The Long Road Home: The Journey of Alice & Jasper
This is the story of Alice and Jasper, before they met one another and after, up until they met the Cullens. It begins with Alice in the asylum. I have taken great pains to keep the story as in-canon as possible and remain true to the characters as they were created by Stephenie Meyer; I also have tried to be as historically accurate as I can. I hope you enjoy the story, and I welcome all feedback. Thank you for stopping by!
4. Chapter 4: Dead End
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Chapter 4: Dead End
I was so tired I swayed in my saddle.
A cold blast of wind struck me square in the face, whipping the stench of death all around me; burning wood, blood, mud, gunpowder, human and animal filth, dirty wounds…it was all there, swirled into a cloud so thick you could almost see it. If I hadn’t become so accustomed to it, numbed to it by constant exposure over the past couple of days, it might have turned my stomach. As it was, I hadn’t eaten in two days, so even if the smell had nauseated me…well, nothing would have come of it.
Overhead, crows and vultures circled, coasting on the thermal breezes as they surveyed the remains of the battlefield below, where there were easy pickings. Even now, four days after the battle, there were still unburied dead. The Union gravediggers weren’t hurrying to bury our fallen men. The sounds of the birds calling above and the flies buzzing below were constant, mixed with all the noises of the scene stretched out below me.
I was perched up on a rocky ledge above Pittsburg Landing, which had come to be called the Battle of Shiloh.
We had lost. Lost bad. The Union was advancing, crossing the Mississippi River. We’d failed.
Re-wrapping my reins around my numb knuckles, I shifted, squeezing Star’s ribs with my knees. She obediently backed up a few steps, away from the edge of the gorge, and wheeled around to take me back into the cover of the trees. I’d been up there too long, taking a chance someone might spot me and send a reconnaissance party after us, to capture any Confederate fugitives. Such as us.
There were a few of us left over from our division, seventy-five men to be exact, camped along the little creek, under heavy tree cover about ten miles from the Fallen Timbers battlefield.
We’d been cut off from the main forces once Coronel Nathan Bedford Forrest had been wounded and everyone had scattered in retreat, confused and dejected by the realization of defeat. We’d seen one of the best military commanders on our side cut down like a dog (though he’d lived, we found out later), musket balls taking his horse out from under him, we’d seen so many men dying…
When the Union forces raised their flag of victory over the battlefield at Shiloh, we could do nothing but keep withdrawing into the cover of the trees, and try to keep from being captured, until we’d gathered enough strength to return west again and reunite with the rest of the Confederate Western Theater army.
Over twenty thousand men had died down there, I thought to myself sadly, letting Star have her head as we cantered through the dappled shadows beneath the towering oaks and maples. She knew where to go. Her hooves scattered showers of dead leaves, making crunching sounds as we went, but even those were quiet: she was a true war horse, careful in every step. Spring was late coming this year, as if even the seasons were hesitant to trespass on our bloody human affairs.
No battle on American soil had ever claimed so many lives, up until that point. I learned later that if you added up all the deaths from all the other wars (the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican American…) the States had been involved in up until that date, April 6, 1862, you’d still have fewer deaths than the number that Shiloh claimed. Eventually the number of the fallen topped twenty-three thousand. So many souls perished.
The smell and taste of blood still stuck in the back of my throat and wouldn’t go away.
It was almost a year since I’d left home in the pre-dawn darkness, supposedly bound for glory and points unknown.
Henry, Newt and I had gone off to Alto to enlist, full of jubilant high spirits at the prospect of being decorated war heroes.
How ignorant we’d been to what a man must do to become such a thing, a war hero.
After Alto and receiving some rudimentary basic training (although we were all already well-equipped by our fathers’ lessons during childhood), we were sent back down to Houston, to join the Texas Brigade. There we’d run patrols and supervised raids on Union forces, gaining experience, Newt and I rising through the ranks steadily. He was just below me, both of us were due to be promoted soon. Eventually we were shipped East, to support General Albert Johnson’s Confederate Army of the East’s efforts to keep the Yankees from crossing the Mississippi River and gaining control of its valuable waterway and ports.
On April 6, 1862, the battle of Shiloh began. Pittsburg Landing and Shiloh are part of the little patch of fertile green land between the vital Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in southwestern Tennessee, a beautiful place…or it had been before the battles began. Now nothing much remained except bloody, trampled ground and burned timber, the tents of the victorious soldiers and their picket lines, and the countless burial mounds of the dead. So many crosses, down there in the valley. Marking the graves. So many. It took years for the place to recover even a small semblance of its former beauty.
The battle itself was a blur to me. It had lasted for almost three days, during which I had been tossed to and fro in a melee of screams and gunshots and cannonfire. I’d behaved myself admirably well, I’d been told, earning a promotion to Captain when my commanding officer had been killed before my eyes. They call it a “battlefield commission.” I was an officer now, although I didn’t have the stripes to prove it. I’d had to take unofficial command of our camp, since no one else outranked me, except among the wounded, and those capable of giving orders simply deferred to me anyway.
I hadn’t kept track of the number of men I’d killed. It wouldn’t do anything except make me feel dirtier, to know my head count. My “butcher’s bill,” the more experienced men called it, with false bravado. Or at least I hoped it was false. I’d hate to think of anyone actually relishing the number of men they’d sent to meet their Maker.
I had been injured; I’d taken a bayonet stab to the right shoulder when I wasn’t paying enough attention. It was bandaged up now, the dull ache of it throbbing with every beat of my heart and every movement of my horse, though it was getting better every day. I’d been lucky, though: I’d lost many friends during that battle, and some that had actually survived would never be the same again, missing hands or feet or sometimes entire limbs. Even those who didn’t take wounds to their bodies would always carry the wounds that were indelibly carved into their minds. So much death and destruction, and not all of it physical.
I’d declined to be seen by the field surgeon for my injury when we’d finally found decent cover after retreating. Battlefield medicine back then was brutal: if you were shot, they would pull out the musket balls with metal tongs and cauterize the wound with a hot iron and wash it with whiskey; deep wounds, such as from bayonets or knives, got the same attention, sometimes with a few coarse stitches thrown in for good measure if the surgeon had a needle and twine handy. Woe unto the poor soldier who developed an infection, for his sentence was the cleaver and saw, with a healthy shot of whiskey and a leather strap to bite down on as the surgeon took off the dead appendage. Usually that surgeon had nothing to qualify him but a stint as a barber or dentist back home, and no formal schooling.
Nothing was washed or sterilized, as there was no real concept of germs or sanitation; antibiotics weren’t known back then, and painkillers and sedatives were barely used, except in surgical theaters in fancy hospitals back east. Death came quickly for the badly injured. The tally of those who died at Shiloh grew steadily even after the battle had officially ended.
