Chewing the stem of his pipe, Brevet Brigadier-General Andrew Hickenlooper studied the map and the diagram drawn there. He breathed out a cloud of smoke, and looked up into the eyes of Generals Logan and M.D. Leggett. Neither man looked happy, but they had at least given up complaining. That was fine with Hickenlooper; they could be unhappy -- provided they obeyed orders. He stood up and placed his hands on the table, watching the two men as they continued to study the map before them.
“Questions gentlemen?” asked Hickenlooper finally.
“This mark here, if I read it properly is…?” asked General Logan pointing to a red box drawn on the map as he was interrupted.
“The redan held by the veterans of the 3rd Louisiana,” answered Hickenlooper, pointing out a series of blue lines. “Your men are here, and General Leggett, your battalions are situated here.”
The pair nodded in turn, but the frowns did not cease. Hickenlooper was undaunted though, being in charge of a strong sense of no-nonsense grit. “Obviously this fort is a problem, being the most formidable in the entirety of the line. The strength, commanding position, and armament make this a priority -- and General Grant has made it clear to both myself and General McPherson that it must be dealt with.” He poked at the map with the stem of his pipe for affect, and crossed his arms as he gazed upon these two officers.
“Very well then,” answered Leggett with a resigned sigh, “what do you need of us?”
General Hickenlooper extinguished the candle lamps before ushering Leggett and Logan out of the door and quietly into the growing night. They had to be very cautious so close to the 2nd Louisiana’s redan not to give away their presence with the unguarded light from a lantern, lest they loose their convenient meeting place. Hickenlooper looked back at the large white plantation house in the darkness, which the men called “The White House”. No one knew why the enemy garrison had left this building standing, but it was a useful addition for the Federals. They had discovered, though, how important heavy shades over the windows were at night and light discipline when out of doors. One of Hickenlooper’s own staff had taken a musket ball through his arm after a careless lighting of a cigar upon the porch one night, and so caution had to be maintained until the area was brought under full control. The Louisiana boys had jeered him from the dark, calling out, “Try smoking on that, Yank!” For now though, this portion of the line would be where their sap would start, hidden by a construction of wooden parapets to screen their movements from view. Tomorrow night, May 23rd, they would launch a diversionary attack upon the enemy pickets to cover the pioneer’s final selection of where to start the digging. If they could avoid detection, they might just be able to knock out that damn fort and make General Grant happy. The assault of that morning had been brutal and gained very little. General Hickenlooper moved quietly away from the house, following Logan and Leggett towards the officer’s billets and the promise of a warm cot.
Hastings woke with a start, kicking Franklin accidentally. Franklin grunted, and sat up looking blearily at his friend.
“What is it? Is it our turn on the watch?” asked Franklin with a yawn.
“He was dreaming,” said Anderson from somewhere nearby in a loud whisper, “Go back to sleep, ’aint even ten yet I’d guess.
Franklin tried to calculate but gave up. Anderson said that all was well, and that it wasn’t time be up yet, but somehow he was awake. He looked at Hastings, but his friend was asleep again. With a rearrangement of his blanket, Franklin did his best to find a spot without too many lumps and drifted back to sleep. Looking back at them, Anderson shook his head and resumed his duty. Killmartin sat opposite him, staring hard into the gloom where somewhere an enemy awaited. He was tired, and his body ached from the shock of the near explosion he had been caught in earlier that day. It had been quite the surprise, as he had simply been taking canteens to the rear to refill them when a wild charge from the Texans had suddenly thrust him into harms way. A near miss with an enemy bayonet had left a hole in his coat sleeve, and he planned to mend that as soon as he came from the line. It had been a very near thing, but Killmartin had yet to give it much thought. He would come down from the high of being alive later, but for now he focused on staying alert. Anderson was watching him, as Knapp snored quietly from under his blanket.
“How you doing?” asked Anderson quietly.
“Fine, how should I be?” answered Killmartin tersely.
“Just asking, what with this mornings rough and tumble.” Killmartin looked at Anderson, but then returned to watching the darkness beyond their trench. Anderson got the message, and let it go. Scratching his head and pulling his cap on, Knapp stirred and sat up with a yawn.
“I think I must have found the biggest tree root to sleep on in all of Mississippi!” groaned Knapp as he stretched.
“I’m sure Ole’ Jeff Davis put it there just for you hisself, Gus!” grunted Killmartin shortly.
“Something rubbing you wrong?” asked Knapp staring at Killmartin. For a moment there was only silence before the Irishman shook his head and smiled feebly.
“Just tired, an’ a bit sore still.”
“You knock off then; I can’t sleep anymore anyway,” said Knapp shaking out his blanket and getting to his feet. “I’ll finish your watch.”
