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SEARCHING FOR GENERAL LEEA Civil War Novel
By Barrett Dowell
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Barrett Dowell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDAY 1: SATURDAY, AUGUST 23, 1862
Chadwick was tall for sixteen. He had a slender, muscular body that revealed a manliness that made him appear older than his years. Since boyhood, his magnetism had attracted many admirers, and with these friends he explored and mapped out all the landmarks, passes, and streams for miles around his farm. "You must be brave," his grandfather had counseled him. And he was. With boundless energy he crawled, unafraid, inside caves, his friend clambering behind him. He climbed hills more quickly, jumped a horse higher, and swam faster and farther than any of his peers. Yet now, cantering alone across a stone bridge, he felt unsure. Today was one of those days when he wished his papa were here to talk to.
Each morning when Chadwick awoke, his first thought was of Woodsedge. He leaped up, dressed, and rode out on Small Package into the peace and tranquility of the woods. Nothing meant as much to him as the fresh new morning smells or a bird's call from the hills or the hammering of a woodpecker. These sounds multiplied the marvel of nature going to work on a new day, which made his heart glad, for that meant to him that all was right with his special world at Woodsedge. He often rode beside the dry-stacked that outlined the farm's boundaries. His mind recalled the twenty-four Negroes who hauled creaking wooden carts filled with stones from the quarry on the other side of the woods, assembling the wall stone by stone. "Every stone has character," his papa explained as they watched, "and you fit it individually. Those old fellows can choose the right stone while it's still in the cart." The craftsmen fascinated Chadwick, who would study one particular Negro as he rubbed and turned a stone, looking for its best placement. The wall had no mortar, so it relied on the stones' position in the wall to hold it securely. Somewhere in the dense gray-green of that meandering wall, his father had stashed a tin box that contained a copy of the deed for Woodsedge, a miniature oil painting of Ma and Papa, a luck piece his grandpa had always carried, and the names of all his family and the Negroes who had lived at Woodsedge. Chadwick felt secure knowing it was there, as though the land bore his family's signature and was truly a part of them.
Each morning, Chadwick's plantation rounds had taken on just about the same route his papa once rode, a ritual he cherished. "That horse and Master Chadwick, they is always together," Big John would say, wagging his finger at Small Package and his master. And it was so, because the two would often be gone until sunset, having spent the day together sharpening their senses and skills within the wooded surroundings. They were hardly ever at home.
As Small Package trotted across a field, Chadwick's drifting thoughts rode with him. He gave Package a pat on the neck as he said aloud, "I don't ever want to leave Woodsedge." Like generations of Curtises before him, Woodsedge was the only home he had ever known. That was true for Big John and his forefathers, too, and it was Chadwick's perception that Big John loved Woodsedge as much as he did.
Big John did a little bit of everything around Woodsedge. He had been born a slave on the Curtis plantation just as his father and grandfather had. Chadwick knew countless stories about Big John and Papa and how they'd virtually grown up together, but he knew little about Big John's own boyhood, except that he was left an orphan when he was four years old. He was now well into his sixties, and even with his salt-and-pepper hair and beard, his tall, strong body and unlined deep brown skin belied his age.
As he rode along, Chadwick reflected on the stories his papa used to tell about Big John. Almost all of Big John's life his work had been to be alongside Papa. He was not quite ten years old that first day on the job when he taught Papa how to walk. Papa would say, "Every time I fell, Big John put me back on my feet." Chadwick knew the two grew up fond of each other, in truth, as best friends.
Big John was the one who really taught Chadwick all he knew about horses: how to break them, to care for their hooves, to shoe them, to let them graze without foundering, and to exercise them and to cool them down with a walk. "Like this," Big John would say as he showed Chadwick how to currycomb the dirt from Small Packages' coat with a dry corncob, or thin out his bushy mane. "You learn quick," he often said, "like your Papa."
Papa was eager for his young son to be well grounded in handling all types of horses. "But don't neglect your schooling. Figures mean a lot to me. And to you, too," he said. Chadwick had a head for business. Now that Papa was dead he continued to keep records for Woodsedge, carefully documenting income and outlay in the heavy ledgers Papa had set up. With careful calculation he discovered wastefulness and vowed to end it. "But not yet," he said one day to Ma. "For now it's better to have too much than too little."
Ma often said, "Chadwick, I want you to go back to school." But Chadwick didn't want to go, not just now; he felt he must help Ma. His plan was to stay and care for everyone on the plantation until this war was over.
'It couldn't last much longer," he told Ma. "Papa said it wouldn't last long."
