Hell or Richmondby Ralph Peters
Winner of the American Library Association's 2014 Boyd Award for Literary Excellence in Military Fiction.
Between May 5 and June 3, 1864, the Union and Confederate armies suffered 88,000 casualties. Twenty-nine thousand were killed, wounded or captured in the first two days of combat. The savagery shocked a young, divided nation.
Against this backdrop/b>… See more details below
Winner of the American Library Association's 2014 Boyd Award for Literary Excellence in Military Fiction.
Between May 5 and June 3, 1864, the Union and Confederate armies suffered 88,000 casualties. Twenty-nine thousand were killed, wounded or captured in the first two days of combat. The savagery shocked a young, divided nation.
Against this backdrop of the birth of modern warfare and the painful rebirth of the United States, New York Times bestselling novelist Ralph Peters has created a breathtaking narrative that surpasses the drama and intensity of his recent critically acclaimed novel, Cain at Gettysburg.
In Hell or Richmond, thirty days of ceaseless carnage are seen through the eyes of a compelling cast, from the Union's Harvard-valedictorian "boy general," Francis Channing Barlow, to the brawling "dirty boots" Rebel colonel, William C. Oates. From Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee to a simple laborer destined to win the Medal of Honor, Peters brings to life an enthralling array of leaders and simple soldiers from both North and South, fleshing out history with stunning, knowledgeable realism.
From the horrific collision of armies in the Wilderness, where neither side wanted to fight, to the shocking slaughter of the grand charge at Cold Harbor, this epic novel delivers a compelling, authentic, and suspenseful portrait of Civil War combat.
Commemorating the approaching 150th anniversary of this grim encounter between valiant Americans, Ralph Peters brings to bear the lessons of his own military career, his lifelong study of this war and the men who fought it, and his skills as a bestselling, prize-winning novelist to portray horrific battles and sublime heroism as no other author has done.
Firmly grounded in the historical record, Hell or Richmond recounts the horrific bloodbaths of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor with the skill of an accomplished novelist...gripping you-are-there urgency...enthralling historical fiction of the highest order.
One of the great Civil War novels of our time...superbly researched and brought to life...[be] prepared to risk not being able to put it down.
- Tom Doherty Associates
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Read an Excerpt
April 29, 1864
“Lord in Heaven, Old Abe’s a desperate man,” Bill Wildermuth said. “Lifting Brownie up to be a sergeant. This army ain’t scraping the bottom of the barrel, no, sir. We’re reaching down under that barrel.” He leaned over and gave Brown, his old workmate, a blow where a corporal’s stripes still graced a sleeve. “Ain’t that right, boys?”
Scattered on stumps and scavenged chairs set out in the wonderful sun, the old comrades drew their pipes from their mouths to offer up mock dismay at the coming promotion. Recruits new to the company smiled cautiously.
Apple blossoms feathered down around them. Promotion or not, Corporal Charles Brown told himself, the world went on, and the war went on, and one man no longer counted for very much. Yet, he was pleased by the prospect of adding a stripe.
“Promoting Brownie ain’t half so bad as making Doudle a corporal,” Charlie Oswald, a corporal himself, declared. “I predict complete defeat for the Union in no time at all. Short rations a-coming, boys, Andersonville’s a-calling.…”
“That’s nothing to laugh about,” Doudle said. “Andersonville, I mean.”
“But you do agree it’s a grave … a grave and desperate measure … making you a corporal and Brownie there a sergeant,” Wildermuth insisted. He cackled and tapped the ashes from his pipe. “I fear for the glorious Union, boys,” he told the new recruits. “You’ll be crying for your mothers, if they ain’t crying for you. Between Brownie, Doudle, and U. S. Grant, it’s a-going to be something.”
A quiet man, solid as oak, Private Henry Hill startled them all. Not only by speaking, but by the force in his tone: “Nobody’s ‘making’ Corporal Brown a sergeant. He made himself a sergeant. And you know it.”
Hill meant well. He always did. But solemnity wasn’t in season. A mood as fine as the afternoon—all green and gold and blue and free of rain—had captivated the men. The teasing continued amid the drifting blossoms.
Wildermuth stretched like a sun-warmed cat and turned back to the new faces. All of the gathered soldiers, green or veteran, had been canal boatmen back home. Except for Sammy Martz, the Pottsville blacksmith, who could not be deterred from joining their fellowship.
“Boys,” Wildermuth resumed, “it’s hard enough for a man to tell you four Eckerts apart. I mean, I don’t know if you’re brothers, cousins, uncles, or everything at once. Fellow gets to wondering what all goes on back home on Eckert Hill. Tell you this, though: Private Hill there might be the first sergeant’s confessed and proven cousin, but him and Brownie got some relation they ain’t admitting. Can’t hardly separate ’em, can’t hardly tell ’em apart. Same great big inky-head targets for the Johnnies, same jut-out jaws just a-begging for a fist.” He stretched again, smiling as if he knew all and would soon tell all. “Only difference I see is that Henry there got black eyes fit for a gypsy gal. Which sets a man wondering in a new direction entirely.”
