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Three fifty a.m., March 25, 1865
Gordon stood at the earthen wall, fingers attacked by the cold. Winter still fought rearguard actions before dawn broke. Two days back, a tempest of warm dust had scourged the lines. Now the ill-clad soldiers at his back, fifteen thousand present and more on the way—almost half of Lee’s army—shivered as they waited for his signal.
A private knelt beside him, calm in the death-dark. The soldiers who still clung to the Army of Northern Virginia, those who had not deserted to the Yankees or slipped off homeward, breathed the fatalism of Homer’s heroes, mythical figures cherished by Gordon and now made real by war. Two hundred yards stretched eastward to the night-draped Yankee fort, ground that might have been the plains of Troy, the waiting multitude his bronze-clad Greeks. Fierce, these men would fight. And Major General John Brown Gordon would lead them.
Despite the good-tempered confidence he displayed to other men, Gordon was glad of the darkness. Not only would it shield his advancing soldiers, it masked concerns he feared he could not hide. This was his plan, his offering, produced at an order from Lee that had been almost plaintive. And the old man had only blessed the scheme for want of better choices: Lee, whose nights were ravaged now, who summoned generals from their beds to talk out the graveyard hours, dreading what might come when he closed his eyes.
The old man expected Gordon to work a miracle, to split the Federal line in two, to roll it up, to slash beyond it, to ravage the Yankee base at City Point, to defy the gods …
No longer Agamemnon, but doomed Priam: Poor Lee, grown cantankerous and haunted, complaining of poor lamp oil and bad candles, his fabled self-discipline cracking. By day, he remained a lion to the men, though, all they had left to believe in, the last worth of the Confederacy.
Gordon told himself—insisted—that there was a chance this attack would work, bedazzling Grant’s hordes sufficiently long for Lee and the army’s remnants to slip away, to join Joe Johnston in North Carolina and stretch out the war, combining to beat Sherman and then wheeling to confront Grant. Lee had spoken of Napoleon’s strategy of the central position and of Frederick’s ultimate victory—despite the fall of his capital—as Gordon listened, nodding but pierced by doubt. At times, Lee seemed unmoored from the army’s reality. And all the while Jeff Davis carped and badgered him.
Gordon would not, could not, say no to Lee, that was the gist of it. Not now. Not when the end was near and those who appeared true would retain ascendance over their kind, even in disaster: A victorious people lauded their heroes, but defeated folks needed theirs.
The future of the South would fall to those few left untarnished and alive.
A cold gust combed Gordon’s beard, which was as carefully groomed as ever. The men behind the rampart rustled, chilled but heeding their orders to keep silent. Aware down deep of how much lay at stake.
Surely word would reach him soon that the last obstacles had been cleared. Then it would all begin at a signal shot.
He had done his best, striving to plan this fight with the guile of Ulysses. He’d studied the Federal lines, selecting the earthen bastion the Yankees called Fort Stedman, along with its flanking batteries, as the attack’s first objective. The fort stood where the lines veered close and the road at its back ran straight to the Yankee rear. But the key to ultimate success would be the seizure of a trio of forts half a mile behind the Federal line, masked positions spotted by spies and confirmed, if vaguely, by Union deserters. Take those rear forts and you had that road, and you split Grant’s army in two.
They just might pull it off. It wasn’t impossible.
Gordon felt he’d done all within human power to craft a victory. And if the attack succeeded, he, John Brown Gordon, stood to be the late hero of the war, an advantage not inconsiderable to a man of high ambition.
Managing defeat would take more skill.
So the plan had been honed in fine detail, key officers taught their tasks. Working in a hush just short of silence, his engineers were clearing lanes through their own side’s defenses. When they finished, picked units, relying on bayonets, would rush the Yankee picket line, posing as deserters coming over. With the pickets taken, his best regiments would rush toward Fort Stedman, accompanied by more engineers with axes and grapples to breach the Yankee obstacles. All would be done without firing a shot, for as long as possible. Letting the great blue legions sleep until it was too late.
Following the units tasked to seize the fort and the batteries on its flanks, three columns of one hundred soldiers each, officers and men hand-chosen and led by scouts sent by Lee, would thrust deeper into the Yankee lines to seize those rearward forts and open the road. Gordon’s staff had taken pains to learn the names of the Federal officers—Ninth Corps men—along this stretch of line. If challenged, his “Three Hundred” would pass themselves off in the dark as Union soldiers returning from picket duty.
Full divisions, led by his best subordinates, would widen the breach in the meantime, rolling up the Yankee line north to the river and southward as far as possible before dawn.
Once the secondary forts had been taken, more divisions would follow. By first light, a cavalry force would fly down the road to the Union headquarters and depot at City Point.
It could work. There really was a chance that it could work.
There had been doubters, of course, not least among Lee’s self-appointed guardians, his staff triumvirate of empowered boys. Marshall said bluntly that the plan was too complicated. Taylor reserved judgment, but smirked like a wealthy schoolboy. Worn out by Lee, poor Venable only shrugged.
