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
When General Grant came to Tea
Funny that the world seemed to be as it always was. The clouds moved slowly in the sky overhead, a small flight of geese sped across the blue and white of the great above. The wind whistled through the green leaves of the trees, where he knew some of the Dakota must be watching. Watching, evaluating and considering how best to rush the compound. They heard a voice cry out, a Dakota speaking to another, from what sounded like somewhere off to the left. The tall grasses of the prairie swayed in the wind, oblivious that the world had chosen to erupt into the fire and strife of war in Minnesota.
“Keep good aware now boys!”, sergeant Blackmer was saying in a steady but expectant voice, “If they’re talking they’ll be working out how to fix us with a good push--so keep clear eyes and call out where you have ‘em!”
The sergeant trod quietly past the barricade where the Dills family had staked their claim. Daniel, his brother Charles, and Daniel’s son Charles Henry lay crouched amidst the pork barrels and cracker boxes. Private Ethan Collis looked up to comment as the sergeant passed, just as there was a roar from the thickets some distance off and Blackmer’s jaw exploded. Struck at the joint, the sergeant’s jaw unhinged on one side and hung terribly as Blackmer let out a wail of pain and surprise. Immediately more shots rang out, and round ball and bird shot clattered and splintered through the barricades. Soldiers returned fire, discharging in obvious surprise and some panic at assailants they could not often see. Collis jumped up, and pushing the sergeants jaw back into place, he helped guide him to the post surgeons house amid stray shots zipping through the air and skipping through the dirt at their feet. Sergeant Blackmer slumped against him, stumbling as he was moved along by Collis. Weakley came from near the officers quarters at a run, and helped Collis the last distance to the surgeon. Blackmer’s eyes rolled into his head, and became dead weight against them. Dead, or simply passed out, Collis was unsure--but with Weakly’s assistance they dragged the sergeant into the surgeons and were directed by Mrs. Mueller where to place him. The surgeons wife, Mrs. Mueller exhibited a strength that help quell the sense of slight panic in the two men, which had manifested itself suddenly as soon as their charge was laid aside. She bent over Blackmer, and called to an orderly. Turning back to Collis and Weakley as they stood frozen where they were, she gave her words the directive of an officer.
“We’ll see to him, you men back to your places! And keep good cover!”, she barked at them, her words uprooting them and setting both men to rapid obedience. Collis thought about Mrs. Mueller, and the strength that she showed that day. How easily she seemed to accept the situation, and deal with it. The moment of thought passed, and Collis left memory to find himself in the here and now.
“Do you suppose,” he mused to the man across the fire from him, “that she learned that by being in the Army all them years, with her husband and all? Just absorbed all that discipline and military bearing from the posts they had lived on?”
The dark evening was light upon their shoulders, the last inkling of the day that had gone before yet in the reddish-grey heavens above them as they sat in camp--months after that day in at Ridgely. It seemed another life time ago to Collis, or even the tales of someone else’s life; so much had gone on since those first days when their mettle as soldiers had been tested.
Daniel Dills, looking orange in the firelight, frowned. He looked over to his brother, Charles, who shrugged, then back to Collis.
“What are you on about, Collis? What does any of that have to do with what we were talking about?”, rounded Daniel Dills in response. Collis just laughed, and shook his head.
“Sorry, just wandering off I suppose. Don’t you ever find yourself thinking about where we’ve been? Things we’ve seen?”, asked Collis. The two Dills brothers looked at him and resumed the discussion they had been having before.
“So what do you think Dan, do you think what they are saying is true? Is he coming here?”, asked Charles with a concerned and inquisitive tone. He gripped Daniel’s sleeve with expectant worry which showed fully in his eyes. His brother shook off his grip, and fixed Charles with a serious glance.
