Okay, this is raw, fresh stuff. I still need to go back and insert the “color” that isn’t natural to me – the smells in the air, the sounds, the sights around the action. But I’m pretty happy with this, the first battle scene I’ve ever written.
When the recruiting tent opened, he’d lined up with the rest of his friends, his hat pulled down and his shoulders hunched.
“Name,” the recruiting sergeant said, not looking up.
“Albeus Finley,” he said. Albeus was the Latin version of Elvis, the saint known in Gaelic as Ailbe. He wasn’t supposed to be here, running away to war. He was a carpenter, and a damned good one, and the Navy Yards needed him there, the war needed him there, more than he was needed as another piece of meat to be ground up on a battlefield. But nobody would find him as Albeus, he was sure.
His friends were all enlisting in the 14th Regiment New York State Militia, and he wasn’t going to be left behind. The 14th Brooklyn, as it would come to be known, was mostly made up of Brooklyn businessmen, tradesman and firemen. The boys he’d grown up with were all going to war. It would be unmanly for him to remain behind, safe, warm, comfortable.
And alone. His family had all perished, his father in the last cholera epidemic and his mother from tuberculosis. He had these men, and nobody else. He would go where they went.
Where he went.
He had Samuel’s visiting card secreted against his breast, as Samuel had Albeus’ portrait against his (he had trained his beloved to use the new name at all times). Albeus couldn’t afford a photographic portrait, of the sort so many men were having made before going off to war. But Samuel was a photographer, and it was in his studio that they’d taken each other’s pictures.
“You mustn’t smile so,” Samuel chided him. “And there’s a wicked glint in your eye. A portrait is a serious matter.”
“I can’t help it,” Albeus said softly. “When I look at the camera, all I see is you behind it. And that makes me happy. And wicked.”
Samuel laughed. “Hold still, then, with that look on your face, for posterity.” And he took the photo.
They weren’t parted, weren’t to be parted. Until Bull Run.
Before that day, war had been to the young men what they’d been told it was. Brass bands, waving standards, glory, honor. In the paintings he and Samuel had admired at the city’s museums, men fell in battle in elegant classical poses, their faces tranquil, their wounds invisible.
They were dressed as if for a carnival, a fair, a festival. There was no standard uniform as of yet for the Union Army, and the 14th Brooklyn wore red and dark blue tunics flashing with gold buttons, and flamboyant trousers similar to those worn by France’s Zouave infantry regiments. The trousers weren’t as baggy as the Zouave pantaloons, but were the same brilliant red.
The battle would be witnessed by picnickers who’d come down from the city of Washington to enjoy the spectacle, ladies and gentlemen as naïve as Elvis-now-Albeus and his compatriots were about what war really looked like. Had they been closer, the 14th Brooklyn would have heard the audience applaud the dashing figure they cut, preparing for combat. How could anyone miss such theatrical spectacle, thought the picnickers, as this was the confrontation that many were sure would end the war in one fell swoop.
But Albeus could feel it, that day, the sense of impending catastrophe, a plan falling apart. The men’s high spirits had wavered as delay after delay postponed the action. They’d eaten all the food they’d brought with them, and lost a day waiting for more rations to arrive.
“We’re a target, just sitting here,” Albeus whispered to Samuel. He could sense it, the movement around them, unseen but felt, like a thousand pairs of eyes in the woods watching a deer in the field.
Then at last, the enemy was engaged in battle. The soldiers of the Union were exultant as they pushed the rebels back, back, again and again, until they were driven up Henry House Hill to make their last stand.
The 14th prepared to assault the hill, to end the battle, to end the war. Samuel crossed himself. “God protect and preserve us.”
“You’re Jewish,” Albeus whispered. “And an unbeliever on top of that.”
“I’ll convert to anything that saves my ass today,” Samuel smiled at his beloved, who laughed, delighted at his elan, his fearlessness, so handsome and strong in his uniform…
That was the picture he tried to hold in his head, ever after. Tried to.
The command was given and the men rushed up the hill toward the rebels, screaming as men in battle do, both to terrify the enemy and to release their own terror. It was the worst strategic position to be in, at the bottom of a hill running up.
Men fell as they ran, Albeus screamed, Samuel screamed beside him. They fired uphill, and Albeus watched a grey cap fly off a man’s head as Albeus’ bullet went through his skull and took the cap with it on its exit. Howitzers boomed behind them, shells screaming over their heads and exploding on the mountaintop, each one giving the men below a few extra seconds of life as the men above ducked for cover or were knocked over by the blasts. Or were blown to pieces, a horrible mist of smoke and dust and blood and bone rising in the air.
This is stupid, Albeus thought even as he ran up the hill. Who might lie on the other side of this hill?
Who indeed. On the unseen side of the hill, General Thomas Jonathan Jackson had brought his reinforcements, and on this day he would earn the nickname “Stonewall,” as Union troops, sensing victory, reached the crest only to meet with a barrage of fire from fresh troops.