The thing was, it had to work. Or the army was doomed and damned. Along with the Confederacy. It would all end right here, perhaps in weeks, with Grant unleashed by fair weather and the last of them trapped against this played-out city. Not beaten manfully, just beaten down. And he might be held responsible.
A voice startled Gordon: a Yankee voice.
“What’re you doing over there, Johnny? What’s that ruckus?” After a hold-your-breath silence, he added, “You answer real quick, or I’ll shoot.”
Calm as a front-porch philosopher in August, the soldier beside Gordon rose and drawled, “Ain’t no never mind, Yank. Go on back to sleep. Just the boys gathering up the last hard corn, what’s left hereabouts. Rations been mighty short.”
Cold doubt. Vast night. Waiting thousands.
The Federal called over, “All right, Johnny. Get your corn. Ain’t going to shoot a man who’s drawing his rations.”
Gordon closed his eyes in thanks. But the men clearing off the last obstacles seemed as loud as a stampede.
He flexed raw hands, gloves left behind in his urgency. Why was it taking the engineers so long? The attack had been scheduled for four a.m. But he knew without resort to his watch that the hour had passed.
Unbidden, but ever welcome, Fanny swept into his thoughts. Hardly a mile behind him, still in Petersburg, in a lodging just fair and no better, ready to bring their fourth child into the world, a child of war.
Reaching up from the firing stoop, someone tugged his sleeve: his assistant adjutant general, who would lead a brigade this day, at age twenty-six.
Gordon bent down.
“Lanes are clear, General,” Major Douglas whispered. “The men are ready.”
Gordon straightened. For a moment, he glanced backward, into the complicit darkness, able to make out the nearest troops only because they wore strips of white cloth diagonally over their chests or tied round their upper arms for recognition when the fighting began.
Gordon turned to the soldier waiting beside him.
“Fire your shot.”
The signal that would unleash it all.
The soldier delayed. Just long enough to do what he thought fair to a trusting enemy. He called to the Yankee picket, “Halloo there, Yank. Wake up, look out! We’re coming.”
He shouldered his rifle, aimed high, and pulled the trigger.
Four fifteen a.m.
’Twas black as an Englishman’s soul, this dark, and bleak as bloody Ireland. Danny Riordan rushed out with the rest, the sweet weight of his rifle in his mitts, a rifle left unloaded on bitter orders, but tipped with a bayonet kept sharp as sin. And every wild-elbowed lad, this wave of scrunty Irishmen swept from Louisiana into the war, every man of them hoped he wouldn’t be skewered by a messmate, careful to keep the touch of the stinker next to him as feet felt forward in the dark, all the earth black as the cassock on a priest.
Whole lives passed in the seconds it took to stumble and fumble forward in rough silence. Not a man spoke to warn the Yankees, but small sudden noises there were and enough, the brief cries of blue-bellied pickets surprised and not asked to surrender, and the thunk of axes on winter-worn wood, no shots yet but a terrible tapping of hundreds—nay, thousands—of shoes worn thin as muslin, thin as famine dead.
One shot, two. The grump of a bucko tripped up. Riordan himself legged wild at a trick of the ground, recovering to leap the berm of a rifle pit, sensing his way uncannily in the dark: a very acrobat he should have been, gone off with the circus, larks! A landing foot found a belly, its man-meat tension recognized from battles and prisons and brawls.
Dead, that one was.
Shouts of struggle tore at the surprise.
“Jaysus,” cried the man next to him, a comment on this world and the hereafter.
“Help the colonel,” cawed a Leinster crow.
Riordan turned from curiosity—a vice more trouble than drink—and lent a mitt to Colonel Waggaman, who commanded what the war had left of them: not much, that was, not many. A hurry of hands pulled the colonel out of the clabber, and hard he snarled, mud-covered in the cold. The high marsh grabbed at Riordan’s shredded shoes.
Waggaman cursed, a priest run out of the whiskey.
But why were they running downhill? Their purpose was to attack a fort or the like, but even a fool would not put such on a downslope. Had they mistaken their way in this devil’s dark?
In answer, an officer’s voice—so different they sounded, you always knew the high lads—called out, “Half-left, half-left!” and then came lightning, the bright spew of cannon, a greeting.
By the flash he saw murderous faces. Like his own.
By another gun’s flare they spotted the rampart ahead. Sworn to silence still, they raced for the earthen wall, fearful of waking cannon to their front. But there were none, or none tended.
Up and over. A few men howled from habit, but soon were hushed.
Forms dark against darkness. The white bands his kind sported helped, but unreliably. Instinct led his rifle as he blocked a blundering man. One who wore no ribbon.
Too close for the bayonet. Riordan slammed the butt of his rifle into the man’s belly, bending him to a gasp. The wood of an ill-managed weapon grazed Riordan’s head and clattered down. He gave the doubled-up fellow a knee in the face, then brought the butt down onto the fellow’s shoulders or parts similar, beating him to the ground.