“Relax yourself man! You’re sweating for sake of all! Do you really think the Army is gonna go and poke about our ways here for the little forgivables we been u too? Don’t forget what them Indiana boys were pulling in we met when we were down there near Mississippi Springs! I mean, lord almighty! Now that was deserving of a look see by the powers that be if anything ever was! I figure you and I, what we haven’t done under direct order from the officers, the little we kept for ourselves or sold off shouldn’t have been enough to warrant a whole visit.” When Daniel Dills had finished his oratory he was standing, and several others nearby sat attentively, as though waiting for more. “Old Pickle” Dills looked around with a look of exasperation and said, “WHAT? Whatcha all staring at like fools?”
Private McNeil seated nearby, smiled. “We all thought ye was stumpin’ for an office er sumthin’, the way ye was carrying along!”. There was chorus of laughter, and Old Pickle gave a grunt of disdain for being the butt of the joke before resuming his seat.
“What are you talking about anyway?”, asked Collis. Charles Dills, leaned forward and answered in a cautious tone.
“Word is going around that General Grant is coming down and will be accompanying the corps. I heard it from one of Sherman’s orderlies in a card game last week, so I know it’s genuine and not the normal rumor. Now I ask you, what purpose is it having him about? Might he be simply sightseeing, or is it the start of all this talk of cleaning up the Army we been hearing?”
Collis chuckled, and nearby McNeil and Honan joined in. Honan, tossing a pair of logs onto the fire and sending a shower of sparks racing into the air, smiled.
“You honestly think, “ he said, “that a general is making his way down here on account of you?”. Charles Dills stared back a moment, then spat back with an almost hurt expression, “You don’t think he’s coming down here because of our dealings and scrounging then?”.
Now everyone laughed, and quickly Charles joined in too. Daniel gave his brother a ‘I told you so’ look, and Charles--looking both relieved and a little embarrassed--said, “Well, I suppose your right, it doesn’t make much sense does it?”
“What doesn’t make sense?”, asked Corporal Haltzdahlen as he stepped into view of the fire.
“We was discussin’ as to the purpose of General Grant comin’ to stay wit us corporal, know any more an we does?”, responded McNeil.
The corporal shook his head and smiled. “Blazes, you boys know they don’t tell me anything! Half the time, you lads know more about it than likely the Captain even!”
There was a general noise of agreement and appreciation for this fact, and a few utterances regarding officers in general that were like as not a bit unfair. Still, that was the nature of the Army, and no one seemed to feel the need to correct the speakers. The fire crackled and everyone sat staring into it, the looming arrival of General Grant yet a mystery, though not unwelcome. The truth was, the men of company C were anxious, and this helped to pass the time and get their minds off things. They were situated in a camp not far from where they had fought a small, but rather desperate skirmish action with some rebels who likely were a reconnaissance in force from the nearby city of Jackson. Now, every soldier who has seen action or slept in the field more than a week gains a quick understanding of tactics and strategy. It gives rise to the “Private General”, and it was no exception in company C.
“I should think it’s obvious,” began private “Scratch” Sullivan, “that the arrival of Grant is simply the run up to an assault on Jackson.”
“Bugger all, Scratch! What would you know of it?”, resounded McNeil, but corporal Haltzdahlen fixed him with a look and he said no more.
“By all means Scratch, go on. I think you’re onto something.”, said the corporal.
Scratch stood, gave McNeil a withering stare, and continued. “It’s obvious, since Jackson is a major rail stop, and that those rail lines run right through to Vicksburg, that Grant is coming because we’re headed to Jackson. It’s the capital, so it’s an obvious strategic point. Which means further, in a day or so we’ll be engaged again--and shortly after probably bringing doom to Vicksburg.”
The gathered group pondered, and most heads were wagging in agreement quickly. It was logical, if a bit terrible, that they were likely headed for a serious campaign. Everyone had heard of the fortifications of Vicksburg, and the mighty guns which allowed the Confederacy to continue to receive supplies via the river from this point.
