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

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Three Days under a Canvas Sky

Rain could come in many forms -- but Private Job Sykes (who went by Joe, but that’s a long story) thought that he had never fully appreciated that fact until he had become an infantryman. Perhaps with the exception of sailors, and maybe farmers, few other persons spent so much time acquainting themselves with the myriad of moods of the Good Lord’s weather. Rain could be light (drizzle), it could be moderate (proper rain), it could even come down in large forceful ways (torrential downpours). Add some wind, or a variation in temperature, and these categories would expand exponentially. When rain coupled with wind, rain could defy gravity itself and fall sideways, or even seem to magically come from below. Though he could not prove it, there were times Sykes truly had to fight the thought that rain was not only intelligent enough to be alive, but also out to ensure he and his fellows were kept as miserable as possible. So it had been, for the portion of the day before and now starting a new day -- rain.

Rain in an army camp was nothing like rain back home, and though he could think that observation, his fellows in the tent with him would never have allowed him to utter that thought again -- he had already mused on that subject twice and was told it was no longer welcome. He cast his eye out onto the company street -- well named “Old Muddy”, which it certainly was now -- and shook his head. It seemed that the skies of Mississippi might be aligned with the rebels, for it certainly appeared that nature herself was trying to drown them in camp. Yes, rain at home was different. He would be sitting in the kitchen, helping Marnie to peel potatoes or carrots -- listening to her complain about how nothing she washed would have a chance to dry. He had always loved rain, the smell of it as it brought down dust and made the world green. Even working in the rain seemed a lark, when it was your choice.

Rain in the army was simply one more obstacle to overcome -- and tended to make roads impassable. Everything became wet, and the “Canvas Sky”, as Gus Dahlgren had taken to calling the ceiling of the tent, tended to leak if it rained for more than one full day. Add to that the underlying heat of this part of the country and one quickly spent days wet, woke clammy, and generally came to bad spirits. Everyone grumbled, and tempers were short. They had the advantage at least of having the forethought of trenching around their tent, so at least they weren't being flooded as some were. It had been ordered done, but few had seen the need at the time (days before when the sky had been nothing but blue and dry). Charlie Elstren (whom everyone called the “Professor” since he had gone to the University of Wisconsin in Madison before the war) had lectured on the practice of trenching by the armies of Napoleon, and whether it was from a desire to see the reason in the task or simply to get the Professor to be quiet, they had dug the long trenches around their tent in the end. The Professor and Milton Lewis were playing dominoes, while Dahlgren was watching, though with his tendency for being a josher, he may have been filching the pieces. 

Sykes whetted the thread, and made his third attempt with the needle -- his fourth proved the trick. He cast a long glance outside once more, and returned to mending his trouser buttons. Thunder rolled gently overhead, seeming to echo along forever into the distance.

“I say, they’ll still make us do parade,” quipped Dahlgren as he casually tossed water from a near-to-full mucket outside the tent, and replaced it under a leak in the roof. “No question,” remarked Lewis. “Wouldn’t want to disrupt their schedule of activities -- not for a little rain!”

“Or on account of our discomfort -- don’t forget that! Lord knows them big bugs always gots our comfort in mind!” added Dahlgren with a sardonic grin. 

“I don’t know about that,” said the Professor, looking thoughtful. The dominoes game ended, and Elstren produced his pipe and began to stuff it from his tobacco pouch.

Dahlgren sat back and gave the Professor a stern look. “You don’t know? Balls! What would you know about it Professor?”

“I am simply of the opinion that it is very easy to lump officers together into a faceless ‘them’ -- ,” the Professor halted long enough to light his pipe and blow a billowing cloud of smoke. “ -- a wholly human tendency but far too often the impetus for our greatest vices.” 

Sykes and Lewis broke into applause, while Dahlgren simply stuck out his tongue and shook his head. “Well, I still say officers know more about applying polish than good sense generally. I got twenty-five cents pledged that we will be enjoying parade tonight in the muck and wet.”