Albeus dropped to the ground, Samuel next to him. He bit off the end of a cartridge to reload his rifle. “They’ve led us into a trap,” he said, turning to meet Samuel’s eyes.
Samuel’s dead eyes met his, a neat hole in his forehead.
Albeus couldn’t move. No. This was not possible, thinkable.
He could see the men behind him, wavering, uncertain. Watching him. They will all die if you don’t get up, he could hear Samuel saying in his ear.
Albeus changed then. The fear, the testosterone, the anger all around him did what it does to men in battle.
He jumped to his feet and turned to the men of the 14th. “Come on! Kill ‘em all!” he screamed bloody murder, and ran to avenge his love.
Courage is infectious, and the 14th Brooklyn followed him, attacking again, inflicting massive casualties on Jackson’s men. The 14th also earned their nickname that day, as Jackson shouted to his men, “Hold on boys! Here come those red-legged devils again!”
But chaos and disorder behind them took the sting out of their attack. An artillery battery ceased firing at the Confederate line on the hill, as a blue clad regiment approached them from the woods, presumably their infantry support. Then the men in blue, the 33rd Virginia of Jackson’s brigade, lifted their muskets and obliterated the gunners.
The Union men had been marching or fighting for fourteen hours, with no food or water in a blistering southern heat. General McDowell failed to send his two reserve brigades into action, inexperience and incompetence and fear of failure marring the order of battle as it would for too many battles to come. The other scent now filled the air among them, the scent of panic and fear and failure.
Men began to bolt, to run for the rear, ill trained boys who only a few months earlier had been newsboys or carters or brewers. That was when the rebels reassembled, the tide turned, and they attacked, letting forth an unearthly sound that loosened men’s bowels, a banshee cry from the old hills of the old world, that would become known after that day as the “Rebel yell.”
“Albeus!” Nathan shouted at him. “Fall back!”
Albeus didn’t want to fall back. He wanted to die here, to fall down, next to his beloved, for their bones to roast together in the Virginia sun.
But something cold took hold of him, and whispered in his ear. Live. Live to fight another day. Avenge him.
He nodded. And ran.
They all ran. The soldiers, the officers, the crowds who’d come to see the pleasantly arranged tableau of victory that they’d been promised, carts tumbling and people screaming as the army retreated, some of the men determined not to stop until they reached Washington itself.
That night, alongside some road somewhere, nobody even knew where, the men collapsed. It was a dense wood, through which little could be seen, and yet, men stared with their inner eyes into a distance far beyond the reach of their senses, stared at images that were in the past, miles away, and yet would now be ever present. Their dashing bright red pants were clotted with darker patches of red.
Albeus waited to cry. To sob for his friend, his lover. But tears didn’t come. Emotion requires energy, a surge of power, to express itself, and he had nothing. His lips were dry and cracked, blackened from the powder in the cartridges he’d bitten off all day, his mouth was dry, his stomach was shriveled from both hunger and nausea.
But there is one emotion that always manages to find its power source, and that is hate. These men, these southern bastards, prattling about “state’s rights” as if the right of a state was greater than the right of a man? Who dared to kill a man like Samuel so they could keep another man as their property? These indolent planters with their libraries full of classical literature, naming their children Cassius and Lucius, as if they were noble Romans. When really, they were barbarians, Visigoths slaughtering the Romans and then playing at emperor, a crooked crown on a drunken lout, the floor of the Senate filled with their vomit and their stench.
They were monsters. Monsters must be killed. All of them, slaughtered, every one of them, before the stain on their souls could even begin to lift.
A hand clapped on his shoulder, shocking him. He looked up and instinctively rose to his feet.
“Sir,” he said to his commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Edward Brush Fowler. The men knew him as “Ned,” and he’d led them ably that day, as ably as he could have amid the fog of battle and the incompetence of General McDowell.
“Finley,” the man said gently. “Your friend Samuel. I am sorry.”
“Th…thank you, sir,” Albeus said stiffly.
“You were a hero today, young man. I saw you. You never broke, you never ran, even with your friend dead beside you. The 14th won’t forget either of you.”
That was it, the kindness his commander showed him, that was the energy he needed to cry. The agony racked him, the fatigue, the loss. Fowler stood there, waiting, not fool enough to say anything stupid about how he was in God’s hands or how time would ease his loss.
“I’m promoting you to sergeant, Finley. You’re a born leader of men.”
Albeus looked up, looked around, saw the other men looking at him. There was no fault in him for his tears, his grief, these were not the times or the place where men would shame each other for crying.
“Thank you, sir.” He shook himself. “We’ll kill the rebs, sir. Kill them all.”
Fowler nodded. The day had marked him as much as it had anyone, and a black shadow fell behind him, too, even in the dark of night. “That is exactly what I expect you to do, Sergeant.”