“Well, if ‘General Scratch” is right, and likely enough he is--I’ll be needing some sleep.”, said Honan, standing from the fire and wandering into the dusky evening to his tent. Like an exodus, men peeled away, until at last only Daniel and Charles Dills sat by the fire. Turning to his brother, Charles whispered, “All the same Dan, we might think about ‘loosing’ some of them high end articles we--er, happened upon in the officers mess--just in case.”
Daniel Dills nodded, and the two brothers set off. In the early morning hours of the next day, the General arrived. Before the sun was much into the sky, the word started going around to be ready to move. It was clearly a serious move coming, since the teamsters and drivers soon appeared with the Army wagons.
“Serious enough then it seems! Best getting ourselves about our business!”, commented Honan as a wagon creaked to a stop just beyond the company street. The grizzled driver jumped down, swearing an oath and saying something terse to the mules. The men redoubled their packing of haversacks and gear, taking on a wholly different demeanor in their movements and
preparations. This wasn’t to be a day trip; some simple patrol or maneuvers, but a concentrated movement which was meant to stir up the hornets nest. The long roll, and the call to assembly and form company were sounding in many places as buglers sounded their notes. Men scurried about, a charge of anxious energy and anticipation in the air everywhere. Company C was bustling, as men took their places and pushed for room in the line--”give left! Give right!”--they shouted to assert their rights to the pace of ground and the line groaned but gave. Dust hung like clouds in the air which swirled with the passing of wagons and men; leaving the dry taste of earth in the mouths of men and mules alike. Some those in line scoffed at the slower members of the company; especially the replacements they had received only two weeks before. These men came running to the line still throwing clothes on, not yet having the habits of soldiers for sleeping largely clothed. They would learn, just as every one did. The process of going from a volunteer civilian to a volunteer soldier simply took time. In short order, they were ordered and arranged for marching and the great force of two corps of the Federal Army began to move. Being situated near the front of their corps, Charles Rose and Philo Henry relayed the details of the commanders to the others.
“Sure enough, that would be him there--riding on Sherman’s right.”, said Henry, whom some of the boys called “Shoe”. But Rose snorted in disagreement.
“That’s not him! That would be the General ‘birdy McPherson of the 17th corps--look, you can see his feather there--Grant don’t wear no ornaments, they say he tends to look as rumpled as some common soldier! I think that fella there, on his left, that’d be Grant.”, said Rose with authority. Shoe nodded and pointed at the fellow Rose had sighted.
“I overlooked him on account of how ordinary he looks,”, he said, “ but clearly that’d be him.” Shoe laughed and looked back over his shoulder at the Dills behind him. “Looks like you’re not in dutch after all Chuck!”
There was short but hearty laughter at this. Charles Dills looked to be regretting ever making his fears known at all; his nephew Charles Henry--whom many called “Fullhouse”-- had laughed too and was smiling. Everyone knew Fullhouse wasn’t an advocate of his Uncle and Father’s side profession, and he was enjoying the affair indeed. It became apparent, not
long after, that they were headed for Jackson. “General” Sullivan, who had aptly predicted this move, was given his due. They were going to take and cut off the rail lines that connected with Vicksburg, and occupy the city. They had begun their movement early, so the cooler morning was their companion as they marched along the roads in the Mississippi countryside. Spring had come here, but seemed to be a bit shy yet in places. The landscape was green, but not so deeply or vividly as one might have expected somewhere so warm and into the month of May. Still,
for the Minnesotans it felt like a heat wave, and besides they were quite used to a Spring that could be elusive and finicky about when exactly she chose to reveal herself. When they reached a point on the map where the commanders were less certain of the relative safety of the ground, the orders came for advance guard and flankers to be deployed. Gritting their teeth and setting themselves to their task, the men deployed.