The Professor took his wager, but only after a great deal of encouragement from the others. He himself hardly cared one way or the other -- but he shook on it and the wagers were entrusted to Lewis. The hour being as it was, such things were quickly forgotten in favor of clearing away their game and readying themselves for duties they knew would be assigned them shortly. Whatever else life in the Army was, one could count on the regularity of fatigue details. The Professor had worked out the most common time for the arrival of such summons after their first year -- now well into the second.  Even Dahlgren could sense the approach of the corporal to their canvas shelter. Right on cue, the corporal -- looking more drowned rat than man -- arrived and unceremoniously delivered his message for them each. He did not wait about for response, but simply stood up from his stooped posture and hustled on along the company street. 

Sykes forgot for a moment the dread for his own duties, and felt a little pang of sympathy for the corporal going about his appointed rounds. Dahlgren was growling about assignments, which partially snapped him from his thoughts on the corporal trudging through the rain. For his part, Sykes had stopped trying to understand how details were assigned, as there seemed no logic in who ended up on wood, water, or that which was most despised -- digging sinks. All he knew for certain was, it seemed that if there was work to be done, he himself seemed the favorite choice. He wasn’t one to gripe or complain generally -- the Army was well stocked with such types already.

“Damn them all!” groused Dahlgren, proving to be the rule rather than the exception. “I hate this blasted country! Rain, rain every day and night -- and these damn officers, these gentlemen -- ” Dahlgren burst out into the grey rain pulling his gum poncho over his head as his muttering went on. This tirade had sucked the energy from any further complaining, so everyone simply put themselves together and filed out into the puddle-filled street. Sykes waved to Lewis as he set off after Dahlgren, turning with the Professor and making their way to their own detail.

“Gus is a flatulent old nag sometimes,” said the Professor, grimacing as he pulled his cap down hard in response to a direct hit in the eye by a raindrop, “but this weather has been intolerable. Three days it’s been -- three days under a canvas sky is enough to make anyone fear that the Almighty may have switched allegiances!” Sykes just drew his gum closer around him and nodded as they walked along, passing out of the thickest areas of tents to where they could see a ways into the meadow west of the camp. There in the rain, a gang of negroes was toiling with spades and pickaxe to furrow the earth and bury the dead. They did not seem to notice the rain, but worked with a determination of purpose at their task. Sykes felt a chill, and the Professor who turned to look as well chuckled wryly. “There are worse things, though, than enduring many days of rain, I suppose.”

By the time they arrived and drew their tools from the Quartermaster, the rain had mercifully slaked -- but the air remained heavy and misty. One would have thought that given the amount of moisture they had experienced over the last days, the digging would have been easy. They had progressed almost two feet with ease when they hit a dry layer of compacted clay, and suddenly their work truly became work. An hour passed as they toiled, their sack coats beaded with tiny droplets of moisture. Sykes wiped his face with a limp and soggy handkerchief, resting on the handle of his pickaxe. The Professor stood and tossed a spade of dirt out of the trench, setting aside his tool to stretch out his back with a grunt. 

“My turn?” asked Sykes stuffing away his handkerchief and straightening up. 

“No, I do think this masterpiece of engineering is finished. Help me out, if you will.”

Sykes ducked under the edge of the canvas fly which they had rigged over their work (nothing is worse than digging with rainwater filling in around your ankles -- they had learned this simple truth previously) and took his friend’s hand in his own before pulling him out. They might have stood a bit and enjoyed their labor, but Corporal Ross came wandering over right about that time so they set to dragging the logs and plank from the old sink to the new one. It was never a wise thing to appear without work to do around Corporal Ross -- he seemed to delight in finding tasks for those without them. Ross simply stood, hands on hips, and observed their progress, wandering in a circle about the new sink when they had set the logs and plank in place. 

“Good work boys!” he said at last. “Right fine job. Now, make sure you cover that old one up good, the lime will be up for you shortly.” The corporal smiled his thin little smile, and went back the way he had come. As soon as he had gone out of sight, the Professor grunted and took a seat on the plank behind him. Sykes cocked an eyebrow, but shortly sat as well.

“Not like you, Charlie -- you’ll tarnish your reputation as the upstanding man of education!” joked Sykes, poking his friend in the arm. The Professor smiled and shook his head.

