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Excerpt: Darkness at Chancellorsville by Ralph Peters

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Centered upon one of the most surprising and dramatic battles in American history, Darkness at Chancellorsville recreates what began as a brilliant, triumphant campaign for the Union—only to end in disaster for the North. Famed Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson bring off an against-all-odds surprise victory, humiliating a Yankee force three times the size of their own, while the Northern army is torn by rivalries, anti-immigrant prejudice and selfish ambition.

This historically accurate epic captures the high drama, human complexity and existential threat that nearly tore the United States in two, featuring a broad range of fascinating—and real—characters, in blue and gray, who sum to an untold story about a battle that has attained mythic proportions. And, in the end, the Confederate triumph proved a Pyrrhic victory, since it lured Lee to embark on what would become the war’s turning point—the Gettysburg Campaign (featured in Cain At Gettysburg).

Darkness at Chancellorsville by Ralph Peters is on sale on May 21, 2019. Please enjoy the following excerpt!

One

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 com- panies, along with a handful of carpenters and pioneers entrusted to Smith and his stripes, and a shiftless pack of Posey’s Mississip- pians. 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 South-side 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.”

Noon, and the warmth had thickened, drawing the last winter’s chill from a soldier’s bones. Corporal Smith had no intention of letting the work detail rest, though. Hadn’t earned their bacon. They could curse him all they wanted, complaint was a soldier’s right. But the bridge was going to be finished sooner, not later.

He’d been relieved when Captain Smith drew off ten men for a picket. That farmer. Couldn’t get the fellow out of his head. That’s all they’d need, to get surprised by a multitude of Yankees.

He decided to shuttle his crew back to the south bank a few at a time, to take up their arms and come back again. Wouldn’t pay to leave his best men defenseless and caught on the wrong side of the river. If some Yankee patrol with high ambitions did try to spring a surprise, his men could see them off, Smith reckoned, as long as they had their rifles close to hand. But hammers and saws wouldn’t do.

He didn’t intend to raise the matter with Captain Tyler. Just do everything quiet-like. If Tyler noticed and got up on his high horse, he could say, “Sir, I tried to do what I knew you’d do, have the boys ready. Been studying on your lessons, trying to learn some.”

Tyler would gobble that up like cherry pie.

Only officer Smith much cared for was Little Billy Mahone, a man hard enough to regulate Southsiders. Serving under Little Billy might not be the safest spot in a war, but it was satisfying.

The brigade commander wasn’t anywhere close, though. And trouble of some dimension was headed their way, if Smith was a judge. Maybe not today, maybe that farmer had been seeing spooks, after all, but the weather had turned at last and that meant trouble. Despite on-and-off rain, the roads were firm enough to carry artillery. The Yankees wouldn’t sit still, no matter the licking they’d taken at Fredericksburg. Memories didn’t stretch that far in a war.

Just more and more of the blue-bellies, that was the curse, as if those Northern mills could turn out men as easy as they made woolens. He’d watched their numbers swell all winter, across the Rappahannock, Yankee soldiers thickened by fine greatcoats. While his lean brethren shivered.

The corporal noted that Captain Tyler had lingered out in the road, staring after the vanished detail, arms folded and pondering. An officer with nothing to do was a danger to man and beast. Smith decided to entertain the captain before Tyler turned his attention to the bridge and fuddled the doings.
As the corporal neared, the captain said, “Ah, Smith! We making progress? Looks like it, to my untutored eye.”
There was something about Tyler that just made a fellow want

to knock him down. But Smith only nodded. “Right fine progress, Captain. Done tomorrow, Lord willing.”

Tyler’s eyes took on a strained look that any corporal could read: The captain was in search of a question that would demonstrate concern and show authority.

“The bridge . . . it will bear the weight of artillery, Corporal Smith?”

“Wouldn’t drag siege guns across it, sir. But she’ll bear up under horse artillery well enough.”

“That’s all that’s been asked.” Tyler squared his shoulders. “You’re to be commended.”

Smith knew exactly who would be commended, if things went well. But he nodded his thanks.

A horseman emerged from a far grove at a gallop.

“That’s not Jimmy Smith,” Tyler declared.

No, it wasn’t Captain Smith returning, but someone in a gray coat who’d taken enough of a fright to ruin his horse. Coming on as if pursued by an army of ghostly riders. In naked daylight.

The fugitive was a junior engineer from Stuart’s staff, Lieutenant Price, whom the men had renamed “Priceless.” Every few days he rode out to find a flaw in the bridge’s construction.

Now the lad was transformed. Hat lost, coat blackened by sweat and flesh scared hot, the lieutenant took to shouting like a fool.

“Yankees! Yankees coming! Yankees!”

His horse bled at the flanks. Green foam spattered Smith and doused the captain.

“Calm down, Price,” Tyler ordered. “And gentle that horse, for God’s sake.”

“Yankees . . .”

“Talk sense. Cavalry? Infantry? How many?”

Smith held out his canteen. Price gulped water and choked, but calmed himself.

“Cavalry, sir. A right plenty.”

Smith gestured for the lieutenant to hand back the canteen: A good canteen was ever harder to come by. Price took another swal- low and gave it over.

Tyler looked at Smith but questioned himself. “How the devil did they . . .” He turned again to the lieutenant. “Didn’t you see Captain Smith? He—”

“Didn’t see nobody, sir. ’Least, nobody in gray.”

Faced by the prospect of combat, the captain woke to his purpose. The Virginia gentry might not care to work but loved to fight.

Tyler pivoted sharply, barking orders for the work crew to stop and retrieve their arms.

