It is November of 1864, Major General William T. Sherman is about to lead his army of sixty thousand veterans into the heart of the Confederacy. It is the final, excruciating year of a war turned increasingly brutal and desperate.
The men of the maligned and ill-fated Confederate regiment known as the Fiftieth North Carolina look alike. Their faces are dark with smoke, their ribs protrude like barn rafters, and their uniforms are an assortment of filthy rags indiscriminately liberated from Union and Confederate dead.
Among these soldiers are George Hawkins and his brother, Walsh, unwillingly caught in the midst of a brutal war. As the regiment begins a four-hundred-mile death march from Savannah, Georgia, to Bentonville, North Carolina, George finds himself caught between his sense of honor and duty and his knowledge that they are fighting for a cause that is all but lost. Still, he takes consolation in doing in his duty and in his love of a woman—a refugee he encounters during the chaos of the Confederate retreat.
Souls of Lions is a tale of uncommon courage, heroic sacrifice, and flawed humanity amid great suffering in the swamps of North Carolina as two indifferent Confederate soldiers are transformed into the last violent months of the Civil War.
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souls of Lions
By R. E. Mitchell
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 R. E. Mitchell
All rights reserved.
ON A COLD, CLOUDY morning, a Confederate soldier was fishing for his breakfast on the bank of the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia. The river flowed fast enough here in the upcountry to favor catching shad. He had a string of three tied through the gills and was stringing a fourth when his younger brother, Walsh, approached.
"Something's up, George," he said.
George jerked his thumb toward the unfinished earthworks behind him. "Don't I know it. No hurry anymore. For two days we couldn't dig fast enough; now they don't give a damn."
"What's it all mean?"
After baiting his hook, George replied, "It means that Sherman ain't headed this way. It means we've been wasting our damned time ... as we usually do. We're like this here river. We just go along where the current takes us. There's a skiff down there a-ways. You and me could get in it and drift down the river to where-the-hell-ever."
"Savannah," Walsh replied. "That's the talk."
"Van Wyk's been in with General Baker since dawn. If Sherman ain't coming here, he's going there. Savannah."
George watched his cork bobbing and yanked to set the hook. "Got another one. This makes five—one apiece for breakfast."
* * *
To Colonel John Van Wyk, the men of Company A looked alike. Their faces were dark with resin smoke, their ribs protruded like barn rafters, and their uniforms were an assortment of filthy rags indiscriminately liberated from Union and Confederate dead. As he moved slowly through the knots of men squatting around breakfast messes, he decided they more closely resembled scarecrows than soldiers. "Cook enough bacon and cornbread for three days," he ordered. "We'll be moving out directly."
Van Wyk stopped some distance away from George and Walsh Hawkins and the three other men completing the circle: William Thomas Rhew, Jefferson Mullins, and a carrot-topped Irishman named Patrick O'Brady. With the exception of Walsh, not quite eighteen, the others were in their twenties, and all were small farmers, as were most of the men in the company. Their families had displayed a more shallow loyalty to the Confederacy than many of those he recruited. Excusing Walsh, who had enlisted only a year ago, none of them had helped elect him to the command of the company or later congratulated him upon promotion from captain to colonel. They were all privates and, in his judgment, would remain privates because they lacked the gumption for command.
"Private, who gave you leave to go fishing?"
"You weren't around, Jack."
"It's Colonel Van Wyk. You could have asked Lieutenant Blackburn."
"He wasn't around neither."
George was the worst soldier in the company, the colonel decided. He didn't look like a soldier, even on parade. He was taller than his schoolboy brother, but his size was hardly commanding. His face was round, soft, almost apostolic, except for a bad attitude etched into it. His hands were more fit for dealing cards at a poker table than loading an Enfield. His nickname was Hawk, but that appellation rested uneasily upon a man who had, it was said, never hunted a day in this life. But worst of all, he was habitually insubordinate.
"One of these days, Private Hawkins, you're likely to be bound and gagged in front of the whole company."