“It’s entirely Gus Dahlgren’s poor example I assure you -- you lot will be the ruin of my broader reputation! Besides, we can’t very well fill in that sink before the lime arrives -- logic, dear Sykes.”

“Logic? Have you noted where you are, Charlie?”

He smiled. “Yes, I suppose I deserved that. Here comes our lime; back to slaving for Pharoah.”


As they finished their work and returned to the tent, the sky had actually begun to clear and though the sun itself was still elusive, the mood had improved considerably in camp. Fires seemed a little brighter that evening, and for the first time in days they spent time out of their tent willingly. The sky finally cleared just before the call for lights out and with a swelling of joy, Joe Sykes was able to once more say his nightly prayer for the friends and loved ones back home whom he imagined looking upon the same stars. As he mouthed the final words to the shadows, the long-burning stars shone with the same determined effort of the ages -- little noting the struggles and prayers of humanity, themselves ghosts of distance and time. Joe crawled into his spot in the tent and settled in for the night, feeling that if he had to be so far from home at least he was surrounded by a fine gathering of men. Dahlgren chose that moment to suddenly explode into a short symphony of gastric eruptions which reminded Joe of the sound of a dying hog, before turning over and settling back to peace. Well, perhaps “fine” was pushing it -- but they would do. Sykes waved away the remains of Dahlgren’s odorous fumes and closed his eyes to sleep.

The next day was bright, and the clammy warmth of the rainy days was replaced with real heat. The churned-up muck which the company street had become dried into a rutted, pock-marked surface which made close-order marching precarious if one didn’t watch his step. Despite it all, the mood was high enough amongst all concerned --  the days of relative inactivity had led to a sense of pent-up energy and desire to be set to a task which was palpable. There was little doubt that the officers would oblige them, and at noon the word began to go around in the usual method -- word of mouth.They were going to move out. Where? When? Was it going to be an extended move -- light or heavy order? No one knew for sure, but of course that didn’t stop anyone from thinking on the subject. Figurative speculation led to rampant rumor, ensuring that when the orders were finally announced with everyone drawn up in formation, the men were proved wrong in general assumption -- but correct that they would be moving shortly. Hurry up and wait -- there are few more patiently impatient than an infantry soldier.

Standing fixedly in place as the officers did their inspection of the ranks, Sykes felt excited and nervous all in one. It was always like that for him, maybe for every man here if they were truly honest about it -- but that was not the way of it when one was headed out. Chests were puffed out, bravado and devil-may-care attitudes fully on display. Some meant and truly felt such emotions surely, but most knew the unspoken rule of conduct -- look brave for your pards, and they do the same for you. One of those mad aspects of being a soldier which those at home would never understand: you are brave because your friends need you to help them be brave, or you don’t want them to think you aren’t brave, so you push down your fear and do your best to ignore it. In turn, your pards are doing the same for you.

Such is war.

Sykes snapped from his thoughts as the Captain came to him in turn and took his musket for inspection. The weapon was shoved back towards him and he took it in hand, lowering it to his side with a thump. When the officers were satisfied with the state of the battalion and kit, they were ordered at rest. The officers gathered together in a little knot, leaving the men at rest with a growing curiosity as to what was on offer for today’s action -- they were sure that they were going to see some real use at last.

“Always the same, the hens gots to gab,” someone groused quietly near him, drawing a grin from Sykes.

“If they don’t mean to make use of us, they ought to turn us loose,” grumbled a sour faced soldier in the next company down.

“Loose to do what, exactly?” spat back a corporal Sykes knew was named Dills.

“To sit on his arse and watch the flies buzz about I reckon!” added someone from that direction which caused a general eruption of laughter, drawing the ire of Captain Sheehan. The captain lit into his company with a quick vehemence and flashing eyes, and the mirth died right quick. The colonel joined them then and everyone resumed a state of attention and silence without a further word.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting gentlemen,” said the colonel, looking about with a gentle ease which worked to make the cold steel of his eyes all the more striking. “I know you are all as pleased as I to be past the rain -- ,” the gathered mass of companies cheered this, and when the sound died away the colonel nodded and went on, “We are moving out today boys, and will be moving all day. You will draw marching rations, and make yourselves ready to fall in at -- ,” the colonel turned to a major and spoke quietly before he turned back to continue, “ -- in one hour, boys. We haven’t much time, so see to your duties boys, and be swift. Attention, Battalion!” Everyone snapped to attention in place, and the companies were set loose to their tasks.

