Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

Visiting Shiloh National Battlefield

Scattered throughout Shiloh National Cemetery are plaques with portions of the poem:  Bivouac of the Dead by Theodore O’Hara.  Here is the opening stanza:

The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last Tattoo;
No more on life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.

It is a most appropriate ode to not only the cemetery at Shiloh, but the entire battlefield.  I spent last weekend visiting Shiloh and going over the battlefield.  Over the next month I will be posting video clips from my visit there, but the first clip is at the cemetery:

The battle of Shiloh is the climactic scene of Duty, Honor, Country a Novel of West Point & the Civil War.  In fact, somewhere in the land that became the cemetery, on the first night of the battle, Ulysses S. Grant sat under an oak tree in the rain, contemplating whether to withdraw after horrendous losses that day, or fight on the next day.  Also, somewhere on that land, was a wood cabin where surgeons plied their bloody trade and a scene in that cabin changes the course of history.

At its conclusion, Shiloh produced more casualties in two days than all previous American Wars combined.  Walking over this hallowed ground was humbling.  I walked the entire length of the Sunken Road (which really isn’t sunken) that as the front edge of the Hornet’s Nest, where Union troops repelled eleven Confederate assaults.  Until 62 cannon were lined hub to hub, producing the greatest artillery barrage ever seen on the continent and the Union line was broken.

I walked around tiny Bloody Pond, just behind the sunken road, where casualties from both sides crawled, desperate for water on a hot April day.  I stood at the spot where General Albert Sidney Johnston was shot, still the highest ranking American officer ever to be killed in combat.

All of this is quite strange for a place called Shiloh, which means ‘place of peace’.

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How Did Stonewall Jackson get his nickname?

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

There are two versions of this story.  The popular one, and the following, which isn’t as popular.  Regardless, there is no doubt Jackson holding the line saved the Confederate army at First Bull Run and led to their ultimate victory there.

*****

“Get in a line, men, in a line,” Seneca yelled, not quite sure of the proper order to achieve what he desired.

The rest of the 33rd was deploying, moving forward among retreating soldiers, some of whom started in fear, seeing the blue uniforms in their midst.  For a moment all was turmoil, but then a colonel stood up in his stirrups, his shockingly blue eyes aglow.

“Virginians.  Advance!”

The men gave a shout that made the hair on the back of Seneca’s neck curl.  Before he knew it, he was screaming the same inarticulate yell and pressing forward.  They crested Henry House Hill in time to see a line of blue with a smattering of gray crest Matthews Hill, not quite a mile distant.  The low ground in between was cluttered with retreating Confederate troops.

Union artillery suddenly began belching canister from Matthews Hill and wide, bloody swaths were cut in the men in the valley.

The blue-eyed Colonel rode along the crest of Henry Hill, now ordering the men to form and hold a line, to take the defensive and be prepared to face an attack.  Seneca dismounted, handing the reins to one of his men.  He saw a lieutenant in blue running by, a Virginian and grabbed him by the arm.

“Who is that?” Seneca demanded.  “Why’s he ordering us to stop?”

“That’s Colonel Jackson, sir.  Brigade commander.”

Seneca looked to his right and saw a Confederate unit flowing down the hill in the assault, another officer in the lead.  “And who is that?”

“General Bee, sir.”

Seneca glanced once more at Jackson, weighed Colonel against General, the glory of the assault against that of the defense, then ordered his men to follow.  He charged downhill, following Bee’s advance as fast as he could.

The General rose up in his saddle and looked over his shoulder, waving his sword.  He saw that most of the Virginians were not following.  “There stands Jackson like a stone wall,” he cried out.

*****

Since General Bee died, no one quite knows why he called out what he did.  But as they say in Liberty Valance:  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Abraham Lincoln in Command

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

“General Delafield,” Lincoln said.  “It was good of you to hold the reins at the Academy after that fool Beauregard displayed his southern tendencies.”

“I am always glad to serve my country, sir,” Delafield said.

