…and warfare changed forever. As Grant pinned Lee to Petersburg and Richmond, the Confederacy’s stubborn Army of Northern Virginia struggled against a relentless Union behemoth, with breathtaking valor and sacrifice on both sides. That confrontation in the bloody summer and autumn of 1864 shaped the nation that we know today.
From the butchery of The Crater, where stunning success collapsed into a massacre, through near-constant battles fought by heat-stricken soldiers, to the crucial election of 1864, The Damned of Petersburg resurrects our Civil War’s hard reality, as plumes and sabers gave way to miles of trenches.
Amid the slaughter of those fateful months, fabled leaders—Grant and Lee, Winfield Scott Hancock and A. P. Hill—turned to rising heroes, Confederates “Little Billy” Mahone and Wade Hampton, last of the cavaliers, or Union warriors such as tragedy-stricken Francis Channing Barlow and the fearless Nelson Miles, a general at twenty-four.
Nor does Ralph Peters forget the men in the ranks, the common soldiers who paid the price for the blunders of leaders who’d never know their names. In desperate battles, now forgotten, such as Deep Bottom, Globe Tavern and Reams Station, soldiers on both sides, pushed to the last human limits, fought on as their superiors struggled to master a terrible new age of warfare.
The Damned of Petersburg revives heroes aplenty—enriching our knowledge of our most terrible war—but, above all, this novel’s a tribute to the endurance and courage of the American soldier, North or South.
The Damned of Petersburg will be available June 28th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Early evening, July 28, 1864
Deep Bottom, Virginia
In heat as thick as syrup, skirmishers pecked. The crack of the rifles seemed dulled, the sparse commands reluctant. And the usual catcalls were missing, the hard teasing. Too hot even for insult. Suffocating.
Between the shots, flies hummed. Vermin, at least, could be relied upon. Loyal to the army to the end.
Dust marred the light. The stench of men and stink of powder had weight. Scorched air scraped lungs. Bewildered, random casualties drifted rearward. Others, shattered, rode litters toward their pain.
The romance of war, Barlow mused.
Flies surrounded him. Unable to figure out how to reach the shit encrusting his drawers. Just as Grant and Meade couldn’t get at Lee, stymied by the forts and trenches at Petersburg. Or here, in front of Richmond. The black flies and the brown couldn’t pierce his sweat-hardened shirt or fouled britches, and the behemoth Union Army of the Potomac, augmented by Butler’s Army of the James, could not penetrate the Confederate lines. It was all of a piece, one grand incapability.
A rush of the dizzies unsettled him. His horse snorted and stepped. The day would never end.
“You all right, Frank?” Nellie asked, not lightly. Nelson Miles had not shone, but he’d still performed better than Barlow’s other subordinates. As usual. A clerk before the war and newly a brigadier general, at his best Miles fought with spectacular savagery. But no man had been at his best the past few days.
“Hardly matters, does it?” Barlow soothed his fly-pricked horse. “Another grand absurdity. Poor plan, badly carried. Hancock doesn’t know what to do, what with Grant and Meade and Humphreys dispensing ‘advice.’” He looked away, unready to bear the features of any man, even one who almost passed as a friend. “We should’ve tried again today, at least properly tried. Now Lee knows the whole farrago’s a bluff.”
“The men are blown,” Miles said. “I lost more to heatstroke on the march than I did to the Johnnies.”
Barlow’s eyebrows tightened. “Not sure that’s an achievement to be proud of. Anyway, they’re shirkers and slackers, the half of them. Bounty-jumpers. Dregs of the draft, what have you. You need to drive them hard.”
“Frank, I think I know how to ‘drive’ men. They were falling in bunches before we crossed the James. Why anyone thought, in this weather…”
Barlow laughed. One low, unattractive syllable. “We’re a diversion, you understand that? That’s what galls me, Nellie. Winning wasn’t ever in the cards.” He lifted a hand. “I believe all this was only meant to draw off troops from Petersburg. In service to the great mine, the secret that’s no secret.” He laughed that lonely syllable again. “With Burnside behind it, that ass.…”
Miles’ horse quivered in the heat. Barlow’s gelding copied him.
“Frank”—Miles tried again—“you look seriously ill.”
This time, Barlow’s laugh was genuine. “Of course I’m ill. Everyone’s ill. Virginia bears more plagues than Pharaoh’s Egypt.”
Shitting blood for a month. Feet worse than ever, itching infernally. Hard not to scratch the flesh right down to the bone. And the toothache back. Along with the stab of old wounds. A fine specimen of humanity he was, at the venerable age of twenty-nine.
Long way from Harvard Yard. Or Brook Farm. Or his Manhattan law office.
And Hancock, the sorry bugger, had it worse. It was obvious that he lived with constant pain from the Gettysburg wound. There had been stretches earlier in July when Hancock could not get up from his cot. And conditions behind the ever-expanding trenches had grown so grim, so torrid and filthy, that even Hancock’s English valet—a distinctly unsavory character—couldn’t keep the corps commander in clean collars.
A pair of litter bearers passed, lugging a panting boy with his eyes rolled back. Barlow couldn’t see blood and it got his temper up: If he could face the heat, so could the men.
Behind the scrap of shade that Barlow and Miles had commandeered, and beyond the herd of staff men keeping their distance, distempered ranks of troops waited in a tree line, allowed to kneel or lie down to wait, all of them measuring shadows that grew too slowly, hoping that no order would come to advance. It was far from the splendid division Barlow had led just three months earlier, before they plunged across the Rapidan. That division had been squandered in mindless fights for worthless plots of land, in grinding slaughters. By the time they’d reached Cold Harbor, Barlow hadalmost sympathized with the shirkers. The best men had fallen at the forefront of repeated attacks, leaving the cautious and cowardly to crawl back. His ruined division had been replenished with scum.
The sole hint of grace in all of it, in the long, blood-sodden summer, in the murderous heat and lung-tormenting dust, had been his Belle. When she took sick, he had been shocked at the depth of his emotion, finding himself less the stoic than he’d believed. She’d been stricken with typhus, caught from a soldier nursed at the City Point hospital, infected because she had given herself to the horror of wards and surgeries to remain near to her husband.
