150 years ago, Stonewall Jackson was somewhere on the Peninsula about to embark on the worst performance of his military career, one debated to this day. Lost in the debate is, of course, the fact that his mere presence – or rumor of his presence – was to have dire consequences for the Army of the Potomac – below, the beginnings. The generals on both sides knew each other well and carried per-conceived notions to ridiculous extremes. Think basing a life-altering business decision on your impressions of a high school classmate thirty years after graduation. “The War Department does not know where General Jackson is?” Joinville brandished the telegram for emphasis that was not needed.
“And disappeared?” Joinville persisted.
“Only to Washington,” McClellan sighed, “he’s here with three divisions on our right.”
“Three divisions?” I asked, evenly.
“Three, confirmed by deserters,” Porter answered with authority,
“God save us from Confederate deserters,” I muttered to a scowl from Porter, “didn’t he leave the valley with one division?”
“After what he did in the Shenandoah, why wouldn’t they give him more men?” Porter, eminently reasonable.
“Do I detect a hint of admiration in your voice, General?” I teased, shocked to hear a positive word said in these environs for one Tom Jackson.
Porter nodded, slowly, “Jackson’s performance was . . . stunning,” he sounded every bit as surprised as a man forced to relay the news the sun had just set in the east.
“Brilliant,” Mac echoed, “but he has excellent subordinates – like Dick Ewell.”
“But Thomas is in command,” I affirmed, “and unless he has changed radically, he s in total control.”
“Stonewall is aptly named,” Porter agreed, to a questioning glance from Joinville, “as inflexible a man as I’ve ever met.”
“Religious zealot, too,” Mac, half distractedly, writing something with a studious air, “although he certainly got along well enough with our Willie.”
“He was . . . interesting,” I replied, “unlike so many of our classmates,” I nodded at Mac.
“If by interesting you mean bizarre,” he refused to rise to the bait, “then yes, certainly.”
“Bizarre?” Joinville perked up.
“Ah, bizarre got the Frenchman’s attention,” I remarked.
“Of course it did,” he said without embarrassment, “examples, please.”
“Wouldn’t eat pepper,” Porter was quick to jump in, “claimed it made his left leg ache.”
“Rode with his arm in the air – to balance his humors,” Mac happily added, “sucked on lemons every chance he got.”
Joinville looked at me pointedly. I shrugged, “So far, Prince, they have described a scurvy free man with good balance and healthy legs.”
“Secretive, unemotional, suspicious, unbending, firm in the belief he rides with God, and -”
“What awful qualifications for a commanding officer,” I interrupted Porter’s recital.
“His Baptist fanaticism -” Mac began.
“He’s not a Baptist,” I corrected.
“What?” The two generals in unison.
“He’s Presbyterian,” I said with a large measure of smugness.
… that was not unnoticed, “That is remarkably perceptive,” Porter began slowly, “coming from a man with no observable belief system himself.”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” I doth protest too much.
“Fair or not, it’s the truth,” Fitz-John persisted, “tell the Prince where you received almost all your demerits.”
“I do not recall,” I lied effortlessly, “ancient history.”
“Funny,” Porter began without any evidence of humor, “I can recall with almost total clarity – as an upperclassman I’m afraid I was forced -”
“Forced?” I asked archly.
“Forced with pleasure,” he amended, ”to issue several of them.”
“And what were they for, General Porter?” McClellan with tenacity.
“Well, General McClellan,” Porter could not conceal his glee, “seems young cadet Hanlin – top student, excellent rider, class prankster,” that elicited a look from Joinville, I shook my head, “could not, would not pay attention in chapel.”
“Really?” Joinville happily intrigued.
“Tell me, Willie,” Porter, doing a fair impersonation of my prosecutorial self, “what were you doing the day you received the most demerits in the history of Sunday services?”
“I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, I -”
“It’s not, I actually looked it up after Mahon threatened to write me up for not writing you up.”
“I hold a record?” I asked with hope.
“I think you can rest assured our young Captain Custer has since broken it,” McClellan not so regretfully informed me.
“Immortality is so fleeting,” I sighed.
“What was he doing?” Joinville, losing patience.
“As usual he was sitting in the back pew, this day reading a book he thought he was successfully hiding under his cloak.”
“A book?” Joinville, disappointed.
“Oh, not just any book,” Mac laughed while still managing to convey seventeen year old odium.
“Indeed not,” Porter agreed “it was Tom Jones, no less.”
