Read an Excerpt
June 28, 1863
Annoyed by flies, Meade fell asleep at last, only to wake with a hand upon his shoulder. The intruder’s lantern cast fantastic shadows. Hardie wore civilian clothes and crouched under the tent’s slant. It took Meade a moment to recognize him.
“What the devil?”
“I’m here to give you trouble,” the colonel said.
Blades of alarm pierced weariness. Meade sat up sharply.
“My conscience is clear,” he declared.
Margaret had warned him to check his temper. Now Hooker had charged him with insubordination, with Halleck’s acquiescence and bespectacled Hardie as henchman. He was being relieved of his command, arrested in the middle of a campaign. There would be a court-martial. Reputation’s assassin sneaking into camp, this colonel from the adjutant general’s office had come in the dark, in disguise. And he had always thought Hardie a decent fellow.
“I’ve done … nothing dishonorable,” Meade protested. “Nothing.” He yearned for coffee just off the fire, for the light of day, for a friend. “My differences with General Hooker … have been matters of professional judgment, nothing more.”
The colonel raised a hand to quiet him. The gesture struck Meade as insolent. Hardie grinned.
Black and devilish, flies looped around the lantern the colonel held. Settling the light on the camp desk, Hardie drew a pair of envelopes from a pocket.
“General Meade, you are ordered to assume command of the Army of the Potomac. Effective immediately, sir. I’m to accompany you to General Hooker’s headquarters, to witness the transfer of authority.”
Dumbfounded, Meade took the documents. He didn’t open them, but held the papers atop one knee. He wondered if arrest would not have been preferable. He began to wake fully and bitterly.
Outside, the camp clattered, despite the wretched hour. A sergeant barked and soldiers answered. Chains chimed and horses whinnied. Hardie’s arrival had yanked them all from sleep. His staff officers would be gathering by his tent, waiting to hear the news that had come from Washington.
How much had they guessed? Meade needed coffee. Coffee and John Reynolds. Reynolds was the man for this. Men followed him and loved him. Handsome John. He was the man to take command of the army. How foolish he himself had been to resent Reynolds’ advancement. He rued his pettiness now.
Meade sighed. He meant to rise and put on his uniform coat, to wrap his old bones in a guise of authority. But the flesh hesitated.
“I’m not qualified,” he told Hardie. “I’m the devil’s choice for this. I mustn’t command this army.”
“It’s the president’s decision.”
“What about Reynolds? Is it true he turned it down?”
Hardie shrugged. “I don’t believe there was a formal offer. Anyway, the president chose you, sir. General Halleck and Mr. Stanton concurred. They sent me to Frederick by special train. There’s no time to lose.”
Meade snapped, “Don’t you think I understand that?”
Halleck. The man was devoured by jealousy. Of Reynolds, that much was evident. Of Reynolds and so many others. Apparently, though, he wasn’t jealous of everyone. What does that say of me? Meade asked himself.
He did his best to button up his temper. His wife had warned him, more than once, that his tongue cut worse than his sword.
“I haven’t the seniority on the Army rolls,” Meade insisted. Then he added, “I thought things had been patched up with General Hooker?”
“Mr. Lincoln lost faith in him.”
So has the rest of this blasted army, Meade thought. Yet, removing Hooker now was madness. With battle looming. On a field yet unknown.
“Hardie, I don’t want this,” he said in a tamed voice. “I’m not the man for this.”
His visitor gestured toward the envelopes, which remained unopened. Meade unfolded the fateful order, bending to make out the words. Hardie took up the lantern again and brought it closer.
It was true. He had been selected as the latest general half-expected to fail and be damned forever.
Expected to fail? Was that the nub of it?
Meade tested each word of the order, then studied the accompanying correspondence from the general-in-chief. “Considering the circumstances,” Meade read, “no one has ever received a more important command.”
A sharp-fanged creature slithered through his bowels.
Had it come to this? With the Confederates already marching on Philadelphia, for all he knew? For all anyone knew? The evening before, he had worn himself out riding through the Maryland countryside trying to find Hooker, the man who held the string and hid both ends. The raw, hot roads had been burdened with batteries and commissary wagons, with regiments coming late to their camps and with stragglers, some of them drunk. No one knew where the army’s commander could be found.
“I don’t want this,” Meade said. “It’s impossible. I shall send a message to Halleck.”
Fixing his spectacles higher on his nose, Hardie said, “It won’t do any good, sir. The president’s mind is made up.” He set the lantern back down on the desk.
Meade arched his back. The camp bed creaked. “Does General Hooker know?”
