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.

Sometimes, I sit about and think about what it was like for the people we portray; how they coped with those issues that are touched on at an event, but never quite get to live out. I know I have always wondered what those first days were like for those companies of the 5th that had initially been left behind in Minnesota, upon rejoining their regiment in the south. Were they accepted? Did people question their skills, and ability to handle the pressures of battle? This is what spawned the idea for my first short story about the Fifth Minnesota; and this collection.

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Along the Black River

 He had been frightened before as a soldier--but never so much as he was that night.

They had been packed onto steamers--cramped but most men finding ways to achieve sleep all the same--working their way along in the growing dark. The battalion had set off at dusk, taken a passable meal of pre-cooked beans and salt beef, and settled into the rocking gait of the pair of riverboats as they made their way to where they were told the new campaign was going to begin. The landing they had been bound for was just within the area of control of the enemy; but as usual, anyone below a lieutenant knew next to nothing about their ultimate objective or intentions.

Though it rankled them to admit to the fact, for the most part it was not truly necessary most of the time for the vast majority of the army to know more than when to show up. The rank and file knew this, but admitting to it would not have been as easy. But whatever plans may have guided them as they swayed in the dark of the moonless night aboard their respective steamers, such things mattered little after the first explosion. A torpedo, anchored in the muddy depths to float just above the surface, struck the Zephyr at the starboard bow and exploded, raining water and wreckage. Men shouted from the burning foredeck, some injured and some simply in shock. The pilot of the Zephyr steered as best he could, but ultimately the craft chose its own way and grounded itself against the port side shore with a great splintering sound. The impact shook still more men loose from the deck, bodies splashed into the shallows and against the sandy banks. The second steamer, the Greek Laurel, pulled hard away to port and escaped hitting a torpedo itself, but caused many on the decks to tumble and curse with the force of its turn. In short order the search for the injured and overboard commenced with eagerness, so that within an hour of their hitting the torpedo only one man was wholly unaccounted for. They had lost three men in the initial blast, with two others who were sure to pass on from their wounds. During their search they came upon two further men who had drowned when they went overboard. There were eleven wounded by flying splinters and debris, but in that respect they had been fortunate for everyone agreed it might have been worse.  All the same, it was well after midnight before everyone was assembled upon the shore. A guard was posted, and fires were lit to help dry out those that had ended in the river. The night did not pass well, and as expected the severely wounded passed on before dawn. They buried their dead beside the river, and marked them as best they could. Leaving their comrades behind in that place seemed wrong--but it wasn’t the first time they had had to do so. They were bound for a strategically important pair of crossings (General Staff parlance for “We want it, but you have to risk your lives to get it”) up river almost eight miles from where they had struck the torpedo, and everyone assumed it wouldn’t be a leisurely walk.


A mile into their march, as the column was winding along the rutted road through the gentle hills and farmers fields, they came under fire. The first shots whizzed loudly overhead, and well experienced men in the ranks dropped to their knees or found what cover there was. The second group of shots found those who were not as quick, and two men cried out with head and shoulder wounds. The front of the column came into a firing line facing the clump of trees from which the enemy had fired, and discharged a volley of lead which tore bark and leaves into the air. One man scurried away from the copse, his head down and an greyish musket clutched in his hand as he ran seeking the safety cover behind the hill. Muskets erupted all along the ranks, unbidden and without orders as the Federals strove to halt the enemies escape. Dirt and dust shot up in geysers all around the rebel as he sprinted towards the top of the hill, when suddenly the man jerked hard backwards in place as a bullet ripped through him, and he fell hard into the soil. His body jumped several more times as men continued to take shots at him, before the officers and sergeants finally regained control and forced them by words and fists to cease fire. George French was shoved from behind, making him trot forward out of the ranks. He looked back to see who had pushed him, only to come toe to toe with sergeant Willingham who gruffly made it clear he was to follow him. The sergeant called out three others from the line, and they jogged out towards the copse--muskets at the low ready position with bayonets fixed. The few tangles of branches and wild grapevine gave way before them with little effort, revealing two of those whom had fired upon the column. French wondered at the motivation which would encourage three men to fire on a column of almost 1200--did they not know the odds against their escape? As if reading into his thoughts, the sergeant shook his head.

“What a waste--but there will be more of them about, and like as not nearer than we’d like. French! Look them over, see if you can figure out who we are dealing with here. Garman, you hike over the hill there and look that fella that run. Get moving, lazy ass!”

Garman set off at a trot, and French leaned his musket against a tree as he knelt down near the first of the two dead rebels. He wasn’t squeamish, but French always felt a little disrespectful of the man who had once inhabited the body by rummaging through his pockets and personal things. He set items taken from the first mans pockets on his back, and tried to resist the guilt he felt when he came across a small carte-de-visite. He avoided looking at the image, and having come up with nothing suggesting this mans regimental affiliation, he stepped over and started on the other man. French found what he was seeking right off, a letter which clearly listed this man’s regiment--they were dealing with the 27th Arkansas dismounted cavalry. He passed the letter to the sergeant’s impatient grasp, and stepped back.

