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Robert A. Mills

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'Mate !

1/1/2003 8:13:00 AM

by Robert A. Mills


'MATE ! — a Civil War novel of historical fiction built on edge-of-the-page suspense designed to ensnare the reader with major involvement: What did the earlier killing of General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson at the battle of Chancellorsville have to do with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln nearly two years later?
Scoffie Goodis and Hunter Worboys are two young Confederate soldiers assigned as batmen to General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and his brother-in-law Lt. Joseph Graham Morrison, and also the perfidious Capt. William Jameson. Their presence forms the prism through which much of the action is filtered.
Before the war, when Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute and Jameson a keydet, Jackson had caught the young man cheating on an exam. When confronted with the evidence and brought before the Honor Committee, Jameson denied culpability and challenged Jackson to a duel. As Fate would have it, Jameson is eventually brought by Jackson to serve in the Stonewall Brigade during the Civil War. How do Jameson, a Confederate officer, John Wilkes Booth, an actor, and a young mountain girl from North Carolina become the catalysts for the unexpected tragedy during the Battle of Chancellorsville, remembered by history as the South’s greatest victory -- while accounting for its greatest loss, that of its greatest military officer of all time?
Melissa and Daniel Menefee of North Carolina harbor a keen desire to defect and join Union forces to fight against the South. After a long march into the Shenandoah Valley, with Melissa posing as a fifteen year old private and "brother" to her husband Daniel, they are serendipitously recruited by General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker of the Union Army of the Potomac to ensnare General Jackson in an elaborate plot first concocted by President Lincoln. The Great Emancipator is well aware Jackson is the one man who can orchestrate the South's final victory over the North, and he knows that day is at hand. "Old Blue Light" has to be removed before it is too late - if it isn't already.
How this book ends in not historical fiction. It is the culmination of a scenario known to every 6th grader who was ever confused by its various titles: The Civil War, the War Between the States, the Invasion of the North, the Invasion by the North, the War of Restless Insurgencies, the War of Southern Obstinacy, the Saving of the Union, the Destruction of a Presidency, and so on and so on. When the dust settled and the battlefields became pastoral memorials, only one statistic remains of any consequence: more American died and were ruined in this conflagration than the sum total of all wars in which Americans have participated—from the Revolution to Iraq.