“Would that all military men felt the same way,” Lincoln murmured, more to himself than the others.

“Sir,” Delafield said, “if I might introduce—“

“Sergeant Major Rumble,” Lincoln said.  Surprisingly, Lincoln stood and leaned over the desk, extending his hand.  Rumble scrambled to his feet and met the President’s firm hand.

Lincoln held the grip for a second.  “I can always tell a lot about a man from his shake.”

Then the President sat back down, put his feet up on the desk while leaning so far back in his chair, that even Stanton started, expecting to see the President fall over backwards.  Their concern was for naught as Lincoln laced his fingers behind his head and began speaking, as if to the ceiling.

“I was in the military for a little while during the Black Hawk War,” Lincoln said.  “One of the proudest moments of my life was when the men in my company elected me captain.  Of course, they did not do so out of any sense that I had the genius of a Mars.  I could wrestle well, which they somehow seemed to believe lent itself to leadership.”

Lincoln was gazing at some spot on the ceiling.  Rumble was tempted to look up, but he kept his eyes on the President as he continued.

“One time we were on the march and we came upon a split rail fence.  There was a narrow gate in the fence, but I fear I could not remember the proper commands to go from the march formation to the appropriate movement to get us through the gate in a military manner.  So I simply called a halt, ordered the men to fall out for a few minutes and reform on the other side of the fence in formation.  It worked.”  Lincoln dropped his feet off the desk with a heavy thud and sat up straight.  “However, no one was firing at us at the time.  I suppose that would have made my maneuver disastrous.”

Lincoln sighed and for a moment he looked old, very old, the lines in his face falling into each other and the dark pockets under his eyes telling of restless nights.

“General McDowell will move on Richmond soon.  And many say that hopefully this war will be over soon.  Are you a hopeful man, Sergeant Major Rumble?”

“In this instance, I am not, sir,” Rumble replied.

“Really?  A rarity in this city.”  Lincoln looked past Stanton, out the window.  “They stopped building Washington’s monument in ’54 when the pockets of the people donating were empty.  Congress was going to appropriate the money to finish it, but then the states got to haggling.  Alabama wanted the monument to have stone from every state and once that can of worms was opened Washington’s tower was doomed to gather dust.” Lincoln fell silent for a moment.  “And then there’s the capitol dome.  Also incomplete.  I can finish one or the other, but not both, which seems to be the theme of this war.”

Sam Houston on the Civil War

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

8 June 1861, Mississippi River

“He killed the Matlock brothers with a two shot derringer,” St. George said.

“So he’s a good shot and don’t waste bullets,” Sally Skull acknowledged.

The steamer fought against the Mississippi, paddle wheels churning muddy water.  To the right, the lights of Vicksburg glittered on a bluff overlooking a sharp bend in the mighty river.  Skull and St. George sat on crates up top of the boat, just behind the pilot house, left alone by the rest of the passengers out of tacit acceptance this was the boat owner’s private area.

“He more than that,” St. George said.  “He—“

“I know who Nathan Bedford Forrest is,” Skull cut him off.  “You think I was born yesterday?  He one of the biggest men on the river and worth over a million Yankee dollars.  I know he’s mean as a rattlesnake and cold as a blizzard.  I know he owns this boat we riding on.  I wouldn’t be here for this meeting if I didn’t know who I be meeting.”  She took a swig from the whiskey bottle on the shipping crate that served as a table between them.  “The thing you got to remember, St. George, is that he smart.  Wicked smart.  He started with nothing, now he one of the richest men on the river.  And he didn’t get it cause his pappy gave it to him.”

St. George bristled.  “What you saying?”

“Just what I’m saying,” Skull said, earning a confused furrow in the middle of St. George’s forehead.  She handed the bottle to the overseer.  “Listen.  This war that’s here now.  It aint gonna be short, it aint gonna be easy, and your people, they aint gonna win.”

“What do you mean my ‘people’?”

“The south” Skull said.  “I was down in San Anton when Texas voted to secede.  I—“

“Why was you there?” St. George interrupted.

