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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

AURA LEE - PART EIGHT
12/16/2009 9:33:38 AM    [ Flag as Spam or Inappropriate ]

AURA LEE PART EIGHT continued

The magazine was tattered, several pages were missing, but the cover was fairly intact: Harper’s January 3rd edition, 1863.

During the forced march through North Carolina and into Virginia, a grueling two weeks of massive troop movement with upwards of four thousand men from converging regiments and divisions, crossing North Carolina and up through southern Virginia, slogging through heavy and incessant rain, and into the Shenandoah Valley, Melissa was by Daniel’s side every step, never wavering—moving on, high-stepping and effervescent even when the men drifted off and lagged in lethargic and fatigued groups behind and across each side of the road.

“Gawdamighty, to be fifteen again!” wished a corporal dragging on near the rear. “That boy’s on a mission! Look at ‘im!”

His partner grunted and shifted his rifle. “Boy’s a dang fool. Gonna be dead mighty fast some Yankee see him prancin’ like a madman.”

“Look at this,” Melissa said, holding the magazine in front of Daniel’s face. “Take a peek at this, will ya.” Her husband squinted against the reflection of an unexpected noonday sun breaking through the heavy clouds; he examined the drawing.

“That’s Santy Claus,” he pronounced.

“Thass fer sure.”

“What’s them mules pullin’ his sled?”

“Not mules, you ninny,” Melissa giggled. “Them’s reindeers. An’ they supposed to fly!”

Daniel was irritable this morning. He had just shaved—or tried to—in the cold water of a muddy stream, and his razor was dull from lack of stropping; he had cut himself twice, not seriously, but enough to frustrate him to a state of not wanting to look at Melissa’s magazine. But she had intrigued him.

“That there’s a pinchbeck idee I ever seen one,” he admitted. “Reindeer fly? Yeah, jess like elyphants!”

“No, no,” Melissa protested, “looky here. They explain it all, righ’ here in Harper’s. Night ‘fore Chris’mas ol’ Santy hitches up a sled, a really big sled, to all these here reindeer. Then they load up the sled with toys an’ presents for every l’il ol’ boy an’ girl in the world, an’ they take off with ‘em all piled high. Reindeer leapin’ up in the air an’ flyin’ all over the world, draggin’ this here ol’ sled, an’ they take toys an’ stuff right on down the chimney an’ pass ‘em out to kids everywhere, so’s they all got somethin’ to open up on Chris’mas mornin’!”

Daniel’s attention was now riveted; his interest normally fugacious, he suddenly wanted to know more.

“Where y’all git this here mag’zine?” he wondered, shifting his gangling frame about to look at her.

“Found it in a barn back yonder, the one we slept in week ‘go last.”

“It’s a good ‘nuff Yankee magazine, thass what it is. Look at all them Union boys standin’ ‘round waitin’ for Santy to hand ‘em a present.” Daniel glanced over his shoulder to make sure nobody was watching them fussing over a Yankee magazine. What neither of them knew, of course, was that this Nast drawing of Santa Claus visiting a Northern encampment on Christmas Eve was the first time anyone had conceived of the idea old St. Nick’s sleigh was drawn by flying reindeer.

“Them reindeers all girls,” Melissa said, and that got Daniel’s attention.

“How you know that?”

“Lookit the pitcher. All them reindeers got full racks on they’s heads.”

Daniel peered at the magazine cover. “So?”

“Boy reindeers shed their antlers come mid-November; girl ones don’t lose theirs ‘til they have babies in the spring. Y’all doan know nuthin’ ‘bout nuthin’.”

Melissa was young and glowing this spring morning, and she looked precariously like a young lady, rather than a Confederate boy barely able to shoulder a rifle. We gotta be careful, Daniel thought; she sure is dang pretty, even if she is jess a boy!

Thee long lines of troops were halted near one o’clock that afternoon; they broke ranks in a flat pasture over several acres, and those that had bread or biscuits went down on their haunches and searched inside their haversacks. A sergeant ambled by and glanced at Daniel and his young friend. Melissa casually rolled up the magazine and tucked it into the belt cinched to hold up her trousers. Daniel took out his razor and looked about for a flat rock on which he might strop it for a few minutes. The sergeant seemed interested in the razor in Daniel’s hand.

“Gonna teach that young’un fine art o’ barb’rin’?” he chuckled.

“Nope, sarge. Gonna teach him how to keep it stropped fer me,” Daniel quipped. “His own face too new to scrape.”

The sergeant stopped and looked more closely at Melissa. “Boy, looks o’ you I’m gonna be rockin’ onna porch singin’ hymns inna Baptist home ‘fore you ever gonna shave. How old y’all, son?”
Melissa scrunched over a bit more, causing her breasts to drop even deeper inside her shirt, and looked at the ground, lowering her voice to a near whisper. “Fourteen. Sir.”

