[Chapter 1, continued]
“Where the Hell is the Second Massachusetts?” Grant had to shout in order that his aide be able to hear him. The man was only a sword’s-length away from him, as close as their horses would get to one another, but the cannonade had steadily increased in volume until now the sound of it threatened to inflict pain. “We’re supposed to be advancing!”
“I don’t know, sir!” The young lieutenant was clearly upset, and his horse, aware of the man’s anxiety, shied nervously. “I rode all the way back to our baggage train, and they’re just not there! And they’re not anywhere on the way!”
“Well, they can’t have just been lifted off the face of the earth!” Grant was leaning forward in the saddle, about to launch himself in pursuit of the missing regiment, before he got control of his anger. Settling back, he pulled a pencil and his notepad from his pocket, as the metallic din of the cannonade suddenly ceased. He and the aide—the only member of his staff not busy trying to find the missing regiment—were in a small clearing, chosen as brigade headquarters mostly because it was the closest cleared space to the line from which the brigade was supposed to assault the Confederate position. Grant couldn’t see either of the regiments whose location he was sure of, but if he’d placed himself with one of them, he wouldn’t be able to see, or easily reach, the other save by exposing himself to Confederate fire. Siting himself this far behind the line wasn’t recommended, but he judged it better than the alternative. “Go to the Fifth Illinois,” he told the aide, scribbling an order. “They’re going to have to join the First New Jersey instead of staying in reserve; I can’t do my part in the assault with just one regiment.”
As the aide, saluting, rode off with the order, Grant shook his head. Idiots can’t even follow the most basic of orders, he thought. How the hell are they going to hold firm long enough to charge that Confederate line?
A fresh spatter of musketry burst from the woods ahead of him, to the right of his brigade’s position. “Ransom! No!” Grant shouted, as if Brigadier-General Ransom would ever be able to hear him. “Not yet, God damn it! Wait until my men are up!”
There was nothing for it: he spurred his horse forward, into the woods.
* * * *
Stewart realized that he made an irresistible target just before he heard Fitzgerald’s voice rise warningly above the musket-fire. Taking care not to appear anxious in front of the men, he stepped down from the fence. As he thanked God for keeping him from a stupid death, he realized what that new group of Federals in the woods meant. "Sergeant!" he called. Fitzgerald was there in an instant. "They’re getting ready to come at us," Stewart said. "Have the corporals take position." "Position" meant that the corporals—and the sergeant and lieutenants—would stand a couple of paces back from the men. Their primary job in the coming moments wasn't to fire at the enemy. It was to keep an eye out for, and discourage—at point of bayonet, if necessary—anyone trying to drift backward. "We have to hold this line."
"Right away, captain." Fitzgerald smiled, and Stewart felt a small thrill at having given what was obviously a sound order.
A profane oath from down the line caught his attention, and he turned. One of the men was aiming his rifle. "Steady, Humphries," he said. "Wait for my order."
"One of those bastards near to hit me, Captain!" Humphries lowered his rifle, but turned to look pleadingly at him. "I know I can put a ball through him if you’ll let me try."
Stewart looked out at the skirmishers. Most of them were down on one knee; only their upper bodies could be seen above the young corn. It might help to settle the men down, he thought. "One shot, Humphries," he said. Raising his voice, he added, "Hold your fire until I give the command!" He nodded at Humphries.
The man smiled, turned back to face the Federals, and raised his rifle again. After a moment, Humphries fired. The explosion seemed unnaturally loud in the close, warm air. Stewart waited for the smoke to clear, then looked for the man who’d been Humphries’ target. The Federal continued to load his musket, seemingly unaware that he’d been fired at. "You’ll have to do better than that, Humphries," Stewart began.
Then there was a smack, like the sound of leather hitting wet horseflesh, and Humphries was staring at the red spot on his breast. Stewart stared too, horrified, until without a sound Humphries began to subside earthward. Stewart had once seen an old barn collapse in on itself that way.
Now the noise, which for a moment had seemed to vanish, rushed back into his ears, and Stewart heard the men’s shouts of anger and fear. He also heard a brittleness in their voices that worried him. Then Fitzgerald was there, chivvying two of the men to pull Humphries back. Too many of the men turned to watch as Humphries was dragged away, and Stewart was reminded of the colonel’s warning about how quickly panic or defeatism could spread among unblooded troops. He could see it beginning to happen here; if he didn’t do something quickly he might lose them.