Smith didn’t tell him the order had been given, didn’t want to break the spell of command. It was time to let Tyler earn his pay. If a paymaster ever showed up.

Ignoring the lieutenant now, the captain wheeled on Smith. “I’m going back over to set up a proper defense. You deploy the work crew around the bridge, keep any raiders from torching it. When they’re set in, come over yourself. I want you by me.”

“Might want to send someone else out to have a look, sir. In case Captain Smith . . .”

Tyler nodded, with no more fuss about rank. “Robertson’s the best man on a horse.”

The captain strode off toward the rowboat, snapping orders as he passed the men. Smith looked up at the still-mounted lieutenant.

“I was you, sir, I’d make my way on back to General Stuart, report what you’ve seen.”

“I should stay and fight,” the boy insisted.

Stepping close enough to get a noseful of horse stink, Smith said, “Lieutenant, there’s a mile of difference between gallantry and stupidity. You go on back to Stuart and make yourself useful.”

They beat back the Yankee patrol with surprising ease. Smith reckoned there were at least two companies of Union cavalry present, but even fighting dismounted they stayed near the road, as if preparing to flee from the very start. He’d been ready to recross the river, orders be damned, and fight beside his crew, but the men who’d been hauling and hammering minutes before proved sufficient to send the Yankees reeling back to wherever they came from.

“Not much to that, was there?” Captain Tyler said. “I suppose you can get back to work.”

They stood on what remained of the mill’s upper floor, looking northward through a skeletal window frame, past the river, over the fields, and into the scrub oaks and waste pines. There was nothing more to see, the Yanks had gone high-tail.

Pleased with the one-sided skirmish, Tyler added: “That poor old fellow meant well, he did his duty. But you can’t rely on civilians to count soldiers.” He smiled, almost as if Smith were his equal, a confidant. “Civilians do multiplication, not addition.”

The corporal nodded. But the gesture was meaningless. He was fixed on thinking. Something didn’t make sense.

“Didn’t expect to find us here, that’s plain,” the captain continued. “Figured they’d use the ford and be on their way.”

Smith dipped his chin again, another bit of nothing, then he said: “They went quits awful easy. I didn’t see one man fall.”

“They’re on a scout, they weren’t looking for a rumpus.”

“Yes, sir. Still . . .”

The captain smiled warmly, pleased with the wonders of spring and his superiority. “Don’t go getting the jumps on me, Corporal Smith. I rely on you to keep the men steady.”

But Bill Smith had stopped listening. For a second that seemed a lifetime, he just stared.

“Oh, Jesus.”

The captain followed his line of sight. Not one, but two Yankee infantry regiments had stepped from the far trees in a line of battle. With flags unfurled.

And that was the least of it. The mill stood at a loop in the river, outflanked on both sides from the northern bank. No one had ever thought they’d have to defend it.

Now the undergrowth teamed with blue-coated skirmishers who’d worked around the flanks.

It was not going to be a good day.

They fought. As long as they could. Longer than was sensible. Smith watched as the Yankees scooped up his work crew. On the south bank, the remainder of the detachment fired and reloaded as swiftly as experienced hands could work, determined to extract a price from anyone who tried to cross. But converging Yankee lines of fire drove heads down and hearts faltered.

“Where’d all them sumbitches come from?” The comment from a private summed up every soldier’s thoughts.

Clouded with smoke, the ruined mill stank of gunpowder. Smith looked toward the captain, who clearly struggled with the only decision left in the world: whether to save what men he could or to continue defending the ford.

“Captain, it’s useless,” Smith told him. “They’re everywhere, there’s too many.”

“They’re not everywhere. Not yet.” Tyler’s voice sounded firm and determined. But his hands quivered as he tried to reload his revolver.

“Hell they ain’t,” Smith hollered, casting rank aside. A daring peek through the window frame revealed Yankees crowding onto the south bank, too. Closing the trap. “They’re already over here, we’ve got to go, sir.”

The captain nodded but couldn’t form the words. Bullets stung the interior walls and ricocheted. Even the best soldiers cowered and made themselves small.

“Captain,” Smith tried again, voice severe, “we have to get out. Someone has to tell General Mahone.”

“Surely,” Tyler muttered, as if pondering other matters entirely. Then he snapped back to life and shouted: “Clear out. Everybody. Clear out, just run for it.”

A lieutenant added an eager voice to the order. Smith hollered, too. But the men clung to the walls, dazzled by the volume of bullets seeking them. Even hard kicks and curses couldn’t move them.

A Mississippian knotted a dirty rag to his rifle’s muzzle, prepared to give up if the officers wouldn’t.

Smith broke from the rear of the mill, leapt a ditch full of huddled soldiers, and ran up through the campsite, past steaming kettles and unhitched wagons, darting away from Yankees thick as rattlesnakes in a den.

The firing slackened considerably as ever more men surrendered. Smith lost sight of the captain, of all but a few fleet privates.

“Give up, Johnny. You’re got, give up. Don’t want to shoot no Christian in the back.”

But Smith ran on, heedless, determined, unreasoning, as if being taken prisoner would be worse than dying.

At last, bleeding and breathless, he got beyond the Yankee shouts and shots. He reckoned they’d bagged enough men to make them happy.

And they had the bridge. It was going to be finished, right soon, by other hands. It grated to think he’d built it for the blue-bellies. As he gained a ridgetop Smith paused and glanced back to the ford.

On the roads and in the fields north of the river, it looked as if the whole Union army had come.

Copyright © 2019 by Ralph Peters

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