|Courage at Cold Harbor: A True Story of Civil War
Author: Lee's ghost re-born PM
A true story of combat in the American Civil War. My rewriting of The Red Badge of Courage. Please review and enjoy!Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Adventure - Words: 3,157 - Reviews: 3 - Published: 07-15-11 - id: 2933122
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Courage at Cold Harbor: A True Story of Civil War Combat
This story is lovingly dedicated in memory of Capt. James W. Wyatt and Lt. Charles Rivers who were killed June 3d 1864 along with most of the men Albemarle Artillery. And to the men of Wyatt's Battery (reenactment unit) who have helped me immerse myself in the world of the Confederate Artilleryman for more than half a decade.
Daylight had not yet broken over the battlefield at Cold Harbor but its coming was foretold by the rims of orange peeking through the drifting gray clouds. The men of William Poague's Artillery Battalion rolled flat on their backs and wriggled free of the warmth of their gum blankets. Each man stared blankly at the white canvas celling above them created by the cover of cannon that when not needed was draped over vacant trees to give the slumbering men protection from wind and rain.
The men straightened themselves and rubbed their bleary eyes then slipped into gray Richmond Deport Type II shell-jackets or vests. The night had not been a restful one; the men of the battalion had been kept awake by a scattering of rifle volleys far off on the right, as small groups of Yankees probed the rebel lines, like young boys prodding a beehive with a stick. But despite their state of wakefulness the men had work to do. Today the work seemed extra hasty however because they had been placed in reserve by General Heth and had to be prepared to fill a gap in the line at any moment.
An artillery battalion was an army unto itself; it had its own cook, blacksmith and surgeon, capable of caring for itself. Each battery within the battalion was made up of four cannon, two of which were bronze smoothbores and two that were glossy black rifled guns. These would have to be rolled by the men until they connected to their limbers, a small box on wheels that served as both wagon to transport the cannon and ammunition chest. Once that was finished the limber would have to be stocked with fresh shells. Then the battery horses would have to be fed and then finally the men themselves. Each day on the line this routine was repeated, the long thankless hours of boredom before the terror of combat.
One artillerist with black hair and green eyes belonging to the Albemarle Artillery, fished into a haversack and began to gnaw on a piece of hardtack, a small hard cracker made from dough. He grumbled to himself, irritated that Captain Wyatt had forbidden the lighting of campfires this morning. That meant there would be no beef or coffee, and the tasteless cracker would have to serve as his breakfast.
The soldier decided that maybe sleep would help him forget his hunger; however the moment he lay back, he sprang up again. There was crackle of musketry somewhere far off to the right, carried He sat back up and gazed off in the direction of the gunfire as calmly as he was sitting on his front porch watching a thunderstorm roll in.
The clattering of hooves made the man glance toward the road in front of him. A young trotted by, dressed in a butternut uniform coat, and with two little yellow slashes visible on his collar indicating he was a lieutenant.
The man twisted in the saddle and called, "I have a message for Colonel Poague,"
"You found him."
A man stepped away from where he had stroking his mare's nose. He gazed at the mounted officer with stark eyes that were flicked with look of annoyance, but it was not hard to see those same eyes could light a room with glow of their good humor when at peace. Although his beard was neatly trimmed, it dangled down past his chin giving it the appearance of a turkey's wattle.
"Sir," said the Lieutenant a little more formally. "General Heth requests you join him to select a place to lay your guns. If you'll follow me…"
Poague nodded then turned and snapped at an orderly to bring him his horse. He mounted and followed the Lieutenant. The pair rode in silence until a small stone farm-house came into view. A man on with brown hair and a bushy walrus-like mustache, stood under a shade tree. He nodded as his aid and Poague rode up.
"Good morning, William," said General Heth, although there was no touch of affection for the man in his voice.
"Morning, General," answered Poague flatly.
"I need one of your batteries, William," he said again taking the liberty. "Maybe two. Cooke's Brigade has no flank, ya see? Naked, up in the air. I need you to give him cover."
Poague inwardly grimaced. Heth was gambling with artillery expecting the power of guns to blunt the sharp edge of the advancing infantry, but what he did not understand is that large masses of infantry confronted with artillery only a short distance away, rushed forward until they smashed the poison like a hammer hitting a china dish.
"Where shall I place my men, sir?" asked Poague.
"I'll show you," said General Heth, He motioned for the blond Lieutenant to bring him his mount.
The pair rode off to the far left of the line. Heth paused at a spot of marshy ground that was lumpy with small ruts and rises. About fifty yards to the left stood an old picket-fence where the last regiment of Cooke's line was poisoned. The men sat crouched, rifle barrels resting on the fence rails.
"I want you over there," said Heth, indicating the marshy ground.
Poague stared at Heth aghast, "But sir, if the enemy arrives we will be exposed!"
His shouting was drowned out by just what he feared: the enemy. Yankee skirmishers began to poke out of the bushes. Presented with the sight of two enemy officers chatting on horseback, it seemed like a gift. They fired. At the clattering sound of muskets Poague ducked against the horn of his saddle to avoid the shower of bullets that screeched over his head.