“I’ll take this is the first sergeant, let’s go. McCree, go fetch back Garman to the lines. If he found anything more with his man over on the hill, be sure to have him report to me.”

As the remaining men turned to go, Private Spoonts stepped forward and took up a pocket watch from the pile on one of the bodies--but stopped in his tracks as the sergeants grating voice shouted aloud.

“Spoonts, you no good thief! Put that back and get back in line or so help me--”

The threat need not be completed, for Spoonts immediately apologized to no one in particular and dropped the watch where he stood. Willingham watched them go, before stooping and collecting what treasures he could for himself.

The going was even slower after the events at the copse, made worse by the change in terrain as they continued along the road. The open fields gave way to close tree lined,winding roads offering little visibility. The entire group was stopped for quite some time while the officers conferred in a bunch discussing the reports of the 1st company (which had been sent ahead to scout the road). The battalion was left to stand in the open road, a position which did not please the men very well at all--between the warmth of the sunshine and their lack of cover from rebel muskets which some had begun to suspect lurked in every stand of growth. French lifted one foot, and then the other in a vain hope of relieving the cramp and ache which was setting into his legs. Ahead of him in ranks, Benton Erikson settled down to one knee with a groan and sighed.

“Gods mercy--what are we doin’ here?”

“Waiting.” Came a reply from some smart-mouth along the line. It sounded like Michael Wade, but French wasn’t sure. Either way, one of the sergeants spat--”Quiet in the ranks!”--but that only held for a few moments.

“Hey, Erikson--you see them peacocks up there?” Called the familiar voice of Taylor from up front.

“I can’t see anything but Scott’s backside!” Shouted Erikson as Scott looked back with an expression of concern.

“Well, them peacocks are conferring--but the funny part is they aint even including the boys what brought the reports--you know, them what actually been forward of the column and have some idea of what is up ahead there.” Spat Taylor. There were general grunts suggesting this news wasn’t really all that much of surprise from the men in the ranks then, quieted once more by the sharp voices of more than one the sergeants for silence. This time the obedience to command lasted almost a full minute before the conversation resumed in earnest.

“Figures, what with that Shaw fella up there.” Said Powell sourly. A chorus of agreement followed from nearly every man in the section, and even French nodded his approval.

Colonel Timothy Shaw--former regular U.S. Army--had been recently added to their battalion as a temporary replacement for their own Colonel Hubbard. Hubbard was an influential and affable sort, and had been requested by Governor Swift to oversee the state’s recruitment of men to serve as replacements in currently formed regiments. Given that this matter was one which Colonel Hubbard had previously made himself a thorn in the flesh of the powers that be, he couldn’t very well refuse the request. Before leaving, Hubbard had arranged that the entire 5th Minnesota would be left to garrison and reclamation work at the depot in Vicksburg--which should have avoided trouble for his boys while he was away. But alas, such is life in the army--for not one week had passed before Colonel Shaw had been assigned by the powers that be and their quiet days forgotten. It had begun with drill, which in itself wasn’t unfamiliar to them--until they realized that their new master desired a level of perfection which seemed to border on maniacal obsessiveness. Used to long, but tolerable sessions of manual of arms, the men were soon treated to all day affairs of drill followed by terse dressings down when the Colonel was displeased--which apparently was most of the time. As such it wasn’t long before Shaw was universally disliked, and in some quarters down-right hated. The events of the day were not helping to improve the general opinion of the man. At long last, the column was brought to attention and started off again. It seemed that the decision had been made to march ahead, though no real explanation or intended plan was offered beyond the evidence of their own observations. In truth--even with Hubbard--this was nothing new, but it was easy to heap one’s discomfort upon an unpopular scapegoat. Two hours on, they emerged from the closeness of the woods unscathed by the rebels--but hot, tired, and having been devoured by biting flies and mosquitoes. There was still better than 3 miles to traverse, and with the heat of the day closing in the general desire was for rest and food. Command would not hear of it, and so they continued on.

The road here was sandy in places, and had returned more to follow the river. While the tall stands of trees were gone, a ratty density of shrubs and marshy land occupied the land through which they traveled.

“Pleasant country.” Said Powell sarcastically.

“Ain’t so bad,” said Hardee beside him, a cock-eyed grin on his scruffy young face. “At least the breeze gets in now and then, keeps them blasted flies and blood-suckers off.”  He was right at least in this, and Powell nodded. Another benefit was that, by Divine intervention or simply a fluke, the pace had at last been ordered to the route step so that the men might rest their muskets as they pleased. It wasn’t that marching in common time was so grueling in and of itself, but simply that there is nothing that pleases a soldier so much as variety and a perceived sense that they were being allowed some choice. French worked the sling as he wandered along in the ranks, extending the well weathered leather so he could carry it over his shoulder. Beside him, Donnelly was flexing his right hand with a grimace.