Killmartin said no more but found a place to lay out his gear, wrapping himself in his blanket and settling down quietly. Knapp watched him for a moment before draping his blanket over his shoulders and shuffling to the breastwork to peer across at the enemy lines. He looked to Anderson with a shift of his eyes, and spoke in a quiet hush. “How has it been across the way? Are they behaving themselves tonight?”
Anderson shrugged. “So far, though you must figure they are working in something. Nothing to see so much though; what good that is in this inky darkness I don’t know.” Knapp nodded in agreement just as there was a ‘thump’ from one of the artillery batteries down along the enemy line to their right. Immediately the sky exploded with sparks as a star illumination shell burst high overhead, throwing long shadows and lighting up the battlefield. The noise roused the others with a start, and soon they were gathered on the breastworks. A commotion of movement and the sudden eruption of musket fire brought each man alert.
“Look, down there along the north side! It’s an attack!” shouted Anderson pointing out dark silhouettes of men rushing towards the enemy picketts as fire erupted from the Confederate lines beyond. Knapp scanned along the enemy breastworks across from them, only to mark clearly the faces of the Texans staring curiously back. He watched them as slowly the light of the star shell faded and the sounds of sporadic firing ceased.
“It was a feint then,” said Killmartin lowering his musket but remaining along the breastwork. Knapp nodded. Franklin, who had wisely closed one eye to protect some ability to see once the star shell’s illumination faded, grunted. “Looks like it’s over; I don’t see anyone in the gap -- I think our guys must have gotten back again all right.”
“Be nice if they would let a man sleep!” growled Killmartin before he returned to his blanket without further word. Hastings watched him go, and decided simply to stay awake until his guard began. Franklin was tempted to return to whatever short time might be left of his chance to sleep, but decided instead to stick by his pard. The rest of the night passed peacefully, and as the orange and lavender of morning began to appear in the East, word spread that they would be relieved to be sent to the rear for hot food and some rest. This did a great deal for morale amongst the men, who had been on line since taking these same trenches the day before. Killmartin was better when he woke, and the frayed tensions of the day before were replaced with the jovial familiarity so common amongst them. When at last their replacements came forward to take up the line, men swapped what news and gossip they had to trade until the sergeants were forced to intervene and move them along.
As they ambled along over the wide, sunken lane of a road that was protected from enemy musketry by ramparts erected by the pioneers, Knap slung his musket and sipped from his canteen. Anderson and Killmartin were discussing the gossip regarding a sap that now was being attempted against the enemy line. The spot had been chosen and the engagement of operations begun by the cover of darkness, so that substantial progress was made in establishing works the enemy would not easily disrupt. “They got this rolling cover for them what do the diggin’,” said Killmartin with excitement “that helps guard from musket fire an’ the like!”
“Yeah, I heard it was slapped up rather clever too -- woven wicker with rolls of cotton overall,” answered Anderson, telling what he knew.
“Would that be strong enough to give much protection?” asked Franklin.
“If they were thick bales? I bet they might slow a ball down enough to serve and grant some protection,” put in Knapp, replacing the cork in his canteen.
“I want to see it!” said Killmartin excitedly.
Hastings frowned. “It’s not an exhibition Pat; you can’t just stroll by and take in the sights!”
“An’ why not? I plan to see it, an’ I will!” The sergeant ahead of them called back for quiet in the ranks, and so they stayed quiet the remainder of the way to the cook line.
Lowering his field glasses, Brigadier-General Hickenlooper scratched his beard and chuckled. The rebel officers must have been mad as hornets when they looked out this morning only to discover a well protected sap underway. True, the Federals still had a good long way to dig before they could truly menace the rebel fortifications -- but if they had an engineer over there with any sense at all he would realize the real danger the sap was. Hickenlooper was pleased with their progress and the success of the night’s diversion.
“How’s the sap roller fairing?” Hickenlooper asked looking through the field glasses once more. Captain Peters shrugged beside him.
“Well enough Sir, at one point the wheels became stuck but we cleared it.” Hickenlooper looked at Peters, and then Lieutenant Russel who was standing behind him. Peters and Russel were of the 7th Missouri, both good men who seemed to grasp the importance of this manner well enough. Now if the weather would hold, and the rebels not surprise them with something unexpected, they might force surrender before July or August.
“Better have someone douse the bales Captain; if I were over there I would try to fire our roller,” said Hickenlooper after a moments thought.
“Yes Sir, I’ll see to it.”
“My compliments to those men who worked last night, they did very well. The crew working now was given the orders to deepen and widen the gap?”
