“I won’t, don’t fret yourself! I’m well past minding and beyond into oblivious.”
Potter smiled, even though he was so tired that even smiling was an effort. “I should have known it would be your big feet, Haimer. Still excited to be a soldier then?”
“I might not be able to feel my legs for all the marching we just did--and I might be wet through, muddy and tired--what was the question again?” Several men chuckled. The Amsel brothers added their gear to that which had been cast indignantly down, and quietly bantered in German to one another. The rain continued to fall gently outside; the water droplets beating a calming tattoo upon the canvas over their heads as exhaustion won at last.
Potters eyes shot open, the blast of the bugle and rolling rattle of the drums making him groan. Suddenly awake, he became suddenly aware that mosquitoes had spent their time converging upon his ankles in the night leaving them itchy. He must have moved just enough to expose himself in the night, and the blood-thirsty little vermin had made the most of it. The drummers started into another long roll.
“Someone, for the sake of decency,” grumbled Sullivan “kill those musicians!”
“I’d do it” said one the Amsel brothers from under his blanket, “but sen I wut ‘ave to get up!” The musicians finally finished their melodious morning torture, but the work was done. Slowly, grudgingly, soldiers sat up and began the slow return to being men once more. Lumps of slumber stretched arms, bellowed yawns and rubbed tired eyes. The Amsels--as always--were first out of the door which allowed momentary shafts of early golden sunshine into the canvas cave. Eyes snapped shut; curses were uttered, as this further indignity was done to the still drowsy soldiers. Potter crawled over Connelly, who lay back in frustration at having broken a shoe lace, and out into the morning air. The camp was stirring, men wandering about in night caps and unsung bracers cradling coffee as they might a loved one--perhaps even more tenderly. The Amsel brothers, farmers who dealt better with the early hours than most, had their small fire crackling and promised coffee was not far on the horizon.
“I have to say, I don’t think much of the hours you farmer boys keep.” said Potter stretching once more and grunting satisfaction with the issue of a loud ‘pop’ from his back. He was a clerk by trade, working in the office of a masonry quarry back home. He had grown up in the city of Boston, and come west for adventure and a chance to escape his father’s vision for his sons’ future. Potter had really never known the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ life of a farmer--and though such a profession was honorable--they could keep it! Leo Amsel chuckled and nodded to Potter for his cup, filling it with a black-brown sludge that passed for coffee. Martin Amsel added a log to the fire and shook his head.
“You town people”, Martin’s gentle German accent clipped the edge of his words as he spoke, “you think this is early? For us, this is sleeping in!” His brother Leo said something in German and the pair laughed, smiling with broad and sun stained faces. Connelly exited the tent cursing his brogans and the quality of the Quarter-Masters acquisitions. His orange hair caught the morning sunshine, and Potter smiled.
“Hey, Connelly, your ‘Mick’ hair is a-fire. Want me to put you out with this coffee?” Connelly feigned the laughter the others broke into with a sarcastic smile, and shoved his cup towards the Amsels for coffee. Sullivan appeared next, followed by the ever eager Haimer--who alone amongst the group was dressed and fully buttoned. Potter smiled and the Amsels saluted, to which Haimer good-naturedly laughed.
“That’s fine, you all can loaf about like good-for-nothings--but I plan to go home knowing I did my duty and earned my glories!”
“I think the general has put us in our place!” said Connelly with a smirk.
“No question,” added Potter “I feel humble.”
Leo Amsel snorted and laughed. “Now I have seen all things, if William Potter is humble!” Everyone laughed, and the call sounded for mess from up the hill near headquarters. Gathering themselves together, they went to eat as the musicians played; the melody of ‘Peas on a trencher” drifting with the morning breeze.
