Jack Martin, Murder on the March

From: Murder on the March

Bierce looked behind him and could just make out in the dim pre-dawn light the gaggle of horsemen on a small hill, less than a mile away. He knew that would be the cautious, majestic Thomas; his two corps commanders, the flamboyant Hooker and the morose Davis; and a crowd of aides, messengers, and assorted hangers-on. A quarter-mile closer, he could just make out the batteries of three-inch guns, assembled courtesy of Colonel J. Howard Kitching, Hooker’s chief of artillery. Lying on the ground in his front and to his sides were huddled masses of blue-clad infantry, grimly clutching Springfield muzzle-loaders. Over them stood their officers, who seemed to the cynical Bierce to be already assuming heroic poses appropriate to the illustrated magazines.

The silence was broken by three cannon-shots, separated by four or five seconds each. Officers screamed “Charge!” The men leapt to their feet and jogged at the double-quick up the slope while Kitching’s guns loosed salvo after salvo at the top of the pass, shells whistling over the heads of the advancing men. However, the cannon stopped belching fire before the men were halfway to the Confederate lines, to avoid hitting the men in blue. Bierce jogged along with the men, not far from the front; a manic smile spread over his face as he began to believe there really would only be token resistance.

Then the banshee howl of the Rebel yell burst forth from thousands of throats, and all hell broke loose. Rebel cannon by the score sent clouds of grapeshot into the front ranks, leaving masses of torn flesh where living men had been a moment before. The ripping fire of thousands of Enfield muskets created a continuous, crackling sound, interrupted only by the roar of the cannon and the screams of the Rebels, most of who concentrated their fire on the bravest officers, causing whole regiments to be suddenly leaderless. Incredibly, these regiments kept grimly advancing with few or no officers to lead them, the men unconsciously hunching their shoulders and leaning forward as if advancing in a driving rainstorm.

Ambrose Bierce had a strange love/hate relationship with death and would have kept running up the slope with the men if there had been the slightest chance of success, regardless of risk. However, he could see that there was not the slightest chance of the attack succeeding, and he threw himself prone on the ground, while the men kept flowing around him. When talking with others, Bierce was inclined to mock foolish bravery and laugh at those who gave their lives for generals’ mistakes. That was a pose, required for some obscure need of his injured soul. Here, watching the men move up the slope to probable death or mutilation and certain failure, he screamed in rage while tears flowed freely down his cheeks. Then he found words.

“Stop, you fools! Go back! Go back! Stop!” But the cacophony of the battle kept all but the very nearest to him from distinguishing his words; and those nearest him disregarded the unfamiliar captain lying prone on the ground. Raising his head as much as he dared, he was amazed to see the ever-dwindling first wave approach within yards of the pass’ crest. For a moment, he dared to hope that the sacrifice would not be in vain, that a miracle would occur. Nevertheless, it was not to be. Just short of their goal, the columns seemed to melt away, leaving a residue of bodies on the ground, writhing in agony or ominously still. The survivors began to run back to their starting points; a goodly number were shot in the back by gleefully screaming Rebels. Glancing upward, Bierce saw a lone drummer-boy at the summit, a lad of not more than fourteen years, standing defiantly, refusing to retreat. Apparently, none could bring themselves to shoot the boy, and Bierce saw arms come into sight, seize the drummer, and pull him over the summit, and out of harm’s way.

Bierce stood to join the retreating survivors. However, for some moments, he stared at the top of the pass, proximity and the strengthening sunshine allowing him a glimpse of much of the Confederate lines for the first time. To his horror, he saw hundreds of rifle pits, located to be mutually supporting; scores of cannon carefully dug in to command the approaches; uncounted barriers and ditches thrown up to disrupt an attack. From where he now stood, it was painfully obvious that General Joseph Johnston had been expecting the attack—and had very carefully prepared for it. Bierce turned and ran for the rear. Damn Sherman!’ he thought. Whatever Sherman had been told was lies; there was no chance that this had been a mistake or misinterpretation by whoever was the commanding general’s informant. Well, I’ll tell Sherman what I saw and find out who is the traitor that led us into the trap; Sherman’s promises be damned!

