dwindling supplies and no chance of escape for the defenders is sure to end in disaster! This is the Army! We’ll probably be tied up her for months yet.” Patersen laughed, and nodded. He wrapped his arms about his knees and leaned his head down smiling. They sat quiet for a long while until at last Patersen spoke quietly.
“I suppose there’s comfort in the fact that at least one bunch have more to worry about with the war ending than me.”
Moran looked up. “Who would that be?”
Patersen pointed to the camp where the US colored infantry was quartered, and frowned. “I don’t figure any of them are eager for the wars end. Like as not when peace comes, it will be just the start of their troubles.”
“What you looking at, Titus?”, asked Dover Jones, private in the 50th United States Colored Infantry as he sat wiping down the muzzle of his musket. His friend, Titus Washington–who had joined with him in those heady days back in Vicksburg after the fall–gestured to a pair of figures on the hill.
“Fellas up there, gawking down upon us.”, Washington resumed working on his musket. It helped to pass the time, but more importantly it was a matter of pride. Some of the other colored regiments might have been made up of true “contraband”–former slaves straight from the fields and into uniform–but though the 50th (which had started life as the 12th Louisiana Volunteers until last March) hadn’t yet seen combat, they would be ready. Sergeant Roth, who had served with one of the white National regiments that had helped storm Vicksburg, said he had never seen a group of men so steadfast to their duties and ready to scrap.
They had been set to so much manual labor, digging trenches, erecting fortifications and the like–some had begun to fear that they would never get to fight. But Washington had no doubt, not now or ever. He wasn’t a fool, he knew that not everyone wanted them to get a fair chance. Not every solider in the uniform he now proudly wore felt he belonged. But what Titus Washington knew, with the certainty of a man who had grown up in slavery and seen the worst and best of others, was that people didn’t follow one way. He’d known cruel whites as well as Negroes, just as much as he’d known generous, kind whites and Negroes. He’d once seen sad Indians, bereft of their lands and shipped south; but he’d also heard tell of Indians in the south and west that owned their land and kept Negro slaves to work it. His Mama had taught him well, and early. “You take each an’ every folk you meet as you meet ‘em Titus--Lord know there plenty enough small minded folk to go about already!”, she had always told him. So, despite it all he believed. The war might be winding down, and God only knew what might become of them all in the days after, but Titus Washington knew he’d get his chance to fight.
“Them boys still up there,” said Jones, interrupting his thoughts, “maybe we ought to go up and see what they want.”
“They’re just setting, no different from what we ever do. Maybe one of them replacement regiments, what not fought alongside colored troops before. Might be the first Negroes they ever seen not wandering roads whilst they march south.”, responded Washington as he worked.
“Well, lets go up.”
Washington looked over at Jones, his friend smiling gently and setting his musket aside.
“Damn right I’m serious! Aint you the one always preaching to take each man at the meetin’ if you want the same of him? Come on, lets go!”, and with that Jones stood up--brushed straw from himself of the bale he’d been seated upon--and started up the hill. Washington watched him for a moment, motionless, before setting off after his friend. Others in the camp behind them were suddenly aware of their movement, and a silence settled over them. It wasn’t that colored and white regiments never mixed, they did often in formations and drill. But socially, that was another matter. There was no specific rule against it as such--it just didn’t seem to happen. Or, rather, it hadn’t normally--until now. The men at the top of the hill rose, as it became apparent that Jones and Washington were approaching them. They stood with hands hanging at their sides, watching the pair intently. When Jones was an arms length away, he stopped and nodded to the pair of soldiers--noting the taller bore the rank of corporal.
“Corporal, we came to see if there was somthin’ you were wanting.”, said Jones in his deep, scratchy voice.
The corporal looked at his companion, and smiled back at Jones. “Not really private......”
“Jones, corporal. This here is Washington. We’re with the 50th.”
The corporal nodded and a look of realization crossed his features. “The outfit what used to be the 12th--mustered in after Vicksburg?”