It didn’t take long for the day to turn, and the morning pleasantries gave way to dark clouds and rain. Many of the men thought it no coincidence that shortly after the rain began, the first organized resistance of rebel activity began. Initially it was simply sporadic shots, and brief stands by a few light infantry. These soon gave way to barricades and entrenchments manned by more determined groups, who stubbornly resisted the approach of the Federal lines. They would make a push forward, slipping in the soft earth as the rain hissed loudly on barrels of their muskets; only to be pushed back. The trouble was that because of rebel skirmishing, they had slowed until the officers in command could get a better idea of what was happening. This of course, made perfect sense and was most sensible--the problem was that the rebels had made use of the time and erected barricades and a strongly defended outpost commanding the approach to a bridge. While the bridge could be circumvented, it would slow their progress even further, and so as such the men in the very front of the line could not get the support forward needed to simply overwhelm the rebel positions. All the same, the order to advance was being hurled like the savage whip at the company commanders to ’move into Jackson with all possible haste’. It was clear by late-morning that they were fighting against a rear guard action, doing a valiant job of preventing the Federals from taking Jackson before an evacuation could be completed. Dodging reflexively as a musket ball hissed over their heads, privates Honan, Sullivan, Rose, and McFall advanced through clouds of smoke. They found cover near a barricade which the rebels had been forced back from, and hunkered down. Bullets ripped into the over side of the logs and dirt which made up the defenses, as the enemy did their best to get at them. Splinters and gravel landed about them, and but the advancing companies of the 5th Minnesota were finding good cover in the barricade the enemy had only just abandoned. Down the line, an officer from one of the other companies was shouting for the men to ‘stay down, and listen for the order!’. McFall, gritting his teeth, popped up over the lip of the barricade and snapped off a shot. As he fell back down amongst his comrades, an officer down the line yelled “hold your fire there!”, but his words were lost to the noise of enemy fire. McFall smiled ghoulishly and began reloading.
“Saw that poor bugger go down! I got ‘em, boys! I dropped one as easy as falling off a log!”, said McFall, punctuating his words by ramming the ball into the barrel with relish.
“You’re all out of your senses if you think this is going to be fun taking that outpost,” argued Sullivan as a ball zinged uncomfortably close overhead, “it’s one thing to be keen as mustard, it’ll be another getting across this divide in whole body!”
As if hearing Sullivan’s cue, a voice down the line called out suddenly, ‘Get ready boys, steady now and we’re over this obstacle and giving Jeff Davis a hot reception!”. Each man took stock of himself, and said his own prayers. Along to their right, the colors suddenly were raised high, even as enemy ball sought to tear them to rags and pull them to earth. A great cry erupted from the Federal lines, and amongst the men huddled there in the group it was Sullivan who jumped to his feet first and scrambled over the barricade. McFall and the others followed him close, and the whole great line was charging across the space and towards the earthen and log outpost. The rebels poured flame and smoke by what seemed the bushel basket into them, obscuring the air with hot fleck sand flashing lead buzzing like mad hornets set aflame by the determined effort to halt the Union advance. Chaos reigned, and Sullivan charged through showers of whistling bolts which tore at him but could not take hold. Somewhere to his left, Sullivan heard sergeant O’Malley shouting “over now lads, show them what Minnesotians are made from!”, and he made for the sound. Emerging from the haze of battle, Sullivan charged up over the earth works and into the wild fray within. Everywhere flashing steel clashed, and men were swirling in the waltz of war as each did their best to cling to advantage and survival. The rebels were trying to retreat, recognizing how untenable their hold on the outpost was--but the out stretched hand of Federal might had a hold of them and was not about to allow escape. The pitch of the moment became a frenzy, as one after another those rebels that attempted to flee were hunted down. Officers did their best, calling company after company back into line and restoring what order they could. Prisoners, few that they were, were roughly moved to the rear. Many a man looked from the Federal dead on the field to the prisoners with a lust for their blood--but the moment passed--and no man did more than grit their teeth and swear an oath. Thunder rolled somewhere off distant, and a wind whipped up briefly, as though nature herself were marching with them to their objective. The rain began anew in the grey skies, and men helped to tend to those that were wounded or past care. The companies behind them were coming up at last, marching past the remnants of the outpost and upon the bridge towards Jackson.