When the Yankee had been laid out properly, Riordan smashed down the butt where the bugger’s head should be. And he heard the lovely crack of splintering bone, not even a last cry from the fallen Federal.
“That’s for Point Lookout, ye bastard,” Riordan grunted.
Men packed around him, dangerous, querying each other in hushed brogues.
By the light of a last Yankee musket flash, he saw Daniel Keegan before him, bereft of his tin whistle now but with stripes sewn to his sleeve, promoted while Riordan rotted in Yankee prison pens, one and then another, taken not once in the war, but twice, to his mortification, and worth a fight it was when a man claimed that he’d been swept up three times, for third time there had been none, just sickness in a hospital hungry for corpses.
“Cripes, I almost killed ye,” Riordan told him.
“Take a bolder one than you, it will.”
The donnybrook was done for the moment, though. Officers hissed at them to re-form, still lacking the light to know the east from west.
Whispers ran down the regathered line that the colonel had welcomed a bayonet in his meat. As like from one of their own as one of the Yankees, and damn the confusion. Captain Bresnan took over, unbothered.
“Come on,” he called, though still not battle shouting.
They filed out of the fort’s rump, most of them in some order, though others went over the walls just for the pleasure. What were they now, this handful of men that remained of the proud Louisiana Brigade, melted into the Consolidated Brigade, with Company E, the old Mercer Guards, as Irish as want and pride, reduced to a mere handful of ragged wraiths?
Forward they went. Or someone believed it was forward.
A rumpus of shooting rose to the left: a tougher time for Grimes’ lads in their glory, and let them keep it.
“We should’ve held back till the Yankees cooked up breakfast,” a soldier griped, voice unfamiliar. “I’ve got the hunger on me, I do.”
Riordan snorted. Hardly a man knew hunger as he did. The prison rations at Point Lookout, spare enough, had been a feast compared to the black years in Ireland. Many a man in the army claimed he was starving, but you never heard that word from Irish lips. Hunger, yes. Starvation, no. Starvation was a girl got thin and dried out as a woman of fourscore; starvation was a village abandoned to corpses—those not dead of chewing winter grass gone black with the cholera or flecked blue with typhus, starvation’s eager companions.
Yankees. Surprised. Surrendering.
Some fought, though. A ragged volley crackled ahead.
“Load, load!” Bresnan’s voice. But the boys were after more than that, for they’d gotten into a white maze of tents, pitched foolishly close to the line. And tents meant treasures.
“Time for that later,” the captain pleaded.
When Riordan had been exchanged in January—a surprise to all concerned—he’d grown so thin the Yankees had counted him done. And more than a friend or two had suggested he come along into the byways as winter bit, for they’d had enough, those buckos, and were either going home or going over. It made sense, Riordan allowed. Why fight for an army that wouldn’t trouble to feed you? But he’d come back stubborn from the camps, with a mind to kill at least a few Yankees before the fiddler stopped and the jig broke off.
Away they’d gone, all those who’d had enough, but Riordan stayed. A fool, they called him, an idiot. But the army pleased him better than digging ditches, addled with Louisiana’s heat and Irishmen valued so low they put them to work next to chained-up niggers. Used to the heat, like animals, the darkies had mocked the misery of white men. Nor were the sons of Africa the worst of it: Shoveling along the levees, a man learned fast that Pádraic had driven the snakes out of Ireland only to pack them off to Louisiana. Seamus McGintey had reared up sudden with a monstrous gurgle, gripping a great serpent, its fangs so deep in his neck that it couldn’t free itself, and Seamus danced out his minutes, swinging the snake back and forth, until he yanked it off and fell over and died.
A rifle was a finer tool than any pick or shovel.
They got themselves into a tangle of trenches, tripping and tumbling. Officers whipped men with the flat of their sabers to drive them on.
Back up on a spit of flatland, the line re-formed, ragged but pressing on. Was there a newborn paleness on that ridge?
Horse hooves clobbered the earth, telling men of the nearness of a road. Yankee prisoners cried, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot me, Johnny!” as they clumsied past, headed rearward into their turn at captivity.
The last sons of Erin and Louisiana exchanged volleys with an enemy who could only be glimpsed by muzzle flash. They’d gotten themselves down another slope. Or perhaps the same one a second time. The earth was dry here, though. Riordan wondered whether a single officer had one sound idea where in the world they were, for he had none himself.
To the left—the north?—artillery grew busy, boding ill.
Their officers stopped the Louisianans, confused and waiting for orders.
Four forty-five a.m.
Brigadier General of United States Volunteers Napoleon Bonaparte McLaughlen approached Fort Stedman on horseback, wishing for daylight so he could get things settled. Of course, the Johnnies would probably withdraw long before that, unwilling to be caught in the open on one of their picket raids.
