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By Thomas Keneally
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Thomas Keneally
All rights reserved.
Four months later, on a morning in early July 1862, the young General Tom Jackson woke in a dusty bedroom in a rundown plantation house in Henrico County, Virginia. The house belonged to a Mr Thomas and was pretty typical of the sort of house slaveholders of middling wealth kept here in the Virginian lowlands.
Although the night had been humid, the General felt fresh this morning. Until the war began he'd filled in his time with hypochondria. In those days – when he was a sedentary professor at the Virginia Military Institute – he'd believed he needed eight hours' sleep at least every night if he wanted to live to be fifty. Last night he'd had six, and that was the most he'd had in one lump for the last month.
He found his watch on the commode beside the bed. 'Five minutes' luxury,' he muttered to himself. For it wasn't much past dawn and the mists and miasmas that rose from the James River and from the swamps of these malarial lowlands pressed hard up against the window. Some fleshy miasmas were rising up in the General too; for maybe ten seconds his blood hammered away for Anna Morrison Jackson his esposa, his wife. Well, he was used to making hammering blood simmer down and he did it now.
This was the Thomases' marriage bed he lay in, for Mr and Mrs Thomas had given it up for him. The Thomases were obese, flat-faced people, likely to start drinking at breakfast-time, exactly the sort of people abolitionists pointed to when they wanted to argue about the bad effects slavery had on slaveholders. The General wondered with a little distaste whether the Thomases still had some passion for each other and performed the marriage act here.
As he turned on his side the bed quaked and dust fell from the hangings. He sneezed.
Most mornings he demanded a situation report on waking. He didn't feel any particular need for one this morning. For Lincoln's great Union army that had come ravening up the Peninsula towards Richmond this second summer of the war between the States had had all heart and sense pounded out of it. Hoping to take the Rebel capital and end the whole business, it had been outflanked every day for a week and was lucky not to have been eaten whole. It kept now to the low peninsula round Harrison's Landing, it bivouacked in clouds of mosquitoes. It was depressed, it was reflective, it was happy to keep to its place.
Tom Jackson knew, therefore, that nothing had happened while he slept. As surely as the Federals could not advance because of the deficiencies of their souls, the rebel Confederates could not get any closer to Harrison's Landing because of all the Union gunboats in the James. Tom Jackson had no need today to holler, straight off on waking, for his sharp young aides, Mr Pendleton and Mr Kyd Douglas.
But it was the very idea that the situation was fixed and could go stale, that nothing had happened overnight, that nothing much could happen today, that made Tom Jackson decide that he'd had enough of luxury in the Thomases' mouldy bed. He rang a bell which stood by the table. His body-servant, Jim Lewis, who slept on a palliasse in the hallway, had been up an hour already. He'd rolled up his bedding and gone out into the mists to wash himself at the pump by the kitchen door. Jim Lewis was husky, not very tall, his hair beginning to grey. He was good with the needle and his coat looked better than the coats of most officers in Tom Jackson's two divisions. He didn't belong to General Jackson, he was on loan to him from one of the General's friends in Lexington in Rockbridge County. He'd always been an indoor slave. He had the delicate hands many house slaves had, hands used to holding the best of china and old hallmarked silverware. He thought the General was just about the cleverest man living. You never knew when you got up in the morning whether you'd find him in his room, whether he wouldn't have crept past your bed at one o'clock in the morning and crossed the Blue Ridge to confuse them Union generals, taking a division or two with him, leaving a message for you to follow on with a change of linen.
Once the General, who could get very solemn, had asked Jim if he'd heard all this newspaper talk about abolition and asked him further to say without prejudice if he'd rather be free. Jim's instinct made him say no – if he'd been a flogged field-hand his instinct would likewise have made him say no, that he was happy as a pig in mud under Massa. But then Jim thought further and found it was the truth. If he was free, would he be servant to a man whose name was known to every pretty kitchen and house-slave in every county in the Commonwealth of Virginia?
The ringing of the bell this morning told Jim the General hadn't skipped out last night. Jim went in carrying a big pitcher, a basin, a clean laundered towel. While he fetched a clean shirt and drawers from the General's travelling bag, the General stood by the window, his nightgown dropped to the floor, thoughtfully sponging the upper half of his body. He could see by now some of the tents of his staff in the plantation park and, in a field beyond, a few fires where his headquarters' regiment cooked its breakfast. The boys over there breakfasted well this morning off Union delicacies taken in the last ten days. There was likely good bacon and ample coffee, and if they were making corn pone, it would be of well-ground Yankee flour and delicious, the sad thing being Confederate cornflour was often riddled with husks. Yet despite what fine breakfasts they might be eating, this place wasn't a healthy one for those boys down there. All night the mists would be working in through their pores, and now a fiercely humid sun would keep those poisonous vapours simmering in them.
