Excerpt of In the Blood

Washington pulled his toothbrush from the buttonhole in his lapel and stuck it into the canteen he'd found then he brushed the hardtack out of his teeth with a little Chickamauga water.  He spat and said, "Beatty, how many times we gotta tell you not to piss in the stream?"  The laughter seemed a little muted.


By and by his head nodded and he almost slept only to jerk awake—stiff, sore and chilled with frost on his jacket.  At seven on Sunday morning the lines of battle were formed but the troops were sat on the ground conserving their strength.  Nearby a large group of "gentlemen privates"—educated, mostly wealthy volunteers who refused promotions because they thought their devotion to the cause more pure as common soldiers—were listening to a preacher slinging fire and brimstone in hushed tones.  Washington put his hand on his breast pocket and felt the little Bible.  His thoughts went to Mary and their night by Winyah Bay.  He smiled at the memory of how her body looked in the moonlight and he felt a stirring in his loins.  Then a picture of Lizzy and Needham came to mind and the baby, Frank, he didn't even know.  The stirring abruptly ended.  When Helen's guileless face materialized in his mind's eye the shaft of guilt that pierced him was nearly palpable.  Then the parade of remorse wouldn't stop.  He relived the thrashing by Marina and felt tearful to realize that he could not bring the faces of his children by her to his memory.  He remembered Lawson had said Willy was living with Needham's brother, James Wesley.  He counted the years backward to his first son's birth and felt a shock to realize that he would be seventeen in two months.  Then it dawned with clarity and absolute certainty that this war was going to claim his firstborn.  "Well," he mused, "probably claim me too 'fore the day's over and then I can quit worrying about it."


The troops sat for hours and in whispers agreed that the enemy must have again withdrawn and once more there would be no fight.  Artillery was heard way to the north and just before noon the order came to advance.  The 10th moved in line of battle through woods with foliage just beginning to turn, their field of vision shrunk to yards by the heavy brush.  The sergeants hissed orders to close the gaps continually opening as the men negotiated trees and sticker bushes.  It was quiet under the trees—no birds, no breeze, no voices, no shooting—just the shuffling tread of thousands of frightened Rebels.  For half a mile they continued, expecting at every step the impact of lead and steel that for once everyone knew was going to come.


The ground began to rise and the scrub oak and sumac were replaced by tall cedars whose interwoven canopy prevented much undergrowth.  Through the relative clearing the jumble of Yankee breastworks could be seen on the crest of a little wooded ridge.  A cloud of white smoke rose along the whole length of the enemy's works and the first volley punched holes in the Confederates' line.  Porcher and Walker prodded and shouted the charge.  Washington was momentarily stunned when he saw Nesmith's jaw disappear and watched his body twitching at his feet.  The order to charge seemed to him like a "damn fool idea" and the rest of the line apparently agreed.  Another volley thinned their ranks and the officers screamed to return the fire.  After his first shot it took all the willpower Washington possessed to reload standing still in front of those works and even more to keep his hand steady enough to pour a charge into the muzzle of the Enfield.  Several lifetimes passed—indeed the lifetimes of many passed forever—before he placed the cap and raised the rifle to his eye.


Artillery opened from behind and to Washington's feeling of vulnerability was added a nagging sensation between his shoulder blades that he attributed to the threat of friendly shrapnel.  Continuous Rebel firing kept enough of the blue caps below their head logs for the officers to goad the line into advancing again but nothing could keep it orderly.  They went tentatively at first then rushed the Yankees' log pile en masse and though many fell dead across it the survivors were able to carry the works driving the enemy before them.


Washington's bloodlust was up.  He ran after the fleeing blue jackets loading and firing with that much practiced motion that became ingrained back at Camp Marion but that after so much wasted time he thought he would never use.  G. W. Johnson was with him hooting and making a ruckus that put Washington in mind of a drunk at a cockfight.  The smoke hung thickly in the trees obscuring the targets, so most just shot in the direction the Yankees had run, that is until they saw Yankees running back.  The officers barked and waved their swords to get the men back into a line to face the charging Federals.  It did no good.  Nothing could be heard and visibility—barely a rod.  Washington took cover and fired into the smoke just hoping he wasn't shooting his friends.


There were three pieces of artillery behind the Federals' works.  Yankee's scrambled to limber them and hitch the horses.  The first Rebels on the scene shot the horses like they were trained but Washington couldn't do it.  He shot the artillerymen instead.  The 10th captured the guns and raised a cheer.


Again the Yankees turned tail and they made ready to advance but, inexplicably, the bugler sounded the order to withdraw.  "Dammit!  Why do we always let 'em go just when we're about to finish 'em?" Washington said out loud though his voice was lost in the pandemonium.


They waited in a weedy field for half an hour while Porcher astride his horse gestured impatiently to Walker and Shaw who were trying to get some order into the line.  Scattered firing from the skirmishers and the excitement of the engagement prevented the men from paying much attention to military formality.


At the far side of the field, perhaps a quarter mile distant, the left of Manigault's line was engaged with Federal works and batteries arrayed around a burning house at the top of a shallow incline.  Confederates were climbing resolutely in the face of the plunging canister shot which even at that distance could be seen shredding hundreds of butternut clad bodies.


Washington was with Cumbee, Beatty and the Johnsons.  He gestured to the sight at the far side of the field as the roof was blown from the house.  "Must have had shells in there," he remarked.  "'Em ol' boys climbing that hill gonna be glad to see that.  They taking as bad a beating as we was gitting for awhile."


Cumbee said, "Hey, we done give 'em hell, boys."


G. W. Johnson, still flying, squealed, "Oowee, boy, did we!"


"Lost Nesmith," Washington told them.


The group fell silent.  Beatty sucked his teeth and said softly, "He was a good ol' boy."