The fly swirled around, making a louder than usual
buzzing sound as it tried to escape through the canvas
of the shelter tent, only a few inches from the wide
open mouth of the opening. A moment later, the wayward
insect escaped at last into the great grey heavens. Private William Hall watched the clouds drift slowly by through the gaps in the trees above him, as he lay trying to make himself read “The Maid of Esopus”. His heart just wasn’t in it though, and he laid the book on his chest and folded his hands over it. He recalled watching clouds as a child, and still after all these years it brought peace. William Hall picked out shapes in the clouds, and marveled how they changed and moved so gracefully in the perpetual providential movement of nature.
“Hall, you fall asleep over there?”, said a voice from behind him. It was Frank Ayers, a fellow soldier from Hall’s platoon. With a start, Hall realized he had drifted off while reading the book aloud. He sighed and picked up the book again.
“Sorry Ayers, I--uh, got distracted by thought.”, he said as he made to find his place on the page. Ayers, a young man who lay in his own tent just across the company street which the men referred to as “St. Paul Avenue”, chuckled quietly and lay his head down on a rolled up great coat and closed his eyes.
“It’s all right Hall, it’s that kind of day. Would you ever believe being a soldier would involve so many days spent doing so little? That is, when the ‘pumpkin rinds’ don’t think of busy work to keep us occupied!”, said Ayers with an expansive gesture. Hall sat up on his side and looked back over at Ayers.
“Should I keep reading?”
“Naw,” responded Ayers, “but if you want to mark the spot, I’m sure we’ll come back to it later.”
Hall lay back down, and flipping to the front cover he drew out a well pressed and dried flower. He made to place it to mark the page, but stopped, and turning it over between his fingers, studied it quietly. She had given this to him, that heady day when he had joined the gathered formation of all the men from home, to head off to his training at Fort Snelling. He still remembered how cold it was, everyone bundled up in their civilian winter things. Men he knew, some he didn’t. Feeling excited, terrified, anxious and calm all at once. She had shone despite her many layers, her eyes sparkling blue and vibrant. He had felt the warmth of her presence like a tiny star burning to extinguish the winter wind. She had never kissed him before that day, but oh so many times he had dreamed of it. The agony of all those years growing up side by side with someone whom you knew you loved--deeply and without reservation--but never quite dared express in words all that burned within you. He closed his eyes, and recalled that moment fully. She had stood there before him, her eyes shining and seeing him in a way he had never felt she had before.
“Billy Hall, I want you to do everything you can to keep yourself safe, and come back to me.”, she said in that voice he knew in the deep fibers of his heart. Just thinking of that moment made him feel heart sick. He had nodded, joking with her always as was his way. Growing up side by side, like siblings in many ways, deep and unbreakable friendship strong between them and now the hope of his life dawning as he was to go away at the possible risk of his life. She had moved
close to him, pressing her own small bible into his hands and enclosing her slender fingers about his hand. He wanted to live forever in that moment, simply looking into her eyes and smiling. A thousand thoughts rushing through his mind but words escaping him. She had smiled, looking at him in that way he had jealously coveted for so long. When she leaned forward, and on her delicate tiptoes kissed his cheek in a way which was innocent but made clear to him her
intentions, his soul soared like a captive bird set free.
“Miss Cabot, my dearest friend and the confidant of my heart, I will cherish this gift with the utmost of my affection. I lay my life in your care, and live only if this war and fate allows me to return it safe to your keeping. You make my heart soar with this kindness you show, and long have I yearned to feel the full form of your sunlight upon my soul.”, he said in a rush, trying to capture the depth and intensity of his feelings in one phrase, and watching her smile and giggle. But he could see the love in her eyes, and knew her laughter was not derisive but affectionate.
“Am I being a fool?”, he asked laughing at himself, which along with the look she gave him made the butterflies vanish from his stomach, “you’re laughing at me, not exactly encouraging!”
She embraced him then, and he her. Overhead, the clouds drifted lazily through the sky. Hall blinked, and the grey winter sky of his memory dissolved into the blue sky of the present. He sighed, and placed the dried flower into the book to mark his place. Setting aside the book carefully, he sat up and rummaged in his things to bring out a small bible. He ran a finer over the spine softly, almost like a caress, and brought it close to his face to take in the scent of the leather. He opened the cover and studied the firm hand of his beloved, the elegant swirls as she had written her name--Felicity H. Cabot. The faint outline of a pressed flower stained the page just below. Scribbled in a passionate hand on that inside cover had been the words which now served to sustain him.