Jones smiled broadly and looked at Washington. “Yes corporal, that’s us? You know the unit?”
The corporal chuckled and smiled broadly in return. “I’m Moran, this is Paterson--one of our fellows, from the 5th Minnesota, ended up with you lot. Roth was his name I guess, or something. I remember them going around looking for volunteers when they formed you up after things got settled in Vicksburg.” It was as though a damn broke, and the tension which had been built up was washed away. Jones stepped in close, and now he and Washington were swapping tales of those days with abandon, much to Paterson’s surprise. Much to his discomfort, he realized with a little surprise.
Paterson stood aside, watching them and feeling strangely wrong about these negroes coming up the hill to speak with them. He supposed there was no reason why they couldn’t do so, but it simply wasn’t how things worked. Just as officers didn’t fraternize with the enlisted, negroes stayed with their own kind.
“Hey, Paterson, these guys were there for those god-awful canals started digging for the gunboats--remember that? Why, we might of even ended up digging right aside these boys and never knew it!”, noted Moran with a chuckled, slapping his friends shoulder. Paterson only nodded quietly. Slowly but surely, others from the two camps began to come together atop the hill. First out of curiosity for what was going on, but then as time went on huddled groups formed of lively conversation. On the edge of it all, Paterson watched, arms crossed before finally turning and making his way back to camp. Soon, sergeants from to two groups appeared shortly after, ushering their charges back to their respective sides.
They had broken no written regulations, they were in fact parts of one army. As Moran made his way back towards the camp, he looked back and waved to Jones and Washington. One army when men died and bled; two separate when they might have the chance to get to know one another and make friendships. He wondered what good it was to fight a war in which a race might receive their freedom from slavery, if they remained segregated from society. Shaking his head, Moran made his way back to the ramshackle buildings that their company had been fortunate enough to snag for quarters and ran straight into Fredrikson who was jogging the opposite direction.
“OOOF!”, spat Fredrikson as the air was driven from him briefly, and glared at Moran.
“Don’t you ever watch where you are going?”, asked Fredrikson regaining his balance. Moran hardly knew the man, and normally he might have apologized and simply moved on, but something about his tone spurred his normally dormant temper.
“I might say the same of you, since it was you that collided with me.”, said Moran with a growl. The other man blanched white, not really wanting a fight.
“My fault, sorry. Just need to get these messages to the captain straight away--it’s tomorrow The rest of the boys have started off already!” Fredrikson said as he edged around Moran, and started jogging away again.
Moran watched him going for a moment before calling out, “What is? Started off what?”. Fredrikson looked over his shoulder as he turned and trotted backwards, thrusting his arm out and pointing in the direction of the enemy defensive works. The message was clear, and Moran nodded as the other man continued on his way. Tomorrow then. They were to assault the enemy works tomorrow. With a low whistle, Moran continued on his way to the barracks with the news that they had been waiting for.
March 27th, 1865 dawned initially as any day had, but it didn’t take long for that to change. There was a tension in the air, a charge which made men rise early from their billets and move silently about their morning routine. Meals were eaten with little fuss, no one felt the desire to lay about or horseplay. By nine o’clock in the morning it became clear that the day would be given to hot work, as General Canby ordered the 13th and 16th Corps to break camp and move along the shore towards the rebel flank. Leaving the converted sheds, many a man in his company felt the same heartbreak they had when leaving their own homes, and knew all too well that the next residence they occupied would likely not be quite as grand. As Moran fell into line in full marching order, he nodded to Paterson as he passed. His young friend gave him a feeble nod, and took his place in line, but made no further attempt at conversation. It had been this way since the day they had met with the Negro troops, and Moran couldn’t understand it. He had meant to mention the change in his friend before now, but with the deployment and everything else he hadn’t found the time. As they stood waiting for their orders, the sound of enemy artillery sounded in the distance. Men stood listening to the noises in their ranks. The new men flinching at every blast, whilst the veterans stood still and listened for the sounds which would warn them of true danger.