"We need to get out of here," shouted Poague. The pair galloped behind Cooke's men and the safety of the fence.
"Sir, it's too dangerous to deploy my men," pressed Poague. "Let me find a better position!"
"You haven't the time," said Heth, looking over at Cooke's men.
"But sir, they will be exposed to the enemy's fire; they will be killed," Poague was trying very hard to repress the urge to shout.
Heth gave him a cold stare, "You have your orders, Colonel."
With that Heth turned and trotted off the way he had come.
Poague made his way back to his encampment and stared at his battalion, still restless in wait. He gazed out over the men and the gleaming gun barrels and felt his heart climb into his throat. Artillerymen would die this day because an infantry commander wanted to cushion the blow for his own troops. He could disobey! No, then it would be he who would be shot. He felt as the next command he would give would be a death sentence.
"Captain Wyatt, Captain Richards, get your batteries in marching order and follow me."
The black-haired artilleryman smiled, happy to be doing something at last. He climbed up onto the driver's bench and gripped the reins as the team of horses pawed at the muddy ground. He waited for Captain Wyatt to give the order to move, his fingers curled around the reins.
"Battery, forward," shouted Captain Wyatt. "March!"
The black-haired artillerymen bucked on the reins and followed the shrinking figure of Poague as he made his back toward the marsh. The other members of the gun crew marched behind the creaking guns, listening to the sounds of battle as they drew ever closer to the secluded spot Poague had just been. The sun slowly began to burn through the overhanging clouds and spill over the landscape.
Poague halted in a little skirt of forest adjacent to the clearing, dismounted and gazed at the land. There seemed to be no sign of the skirmishers slithering about, which worried him. He tried to shake the thought of the calamity to come out of his mind and instead focus on trying to do all he could to prevent it.
He turned and addressed his waiting gunners, "General Heth wants you defend that bit of ground there," he said jutting a finger toward the marsh. I want you use canister, I fear the enemy will be upon you as soon as you deploy."
The officers nodded and the enlisted men exchanged quick, worried glances. The lashing of whips urging the teamsters forward was the only sound as the cannons rattled onto the soggy and uneven ground. Men scurried forward to lead the horses off to the side as other men, huffing, managed to wheel the guns around to face the tangle of bushes.
"You heard the Colonel-load, double-canister."
The black-haired artilleryman stood next to the limber, which was several feet back from the cannon, to prevent it being hit by heavy fire. He and wrenched open the lid and pulled out one of the cylinder-shaped rounds which was filled with musket balls.
A man stepped in front of him with leather satchel slung around one shoulder. The black haired man dropped a round into the bag and then the man scurried up to the man standing beside the barrel. The round and powder charge was prodded down the bore by a stick with an end shaped like a cork-screw. Then the powder-bag was priced with a vent pick and the lanyard was attached. By now a line of blue of cloth came into view. It was not a handful of skirmishers but the whole of Robert Brown Potter's division, a solid wall of blue.
"Here they come boys," shouted Captain Wyatt, his chest rising as rage crept into his voice. "Not yet!"
The Corporals in charge of each gun, held their left hands aloft, waiting to slash them down when the order to fire came. The black-haired man rested his hands on the limber, waiting for the man with the satchel known as the Powder Monkey to return and accept the next round.
"Fire," bellowed Captain Wyatt.
The order transferred down the line, repeated by Lieutenant Rivers who commanded the two gun section the black-haired man was a part of. The man watched the Corporal in front of his gun swish his arm downward; there was a deafening crack as one of the artilleryman pulled the firing lanyard. The black gun spurted flame and the blue-coated enemy vanished in gust of pure white smoke. There was a clicking noise and screams as the balls contained in the canister round skidded along until they hit bone.
"That's it, boys," shouted Lieutenant Rivers. "Poor it into em!"
His words were drowned out by Captain Richards's guns, spewing their metal into the oncoming Yankees. When the curtain of smoke drifted away, he saw men in blue with their stomachs slashed open. But for all the carnage, it didn't matter. In moments the dead were replaced by a fresh danger as the men behind them stepped over their comrades.
The blue-coated men halted once they were on the other side of the tangle of bushes. Rifles were lowered to shoulders and a solid line of musket barrels glinted in the sun. Lieutenant Rivers wanted to scream warning for his men to duck but his jaw trembled with fear, he seemed paralyzed on the verge of words. A moment later stabs of flame, like glittering lightening blots, filled the air.
The black-haired artilleryman watched as Captain Wyatt who was pacing behind his four guns was struck. A piece of skull was shattered by the impact of the bullet, his body crumpling to the ground. The runny remains of his brains seeped out onto the swaying grass.
"POWDER MONKEY," screamed Rivers, surprised to hear his voice cracking.
The Powder Monkey, who had just made it back to the limber, turned and looked back toward the gun. Half the crew lay limp in grass their shirts drenched in blood. Ahead of the gun, the Union soldiers disappeared in a shroud of smoke. The man could hear metal ramrods scraping as they seated their next bullet snugly in their gun barrels. He shivered and drove under the limber hoping the wagon would give him shelter from the storm of bullets about to come.