“Let this, William Hall, be the token of my love”
Private Hall sighed and closed the bible, and laid it down upon his chest. He closed his eyes, and just listened to the camp working around him. Ayers was snoring across the street from him, taking advantage of the lull in details and drill to rest himself. Hall stowed his things safely, and crawled out from his shelter tent into the late afternoon sun. They had been a week and a half now with no movement from this camp, and little more than fatigue details--drill--and boredom. Hall wandered off towards the part of camp that the boys called ‘shoddy row’, where some of the
more “colorful” members of the 5th Minnesota resided. Hall felt a need to get his mind distracted, and onto other things--’shoddy’ would do that. There were always games to be had, or at least raucous conversation to be found. He hadn’t gone far before he ran headlong into Charles Henry Dills, whom some of the boys had taken to calling “fullhouse” after a spectacular hand of cards one evening with some fellows from Indiana.
“Hello there Will! Where you headed?”, asked Fullhouse with a smile.
“Headed over to ‘shoddy’ to pass the time, anything on?”, responded Hall. Fullhouse frowned and chuckled. Fullhouse diverted from his Father and Uncle in his sentiments, the latter being some of the most successful and prolific scroungers in the whole 15th Corps. Fullhouse though, despite his nickname, tried hard to be a studious soldier. This cause, if ever anyone’s, was his.
“You know how it is, there’s plenty on–-the question is what’s smart to get rolled into and what’s not! I’m going on to the sutler, sure you don’t want to come my way instead?”
Hall smiled and clapped Fullhouse on the shoulder.
“You’re starting to sound like Father Ireland now, though he like as not spends more time in ‘shoddy’ than anyone. Only always with him it’s”, Hall looked grim and did his best impression of their chaplain, John Ireland, “Business boys, the Lord’s calling is in the gamblers heart as much as the saints!”.
Both men laughed, and Fullhouse went on his way shaking his head. Hall cruised the company streets known as “Little Shoddy” and it’s cross “Chapel Hill” seeking his friend, Samuel Cook. He was met with offers of cards, dice, even a new dime novel said to be most sensual in nature called “Napoleon’s Parisian Concubine”; but William Hall had a purpose. He found Cook listening to private Honan playing a badly tuned squeezebox, but the harmony of the voices of Sergeant
O’Malley and private Collis evened things out. They were singing a wicked Unionist version of ‘Dixie’ which Hall found most enjoyable. When the song ended, those gathered clapped and laughed. Cook smiled at his friend and got up from the old nail keg that was serving as his seat.
“I wondered when you’d be by. Been itching to try out a new strategy on you I read in a Beadle’s book the lieutenant let me see.”, said Cook as he and Hall wandered back along ‘Little Shoddy” for his tent. Johnson was sitting in the tent, smoking away as always as he wrote a letter home. The aptly nicknamed “Smokehouse” Johnson, smiled and nodded as Hall and Cook carefully set out the chess board and pieces as they were when last they’d had their game.
“Might be cheating, reading up like that Sam, but as I’m going to so fully whoop you–-I’ll let it
slide.”, laughed Hall studying the board. Smokehouse chuckled around the stem of his pipe, but said nothing. Cook rubbed his hands together, and their game began. Though it only lasted three moves, because as Hall was about to make the fourth, sergeant Stephenson came along and called out to them.
“Hey you two, fatigue detail–-you have two minutes–-fall in over there,” said Stephenson pointing over his shoulder,”and no grousing!”. The sergeant was on along the way before they could complain, so instead the two recorded the placement of their pieces in Cook’s little journal, set them away and wandered down along the road to the grumbling knot of men await their assigned detail. Hall really didn’t mind the work, and even found it a little humorous how the same men who not long before had complained that they had nothing to do but sit about; now swore and spat venom regarding the interruption of their relaxation. Stephenson, followed by corporal Ross carrying several axes and a two man saw in a clanking jumble, smiled at the group and led them unceremoniously off to work. They spent the remaining of the late afternoon
hewing, splitting and cutting away at the hard growth of nature to satisfy the voracious flames of the Army’s fires. When they finished, and three heaping wagons of firewood were filled, they shuffled back to camp again. Dismissed from their details, the men
broke up into knots and made their way where desire or duty called. Hall and Cook went straight for the kitchens, intent upon fetching something to eat. Making a short stop by Cook’s tent, they collected their haversacks and mess items and there ran headlong into Dougan.
