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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fight it out of this line, or go up!

He chewed the end of the cigar, and rolled his tongue about to spit the loose bits of tobacco leaf at his feet. It was hot--damn hot for so early in May--and he took his hat off to swab his face with a handkerchief. Around him stood his staff, hand-picked and proven boys all. He trusted them, and they him. That probably was one of the greatest joys to him, helping to ease slightly the nagging self-doubt which plagued his private thoughts. He had failed a great deal in his life; being a civilian for him had not been easy--not that he had truly loved being a soldier either during his days at the Point. “Some men fight the harness and bit all their lives,” his father used to say--it seemed maybe that he was one of those.

General Grant lifted the field glasses to his eyes again, and scanned the ridges beyond. Jackson, subdued and occupied, was quiet--but he knew better than to think Joe Johnston would have moved far off. That man was no fool, and he had sand when push came to shove. Grant lowered the field glasses and pointed to the road which wound off to the right. “That is which--the Canton Road?”

“Yes Sir, The Canton Road is there, Sir. Over that way, about 4 miles distant is the Raymond-Edwards Road.” Major Morgan pointed with his long arm to the two roads--first one, then the other--and stood looking out at the distance.

“You look tired, Major,” remarked the General, bringing the field glasses to his eyes again.

“It’s been a jaunt General, but I’m fit to serve.” Grant looked at the bearded Major and nodded with a smile. Colonel Rawlins strode up with a message and saluted as he extended his other hand with the written order. The General took it and nodded acknowledgement of the salute.

“John, how are you fairing?” Colonel Rawlins only smiled. General Grant read over the report and crossed to a campaign table which had been set out by his aides, jotting down a response before passing it back to the Colonel.

“Take that back straight away Colonel, if you will.”

The Colonel nodded and saluted. “Of course General, my pleasure.” The officer set off, General Grant watching him briefly before clearing his throat. The day to come was going to be rough and dangerous for his men, but he couldn’t think of them for now. There was work to be done, and that was that for all the blood that likely was soon to be spilled.

Private Job Sykes had often wondered if perhaps in the moment of his birth, his mother--rather than being a God-fearing religiously-inclined woman--had actually been visited with some sort of prophetic vision of the ups and downs of her son when she had chosen his name. Like the more famous Job from which his name descended, Job Sykes had led a life in which it seemed he was sometimes being tested by Providence. Still, being an optimistic kind of lad, Job had carried on through the trials of life; school--courtship--learning the trade of carpentry--and when the war came he had become a soldier. It was about this time that Job began to go simply by Joe, and with that slight change things went pretty well--at least so far. Dust blew about, making Joe Sykes cough deep in his throat and reflexively drag his canteen around for a mouthful of water. It was hot and he was tired of marching across the state of Mississippi; to be honest the shine had pretty much gone wholly from being a soldier now for most of them. Joe swished the tepid water around in his mouth, and then swallowed it down a bit at a time. Next to him was a man he had met when they mustered in during that cold winter at Fort Snelling, Abraham Hendrickson--but everyone called him “Hen”. Hen looked over and slapped him in the shoulder with a grin. “Getting tired Sykes? Ha! I could keep going all day!”

“Yeah, yeah Hen, feel free to walk for me too,” Sykes quipped back with a playful scowl and pushed his canteen back in place. Hen just laughed, maybe a little too loud since he was quickly told to shut his mouth by a cranky set of stripes behind them. The rutted dirt road stretched along before them, slowly rising and falling in low hills off into the distance. It had been almost three days since they had engaged with the enemy, a tense and wild affair when they had gotten a good twist on the rebels and blunted their attempt to block the Union advance towards Vicksburg.