“He sent in a letter of resignation.” A quarter-smile cut into Hardie’s cheek. “I’m not sure he meant it to be accepted. But it was.” The smile turned cruel enough to tell Meade that Hooker had earned Hardie’s enmity. “I suspect he’ll know by the time we reach army headquarters.”
Meade snorted. “I don’t even know where that is.”
“I’ll guide you there, if you’ll loan me a horse. I came in a rented buggy.”
Irritated anew that he had failed to find Hooker’s camp the evening before, Meade asked, “Since you’re so well-informed, Hardie, would you happen to know where General Lee and his army are strolling just now? No one else seems to have any blasted idea. Certainly not this army’s corps commanders.”
The colonel shook his head. “General Hooker’s communications with Washington have been … limited.” Posture deformed by the slope of the canvas, he shed another layer of formality. “To tell you the truth, sir, he hasn’t told us much of anything. He wouldn’t even share his plan of campaign with Mr. Lincoln. All we heard from old Fighting Joe were calls for reinforcements and wails that the army’s outnumbered. He sounded more and more like Little Mac. It set the president out of temper. And that’s putting it soft.”
“Hardie, do you know where the corps of this army are right now?”
“Not all of them. It took some work to find you.”
The situation reminded Meade of a game he had seen blindfolded children play in Tampico. Spun round, they lashed out with a stick, trying to shatter a dangling plaster animal filled with treats. Except that there would be no treats this time. Only the blind lashing out.
Meade reached for his watch. Instead of metal, his hand met the sweat-heavy cloth of an undergarment. Wake up, he commanded himself. Take hold of yourself. “What time is it, Hardie?”
The colonel drew out his watch and clicked open the cover. “Half past three, sir.”
“Well, we’ll have a ride before us. If we must go through with this.” He cleared his throat, tasting bile. “I’d like a few moments alone. And you’ll want your breakfast.”
“Yes, sir.” The colonel turned to go.
Hand on the tent’s flap, the visitor turned again. Reflections of the lantern’s flame flickered on his spectacles.
“I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution,” Meade said. He attempted a smile and failed. “Send Captain Meade to me. And tell my staff I’ll join them shortly.”
“Shall I let them know, sir? About the order?”
Meade brushed a fly from his beard. “Do as you see fit.”
Left alone, Meade clutched the paper that damned him. His bowels winced again. The flesh always reminded a man of the constraints on human dignity.
In those last private moments, he thought about young George. It had wounded Meade when the boy was cast from West Point for his follies. Now he himself had been pointed toward failure, toward a far greater failure, a failure that would resound for generations. Was it a curse on the family? His father, too, had failed, in a different way, in a different world.
Still waking to the charge that had been given him, Meade felt a wave of shame, as if one of those Barnegat rip currents had changed the direction of an inner sea. He needed to control himself, if he hoped to control the army. To put up a manly show. How could he have indulged in such fretting in front of Hardie? How could he have shown such weakness? Weariness was no excuse, nor was confusion.
He imagined the colonel telling tales at the bar in Willard’s Hotel. He could hear the laughter of clerks and politicians.
Well, the thing was done.
In the sour air of his tent, Meade viewed himself with an engineer’s cold eye: too dark of thought, too dour, a man alert to the smell of sulfur, but not to Heaven’s scent. He could hear Margaret teasing, “George, I know you can smile!” His wife was a proud, loyal woman, of good family. She had got him a brigadier’s rank at the start of the war, when his merits had not sufficed. He would have to do his best for her. And for the Union, of course.
Major General George Gordon Meade had been happiest building lighthouses.
* * *
At the cue of hoofbeats, General Hooker emerged theatrically from his tent. Stepping into the humid dawn in his full dress uniform, he looked a perfect military specimen. Only his gold-trimmed hat was missing, left behind to exhibit his fine shock of hair. Flanked by his staff, the dismissed commanding general posed for a martial portrait. Meade stilled his horse and dismounted, slopped with sweat and more than a little mud.
Accompanied only by his son and Hardie, Meade hardly felt apt to complete Hooker’s tableau. An officer once had remarked within his hearing that “Old Meade resembles a bishop who’s sucked a lemon.” He had mastered a steely dignity, but knew he would never be a favorite of crowds.
Hooker extended his hand. Meade wiped his own on a trouser leg, then took it.
“You’ve got the bag of wildcats now,” Hooker told him. “And I wish you luck.” He released Meade’s hand. Anxious to catch each word, Hooker’s coterie edged closer.