“Where ye two headin’ to?”, asked the Irishman.
“Kitchens to see what there is to eat, I haven’t seen you around recently Dougan--where have you been?”, asked Cook slinging his haversack over this shoulder.
“Oh! Ye want to eat, do you? Well...ye could go eat that salt horse and desiccated desecration of vegetables if ye want...”, said Dougan with a sly smile, “Or, ye could have some real eats!”
The pair stopped and stared a moment at Dougan. Hall squinted at the Irishman and frowned, trying to figure out exactly what the fellow many in the Platoon nicknamed “Odd”, was talking about. Cook took a more direct approach.
“Dougan, what are you on about?”, Cook said hands on
Dougan smiled and beckoned the pair closer. When they had moved close, in a conspiratorial fashion, “Odd” explained. “There’s a lady, not twenty minutes wander from here to the north side of the camp--she’s a famous hand at the eats and willing to feed ye for a pittance of cost! I near wept to eat her cookin’, was so shocking to me Army abused belly!”
Hall and Cook looked at each other a moment. Cook shrugged.
“I don’t know Will, what do you think? If we got caught, we’d catch hell and then some. Still, home cooked might be worth risking for.”, said Cook, rubbing the stubble on his chin absently.
“There’s also risk of running into less than friendly types too,”, responded Hall, “be something of an inconvenience to go out for home biscuits and end up a prisoner of war!”.
Both men chuckled at this, with Dougan standing by listening to the whole of the exchange with detached interest. He seemed eager to move along to something else, because he finally interjected eagerly.
“Saints all, and save us from indecisive buggers! If ye two want to pontificate the matter that’s yer case--but if ye wants some of the good eatin’ you’ll not waste time! Do ye want me to shew ye the way to it, or not? I’m fixin’ to head over meself now, but I’ll not be waiting much more.”
Hall and Cook smiled at the slightly loud outburst and nodded as one at Dougan. He slapped his leg and hopped forward ahead of them with a swagger calling back to them, “Come on then pards, and let me lead ye to paradise of the gastronomical variety!”
Slipping out of camp proved very easy indeed, which left a funny sensation of alarm in the pair as “Odd”--barely able to keep his clear enthusiasm for the meal to come under control--skipped and hummed to himself ahead of them. He took them but a short way, as promised, to a neat and tidy little home nestled amongst some very tall and majestic looking pine trees. The home was well maintained, and inviting. They were met at the gate by two rather friendly dogs who were all yips, tongues and wagging tails. A stout woman, looking to be in her late years, came to the porch and smiled when she saw Dougan.
“Well, my Irish soldier!”, she called out in a an accent that Cook and Hall thought might have been German, “brought more hungry peoples to feed eh? Well, come in! I makes you something
you like good, yes?” She called to her dogs, who came obediently, and Dougan led the way within skipping with glee.
“Oh boys! Wait until ye see what I broughts you to! You’ll be praising Dougan in saintly terms in yer prayers!”, he whispered loudly dancing up the steps and into the well lit, cozy home. The woman, whom they learned shortly was named Mrs. Bieber, was indeed an excellent cook. She had a motherly quality about her, and commented several times how “skinny soldiers become”.
When at last she had found the limits of them all for good food, she cleared away the table--with Cook insisting that he help. They paid their bill, and patting their contented bellies wandered
back towards the camp. Dougan erupted with a contented belch.
“So, what I tell ye boys? Was that somethin’ or not?”, said Dougan.
“That was great Dougan, no question.”, answered Hall.
“But you have to wonder,” spat Cook, “what that poor old lady is doing here by herself. She must have kin, or had it at one time.”
Dougan was picking his teeth with a twig. “Lost her sons to the wars over back home--got that much out of her once--husband was a merchant of some kind. Passed on a year or two ago I spose’. Now, the old dame busies herself with good works--taking in borders, feedin ‘em, smuggling runaways...”
“You knew it was a station?!”, shouted Cook, stopping in his tracks with an exasperated look on his face, “Do you realize what kinda risk that was?”
Hall stood dumbfounded, looking from Cook to Dougan and back again.
“What are you talking about? What the blazes is a station?”, asked Hall.
“Hall, don’t be listening to Cook here--the food was worth the risk of bumping into slave catchers or the likes. Besides, who’d know? And yer money goes to a good purpose--if ye care one way or the other about such things that is.”, responded Dougan. The Irishman wandered along, patting his belly and whistling to himself. Cook shook his head at Dougan, and swore.
