Near the H. Rohrbach Farm. September 17, 1862. 8:30 am.
It sounded as if a great hole had been opened in the earth somewhere beyond those hills. The roll of muskets and artillery had been constant since dawn. The breeze was filled with the smell of gun powder. The odor made him nauseous.
Captain Newton Manross walked between groups of soldiers. They leaned against knapsacks or stacked rifles, reading papers to each other and joking. The sound of fighting had only grown nearer in the past hours and despite the smiles the men seemed to know they would join in soon enough.
Newton checked his watch, cursed quietly, and looked around. He asked a soldier what brigade this was. Ferrero’s. And the Twenty-first Mass? The soldier pointed to the crest of a ridge and Newton set off quickly.
It all seemed so unreal, as if his life was going on without him back in Amherst. Yet he was here, with nearly a hundred thousand men, serving with a fresh regiment that had not yet seen fighting. A life spent in dark college halls, and now a soldier…stranger still, an officer. Commanding men, drilling, sleeping in the rain, marching through Maryland to catch the Rebs before they reached Ohio, or Pennsylvania, or wherever they intended to go. And then at the mountain pass watching the wounded being carried back to the hospitals. Mangled men, faceless. It seemed he had no place in this.
Newton glanced down at the ravine as he walked. A piece of the creek was visible through the trees, flat and black . The morning air held the heaviness of last night’s rain. Steam was already rising from the grass in loose wisps.
At the top of the hill was a tent beneath a group of trees. Horses were tethered nearby and staff officers strode about it. A table had been set up under the raised flap, and an officer sat there. William.
Newton took off his kepi and waved it. William stood and walked out to meet him, grinning.
They clasped hands. William held his grasp. “Newton! Newton, my God! How wonderful it is to see you!”
“Hello, Colonel,” Newton smiled, replaced his kepi and saluted.
William returned the salute, smirking, then pulled him towards his table. “Have a seat. There’s coffee. And we’ve come by some splendid molasses!”
Newton noticed the plateful of cornbread resting on the table. His stomach twinged. “I knew I’d find you eventually. To think that we’d end up in the same Corps.”
William poured him some coffee. “You should be in this very regiment…”
“A majorship! I offered you a majorship, my friend.”
Newton took the cup with a glare, “I think I’ve done well on my own, Colonel, thank you.” He smiled. “How’s the regiment?”
“Well enough, if you can call it a regiment. Ferrero has detailed fifty of my men for guard duty back at the mountain. We’ll only be taking a hundred and fifty rifles into battle today. Eight months ago we had full ranks…” William was smiling, but Newton could see the distress in his eyes. His command was disappearing from under him. Newton remembered Harriet clutching his arm, asking, Was it William’s fault?
“And the Sixteenth?” William asked.
Newton swallowed a mouthful of cornbread and licked molasses from his fingers. A warmth began to spread through his stomach. The world was gaining focus. “We seem to have the opposite problem. Everywhere we go people ask, ‘What brigade is that?’ When I say that it’s a regiment they laugh as if I’d just told a joke.”
“Never mind that. The Sixteenth Connecticut will have a chance to prove yourselves today.”
“Yes. The men are eager for it. They all feel as if they’d missed a party what with our sitting out the fight back at the mountain. We try to drill them, to get them ready. But, by God, William, we only had two days back at Arlington Heights in which time we barely taught them to dress a line. And since then it’s been nothing but march, halt, march, halt. I think there are still some men in the Sixteenth who haven’t learned to load a musket.”
“Have you seen to your company?”
“Well, yes, of course…”
“Then that’s all you can do as far as that matter is concerned.”
Newton sighed. Wondered what his fresh regiment might be able to prove today. That they were not cowards?
“Newton,” William said, “I cannot thank you enough for your message. It came to me in an hour of sore need.”
Newton smiled. “I could say the same of your telegram.” He removed a slip of paper from his pocket, “I have here an article which might interest you.” He laid the obituary on the table.
William gave a loud hoot. “Another hero gone!” he laughed as he read. “…Esteemed, admired and beloved by all who knew him…his heroic conduct at the battle of Roanoke… gallant charge at the battle of Newbern.” He looked at Newton with a wry grin, “I have lived to see my wife a widow…How is she, Newton?”
Newton paused. “She is hopeful, and proud. She loves you as ever. The children are cheerful and healthy. Artie is speaking more now. Mellie asked me to kiss you for her, but I’ll spare you that.”
William looked at the surface of the table. “God bless her. Harriet is very strong.”
“She is that, William.”
“The children…were they told?”
“No. I don’t believe so.”
William’s thin frame seemed to loosen. “Did you visit the old Doctor before you left?”
“I did. Your parents are well. Your sister Hannah is sweet on some doctor from New Hampshire. Leete, I think is his name.”
“That would explain why she doesn’t write. And is sister Sadie still a homebody?”
Newton laughed, “Yes, but she is a great comfort to your parents…” The sound of fighting from the north swelled. He turned and saw white smoke rising over the hills, flowing down into the ravine. “Any news about how they’re fairing over there?”
William shook his head. “Not a word.”
There was a desperation about this fight, Newton could feel it. Not just an urgency to bag the Rebels once and for all. The army seemed to have something to prove. One more defeat and the folks at home would lose all hope in them.
The folks at home, Newton thought. The veiled women and the old men. The professors and students who constantly spoke of William. The hero of Newbern. The gallant Colonel of the Twenty-first Mass. Newton swallowed coffee. In their youth someone had said they were like David and Jonathan. Souls knit together. Is that why I am here, he wondered?
“Did you hear the news of Harpers Ferry?” William asked with disgust. “The garrison turned belly up. Lee has a clear course back into Virginia now. There should be an investigation into that matter, I tell you.”
“My God…” Newton replied. He looked to the hills and remembered June. The hero visits home. Hundreds of citizens gathered around the depot to meet William in the pouring rain. Newton remembered standing with William in a reception hall decked with banners. It is every man’s duty, William told him, to give himself to the service of his country until the rebellion is crushed out. William had clasped his shoulders and said the rest without speaking. Every man’s duty. Your duty, Newton.
Newton took a deep breath. I am here, he thought, because he is.
“We must end the matter here,” William said, looking to the towers of smoke. “If Lee escapes us, the war will go on…”
Newton saw the exhaustion in his friend’s long face. Thinner than he remembered. William’s blue frock coat hung loosely over narrow shoulders. “How is your health, William?”
Just then there was a rapid pounding noise. William looked quickly to the heights across the creek. This is it, Newton thought. Something has begun.
A low sigh grew to a roar. A series of explosions. William was on his feet. He picked up his sword belt and began to buckle it on.
Newton stood. Some of the soldiers grouped on the hillside were getting up, mostly to get a view of the fireworks. There was another thick volley from across the creek. Now their artillery was responding. Deeper, unseen from the woods.
A horse bearing an officer suddenly trotted up to the tent. “Colonel!” the rider called. William faced him and saluted. “By order of General Sturgis, form your regiment and prepare to change position.”
William nodded. He turned to Newton. “Amherst gossip, I suppose, shall have to wait.” He gave a faltering smile.
“Lucky if I don’t get lost finding my way back to the Sixteenth.” Newton looked at William, saw for a moment the reckless youth he had known. He tried to say something. Then saluted instead.
William stepped towards him. “Newton, when you’re facing them, when they’re coming at you, think of your wife. Do your duty.”
Newton stared at him. He gripped William’s shoulder with a big hand. “Take care, William.”
Men were standing, slinging on knapsacks, forming lines all over the hillside as Newton walked away.