Thrilled by spring, two birds swooped overhead. Delighted to have an audience still unwise, Wildermuth went on: “I figure it’s all up with us now. Over and done. You new fellows joined up at a terrible time, just terrible. Before you know it, ‘Sergeant’ Brown’s going to be running the company, if not the regiment. Then you look out! Yes, sir! General Burnside himself won’t be able to save a man among you.”
Surfeited, Brown spoke for himself at last: “Bill, if words were bullets, we could point you south and there wouldn’t be one Reb left alive come Sunday. And First Sergeant Hill might have something to say about who runs the company.”
“Not for long,” Wildermuth said. “I hear they’re going to make him a lieutenant any time now. And lieutenants never do nothing.”
“He’d make a good officer,” Doudle said. “What say, Henry? Pair of shoulder straps for Cousin Willie?”
Hill shrugged. His first loyalty, as all the veterans knew, was to the soon-to-be sergeant. Henry Hill and Charles Brown had not been close back home on the Schuylkill Canal, but war had bound them together in the odd way it had with men.
Sensing, as old soldiers do, that the call to form up was coming, Brown rose and said, “You Eckerts. You there, Martz. Line up, let me have a look at you. I’m not going to have you embarrassing this company.”
The new men fumbled about, but got themselves into what passed for order. Brown was struck, yet again, by how young they appeared. There would be, at most, two or three years’ difference between the survivors of old Company C and the new recruits they’d collected during their reenlistment furlough in February. Yet, the men who had left their barges and mule barns in ’61, who had fought from Port Royal to Knoxville, looked a decade older to Brown’s eyes.
He thought of his elder brother, dead of a simple sickness and buried at Vicksburg, above a river whose breadth stunned men bred on the humble Schuylkill. The regiment had moved from north to south to the west and back again, staking claims to strange earth with its dead. Now its flag drooped on a Virginia field. They had gone in a circle, blindfolded mules in a mill.
Flicking away a blossom that called to mind women and private things, Brown tightened the belt on one of the Eckert boys, asking, “You’re William, right?”
“No, Corporal. I’m Johnny. That’s William.” Dutchie as could be, the new man pronounced the names as “Chonny” and “Villy-yam.” The Eckerts were their own breed. In more than one way, folks said.
Brown grunted. Of the four Eckerts in the company now, the only one he could be sure of naming right was Isaac, who had been with them from the beginning. Standing off to the side, Isaac Eckert did not take a protective or helpful attitude toward his relatives, but let Brown straighten them out.
“I have a thing I must ask you, please, Corporal Brown,” the next Eckert in line said. His accent was thick as lard on farmhouse bread.
“Them Rebel girls, the ones in town there?” Dem Reppel kirlz, ta wuns in tawn dare? If Brown sometimes had trouble understanding the speech of Reb prisoners, he was sure the Johnnies wouldn’t know what to make of the Eckert boys or the other Dutchmen in the 50th Pennsylvania.
“What about ’em?”
“They are all so verdammt mean? I try to make polite … but when I lifts my cap, die kleine Hexe looks like I am the snake and she wants for the hatchet.”
“The ladies of Warrenton have seen their fill of Yankees,” Brown told the boy. He thought about the matter for a moment. “You just do like I told you and stay away from those darkey gals who come around of evenings. Or you’ll go home with something you won’t be proud of.”
Henry Hill spoke again. Twice in an afternoon was something of a milestone.
“First sergeant just stepped out of the captain’s tent.”
He spoke to Brown as if no one else were present.
“All right, then,” Brown said to the new men, straining to remember his canal Dutch. “Try to look like soldiers out there. Stramm und still, versteh’? Mach doch keine Schweinerei. And keep a crimp in your knees, the way I told you. Any man passes out in front of Captain Burket, he’ll have guard duty for a month. Let’s go now. Los geht’s.”
Company C of the 50th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment had not gone in for an excess of pomp of late, but the captain wanted to put martial spirit into the new recruits, to make them feel part of something big and important. So the day’s two promotions, which otherwise would have been handled in five minutes by the first sergeant, would occur in front of a company formation.
Good day for it, anyway, Brown thought. It looked as though they might have a dry stretch. Virginia had put on her best green dress, decorated with pink and purple blossoms, thick with scents that put hopes in a man. This field of tents just north of Warrenton—a hard Rebel town, if ever a hard one there was—had almost a fairground atmosphere, crowded with men as thoughtless as bees in the warmth. Yet, every man who had a campaign behind him sensed that they would march to battle soon, knowing it the way veteran soldiers just knew, sensing that this fellow Grant was out to get an early start on the season, that General Burnside and their Ninth Corps were about to be swept along behind the Army of the Potomac. The veterans knew the awfulness of it, too, the pain and death that waited, yet good sense could not overcome their excitement at the prospect of marching forward, of heading southward one more time, of doing something. If war made men of boys, it could also make boys of men.
Charles Brown had long ago stopped trying to make sense of war. He had listened for years as his fellow soldiers, his fellow canal men, complained endlessly about army life, the folly of generals, the bad food and poor equipment, the marches to nowhere. They claimed, endlessly, that they’d give anything to go home, and to Hell with the war. Nonetheless, the survivors of Company C had reenlisted almost to a man. War was a woman you hated but couldn’t let go.
