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Grant Comes East
A Novel of the Civil War
By Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen, Albert S. Hanser
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen
All rights reserved.
July 16, 1863
A cold rain swept across the river. To the east, lightning streaked the evening sky, thunder rolling over the white-capped Ohio River.
The storm had hit with a violent intensity and for a few minutes slowed the work along the docks, but already sergeants were barking orders at the drenched enlisted men while rain-soaked stevedores were urged back to their labors. Dozens of boats lined the quays, offloading men, horses, limber wagons, and field pieces.
To the eyes of Gen. Herman Haupt, commander of United States military railroads, the sight of these men was reassuring. They were the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee, the victors of the great campaign that had climaxed ten days ago at Vicksburg, a victory that had come simultaneously with what was now seen as the darkest day of the war, the day Lee defeated the Army of the Potomac at Union Mills.
The soldiers disembarking on the banks of the Ohio were lean and tough, their disciplined, no-nonsense carriage conveying strength and confidence despite their bedraggled, tattered uniforms, faded from rainy marching in the muddy fields of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Headgear was an individual choice. Most wore battered, broad-brimmed hats for protection against hot southern sun and torrential rains. Regulation field packs were gone; most were carrying blanket, poncho, and shelter half in a horseshoe-shaped roll, slung over the left shoulder and tied off at the right hip. Except for the blue of their uniforms, they looked more like their Confederate opponents than the clean, disciplined, orderly ranks Herman Haupt was used to seeing in the East. Few if any would ever have passed inspection with regiments trained by McClellan. These Westerners were rawboned boys from prairie farms in Iowa and Ohio, lumberjacks from Michigan, mechanics from Detroit, and boatmen from the Great Lakes and Midwest rivers. The unending campaigning had marked them as field soldiers. Spit and polish had long ago been left behind at Shiloh and the fever-infested swamps of the bayous along the Mississippi.
They already knew their mission ... pull the defeated Army of the Potomac out of the fire and put the Confederacy in the grave. They came now with confidence, swaggering off the steamboats, forming into ranks, standing at ease while rolls were checked, impervious to the rain and wind, their calmness, to Haupt's mind, a reflection of the man that he now waited for.
He could see the boat, rounding the cape from the Mississippi River into the Ohio, the light packet moving with speed, cutting a wake, smoke billowing from its twin stacks, sparks snapping heavenward, carried off by the wind following the storm. The flag on the stern mast denoted that an admiral was aboard, but that was not the man Haupt was waiting for.
The diminutive side-wheeler, a courier boat built for speed, aimed straight for the dock where Haupt was standing, the port master waving a signal flag to guide it in.
Haupt looked over at the man accompanying him, Congressman Elihu Washburne, confidant of the president and political mentor of the general on board the boat. Elihu, who had joined Haupt only the hour before, was silent, clutching a copy of the Chicago Tribune, out just this morning, its front page reporting the disaster at Union Mills, the advance of Lee's army on Washington, and the riots which had erupted in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
"I sure as hell am glad I don't have his responsibilities," Elihu sighed as the side-wheeler slowed, paddle wheels shifting into reverse, backing water in a dramatic display by its pilot, who had timed to the second the order to reverse engines.
Its steam whistle shrieking, the boat edged in toward the dock, half a dozen black stevedores racing along the rough-hewn planks, ready to grab lines tossed by the light packet's crew.
Ropes snaked out across the water were caught as the boat edged into the dock, brushing against it with a dull thump that snapped through Haupt's feet, the dock swaying on its pilings.
The stevedores tightened the lines, lashing them down to bollards, and within seconds a gangplank was run over, slamming down on the deck.
There was no ceremony or fanfare, no blaring of trumpets, no honor guard racing down the dock and coming to attention with polished rifles. The door to the main cabin swung open and he came out.
Haupt had never seen this man before but he knew instantly who he was. He was short, grizzled-looking, with an unkempt beard of reddish-brown flecked with gray; his face was deeply sunburned, wrinkled heavily around the eyes, which were deep set and sharp-looking. His dark blue private's four-button coat free of all adornment except for the insignia of rank, which, Haupt quickly noted, was still that of major general in spite of his recent promotion. Slouch hat pulled low against the storm, he came down the gangplank and Haupt came to attention and saluted.
The general nodded, half saluted, looked over at Elihu, and extended his hand.
"Congressman, good to see you."
"General Grant, I'm damn glad to see you," Elihu replied. "This is General Haupt, the man who makes the railroads work."
Grant looked up at Haupt and nodded.
"Heard of you. You do good work, General."
"Thank you, sir, the respect is mutual."