He hadn’t tented with Hen since muster, but he often ended up in line near him since they were of height. It was a funny thing in ranks, knowing most everyone in your own company yet still being surrounded by men you really didn’t know well. Sykes knew the fellows of his own tent intimately; those of his mess very well; his rank to the four in front and beside him well; and his company at large passibly. There were a few in other companies he knew as acquaintances, but no one by name in companies below C--the boys in D through K weren’t exactly strangers but more like distant relations seeing as they were in the 5th Infantry like him. They might not be well known to him, but they were still brothers when push came to shove, that was certain. Sykes often gave himself over to such thoughts when on the march; it seemed to help with the boredom. Some men seemed to just pass the miles on march in a catatonic state, hardly noting the passage of time or mile until they stopped. Then they would seem to snap out of some sort of trance, and become wholly animated beings once more. Others, like himself, seemed to need to keep the wheels turning, and have something to chew over mentally. The down side to this practice was that one would end up in subjects less enjoyable than others--and for Sykes this was to wonder if he had gotten himself a rebel yet. The truth was, he couldn’t be quite certain he had killed anyone yet. He had been in several smaller engagements and even a few large ones at this point, but he still had yet to draw a bead on a target and see that man fall. He struggled with this question, as a thoughtful man should of course. The faith of his forefathers said he should not desire to kill--yet still do what must be done in the service of country and the greater good. He should not desire to kill his enemy, but turn the other cheek. However, at the same time (to quote the tune) “He hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat!”--not exactly the actions of a God seeking peace and mercy. There was also another driving code of morality to contend with as well: this war was being waged to reunite a nation which had been torn apart by the wickedness of slavery and Southern inhumanity. These people had broken apart what great persons the likes of George Washington and their generation had bled and sacrificed to achieve. They threatened his country, and now as a soldier his life. These people were rebels, and the enemy. He had been trained to kill the enemy with bullet and bayonet, and had seen his fellow soldiers slain by that enemy. When they mustered into the army, and bore the trials of training as Fort Snelling, they had been praised when they hit the wooden target on the rifle range or engaged the burlap bayonet target with enough force to “kill” their enemy. The rest of the time they were shouted at, or shoved to keep pace with a line in drill. They learned to appreciate those who did not hesitate, and sought to become skilled as a soldier. They all wanted to kill the enemy--to know they had actually done it. Such was a matter of pride, and boasting rights. This had proved harder than expected, than any of them could have predicted. A battlefield was nothing like the clear, purposeful scenes of heroism and valiant force of arms suggested in Harpers or such. In reality battles were often more confusion, terror, choking clouds of smoke and noise--all of which left one lacking a complete picture of what was going on most of the time. You would see men fall; hear the buzz, zip and crash of bullets--but with so many weapons firing and rarely having the time to truly aim and see the result of your volley, it was hard to tell just whose lead had found the enemy. Sometimes though, there was no question, and those men knew and in turn everyone knew who they were. In his company there were two--Henry M. Gregg and Corporal Hans Jordt. They had seen their targets fall, and had known they could kill when the moment came. They didn’t really talk of these things amongst themselves all that often, and certainly everyone knew this was not something anyone back home could begin to understand, but it persisted.

“You’re quiet today.” Hen’s baritone broke his internal monologue.

“Just thinking on what’s coming,” Sykes replied.

“Hmmm,” said Hen thoughtfully.

“I ‘spect it’s gonna be a right donnybrook!” threw in Harris from behind Hen in rank. Hen nodded and looked back briefly.

“I imagine so. The Rebels won’t want us near Vicksburg either way.”

“Maybe I’ll get one this time,” said Sykes a little more earnestly than he intended. “I can’t say for certain yet that I’ve killed a rebel yet.”

“I do what I must, and try not to think about it.” Hen responded dismissively. He was one of those who openly avoided the discussions of killing and the competitive aire amongst many of the men. Harris just scowled. “Old Hen--no bloodlust left in you!” Some men laughed at this, but before more could be made of it a set of stripes lit into them and ensured that the conversation ended abruptly. As it happened that was just as well, as whispered word from further up the line made it clear the enemy had been sighted and they would be going into action shortly.

General Grant shook his head and had to acknowledge a grudging approval for Pemberton’s choice of position; the three mile long defensive line commanded the highest points of Champion Hill and easily controlled all the ground in range. The only weak point Grant was already busily exploiting, having sent a column along the Jackson Road against the underprotected left flank of the enemy position. He had not wanted to do so, but McClernand had been assigned to that movement, and given his feelings on the man, Grant knew there was a risk. Still, it was almost wide open--even McClernand surely couldn’t make a mess of that! Looking things over, Pemberton’s position was good, but he seemed to be busy shifting his troops about in rank.

“Came on in reversed order--those reports he was after our supply lines heading to Raymond must have had some weight to them,” said Major Morgan as he scanned the enemy ranks. The General struck a lucifer and lit up his cigar, puffing a cloud which swirled around in the light breeze. He nodded and spit a bit of tobacco leaf into the dirt at his feet, working out the possibilities which might have conspired to put John Pemberton so ass over tea kettle on the march.

“General, looks like artillery moving up near Champion House.” The Major’s pronouncement drew Grant’s attention, and training his field glasses upon the spot saw the truth of it. He called a runner, and bade him ride with all haste to alert McClernand to expect fire and begin his assault. The battle began not slowly, but suddenly then--crashing with the violence of cannon as the hour of ten o’clock  struck.


A shell barrelled through the air and exploded amidst a small grove of pine trees to their right, causing splinters and bits of bark to rain down as they advanced up the hill.