“Always deals to be made,” Skull said.  “Especially to armies.  Some Confederate big-wigs went to the old Alamo and got the Federal commander to surrender the arsenal, hand over ten thousand rifled muskets.”

“That’s good,” St. George said, eyes always on the immediate.

“Let me finish,” Skull said.  “There was another Fed officer there, Robert Lee, a Virginian.  I heard of him from the Mex War and he the one that trapped old John Brown.  And I could tell he was surprised things was happening so fast.  Heard him talking to another officer, saying the secces was fools.  When they paroled him, he went back to Virginia, back to the Union.  Struck me as a sensible man.  And Sam Houston, the governor, let me tell you, he fought a lot of battles and he a smart man too and he was against seceding.”

“Why?” St. George asked.

In response, Skull reached into one of the many pockets on her dress and retrieved a folded newspaper article.  “Here what Ole Sam said and the damn fools still out-voted him to secede:  ‘Let me tell you what is coming.  After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives you may win southern independence, but I doubt it.  The north is determined to preserve this union.  They are not a fiery impulsive people as you are for they live in colder climates.  But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche and what I fear is that they will overwhelm the South with ignoble defeat.’

“’Ignoble’?”  St. George spit.  “I don’t know what that mean, but it sound bad and he damn wrong.  Any southerner worth ten Yankees.”

“Houston’s right,” Skull said.  “And that’s why I’m here.  Your tit at Palatine is going to run dry.”

“We can grow cotton forever,” St. George argued.

The steamer rounded the bend and Vicksburg was behind them.  The sound of revelry from whiskey, gambling and other dark arts echoed up from the main deck.

The Routine of Beast Barracks at West Point: 1860

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

Like cattle to the slaughter, the small herd of new cadets was escorted with many a scream and promise of a dire future to a tent on the edge of the encampment.  They were hustled into line, and sent in, one by one.

Ben was third.  The adjutant seemed bored with the ritual, seated behind a field desk in the tent and looking at a piece of paper.  Ben came to a halt three paces in front of the desk and waited.

“Name, new cadet?”

“Ben Agrippa Rumble.”

The adjutant responded automatically.  “That’s New Cadet Rumble, got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

The adjutant finally looked up.  “We all know you and we know about you, Mister Rumble.  Most of us have, shall we say, shared some libation with you at Benny Havens.  We all know your father.  But none of that matters now.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.  Then.”  The adjutant got to his feet and began issuing orders.  “Come to attention when addressing an upperclassman.  Heels together.  Toes out.  Hands by your side, palms out fingers closed, little fingers on the seams of your trousers, head up, chin in, shoulders thrown back, chest out, belly in, eyes straight ahead.  Stay like that and don’t move.”

The instructions came like bullets, Ben contorting his body to comply.

The adjutant looked past Rumble as another upperclassman entered.  On cue the side flaps on the tent were loosened and dropped, darkening the interior.  The only light came from a single candle flickering on the field desk.  The adjutant left, leaving Rumble alone with the unidentified cadet behind him.

“We have a problem with you, Mister Rumble,” the newcomer said.  “You’ve seen most of us imbibing in your grandfather’s tavern.  Which means you’ve seen most of us violating quite a few regulations.  Once you sign in to the Corps, you will be bound by the honor code.  Do you see the problem?”

“No, sir.”

“Duty requires you tell the truth about what you’ve seen.  You will be bound to that.  If you do not tell the truth, then you are dishonorable.  However, if you tell the truth, then many a fine cadet might have their futures destroyed.  We can’t allow that to happen.”

“It won’t, sir.”

“We can’t take that chance.  I think the sooner you leave the Corps, the better,” the anonymous cadet said.  “You can’t stay.  You’re a threat to too many.  And if you don’t tell the truth, the Vigilance Committee will come for you.  I very strongly suggest you do not sign the roll, and go back down to your grandfather’s tavern.  We are gentlemen here.”

Ben said nothing, feeling a line of sweat course its way down his back in the now-stuffy tent.  The seconds passed.

