May 4, 1862
I had acquired, early on in the siege, the habit of rising early to meander – not necessarily coherently – about before the camps came alive. It gave me an hour or so of stillness and solitude, something to be treasured in the midst of an army of 120,000.
This day I woke earlier – much earlier – and I woke fully, snapped to wide-eyed in the unshakable, if unexplained, feeling something was . . . Different. I stepped out of my tent into a cool, starry-clear night, a discrete breeze coming off the York. I was alone, the only evidence – circumstantial at that – of the horde around me the breeze muted snores, groans, grunts, farts, whisperings, and night mumbles of the sleeping multitudes.
My eyes adjusted to the starlight, I decided on a walk, just a spur of the moment, middle-of-the-night-wide-awake-nothing-else-to-do stroll. I wandered past a darkened Headquarters, not so much as a glowing ember leaked out of Mac’s farmhouse, and wound my way up to the knoll overlooking the York where the full force of the freshened wind – a hint of salt water in it – caught me whole.
It was breathtaking: stars through to the horizon, the black bulks of ships riding a gentle tide, their lanterns reflecting off the river while the melodious sounds of timber creaking, metal clinking, rigging rubbing, wafted across the water. I could dimly make out silhouettes of sentries patrolling our now lethal lines. Every once in a while I picked up the quick flair of a match when one of them lighted a cigar, pipe, cigarette.
For long, marvelous minutes I took it in, would have enjoyed it even more had I not had the overwhelming, head twitching feeling I was missing something important, perhaps vital. It became maddening, that itch in an infinitesimally small area just below the shoulder blades impossible for any grown male to reach me; like being asked who the hero of A Tale of Two Cities, and knowing with every fiber of your being it is Sidney Carthon yet unable to articulate it.
It threatened to become all-encompassing until, at last, obliquely, I am not sure fully consciously, it hit me – I was not failing to observe something, I was failing to notice the absence of something. To whit: there was not a single light, ambient or otherwise, to be seen above Yorktown – not even the quick flash of a match. Further, now that I was attuned and mentally subtracted the sounds off the York, there was only silence hovering over Yorktown.
The inference was as clear as it was monumental – the rebels were gone. Quietly, efficiently, as suddenly as Roanoke’s first settlers. Perhaps some whit had hung a sign reading ‘CROATAN’ over there. I stood rooted, awed by my revelation until I felt, then heard approaching footsteps.
I turned in time to see a shadow emerge from the lane, “I knew you would be here,” a disembodied voice whispered.
“I checked your tent, saw you were gone and –”
“The rebels have abandoned Yorktown.”
“I know, that is why I am looking for you.”
“We mobilizing?” Even as I asked I knew the answer, it was far too quiet.
“That is the rub, William,” Joinville stood by my side, took in the view, fell mute.
“How’d you find out?” I asked at length, “and what’s the rub?”
“Two contrabands crossed the river an hour or so ago , brought the news, eventually ended up in front of some general – no idea who – he found it credible, incredible, sent the message to headquarters.”
He sighed infuriatingly Gallic sigh, one that communicated grief, frustration, and pique in one shot, “my cousin rushed to wake up General McClellan, he was told the general had worked late, just gone to bed and would rise at seven… at which time he would assess the situation.”
“What idiot aide told him that?” I pictured Webb as I asked.
“The general himself, actually, after the Comte barged into his bedroom,” Joinville answered with grim resignation.
“Mac didn’t believe him?” I was incredulous.
“Believe him or not, the matter bears investigation and confirmation… at seven o’clock.”
“So we just wait?”
“And give the Confederates time to get beyond us, probably establish more advantageous lines someplace else.”
“Probably already have lines prepared, Johnston’s forte seems to be the withdrawal in strength,” I mused absently, “the trick, of course, would be to move quickly and at least catch the rearguard out the open… by the way, why are we having this conversation?”
“Excuse me, William?”
“Sorry, too blunt, I mean why were you looking for me at this ungodly hour?”
“I, we, were hoping –”
“I would wake up Mac and talk to him?.”
“Yes, would you –”
“Let’s go,” I said softly and led us away from our bucolic vista.
There was a lone light flickering in a first-floor window when we reached the farmhouse. Quietly, almost stealthily, we mounted the steps, crossed the porch. I reached for the doorknob… and it magically, heart-poundingly to be truthful, snapped open with an eye-watering creak. Major Webb stood framed in the doorway, effectively barring entrance.