“General Hooker,” Hardie interposed, “we need to—”
“A moment, Hardie, a moment. You needn’t be so impatient for my head.” Piercing eyes unclouded by drink this day, Hooker returned his attention to his successor. “I’ve already published my farewell order, so we can abridge the formalities.” He smiled wryly. “We wouldn’t want to inconvenience Colonel Hardie by delaying his return to Washington. Butterfield has a copy of it for you. You won’t find it objectionable.” He patted Meade on the upper arm, in a show of amity neither man could feel. There had been too much bad blood before this day. “Shall we go to the headquarters tent?”
Meade knew he would have to clear out the worst of Hooker’s men, but it couldn’t be done all at once, not in midcampaign. He would have to live with the ill will and the spies alert for missteps. He would have liked, at the least, to remove Butterfield, who was Hooker’s given creature through and through. But Warren had refused the chief of staff’s position, preferring to remain chief engineer and telling Meade he’d be mad to get rid of the only man who might know what Hooker had been up to with the army. Meade took the point, but suspected Warren of avoiding the prospect of failure at his side.
Who would stand by him? John Reynolds, of course. Despite some petty bickering in the past, he knew he could count Reynolds as a friend. But he needed Reynolds in the field, in command, not at headquarters. Gallant John. Their spats aside, he and Reynolds understood each other. Lancaster and Philadelphia, two Pennsylvania men. Perhaps it was as simple as that. He had sent off a courier even before riding out of the Fifth Corps camp, asking Reynolds to come to army headquarters.
The labor of transferring command began. With a map of Maryland spread over a borrowed farmhouse table, Butterfield reeled off the approximate—very approximate—locations of the various corps of the Army of the Potomac. Fiddling with his mustaches as he spoke, the chief of staff kept glancing from Meade to Hooker.
Meade was appalled that the army remained so dispersed, an invitation to defeat in detail and a gift to Robert E. Lee. But he said nothing. He would give his orders soon enough. First, he needed to listen. Nor did he wish to humiliate Hooker further in front of his acolytes. Bad blood enough already, bad blood enough.
Hooker, too, remained silent.
Colonel Sharpe of the Bureau of Military Information took his turn. He had not prepared a map.
“It’s been confirmed that General Ewell … in command of Jackson’s old corps, somewhat reduced … has passed a division through York. One brigade reached Wrightsville on the Susquehanna, but the militia burned the bridge before the enemy could cross.”
The colonel paused to look at Meade, as if expecting a question.
“Go on, Sharpe,” Meade said. “Where’s Ewell now?”
“Carlisle, we believe. Threatening Harrisburg, according to General Crouch and Governor Curtin’s people.”
Hooker leaned forward. He was a man who loved to speak and could resist no longer. “Bobby Lee isn’t interested in Harrisburg. He’s attempting to lure this army into a trap. I’ve done my best to stay out of it.”
“Where’s Lee now?” Meade asked.
Sharpe lifted his eyebrows and whisked the air with a hand. “It’s unclear, sir. Somewhere north of Hagerstown and still west of the mountains. No doubt, he intends to reunite with Ewell.”
“He’ll be with Lee, sir. Now that Jackson’s gone.”
“We don’t know, sir. Probably west of the mountains.”
“Is that your answer to everything, Sharpe? ‘West of the mountains’?” Meade turned to Hooker. “What were your orders to the cavalry?”
Butterfield answered for his former superior. “They’re conducting a screen on a broad front, covering our flanks and the passes on our left, up to the Pennsylvania line. To prevent surprise.”
Chancellorsville leapt to every mind. No one dared say the name in front of Hooker.
“And General Stuart?”
“We’ve lost contact with him. Since the affair at Upperville.”
“I want to see Pleasanton,” Meade said. “Today.”
A staff man in a cavalry jacket exited the tent. Meade cautioned himself again. Occasional flashes of anger enlivened subordinates, but constant anger demoralized them. Still, he couldn’t but feel outraged at finding the army spread halfway to China. And Lee on a romp through Pennsylvania, awaiting his chance to strike.
When he reached for his watch this time, Meade found it. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I’m obliged to send a message to General Halleck.” He turned to the man he had replaced. “General Hooker, I beg your indulgence.” Addressing the little group again, Meade continued, “I have twenty-five minutes past six. Let us reconvene in one hour. General Butterfield, is there a place where I can write without interruption?”
And write Meade did. He knew Halleck’s temperament and the backbiting in the War Department well enough to make himself two pledges. First, he would see that each message from his headquarters would be as clear as the English language could make it, even if he had to write every last one himself. Second, he would keep Halleck so well-informed that he’d have no excuse for meddling. He was not going to make Hooker’s mistake. At least, not that one.
