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, January 16, 2011
At the foot of Gibraltar
“I about shot you Franklin, you damnable fool!”
“My lucky day then!” responded the disheveled solider with a flash of a grin.
Hastings shook his head and tried to climb up a bit on the wall of the pit to escape the wet. He looked over at Franklin and gestured with a jerk of his thumb.
“How’s it going up top?”
“About the same, the push stalled so they halted the line. We have this and the short trench at the top -- didn’t get no-wheres near the decent entrenchments. Johnny is still taking shots at anyone they see fool enough to poke his person up. They don’t want us to have them further barricades, that is right clear.”
The siege of Vicksburg had been going on for what seemed like forever to Hasting’s mind, though it had only been three days since their initial assault of the 19th. It would seem that this more coordinated attack had not quite resulted in the gains hoped for either -- though perhaps it was too early to say. With a whispering sound, the wind changed, and a terrible odor began to settle around them. The men called it “the stink”, a combination of the marshy lands closer to the town and the stench of the dead. Hastings reminded himself that a sergeant had assured him it was only several dead mules stuck out between their lines and rebel entrenchments, but that didn’t cease to fire his anxieties that it was actually the scent of rotting soldier’s bodies. They never showed that in the papers, did they? Or the horrible twisting a wounded man would do on a battlefield, tearing his own clothes asunder trying to find where he was hit. He had seen bodies of men after an engagement that had rendered themselves nearly naked from such behavior. Franklin was looking at him intently, so finally Hastings looked back.
“What you lookin’ at?”
“Side of your head is all bloody -- you alright?”
Hastings reached his hand up one side of his head and then the other, his palm coming back red. He remembered the blood -- the taste of it as he breathed in; the sudden shock made his gorge rise, and he threw up. Franklin scrambled over, offering his canteen when the heaving of his stomach finally ceased and he straightened up.
“Lord Hastings! You alright? Want me to get you to the hospital?” Franklin asked eagerly, laying his hand upon his back. Hastings took a swallow from the offered canteen, trying to get the taste of bile from his mouth. He gargled a moment, before spitting loudly.
“It aint my blood.”
Franklin took back his canteen as Hastings handed it back, watching as the man fought another wave of nausea for a moment that kept him from explaining further. When Hastings seemed to have recovered, he said in a quick stunted voice, “Greg Alexander caught a shell fragment when we first rose up, took his head off and he just dropped.” He said no more, but pulled a grimy handkerchief from his pocket and started to wipe the remains of Alexander from his hair and cheek. Franklin did not press him further, understanding fully the sudden silence. Instead, he reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a slightly cleaner handkerchief and passed it over to Hastings.
“Hell of thing.”
Hasting looked up. “What?”
“All of this. Poor Alexander catching a shell on his first dance.”
Hastings nodded, but said nothing. Alexander had been a recent arrival, replacing one of the men lost the previous year. He had not yet seen any real action, because his duties had restricted him to labor details -- until this morning’s push on the rebel works. His number had simply been drawn, and the orderly rotation of duty had placed him into the line beside Hastings. He had likely not even known what hit him, since the shell stuck some fifty paces before their line just as the order was given to rise up. Hastings felt himself queasy, and tried to shut out the visceral memory of the warm red spray and the sudden drop of what had been Alexander moments before. Franklin was staring at him, but looked away when Hastings caught his eye.
“Hell of thing, not what I expected,” said Hastings suddenly, resuming his attempt at wiping away the gore. Franklin quietly poured a little water from his canteen on the handkerchiefs in his hand, and Hastings resumed his grooming. Mud had caked in flakes in Franklin’s beard, which he scratched at, freeing a fine dust into the air.
“What did you expect? Tea parties and brass bands?” smiled his companion quietly.
“Do you ever feel that we are like poor Pandora, in that old Greek tale? We’ve seen, and now nothing can ever be what it used to be?” Hastings stopped washing, and looked hard at Franklin. The other man smiled to himself and shook his head.
“I never read it, but I think I understand what you are getting at. We’ve seen some things, and I reckon there will be more before we finish this thing. Myself, I try not to worry about tomorrow. I figures right now we got all we can handle in the here and now; lets get through that first.”
A shadow came into their vision, and a commanding voice called down to them. “What the hell is this? You men, on your feet and get into the line up here!”
The pair rose and sauntered up the rise, past Sergeant Stephenson who frowned as Hastings passed him. “There’s blood on you, Private, are you wounded?”