'No good for us, Jim,' the General muttered. 'No good for us mountain folks here.'
Jim, who was getting on so well with the Thomases' cook, a large homely woman built on the same mould as her masters, just the same knew when to agree. 'I s'pect that's right, Gen'ral. I've bin shiverin' and sneezin' all the night long.'
G'bye, Missee Cook, he thought. Next week they'd stay at some other gentleman's house, north, south, east or west – Jim didn't know, even the General's generals didn't know. There he could fall in love with some other grandee's cook. He fell in love easily but didn't often do much about it. Women were always saying to him, 'Lord, Jim, what a talker you is!'
The mist was lifting quickly now and the General could see young Sandie Pendleton shaving in front of his tent, peering into a mirror held by a servant. He could see too the riflemen of the headquarters' regiment, lean boys, hanging their damp blankets to dry over Mr Thomas's rail fences. Not the right place, he thought again, either for health or general strategy.
'Tell Captain Pendleton to come now,' he ordered Jim. He could see that in any case Sandie was shaving fast, expecting to be called upstairs. He was a very deft boy with a razor. While Jim sped downstairs, Sandie finished the left side of his face, drenched it in water, dried himself, got his grey coat on and buttoned it to the neck. In the same time General Tom Jackson had shirted, underdrawered, trousered and booted himself. In the General's command only the quick were assured of any standing.
Sandie was one of the quicker. He came from the town where Jackson had spent all his married life teaching, the town of Lexington. Tom Jackson had therefore known Sandie since Sandie was a child. The boy had shown an early quickness by graduating Bachelor of Arts from Washington College in Lexington at the age of seventeen and by winning the college medal as well. When the war began, he'd been studying for his Master's at the University of Virginia. It was exactly the sort of background Tom Jackson respected.
Sandie came through the General's open bedroom door.
'Where's Mr Boteler staying?' the General asked him. Boteler was a Congressman and another of the General's friends.
'A mile up the road. People called the Morrises.'
'Have you eaten breakfast?'
'I haven't, sir.'
'So, we'll both do without it.'
The General was already loping downstairs. Sandie opened the window, stuck out his head, yelled, 'Horse!' in the direction of his tent and followed the General. At the front steps the General's small dumpy horse Old Sorrel stood being patted by an ostler. Everyone liked Old Sorrel. He wasn't handsome, his coat was faded chestnut, he lacked style, his eyes were soft as a doe's. Altogether he looked – had you wanted to ride him to Richmond – as if he would have pegged out about the Charles City crossroads. In fact he never went lame, he had carried the General up and down the Valley at a crazy pace, across and back over the Blue Ridge and on a wild-paced march across Virginia. The General liked him for his easy gait and could sleep by the hour on his back.
The ostler was English and was telling Old Sorrel, 'Old Sorrel's a lively boy, Old Sorrel is.' By the time he noticed the General, the General was in the saddle, extricating the reins from his hand. Sandie's horse had also been brought to the steps and Sandie got away a few seconds after his commander.
Sandie wondered why the General was galloping Old Sorrel on a morning when gallops didn't seem to be necessary. It must be that Tom Jackson was answering some secret urgency, most likely one of those black crazy urgencies that were more inside his bowels than in the outside world.
Sandie was a length behind the General when they tore out of the Thomases' front gate on to the Charles River road to Richmond. This is what it is to live, Sandie thought, with a man who sees his job as being to whip history into shape.CHAPTER 2
They tied up their horses in woods three miles south of the Thomases'. There was the General himself and Sandie, and Mr Boteler of the Confederate Congress in Richmond. And as well as these three, a tough, scrawny, crotchety little man called General Popeye Ewell. At the Morris House Tom Jackson and Sandie had found Mr Boteler and Popeye just sitting down to breakfast in the front parlour. Popeye ate only cereal and drank only hot water and talked all the time about his tortured guts, so it wasn't much of a hardship for him to be snatched away from the table. Mr Boteler liked a Christian breakfast, though – eggs and ham, cakes and gravy. Dragged away from it, he said to Sandie: 'Those other two don't have an alimentary canal nor a goddam stomach. They're monsters.'
Sandie said, 'That's so, Mr Boteler.'
Ahead of the place they had now left their horses, and right at the edge of the forest, some Alabamans were standing picket duty, facing out across a wide wild field in the distant likelihood of a Union movement. To the left, in a further fringe of oak forest, some Georgians were supposed to be doing the same, though you couldn't see them for the foliage.
The Alabamans looked to Sandie as if they were taking their business with proper seriousness, even the ones who were hunkered or brewing coffee. The open ground ahead was a bowl of sunlight now. There were butterflies amongst the lupins out there. But here under the branches there were mosquitoes, and flies as fat as blackberries.