They had married at the outbreak of the war, their affinity more one of minds than of crude passions, a match of congenial spirits. Arabella stood ten years his senior, which philistines found odd, but the marriage had been logical enough. She was the cleverest woman he’d ever known: well-read, of strong opinion, unafraid. It had seemed quite a good arrangement, and so it proved.
When he’d thought her lost, he’d been astonished at his desolation. Alone in his tent, he had wept.
Now she was mending, under good care in Washington. Magnificent, marvelous Belle.
When the war ended, he’d keep his promise immediately. He’d take her to Europe, to Rome. She wished to sit where Gibbon had paused in the Forum. His Arabella. The flesh of his lip brushed a crooked tooth and approximated a smile. His Belle. A woman more excited about the history of Rome than the latest Paris fashions, a serious woman.
His mother, whom Barlow adored, always took pains with her toilette, had even done so when they’d lived on pennies, blue-blooded beggars. Of course, she had rather disliked Arabella at first. That was in the natural order of things. But Barlow felt the breach had been repaired.
Yet, he remembered: his mother, at her most regal, saying, “Francis, she never laughs.” And then, with a moment’s reflection, adding, “But neither do you.…”
Unfair and untrue. He still felt the slap of her words.
To Europe, though. To Rome. Perhaps some foreign doctor could heal his feet.
“What’s that?” Barlow demanded.
An assault? By Gibbon’s men?
“Cavalry at it again,” Miles responded. “Not much to it, but they do go on.” He patted his mount. “Hard on the horses.”
Of course. The firing was well to the north. Where Sheridan, fierce and foul, was back in action. If “action” described the feckless cavalry fighting.
It troubled him that he hadn’t placed things properly.
Dizziness. Flies. Heat. His own stink engulfed him. Suspenders off his shoulders and dropped to his flanks, checkered shirt clinging, saber a dead weight, Barlow felt hollow and top-heavy. Was he, in fact, capable?
Capable or not, he would not give up his command until they carried him off. The man who quit in war was no man at all.
“Nellie, I don’t mind a fight…,” Barlow began.
It was Miles’ turn to laugh.
“I don’t mind a fight,” Barlow repeated. “But the pointlessness, the blundering…” He straightened in the saddle and the flies tracked his change of posture. “I’d like, just once, to see a plan of quality, a scheme with some least forethought. Something beyond ‘Go out there, bleed, and come back.’ I have no more confidence in Grant—or Meade—than I would in a howling madman.”
His father. Gone mad, God-infected. Lost. A man of the cloth who had torn the cloth asunder, deserting kith and kin, driven by demons. Barlow had not seen his face since childhood. And he did not wish to see it now.
Yet, at times, he wondered what had become of that fallen star.
Shooing off his personal escort of flies, Miles said, “I don’t know. Wastage aplenty, I give you. But Grant did fight Lee all the way to Richmond. And over the James.”
“And now we’re stuck. Butler was stuck, now we’re all stuck. Wait and see, Nellie. Burnside’s affair will be another cock-up. Everyone’s out of ideas.” His guts churned. “If ever any man in this army had one.”
“Lee’s stuck, too,” Miles said.
“And it just goes on.”
Miles declined to argue the point further. Too hot for speech. Out of sight, on the edge of the skirmish line, the firing quickened. Only to swoon again.
Sweat burned Barlow’s eyes.
This, he told himself, is life’s reality. Immeasurably removed from the Harvard classrooms where, as an undergraduate, he had played at thought and preened. The experiments of the great Professor Agassiz on viscosity couldn’t begin to measure this fetid air, nor had the lectures on aesthetics foreseen this blighted landscape. Except for Arabella, all of the things he had valued seemed a fraud now, as empty as the boasts of an Irish drunkard.
Harvard valedictorian? What had come of that? The truth was that he had not cared for the honor, had striven to come in first only to deny the place to Teddy Lyman, who had wanted it so much. He had scored a hollow triumph out of meanness—was that the quality, above all others, that equipped Francis Channing Barlow to be a general? Smirking again, he recalled those awful hours of German philosophy, the imagined importance of the “latest ideas” to cross the Atlantic. What had they amounted to? Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung? Will certainly mattered, but reality was more than the mind’s concoction. The world wasn’t some figment. It was blood and shit and bone. And a witless sky.
Poor Teddy Lyman. A good chum, despite all. Forgiving. Volunteer aide to that old crab Meade and always good for the latest gossip from Boston.
Barlow gulped bitter water from his canteen, wondering if he should try to eat a cracker to calm his insides. The skirmishers, his recalcitrants and the Johnnies, had fallen silent, too drained to do more.
“Might want to stir things up a bit,” he told Miles. “At least, make sure those scoundrels of yours are awake.”
With his sunburned, freckled face revealing annoyance, Miles nodded. No man, colonel or corporal, wanted to move, to do anything. The heat was an animal pinning you down and slobbering all over you.
Before Miles nudged his horse into motion, Charlie Morgan appeared. Back where a primitive road parted the trees. Hancock’s chief of staff rode at a pace that defied the heat, kicking up dust and drawing curses from soldiers.
“Oh, Christ,” Miles said. “We’re going back in after all.”
Barlow shook his head. Warily. “Doesn’t make sense, at this point.”
They waited for Morgan to close the distance. Barlow’s feet itched monstrously.
Hancock’s chief of staff reined up. Dust swelled and Barlow snapped, “I doubt you bear glad tidings, Charlie. Shall I take a guess?”
A noted cynic and famously profane, Morgan looked oddly somber. He was so discolored by dust that a skirmisher might have taken him for a Johnny.
Uncharacteristically, Morgan paused before speaking. As if he brought orders for a suicide charge.
“General Barlow…,” Morgan began. Then he stopped.
What the devil? Barlow wondered. A shiver went through him. Good God. He wasn’t being relieved, was he? For what cause? He’d followed his worthless orders as best he could. They couldn’t have marched any faster, there was no reason—
“General Barlow”—Morgan tried again—“Frank … perhaps you’d like to dismount?”