The corporal had marched too far and too long, had experienced and seen too much, and he was tired and sick and wanted no more than to lie down and die. Twice during the last week he had seriously thought of suicide. “Mitch!” the skinny private called out, and this made the corporal turn his face into the fading sun, squinting against the slanted rays, letting his pale green eyes reflect the shadows caused by a clump of low trees and wooden fence rails. He was sitting on the ground just then, sprawling with his legs wide apart, half leaning, half reclining against a thick tree by the meandering fence. His Springfield was across his lap, but he was not sure if it was loaded. Most likely, it wasn’t. He didn’t really care. “Wha’ you want?” he mumbled. “Y’gonna sit here all day?” “Yeah. All night, too.” His voice, coated with Maryland dust, was little more than a distorted whisper. This detachment of the 27th Indiana of the Army of the Potomac had marched from north of Washington and into Frederick and no one below the rank of 1st lieutenant had a notion where they were going or why. Among themselves they wondered if even George McClellan himself knew, or if he did, had he shared it with anyone? Twenty-four year old Cpl. Barton “Mitch” Mitchell thought about it for approximately six seconds before he realized that he just didn’t give a good goddamn. I don’t care where we been, I don’t care where we goin’, I jus’ wanna take this war an’ shove it up Abe Lincoln’s ass, an’ I don’t care if I shoot any more Rebs, an’ I don’t care of they shoot me or blow my head off with some fuggin cannon-shot . . . He gazed at the Springfield rifle in his lap, and the process again ran through his mind. All he had to do was stand up and prop the stock of the gun between his bare feet, cocked and with a percussion cap in place. Just bite off the twisted paper end on the powder sack, spit it off to one side, pour the black grit into the barrel, select a Minie ball from his ammo pouch, and drop it hollow end first down the bore. Ram in tight five times with the rod. Put the muzzle of the gun in his mouth and with his big toe reach in and press downward on the trigger. Bang! Chances are he would not even hear the gun go off. For certain, he would feel nothing. The Minie ball would rip through the roof of his mouth, shatter every fiber of his encephalon, and exit by disintegrating the top of his skull, leaving his head resembling a watermelon that had been dropped from a high railroad trestle onto a bedrock below. It would be over in a millisecond. The war would be over. The killing and the mayhem would be over. He’d be done with it at last. A scant millisecond, then nothing. The skinny private, a teenaged beanpole named Eccles Heffner from Springport, just south of Muncie, stepped between the corporal and the sun and looked down with a genuine sense of compassion. “You sick in your stomach?” “Yeah.” “You eat somethin’ bad?” The corporal shook his head. “Jus’ sick.” “You got crud.” “Yeah.” "You got the shiverin' fits?" "Yeah." “Pssshhitt. We all got that.” “Yeah.” Mitchell leaned his head back against the tree and looked at the sky. It occurred to him it was the same sky the people back in Bluffton, Indiana would see, if they thought to look up once in a while. He remembered as a boy lying in the field just past the woods near his parents’ farm and looking at the sky, watching the clouds and the birds, and wondering why only birds could fly. It didn’t matter; he would never again see that field or those woods or those birds. He looked around at the field where he now found himself. Undoubtedly, someone’s farm, but he saw no house; the only evidence of crops was interminable rows of brown and broken corn stalks, dwarfed sentries guarding what was and would never be again. A flat field, a few trees, a long and sturdy fence beside a dusty, narrow road that went he knew not where. The fact that he was among several hundred men in a division comprised a several thousand meant nothing to him. For all intent, he was alone. It perhaps was what the beginning of death was like. Something within arm’s reach caught his eye. A dark brown paper, a package less than a foot long, rolled into a cylinder and half hidden by curly, skewed grass. He leaned to his left and pushed the grass away; he picked up the parcel and examined it. “Whacha got there, Mitch?” Heffner asked. “Dunno.” “Looks like a present. You havin’ a birthday?” The corporal held the parcel in both hands and noted the string wrapped around it, holding it together. The string was knotted with a slip-bow, and he carefully pulled the long end, letting it fall away as the paper separated and came apart. “Some kinda letter,” he muttered. “Say what?” The paper had been wrapped tightly around what he now saw were three cigars. He removed them with his right hand and left the paper fall to his lap. “Man,” Heffner responded, dancing lightly in front of his friend, “we got smokes! Real smokes! Them look like Reb cigars!” Mitchell nodded. “Sure do,” he said, although he had no idea how Rebel cigars would look compared to Yankee ones. He pushed his rifle aside and clamored to his feet, and the paper drifted down into the grass. “You got any matches?” Heffner quickly rummaged in his pockets. “Shoot. Ain’t even got a flint!” He spun about and moved away toward the road. “Gonna git me some matches! We gonna have some smokes!” And he was gone. The corporal brought the cigars to his face, under his nose, and sniffed each one, rolling them tenderly between his dirty thumb and forefinger. They were soft and moist and fresh, and the aroma brought back sudden memories of his father and grandfather on the front porch on Saturday nights. His grandfather didn’t smoke, but his father did. His grandfather chewed. And spit with deadly accuracy. The rich aroma of cigar smoke and moist chewing tobacco was his most vivid recollection of growing up in Indiana another lifetime ago. He looked past the cigars then and stared down at the paper in which they had been wrapped. Visible through casual blades of grass he saw the heading: Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, Special Orders, No. 191. September 9, 1862. He heard more than felt the sudden rumble in his belly as he bent over and picked up the paper. Quickly he read the page, and as he did he noticed his hand had begun to tremble. The letter was addressed to Major-General Daniel Harvey Hill. “Jesus.” Barely audible, a whisper of dry ashes. He glanced at the bottom of the page. It had been signed R. H. Chilton, Assist. Adj.