The Bloody Ground
Starbuck Chronicles Volume Four, The
It rained. It had rained all day. At first it had been a quick, warm rain gusted by fitful southern winds, but in the late afternoon the wind had turned east and the rain became malevolent. It pelted down; a stinging, slashing, heavy rain fit to float an ark. It drummed on the armies' inadequate tents; it flooded the abandoned Yankee earthworks at Centreville; and it washed the shallow dirt off the grave mounds beside the Bull Run so that an army of fish-white corpses, scarcely a day or two buried, surfaced like the dead on Judgment Day. The Virginia dirt was red, and the water that poured in ever-widening muddy streams toward the Chesapeake Bay took on the color of the soil so that it seemed as if the whole tidewater was being drenched in blood. It was the first day of September 1862. The sun would not set on Washington till thirty-four minutes after six, yet by half past three the gas mantles had been lit in the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue was a foot deep in mud, and the open sewers of Swampoodle were overflowing. In the Capitol the rain slashed through the beams and scaffolding of the half-finished dome to pour onto the newly arrived wounded from the North's defeat at Manassas, who lay in misery on the rotunda's marble floor.
Twenty miles west of Washington more fugitives from John Pope's beaten army trudged toward the safety of the capital. Rebels tried to bar their road, but rain turned the confrontation into confusion. Infantrymen huddled for shelter under soaking trees, artillerymen cursed their rain-soaked powder charges, cavalrymen tried to calm horses terrified by the boltsof lightning that raked from the heavy clouds. Major Nathaniel Starbuck, commander of the Faulconer Legion of Swynyard's Brigade of Jackson's Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, was trying to keep a cartridge dry as he poured its powder into his rifle. He tried to protect the cartridge with his hat, but the hat was drenched and the powder that he shook from the wax paper was suspiciously lumpy. He shoved the crumpled paper onto the powder, spat the bullet into the rifle's muzzle, then rammed the charge hard down. He pulled back the hammer, fished a percussion cap from the box at his belt and fitted it onto the rifle's cone, then took aim through the silver sheeting of the rain. His regiment was at the edge of a dripping wood, facing north across a rain-beaten cornfield toward another stand of trees where the Yankees sheltered. There was no target in Starbuck's sights, but he pulled the trigger anyway. The hammer thumped onto the percussion cap that exploded to puff its little wisp of smoke, but the powder in the rifle's breech obstinately refused to catch the fire. Starbuck swore. He eased back the hammer, prised the shattered percussion cap off the cone, and put another in its place. He tried again, but still the rifle would not fire. "Might as well throw rocks at the bastards," he said to no one in particular. A rifle fired from the far trees, but the bullet's passage through the leaves over Starbuck's head was drowned by the thrashing rain. Starbuck crouched with his useless rifle and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do now.
What he was supposed to do now was cross the cornfield and drive the Yankees out of the farther trees, but the Yankees had at least one regiment and a pair of field guns in that far wood and Starbuck's combat-shrunken regiment had already been bloodied by those two guns. At first, as the Legion had waded into the tangle of rain-drenched cornstalks, Starbuck had thought the guns' noise was merely thunder; then he had seen that his left-hand companies were being shredded and broken and he had noticed the Yankee gunners handspiking their weapons about to take the rest of the Legion in the flank. He had ordered his men to fire on the guns, but only a handful of rifles had powder dry enough to fire, and so he had yelled at the survivors to go back before the artillery fired again and then he had listened to the northerners jeering at his defeated men. Now, twenty minutes later, he was still trying to find a way across or around the cornfield, but the ground to the left was an open space commanded by the enemy guns while the woods to the right were filled with still more Yankees.
The Legion plainly did not care if the Yankees stayed or went, for rain was their enemy now, not the North. Starbuck, as he walked toward the left-hand end of his line, noticed how the men took care not to catch his eye. They were praying he would not order another attack, for none of them wanted to stir out of the trees and go back into the waterlogged corn. All they wanted was for the rain to stop and for a chance to make fires and a time to sleep. Above all to sleep. In the last month they had marched the length and breadth of Virginia's northern counties; they had fought; they had beaten the enemy; they had marched and fought again; and now they were weary with marching and fighting. Their uniforms were rags, their boots were in tatters, their rations were mouldy, and they were bone tired, and so far as Starbuck's men were concerned the Yankees could keep the rain-soaked wood beyond the cornfield. They just wanted to rest. Some of them were sleeping now, despite the rain. They lay like the dead at the wood's edge, their mouths open to the rain, and their beards and moustaches lank and dripping. Other men, truly dead, lay as though asleep in the bloodied corn . . .
The Bloody Ground
Starbuck Chronicles Volume Four, The. Copyright © by Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.