“Think hard on it,” the upperclassman advised.

When Rumble still said nothing, the upperclassman came so close, Rumble could feel his breath on his neck.  “Don’t push this.  It’s more than just about the tavern and the honor code.  This is a place for gentlemen.  We don’t want your kind here.  The lack of honor is in your blood.”

Ben wheeled.  “And what kind is that?  What do you mean by lack of honor?”

“Watch you tongue!”

“Watch yours!” Ben stepped closer, chest thumping against the upperclassman’s.  “Are you a man?  Willing to face me?”

The upperclassman laughed, even as he backed up.  “You can fight as many of us as you want.  It won’t change a thing.  It won’t change your blood.”

Then with a rustle of canvas he was gone.

The adjutant returned and took his place behind the desk.

“Well, Mister Rumble?”

Ben’s jaw was tight, his muscles vibrating.  “Yes, sir.”

“Do you wish to say something?”

“No, sir.”

The adjutant sighed and pointed at a piece of paper.  “Sign here, indicating you are on the active roster of cadets.”

Ben went to the table, quickly signed, and resumed the position.

“You will go to the quartermasters and be measured for uniform, the barber, the surgeon for exam, the armory to draw a weapon, and you will do all this within the next hour and report back here.”  The adjutant made a great show of checking his pocket watch and making a notation in the log.  “Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will do all this at the double.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know the four answers you are allowed, don’t you New Cadet Rumble?”

“Yes, sir, no, sir, no excuse, sir and sir, I do not understand.”

“Use the last one sparingly. Go!”

Ben ran from the tent, almost crashing into an upperclass cadet who halted him and berated him for his unmilitary appearance for almost ten minutes, eating into his hour allotment and clearly trying to provoke him into action he would not be able to take back.  With every fiber of his being, Ben bore the insults and hazing.

The days passed in a blur for Ben.  Within a week he learned how to march, carry his musket and some basic maneuvers.  It seemed as if the drum rattled out the marching cadence all day long at the encampment.  The days were long with reveille at 5:00 am.  Then there was roll call to account for everyone.  Then ‘policing’ the tent city, removing anything that wasn’t supposed to there, and it seemed as if the upperclass went out of their way to place disgusting objects in the strangest places for the plebes to find.  And woe unto them if they did not find the objects.  Then drill from 5:30-6:30.  Then arrange their bedding, raise the walls of their tents so it was open to the air, and inspection, and prepare for morning parade.  They marched to the mess hall for breakfast.  Ben had eaten in the mess before so he was prepared for the terrible repast that awaited.

Right after breakfast, which was wolfed down as there was never enough time allowed to properly eat, the guard was mounted.  Then artillery drill from 9:00 to 10:00.  Then back to the tents to clean and polish gear, a never-ending task.  No matter how shiny a cadet made his brass, an upperclassman could always find fault with it.  The march to lunch at 1:00.  Then dancing from 3:00 to 4:00, because every cadet would be an officer and an officer was a gentleman, and a gentleman knew how to dance.  Then another police call.  Then Infantry drill from 5:30 to 6:45 followed by evening parade and inspection.  Then dinner.  Followed by final roll call at 9:30 and lights out at 9:45.

Besides making soldiers, the strict regime forged a class of men that grew tight and developed bonds that would last a lifetime.  Cooperate and graduate was a maxim beat into each plebe from the first day at the Academy, but, strangely, Ben felt his classmates separating from him as each day passed, rather than bonding, no matter how hard he tried to be one of them.

Civil War Comes To West Point

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

“Cadets!” Master of the Horse Rumble snapped as he took the familiar spot on the floor of the riding hall.  “Assemble, in-line, one rank.”

The cadets of the class of 1862 scrambled out of the stands and fell in to the left and right of Rumble.

When all were in place, Rumble issued his second order. “Cadet George Armstrong Custer, front and center.”