As an enlisted man in the 2nd Dragoons before the war, McLaughlen had learned when to trust a horse. He was glad of that knowledge now, since he couldn’t see one damned thing beyond an occasional rifle flash. The dark was so thick you could bite it. The horse knew the roadway well, though, and kept to it even when spurred.
Horse stink, man stink.
McLaughlen had suffered several bad minutes, fearing that the Rebs had struck in force. He’d even sent off his staff to rouse reinforcements. But he’d found Fort Haskell secure in trusted hands, its frontage quiet and no one alarmed, so now he just needed to stiffen up Fort Stedman. Make sure all those sluggards were under arms in obedience to his orders.
His horse shied around shadows.
He thought the sky looked paler. Then it seemed black again.
Somebody had gotten the jumps to the north, up between Batteries IX and X, by the feel of things. The Johnnies might have staged more than one simultaneous picket raid, out of either boldness or desperation.
Grinding his parts against a saddle before the sun came up always reminded him of his frontier days. Damned well hadn’t suspected back then that he’d one day become a general. Even sergeant had looked a long way off.
A frontier soldier got his coffee, though. Before he put a horse between his legs.
This Reb disturbance annoyed McLaughlen, not least because he’d been working on his own plan to strike the Johnnies from Fort Stedman. He’d been trying, thus far without success, to interest his superiors. And this didn’t help, suggesting that the Rebs remained alert.
He spurred the horse again, spending a bit of the anger he felt at the Johnnies. They were defeated and done with, but too proud to admit it. Anyone could see that Lee was finished. Everything from here on out was a needless waste of blood.
McLaughlen was determined to take charge, to get his lines under control and end the nonsense before the morning muster. And find some cook fire where the coffee was boiling.
Again the horse swerved to avoid shadows in motion. Shirkers, the general reckoned. Some of Hartranft’s green bunch, most like, straying in the dark. Their officers needed to get them under control.
Too near, a cannon discharged and startled his horse. It made no sense. Had his mount grown confused? The direction of that flash seemed all askew.
More noise than there should have been. Yet, not the bang and rumpus of a real fight.
The slope stopped climbing and leveled out. It felt like the rear of Stedman. Smelled like it, too, that latrine stench. Matters seemed calmer here. The riflery, which had snapped down the line minutes earlier, had fallen off to isolated shots.
Queer business, though.
The horse took him right into Stedman, where the soldiers sounded disorderly and rambunctious. And seemed excessively plentiful. As if they had been reinforced too heavily, packed together uselessly. Perhaps they really were Hartranft’s new volunteers and dregs of the draft. That would explain the indiscipline.
A cluster of man-shapes approached. McLaughlen reined up.
“You there,” McLaughlen called, “you’re going the wrong way, soldier! Get back to your posts, every one of you.”
A voice that was utterly wrong replied, “Well, now, it does seem to this body that we’re heading just where we’uns want to go. That right, boys?”
“Are you … a Rebel?” the general asked, bewildered.
“I do prefer ‘Confederate.’ But ‘Reb’ does nice enough. Now you git down off that long-legged cow and surrender.”
Outraged—not least by his folly—McLaughlen demanded, “Are you an officer?”
“Don’t matter one lick. You dismount right now, or I’ll blow your head off.”
McLaughlen sensed a pistol rising toward him. A merry, unforgiving crowd had gathered.
The general got down. “I’m General McLaughlen and I demand to be treated with proper respect.”
“Your pistol. Give it here.”
McLaughlen handed it over, but insisted, “I can only surrender my sword to a fellow officer.”
The men crowding close whooped at that.
“Well, I’m Lieutenant Guinn, Thirty-first Georgia. But you hang on to your letter opener. You can give it to General Gordon, he’ll be tickled.” A big, unpleasant shape, the lieutenant turned. “Bradwell, take this high-flown gent on back to General Gordon, with my compliments.” He chuckled again. “Rest of you, let’s go. Sportin’s over.” But he turned once more to warn, “I don’t want him picked too clean, Bradwell. Hear me?”
The private nudged McLaughlen through a reeking mass of Confederates. The two of them joined a stream of Union prisoners flushed rearward between advancing Rebel columns. McLaughlen let fly with his feelings for the world to hear.
The soldier given charge of him finally said, “Genr’l, I never did hear a man cuss so powerful. Where’d you learn them words?”
McLaughlen grunted. “I was a goddamned private just like you. And lucky if they don’t make me one again.”
Five ten a.m.
Union Battery IX
First Lieutenant Valentine Stone, 5th U.S. Artillery, leapt from his horse, blouse flapping, and shouted, “Load spherical case!”
Mack MacConnell had already had the men wheel a section of guns to point due south.
In the first gray tease of light, Stone saw them coming: a long, uneven line of Rebs sweeping northward, half inside the Union works, the rest driving up the ground between the lines. Scampering ahead of them, small bands of his kind raced for safety.
