“Yes, sir.” He did not swallow or make any other sign of fear. His face was a study in youth exposed to battle. Even delivery of bad news to a flag officer was insufficient to shake the private’s confidence. Colonel Cypherus Wheeler had seen his own expression in the parlor mirror of Cypress Manor earlier, and marveled at the way war had aged him. He wouldn’t have liked to face himself like this.
Like Private Martin, Wheeler had the gray look of a man living the hell of war, and angry as hell because he was losing. But a man of honor could not take that out on a soldier. “Have a seat, son,” Wheeler said.
The soldier obeyed, coming to attention in the seat.
“Beg to report it was those Alabama boys and their Spencers, sir. We were guarding ninety-nine niggers fixing what they’d done to the bridge when our sentries took fire. There was only two of them, sir, but they killed three of our men before we rallied a squad to get after them. I was there, sir. We were fighting in the brambles.”
“Where is Captain Leehigh?” Colonel Wheeler asked, studying the soldier’s torn and soiled uniform.
“Dead, sir. When the yankees fell back he organized a pursuit. We had a platoon, sir, and he led it into the bush to beat them out. When he did, they hit him and the color-bearer first. We had a dozen killed or died of wounds right then, sir, and they got away on horseback.”
“What happened to Lieutenant Beauregard?” The colonel asked.
“Dead, sir.” The soldier paused for the space of a blink. “He said, ‘let’s get after these yankee bastards,’ and led the attack. We came through the trees into somebody’s field; it was half plowed up, and soft, and they were waiting again. The lieutenant fell before me as I knelt to aim. That’s when I was wounded, sir…”
Wheeler stared with hollow eyes at the bandage where Private Martin’s neck met his shoulder. “You’re lucky, son. You may live after riding all this way. Stay away from the surgeon’s tent and recommend yourself to Mrs. Monaghan’s ministrations, please. What happened to your top enlisted man, Sergeant Anderson?”
“The yankees slithered back into the trees on the other side, like snakes, sir. They got away. Sergeant Anderson had us reload and advance, but he stopped when he heard the explosion…” For the first time, the soldier’s eyes wandered.
Wheeler raised an eyebrow. “Explosion?”
“They were in our camp, sir,” Private Martin explained. “They set fire to the bridge, led the ninety nine niggers off to Sherman, and rolled a barrel of gunpowder onto the repair work. It’s all gone, sir. Sergeant Anderson ran into the fire to roll the barrel back out; he was burning already and then was killed when it exploded.”
Colonel Wheeler stared at the sunset in the old front window. It was the only thing not bleak about the prospects of his command. Without funds and labor, Sherman’s army could reach the halfway point to Atlanta before the bridge could be fixed to move men and supplies to Atlanta’s defense there. He had neither funds nor labor from Richmond, less of either from Alabama, and Georgia…well, disorganization was a given in the land of peaches. But the cause was just, and everyone was doing their part. He kept telling himself that.
“How do you feel, son?” Colonel Wheeler asked.
“Lucky, sir,” the private said. “And sad, because a great many friends were stricken from my life today.”
“I’m sorry, my boy. These were Alabama boys attacking?” Wheeler asked. “You’re sure?”
“Yes, sir. Hill Billys. They were wearing blue, but they had the yell. They used the land to trap us, sir.”
Wheeler nodded. “You are a usual courier for the unit, of course.”
“Yes, sir. No one can outpace me over thirty miles on a good horse. So I rode to the corporal, and told him there was nothing left to fight about and I should be on my way to report and was there anything to say. He wanted to send another rider instead, but our spare horses and wagons were already riding away with the yankees.”
Private Martin paused. “Is the general sure he wishes to hear the rest?”
“Sergeant Grey rallied on our side of the bridge; we were on the wrong side, but a man can wade to the waist at that crossing, you know. So he wanted to attack.”
For the first time, Private Martin coughed. “Sir, those damn yankees work two at a time with those Spencers. One is shooting at you while the other is reloading. It’s not fair, sir. The bravest man can’t be expected to match it. There weren’t many yankees and they didn’t lose many, sir. We did.”
“You say you ran,” Wheeler said. “But you know what happened after you left?”
“I stopped at the top of the hill and watched. Sir, it wasn’t true what was said to us when we enlisted. It’s not about honor or whether we want to fight ten times as much as they do, or our rights, or the justice of our cause. When a man can shoot seven times like that, he’s already winning the battle before the numbers are counted.”