“General McClellan is asleep, Colonel,” He intoned. I gave him credit for at least trying a civil, pleasant tone, “he will attend to the matter when he wakes.” Somehow, I do not know how, he managed to convey he was doing this solely out of concern for our overworked general.
Which accounts for, and hopefully excuses, the civility of my response, “I appreciate your concern for the general,s well-being, major, but this is of vital –”
“The general knows, he’s already cut orders for Professor Lowe to go up first thing and survey the rebel lines.”
“Well and good, but pursuit of –”
“All is in hand, Colonel,” Webb, the anointed king’s chamberlain and protector continued with what was now truly annoying, calm, good sense, “we will have a very busy morning,” gave me a look usually reserved for one’s already simple, now addled by drink, strange smelling uncle about an hour or two after Christmas dinner, “and you should know there are two very burly provost guards sitting down the hall with orders to arrest anyone who tries to disturb him.” Big smile to finish, to let us know we were all friends and such extreme measures need never be employed.
“In that case, thank you, major, good what’s left of the night,” I turned, eased off the porch as the door closed softly behind.
“You went quietly,” Joinville observed.
“See any alternatives?”
“No, not really.”
“Neither did I.”
“Where we going?”
“To get Osgood.”
He accepted that and followed me to our encampment, an encampment stirring only inasmuch chronic sleepwalkers and scattered man pissing in the trees could be called stirring.
Osgood, of course, stalked up to us out of the gloom, “Something happening?” He whispered.
“Yup,” I whispered back, “you and I and Joinville, if he cares to, are walking into Yorktown.”
“Excellent,” Osgood hissed.
“Of course I’m going,” Joinville, aloud, with hurt.
Twenty minutes later, my Colt strapped reassuringly to my hip, borrowed (without the owner’s present knowledge) Springfield across my shoulder, my friends similarly equipped, we headed toward a ford on the Warwick half a mile or so away.
We walked carefully in the still and dark trying to pick out the trail and not make a racket, all the while Joinville whispered the morning’s events thus far to Osgood.
Without incident, I led us into a narrow clearing on our bank of the Warwick, its gentle current a rippling song biding me cross – as I started to do until an improbable basso rang out from a shadowy tree, “Who goes?”
“I hope to God there’s a man behind that tree,” I answered
“Gun, too, now who goes?”
“Jefferson Davis, Pierre Beauregard, and Robert E Lee,” I was not be cowered in the predawn hours by a tree claiming to be armed.
Another voice came out of a shrub to my left, “Lucky there’s four of us, then.”
“Ay- up,” new voice, just ahead, “guessin’ we’re goin’ to be famous capturin’the likes of you.”
“The Portland Recorder ‘ll write it up real nice,” the fourth just behind us.
“Well then,” I announced to the dark, “sorry, but the down east presses will have be disappointed, we’re on your side, boys, from General McClellan’s staff.”
“Damn, there goes the promotion,” a figure considerably larger than the tree he was hiding behind stepped into the clearing, “we shouldda just shot first,” the giant with the Opera singer’s voices advanced. He had to be every six-six by six-six, he held his rifle like a toddler his rattle, if one thinks abnormally large toddler, abnormally small rattle, reached us in two strides that would have been six for a mere mortal, got close enough to stare down at my shoulder straps, froze for an imperceptible moment, started to salute –
“ No need, sergeant” I stopped him mid chest.
“Sorry, sir, sirs, I… week… thought you was…”
“Friends having you on?”
“Yes, Sir,” relief flooded his voice.
“Because the officers have no sense of humor?”
“Well, I agree – my friends and I were just going to cross the ford have a look around the Confederate linse – any problem with that?”
“Thank you, sergeant, we’ll just . . . “…” I took one step forward, found myself barred from further movement.
“I meant, no Sir, in that no one is allowed to pass, no one.”
“Whose orders?” As if I needed to ask.
“General McClellan, directly, Sir – came out last week gave explicit directions, no once across without written orders from him – only… Sir… Sirs.”
“The general himself came out?” Joinville spoke, looking upward
“Imagine that, wi’ all he has to do, comes out here, talks to us regular as you please, tells us how important this post is . . . hell o’ a thing.”
“It is,” I agreed readily, “look, sergeant, the rebels are gone, they left, abandoned Yorktown, we need to get over there.”
“Left during or after the bombardment last night.”
“Thought tha’ was strange.”
“Indeed, now may we pass?”
“Sorry, sir, the general hisself –”
“I got it, I got it, Sarge,” I put up my hands, “but look, the quicker we can verify they’re gone, the quicker the Army can tear out after them, catch them, maybe go a long way toward ending of this.”
