Though little more than a boy, Private Josh Simmons is no green recruit of the Confederate Army. Now seventeen years old, he participated in the Battle of Gettysburg last year. Like most of his fellow soldiers, he doesn’t truly understand the underpinnings of the battle, but he has faith in his commanders, especially General Robert E. Lee. Simmons fights on the premise the blue bellies are down here threatening his home and his family. He also knows death waits for him up some road, trail, field, or grade.
Now, a century and a half after the most momentous struggle in American history, Soldiers and Ghosts tells the story of the American Civil War from ground level through the eyes of Simmons, a Confederate infantryman. It narrates the experiences of young adolescents during one of the most dramatic and chaotic moments of that Wilderness Campaign of 1864.
The first book in a trilogy, Soldiers and Ghosts tells a tale of valor amid the horror of unceasing battle and struggle as the Ghost Army gained recruits at feverish pitch during the darkest days of the Civil War.
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Soldiers & Ghosts
By Phil Gutierrez
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Phil Gutierrez
All rights reserved.
THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN
Scuttlebutt spreads fast through the ranks. Rumor has it the Yanks have begun to move. Josh can see the message on his comrades' faces in the light of pre-dawn fires: fear, excitement, bravado. Many of these soldiers seem little more than boys who look forward with great anticipation to their first sighting of the "Elephant". Others look like middle-aged men, some on the verge of being "old". Some men seem filled with fear and trepidation, which wisdom born of experience has lent them. Many have become addicted to violence. All have awakened.
Private Joshua Simmons, though little more than a boy, is no green recruit. In addition to action since, he is a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg last year. He stormed the Round Tops with General Hood's Texans. After a horrendous defeat, the first suffered by this army, the tired survivors retreated across Pennsylvania to the border and crossed the Potomac River with 'Marse' Robert and the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia. Private Joshua Simmons has no illusions about what awaits him at the end of this road.
Joshua just turned seventeen this past April, but he has long since become a hardened professional in this ghastly war between brothers that consumes arms, men, horses, and mules like the Black Death in Europe.
The sun is not yet risen, but already the men have started moving about. They have been ordered to cook their rations of cornmeal and bacon quickly, in preparation for 'departure'. The Confederates obey efficiently and fast. There is much noise and movement in the bivouac. However, it is a controlled, well-directed frenzy. These men were well trained in drill and march; even the new boys have already been trained to respond quickly to instructions or orders. Some recruits appear nervous and stay quiet. Most Johnny Rebs act boisterous and full of braggadocio; "One Rebel kin lick five Yankees!"
Before dawn, Lieutenant General James Longstreet's I Corps is on a forced march north in answer to General Lee's summons. The Yankees have been spotted concentrating in the area of Wilderness Tavern, just east of Lee's two other Confederate Corps. Fighting is underway.
As the grim men tread northward. Josh and many of his fellows believe the ghosts of thousands of dead soldiers haunt these woods. The dead come from Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville just last year, when General 'Stonewall' Jackson was mortally wounded. There were so many dead. The faces fade quickly in the mind's eye, but the names remain forever for comrades and others, if they gained fame. The picture of the last horrific sacrifice remains; skulls and bleached bones uncovered by winter rains and snow lie scattered throughout the woods. The souls of these men remain in the woods. The woods became their new home forever, the current soldiers believe.
Josh cannot believe he has never been wounded, for he has certainly been in the thick of the fighting on several occasions. Combat soldiers know charmed men exist in the ranks who miraculously escape serious injury over and over. However, this luck has a way of suddenly running out without warning. Josh is cured of those feelings of invulnerability possessed by youth everywhere, of all ages. He knows death waits for him up some road, trail, field or glade. He believes his soul will arise from his shattered body and join the countless ghosts forever marching and campaigning in these thickets: The Wilderness.
By 5:00 p.m. this May 5th, I Corps is within ten miles of the front. A halt is ordered and the men go into bivouac with orders to move out again at one in the morning for the last leg. Beyond this, Josh and the others know little. Soldiers are not usually privy to High Command decisions. Theirs is but to march and fight. The men feel tired, but not exhausted. They stay fit. The important thing now is to rest and sleep. They post pickets. The Sergeant of the Guard assigns security details and the mass of troops wrap themselves in their gum blankets and fall immediately to sleep.
* * *
Last winter was bad, reviews General Lee, the ANV's Commander. After Gettysburg and the costly fighting retreat, the Confederate Army went into a bivouac of sorts to bury what dead it was able to bring back from the battlefield, and those who succumbed later of their wounds or illness. The Army and the South treated the many thousands of wounded, refit its shattered brigades with weapons and crew served arms, and trained new replacements. In a manner of speaking, it was reborn.
The depredations suffered were next to impossible to bear, even for combat hardened young boys from small towns, cities, and farms accustomed to walking barefoot and foraging off the land. The Army of Northern Virginia prepared for battle once again.