The private gulped for the first time, and unburdened himself before the colonel. behind him, the headquarters staff reacted in horror.
“They fought two at a time, sir. My friends held their fire and were cut down in the advance. When Corporal Cullins called for a halt, that one crawled into the dirt while another one started shooting. And so by the time anyone could hear ready, aim, fire, everyone was swinging for the smoke where the new one was shooting at us.”
“Where is the command, son?”
“Gone, sir. There were not a half-dozen of them ever in sight, sir, until we fought for the camp. But when our boys finally fell back, they hadn’t crossed midstream…”
Unspoken, acknowledgement of the horrible knowledge of battle’s truth passed between the two soldiers. A man who fell out of ranks to run was more vulnerable than ever; in an army of free men, to fail one’s friends this way was a dishonor no man could bear. And so men pressed on as their friends bled and cried and died around them, for the true fight was the one for nobility. When a unit broke under fire, it often disintegrated.
“I saw seven men remaining, sir,” Private Martin concluded. “When I left them…”
“You left them to bring me news of the disaster,” the colonel said. “You didn’t have to. You were wounded, however, so I shan’t kill the messenger.” He cast his eyes on the table, spent the space of two breaths gnawing at the point of two slightly misgrown teeth, and barely indicated the corner of the room to his right with his eyes. “Do you see Joe Brown’s pike over there in the corner, son?”
The soldier found it in the late afternoon dim. “Yes, sir.”
“The governor of this state knew it was a good idea to make pikes. We are at war with folk that use machines, like Spencers. A machine is not noble. The pike is a noble weapon. It remains from a time when your enemy had to reckon with you face to face, like a man. They don’t make war with men, these yankees, they make war with machines. And there is nothing noble about that, or them.”
The soldier’s sharp eyes focused with the power of a battle survivor’s mind and noted the shined brass fitting where blade met shaft. The black steel betrayed no sign that its sharpened edges had ever seen use.
“All the governors of the Confederacy ordered pikes to be made, but Governor Brown ordered more of them than anyone. They’re not just a noble weapon, you see, but a weapon which requires aggressive elan. Spirit. A man with determination can win that kind of battle. Our Georgian brothers know about nobility, don’t you think?”
Then the colonel sat back in his chair. “Thank you for your report, Private Martin. You may enjoy the hospitality of the house, and I think you will find it better than beans and cornbread.”
Private Martin stood up. “There was a nigger shooting at us, sir. I saw it.”
Wheeler’s eyes narrowed in fury. “No!”
“It’s true, sir.” Private Martin saluted as smartly as his wound would allow, hardly wincing. “Will that be all, sir?”
Biting his lip, the colonel only nodded. Private Martin executed an about-face to exit. Wheeler watched him go, then composed himself before composing his telegram:
BEG REPORT TOTAL LOSS BRIDGE HARPER CREEK STOP
Wheeler took a moment to prepare the next words in his head before writing them.
TOTAL LOSS COMMAND ALL SUPPLIES SLAVES STOP
He thought of the boy who’d just left. He was no longer a boy, of course, but still beautiful. A well-educated lad, to judge by his words. Before this war, he was the kind of young man the colonel would have taught about Plato, and Sparta and her warriors. But the military academy at LaGrange was burned to the ground now.
PLEASE ADVISE STATUS REQUISITION FUNDS REINFORCEMENTS SUPPLIES STOP
The downfall of the South, if it could no longer be prevented, was at least a noble project in its operatic destruction. A black man simply could not be the equal of a white man. Slavery had God’s blessing in the scripture, after all; the cause was property, and that cause was just. God had ordained that some be owned and others be noble, so who were the yankees to judge differently? They simply didn’t know their place.
UNION ALABAMA REGIMENT BELIEVED RESPONSIBLE STOP
Traitors, all. Former objectors to the war, no-account dirt farmers, Jackson Democrats with abolitionist ideas, deserters from the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of the Tennessee, even the flower of the best families in Northwest Alabama. Slaves! With repeating rifles!
Impotent to alter the course of the war, Wheeler imagined rebellious Negroes armed with pikes facing cannons loaded with grapeshot, and enjoyed the wolf’s grin that stretched across his face.