With a self-confident grin, Custer stepped out of the ranks and double-timed to a spot just in front of Rumble. Custer was just shy of six feet, broad shouldered and athletic.  He had blue eyes and golden hair that lay on his head in a tumble of curling locks.  The word circulating in Benny Havens was that Custer was quite the lady’s man off-post.  The word circulating in the Academy was that Custer was not quite the academic man, the Immortal in every section, overall ranking last in his class and lingering very close to being boarded out.  In some ways, Custer reminded Rumble of Cord, but there was a dark edge to Custer that disturbed Rumble.

“Double-time to the stables, Mister Custer, and bridle your horse.” Rumble made a show of looking at his pocket watch.  “You have three minutes.”

Custer dashed off.

“Cadets, at ease,” Rumble ordered.

An instant buzz of excited conversation filled the riding hall. War was in the air.  And not just war, but Civil War.  Many southern cadets had already left the Academy, the first as early as the previous November, when a South Carolinian had departed, in anticipation of his state’s secession.  He was followed by all the rest of the cadets from South Carolina, three Mississippians and two Alabamians.

The divide touched the highest ranks of the Academy as the Superintendent appointed back in January, G. T. Beauregard, had lasted only five days before being relieved for his southern sympathies after advising a southern cadet who sought consul on whether to resign: “Watch me; and when I jump, you jump.  What’s the use of jumping too soon?”  With his departure, old Delafield resumed the post for several months before a permanent replacement was appointed.  Delafield was still on post, awaiting his next assignment.

The overwhelming feeling in the press was that most of the Academy was pro-slavery. But that was only to those outside of the gray walls.  Rumble knew the cadets better than they knew themselves and it was more the fact that the southerners who remained were the loudest and most outspoken, airing their opinions freely and to anyone who would listen.  The northern cadets had some sympathy for the plight of their southern brethren, but that sympathy had not been put to the test.  There was a sullenness and brooding among the Northerners that few could interpret.

Behind Rumble, seated in the corner of the stands, writing in a leather journal, was Ben, now a young man of twenty. He’d grown with a spurt when he was sixteen, and was now two inches shy of six feet, but as slender as Grant had been as a cadet and Rumble feared his son would never fill out.  Ben had his mother’s face, soft, freckled and open.  His most distinguishing feature was his bright red hair.  He could be recognized all the way across the Plain from that alone.

This was his first trip back to West Point since Rumble had maneuvered his son’s dismissal from the Corps and his entry into college in Maine. The few days had not been enough to thaw the chill between the two and Rumble had little idea where his son’s feelings lay or what his thoughts were.  But he had kept his promise to Lidia and saved his son from four years of hell and that was enough for now.

Custer came galloping back into the riding hall with a flourish.  He urged the large horse toward the far end of the hall. Despite it’s size, the horse was no York, at least a hand smaller than the long-deceased legend of the riding hall,

“Cadets,” Rumble cried out.  “Attention!”

The line snapped to.  Rumble called out the names of two cadets to take the center position. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Delafield, his hair whiter than ever, had entered the hall.

“Gentlemen, hold in place, wings forward to observe,” Rumble commanded.

Using the two cadets as anchor, the lines on either side moved forward until all could see the two men in the center.

Custer reached the far end of the hall and waited.

Rumble turned to the line of cadets and raked his gaze left and right.  He remembered Matamoros and the Mexican line, the steel glinting in the sunlight.  He shivered and focused, once more grateful Ben did not wear the cadet gray.  “Mister Custer, you may—“

A plebe came running into the riding hall, uniform collar unbuttoned, face flush with excitement.  “It’s war!  Fort Sumter has been fired upon!”

Discipline vanished as the remaining southern cadets broke into cheers.

12 April: Confederates fire on Fort Sumter WAR!

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

King was taken aback by his first glimpse of the general whom President Jeff Davis had sent to take command of the South Carolina forces.  Another West Pointer, ‘Little Napoleon’, as King had heard him called in whispers, was newly arrived.  Previous to that, he’d been forced out of the position as Superintendent of West Point when Louisiana seceded.  The rumor circulating the city was that Beauregard had had the audacity to file a mileage reimbursement to the United States government for travel from West Point back to his home in New Orleans, before being ordered by Davis to South Carolina.