All of the high-flown purposes were gone now. There was only the rough ache to win that they all shared, and the being together like this, the queer feeling when faced with death that even those who survived would never be so completely alive again. Men learned to treasure the smell of campfire coffee and a shared tobacco pouch. A soldier repaired another fellow’s boot and made a friend who would die for him. If he lived—and Brown hoped to—he knew he would never be able to explain it.
He had not chased promotions and looked down on those who did. Yet, men had always turned to him for orders, back on the canal and then at war. In barely twenty-three years of life, he had been forced to lead in countless ways, starting back when he was just a boy. So he did his part, and a little more, and tried not to lament what he could not change.
Thinking about the great, big things led nowhere. The regiment had been camped right here in 1862, below the defiant town up on the hill. Now they were back again. And what difference had all the bleeding and dying made? The young darkies who had not run off expected less these days, although they still flattered, begged, cajoled, and stole, while the older Negroes just kept at their doings. You saw them leaving their shanties in the dawn, shuffling up to the fine brick houses to start the stoves and fireplaces, just as they had been doing all their lives. As for the white women of the sort who had startled that Eckert boy, their once fine dresses were faded now, but they carried themselves as high and mighty as ever. If anything, they’d grown haughtier. Except for the destruction and the slaughter, Brown was not sure that very much had changed. Or ever would.
It had been jarring to go home for a month. It was good, because it was home, but unsettling because home had changed. After Knoxville, the regiment had endured its worst experience of the war, not a battle but a winter march through the mountains into Kentucky. Knoxville had been a horror of wicked cold and savage fighting with frozen hands and feet, but the worst came afterward, when the regiment, shy of winter garments and shoes, had been issued nothing but uncured hides in which to wrap their feet for a march of two hundred miles. The footwear they stitched and tied together had hardly lasted a day, and the regiment had left bloody tracks on the snow. Had the men of Company C not reenlisted the autumn before, the number who would have signed on again might have been a sight lower after that march.
But ordeals end for the lucky men who survive them. They had been fitted out again, then carried home in railroad cars. After the ravaged Southland, it was a shock to see the prosperity of the North. When their train pulled into Schuylkill Haven, the men were amazed at the furious work behind the Turnverein band and the hollering families. Boats and barges jammed the canal basin, all but blocking the channel, and new construction had risen wherever there was dry land along the river. The rail yards, sprawling over the Flats, seemed greater now than those of a Southern city. In many ways, the war had been good to the town at the bends of the Schuylkill, with the Navy’s hunger for anthracite coal and industries begging for it. Schuylkill Haven was the point where the coal region ended and barges were filled for the trip to Philadelphia. It had always seemed a busy place, but never frenzied like this.
There was money for those who had not gone to war.
But there was a price, too. There were more rough-mannered Irishmen now, taking over the shacks on the Eck, where Brown had passed a brief and broken childhood. Louts in packs roamed Dock Street in the evenings, and sullen women in shawls cursed at Dutch grocers. The new men on the canal were surly, anticipating accusations that they belonged in uniform themselves. Unasked, they loudly damned the war and the nigger, in brogues as foreign as their red and ready faces, willing to fight in any saloon, but not on a field of battle. It grated on Brown to see the lack of care they took with the boats and their even worse care of the mules. It bothered him more than it had a right to do to see busy towpaths left in disrepair and the brass fittings at the harbormaster’s station left unpolished. When Captain Burket had been harbormaster before the war, each last buckle on a mule’s belly had shone. Now it felt as though nothing mattered but making money today, tomorrow be damned. The town was home, and it wasn’t.
Yet, for all the rawness and brute collisions between the Dutch and Irish, home still had a decency Brown missed in the South. Here, in Virginia, there were great houses and shanties, with little between them. In Schuylkill Haven there wasn’t one building as grand as the plantation house down the field or the mansions behind the courthouse on Warrenton Hill. Back home, men lived in a world more evened out, with due respect given but no sense that one fellow was a king and his neighbors dirt. They were different worlds, North and South, and Brown wondered, as he had often done, if they belonged together.
On the last fair day back home—kind weather for early March—he and Frances had fled her family for the orchard west of the river, seeking an hour of privacy amid trees months shy of flowering, and he had felt they understood each other. He was good enough with words with other men, but women wanted something more, and he was not sure that he possessed that something. Frances didn’t seem to mind. She just smiled. Her presence beside him on that bright day had been thoroughly, wonderfully good. He had wanted, terribly, to ask her to marry him then. But he held back. The war had made widows enough. Nor did he want her to be a cripple’s nurse. He would ask when the war was over, if he returned a whole man. It was the only decent course he saw. And if Charles Brown no longer believed in high and mighty causes, he had come to believe in decency all the more.
For now, he labored over letters to her, conscious of his defective spelling and wishing, for her sake, that he had more education. Most of what he had learned he had taught himself, at the cost of candles sold three for a penny, the sort that smoked and stank. He had been sent out, a small boy, to work in a tobacco factory for twenty-five cents a week, by a miserly father afraid to end up in an almshouse. The Lord’s own joke, his father had died of cholera, without telling even his wife where he hid his money.