“We still don’t know where we are off to!” groused Dahlgren as he re-tied the cord that kept his canteen cork from being lost on the move.

“No,” said the Professor with a nod, ”that is true -- we don’t know our destination.”

Dahlgren smiled and looked up. “Well, that’s one to be remembered, I dare say! He agrees!?” Everyone chuckled, as they took down their tent and packed away the ramshackle sign which christened it “Ramsey Place” and advised “Rooms, Bath reasonable.” Sykes stuffed the sign into the folds of his blanket roll and hefted the knapsack that so many derided him for still lugging about. Others had tossed gear to lessen their weight on the march, but Sykes just couldn’t bring himself to do it. As they gathered the last of their kit, they were called to form up to receive their marching rations. Sykes could feel his stomach doing cartwheels, as his anticipation of what lay ahead kicked again. He smiled, though, laughed at a crude joke Lewis was telling, and fell into line with everyone else.


They trained often enough for such a situation, but generally the worry of enemy cavalry rarely entered his mind much given the usual proximity of their own cavalry to screen them from such attacks. This time had been different, and the surprise of the rebel cavalry troopers upon their column had caused a good few moments of disarray. In the end, despite some cuts and scrapes here and there, no one had been seriously injured and their formation had driven off the dozen or so enemy troopers who had burst upon them. For Sykes, it was the thunder-like pounding he had felt in the ground as the enemy men and horses had charged out towards them from cover that he would most long remember. He had never felt such a sudden and determined desire to run as this before, but he had stood with his pards all the same. This had happened the second day of their march towards some crossroad town called Adams Station. Union cavalry showed up not long after, and shame-faced for their gap in protection (an attitude which one was not oft to see in the high-and-mighty cavalry troopers on a regular basis), they were ever-present companions to the flanks until they reached the summit of the Port Gibson road, just outside of a little village named Womack. A battered and ragtag collection of rebels were there, dug into the rise of the opposite hills from them, across the shallow basin in which the unfortunate Womack was situated, and the Union officers meant to make the enemy quit and run. By the end of that day however, it was apparent to everyone that for the time being no one was going anywhere  -- though at least the enemy couldn’t get at them without great risk either.

“Why do you say that?” asked Dahlgren between bites of salt beef and hard cheese.

“The ground, Gus  --  they chose it to halt us here, but if they meant to do more than that with it their choice was a poor one indeed,” answered the Professor with a thumb hooked towards the enemy lines. This comment only made Dahlgren look more confused, so with their backs to an overturned wagon in the pickett line, the Professor schooled them in the the lay of the battlefield between long glances through his spyglass across to the enemy positions. The land to their west was boggy with sudden quagmires and pools  --  not the kind of place one would want to be caught under an enfilade of fire by the enemy. To their east was a bend in the equally troublesome bayou Pierre, the nearest bridge being well south of Womack, and while fordable, it was narrow enough at the point where it could be crossed to make reforming under fire nearly impossible.

“So, my guess would be these fellows are to slow us down so that Port Gibson can be evacuated -- or so more forces can be brought up against us. Either way, the route to attacking the enemy here is bad for whoever has the misfortune to be the first across the ground out there.” The Professor snapped his spyglass shut with a finality to the click which gave Sykes a chill down his spine, and made his mouth dry.

“Sometimes,” added Dahlgren with a frown, “I regret even askin’ for answers from you.” The Professor shrugged and clucked his tongue, but said nothing more. Lewis poked his head up around the bed of the overturned wagon, then scurried back as someone on the other side tried his luck at hitting something. It wasn’t remotely close, but Lewis jumped back from where he had peered over their cover all the same. A corporal with a bushy mustache was wandering by them, and he tossed out two extra wrapped packages of rounds to each of them from a crate being lugged along by a sallow looking private Sykes didn’t know. 