Those boys had put up a fight, though. He’d heard it from the innards of Fort McGilvery. Remnants of the 2nd Michigan they’d be.
Within the battery walls and along the traverses, the men of the 20th Michigan, charged to protect the battery, cheered on their fellow Wolverines, urging them to run faster.
There did seem to be a plentitude of Rebs. He wished those Michiganders would go to ground so his guns could fire.
“Under four hundred yards, sir,” MacConnell called.
“I see that. Damn me. Open on the Rebs outside the lines.”
MacConnell shouted the orders. The gun crews were all but ahead of him. Muzzles shot flame, carriages recoiled, and smoke rose in the half-light.
One round hit perfectly, tearing a gap in the line. The Michigan infantry cheered.
Farther south, toward Stedman, it looked and sounded as though the Rebs had blown a significant hole in the defenses, with episodic encounters flaring and fading. More guns joined the fray, firing in multiple directions
The boys from the 2nd Michigan figured things out. They either scooted off to the east or dove deep into trenches. So Stone’s artillerymen could do their work.
“Left thirty degrees. Load spherical case. Ready canister. Fire at will.”
There were just more Johnnies than Val Stone needed to see of an early morning. Yipping their high cry now. Flags whipped back and forth in the morning twilight, urging on the graybacks.
To Stone’s immediate left, Al Day got his Michiganders ready. Waiting for the Rebs to close within two hundred yards. Not that Stone put much faith in musketry, even in good light. Artillery, that was the thing.
First volley. Johnnies fell. Not enough.
They screeched that ghastly wail. And on they came.
The gun crews slammed in the canister rounds, while infantrymen reloaded with the speed of veterans who meant to live.
A high Reb voice cut the tumult: “Best give up, Yanks. No use now, you’re beat. Throw down them rammers.”
“Fire!” MacConnell told his gun sections. Before Stone could give the command.
The Michiganders, too, fired another volley.
Through the smoke, Stone saw the Johnnies wavering, some stepping forward still, others hesitating.
First real light coming on. The field looked like hell on a Saturday, as far as Stone could see into the smoke.
Reb officers rallied their men. One grabbed a flag. Urging his Johnnies to resume the attack.
Stone’s gun crews fired without need of commands now. Pouring in the canister.
A fuss of grunts, pounding feet, and jangling metal rose behind the battery. Colonel Ely had brought up reinforcements from Fort McGilvery. Stone recognized Captain Brown of the 50th Pennsylvania in the lead. No sword, just a revolver in his paw. Good man, Brown. His raggle-taggle veterans were barely half-dressed, but every man had his rifle, bayonet, and cartridge box.
The Rebs stopped advancing, but appeared determined to hold their ground. Firing in support, artillery opened from the Confederate lines, able to identify targets now. And they knew the ranges, both sides had known them for months.
It looked set to be an ugly morning in godforsaken Virginia. But Valentine Stone barely gave a damn about what might happen elsewhere on the field. This was his ground. And he meant to hold it.
Five twenty a.m.
Gordon wore a lopsided smile, the right half fuller than the left, a memento of Antietam. He had been pleased enough by the progress thus far to scribble a note to Lee, reporting success beyond all expectations. Stedman had fallen easily, along with its flanking batteries, tearing a great hole in the Union line. His men had bagged hundreds of Yankee prisoners, including one irate brigadier general, whose discomfiture had all but made Gordon laugh.
Now he feared his words had been premature, an effervescence of unmanly excitement, and his smile was a mask to inspirit the troops crowding into the fort, a human churn of intermingled regiments whose officers struggled profanely to sort them out in the dusk before sunrise.
Those men had to believe that he believed. But Stedman was only the start. Taking those three rearward forts was crucial. It wasn’t enough to break Meade’s line, he had to split Grant’s army.
He longed for word from his three special columns of picked men, or even from one of them. He had to know that those forts were in his hands and the path to Grant’s rear open.
Meanwhile, he had to widen the breach, to push back the Yankee artillery already annoying his efforts, and to make it impossible for one Federal flank to aid the other.
But the advance was slowing, he sensed it. His early success meant nothing unless the attack continued to keep the Federals reeling. A seized half mile of line, even a full mile, would not change the war’s outcome.
In half an hour or less, the sun would crack open the sky and the last dividends of surprise would have been squandered. It was already light enough to read his pocket watch.
He needed to hear from those special detachments, needed to have those forts. Devil it, he’d put one brigadier and two colonels in charge of the elite columns. Surely each man had the rank and skill to lead a mere hundred men? To accomplish a well-defined mission, with every advantage?
He fought down the impulse to go forward himself. He needed to stay at Fort Stedman so couriers could find him and he could report to Lee.
Why weren’t his men reporting?
The air turned pigeon gray.
On both flanks, the ruckus of battle lacked intensity. The surprise was spent, now they needed to fight. Surely his subordinates saw that much.…
His aides, who knew Gordon as common soldiers did not, kept a wary distance. The corporal holding his horse watched him the way a fellow eyed a cottonmouth snake.