“Well, sir, then why ain’t the whole army up and comin’ this way?”
“Because everyone’s asleep. Some officious pick won’t let me wake Mac up and tell him and not a damn thing is going to happen until midmorning or so, unless, maybe, we can do something abou itt.”
“They won’t let ya’ wake-up Lil’ Mac?” The sergeant asked, agog.
“Nope, got provost guards sealing him off .”
“Bastards,” said in such a way as to make one thankful it was not directed at oneself.
“So, sergeant –” this time he held his hand up, I waited while he ruminated.
“Colonel, my orders is ta’ not let noone cross this ford, the one laid out with ropes, without written permission from General George B. McClellan – my orders, though, don’t say nothing about the areas outside the ropes and,” he leaned over conspiratorially, “there’s plenty a’ ford left on both sids.”
“Thank you –”
“I’d get going, sirs, the river rises a bit here with tha’ tide, an’ it’ll be comin’ in soon.”
“Good night, sergeant,” I said, grabbed the rope and moved into the river.
“Good luck, sirs,” four hisses behind us.
The water was cold but not unpleasant, rose to mid-shin, the bottom under my boots smooth and gravelly. I slowed our pace to a step- by- step crawl when the far side loomed in the dark, the sudden, testicle gripping fear I might have miscalculated and the rebels had left guards behind to maintain appearances by killing curious, almost order breaking, lieutenant colonels. Or, Magruder being Magruder, perhaps he was in the ramparts above with three hundred chosen men acting Leonidas while Johnston slipped away. Hell, wasn’t there a town in Georgia named Sparta?
By the time all those thoughts formed and fed my psyche and further tightened my loins, I was standing on the rebel side of the Warwick. Stock still, in fact. Causing Joinville and Osgood to walk right into me.
“Fuck,” I snarled, my only possible reply considering the circumstances.
“Who were you expecting?” Osgood snarled back.
I ignored him and headed toward the long dreaded earthworks. The only sounds our breaths and soft footfalls on the dewy grass and dirt; the first rays of light in the eastern sky obliterated the stars – it occurred to me we would shortly be at risk from our own side, silhouetted against the embankments.
“I’m going up,” I answered to my friend… No objections – no agreement either, “hold this,” I handed the Springfield to Osgood.
“You are going up unarmed?” Joinville inquired.
“If they’re still there, what difference would a single shot rifle make?”
“Some reassurance … be right back,” I said over my shoulder and headed up, ineloquently at best. I walked, crawled, tripped, slipped, grabbed, lurched, scurried, chugged, and or hauled my way up the dirt, grass, stone embankment making enough noise to ease my mind about any remaining rebels.
I finally slipped over the top – the malicious would say flopped – and stood (sprawled?) on the wood slat reinforced parapet. It was marginally brighter, my first sight, taken with hands on knees, confirmed everything: the flagpoles to my left were bare, not even the lanyards were left. No unearned trophies for the Army of the Potomac.
I heard my friends approach, peered down over the lip, was instantly peeved they did not seem to be breathing all that hard, then chalked it up to my earlier trailblazing.
“Anyone there?” Osgood asked in a normal voice.
“Only Hamlet’s father.”
“You talk to him?”
“He remains troublesomely mute,” I answered as they dropped in beside me, Joinville sported a wry grin as he tossed my rifle to me.
From there it was a stroll, a pleasant sunrise stroll in the company of good friends. The breeze picked up, the sun rose through scattered clouds, Yorktown stirred behind us, bugle and drum calls carried over the river from our camp.
We saw our first Quaker gun a few hundred feet from our climb. No need to say anything, no need to even shake our heads, we silently moved on . . . to another. To be fair – though few would be in the coming days – there were empty emplacements with enough torn up earth and planks to indicate very heavy pieces had been hauled out. At one point we came across an ancient 32-pounder that looked all the world like it came off an old frigate. Enough left to be lethal, not lethal enough to warrant the labor and horses needed to pull it away.
As the sun rose higher, the full enormity of how alone we were in the rebel redoubts was shattered when the shadow of a roc come to life joyfully swooped over us. We looked up at the Stars and Stripes flowing behind the Intrepid. Professor Lowe stood, hand on rigging, an airborne Ahab searching for some land-based white whale, an officer with a remarkable amount of gold braid blazing in the sun and long blond mane flowing in the wind beside him.
We waved, I do not know if they saw us for they did not wave back.