Left alone in Butterfield’s personal tent, he paused and held the pen suspended an inch above the paper. The army’s dispersion haunted him. The first order of business would be to concentrate his force so every corps could rush to support another. He was not going to let Lee eat him one bite at a time. The first of them to concentrate might well emerge the victor.
Nor did Meade intend to let his adversary surprise him. He remembered the follies of past commanders too well. If George Meade had any say in it, the next time Robert E. Lee fought the Army of the Potomac, he was going to have to fight all of it.
It was all a matter of time. And how could there be enough time now? He began to write:
The order placing me in command of this army is received. As a soldier, I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it. Totally unexpected as it has been, and in ignorance of the exact condition of the troops and position of the enemy, I can only now say that it appears to me I must move toward the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna, or if he turns toward Baltimore, to give him battle.
On the edge of his consciousness, horses galloped off. But there was more to write. He wished to complain, but did not. He remembered Hardie’s remarks about Hooker sounding too much like McClellan. Lincoln read the telegrams received by the War Department.
When he finished, he blotted the paper, wiped the ink from his fingers, and stepped out of the tent. The morning was bright, hot, fierce. Terrible marching weather. But the men would have to march, and more than one of the marches would be long. He handed the message to the waiting courier, who leapt to the saddle and spurred his mount toward Frederick. The man’s alacrity drew a faint smile from Meade, who saw that his reputation as “Old Snapping Turtle” was already having its effect on the headquarters.
Enjoying a new pulse of confidence, he returned to the tent where the staff awaited him. The canvas sides had been rolled up to let the air pass through.
Hooker wasn’t there. And several officers were missing. Meade turned a quizzical look on Butterfield, but the chief of staff remained mute.
Meade’s son, face pale, spoke up. “General Hooker’s gone, sir. He just rode off. Colonel Hardie left with him.”
Suppressing a burst of fury at the snub, Meade told himself that it was better so. Now he could get down to the business of organizing the army, without unnecessary niceties. If Hooker had funked it, good riddance.
He allowed himself a single sigh as he strode to the table that still bore the map of Maryland. “Butterfield? Have one of your officers fetch a map of Pennsylvania. There’s work to be done, man. We need to designate points of concentration for this army.”
Butterfield passed on the order to a major, who stood close enough to have heard each word the new commanding general had spoken.
Meade glanced around the reduced group of officers. “Would you gentlemen excuse us? General Butterfield and I have a few affairs to discuss.”
Obedience wasn’t a problem. The big tent emptied rapidly.
Meade stepped closer to the man on whom he would have to rely. The chief of staff smelled of cologne water. “Well, Dan, we’ll have to make the best of things, you and I.”
Butterfield’s face was a mask without emotion.
“I know I haven’t been in the good graces of this headquarters of late,” Meade went on.
“Nor I in yours, General Meade.”
“But I think we shall manage. We must.”
Butterfield remained impassive. It exasperated Meade, who had reached the limit of his affability. He didn’t like Butterfield, never had. He only hoped he could trust him to do the right thing for the army, if not for its new commander.
The major sent for the Pennsylvania map returned, hesitating at the entrance to the tent. Meade beckoned him inside.
“Spread it on top of the Maryland map,” Meade told him. “General Butterfield and I will need them both. Then tell the rest of the staff to come back in.”
The major did as ordered, then eased away. Meade stepped to the table.
“Major!” he called after the man. “Major!”
“What is it?” Butterfield asked calmly.
Meade turned on his chief of staff. “Damn me to bloody blue blazes, I asked for a map of southern Pennsylvania.”
Butterfield considered the map. “That’s southern Pennsylvania,” he told Meade.
“I need a topographical map, man. This is nothing but a sketch of towns and roads. I need to see the terrain, the relief, the watercourses. That major should know as much.”
“That’s the only Pennsylvania map we have,” Butterfield said.
Meade looked at the man in astonishment.
The chief of staff shrugged. “We never expected to give battle in Pennsylvania, there seemed no need. Proper maps have been ordered, of course. They just haven’t arrived.”
Once again, Meade managed to rein in his temper. “All right, Butterfield. I’ll speak to Warren, he’ll see to the business. Just start at the beginning and explain General Hooker’s plan of campaign to me. I need every detail, no matter how small.”
“I can’t do that,” Butterfield said.
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
The staff officers had gathered outside of the tent, but waited to be bidden to come back in.
“He kept it all in his head,” Butterfield told him.