“That woman is helping slaves escape Hall, she hides them. That means that even with us around, there likely could be slave agents or copperheads watching her place. Dougan is taking chances, and as good as the food was, we ought not do that again.” Cook continued on back to camp, followed by Hall. That night, Hall had dreams of hot bread and sausages which chased him with whips and tried to capture him. He woke in the early morning, shivering in the cool air which was misted with dew.
The day wore on into the usual monotony. In the morning, they had company drill, in the afternoon they had battalion drill. There were the new sinks to dig, and it was 4th squads turn to assist with the mess. Hall lost 2 cents on the mouse race, with the camp favorite
“Uncle Abe” coming in behind “Louisiana Bushwhacker”--much to the consternation of a great many. By late afternoon, Hall was seated with his back against a tree trying to pay attention enough to read his bible--but finding concentration in short supply. Cook, pitching acorns in attempt to see how many he could land in a tin cup, sat opposite him on the other side of the tree. Hall watched Dougan pass, with a furtive look, and clearly intent on sneaking back to “old
lady Bieber’s”. Cook must have seen him as well, for he broke the silence at last.
“Blasted fool, he’s obsessed with that woman’s cooking. He’ll regret it, just you see.”
Hall thought about Dougan, and the old woman with her secret enterprise. He had never really given that much thought in any serious fashion to the issue of slavery, one way or the other.
He didn’t agree with the idea of selling and owning human beings, but he had no real opinion beyond that. The whole issue had always just seemed so far away, and distant. He realized now, this issue had been all about him ever since he had come south.
“Hey Cook,”, asked Hall, “What do you think of the slavery?”.
There was a pause, before Cook answered. “I don’t much care one way or the other I guess--as long as those negroes don’t come wandering up our way when it’s over.”
Hall felt a rush of surprise at his friends words, as though suddenly someone else was sitting opposite from him but speaking in Cooks voice. Hall realized that despite the close proximity they had lived all this time, there were things he simply did not know about his friend.
“Yeah, I suppose so.”, responded Hall quietly.
“You ever seen negroes Hall? Nothing wrong with them in general I suppose, but they’re hard to understand--and dumb as dirt. That aint their fault I suppose either, but it is what it is.”
These words hung in silence for some minutes, as Hall didn’t quite know how to respond. In truth, what did he know one way or the other? He had never met a negro in his life, but clearly Cook had. Maybe he was right--but something within him resisted that acceptance. Cook finally realized how deep the silence was becoming, and spoke up.
“Speaking of food--you want to get some chow?”, asked Cook.
“No, I think I’m going to read awhile longer.”, responded Hall, feeling he needed time to think, “catch you up later.”.
Cook got himself up with a groan, collected his cup and wandered around past Hall. “See you later then Hall, don’t get to reading too much in the scriptures,” laughed Cook, “or you might burst into flames next time you come ‘round ‘shoddy row’.”.
Hall watched him go for a moment, trying to square his thoughts with the churning feelings within him. Why should he feel such conflict over a subject that he had never before given a second thought too? He closed his eyes, and did his best to drive these thoughts out of his mind.
He tried instead, to concentrate on Felicity. He opened her bible, and looked longingly at her name which she herself had written. He studied every swoop and line of her writing, and soon he felt his conflict replaced with a longing and homesickness. He reached into his breast pocket and drew out a small bundle of letters, untying them and rereading each. The last he had received of her was almost a month old,but reading it brought him comfort all the same. She had always writtenso regularly, but he supposed this lapse was due to army mail issues--or simply that she was busy at home. With all the down time, he had written several letters to her that he had yet to send--he thought he might do so soon if he didn’t hear from her. His hope was to wait, that he might reply to her words. Mail usually seemed to find them on Thursdays--if it did--and that meant tomorrow might be the day her letter arrived. He gathered up his things, stowed them in his pockets, and wandered back to his tent. Frank Ayers, his across street neighbor,waved hello from his tent where he was sewing his trousers.
“Seam come out--again!”, growled Ayers with a wan smile.
“Yeah, I could probably use a sewing myself,” answered Hall with a tired sigh, “I have been double tabbing my braces now for near a week.”
“Oh? In the back, or front?”, asked Ayers.
“Back side, knelt over and popped it right off,” answered Hall, crawlinginto his tent and leaning on an elbow to face Ayers across the street.
