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Fire on the Prairie
By Ed LeCrone
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Ed LeCrone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSomewhere East of Vicksburg, Mississippi May 14, 1863.
"Close up, men, close up," the perspiring officer exhorted the ragged blue line as it thrashed through the underbrush and passed on either side of him.
"The dress is right, dammit! Align yourselves! You damned clodhoppers are breaking!" Captain Ansel Rouse, normally a man of calm demeanor, was a wild beast when he caught a whiff of gunpowder causing his nostrils to flare like those of a frightened colt. But fear was not in the man's vocabulary. He seldom flinched when bullets passed near, just became more agitated and profane. His salty adjectives urged his sweating command into new determination.
"You there, Nolan. It is Nolan isn't it? Close up! We'll have no slacking in this company, by God!"
A sergeant passing on the left shoulder of Captain Rouse wheezed out a half-hearted excuse for the manner in which the formation was advancing,
"Sir, it's all this danged brush and the deep ravines that's causin' the trouble."
"No excuses, sir. I'll accept no excuses. Our shining hour is upon us, and by the heavens we're going to take advantage of this situation!"
The Decatur, Illinois, native had drawn his foot officer's sword and was thrashing its blade through the tangle of briars as though he had closed with the rebel enemy. The vines, like the foes whom he was about to confront, were stubborn, bending down but springing back to snare his boots and tear at his trousers. Zipping, hissing sounds passed overhead as the unseen missiles clipped twigs and leaves from the towering white oaks through which the Union soldiers passed.
"See there men! See there! We're driving them and they're firing high! By God you are magnificent! Your mothers will be proud of you!"
Chance Neunan was cognizant of the captain's rants as he stepped into a leaf choked runoff filled with the dry debris of last fall. Briars of an unknown variety were less virulent in the shade of the giant trees and the young soldier's passage was eased for a few steps.
Mississippi air in early summer was hot and filled with a humidity that saturated every thread that Neunan wore. Chance felt his perspiration circle around his jacket collar and course down his spine to wet the seat of his pants.
His loaded 1853, Enfield rifle musket with its bayonet attached seemed to weigh a ton and was forever getting tangled in the brush and low branches of saplings.
"Sergeant! Sergeant Wilson! Fetch me a runner to carry a message over to Lieutenant Kellar! "Chance heard his Captain bellow." Can't see him to know where the other end of the line is. It's this damned brush. Where are you, Wilson?"
Neunan watched as Rouse drew a sodden memorandum book from inside his tunic and commenced to scribble his order with a stubby, natural wood pencil. Sweat dripped from the tip of the man's nose and dropped on the paper's surface ahead of the little writing instrument. Speaking to himself in a low tone, Chance picked up the nearly incoherent sentence uttered by the concentrating officer, "Got to get skirmishers out on out right flank. We've got to know what's out beyond B Company. God help us if they hit us with cavalry. They'll roll us up like an old Persian rug."
Neunan stopped to untangle his rifle from a swatch of small limbs before pushing on. He tried to ignore the captain and sergeant who were conferring with each other next to the base of a massive oak tree. Chance looked straight ahead and avoided eye contact with either of the men. His desire was to pass silently and unnoticed out of their line of sight without drawing their attention. Bushwhacking through the jumble off to his right carrying an order could cause three things to happen; two of them bad. He could be shot by mistake by members of his own company or get gobbled up by Confederate cavalry probing for an opportunity to turn the advance.
"Well, Wilson, have you a man for me?"
"Yes Sir." Wilson turned sideways and grasped a passing trooper who had been malingering at the back of the movement.
Chance breathed a sigh of relief. Dodging out of responsibilities doesn't always serve your best interest, he thought as the line shifted slightly to fill the void of the departing man.
Somewhere in this voracious growth the 41st Illinois was struggling to cut off Confederate General John Pemberton's retreat after the fighting at Jackson. One lone road from the outskirts of that city led west to safety in the fortifications at Vicksburg for the rebel army. Bloodied by the forces of Grant, Sherman, and McClernand, the Confederates had failed to link up with General Joe Johnston's relief moving down the state of Mississippi from the northeast. Still, Pemberton's southerners were a viable, dangerous force and capable of putting up a fight. But at this moment the Confederates had chosen flight over valor.
Neither Chance Neunan nor Abe Stratton, the man to the young soldier's right, or the other three hundred eighty two men of the regiment and very possibly Captain Rouse had knowledge of where they were on the battlefield or the retreat route that the main body of the rebel army was following. They were mere game pieces as was the remainder of the brigade in the grand scheme that the commanding generals were formulating.