The black-haired artilleryman noticed cowering man and jerked him up the collar of his shirt, "Coward," he spat and shoved him out towards the gun.
As soon as the Powder Monkey stumbled out from his hiding place the Yankees fired. He was tossed back, blood slohing down his chest. His eyes were frozen in shock, as he came to grasps with mortality. Rivers seeing the Power Monkey struck down attempted to free the man of his earthly burden. He reached down and tried to wrench the satchel free from the dead man, but the straps were pinned beneath the man's lifeless body. He nudged the man with his foot and more of his blood drained on the grass. Snatching the bag in one hand, he began to run toward the gun. But then another volley rippled and he was thrown back, the bag flying free of his grasp and sailing into the air. Blood poured from Rivers's throat.
Seeing both his officers fall ,the black haired artilleryman turned and ran toward the fence, all the while fearing he'd hear the sound of a bullet thumping into his back. He dove behind the fence, wriggling behind a group of infantrymen. They were all running now. Even Captain Richard's guns to their right were being abandoned.
The survivors of both batteries sat intermingled behind the fence glancing out at the abandoned guns and the bodies of their comrades. One man stood up, eyes fixed on the wreckage of Richard's guns. The arm on a corpse which lay sprawled next to gun twitched, trying to push himself to his feet. The artilleryman grinned.
"He's moving! Lieutenant Kennedy is alive!"
The man jumped over the fence without a moment's thought and ran toward his commander. Shit, thought the black-haired artilleryman and leapt the fence running after the man. He didn't know why he did it, only knowing he couldn't stand the crazed man face the hail of bullets alone. Huffing, he followed, crossing the lumpy ground willing himself not to glance at the shattered bodies belonging to his own battery. He could do nothing for the dead now.
They reached the battery and the Yankees stopped marching for a moment to gawk at the men. The man from Richard's battery knelt down by the wheel and lowered his mouth near to Lieutenant Kennedy.
"Sir?" he questioned, his breath hitching in anticipation.
Lieutenant Kennedy's voice was groggy from loss of blood, "Private Jackson? Wh-what are you doing here?"
"We've come to get you out of here! Can you move?"
"I don't...I don't… think I can. Just my arm."
"You grab his feet and we'll lift him,' instructed the man from Richard's battery.
The black-haired artilleryman bent down and a bullet clanged off the cannon barrel inches from where his head just been. He flinched and cursed. The two men linked arms to create a stretcher and slowly backed away from the scene. A bullet flicked past his ear, and he clenched his eyes shut as he heard its whistling song of death.
The pair scrambled up the slope and passed Lieutenant Kennedy over the rails into the hands of waiting infantrymen. The black-haired artillerymen leapt over the fence, and he winced because the bullets seemed to follow him, whizzing over his head. He panted, resting his back against the fence. A feeble voice caused him to look down.
"I'm indebted to you boys," said Lieutenant Kennedy who was lying beside him. "But I wonder…would you grant me a request?"
"What sir?" asked the man from Richards's battery.
"A place to get out of the storm," he said indicating the bullets that began to kick up dirt near the fence. "Make it deep."
At once the man from Richard;s battery began to scrape at the ground with his fingers. Interest spurring him onward, the black-haired artilleryman barrowed spade from an infantry private and joined his companion. Gritting his teeth he drove spade deep in the earth until the two had carved out a narrow trench just large enough to place a body in. Together the men lifted him into it.
He smiled weakly up at them, "If this is to be my grave, I feel comfortable with you all here."
With a smile on lips Lieutenant Kennedy closed his eyes for the last time.
Although I did not intend it to be so, this story is my version of "The Red Badge of Courage." Unlike like the novel however my story is based on an actual event, which occurred July 3d 1864, during the battle of Cold Harbor. General Harry Heth ordered two batteries under the command of Col. William T. Poague to a marshy area of the battlefield that no longer exists due to housing projects. There, the Albemarle Artillery and Richards's Battery were wheeled in front of an entire Union Division. Poague who witnessed what happened next wrote, "…just as the guns were unlimbered the enemy's infantry opened up on us, not a scattering fire of skirmishers but with a perfect hail of bullets from their line of battle just as I feared. In less time then I can write it, both batteries were disabled."
I have tried to remain faithful to the events as they happened, with one exception. Lieutenant Kennedy is my own creation. However, his experience is not. It based on that of Lieutenant Kearny of Richard's Battery. He was wounded in opening volley by union troops (shot in the leg) and later recused under fire by two men. As bizarre as it may sound, Lieutenant Kearny actually requested his own grave dug and requested to be laid in it. However he did not die, Poague mentions seeing him walking with the aid of a wooden leg after the war. The final bit of dialogue (although tactfully edited for my own sanity) are in fact his own words.
If you'd like learn more about this event I suggest you read:
"Gunner with Stonewall" (the personal memoirs of W. T. Poague)