“For God’s sake, Charlie. I’m glued to the saddle with shit.”
“If you’d dismount, though…”
“Oh, bugger it. Fine.” He swung out of the saddle, long-legged, fanning his own fumes, smelling his reek. Aware of slime, grit, itch.
He stood on firm ground, but was hardly firm himself.
Miles, too, had dismounted. Morgan eyed him, as if weighing whether or not to ask for privacy.
“Whatever you’ve got to say, Nellie can hear it,” Barlow told him. “Nothing in this army stays a secret.”
“General Barlow, I regret—”
“You’ve conveyed your demure reluctance. Just get on with it.”
It struck Barlow that Morgan had yet to utter a single obscenity. That was queer, indeed.
Surely, Hancock wouldn’t let Meade or Grant relieve him? They’d had their disagreements, but Win had seemed to be grooming him. To take over the corps, should Hancock’s wound continued to suppurate.
Morgan stepped closer, immune to the scents of humankind. His whore-weathered, war-hardened face, so fierce, all but trembled.
“General Barlow … we’ve just gotten word. Frank, your wife is dead.”
Barlow stared through the man.
“I’m sorry,” Morgan went on. “You have my condolences. Hancock’s, of course.…”
“Yesterday. We just got the news. From Teddy Lyman, the message went through Meade’s headquarters.”
“Hancock’s ordered a tug up to the landing. To take you to City Point, to the steamers. We’re just waiting for Meade’s authorization. For your leave. There’s the usual nonsense. Miles will take the division while you’re away.”
“I’m so sorry, Frank,” Miles put in.
“It doesn’t matter,” Barlow said. He placed a hand atop his saddle to steady himself. Feeling his bowels about to betray him again. One more death. Why should it matter? Amid all this? Why should it matter? Why should it matter at all?
Tears raced from his eyes, a humiliation.
“Did you say something, Frank?” Morgan asked. “Are you all right?”
Afternoon, July 29
Camp Holly, eastern defenses of Richmond
Watermelons. Two wagonloads. The boys did spark when the drivers turned into camp. Oates was glad he had done it, gone into Richmond and dug into his own pockets. Which were hardly deep.
No time at all and his men—these men who were his consolation after the great wrong done him—were at the melons with buck knives and bayonets, or just busting them open on the ground, revealing and reveling in that woman-pink fruit, wet pulp, eager as children, made children again by war. His boys, his men. The 48th Alabama, “Fortykins” to their brethren, since so many of these hill men had blood relations in the regiment, usually in the same company. Strong, willing, able men, if rubbed thin by poor rations and hard marching. Men as good as a cheated colonel could ask.
Just weren’t his old 15th. The regiment he had led up that hill at Gettysburg, a hill nameless then, where he left his brother John dying, left him to the Yankees, because he had his duty, and later he learned that the hill was called “Little Round Top,” though it had been plenty big enough for a slaughter. He had led that regiment, his 15th, that many-footed, many-headed beast he had loved more than any woman he recollected. His men. He had led them until he was wounded in the autumn and then he had come back to lead them again, limping, hip grinding bone on bone, pestle and mortar. He’d led their falling numbers through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, each killing ground worse than the last, and then through the one-sided butchery at Cold Harbor, that day no more than a massacre, the killing so easy and terrible that his own men, unscathed, had vomited.
The 15th had been his, his, his, until Major Lowther, a shirker in a fight, had come back from Richmond with the rank of colonel, granted by the Senate of the Confederacy, and bearing along with his undeserved patent the news that Oates wasn’t really a colonel after all, his commission had never been signed, and maybe he wasn’t a lieutenant colonel, either. Gloating, Lowther had offered to let Oates stay on as the regiment’s major.
He would not, did not.
He had gone to Lee himself to plead his case, and Lee had passed him along to Jefferson Davis, both men full of useless sympathy, unwilling to fuss with legislators. Davis had acknowledged his right to his colonelcy, though, and given him the 48th to salve the wound, since Oates already knew the regiment, had led it along with his own back in the bloody, bloody, bloody days of May, when it had not had one field officer left standing. Even now, it wasn’t truly a regiment, but a remnant.
He had clutched the command, gnawed by the injustice done him, reminded of it each day because Law’s Brigade was held in reserve and his 48th tented right beside the dastardly Lowther and his 15th Alabama. His days were as bitter as wormwood.
His mother did love that expression: “My days are as bitter as wormwood.” She would shake her head and speak in the glory voice, though not at the volume, of a circuit preacher, the sort who rode a mule, not a horse, and had mastered the cadence of the Holy Bible, of speech impregnable. His mother and her chore-burnished faith in the Lord. On a swept-clean porch, she would mouth those words with a lean sort of affection, as if complaint were a thing to be nursed and cherished.
Complaint, that ready delight of hard-used folk, song of his blood.
Oates stood with folded arms, watching the men devour the watermelons, their cheeks shining with drip. His back was to the river in the distance, turned resolutely to the Yankee gunboats, inured to their occasional puffs of devilment, the range too long for the shells to do him one-tenth the evil Lowther had done unto him.
Washington had encamped on this very spot, so it was said, with his army triumphant. Just after Yorktown. The echo was pleasant, but Oates wasn’t blithe about another such victory, here, with his people pressed against Richmond by the Yankees. Who kept coming on again and again, drab devils.
Oates didn’t take to feeling cornered.
Well, you just had to face it one fight at a time. And not overponder.
Still, it had been a queer sort of relief when, two days before, they had been ordered down the New Market Road, where the Yankees had stirred up a fuss. And then they had marched back again, after the scrap went quits. Nothing to it but the heat and dust.
He watched, bemused, as a first few men strayed over from the camp of the 15th, slavering, enticed. As if by Eve herself. By watermelons as tempting as Delilah, as plain a come-hither as a lifted skirt. Oates understood desire. And he watched them come, watched them edge their way in, watched them take the offered fruit in hand, intruders teased but tolerated. His men, new and old.