A Company trudged through the morass on the extreme left flank and B Company anchored the far right of the line. Squeezed between the two was the remainder of the regiment comprised of companies C, D, E, and F. If these sections performed as they usually did, then the entire conglomeration was bent backward in the form of a bow. This was not the expected military procedure but Chance knew from previous experiences that the men in these companies were more timid than those in the flanking companies. The truly lucky contingent was H Company who had drawn reserve duty and was guarding the stacks of knapsacks, pup tents, and haversacks in the rear.
Replacing his order booklet inside his high collared dress coat, the Decatur lawyer withdrew his sword which had been shoved into the leaf covered loam at his feet. Captain Rouse buttoned the woolen garment to his throat muttering to himself as he watched the line of soldiers pass.
"Won't have to worry about our left. The Iowa boys are over there and have an unobstructed view of our point of attack. It's the damned right that I'm worried about." Rouse, with sweat stung eyes followed the terrified young runner as he departed. A flight of bullets clipped more twigs from the limbs overhead.
The verdant obstruction remained void of bird or animal sounds. The approaching confrontation of the two forces had stripped the woods of everything except for the crackle of twigs, the wild ranting of the commanding officer, random musket shots, and the occasional curse of a man caught in the spiny vines.
"Damned orderlies! Can't ever find the timid little pukes when you need them. I've got to rely on some snotty nosed nubbin of a kid that I pull out of the ranks to carry messages," Rouse cursed.
"You there, Milloy! Get up there next to your messmate! Align yourself!"
"Peers like the graybacks is aimin'a mite high, don't ya think?" offered Pete O'Donnel thrashing about off to Neunan's left.
Turning his head to locate the speaker, Neunan noted that his tent mate carried his musket at the 'Charge Bayonets' position and seemed to be negotiating the brambles much more easily than he was.
"If they'd shoot even higher it would satisfy me."
O'Donnel gave a nervous little laugh that was devoid of humor.
"Look at Ol'Rouse over there. He's as giddy as a man in a bed full of virgins. That crazy bastard enjoys these little scrimmages." O'Donnel ducked under a low hanging branch.
Neunan shot a glance over at the officer and saw that a ring of white salt from perspiration had stained his kepi. "Some folks get their gratifications outta fighting, I suppose."
"Well, I sure as hell don't. Scarin 'off Joe Johnston without gettin' into the fightin' was fine by me."
"The powers that be sure didn't figure that Pemberton would come outta Vicksburg and give us a tussle did they?" Chance used his hand to push away a swatch of leaves. The back of his hand to the tips of his fingers was wet with sweat.
"Hey, you two birds stop that jawin'." Sergeant Wilson pushed through the briars from behind them. "Ain't no sense drawin' fire with all yer senseless racket."
The two soldiers went silent. Even Captain Rouse curtailed and stopped his incessant harping as though he sensed the advancing line was about to go into action.
A commotion to Chance's front, a mélange of excited talking and crackling branches that he was unable to access, rolled toward him. Instinctively, he brought his gun to his shoulder.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! Runner comin' in!"
Chance yelled back over his shoulder echoing the warning.
"Don't shoot! He's one of ours!"
The red headed young boy that Neunan had seen Sergeant Wilson select from the line for service as a messenger came hobbling toward the dark haired soldier supporting a staggering man. The afflicted soldier's face was pallid to the point of being marble and with his left hand he clutched a right arm that hung limp at his side. Neunan recognized the man as Webster Long who'd been selected as a skirmisher at the beginning of the day. How the red headed runner had gotten out in front of the skirmishers and back into the line without being shot was a mystery to the young volunteer.
"Wounded man and a runner comin' through! Hold yer fire!" O'Donnel yelled.
Passing between the men of the advancing line, the two were soon swallowed by the green hell of the Mississippi forest.
Chance felt the weakness in his knees, the surge of nausea sweep up his esophagus and pool back into his stomach. The quivering that accompanied this response in the tense moments after he'd seen wounded or dead comrades coursed down his wet fingers and terminated on the wrist of his musket where he gripped the weapon. He had seen how men handled trauma. Some clenched their jaw and went forward with even more resolve than they'd formerly had. Others became more careful, watchful, as if witnessing the carnage of wounds and death wrought by the implements of war eroded their feelings of invincibility. Yet, still others lost all control, throwing away any threads of duty, honor and responsibility and broke or deserted at the first opportunity. Only the oilskin wrapped letter tucked into the inside pocket of his jacket gave Neunan the strength to continue and not run from the field. The arrivals of the missives had sustained him through his trials from the time of his enlistment to the present, but the most recent one in his inner pocket meant the most to him. Mundane as it was, the information touched him with news of his neighbors, their daily tasks and the affection that tinted the words of Becky Scott.