Laboring at the stacks and racks had been hateful work, its only lasting effect his dislike for tobacco. He had grown strong early and, at thirteen, went to work on the canal, driving mules and caring for them, doing the chores the regular boatmen avoided. He didn’t mind. The air was fresh, and as for the mules, they were never worse than men and often better.
Hardly had he moved up to a man’s job aboard a coal barge when he did a foolish, foolish thing that the men around him misunderstood as bravery. The doing had been no more than the act of an ignorant boy who might have gotten a bullet or worse for his trouble.
He had been present at the last, feeble gasp of the Schuylkill Rangers, the canal pirates who came down from the mountain hollows to steal for their livelihoods. Everyone had believed them to be finished off years back, part of the local history and no more, but a few broken-toothed young fools had attempted to rob a coal barge Brown was aboard. They were not far from Port Clinton when the fuss began, with a shot fired in the air and cries that this was a robbery. The would-be-brazen voices quivered with fear, though, as if a game had gotten out of hand. The pirates were such novices that they didn’t know that a coal barge headed south to Philadelphia offered nothing practical to steal: The prizes were on the goods boats pulling northward.
The Rangers fired their only gun at the outset, shooting into the air, and the shot failed to frighten the bargemen or even the mule boys. The fighting didn’t last long, but Brown plunged into the brawl with a young man’s fury. The result was that he killed a man—a boy, really—with a shovel blade brought down on the fellow’s skull.
He worried that he might be charged with murder, but the constable and the justice of the peace hailed the deed as a good one. The dead lad was criminal filth, not worth a thought. His accomplices were hardly worth pursuing, although they would be taken in good time. The constable expected that the thieves had learned their lesson, but the law was the law and the county would see to matters. Annoyed at the interruption of his sleep, the frock-coated lawman raised his lantern a last time and shook his head.
Staring down at the corpse stowed on the deck, Evans the justice told the bargemen, “Look you, boys, I’ll not waste public money. Put him in a hole, if so you’re minded, but throw him in the river if you’re not. And be it a warning.”
That was when Brown did the foolish thing.
By first light, he inspected the fellow he’d killed, bewildered by the gash in the skull, the jagged bone, and the drying slop of brains, the blood like set molasses. A dead man was as dead as a dead mule. But there was a difference, too. He saw what he had to do without true thinking.
Everyone knew where the folk who had spawned the Rangers hid. They crawled about the north folds of First Mountain and were said to have bred among themselves at a speed of two generations to one in the valley. An unholy mix of Dutchmen shunned by their brethren and lawless Scotchmen who’d wandered in and stayed, they were hardly considered human by the citizenry. Borrowing a mule, Brown roped up the body and led the beast into the hollows up behind Port Clinton, asking as he went for the dead lad’s family.
No men appeared, but more than one woman warned him to go home and let things be.
It took most of the day to discover the right trail. It led up a steep ravine where the world ran queer. In time, he smelled fires, but not proper cooking smells. Then all grew quiet, as if the birds and animals had run off to join the men fearful of the law.
Materializing from thickets, a pack of slatternly women and girls closed off the path behind him. He had not had the least sense of their presence.
They didn’t say a word, but there was something not right about them. Their faces were numb, their features daubed with soot as if on purpose. More than a few were simple-looking, while others were sharp-boned and spook-eyed, the sort who practiced the rites in the Fifth Book of Moses.
They looked Brown over, then, after shooing the flies, applied their claws to the corpse. Brown had wrapped the dead youth’s wound in rags to keep the brains in. As the women untied the body from the mule’s back, the cloth fell away. Brown gagged at what spilled on the trail.
The women gave no hint of sorrow. There was no weeping or even one cry of grief. They just dragged off the body. As if this were a common task in their world.
A filthy girl big with child turned back to Brown. “Go on with you now,” she said. The hatred in her eyes wasn’t just for him, but for all living things. “I told him he were a fool. Men do na listen.”
She spat a gob and followed the other women.
The men who thought he had done a brave thing did not understand that he had not had a choice. And bravery was about choices.
A fusillade of orders slew his memories. Corporal Brown was about to become Sergeant Charles E. Brown. He had not had a choice in that matter, either.
Francis Channing Barlow threw his saber on his cot. “It’s unspeakable,” he said. “Simply damnable. I don’t see why Gibbon can have a man shot, but I can’t.”
Hancock listened in exasperation. The twenty-nine-year-old brigadier general not only looked like a boy, but sounded like one at the moment. Yet, Barlow was the most aggressive division commander in Hancock’s corps, a born killer.
“This isn’t the time to be shooting our own men,” Hancock said. “Anyway, the president disapproves. It’s an election year. ‘Clemency’ is the watchword of the day.”
“I shouldn’t think it’s his business,” Barlow pouted. “Rainey’s a repeat deserter, yellow as butter. Condemned by a proper court-martial. This ‘mercy’ is a damned insult to every man who does his duty properly.” He snarled, showing crooked teeth. “How on earth can Lincoln pardon the shirkers? Then send good men to die?”