“Can’t hardly feel my arm anymore, you know?” Ahead of them, Burton spat a snide comment of some sort-but Donnelly simply told him off. At last a halt was called, and a general groan escaped the column.

“Quiet in the ranks!” Said Willingham from his place along the outside of the column. The men grumbled, but obeyed. Word came along the line that everyone was to relax and eat what marching rations they had. Luckily they were pretty well supplied that way, and the near-waterproof qualities of their tarred haversacks had largely protected their rations from the river. Drinking water though, was running low.

“Maybe two--maybe three more good swallows. That’s all I got left.” Said Powell as he replaced the stopper in his canteen. Whitlock chewed his salt pork beside him, a little grease glistened in the corner of his mouth. As the afternoon dawned with a cloudy sky which shrouded the sun, the heat of the day did not dissipate much and everywhere men did whatever they could to keep cool. Some used precious water to soak neck-stocks or handkerchiefs, others unbuttoned blouses as far as they could get away with in ranks.

“What do you think?” Asked Dawes looking first at the grey water of the marsh and back at French. “It’s scummy, but might be alright enough to drink.” French shook his head, but it was Donnelly that answered.

“Yeah, you go on and drink that! We’ll be leaving you in a quick dug bed and tucking you in with a crude marker from the Flux or fever you’d get close after!”

“He’s right,” Added Burton with his sour frown, “use yer head fer more than a place to set yer hat!” Tempers were short in the heat, and Donnelly was quick to round on Burton at the best of times.

“Shut that hole of yours, or I’ll feed you a fist--you sour shite!” Donnelly had hardly said the words before the lines became a tangle of the pair of men squirming through others trying to grapple with the other. Whitlock caught an elbow in the side of the head and nearly bit his tongue through, as the noise of this donnybrook quickly was drowned out by the shouts of support for various parties and the calls for a return to ranks and order. Sergeants arrived quickly, followed by the Lieutenant and Captain Arkins. The shouting died first, and soon the sergeants had the bruised Burton and Donnelly held between them. Sergeant Harris had lost his cap and taken a good slap across the face, evidence of which was already showing itself in a raw and swollen upper lip. The Captain was about to draw the participants away from the mob of the column when  Colonel Shaw arrived followed by Sergeant Willingham and Captain Sheehan of Company C. Captain Arkins grimaced a moment but then came to attention and saluted the Colonel smartly.
“Colonel Shaw, Sir--” Was all the captain was able to say before Shaw began shouting.

“What in God’s name is going on here Captain!? This is outrageous Sir, I have never seen such behavior in ranks before--I demand an explanation!”

There was a stunned silence for a moment, and instinctively the ranks reorganized themselves into order--and although none turned their heads to watch the situation unfold, all attention was there nonetheless. “Colonel Shaw Sir, I was about to remove the pair involved in the fight and--”.

“You mean to tell me that when I was drawn from discussing our options forward, you had still not dealt with these miscreants? That even now at this point--when I have been forced to intervene--the guilty have not yet been dealt with?”

The Captain was quiet for a moment, clearly composing himself. The Colonel took his pause for indecision. “I don’t know how Hubbard deals with you..lot..but I can see clearly that discipline is lacking in this battalion--we’ll soon see to that! Sergeant!” 4th Sergeant Willingham, who had somehow found his way to prominence with Colonel Shaw, stepped up smartly. “We have our volunteers it seems.” Shaw turned his pale blue gaze back on Captain Arkins, who was slightly red in the cheeks. “I understand the men are low on water--clearly poor planning before this campaign was set into motion by command--and though it is a waste of my time and puts our objective at risk of accomplishment--I have decided to allow a detail to be formed to find a water source and refill canteens. These two men of yours will assist with that detail Captain, until I can think of an appropriate punishment for their lack of order here. I am disappointed in you Captain.” Colonel Shaw spun away from Arkins without further words, followed by Sheehan and sergeant Willingham who shoved Burton and Donnelly along ahead of him.

“What a jackass!” Mumbled Keller, before being rounded on by the Captain.

“Watch you mouth, private! The rest of you, back in line! Lieutenant, sergeant Harris--come with me.” He did not wait, but stalked away with a black look on his face. A pregnant hush fell over the column, men looking from one to the other but not uttering a sound. The column started forward again, and as he fell back into the step, George French began to feel a sense of growing dread. He wasn’t sure what exactly it was which caused this, but with each step it seemed to grow  more certain within him that they were marching towards something which would prove ill for them all.