“Yeah, seems a bit common to happen with some of these trousers they issued,” nodded Ayers, biting the thread and examining his work. Ayers looked over at him, and set aside his trousers. “Did you hear the scuttlebutt?”, asked Ayers quietly.
“What news?”, said Hall sitting up.
“Our rest and readiness is over, we’re packing it all tomorrow--or so says the rumors--and taking a walk somewhere along the main turnpike road. At least this is what the Dills are saying they heard, but you know them.”, responded Ayers.
Hall nodded, and scratched his chin. “Yeah, lot of the time they are full of it,” said Hall, “but they also are known for having miracle ways for hearing things and finding the luxuries.”.
Ayers nodded in return and took a drink from his canteen. Hall suddenlyfelt a lurch in his stomach as he realized that if indeed they did move tomorrow, it would delay mail for several more days. If they went into an engagement, it might delay it even longer. It was this worry, that seized him as he lay that night trying to sleep. The stars winked quietly in the inky sky, and he tossed and turned until someone shook him with a quiet urgency. It was Cook, whispering loudly--”Hey lazy, guard duty. Get yourself out already.”.
In a few minutes, he was dressed and went to report with Cook to the sergeant of the guard. They drew the guard post near the supply wagons, and went with a corporal to replace those on the earlier shift. It turned out to be the grey bearded veteran Dobbs, and the young lad named Turner.
“About time, lord--this old fella is driving me crazy with his Mexican exploits!”, complained Turner when they arrived.
“Learn you right, boy, to listen to those with a bit of experience!”, retorted Dobbs, “besides--was you that asked to begin with!”.
As they made their way back to camp with the corporal, Hall could hear Turner exclaiming, “--talk the ear of an army mule-”, before the night sounds crept in and they were left with crickets and the soft crackling of the small guard fire a little ways from their post. Cook and Hall
settled into a pace as they wandered around the wagons, bayonets fixed but their weapons slung over their shoulders.
“So, you hear what they are saying?”, said Cook in a loud whisper.
“Yeah,” Hall answered, “I suppose it’s like as not true--given how long we been out of it. Maybe it’s even a good thing, get us moving again.”
There was a snap of a twig some ways into the darkness, and both men halted and draw their weapons from their shoulders. Cook pointed in the direction that the sound had come from, as Hall moved slightly off to the left--cocking his musket as he went. There came a small rustling
sound that was closer than before, and at last Cook called out, “Halt, stand and declare yourself!”.
There was a sharp sound, movement and as the two soldiers brought up their muskets a deer bounded into view and past them in the blink of an eye. Cook laughed.
“Lord, near gave me a fit--scared me so!”, he chuckled, lowering his musket and stamping his foot. The silence of the evening settled back in between them, and they shouldered their arms once more. For a few minutes, the tenseness of the moment lingered in their minds--and
they stayed alert listening to the sounds around them. But slowly, the sounds of the wind in the scruffy pines and tall grasses faded into the background, and they become more lax as they grew accustomed to the noises of the night. Resuming their places besides the wagons,
Hall plucked a long tailed piece of grass and chewed it absently. An owl hooted off in the distance, and Cook--his voice quiet and wistful--spoke.
“I have a bad feeling friend, deep in my soul,” Cook said, “I am hoping it’s just nerves, for all the sitting still we’ve been doin’--but I admit to a fair dread of this rumored deployment.”
Hall, hearing the seriousness of his friends words, looked over and removed the grass from between his teeth. He looked at Cook for some minutes, but his friend did not meet his gaze. Resuming absently picking his teeth, Hall smiled.
“Shoot, Sam--you had me going there a moment,” said Hall shaking his head, but Cook responded in a sharp tone which immediately drew his friends eyes.
“No, Will I’ve never been so serious in the whole of my life. I have a feeling, a dread that I just can’t shake. Ever since I heard the rumor of our moving, it has settled on me.” He was quiet for some time, before Hall spoke to fill the void.
“Don’t start talking like that now Sam, you’ll get yourself worked up so you’ll start believing it. There isn’t a man that wears the uniform who hasn’t had such feelings at one time or another, but that’s all it come too.” Cook turned away from Hall as he spoke, and shook his head. He was silent for a long time, as Hall turned from his friend and sighed deeply. The wind whispered through the trees overhead, and an owl called loudly again from the darkness. At long last, Cook stood up and wandered a short distance from the wagons. He settled his musket before his feet,
hands gripping the muzzle as he stared into the distance.