“Wooden fuses”, said the older veteran Ryan from the end of the rank, “the rebs are using wooden fuses in those mortars. They must be getting deperate using those again--you can tell it’s wooden, you hear the thump and then nothing. More than half of those shells aint even detonating.”.
“Still have to watch out!”, laughed someone in the rear rank, “get hit with one of them and it kill you just the same! Like gettin’ kicked by an ox!”
“What was you doin’ to that ox that it kicked ya?”, asked Charles Cady creating a general snicker. Lieutenant Arkins came up along the line, and called for silence before taking his place. The order came, and the columns moved forward towards the enemy lines along the shoreline of the bay. Shortly though, the 13th continued on forward towards Danley’s Ferry whilst the 16th was moved to its’ left flank into the entrenchments. Shortly the various regiments and company commands were assigned places in the trenches, and spades were brought up and laid close by--resulting in growls and groans from the men. It was clear that the 13th was to rendevous with the other Union forces and make an assault on the bay side flank, isolating Spanish Fort from the other rebel fortification at Blakely. Moran and the 16th would be set to the more or less frontal attack upon the garrison of Spanish Fort, working through the entrenchments and apparently creating new works as they went. At least it seemed so, until Moran saw the men of the 50th moving up towards them through the siege works. They made straight for the pile of picks and spades, and each man hefted one over his shoulder, as a compliment to their musket. Some of the men around Moran chuckled, and several cheered that they would be spared the digging.
“Good work for negroes”, said Patersen behind him, “save our strength for the fighting.”
Moran turned and looked Patersen in the eye, his friend blanching at the gaze and shifting from view. When Moran looked back, Washington and Jones were just passing. He nodded to the pair, and was greated with a smile and a nod.
“Moran!”, shouted a sergeant nearby, “take a squad up with you--you’ll be forward pickets whilst this bunch improves our lines. Take the Bury brothers, Carter, Patersen, Clark, and Hamlin. You’re in command corporal Moran--I expect you to hold the postion and keep me aware of the situation. Understood?”
Moran nodded, a coldness settling in his arms and legs. It wasn’t that he was afraid, but the gravity of the assignment struck him solidly. His moment of dread passed without anyone the wiser. “You heard him boys!”, the corporal said loudly as he stepped into the track behind the 50th as they passed, “on me, at the double!”. As they made their way forward, the rebels lobbed several mortars towards their lines. One of the shells exploded just before the forward lip fo the trenches, the other two malfunctioned and failed to detonate at all. Moran felt, rather than saw, the men chosen by the sergeant fall in behind him as they followed along after the 50th. Off to their right, the sounds of volley’s exchanged could be heard between the booming of the Federal batteries and the responding guns of the fortifications. The air, wrent with a sound like cotton sheet’s being torn, was streaked with trails of black smoke and flashes of sparks as artillery rounds zipped in long arcs over their heads. The 50th--muskets slung over their shoulders--laid to the main trench with a ferocity Moran admired, imporving the works as the picketts rushed forward. Men of the 50th cheered them on as they rushed past, the sound lost to Moran as he rounded the bend of the trench and headed towards the forward post. A pair of mortar rounds slammed into the wall some way ahead of them, throwing dirt into the air which fell like rain over Moran’s squad. Sputtering, and wiping soil from their mouth, the group continued forward again. Soon they reached the forward most trench, and Moran directed his group to spread themselves along the walls facing the enemy even as bullets screamed past them. The world became a frantic swirl of smoke, flying debris and the loud buzzing and crack of rounds at they tore through empty space or found something to smash into. Life slowed, as the terror of the desperate sense of survival settled into them, each felt their limbs grow heavy. They became numb to the noise around them, their fingers loosing their sense of touch so that they could not feel the burns they were sustaining each time they gripped the blisteringly hot barrels of their muskets to reload. Moran felt he no longer aimed, but simply willed the bullet to go where he wished. The enemy could not rush them at the moment, so fierce was the regular pounding of the Federal batteries and their guns, but they did their best to impede what they knew the Nationals must be up too. Grenades and hand thrown explosive shells where rolled towards them, only to explode between the two sides and leave great divots in the scared soil. Their faces became painted in mud, powder, and dirt. Moran looked at the men with him, and began to wonder if they were men anymore. He ducked, and a round whizzed over his head to splinter into a wooded slat behind him. Clark, stood up to return fire and was hit almost before he could finish saying, “That was a close one!”