Chapter 3: The Battle of Antietam
September 13, 1862
Frederick County, Maryland
I don't know when this letter will reach you. The last letter I received said you were heading for the front so I figured I'd address my most recent letter to your headquarters.
Having not seen each other for over a year, I must admit my longing for a sight of you. When you left last April you seemed distressed. Your letters since then have not been much more comforting. However, your last letter seems like it was more uplifting given your decision to return to the Army, it does no more to quell my worrisome nerves about you. After all, the war began as a tale of heroics and grand causes. It was like a page out of the Iliad. But the newspapers tell us a different story. Neither the north nor south seem like they are going to give up soon. The faster you are off the battlefield, the better I shall be.
Since you mentioned dreams in your last letter, I have to confess I've had a few of my own. Not as profound as you say your visions of the future claims to be, but simple ones. One of them begins with you in combat as I'm standing beside you. It ends with me carrying you to safety as the field around us burns. While we didn't burn to death, I still feel as if the dream forebodes some terrible danger. Please, do be careful.
September 10, 1862
Levi folded the paper and put it in his jacket pocket. He smiled once it was away because he no longer had to think of Karen in a worried state; jut her waiting patiently for his return. Maybe it wasn't very modern to think of her sitting and waiting around for him like some patient mistress.
"Thanks, Jon." He said, stretching out his hand.
"Yeah," the sharpshooter said, "I figured when mail came for you, you'd be joining soon enough. Turns out I was right. Frankly, we could use you. Could've used you."
"I know. I'm sorry, man," Levi said. He truly was. If only he'd walked into that Parish a year earlier. He might have been able to help. He knew that the 5th was only responsible for scouting, sharpshooting, and support, but while they were technically out of fire more than the Regular Infantry, their missions often led them deep into enemy territory. Levi knew before he arrived in Maryland that having missed the vital Peninsula Campaign would also mean he missed the passing of thousands of Union soldiers and many of the men from his own Regiment.
"Don't worry about it, ok? However," Jon said, "the Colonel definitely wants to see you. Ever since you sent the letter ahead saying you wanted to return to active duty, he's been interested in what you had to say. I have your stuff ready at my tent. Right over there," Jon pointed to the southeast end of the camp where a white tent sat patiently with the left flap wide open for its owner.
Levi clasped Jon's hand to his and then smiled shyly, his journals never really described how good of a friend Jon was, "Thanks," Levi said. The Lieutenant turned away and headed off toward the command tent where he expected Colonel Farrel to be.
Only one guard stood at the entrance of the tent. This one sat on a small crate, which shook when Levi approached. The Springfield musket conformed to the crevice between his arm and body and his eyes shot forward without deviating to either side as activity buzzed about the busy army camp.
Levi nodded his approval before pushing the tent flap aside and looking for his commanding officer. Instead of seeing the bearded Colonel Farrel sitting peacefully at his desk, he found a tall, clean-shaven, more ragged-looking man holding a carbine to his eye as if he was checking the weapon's line of sight. As Lieutenant Clarke entered the room, he set the weapon down on the desk and said, "Ah! Lieutenant, I was waiting for you all morning. To tell the God's-honest truth, I've been somewhat excited for your arrival. Your friends in A Company have been too. So far only two losses. One at Williamsburg, the other to typhus."
"I'm sorry… I don't believe we've met, Colonel," Levi said. The confusion was painted ever so clearly on his face.
"Apologies, Lieutenant Clarke. Name's Colonel Renald Malcolms. I was promoted to the position when a stray bullet deprived the 5th of Colonel Farrel." Malcolms paused as a moment of silence was designated to respect his predecessor, "A shame."
"I understand," Levi said, prematurely.
"A shame it didn't happen sooner," Malcolms slammed his fist on the desk and stood quickly, taking the carbine in his hand, "Farrel treated this regiment like we were any other infantry unit." Malcolms spat the name "Farrel" like it was a curse used to insult, as if it's very use would summon a demon to drive the 5th Sharpshooters into a massacre, "F and K Companies are now completely gone thanks to Farrel. Good men who could've been supplying the Potomac with cover fire, vital recon, what have you. Instead they're just skeletons in trenches now. A goddamned shame!" Malcolms' blasphemy was shrugged off. Levi didn't care and the Colonel was a dirty mouth soldier. Levi felt awkward knowing he should care.
"So where do we go from here?" Levi asked, his hands were still clasped behind his back trying to look official.
"Well, Lieutenant Clarke," Malcolms began, holding out the carbine for Levi to take hold of. Levi took it and began examining the weapon. The carbine was smaller and lighter than the Springfield musket he remembered holding back in Rhode Island. It was almost like holding an AK-47… it as the closest Levi was going to come to it for a little less than a hundred years any how, "Have you heard of Hiram Berdan?"
Levi shook his head, "Afraid not, sir."
"Berdan is the bright son of a bitch who formed up the 1st and 2nd Sharpshooters. They're for scouting, sniping, and support. Not direct combat. He gave them better rifles, newer equipment, and of course my favorite part, green uniforms."
Levi couldn't help but smile. He knew soldiers were wearing green since they learned how to fight, but this must have been the first time they were conscious of altering fabric to create camouflage. Levi enjoyed the idea of 20th Century technology helping to defeat the Confederacy. Armored artillery, primitive airplanes, submarines, and tanks could all be used to end this war earlier. With a steady hand like Lincoln in office well into the 1860s, they could even be used as a force for good after the war.
"Yes, sir, having soldiers dressed like blue targets is certainly not the way to hide in the forest and snipe out enemy positions. Green is the way to go, as soon as possible I'm going to find a way to requisition green uniforms from a factory in Washington." Malcolms reached into a drawer and pulled out a pamphlet. He placed it on the desk because Levi was still handling the weapon, "Berdan's the smartest man this army has. We should honestly consider replacing Mac with him. Forgive my blasphemy."
Levi snickered at Malcolm's irreligious joke. He was well aware how many military folk incorrectly placed their trust in McClellan. The general deserved a desk job, not one at command, "Trust me, Colonel Malcolms, you don't have to worry about me as far as loyalties go. If we had anyone other than McClellan, we might still be on the Peninsular working our way toward Richmond."
Malcolms was quiet for two minutes as he drummed his fingers on the desk. He stared at Levi with a perplexing smile that told the younger soldier only that he was thinking intently about something interesting. He tapped his fingers once more on the table, flipped through a couple sheets of paper before finally looking back at Levi and addressing the issue at hand, "Lieutenant Clarke, Colonel Farrel had you excused for reasons of mental health. But I'm looking at you and you don't seem overly unhealthy to me."
Levi's small smile disappeared from his face. His mind went back to the year where he sat alone in his tenement and began remembering the future. He pushed back the moral questions and the words of the Priest to the deep recesses of his mind. Colonel Farrel didn't seem to write down any of the crazy things Levi was saying about Bull's Run. Maybe if he had taken note, Levi would have been called into service much sooner for his invaluable intel. Maybe.
"Well, sir," Levi began, "it started when I had an incredibly elaborate vision of the future. The visions unnerved me when I started seeing them come true."
"In the form of a civil war, right?" Malcolms asked. His brief interruption was the commanding officer's way of saying, he didn't want details, Levi should just do what he feels is right. The adamant look on his face was what convinced the New England soldier to say nothing but a blind affirmation, "Yes, sir."
"But…" Malcolms said, tapping the desk and jutting his lip forward, "it was a little more specific than that. Wasn't it? You saw battles, people, soldiers… and end, right?"
Levi was silent. Like the Priest, he was sure that Colonel Malcolms was going to ask who wins, why and when… instead Levi simply said, "It was exactly that… and more," he closed his eyes and sighed. The young soldier did nothing in those few seconds but try to hold down his intense flashback to his intoxicated year in New Haven.
"I won't ask more," Colonel Malcolms said. Levi wasn't sure if the Colonel visibly noticed his pain or reached a philosophical conclusion about Levi's unique situation. Either way, he was finished pestering Levi about the incident. The tall, commanding officer that made Levi think of a man who would soon be heading west once the war was over, spread apart the papers on his desk to look at the map of this specific corner of Maryland. He ran his finger along a diagonal north-east line trying to think of the positions he knew about, "See this area here?"