My dear Chance;
We receive so little news about Gen. Grant and our cherished 41st Regiment outside Vicksburg. The newspapers provide excuses for their tardiness in covering the fighting in Mississippi by saying that all lines of communication to the North are subject to rebel cavalry raids. Earl van Dorn was crafty when he caught us off guard at Holly Springs in December, but I should think that our General Grant has learned his lesson and won't allow this to happen again. All the news appears to be speculation on the part of the papers' editors. The County Democrat newspaper has rebel General Joe Johnston bringing a relief army to Vicksburg to join with Pemberton in that city and whip our boys. The Mattoon Plain Dealer has our armies lost in the swamps and thrashing about in the woods and ravines. I don't know what to believe. All the believable news that I have are in the nice letters from you. It's really remarkable that we can get word from you in eight to ten days considering that we're so far apart. I received your letter dated April 17, and passed your greeting on to those you indicated.
Your Aunt Emma is no better. She struggles with the humidity. It makes it hard for her to breathe and the consumption worse. The weather has been unusually warm for early spring and that's why your aunt suffers so. The corn is about four inches high and the rains have really greened it up.
Can you imagine that mother decided to pluck the geese for feathers this late? We'd come out of that wet, soggy spot in early April as I'd written you about and the geese went right on their nests. I'd thought that when the goslings had hatched and the temperature rose we'd be shut of this dreadful chore. But I was wrong. Last Saturday, it was Ruthie, Alfie, mother and I who took on the gaggle. You never heard such a racket and saw such wing flapping as we had. You'd think those blue- eyed, feather dusters would learn that we intend them no harm. Mother chose an overcast, humid day and we sat out under the big oak in the yard. Little Alfie had the task of holding their necks and preventing the birds from flogging us.
Alfie had the big, blue Toulouse we call Sarah and I was making the fine feathers fly. Ol'Sarah took offense at how brother was holding her and bit him on the cheek. Well, that was the end of her. Alfie broke her neck as pretty as you please. Her poor old wings liked to beat me to death before I could get away from her. We've had goose at three different meals and Alfie has had nothing more than corn mush and milk. Mother was quite upset with him. She rendered down the goose's fat and packed it up in a crock for the cellar. It will be used for spread on bread or as chest salve this winter. I would hope that mother won't want to stuff pillows until sometime in November. I've just now gotten all the fine fluff blown out of my nose. I shall close for now and not take up anymore of your time.
As ever, Becky Scott
p.s. Are you getting your rations regularly? Do you need anything from home?
Chance had studied the signature each time he'd read the letter. He calculated by the elongated gap between the first and last name in the signature that there had been a period of hesitation on the part of the signer. It was his impassioned hope that Becky had vacillated between formally signing her full name over her more personal first name.
Pausing next to a massive moss covered log that lay extended on the forest floor, the young private tried to collate the written words with the softness and inflections of Becky's voice. His quaking subsided as he permitted his mind to wander, allowing the hominess of her message to compete with the zip and hiss of bullets passing around him.
"You all right Chance?"
"Yeah, I'm all right. Just day dreamin' I guess."
"This is a hell'ava place to be doin' that. Jesus, this ain't no dream we're in and you'd better look sharp. There could be a passel of them gray backs come a pourin' outta the woods at any minute." Pete O'Donnel stooped forward and set his gaze in the foliage at their front attempting to glean the approach of danger.
"Thanks, Pete. I'll mind myself."
Kaskaskia River Bottom, Moultrie County, Illinois April 30, 1863.
Becky Scott stood at the swinging gate which protected the home's yard from meandering livestock that roamed the pasture adjacent to the farm house. The worm, split rail fence was effective against the foraging of cattle and horses, but winged fowl were constantly a nuisance with their droppings underfoot. It seemed as though the birds had a special affinity for the low front porch and an hourly duty was for Alfie or Becky to shoo them away. But the aimless wandering of the fowls and their imprisonment was not a priority for a teenage girl. Her thoughts were focused on the dreadful time in which she existed and the epical occurrences that weighed heavily on the mind of the nation.
It was unfair, she thought, to be sucked into events that she was powerless to control. Why should young people like herself be involved in this horrid war that maimed and killed thousands of Americans both combatants and civilians? She should have been experiencing the thrill of her budding, young body, the development of her sexuality, the immergence of her romantic emotions. Instead, she spent her days in a pall of despondency and the moments before retiring at night on her knees, praying. Beside her bed she asked God to spare Chance Neunan. Only after she had satisfied herself that her words for the soldier's physical salvation had been sufficiently fervent did she turn her attentions to her immediate family and relatives.
Excerpted from Fire on the Prairie by Ed LeCrone Copyright © 2010 by Ed LeCrone. Excerpted by permission.
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