“Hells bells!” shouted Allen as he grasped at a seven inch splinter which had embedded itself in his right forearm. Harris reached over and yanked it clean, tossing the jagged sliver away to the ground. A call went out to pick up the pace, and the lines advanced with a shout. The rebels loomed upon the hilltop, some of them opening up with musketry as they tried their luck at aimed shots. Most of the enemy leads went high overhead, ripping through the air with buzzing shrieks and whistles. Geysers of soil shot up before the lines as the enemy adjusted their aim, the captain shouting the order to charge. The line surged; Price crumpled forward, shot through the head, his musket bouncing away before him.

“Mind your step!” men yelled over the whooshing sound as a shell soared overhead and crashed tumbling through the lines of flesh and bone behind the advance. Sykes tripped over the musket, or body (he never was sure which) as the surging force of the charge carried him onward like flotsam before water. Men fired as they neared the crest of the hill, even as their enemy poured flame, lead, and shell back at them. The air was a choking, blinding, burning and frantic mix of fury around them. Sykes ran until his legs ached, his eyes stung and his chest heaved. Hen was there nearby as they closed on an enemy gun, the crew trying to win the fatal race between them. The maw of the gun looked like the dark eye of some terrible beast asleep, but liable to explode awake at any moment and tear them apart. Everything was happening at once: the gun crew trying to clear the muzzle as the gunner was moving to clip the lanyard to the primer. Sykes drew his musket up, his aim drifting with each step even as the hammer snapped and his weapon roared with a curl of flame. He missed the gunner, his round splintered through the corner of the caisson behind with a sound like two wooden planks slapping together. The bearded artilleryman’s eyes were wide, as he reached towards the primer and the side of his face suddenly exploded; the broad man collapsed hard against the side of the gun, his blood bright as it sprayed over the bronze of the cannon. The crew knew they had lost this race, and turned in an attempt to run back up to where their lines were moving to reform. An artillery lieutenant took two steps and stopped, drawing his heavy revolver and training it towards the blue wave of soldiers which threatened to overwhelm him. He fired twice before someone crashed headlong into the artilleryman and clubbed the grey clad officer with his musket. Sykes passed that horrible muzzle of the gun, and felt the sense of impending dread represented in that black maw ebb away to be replaced with determination as he charged after the fleeing crew.

Elias Swift felt elated, he had hit the gunner before he could prime the cannon and turn that destructive power loose on his fellow soldiers. He rammed home a new round and jogged after his line, bullets still zipping down from the enemy higher up on the hill. He fired with his fellows when the order came, a beautiful crisp volley into what looked almost like a grey-brown cloud undulating on the hill above the swirling smoke of battle. As Swift began to reload, he realized he stood over the very rebel gunner he had shot not moments before. The gunner wasn’t dead, but he lay like some horror from nightmares unimaginable--his face awash in blood, his tongue visible through the ruin of what had been his jaw and cheek. His eyes stared wide and full, seeming to seek out Swift and plead with him. The wounded man’s eyes were smouldering hate and pain, and Swift felt fixed in place when suddenly this wreck of his enemy was grasping at his leg and trying to pull him down off his feet. Swift cried out, bringing his friend Cy to his side who brought the butt of his musket down hard into the nightmare face. Cy seemed to smile a little as his second blow drew a loud crack, and a gasping ragged escape of air from the rebel at their feet. Swift just stared dumb.

“Had fight left in ‘em,”smiled Cy, not looking away from the crushed ruin of the man at their feet before catching Swift’s eye and nodding with a slap to his shoulder. The order came to keep moving, and Cy wiped the butt of his musket in the grass before starting off up the hill. Swift followed after, slipping once on the bloody ground.


General Grant paced back and forth along the ridge. Cast-off empty cartridges littered the ground at his feet. His boys had fought hard for this ground, and the enemy had not sold it cheap either. Valiant and courageous men on both sides had fought and died here, it was a sad waste incumbent  in this business. The rebel lines were pulling back, redeploying again back up the slope in good order. These rebels were not made of tin; steel was in their veins and they were slowing the Federal advance. McPherson was in the thick of it now, but his men were braving the fire. “Send this to McClernand--- ‘you must move up, your force is out of position’.” One of the runners nodded and took off upon his horse at a gallop. Grant shook his head and swore loudly. It wasn’t only that McClernand was a political rival, the man was cowardly in his execution of the field. Had he not given him the position on the enemies open flank? How could anyone with a largely open field lag behind a command facing concentrated and stiff resistance?