Levi leaned over the desk to look at where Malcolms was pointing. It was a tiny spot just southwest of Frederick, Maryland. Walking it might take thirty minutes to reach the point. It was perfectly between where Malcolms had South Mountain and the Monocacy River labeled, "Yes?"
"Take Corporal Leigh and scout out the position. There shouldn't be anything there but consider it your first order," Malcolms sat back down in the chair and resumed his official business.
"Yes, sir." Levi flipped the carbine in his hand once before he held it out for his superior officer, "Colonel?"
Malcolms looked up and was shocked he left the weapon in Levi's hands, "Thank you, Lieutenant. A lesser man would've simply walked out with it." He took the carbine back and leaned it against the desk.
Levi walked out of the tent before the words hit him, "A lesser man…" he repeated.
Corporal Jonathan Leigh interrupted his thought process. He waved for Levi to join A Company by the fire. Levi crossed over to the camp where his friends were sitting. They all succeeded in applauding their immediate commander starting with Matt, the big, redheaded Irishman. Levi waved and gave them a tiny smile, part shame, part embarrassment.
"Well, when Jonathan told us you were in camp, we didn't believe him," it was Stephen talking. He had a small metal cup in his hands. Levi wasn't entirely sure what he was drinking but he already knew it was less quality than he was drinking in New Haven.
"My apologies, gentlemen," Levi half-joked. He stood at the edge of the group and placed his hand on the hilt at his side, "It was wrong of me to not be here."
"Nah, no hard feelings," that was Matt in his light Pennsylvania Dutch accent, "Come here and have some of the shittiest coffee Mac's Finest has to offer."
"Actually, we've been ordered on a scouting mission," Levi said.
"All of us?" Stephen turned awkwardly to ask his question.
"Oh, no," Levi answered. He was supposed to be leading these men but possessed none of the leadership qualities needed like Colonel Malcolms had. It emanated from that man, just like one candle pierced the darkness of a room. Levi simply felt like a candle with a wet wick, "Not all of us; Jon and myself."
"All right, then," Jon said, he stood up from his seat, tapped Levi on the shoulder and told Levi, "I'll get our rifles." Jon disappeared into a tent and came back out with a Springfield in each hand. He handed one to Levi along with the cartridge box. Based on the discoloring of the brown pouch, Levi could tell a vet or an epitaph had used it. He preferred to think the man who used it before was discharged, "Where are we headed?" Jon asked.
Levi brought the map up in his head and answered, "Southwest," while he tried to think of his new mission, Levi's mind was preoccupied with the weapon in his hands. It was amazingly heavier than the carbine he handled in Malcolm's tent. It also took an unbelievable amount of time to reload. Levi knew he'd have to requisition a carbine before the war killed him.
Jonathan gazed at the sun for a few seconds before declaring the direction they were to lead in, "It's this way. How far out?"
"About two miles," Levi followed Jon out of the 5th Sharpshooter's campsite. Once in the Maryland wilderness, Levi realized that his Regiment was placed on the southern flank of the Army.
They walked in silence for a while. Levi knew this must all be old news to Jon, but for him it was a real taste of the 19th Century ecosystem… in a war zone!
The Maryland grass seemed greener, the trees fuller, and the air cleaner. Levi could simply not understand why anyone would want to pollute his lungs in such a way. Even the rifle slung on his back produced enough noxious fumes to create a literal fog of war. Thousands of these weapons firing at the same time must create a smoke screen so blinding that it would be considerable to a factory's smoke stack.
The sheer beauty of the countryside made Levi almost forget he was fighting a war. It was impossible to imagine that brothers would feel the urge to kill each other in a place like this. If only he could transplant a little of this into 21st Century America.
It made him think of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
Two nations that won't exist for another hundred years.
Levi shook his head, calling himself stupid and repositioning his attention to the task at hand.
"Looks a lot like home," Jon said. Levi knew that if they just started marching directly north, they'd come close to Jon's home county, maybe within a few miles of his family's farm in southern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was always an interesting state, he thought, it'd always be one of the most populous and powerful, all thanks to Philadelphia. But passing Philly, one suddenly found nothing but farmland for the length of two and a half Connecticuts until Pittsburgh.
Politically, it was a swing state. Six years ago, the state voted overwhelmingly for James Buchanan. In 1860, they voted for Lincoln… begrudgingly. Most divided states were between Lincoln and Douglas. Over a third of Pennsylvania voted for John C. Breckenridge and the secession Democrats. An interesting state. Very interesting. Levi wondered what the political conversations were like in Jon's hometown. Pennsulvania was a hub of abolitionism, but politics made for strange bedfellows.
"Not as many trees as New England," Levi noted, "but still incredibly beautiful. I could live in a place like this."
"I do live in a place like this," Jon responded. He was busy scanning the western frontier to their left. Levi was looking south: straight ahead.
Before the two soldiers was a visibly large, green, grassy hill. The mound's appearance as a hill was really unfair, it was a tiny mountain in comparison with the fields that the Army of the Potomac currently inhabited. Against the backdrop of a blue September sky, Levi's train of thought stayed within the realm of natural beauty. He realized a second later that it would be the perfect spot to scan for enemy positions, landmarks, and the like.
"Let's go up that hill. We'll be able to see for miles. It'll be perfect," Levi smiled. He began feeling like a leader and a soldier. He smiled to himself as he shrugged his shoulder, straightening the Springfield into a more comfortable position.
"Heh," Jon responded, laughing to himself for a second before he pulled his canteen out for a drink, "Yeah, I guess sight is everything. Especially in this instance."
"Yeah?" Levi asked, curious to Corporal Leigh's opinion on military strategy, "What battle did sight suddenly not matter?" he was trying not to sound conscientious, but it was hard not to when he had 150 years of knowledge and historical study over his comrade in arms.
"Say Yorktown?" Jon said. Levi brought up a map of the Virginia Peninsula in his mind, "General Washington closed in on the English. The French fleet was waiting outside in the harbor. All Washington had needed was a good map to know that he just had to shoot at the redcoats until they surrendered. Or even at Sumter. If they had just the supplies in the Harbor, they wouldn't have needed a map at all."
"So what makes this campaign so special?" the Lieutenant asked.
Corporal Leigh shifted his hat and pointed out to the west, "Out there are the Maryland Appalachians, begin right where we're standing pretty much. Bobby Lee's forces are out in that direction. If he heads south, he falls into the safety of the Shenandoah Valley. The word command likes to use is labyrinth, I do believe. We follow Lee in there, well…" now at the very crest of the hill, Jon was looking out toward the southwest where Virginia's Shenandoah Valley lay, somewhere out there, "I wouldn't want to fight out there."
"Hmph," Levi chortled. He knelt to the ground, orienting himself with a compass to scout the terrain. Finding one's cardinals wasn't a typical 21st Century necessity so it took Levi significantly longer than Jonathan. This was Maryland, the Lieutenant thought to himself, so McClellan's in charge. It's 1862, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia are somewhere in the west. No doubt, they were off by a Creek…
"Lieutenant, come see this," Jon called from the other side of the hill. Levi stood up from his crouching position to go see what his friend had found – a possible Confederate patrol down the hill and somewhere into the woods. Halfway to Jonathan's position, Levi's foot hit something solid.
He knelt down to inspect what his mind first thought was probably just a rock. It was an interesting looking package. It was about five inches long and three or four wide. To Levi, it looked like a rolled up piece of blue-lined notebook paper wrapped around something. Lieutenant Clarke picked up the interesting item and slowly pealed the paper back to uncover three, North Carolina tobacco cigars.
The Corporal turned to see what his commanding officer uncovered, "Cigars?" he asked. Levi handed his friend the set of cigars and pulled one to his nose, "Not the best, but if they're free."
"Yeah… if they're free…" Levi said, flattening out the sheet they were wrapped in and inspected its contents.
At the top of the sheet was written the word "Confidential" in parenthesis. "Headquarters" was shortened to "Hdqrs." Followed by "Army of Northern Va." The date was listed as "September 19th, 1862." Levi didn't have to read the next two lines to already know what it was.
The lines beneath the date read, "Special Order No. 191."
"Oh," Levi uttered, "my God."