I absently rubbed the lumpy bandage on my shoulder, once again sending a grateful prayer heavenward for not having anything worse than a flesh wound. Terrified of infection, I’d scrubbed it well with soap and brandy right after the battle, once I’d gotten my senses back. I’d remembered Mama Dina’s admonitions to me from when I was a child about cleanliness, and had bound it well with a boiled cloth, washing it and the wound several times a day for good measure. I’d watched the puckered edges of the stab wound anxiously for signs of redness and inflammation, or for the appearance of the dreaded sick smell of gangrene, but it never came. It was healing now. I had escaped, and was eternally grateful for my luck.
I still carry that scar, although it is much fainter than the other scars I bear.
I’d reached the edge of camp, lost in my reverie; sliding down from the saddle, I handed the reins to a bewildered-looking boy in a dirty gray uniform that didn’t fit. He kept on having to push up the too-long sleeves, and his trousers were rolled up so he wouldn’t tread on the bottoms; he had to constantly push his cap up and out of his eyes. I glanced at him, trying to remember his name and coming up empty-handed. I hated not remembering, it seemed to cheapen the poor kid’s sacrifices in being there. Ah!
“Take care of her… Thomas. Rub her down well with a good dry cloth.” I patted his head reassuringly. He stared up at me in something like awe, swallowing hard, his Adam’s apple bouncing in his skinny throat. “It’s cold up on the ridge, and she sweated a bit coming down. Don’t want her to get colicky in the night.”
Young Thomas nodded jerkily and led Star off toward the makeshift stable we’d erected at the back of the encampment. I watched him go for a moment, wondering how old he was. Sixteen? Maybe? Hardly. More like fourteen. He’d probably done as I’d done, lying to the enlistment committee…and they’d known he was lying, and still allowed him to sign his young life away.
How amazing that I was only a few years older, perhaps, but I felt like such an old man.
I sighed, turning toward the camp, looking for Henry.
I found him by a cook-fire, drinking soup from a tin cup, slumped down on top of a split log that served for a bench. Wordlessly, he leaned forward and ladled more soup from the cast-iron pot slung over the little fire, handing it up to me.
The soup was watery and of indistinct origin, but I didn’t care: it was something to put in my stomach. I chugged it down in a few gulps, not caring that it burned the inside of my throat, slouching down onto the log next to him, my stomach groaning its thanks. The pain in my throat and in my shoulder made me feel alive again, if only a little bit.
The grubby-aproned cook handed me another cup, this one full of bitter, boiling-hot coffee, which I sipped on more carefully in relief. Having something warm in the belly felt good. After a long, quiet moment, Henry finally spoke.
“See anything new down there? Any sign of what’s goin’ to happen?”
He’d changed in the time we’d been away from home. He’d gotten a bit taller, though he’d never come higher than my shoulder; his voice had deepened, his chest broadened, his arms thickening with muscle—he could wrestle almost anyone to the ground in moments. His merry eyes grew more serious. He laughed a bit less, spoke a bit more slowly and carefully. Watched things more. He wasn’t the high-spirited, easy-going kid he’d been before, although those things still slept inside him, I was sure, dormant but not dead. He was like me, now—the burdens of responsibility, and having seen and done things you regret and despise, to have to defend yourself and force down your normal tendencies of civility…tend to change a man. But he was still my best friend.
“No, nothing new,” I replied, taking another sip of the scalding coffee. It tasted like the inside of a boot, but who could complain? “The Yanks’re cleaning up, sending the prisoners back East, burying the dead. I saw a few couriers come and go, but no way I can tell what orders or news they brought or carried away.”
Henry grunted in agreement, tossing his cup across the fire into a waiting dishpan; the cook dodged the splash of dirty water with a faint curse. “I ‘spect we’ll hear something from back West soon, our runners had to’ve made it back to Corinth by now and’re on the way back. Surely we’ll have a message soon, to tell us what to do now.”
I nodded silently, knowing he was right. We’d been lying low in the forest for the last two days, afraid to move in the chance of being caught and taken prisoner like so many others had. We hadn’t been part of the contingent that actually surrendered to General Grant’s Union forces, so we weren’t honor-bound to follow our comrades into chains.
We wanted to get back West again, to fight again. Although I really didn’t know why I would want to go through that again; it was more like I felt that I had loose ends to tie up. Things didn’t feel settled. So we had sent runners back down the road to Corinth, Mississippi, where there was a small Confederate outpost, and someone who could receive our news and give us new orders.
There was a commotion behind us, the sound of horses’ hooves, galloping, and the cries of men. Henry and I leaped up, hands slapping to our hips where our revolvers were strapped, looking around wildly for signs of some enemy attack. Had we been discovered? Had the Union trackers found us?
As if in response to our conversation, it was one of our messengers, returned. Poor man, his horse was lathered and sweating from having been ridden so hard, and he was all scratched from riding full-pelt through the forest, his grey uniform in disarray. Henry and I exchanged a bemused glance and strode over toward the rider, both of us keen to hear what news the man brought.
I glanced around, searching for anyone that might outrank me to take the man’s report, even though I knew there was no one…Seeing no one I held out my hand for the messenger bag the soldier had slung around one shoulder. How stupid of me: I knew I was the senior officer now, but hated to admit it to myself.
He handed it to me gladly; he’d probably had to dodge Union patrols the entire way to and back from Corinth. A messenger’s main job is to get the message into the right hands—and to avoid letting it fall into the wrong ones. They are separate and equally important issues.
I unwound the cord tying the pouch closed and reached inside; there were two wax-sealed packets, both addressed to…me? I stared down at them for a moment, then glanced around again to see who was watching, feeling self-conscious. The fact that I was now the senior officer in the encampment suddenly struck me again. I had to stop pretending everyone was obeying my commands just because they made sense. I had a job to do. I sighed and shook my head.
One packet was the orders for the remnants of the regiment; it was thick, giving detailed instructions for how the soldiers should proceed to Corinth and beyond. I handed it off to the camp foreman, who would ensure the instructions were followed as quickly and closely as possible.
The other packet was for me alone. I saw my hands tremble shamefully as I broke the seal.
“It has come to our attention that you, sir, have shown great bravery and leadership ability in the face of duty. You have been reported by previous superior officers as being an exemplary gentleman soldier, displaying great prowess and skill on the field of battle, as well as excellent diplomatic and delegation skills amongst your peers. In recognition of these qualities, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Major in the Army of the Confederate States of America, and shall receive all the benefits such position entails. You are instructed to present yourself at the mustering office in Galveston, Texas as soon as possible to receive your commission and assume new responsibilities. Deliver your men to the station in Corinth, Mississippi, and then proceed forthwith with all possible speed to Galveston, after selecting your personal staff to accompany you. You may requisition fresh horses, arms, munitions, and supplies at Corinth for your journey. You shall be expected prior to June 1, in the Year of Our Lord 1862. Regards, Brigadier General John Bell Hood, Texas Brigade, Army of the Confederate States of America.”