George looked up from the fire. Van Wyk's face was hard and angular, tapering down to a dark mustache and beard. His eyes were set wide apart and bright with anger. "Colonel," George began, "you buck and gag me and that fine, high-priced store of yours just might burn to the ground after the war."
Van Wyk's body stiffened in rage. "You do that and you'll hang as high as Haman."
"It's in the Bible," Walsh said. "Book of Esther, I think."
"You'd be the one to know," George replied.
"That's right," Van Wyk said. "I didn't expect you to know, George. All you did in Wilmington was shovel horseshit out of sea captains' stalls and bed down the whores with your earnings. It's a wonder you didn't get gonorrhea like a lot of others."
"I didn't see nothing wrong with provosting Wilmington."
Van Wyk turned his head toward the voice, Walsh's. "Maybe you think that's soldiering, but I don't! Thanks to the likes of all you, we deserve our reputation as pirates and slackers. Well ... we're going to get another chance for glory. We missed Gettysburg and the Wilderness and Spotsylvania too. This time General Hardee has asked us to join him at Savannah. But first we'll keep the Yankees from cutting the railroad at Grahamville. Be ready to move out as soon as the train builds up steam. Don't worry; a special train will be waiting for us in Charleston. You won't have time to get the fever."
"Special train, my ass," George said. "Confederacy ain't got any special trains."
Choosing to ignore George's acerbic remark, the colonel turned and walked away.
"What exactly is glory?" Walsh wondered, his eyes following Van Wyk. "I've sure heard a lot of talk about it."
George said, "Tell him, Bill Tom."
Bill Tom shrugged. "Well it's sort of like going the furtherest at Gettysburg, Pickett's charge. A lot of glory in Pickett's charge."
"But that means getting yourself killed," Walsh protested.
"Usually," Bill Tom said. "We've been lucky. No glory, but we're still alive. I guess that bothers Van Wyk, but he probably figures on us doing the dying. Well, our first brigade commander, Junius Daniel, got his glory at the Wilderness. He was a good man. We could have been sent up Malvern Hill, but he talked ol' Theo Holmes out of it, I hear. Too bad it wasn't Van Wyk getting his glory instead of Daniel."
Pat offered in his Irish brogue, "He's as full of shit as this here fish is with bones. If he'd been with our detail up on Malvern Hill that might have cured him. Glory sure as hell has a smell."
"Yeah," Jeff said, "I'd sure like to get those pictures out of my head. I ain't never seen nothing like it and hope to never again. Makes hog-killing time look like a picnic on the church grounds."
"I didn't join the army to kill anybody," Walsh said. "I just wanted to see the world beyond Person County."
Mullins grinned, showing stained teeth. "Runs in the family I reckon. We all wanted to see the world, but is it true, really true, Hawk, that you kept your grandpa from shooting a rabbit he had a bead on?"
"Shut up, Jeff, or I'll put my rifle butt in your big mouth. I kill for meat, not sport. No sport in shootin' a rabbit with a shotgun anyway."
"Hell, I didn't mean nothing by it, Hawk. But, well, did you? I mean here we are, you know?"
"How many men have you shot, Jeff? Huh? How many men have you even shot at?"
"As many as you have. I was told and so were you, that no more than a thimble full of blood would be spilled in this war. An ocean full would be more like it. We should have known. It's in the Bible. Plenty about war in the Bible. There's a lot of smoting and slewing in it. Our time's coming. That's my point. You may have to put a bead on a man and pull the trigger."
"Eat your victuals," George said. "Be glad we've been lucky. I'll do my duty as a soldier should."
* * *
The train was eleven cars long. Each was stuffed with seventy or more men, plus another dozen rode on the roof. Company A rode in the last car. George and Walsh sat on the aluminum-painted roof where smells were better. With a rattling of cars and lynchpins and showers of green pine sparks spewing from the stack, the locomotive gradually picked up speed—but not much speed given the crumbling roadbeds and rails so crooked they reminded George of a slithering snake.