He fell back onto the grassy hill, his hand breaking his fall and falling quickly into a sitting position. He had been given Special Order 191. In lowly, Lieutenant Levi Clarke's hand was the single most important document that would win this war for either the Union or the Confederacy. In Levi's hands were Robert E. Lee's orders to invade the United States.
"What is it?" Jon asked. He struck a match on his army boot and started puffing one of the cigars his commanding officer found.
Levi lied as his mind tried working at the speed of light. Up until this point, he was just a New Englander in the Union Army who happened to have an amazing night that left him with an incredible dream of the future.
That dream happened to include three years of college, studying the histories of America, Spain, and to a small degree, Russia. All three had civil wars, the United States was the only country to "win" theirs. But at what cost?
The Russians went to war and ended with a Communist dictatorship. Spain became a Fascist nation closely aligned with Hitler. The United States would remain one nation (politically) and would abolish slavery.
But President Andrew Johnson would be rendered impotent by a Congress only interested in its own political power. They would nominate America's Napoleon as President, and he would go on to win two terms, plunging the nation into corruption, scandal, and near dictatorship that would make the United States no better than a one-party dictatorship it would spend more than two-hundred years of its existence demonizing.
By 1876, the complete disregard for people's will would not only be evident, but divisive, threatening a second Civil War for the United States. Only this time, Tilden's supporters would be in the north and the south. Boston and New York would be in as much danger as Washington and Richmond.
On the other hand, what would be the result if the Confederacy achieved independence? Continued slavery, divided Union, isolated America, God only knows who ends up dominating the European continent without American industry to support a republic-based victor. A totalitarian Germany? A Fascist Franco, Mussolini, or Hitler? Maybe the man of steel in Russia? Maybe Stalin never achieves as much as he did. In fifty or sixty years, perhaps the Czar is still in control. With an industrial, modernized Russia in power, the Czar could be in control by 1950 of the entire European continent.
Stalin or the Czar; either way a totalitarian ruler of a Russian nation seemed to be in control of the European continent while the American nations were busy fighting each other like African colonies after the Europeans left. Petty differences in ideology, historical rivalry, and resource competition, would keep them apart and at war until Armageddon.
So it was a choice between one-party dictatorship and A Brave New World, or a slavocrat America and 1984.
It was a tough decision. Pick your poison. How was Levi supposed to decide that? He was only twenty-two, hadn't even achieved his degree yet. In his hands was the document that the majority of historians agreed: with Special Order 191, McClellan would bleed the Confederacy dry.
The drain in manpower would give the C.S.A. only room for one more offensive: Gettysburg, forcing the south to be on the defensive. After Gettysburg, the Union Army could win the war if they acted fast enough and destroyed the retreating Confederates as the banks of the overflowing Potomac.
Levi's most important weapon in this world was knowledge. He knew what might happen, what could happen, and to a degree, what should happen. Whether he was better off burning the paper in his hands or giving it to his superiors, it came down to what he believed: freeing the slaves, or letting a state choose its own destiny.
Karen spoke to him about this, hadn't she?
So, what part of the Civil War debate do you fall on?
The Civil War debate?
The wind on that hill in Maryland picked up. To continue to sit there with the note in his hand would mean to do nothing, ensuring victory for the Confederacy, a millennium of uncertainty, and rendering his vision worthless.
If Levi did not hand the letter to his superiors, then he was admitting that the south was right: the war had nothing to do with slavery or abolition. Robert E. Lee was… is fighting only for freedom. Divided America would be on Levi's shoulders, as would whatever terrors and atrocities took place in the Twentieth Century.
To follow history's course, by letting the order fall into McClellan's hands, then the north was right. It was a war to stop the expansion of slavery into Arizona, Cuba, and Mexico. The Union must be preserved. The Republicans must prevail. A one-party state must be born. It would arise with a Union victory.
The first Union victory would be at Antietam.
Maybe Levi could stop the dictatorship before it arrived. Maybe Americans didn't have to fear the state.
Special Order 191 fell into Levi's hands, but it did not give him the right to alter the course of history.
Not just yet.
Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock sat by the campfire with his associates of the First Division: John Caldwell and Major General Israel Richardson. All three were in full uniform for the appearance of their troops. Hancock, known throughout the Army as "the Superb," wore a wide-brimmed hat and standard Union blue-dress. The others around their fire wore the same uniform with different rank insignia. The only truly distinctive feature between them was the level their facial hair had grown to. General Richardson had only a thin handlebar moustache. General Caldwell had a full-round beard. General Hancock's moustache reached to the middle of his cheeks, while his beard never extended into his face, only protruded from his chin downward to the line where his clavicle made its way across his chest.
His pristine uniform was usually the mark of a desk commander: the kind of man who gave orders rather than actual fighting. Winfield Scott Hancock was no such man. His steady hand, opportunism, and bravery led him to a stunning victory just near to William & Mary College. Hancock's men suffered fewer than a hundred losses. The Confederates lost over eight times as many.
In future battles, Hancock was destined to show his prowess and his hand with the sword and gun just as he had throughout his years in Mexico and California. He would gain political attention and popular appeal. Why not? When one thought of a soldier, they unwittingly imagined Winfield Scott Hancock, the soldier with the pristine uniform, the brains for battle, and the unshakable beliefs. He was a man to be admired, and while he is a strong figure in American history, he would only be a footnote in world history.
When Lieutenant Levi Clarke approached Brigadier General Hancock at noon on September 13, 1862, his destiny, ever so slightly, changed forever.
"General Hancock," the address was from Corporal James, a Main soldier who proved his salt at Williamsburg. Hancock turned to see the young brown-haired soldier standing at attention with his sidearm - his only weapon – holstered, "Colonel Renald Malcolms of the 5th Sharpshooters requests your presence."
"Colonel Malcolms?" Hancock asked rhetorically, he tried bringing up any recollection of this man into his memory. Tall, dark brown hair, and a western twang was all Hancock remembered. He also seemed to recall a dedication to his men that was less present in commanding officers than Hancock liked to see, "What does he want?"
"He says it's extremely important," the Corporal replied.
"All right then," Hancock handed the papers he was holding – a map of the Maryland area – to General Richardson. He stood and turned. Instantly he was reminded of Colonel Malcolm's appearance upon moving past the tent next to the fire. Behind the Colonel stood two younger soldiers. Hancock noticed the first soldier had the unkempt, dirty look of a farm-boy turned warrior. The second was clean, tight, and had the pristine, calculating appearance of a city boy.
The city boy carried a saber at his side. Hancock did as well, but there were seven ranks separating the two men. Second Lieutenants usually didn't carry swords; at that moment, Hancock knew there was something unique about this city dweller.
"Colonel Malcolms, you've requested me?"
"I apologize for the intrusion, sir. May I introduce you to Lieutenant Levi Clarke and Corporal Jonathan Leigh," Malcolms stepped aside and introduced the General to his two soldiers. Jon and Levi snapped a salute when General Hancock turned to them, "My understanding is that Lieutenant Clarke and his associate were scouting the southwest flank when they happened upon a document with… sensitive contents."
"Sensetive contents?" Hancock asked.
Malcolms stepped aside to allow Levi to explain.
"Yes, sir," he said, stepping forward, "at about ten this morning, Corporal Leigh and I were scouting the position Colonel Malcolms mentioned when I found this sheet wrapped around three cigars." Levi reached into his pocket and pulled out Special Order 191. He handed it to the Brigadier General who promptly unfolded the sheet and read its contents.
General Robert E. Lee, in one official document, detailed his entire plan of attack against the Union forces beginning with splitting his army and capturing the military garrisons of Harper's Ferry and Hagerstown. Once they rendezvoused at Hagerstown, Hancock presumed they would either invade Baltimore, hoping to find the arms of enthralled Maylanders, or invade his home state of Pennsylvania.
Lee's plan counted on secrecy: that the Union forces could neither find him, nor decide what to do quickly enough. But Union forces now had his plans… "Lieutenant Clarke, may I have a word with you?"
Levi was taken aback by the notion, even though he suspected it. Why would General Hancock call him out? Because the lowly Lieutenant brought it to him personally of course, "Of course, sir."
The two of them walked out to a secluded section of the encampment. Busy Union men were about to their duty securing supplies, readying men, and caring for morale. But for all intents and purposes, they could not be heard, "Lieutenant Clarke, where do you hail from?"