“Not mine, Sergeant.”
“Then get your asses forward, lousy bummers!”
He was greeted with the warm, back-handed type of brotherly love which one became accustomed to in the army; a shock perhaps for those who had grown up with nothing but sisters, but Hastings had four younger brothers so he was quite used to it.
“About time you decided to come forward -- been playing poker in one of the quartermaster’s bomb-proofs?” said Peter Anderson, his blue eyes twinkling with good natured mischief.
“Naw, struck up a love interest he has! Which mule in the train is it, Hasty?” laughed Patrick Killmartin, blowing smoke from his stubby pipe and grinning. The assembled group laughed, and Hastings took a place in the trench upon a ramshackle old nail keg next to some scattered rough hewn boards. Augustus Knapp, retying the cord to his canteen stopper, looked up with a sudden frown and made Hastings turn his head by pushing gently on his chin.
“I don’t see any cuts, not your blood?” he said in the rich baritone which calmed the laughter and elicited some looks of concern from the others.
“No, Alexander was next to me in line when we charged earlier.”
“First go,” added Franklin, warming his hands under his arms, “Shell caught him straight off on his first action. Poor luck if ever there was an example.”
There was a moment of silence -- several deep expletives that wives and mothers would never have approved of -- and then Knapp (unofficial father and older brother to this mess) set about helping Hastings to get cleaned up. Sergeant Hilton rounded the turn in the trench, nodding to the gathered men.
“Keep your wits about you boys; they might try to take this ditch of theirs back again. No sleeping now -- rest up but stay alert.”
As if to punctuate the point, a musket shot soared high over their heads with a hissing whine, making the sergeant curse as he continued along. Knapp peeked up over the lip of the trench, shook his head and sat back down.
“Just trying their luck, but we’ll see them in time anyway, I’m sure.”
Killmartin shook his head.
“Not likely whilst they got that side of the short creek and them works to be safe in! Open yer eyes Gus! Would ye want to leave a cozy spot like that?”
Knapp, whom some affectionately called ‘Gus’, smiled and nodded.
“I suppose not. Still, that’s 2nd Texas over there, and those boys have a way all their own.” This brought general agreement, seeing as they had all run into these boys previously and knew to be wary. As the adrenaline of the morning rush began to ebb away, it became clear that there was no counterattack. From the rebel works, the sounds of spades and pick-axes hard at work drifted to their ears -- the massive attack of May 22nd had only determined the garrison’s intentions to hold out. Word went around to improve their own positions as best they could, and that rations would be brought forward for the men to have in the trenches. There was precious little they could do in any serious way for fortifying their section of trench until the pioneers broke out the spades and real work would commence. For the time being, they piled the cast off planks along the edge of the trench -- saving the most broken for a small fire they built into a hollowed out depression in the earthen wall. Here in short order they had their coffee boiler over the small but productive flames, preparing the truest staple of the fighting man -- coffee. Knapp doled out the steaming liquid in turn, filling each mans cup before finally taking his own. Killmartin raised his dented tin cup in salute to his pards, and sipped loudly. Anderson smirked and watched Killmartin for his response to the coffee.
“Wha’? Wha’ ye staring at, ye blue eyed rascal?” said Killmartin after a moment.
“With all that noise you made drinking it, I thought it prudent to wait for your reaction!”
Anderson laughed, and then ducked as Killmartin threw a clod of earth at his friend playfully. The entire mess erupted in merriment, with Killmartin stealing Anderson’s coffee with a declaration that “he didn’t deserve it”. Knapp made him gave it back, but it was done with smiles and laughter. Hastings sat back feeling better with each warm drought of Knapp’s coffee; the strong, rich and slightly chewy in places liquid bolstering his nerves. He realized with some alarm that the death of Alexander had pushed him to breaking, but thankfully the moment seemed to have passed. It was Hasting’s most secret fear, to be proved a coward before his friends. He looked at the others, wondering if they had ever felt such things. These were good men, all of them brave and willing to do their duty. He sipped his coffee and smiled at Franklin, who patted his shoulder.