Damn it, though, he did want to go forward and root out the problems. Those columns had guides, prepared maps, clear orders, everything.…
The artillery fire from his own lines redoubled. The Yankees answered. Shot shrilled overhead.
Where the devil were they, those three hundred men meant to serve as his Trojan horse?
As if in answer—the wrong answer—Clem Evans emerged from the throng of waiting soldiers, cloak flapping around him. Gordon all but loved the man, whom he’d brought up behind him, first giving Evans “Gordon’s Brigade,” then command of “Gordon’s Division.” Clem, who meant to become a Methodist preacher after the war, was a splendid killer and—under other circumstances—good company.
But Evans was one man whom Gordon had not expected to see within the fort. He should’ve been pushing southward, taking the redoubt the Yankees called Fort Haskell.
At his fellow Georgian’s approach, Gordon stiffened his regal posture and forced his smile to widen.
“Well, Clem, a goodly part of our prayers are answered. I trust you’ll petition the Good Lord for the rest.”
“God’s labors never stop,” Evans said, voice clear amid the bang-jangle. “I find mine own impeded, though.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The lanes. Through the obstacles. They’re just not wide enough, sir, not in my front. We’re widening them now, but it’s a chore.” Clem chawed his lip. “Just got Terry’s Brigade through and forming up. Soon as they’re ready, we’ll make a more vigorous push.” Evans absentmindedly touched his side, his Monocacy wound. Then he looked sheepish about it: Gordon never touched his wounds when other men could see, not even that long scar where his cheek hollowed. “Thought you should know how things stand, sir.”
“Clem, you’ve got to move now. Grab that fort. Before the sun comes over us. Before the Yankees catch their breath.”
A man who would have endangered many a female heart, had he not been so devoted to his wife, Evans shook his head. It was meant only to clear his thoughts, not to signal despair. Gordon could tell, he knew the man.
“We’ll take the fort, sir. But I’ll have to do it just with Terry’s men and the Louisianans, many as I can round up. My last brigade won’t be ready to go in for another half hour, maybe longer, way things stand. Those narrow lanes. And Yankee prisoners running all over do make things a sight worse.”
“I welcome prisoners myself,” Gordon said, buttering his voice. “I find their dejection heartening.” He cocked an eyebrow. “I wish some other officers showed your alacrity about reporting, Clem.” He refreshed his smile. “Go on now. Take that fort.”
The Yankee artillery added more guns to the fracas. In ashen light, shells landed near Fort Stedman. Mobs of men crowded toward inadequate cover.
What was going on with those three detachments? Stedman and the batteries on its wings couldn’t hold more troops, they had to go forward to make room for others. Or everything would stagger to a halt.
Clem couldn’t get enough soldiers through, Grimes seemed to have too many, and Walker’s situation was unclear. Ransom was attacking northward, all right, but seemed to have gone off on a war of his own.
A staff man led a messenger to Gordon. Gordon knew the panting lieutenant to see, but couldn’t recall his name. He liked to call men by their names, to make them feel appreciated.
The boy saluted. “Lieutenant Wilkins, sir…”
“Oh, I know who you are, son. Now take yourself a breath and speak your piece.”
“From General Lewis, sir. He says … said to tell you … he can’t find that fort you sent him after. Said all North Carolina couldn’t find it.”
Great God Almighty.
“What about the guide, the scout? He couldn’t find it?”
The boy shook his head. With considerably more vehemence than Clem Evans had shaken his. “Just run off, General. Or got separated, maybe, in all the mix-up.”
Gordon’s smile had disappeared.
“Can you find your way back to General Lewis?”
Nodding unconvincingly, the lieutenant said, “I believe so, sir. I think so. But it’s all trenches and bombproofs out there, it’s like some crazy run of gopher holes.”
In a voice forged into steel, Gordon said:
“Find General Lewis. And tell him I said to find that fort and take it.”
Five thirty a.m.
Prince George Court House Road, east of Fort Stedman
Brigadier General “Black John” Hartranft bellowed, “Keep your alignment, boys, and keep on moving!” He held his horse to the rutted road as his men advanced on both sides of it. Damp with mist, his mustache clung to his lip.
Poor situation for a division commander, leading one lone regiment into a fight. All anyone in blue could agree on so far was that the Rebs had serious intentions. This wasn’t just a blown-up picket raid, but a major attack. The Johnnies had broken the line and meant to keep going.
Hartranft intended to stop them, or at least to cost them time. After a hardmouthed talk with a fellow general, he’d called up his nearest regiment, the 200th Pennsylvania, which had never been under fire. He’d summoned the rest of his division, too, sending off Captain Dalien and a pack of couriers, but his brigades had been dispersed as reserves behind the Ninth Corps line. It would take time for the regiments to converge to stem the breakthrough, and the entire division, or most of it, was formed of unblooded troops. So the 200th Pennsylvania would have to do, with its pimple-faced boys and calculating draftees.