"New Haven, Connecticut, sir."
"How old are you?"
"You're a member of the 5th Sharpshooters?"
"Present at Williamsburg?"
"Well, I'm sorry to inform you that the 5th is not under my Division any more. Not even in my Corps."
"I understand. The 5th is in the IX Corps," Levi almost forgot the formal address, "sir." The 5th was transferred to Cox's Kanawha Division after the Peninsula Campaign.
"You don't want me, you need to contact Brigadier General Cox or Major General Burnside. However this information should go directly to Major General McClellan."
"General Hancock…" Levi started to make his case, 'I… do not respect General McClellan."
Hancock raised an eyebrow. He did not wholeheartedly approve of the young officer's dissidence, but he had his experience with rebellion and insubordination during his years at West Point. He understood, "What year did you graduate the Academy, Lieutenant?"
"General McClellan graduated in 1846. Long before you were thinking about West Point," Hancock emphasized the year.
"But you graduated in 1844, sir." Levi maintained his head. He tried with all his strength as a young soldier to not burst out everything he knew.
The General, however, was visibly shocked. His eyes widened on a bizarre shape, like seeing something indescribable that one simply had to stop and reevaluate the situation, "How did you know that?" The Hancock of 1862 was nothing exceptional. Superb, maybe, but he was a soldier just doing his duty. There were no biographies written of him and certainly no records this brash, young, sharpshooter could have been given access to at his age.
It may sound insane, sir, but I've…" he took a long breath, aware of the reaction he elicited from Colonel Malcolms earlier that day, "had very intricate dreams. I remember you. I remember General McClellan, but I know of your bravery. You're the hero this army needs. Lee's Special Order, it needs to be acted on now… it could end the war. You're the General who acts. Not McClellan. If anyone can take advantage of this situation, it's you. McClellan will dawdle. He's slow and hesitant. There is a time to think, and a time to act," Levi swallowed audibly. He knew it sounded absolutely insane coming from so low on the chain of command… but Hancock could see it in the Lieutenant's face: he wasn't lying, "sir."
That single moment of connection shocked Brigadier General Hancock. He suddenly realized – if he didn't before – that the sheet of paper in his hand was more than just sheer coincidence. It was a calling. Special Order 191 came to General Hancock for a reason. He looked from the paper, to Lieutenant Clarke. After a moments' hesitation, he said, "You're dismissed, Lieutenant."
Levi bowed his head ceremoniously and turned to join his comrades with the 5th, "Yes, sir," he uttered one last time.
"Thank you," Hancock said as he walked away. Levi halted for only a second, and then continued his journey unabated.
He fingered the document before folding it back again and settling it nicely into his pocket. Lieutenant Clarke's heaps of praise was good to hear, but what could Hancock possibly do? Move to Hagerstown and take the Army of Northern Virginia himself? He only controlled a fraction of the II Corps! Never mind the Army of the Potomac. If there was anything to be done, Hancock had to give the order to General McClellan. McClellan was his superior and there was simply no changing that.
The General marched out of his secluded section of the camp – Generals Richardson and Caldwell were nowhere to be found, Colonel Malcolms and his men likewise – and found a steed. The animal took him swiftly to the cabin that George McClellan, Commanding Officer of the Army of the Potomac, used as his headquarters. There were guards, officers, men at a countless number of desks, flag bearers, musicians with patriotic tunes, and politicians surrounded the building with grandiose plans of invading the Confederacy, conquering the Democrats, and building an enlightened republic that will see peace well past the 19th Century. And none of them was doing a damned thing to help win the war.
Hancock dismounted his horse and tied it to the only empty post in the entire headquarters. The thoughts of discontent grew in Hancock's mind; he knew that McClellan didn't want to lead the army. All he wanted was just wanted to be a general. What a shame the post should be wasted on such a coward.
Hancock walked into the headquarters with a firm purpose, clutching Special Order 191 only shy of a death grip. He knew that Lieutenant Clarke was right. The captured orders were the key to this theatre. In the hands of General Scott, Hancock's namesake, or General Taylor, the captured orders would do wonders. The Army of Northern Virginia could be crushed, revolt in Maryland suppressed, and nothing but green fields and gorgeous streams all the way to Richmond.
Levi Clarke was right: George McClellan would stall.
When he entered the cabin, there were conversations between Union Army leaders. There were men in black suits, politicians from Washington keeping an eye on the Grand Army's progress, and reporters surrounding the great General McClellan who was only a day from locating the Army of Northern Virginia.
Ironically, he was right.
An aide approached General Hancock and asked his purpose at the Headquarters. Hancock announced to the young gentleman that he had extremely important materials for General McClellan to see, "What materials, General Hancock?"
Hancock unfolded the document and pointed to the name signed at the end of the paper. The aide's eyes widened out of sheer incredulity. He uttered only a brief, "Oh," and then rushed to General McClellan's side, first shuffling through the forest of reporters and politicians trying to force a story out of America's Napoleon. The aide whispered a few words into the General's ear, causing him to rise with such a force and announce with no more warning, "Alas! Brigadier General Hancock comes to me with excellent, nay brilliant, nay… superb news! An intercepted message from General Lee! General Hancock, come, tell us how you came by this message?" McClellan held out his hands to his fellow Pennsylvanian in recognition of the accomplishment. The reporters and politicians all turned to Hancock, notepads in hand, ready to scribe the words of the lower general.
Hancock looked from one reporter to another. He knew it was just for show, but he wished the ceremony wouldn't waste so much time and they could move on to the matter at hand, "Well two members of the 5th Sharpshooters, one Lieutenant Levi Clarke and his comrade, found the message and brought it directly to me. I came directly here to report the findings. It's highly important we act upon this message with haste and not to stall."
General McClellan was not of a particular astounding height. His uniform was pristine and filled with medals and recognitions: the mark of a desk general. His moustache and well-groomed hair made Hancock only imagine a woman afraid of going outside for fear of tousling her hair or dirtying her face. Hancock stepped forward and handed Special Order 191 to General McClellan. Mac promptly opened it and took several minutes to read over Lee's planned invasion of the North. After reading it, he dropped the message onto his desk and exclaimed, "Now I know what to do!" he asked the reporters and politicians to be excused. He looked at Hancock and, closing his hands together, announced, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."
Hancock smirked, "Sir, I know it's futile to ask this, but these orders need acting upon in a timely manner. Lee's Army will not be separated for long, and may receive the arms if Jackson captures the garrison at Harper's Ferry."
"I understand, General, however I must ask," Hancock already knew what the poor imitation of Napoleon was going to say. His "respect" for authority, his politicking, and his inflated image of himself was too predictable for Hancock to be mystified, "Why did you and not General Richardson bring this message to my headquarters?"
"Well, sir, I could not find General Richardson at the time they were brought to me. And of course, the only person who can respond to his message with such force is the head of the army."
"Understandable," was the one word McClellan uttered. After all, it wasn't a word that could do anything to advance the General's image or career. Thus they served little meaning to McClellan and were uttered with the littlest emphasis.
Hancock nodded, "Then may I have your assurance that this letter will be responded to with necessary speed, sir?"
"Of course, General Hancock," empty words. This war meant nothing but a road to the White House for Old Mac, "Now do me a favor, General Hancock, and assemble my corps commanders. We have a battle to plan." McClellan sat in his char and brushed papers aside to make the map of Maryland visible.
Hancock knew the work was beneath him, but it served its purpose: action. He turned to leave, fetch his steed, and assemble the minds of the Army of the Potomac. Before he had two feet outside the door of the cabin, Hancock turned back to General McClellan and asked, almost as an afterthought, "General, with your permission, I'd like to transfer the 5th Sharpshooters from the Kanawha Division to mine. With your permission, of course."
McClellan, done with his concern for the young Brigadier, waved his hand and dismissed Hancock. He assured him that the 5th would be transferred eventually.
Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock left McClellan's headquarters feeling vaguely unsatisfied. The gray clouds of mid September did not help the feeling of foreboding. As the afternoon sun poked its rays onto that Maryland wilderness, it only further confused Hancock.
His life was built around a military career. His adventures took him to all parts of the country, and to Mexico. His destiny was once on a singular, unrefined course this morning when he woke up. As the sun shone and the clouds threatened, Hancock was keenly aware that his destiny had been realigned. All thanks to that city boy from the 5th.