It had not been paid.

Beauregard did not look like Robert E. Lee, that was for certain. His skin was olive and smooth.  His eyes had a droopy, sleepy appearance, as if he were either preparing to arise before dawn or retire after a late evening.  His hair was an un-natural black, and if King had been better schooled in the ways of narcissism, he might have realized that Beauregard dyed his hair to match his goatee and thick mustache.  Even here, on the eve of battle there were several ladies of Charleston in attendance on his every word and gesture.

“General?” Chesnut called out.

“Yes, Colonel?” Beauregard turned, uncrossing his arms and placing his left hand on the hilt of his sheathed saber as he slipped his right inside his dress coat, where a button was conveniently unfastened.  King saw the circle of newspapermen writing down every movement the general made and every word he uttered as if it were coming down from the mountain.

“Major Anderson gave me a list of conditions for surrender,” Chesnut said.

“’Conditions’?” Beauregard shook his head. “The major is being unreasonable.  He is in no position to give conditions.”

King stepped forward. “Sir, Major Anderson is delaying.  I believe the Yankee navy is preparing a sortie.  This very night.  My reconnaissance cutter spotted a Federal ship making way to the fort.”

Beauregard frowned.  “Captain . . .?”

“King, sir.  The Yankees are preparing to relieve the fort. They drew off when my cutter discovered them, but I fear they will come again in force this very night.  We must act swiftly.”

Beauregard twisted one end of his mustache. “There is much zeal and energy here, but little professional expertise and knowledge in the art of war.  It is not such an easy matter to take a fortified position.”

Memories of Captain McKenzie and the debacle on the Somers whispered like shadows in King’s brain. “General, we can take Sumter now, easily, or face a pitched battle once the United States Navy moves in.  I taught at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.  With all due respect, sir, while you are certainly a master of land warfare, I know battle on the sea.”

Beauregard looked out at the southern belles, the reporters, the militia, and puffed out his chest to make an announcement. “Negotiations have failed.  I must take action.  I will give Major Anderson notification via the mouth of a cannon.”

Exuberant, wild cheers rose from the crowd. Women threw their arms around the nearest man.  Militia and cadets hurried to prepare their cannon.

King didn’t note the few people who stood forlorn, some with tears in their eyes as the implications struck them differently, including his mother, in the shadow of the house overlooking the Battery that used to be her home. Without realizing it, King took up a vantage point underneath the tree from which his father had hung himself.

4:30 am.  Dawn was not far off.

A single mortar shell from Fort Johnson arced overhead and exploded directly above Fort Sumter. There was an eerie pause, as if the ocean was waiting for what came next.

Forty-three cannon and batteries of mortars from Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the Battery, and Cummings Point let loose in a barrage worthy of the start of a war.

As the first shells smashed into the brick walls of Fort Sumter, the faint sound of cheering floated across the water from the surrounding land as an undertone to the sharper crack of cannon firing.

King stood underneath the magnificent oak tree and watched the opening of the inevitable war.

Robert E. Lee of the US Army, Stonewall Jackon & VMI and John Brown’s Hanging

Excerpt from Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

now becoming available in ebook on all platforms. (Smashwords, Nook, Kindle, direct in all formats from Who Dares Wins Publishing)

“If the arsenal had been this well guarded,” Robert E. Lee muttered, “we wouldn’t be going through this.”

The corn-field, long since harvested, was surrounded by soldiers, over a thousand of them, mostly Virginia Militia, dressed in a wide assortment of uniforms, from red to gray to blue to various combinations of them all.  A scaffold waited in the center of the field, quickly and efficiently built even before the verdict had been handed down condemning John Brown.

King said nothing in response to Lee’s remark.  Since the raid six weeks ago, the trial of John Brown had captivated the country, just as Lee had direly predicted.  King’s failure to kill the man had been written off to the heat of battle, not cold calculation.  The identity of the one-armed man he had killed, had jolted King.