. The impact of the bullet tore through his right eye as Moran watched, exiting and tearing away his ear. It happened in a second, but he seemed to spin and fall heavily to the trench floor forever. Clark’s last words, still echoing in his ears as his body came to rest in the dust and his musket fell down beside him with a loud CRACK as it discharged into the ground. Then all was frantic again, as a mortar round screamed over them, and vanished over the edge behind them. Every man had ducked low as it came in, but now sat looking to one another, unsure if they should move and afraid the rebels might be upon them if they tallied in cover too long. There was a sound from somewhere towards the enemy, and Paterson jumped up screaming, “They’re coming, those bastards!” and fired with a snarl on his face. As Moran stood, and the others with him, the rebel mortar round blew behind them making them jump. There was no time though to wait, to seek cover, as a dozen rag-tag men with bright bayonets had rushed over the walls of their fort towards them. When the Federals rose up before them, several slid to a stop and started back to safety, but none made it far. Vengeful screaming lead sought them, tearing the rebels from life and Moran found he was glad. He had shot down men before, and at first he had felt guilt. In time, he had been numb to taking life. Now, three years a soldier, he had found joy.
Moran smiled and laughed allowed. “For Clark! CLARK!”, he yelled loudly. The Bury Brothers, and Hamlin started at his shout, but then joined in. Faces like dark angels, eyes shining like demons. Paterson frowned, and ducked low to reload his musket. One of the boys from the 50th came up the trench, sweat drenching his face and stopped short when he noted Clark.
“Corporal!”, he said as he recovered, “Captain wishes to report that we have moved the trench line forward on your right flank, but we are taking fire now. The boys are holding it, but the Captain wants you and your men with us. That’s his orders, sir.” The man, older and with a white stubble, stared down at Clark again for a moment. Paterson stepped over with a frown.
“What’s the matter, aint never seen a man killed fighting, boy?”, said the youth with a sneer.
“Yes sir, all rebels though. They aint sent us to a fight yet. Still hoping to get in this one afore it done.”, said the soldier, looking a little ashamed and eager at the same time. Moran stared hard at Paterson, who shook his head and resumed his place--glaring as he spat at his feet.
“Tell the captain we’re coming. Ask him to have someone come up and collect Clark for us, will you?” , Said Moran, ducking without thought as a bullet whizzed overhead. The private nodded and was gone, followed only by the hard eyes of Paterson. Already another group of soldiers was coming up to take their place in this spot, as others moved up. A flare went over, hissing loudly and leaving a slowly drifting smoke trail behind it. The new men ducked low with the passing flare, but Moran and his men hardly flinched as they trooped out of sight.
Carefully edging his way to the berm of the defensive wall, the haggard man with the ragged chestnut colored beard dressed in what was once a well tailored uniform of cadet grey, scanned the enemy positions with his field glasses. He stood looking a certain direction for a time before cursing under his breath and lowering the glasses with a shake of his head. After a moment of looking at his feet, the officer resumed his inspection by field glass.
“Well, I’ll give them this–they do make good work, and even under fire.”, said the officer with a grudging tone. Suddenly he moved his focus off to the right, and spat loudly, “who in--By God what a waste, and so near an end to it!”.
“What is it General Gibson? To what do you refer?”, asked major Dawlings from behind his commander. The general had resumed his scan off to the left again, with an aire of deep disgust.
“Men foolishly throwing away what little they have left, Major.”, responded the general without ceasing his study of the enemy beyond, “Fine and gallant when one is in poetry or epic tale, but foolhardy when it serves no purpose but to rob your cause of sufficient strength to defend ones fortification.”