The rest of the day was spent doing menial things: moving supplies, apportioning ammunition, and cooking dinner for A Company. By nine at night, Levi was sitting on his bed (what passed for an army bed in 1862) holding the letter to Salisbury in his hand as if it would fly out of his hand without warning.
The flap of the tent opened, letting orange light from the campfire into the tiny room. Lieutenant Clarke thought it was probably one of the guys in A Company to invite Levi to their card game. He turned, finding that the man gazing into his tent was not from A Company; or even the 5th Sharpshooters at all.
"Second Lieutenant Clarke?"
"Yes," Levi slipped his letter into his pocket, making a mental note to put a stamp and mail it in the morning. He turned his body to the newcomer and asked, "Who am I speaking to?"
"My name is Corporal Michael James. I'm an aide to Brigadier General Hancock. He requests your presence, sir."
Levi pulled his jacket on, leaving his cap and saber on the ground. He stood outside the tent, glimpsed at his men playing a game of cards and laughing about stories past. Corporal James started off away from the camps and into the Maryland wilderness. After fifteen minutes of walking, the lights behind them completely vanished through the trees. Only one, quiet and filled with smoldering embers, was visible. In the vague orange light, Levi could only see the mustachioed face of General Hancock and his worn, soldierly hands clasped together.
Corporal James turned and walked back through the trees. Levi stood there in Hancock's presence waiting for him to say something.
"Do you see that pile of wood?" Hancock pointed ever so slightly to the mound of kindling three feet from Levi's left boot, "Revive the fire for us."
Levi did as he was told. He knelt on one knee and gathered sticks of differing sizes, which he then assembled in a mixed fashion over the embers. He took a long twig – in absence of his bayonet and saber – and kicked up the embers, causing sparks to fly into the air and the kindling to catch on fire. The flames grew to a fine enough blaze when General Hancock told Levi the fire was adequate. The young Lieutenant backed off from the blaze and waited for his next command.
He did. As he placed himself onto the log acting as a bench, the burning wood scent drifted into Levi's nostrils like a delicious smell from the oven. The way a specific scent can make one ravenous, or depressed, or lustful was the same way Levi felt as he inhaled the smells coming from Hancock's campfire. The young New Englander felt his thoughts drifting far away. He remembered the vision that was plaguing him for sol long in graphic, vivid detail. By only breathing, Levi could have written the story of the next one hundred and fifty years comparable to only Toynbee.
"Second Lieutenant," Hancock began, his hands barring his lips, "Levi Clark." The fire crackled, sending a wave of sparks into the night sky. Hancock pulled a small bag out of his pocket and carefully rolled a cigarette. The sheet of paper he used was different from the ones Levi had seen… or remembered seeing in the 20th Century, but the method Hancock used to roll the leaf into something smokable was more than familiar to Levi.
The General reached to the edge of the blaze and pulled out a twig burning generously at the tip. He used the stick to light the cigarette and puffed it twice before holding it out to Levi and ordering him to, "Smoke."
Levi puffed it three or four times before attempting to inhale the fumes. As he did, emotions boiled down to a simmer so there was only himself and the images parading before him mind.
"So," Hancock began.
John Wilkes Booth. Andrew Jackson. Ulysses Grant. Rutherford Hayes. Samuel Tilden.
"You've had dreams?"
Antietam. Gettysburg. Little Big Horn. San Juan Hill. Marne. Somme. Warsaw. Auschwitz. Normandy.
Through the static of pictures, and videos, and voices, Levi managed a weak, "Yes."
The fire crackled its approval, "Do you believe these dreams are real?"
Teddy Roosevelt. Adolf Hitler. Che Guevara. John Lennon. Al Capone. Hirohito. Paris Hilton. Joseph Stalin. Yoko Ono. Ernest Hemingway.
Again, the thoughts were being shoved through Levi's brain to only let him manage a distinct, "Yes."
"Then tell me…"
Backwards now, Levi told himself, Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy…
"… something I already know."
Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt, Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt, McKinley, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland, Arther, Garfield. Garfield would run against Hancock. Hancock would lose. Hancock was a Union Army General born in Pennsylvania. In 1824. He was named after Winfield Scott. He was a hero. He was a Democrat.
He was sitting right in front of him.
The younger soldier drew himself into the conscious world. The older soldier already knew the effect the drug was having on him. Levi turned his head to the general and cut through the mental horse to ask, "General Hancock?"
"Levi, tell me something I already know."
Levi's hazy, dream-ridden, anti-historical thoughts vanished as he racked his brain for a concrete answer. What would no one else know, but Hancock? Finally, Levi was staring stoically at the fire as he slowly spoke, "You and Harry Heth were invited to dine with General Scott, your namesake. I don't remember the year. But the General presented you both with what he called 'the finest potatoes in the country.' They came from New Jersey," he said, remembered in the words from a biography written about the man sitting before him. As he remembered the story, the book seemed to take shape in his hands: a hard blue cover, bright white pages, small serif font, clear even words, publication date: 1935.
"Keep going," Hancock urged.
"You mashed your potatoes with the fork. Heth did not. When General Scott berated you for it, saying you could not taste the potato when it was mashed, you responded sheepishly. You liked your potatoes mashed. General Heth responded in agreement with General Scott which later became embarrassing for you… whenever he brought it up."
Hancock allowed the story to seep into his mind. Every word of it was true. He couldn't dispute it, and the only explanation aside from Levi's dreams, as he called them, would be a detached conversation with Harry Heth. Given their difference in age, rank, and sides of the battlefield, Hancock doubted it.
He poked the fire again to stir the embers at the bottom. It cracked and sparked with delight, consuming more lumber like any other raging blaze. Hancock placed the stick back on the ground and let out a string of profanities beneath his breath.
He finally put a hand on his chin and gently stroked his long beard. The General turned to Levi, hand on his beard, and asked with the same flat-tone as his first question, "What happens for the rest of this year?"
Levi's mind began to expand into a thousand directions again.
The bloodiest day in American history.
McClellan gets fired.
Burnsides replaces him.
Fredericksburg is postponed.
"We're about to go to battle with Lee's forces in less than a week," Levi said, he ran a hand over his face and pulled it quickly back to his side, "It'll be near a town called Sharpsburg, close to Antietam Creek. It will be the bloodiest battle of the war, and there won't be any true victor. But Lee will retreat back to Virginia. Neither Union nor Confederate are aware of it, but as long as the Southerners keep invading the North, they'll bleed their armies dry to the point where the Union just has to pound them into dust. They simply won't have the manpower," a decent assessment of Antietam. Not really the tide-turner, but a key turning point of the War.
Levi wondered how smart it was to be telling General Hancock of future events. The concern quickly passed as pictures of World War II, Watergate, President Reagan, and the Cuban Revolution came to mind. Nikolai Ceausescu and Marilyn Monroe were both so real, he could reach out and touch them.
Hancock watched the Lieutenant's eyes as they darted from side to side as if he was watching ghosts dances like Indians. He clapped his hands together and looked to see if Levi could still think. The General was in between thoughts. What the youngster was saying made sense, but how could he know for certain that the battle would result in the way he claims? In the same way he knew about Hancock's potato encounter with General Scott.
"Lieutenant Clarke," he called.
Levi slowly turned his head to the Pennsylvanian, "Yes, sir?"
"How far into the future do you claim to have witnessed?"
Experienced, Levi thought. The better word to use would be, "How far into the future do you claim to have experienced?"
Instead of correcting the General, Levi answered plainly with the year: "2011."
Hancock repeated the year. He swore aloud and repeated the number again, "How do you expect me to believe that?"
Levi answered plainly for a second time, "I don't."
The General nodded. He bobbed his head up and down for a full minute before he addressed Levi again and asked him one final question: "Tell me something I need to be concerned about."
Levi began to think. He thought so hard that his head began to throb violently, seeping down into his shoulders and arms as answer after answer came to him:
Watch out for Communism!
Beware of Fascism!
Keep an eye on Germany!
Make Poland a priority!
Don't ever give in to Prohibition!
Give the Jews a state! Wyoming perhaps?
Leave Hawai'i alone!
Help Spain in 1936!