Donnelly and Burton had been sent forward to scout ahead with sergeant Willingham, and reconnoiter the short distance to the objective. It was early evening, and overhead swallows continued to swirl and swoop in the humid air. Thunderheads were sighted on the horizon, slowly building as the sky changed from blue to purple-magenta. Crickets became louder all around them, as the orange light of the setting sun leaked through the scrubby undergrowth. French leaned his musket against his shoulder, stretching his legs out before him and and flexing his toes despite the cramping pain it brought. He wanted desperately to to remove his brogans, but experience told him the folly of that. There was distance yet to travel, so this was no time to get overly comfortable. Someone apparently thought that they would be waiting some time, for a call went along the row that fires out to be lit but kept small and hidden. No one made a move to do any such thing--the ground was spongy and any kindling in reach was green. The best they might accomplish with conditions as they were would be smoke in their eyes and frustration for their labor--not to mention marking their position fairly obviously to anyone with even the most basic skills of observation. Men cursed the foolishness of officers in general--and Shaw in specifics. If he had been disliked before, this adventure was not helping his status much. In that, French reserved his venom somewhat--while Shaw was, without question, a royal pain in the ass--the Colonel also had orders to follow. French felt almost a hypocrite for a moment with such thoughts, but a sudden tap on the shoulder from Dawes quickly pushed that from his mind.

“They’re getting meaner to look on.” He said with a nod to the cloud system before them. “It’s gonna be rain tonight, you can bet on that.” French watched the clouds a moment and nodded in turn. “No bet there, not a fair one anyway. I ‘spose we’d be wise to get our gums pulled free from our gear.” Dawes smirked and shook his head.

“Only problem--” French nodded and finished Dawes thought.

“Most of us don’t have gum blankets anymore thanks to the explosion on the river--much of our gear went into the water.”

Dawes coughed. “I guess we will get wet later.”

“What else is new.” Shrugged French.

“The shine is off this, that’s for sure!” Groused Dawes, looking off into the distance as men moved about them. “I’ve about had enough of this war, officers, and the whole stinkin’ mess!”

French nodded, and patted Dawes shoulder. What more could he do? They were stuck--trapped between a sense of duty to their country and each other, and the moronic cold dirty hungry fatigue of the day to day grind which everyone grew to despise. There was always someone that would grumble about not being able to take it anymore, threats that soon they would light out and quit. French had thought about it more than once--he supposed that everyone had if they were honest with themselves. The men settled down as best they could, as a stiff breeze rattled through the trees above them while storm clouds rolled on over the horizon. They were fortunate at last--it did not rain--but French woke to being shaken by someone, and the panicked whisper “gear up, we’re falling in!”. The light was greyish-blue, the color of the last hours before the dawn finally claimed victory over night. French coughed, and rolled over to his knees, rubbing the fatigue from his eyes. He pushed the sleep back within his mind; a trick universal to soldiers and (or so his own mother used to claim) new parents, and began to arrange himself to fall in. Others were doing likewise, and a pregnant hush hung over the camp driven with the like purpose of many minds aware of a common requirement. It was not yet at the point of the sergeants yelling, or even rousting some of the slower men to action with the toe of their brogans, but French felt the urgency as he slung his cartridge box strap over his shoulder and buckled his waist belt on over it. He grabbed his musket in one hand, and arranged the wayward parties of bayonet and cap box with the other as he made his way to fall in. Half of their number was already in place, and as always those that had been farmers before the war fared best by representation. Skilled labor and those who had made a living with their hands came next--the clerks, students, homebodies and civilized folks tended to wander in later--usually chased into ranks by the more zealous sergeants. French felt Dawes rearranging his straps for him from the rank behind, and turned a head.

“Your box strap was all twisted.” Said Dawes, as French felt a sudden release of tension across his chest.


“Fella might think you got yerself up in a hurry and threw this on!”

“He’d be right too. Any idea?” There was no reason to explain between them, Dawes had been in that space behind French for nearly every formation. Though of course in the mythical evolutions of parade maneuvering, he often wasn’t by the time that the company was arranged and engaging--something French had simply stopped trying to understand for the pain it tended to cause to his head. There was a pause, but Dawes spoke before French repeated himself.

“They spotted the rebels, and they mean to fix them in place and thrash them a bit.”

French chuckled. “What a way to say a thing--’fix and thrash ‘em’ huh?”

“Straight from the corporal passing a moment ago, I swear.”

“Don’t do that now, I’d rather you were wrong anyway!” Several fellows around chuckled at that, and someone to his right added ‘Amen to that!’, but French suspected it would prove true alright. The sergeants were starting to get testy at last with dawdlers, and the first of the officers had arrived before them. The ranks began to quiet, as every man began to check over his gear and ammunition. Some men checked on another, others passed extra rounds or caps amongst their comrades when they were found to be lacking.

It wouldn’t be long. 

Continued in "Across the Black River"...

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