Franklin watched his friend, still a bit worried for how he was faring. It had not been a coincidence that he had found Hastings that morning, for he had gone looking for him after Knapp had noted he was missing in line. Franklin had been three men to the left when Alexander had met his awful demise, and could understand how that might have worried Hasting’s nerve a touch. Anyone would be unnerved by the blood of a friend spraying like morning dew across ones face -- and Franklin didn’t want to meet any man who could experience such and not be moved. Hastings still didn’t look good, but at least he was trying to look okay -- that was a start. Franklin glanced up into the late May sky, and thought of home. He missed the little brook which bubbled through the lower pasture of their farm, where he had hunted crayfish with his brother as a boy. He had spent hours doing watercolors of the trees and wildflowers along the banks, pursuits which delighted his Mother and perturbed his Father. Franklin planned to pursue a study of naturalism when this insanity came to an end, and follow in the foot steps of his hero -- J. James Audubon. He watched as a snowy egret appeared in the sky overhead, heading towards the marshy lands a little north of their trench. He marveled at the grace and majesty of the bird, only to be drawn back sharply to the here and now as the bird began a panicked jerking pattern in the sky. Musket fire from the rebel side was seeking to take down the egret, and Franklin felt sudden rage.
“NO! What in blazes are they doing!” shouted Franklin, startling his companions as he crept over to the edge of the breastworks still watching the path of the bird in the sky. The others looked up, seeing the egret only for a moment before a musket shot found its mark and the bird spiraled end of end behind the enemy lines.
“They’re getting hungry over there,” nodded Knapp taking a sip of his coffee, “The blockade of the river and railroad is having an affect.”
Anderson chimed in. “I hear they are eating dogs and cats in the town.”
“Where’d ye hear that?” laughed Killmartin.
“Sergeant Hilton told me.”
“Oh! Sergeant Hilton is it? Warmin’ his toast was ye, over tea with yer good chum Hilton when he told ya?”
The men laughed, but Anderson wasn’t to be put off. “As a matter of fact, my bog-trotting friend, the good sergeant remarked on it regarding the prisoners we took in this mornings push forward. He said they spoke of great deprivation amongst the civilian population, and that some of them have taken to living in caves below the bluffs to escape the enfilade of our artillery.”
Knapp nodded sagely, and spoke up, “It’s true boys. Between the Navy and us here, those poor people are bottled up tight. I imagine that egret will be fine fair compared to what them town’s people have left.”
Franklin frowned, but couldn’t quite bring himself to condemn if the rebels were as bad off as it was said. It was the War. A force that pushed men to cut short the lives of others and to starve until even the graceful perfection of nature couldn’t survive the resulting appetite. He cursed the destructiveness of war, and resumed his place beside Hastings.
When the rations were brought forward, their arrival was both welcomed and jeered. While it was nice to be in possession of a hearty portion of salt beef, rice, desiccated vegetables and warm Army bread, the quantity made it clear that they would not be relieved that night. Knapp laid out the gathered portions together on a rubber blanket and with Hasting’s help began cutting the beef into stew-sized bits with their Barlow knives. Hastings was glad for the busy work, finding that sitting and waiting left his mind to wander too much. They emptied most of Knapp’s canteen into the tin boiler and added the salt beef to soak.
“With any luck, we ought to have a good broth after this beef soaks for a bit,” commented Knapp with a smile before passing his empty canteen to Killmartin.
“You’d think with havin’ been ‘ere this long we might have got hot eats from the cooks at least!” grumbled Killmartin as he took the canteen and began collecting other’s that needed refilling. They had drawn straws to see who would get stuck with the water detail, and though Killmartin lost he didn’t really mind as it gave him a chance to stretch his legs.
“Probably put the cooks to digging another one of those hair-brained canals, like they had us do when we first got here,” said Anderson with a smirk.
“Well whatever the reason, don’ go eatin’ it all in me absence, ye scalawags!” Killmartin called over his shoulder as he started off down the trench.
Canteens slung every-which way over his lanky frame, Killmartin whistled ‘wild rover’ under his breath as he made his way along the line. He was greeted by those he knew, and picked up two more canteens as he made his way through the men of his own company. He stopped briefly to watch a glorious hand of cards, savored the scent of the efforts of other messes preparing their gathering rations. He smiled as dirty faces turned towards him and wished him well on his way, or simply watched him pass. As he passed the last of the men of his own company, to pass through a trench filled with familiar, yet unknown faces, it occurred to him that this wasn’t unlike those grand family gatherings he remembered as a boy back in Wicklow. He recalled all the joy and smiles, the old women setting to kiss his pudgy five year old cheeks as they claimed to be this aunt or cousin. You might feel the family bond, but that didn’t mean you yielded easy to the demands of affection! He realized he felt this way looking at these men, some with the brass ‘5’ upon their caps just like him.