It was in roll call that morning that they first heard his name, being a new minted sergeant to fill the gap left within their company thanks to a nasty bout of dysentery which had sent several men home. There were just the 8o or so of them when company A had first come south, but that was months ago and since then they had gained other companies. It had been hard enough to know every man when it had just been their company, now Potter regularly saw men he did not know. As such, it was with some interest that he studied this man that was to replace the sergeant they had lost, as he was handed the stripes of his new rank before the assembled company. This new man was of moderate height, with a broad jaw and steely eyes which seemed to take in everything at once. Potter thought that this one looked like the serious type, and though he knew that there were two squads which would gaining a man beyond his own, he found himself dreading that this man might join them. His bunch, third squad of second platoon, weren’t the hellions that everyone knew second squad of first platoon to be, but that didn’t mean that they wanted a taskmaster overseeing them. The sergeant who had been lost from Potter’s squad had been a laid back sort, willing to help his squad avoid both trouble and work. Sullivan must have been thinking along the same line as Potter, for he turned and whispered--”Fingers crossed we don’t get Hedley!” Potter nodded, and the company was dismissed to their details. Shaking his head as the squad gathered about, Sullivan scowled.
“We get assigned to Hedley, and our simple life in the Army is over.” Connelly nodded, but Haimer shook his head.
“I don’t know. If he is one to get us into the scrap I’d be happy to have him.” This comment was met with hisses and other rude commentary, but some of the other members of the squad quietly agreed. Peter Crusoe reminded them of the wood detail they were supposed to be doing, and everyone grudgingly drifted away. They reported to the quarter-masters shed to draw their tools en masse, only to find the cause of their worries awaiting them, leaning against the wheel of a nearby wagon with his arms crossed. Sergeant Hedley looked them over with those musket lead eyes of his and smirked. For a moment third squad and he stood looking one another over, before Hedley finally spoke.
“I was gonna apologize for my bein’ late to join you all on the detail--you know, seein’ as I only just was assigned as your replacement sergeant--but imagine my surprise when I arrived to discover you lot hadn’t even reported yet!” Hedley uncrossed his arms and stepped before them, hands planted on his waist. No one said a word, the only sound being their collected breathing. Suddenly the sergeant smiled, and spoke to the gathered squad in a gentle tone. “But, we have all only just been thrown together, and no doubt you men are used to the ways of your old sergeant. So, let’s start on an even furrow together boys, shall we? Come along, let’s draw our kit.” Sergeant Hedley gestured towards the quarter-master’s shed, and like men led to execution they went as bidden. It would be the quietest work detail they could recall in the entirety of their time in the Army, and the start of a pair of weeks time which would push them all to their breaking point.
Early morning sunlight suddenly flooded their tent, and from within came a series of oaths and groans. The Amsel brothers simply rolled out with the good natured acceptance of farmers, but the others resisted. At least until they heard sergeant Hedley’s paternal chiding at making the musicians responsible for their waking.
“Now come along boys, you’re not children needing mother to rouse you for chores no more! Rise up, like soldiers ought, and men!” He said, followed by the start of the first snap of the drums as the musicians began to play their morning duty. Haimer rolled out well accounted for, and was greeted with a--”Well done!”The sergeant’s voice rang out. The others might have tried their luck at remaining abed had Hedley’s tone not become noticeably sharper. ”I have three now of this tent; I wonder how long I shall have to wait for the rest?” One by one the group tumbled out into the morning air, sergeant Hedley grinning ear to ear as each of the grumbling men emerged. He lined them up with the rest of the squad and proceeded to pace to and fro before them. After a moment, Hedley halted and faced them.
“Good morning. I knew that it will take you boys a little time to become accustomed to my way of doing things, and I plan to be patient. That doesn’t mean you may do as you like or expect to have the better of me. I have been informed that our platoon is to be detached to a forward outpost, and that we march out shortly. My suggestion then, get yourselves settled quickly. I expect you all to be ready when called for.”
Potter frowned at these words, grumbling internally at the Army and their new ‘spit and polish’ sergeant. Sergeant Hedley dismissed them and departed, leaving behind a handful of grousing soldiers.