Hancock raised his hand. It was a warning: Enough is enough.
“Forget the president, then,” he told his subordinate. “I say you’re not going to shoot anybody. Frank, I can’t have you breaking down morale when we’re going to march any day now.”
Barlow perked up. “Heard something, sir?”
Hancock shrugged. The movement awakened the pain in his thigh and he winced. His Gettysburg wound had ambushed him again.
He mastered himself. “Same as you, same as everybody,” he told the brigadier. “Everything and nothing. But Humphreys has the staff working late at night. Weather’s good, roads are dry…”
Barlow sniffed. “Anything’s better than this endless parading.”
Hancock smiled. “I thought you seemed rather proud at the corps review.”
“Proud of my men,” Barlow said quickly.
“The men you want to shoot? Frank, listen to me. Your men respect you. They respect the Hell out of you. They’ll follow you and fight for you and, damn it, they’ll die for you. The veterans who know you think you’re the bravest man on earth. But they don’t like you.”
“I don’t care whether they like me. I want them afraid of me. You know what Frederick the Great said.”
Exasperated anew, Hancock sharpened his tone. “Yes, Barlow, I know what Frederick said. But you’re not Frederick the Great, and this isn’t the Prussian army. They’re volunteers, Frank. Citizens. ‘United States of America.’ Remember?”
“If I could just shoot Rainey, as an example…”
Hancock rolled his eyes. He yearned to dress down the young brigadier, to pour fire and brimstone into one of Barlow’s ears and watch it flame out the other. But, he reminded himself, it was better to have division commanders who had to be reined in than generals who were afraid to apply the spurs.
“If you want to shoot some poor bastard for cowardice after the next battle, we’ll see about it then. But right now you’re not shooting anybody who isn’t wearing a gray uniform. For Christ’s sake, man, you’ve got the biggest and best-disciplined division in this army. And the lowest desertion rate. Ease up. There’ll be killing enough, soon enough.”
Praised, Barlow changed his tone: “Do you believe Grant will fight, sir? Really fight, I mean? After Lee gets a piece of him?”
“Mind if I sit down?”
“No, sir. Of course not.” Barlow gestured at the tent’s sole camp chair. “Mother would chastise me for my lack of manners.”
Hancock lowered himself, carefully, into the seat. The damned leg hurt like Hell. Barlow, too, had been wounded at Gettysburg, even more severely. But the younger man didn’t show it. Frank Barlow had been badly shot up at Antietam as well, after his regiment’s charge saved the day at Bloody Lane. Yet, he couldn’t wait to get back in the thick of it.
Ah, youth, Hancock thought, feeling the burden of his forty years.
“I’m told your mother was quite the belle in her day,” the corps commander said. It was a relief to escape the subject of executions.
Barlow displayed his lopsided, snaggletoothed smile. It made his long face seem longer. “She still is. Mother’s quite fine, you know.”
“I’ll have to meet her one day.” Hancock cleared his throat. “And the other Mrs. Barlow? I hear she’s a splendid nurse, your wife. I trust she’s well?”
“She’s fine, thank you, sir. Marvelous, in fact. She’s quite a brave girl.”
“My regards, when next you write.”
Mrs. Francis Channing Barlow might, indeed, be brave, Hancock thought, but she was hardly a girl. He had been bewildered upon meeting the woman during one of her camp visits. She had to be a decade Frank Barlow’s senior. Side by side, they looked more like mother and son than husband and wife. Odd match, strange. You’d think a young man, a fighter …
You never knew about men and women, Hancock warned himself. And probably best not to know. He’d been damned lucky himself. Almira. Born to be a soldier’s wife, that one.
“But back to Grant,” Barlow said, moving his sword and settling his rump on the cot. For a slender man, the young brigadier was broad-hipped. “He hardly seems the conquering hero sort. At the review, he looked like a vagabond.”
Hancock eased his posture, wondering if the butchers really had gotten the last metal out of his thigh. At inconvenient moments, pain shot to his skull.
“Don’t judge Grant by appearances,” Hancock said. “Christ, if people judged generals by appearances, you’d be back in a Harvard dormitory, conjugating Latin and fucking your mattress. Grant will fight.” He grunted to mask another stab of pain. “And I’ll tell you why he’ll fight. He’s the opposite of Georgie McClellan, in all his grandeur. Grant has nothing to lose. He’d already lost all he had before the war … reputation, commission, livelihood … everything but his wife. She sticks to him like a carbuncle. And now he’s playing for once-in-a-lifetime stakes, with other people’s money. Or their blood. And that man loves every minute of it, if I’m any judge.”
Hancock massaged his thigh, the swollen meat of it. “Grant may look untidy, but he’s a tough sonofabitch. Only knows how to go forward. Because he remembers what’s behind him and doesn’t much like the thought of it catching up. Problem won’t be getting Grant to fight, but getting him to stop when it makes sense to. George Meade’s going to age ten years before the summer’s out.” The corps commander lifted his hand to his face, as if the pain had moved there. Hurting or not, he chuckled. “Maybe we all will. Sam Grant and old Marse Robert are going to come as a shock to one another.”