More of the boys from the 15th brisked their way over, hound dogs on the scent. Just too many, and it would not do. They had to learn that this fruit, this gift, was for his new men now. Let Lowther, the tightfisted bastard, scour his own purse. Let him buy a treat for the men he’d stolen away. Let him burn.
Oates strode forward, hip not much of a bother this ripe day, maybe heat-soothed, and he said, “You men there. Cates, Jones, Kirby. Rest of you. Those melons are for the Forty-eighth, and they won’t stretch. Y’all get back to your camp.” He could not help but add, “I’m sure Colonel Lowther’s got watermelons coming.”
“Aw, Colonel. There’s plenty enough.”
Oates shook his head. “I don’t see it, and don’t you sass me, Farley. You get along now. Take what you have in hand and go your way. Hear?”
And go they did, in sorrow. Cut down to sulking children. War made a man a creature of dependencies, waiting, helpless, for rations, garments, orders. Independent fellows who would have beaten and perhaps slain the man who took a tone of command with them back in low-country Alabama, his realm, or in the hills that spat out the 48th, these hill men who had brethren of Yankee leanings and no love for the Confederacy, men without niggers who couldn’t see fighting to keep niggers where they belonged, men from hills where only white faces showed themselves and lived, particular people who wished to be left alone, yet here they were, almost three hundred still, now that he had drained the Richmond hospitals.
He had taken over this rump of a regiment, men who had strayed from discipline, and he had let them know that the days of slumped shoulders were over. He’d drilled them hard, hardest on his captains and lieutenants, and they had not troubled him much, for they knew his reputation for knocking down any man who needed knocking down, and he had led them in battle and well, and for all the groggy, sun-ain’t-up-yet murmurings, the truth was that they wanted a firm hand, desired it as a woman desired things she could not admit.
He had taken on Richmond, menacing clerks not only with requisition forms, but with generous hints of violence, and he had gotten his new men better rations—such as they were—and new uniforms and even replacement rifles for the worst his inspections discovered. His little regiment was the best-looking outfit in Law’s Brigade these days, and he had done that in a matter of weeks, let Lowther get down on his knees and lick his ass.
He burned with hellfire each time he saw that man.
Joe Hardwick, a lieutenant of some grip, stepped up to Oates. He held out a cut of watermelon. “You’ll join the men, sir? Have yourself a piece?”
Oates remembered Billy Hardwick, young Joe’s elder brother, from the brigade’s old days. Two blinks after his promotion to lieutenant colonel, Billy had been captured by the Yankees and not heard of since.
Thick-bearded and dark of mien, a purposeful man and let every last soul know it, the new commanding officer of the 48th Alabama, William C. Oates, Colonel, CSA, pending confirmation by the august powers, shook his head as if declining to buy a fine hog cheap.
“You eat that up,” he told the lieutenant. “Never cared for watermelon myself.” A lie, a gargantuan lie! But the men had to know that the melons were for them, not purchased to satiate a colonel’s craving.
Oates had satisfied a deeper craving on one foray into Richmond. He had asked after a house where the girls were clean and had taken his chances with pink, quivering flesh, that other rich and immemorial pulp. And he seemed to have come through unscathed. Despite the odds.
He might have lingered, but he’d been repulsed by the unclean sheets he’d only noticed when done with his doings. Even a whore had no cause to be a slattern.
Different standard for colored gals, of course, and he’d always been fond of them, of their engulfing scent and merry laughter. But a man didn’t dare touch that sort around here, given all the contagion. He’d lost good men that way. So the best on offer had been that bored, too-costly white woman, a creature of painted nails and dirty toes, a slut who hardly bothered to lace her gown up between callers: a full month’s pay in worthless money for a damned poor ride. Well, that about summed up the entire Confederacy, did it not?
Things hadn’t worked out quite the way they’d reckoned.
Oates’ eyes tracked Captain Wiggenton and waved him over through the shimmering air.
Passing a rind to his left hand, J.W. saluted with his right. “Yes, sir?”
“You let your brother officers know that I want the entire regiment turned out. Soon as the heat breaks. Get in an hour of drill before dark settles.”
“Sir, I don’t know as I’d say this heat ever breaks.”
“Well, then you turn ’em out when you think I think it breaks.” Oates refolded his arms, letting his hard face harden even more. “And don’t you ever back-talk me again, not even a hint. Hear?”
“You go on now. Do just what I told you.”
Before the younger man could flick a salute and move along, the captain’s eyes jumped to another target. Behind Oates.
Oates turned and found Colonel Lowther striding up, dressed in every last inch of braid a colonel commanding was authorized. Too damned hot for that kind of fuss, but Lowther did enjoy his one-man parades.
“You go on now,” Oates told the captain. “Git.”
Lowther drew up a few feet away, as if he preferred not to smell Oates up too close. Or, perhaps, get his jaw broken.
“Oates, I’m told you’ve been luring my men with watermelons. Without asking my permission. As an officer and a gentleman, I must ask you—”
“Lowther,” Oates said, “you clear out of my camp. And keep your boys out of my camp. If they’ll listen to you.” He narrowed his eyes. “As for watermelons, you sonofabitch, I look at you and know just where one’d fit.”
Early evening, July 29
Union Ninth Corps, Petersburg lines
“Think that mine’ll work?” Sergeant Eckert asked in his don’t-trust-one-thing voice. “Think she’ll go up?”
“Be quiet, Levi,” Brown said. “Let Sam call the roll.”
“Nobody’s missing.” Eckert scratched inside his shirt. “’Least, not yet.”
First Sergeant Losch read the too-brief list of names. Unable to stand in ranks, the men of Company C sat on the firing stoop or squatted along the trench walls, tanned by dust and darkened with sweat but sheltered from the Johnnies a shout away, just up the slope. Johnnies who took a mind to shoot now and then. Levi was right, of course. Brevet Lieutenant Charles Brown knew the whereabouts of every man he led: fifty-four in all. And only that many because of returned convalescents. The only time a man left the baking trench was to lug the slops buckets back through the traverses—a duty some men sought for a break in the boredom—or to fill canteens or bring up hot eats or mail. Or for Brown to report back to regiment that nothing much had changed. Or for orders that only warned of more orders to come.