* * *
“You seen it, too. Ain’t I right?” Cobb asked. “All through the preaching, Colonel Burgwyn had the look of death on him. He’s a marked man, Quaker. I know you seen it. I seen you looking. Things don’t get past you.” Cobb widened his grotesque smile.
Sergeant Blake buttoned up his trousers and kept his breathing shallow. After one night, the green glade close to the regiment’s camp smelled foul. Cobb reeked, too, but that was his normal condition. This grove, where the morning coolness had drawn up its weakened lines for one last stand, deserved better.
“Shut your mouth,” Blake said. “You’re talking craziness.”
“Hell I am,” Cobb said, still spraying the ferns. “Hell, if you don’t know it, either. I seen you looking right at him. Plain as day, Quaker, that man ain’t long for this world.” He shook his head in mock sorrow. “Pretty fellow, too. And so young. Going to be a shame to see him go, a crying shame.”
In the distance, the regimental band started up, instantly recognizable by the music’s precision. Moravians from Salem, the musicians were the pride not only of the 26th North Carolina, but of the entire brigade. General Pettigrew was fond of calling them up to the head of the column whenever his men were about to march through a town. Even Yankees came out to listen, some of them.
“Guess the praying’s over,” Cobb said as the band leapt through a polka. “They’re meaning to cheer us up, I expect. But you and me … we know better. Don’t we now? You and me, Quaker, we know what’s coming. Old Marse Robert didn’t march us all the way up just to let us live off the fat of the land and scare Dutch girls. No, sir, he didn’t. They just give us these pretty new uniforms to be buried in.”
Blake looked at the little man. At God’s hideous excuse for a man. A nose eaten by sores topped a mouth whose last teeth ran black. Cobb’s new gray tunic was already stained by tobacco juice or worse. A leathery creature of unknown age, his only pleasing feature was thick black hair, but that crawled with lice. Now and then, the men tossed him into a creek, which Cobb accepted as part of his fate on earth. He was the only man in the company with whom no other soldier would share a blanket.
“I didn’t know you had gypsy blood, Cobb,” Blake remarked.
Finishing up his business, Cobb smiled again. “My ma was a McCaslin, she had the sight. Guess it passed on down to me, after all.” His smile widened, revealing a grim chasm. “Though it don’t take no second sight to see as how the colonel’s marked for death.” He laughed, a mean sound. “Anyhow, you know the McCaslins and what’s said about them. From your shopkeeping days.”
Yes, he knew of the McCaslins. They were the only clan in the hills to whom no one would give credit, not even when they sent the children to town to beg. Other, worse things were said about them, too. But even the bony, sliver-faced McCaslins compared favorably with little Cobb.
“I should charge you for a court-martial. For talking about Colonel Burgwyn that way.”
Cobb cackled in delight. “You won’t, though, Quaker. No, sir, you won’t. ’Cause we understand each other, you and me, and you know that’s right. Goes all the way back to New Bern, when you and me were the only ones didn’t turn tail. You know you’ll need old Billy Cobb, sooner or later, when things get doing proper.” He laughed yet again. “Always wondered why you didn’t run off with the rest yourself. I mean, we all know why you joined up, Quaker. But I never could figure why you stood and fought like a man, when you didn’t need to. Now I know, though. Figured that out back at Culpeper Court House. And I expect I’m not the only one.”
Blake didn’t want to hear any more. He marched from the glade, toward the busy encampment, passing a boy squatting at the edge of the bushes. The soldier looked up, embarrassed and quivering.
“For pity’s sake,” Blake told him, “go farther into the trees.”
“I meant to, Sergeant,” the boy said in a pleading voice. He didn’t rise from his squat. Shivering all the while like a sick man. Although he had probably just eaten too many green plums.
“Better hide that pretty white bottom you got there,” Cobb told the lad. “Might some of the boys take a fancy to it.”
Cobb was the most repellent man Blake had ever met.
The morning sun had already turned mean. It looked to be another day of baking heat interrupted by sudden downpours. Blake was glad they weren’t marching, that this Sunday, at least, would be a day of rest. The men needed it. As he did himself. They had never marched longer and harder in his recollection. He needed to see about the hole in his right shoe, too. How thoughtlessly he once had arranged good, strong shoes on the bottom shelves of the store. Blake curled a rueful smile. Holes notwithstanding, at least he had shoes. Cobb and plenty of other soldiers didn’t. The 26th had the fine new uniforms the governor had sent as a gift to his former regiment, and the outfits made them the best-turned-out regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia. Until you looked down at their feet and saw that they were no better off than the rest.