The sergeant spit a wad of tobacco juice eight feet off to his left. “Christ Jaysus, save us all. This war’s . . .”

Daniel later told Melissa he never heard the shot, and she said she was certain if the sergeant hadn’t turned his head to spit, the bullet would have missed him and gone spent into the woods behind them. But that wasn’t what happened.

The six skirmishers out front of the Yankee platoon were spread wide and flat in the thicket at the edge of the tree line, and one of them had drawn a sure bead on the young towhead reading some magazine. A tall sergeant had stepped between them just as the Yankee soldier was squeezing the trigger, and when the old Reb turned to spit, he seemed to be looking directly at the sniper. The raised sight at the end of the barrel was framed directly above the bridge of the Reb’s nose, below the brim of his kepi, and between his shaggy eyebrows. The Yankee smiled as he pulled the trigger, and the puff of smoke and the rifle’s report were the signal for a major attack.

The sergeant’s head snapped back, and he instantly came off the ground, flying backwards nearly horizontal, as the bullet entered his brain, spun around momentarily, then exited through his right ear. Blood and brains, bone and flesh flew in all directions, and the front of Melissa’s shirt was splattered with rich offal, causing her to instinctively, in surprise, reach for her blouse and pull it outwards to better examine it.

Daniel dove for her and tackled her and tried to cover her with his own body as they groveled on the ground, crawling in tandem, to a place behind one of the few sycamore trees. Within seconds pandemonium was freed from some chthonic cage, and a major battle was begun.

An entire division led by Union General John Sedgwick had, during the late afternoon of the day before, and all night as well, formed, deep in the woods, a pincer of inestimable numbers spread in a semi-circle from near Front Royal to Winchester; and they had virtually gone undetected while surrounding Lt. Col. Ansley Cartwright’s Confederate force of barely four thousand men. The Federals were scattered and well-placed along the curving southern wedge of an impenetrable triangle; even their eight cannon were placed on slightly higher ground so that all ordnance thrown at the Rebels would come from a trajectory at the base of the triangle—from all points along a two-mile fortification ranging from point-blank to converging entrapments leaning toward each other at angles of almost forty-five degrees. From a solely military perspective, Cartwright and his men were trapped with nowhere to run or hide, except out the narrow crossfire at the apex of the triangle. It was a hopeless situation, an exercise of brilliant maneuvers and an indefensible opportunity for target practice for the Union troops. General Sedgwick (whose friend and mentor at West Point, ironically, had been Thomas Jackson) had learned his strategy well.

The battle lasted over six hours. Most of the serious damage was done in the first thirty minutes and in the last forty-five.

The Confederates were thrust into a leviathan lunacy of total confusion, and a Union soldier managing a modicum of marksmanship with his Springfield .58 caliber rifled-musket easily brought down his opponent with deadly accuracy. Others shouldered the Enfield .577 caliber model, and both fired the dreaded Minié ball, devastating from as far as a quarter mile, and able to sheer off arms and legs with razor-like precision. Rebels caught nearest the skirmishers, such as Daniel and Melissa, scrambled to find refuge behind a tree or in a ditch and were temporarily secure and out of the line of fire, but others, caught in the open and without their weapons, were picked off quickly by the Yankee sharpshooters.

Then, when the cannon sent a fusillade of five-inch balls roaring out of the thickets at point-blank range, the fury of confusion gave way to abject fear and horror.

Those hit by the cannon balls, be they men or trees, were split in two; heads and limbs were ripped from torsos; horses were opened up from mane to tail. Blood, bones, innards and gore of all descriptions were flung about as though unholy madness had gripped a huge slaughterhouse.

The noise was as crippling as the mayhem it contained. Repeated rifle and musket shots seemed like a quarry of stones poured unceasingly from the sky upon a village of tin roofs; cannonade with the roar of crushing concussion; men and horses screaming as they lay dying . . . Even the dead lay with their eyes open and glaring, frozen and immobile from their first glimpse of death, their mouths agape, and the silence of their screams was deafening.

The acrid smells of powder mixed with the acrid smells of festering, burning flesh . . . The scene was a crimson canvas by Jacob Isaac Swanenburgh; his vision of the damned children of Hell at play with Torment and Devastation.

“Be still; don’t move,” Daniel whispered, his mouth pressed against Melissa’s ear as he lay atop her, covering her body with his, behind the fragile sycamore.

“We gonna die here!”

“No, we ain’t. Hush!”

TO BE CONTINUED


Copyright©2009 by Robert A. Mills


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