Blasts and volleys tore the feeble darkness, yet his blind advance went unmolested. For the moment. One thing of which he was certain was that the Rebs he would meet would not be green like his boys, but hard-nut veterans. Somewhere up ahead, they’d be advancing toward this road, or already on it. Ready to slash into anything dressed in a blue coat.
If his men didn’t panic at the first encounter …
“Steady, boys. Keep the pace, no lagging now. Nur weiter.”
Well, he could command one regiment well enough. He’d learned that much the hard way, earning each promotion twice over across the bloody years, ever dogged by the shame of the first regiment he’d raised, the 4th Pennsylvania, ninety-day volunteers who’d rushed to Lincoln. Their term of service had expired on the eve of First Bull Run and, ignoring Hartranft’s pleas, the men had insisted on being mustered out. So the regiment of which he’d been so proud had marched away from the battlefield as other men marched toward the war’s true beginning. Hartranft had remained behind, a supernumerary on a hapless staff, doing his best to get himself killed and failing at that, too.
It had been a long war after that. Eine saure Ewigkeit.
Artillery streaked the sky on the flanks, but the mist to his front was a blindfold. The Rebs were coming on, though, they had to be. They needed this road, if they wanted success to stick.
Hundreds of footfalls slapped the earth around him. Nickering, his horse pranced and calmed again.
You just never knew how men would act when they first came under fire. He’d done his best to prepare these troops, to train them and encourage them. Now he could only display himself on horseback, which would matter far less than how these men felt about their company officers and sergeants.
Don’t doubt. Just lead. Don’t fail them, and they won’t fail you.
The men moved well, if somberly, over the ruined ground, with their rifles at right-shoulder shift and their banners snapping. But that wasn’t fighting.
He wanted the sun to pop through the gray, wishing he could drag it up with his hands. There was light enough already for a scrap, but a rising sun, if it burned through the mist, would be in the Johnnies’ eyes and at his men’s backs. And every last advantage counted now.
Still a quarter hour until sunrise, Hartranft judged. A soldier’s eternity.
And there they were: a skirmish line of Rebs, a heavy one. The mood around him tightened. A few startled voices called out, but most of his men kept their silence.
At least these lads gathered up from home wouldn’t mock the Pennsy-Dutch accent that possessed him when things grew hot. Or if they mocked, their tone wouldn’t be disdainful.
He let the front rank and the regiment’s colors pass, then he called out, “Now, Pennsylvania! For your wives and mothers!”
A voice rose from the ranks: “I’ll take me a sassy Dutch gal, if you got one.”
“Maybe she don’t take you, you don’t fight good,” Hartranft responded, lapsing into dialect.
Men laughed, and it was good—if nervous—laughter.
The Reb skirmishers paused and leveled their rifles.
Hartranft sat up rigidly in the saddle, the only encouragement he could offer now. He pointed ahead with his sword.
Pinpricks of light were followed instantly by the crack of rifles. With a grunt heard above the tramp of shoes, a soldier fell away. The regimental and company officers looked to Hartranft, expecting him to halt and return a volley.
Not yet, not yet. Green troops shot wildly. They needed to be closer.
The Rebs had gotten almost a half mile into the lines. They had to be held here.
Time, it was about time now. The nearest of his other regiments, the 209th Pennsylvania, wouldn’t be more than twenty minutes back. He had to hold that long. And the best way to do it was to go at the Rebs, to show some spunk and not wait meekly for a Confederate blow.
The Rebs fired again. Inside of two hundred yards. More men toppled. One pleaded, “Tildy, help me! Help me, Tildy!”
Another thirty paces and he’d halt them. Or forty paces, if he sensed they could stand it.
Plenty of fighting elsewhere now. But none of it mattered as much as control of this road. If the Rebs took it, they’d go straight to City Point.
To his relief, not a single soldier faltered. They really did look as if they were on parade.
They’d soon know better.
The Rebs jammed ramrods down their barrels. Behind them, Hartranft glimpsed collapsed tents, a looted camp.
His two lines froze, creating a sudden, close-in silence amid the broader uproar. He ordered a volley. It proved sufficient to send the skirmishers back a few dozen paces, toward the ravaged tents. As his men reloaded—well practiced and reassuringly crisp—a small reinforcement came up from behind at the double-quick. He couldn’t quite make out their flag.
Nor could he wait. He ordered the 200th forward again.
An officer trotted up, sweating and disheveled. “Fifty-seventh Massachusetts, sir,” the captain shouted. He pointed at the Rebs. “Our camp’s back there, you can see it, behind those skirmishers. Rebs jumped us. We mean to go back and reclaim it.”
“Put your men on my right, Captain. You’re welcome and needed.”
Instead of a sunburst at his back, Hartranft felt a raindrop.