Today’s orders had been unwelcome.
A few months before, men told they’d attack in the morning would have grown agitated, flaring at little things and scribbling letters. Dulled now, like knives used badly, they cleaned their rifles by rote and tried not to think. But men who had once slept soundly would shout in the dark.
Brown hoped he wasn’t one of those who cried out. If he was, no one ever told him. But his dreams, too, were unsettled.
He needed to be steady, to remain sound.
Peering down the trench as the men responded to rasped-out names, Brown knew the faces, the habits, the man-by-man smells, of those left on the roster. Most were friends or acquaintances from home, canal boatmen just as he’d been and hoped to be again. With his own boat, bought clear. A man of property.
The roll call echoed unspoken names, as well.
So many, so terribly many, had died, not least his brother Benjamin, dead of a fever at Vicksburg, on the banks of a river grander than the Schuylkill, sweating out his life atop bluffs that belonged to a different world. Since May, though, the pace of the killing had passed all decency. In April, Brown had been a corporal, in May a sergeant and then first sergeant. In June, with the last of the officers dead or wounded, he had been anointed an “acting” lieutenant, waiting for orders to make the rank real and leading the survivors of Company C of the 50th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry. Even the regiment’s former colonel, lifted up to brigade command, had been wounded in one of the useless assaults made after the army snuggled up to Petersburg. The tally of dead, wounded, or missing exceeded the number of voices that answered, “Here!”
All the dead friends, the comrades. Others suffered captivity, like the Israelites in a sermon. Jake Guertler had died in one of the last assaults, just a month after Jake’s brother Bill had been captured at Spotsylvania. Taken, along with a dozen other men from Company C. Poor Johnny Doudle, who had dreaded becoming a prisoner, had been collared by scarecrow Rebs. As Brown looked on, helpless, across a swale.
He did hope Doudle was faring all right, that he was still alive.
And his own best friend, Henry Hill, who had made a madman’s stand back in the Wilderness, had been wounded the day the others had been captured. Henry, at least, would return. To endure an unsought and unwanted promotion to sergeant. Brown missed Henry, couldn’t wait to see him again. Sometimes, Brown feared he missed him more than his brother.
A terrible time it had been, all senselessness. Hard to say which day had been the worst since they waded the Rapidan, but that charge at Spotsylvania was up for the prize.
First Sergeant Losch crabbed along the trench, waving off swarming flies. “All men present, Lieutenant. All those fit for duty. In dieser Schweinerei.”
Lieutenant. The rank still sat uneasily, but the men had taken his promotion well. And that was the hardest thing: These men whose kin he knew by first names all, they trusted him now. Even as Brown had to struggle to trust himself. By the magic of rank alone he’d become their father. But a father destined to kill at least a few of them, Isaacs to his Abraham, with no hope of an angel’s hand to rescue them.
What would Pastor Colley say to that?
“The two days’ rations? For the men to carry?”
“Verdammt noch mal. They’re coming. The boys try, but the commissary comes late.”
The commissary sergeants were all squeezers, heartless as missies raised up in brick houses. In the army, you were always at the mercy of someone or something. They got fresh rations now, but mess chums couldn’t cook them in the trench line, and the company had to slop its vittles together in the rear. Then the eats had to come up through the traverses. The day past, a boy had been wounded scurrying up and the stew got spilled.
Of course, there had been times aplenty when they all would have been thrilled by the thought of beef fresh and free of maggots, no matter how late it might have been served or the risk involved in the carrying. But memories never helped an angry belly.
Losch shook his big Dutch head. “Since I am first sergeant, I think I hate sergeants more.”
Brown smiled. Losch was the best choice left for his position, since his Dutch-talk helped with the boys who struggled with English. Brown glanced from Losch to Levi Eckert, the latter a sharp-dealing man even with his relatives, a conniver who had once tried to cheat a cousin out of a new-gotten pair of socks. But Levi was a fury in a fight, the men respected that. And his stripes seemed to have changed him, at least tolerably. Levi would never have sewn on those stripes but for the frightful losses, but, Brown knew full well, neither would he have had a flea’s chance of wearing a second lieutenant’s shoulder strap.
“Anybody sick yet?” Brown asked. “From that pie?”
“They will be,” Levi put in.
Losch grunted and said, “I call up more shit pails. Such Dreck a man puts in his mouth.”
Brown smiled without merriment. “Would’ve gobbled it down our gullets at Knoxville.”
“This ain’t Knoxville,” Levi said.
“I don’t know which ist mir lieber,” Losch said. “Here or there.”
“Take the heat over the cold myself,” Levi told him. “Keeps off the rheumatism.”
Losch shook his head. “Mag die Hitze nicht.”
“Sam, the boys got you talking all Dutch again,” Brown teased. Reaching for better spirits.
The young first sergeant shrugged. “My mother is speaking nothing else, you know. I write to her and confuse myself with words.” Losch smiled, sighed. “Ach, die Mutti.”
And they pondered the bloody-footed winter past. Then they thought on the molasses pie Jack Fritz’s mother had sent him through the mails, a mad thing to do. The pie had arrived broken into mold-coated crumbs. But Jack—over howls of disgust—had scraped off the filth and shared the remains with his butties.
Well, if a man didn’t sicken from one thing, he would from another. Hard enough it was, even now, for Brown to drink water all wiggling. Or to squat over a slops bucket teeming with worms.
Although he’d lived poor as a child and always worked with his hands, Brown was a fastidious man. That was how Frances put it. “Fastidious.” He had needed to figure out what she meant the first time she used the word. But she did claim she liked cleanliness in a caller. And he’d always swabbed down the deck of his boat at day’s end and kept his ropes properly coiled. In another world.
Frances. His betrothed. He imagined her at her piano, in her mother’s parlor. His Frances, kind-eyed and soft. In his big, bruised hand, her fingers had looked so delicate that he hesitated to grasp them. He was the one who refused to marry until the war was done. Too many widows in Schuylkill Haven already. She deserved more.
