They were coming, and everyone knew it. The whole company stirred, eighty restless and uncomfortable men, echoing a tension that worked its way down the regiment’s entire line. For all Captain Charles Stewart knew, the tension originated on the ridge to the north, where the big guns in the heart of the Confederate position continued to fire at an enemy he could not see.
Stewart stared at the woods in which the enemy forces were hidden, and fought against the urge to loosen his collar. It was unseasonably warm for May, and the heavy kersey of his jacket and trousers itched abominably as he tried to ignore the trickle of sweat making its way down his back. He wanted to be busy, but until the day demanded more of him than watchfulness, there was little he could do.
"What do you think, sergeant?" Stewart turned to Fitzgerald, the company sergeant and a man whose twenty years in the Old Army had left his face the same color and texture as his boots. "When do you expect them?"
"Sooner rather than later, Captain. They’ve no choice, you see." Fitzgerald gestured right with his ramrod, to the white-clad troops on the ridge. "We hold the high ground." The main Confederate line stretched from west to east along the heights just north of the town of Bolivar, which itself was perched at the top of the west bank of the Potomac River. "And General Twiggs has anchored our left flank on the Shenandoah." He pointed to the fields straight ahead, their green uniformity blotted by dark spots that marked the places where men had fallen. "They've tried to take the heights three times today, and a bloody mess they made of it. If they really want to take Harper's Ferry back—and why they'd want to I can't imagine—this is the only route they've got left. And even that would be stupid."
“We’re not going to try to keep the place ourselves,” Stewart said. Though he’d not yet finished his second year at the Virginia Military Institute he felt he knew why. “I think this place is indefensible. Look at those heights.” Even from here it was possible to see the high ground on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
“Very good, sir,” Fitzgerald said. “So why do you think we’re here, then?”
“We have to hold the town just long enough to allow the machines, tools and stocks to be removed from the armory.”
"You’ll make an officer yet, captain, if you’ll pardon my presumption." Fitzgerald winked, and Stewart winked back, knowing full well who it really was who had whipped the company into whatever fighting form it now possessed. Today was May 8, 1850, a mere six weeks since Virginia had seceded to join the Confederate States. There'd been almost no time in which to train. Perhaps the men were nervous because, deep down, they knew they weren’t fully ready yet.
* * * *
“Because this isn’t a brigade,” Sam Grant said to the colonels who stood, in a half-circle, around him. “It’s a mob that just happens to be dressed alike and carrying muskets.”
The colonels, every one a Volunteer, looked offended, but none tried to counter Grant’s characterization.
“I have to warn you, sir,” one colonel eventually said. “Marching in column into those woods will delay our attack. It’ll take me forever to form my men into line.”
“You don’t have forever,” Grant said. “And you shouldn’t need it. Haven’t you been drilling?” From somewhere in the distance a soft popping of musketry announced a sudden contact between two groups of skirmishers as General Wool probed for a weakness that Grant suspected he’d never find.
“Of course we’ve been drilling, sir,” the colonel protested. “But my regiment was mustered in just two months ago.”
“And we’ve been a brigade for scarcely four weeks. You just made my point, sir.” Grant pulled the cigar from his mouth and spat out the fragment that had stayed behind when he bit down. He envied Ransom, on his right: he at least had a regiment of Regulars in his brigade. “Until I am convinced that this brigade can maneuver, as a brigade, on a battlefield, I intend to make my dispositions as simple as possible. I want you to concentrate on doing your job on the field. Let me worry about how to get you there.”
* * * *
"Messenger for you, sir." Sergeant Fitzgerald nodded up the line, in the direction of the regiment’s command officers.
As Stewart turned, a corporal trotted up. For a moment, the man stood, catching his breath as dust fell in clouds from his trousers. Another man was already talking with Wilson, captain of C Company on their right.
"Colonel Jackson’s compliments, sir," the man facing Stewart said. "The skirmishers out on our left report movement in the woods. The colonel desires that you ready yourself to repulse an attack. All companies are to hold their positions at all costs." The corporal gulped for breath. "He reminds you that we are the last regiment in the line, and you are the flank company—the last in the regiment’s line. You and Captain Wilson are the flank of the army, sir. Colonel Jackson charges you with holding this wall to the last, and God be with you."
Stewart nodded to the corporal, swallowing hard. "Thank you, corporal," he said. "Return my compliments to the colonel, and tell him that Company D stands firm."
The corporal saluted and began retracing his steps up the gentle slope to where Jackson waited. Stewart wondered what Jackson’s pale blue eyes looked like now. The colonel’s cold stare, nerve-jangling enough on the parade ground, was reputed to take on an unearthly glow in the face of combat.
So the stories went, at least. Stewart took some comfort from the knowledge that, in one important respect, the colonel was no more experienced than any of his captains. It was true that Jackson had served in the Old Army and had seen action against the Seminoles. But fighting Indians wasn’t the same as fighting a determined army of well-armed white men, and that Jackson had never done. In fact, none of the men on this field today had done so, save for the older generals. And their fighting had been twenty years ago in Florida against the Spanish—who scarcely qualified as white men—or forty years ago, in the war with Britain that had lost the Louisiana Territory. Losing Louisiana, Stewart was convinced, had set in motion the chain of events that had sundered the Union.
Now he would learn what kind of man he truly was. They all would.
He hoped the men would make Uncle James proud by their performance today. As the man who had raised and paid for the company, his reputation as much as theirs was on trial.
He should say something to the company, while there was still time. Climbing up onto the stone fence behind which the company had formed up, Stewart drew his sword and faced his soldiers. The nervous chatter stilled, and he was conscious of nearly a hundred faces staring at him. "Boys," he said, fighting to keep his voice steady, "the Federals are heading this way. Colonel Jackson thinks they’re going to try to get around us."
"The Hell they will!" somebody shouted, and his companions hallooed their agreement.
"That’s the spirit I want you to show," Stewart said. "Remember what you’ve been taught, boys, and hold your fire until I give the signal. And whatever you do, hold fast. We’re the end of the line, boys. General Twiggs has put the fate of the army in Colonel Jackson’s hands, and the colonel has put it in our hands."
They still looked nervous. Hell, thought Stewart, I’d be nervous after that pathetic imitation of a speech. He thrust his sword high over his head, and shouted, "Let’s show those people what Virginia men are made of!" Now he got the response he’d wanted, a shrill hurrah! and a shimmer of silver as four- score bayonet-tipped rifles thrust skyward in echo of his pantomime thrust.
Someone shouted, "There they are!" Stewart turned his head to look, suddenly aware of a tightness in the chest that choked his breath worse than any dust.
From the edge of the woods, a dozen or so Federals had emerged from behind a stone wall that ran on a rough diagonal across the regiment's front. They were, he guessed, about two hundred yards away—how had they got so close without being spotted sooner?—and were firing into the cornfield, at the men Jackson had placed there as a skirmish line. As Stewart watched, the bluecoats ran into the field. Fascinated, he stared as the ragged blue line met its white counterpart with a startling clatter of musketry. More Federal troops appeared at the woods’ edge and began to form up in front of the wall, though these did not advance. After a moment’s resistance—they should have held longer, Stewart thought—the white-coated skirmishers began drifting back toward the Virginia line. The Federal skirmishers moved forward, firing sporadically, until the closest of them were less than 100 yards away. A ball smacked into the fence not far from where he stood.
* * * *