The paper almost dropped from my shock-numbed fingers.
Henry must’ve realized something unusual had happened and snatched it from my hand, skimming over the words, a huge grin spreading across his face. He clapped me on the shoulder so hard it almost knocked me over. “Well, Jasper, it seems we’re going back home!” he crowed, shoving the orders letter into my jacket pocket. “Shall I tell Newt to get himself ready, too?”
I stared at him in bewilderment. I was still dazed at the idea of having been made an officer, and it hadn’t really dawned on me that I would be going back to Texas. “What do you mean, we?” I finally managed, my tongue feeling thick.
He rolled his eyes, stabbing a finger at the pocket where the letter seemed to be burning a hole into my thigh. “Aw, don’t even try to tell me you aren’t goin’ to take me along, General Hood said himself you could choose a staff to bring!” He grinned even bigger, slapping his chest proudly. “Imagine, me, personal Adjutant to the youngest Major in the Confederate Army!” He almost fell down with the force of his laughter.
I realized he was right. Who else would I take with me, besides him and Newt? My two closest friends, my two most reliable soldiers? I nodded, my mind racing. Would I have time to run home before reporting to Galveston? I wanted to see my family so badly, especially Ginny…
Ginny. I winced at the thought of her. She was furious with me, furious and hurt, I could tell—even in a letter written in her small, neat script with beautiful sentiments and not a single angry word, her feelings fairly shouted themselves at me, strafing me like poisoned darts, like cat’s claws. I knew her well enough to know that her written words weren’t the ones that mattered. I’d wounded her terribly.
I’d received several letters from her, as well as from Mother and Father. As Newt and Henry had predicted, Father got past his anger quickly, but Mother was very upset, and wouldn’t forgive me until I was safely home again.
God, please let me be able to fulfill that wish for her, I thought, staring upward into the deepening blue sky, pleading. And please let Ginny forgive me. Someday.
But will I?? I shook my head savagely, trying not to listen to that dark, heavy thought. It always came.
All around me the camp was beginning to bustle with excited energy as the camp foreman cursed and pushed and shouted at the men to get themselves up and prepared. We would strike out at dawn, marching through the forest to keep ourselves concealed, to report to Corinth.
And there I would begin the next phase of my journey.
It was a long, exhausting two-day march from the camp in the woods to Corinth.
We had to ride as furtively as possible, to avoid the Union scouts which were still scouring the roads for Confederate stragglers and escaped prisoners. They had rounded up as many prisoners as possible to ship back East, where they were used to construct barracks and dig ditches and the like, the Yanks treating the Confederate soldiers like slaves. All of my men wished to avoid such a fate, so they were being very careful. I had hardly needed to admonish them to secure their jingling reins and bits.
We had arisen before dawn, to a heavy, leaden sky promising rain. Breaking camp only took a few minutes, since most tasks had been completed the night before; we were a good mile from our original camp before the sun made its first wan appearance. Shortly after that, the rain began, a cold, soaking downpour that didn’t let up all day, continuing into the night.
We made a miserable camp that evening, not able to light any campfires to cook with; I chewed on a piece of leather-like jerky and rolled myself up in my oiled slicker, trying to keep dry as best as I could. No one slept well that night; we all awoke the next morning still exhausted, soaked to the bone, and set out again before the sun rose. I prayed that none of the men would fall sick after having spent the night sleeping in the mud: that was all we needed, an outbreak of some plague.
The rain finally ceased around midday; we didn’t stop to enjoy the brief appearance of the sun, but kept slogging on through the mud, determined to cover as much ground as possible before nightfall. My men deserved to get to decent barracks as soon as possible, I told myself, and they agreed with me when I urged them all to stay strong and press on. I was so very proud of them for not complaining or shirking.
Finally, shortly before sunset on the second day we made it to Corinth. It was like coming home again.
It wasn’t a large town, although the presence of a garrison of the Army billeted there more than doubled the local population and enriched the residents that catered to the soldiers’ needs. As we trooped down the main street, I tried to look something like the officer I now was; I straightened my coat and stiffened my back, holding myself as upright as possible in the saddle, even though I was bone-weary and as bedraggled as a wet cat. We all were.
The Colonel in charge of the Corinth garrison received us gravely, nodding at my men and then clasping my hand firmly in a gentleman’s handshake.
“Glad to meet you, Major Whitlock. We heard much about you from the messenger you sent.” He was dressed immaculately, his lavish mustaches waxed and curving according to the prevailing fashion of the day. He bowed his head momentarily in salute to me.
Again, I was surprised by his tribute. But I couldn’t let the older man see me discomfited.
“Reporting as ordered, Colonel.” I glanced over my shoulder at my men, who had all dismounted. Even as exhausted as they were, they all stood at attention, waiting for my orders. Again, pride in them swelled up in me, and it helped to strengthen my own resolve to cover my weaknesses. “I have seventy-five fine men to present to you, Sir.”
His eyes flickered over them, his eyes crinkling a bit at the corners as a faint smile crossed his face. “Looks like they could all use a good bath and clean uniforms, Major,” he said dryly.
I nodded. I knew my men looked terribly beaten-down and ragged, but I had to defend them, even if it meant problems with this man.
“Yes, Sir. We’ve marched the past two days through the woods in the rain, from before sunup to after sundown, on nothing but cold water and trail rations. And before that, we were camped in the woods for four days after the battle, trying to keep under cover as much as possible. My men have served well and hard, and should be allowed a bit of comfort, if you please, Sir.” I hoped I hadn’t crossed a line with the man; often, rank was conferred on men who didn’t deserve it, I’d seen.
The Colonel chuckled, nodding with me. His eyes crinkled even more as the slight smile broadened into a grin. “Of course, Major. Just observing, that’s all. We’re all proud of the showing you men made at Shiloh.” He looked back toward the outpost over his shoulder, motioning for his assistant, who jogged forward expectantly. “Mr. Timms, please show Major Whitlock to the officer’s quarters, and make sure he’s provided with everything he needs. And send Mr. Porter to show Major Whitlock’s men to the enlisted quarters immediately, making sure they receive proper new uniforms and all other necessities.”
Even though I felt I might faint with exhaustion, I made sure that my men were on their way to being taken care of before I would allow Mr. Timms to take me anywhere. The first rule of being a good officer, my father had told me, is to ensure your men are comfortable before you are—otherwise, you don’t deserve to lead them.
Being able to take a hot bath was a rapturous experience. Even if it was in a cramped tin tub in a drafty tent. I actually fell asleep in the tub, waking up abruptly, the water icy-cold around me.