“Take ‘em boys, stow ‘em somewhere safe. We will be going over after dark -- don’t bother moaning to me ‘bout it either, I don’t make the orders I jus’ pass ‘em along!” Everyone watched him continue on his way, repeating his speech as if it were a mantra special to his assigned task. He may not have waited about to hear the complaining, but there was a fierce bit all the same as men grumbled and spit like angry cats but started with almost second nature to ready themselves for action just the same. The Professor pulled his pocket watch from his vest and looking at the face announced that it was just after six o’clock.

“We have three, maybe two or three hours left of the light,” said Dahlgren absently, who set his musket aside and settled down in the grass. “May as well get some rest then -- gonna be plenty o’ work later, by God.” He was right of course, but it was still hard for Sykes to just sit knowing what was before them come dusk. He tried for some minutes before finally he made an excuse to find somewhere to do his business simply so he might walk a bit to calm himself. Lewis decided to tag along at the last moment, and so Sykes and he started along the line towards a copse of trees. They had only just gotten out of earshot when Lewis cleared his throat.

“I hate admitting to it, but I’m scared -- well, no more nervous I suppose going forward on what’s coming tonight, Joe. Damnation I hate admitting that, but it’s the truth.”

Sykes stopped dead and looked Lewis in the eye -- his own fear suddenly easing. “Don’t talk so Lewis -- it’s a sane man feels trepidation when faced with such odds and obstacles. Hell -- I’m none too pleased with going over there myself if I’m honest, but we’ve been and done this and worse before now.” Lewis nodded with a wan smile, but Sykes knew they would be alright. He held onto that mad glimmer of positivity right through until the sun began to dip on the horizon, and the order came quietly along the line for every man to fix bayonets.


Everything was grey, a trick of the light which drained color from the world and the men about Sykes as their lines moved forward quietly into the basin in which the ramshackle homes of Womack were situated. The lines snaked between buildings abandoned and forlorn in the growing darkness and little more than outlines in the pale moonlight. Sykes found himself wondering where those people had gone, only to have all thought torn away as a cry of alarm sounded from the enemy side and flashes of musketry began to erupt in the darkness. The shots were going wild, well over their heads towards the lines the Union had left behind -- but they all knew this wouldn’t last. They had achieved as much surprise as they were apt to get here, so when the command to charge was given the orderly advance became an eruption of pure, fear-induced aggression. In response, the enemy began to find order at last and rounds began to pour through the space between them like angry hornets. Someone off to the far right of Sykes grunted and spun from his stride -- he felt something bite the left edge of his ear, leaving a burning behind -- but ignored it. He was the charge now, like those around him. His vision was a tunnel, absolute focused determination to reach the enemy lines.

In the advancing darkness, the distance seemed nothing to cross -- and suddenly Sykes found himself charging up the berm and crashing into a man with onion breath who cried out in terror on contact. They rolled over and back down the shallow berm together, arms tangled as they fell -- muskets clattering down somewhere amid the confusion. Sykes took a hard shot to his jaw, and he spat blood as he lashed out and caught the enemy soldier in the throat. Bullets ripped through the air and everywhere men were shouting, screaming, feet running. Sykes hit the enemy soldier hard, so hard he felt his knuckles tear on the rough stubble of the man’s face, his own head swimming a bit from the blow he had taken. Someone pulled Sykes to his feet, and a face he knew swam into focus before him -- Hendrickson. He shook his head, dragged a little ways back towards their lines by Hendrickson before the clouds seemed to lift a bit and he shook off the help.

“I’m alright Hen’ -- lemme’ go!” he spat, suddenly aware that he had lost his musket. Hendrickson obeyed and trotted with him back where the fight was still raging. The enemy had begun to fall back, and in some places were already in full flight for their lives. Sykes snapped up a musket, and fired off the round loaded within at the backs of some enemy shadows who were running towards the bog land. As he reloaded, Hendrickson looked aside at him and gave a nod. 