“You’re probably right,” said Cook in a low tone, “I suppose I got myself all worked up for a little case of nerves. Sure, all this time off the march and I’m feeling it is all.”
Hall smiled and stood, making his way over to his friend and clapping a hand on his shoulder. “That’s all it is,” Hall said, “nothing to worry about.”
But in the pit of his stomach, William Hall wasn’t sure he fully believed in the comfort he had offered his friend. Looking into the distance, the pair passed out their detail in a ever deepening dark of night.
Breaking camp, when one had been in place for so long, could be bittersweet. One gets used to the lumps of the ground where you sleep; you come to know the distance and route to the sinks so well you can walk it in the dead of night while still asleep. They had sat encamped
for almost a month--not a record by any means--but long enough that many had started putting down roots of sort. It left the men introspective, quiet, and a touch surly as they marched away along the long dusty turnpike. The early autumn sun was strong in the sky, casting sharp
outlines of the men as they trudged along, arms at will and keeping relatively good lines--or at least well enough that the sergeants kept their chiding corrections to themselves. The wind blew in fits, the tall browning grass along the road moved like the waves of the ocean--whispering and whining like a loud sigh.
“Who’d have known,” spat Dougan, “that the country would be far from one part to another? I swear I’ve done walked the whole earth around at least twice by now!” There was a smattering of chuckles from the knot around Dougan, and several voiced their approval to a similar opinion. From up ahead came the call to march at the quickstep, and the soldiers fell back into their proper lines and followed in step.
“What now?” said Honan with irritation. Turner looked over his shoulder with a grin and suggested the Colonel had bunions and wanted an excuse to ride for awhile. But the sounding of a bugle call from the front of the column, summoning the officers forward silenced the good humor. A jolt of anticipation ran through the men, as the Captains of each of the companies jogged forward and sergeants brusquely order silence in the ranks.
“Here it comes boys,” said the old veteran Dobbs, “it’s a fight for sure.”
Johnson was in the process of jeering at the older soldier when he halted, the gaze of the former catching him with a stern and serious eye. The call came for the column to clear the track, and as they sidestepped to the right, a group of cavalry went flying past them. The horses, whinnying and pounding dust and gravel in their wake, were like blurs of hot kinetic energy. Stepping back into the track, the infantrysoldiers were enveloped by a cloud of dust that slowly settled over
them. Now, a spark of anticipation was working its way through every man, the air brimming with anticipation.
“Attention, Battalion!” yelled an officer from before them, which was followed by answering shouts down the column as each man stood tall in his place. The officers returned to their places, and the men overheard snatches of their conversations with their lieutenants and orderlies--
it struck Hall ironic that those that would be asked to accomplish the orders were stuck listening at keyholes to discover their fates. None of them had very long to ponder this though, for just as the column was ordered forward a shell whistled through the air and exploded only a short distance away in the tall grass on their right. The explosion startled the men briefly, and the column collided together a moment before they remembered their nerve and marched with as much discipline as men under fire ever showed. The entire regiment was turned in one long battle line off the road and made their way down the long slope through the browning grass, as a troop of cavalry rode pell-mell along the line of a thick copse of trees and across the fields to the 5th Minnesota’s left flank.
“Stay together boys! The enemy is upon us! Steady now!”, shouted a voice off to the right.
Tension rose in them all, the sudden deployment so unlike the clockwork like way such things were normally conducted. As the regiment crested a short rise, the picture became both more
clear and more terrifying. Before them, in the basin of the field which strode out before the trees, a great grey-brown wave was crashing over the remains of a wall of federal blue. A shrill rebel yell echoed over the hills, and a great groan went up from the union lines as men tumbled to earth or ran for their lives like darting rabbits in the field. A haze of smoke drifted like great clouds over the scene, as the colors dipped and swayed--darting away from the tumult and then
vanishing from sight. A cry went up from the 5th, angry and vengeful as rebel hands sought to lay possession to the fallen pride of the Union. There was no stopping them, order and self-discipline were replaced from their souls by a flame of blind aggression. The officers and NCO’s tried, feeble though became their shouts. Louder was the roar of James Honan, who cried as he charged towards the fallen colors,“By God, they’ll not touch our banner!”.
It became an explosion then of men, an eruption of souls launched with deadly intent. Honan went on followed by half of the second platoon of Company C. Curses, shouts from the line, and threats made no affect--but through the grass they charged, screaming like ancient barbarians.