"Eyes front!" he shouted. The men didn’t exactly obey the order, but at least they were looking at him now, and not at poor Humphries. "Boys, you’ve got to stand firm!" He tried to keep his voice firm, authoritative. "You’re from Virginia—you’re not going to be pushed back by a bunch of pasty-faced Yankees!" The men cheered—a bit raggedly, it was true, but at least he’d brought them back from thinking of wounds and death—and now they turned to face the Federals. There were a lot more blue coats in front of the far wall now, and their lines were beginning to show a disconcerting depth.
Stewart turned to see Fitzgerald beside him. His eyes put the question he couldn’t voice, and Fitzgerald jerked his head. His voice was just as abrupt. "He’s not dead, but he will be soon. And don’t fret yourself, captain, ‘cause he won’t be the only one today."
There was nothing to say to that. "I think you’d better get back behind us, sergeant," he said instead. "The boys are still nervous, and I don’t want them trying to move back away from this fence."
"Don’t worry about that, captain." Fitzgerald’s expression made it clear that the men had more to fear from him than from the Federals. "What about the bluecoats, captain? You going to wait for their first volley?"
"Absolutely not," Stewart said, watching the blue lines ripple as they were dressed for the advance. "We out-range them, so we should take advantage." Our reloading time is slower than theirs, he reminded himself. We have to open fire early if we want to get three volleys out before they reach us. "As soon as they start to move—"
As if on cue, the Federals let loose with a cheer—a mighty thin-sounding cheer, Stewart noted with relief—and their first line stepped into the cornfield. "Here they come!" someone shouted.
"Boys, this is it!" Stewart told them. "Let’s tell them they’re not welcome here!" The men shouted their agreement and, at his command, brought their rifles up and took aim. Stewart held them there until he guessed that the Federals had moved about fifty yards into the cornfield. "Fire!" he screamed, wondering at the tremendous release he felt as the volley spat out on the tail of his words.
When the smoke had cleared to the point where he could see, the Federals were still advancing. There were no gaps at all in their ranks; either they had closed up with remarkable effectiveness, or the company’s first volley hadn’t hit anyone. There was something odd about the advance, besides the fact that the Federals seemed unaffected, but Stewart didn’t give himself or his men a chance to wonder about the advancing line. As Fitzgerald and the corporals chivvied the first rank into reloading, Stewart had the second rank fire—those who hadn’t jumped ahead and fired with the first rank, anyway.
It took longer for the smoke to clear this time, and when it did the Federal line was still intact and moving through the cornfield.
Some of the men paused from the slow work of forcing lead down the narrow, rifled barrels, and as they looked up they seemed to freeze, fixed on the sight of the advancing blue line. "Reload!" Stewart screamed, aware now that fear was beginning to replace anger in his blood. "Stop watching them and get your rifles loaded!"
The next volley had as little effect as the first. At least this time Stewart could see evidence that some Federals had been hit; as the smoke thinned the bluecoats were still bringing men up to the first line and closing up. But the advance continued, smooth and regular as if on a parade ground.
Now the blue line paused, and shimmered a second as hundreds of men brought muskets to shoulder. For an awful moment the roar of the battlefield seemed to quiet, and then the Federals disappeared behind a sheet of flame and smoke, and there was a clattering like the sound of a Devil-spawned hailstorm. Stewart flinched in spite of himself. Over the rattle of the firing came a higher-pitched sound, like flags whipped by the wind. He’d closed his eyes, Stewart realized. He opened them.
The company was still there—every last man, it seemed. The line was still intact, though there was a looseness about it now, as the men furtively examined themselves for wounds they had not incurred. There was opportunity here, Stewart realized. "They’re afraid of you!" he shouted. "Now really give them something to fear! Another volley, boys!" The men straightened their line—their backs seemed straighter too, in Stewart’s eyes—and the first rank loosed another volley toward the bluecoats.
It was almost impossible to see the effect of the fire, the smoke was now so dense. It hadn’t got so thick, though, that Stewart couldn’t see the flash of a second Union volley. Again, the report was followed by that curious ruffling sound. What was disturbing wasn’t the sound, though; it was the fact that the Federals had fired two volleys in the space of time it took his men to reload once. Rifles didn’t seem such a fine idea now, especially in light of his men’s failure to hit the Federals in any significant numbers. Of course, the northerners hadn’t done him any damage either, but the closer that blue line got the more accurate their muskets would become. Very soon he’d be losing men.