-Gen. By command of Gen. R. E. Lee. “Jesus!” The document contained other names, most of which were familiar to Mitchell. Names like Stuart, Hill, Longstreet – and Jackson. The corporal didn’t realize it but he’d even spoken one aloud: “Stonewall Jackson! Jesus!” He had dropped the cigars as he read the hand-written orders, the cigars now forgotten completely. He held the paper in one hand and picked up his rifle with the other. Looking quickly about for Heffner and not seeing him, Mitchell moved through the milling soldiers until he found his first sergeant, John Bloss. “Where you git this, Mitch?” “Found it in the grass, over yonder by that tree.” “You show this anybody else?” “Nope Sarge; you only one.” “You come with me, boy.” The moment they showed the orders to their captain, Stanley Waterworth, they were dismissed with “No conversation with anyone about this with anyone, do you understand? It may just be a hoax.” Capt. Waterworth went immediately to his lieutenant colonel who had not a moment’s apodictic concern as to the document’s authenticity. It traveled next to the division headquarters adjutant, Col. Samuel Pittman. “My God!” Pittman exclaimed. “I know Chilton! We were classmates, close friends a lifetime ago. I would swear on my father’s eternal and beloved soul this is his handwriting!” Pittman mounted his horse with the document still clutched in his hand and rode the short distance to General George McClellan’s headquarters. McClellan collapsed into the chair behind his ornate campaign desk and spread the paper flat with both hands, holding the edges down with his thumbs. He stared at it for a full ten minutes. Then he looked up and addressed his assembled staff. “Here is a paper,” he said to Gen. John Gibbon, his voice taut with emotion, “with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.” It was on September 13 that McClellan dictated this telegram to President Lincoln: I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it. I now have the plans of the Rebels, and will catch them in their own trap. That was the glorious part of day -- when the sky was brightest, between eleven-thirty and one, when daydreaming was at its best and everything made sense, and what didn’t make sense didn’t matter anyway. Scofie Goodis, on that clear summer morning in 1862, felt wrapped in a sheath of shivering, invigorating anticipation; he knew the war was about to end and he knew the South, thank God, had won at last! Now if he and Hunter Worboys could stay out of harm’s way for a scant three or four more weeks, they’d soon be home in Milledgeville, and life would pick up where it had stopped the day Fort Sumter’s relentless siege and shelling had begun. Scofie was twenty-three that summer, and he’d never felt better about himself, or life – or, for that matter, the ministry. He’d not killed anybody, had not broken any Commandments, had not been directly involved in any battles of consequence, had fired his rifle only in practice. To his knowledge, no Yankee had so much as drawn a bead on him (and vice versa). His future was secure. His life was laid out before him in minute detail: Linda Lynn Crumb was waiting at home, and they’d be married – he was sure of that if little else – by Christmas. He’d have a church of his own, probably in Sparta, once he finished his interrupted studies at Augusta’s Roberts Baptist Divinity Institution -- and if Reverend Percy McCollum was, as all knew he was, a man of his word. Now a corporal and a private in the Georgia 3rd Detached Reserve Infantry, Confederate Army of the South, Scofie and Hunter had been assigned to General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as batmen to General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. They, along with Lt. Joe Morrison and Lt. J. P. Smith, Jackson’s aides-de-camp, served (lived, actually) at the pleasure of the South’s greatest war hero. “How come they chose us,” Hunter had asked, addicted as he often was to persiflage as they rode with the cavalry north to Richmond, “from outta all them Virginny fellas, how come they choose us to hold ol’ Stonewall’s hand? Shoot, we never even been up in ‘Ginny b’fore!” “Don’t likely know,” Scofie replied, scrunching his butt somewhat sideways in the saddle and hunching his six-foot six-inch frame to lean over the pommel and glance at his friend. If there was anything distractingly uncomfortable to Scofie, it was his height; and his angular face with its high cheekbones and elongated jaw, thick lips and piercing brown eyes. His hair was jet-black and hung straight, almost like a Cherokee’s, and when he didn’t shave for two or three days, he became the uncanny doppelganger of the man he hated most in all the world: Union President Abraham Lincoln. Hunter had once remarked that the best thing to ever happen to Scofie was being born in Georgia. “You be a Yankee you’da been fightin’ in a blue Union hat, and they’da shot you dead first day thinkin’ you was that assho’ Lincoln!” Scofie snorted. “Don’t look no more like ol’ Abe than Cain look like Abel.” “How you know what them ol’ guys look like?” Hunter remarked, “One thing I never could figure: if Cain an’ Abel was Adam and Eve’s boys, where’d them gals they married up with come from? How’d all that begattin’ get goin’?” Scofield Shipman Goodis met Hunter Wylie Worboys the first day of school in Milledgeville in 1847 when they were both six years old. They had been close friends ever since, and when Scofie went to Augusta Roberts right out of secondary school, Hunter followed as though the decision had been predestined. “No question ‘bout that,” Hunter made plain, “but I’m not laid out to be a preacher – like Scofie here. I think teachin’s what I’m bent for.” “When y’all cain’t do,” Scofie whispered, soto voce, “teach.” And Hunter jabbed him solidly in the ribs. Hunter was a robust person, not tall so much as to be noticeable, but wide, strong, fair of skin, a reddish-tow head, a squat carrot, his face a spread of freckles overseen by bright blue eyes whose glistening made one think he was about to break into tears – but his smile was the giveaway: no tears there, this was a young man full of himself and full of unbridled glee. Even at twenty-three, Hunter was a man in full. . . . General Thomas Jackson, on the other hand, was a military officer with keen management skills and the dauntless courage of a pioneer hoping to find a starving grizzly behind every tree. Organized battle was his forte (Jackson was the first American militarist to pronounce it “fort”, not “for-tay”; Jefferson and John Adams were the first American academicians -- in fact, the comparisons between Jackson and Jefferson were frequent and somewhat profound.)      

 

 

 

 



More News by Robert A. Mills

· Well ! - 8/28/2007 10:15:00 AM
· Circles ! - 6/15/2005 1:16:00 PM

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Robert A. Mills



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