After my bath the Colonel’s assistant provided me with a fresh uniform and led me to the officers’ mess hall, where I was able to eat the first true hot meal I’d had in over a month. Beans, cornbread, salt pork, potatoes, Johnny cake. Delicious. With a belly full of food, my body and clothes clean, I felt my exhaustion bearing down on me like an enemy cavalry charge; but I couldn’t rest yet.
Wearily, I pulled on my freshly-polished boots and overcoat, heading out of my tent to see what was happening with my men.
I found them all in good spirits, bathed and clothed and fed as I had been, preparing to bed down for the night. I checked on the wounded men who had been sent to the garrison hospital, going to each man and having a word with them to assure myself that they were well-treated. My feelings of pride and accomplishment returned as I talked to them, and I felt the men’s happiness as well; they were glad to be away from the battle, away from the dismal camp in the woods, and were happy with me, who had led them. I didn’t know what to do with that pride; it felt almost shameful to even acknowledge it.
I found Henry and Newt in their tent. Newt was squatted on the floor blacking his boots; Henry lounged on his cot, one arm thrown across his face to cover his eyes. He was snoring a bit.
I glanced around the tent and found one of Henry’s discarded (and unpolished) boots by the door; I pegged him in the chest with it. Henry shot up from the cot like he’d been struck by lightning, eyes wide and wild.
Newt and I fairly collapsed with laughter; Henry’s long-john pajamas gaped open until he managed to secure them, his face flushing crimson. I laughed until tears streamed from my eyes…then I remembered my new rank, and sobered myself up as quickly as possible.
It made me a bit sad, knowing that now there would have to be a degree of separation between me and my friends: officers and enlisted men aren’t supposed to fraternize too much. Hopefully they would get an officer’s commission soon, as well: both were excellent soldiers, and the chaotic state of the Confederate Army was conducive to quick promotions—as was proven by my own new status.
Henry slumped back down onto the bed, shaking his head, tugging at his pajamas.
“I swear, Jasper Whitlock, if you didn’t outrank me….” His threat tapered off impotently, then he met my eye, his broad, freckled face disrespectful. “So, when do we take off, Sir?”
I rolled my eyes in exasperation. “No ‘sirring’ me except in public, Henry.” I had to make sure he knew our friendship would never end just because I’d been promoted. “Anyway, we’re due out of here tomorrow morning. We’re accompanying a supply caravan bound for Memphis, then we’ll catch a ferry down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then cross overland to Texas.” I sighed. “We should be to Galveston inside a month. Early.” I picked up the boot I’d thrown at him and started blacking it. Newt smiled down at his own boot, quiet as always.
Henry stared at me, stupefied. “What, we’re not going to skip over to see our folks? We have almost a month to spare! They said June! It’s barely April!”
I shook my head sadly. I’d thought and rethought that issue over countless times during the evening, trying to make a good, responsible decision. “Sorry, Henry, it’s not authorized. I’m supposed to get to Galveston as soon as possible. June is the deadline. I can’t push it. Sorry.”
He spit on the ground, looking disgusted.
I was suddenly angry, catching his mood.
Did he think I didn’t want to see my family? Did he think it was easy for me, to behave in a proper fashion? He had no idea how hard that was for me, to deliberately cut such a tempting idea out of my mind: I wanted to see Mother and Father and Ginny more than anything. I longed to eat Mama Dina’s cooking again. I wanted to lie in my own bed, to fall asleep to the sound of the cicadas in the trees and the wind whispering through the tall grass, to be able to sit by the creek again with my little sister and know she wasn’t angry or sad anymore.
Henry must’ve sensed something of my mood, because his face grew a bit fearful; he ducked his head. “Sorry, Jasper,” he whispered. “I just thought…”
“Well, you thought wrong!” I bit off every word angrily. “Henry, is this going to be a problem between us? Should I choose someone else to come with me to Galveston? I don’t want to hurt our friendship, or damage either one of us’s career.”
His eyes widened. “No, no, Jasper, I didn’t mean it like that. I…Well, I was just disappointed.” He flushed. “It’s just that it’s only a few days’ ride from Galveston to Alto…I wanted to see Ma.” His voice trailed off, unspoken tears choking his voice.
I felt ashamed, remembering that the last letter Henry and Newt had received from their father had mentioned that their mother’s health had declined again. The doctors didn’t expect her to survive the winter. I struggled to find something to say, to do. I couldn’t hurt my friend like that.
“Well, once we’re to Galveston, I’ll see what I can do about getting you a short leave, all right, boys?” I directed my statement at them both: Newt was listening intently, although his face would never betray his feelings like Henry’s had. He looked down at the already-immaculate boots and smiled gently.
They both nodded, relieved.
“Now.” I rubbed my palms together, then reached into my pocket and pulling something out. “Who’s up for a game of poker?” I brandished the cards, grinning.
The tension melted immediately, both men grinning. “Well, that’s more like it!” Henry crowed, flopping down on his cot again. “Deal me in!”
As tired as I was, the good mood and good companionship buoyed me until almost midnight. I lost every round except the last one on purpose, letting them good-naturedly make fun of me. Finally, I tore myself away, my yawns about to crack my face in two, and managed to stagger my way to my tent, to my own waiting cot.
I drifted to sleep in that strange tent, seeing Ginny’s sad little face in my mind.
We struck out for Memphis the next day, escorting the supply caravan. Although Henry and Newt had both requisitioned new horses, I stuck with my faithful Star: she was my link to home. I’d never trade her in, to not know who would get her, whether they would care for her. I’d broken the horse in my Father’s stable yard, trained her to saddle and bridle with my own hands: she was like my right arm now.
It was an easy journey, down a well-traveled highway. We were now in completely Confederate-held territory, and had no more fears of Union scouts, although we did keep our eyes open for anything unusual. Since Sherman’s victory at Shiloh, he was sure to push Westward soon, using the newly-captured Columbia and Tennessee Rivers to advance his soldiers faster than foot or horse could travel.
We reached Memphis in a week, and there boarded a ferry downstream.
I’d never been on a riverboat before, and found it fascinating, to watch the muddy banks drift by. I spent the week on that boat in something close to leisure: there isn’t much for a soldier to do while on a boat. I played a lot of cards with Newt and Henry and a few of the other men, and spent some time with the steamboat captain, learning about how the boats were built and managed. I had always liked to learn, and at least that kept me from brooding about home, about my parents and Ginny. About the future.
We’d been told in Memphis that there were rumors the Union Navy was going to try to blockade Galveston Harbor, and to try to capture the city itself. Galveston, which possesses the best deep-water port on the entire Texas coastline, is a vital part of the Western economy: all kinds of goods passed in and out of that city’s harbor, from all over the Western states. If the harbor and city fell into enemy hands, the Confederacy might well be crippled by the blow to its financial health. And not all battles and wars are won by the rifle and sword.
I also couldn’t bear the thought of Union soldiers so close to home.