If only Governor Vance had sent them shoes, Blake thought for the hundredth time. The winter-weight uniforms were only a torment in the summer heat. Even with their tunics rolled up and carried, men collapsed by the roadside on each day’s march.
Striding past the cook-fires of a sister company, Blake believed he had rid himself of Cobb, who was careful to be insubordinate only when there were no witnesses about. But Cobb was more agitated than usual and had stayed on his heels like a hound.
They passed two bearded men slaughtering a steer amid happy laughter. In the background, the Moravians played “Bonnie Blue Flag.”
“I know, don’t I, Quaker? Why you didn’t run off? Back then, when you and me kept the Yankees off, and they made you a sergeant and left me sucking a straw?” Eager and bright as a child he was, with his sordid nose and filth. “I’ve known why ever since that evening at Culpeper Court House.”
Blake stopped. “I should knock you down.”
The words only intensified Cobb’s glee. “But you won’t. You and me, we both know that. ’Cause you want them to take you for a gentleman, ain’t that right? Still hoping to be made up a lieutenant, a fine, high officer. But you won’t be. Not after Culpeper Court House. Everybody knows what you’re all about now, Quaker. And it ain’t just ‘Lost Lenore.’ They know. They just don’t say. Out of politeness.”
Blake turned. Fists balled.
Cobb cackled again and danced off. He always knew how far he could go, and that was how far he went.
Blake watched the narrow shoulders recede, the soiled black hair clotted below the brim of a worn straw hat. Most of the men already claimed to have lost the governor’s new kepis, favoring their worn slouch hats or straw that shielded them from the sun.
Disdainful of the Sabbath, a nearby game of cards spurred cries of victory and disgust. The band struck up “Wait for the Wagon.”
“I’m not a Quaker anymore,” Blake said.
His words were a breath, and only God could hear them.
* * *
Blake sat apart with a tin cup of coffee, concealed by a shade tree and trying to let things be. Cobb had unsettled him.
The coffee was fine, though, and that was something. The drink was the last of a “gift” pressed from a Dutch family in Fayetteville. The local men were timid, when they were in evidence at all, but the big Dutch housewives were bold and forthright. The man of the house, with a beard like a bib, had produced the measure of coffee only after his wife turned them down with an earful.
Blake admired the Pennsylvania countryside. All the men did. The great barns and the houses of stone or brick, as strong as fortresses, and the gardens dense with vegetables, the abundant fields of corn, astonished the men with whom he served, who knew only sag-walled cabins and rock-toothed fields that broke the men who chewed them with a plow. As terrible as war might be, for many a man from the hills it was a lark that spared his back, if not his feet. For a time, at least, the Bunyan twins and Hugh Gordon, Pike Gray and Tam McMinn, had entered a world in which they no longer needed to worry about feeding a pack of children or replacing an old mule that had died in harness. The Cause absolved them of all other obligations. All a man needed to do was to stand up and kill or be killed when the time came.
Pennsylvania was a foreign country to those men, so exotic it was unthinkable that it ever could have been governed by the same hand that ruled their knobs, narrow fields, and hollows. But it was not a strange land to Blake. He had not come to their mountain world until his fourteenth year. Before that, he had been housed by his mother’s family in Waterford, Virginia, where Quakers and other industrious sorts had drawn their own wealth from hard work and better soil. For Blake, the orderly towns of Pennsylvania, with their redbrick fronts and scrubbed stoops, brought a sense of homecoming he would have preferred to avoid.
The last of the coffee went cold. Blake drank the dregs. Although there were orders to give, Sabbath or not, he was not yet ready to move. He sat on in the shade a while longer.
The damnable thing was that Cobb was mostly right. It was uncanny. Blake, too, had noticed a queerness in Colonel Burgwyn, who had looked almost feverish during the psalms and sermon. Blake would not have put his impression into the words Cobb had spit out, but it chilled him to feel their rightness.
Yes, there would be a fight. Only God knew where. Probably beyond the high ridges to the east. As always, rumors thrived and grew extravagant. They were marching to Harrisburg. No, to Philadelphia. Or all the way to New York City. They would circle back to Baltimore, or descend upon Washington from the north and hang Lincoln from a sour apple tree.
No one knew what General Lee had in mind.
But there was this quiet day for which to be grateful. Blake wished he could find comfort in its Sunday-ness, but he could not. His upbringing had been left too far behind him, to the sorrow of so many. He had still read the Bible for a time after leaving his mother’s faith, but that came largely from habit, partly from guilt. Then the Good Book had drowned in the blood of Malvern Hill.
