The day after Second Manassas, which the 21st watched from the Stone Bridge across the Bull Run, the brigade, William temporarily in command – – – their brigadier general fled the day before when he saw the rebels roll up the Union Army like a cheap rug – – – is ordered north …
There was no dawn, just a smidgen of lightening sky to the east well beneath the horizontal rain. Thunder was continuous, lightening crackled dangerously close, casting the landscape in a brief, fading eerie sequa while ozone hung in the drenched air like gunpowder gone bad.
The rebels were gone – at least, they were no longer in contact with our reeling army. They had inflicted a near fatal wound – though the jury was still out on that that morning – and had vanished yet again, off to create havoc somewhere else.
Shortly after the purely theoretical sun rise, my little brigade was ordered to join the remnants of a much culled division and head northwest, find and engage an enemy which had thus far allowed themselves to be found and engaged only when they felt like beating the piss out of us. There was no grumbling at the orders, however, that was saved for the fact there was no way to brew coffee or cook breakfast, We splashed away from our protective wall munching coffee beans and gnawing hardtack, leaving behind the bridge that never needed our protection, bending into the teeth of the storm, the storm that showed no inclination toward abating. Ever.
Speech was impossible, breathing a little less of a miracle, barely feasible as long as one kept his head down, hat pulled down tight, and employed only his nose. Water coursed ankle high, the preceding week’s weather had baked the roads to the consistency of iron. Clio sploshed as if stomping into overflowing buckets at every step.
I gave up any hope of biting so much as a crumb out of my intractable hardtack – a food even Clio turned her nose up at – chewed a couple of coffee beans and tried to convince myself I was nowhere near as miserable as I felt. A particularly crushing gust of wind pushed rain as hard as mica into my face, I lowered my heard, further, would have ridden right into Arnold if not for the quick action of an irritated Clio.
Arnold risked drowning by sitting up and staring off to the north. I considered pretending I did not see him but Clio forced the issue by acting her usual obsequious self and nuzzling his hip as we rafted by.
“William!” Arnold shrieked into the wind.
“Seth,” I yelled, received a mouthful of tepid rainwater in return.
“That’s not lightening ahead, is it?” He screamed before coughing and vainly wiping his face with gloved hands.
I peered through the flood, hating him for his curiosity, water running into my nose, flooding my mouth. He was right, the flashes off in the horizon were not descending from the gods, “Artillery,” I confirmed, “hard to believe.”
“They don’t expect us to fight in this, do they?”
“Only if the rebels insist.”
“Jesus, William, we won’t be able to see them.”
“Nor they us.”
“Point taken ….. reassuring.”
Exhausted by our the efforts we plodded up stream to another dull gray hill top, downstream to a swallow dale, up again, lightening crackling over our heads, once close enough to raise the hairs on the nape of my neck . . . . we glimpsed artillery flashes every hundred yards or so, they never seemed any nearer.
It was repetitious, dull, irritating and miserable beyond measure and I was so lost in feeling sorry for myself I forgot we were riding with Seth and Augustus until Arnold reached out and punched my arm.
“What!” I snapped into the rain.
He pointed , I followed his shriveling index finger, focused beyond the immediate sheet of rain to see two of our officers hatless against the deluge, standing in their stirrups, gesturing wildly to the soaked columns trudging by, a few heads peering up at them.
“What the hell is it now?” I muttered to myself, spurred Clio ahead – she obeyed, but only after a ‘what could possibly be urgent in this shit’ look over her shoulder. I identified them long before I heard them: Ashford and Shea, emoting for all they were worth. A few steps closer I could see their smiles, in another I could make out the words.
“Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” Ashford, his baritone another peel of thunder in the rain.
“You cataracts and hurricanes – spout. ‘Till you have drenched the steeples, drown’d the cocks!” Shea’s tenor picked up in nice contrast.
“My cock’s already drowned,” Arnold stage whispered.
My, ready, response was roared over by Ashford, “You sulphurous and thought executing fires, vast-couriers of oak clearing thunder, thunderbolts, singe my white head!”