Cousins, family to be sure -- but not blood brothers, he thought. Killmartin no longer had family of birth, but he had the brothers his company had given him.
He was very suddenly broken from his thoughts by an explosion to his right along the breastwork, which rained dirt heavily. All sound but a high pitched whine filled his ears, and then muffled shouting as he realized that he was down on his hands and knees in the trench. Smoke curled over him, but the grogginess in his head vanished instantly when several men fired over him, sending tiny sparks over his right ear. The sharp bite made him sit up, and now he could see what had happened. The lines around him were pouring fire into a ragged mass of butternut and pale blue which was stumbling towards them. The air hummed with lead, but the enemy pushed onward. Killmartin shook dirt from his shoulder, and brought his dusty musket up to take aim. He sighted along the barrel, sizing up a sergeant as he charged with his bayonet leveled. The attack didn’t appear to be along the whole of their front, and even now it seemed to be faltering in places. Killmartin squeezed the trigger, aiming at the man who was rushing pell-mell for him. With sudden alarm, he heard the hammer drop and snap loudly without firing. The enemy closed, bayonet points gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Killmartin swung his musket up, realizing with terror that the percussion cap had fallen from the nipple. He started working to prime, forcing himself to focus and ignore the bayonet of the Texan as he charged.
The cap slipped from place once, and then twice before he finally got it into place.
The bayonet lowered angle, and now Killmartin could see the eyes of his enemy -- the determination and fear within them.
The hammer clicked louder than he had ever heard it as Killmartin drew it to full cock and brought the musket to his shoulder.
The Texan screamed wildly as bayonets clanged and bodies collided in the trench around them. Killmartin squeezed the trigger as his enemy reached him, only to have his shot go wild as he was kicked by the flailing legs of men fighting beside him. His shot went wide, and the lunging Texan’s bayonet tore through the under part of his sleeve missing his flesh. Killmartin brought his musket about and struck the man in the back with the butt of the weapon, but the blow was weak because his own bayonet became tangled in the many canteen straps slung over his body. The pair of them stumbled backwards into the dirt, a mass of violence. Still tangled, the Texan might have gotten the better of him had not a pair of soldiers hauled the enemy sergeant from trying his best to strangle Killmartin. The chaos subsided around them as he sat gasping for breath, men tending to the wounded and roughly dragging wounded enemy prisoners into the safety of their own trench. As he got to his feet, a captain appeared from the rear yelling so that he was red in the face.
“What the hell was that? Who gave the order to fire?!”
The dazed men in the trench looked to one another, before a corporal spoke up.
“Captain, Sir, no one gave the order, Sir -- we were attacked and fired in return.”
The captain slapped his hand against his side, lifted his sword in the other hand and went back the way he had come. Killmartin looked to the corporal and frowned.
“What was that about then?”
The corporal shook his head and smiled. “That? That, brother, was a Turkish Admiral -- aint you never seen one before?”
Receiving their canteens, Killmartin was in his element as he was assailed for his tale of the crazed charge from one point in the enemy line. He told again and again -- in increasingly elaborate versions -- of his mad bayonet duel and near miss with an exploding shell. The day was approaching dusk and the Pioneers were busy in the canebreaks, swamps, and lowlands in the rear of the lines. For a change, their mess lucked out and missed inclusion in the 150 man detail constructing gabions and fascines night and day for the siege works. There was talk of a major preparation underway for a sap to be dug, but where and when was unknown. Sitting with their blankets over their shoulders against the sometimes cool night of late May, Hastings and the others of his mess sat watchful. They spoke in hushed tones, counted as the stars began to appear in the darkening sky. As he listened to Killmartin telling Franklin yet once more of his miraculous escape and how he had fought off four men single handed, Hastings felt something deep within him stir. Looking at these men, he knew they would be here for him, and he must be for them. His close brush with cowardice still haunted him, but he would learn to live with it. Franklin shot a look of agony at him as Killmartin went on, and Hastings chuckled. In the distance, the Gibraltar of the Mississippi was dark. Somewhere from the lines facing the Federal Army, a fiddle played a tune Hastings remembered his brother once singing as they worked in the fields. How strange, he thought, to be so far from family, and those he loved. If they saw him now, would they know him? Would he still know them? He looked into the growing stars of the night sky, thinking of home as he sat at the foot of Gibraltar.