Sitting in a semi-circle, they watched some of the Ohio boys do a good job of destroying the rail lines and ensuring they wouldn’t be quickly restored. How they had escaped being put to such duty was beyond knowing, but for now at least the boys of company C of the 5th Minnesota were enjoying their leisure. Seated as this group was on a rail platform, atop bails of bound cotton, was about the most comfortable rest they’d had in some time. The generals, happy with
their success, had taken the fine home of some poor fellow named Bowman and set to celebrating their victory.
“Came for tea then it seems,” commented sergeant O’Malley, who lay back with an air of easy comfort on one of the nearby bails, “that general Grant did; came just for the cotillion ‘birdy and Sherman was throwing here in Jackson. Wish I was a general, then I could be a sight-seer in the war too--’stead of one of them putting on the show!”
“HA! You a general, then we’d be doomed to be called ‘The Bog-trotter Brigade’ for certain!”, jested private Roth--only to receive a well aimed brogan to the head, thrown by Honan. The group laughed, and Roth tossed back the shoe to it’s owner. Nearby the Buckeye’s were twisting another rail tie over the hot fire they had constructed, while the Dills brothers--ever on the lookout for opportunity, had come up with a dozen tins of sardines and graciously offered around to any that wanted some.
“Do I even want to know where these came from?”, asked O’Malley rising up and brushing the loose cotton fluff from his trousers. The look he received was enough to answer his question, so the sergeant inquired no further. “I’d best see what they got planned for us then.”, mumbled O’Malley as he wandered in the direction of a modest house near the rail station which the company officers had taken as temporary quarters. The men were tired, but the taking of the state’s capital was a source of pride and rejuvenation for them as well. Many of the men thought
it was a fair city, and that the courthouse and public buildings were as nice as any they had seen before. There were few, if any people obvious about. A few window shades showed the furtive glances of people clearly afraid of what might be done with and to them in occupation. A delegation of the town had apparently been to see the generals at the Bowman house, but it seemed that the delaying action the rebels had fought with such vigor had allowed a great many citizens to flee.
“I can’t figure what these people thought we were going to do here, why did they run away--why are they hiding still?”, voiced private Turner as he chewed a sardine and made face suggesting he had never tried them previously. Turner was the youngest of their squad, and rumor went around that he was likely much younger than he let on. But then if he was, he wasn’t
telling so the boys just left it alone.
“Like as not,” piped up corporal McReynolds, “they was expecting all manner of hurt. Ever read what the sesech papers say about us? I read one once not long back called us “Yankee devils”! They’re afraid we’re here to loot, ravage, and murder.”
Turner looked struck with horror at this suggestion, but then looked down at the tin of sardines in his hand. He looked over that the Dills, and set the tin aside with a guilty look. Sergeant O’Malley came over to them, an abruptness in his stance which made everyone sit up.
“What’s the word?”, asked private Rose, expectantly.
“You boys look to your duty then, come along with Me. We have some work to do on orders of the big boss. We’re firing some buildings, come quick then and let’s get this done.” The men rose without comment, but there was a quality to them that spoke of a slight reluctance. But men in war learn the ability to ignore that voice within our souls which questions, and asks the hard things. It has to be so, if one is to survive the rigors of conflict. They collected what they
required, each torch bearer paired with another. They went about their duty with grim efficiency, understanding when told how it ought to be done. Sergeant Stephenson led the other group, and could be seen moving across the street as they did their assignments. The day was moving into evening, but the sky was still bright above them. Every man stayed alert, even though it seemed that the presence of those able or willing to fight them had long since fled that morning. They set fire to a roundhouse, a nearby warehouse and piled bales of cotton. They burned several other businesses, including one which seemed to be involved in brokering slaves. Smoke drifted through the streets, and as evening came the flames gave everything a strange orange glow. As the detail made their way back to where the Army was encamped, people in the houses--emboldened by the awareness that portions of the city were ablaze--began to show themselves. Many simply watched them go by with hard stares, some shouted obscenities. Many simply stood and watched their city burn, a look of grief and anger mixed in their eyes. One boy--perhaps five or six--threw a stone as they passed from a nearby yard which struck O’Malley in the side.