Bierce had by now reached the first of the Union batteries. Out of breath from his run in a hot, muggy Georgia morning, he paused briefly to rest. He turned back to look at the pass of death, where the bodies of hundreds of Sherman’s best soldiers lay like so many blue leaves. Suddenly, there was a smashing impact on the back of his head. Bierce fleetingly wondered if someone had hit him with a hammer as he fell forward. He hit the ground hard; trying to move, he found that he had lost all control of his limbs. Darkness rushed at him, and he now realized he must have caught a stray bullet in the head. He was dying.

Life had always frightened Ambrose Bierce more than death, after what he had experienced in this war, and before that in Indiana. He welcomed the approaching darkness with no fear at all. Then he caught a glimpse of what lay beyond the darkness, and vainly, he tried to scream.

*****

Sherman galloped up to the hill where Thomas and his party were stationed, trailing aides behind him like a kite’s tail. He had been with McPherson on the flank, waiting for a message that the breakthrough had happened, so he could unleash his young protégé to complete Johnston’s destruction. However, the aide from Thomas brought news of disaster, not success. Telling the astonished McPherson to await further orders, he had driven his horse as hard as he could to find the commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He found the ponderous Virginian at the crest of a low hill, accompanied by Hooker and their respective aides. Savagely jerking the reins to halt his mount, Sherman ignored Thomas’ salute and shouted “What the hell has happened? Why is there no breakthrough?”

“A breakthrough does not appear possible, sir. Johnston seems to have heavily entrenched and provided a number of batteries of supporting artillery. Given the defensive nature of the approach, he could hold off ten times his numbers for as long as he has ammunition.”

Sherman’s wild eyes focused on the nearest streams of survivors staggering back to safety; their regimental flags indicated that they were from Hooker’s 20th Corps. “Hooker, why are your men retiring? Why are they not at least digging in close to the Reb lines?”

Joe Hooker glared at Sherman with undisguised contempt. He was a man who never lost an opportunity to show up a superior, but right now, his indignation was transparently sincere. He removed the curious green-tinted spectacles, wiped away some stray dust with a large handkerchief, and only then addressed his commander. “I have ordered a general retreat…sir. Finding that I have lost as many men as my orders required, I saw no reason to leave them in danger to no purpose.”

“General Hooker, you are insubordinate in word and manner,” said Thomas angrily. “I realize that you are under some stress, but it is still inexcusable. Please be so good as to tend to your corps, and only come into my sight or the sight of the general commanding when you are prepared to behave as an officer should.” With a curt nod, Thomas dismissed his chief subordinate. Hooker looked as if he were about to say something more; but seeming to change his mind, he saluted and galloped off, followed by his own aides.

Thomas turned his attention to Sherman. “I apologize for his conduct, sir. Even though he was not my choice for the 20th Corps, I am fully responsible for his disrespect.”

“Never mind that!” Sherman remembered Joe Hooker from prewar San Francisco as anything but a gentlemen, constantly making the rounds of brothels and borrowing money that was never repaid; he concurred in Thomas’ low opinion of the commander of the 20th. “Where is Davis? Has he had any luck?”

Sadly, Thomas shook his head. “He heard one of his divisions could not get back, their retreat being cut off; the moment he heard that, he galloped off to direct their rescue without even asking permission.”

“Sounds like Davis; one hell of a fool, but afraid of nothing.” Sherman hesitated for some moments, then looked at Thomas and said, “I want you to know that this is all my fault. You were right; I was wrong.”

Thomas looked back, saying nothing. It took nearly a minute for Sherman to realize that Thomas was going to say nothing; in an obscure way, that rebuked him more than a half hour of screaming and cursing would have done.

Finally, Sherman issued an order. “Do what you can to call a truce and recover our wounded and…the others.” Jerkily, Sherman saluted and put the spurs to his horse, his aides scrambling to keep pace.

Jack Martin: Murder on the March
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