June 26, 1862, Beaver Dam Creek
An hour before dawn Joinville and I joined Porter to ride the lines. The early summer day broke spectacularly over us, the air scrubbed clean by yesterday’s inundating mists we moved from unit to unit dug in on a gentle rise overlooking the wide, swamped over stream. Rifle pit after rifle pit, Porter’s thirty thousand nestled beneath widely spaced, moss covered trees, wide-angle view of their front. Presently they kept a wary watch of still more trees, hanging vines, marshy clearings a few hundred yards north.
The lines were quiet, expectant, the better to hear the sounds of engineers and sappers felling trees and ripping up the macadamized roads. Within the hour, the smell of burning wood became pervasive as dozens of bridges over innumerable creeks were torched, undoing weeks of labor. Tom Jackson’s troops had been reported far, far out on Fitz’s right, we were not about to provide him with easy access to our flank. Porter, and by proxy Joinville and I, were everywhere without pause all morning. If there was an officer, NCO, private, ditch digger, teamster, Contraband cook who did not look into Fitz-John’s eyes that pretty day in the woods, it was entirely his fault. Despite everything that was to come to pass in the next months, Fitz-John, that day, that week, was as fine a corps commander as any who led men into battle — and we all knew it. That I could, and would, attest to in a court of law.
Joinville, Roxanne, Clio, and I followed in total silence, exchanging looks and content, if not mesmerized, to watch the general as he interacted effortlessly with his command, received messages from a distant McClellan, gave commands that sounded more like suggestions from a wise, respected uncle.
Early morning tension was palpable in the lines, tension that died a slow death of natural causes as the sun rose to mid-point and it began to look, feel, and smell like just another day outside Richmond waiting for the siege guns and a repeat of Yorktown. By one o’clock the mixed aroma of bacon and coffee filled the air, men formerly peering intently over rifles lounged, traded jibes, smoked, made it clear none of them expected anything any longer. It then became Porter’s unenviable task to instill a sense of vigilance in men who had not seen action in almost four months in the field – hell, they had not even been close enough to hear Fair Oaks. Porter walked a thin line that afternoon, motivating for an attack that experience taught would never occur and risk dulling then for the next alert.
Two o’clock and not a whisper from the Confederates, Joinville and I rode alone to the Beaver Dam Creek’s confluence with the Chicahominy, well out of earshot. “You still think they’re coming?” Joinville asked that which I asked myself.
“Better be, at this point,” I sighed, half lost in the slow, yellowish swirls of the river.
He nodded,” The men are ready, the —”
“Positions perfect,” I finished the day’s mantra.
“It would almost be a disappointment to stand down, go through it again tomorrow.”
“Like postponing Agincourt for a day,” I agreed, readily.
He ‘tsked’, shot a nasty look, “Why do you always use French defeats to make a point?”
“I do that?”
“You do, and you know you do.”
“Well,” I pretended to consider it for a moment, “it’s probably because you don’t appreciate me referring to Napoleon, in any way, and if you take him out of the equation there are precious few French victories to which to refer.”
He muttered something nastily Gallic before, “Never mind . . . . I understand the men refer to battle as the elephant.”
“Why is that?”
I shrugged, deepening his scowl, “I suppose it’s because it has to be seen to be believed . . . . it’s huge, loud, frightening, and can stomp you to death.”
“I like it,” he agreed absently, joined me in contemplation of the Chickahominy’s swirls, sighed yet again and got to his real question, “We are not outnumbered, are we?”
“You talk to Osgood as much as I do, what do you think?”
“I think they have fooled General McClellan,” no hesitation replying there.
“Again,” he nodded, “the rebels are going to attack nevertheless, are they not? Despite what McClellan thinks of this irresolute Lee?”
I engaged the Prince’s eyes and endeavored to educate him, “If you were the kind of man who rode into an uncharted desert with one companion to reconnoiter the Mexican positions, spent a day and night skirting cavalry, patrols, scorpions, Gila monsters all while knowing you would be executed if captured . . . and you not only survived, you came back with a perfect map and helped plan a victory Wellington proclaimed a master stroke . . .
“… if you were that sort of man, would you sit back, watch the way we’ve been crawling forward and not attack, regardless of odds?”
“If I were that man, I should attack at once,” the Prince answered with some heat, “that man is General Lee, I presume?”
“That man is General Lee,” I confirmed, “And he’s . . . they’re coming.”
A curt nod, “Of course . . . well, then . . . I think I am most curious now . . .,” he stopped, watched a happily oblivious muskrat stroke by, made no obvious move to finish.
“Well, don’t get shy now.”
“No, I will not,” he answered quietly, “I am wondering how General McClellan reacts to being attacked by this man . . . especially after the machinations in Washington.”
“You think he’s demoralized?”