Barlow had lowered his gaze, but Hancock could read him: Frank Barlow was thinking about the upcoming fighting the way a glutton pondered a heaping plate. Barlow was an odd bugger: number one in his class at Harvard and pals with all the great brains of New England, a lanky, slump-shouldered gent who appeared eternally bored, with eyes that looked as if he were always drowsy. But let him hear the sound of the guns, and he’d light up like a battery of rockets.
War drew out unexpected talents in men, or so they said. Hancock suspected it was less a matter of talent than of brilliant, burning insanity. Killing well was the darkest form of genius. And, God help them all, the greatest of earthly thrills.
He often wondered what he would do when the war was done. Even the Army wouldn’t be the same. And Barlow: Could he go back to the settled life of a fine society lawyer?
“Well”—Hancock picked up the thread again—“soon enough we’ll be headed to Hell or Richmond.” He grinned. “And Frederick the Great won’t help us, I’m afraid.”
“No, actually, he won’t,” Barlow sniffed. “It’s been idiocy to resurrect his tactics.” The younger man’s condescending tone made Hancock want to slap him. “His approach to discipline made perfect sense, but consider those famed oblique attacks of his: The way our generals and Lee’s bunch have been struggling with his method is simply ridiculous. It only worked for Frederick because the range of the weapons was minimal. With modern, rifled arms, the oblique attack with infantry in line only begs for slaughter. It’s plain mathematics.” He held up his hands, then slowly brought them together. “It’s all about contracting the deadly space and limiting our exposure.” Clapping his hands shut, Barlow concluded, “You must see that.”
Hancock told himself that he’d give the notion some thought when he found the time. But the candle had already flared: This blue-blood Harvard shit-ass was dead right. And it grated on a West Point man who’d served a hard apprenticeship. Eventually, Barlow managed to grate on everybody.
Yet, Hancock could not help himself. He had to show that he, too, had an intellect.
“Plodding through Carlyle, Frank?” Hancock had never read a page of Carlyle in his life, but had heard that the fellow was publishing volume after tedious volume about Frederick the Great.
“Oh, no,” Barlow said. “I mean, I had my London bookseller send the available volumes. But Carlyle’s insufferable.”
Hancock raised his hand again: Stop. “We’ll have to take that up another time. I do have a corps to command.” He hoisted himself—painfully—from the chair. It nearly tipped over. He really did have to take more care of his weight. The flesh and the spirit were constantly at war.
Barlow leapt to help him. A glare from Hancock put a stop to that.
“By the way,” the older man said, “General Meade sends his regards. He was quite impressed by your men at the review. Miles’ brigade in particular.”
Barlow’s expression darkened and Hancock grasped his mistake. By singling out one of Barlow’s brigades for praise, even at a remove, he had just made the next several days pure Hell for Barlow’s other subordinates. Barlow’s interpretation would be that if Miles alone had been complimented, the rest must have been deficient.
Good Christ, Hancock told himself, going into battle will be a relief for the poor bastards. He took up his hat and riding gloves, anxious to escape. Barlow was best taken in small doses.
“Oh,” he said, “I almost forgot. George Meade sent his regards to each of your other brigade commanders, as well. He said that Miles set the standard and, by God, the others matched it to a man.”
Barlow brightened a shade, but suspicion lurked in those hooded eyes of his.
“Good,” the younger man said. “That’s good. My thanks to the general.”
Hancock settled his hat on his head and slapped his gloves in his left hand. “I’ll pass that on. Meanwhile, Frank, try not to shoot anybody.”
* * *
Barlow watched his corps commander walk toward his mount. Hancock tried to hide his limp, but gave himself away at every fourth step. That worried Frank Barlow. He didn’t want his corps commander invalided out. Hancock was the man under whom he meant to serve until the final shot. Or until the stupidity of his peers drove him to resign. Suffering and death were to be expected, but incompetence merited hanging, in Barlow’s view. The general mediocrity appalled him.
The Freedmen’s Bureau position remained a temptation. “Helping darkies out of the darkness,” as poor Bob Shaw once put it. Arabella didn’t believe he’d quit—she laughed and said he’d miss the war too much—but there were days when he had a mind to surprise her.
Whatever happened, he was damned well never going to serve under a horse’s ass like Howard again. And God save him from more German troops than his division had at present. Deplorable as soldiers, execrable as men, they were bound to dilute the good native stock of the country.
The Irish were beastly, too, but the bastards fought.
Yet, even as he swore to himself, he felt the old twinge return: not pain from his wounds, but the deep, unspoken, unspeakable knowledge that it hadn’t been Howard or the Germans who had blundered that day at Gettysburg, but him.
Never show doubt, he reminded himself. And never let another man witness your pain. His own wounds ached more often than not, and a lingering toothache pushed him halfway to madness. But nobody knew how bad it was, even Bella.
He was going to punish the Confederates for what they had done to him at Gettysburg. They were going to pay and pay. He intended to grind their misery into their snouts.