I’d seen what the marauding Union army had done in the South, before Shiloh. I’d seen plantations destroyed, whole towns devastated. Crops and farms burned to the ground. Women raped. Men murdered. The idea of the enemy occupying a city in my homeland, with the potential to spread out and perhaps come upon my birthplace, upon my family, upon my mother and sister, to destroy what my father had worked so hard to build…The patriotic zeal that had possessed me so mindlessly when I ran away to join the army was being stoked anew by the fires of my fear, but tempered by my experiences. I wasn’t bloodthirsty; I was anxious to do my part to keep the enemy from my home. Unfortunately, killing was part of what was necessary to do.
When we docked in New Orleans, we were thoroughly glad to be off the boat. We staggered ashore, leading our horses, our legs unsteady on dry land again after a week on the water. Laughing, we checked in with the garrison commander there, leaving our horses and supplies in the quarters that were assigned to us, venturing into the city to explore a bit.
New Orleans in 1862 was lovely. Many of the old French-style buildings that were there back then are still standing now. The people were a stunning mixture of all races and societal strata; I saw some of the most breathtaking women, Creole beauties, leaning from their windows in the Red Light District, calling out to the soldiers below in their French-accented English, inviting us up to drink a tiny cup of chicory coffee with them, and who knew what else might happen…
I had to drag Newt and Henry out of there almost by their ears.
We’d received some disturbing news from the garrison commander: New Orleans was about to be surrendered to the Union.
The Union Navy had already taken over two of the major forts south of New Orleans, Fort Jackson and St. Philip, and Union Flag Officer Farragut had managed to send thirteen ships upriver, toward New Orleans just two days before. Mortar boats and gunships, they would easily overtake New Orleans, which had absolutely no fortifications, and only a small garrison remaining to defend it. The Union was going to succeed in taking over the Mississippi. Since there were no soldiers to spare, it had been decided to allow the Union forces to overtake the city, to avoid needless waste of life; it was expected that the Union forces would be to New Orleans by April 28…which was the next day.
We’d been advised by the commander to enjoy our evening, and then get ourselves out of the city the next day. It wasn’t advisable to be a Confederate in New Orleans after the Union had taken possession.
We enjoyed a bit of music in a French Quarter café, where the colored men and women played and sang magnificently in French and the strange mixture of English, French, and Spanish which is Creole. I ate alligator tail etoufee and drank a Sazerac cocktail, the oldest mixed drink in the Americas: a heady mixture of Cognac, absinthe, rye whiskey, bitters, and sugar syrup. We listened and ate and drank til well after midnight, and even danced a little with some of those lovely Creole girls. One tall, dusky beauty reminded me of Mama Dina, with her almond-shaped eyes and wide cheekbones, and it gave me a pang of homesickness so vivid I lost all the enthusiasm I’d had for our night on the town.
“Let’s get back to camp, boys, it’s getting late,” I said to them, trying to be heard over the roar of the crowd. There were far too many empty glasses on our table for my comfort. I wondered if they had money to pay for all those drinks.
After settling our tab (for which I had to pay much more than I should have), we managed to escape into the cool, sweet evening.
Henry had had a few too many, and had to be practically carried back to our barracks. I had stopped myself at one, although I found the drink and the surroundings very pleasant…but an officer must try to keep his head at all times. Newt and I slung Henry between us, his arms draped across our shoulders; we staggered along the cobblestone streets, heading toward the garrison quarters, but it was hard to find in the unfamiliar city.
“Hey, Jas, d’you think we’ll ever make it home?” Henry slurred, rolling his face toward me. His breath stank of whiskey; I turned my face away, my stomach turning. “No, really! Do you?” he demanded, his fingers digging into the side of my neck.
I shook my head at his nonsense, trying to concentrate on the road, looking for anything familiar.
“What are you talking about, Henry?” Newt muttered, hitching Henry’s arm a bit more firmly around his own neck, trying to take some of his brother’s weight off me. “Shut up now, you drunk fool.”
Henry’s glazed eyes locked on me. “Jasper knows what I mean. He ain’t ever goin’ home again. Are you, Jas?”
His words made my blood run cold. I stopped in the middle of the street, letting him go. He slumped to the ground, a boneless puddle on the cobblestones, laughing drunkenly.
“What on earth do you mean by that, Henry?” I hissed.
But he was right.
In all this time, being away from home, enduring the trials and tribulations of a soldier’s life, passing my trial by fire through the heat of battle, I’d always cherished the thoughts of home, of being able to return again, take up my father’s duties, guide the family dynasty until my own old age, to eventually pass to my own sons, someday.
But somehow, deep inside, I had a feeling I never would be able to go home again.
I’d chalked it up to homesickness, to the grim hopelessness that grips every fighting man, to pessimism. I’d mentioned it once to Henry, the night after the Shiloh battle, both of us delirious with fear and exhaustion after the frenzied days of bloody fighting we’d endured.
He’d laughed at me with his usual lighthearted way, telling me to shut up, I was being a ninny. And I had, because I wanted to believe I was a ninny, that of course I would see my loved ones again.
But I still had that strange, dark feeling inside me. And that feeling was a whole lot like a certainty.
Henry looked up at me blearily, not smiling. “Jasper, you’re a strange egg, you know?” he mumbled. Newt sighed in exasperation, reaching down to take his brother’s arm; Henry shook him off angrily, his gaze sliding back to me again. I couldn’t shake his eyes; I stared at him, mesmerized.
“You’ve always been strange, Jasper Whitlock. Always. Since you was a kid, you was always more inside your head than outside it, always thinkin’, always readin’. I wasn’t jealous, I mean, you’re a good frien’, and I love you like a brother, but…” he trailed off, searching for words. “You’re just not like me. Like us. You’re different.”
I shook my head wordlessly, not knowing what to say.
“Aw, shut up you stupid kid,” Newt growled, finally managing to get ahold of Henry’s arm, yanking him up to drape the arm over his own shoulder again. He waved me off when I tried to step over to help him.
Henry grinned. “Jasper’s got somethin’ goin’ on inside him, Newt, he’s different than us, you know it, and I know you know it!” He laughed, hiccupping. “He tol’ me one night he didn’t think he was goin’ home, that somethin’s goin’ to happen to him…and I believe him. He’s always figurin’ out what everyone’s feelin’, and makin’ it right…”
My heart skipped a beat. I thought about my unusual way of handling people, the way I could urge them to feel the way I wanted them to, sometimes. Had Henry really noticed it? I couldn’t remember ever telling him about it; perhaps the absinthe in our drinks had done something to our minds?
Then Henry started vomiting up those drinks…and everything south of his collar. Apparently even his boots. And the mood shifted abruptly from strange to disgustedly humorous.