“Yes General. They also are placing another row of gabions along the ramparts to ensure as much cover for operations as possible.” Hickenlooper nodded approvingly, and thanked the pair before dismissing them. His aide, Major Lipton, approached from where his orderly waited with the General’s horse.
“General, Colonel Hamlin reports they haven’t anything to suit our projected trajectory if the diggings progress as planned.”
Hickenlooper frowned and shook his head. “If we can’t ensure our ordinance will detonate immediately behind the breastworks where it will do any good, then our force deterrent is greatly compromised.” The General swore and paced a moment, the major knowing better than to get in his way when in such a temper. After some moments, General Hickenlooper stopped pacing and stood staring at the enemy works. At last, he sighed and without turning, called Major Lipton to his side.
“Major, make it clear to the Colonel that we must come up with something. We are depending upon him -- if he has to commandeer another battery’s Coehorn mortars or steal them from the enemy, I don’t care! Is that understood?” The major nodded and saluted, heading back the way he came.
Warm food in their bellies, most everyone in the mess gave in to the urge to just lie about and rest. Not that they found true rest easy to obtain. Having been on the line for as long as they had, they were still keyed up to a level of awareness made keen by the experience in the trenches. The sensation of anticipation of attack, especially at night when one strained eyes and ears for enemy movement, ground down men like grain to the mill stone. Nervous energy sometimes translated to sudden bouts of wrestling, willingness to risk accumulated pay on dodgy games of chance, short words, and irritation with friends which could even result in out-right violence. For Knapp and his mess, they resorted to restless conversation first in their tents and later seated around a cook fire. Killmartin and Anderson paced and conversed quietly, before sneaking off to some task they did not wish to discuss with the others. Franklin resumed a sketch from memory of a particularly knarled old oak, while Hastings wrote and re-wrote a letter home. In time, their concerted attempts to resist sleep ensured they succumbed with abandon for most of the afternoon. With the sun moving towards early evening, Anderson and Killmartin returned having accomplished their goal, rousing Knapp and the others to describe the work going on at the sap. They had been able to wander rather close to the area before an astute sergeant noticed them and sent them packing.
“The real work is done on it at night,” explained Anderson “and word is the rebels are feeling the pressure!”
“I’m just glad it’s not us this time! After those canals, I think I could stand never to see a spade again!” commented Franklin with a grim chuckle. There was universal agreement on that, as each had vivid memories of one of their first duties when they had arrived before the city of Vicksburg. At the time, digging a canal to allow the Naval gunboats to bypass the enemy’s heavy riverside artillery seemed to make sense. By the end, plagued with malarial mosquitoes and back breaking work, the entire affair had been a nightmare -- which was abandoned without a shred of success. From the direction of the lines came an occasional snap of musket fire, but soon it would pass and conversations which had halted to listen would resume. How strange, though Knapp looking around at these men whom he thought of almost as relations, the give and take of this life. He was not a philosophical type by nature; Augustus Knapp rarely spent much time turning over events for hidden meaning. He thought of himself as a pragmatist, and had always done his best to meet life head on without a lot of fuss. Some seemed to think this equated to a stoutly courageous spirit, but he did not see himself so. Knapp simply accepted, and tried his best to stay calm and deal with what was what. Fear he knew, and many was the time Knapp had looked out across the deadly space to feel a weakness in his limbs and a dry mouth. He knew what it was to hesitate, and wish to be anywhere but where he was when the order came to advance. But at the end of the day, when it really came down to what mattered to him, he would remember what had to be done. He would think of Hastings’ fear (which was the worst kept secret in the mess) and feel a responsibility to his friend. In similar ways, he felt a need to do the same for the others too--if only to ensure that they never needed to be the first to take the step into that dread space before them. As the day wore on, and his friends debated the strategy of the diggings, Knapp found he was thankful for this day of rest. He was thankful for how fortunate he and those he knew had been so far in this adventure. He thought of his loved ones at home with a sudden surge of guilt, realizing he had not thought of them sooner. He cherished the thought of his family so far away from this place, but hoped at the same time that they did not find it so disturbingly easy to forget him as Knapp sometimes did them.
The next morning, news spread quickly along the company streets that a white flag had appeared from the enemy lines. Those who were new to this life may have allowed a glimmer of hope for surrender by the city, but Knapp suspected it would only signal a truce.
“An opportunity to collect up their dead” Knapp said as the mess sat chewing hard bread and coffee, “and sort their options that they might regroup.”
Killmartin, who had claimed for himself an expert status regarding the sap, shook his head. “Maybe Gus, but I’d wager them buggers is wantin’ a look about -- trying to figure better what our pioneers been up to!”
Franklin, ever the moderate voice within the mess, dunked his biscuit in his coffee and smiled. “I’d wager it’ll be both -- as allowing us the chance to recover our fallen would sweeten the deal.”