Stewart turned to look for Fitzgerald, hoping for advice or at least inspiration. A shower of leaves caught his eye. At first he stared at them, unseeing; leaves weren’t supposed to fall in May. Then, looking up, he felt his spirits lift even as the last of the leaves dropped. The trees behind his men had lost many of their upper branches and foliage, and Stewart knew how it was that both sides had managed to fail to inflict any serious casualties.
"You’re firing high, boys!" he shouted. One or two of the men closest to him turned to look, but most of the second rank was still intent on aiming into the smoke. Stewart shouted again, and still no one seemed to hear. Time was running out; there was no guarantee that the company would be able to deliver another volley before the Federals reached the stone fence. He had to find a way to keep that last volley from going high.
There was only one thing to do. Balancing himself with outstretched sword, Stewart jumped up onto the top of the fence. Now the men looked up, curious. Fitzgerald rushed up to the fence, shaking his fist. "Captain, don’t be an idiot!"
"I know what I’m doing!" Stewart shouted back. Crouching so the older man could hear him, he said, "They’re firing high, Fitzgerald! If they don’t hit something this time, we’ll have to stand up to a volley from close range, and then a bayonet charge. I’ve got to get them to keep from raising their rifles as they fire. Up on that fence, I can get them to pay attention to me. You and the corporals come into the line to help me. Understand?"
Fitzgerald smiled broadly, then laughed. "I’ll be damned," was all he said before running off.
Stewart got back to his feet. "Listen to me!" he shouted. "This next volley has to count, so forget about ranks. Everyone with a loaded rifle stand forward." A cheer floated in from the cornfield; the Federals were dressing their line for the charge.
"Now listen to me," Stewart said. "I want you to rest your rifles against the top of the fence before you fire. You’ve been firing high, and I won’t have it. Fire low! Understand me?" A few men yelled confirmation.
Suddenly, a rage filled Stewart. He was risking his life here, and the men weren’t even listening to him. "Do you understand me?" he screamed. "I want you to FIRE LOW!" Some of his anger seemed to get through to the men, and the response this time was a shrill scream that chilled some of the heat from his blood.
Crouching down, Stewart slapped the flat of his sword down on the rifle barrels nearest to him. Some of the men at least would not fire high. Looking down the line, he could see Fitzgerald and a few of the corporals doing the same. "Wait for my word!" he called. I want to see what happens, if I can.
"Here they are." Stewart couldn’t identify the voice, but the words were said matter-of-factly, as though the man had just spotted company coming through the front gate. Twisting himself, Stewart caught a glimpse of the Federals emerging from the smoke of their volleys. They seemed horribly close; had any of his friends been marching with those men, he could have picked them out of the crowd. Now, Stewart thought.
Deafened by the firing, Stewart couldn’t hear his men cheering. Seeing the fierce joy in their eyes, however, he shifted around on his perch. Huge gaps had opened in the Federal line, gaps that were visible even through the smoke. The men still on their feet had stopped moving forward. The Federals seemed to hover in the center of the pale gray smoke cloud, passively waiting for some external force to give them impetus. He could be that force, Stewart knew.
"Hit them again!" he screamed, the words echoing weirdly inside his blast-deafened ears. "Fire as fast as you can!"
The men began firing singly or in small groups, but now that they’d tasted blood they were firing straight into the Federal line rather than over it. Rushes of smoke from the right of the company showed him that Wilson’s men—and possibly the entire regiment—had joined in the firing, now that the Federals were within musket-range.
Stewart saw a shimmer of movement in the blue line, a sort of side-to-side shuffle. Then, suddenly, the Federals were no longer there. They’d been swallowed up by the smoke; an eerie, low moan rising from the cornfield during pauses in his men’s firing was the only evidence that they’d been there at all. After a second’s disbelief, Stewart realized that the assault had collapsed and the Federals were retreating back to the woods.
And now he realized what had nagged at him during the advance. The Federals—two regiments? A brigade?—had been on their own. They’d advanced without the support of any of the other regiments or brigades in their line.
"Cease fire!" He straightened up, waving his sword. For another second or two men continued firing into the smoke, but the sound of the rifles quickly gave way to cheers as the company celebrated its achievement. Stewart, a fierce and unexpected pride jostling with relief at his having survived, joined in the yelling.
After a moment, though, he saw that the men were beginning to look expectantly at him, and it occurred to him that they were waiting for new orders. No sooner had he realized this than he knew what it was he wanted them to do. "Sergeant!" he called. "Prepare the company for an advance."