Major Dawlings began to scan the enemy works as well, ending where the general had been previously. He smacked his lips in understanding. “Boys getting too eager. I shall send Captain Beams out to remind the officers on the walls to keep better handle on the men sir, if that will suffice?” The major looked at the dozen or so men who had tried to rush the observation post the Yankees had along that portion of trench. They had been caught in the open, and shot down like dogs. Nothing surprised the major anymore, like soldiers on both sides he had been engaged in this war long enough now to have seen nearly everything. No cruelty seemed beyond the pale now; from the burning and looting of civilian homes by Sherman and his devils; to the horrors told of prisons kept by North and South–Dawlings was becoming certain that this war might well be the end of all things if it went on much longer. But, he was a soldier–so he must do his duty.
To the end.
For the first time, he felt that that end was truly close at hand.
It was like being in a grave, and he hated it. Cool, damp, dark, with occasional earth falling into his face when a shell came close enough to dislodge it. He could just make out the opening to his left, but as it was night the light was only slightly lighter than the blackness of the Bomb proof–really just a hole dug into the ground with wood slat pillars and ceiling. Moran remembered them well from Vicksburg, and had swore back then never to shelter in one again. But, necessity seemed determined to reunite man and menace–so Moran was stuck. The rebels had taken to random but heavy mortar shelling of the new works the 50th had dug, so sleeping in the trenches just wasn’t safe. Sure, more than half of the rebel shells weren’t going off, but why take chances?
“This is good earth,” said a voice from his right, “feels good to the fingers. Bet you could grow a furrow and then some ‘round here”.
Moran could only just make out the shape of the man, but knew the voice.
“You never liked farming Paterson, but if I didn’t know better I might think you missed it from such a statement”.
Paterson, only a shadow next to him, visibly shrugged. “Just commenting on the dirt is all. Moran, I just wanted to apologize for our fighting before--we been friends too long to let somethin’ get between.” Before Moran could say a word, there was shouting from up near the front of the bombproof and suddenly a mortar roared in detonation somewhere above them. Dirt cascaded down over them, then a second explosion could be heard and there was a crack as the world went black.
Paterson felt the blackness surround him and crush the air from his lungs. His life flashed before him, altogether too brief, and he became aware he might very well die. No, he would die if this went on too much longer. A thousand thousands fears, his mind raced and his lungs burned as he longed to breathe. He could hear the noises of men buried in the collapsed bombproof around him, men crying out only to have their mouths stuffed with soil when they did. Paterson began to see white spots before his eyes, when suddenly something hard struck his left leg and strong hands gripped and pulled him from the suffocation of the dirt. He sputtered, being rolled forcibly to his side as he coughed and choked from air. His eyesight was foggy, his eyes refusing to work at first--only dark shadows moving about him in the night air, interrupted by fuzzy smears of weak light which he surmised to be lanterns.
“Take some water, jus’ a little now, not too much”, said a voice close by as a figure knelt down and tipped a canteen up for him. The water made him cough some more, but helped rinse the dirt away. He was given a damp cloth, and soon his eyes stopped burning with the dust and debris of the collapse. Kneeling beside him, was one of the men of the colored regiments--the brass “50” emblazoned upon his kepi. Paterson coughed, the man patting him on the shoulder, and helping him sit up. Around him, men worked feverishly with shovels and sticks trying to unearth survivors. Overhead, artillery flares raced through the dark sky from both sides, their arc followed by grey-white trails of smoke. A shell burst in mid air above them, but the work of these men never wavered.
“You all lucky we was out in the trench! Would been nobody what to dig you all out again!”, said the man as he stood up from Paterson and started away to attend to another survivor that had more recently been unearthed. As the soldier made his way from him, Paterson called out.
“Outside? What were you doin’ in the trenches and not out of the way of the mortars?”
The soldier stopped, and turned briefly--the whiteness of his grin visible in the dark. “Always that way, an aside, as it turns it was good for you all we was there!”