“Ensure them a chance at poking’ about to see our works!” said Killmartin, taking a deep swig of coffee. Knapp nodded and Anderson just grunted in agreement. It made sense of course, but it didn’t really matter. The siege would go on, and the only true hope Vicksburg had was a relief army showing up to threaten their flanks. This all might have happened long before now, had they not scattered the reinforcements so badly needed by General Pemberton at Raymond in early May and then again at the battle of Jackson. Those victories had forestalled relief being sent to Vicksburg, but everyone knew that General Johnston was out there reorganizing. This potential danger of an enemy relief force was debated again and again amongst the fireside enlisted generals, and promoted all manner of conversations for those with theories to advance. Some suggested that the danger of an enemy army showing up was a truly real and inevitable threat, given time. Others, that the losses for the enemy during the Big Black River campaign combined with those in the Eastern theatre made such a force unlikely. It was being suggested officially that the rebels were reeling, running out of materiel and recruits. While that might be so, thought Knapp to himself, this war was far from over. Sergeant Hilton wandered up the company street, calling out to them.
“Hey you lot, on your feet!” the sergeant said as he wiped his face with a kerchief. Hilton wasn’t a an old man, but this life had taken a toll on him. Living rough, and facing the daily machinations of army life did so to them all. Knapp wondered, looking at Hilton and seeing the changes in the man from when they first enlisted, if anyone at home would recognize them when they returned. The sergeant informed them they had been chosen to assist with the recovery of the dead, and encouraged them to find a rag to wear over their faces.
“Them boys there have been laying out for almost three days now, so they won’t be pretty,” Hilton added with a grimace as they ambled off to join the rest of second platoon for the detail. The next three hours were some of the least pleasant they had had in some time; a mix of sorrow for the dead and disgust over the state of their remains. Franklin watched Hastings closely; worried his friend’s nerves could ill afford such exposure. But Hastings was stalwart throughout, though he did not relish to the task. For all of them, the most immediate sense of discomfort had nothing at all to do with the assigned task, but was from the first unnerving footstep beyond the safety of their lines into the open space before the enemy fortifications. They had become used to thinking of this ground between the lines as certain death -- a place only to be entered in the desperation of a charge. Yet here they were, milling awkwardly near men who would soon return to their muskets and seek once more to kill them. Likely as not, some of these men in grey and butternut may well have been thinking the same thing about them. Such was war though, a constant challenge to logic and reason. For this moment, within arms length of the enemy, they could coexist and even assist one another because their task was seen as honorable. Franklin smiled at a scruffy bearded man in butternut when the other thanked him for helping to shift the stiff form of what had been a man unto the blanket they were using to carry the load away. I wonder how many times I may have taken aim at that man. Thought Franklin to himself, watching them move towards the rebel line. How many times might he have tried his best to shoot me from afar? How easy to ignore the humanity of your enemy when they are shapes in the distance; when the air hums with lead and the ground shakes with cannon fire. Hastings called to him, and Franklin returned to his work. He looked down at the blackened, bloated form Hastings was preparing to load and frowned. This was no longer a man, only the faintest shadow of the living, thinking, feeling being he had once been. They moved the body onto the planks they were using and hefted it up to carry it back towards the lines. Franklin grimaced at the smell, secretly comforted as they left the open to return to their trenches.
Work had continued and progress had been made, but not without issue. The sap roller, the moveable shield which had served to cover the pioneers as they worked in the early stages of the digging, had been the focus of several attempts at destruction by the rebels. There had been many occasions where the enemy had succeeded in setting the wicker framing alight with heated shot, but the pioneers had always arrived in time to douse the flames. The night of the 9th of June, men along the lines were startled to see bright flames from near the sap. No one was sure how it had been affected, but somehow the roller had caught fire and soon engulfed completely. While there had been cheers from the 2nd Louisiana in the redoubt, the loss of the roller was ineffectual for the Federals. The sap had progressed far enough that the pioneers could do without it, though there was grumbling amongst the men detailed to clear away its wreckage. Brigadier-General Hickenlooper was in a good mood as he strolled with his staff doing inspection of the heavy guns which had been installed in a new fortified battery overlooking the section of the line near the sap. While the position of the guns was pleasing, it was the generous attachment of his own name to the battery which had truly inspired the general’s mood.
“Excellent position, I am very pleased gentlemen!” beamed Hickenlooper patting the breech of one of the large guns. Major Lipton, an astute judge of the general’s moods, stepped forward to deliver his report.