Grant said nothing, gazing at him appraisingly for a moment. Behind Grant two more men came down the gangplank, and again began the ritual of salutes and introductions to Admiral Porter and General Sherman, who towered over Grant, standing as tall as Haupt, returning his salute without comment.
"Let's get out of this rain," Grant said.
Haupt led the way off the dock. As they passed a regiment of troops forming up in the mud in front of a steamer, there was a scattering of cheers, nothing wild and demonstrative, just a respectful acknowledgment, which Grant responded to with a simple half wave, and nothing more.
The wind reversed for a moment, another gust of rain sweeping down, the air thick with the smell of wood and coal smoke. They climbed a slick, mud-covered road, corduroyed with rough-hewn planks, stepping aside for a moment as a gun crew labored up the slippery track, horses straining, pulling a three-inch ordnance rifle.
Haupt studied the crew as they passed. They had obviously seen hard fighting; the limber chest was scored and pocked by bullets, paint faded and scratched; the horses were lean like the men.
Reaching the crest to the bluff looking down on the river, Haupt paused for a second, letting the officers behind him catch up.
The view stirred his heart. A dozen steamboats were tied up along the dock; out across the Ohio and around the bend that led to the Mississippi came more, a long line of ships, the view lost in the mists and swirling clouds of rain.
Before him was the rail yard. Before the war, Cairo had already been a thriving port town where the rail line that led into the vast heartland of the Midwest terminated at this connection to the river traffic of two great waterways. The war had transformed it beyond all imagining, the main port of supply supporting the campaigns up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, and down the broad, open Mississippi to Vicksburg and now on to New Orleans and the world.
Dozens of locomotives, marshaled here over the last four days, waited, each hooked to boxcars and flatcars, some of them brought down from as far away as Chicago and Milwaukee.
The authorization the president had given Haupt had been far-reaching, beyond the scope of anything done until now in this war, or in any war. He had federalized half a dozen lines, argued with scores of railroad executives, and made it clear to all of them that they would be compensated, but as of right now he was running their schedules, and resistance would be met with arrest. Haupt reminded more than one of them that Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus and would not hesitate, if need be, to throw a railroad president in jail if he, Haupt, should request it. Elihu had already shown Haupt the editorial in the Indianapolis Journal denouncing him as the "Napoleon of the Railroads."
At the same time orders had streamed out as far away as Maine and northern Minnesota, pulling in reserves of tentage, uniforms, shoes, rations, bandages, field pieces, serge bags for powder, pistol ammunition, horses, mules, oats, chloroform, canned milk, tinware, cooking pots, rifles, packaged cartridges for Springfields, Sharps, and Spencers. Any boxcar to be found on a siding, any wheezy locomotive that could still pull that boxcar was coming in as well, commandeered from across the country to bring forth what was spilling out of the cornucopias made of brick and iron and steam.
The nation was stirring as it had never done before, even as it reeled from the disaster dealt to it by the legions of Robert E. Lee.
The rail yard rumbled with noise, whistles shrieking, cars banging together as they were hooked up. The crews were laboring to load up wood, water, stacking up boxes of rations under open-sided warehouses. Frightened horses cried out and struggled as they were forced into boxcars, men cursing and yelling.
It looked like chaos, but Haupt knew better. He had brought with him more than four hundred of his best men from Alexandria on one of the last trains to get out of Washington before the line was cut just north of Baltimore. They knew their business and, in what appeared to be chaos, there was order. Inbound trains were being shifted to side railings, engines disconnected, run to a turntable, shifted around, greased, oiled, refueled, water tanks filled, then moved up a side track to pick up an outbound load. With the arrival of the first division to come up from Vicksburg, this machinery of a nation at war would surge into motion.
A small rail yard office, which Haupt had selected for the meeting, loomed up through the swirls of smoke and rain, the guards posted out front snapping to attention at the approach of so many stars. A gathering of hangers-on, curious citizens, and a dozen or more reporters stood back at a distance, kept there by a provost guard with direct orders from Haupt, fully supported by Elihu, to arrest anyone who tried to break through.
The reporters shouted their questions, which were all ignored, Sherman looking over at them with a jaundiced eye and muttering a curse under his breath.
"Damn them, now it will be in every paper in the country that we're here," Sherman snapped.
"They knew already," Elihu interjected. "Word of it was coming up the river your entire trip. No use in hiding it; besides, the country needs to hear it."
"Just for once I'd like to move without everyone, especially the rebs, knowing about it first."
Still muttering under his breath, Sherman followed Haupt into the room, the door closing behind them, window shades pulled down.