“What a piece of work he is!” Spat Connelly kicking the dust with his brogan.
“He’s new, but he is right to tell us to move along. Martin und I are going to morning mess.” Commented Leo Amsel, pulling on his fatigue blouse and following after his brother. Haimer simply smiled and started after the brothers saying--”I like him!”
Connelly and Sullivan shook their heads, but followed after with Potter in their wake.
It was becoming one of those typical humid, hot days that accompanied the start of the campaign season, the second here in the south for Company A. The rain of the previous day only served to fuel the muggy, heavy air and Potter found himself wondering that anyone would willingly choose to reside in such a climate. Moving along in route step, the platoon moved along a slightly sunken road which was lined by long rows of tilled earth. The Amsel brothers were discussing these fields quietly in German, the farmer in them grasping at the familiar and comforting. Potter often wondered at these men, and why they had joined this fight. They had left behind farms to become soldiers, leaving behind the land for which they had endured the hardships of ocean crossing and immigration to a country which was not always so welcoming to foreigners. “I hope we get into some good scraps!” said Haimer, a bounce to his step and smile on his face. George Cox--who was next to Haimer in rank--rolled his eyes and snorted divisively.
“You and your war-mongery! Why would you crave dodging shot and ball anyway?”
Before Haimer could answer, Connelly spat--”Because he spent the first weeks we came down in hospital, and missed the opening scraps! Old Haimer here feels left out, don’t ye Johnny?” Several men chuckled, and Haimer blushed but said nothing. Sergeant Hedley appeared along side of them and called for quiet. Shortly thereafter the call came for the platoon to resume common step, and the sound of their footfalls became a solid organized cadence. As they crested a short hill, the burned remains of what had been a barn and small house came into view. The platoon marched even with the remains of the house and there left the road to make their way past the ruined homestead towards a round hill upon which stood the outpost. It wasn’t much to look at, really just a few shelter tents set atop the hill surrounded by improvised fortification in the form of piled logs and split rails. Still, the view from the hill was commanding and its location well chosen. They hadn’t gone much further when they were stopped by a pair of sentries who appeared as if from nowhere by popping up from the underbrush and stood in their way. The lieutenant conferred with the men shortly before the column proceeded forward again, the sentries smiling and waving to the ranks as they passed.
“Welcome boys to Post Lincoln!” said one of the sentries with shaggy blonde hair and a scruffy beard.
“Post Lincoln, huh? Split rails and all?” answered Connelly laughing gesturing up towards the hill. Sergeant Hedley shouted for quiet in the ranks, ending the friendly exchange. Potter nodded to the shaggy sentry as they passed, who returned a wave before he and his companion resumed their concealed places of watch in the underbrush.
An hour later, and the platoon had been given space for quartering in the shade of a nearby orchard. It proved to be a very comfortable space, though one had to watch for the occasional falling apple. Word spread quickly as to the expectations of the platoon--nothing for the time being beyond rest and orders to keep any cook fires under control and under cover--which the men were only to happy oblige. They would be replacing the 2nd platoon of one of the Iowa units in their brigade, whose men assured them that they had landed one of the easiest duties ever. Settling down in the long grass with a sigh, Sullivan unlaced his brogans and stripped his patched socks with a smile.
“For a change, not bad! No rocks under foot here, quiet and even apples at hand anytime we want them--well a few worth eating still anyway.” The Amsel brothers sat speaking in low tones, backs against the trunk of a nearby tree. They looked up, but then returned to their conversation.
Connelly took a drink from his canteen and nodded. “Yep, this here is a fine spot. Fella’ from the Iowan bunch told me they aint seen nothing of trouble the whole two weeks they been here. Most of them lads think this forward post must be just for ‘in case’, and the push the rest of the Army will be making will to the East more.”