The countryside was bleak. The late autumn sun was too weak to break through the haze and brighten the endless tracts of spindly second-growth timber or penetrate the dark air of the swamps. Weeds and grasses grew in the dirt roads leading back to a farm or perhaps some grander place where the owner was called Massa and the white women were all Miss something-or-the-other. They were not George's people, and this cutover country was not his land.
There were stops for fuel and water both expedited by curses and threats hurled by officers at the bucket and pine-log brigades. In little more time than it took for the soldiers to relieve themselves beside the tracks, the train jounced on again, bucking like a Confederate mule and swaying like a sailor after downing a pint of clear corn.
At midafternoon, a rainsquall passed over the train, soaking George and the others on the roof to the skin until they smelled like wet dogs and shivered in the chill air. Soon they were in the low country, the Tidewater. The air was warm, and the streams reflected strange, gnarled trees gripping muddy banks like bony fingers. The gloom deepened as the sun dipped behind giant trees. Boys the color of ebony fished from the bank of a sluggish stream and looked at the train as it rattled by trailing sparks and thin, white smoke. To George, this was the watery, dark wilderness of a strange land.
At dusk, the train entered the northern end of the tongue-shaped peninsula of Charleston. From atop the car, George had a good view of the city's ruin. In the cemeteries surrounding the old whitewashed churches were scores of fresh graves of those, he assumed, who had died from the fever. To his left were gutted warehouses; to his right were the brick shells of what had been the mansions of Quality Folk. With the approaching darkness, the guns of the Yankee bluewater navy winked and missiles with fuses aglow came arcing into the city.
South Carolina Station, a sign on the depot read. Negro children played in the rubble of the station's portico. Scattered among the ruins, part of the debris of war, lay a score of wounded Confederates, heads bandaged, arms in slings, and filthy rags wrapped around other wounds. One of them called to George as he climbed down from the car, "What regiment?"
"Fiftieth North Carolina," George replied just before a bomb exploded near the tracks. He dived to the ground and lay there with his arms wrapped protectively around his head as dust and shards of bricks rained down. He heard laughter and rose spitting dirt and coughing. "What's so damned funny?" he demanded, checking himself for wounds.
"Hell's bells," one of the wounded soldiers replied, "they can't hit nothing. Seen the train, that's all. Of course it ain't funny. Ain't no funnier than us laying here maybe gonna lose a wheel or something. What's my old lady gonna think when I come hobbling home? But I'd a whole lot druther be me. My fate is plain to see. Yours now ... well, it's likely to be a heap worse."
George felt a mixture of compassion and resentment. "You sure are encouraging. I ain't got any whiskey or tobacco to humor you."
The soldier laughed again. "I ain't got nothing for y'all neither ... except maybe for some advice. Don't try to be a hero. Time's past for heroes."
"Get a move on," Van Wyk bellowed. "The train's waiting at the Savannah Station across town."
* * *
Charleston was as dark as a grave. There was nothing to dispel the gloom, no yellow pinpoints of light even from windows away from the bay and ocean, nothing to seep through drawn curtains, no light from the lanterns of phaetons. An eternal, smooth night had settled over the besieged city. They picked their way through the rubble, lost in the darkness, reaching for the man in front of them until finally they saw pine resin sparking from the balloon stack, and boarded the train. Once across a dimly lit bridge, the train shuddered and bumped and rattled back into the darkness.
George needed to think about something ... anything ... to keep himself awake. He locked his arms around Walsh, and Bill Tom held on to him to keep each other from falling from the roof of the car. He recalled the old soldier mentioning fate. Fate could be either good or bad, couldn't it? Maybe Company A was fated to live through this war. True, the company had lost a few men to yellow fever and accidents, but back home in Person County as many would have died from horse kicks and lockjaw. But what was predictable in this war? What did he control? His fate was not in his hands, whether good or bad. He followed Van Wyk's orders when he had to, orders that were L. S. Baker's. He in turn took his orders from General William Hardee, Hardee from Jefferson Davis, and Davis from the devil himself. Maybe their luck would run out at Grahamville. The train puffed through the night, spewing resin sparks like fireworks.