The horseman trotting far ahead was not distinguishable in the blinding sunlight. More curious than frightened by the unexpected traveler, Chadwick urged Package to a gallop. The rider must have heard the hoofbeats, since he stopped and waited for Chadwick to ride to him. Chadwick reined in beside the man. He thought the soldier was about to say something, so he hesitated for a moment, training his eyes hard on the cavalryman. He's a Confederate and something is amiss, Chadwick surmised. He gave the soldier a smile and very deliberately placed his reins on his horse's neck. Then he met the soldier's eyes. "May I help you?"
The cavalryman frowned. "Are you speaking for your father?"
"I am speaking for myself. My papa is dead."
"I'm sorry," the cavalryman said.
Chadwick waited, for the cavalryman to speak further. He watched the Confederate silently sweep his eyes over fields of tobacco, wheat and corn. "I am sorry about your Pa," he said again. "One can see you have a big responsibility here."
Chadwick smiled contentedly. "This is Woodsedge."
"I remember passing apple and peach trees, grape trellises, and livestock as I rode by the spring. Is it all part of your papa's plantation?"
"Yes. This place is more than Papa. It's four generations of Curtises. I'm the fourth Chadwick Curtis. The first, Great Grandpa, bought land north of here, thousands of acres in Jeffersonton.
The Curtis farm was situated on gently sloping land. Much of it was cleared for farming, allowing the breeze to bring the sweetest smell of olive blossoms. Laurel covered every hill in bright blooms. The crops were planted, whenever possible in the valleys, where the rains washed down the enriched topsoil and promoted vigorous growth. At any given season, many fields were resting: growing clover to fertilize the ground and to be turned under at year's end, when planting could begin again. The property was well conceived and thought out: all the Curtises took pride in the foresight, which had enabled each of the Chadwick Curtises to improve the estate's crop yield. Of course, once he took over the control of the farm, each Chadwick Curtis showed off his own particular capabilities. The second Curtis was a tobacco farmer, and the third a Cotton farmer, while young Chadwick's papa planted mostly corn. In the beginning he got about eight bushels out of each acre. A cousin in coastal Tappahannock told him lime was good for corn. So Papa began the practice of hauling hundreds of cartloads of oyster shells and fossils from his cousin's marl beds to turn into the cornfields. The very first year, he doubled his crop.
"I guess when so many people have put their lives into something to make it a success, it becomes very important to them," Chadwick said. "I know it's important to me.
Chadwick hadn't talked so much about his papa since his death. He had talked so long that the cavalryman, drowsy in the sun, no longer heard him.
He turned to the soldier. "Where are you headed?"
The cavalryman looked long and hard at Chadwick then leaned forward in his saddle. "Sir, I need your help," he said, man to man, as though he and Chadwick were friends. "I have a message for Confederate General Robert E. Lee from one of his generals, "Jeb" Stuart. The thing is, I won't be able to get it to him. I was wounded last night. I'm not gonna make it.
"I've heard he's here," Chadwick acknowledged. "But that's all I know. But, sir, I want to take you to the house. How would it be if I led your horse to the driveway?"
Slowly, the soldier looked ahead, nodding. He turned his head. "Why should a bullet in a man make a baby of him?"
Uneasy silence swept over Chadwick. He nodded in somber understanding. He felt his strength withdraw from him but he said nothing. He urged his horse closer to the cavalryman to lend some comfort as the soldier whispered, "You know? I'm glad I was there."
It had been Friday night, the twenty-second, the soldier recounted. After a few hours' sleep, the cavalrymen were to follow Jeb Stuart with fifteen hundred troops and two guns on a cavalry raid. Their objective was Catlett's Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the bridge over Cedar Run. They crossed the Rappahannock at Waterloo Bridge, and rode some five miles east to Warrenton. While awaiting further instructions, the men were given an hour's break to allow the troops at the end of the column to catch up. The climate in Warrenton was welcoming, for the soldiers had the townspeople's sympathy and saw them renewed in spirit at their arrival. The men were all very hungry, scattering all over town looking for anything to quench their thirst and fill their stomachs. The Warren Green Hotel, the Pharmacy, and some townspeople welcomed them, urging them to reach into their gardens for fresh ears of corn and other vegetables.
Toward sunset the wind blew in a cruel storm. Darkness came early. The wind was strong enough to rip the canvases off of the wagons. Conditions got so bad the general moved the soldiers out. The wind eventually blew itself away, but the rain made yellow soup of the road.
"It was a rough night," the cavalryman said. "I haven't had any sleep." He slowly slid off his bay mare and lay face down by the spring, where he cupped hands to bring cool water to his face and mouth.
Chadwick waited long minutes for the cavalryman to say something else. It was hard for him to believe the man might die. He looked so large and powerful, with muscular shoulders and neck. What could have happened?