Newt and I collapsed in laughter on the side of the road, letting Henry get himself under control. We listened to his retching and cursing, every few minutes breaking into new peals of laughter at his misery. By the time he’d managed to compose himself, Henry had long forgotten his bizarre, prophetic mumblings, and allowed us to take him back to the barracks with nothing more than a series of long, foul-breathed and rambling apologies for his behavior.
That night, I lay awake on my cot until the sun rose.
Even as tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep. I kept on remembering Henry’s words.
“He tol’ me one night he didn’t think he was goin’ home, that somethin’s goin’ to happen to him…and I believe him.”
Was it right? Was this dark, heavy feeling, this near-certainty, that I wasn’t going home again, true?
“… he’s different than us, you know it… He’s always figurin’ out what everyone’s feelin’, and makin’ it right…”
He knew me, probably better than I knew myself, based on those words. Was I so transparent? I’d never imagined he had ever picked up on anything; Henry was so very open and honest, unapologetically so, and very straightforward. I’d have thought if he’d had any suspicions about anything different about me, he would’ve told me about it long ago.
Perhaps he hadn’t said anything because he didn’t need to. He knew I was different, and it didn’t need to be discussed.
Ginny’s face swam before me in the darkness of the insides of my eyelids.
He little pixie face was drawn and pale, like she was sick. Her big blue eyes were red from weeping. Her golden hair was all messy, like she’d been tossing and turning in her sleep. I saw her, laying in my bed back home, her nightgown all knotted and twisted from her thrashings as she dreamed her strange dreams. I heard her talk in her sleep, whispering to someone. Begging them to tell her about where I was, if I was all right. When I would come home.
And they didn’t tell her.
I’m never going home again.
I fought against that thought fiercely, my breath coming more rapidly as my heart pounded inside me, like I was running a race against something. Against myself.
The next day dawned clear and bright. New Orleans lay breathless in anticipation of the battle to come beneath a pale blue, cloudless sky.
I stood on a little rise a few miles from the city, clutching Star’s reins. Henry and Newt still sat their horses, although Henry’s posture in his saddle was more of a slump…the Absinthe Green Fairy had left him half-dead this morning. I’d had to literally kick him out of his cot, to get him moving.
I pulled my spyglass from my jacket pocket and trained it on the mouth of the harbor, several miles distant. There was a smudge there on the horizon: the smoke from an inbound steamship, probably the first of the Union mortar boats. Union Navy Flagman Farragut was steaming directly for New Orleans, his boat low in the water, weighed down by the amount of munitions she carried: there would be no quarter today. The Union meant to take New Orleans, and the Confederacy meant to give it up, after some kind of agreement had been made, to preserve thousands of innocent lives.
It still smelled a bit too much like cowardice to me. But I also remembered Shiloh, and wondered, if perhaps they were doing the best thing to surrender the city, to save so many people.
Down below, I could see the lines of fleeing civilians, streaming into the green, swampy mainland, abandoning New Orleans in case the Union boats decided to start pounding the city anyway. They looked like ants, trooping black and anonymous across the landscape. I sighed. How many times would I see this? See destruction and death, and the innocent losing their homes and livelihoods and lives?
Finally, I had to tear my eyes away from it all and turn back to Henry and Newt, who squinted at me from beneath the brims of their hats, trying to avoid the morning sunlight. Although Henry was much the worse for wear from the night before’s events, Newt also looked a bit green around the eyes as well. I smiled crookedly. “Ready, boys?”
They nodded, and I swung myself up into the saddle, clucking the reins and tapping Star’s barrel with my heels. She wheeled obediently, and I led my companions down off the rise, into the waiting scrubby forest. Next stop: Galveston.
Behind us, as we descended into the trees, I heard the first sounds of the explosions.
They’d decided to bombard the city after all.
It was a long, miserable, and relatively uneventful trip down to Galveston, much longer than we’d ever imagined, although the knowledge that we’d left a battle behind us in New Orleans made all three of us antsy. It felt dishonorable, having deserted New Orleans so thoroughly; but we had our orders, and must follow them. And regardless of any desire to help, three men couldn’t have made any difference in the taking of a city that had already been surrendered in everything but name.
The swampy territory between New Orleans and Galveston was a sticky, difficult mess. We stuck to the roads when we could, but since there weren’t many of those in the first place, we had to do the best we could. Spring flooding had rendered some roads impossible, which made us have to do a lot of backtracking and fording of swollen rivers and streams, navigating through the forests with compass and map.
We mainly stuck to the coast, since it was the easiest way to keep from getting lost. Back then, there was no really easy overland way to get to Galveston—if there hadn’t been a war on, and the Gulf swarming with Union ships, we might’ve been able to catch a ride on a freighter or a ferry. But no Rebel man in his right mind dared to venture out to sea at that time, the Confederate Navy was in dismal disarray, and offered no one much defense from anything. Many times we thought to commandeer a little punt or dinghy to make things easier, but then the sight of a Union patrol boat slinking along the coast ahead would make us change our minds and head back into the swampy palmettos and cypresses.
It was tiresome, slogging through the mushy forests that lined the coast. They called them” bayous”, a corruption of a French word, meaning “low place,” and the description fit. Although dizzyingly green and lush after the dryness of East Texas, I got tired of it real fast. Every night I had to carefully dry off Star’s hooves, and find her and the other horses the driest places to stand, lest they get hoof rot and go lame. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to put her down, but one had no choice but that with a lame horse back then.
Many a night we slept by a smoky little campfire, smoky because we fed it green pine boughs to keep the clouds of buzzing, biting mosquitoes and midges away. We’d eat our beans and jerky below the glittering canopy of stars, our aching feet stretched out before us, and we told stories. Stories of back home, stories we’d heard from the other men we’d met, stories of the things we’d seen and done since we left home. Even though it made my homesickness swell up inside me, it was still comforting to talk about home, to think about it.
I would drift to sleep, my cap pulled down over my eyes, my fingertips against the barrel of my musket, just in case a raiding party of disgruntled Indians or swamp robbers or even a stray Union patrol managed to disturb our rest. Then we’d wake the next morning, stretch our muscles that had been stiffened with sleeping so many nights on the ground, and start it all over again.
The journey from New Orleans is almost 400 miles as the crow flies, but if you add in all the twisting and turnings of the coastline, it’s much longer than that. However, since we were a small party, we made it in decent time: we arrived in Galveston on July 1, 1862. A month late. Not too bad.
We must’ve been a sight, trudging into town, leading our horses. Although we’d requisitioned new uniforms in Corinth, by the time we checked in with the garrison in Galveston, our gray coats and trousers had become stained and threadbare, our boots were falling apart and spattered with mud, and we all needed a good shave and haircut.
The corporal in the staff office looked up at me from his desk full of papers, his eyebrows climbing his forehead in surprise. An officious-looking young man who had surely never seen a battle, he blinked rapidly for a moment, his eyes roving over my clothes, his mouth pursing a bit in disapproval.