Paterson watched the colored soldier move on to his work, and the terrible cruel realities of war and place within the suffering and triumphs of others became a reality for him. He stood up on shaky legs, and wandered over to take a spade that was laying near by. He joined a group of soldiers from the 50th, and began to dig with them for survivors. It began to rain towards dawn, slowing their work. Still, they did not give up, and slowly men were recovered from the earth. At first, they found the living. Men choking and frantic for air but still alive. These men, black dirt and grime head to toe, were moved off to one side to be attended too by several of the medical stewards that had been summoned when news of the collapse became wider known. Over time, these men joined the crews of the searchers, a growing desperation to free the trapped from the horror they themselves had endured. But as the hours passed and the sun began to filter through the grey of the clouds, they found only the dead.
12 survivors, still caked in the soil that had buried them, stood looking down on a neat row of 23 men whom had not been so lucky. Paterson, wiping sweat from his brow and succeeding in smearing further dirt across his face, planted his spade in the dirt before him and looked to the man next to him.
“What’s your name?”, said Paterson quietly to the private of the 50th.
“Hayfield. Ezeikel Hayfield.”, came the deep response.
“Well Hayfield, I thank you for pulling me out of that mess. I’ll be eternally thankful you were there to do it. If only he might have come out of it though. That there, Hayfield, was the best friend I ever had. He don’t even look dead really, does he? Just sleeping.”
Hayfield turned dark eyes on him, and nodded quietly.
Paterson kneeled down and laid his hands on the feet of Moran, and closed his eyes a moment. A bugle sounded somewhere in the grey distance, and after a moment the young man stood and turned away from the row of the dead. He wiped his eyes of the tears that welled there and sighed deeply.
“I’m sure sorry you all had to be out in the trenches tonight.”, spoke Paterson as the offensive along the new trench fronts renewed in vigor and fury. The federal batteries opened and the sound echoed loudly through the early morning air.
“Yes sir, weren’t no happy place to be. We took some hard knocks out there.”, responded Hayfield hanging his head. Paterson turned back to Hayfield.
“You mean you all were hit?”
Hayfield nodded. A sergeant came along in a rush. “You lot! Get your greasy arses together and quit that loafing! Orderlies be along soon fer them dead lads, now get yerselfs movin!”
The group made to comply, but Paterson stopped Hayfield.
“What happened? Mortar round?”
Hayfield nodded. “Yes, lost 14 men. Good men, but then an officer comes up and tells us to rush over and help in saving you all. Lucky we was so close I guess.”
Paterson gritted his teeth. Lucky? Lucky that they had been left in the open? Left as easy targets, and then put to work helping the men that had the plumb spot? Suddenly, looking at the careful arrangement of the dead by these men, Paterson looked up.
“Where are the dead? Those boys who got killed in your bunch?”
“Where we was, back there”, said Hayfield with a surprised look on his face as he pointed along the trench line. Paterson nodded.
“Come on Hayfield. We have to fetch them.”
They set off, several of the survivors and men of the 50th looking after them as they went. They were going to opposite way from where the sergeant had told them, so soon the onlookers stopped moving as well to wait to see what was up. Several of the survivors, knowing Paterson, thought it must be a fight--given the younger man’s known opinion of Negroes. The men of the 50th murmured amongst themselves, until it became clear what the pair were doing. Soon, the survivors knew too, as Paterson and Hayfield approached each carrying one of the fallen from where the 50th had been stationed in the trenches. Paterson gently laid down a man he had never met, beside his friend Moran. Standing back up, he looked at those he knew.
“Come on, help us move them. They shouldn’t be left in that trench, lets put them together.”, said Paterson as his eyes glistened. The whole group moved together, and as the renewed assault on the fortifications around the city of Mobile continued, the fallen men of the 50th were laid aside their comrades. In the end, their uniforms made them brothers, even as the world around them tore itself apart.
Spanish Fort fell the same day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered in the East, and Fort Blakely only held for a day more.
The war, officially was over. But the new struggle, to understand what had been won and lost, was only beginning.