“No, no,” he waved that off, “do not be absurd – but when a man feels himself wronged, continuously wronged in fact, a certain animosity, a certain insecurity builds, it is only natural.
“My experience is that it is made worse by the obstinacies bred by early success – and that is something our friend Mac shares with his namesake -”
“He who’s name you dare not utter,” I smiled, caught his eye, held it, “sorry . . . that was remarkably astute, Joinville, worthy of Hugo, in fact.”
He grimaced, then smiled thinly, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, I just hope you’re not prescient as well.”
We caged mugs from an Indiana regiment thrilled to find royalty in its midst so unexpectedly. He upheld their image of what a French prince must be by declining the proffered skillygally; I confirmed their opinion of the avarice of New Englanders by inhaling two very tasty plates while they fawned over the Prince.
Half hour later we rejoined Porter and his aides still restlessly touring the corps, the sun in its downward slope, the huge oaks dropping shadows over the rifle pits, Fitz John looking more haggard by the second – by that point, every minute of inactivity required ever more effervescence on his part; one man to keep 30,000 justifiably skeptical men from descending into cynicism and sloth.
It was a race of sorts: would the rebels attack before the sun went down or would Porter drop from exhaustion? Sundown was at 7:15, there was not a sound anywhere to our front, my money was on Fitzy’s swoon . . .
. . . a bet I would have lost.
Five o’clock, center of our lines, the Beaver Dam Creek wallowing over whatever banks it might have had if we ever went a week without rain, Porter slouched on the back of his equally fatigued horse, scattered cheers broke out to our right, continued through, into, over us and down to the river on the far left. A few frantic seconds to ascertain the reason for such sudden jubilation – across the creek a dozen or so deer sprinted madly between trees, splashing, darting, in white-tailed terror across our front. Amazingly, no one fired, so wrapped up were we in the pleasant break from a tedious day.
Not so the combat veterans and men from the country, Porter very much included. He sat bolt upright, locked eyes with me for a three count, did not even turn back before he began to yell, “Form Lines! Form Lines!”
We echoed him immediately, the order radiated out while, almost as quickly, men sobered to the reality of the running wildlife – men, many men, were behind them. Porter’s aides, in a blur, tore off to spread the word, set our lines of communications. I peered into the dimming woods, shadowy, distant movement far back in the trees, so faint I could be imagining it. I edged Clio carefully to Porter’s flank. By then I could hear, or thought I could hear, a murmuring in the woods. If Porter heard it, he gave no indication, he was straight-backed rigid, staring, took no notice of Clio or me.
I took his mount’s bridle to get his attention. “Time to dismount, General?”
“No, Willie, good view from here.”
“Certainly is . . . also a perfect view for the men to see their general dropped by a sniper or a high volley.”
He glared, then looked around at the men looking up from their rifle pits with concern, “They think so too, General,” I pointed, emphasized the point by dismounting, “I’ll put the horses behind the trees, they didn’t sign up for this.”
“Alright, Willie, but keep them close.”
“Of course,” I ran with Joinville to a heavy copse of trees thirty yards from our embankments, tied a not pleased Clio to a sturdy oak, Porter’s horse and Roxanne nearby for company she undoubtedly did not want, ran back, Joinville huffing and puffing a few feet behind, burdened by the sketch pad and wad of pencils he had torn out of his saddlebags.
By Porter’s side in time to make them out across the creek, long lines of gray and butternut flowing through the trees, the Bars and Stripes, blue flag of Virginia, Palmetto of South Carolina, a low rumble like a freight train behind a hill. Firing broke out to our right, we held ours, too many trees, still held when they began to double time it, throwing up splashes of muddy water . . . . a hundred yards, eighty, seventy . . . the ululating, ball clinching rebel yell shrieked through the trees and up my spinal column and they charged . . .
. . . and were dropped. Our lines fired as one, smoke encased us for the reloading, blew away revealing wide gaps. In silence they stopped, fired a raggedy volley, high, pelting us with twigs, leaves, pieces of bark. Our next volley tore them to pieces, those standing melted back into the trees leaving behind a few hundred broken bodies haphazardly draped across our foreground, a good many floating in the easy eddies of the creek.
To describe the day, evening, further would be to exult in long distance slaughter, for they came at us, a brigade or two at a time, in a series of uncoordinated attacks that ended as the first had. Piece-meal they came up, piecemeal they were scattered, their dead and wounded growing thicker, carpeting the far bank, leaving gray damp stepping stones in the dirty waters.
We roamed the lines with a grim faced Porter, one eye on the slaughter his men handed out, the other in the direction of his hanging flank, silent throughout – nothing out there, no signs of the bogey man Tom Jackson had become.
In the gloaming the rebels ducked behind trees and kept up a desultory fire that did little more than mark where they were and allow us to pick them off by the flame of their rifles. There being nothing left that day but to needlessly create a few more Confederate widows, Joinville and I silently rode off to report to headquarters.