'Impossible to bear' is not an exaggeration, Lee knows, in the population of white men the South is outnumbered by at least three to one. The blockade of Southern ports by the Union Navy has all but strangled importation of goods and munitions from abroad. Inland, Federal forces target every possible rail line they can reach in Dixie. The Mississippi River and most of its tributaries fell into Northern hands. A great Federal army is attacking east-southeast from Chattanooga towards Atlanta, Georgia, and the sea beyond, the objective being to cut the Southland in two, from Vicksburg to Savannah. Confederate industry, without European trade is hopelessly inferior to the North's. In some areas, gunpowder is manufactured in caves along the cave crescent, stretching from northern Alabama and Georgia to Kentucky and North Carolina. The technology is primitive. The very Shenandoah Valley, which is the fruitful breadbasket for Confederate armies in Virginia and the civilian population centers of Richmond, Petersburg, and other sizeable cities and towns in Virginia and beyond, suffer under constant attack. Horses, mules, cattle, and pigs exist in short supply for the ANV, more so now that the Union armies occupy the rich farmlands and industrial centers in west and middle Tennessee.
Incredibly, morale of soldiers and civilians stays high! The people are in fact, full of fight. They make great sacrifices for their armies in the field and alas, for their own families. Yet, there is a growing current of desperation festering in the heart of the Confederacy.
In contrast, Lee and the officers of the ANV were amazed and impressed by the overflowing, unscarred wealth in the North, just across the border in Pennsylvania. In fact, it is not necessary to refer to a map or border post; the ravaged condition of the South is in stark contrast to the richness of the enemy. The war is waged in Dixie; Virginia is a perpetual battleground. In the mountains and the far west, Rebel guerrillas, cavalry, bushwhackers, and rogue bands of deserters, roam everywhere. Alas, after the great battles have been fought, many won by Confederates, the Yankee cancer is persistent and will not go away. The General loves his men. He worries about the immediate future.
Early in May, General Lee is well aware, there is already drought in Virginia. The soil has turned to hematite dust and detritus on the forest floor is crackling dry. Many streams have dried up, even though with the blush of spring over the land, wildflowers bloom in profusion on the roadsides. There exist no macadam roads. All roads lie buried beneath inches of red-yellow Virginia loam. The dust rises at the slightest agitation to choke the lungs and clog the noses, mouths, and eyes of animals and men. Only a couple of plank roads exist in reasonably good operational condition. Summer has come early to Virginia. It is unseasonably hot. The elements have conspired with the hated Yankees, hated as only brothers can hate, to torture and kill the Rebels. Rebels who dared to secede from the Union and shout unpardonable blasphemy against the Nation, its mother. These Rebels, have been the cause of much agony and suffering to their northern brethren. Now, almost a year after the fall of Vicksburg and six months after the fall of Chattanooga, Union armies again menace Virginia.
The Commanding General of all Union armies in the field is a leader by the name of Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant, who is aware of this intelligence. The diminutive, scrappy Chieftain is the first three star general in the U.S. Army since the Revolutionary War. Grant has characteristically chosen to march his Headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac and direct its specific operations personally in order to circumvent the endemic history of Northern generals, sans initiative.
This morning these rumors of impending battle run wild. The Yanks have begun their summer campaign. More than one-hundred thousand uniformed men, all their trains, artillery, a Corps of cavalry, and five full Corps of infantry, are coming to 'get' 'Marse Robert' and his tough little army, which is not much more than half the size of the approaching host. Battle they will get. The Southern Army is very aggressive and imminently confident. No matter the status or rank of the soldiers, all realize the upcoming battles will be vicious, desperate, bloody struggles to the death. Lee places his trust in God's hands as always, before applying his great knowledge and experience.
* * *
Josh stands just shy of five-feet seven inches in height. Due to the very poor rations at this stage of the war and the constant maneuvering, drilling, marching, and digging, he weighs no more than one hundred forty pounds. Nevertheless, he is young, healthy and whipcord tough. His suntanned, teenager's face at first glance relays a look of fresh innocence, with his unruly mop of sandy-blond hair sticking out from under his worn kepi. In spite of this, once you look into his light-brown eyes, you come away with a different impression. Joshua has seen too much death, too much suffering. He has experienced the blunders of commanders and seen the bloody results. He does not believe that he will survive the war. Nonetheless, this is the nineteenth century in America, a very Christian era. As is typical at his age, Josh believes in Holy Providence. He does not truly understand the causes for the conflagration, except that the Blue Bellies are down here, threatening his home and family. More importantly, he has faith in his Commanders, especially General Robert E. Lee. In fact, Joshua Simmons and most of his comrades in this Army adore the General. They care deeply what he thinks of them. They will cheerfully charge the enemy and give up their lives for 'Marse' Robert.
Beyond this, Josh is the typical young soldier serving on this side of the socio-political issues, which brought about the war. Like the great majority of Confederate soldiers serving on all fronts of the war, neither Joshua Simmons nor his family own slaves. Never have; never will.