“Orders…soldier?” he finally asked, holding out one hand—a soft hand, uncalloused, surely a hand that had never held a weapon for anything other than drill practice.
I pulled my wax-sealed orders from my belt pouch, handing it to the office man without expression.
He scanned it for a moment, and his eyebrows continued their upward climb, until it seemed they’d meet his hairline. He looked back up at me and stared, then belatedly jumped to his feet and jerked a sloppy salute.
“Begging your pardon, Major Whitlock, we’ve been waiting for you!” he said, handing me back the orders.
I shook my head wearily. “At ease…” I looked over his few pins and bars and patches, to figure out his rank. “…Corporal…”
“Tidwell, Major Whitlock. Percy Tidwell,” he supplied helpfully. “I’m first assistant to Quartermaster Sergeant Davis, sir.” He bobbed nervously in place.
I nodded, waving him down into his chair. “Well, Corporal Tidwell, my men and I have arrived as instructed, but we’re a month late. We had to go along the coast, and the roads were awful where there were roads—we had to evade Union patrols boats the entire way.” I pulled my gloves off one finger at a time, then stuffed them into my belt, cracking my knuckles. “Who do we report to, Corporal?”
He licked his lips nervously, shuffling some papers on his desk. “Well, sir, I mean, Major, normally I’d send you directly over to General Hood, but he’s in Houston right now…Colonel Cook is here, he’s in charge while General Hood’s away, but he’s out on inspection patrol, checking out Fort Point on Pelican Island…He’s due to be back…” Tidwell squinted at a paper, “…tomorrow. I think.” He began to sweat.
I took a deep breath, exhaled, closed my eyes. Had to keep calm. No use in making the poor little fellow wet himself. I didn’t like to yell anyway.
“So, Corporal, who is in charge while Colonel Cook is away?”
Tidwell blinked. “Um…Sergeant Major Wesley, sir? I mean, Major?”
“And were might I find him, to receive my orders, Corporal Tidwell?”
He jerked his head back and forth, looking from me to the window and back again a few times, as if waiting for some sign from outside as to what to do. “Well, I don’t exactly know, Major Whitlock…he doesn’t check in with me…” He trailed off, staring up at me helplessly.
I did everything in my power to calm the man down before he had a coronary. He was just a kid, younger than me, although not much younger—perhaps he hadn’t had the benefits of the kind of father I’d had, or the kind of experience I’d gained in the past year. I silently begged him to stop sweating. It was beginning to soak through his uniform.
“All right, Corporal Tidwell, I am going to go ask outside where Sergeant Major Wesley is, all right? And while I am doing so, would you please be so kind as to speak to your Quartermaster Sergeant and procure lodgings, new uniforms, munitions, and all other supplies for myself and my men? I have a staff of two, they’re waiting outside.” I kept my voice even and friendly, even smiled a little at him. It was hard to do, but I managed.
He about passed out from relief. I wondered briefly if he was accustomed to being screamed at by some incompetent superior who had no idea how to manage men.
“B-but of course, Major, right away!” he sputtered, jumping to his feet and coming around his desk to hold the door open for me. I exited the building and he followed me out.
Newt and Henry lounged against the hitching post, Henry whistling and cleaning beneath his fingernails with his pocketknife, Newt checking his horse’s hooves. They both straightened when Tidwell and I came out, Henry grinning at the little man’s obvious stress.
“Boys, you go with Corporal Tidwell here, he’ll get us billeted up right,” I said, slapping Tidwell heartily on the shoulder.
He almost fell over.
Henry and Newt both burst out laughing, then straightened as fast as they could when they caught my glare, although Henry’s face flushed red with the effort to keep his guffaws from escaping. It wouldn’t do to make Tidwell any more nervous than he already was.
“Here, Henry, take Star with you. Make sure she gets a good rubdown, all right? And check under her girth, I thought I noticed a spot there where she seems to be getting rubbed wrong. If so, requisition me a new saddle, all right?” He nodded sharply. As my adjutant, Henry was technically in charge of maintaining my equipment and personal supplies, although we were just as likely to shine each other’s boots when not around anyone else.
I watched them take off down the street, toward where I could see the picket lines of horses and sea of tents erected for the soldiers begin. I knew one of my boys would find me soon enough and let me know where I could eventually hang my hat and lay my head down.
The city was alive with soldiers and civilians. The streets were clogged with people, coming and going on their separate business, everyone with their own purpose. I scanned the crowd, searching for someone who looked vaguely official and might be able to tell me where the elusive Sergeant Major Wesley was.
I found my man after a minute. Dressed in a smartly maintained uniform, a first sergeant’s grey chevron decorating his shoulders, he rounded the corner of the garrison office and knocked on the door; after finding it locked, he turned to me and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Well, is little Tidwell out to lunch or something?” he asked me amiably.
I laughed, pulling off my hat and scratching at my unwashed hair. “Yeah, sorry about that, fellow, I sent him off with my men to get us some supplies and a tent.” I put my hat back on, stuck out my hand for him to shake. “Jasper Whitlock.”
He took the couple of steps toward me and grabbed my hand in a firm grip, shaking it properly. “Kenneth Smalls, at your service,” he said, smiling broadly. His voice was full of the rolling deep-South drawl, cultured like my mother’s. He was dark-haired, with a lush handlebar mustache that was the fashion then, and he had brown eyes that twinkled with humor. “Of the Alabama Smalls, by the way, friend. I know of some Whitlocks, are they any kin of yours?”
Back then, the world was much smaller. There was a good chance you’d meet someone who was related to you, or know your relations, anywhere you went.
I nodded. “My grandpa left Alabama long ago, went to Oklahoma, then my father went down to Texas, where I was born.”
Kenneth Smalls looked over my dusty, stained uniform for a moment, but held his tongue in judgment. “So, you just arrived, then?”
I laughed, looking down at myself. I knew I was a sight. “Yes, just now. We came overland from New Orleans.”
His eyes widened. “Were you there when New Orleans fell?” he asked in wonder, new respect in his eyes.
I shook my head. “No…well, yes, in a way, I suppose…” He looked confused, so I elaborated. “I had orders to proceed here to Galveston directly, and the commander in New Orleans told me that they had already decided to surrender the city.” The sounds of the mortal barrages we’d heard as we left echoed in my mind. “We left right before they started firing. I have no idea what happened after that.”
Smalls chuckled. “Well, you didn’t really miss much…General Lovell surrendered the city, after Forts Jackson and St. Philip were pounded into the sand...and the Union General, Butler, took over as provisional governor, but no one likes him much, even his own people…he put out an order that any local woman who disrespected or disobeyed the Union occupiers would be viewed as a prostitute and subject to prosecution…” He chuckled ruefully. “Can you imagine that?”