Barlow watched Hancock’s bulky figure grow smaller: The corps commander rode more carefully now. But if Hancock was in pain, Barlow knew some others who were going to feel pain soon enough. Hancock hadn’t fooled him one least bit. He’d let the cat out of the bag, and it wouldn’t be coaxed back in. Meade obviously had been displeased with the appearance and marching of the brigades of Smyth, Frank, and Brooke. And Frank, a worthless Teuton, had no business leading a brigade in any case. Nor was Smyth all he should be, although he and his Hibernians did show spunk. Even Brooke could stand to improve his performance. If orders to march did not arrive first, the division was going to have an early morning. And the world would see who could march in step and who couldn’t.
He considered calling for his provost marshal to discuss the disposition of Private Rainey, but stepped back into his tent for a moment alone. Carlyle? He didn’t believe Hancock had ever cut the first pages of one of his books.
They all made so much of his standing at the top of the Harvard class of ’55, but had no idea how utterly worthless his education had been. Barlow smirked. Nor did they know what jackasses most of his classmates were, destined for safe Unitarian livings or privileged positions amid family fortunes. He had been amazed at the naivety—not just on the part of the students, but the professors as well. He had arrived at Harvard Yard with rather more knowledge of the world than even the two sorry whore-chasers in his class. What were their names? Couldn’t even remember, they were inconsequential men. Probably safe at home after purchasing substitutes, or off on grand tours that would last through the end of the war. Collecting art in Paris and syphilis in Rome.
He had Brook Farm to thank for his own knowledge, tawdry but useful. The Blithedale Romance did not half capture the farce he’d been subjected to as a boy. All the sententious idealism and the grave communal sanctimony had collapsed into a swamp of petty jealousies and recriminations over who was to do the laundry. And his beautiful mother had been in the thick of it, not for the better. Even a lad still missing teeth could tell the arrangements were cockeyed. And yet … there had been lovely days before the mood turned vicious, and idyllic memories intertwined with embarrassments that came later. Before he was ten, he not only had learned the practical things that eluded his Harvard classmates, but knew how it felt to be expelled from Eden.
And thanks to his mother’s vapid and wan admirers, he’d had quite enough of “the life of the mind” to last him for eternity. Now he took pains to conceal the extent of his reading from those around him: It had been an indiscretion to blather about Frederick to Hancock, who was just a marvelous blue bull turned loose in the Rebel china shop. Barlow despised men who lived in books, the august figures of his New England childhood, who said much and did so little of any consequence.
Was there anything more disgusting, more useless, than a man devoted to fondling his own intellect? A man had to act. Even Emerson had become too much to endure, an “uncle” who once had seemed a beacon of brilliance. His self-adoring nonsense struck Barlow as morbid now. Emerson could plead all he wanted, but he would never return to New England. Manhattan might be sordid, but it had life.
Damn the black-clad gentlemen his mother had needed to please after his father went mad and ran away from his wife and three young boys! The shame of certain things she had done, the beggarly things to which he had seen her stoop, would rankle him until his dying day.
If Boston’s self-congratulation had become odious, he had not found a home in uniform, either. Having turned his back on those who spoke ad infinitum without acting, he now found himself among active men incapable of speech. He never had a proper conversation. Except with Arabella, when she visited.
His smirk was his armor; he wore it as his custom. He found the human species absurdly limited. No doubt that rogue of an Englishman was right and they were all descended from apes. Although the proposition seemed hard on the monkeys.
He sat down in the camp chair Hancock’s bulk had threatened to crumple. About to call for his orderly to help him with his boots, he decided that he preferred to extend his solitude. Carefully, he worked the boots off himself and felt, simultaneously, the relief of cool air on his damp wool stockings and the attack of the infernal itching that wouldn’t leave him.
Rolling off the stockings, he examined the peeling, flaking skin that led down to his toes. It was a wretched business. He’d seen doctors. Their succession of salves seemed to help for a time, as did the salt baths mixed like alchemist’s potions. But the damnable itch always, always returned. One ass of a doctor in New York had prescribed a summer at Newport, where Barlow could go barefoot and bathe his feet in the sea each morning and evening.
Barlow did not doubt that his feet would get wet as the weather warmed. But it was going to be from the mud of Virginia’s swamps, not the great salt ocean.
“Orderly!” he bellowed. “Orderly!”
The man appeared at the double-quick. He was new at the work, a replacement, and wonderfully terrified.
“Bring me a bucket of water.”
“Hot water, sir?”
The corporal eyed Barlow’s exposed feet, and Barlow caught it.
“Sir … if you don’t mind my saying…”
“I do mind, Corporal.”
Barlow believed that Hancock had it wrong. Whether or not this was the Prussian army—and it damned well wasn’t, more’s the pity—he believed that Frederick had been absolutely correct that the men should fear their officers more than the enemy. Look at the rabble they were putting in uniform these days. Oh, the old veterans were fine. He still loved to visit the men of the 61st, his first real regiment, down in Miles’ brigade. But the drafted lot, and the Irish, the bounty-jumpers. They hadn’t the mettle. The gaps in his division had been filled with the scum of the earth, he didn’t see how a sane person could deny it, and the only way to get such men to face the bayonets to their front was to place even sharper bayonets at their backs. And the only thing worse than a cowardly soldier was a cowardly officer.