Brown sought to be a good man, to get through the war without turning bad forever, to be deserving of the things he wanted. But there were times when he sensed a beast inside, sharp-clawed, on a chain that might break at a tug.
Even in this world of beards and whiskers, Brown shaved close. As if a clean face promised a clean life. He longed to wash himself white again, to scrub off the filth of war, afraid that the dirt had already gone too deep.
The endless heat. At times, it seemed worst in the evenings. Heavier. Stale. He pushed back his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead and eyes. Fit to cook a man, it was, even under a strip of canvas.
Even the longed-for rain days back had seemed to fall at a boil. And the mud that swamped the trenches had tortured them all before turning to dust again.
Brown wasn’t fond of Virginia. Or of much else, at present.
He slapped at the flies and Levi aped his gesture. Sam Losch grunted again, too hot to bother.
“Well?” Levi said. “Seeing as how the company business is done for the next ten minutes, let me ask the opinion of the high-and-mighty Lieutenant Charles Brown. Before old Useless Grant himself sends down for his advice.” Levi fussed at the dirt with a sliver splintered from a crate. “Think those pit-boys from north of the mountain can make their damned mine work? Blow our Confederate brethren to Hell for breakfast?”
Brown wasn’t minded to think on that too hard, given the prospects. Rumors had blazed down the trenches all day. The 50th and the rest of Willcox’s division—even the reserves held back by the railroad—had received abrupt orders to support an assault planned for the morning. Company C would be relieved just after dark so it could pull back and form with the rest of the regiment. So they could go forward again. After the “secret” mine was blown, the mine that was known to every skulker and sutler.
And if the mine failed? They’d probably go forward anyway. Once the army started in to doing something, it was hard to stop the doing, even after it stopped making any sense. Until enough blood had been spilled for the generals to show they’d made an effort.
Be careful, Brown warned himself. He daren’t speak so. Not one word about his doubts, his ugly mistrust of things. The men were discouraged and blue as it was, with little left but a grudging sense of duty.
“Well?” Levi demanded.
“Good men in the Forty-eighth,” Brown said. “Miners, most of them. They know what they’re doing.”
“But does anybody else know what they’re doing? There’s the question.”
“Pleasants is a good man,” Sam Losch put in. “Ein guter Kerl. Doch wild. Maybe our colonel he should have been, but he takes the Forty-eighth.”
Pleasants had been a mine engineer back home, with something a touch dark and foreign about him, a fellow with a brain in his head but calluses on his hands. The kind of man you respected before you could say why. Brown had known him, just slightly. Their relationship had been limited to talk about re-siting a coal chute outside Port Carbon, the better to feed the loads into the boats. Brown had been pleased to be asked for his opinion by such a man. Not that his advice had any effect. The coal company did what it wanted, and it had not wanted to pay to move the chute.
It was said of Pleasants that his wife died young, months after their marriage, and that he chased death but could not get himself killed.
“If Colonel Pleasants says that mine will work, it’s going to work,” Brown declared.
“Hark to the voice of Solomon!” Levi flicked an ant from the back of his hand. “Little buggers bite. All right. The mine works. Boom, up she goes. But you heard everything I heard. More, no doubt. Seeing as you’re a high-and-mighty lieutenant.” He scraped the barren earth again. “Them coons was set to go in? Do some fighting for once? All trained up and ready to go? And they call them off when the circus comes to town? You tell me why. You just tell me. Here we are, fighting so Old Abe can free the Children of Ham to take a white man’s job, and he won’t even let them fight. No, sir. Send in more white men to die.”
When Brown didn’t answer, Levi continued. “And I blame Grant. Old Meade don’t do nothing without his say-so.”
“That a fact?” Brown said in the sharper voice he was mastering. “I guess when they make you a general, you can fix it.”
“What’s chapping you?” Levi asked, surprised at Brown’s sudden harshness.
Down along the trench, the newest men worried their knapsacks and tightened their leathers, as they’d been told. The older hands played cards or picked lice from their garments.
Brown could hardly say why he’d turned sour. It struck a man like a cramp.
Corporal Oswald scuttled up the trench, hog-dirty and pleasant-faced.
“Supper coming up,” he announced. “Fresh beef, all right, and plenty more to carry.”
The Reb sharpshooters started in. Just like them.
First Sergeant Losch rose to see to his duties, but Levi Eckert tarried. “You know which division’s set to lead the attack?” he asked, barely whispering.
Brown nodded. Yes. They’d all heard the rumors haunting the lines since noon.
“Worst division in the corps,” Levi continued. “Garrison men. Useless.”
Brown wanted to say, “Just be glad that we won’t be out front,” but officers could not say such things. Officers had to show confidence. Even if they didn’t feel it, not a lick. He felt terribly old at twenty-three.
“There any point behind your pestering, Levi?”
The sergeant grew earnest. “Tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind seeing this fizzle. Right at the start. Can’t go in on the flank, if there ain’t no flank to go in on. And I can’t say I’m much minded to go in, that’s just the truth. It’s been one mess after another since we got here. Before we got here.”
Brown considered the man in front of him: an unlikely survivor, given the risks he took during a fight. Levi Eckert, for all his faults, had never been one to show fear. And while Brown wasn’t given to profane talk—Frances didn’t like it—he saw Levi as one hard-made sonofabitch. But all of a sudden Levi looked like a ghost of the man he’d been.
“We’ll go in,” Brown said.
Eight thirty p.m., July 29
Mahone’s Division Confederate lines, Petersburg
“Still got your cow, I see,” Doc Brewer said. He set down his cake plate.
Brigadier General William Mahone nodded mildly, not quite looking at his white-haired visitor. He tilted his chair another few degrees, relishing the risk, the calculation.
The shack’s porch creaked. Not much of a headquarters, but it served. Beyond a low ridge, heat-whipped pickets annoyed each other. Nothing to that firing, just obligation.