“General, Sir! When you have a moment, Colonel Hamlin has something he’d like to show you -- in regards to the issue of delivery of ordinance directly behind the enemy breastworks.” Lipton saluted, and gestured to the general to accompany him. Managing a general felt much like dealing with his wife back home, though Major Lipton. The trick was to do your best to catch them in the right mood, and then always ensure that it felt to them that they were leading you when you were guiding them. Get it wrong and you’d hear about it -- loudly -- but get it right and life could be pretty pleasant. The general strode off in the lead, not sure where he was going until Major Lipton gently suggested where Colonel Hamlin could be found. Just below and to the rear of the battery, about 150 yards east in a scrubby field ending in a cane break they saw the colonel who waved to them. The general greeted the colonel, and was introduced to Captain Knox and a pair of enlisted artillerymen whom he largely ignored. General Hickenlooper returned their salutes, and his eyes fell upon a hollowed out log bound with a pair of iron bands mounted in a sand filled box. He frowned and shifted in place.
“Colonel, I am willing to be open minded, but I am not encouraged at first glance.” Hamlin returned a nervous smile, and looked to the captain and enlisted men in turn.
“General Hickenlooper, Sir, I know it may look a bit slap-dash, but I urge you to be patient. I have seen it tested, and it works. Captain Knox oversaw this project; I’ll allow him to explain.” The general turned on Knox, and the captain cheerfully took up the conversation.
“I cannot actually take full credit for this notion General, it was in fact the concept of privates Borland and Carter here. You see general, both men worked in a cooperage and so when the request for a mortar with the specific aspects--”
“Captain, I haven’t all day to discuss this.” Interrupted General Hickenlooper tersely. Knox looked stung, but apologized and resumed his report.
“Yes, Sir. As you know, we hadn’t any mortars capable of the requested use, so we have been creative. Borland and Carter reasoned that given wood with enough girth and flexibility, it would be possible to fashion a mortar from something like Gum wood. I have them permission to attempt it, and once reinforced with iron bands it worked supremely Sir.” General Hickenlooper stared at the captain a moment, and then squatted down to inspect the mortar. After some tense moments, he smiled.
“This, truly works then captain? The wood can handle the stress?”
“Yes General. Over time, the heat may begin to dry out the wood which could lead to splitting--but the gathered opinion is that as thick and green as the logs used are--such a failure would take a long while. Would you care for a demonstration?” The general stood, nodded and took several steps backward. Captain Knox motioned to the privates, who had been standing quietly all this time, and they made their way to gather powder and projectile from a caisson parked several feet away towards the line.
Major Lipton nudged Colonel Hamlin as they stood watching “Are you certain it won’t fail and simply kill the crew?” asked the major with a frown.
“It works, by God.” was the colonel’s only response. General Hickenlooper stepped closer to the wooden weapon, watching as Carter and Borland loaded the mortar and stood by for the order to fire.
“What is its effective range?” asked the general of no one in particular.
“About 50 yards general, and rarely beyond.” answered Carter strongly, showing clear pride in their creation. Hickenlooper grunted acceptance, talking directly to Carter at last.
“What is its weight, what’s it like to reposition?” Carter shook his head. “Lighter than she looks -- not any more troublesome than any Coehorn would be Sir.’
“So it’s easy enough then to move and reposition by a small crew?”
“Yes general, in a pinch two men could reposition but the standard four would have no trouble.” Seemingly satisfied, the general nodded. Carter and Borland placed an empty barrel within the weapons range, and then repositioned the piece to align with their target. Once they were satisfied, Borland fitted a short length of fuse into the touchhole and looked for permission to fire. Hickenlooper stepped back a pace, and nodded to them. Producing a Lucifer from his pocket, Borland lit the fuse with a hiss and he and Carter knelt to either side of the mortar. There was a sudden rushing sound as the charge caught and then a solid ‘wump’ as the mortar discharged in a cloud of smoke. The gathered men watched the relatively slow projectile rise, and then fall to imbed itself in the ground two feet to the left of the target. The general nodded, and turning to Carter and Borland shook each mans hand in turn.
“Well done gentlemen! Had that been a fused round that target would be splinters now! Excellent! It can take an explosive shell, yes?” Captain Knox stepped forward, nodding his head. “Yes general, six pound seems to be the best,” he answered as the general inspected the bore of the improvised mortar. Major Lipton sighed to himself, and smiled to Colonel Hamlin.
“I told you it works.” said Colonel Hamlin under his breath.
