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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Darkness at Chancellorsville

A Novel of Stonewall Jackson's Triumph and Tragedy

Ralph Peters

Forge Books



Late morning, April 29 Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River, Virginia

Amid green leaves and birdsong, in a world scented by sawdust and quick water, Corporal Bill Smith watched and listened and waited, letting the officers have their way with the visitor. Didn’t do any good to interfere, but he had to know what the fuss was all about. The pair of captains—two men assigned to do the job of none—weren’t always inclined to share what little they knew, even with each other. And Smith had a bridge to build, since nobody with rank on his collar seemed able and willing to do it.

The withered farmer shifted his weight from leg to leg, a parody of a soldier undone by the camp trots.

“Yankees, I tell you,” the old man all but shouted. “Passels of ’em, crossing at Kelly’s Ford ever since last night.”

In that disdainful voice of his, a voice bred to raise hackles, Captain Tyler said:

“Sure now. We’re grateful for your concern, sir.” He touched his hat as if to tip it, but didn’t. “Any Yankees this side of the Rappahannock won’t be nothing but scouts wearing out their horses.”

The old man flushed crimson. “Damn me, boy … I seen me enough of you folks and them’uns to tell a man on a horse from one afoot. And I’m telling you Yankee infantry come across, thick as the legions of Hell. And they’re headed this way, fast as cloven hooves can bring ’em along.” He reached out to calm his sweated mule, which had taken up his excitement, then turned back to the captain with fresh fierceness. “You been warned, boy. Be it on your head. You done been warned.”

“Had any Yankees crossed that river in force, we would’ve had word.” Tyler’s voice cut, managing to imply not only that the farmer was a fool, but that he might have made his breakfast of applejack.

To soften the sting of Tyler’s tone, his fellow captain—another of the army’s abundance of Smiths—told the old man, “Warning taken, sir. Much obliged. We’ll keep us a proper lookout, thank you kindly.”

Rope-muscle forearms quivering, the farmer all but spit. “You don’t believe me neither, sonny. Figure me for an old fool.” He shook a head carved by decades of sun and wind. “Ain’t none so blind as them what will not see.”

The farmer jacked himself back into his saddle. His mule still heaved. “Reckon I’ll go on home and see if the Yankees et what little was left.” He cast a hard look at the pair of captains. “And thank you for your fine defense of Virginia.”

* * *

Corporal Smith didn’t share the disinterest of the officers. Mannerly rivals one to the other, Tyler of his scorned 12th Virginia and Captain Smith of the 41st had been detailed because they could best be spared by their regiments. The party had been dispatched the week before, at the Cavalry Corps’ request, two understrength companies, along with a handful of carpenters and pioneers entrusted to Smith and his stripes, and a shiftless pack of Posey’s Mississippians. A hundred and forty heads when the roll was called, their task was to erect a new bridge on the foundations of one destroyed in the last year’s campaigning. The captains treated the mission as a lark, a chance to call at neighboring plantations, and even the sergeants weren’t much minded to help, so the serious doings had fallen to Smith and his boys.

And Corporal Bill Smith didn’t trust the Yankees. He’d learned in fights behind the schoolyard privy not to trust man or boy he couldn’t see plain to his front. He knew the country folk around these parts, too, he’d studied them in his ranging. They weren’t much given to fits like town folk were. That old farmer had seen enough of something to launch him ten hard-rump miles atop a mule.

Smith nodded at the captains, not quite saluting, and turned back to his task. Stuart’s staff had sworn to provide the plans and guide the construction, but Captain Collins, the Cavalry Corps’ engineer, had contented himself with pointing out the plain-to-see old foundations before taking himself off to Culpeper again.

That was what came of handing over infantrymen to the cavalry: nothing good, ever.

Left to themselves with inadequate tools, Smith’s men had peeled off crusted shirts and turned the run-down mill on the south bank into their workshop as well as a headquarters, a laboring few as the many watched. Now, at last, the stringers were placed or readied, the final planks trimmed, and the first two spans completed from the north bank, almost a wonder. He’d had to bring down the full weight of his not-much-of-a-rank to get even the best men to work with vigor, though, since the ford was a pleasant refuge, far from the usual duties, with apple and peach blossoms prettying the world and the river an invitation to bare-ass tomfoolery as men soaked off layers of filth or soothed their itches.

An odd bunch they were, his fellow Virginians, especially the Southsiders: They’d fight like demons, but faced with manual labor they grew indolent, an attitude Smith himself had never adopted. Couldn’t afford to, not like those white-glove boys. Born Southside himself, he’d gone west, to Nashville, for new chances and honest work, returning only when the war came calling.

The only thing that had made the soldiers move with manly speed had been the abrupt discovery of a wasps’ nest.

Mindful folk contended that the South—the true South—began below the James, and Bill Smith believed they were right.

Of course, the Mississippians were far worse, prideful and front-porch lazy to a man. Fight a duel before they’d pick up a shovel. And not just the gentlemen. As soon kill a slightful cousin as a Yankee.

“Carey, Nelson,” the corporal barked at a pair working on the third span, “pull that plank back up and lay it right. Darkies would do a better job than that.”

Bare-chested and scarred and Irish as Saturday sin, Private Carey teased him back: “Ain’t none of your black bucks left you, Corporal dearie. They’re all traipsed off up north to Yankee heaven.”

He grinned with amber teeth.

* * *

“Wonder if I shouldn’t take ten or twelve men and have a look,” Captain James Smith, Jr., told his rival company commander. “Push out two, three miles along the road. Just to be certain.”

“Might not be unwise,” Captain Tyler agreed.

“Could be a raid.”

“Reckon that’s possible.” Tyler put on an among-us-officers smile. “Corporal Smith won’t be happy, you take any men away from his precious work, though. Best holler back to the mill and roust some do-nothings.”

Captain Smith waved off the concern. “Take too long. Besides, Billy Smith thinks all officers walk on water. He won’t fuss.”

Copyright © 2019 by Ralph Peters