“Go home, do you hear! Leave us alone!”, the thin child shouted as O’Malley stopped and motioned for the squad to hold their place. A woman came out of the modest house, and scooped up the boy. With a terrified look over her shoulder, she started back from whence she came. Her face was red, and beyond her current fear for what must have been her son, it was obvious she had been crying. The woman carried the boy into the house and vanished from sight, only the sound of a nearby building crackling and collapsing into itself remaining. The men looked from one to the other, waiting for the sergeant to give an order or even move. But O’Malley didn’t speak, he simply stared after the woman and the boy. His eyes were hard, large and clearly in some hidden private turmoil. He looked as though he saw more than was before them to see, as though some vision was acting itself out before him in ghostly form. The squad stood where they had stopped for a few moments before Johnson piped up.
“That boy had sand, and a fine arm to toss that rock and..”, started Johnson before O’Malley interrupted.
“Quiet your noise, detail--forward march!”, said the sergeant as he swivelled from his place and continued on his way. Johnson, unsure why he had been snapped at, just grumbled to himself the whole way back. They joined with Stephenson’s detail a short way down the road. Surrounded by the bright roaring destruction they had wrought; swirling specters of smoke embraced and obscured them from view.
Private Ethan Collis was leaning back on a “borrowed” chair, watching the road. Evening was falling quickly, but the close of the day was marred by the streaks of drifting smoke on the horizon. An unnatural orange and red flicker rolled on the low clouds, the fires of those parts of the town set ablaze under order making themselves noticed. The details returned, but the men
seemed strangely somber and quiet. Collis stood when they approached. He looked upon them as they were dismissed quietly from their duty, each man looking ashen and drawn. They did not speak, but went in little tangles to where they were quartered. They seemed strange to Collis, as though men he knew went out--but someone else came back in their uniforms. Stephenson went away to report to the officers, and O’Malley came and sat down on the step near where Collis had set his chair. Only Honan was left standing nearby, but soon he looked up at Collis, frowned, and wandered away. Collis went and sat next to the sergeant, growing increasingly curious and a little disturbed as to what had wrought such marked change in their demeanor. O’Malley stared quietly towards the street, as men went to and fro and the sounds of celebration from various quarters echoed like phantoms through lanes and fenced gardens.
“You, alright there sergeant?”, asked Collis at last. The sound of his voice seemed to startle O’Malley a bit, and he answered quietly.
“Collis...yeah, well enough I suppose. Tired I think is all, tired.”
“Did something happen out there? Someone scrap with you when you set to firing the buildings?”, asked Collis doggedly, sensing now more than ever that indeed there was a story here. O’Malley simply looked at him blankly, before looking back across the street. A few moments passed before he answered at last, speaking quietly as though he’d been rehearsing his
speech in his mind.
“I was seven, and helping my grandfather, Podge, with his weeding when they came. Constables, and the landlord. I hadn’t thought about it in--faith, who knows how long--I can remember how me grandfather held me. Clutched really, I could feel his heart beating in his chest. The brightness of it--the fire you know--the smell of the thatch, when they burned his house. That was when he came to live with us, after that day it was. I remember how I hated them, how I wanted to tear them down with me own two hands for what they done.” O’Malley paused a moment, and then stood up. He wiped the dust from his trousers, and slung his musket over his shoulder.
“Never an easy thing,” he resumed, smiling at Collis with eyes great with a welling of emotion, “to follow orders as a soldier. Harder still when it reminds ye of the consequences of war.” O’Malley turned, and made his way up the street. Collis, confused, sat in his chair and watched him go.
The moonlight shone blue upon the blackened bones of the ruined buildings; the music and sounds of mirth from the Bowman House haunting their shadows. Somewhere a dog howled mournfully, it’s voice lost in the coolness of the night which enveloped the city of Jackson.