Don't trust the Republicans in 1876!
When it comes to your rights, don't ever compromise. Don't let the Republicans get away with 1876!
John Wilkes Booth will kill the President. Find Booth. Don't let him kill Lincoln.
"The future," Levi repeated. If it was the future to Hancock, it was still the past to Levi. He'd only spent a year in this world; a year that he remembered at least. He still saw the events of the 20th and 21st Centuries as if they were real and had already happened, "I can tell you a lot about the future. It doesn't mean you have to believe me. In fact, if I tell you what I saw, you might not believe me. It's a scary place. But we live in it declaring it the way of progress and inevitability. The world between 1800 and 1900 are only a little bit different compared to the world from 1900 to 2000. Hundreds of nations will rise and fall. Machines will go to war and chaos will rule under the name of government and the guise of order."
Hancock's eyes lowered. His hands extended out in front of him toward the fire. He hoped Levi wasn't finished; the prophecy was too vague.
"It you want to look out for someone in all of this, take John Wilkes Booth," Levi spoke with assurance as he uttered the name and declaration.
Hancock, in the other hand, responded by picking his head up and second guessing Levi's prophecies, "The actor?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes," Levi answered, "When the war is over, he'll kill the President. Obviously, the north won't be happy about that."
Hancock could picture the result of Lincoln's assassination in his mind: a heavy military backlash against the former Confederate States… wait… "But, Lieutenant Clarke, despite all of that, the Union stays together?"
"Yes," Levi responded almost immediately. He wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing, but he was in too deep to back out now, "Yes, the Union will survive."
Hancock was silent, but he smiled. He swore out of glee. The excitement of knowing that somehow, some way, their efforts will not prove futile was instantly replaced with a comforting feeling of success. He made sure to not let himself get too comfortable so he began slacking. No, Hancock decided then and there on that Maryland hill that Levi's prophecy was an attainable goal. They could reach it; if they worked hard.
Brigadier General Hancock stood, said, "Thank you, Lieutenant," and started to walk back toward the II Corps. Before he entered the treeline, he turned to Levi who was still high from the hash that the General had him smoke, and told him (aware that Levi might not remember in the morning) "Be careful, Levi. You and your men are incredibly valuable to this army. I'll be wanting you around." Upon entering the woods, Hancock informed his aide about the Lieutenant that he needed to escort to the IX Corps campsite.
When the Brigadier General reached his own camp, he lit a lantern, drew up a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and addressed a letter to his brother Hilary.
September 17, 1862
Near Sharpsburg, Maryland
The early morning chill still hung in the air. It was one of the consequences of September; not an actual morning chill, but the first signs of fall's lead to winter that would make a newborn child freeze. To Winfield Scott Hancock and the members of his staff, that smell of autumn's changing leaves was mixed with gunpowder and smoke.
If this were the navy, the II Corps was a ship, McClelland was Farragut, and Hancock was the First Mate, the expression would have been "there's blood in the water."
The blood was none other than Major General Dick Richardson's. Hancock's superior was fatally wounded in intense fighting against the alert and defending forces of General D.H. Hill.
On one side of the battlefield were the Confederate soldiers led by Hill, who was the South Carolinian who lost Lee's Special Order 191. On the other side of the battlefield was the First Division of the II Corps, formerly commanded by Israel B. Richardson. As Richardson commanded his troops at the front, General Hancock positioned the Union batteries and brigades in strategic positions to prepare for the coming battle.
Between the two Divisions was a sunken road used primarily by farmers to bring their goods to the market in Sharpsburg. Behind the Confederate positions was the tiny Maryland town. Behind the Union position was a small body of flowing water called Antietam Creek.
Confederate artillery began pounding the Union position; where Hancock's Division was situated. While the Northern blue shirts were still getting their positions in order and their guns in place along the hill, the brief southern shelling of the Union lines went unanswered. General Hancock had a difficult time placing his forces without his men confusing orders or trying to take cover and place Union cannons.
Major General Richardson then took it upon himself to charge the gray coat's positions at the other side of the road. Hill's men prepared themselves against the onslaught. As Richardson's soldiers ran into the center of the lane which amounted to little more than a ditch. Confederate soldiers fired down upon the charging Union men. As they came closer to the discharging Confederate rifles, Union soldiers became easier targets. Blood sprayed from men onto their comrades behind them, who were then forced to choose between stopping or climbing over their dying friends.
Yet the Union boys, led by the intrepid General Richardson, kept coming closer to the rebels. The Confederates were then ordered into the sunken road in a counter-charge. Brutal hand-to-hand fighting erupted. Smoke from the discharging muskets blinded the American soldiers who swung their weapons like clubs as opposed to the unpopular feeling – both physically and emotionally unappealing – of sinking a bayonet into another man's abdomen.
Soldier after soldier fell dead or dying, regardless of the color of their uniform. Richardson's charge exhausted Hill's division, which retreated behind the southern front lines and refortified themselves amid the relative safety of higher ground. They recovered with General Longstreet to formulate an attack.
On the other side of the sunken road, now being called "the Bloody Lane" by the boys in blue, General Richardson was convening with his regimental commanders when a high-pitched whine was heard. The Confederate cannon that fired it aimed a tad higher than was supposed, missing the gun on the Union ridge and hitting a position only a few feet from "Fighting Dick" Richardson. The shrapnel from the exploding shell found its way into vital organs of the Major General's body, resulting in a quick but painful death.
This was the scene that Hancock appeared at that chilly afternoon in September.
Hancock stood at the gun placements overlooking the Bloody Lane to see the Confederate Army licking its wounds. If the II Corps could organize quick enough and manage to step over and around the dead down in the sunken road, they might be able to break the center of the entire Rebel position and force Lee's army back into Virginia. Unfortunately Hancock couldn't give such an order.
He rode his steed back to his brigade, which was still moving guns forward. Even so far behind the lines, rumors circulated around the fighting in "that Bloody Lane." Men gossiped about the numbers they were dealing with. Some laughed, taking a masochistic approach to itch at their pound of southern flesh. Others whispered the numbers like a curse; afraid of the Rebels they might face on the other side of the front lines. It would still be some time until any of Hancock's brigade, eager or timid, would see action.
The sound of galloping hooves alerted Hancock. Not being a cavalry officer and finding that horses dragging artillery tended not to gallop, he could tell that someone important was approaching.
The Brigadier General spun his horse to face the oncoming procession to find well mustachioed General McClellan riding with Major General Edwin Sumner – Hancock's superior in command of the II Corps – approached Hancock flanked by a squad of dragoons.
"General Hancock!" McClellan announced.
"General McClellan. General Sumner," Hancock addressed them both with cordiality and a nod.
"General Hancock, have you heard the reports from the frontline yet?" General Sumner directed a genuine question towards Hancock. He was much sincerer than McClellan, taking the edge off Hancock that he maintained when McClellan was around.
"'Fraid not, sir. Except some talk about 'Bloody Lane' I believe. General Longstreet's position is opposite us, here. I think my men can support Richardson's smash through the center of the Northern Virginia. With your permission, of course?"
"General Richardson is dead, General Hancock," Sumner declared rather solemnly.
McClellan did even look out toward the front. He simply stared Hancock in the face when he said, "No, General, I'm afraid Lee has too many forces in reserve for us to be certain. Any attack on our part could soon turn into a retreat where our own center is compromised."
"Goddamit," Hancock muttered under his breath. He looked away before finally looking at his commanding officers and asking, "Then what are my orders, sirs?"
"Take charge of the Division. Dig in and hold your ground. Repulse any Rebel attack that might come this way." General McClellan ordered.
Hancock looked to Sumner hoping he might have some kind of backbone to support an attack on the rebel center. Instead, Sumner sat there looking sheepish.
"Yes, sirs," Hancock declared with a hint of sarcasm. He swerved his horse back around and pulled the infantry regiment between the two artillery battalions and brought them to the front of the line. He dismissed the veterans and wounded to go lick their wounds and patch up behind the lines. His fresh troops would now be prepared for whatever battle was to come. Hancock knew the Confederates were taking their time to refortify their line, readjust their troop numbers, and regroup their regiments.