Disgusted with the unfolding spectacle, Lee turned his horse and rode away, heading toward a nearby hilltop to watch from a distance.  King stayed in the shadow of the scaffold.

It was a cold December day, the sun chilled and distant in the clear sky overhead.  A wagon came slowly down a dirt road carrying John Brown, dressed all in black, except for red slippers, sitting on a coffin.  His gaze was over the field, toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, adorned with leafless trees.

A drumbeat began to King’s left.  A contingent of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute were lined up immediately around the scaffold, the drummer a young boy in their midst.  They wore red shirts, grey trousers and crossed white belts.  Their officer in charge came over to King right after Lee rode away.

“What’s wrong with the Colonel?”

“Nothing,” King said.  “He sees no need to be close by.”

“You were in the assault?” the VMI instructor asked.

“I was,” King said.

“Thomas Jackson,” the officer introduced himself.

“George King.”

“This is God’s vengeance,” Jackson said as the wagon came to a halt next to the steps to the scaffold.

“It is indeed,” King agreed as the tailgate to the wagon was let down.  John Brown got off his coffin and quickly leapt off the wagon as if eager for his fate.  The sheriff escorted him up the stairs to the platform, where he was positioned over the trap door.  His ankles were tied by deputies while others slid the coffin out of the wagon and put it just below the door.

“He bears his faith well, though,” Jackson commented.

“But on the wrong path,” King said.

“That will be for a higher power than us to decide soon,” Jackson said.

Jackson turned toward his cadets and signaled.  He barked out an order and they snapped to attention as the drumbeat ceased.  A heavy silence descended on the thousands of soldiers and civilians bearing witness.

A hood was place over Brown’s head and then the rope was cinched around his neck.

“Do you want to know when the trap opens?” the sheriff asked Brown, his voice carrying over the silent crowd.

Brown’s response was slightly muffled by the cloth, but audible.  “No.  Just be quick about it.”

Which, of course, they were not.  Like MacKenzie on the Somers, the officials on the scaffold now seemed uncertain as to who was in charge of the fatal moment.  Minutes passed and Brown stood still as hushed conversations went on around him.

The crowd began to grow uneasy as more minutes had passed.  King looked off in the distance and he saw Lee, on his magnificent stallion, watching from a hilltop a mile away.

Finally the sheriff stepped forward, axe in hand.  Without warning, he swung and cut the rope holding the trap door.

John Brown fell and jerked to a halt with a resounding crack.

Not a sound came from the crowd.

The dangling body slowly twisted and turned.

***********

The Last Written Words of John Brown, 2 December 1859

I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.  I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Robert E. Lee, Arlington and slavery—there will be war!

More excerpts from Duty, Honor, Country, where my character, Elijah Cord, visits Lee’s mansion, which is now Arlington house at the center of the cemetery that now has the same name. The Unions seized Lee’s plantation during the war and used it for a rather grim reason:  to bury their war dead.

June 1841, Arlington, Virginia

The massive white door swung open and a Negro dressed in fine livery was dwarfed by the opening into Arlington House.  “Sir?”

“I have this,” Cord said, not quite sure of the etiquette.  He held out a sealed envelope.

The servant did not accept it and Cord felt a trickle of sweat slide down his back.  It wasn’t just because it was Northern Virginia in July.  Cord extended his arm further, practically shoving the letter of introduction into the servant’s chest.  Reluctantly, the man took it.  He was old, with close-cropped white hair.  He stared at the envelope as if it might attack him.

The servant looked up.  “Who are you calling on, sir?”

“It’s on the envelope,” Cord said.  “Major Robert E. Lee.”

A voice echoed in the large center hall.  “You must be Cadet Cord.”