General Jackson ignored the boys in the picket line. Popeye Ewell, who was the sort of man who always had something to say but pushed it out the corner of his mouth as if it were an imposition, called out: 'Keep them pupils primed, boys. That meadow you see there is a meadow of Virginia!'
'Wa-ha-ha!' a few of the Alabamans cried.
Sandie Pendleton found a child lieutenant standing by a sycamore, field-glasses in his hands. 'Where are they?' he asked the boy.
'See that fence across the meadow? Follow it to the right. Then ... notice it starts to rise and goes up a hill? Well, there are cottonwoods up there and if you hide among them you can see a line of forest. They're in that forest, the Union pickets, facing the cottonwoods. You can see the Union camp beyond. And the James.'
Sandie thanked the boy. Already Tom Jackson and the others were stepping out into the open ground. The meadow was overgrown with blackberry bushes and you could tell which branches the pickets had been harvesting. Maybe these Alabamans would come out of their cover today and crop some blackberries themselves, trading the long chance of a bullet against the assured sugar and succulence of the blackberries. Anyhow, the two generals and Mr Boteler and Sandie made crouching progress amongst the blackberries and across the meadow. It was low, boggy ground, and Sandie, as General Jackson had already done that morning, disliked it and thanked God he was from Lexington. There were likely more copperheads and water-moccasins in these mean few acres than in the whole of Rockbridge County.
Mr Boteler's lower left leg slipped from under him and he landed on his knee in bog water. 'Hell and damn!' he said, but he looked up smiling at Sandie. He was a tough, genial little man, about forty-five years, and he was a West Virginian like the General. He was one of the opposition in the Confederate Congress, what they called a Whig Unionist, as Jackson was himself, a moderate, a man who wished this whole mess had never got started. He had a lot of power exactly because he fetched from the same part of the state as the General. It was a wonderful thing for a politician to have a successful general from his own constituency. Boteler, who had once been an operator in the U.S. Congress and was now an operator in the Government in Richmond, knew just how wonderful it was.
A politician of less flexibility than Mr Boteler might have objected to the price the General was demanding today. How many Congressmen would be willing to creep forward past the pickets and spy on the Yankee hosts from behind fences and cottonwoods? Well, Boteler was willing, and it was just as well. General Jackson thought nothing of bringing any civilian out here to witness the state of the Yankee camp and soul. Jefferson Davis himself better beware – he might find himself out here one morning next week.
They kept low behind the fence and followed it uphill. Soon they could stand full height amongst the cottonwoods and tall undergrowth. How tall was the summit of the hill? A hundred and fifty feet maybe. Two hundred. But in that flat land it was like a peak in Darien. Boteler and General Ewell put their binoculars to their eyes. Sandie handed General Jackson his.
Quoting the young Alabaman, Sandie briefed them where to look. There was little need for his instructions, even with the naked eye you could see the Federal camp on the James. Tents and waggons floated in a haze that still clung to the flats round Harrison's Landing. But with the binoculars you could see more. You could see first the blue-coated pickets in the wood three hundred yards away. If they knew there were two Confederate generals and a Congressman on this knoll they would send out a cavalry squadron to bag them. But they didn't do much that was adventurous any more, not after last week. Jackson knew exactly the feelings of the boys over there. Brave enough, they wondered if the Rebs weren't braver still and they began to wonder too about their generals, even about their beloved McClellan. Jackson could read their doubts as he gazed at them through the lenses.
Beyond the pickets and their line of forest some batteries were placed behind fences and earth embankments, and beyond that stretched the vast Union bivouac itself. The Yankees had been bottled up there for some days now and it looked like a well-arranged encampment. There seemed to be the beginnings of pathways amongst the tents. But not all the Union army enjoyed the luxury of canvas. Along with fifty-two pieces of artillery, thousands of stands of sidearms, much beef, pork, flour, coffee and molasses, the Federals had as well lost a few tents last week.
Yet it was a town, that camp. As big as Richmond. A hundred thousand men lived there, however uncertainly. You could see somewhere in the centre a great military band playing songs of home, and hymns and tunes to ginger up doubtful souls. You could see ships of the U.S. Navy in the deep-water reaches of the James two miles away.
The General spoke to Mr Boteler. 'I'd like you to just take note of the location of the artillery parks, Mr Boteler. Not up forward, as if they ever mean to turn their guns on us. They're down by the landings. Plain as day, it's intended they should be ready to be taken on board ship. The great Mac has his bags packed and he's already decided to leave all defence to those gunboats out there.'
Excerpted from Confederates by Thomas Keneally. Copyright © 1979 Thomas Keneally. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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