June was beautiful back home, but in Mississippi and living in a trench opposite a determined enemy, it just didn’t feel the same. Franklin was lecturing anyone who would listen on the interesting new inspects he had come across, his zeal for the natural world proving infectious even with Killmartin -- who listened and then wanted to discuss the various species of louse he had removed from himself that morning. Overhead, the early June sky was clear and blue. Knapp made himself resume his regular observation across the divide to the enemy lines, even though he felt he couldn’t get quite enough of the richness of the sky above. Hastings wandered over and took a seat beside him with a tired grunt. Knapp smiled, turning to Hastings a moment before resuming his observation. As May had come to an end, there had been only sporadic attacks along the established lines -- but most of these felt half-hearted and uncommitted by the enemy. The Federals had used the time to expand on their holdings, all the while as the artillerists on either side seemed the only remaining committed combatants with their regular trading of shells. While the increasingly intense heat of the day was daunting, the positive effect was that the trenches began to fully dry out, and the rats -- which had started to prove a nuisance -- were seldom seen during the day. Hastings wiped his brow, and sighed heavily. Knapp poked him and chuckled.
“Starting to sound like an old man, Hastings!”
“You mean as old as you, Gus?” Hastings smiled.
Knapp chuckled. “We’re all old; this pleasure excursion we joined is making us so.”
“Well we ought to complain then, though I suppose it is for a good cause.” Hastings shrugged and leaned forward to retie the laces of his brogans.
“I suppose you are right. So, how was the sink? Has to be better than that old one -- near fell in last time I went!”
Hastings shook his head ruefully, perhaps imagining Knapp slipping into the horrors that the depths of an over-long used sink would hold. He sat up and nodded.
“It’s not bad. I think it was one of the Iowa companies that drew the detail, but from what I heard they got someone else to do the work. One of the nicer ones we’ve had though, I’d say.” Knapp smiled.
“Well, you know what that means then!”
“Of course! The siege will end abruptly and we’ll get marched off somewhere else less comfortable.” Hastings gave his friend a sardonic grin. Such was the nature of the soldier; if things got better there had to be something worse on the horizon. It was better that way perhaps, as it saved one from the up and down disappointment of army life -- or simply was the result of them. Knapp nodded, not truly one to believe in such a cause and effect surety of life, but practicing the communal rituals of soldier life all the same. He thought about all he would have to tell his wife about when he returned home, and then realized how little of it would make sense. You had to be there, he supposed, and live it everyday. Hastings poked him, and he realized he had not been listening.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
Hastings gave him a cock-eyed grin. “What I said was--there is a new bunch of Minnesotians in camp. They started showing up a few days back but the fella I met at the sinks says the whole lot are in now.” Knapp was fully focused now, interested in the news.
“Who? Did this fellow know what regiment?”
Hastings nodded. “The Third, you know--them fellows that surrendered to old Forrest. Can you imagine that? Whole bunch taken prisoner, and by that dirty scoundrel Forrest too.” Hastings frowned, his own insecurities showing in his expression of overblown indignation. Knapp whistled and crossed his arms.
“From what I heard it was the officers that surrendered, and the men simply were bundled along against their will.”
“Their officers just gave up, and gave the men no choice? Seems to me the men could have chosen for themselves if it was against their notions.” Scowled Hastings as he worked to scratch some stubborn grim from his coat sleeve. Anderson wandered over and sat down beside them excitedly.
“You hear about the Third joining our division?!” He said, poking Hastings. Knapp nodded and stretched his stiff arms.
“Yeah, we were just talking about that. Hastings heard about it on his visit to the new sinks.” Anderson nodded and turned to Hastings.
“How were they Hasty?”
“Not bad, really pretty nice. They even sanded down the cross-logs, so there are no knots or splinters.” The three men smiled, and spoke briefly of a celebrated occasion when Killmartin had run afoul of some poor construction and required some very delicate assistance with a very large splinter. Hastings took a sip from his canteen and continued. “What do you think Anderson? Knapp says the Third’s officers surrendered on their own and the men were carried along against their will. I says it’s funny they just didn’t just fight on despite their officers. What do you say?”
Anderson looked thoughtful for a moment before answering. “I suppose if you want to consider it logically, it would depend on the situation. I mean did the officers sneak off and surrender when the battalion wasn’t surrounded but could have made a fight of it? Or, was the situation not so good to start with, and the officers surrendered realizing better what was coming than the men did?”
Hastings frowned. “Yes, but what is your opinion?”
“I was getting to that. From what I heard of the situation, they didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the end. True, their officers proved themselves gutless essentially, but then they all got sacked and new fellas have been brought in. Besides, some of them boys from the Third never got captured at all.”
“What’s that?” Interjected Knapp.
“One of their companies were on detached duty and missed the surrender. That lot kept fighting with the battalion they had been detached to until they were recalled to rejoin the rest of the regiment after their parole. I think it was C company, but I can’t be certain.” Anderson smiled, enjoying the rapt attention of the moment. Hasting shook his head.
“I wonder if there would be some tension between that lot and those that were captured?” mused Knapp.