The rebels, surprised by this explosion of sudden movement of voice and violence, stopped in their tracks and simply stood a moment in awe. Cook had taken off after Honan without hesitation, Hall shortly after. Cook looked a wild man, his lips drawn back over his teeth as an angry snarl erupted from his throat--so terrifying did he look to his friend that Hall returned his gaze to the enemy instead. As the Federals closed on the fallen National Colors, the rebels recovered themselves and fired where they stood. Bullets zipped past them with a deadly scream, tearing through the veteran Dobbs--who dropped without so much as a sound--then Honan cried out and collapsed. Cook, close behind him, lept over him and ran on faster still. Rose, McFall, and Henry followed in his wake, shouting like furies until they collided with the rebels
in the midst of reloading with a great crash. Hall slowed and bent down over Honan, who had been shot through the calf and was swearing a blue streak. Pulling him to his feet, Hall half carried Honan back towards their lines glancing back towards the tumult behind them.
The Federal Colors had been snatched up by someone, and a great cheer went up from the rest of the regiment. Apparently, what with the battle joined as it had been, the Colonel had chosen to deploy the 5th for lack of better option. As Hall gently set Honan down into the stiff grass to be attended to by Corporal Kline, the rest of the Battalion advanced with a determined aire past them. Soon, the cacophony of noise and obscuring acrid smoke made any chance of gauging the skirmish that ensued little more than guess work. Shapes drifted like phantoms, bright flashes of musketry, until it became clear that the rebels--what was left of them--were routing in sheer panic. Shouts to restrain themselves could be heard, followed by forceful attempts to effect a
cease fire--but still the aimed shots were being directed at the fleeing enemy. Several staff officers came galloping into view, restoring order with shouted oaths and drawn swords forcing men back into line.
“By God, get your rabble into line Colonel!”, shouted one of the staff officers, wheeling his horse about and shouting down at Colonel Hubbard who was obscured from view by the gather of men. Shouts and orders filled the air, but it was clear to Hall--as he kneeled in the grass beside Corporal Kline who was packing Honan's leg wound with cotton--that the rank and file of the regiment felt no guilt or reproach upon their actions. They had saved the colors, set the rebels to flight, and in a sense won the day.
“I owe you Hall,” said Honan clapping a bloody hand on the opposites shoulder, “thanks pard. I won’t forget.”
Hall smiled and nodded, and looked to Kline. The corporal nodded and added, “He’ll be dancing that fool jig of his in no time, I’ll take him back. You best join the line.”. Hall nodded, waved to Honan, and trotted back to the line of soldiers who seemed impervious to the shouts and oaths of the officers, as the rescued National Colors flew from near the front of the rank. Hall shouldered his way into line, finding himself out of place but amongst faces he knew. The Colonel, red faced with rage, mounted his horse and stared at the battalion.
“We will speak of this indiscretion later, for now we are needed. Sergeants--any man stepping out of line hereafter without orders is to be dealt with as a deserter”, Hubbard bit out concisely, “Now, battalion by the right face--forward, March!”. As the regiment moved off, many eyes were drawn to the detail that was gathering up Dobbs from the tangle of casualties, carrying the lifeless veteran from the field.
They were marched off to watch the baggage, whilst those with complaints and wounds were given permission to fall out for sick call to be tended too. Those who had rushed headlong after the fallen colors had taken the greatest knocks, which made sense given the odds when they had engaged the enemy. Still, given the circumstance, the losses had be slight. Dobbs was dead, this everyone knew. But they had lost two others in that charge, and as yet it was not certain whom else had fallen. The officers, agitated into a humor not unlike a disturbed nest of hornets, were not obliged to allow the men to wander freely to look after those taken to the surgeon. This raised a blister of ill will, and left many quarters grumbling as to the unfair nature of the Army.
In addition, many took their assignment to the baggage as a serious slight--given that most agreed the saving of the National Colors was a valiant deed, hang what the ‘pumpkin rinders’ thought. It was a bleak mood then that gripped them all, and this and a growing sense of doom
fueled a nervous Hall as he paced back and forth at his post with the Dills and Ayers.
“To and fro--to and fro, keeps regular like a clock.”, joked Charles Dills, chewing on a dried biscuit as he sat up against a wagon wheel next to where his nephew Charles Henry “Fullhouse” Dills stood post. Ayers sat opposite, watching Hall pace--whilst Corporal Daniel Dills stood his post opposite his son.