“Chickens, too,” Mahone replied. His sharp voice of command had soothed to a gentlemanly languor. “Wouldn’t need to fuss so, if you medical fellows paid more attention to what’s inside a man’s carcass than to what’s left in his purse.” He smoothed his billy-goat beard.
The old man tapped the whiskey bottle he’d brought out from the city. “You won’t join me, then? In a draught of this pleasing elixir? In return for that fine cake?”
Mahone shook his head. “Blessing in disguise, my dyspepsia. So Otelia tells me. No fear of taking to drink, burn my insides out.”
The old doctor nodded with seasoned gentility. “Take it over the gout, though. That’s a plague on a man.” He splashed more whiskey into his tin cup, drawing envious looks from lurking staff men. “Mrs. Brewer paid a call. Wife of yours is a firecracker, Billy.”
Mahone snorted. “Stick of dynamite, more like.”
Otelia, pure spunk. Mahone enjoyed the pleasant sparring between them, brisk exchanges that never rose to a spat. When he’d completed the Norfolk line, after laying tracks right through that endless swamp and doing what his fellow engineers thought impossible, he and Otelia had delighted in labeling the newly created stations, drawing their names from the novels of Walter Scott. There had been one water stop they could not agree on, though. Until Otelia laughed that you-look-out trill, halfway between a lady and a hoyden, and said, “We’ll call it ‘Disputanta.’” And they did.
A detail of soldiers, thin as famine, loped toward the rear. Pretty marching wasn’t called for, but Mahone almost rose from his chair: He liked a degree of crispness in a soldier, heat or no heat. Hard times wanted hard men.
Doc Brewer sipped his whiskey, maybe reading his mind. “Infernal weather. Not sure I’ve seen worse.”
Hot it was, indeed. But Mahone was a Southside man, born and bred, and the heat was just a bad neighbor a man got used to. Did like the ocean breezes they’d had in Norfolk, though. Hadn’t liked the yellow fever much. Fifty-five, that was. It had seemed a muchness of death back then, but war had taught him a higher mathematics.
“Never could get too riled,” Mahone said, “over things I couldn’t change.” He gazed into the mellowing light, felt the still-hard air. The passing soldiers had faded to ghosts of dust. Settling his chair’s front legs on the porch, he called, “Hannibal.”
“Same cow, same nigger,” Doc Brewer mused.
The servant appeared. “Suh?”
“Any more buttermilk?”
“You done drunk it, Marse Billy. Git you the plain ole, though.”
Mahone turned to his guest. “Glass for you, Doctor? About all I can offer, I’m afraid.”
The old man held up his whiskey. “Wouldn’t dare start drinking cow’s milk now. After all these years of specimen health.”
“One glass, Hannibal.”
When the servant had gone, Doc Brewer shook his head. “Billy, what’s to become of those poor people? If the Yankees have their way? They could never take care of themselves.…”
“They take care of us,” Mahone teased, just to be contrary.
The old man drank and sighed. “Give a simple man a simple task. Give him time, and he’ll master it. But the notion—”
“We haven’t lost the war yet,” Mahone said, a tad sharply.
“No, no. Of course not. I only meant—”
“You meant ‘What if?’ That’s all right, no offense taken. Many a man must be asking himself that question.” A half-smile lifted one side of his mouth. “Just won’t admit it. That’s all.”
“And you? What do you foresee? Between old friends.”
“I’m an engineer. I deal with the problem at hand.”
Doc Brewer shook his head. “First dishonest thing I’ve heard you say, Billy. You were always a far-thinking man, ’long as I’ve known you. How you made your fortune.” The old man seemed to fade into the shadows. “Saw what this war would bring, better than most folks.”
“Well, the Yankees have a bloody business ahead before they lick anybody. That’s what I think.”
Downcast, the old man repeated, “A bloody business.”
“You know, I’d like to find Otelia better lodgings,” Mahone declared. Eager to change the subject. “Better than that sty she’s boarding in. If you should hear of anything…”
Doc Brewer nodded. “I’ll ask about.”
“I’d take that as a kindness.”
The servant delivered a glass of milk streaked pink. Mahone drank deep. To soothe his belly, his soul.
His guest leaned closer, seeking intimacy. “Billy, you and I do go back … otherwise, I would not presume to ask…”
“That’s a worrisome preliminary.”
“All this business about a mine now. Is there … I mean, people are saying the Yankees are tunneling right under the city.”
Mahone’s smirk lived and died in a brace of seconds. He shook his head. “Fool nonsense. Far as the city goes. You tell people that. The good citizens of Petersburg need to worry about what’s on top of the ground, not what’s beneath it.” He scratched the side of his neck. Even undone, the collar itched in the heat. Southside man or not. “As for a military mine, that’s another matter. Alexander was convinced a month ago they were at it, tunneling somewhere up around Elliott’s stretch.”
“And you think…”
“The Yankees would be damned fools not to try it.” Which was why he had his men waking at two thirty every morning and standing to by three. Their prospects were especially worrisome now, with Lee stripping the lines so thin to shift troops north of the James, responding to more Federal shenanigans.
“I see. And might they…”
“Succeed? Devil only knows. But one thing those boys over there do have is anthracite miners, deep miners. And mining engineers. In their position, I’d certainly try it myself.” Cocking one short limb against the banister, he pushed the front legs of his chair off the floor again.
“And … might we expect this soon? A detonation?”
“All depends on the engineering difficulties. I’m a railroad man, not a miner. But they’ll have soil issues, ventilation issues. More than that, I can’t say.”
He almost wanted the Yankees to do it, to get it over with, if they planned such a thing at all. Rumors ran madcap, the men were unsettled. Heat-hammered. Rendered indolent of flesh and mad-dog hot of temper. Waiting.
And things along the line had gotten a bit too quiet for his taste. The Yankees were up to something, no least doubt.
Mahone had known his guest for years and liked him mightily. But he wasn’t minded to discuss military matters any further. His old friend seemed to sense it, if belatedly.
“We’d take Otelia in ourselves, if—”
“Wouldn’t want that,” Mahone said firmly. “Didn’t mean that at all.” He smiled and added, “You’d live to regret it.”