“What I did hear is that they ended up fighting Indians back home. They picked up with Sibley, where our boys left off when they showed here. Not that it all matters I suppose, they’re stuck here now just like us.”
At that moment Killmartin shouted. “Something’s brewing!” Everyman moved to the breastwork, muskets brought up and were sighted. Killmartin pointed out to the center of the enemy line, as he called back for a sergeant.
“What the blazes am I looking for?” groused a man down the line. Anderson cocked his head towards Knapp.
“Do you see anything?” Knapp just shook his head and glanced to Killmartin who was waiting for Sergeant Hilton.
“Pat! What is it? We don’t see anything!” said Knapp in a loud whisper. Just as Killmartin was about to answer, Corporal Hoyt arrived wanting to know what the fuss was. Killmartin pointed out towards the center of the enemy line, every eye following trying to understand the nature of the alarm.
“Over there corporal, I saw one of them devils scrambling over like he was fixin’ at creeping out!” said Killmartin quietly. Hoyt stared hard for a moment, and then patted Killmartin’s shoulder.
“Well, I don’t see him now, but well done anyway. You men keep alert; if you see anything else sound the alarm. I’ll inform the sergeant.” The corporal strode back down the line and vanished around the corner. As soon as he was gone, someone said loudly, “So what are we watching for exactly?”
“I saw ‘im I tell ye!” responded Killmartin defensively “Why don’t ye keep yer gob shut, an’ your eyes open?!”
“Yeah!? Come down here paddy and I’ll shut whatever I can fit my fist in!” shot back the voice from down the line. Killmartin grumbled loudly, but Franklin and Anderson kept him from seeking out the other man.
“Hey, Yanks!” came a voice from the enemy lines. Knapp and those on guard stood still, listening with some shock. “Yanks! Can you hear me over there?” Corporal Hoyt and Sergeant Hilton appeared around the bend of the trench about that time, halting near Killmartin with a serious look on their faces. Sergeant Hilton stepped forward past Franklin and Killmartin, and cupping his hand to his mouth shouted in return.
“Yes, we hear you!” There was silence for a few moments before the voice answered.
“Hey over there, sorry we gave you all a fright before! Louis had his hat blown over the wall here and scrambled after it without thinking. We ’aint coming, promise!”
There was a moment’s pause before suddenly the tension broke amongst the Federals and an explosion of laughter rippled through them. At first Corporal Hoyt shouted for calm, but Sergeant Hilton quieted and sent him back to his post. There was laughter from the enemy works as well, and several caps were thrust up into line of sight on the tips of ramrods. When they began to relax a bit, Hilton reminded them to stay alert but did not press the point. These men, sitting day after day facing their enemy; surviving boredom and the mad terror of the occasional attack or artillery barrage -- cold nights and scorching days -- needed release if they were to be kept from cracking. Sergeant Hilton smiled to himself and shook his head as laughter broke out once more behind him from the men. He chuckled to himself a moment, allowing for a little relief of his own tension before returning to the rigors of his duty.
When word went around that the mail had arrived, a palatable sensation of excitement and anticipation could be felt in the air. The mail delivery was usually pretty good, provided they remained near their main supply lines. But for whatever reason it had been held up, so its arrival was an event. Anderson was pacing, eager for their relief to arrive so he could claim the newspapers he expected and the correspondence he hoped for.
“They’re taking their time getting up here!” grumbled Anderson kicking sand as he paced. Killmartin smirked. Knapp shook his head and called Anderson to come sit down before he wore holes in the soles of his brogans. As is the nature of such moments of impatience, as soon as Anderson sat down the relief arrived. Without another word, he shot to his feet and was on his way in pursuit of the post. When at last those relieved from the line had collected every precious letter, package and periodical due them by the dictates of postal fortune, the next calling was hot food. There were fewer pleasing pastimes for soldiers in the field that to be able to find a relaxing spot in the shade -- or at least with a breeze -- provided with hot food and something new to read. The novelty of newness never seemed to wear thin with them, the result of the many occasions of boredom and a voracious appetite for the distraction of print. Sprawled in the patchwork shade of a tall prickly shrub, Anderson kicked his feet lazily as he read aloud from the first of three back issues of Harpers Weekly. Killmartin lay upon his back nearby, covered in various crumbs and sound asleep. Franklin and Hastings sat poking through a package which Knapp had received from home, but shared with the mess.
“There’s still some of those sardines in here, do you mind if we have them?” asked Hastings as he fished a tin from the box and help it up for Knapp’s inspection. In response, Knapp shook his head and held up a mostly empty tin of his own.