“Damn him, I swear this man will fight up this line or go down!” spat the General, hurling his cigar stump into the weeds. He stood breathing hard for few minutes, hands on his hips watching as his own batteries scored a good hit amongst what he knew were Arkansas boys. “Go boys!” he said to no one in particular. “Run down Pemberton and make that arrogant son of bitch sorry he took a stand here!”


Stevenson’s Division tumbled past them, men scrambling with wild eyes that reminded Sykes of the look horses got when lost to their fear. These men simply had had enough, and nothing was going to stop them now. He felt his own feet longing to join them the as the infectious fear swept over the lines, but Sykes gripped his musket tighter and stood his ground. Bullets zipped overhead, shells screeched in a lazy arc through the clouds above. As the thought made itself known in his own head, someone along the line voiced it for him-- “What the hell are we doin’ sittin’ here?”. Sykes was startled by a hand that slapped down on his shoulder and he flinched slightly as the dirt- and powder-smeared face of Hen appeared behind him.

“Whoa there, jus’ me--still behind you, Sykes. Haven’t lost me yet!” The man smiled, crooked and big toothed but it somehow brought a sense of calm into the rising panic which had begun to creep into Sykes’ belly.

He nodded acknowledgment, and in turning back forward took in the forms of the sprawled bodies of Davis and Moore on the torn ground before the line. The company had routed three enemy batteries, only to have the Rebels counter-attack and drive them back again down the hillside. Despite that the men were still eager; their blood was up enough to ensure there would be few stragglers when the order came to move again. If they would just give the order! There was little which could leave a soldier more on the knife’s edge between fighting it out and running in panic than moments like this--still eager to charge but all too aware that the enemy before them were not to be moved without effort. Just let us go! As if someone had heard their silent pleas, a cry went up behind them that Sherman’s boys had arrived from Clinton. The news passed from man to man with lightning speed, whipping their determination to take the hill into a madness amongst the Union lines. A roar sounded as they were let loose, like the barbarians of old thirsting for the blood of Roman spoils--and Sykes felt himself propelled forward upon a wave driven to smash against the grey and brown lines which clung to the hill.

There was almost no sound, as he thought on that charge later--or maybe that the roar and tumult of the guns mixed with the wild animal fury of the soldiers’ voices cancelled out all awareness. Instead, it was only fury and instinct, living at the height of terror and rage risking survival. The beating of his heart, quick and deep breathes echoed in his ears. Everything was sharp, bright focus--shifting between things seeming to speed up and slow down like some awful dream. His musket seemed to be an extension of himself, he hardly seemed to notice firing and reloading. He knew the barrel was growing hot, but he could not feel, he could only react to what was before him. He was advancing in loose ranks, Allen was beside him when suddenly the other man jerked and crashed against his left side. The world spun violently akimbo as he was knocked from his feet into the dirt--Allen was screaming and thrashing as he tried without success to stem a pumping geyser which erupted from his neck and splashed onto Sykes’ eyes and mouth, making him gag and scramble to get away. He shoved Allen from atop him, and frantically spat and wiped away at the hot, sticky mess which made him want to vomit. The drive to advance and attack was replaced with panic as Sykes realized he had dropped his musket, but he found it straight away and would have risen to rejoin the ranks had Allen not begun to grasp at his arm and ankles as he shouted in a wet pleading for help. Humanity found Sykes again with an urgency of purpose upon making contact with the bulging eyes of the wounded man, who was begging and crying first for him, and then his mother. The haze in which he had advanced cleared and the danger, violence,  noise and smoke seemed to close in around Sykes as he scrambled over to the thrashing Allen. Sykes leaned over him, looking into his terror filled eyes as he tried to calm the wounded man--but Allen heard nothing for the fear and panic he was in. He was desperately trying to stop the rapid flow of blood from his throat, but his fingers simply slipped and fumbled in the flow of scarlet and shook in fear for awareness of his wound. Allen fought with him, forcing his fingers back as he tried to help, the wounded man babbling with pleading eyes. Sykes reached out, forcing back his own revulsion as the warm blood soaked the cloth and ran over his fingers. He tried to calm Allen down, shouting as much as soothing with his own excitement and trying to ignore the zip and snap of lead. He pressed hard, trying to stop the flow of blood, and cast his gaze about trying to find inspiration as to what to do next. He saw others limping, crawling, even men being dragged back away from the fighting--but no one noticed him. Sykes swore, knowing he would never make it to the rear and help by himself before Allen bled out. He looked down into a glassy gaze and knew Allen’s fate, but he refused to accept it. From above on the hill, the regular sounds of fighting slowed to the sporadic pace of personal aggression and those unwilling to cease the attack until made to come to heel by the sergeants. A corporal loaded up with several canteens approached, his head wrapped in a bandage which left his cap perched at a rakish angle.