“You look tough pard -- you sure you are all right?” Sykes just nodded and hearing the call for assembly sounding, he and Hendrickson jogged off to fall in. It was bedlam at first, men shuffling amongst one another in the semi-darkness -- many with minor wounds (though a few sounded less than healthy, but that might have been those seeking to escape to sick call) and everyone stinking of sweat and gunpowder. The officers made a count, asked for reasons or excuses for those not present, and only once they were satisfied that all were accounted for, they set to the task of setting up for the night. Sykes found Lewis, and shortly after the Professor and Dahlgren, in relative good shape for which he was greatly relieved. A corporal with salt and pepper beard and sharp eyes was moving along their lines, as they stood in their company awaiting their assignment. The man was shorter than Sykes, so when he stopped before him and looked hard at the others ear while holding a candle lantern up in his hand, the corporal was obliged to lean in very close -- he had the scent of pipe tobacco and mint about him.

“You came close as any this night to meeting the Lord hisself -- some rebel has clipped part of your ear son. You hurt any otherwise?” The corporal had a strength to his voice, but kindness too. Sykes found himself reminded strongly of his grandfather, long since laid to rest but a fond memory from childhood. The thought brought the burning pain of his ear back very suddenly, along with a fatigue and melancholy he didn’t really understand. In a slightly shaky voice he answered with a shrug.

“No corporal, creased a little was all. Lucky given the state of the affair I’d say.”

The corporal nodded and lowered his lantern. “Well, best get it looked at in case son -- be quick about it too!” Sykes nodded, Yes corporal, but he had no intention of getting anywhere near the surgery if he could help it. The Professor passed him a handkerchief, and he gingerly clapped it to his ear -- he was rewarded with a new and more intense burning pain that made his eyes water.

His company had fared fairly well in the attack, only one man had taken a hit which laid him up -- poor Henry Doughton, the unlucky man in all things. If Doughton played at dice -- he lost. Cards, leg wrestling, foot races, even in pulling guard more than any other in the company -- Doughton was unlucky, this time especially so. A musket lead had skipped off the top of his scalp and torn a good inch long gouge in his head: skin, hair and all. Of course, it could have been worse had the round been just an inch or two lower -- but Doughton was in enough pain he might have wished it had been. Some of the boys had passed around his torn and bloody bummer, shaking their heads and swearing that there but by the grace of God go I! They had been assigned to the left flank of their new position, with half of the company on pickett and the other sent to their rest. Sykes had volunteered to go first, since he never could sleep after any kind of action -- Dahlgren was happy for that. He could sleep anywhere,anytime.

Looking back through the brush and trees, Sykes sat concealed in a clump of what he thought might be elm trees -- it was hard to tell in the dark. Five feet along was Lewis, quietly chewing on an apple he had produced from somewhere. Lewis was like that, he just seemed to find, or produce something like an apple from seemingly nowhere -- Sykes had asked him about it more than once. “Magic pockets!” he had answered once after serious pestering.

“How is your ear?” Lewis asked quietly, his mouth obviously still full of apple.

“Hurts, what would you think?”

“You were lucky Joe, no question.” Sykes thought about that for a moment, and gave it a silent amen.

“Yeah, hurts like a bastard though. Trying not to think about it.” 

Lewis coughed and chuckled quietly.

“Such language -- what has become of our gentleman Mr. Sykes?”

Sykes smiled, and looked back towards the camp. He shook his head and resumed watching and listening to the thickets towards the Bayou where they had been stationed. Crickets were chirping, and he could hear frogs singing a little ways on. It was proper dark now, and though he knew they had to be diligent at watch, the chance of a counterattack tonight was slim. He remembered the first time he had ever taken part in a night or evening skirmish, and how surprised he was. The army doesn’t fight at night! There are rules to war, and this isn’t done! Oh yes it is, my boy! This is a new kind of war, no matter what the newspapers want you to think. No, don’t you think that just because Little Mac and the boys of the Army of the Potomac keep banker’s hours, that it’s going to be so for you in the West! Sykes frowned, and sighed quietly. Even out there in Virginia things weren’t so rosy and easy -- no matter how much the western boys might like to tease and taunt the “paper collar soldiers”. No, very little here was as anyone thought it would be when they signed up. It seemed such a long time ago now, a lifetime compressed into the mere two years he had now been a soldier. He knew he was different from the man he had been when he enlisted, and sometimes that truly worried him. It made him wonder just truly who he was anymore.