“Not at all, I have had the lions-share of this one, and frankly I feel a little bilious. Help yourself, please. Besides, my wife said in her letter that this package was meant for all of us, and as such I am directed to share. I think I must have stressed too much in some past letter that we were starving or something for all the fuss she went to!”
Hastings smiled, and commenced to open the sardine tin, Franklin laughed at Knapp. “Why worry what your wife says Gus? She’d never know if you shared or not!”
Knapp just shook his head seriously. “She’d know, somehow that woman would know.” He smiled broadly and sighed. “I never could get away with anything around my wife.”
Anderson cleared his throat, and frowned. “You lot want to hear the foreign bureau reports, or not?”
Knapp looked chaste. “What sort of news is it?”
“Political strife” answered Anderson pausing as he read ahead “war on the horizon over some border dispute.”
“We gots enough of such ‘tings ere’ to be hearin’ more!” added Killmartin without opening his eyes and thoroughly surprising the mess, who thought him asleep. Anderson shrugged and resumed reading to himself. Hastings just smiled and hummed happily to himself as he sucked a sardine greedily into his mouth, offering the tin to Franklin.
“I think I’ve had enough.” said Franklin, shaking his head and patting his belly. Hastings shrugged and carried the remains to share with Anderson, while Franklin lay back and decided at last to attend to his own letters. He chose one at random, done in what appeared to be his sister’s hand -- though it could have been his mother’s. He opened the envelope with a gentle motion, feeling the true contentment of a full belly and the relative ease of relief in the rear of the lines. He unfolded the letter within, noting the date as having been nearly three and a half weeks previous. He allowed his mind to wonder briefly where a letter might languish for so long between posting and delivery, before returning back to reading. Within three lines he felt the care-free sensation crumble -- a sick sensation in his guts rising to replace it. Franklin reread the lines again, and then continued through the whole letter. The words of those lines stuck fast and refused to be ignored.
‘Father, having struggled some time with this illness, passed in the night…..’
His father had died three and a half weeks previously, and he hadn’t known. He had sent letters home during this time, directing thoughts and questions to his father about the siege here in Vicksburg. He had written home, directing words to a man who had been dead a week already when he had inscribed them to paper. The letter felt suddenly heavy in his hand, so that he set it into his lap. His father, a man whom he had often in recent years quarreled with over his choices in life and desires for vocation, had died after a long bout of illness. He would never have the chance now to find peace with his father, and that thought was finally what shattered his ability to hold himself together. Franklin stood, and ignoring Hastings calls for where he was going, wandered away with the letter clutched firmly in his fist. His father was dead -- had been dead for over a month, and there was nothing he could do about it. He thought of his mother, sisters and young brother who had lived with this knowledge for so long already. His brother could at least keep the farm with his sister’s help, but Franklin worried most for his mother who had never been an extraordinarily strong woman. He felt a rage at finding out so late, and guilt that it had taken so long. He hated the sensation of helplessness, and with a sudden awful awareness he felt physically for the first time the true distance he was from his family -- home -- and the life he had left behind. Looking about, Franklin realized that he had wandered near to the lines again, some ways north of his own battalion. In the short distance before him he could see the oddly intact plantation house which soldiers rather unimaginatively called “The White House”, and one of their batteries facing the enemy. Opening the letter, he read it straight through once more, tears welling up in his eyes at long last. He watched as a glittering tear fell slowly to vanish into the wool of his coat, feeling a rising frantic longing to be home. But before the second tear was to follow it, he was aware of another sound which his body knew and demanded action. With a suddenness that rolled over the Federal lines sparking wildfires of momentary terror, the rebel redoubt’s guns opened up in sheets of white hot aggression. Before he knew he was doing so, Franklin threw himself to the ground and rolled just as a screaming shell savaged the ground close by. He crawled away as pebbles and clods of soil pelted him, his only thought to seek the trench lines where he might find cover. Everywhere shells screamed like mad demons bent upon the ending of the world; horses shied and men shouted as they dashed for safety. Franklin could see the trenches not far from where the sap was located, and started that way as a sudden geyser of dirt erupted ahead of him as a shell exploded. He rose up, charging headlong towards the safety of the line, eyes squinting against the dust which rained down upon him. As he closed the space to his goal, the whine of a shell tore the air with violence. The explosion lifted and tossed him forward like feather in a hurricane, all sound muted as the sky rained stones and dirt. Amidst the dust and debris, the pages of a letter floated haphazardly to the floor of the Federal trenches. The guns of the battery Hickenlooper awoke at last, silencing the enemy salvo with equal ferocity. As the smoke cleared, there was silence again as each side tended to the wounded and cautiously resumed their places within the trenches of Gibraltar.
Overhead, a snowy egret flew in a sea of blue sky, seeking escape to the peace of a still pond.