The Negro stepped aside and there stood the distinguished member of the class of 1829, who had graduated second in his class of forty-six and with zero demerits, a feat Cord couldn’t manage for one week, never mind four years.  Lee was resplendent in his blue uniform, a red sash around his waist, gold oak leaves indicating his rank of major on the epaulets adorning his shoulders.  It didn’t occur to Cord to ask Lee why he was in uniform while at home, in between assignments.  And if it had occurred, he most certainly would not have asked.  Lee’s hair was long and dark, just beginning to show a touch of gray in the mustache.

He walked up to the door and gestured at the servant.  “You may go.”

“Sir.”  The servant held out the envelope.

“You should know better than that,” Lee admonished the servant as he took it.  Behind Lee, another, younger slave hovered, also dressed in the same well-cut livery.

*****

“What do you think of Texas?” Lee abruptly asked.

“Sir?”

“Annexation,” Lee snapped.

Cord focused.  “It is inevitable.  Texas must be part of the country.”

“It will mean war.”  Lee sounded eager.

“Yes, sir.”

“Texas as a slave or free state?” Lee asked.

Cord glanced at the black man standing five paces away.  “Slave, of course, sir.”

“It has nothing do with slavery, you know,” Lee said

“Of course not, sir,” Cord replied, having no idea what the Major meant.

Slavery is a given condition from God.  When God wishes it to end, it will end.  It is clear God wants Texas to be annexed and to be a slave state since He struck down President Harrison, who opposed both, so quickly after taking office.  And it’s also about the sanctity of the State.  A State must have the right to choose its own course.  Those wise men who wrote the Constitution knew that.”

“I believe Jefferson wrote that slavery was comparable to holding a wolf by the ears,” Cord said before catching himself, “and we can neither continue to hold the wolf, nor safely let it go.  Justice is on one side of the scale and self-preservation on the other.”

Lee’s face tightened.  “For a slave owner, he had some strange thoughts.  What we do is bridle our people of color and keep them in their place.  Neither justice or self-preservation, but rather the natural order of things to be maintained.”

*****

“You may go,” Lee said, dismissing Cord like he was a plebe once more.

Cord headed away, but Lee’s call stopped him.  “I will probably see you somewhere in Mexico in the coming years, Cadet Cord.  I suggest you attend to your martial studies with more diligence.  There will be war.”

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow:  Natchez, MS, the richest city in America.  In 1841.

How Texas Caused the Mexican War

Yes, you Texans are a troublesome lot.  The center part of my novel, Duty, Honor, Country, is the Mexican War.  It is still the bloodiest war in US Army history, percentage wise, and most people don’t understand its root causes.  Here is another excerpt from my coming novel, Duty, Honor, Country:

For a moment Longstreet grew serious. “There are strange winds brewing, Sam. President Harrison dying is an ill omen.  When you return, you must tell me how people are responding.  We’re in our own little world here.  And it’s certainly not the real one.  Harrison was from Ohio and you’ll find out how the people there feel.  The letters I receive from my kin in Georgia are disturbing.”

Just a few months ago, in March, newly elected President William Henry Harrison, an old army man and hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, had spoken too long at his inauguration, a cold and rainy day in Washington.  He’d taken ill and died, an unprecedented event for the young country.  The government had been thrown into upheaval as the constitutional rules of succession were found to be lacking.  John Tyler, the Vice President, had eventually been sworn into office as President with all powers despite debates whether he should be acting President or true President.  Of more importance, Harrison’s antipathy toward expanding slavery westward, and particularly the issue of Texas, had been reversed.

Thus the potential Annexation of Texas was now an issue all cadets were following closely, because Mexico still claimed the territory as part of its sovereign nation. The Mexican government had promised war if Annexation happened and there was no reason to believe they would not follow through on their threat.  They had given Texas a great deal of autonomy after the Battle of San Jacinto, but took the stance that the treaty the defeated Santa Ana had signed was not legitimate as the general did not have the authority to negotiate for all of Mexico.  While Texans claimed independence, the reality was much murkier.  France, Britain and the United States had recognized Texas as a nation, but, so far, no one had pushed the issue.  Mexico claimed a good portion of the western part of the continent, from Texas, up along the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific Ocean.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow:  Robert E. Lee and Arlington