A fresh pot of coffee rested on a sideboard, bread and slabs of cut ham on tin plates. Sherman and Porter helped themselves, Grant simply taking a cup of coffee and sipping from it as he walked up to the table, upon which was spread a railroad map of the country. He gazed at it for a moment, then went to the wall where Herman had put up a map of northern Virginia, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania. Red and blue pins, with small foolscap notes under them, marked the latest positions of forces.
Grant turned to Elihu.
"What's the latest?"
Elihu tossed the Chicago Tribune on the table, then pulled a notebook out of his pocket and opened it.
"Washington has been cut off from all land communications for the last three days. Stuart's cavalry has cut all telegraph lines and rail lines to the capital. The line into Baltimore was patched yesterday but went down again this morning. Last report from Baltimore was of rioting. Rioting reported as well in Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati."
"The hell with the rioting," Sherman said coldly. "What about Lee?"
"He moved from Westminster five days ago, heading toward Washington. He's put up a good screen, no solid reports as to disposition. A courier boat out of Washington docked at Port Deposit on the north bank of the Susquehanna this afternoon with a report that Confederate infantry was reported ten miles to the north of Washington, at Rockville."
"Of course," Grant said quietly. "He has to try it. It's his one chance to win quickly."
"The rain has slowed him down," Haupt interrupted. "Every river is at flood, otherwise Lee could have been into the Washington area three days ago. Old Sam Heintzelman is in command of the garrison in Washington. He sent out some pioneer troops in front of Lee's advance. They've destroyed every bridge and mill dam north of the city and made a real mess of things."
Grant nodded approvingly and sat down at the table, a signal for the rest to join him.
Haupt sat down directly across from him, Elihu at his side.
"Tell me everything, start at the beginning," Grant said quietly, leaning back, rubbing his eyes, then putting down the cup of coffee. Fishing in his breast pocket, he pulled out a cigar, struck a Lucifer, and puffed the cigar to life.
Haupt began his narrative, describing the maneuvers that led to a meeting at Gettysburg, the flanking march of Lee to Westminster, the chaos at the supply head, the debacle at Union Mills, the disintegration of the Army of the Potomac, and the hellish retreat of the survivors to the Susquehanna, finishing with his meeting with Lincoln.
Grant did not interrupt, sitting quietly, wreathed in smoke, stubbing out the end of his cigar and lighting another one, the smoke drifting thick around the coal oil lamp that hung from the ceiling.
While Sherman stood silent, Porter stood up to stretch, walking over to study the map, reaching into his pocket for a flask, which he half emptied into his coffee. He made eye contact with Grant, motioned to the flask. Grant shook his head.
There was a moment of silence and Elihu cleared his throat.
"The political situation, General, to put it bluntly, is on the point of collapse."
"First off, the riots. It's reported that New York is controlled by the mob; scores, perhaps hundreds dead. More than half the city has gone over to the rioters."
"What's being done?"
"General Sickles has been dispatched with a brigade of troops from his corps."
Haupt said nothing. Sickles's move had not been authorized by any real order from above. He had simply announced that as a general from New York he was going there personally to straighten things out and Herman had reluctantly agreed to give him ten trains to move his men from Harrisburg to Jersey City.
"No one had said it openly yet, but the president will most likely face a delegation from Congress, perhaps already has done so, calling upon him to seek a negotiated settlement."
"He won't do it," Grant replied.
"I know he won't. But if Washington should fall, the point might be moot."
"Then we move the capital back to Philadelphia," Sherman said. "During the Revolution we did that. The British burned us out in 1814, and we survived it."
"The capital cannot fall," Elihu replied sharply. "It cannot. If we lose that, I can promise you that the members of Congress from every border state will back off from this war, as will more than one from the Midwest. That is what you must prevent."
Grant shook his head.
"I can't guarantee that we can save Washington. President Lincoln will not want me to throw away an army on a forlorn hope, and if I rush into this fight without preparation, it will be a forlorn hope. To defeat General Lee will take time, sir, and cannot be done with the snap of a finger. If we lose this army now" — and he gestured out the window toward the boats discharging the soldiers of the West — "we will lose this war."
"Congressman Washburne," Grant turned toward his old friend and mentor, "you must convey to the president that I fully understand the political crisis we are in and I will do everything I can, as quickly as possible, in response. The mere fact that we're coming east, even if with but one division to start, will send a message to Lee, and exert pressure on him as well. It will tell him we have not given up, not by a long shot, and will force him to perhaps act rashly.
"However," Grant nodded toward Haupt, "as General Haupt can verify, it will take weeks to move a force of significant size and to assemble the fighting power needed to engage Lee.
Excerpted from Grant Comes East by Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen, Albert S. Hanser. Copyright © 2004 Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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