When the blue lines continued forward, the Rebel skirmishers pulled back again, pausing now and again to fire and sting.
“See that!” Hartranft told the men within hearing. “They’re not standing up to you, those verdammte Rebs.”
It was something of a lie. But the soldiers cheered themselves.
After a brief tease, the raindrops stopped.
The skirmishers faded over a low crest, leaving behind the ruins of the camp, scattered papers and undesired property. Hartranft understood what the withdrawal meant: Their main line would be waiting down the far slope, rifles ready.
He couldn’t figure it out, though: If they’d had time to loot that camp and their main line hadn’t caught up to them, it meant they’d been ordered to halt. They should have advanced while nothing stood in their way.
Had they grown unsure of themselves? Hartranft knew how easily things went awry on a battlefield, even by daylight. Or was this a trap?
Nothing to do but go forward and find out. Then make them fight for every foot they wanted.
To the north and south, the fighting flared again. The Rebs were attacking in full force now. They’d reorganized in the first light, Hartranft guessed. And there still had not been sufficient time for his brigade commanders or his fellow division commanders to mount proper counterattacks. The Johnnies still had the advantage.
He had no idea how many Confederates waited behind that crest. Dalien had to bring up reinforcements.
On rising ground, on the left side of the road, his ranks opened as they worked past the caved-in tents.
Perched in the saddle, he’d see the Johnnies before his soldiers did. Fifteen seconds earlier, maybe more. Time enough to decide and spit out an order.
Stripped of trees and bushes across the winter, the crest stretched barren and ugly, a place of death. Unreasonably, it made him recall the rich, green mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, where he’d learned survey work as a young man, before his father’s businesses consumed him. He loved verdant places. And quiet.
Close now. Close.
He saw them. Two regiments. Or, perhaps, a whittled-down brigade. No, two regiments, judged by the flags. Lean ones, the odds not impossible. Down the slope they waited, just where he’d expected them to be.
Again, the blue ranks paused. Still unseeing.
The regimental and company officers echoed the command.
When the clang and click of metal on metal ceased, he called out, “Trail arms!”
The officers repeated that command, too.
He pointed with his sword again.
The regiment and its tagalongs passed the crest. He felt as much as heard the gasps as his soldiers saw a Reb battle line for the first time, the flesh-and-blood enemy waiting there in strength, determined to kill them.
Well, he did believe that Sallie would miss and mourn him. Did the dead miss anyone? He’d always had trouble with promises of a cherry-pie hereafter.
Hartranft remained on horseback, between his advancing ranks, a splendid target. These boys—many were boys, indeed—needed to know that someone in authority, someone they might imagine as wise and assured, was with them now.
Leadership demanded such fraud that its practitioners belonged in a penitentiary.
A death sentence for those who would lose this special lottery, the Johnnies lowered their rifles and steadied their aim.
Keep them moving, just keep them moving forward.…
The Rebs line flamed and crackled. A dozen men fell. More. Red blood, white bone.
He could see them clearly now, those red flags in the dawn. And he, too, felt the anxiety born of fear that, strangely, drove men to rush ahead when they wanted to flee.
He halted his lines again and had the front rank release a volley in time to disrupt the Johnnies as they reloaded. Then he ordered a charge.
Made animals, his soldiers howled a hurrah. And charge they did, with as much spirit as any regiment Hartranft had seen.
Gore splashed gray air. The Rebels stood their ground, confident veterans. Midway down the slope, the killing became too much. Hartranft waved the men back, ordering a withdrawal, before they could break and run.
Horse bleeding, he led the 200th Pennsylvania in a second charge. And suffered another repulse. They were driven back through the Massachusetts camp again, but he rallied them and the regiment charged a third time. When they fell back, they were fewer.
To his astonishment, Hartranft went unscathed. His horse had been shot at least twice, though, and bled from neck and flank. Choosing his ground, the lip of a ravine, he let his powder-mugged men and boys shelter behind old earthworks commanding the road. He intended to hold that position until the end; he saw no choice.
Where was everyone? Where was young Dalien, where was his staff, his division?
The sun had risen behind a somber wall, refusing to blind the Johnnies. Men shivered as sweat chilled. Some vomited. Others realized, at last, that they’d been wounded, some of them badly, and broke down. One man who had made his way back unaided collapsed and died.
The regiment had done nobly, but Hartranft felt spirits ebbing. In plain view, the Rebs aligned themselves to renew their advance. Even he found the sight of those rough ranks daunting, so the display was bound to play havoc with the hearts of young men enduring their first battle.
Cold rain flirted again.
Then Black John Hartranft saw two sights that pleased him as few things in his life had done. First, he grasped that the Johnnies were digging in rather than attacking—it made no sense, but it was surely welcome. Second, he saw the unfurled flags of the 209th Pennsylvania coming up, with Captain Dalien showing the way upon his dancing horse.
Copyright © 2017 by Ralph Peters