Barlow had never quite understood the importance men attached to their puny lives. Certainly, he preferred life to death. That was ordained. But evaluated by a man of sense, life wasn’t to be taken all that seriously. As far as commodities went, human lives sold cheap. The politicians could spout their praises of the common citizen, but many a man wasn’t worth the food he stuffed in his maw at dinner.
He just could not understand the fear men felt on the verge of battle or in its midst. There was nothing on earth more exhilarating. Certainly, it was an incalculably greater thrill than intimate association with a woman, an enterprise much overpraised by poets. Of the many causes for his appreciation of his wife, not least was Arabella’s sense of proportion.
The orderly returned, announcing himself before entering the tent. The bucket the man carried was sloshing full.
“Your pardon, sir, but Colonel Miles is trotting up the way.”
“Put down the bucket. Outside, put it outside, man. And come back here.”
Sentenced to suffer, Barlow drew on his stockings again.
The corporal stepped back under the canvas. He looked at Barlow’s now clad feet. Doubtfully.
“Don’t stare, you ass.” He could hear Miles clopping up. “Help me with my boots.”
The man moved. He was deathly afraid. That was good.
Fully clad below the waist again, Barlow stood and said, “Now get out of here.”
His feet burned, damn them. He dreaded the coming summer.
And yet, he relished the suffering, too, and knew he did. He took a fierce pride in treating hardships casually, in living rough, in enduring more than the Irish toughs and the muscle-clad farm-boys still not dead of dysentery. In winter, he wore an overcoat only when the cold became truly unbearable, a rare thing in Virginia. He intended to be more spartan than the Spartans, more stoic than the Stoics. He relished humbling other men with their weaknesses.
Barlow stepped outside as Miles dismounted. They had served together, on and off, since the Peninsula. If there was any officer Barlow trusted, it was Nelson Miles.
“Well, Nellie!” he said. “You look like a damned Red Indian. Careful of that Virginia sun, old man.” Feet be damned, he was happy to see Miles. The fellow was not just a fighter, but almost had a brain.
“Drilling,” Miles told him. “Have to put the new men through their paces. Your skirmishing evolutions.”
“Meade sent down a compliment for you. Regarding the review. He thought your brigade looked splendid. Now come into the tent, for God’s sake. I could bear losing you to a bullet, but not to sunburn. What’s on your mind? Drink?”
“Just water. For now, sir.”
As Barlow poured from a pitcher, Miles looked about. “I see the new saber arrived.”
“Here. At least the well water’s decent in this godforsaken place. Nice blade. Good and heavy. Whack a coward with the flat of that one, and he’ll think twice. Sit down, sit down. Hancock was just here. Not sure his leg’s all it should be.”
“Any news?” Miles took the camp chair, weary and forgetful of decorum. Barlow let it go.
“He thinks we’ll get marching orders any day now.”
Miles looked around. As if he could see through the canvas. “Shame to waste this good weather. Rather fight now, before the heat sets in. Listen, Frank”—in private, they were “Frank” and “Nelson” or, when Barlow was in the spirit, “Nellie”—“maybe you should address the men. I know you don’t go in for that sort of thing … but all of the other division commanders are doing it. They’re hollering up a storm fit for shouting Methodists: ‘God bless the sacred Union … our holy cause triumphant … damnation to the Confederacy…’ You know the sort of thing. The men expect it.”
Barlow’s grimace took his jaw a good inch out of alignment. “If I’d wanted to preach from a pulpit, I would have pursued a different vocation.” He thought of Coriolanus, the much maligned. “All the men need to hear from me is ‘Fix bayonets!’ and ‘Charge!’ And, really, only you and the other brigade commanders need to hear that much. The men need clear orders, not rhetoric.”
Barlow abhorred and dreaded public speaking. Even as a lawyer, he had preferred settling things in chambers. Fighting a battle was easy compared to addressing a throng. He had sat through enough pandering lectures in churches, parlors, assembly halls, and classrooms to know exactly what speeches were worth, and what a shabby thing it was to plead for the mob’s approval.
“Frank”—Miles tried again—“you’ve got the old Third Corps men disgruntled that they’ve been resubordinated to Second Corps. And everyone’s grumbling—company commanders included—about your order to strip the men’s packs of everything not on your list. At least show them you’re human.”
“They’ve been loading themselves like donkeys. Lighten the packs, and we’ll have fewer stragglers. I want men on the firing line, not lining the damned roads and playing possum.” He folded his arms. “The Johnnies don’t carry gewgaws into battle. That’s why they move so fast while we bump along.”
“Oh, Christ, Frank! It’s as if you’re determined to make them hate you. And they want to like you, they really do. The veterans understand what you’re after, and they tell the new men what’s what.” Miles leaned toward him. “They do look up to you, you know. But soldiers want to like their commanders, too.”
“I don’t need them to like me,” Barlow said. “I just need them to fight.”
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Peters
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