Otelia. With her sense of humor that could peel a rattlesnake. His wife was a filly who needed a fair stretch of pasture.
That sense of humor had only failed as the infants died, one after another.
Don’t think on that now.
Having reached the right application of tonic from his bottle, the doctor cast off its last formality. “Speaking of your missus, got to ask you … meant to for a time now…”
“How I came to be married to so fine a woman, and her the taller of us by a good two inches?” Otelia. No flawless beauty, truth be told, but a rose who wore her thorns proudly. His wife: an ornery comfort, indispensable.
“About Second Manassas. What she told that courier.”
Softened by remembrance, Mahone grinned. “You mean when they told her I’d only suffered a flesh wound—”
“And she said, ‘Then I know it’s serious. For William has no flesh, whatsoever.’” The old doctor cackled.
“Yes, sir, that’s about right,” Mahone agreed. His soldiers joked that he was every inch a soldier, there just weren’t many inches of him. “Little Billy” Mahone, survivor of Nat Turner’s rebellion as a child and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, at just shy of five feet five inches tall, had been forced to look up at many a man, but there were a good sight fewer he looked up to.
“Might want to get back home. Before full dark,” he told his friend from the years of peace and prosperity.
Doc Brewer nodded. “Leave the whiskey?”
Mahone shook his head in the gloaming. His long beard dusted his shirt. “Some fool’d just drink it up. You take it along.”
The old man rose from his chair with a reserve of vigor. “My congratulations, by the way. Hear you’re set to get promoted, soon as President Davis finds his pen.” He slapped off the dust that had settled on his clothing. “Major General Mahone. Won’t that be fine?”
“Reckon we’ll see,” Mahone told him.
Eight thirty p.m., July 29
Dunn house, headquarters, Union Ninth Corps Petersburg lines
Oh, dear, Burnside thought. Dear, dear.
He feared he had made an error.
Absently chewing a cuticle, Burnside looked down at Ledlie. Ledlie looked up at him. The corps commander lowered his eyes and began to pace again, still gnawing his finger.
“Nothing for it,” he said with a sudden shake of his head, as if warding off a chill in the awful heat. “Nothing for it.”
“What?” Ledlie asked. Burnside feared the fellow smelled of alcohol.
Nothing for it.
His other division commanders had left him, Potter in a huff, Willcox uncertain, Ferrero still aggrieved. Only Ledlie remained behind. As if stunned by what had befallen him.
Staff officers shied away. Busy enough they were, busy enough. So much to do, all the changes to the plan …
Burnside rued missing his dinner.
Meade, Meade! Terrible man. How could he, how could he do it? U.S. Colored Troops, all about the Negroes. Ferrero had them prepared, all prepared. Then Meade interfered. Bags under his eyes, the insistent nose. George Meade. Telling him, only the day before, that Ferrero’s U.S. Colored Troops could not lead the assault. Politically dangerous, Lincoln already in trouble. If things went wrong and the Negroes suffered a massacre, all the abolitionists would howl, claiming the darkies were used as cannon fodder. Cannon fodder! Politics! Lincoln! Meade! He had appealed to Grant, but got no relief. Meade was only Grant’s henchman nowadays. And here they were. With the mine set to go up in seven hours. Less.
Burnside wiped a palm over his bald crown, skimming off sweat. Horrid weather, horrid. And now this … this upheaval. The best-laid plans …
And he’d made things worse, made them worse himself. Why had he done what he did? Meade had told him to lead with his best division. But that would have been Potter’s. Or Willcox’s, in a pinch. But all of their men were tired, tired. Didn’t have the heart. Straws, he’d had them draw straws. It had seemed the only fair way to go about it, with Ferrero’s darkies held back to go in last.
If they went in at all.
It had seemed like a good idea, even gallant. Then Ledlie drew the short straw. Ledlie! Didn’t deserve a division, terrible man. But he couldn’t be relieved. Far too well connected in New York, in Albany. Political man himself. Of sorts, of sorts. And any man who wished to have a future in Rhode Island politics—as Ambrose Burnside did—couldn’t afford to have enemies in New York.
Now here they were, here they were! Ledlie to lead the attack. Dear, dear. Ledlie. Of all people. Bad enough behavior on the North Anna.
Dropping his hand from his mouth, Burnside said, “You must be ready, Ledlie.” He stopped pacing and skimmed away sweat again. “Will your men be ready?”
“They’ll be ready.”
“Perhaps … you should see to them?”
“Have their orders,” Ledlie muttered. Was his voice slurred? Well, he only had to be sober by the morning.
“You must clear the lanes through the obstacles. You must see to it. After dark, right after dark. Quietly, of course. But no obstacles, no obstacles. Clear the lanes in front of the covered ways. Plenty of lanes, wide lanes.”
“Thy will be done.”
“Been seen to.”
“And your officers … they understand? They understand everything?”
A staff major passing between them appeared doubtful.
“Right out of the covered ways and forward! No hesitation,” Burnside continued. “Every subordinate officer must understand. Speed is everything. Point of detonation isn’t the goal. Only the means, the means. They must get past the mine’s effects, get on to the second ridge, that cemetery. Get to the second ridge … and we have Petersburg, Petersburg shall be ours!”
“Ours,” Ledlie repeated.
“One regiment, only one, moves to either flank to provide security. Everyone else goes through the breach and on to the second ridge.”
“Security,” Ledlie said. He perked up. “I thought Grant’s orders were to forget about flank security, just go head-on. In every attack. Not slow down, just go on.”
“That’s right, that’s right. Just one regiment, that’s all. Out on either flank. The rest go straight ahead.” Burnside hesitated, then asked, “Really, Ledlie, don’t you think you’re needed at your division?”
The New Yorker frumped his chin. “Staff can see to everything, what they’re for.” But he rose. Did he smell of alcohol? Burnside couldn’t be sure, couldn’t be sure. Everything else smelled so awfully. But Ledlie’s reputation …
Straightening his sword belt to go out, Ledlie paused and looked at him imploringly.
“Really think that mine is going to work?”
Copyright © 2016 by Ralph Peters
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