Then the cavalryman began to breathe in deeply, exhaling slowly as he cleared his throat. "Last night when we finally arrived at Catlett's Station, we had a bit of first-class luck: You couldn't hear the tramp of our horses over the cracking thunder and we surprised the Union headquarters staff!"
He splashed more water over his head. At the same time Chadwick dismounted and knelt by his side. For an awkward moment neither of them moved until the cavalryman, hugging the ground, rolled over to a sitting position.
He sat looking downward and Chadwick sat beside him, waiting for him to continue.
"General Stuart said it was the darkest, wettest night he had ever known." The cavalryman was moving his eyes slowly toward Chadwick's face as he spoke. He coughed roughly, steadying himself with a sapling as his shoulders shook with pain. "I guess I'm all right," he said finally.
Now he spoke mostly in a whisper. "The general was rewarded with one more bit of good fortune: a captured drummer, selling tobacco to the Yankees as a disguise. The general knew he was a spy. The fellow offered to guide Stuart and several men to General Pope's private quarters in the baggage trains. The rest of us immediately surrounded the campground. Our bugles blared and a thousand high-pitched Rebel yells reverberated out of the shadows, over galloping hooves surprising the bluecoats." Remembering this picture, the soldier managed a weak smile.
He told how the rain got his caps wet and caused his pistol to misfire. At that point, a Yankee got him in the shoulder, knocked him clean off his horse. "I fell right into a tent and knocked a Yankee officer off his bunk!" To his horror, the tent fell into creeping ground flames. With smoke in his eyes and nostrils, he watched as the flames spread to other tents.
"I could hear screaming Yankees trapped in their burning tents. In the end it was a strange sight," he said, his voice rising a little. "With every flash of lightening we could see the road jammed with Rebels galloping after the running blue coats. We burned all their tents and everything else that we couldn't carry back to Warrenton.
"One Union observer said we rounded up more than two hundred prisoners and about as many horses." He paused. "Even the Pay Master, they said, with half a million in greenbacks and twenty thousand dollars in gold and some personal baggage and papers."
Details came so rapidly that Chadwick could scarcely take them in. The ride. The lightning. Being shot. That field of fire. Those screams. Chadwick watched the soldier's bulk sway and lean sideways as he told how the railroad bridge over Cedar Run—their prime objective—couldn't be destroyed. "It was too soaked to burn and too big to chop," the soldier said. "We left it intact when General Stuart pulled us out at dawn. He sent me to find Lee, and I thought I could make it, so I didn't let on I'd been shot. I didn't think much of my injury. I had my shoulder bandaged in Warrenton, and it didn't bother me then."
Chadwick interjected, signaling with his hand toward the soldier's bloodstained coat. "Does it hurt you now?"
"Not much. There's no hole in the back of me. Guess it's still in me."
Chadwick knew that was a bad sign. "Lead poisoning," his papa used to say, "can kill you in a day."
"In my pouch," the soldier said, pointing to his horse, "are papers containing vital information for General Lee. I'm a scout for Stuart's headquarters."
A scout! Again, Chadwick's mind raced with images of carrying important messages from general to general.
But the cavalryman was beginning to falter. He rose up on shaky knees and crawled to a shade tree, slumping down and crossing his legs as he leaned against the massive trunk.
Between raw breaths, the cavalryman described a road among tilled fields that dipped into woods where he had been riding when, unexpectedly, another man joined him. "I thought he must have something important to say—" the soldier told Chadwick. "He urged our horses to quicken their pace." The rider introduced himself as Colonel Mosby. At that moment, no sounds of battle ripped the air, nor was there a hum of guns in the distance. Mosby and the scout plunged into a forest maze of mostly dead ends, where the humid heat was smothering. They pressed on to a narrow creek, and Mosby hesitated long enough to say he had a warning for the scout. "But if I suddenly disappear," he said, "don't be surprised. I'll be nearby." Mosby smiled and extended his hand. Before they moved on, he shared details of how he raided behind federal lines, cutting telegraph wires, disrupting communications and capturing supply trains in these fifteen or twenty square miles of Fauquier and Loudoun counties. He made clear that he was a Southern spy: a shrewd and unprincipled scoundrel proud to be a sharp thorn in the sides of the Union's top brass. "General Lee," he said, "should not go to Washington. That much I am sure of."
Chadwick sat motionless, his senses sharp as a straight razor. From the moment the scout used the word spy, Chadwick kept imagining himself in his new friend's shoes.
Excerpted from SEARCHING FOR GENERAL LEE by Barrett Dowell Copyright © 2012 by Barrett Dowell. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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