“We’ll still have to be wary” interjected Haimer, who alone sat with his musket still in his hands.
“No one is saying we wont--” retorted Connelly “--but I’m betting them Iowans are right, and we’ll have an easy duty. Them boys say they are almost sorry to go, what between the quest and the bathing in the little pond other side of the hill.”
“It is not right.” said Leo Amsel suddenly.
“What’s not?” asked Potter.
“Vhere are zee people that work zis land? Vhere ist the farmer who tend zee’s trees we camp under now?” asked Leo, looking about. Martin looked at the others and then to his brother. Sullivan shrugged.
“The house was burned out, so I imagine they left.”
“Ya, zay leave. But who vas it burned zat house?” asked Leo, his eyes glittering in the low firelight. No one knew the answer to this question of course, so there was a moment of pause before Martin whispered loudly close to his brother.
“Bruder, ist es nicht wert, dise Mühe--”, but Leo stood and shook his head.
“Have you forgotten vat it was like back home, Martin? Not worse zee trouble? Warum machst du krieg gegen die Bauren? Dies is nicht warum ich soldat bin!” With that, Leo stormed away from the group leaving confusion amongst those who hadn’t understood much of what had been said. Potter looked at Martin who was standing with his back to them, watching his brother Leo vanish into the growing dusk.
“What was that about?” Spat Sullivan. Martin shook his head and turned back to them with a frown. “He ist tired, and vee miss our land und home. Seeing things remind us of home, und life back in Baden. Leo does not like turning farmers from zee land. This place make him unhappy.”
Connelly nodded, with some understanding. Haimer frowned and rocked in place. “I guess I can understand that, but still if those people were the enemy--”
“Ya,” interrupted Martin with a sad smile, “so ist with war. We know zis, but Leo don’t like very much.” He turned and followed after his brother. Those who were left behind were quiet then, each man left to his own thoughts. Sullivan, who had only recently retrieved an apple for himself, studied it a moment before leaving it at the base of the nearest tree.
Potter had drawn duty as an observer on the hill, and watched as the short column of Iowans marched back the way his platoon had come from only two days before. The morning sun seemed reluctant to wash over these men, making them look sort of grey as they moved along the road. They were a funny bunch those Iowans, and easily fleeced at cards. As he watched them recede into the distance, Potter began to feel the solitude of this place. Looking about for a moment, he was struck with the absolute beauty and stillness that one soaked in here. It was tempting, he thought for a moment, to imagine that there was no war--no armies. How could such awful things exist in the same space as the tranquility and quiet of this place? But they his gaze fell upon the burned skeleton of what was once someone’s home, and that dream ceased to fool him. He looked again at the column marching back towards the main body of the army, and resumed his duty. They were one of four forward posts placed along the line of advance for the army. Post Lincoln was six hours march and three hours hard ride from head-quarters; but only roughly two hours from the posts situated to the North and South of them. While he knew they would likely see no mischief, it still felt somewhat exposed here. The thought of being relatively close between two outposts helped somewhat--that and the steadfastness of the Iowans promise that they would find this their “easiest duty ever”. Of course maybe that was part of the problem, Potter knew he had become fairly cynical--nothing ever went so easy for them. The column of Iowans slowly melted into the distance, and from the direction of the farmyard came the sound of a horse whinnying. They weren’t wholly alone here, Potter reminded himself. There was a detached troop of cavalry as well. Those fellows, from Michigan, had been here since Post Lincoln had been established and served a dual purpose. While a portion of their number scouted forward for a day or two at a time, those that remained behind served as message riders should to post need to contact headquarters or one of the other observation posts. Word was that a telegraph line would likely be strung up to take the place of the cavalry soon, but only if the army stayed where it was. All indication suggested that a move was coming any day, so for now the cavalry sufficed. Of course, Potter chuckled, in the Army one learned to accept that “any day now” could mean a time frame from 15 minutes to 6 months. He wondered for a moment about the troopers, and what sort of men they might be. They kept to themselves, the Iowans suggested it was because they where stuck up and thought themselves too good to associate with the infantry. It was so easy to just make assumptions like that--a temptation easily succumbed too. Potter realized with chagrin that even their new sergeant fell into this category--still the men could be excused for that! So far, Hedley hadn’t been too bad, though he very definitely had a different way of doing things. Even now he was running the rest of the squad not assigned to a duty through drill. The Devil take drill! The sergeant said it would keep them sharp, and that a soldier who allowed his mind to dull quickly came to a bad end. Potter rather thought that a bad end was more random than that, and that if your time was up there was little one could do to avoid it.