The regiment had gone in late and done little. But the carnage had stunned Blake. The regiment’s skirmishes in North Carolina had not amounted to war. Malvern Hill was war. What killed the last prayers left in him wasn’t a sense of revulsion at the suffering and death, but how much he loved it.
* * *
“Old George, ever cheerful…,” Reynolds kidded. “You sound as if you’ve been sentenced to hang at daybreak.”
“Haven’t I been?” Meade asked. They walked along a farm road beyond the headquarters picket line. A cavalry unit had followed the track some hours before, leaving its visiting cards. The two generals stepped carefully.
“I suppose you’ll have the Sixth Pennsylvania for your headquarters guard now?” Reynolds said. His grin was friendly, but devilish.
Embarrassed to be caught out so readily, Meade tried to smile.
“Oh, come on, George,” Reynolds told him. “It wasn’t a brilliant deduction. Philadelphia society would never forgive you, if you didn’t. And Margaret would pin back your ears. Social standing has its obligations.” He chuckled. “At least your Rittenhouse bucks got rid of those sticks of theirs. ‘Rush’s Lancers’ indeed. They read too much Walter Scott in Philadelphia.”
“They took young George in,” Meade said, defending himself. “When he left West Point.”
“And they would’ve been damned fools, if they didn’t. He’s a fine young man. Just a bit too energetic for the old jail on the Hudson, I suspect. Come on, cheer up.”
Meade stopped to stare out across a field of wheat. Staring at nothing. The world smelled burnt.
“I’ll need your help, John,” he said. Unable to look the man who was now his subordinate in the face.
“Don’t underestimate yourself.”
The heat pressed down. Sweat bloomed. “I don’t. I never have. I’m a proud man, John. You know it. That’s part of my dilemma, I suppose. I don’t want to fail. The shame of it.”
“Then don’t fail.”
Meade turned to his friend. Reynolds was the shorter man, but more pleasing to the eye. The white hairs threaded into his beard graced him, while graying whiskers just made Meade look older.
“You should have had the command, John.”
Reynolds shrugged, smiled. “Well, I don’t. Now what the devil was so important that I had to ride over immediately?” He wasn’t bothered, though. His good smile held.
“I can’t do this by myself,” Meade told him, reversing their direction and strolling back toward the picket line. “I’m keeping you in command of the army’s left wing. Doubleday can handle your household duties at First Corps, while you apply the switch to Sickles—he’s back, you know—and to our sainted and reverent General Howard.” He grimaced. “The Eleventh Corps’s in a bad way, and we both know it. His Germans hate Howard, and he despises them. And, frankly, I’m not sure I blame the Dutchmen.” Meade’s expression tightened. “It wasn’t just Jackson at Chancellorsville. Or bad luck. Howard hasn’t a jot of imagination when it comes to the things of this earth. He can’t envision anything he can’t see right in front of him—unless it has to do with abolition—and he won’t listen to anyone who doesn’t rank him. The man can only lead if he’s properly led.”
“Well, you stumped me,” Reynolds said. “I thought you’d be more worried about the Third Corps. Sickles is the joker in the deck, George.”
Meade almost smiled, but his mouth was etched with bitterness. “That’s why you’re keeping him, too. His corps is able, if he’s not. Good division commanders. And I can’t very well relieve Abe’s favorite War Democrat and Mrs. Lincoln’s slinking Tammany pet, can I? Sickles is the burden I can’t be rid of, and there’s folly and damnation in the creature.” Meade grunted at his image of the man. “He’ll have his marching orders this afternoon, to close in your direction. You’ll move north to Emmitsburg with the First Corps, keeping the Eleventh on your flank.” Slowing, he turned toward his golden companion. “You wouldn’t have a spare map of Pennsylvania, would you? To call Hooker negligent would be merciful.”
A cloud of green flies rose from a pile of horse droppings. The soldiers called the flies “Berdan’s Sharpshooters.”
“I expected more of Butterfield,” Reynolds reflected. “He hasn’t just been Hooker’s boon companion. Dan always kept one duty officer sober.”
“He can’t even keep up with the orders I pass along. John, I just can’t trust the man. He’s Hooker’s creature. You should’ve heard him this morning, claiming Hooker told him nothing of his plans. I asked Warren to take his place, and Seth Williams, but nobody wants it.”
“You can’t replace him as chief of staff now. With Lee out there.”
“That’s what Warren said.”
“And he was right. Anyway, Warren’s where he needs to be. He’s a splendid engineer.”