Fitzgerald hurried forward, looking up at him with an expression that mingled concern and incredulity. "Begging the captain’s pardon," he said, "but shouldn’t we wait? And shouldn’t you get down from there?"
Stewart ignored the second question; he was enjoying the position. "They’re brittle, sergeant," he said, pointing into the smoke. "If they intended a full advance against our line, they didn’t get it. The men who attacked us attacked too soon. If we hit them now and hit them hard, they’ll break, and maybe their whole line with them."
"We’re a wee bit brittle ourselves, sir," Fitzgerald said quietly. "Advancing without support would not be a good idea."
"I don’t propose to do it unsupported," Stewart said, having intended to do just that. "Radford!" The runner approached, saluted. "Give my compliments to Colonel Jackson," Stewart said, "and inform him that we have repulsed the enemy charge. Then tell him I suggest that an advance now, before the Federals recover, could drive them completely from the field. Hurry!"
As the runner sped up the slope to Jackson’s position, Stewart turned to look again at the cornfield. The smoke had nearly cleared, and he could almost see across to the woods at the far side. "They're still on our side of that far wall, sergeant," he said. "We have to hit them now!"
"God help us," Fitzgerald said. Then he was shouting, chivvying the men into lines in front of the fence they'd been defending. Stewart could hear faint cheering from up the gentle slope, where the rest of the regiment had no doubt seen the Federals slinking backward.
The company, formed into line, looked a touch ragged. Stewart hoped that their enthusiasm would compensate for the lack of time for drill. He took a last look back behind the fence, and was pleased to see just a handful of bodies there, and most of those only wounded.
Stewart jumped down from the wall and worked his way through to the front of the company's line. "Boys," he shouted, "you've done great work so far. Now I want you to do one more thing for me." He paused for dramatic effect. "We're going to clear those people from those woods. Are you with me?"
The men roared their agreement. From the restless way the line seemed to shiver, Stewart could tell that, given the chance, they'd be running for that far wall in a second. But that wouldn't do. He'd have to keep the advance slow, measured, so that Colonel Jackson would have the chance to get the other companies moving forward in support. He nodded to Fitzgerald. "Let's go, sergeant."
As the company marched steadily into the corn, Stewart was relieved to see, off to the right, the men of C Company beginning to move forward as well. Good old Wilson must have started forming up as soon as he saw Stewart's men emerge from behind the wall. That was the kind of initiative, everyone said, that made a southerner a match for any ten city-dwelling northerners.
It seemed to take forever to move through the cornfield, an eternity made worse by his discovery of torn, bloody bodies underfoot when he reached the place that marked the farthest extent of the Federal advance. Even when he had stepped over, and then beyond, the bodies, no matter how many cadences Stewart counted he couldn't see the far wall and woods getting any closer. His vitals seemed to be dancing inside him, and he was breathing much more heavily than his exertion justified, even on a day as warm as this.
"My God," Fitzgerald said, coming up beside him. "Captain, would you look at that? They're just standing there. Why aren't they getting behind their wall?"
"It's as I told you, sergeant. They're brittle. Maybe their leaders are dead or wounded. Or drunk. Or hiding. I don't care. Are we close enough to charge yet?"
"Not really, captain." Fitzgerald's voice sounded guttural and tight. "But let's do it anyway, before they get any ideas."
Stewart drew his sword and waved it over his head. "Let's get them, boys!" he shouted. "Charge!" Almost as an afterthought he drew his revolver. He might need it.
The men howled as they ran forward, an eerie ululating screech that raised gooseflesh on Stewart's neck. He hoped it was having the same effect on the Federals.
Apparently it was; as Stewart and his company closed the range, individual bluecoats began leaping the wall. Instead of crouching behind it, though, they lit off into the woods. No sooner did this good news register on Stewart than the trickle of panic turned into a flood. In a flurry of dust and flying muskets, the Federals abandoned their weapons, their position and their honor. Stewart's men howled for blood, and small explosions testified to their beginning to fire into the backs of the running defenders.
Then they were at the wall. Stewart leaped onto it and, turning to the men behind him, thrust his sword in the direction of the Federal retreat. "Don't let up!" he yelled. "Chase them back to Washington!" From somewhere behind him he heard distant yelling. He hoped that was the rest of the company, moving forward at last. He turned to look forward as the first of his men vaulted the wall.
And saw the cannon.
* * * *