I surveyed my moldy lines as they mucked by, almost to the man they looked up, smiled widely despite the inherent dangers, Shea noticed too, as he added, “And thou, all shaking thunder, strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world! Crack nature’s moulds.”
I made an effort to interject, never got beyond a sllyable as the two of them crescendoed in a roar heard above the latest peel of thunder, “All sermon’s spill at once, that make ingrateful man!’ Pleased with themselves, they made bows to their captive, sopping, smiling audience, the two beaming, shiny with rain thespians sat upright, waiting for a new audience to draw near.
“Very impressive,” I remarked, Arnold nodding beside me, “perhaps you can take the act South.”
“Ah, ya’ no appreciation for culture,” Shea snarled, water bubbling out of the corner of his mouth in the effort.
“Quite the contrary,” I affected hurt, “and I agree this weather ‘pities neither wise men nor fools’ — obviously.”
“I donna’ think —-”
“And to hear an Irishman and an Episcopalian minister,” I cut through Shea’s indignation, “spouting Shakespeare … together … well, I guess it’s fitting it’s Lear in his madness.”
“Philistine,” Shea spit, along with a pint of rainwater, Ashford smirked, turned his head from the rain.
Arnold and I rode away to allow them to prepare for the matinee, incredibly the rain picked up, my entire world view consisted of the foaming ground around Clio’s fetlocks. Fifteen, twenty minutes, ten hours, who could know by then, we came to a crossroads, stopped to watch an equally miserable, west-bound column trudge by. Two sullen officers, speaking in well-earned disbelieving tones, relayed the latest scuttlebutt: at least a division of rebels had been cut off north of Lee’s main body and we were out to cut it up. The fact we were headed in opposite directions to ‘cut them up’, along with the rather clear evidence of the events of the previous months, precluded the possibility of anyone in blue out thinking R.E. Lee. And, in the event it had miraculously occurred, absent long bows and lances we were not about to inflict harm on anyone.
A mile or so north, no abatement in the weather whatever, as if the gods were jealous of yesterday’s display by mere mortals and were intent on showing us how it was really done, we approached yet another shallow hilltop. Seth and I rode alone in front of the column, a finally silent Shea and Ashford posted at the rear to assist stragglers. The road narrowed, a few sorry, deserted homes pushed against it, we were confronted by a dim, thin column splashing South in well ordered moltiness while the dark afternoon darkened yet again, fresh thunder shook the ground, the rain ran parallel to it, visibility shortened to a matter of feet.
Somehow we got our column pushed over at the same time they did and two groups of rain obscured men moved past in opposite directions toward some unidentifiable goal, everyone hunched over against the onslaught as if climbing a mountain, absorbed in their footfalls and the effort to breathe.
They waded by a foot or two from us, Seth and I sat between the columns, living barriers, while the 21st moved to our right, the newcomers to our left. There were more of us – they moved as we did, in no more of a hurry than we – the 21st was still filing by when they cleared my vantage, a tall, thin officer trailing slightly behind, performing the same duty Shea was in our rear.
He looked up as he passed, made obvious note of my shoulder straps, rueful grin spreading across his face. I gaped right back – at his gray coat and yellow captain’s bars.
I turned Clio to watch – insure? – as they kept going. The captain, the rebel captain, reined up a few yards away, moved, slowly, towards us, Clio took a few steps on her own volition until we stood a foot or two apart, staring, I probably sported as idiotic a grin as he did.
He spoke first, “I won’t tell if you won’t, suh.”
“Tell what, Captain?”
“Exactly, Colonel,” he laughed, “exactly …… but we’ll be seein’ you …. soon.”
“Look forward to it, Captain, enjoy your ride.”
“Suh,” he touched his hat, moved off, stopped again about twenty yards out, made a sweeping bow, quickly faded into the rain.
By then the 21st was by, Ashford was by my side, “My God, William, can you believe that?”
“Tha’s the closest we’ll ever get ta’ them,” Shea laughed, shaking his hatless, plastered head.
“Well,” I considered, “we can at least say we have met the enemy.”
“And,” Ashford, laughing as well, “he is most definitely not ours.”