“Sykes,” Lewis whispered it but still startled Sykes from his thoughts.


“I’m real glad you are alright.”

“Thank you Lewis.  Me too. Some thanks of that goes to Hendrickson. I need to be sure to thank him for pulling me up and getting me going again.”

“Good old Hen’ -- I bet he is fretting tonight, he tents with Doughton.”

Sykes frowned, and grunted a response. He grimaced as he felt the half moon shape missing from the upper lobe of his ear, so very very close to the side of his head. He thought of his family in a vague sort of way then, but as so often happened he couldn’t quite picture them. He pressed the handkerchief to his ear again, the musket across his lap a comforting weight in the darkness. The night noises filled the space around him, and he just tried hard to not think. He couldn’t calm himself though, the rush of adrenaline still throbbing in his body and leaving him with nervous excess energy that set his foot to tapping in the dirt. Not like home, he thought to himself. No my son, you are at war. There are no rules beyond survival, and anyone that tells you otherwise is a fool. He thought about that realization, and felt the truth of it. In some ways that helped, making his spirit hard as stone and accepting reality. He pulled the handkerchief from his ear, and wadded it up in his fist before stuffing it away in his breast pocket. The burning ache in his ear had become a companion, and he resumed listening intently to the night sounds -- waiting, listening for any possible approach by the enemy -- however unlikely. There was a rustle of grass somewhere, making Sykes snap his musket to his shoulder as he scanned the shadows. His breath became shallow as he stretched his senses for any sign of movement -- until Lewis spoke quietly making Sykes jerk with surprise.

“Sorry, nature called -- hope I didn’t put the fright into you over there. I made more noise than I intended watering the hedges.”

Sykes lowered his musket slowly, and settled back down in place.

“Not at all Lewis.”

In the dark, Lewis frowned as his glance lingered. The gentle, soft padding sound of Sykes’ foot tapping in the soil resumed again, mixing with the drone of night noises about them from the Bayou. The night passed without incident, and the next morning brought the grey and rain once more. The army massed once again as their baggage train and additional battalions joined them just beyond Womack, preparing for the next advance towards Port Gibson. The rain continued on, and at last they simply were compelled to march onward in the wet and muck. Port Gibson offered nothing more exciting than a sudden snap of unseasonable cold to add to their misery; it would seem that the enemy had no stomach to fight for the ground. They were arranged in what passed for a town square in Port Gibson, and while it wasn’t much to look at, it was at least paved. The rows of A frames stood like a little forest, lashed by the wind which made the rain all the more miserable for those who had the misfortune to be out and about in it. Inside their tent, Sykes lay against his knapsack listening to their “Ramsey Place” sign clatter quietly in the breeze. The rain was pattering against the canvas over his head, playing  a mad man’s form of tattoo in a seemingly never ending pattern.

“Talked to a local yesterday,” said Lewis suddenly to no one in particular. “He says this weather is off, not typical at all.” Hendricks had joined their tent since Doughton had been sent home due to his wound, but he seemed lost in his own thoughts and simply lay twisting a bit of straw around in his hand. Dahlgren and the Professor were unfortunate enough to be on guard, and Sykes felt for them in the rain. Lewis continued talking despite the lack of response. “I told him we had had our fill of this rain, and suggested that if it kept up we might have to give up and go home. This old fellow just laughed and seemed keen on the whole thought.” Sykes smiled despite himself, and shook his head. Outside the rain fell and splashed along the company streets; it fell in little rivulets from the brims of those men who stood with shoulders hunched against the cold. Inside houses nearby commandeered for the officers, stoves and old fashioned fireplaces crackled and burned merrily to the smiles and laughter of the men able to enjoy them. In the wide street outside, soldiers stood around spitting braziers which hissed and snapped  in complaint against the rain, smoke drifting with the wind. The soldiers frowned, watching the silhouettes of those within the warmth of the houses, and thinking on the day when they would return to their own homes. Overhead the clouds rolled over one another silently, looking like drifting cotton dragged through dirt and grime of the world below. From this dark undulating sky, the rain fell unrelentingly downward as if trying to wash away some stain which Heaven itself could ill abide to remain.          

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