South Mountain, Maryland. September 15, 1862.
The morning mist began to break apart as the sun rose into view. From somewhere down the slope a bugle sounded. It was joined by a drum nearby, and soon dozens of reveilles echoed across the mountain.
Seated on a stone wall at the summit, William watched as the forms which covered the slope began to stir. Soldiers lifted themselves from their rifles. Pipes were lit. What was left of rail fences disappeared, and smoke spiraled skyward from a hundred places.
He noted with astonishment the number of forms which did not rise. In the gray light before dawn it had been impossible to tell the sleeping from the dead. But now, lying in the sunlight, were more bodies than William had ever seen before. Soldiers had slept amidst them.
William removed his cap and ran a hand through his matted hair. His face was covered with the grime of yesterday’s battle, and his uniform more brown than blue. He slapped his cap against his knee, knocking the dust from it. And as he fumbled with the cap in his hands, he spotted that small hole near its peak. He stuck a finger through it. Chantilly. He had left that insignificant Virginia crossroads with two bullet holes in his coat in addition to this one.
“Though a thousand fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand, it shall not come nigh thee,” he found himself whispering. The Twenty-first Massachusetts lost more than a third of its numbers at Chantilly. It astounded him that any of them were left at all.
He had awoken before dawn gasping. The row of Confederates with muskets leveled still hung before him even when awake. An inch, he thought, looking at the tip of his finger protruding from the blue cloth of his cap. The difference of an inch.
And, dear Linnie, you might still think me dead, he thought. He tried to imagine Harriet’s relief when she read the telegram he had sent from Alexandria. He tried to picture her there in the parlor of their Amherst home, smiling and rejoicing. But he did not know if the telegram had reached her. Days of marching through dust and heat. West through the Maryland countryside. And no mail had caught them. No telegrams. No word from Linnie. Each time he closed his eyes he was haunted by the image of young Emily trying to comfort her mother.
It did not surprise him that he had been reported dead. He had been missing for three days. When William finally stumbled into the Union camp at Alexandria, one of the first to greet him had been Colonel Edward Ferrero, the Twenty-first’s brigade commander.
Ferrero had met him with a cry of surprise. Upon hearing William’s story, the Italian placed and arm around him, “Why, of course you had to flee, Colonel. Separated from your regiment, isolated amidst the rebels like that. You wouldn’t want to risk the hospitality of Libby, now would you?” But despite his words, there was a look in Ferrero’s eyes which William would not forget. You ran, it said to him, and your men know it.
A cavalry squadron, the same which William had watched leaving before dawn, suddenly returned to the summit. As the riders tied their horses at a nearby fence, William replaced his cap. “How does it look?” he called to one of the troopers.
The sergeant saluted, “Not a walking Reb in sight, sir. There’s plenty of their wounded in the woods, though.” The sergeant smiled, “I’ll bet they’re halfway back to Virginia by now.”
“God willing,” William muttered.
“If you’ll excuse me, Colonel, I must report.” William nodded and watched the man stride toward a farmhouse down the slope. He sighed. He doubted Lee was headed back for Virginia. The Confederates would not so quickly abandon their invasion of Maryland.
He looked up to see a young lieutenant carrying two tin cups. “You’ll pardon me if I don’t salute, sir. I thought you might like some coffee.”
William took the steaming cup with a smile. “I would indeed. Thank you, Lieutenant…”
“Hudson, sir, John Hudson. I’m with the Thirty-fifth Massachusetts. I was just detailed on Colonel Ferrero’s staff a few days ago. He sent me to find you.”
“And the good Colonel’s word?”
“Good news, sir. The regular troops will pass first. Our brigade won’t move out for another few hours, at least.”
William sipped the gritty brew and laughed inwardly. Regulars going in ahead of the volunteers. That was a rarity. “In that case, have a seat, Hudson. Where are you from?”
“Lexington, sir,” Hudson said, sitting rigidly next to William. “I hear you’re with Amherst College? Amherst is a fine town, sir.”
“It is indeed,” William said. Then suddenly pictured Linnie wearing black. She had probably been doing so for the past week and a half. He blew the steam from his cup. And little Artie, he was too young to understand what was happening.
“Well, whipped the rebels yesterday, didn’t we, sir? I rather wish I’d seen it. Colonel Ferrero and I stopped in Middletown to see to some paperwork, and it took me all day to catch up to you boys again. By the time I did, it was over. It being the Thirty-fifth’s first battle and all, I feel bad about not being here.”
“There’ll be more, Lieutenant. At least one more, you can count on that. Has any mail caught us yet, Hudson?”
The young man suddenly stood, and reached into his jacket, “I nearly forgot. No mail, sir, but I have here a message for you from one of General Sturgis’s couriers. It reached Colonel Ferrero this morning.”
He handed over the folded slip of paper. On it was William’s name. He recognized the handwriting and opened it eagerly.
My dear Clark,
Must write hastily as I am sending this by way of an aide of your General Sturgis who happened by our camp. Am with Harland’s Brigade. All is well but for sore feet. The Widow Clark sends her love. Yours Ever, N. Manross
William stood quickly and gripped Hudson’s shoulder. Harriet knew he was alive! “Lieutenant! Harland’s brigade? Was it engaged yesterday?”
“No, sir…I don’t believe so. I passed them at the base of the mountain yesterday evening. They were in reserve.”
William was grinning. Old Manross! In the same Corps!
“I believe they’re still down there now, Colonel.”
William surveyed the long slope. Columns had already formed, and the endless stream of blue surged up the mountain road and over its crest. Perhaps there was still time to find him. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Thank you tremendously,” he said and returned the cup.
Hudson watched the Colonel lope down the slanting cornfield towards his regiment. He poured the rest of William’s coffee into his cup, and turned to find Colonel Ferrero. As he did, he saw the heap of bodies that lay on the other side of the stone wall and stopped. They filled the farm lane as far as he could see. A face with glazed eyes and a wide mouth stared up at him. Beyond, burial crews were dropping the rebel bodies into a well.
The Lieutenant gagged, placed a hand on the stone wall, then wheeled and strode quickly away.