The Union men fortified their line, repaired breaches, and brought their fresh artillery forward. His men looked to their General for guidance. Richardson's – now Hancock's – men stared down into the Bloody Lane and gazed at the dead bodies piled on top of each other. They quickly turned back to their leader with the limitless fear so prevalent and so obvious in their eyes.
Hancock, atop his horse with his clean, immaculate uniform looking no less than fine opened his booming voice to strengthen his troops, "Now, men, stay here until you are ordered away; this place must be held at all hazards."
Dozens of men from his division dropped what they were doing, turned to Hancock, and gave their commanding officer the respect he deserved. He led them when their General bled to death; he would certainly lead them to victory as he had time and time again.
General Hancock turned his steed from the front and toward the army marching across the Creek. He tried remembered exactly what Lieutenant Clarke had said would happen at the Battle of Antietam. Lots of blood would be shed, it would be confusing at the end of the day, but the Union armies would force Bobby Lee back into Virginia.
Interestingly enough, McClellan missed the opportunity to crush Lee's Army by waiting to attack, but couldn't find it in that time to transfer the 5th U.S. Sharpshooters to the II Corps. While Levi Clarke might not be a particular military genius, perhaps a few more details of this battle would lead to a fuller portrait of it. Hancock could preserve his men to fight another day. Of course, McClellan never got to processing the order that would bring the 5th to Hancock, but he would make sure of it before the next battle. Lieutenant Clarke probably knew which one that was anyhow.
Farther south on the opposite bank of the river, the 5th U.S. Sharpshooters was taking position among the trees on the north bank of Antietam Creek where they could spot Confederate soldiers getting into defensive positions. The rebels were situated along the south bank watching or waiting for the IX Corps to cross the bridge and into their part of Maryland. Levi Clarke led his friends and comrades in arms, Matt and Stephen, to hide in the brush where the foliage hid them from the butternut-cloaked enemy. Levi soon found that carrying a Springfield musket wasn't quite a pleasantry, especially when he had a saber dangling at his side. Given that their enemy was on the opposite bank of a river, the saber would, most likely, not be of much use.
Not wanting to alert the Confederates any farther, Levi ordered his men to keep silent as they took shooting positions lying on the ground. The northerners crawled underneath patches of spice bush (each soldier made sure he wasn't perched underneath a pleasant-looking patch of poison ivy) and took aim at the southern men on the far bank of the river.
To Levi these men looked like Lego mini-figures with toy rifles. This toy, of course, wouldn't be invented for another hundred years or so, but the image still stuck in his mind.
"On your command," Matt said. He didn't shift his eyes from the field in front of him. Levi held his breath as he whispered the evil-sounding command:
Matt motioned his hand in a simple gesture. A moment later, fire exploded along the line of trees. A cloud of smoke rose to the heavens and the soldiers on the far bank turned to find out where their attackers came from.
Levi had yet to fire his rifle. The little man in his sights kept moving. Levi didn't like the idea of taking more than a couple second to load a new bullet in the chamber, but he knew it'd take over a minute. The idea of being so vulnerable was unbearable to the young Lieutenant. He followed the little man at the end of the rifle until he finally pulled the trigger.
The gunpowder in the barrel of the Springfield erupted and sent the tiny piece of lead rocketing forward at impossible speed toward the south bank of Antietam Creek. The bullet would lodge itself safely and non-lethally in the river bank among the grass and dirt.
Levi's emotions were a mixed cocktail, beginning with joy and excitement that he both fired his rifle and fired it harmlessly. The alternate feeling of uselessness crept in knowing he did nothing and he now had to reload the machine. Time spent reloading was time where he was defenseless against the enemy.
"A hit?" Matt asked.
Levi shook his head, "Nothing," the dual feeling of shame and relief washed over him. He pulled the rifle back towards him and began the arduous process of reloading. He soon found out that the Sharpshooters had to learn the difficult skill of loading their weapons while lying on their stomachs.
He rolled to his side, reached into his cartridge bag, poured the gunpowder down the shaft of the rifle, stuffed it into the barrel with the ramrod, and brought the weapon to bear. The young Lieutenant found his hands sweaty and his wrists shaking. It wasn't nearly as easy a task as Levi had perceived. He didn't necessarily perceive it as easy, either. He noticed that Matt and Stephen were already loading their third bullet before Levi brought his rifle to the firing position.
"Are you all right, Lieutenant?" Stephen asked. The obvious answer could not simply be assumed in the midst of heated battle. Protocol had to be followed. Levi, of course, answered that he was fine. He couldn't exactly say that it was his first time firing a Springfield rifle; A Company had seen him do so countless times...
The Confederate soldiers that weren't drawn to the bridge took positions along the bank to find the Federal sharpshooters. The roar of the hundreds of rifles going off slowly got louder and louder until the loudest sound of all snapped above Levi's head: the crackle of a minié ball through the brush and bramble made every sharpshooter's eye wince, and in Levi's case, his whole head to duck.
His comrades all looked at him for a modicum of guidance. Levi found it hard to supply. He refused to validate his duck with a glance around him to check if his mates were looking – he knew they were. With one motion – or lack thereof – he provided that tiny amount of leadership his Company needed. It was Levi's unfortunate on the job training: a little leadership goes a long way.
The 5th's sharpshooting duties continued for hours as Burnside's Corps paid for every inch of bridge over the Creek in Northern blood. Levi wasn't sure if his men were actually doing anything significant or if they simply acted as bullet-wasting machines.
As Levi reached into his pouch for another minié ball, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Colonel Malcolms. He was hunched over to keep his status as a target low. He leaned next to Levi's ear and whispered over the din of battle: "Let's advance."
He already knew the Colonel wanted them to head over to the opposite bank of the Creek. He signaled to his men, and the other Companies of the 5th, to head to the newly captured bridge. Arriving at the base of the bridge, sentries patrolled the edges while surgeons carried men from the battlefield. Standing at that new location was a bearded Brigadier General who was busily barking orders to his orderlies and lesser officers.
Colonel Malcolms arrived back at his men and told Lieutenant Clarke to cross the bridge and take a high position along the forest on the south flank. Malcolms told Clarke to make haste.
The young Lieutenant rounded his men together and they headed off across the bridge now firmly under Union control.
Matt, the large sharpshooting lad from Pennsylvania asked one of the sentries what the word was.
"Tellin' us it's a little red out there," the New Yorker said. Not that this was news. The bridge the IX Corps had spent an entire afternoon capturing was almost painted red itself. Scraps of blue and gray cloth littered the ground among a mixture of broken weapons, spilled cartridge bags, and forgotten body parts. The scene of Burnside's Bridge was one of the enduring images of Antietam that America would remember, but the sheer carnage left over on the structure after the battle's end is often left out of the history books. Levi could understand why: the scene he was witnessing would not be one easily talked about, nor easily forgotten.
Levi pressed on, shutting the images out of his mind. Like the sentries guarding the now very busy bridge, he was simply happy to not be near the meat grinder when it happened. Who knows what disfigurement one might walk away with after a tragedy like that?
They passed it. The bridge was now out of sight, Levi and the 5th now had to put it out of mind. The distant boom of guns farther north held Levi's heart both in fear and in safety. Already knowing the outcome of the battle, he knew it was Union weaponry pounding Confederate positions.
The area around the bridge was just as much battlefield as the bridge itself. Embers and weapons were still smoking from the action that had left only hours before. Their weaponry also had a tendency to shoot sparks and ignite fires. Those fires would serve as the deciding factor in a number of battles, the Wilderness being the biggest of them.
Patches of grass on the bank of Antietam were ignited. Tiny orange dancers whirled their way around and over corpses and dropped weapons as surgeons weaved around the field looking for survivors.
As much as he felt confident he'd survive this, the young, New England, Lieutenant suddenly reminded himself it would be two and a half years before peace was declared. If Levi was going to survive this ordeal, he needed to find himself a desk job, or he needed to find a way to end the war early.
Given his position at the center of the action in Antietam, Levi Clarke found himself very nostalgic for April 1861, "Lieutenant?" one of his men asked.
"Yes?" Levi responded as he turned to the soldier. It was Stephen. The young farm boy was holding his loaded rifle in a ready position. His stance screamed his readiness for battle.