“But I can’t depend on Butterfield to be loyal to me. And he and Sickles are thick as thieves.” Meade swept off a veil of flies. “I’ve never hated the army, but I’ve hated army politics since West Point. Even you and I have had our differences. To my regret, John. But now, with these volunteer officers … the whole business stinks like an Irishman’s drawers. I’m not certain whether they’ve given me command of an army, or of a political convention. But I know I can’t trust Butterfield.”
A lone cow looked up from its grazing, as if about to join the conversation. Instead, it just flicked its tail.
“No, you can’t,” Reynolds said. “Not personally. But he’ll be loyal to the army. Butterfield’s a good Union man, if nothing else. As is Sickles, for that matter. I don’t think Butterfield will let you down, as long as we’re on campaign. Not intentionally, anyway. And I’d say the same for Sickles, if no more.”
Meade roused. “Sickles is a murderer and a thief. The man’s a whoremonger.”
Meade snorted. “But will the man think? He’s leading a corps, not a regiment.”
Reynolds dosed his voice with warmth again. “Well, I’ll watch Dan Sickles for you. And I’ll see that Howard doesn’t pray too extravagantly for his darkies on army time.” He laughed. “Then we’ll see if you can manage Hancock. Old Win’s the wildest savage Philadelphia ever nursed.”
“Win’s not really a Philadelphia man,” Meade said. “Not in the true sense. Humphreys is more the thing.”
Amused, Reynolds shook his head and dropped the matter.
“And perhaps this army should take General Lee into account,” Meade said abruptly, resentment back in full gallop. “Sharpe waves his hands and tells me the Army of Northern Virginia is ‘somewhere west of the mountains.’ He has no blasted idea.”
“Come now, George. You’re being harsh. I’d have Sharpe any day. If he hasn’t yet found the current address of Robert E. Lee’s chamberpot, who do you think would? Without Sharpe, this army might still be in Virginia. You’re damned lucky to have him.”
Meade never liked being chastened. He kicked a clod of dirt before realizing that it wasn’t dirt. “I’m trying to drag this army together so we won’t have another disaster on our hands. And I can’t help believing that Lee knows more about us than we do about him. Damn it, we can’t even find Stuart, who’s always ranging about across Lee’s front. It’s as if a curtain’s been drawn.” He shook his head. “I’m not going to let Lee set the rules this time. I swear it. I’m going to fight him on ground I choose, not where he wants to fight. And that means I need to find him before he pounces.”
“Buford’s out in front of me. He’s an old Indian-fighter. If Lee closes on our left, John won’t let him slip by.”
“We’re not fighting Indians this time.”
“No. But I trust Buford. And finding Lee should be a tad simpler than trailing a Comanche war party.”
“Well, keep pushing Buford north. Ignore any sobbing from Pleasanton.”
As the two generals neared the picket line, a young sentry weighed the wisdom of challenging them. He chose to keep his mouth shut and present arms.
Rejoining the commotion of the camp, Meade said, “Thank you for riding over, John. In this heat. I needed to see you, I had to let some of this out. I really must depend on you, you know.”
Reynolds kept silent, but his eyes were good.
“It’s all an odd business,” Meade continued. “I thought I’d be remembered for my method of reading longitude. That, and the better of my lighthouses. Now look where we are.…”
Before they parted, Meade to see that his orders had been dispatched and Reynolds to rejoin his soldiers, the new commanding general of the Army of the Potomac seized the hand of his friend and sometime rival, gripping it hard. As if to draw strength from it.
“I fear,” Meade said in a voice only Reynolds could hear, “that, if we lose the next battle, we’ve lost the war, John.”
“Then we mustn’t lose it.” Reynolds laughed.
Abruptly, inexplicably, wonderfully, Meade found himself able to laugh along. And he did. So vigorously it startled those within hearing distance. Reynolds was right: He had to climb out of himself. He couldn’t do worse than Hooker, after all. Perhaps the army just needed an engineer’s discipline.
Before Meade could gather more confident words, his son dashed madly toward them, bareheaded and struggling to keep his scabbard from tripping him.
Both generals stiffened.
“Father!” young George cried, drawing up before them. Immediately, he corrected himself, “I mean, General Meade, sir.” Eyes young and wild, he turned to Reynolds and touched fingers to an eyebrow in a salute. “General Reynolds, your indulgence, sir.”
“What’s got you all lathered up, George?” Reynolds asked.
Captain Meade turned back to his father. “A message from General Halleck, sir. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry captured a wagon train at Rockville. Smack in our rear, between us and Washington. They made off with a hundred and fifty wagons.”
In the sliver of quiet that followed, summer’s hum swamped the noises of the camp.
“Well, George,” Reynolds said at last, “it seems you’ve found General Stuart.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Peters