“Gonna wear a track in the ground at that pace--say nothing of his brogans!”, quipped Charles Dills again.
“Shut it, Dills!”, barked Ayers looking hard at the other man.
“OOH! A bit wrathy are we?”, came the reply. Corporal Dills looked at his brother and shook his head.
“Charles, quit your sniping. You know he’s worried who might be laid out the same as the rest of us. Being prickly isn’t fooling anyone, not by a full jug--and you know it.”
Charles made to say something, but remained silent. Ayers sighed and hung his head.
“Poor old Dobbs, mustered out like that.” commented Fullhouse.
“Naw,” came Charles Dills reply, quieter now and less boisterous, “I expect that old fella was top rail, and wouldn’t have wanted to go any other way.”
Hall stopped pacing, and leaned against the side of the wagon next to Corporal Dills, who patted a paternal hand upon his shoulder.
“No one knows as yet Hall, but I’m sure soon enough there’ll be news. The officers are a bit piqued at present, but if nothing else they are men like us--they’ll list the losses shortly I’m sure.”
Hall looked at Dills and nodded. He knew that the corporal was right, of course. But it wasn’t just that ominous prediction by Cook and now no one knowing if his friend was amongst the wounded or the expired. The long wait for any correspondence from Felicity made him nervous,
her regular letters had been one consistent feature he had enjoyed amongst the irrepressibly consistent boredom and sudden terrors of Army life. In some ways, he realized she had been a lifeline for him to the world he had left behind--in some ways so had Cook. Now, both
were strangely absented from his life, and the affect upon him was grating. Sergeant Stephenson came into view and the men gathered up, around him. The late afternoon light was greyish, and it cast shadows over the sergeants grizzled features. Stephenson had never been a man easily read by expression, and so the group held it’s breath awaiting what words he brought.
“Boys, Cook is all right”, said the sergeant, as the men smiled and cheered. Corporal Dills clapped Hall on the back. Hall smiled and sighed loudly with relief. “But, we lost Dobbs, Folger,” continued the sergeant with a heavy frown, “and one of the Oleson’s. Honan will mend with luck, but he had to fight the sawbones to keep him from taking his leg as a precaution against gangrene--he’ll keep his leg and like as not outlive us all, but mending will put him out of the
field for at least a month.”
“If they can keep him from sneaking out when he gets bored that is!”, put in Ayers. The soldiers laughed, but the sergeant only nodded. Hall realized how tired, and aged Stephenson looked to him. With a start, he suddenly wondered if others would think the same of the rest of them when they finally came home from this war.
“The colonel is is a state, and he’s holding his grudge. Rightly, the Captain is doing likewise, since we all know how he leans towards his ambitions”, continued the sergeant. “All the same, the General is favorable and even praised our boys for saving Old Glory--so best bet is we’re about even. What I been tellin’ everyone down the line is; watch your mouths--follow orders--and this’ll blow over shortly. Understood?” Sergeant Stephenson looked about from face to face, and
when everyone had nodded he grunted and moved on to the next group down the line with a wave. Hall slumped down next to Ayers, and the other man slapped his shoulder.
“Cook is a tough nut, Hall. Still, I wonder where he is?”, said Ayers with a grin.
“What I hear,” Interjected Fullhouse, “is that the captain grabbed up those he felt had led the charge for a dressing down--but then the colonel demanded the first salvo--only to be undone when one of the General’s aides came riding up and requested the same bunch over his way.”
The men laughed, and Ayers whistled through his teeth. “Got a couple of right sore roosters there then I’ll bet!”, laughed Ayers, “Best keep to what the sergeant said then, as they'll be looking for toes out of line to stomp now!”
There were nods all around, and as the afternoon drew on the boys gradually forgot to feel slighted about watching the baggage. The warm company, and knowing that Cook was being toasted by old General "Whiskey’ Smith seemed to draw all bad feelings from them.
The next day, relieved from the baggage detail and settled into a new camp around the morning chow, their mail finally arrived. With smiles, whoops and cheers, Hall joined his fellows in the crowd around the sergeant.
“Geoff! George! There you are boy! Ooh, heavy one--Grandy! Hall, bundle there for you lad!” Hall took up his small bundle of letters with a great smile, and started back to his tent. Behind him, the sergeant continued to call names, as each man awaited his turn to receive his tokens of love.