“You wounded?” The rough looking corporal asked, swinging a canteen from his collection and handing it out towards him. Sykes looked at him a moment, but the corporal seemed to read his mind. “Don’t worry ‘bout your pard no more son, anyone can see he’s beyond caring. Go on, take the canteen.” Sykes looked down at Allen, growing pale and waxy where he wasn’t spattered in grime or gore, and took his hands away from the soaked cloth he had been holding. “You sure you aint hurt none?” prompted the corporal again, removing the cork and taking a pull from the canteen himself. Sykes looked back and wiped his bloody hands on his trousers before reaching out and taking the offered water. When he took his first drink, he coughed and sputtered before relaxing and gulping it down. The grizzled corporal went and knelt over Allen, shaking his head. “Poor bastard, that bullet signed his name and sealed the letter, no doubt.” Noting Sykes’ gaze, the man frowned and added quickly--”Sorry ‘bout your pard.”.

“His name was Allen, and he wasn’t  a bastard.” The growl in his tone made the corporal blanch a little, and he held up his hands. “No offense intended friend, seen so much you know? Sometimes it leads me to sounding rougher than I meant.” Sykes made himself relax, realizing he had balled his fists unconsciously and was gritting his teeth. The sound of recall floated from the hilltop, and the corporal reached out to retrieve the canteen. Sykes passed it over with more force than he intended, but if he noticed the other man didn’t show it. He watched the corporal as he made his way along up the hill, stopping to check others that lay further up, and Sykes wondered at this anger inside of him. It was intense, yet unanchored--it was a hollow feeling. He looked down at Allen as he rose to his feet, and felt nothing. Allen was dead, and he felt nothing about it. He thought about the corporal, and how his comments had flared a rage within him--yet now he saw the truth. The rage Sykes felt was without tether, it simply was. He wanted to fight, he needed to--as little as that made sense to the sensible portion of his mind. He almost laughed at the thought of anything sensible here, and gathered up his musket. He stood a moment looking down at what used to be Allen, and then stooped down to take what he could of the dead mans’ caps and cartridges. He didn’t require them anymore, and Sykes did. He had not yet been certain he had killed an enemy, and he was determined he would not be cheated of that knowledge.


The afternoon sun shone high over them, casting short pools of shadow around the feet of the General and his staff as they surveyed the Baker’s Creek bridge. The enemy had fought hard but finally been pushed off Champion Hill, then (thanks to McClernand’s buffoonary in large part) escaped the Federals to reform on Baker’s Creek. The General would have blazed with indignation for this turn of events, but he was aware that it would not truly help matters. Sometimes doing what one wanted served no one but your own vanity; one of the very few vices which he did not generally possess. There was the possibility that they might still box up and utterly destroy Pemberton--but Grant recognized a tenacity in his enemies’ style which he could not help but admire. Pemberton would not go down easily, nor would he walk into favorable maneuvers for the Federals lightly.  Persistence would be the key here, and an acceptance that the best they might hope for would simply be blocking his escape towards Vicksburg. Then they would have a real chance to force the enemy’s hand, and leave him no option but surrender. The General’s aggravation flared again briefly, making him grit his teeth as he thought on how they might have already done so had his officers followed orders--but once more he realized his anger served no purpose beyond helping along his ulcer. He turned and gazed down the hill, taking in the charnel house scene strewn before him in the dead. Broken bodies, gear, and guns lay in disarray and heaps where they had fallen. Already there was collection underway, but the process would take days. Major Morgan stepped up quietly beside him.

“General, the battalions are almost formed up and the batteries are deploying now,” he said in that firm, quiet tone. Grant nodded and gestured to the sight below. “While a battle is raging,” he said, looking at the Major, “one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand with great composure.” The Major nodded quietly as the General turned on his heel and the pair faced again the brook where yet another battle was about to commence. A rider arrived and was sent back confirming the order to begin a mass salvo of artillery before the infantry was to advance. As the guns began to fire he began to absentmindedly chew upon his cigar. He crossed his arms, and spoke quietly to himself as he watched the lines of his men begin to advance towards the enemy positions. “After the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to alleviate the sufferings of an enemy as a friend.” One of their batteries scored a direct upon the enemy line, and a cheer went up amongst his staff. Major Morgan smiled and pointed it out, handing him his field glasses.  

“A fine hit General!” The General nodded and surveyed the field. He could see writhing shapes amidst the smoke, an enemy flag which had fallen was snapped up and rose again--waving back in forth in defiance. He lowered the glasses, and wondered if they would ever again see their enemies as friends.

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