"Look here, sir," Stephen waved Levi over to his position. Levi knelt to the ground and looked back: they were far from the bridge and deep into the line of battle. The spotted forest with varying degrees of foliage made Levi wish for those green uniforms he and Malcolms discussed. He was sure that the forest was infinitely safer than the cornfield Burnside's men were now bogged down in, but being alternately thick and sparse, he had to wonder if he wasn't at risk of getting stabbed from behind a patch of Virginia creeper.
Stephen pointed with his left hand along the opposite end of the forest, "See there?" the Lieutenant strained his sight. There was a dirt road running through the middle of the wood on its way south. There was a cavalry patrol cruising through the forest watching out for any pesky northern men to muck up their route, "That cavalry patrol is about to run into an infantry regiment. Colonel Malcolms sent us out here in order to safeguard that road. The ridge up here is too far, but," he said, pointing down toward the edge of the tree line, "we could easily hide in the brambles there and defend the convoy going through the forest."
"Yeah, we can pick off the cavalry while the infantry distract them, eh?" Matt responded.
Not wanting to sound like the naïve leader he actually was, Levi consented to the plan and said, "All right, then. Let's go," he hefted his rifle onto his back and allowed his feet to slip over the grass and down to the forest. Matt and Stephen followed close behind, their weapons at the ready. Levi made use of hand signals: as he paid extra attention to the line of sigh of the Confederate cavalry. Again he lamented the lack of green camouflage.
It took them a few minutes, but A Company eventually made their way to the bottom of the ravine and separated. Levi was on the far left of their flank with the sunlight streaming straight towards him. Matt was the luckiest of them who had the sun out of his field of view and off to his far right.
The cavalry patrol whirled by the northerners with a purpose. None of the three sharpshooters managed to get a shot of any southern horseman. Levi signaled his comrades to hold their position. He followed the road through the forest to the sound of gunshots from the Confederate dragoons.
The road and trees dropped some twenty-five feet. From the top of this second ravine, Lieutenant Clarke had an extraordinary view of the commencing battle. Seven rebel cavalry took on five Union infantrymen bringing a cart full of supplies to the front. It was the first of many trying to get through, no doubt.
The battle was quick. Four of the Union boys were shot. One of the southerners was killed and one fell with his horse. As quickly as it had begun, the battle devolved into five Confederate cavalry against one Union foot soldier. The explosions and eruptions of gunfire devolved into shouts and calls for the Yank to come out from hiding and play with the Rebs.
Levi finally got his bearings, placed his feet into a strong kneeling position and brought his rifle to shoulder. He inhaled, aimed for the belly of the four-legged beast, and squeezed the trigger. He was used to the sound by now, but not the kneeling position. His body was sent flying back. His torso adjusted, causing his foot to jerk forward. It slipped over the grass, loosening the rocks and dirt and forcing Levi to lose his balance and tumble to the forest floor below.
His cartridge bag slipped out from over his shoulder and spilled onto the ground. Levi picked his head up to find his rifle two feet in front of him and confused rebels charging for him to dispatch the Fed that just tumbled into existence.
Two turned to the Union Lieutenant and immediately fired their rifles. One shot landed off to his right and thwacked through the brush. Levi grabbed his Springfield and whirled to take cover behind an oak tree. The rifle slowed his quick turn and slipped out of his fingers. His initial instinct was to stop and get it; an instinct he suppressed in favor of taking cover.
Behind the tree, he sensed the Rebels creeping up on him from both sides. He felt the terror of nakedness as enemies crept upon him. He was as good as alone and without a weapon. Time seemed to slow to a tiny beating heart as his temperature rose and brand new beads of sweat gathered at his hairline.
And then his hand landed at the hilt of his Toledo steel.
Levi felt the surge of empowerment fill his entire being as his fingers wrapped around the handle. At once, he unsheathed it and spun to his left, coming out of the protection of the tree. The first thing the Lieutenant saw was a butternut-clad southerner swinging his rifle downward like a club, hoping to knock the "weak" New Englander's head in.
Lieutenant Clarke swung his sword up and blocked the rifle with a swift parry. His right hand flew up and grabbed the enemy weapon, allowing Levi to swing his blade across the rebel's abdomen. He ignored his enemy's grunt of pain and shoved him off to the side.
He whirled left again just in time to feint right as the second rebel swung his rifle at Levi's head. The heavy weapon forced him to follow through, far too heavy to swing back and hit the Yank in the rebound. It left Levi with far too much time to punch him in the face; using the added weight of the sword's hilt of course.
Levi stopped and looked around him. He'd dispatched two Confederate soldiers using nothing but a Spanish sword and his hand. Another lay bleeding on the forest floor from his first shot fired in the skirmish. He looked over at the road and watched as the young Union soldier ducked behind the supply cart shot the last Confederate soldier in the cavalry patrol straight through the chest.
It took less than a second for the northerner to emerge from his cover and aim. The moment after that was consumed with a minié ball shattering the southerner's ribcage. The young man stood and immediately checked the surrounding area: the southerners first, then the cart, and finally his comrades.
Levi picked up his cartridge bag and rifle before he went over and helped the soldier. Unfortunately, all of his comrades were dead, "Anything I can help you with…" he looked for the rank on his blue uniform, "Sergeant?"
"I suppose we should collect these weapons, Lieutenant," he said, checking his comrade's one more time before packing their things onto the cart. Levi helped collect the belongings of the Union and Confederate bodies, setting his own down at the side of the forest road.
"Name's Will, by the way," he said.
"Levi. Nice shooting."
"Thank you, learned it out west."
"Heh…" Levi muttered, "Where are you from?"
Twenty-third Ohio? Why did that sound so familiar to the young New Englander? Memorizing regiments and Corps was only useful if a specific Corps did something remarkable. Hancock's II Corps, for example, would perform remarkably throughout the war. The 1st Minnesota Volunteers would perform a heroic charge at Gettysburg, suffering 86% casualties. But what was so special about the 23rd Ohio?
"Sergeant! Lieutenant!" The shout came from a bearded man with a gruff face who was headed down the forest road. He was dressed, of course, in Union blue and wore the insignia of a Colonel, "Encounter the enemy?" it was more of a statement than a question.
"Yes, sir, a cavalry patrol," Will answered, "Lost men, Colonel Hayes. But we were able to protect the supplies."
"Oh, my," Hayes said, looking at the scene of the fight as if it were nothing more than a shattered piece of china on the kitchen floor, "And after your men were dispatched the two of you defeated these rebels?"
"Primarily you Sergeant, Colonel Hayes. I arrived only long enough to have a brief sport," Levi held his hand out to shake the Colonel's. He was fully aware that his bluff sounded ridiculous to his own ears, but his act seemed convincing to the men present.
"I see," the Colonel said, "and you are?"
"Lieutenant Levi Clarke of the 5th U.S. Sharpshooters." Their hands shook firmly, "Pleasure to meet you."
Levi had already made the choice – an impossible choice – as to whether the Confederate States should live or die. He chose to follow the course of history he knew. After that, he tried to make it better. When that failed, he knew he simply had to live in this world as any other man, woman, and child lived in it. But it was clear there was some sort of grand direction here.
He was, after all, standing in front of two future Presidents.
Several miles north, Hancock, his division, and the entire II Corps were busy pounding the Confederates into an eventual stalemate. The Union Army could have crossed the Bloody Lane at that point, were it not for the morale-shattered men clad in blue. The Federal Army was hungry, thirsty, and tired. To cross a lane carpeted with the bodies of their friends and neighbors would not have boosted morale greatly. And so with twenty-three thousand men dead as the sun sank below the western horizon, the Battle of Antietam came to an end.
General Hancock resumed the duties of his dead superior officially after that day, commanding the Division entirely. He shelved the honor of the position and delved right into his usual soldierly efficiency of ensuring their health and morale were raised.
The Battle changed everything. South of the Potomac, hopes of ending the war by a swift engagement to the north was crushed. In the north, it was no great victory, but enough to give the Republicans a reason to continue the war. It allowed President Lincoln to also issue a document of extreme political importance. Antietam was a war-changing battle, but it was not the turning point the Union needed.
On a much smaller level, Lieutenant Levi Clarke and his new friend Sergeant William McKinley received promotions on Colonel Rutherford Hayes' recommendation. Knowing there were still two and a half years before this brutal conflict would end, Levi took it as a sign that he had side-lined the last major battle for a long time.