* * *
It was dawn when the train reached Grahamville. They were late, hours late. The battle was over, it was plain to see. Wounded Confederates lay around the depot and along the tracks. The dead were being hauled away in wagons for burial. Flags of South Carolina and Georgia flew over the station in triumph. Lingering on the gentle drafts of air were the smells of black powder, earth, and the stench of burning flesh. The victors gathered around the train as though the Fiftieth was the enemy. "Where the hell y'all been?" they demanded.
Van Wyk appeared and managed to quiet the mob. "Boys," he began in a voice of sweet reason, "we're sorry we're late. Y'all've been on our trains. We coulda marched it faster."
They knew, they said, having come down from Macon in a Confederate relic. The engineers were on Sherman's payroll. "We didn't need you no how," a strong baritone voice rose over the rest. There were cheers of agreement, and it was the truth, a miraculous truth that George found difficult to believe. How could a ragtag bunch of old men and boys whip a division of Yankee regulars? A miracle, that's what it was, and a miracle, too, that the Fiftieth had been kept out of harm's way once again. So much for their luck running out.
When they had climbed down from the car, Walsh said to George, "I guess they got their glory."
A barefoot boy in ragged bib overalls overheard Walsh's remark and said, "We sure did. It was one heck of a fight. Maybe the biggest in the history of the world. How many big fights y'all been in?"
Silence easily won out over truth. Maybe Van Wyk was right. The same questions would be asked of them back home. They wished not to inform the boy they had spent six months easy duty as provosts in a wide-open, blockade-running town, that they had garrisoned another North Carolina town, or how they had confiscated crops of poor, hardworking dirt farmers, even if under General Lee's orders.
"We were at Malvern Hill serving under Marse Bob," George said at last.
"Yeah?" the boy said. He had never heard of Malvern Hill, but it had to be important if Lee was there. "After that?"
"Well," George went on, "after that ... well...." He spoke deliberately while racking his brain for a good answer. "Well ... after that we were on special assignments."
"Y-you mean secret missions?"
"Yeah, a few." The men grunted their agreement. It wasn't exactly a lie. The secret mission came to little more than lobbing a few cannon balls at Yankee campfires from a safe distance across the James River.
Into that delicate reasoning, Walsh added, "My brother here was wounded at Malvern Hill."
George's face colored behind the grime. It was another fragile truth. He had been hurt while down on River Road below Malvern Hill, not wounded, but this was not the time to set the matter straight. He was relieved when the boy changed the subject.
"I'll be headed home now, because we're state troopers. Least we won't be called Governor Brown's pets anymore. General Smith won respect too. Now, he ain't no General Lee, but he ain't far behind. He could hold his light, that's for sure. Yes, sir, Smith has to be one of the best generals in the whole Confederate Army."
"Smith, huh?" George mused.
"You know of him then," the boy said.
George knew of him. Every Confederate soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia had heard of Gustavus Smith. Early in the war, Smith had briefly commanded that magnificent army. In the midst of a fierce battle outside Richmond, General Lee had found Smith sitting in his tent unable to act, unable even to speak. He decided not to tell the boy. A lot of good men had gone crazy in this war.
"Here comes Van Wyk," Pat said. "For having missed out on all the glory, he sure looks pleased as punch."
"Attenshun," Van Wyk ordered, "We weren't vouchsafed a hero's fight. But if these boys and graybeards can whip the Yankees at Honey Hill, damned if we can't still win this war. We'll stop Sherman cold and send him and his bummers back across the Ohio."
As soon as Van Wyk moved off to other business, Bill Tom puzzled, "I wonder what he had for breakfast."
Excerpted from souls of Lions by R. E. Mitchell. Copyright © 2013 R. E. Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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