“Tom Jones,” Joinville repeated with wonder, “I will guess that it was not on the West Point reading list.”
“Then or now,” Porter confirmed.
“I had already finished de Sade’s complete works during Advent,” I explained to a laughing Prince.
“It was noted at the time,” Porter went on unabated, “that it was a rather large book, Cadet Hanlin was three quarters of the way through it, had not been seen reading it anywhere else on campus on any other occasions – on or off duty – so – ”
“It had gotten me through many an odious and overlong sermon,” I admitted.
“So, Mac finished, “he was punished for an amalgamation of the same sin. He was walking sentry duty for weeks.”
“Four, to be exact,” I corrected, “middle of the night, along the river.”
“Sounds onerous,” the prince observed.
“Nice, quiet, finished the book, actually,” I answered.
“I thought it was confiscated?” Porter snapped.
“When reading a banned book,” I intoned, “it is prudent to purchase two copies.
That drew a begrudging look of respect from Mac, who promptly went back to the current topic, “so, you can see that when it comes to religion, Willie’s comments are akin to a deaf-mute praising Mozart.
“A deaf-mute who can read music,” I pointed out with an edge.
“Indeed?” Joinville was the only one in the room to get the nuance,” well, then, William, what are our religions?”
“Please,” I waved him off, “you insult my powers of observation.”
“In other words, you don’t know.”
I smiled, nodded, “Prince de Joinville is, of course, Roman Catholic – although the more I listen to him the more convinced I am he has forsaken his obvious Jesuit indoctrinations for more Jansonist leanings.”
He started to reply, I held a hand up, “In as much as you require religion, being of noble birth and, therefore, in close personal contact with the Almighty in any event.”
“You are -”
“General Porter,” I ignored the gaping Prince, “is that peculiar blend of New Hampshire Unitarianism that produces steely eyed merchants, sea captains, generals, college deans, and ineffectual Presidents.”
Porter shook his great beard, raised his eyes to his Unitarian God, I turned my attention to our commander, “General McClellan is a harder religious nut to crack – pun entirely unintentional.”
“Of course it was, Willie,” Mac chortled, “as will be your transfer to Arizona.”
I nodded weakly, “Your Methodist leanings are being usurped by the charismatic teachings of that Eddies woman – the healing powers of -”
“You’ve made your point Colonel,” Mac, smile affixed in place, “we stand corrected, you are as religiously observant of others as you are lax in your observation of a higher power – if indeed you even acknowledge such.”
“Sure I do, I’m a Deist . . . like Jefferson.”
“First thing you’ve said that makes sense,” Porter cackled, “that you would follow the religious lead of a slave fucking, bankrupt, wine besotted satyr.”
“You left out Founding Father,” I added.
“It was implicit,” he smiled at his wit, “what have you been working on Mac?”
McClellan did not look up, “Much requested update for Stanton, the ass,” he distractedly muttered, punched a period with authority, “this ought to shake him up: ‘I have a kind of presentment that tomorrow will bring forth something – what I do not know. We will see when the time arrives. I am inclined to think Jackson will attack my right and rear. The rebel force is stated at 200,000. I regret my great inferiority in numbers, but I feel in no way responsible for that as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements; that this was the decisive point and that all available means of the government should be concentrated here.
“’I will do all that a general can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers can at least die with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action which will probably occur tomorrow or within a short time is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders, it must rest where it belongs.’”
Done, he looked up, blinking, surveyed us in turn. I am sure my mouth hung as wide open as Joinville’s when our eyes met in a combination of horror and shock.
Porter, however, grinned crookedly, “That’s putting it on the record – right damn time to do it, too – put the responsibilities where they lie.”
“Blunt,” Joinville observed with the look of a man confronted with something unfathomable but knowing he is required to say something.
“Time to be blunt,” McClellan agreed, “I’ve tried everything else yet McDowell sits in Fredericksburg and the Confederates mass before us.”
“And while Heintzelman’s corps sits four miles from Richmond,” Porter, shaking his head, “they can hear the church bells ringing.”
“There was a rainbow over Richmond Hills yesterday,” Joinville announced, “Beautiful, portentous.”
“You were up there?” I asked.
“Of course,” he chuckled, “could not pass that up.”
“An omen, eh?” Porter asked.
“Perhaps,” Joinville replied carefully.
“Then we’ll leave it in the hands of Providence,” Mac said with reverence.
“And my rifle pits,” Porter affirmed.
“Amen,” I seconded.