In his immature and youthfully emotional way, he does have some prejudices. Joshua has a temper and will occasionally fight with some comrade or other about any one of innumerable reasons soldiers find to squabble. Josh's curiosity and independent spirit have gotten him in trouble before and it is the reason for his prior reductions in rank from corporal back to private. However, Josh's mates know his mettle and worth as a fighting man. They consider him a valuable member of Company 'C' Fifth Georgia Volunteers Regiment. The boy is taken seriously and is often asked to instruct new recruits, who tend to seek out young men like themselves to talk about their hopes and fears. They are also very curious and receptive to information on how to 'soldier', how to fight in battle, how to survive the unsurvivable. Many feel secretly terrified.
Joshua is not an introverted or reticent youth. He likes talking to his friends and dispenses advice easily enough if asked respectfully. Josh, like his comrades, is heavily armed by nineteenth-century standards. He bears a nine-pound, Confederate Richmond Rifle-musket, which fires a .58 caliber lead bullet (called a Minie ball) and is deadly up to 400 yards in Josh's capable hands, although most targets will be less than three hundred yards. He has learned out of dire necessity to prepare and fire his muzzle-loader rifle at the rate of four rounds per minute. That is very fast. The norm is two to three rounds per minute. In addition to his rifle, Josh has acquired a .44 cal. Colt Revolver, which he carries in his waist belt. Also on his belt, hang his rifle bayonet and a vicious looking Bowie knife. Priming caps and bullets fit in a cap box on the belt for the caps, and in the cartridge case hung from the right shoulder across the chest for easy access to rifle ammunition.
On his back is strapped a knapsack, which stores rations, extra clothing, when available, toothbrush, comb, a piece of lye soap, a work pencil, and a few sheets of wrinkled paper for letters home. When required, extra ammunition and mercury percussion caps can be added to the pack. On the march, he drapes his sleeping roll from his left shoulder down to the right hip. These days, Joshua wears a good pair of Union Army issued combat brogans. The young farmer likes going barefoot and his feet grew predictably stone hard from a lifetime of going shoeless. However, the murderous marching demanded by this army necessitates protection for the soles of the toughest feet, when possible.
In Joshua's pocket, most importantly to him, is the folding knife Pa gave him three years ago. He also has a large Cat's Eye 'lucky marble', from years ago. His adolescence is still fresh in his mind.
Josh dreams of youth this night. A pretty, golden haired girl runs through waving fields of alfalfa, timothy and grain on his family's two hundred acre farm east of Atlanta. She laughs and turns in slow motion, smiling at Josh who tries in vain to catch up with her, because she is always just out of range. Enigmatically, the sad face of Nathaniel, Josh's younger brother who succumbed from pneumonia the first year of the war, superimposes itself over the running girl, silently screaming; "Josh, watch out! Watch Out!" The young soldier tosses in his blanket, unseen, and unnoticed. He dreams dreams of sun-drenched Sundays, swinging from a rope into the family pond fed by a cold, sparkling spring. They were nourished and tanned, and oh so young. The lad is an innocent, a virgin in love, an old man in war.
Josh's father is in his county's militia. He will almost certainly see action as General Sherman's Army of The Tennessee drives to Savannah on its sweep to the sea. In Josh's continuing dreams, Pa is hardworking, gentle and funny, and entirely true to real life. Israel Simmons is no tyrant.
Josh loves his father and family. Nevertheless, he left his family angered, alarmed, and frightened when he impulsively ran away at the age of fifteen, making his way north to join the Army of Northern Virginia. Youngsters from all over the South joined the armies either singly or with local units. It just seemed like a great adventure. The recruiters would not turn down an eager boy if he was of good size, healthy, and there. Horrendous losses had to be replaced.
* * *
Pickets guard their posts. The Army wrapped in blankets, slumbers. At thirty minutes past midnight, Sergeant Carter, an old man of nineteen, shakes the squad of ten infantrymen awake. "Cook your bacon boys, an' heat some coffee if ya got it. We move out at one," he whispers out of habit. Sergeant Carter is also a veteran of Gettysburg, still recovering from a minie ball wound in the thigh. Thank god, the ball did not nick an artery, break a thighbone, or ricochet upwards into the torso. He sustained a flesh wound, which bled profusely, but avoided infection. Only his youth and luck saved him from the common fate of amputation. He still limps slightly as he moves from man to man.
The men groan and mutter quiet complaints, but rouse themselves quickly nevertheless, as they must. They roll their blankets and wrap them around their torsos. The men stumble around the small fires, kept alive while they slept, by the squad's two rotating sentries during the night. There is already a coffee tin hot on the coals. They quickly fry a quarter pound of fatback bacon apiece; dry it between a split biscuit, and wash it down with a half cup of rare coffee, or water. As he sips his coffee and chews a twig to clean his teeth, Josh, affectionately watches the men with whom he serves. Of course, he knows little of their background.
Excerpted from Soldiers & Ghosts by Phil Gutierrez. Copyright © 2013 Phil Gutierrez. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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