They day on the hill passed slowly. He watched birds fly away over the horizon, and wondered briefly if ever any of them flew to places he knew--what it would be like to be so free to move through the air. As the afternoon shadows began to lengthen about him, his mental wanderings were suddenly interrupted.
“Hey, Potter! Come here a moment!” called Timothy Borland from across the hilltop drawing him over to see what was up. The curly haired Borland looked up at him, and then pointed out to the horizon where a narrow gap appeared in the tree line. Potter looked; straining his eyes to take in whatever it was that was being pointed out. The area around the gap looked hazy, but he wasn’t sure what exactly he was supposed to be looking at. “I see a haze on the horizon, is that dust or humidity?” asked Potter after a moment.
“I think it’s dust, it looks like it to me anyway. Either way, if you look it’s only there--so if it is humidity it’s very concentrated.” Borland scratched his ear and looked back out to the horizon.
“I suppose we ought to report it, huh?” offered Potter who was startled by the voice of Sergeant Hilton from behind him.
“Something afoot gentlemen?” Sergeant Hilton stood with his arms crossed, looking passively at them with an air of boredom. Borland pointed out to where the hazy point was on the horizon, now drifted a bit from where it had originally been. Sergeant Hilton squinted and produced a short telescope, scanning briefly before lowering the lens and frowning. “Good eyes boys. Keep an eye out that way, and if you see anything report it immediately.” Hilton turned and was gone, as the other men near by gathered close. Peter Crusoe spat, wiped his mouth and shook his head.
“I dunno, what do you suppose it is? Sesch? Or just some dirt farmer with a cart on the road?”
“I think it’s neither. It’s nothing.” said another man.
“And if it aint nothing?” challenged Borland. No one seemed to want to answer that question, and silence overtook them. For the rest of his duty on the hill, Potter felt a gnawing unease in both himself and the others about him. No one openly admitted it of course, but the carefree ‘easy duty’ feel of the outpost had evaporated--for the first time they were fully aware of just how alone they were. He found himself envying the freedom of the birds.
The Amsel brothers, freed at last from drill in the late afternoon, decided out of a perverse curiosity to poke about what was left of the farmhouse. They remembered the farms they had seen like this in their youth, in those turbulent years back home. The work of reprisals against farmers who had joined movements to give more self-determination to the common people. It was hard to relate how they felt being here with all they had seen and experienced back home; how could you explain such things to those who have never lived through such events? Becoming American, the Amsels were learning, was a process which depended greatly upon the people with whom you associated with--and even then the chances were you would find yourself faced with reminders that you had come from somewhere else.
“I’m sorry brother--for my behavior before.” said Leo in the language of their fathers. Martin smiled at his brother and patted his shoulder.
“You remember Leo--I do too--that’s all it is. No need to be sorry.” Answered Martin in German, a warmth in his words which English did not yet fully convey for him. Leo smiled in return, and the pair picked their way about the farm yard with the appraising eye of men of the land. In the end, they made a sort of peace with those ghosts which tugged at them. Corporal Brooks called to them, telling them everyone was being called to roll call--that business was “afoot”--and so the two brothers made their way back to camp, a little more soldiers than they were farmers.
Continues in “Post Lincoln”…