I stared at him for a moment, unbelieving. How terribly rude, to label any woman a whore for simply not bending her knee to some filthy blue-coated Union scum?
Smalls continued blithely. “Of course, Butler is a scoundrel anyway. No one likes him. They call him ‘Spoons’ now, because he supposedly steals the silverware from the houses he and his men occupy. He’s likely to be removed soon.” A grin stretched his mustaches pleasantly, showing even white teeth.
I burst out laughing at the image of a decorated Union general stuffing his pockets with pilfered silverware. Smalls joined me in the hilarity.
Finally, I had to get to business. “Well, Sergeant Smalls, thank you for the update, but I do need to find someone, and Corporal Tidwell wasn’t of much assistance,” I said seriously. “I need to find Sergeant Major Wesley. Any idea where he is? I have to report, I am overdue by a month.”
Smalls thought for a moment. “Well, Wesley’s likely over in the Officer’s Mess right now, if you like I’ll take you over there.” He paused, glancing at my uniform again. “But, they might not let you in. Officers only, you know.”
I laughed, holding up my orders packet. “Major Jasper Whitlock, reporting for duty.”
He had the good grace to blush, and he straightened a bit. “Well, sorry, Major Whitlock, I had no idea…you have no insignia…”
I waved off the apology. “Don’t worry about it, Smalls, it was a battlefield commission anyway, I was at Shiloh.” That was all the explanation I needed, I supposed. “The whole thing’s to be made official here. They’re expecting me.”
He nodded in understanding, his eyes widening again at the mention of Shiloh. I could tell he wanted to ask me about it, but he seemed to think better of it and turned on his heel, gesturing for me to follow him. “Right this way, Major.”
We wound our way into the bustling crowd.
A few long, weary hours later, I was lying on my new cot in my new tent, dangling my feet off the edge while I read a copy of the local newspaper, trying to get a feel for what had been happening in Texas since I’d left it.
I’d had a good bath and a hot meal, and a fresh uniform hung in the corner, brand-new shiny black boots on the floor below. We now occupied a decent-sized tent, big enough for all three of us to fit comfortably, I even had my own section curtained off in the rear, with a tiny field desk and camp chair, and a chest for my belongings. Star and the other horses had been fed and groomed and given a feedbag of sweet oats, and all seemed well with the world, for the moment at least.
Kenneth Smalls had decided he liked our little trio, he’d hit it off well with Newt and Henry, and promised to come back at nightfall to bring us over to meet some of his other friends, men who were all good Southern gentlemen, he said, and who enjoyed the gentlemanly arts of drinking, poker, and cigar-smoking.
I’d never been one for cigars or drinking, but I did play a mean hand of poker, so I was looking forward to making Smalls’s friends acquaintances—and taking their money, hopefully.
The tent’s door-flaps rustled and parted, and in poked the head of Tidwell, grinning nervously. “Permission to enter, Major Whitlock?” he squeaked. He was still sweating.
I waved him in. “What is it, Corporal?”
He pushed himself inside the tent. He didn’t even have to duck to not hit his head, as I did. It made me smile a bit.
“We have had these here at our post office for you for a while, Major. I thought I should bring them to you personal, right away.” He fairly glowed with pride in his accomplishment as he extended something toward me: a twine-wrapped packet. Envelopes.
Letters from home.
I fairly fell off my cot as I struggled to my feet, smacking my head on the tent ridgepole in my haste to take them from him. Tidwell and Newt averted their faces out of respect; Henry barked a braying laugh at my clumsiness, as always incorrigible.
I snatched the bundle of envelopes from the little man’s hands, and clapped him again on the shoulder. Again, he almost fell over. Maybe I should try to moderate my strength a bit with him, I mused absently.
“Good job, Corporal, good job.” Tidwell flushed pink to the tips of his protruding ears, sketched a salute, and darted out of the tent. I’d made his day, I thought.
But he’d made mine.
I let down the ties on the curtains that closed off my section of the tent from the front; I didn’t want any witnesses while I read. There was no telling what I might find out. I could never bear for Newt or Henry to see me upset or even overly happy. It wasn’t proper.
There were ten letters there; three from Mother and Father, seven from Ginny.
I put Ginny’s letters aside with hands that were shaking a bit; I felt a flush of shame at that, then reminded myself that a man doesn’t have to be ashamed at loving his family. But I still kept hers aside, to read last, like a dessert I was intent on savoring.
The letters from Mother and Father spanned a space of about six months, dating from a month before Shiloh to about a week before I’d arrived in Galveston. They were all basically the same: the farm was fine, everyone was fine, they missed me but were proud of me, when could I come home? Was I enjoying my life as a soldier? Had I done the right thing, was I making them proud? Had I seen battle yet?
I rolled my eyes and put them aside. Had I seen battle? Was I making them proud? I felt a tightness in my chest, thinking of them. God, I hope I am making them proud, I thought, clenching my hands into fists on my knees. I reached for Ginny’s letters.
March 3, 1862
Dear Jasper, I miss you. We all miss you. I think about you all the time. The farm is well, Papa and Big John have put up a field of sugar beets that seem to be doing well. Papa says sugar beets are the crop for Texas for the future, that soon we won’t need to bring sugar in from Cuba, we can make it ourselves. I’m studying French now, with Mademoiselle Bichon, she’s a nice person, but very silly. She thinks girls shouldn’t laugh, except when men tell them jokes. I told her that was stupid, and she told Mama on me, and I got punishment, no riding Cloud for a week. I think the whole thing’s dumb: why couldn’t I laugh anytime I wanted to? And what does some French spinster know about anything, anyway? You wouldn’t like her. She’s pretty but stupid. Oh yes, I also have been practicing with your old .22 rifle, Big John has given me lessons in secret, and I can hit a tin can from 100 yards every time! I thought you should know, in case the Union soldiers make it here. I can help defend the house. I hope that makes you feel better. I love you Big Brother. Come home soon, please. Love, Ginny.
They were all pretty much the same, except for the last one, dated two weeks ago. It was so different it made my whole body tense in shock.
“Dear Jasper, I hope you are doing well. I miss you. Everyone misses you. The last time we heard from you was when you were sent to Tennessee. We got word two months ago you were at Shiloh, that you’d lived and that you’d been promoted. I’m glad you’re all right.
Bad things happened after we found out you went to Tennessee, and even though they know you’re all right, things changed and haven’t gotten better. Probably they’re even worse. Mama and Papa hardly talk to each other anymore. I think Mama blames Papa for telling you about war, for teaching you how to fight and shoot and stuff like that. I heard her say that to him one time, and they barely have said one word to each other ever since.
Mama only cries at night, she doesn’t sleep, and Father drinks sometimes, now, which you know he never did before. They are very worried about you, but they don’t talk about it. Doc B comes by at least once a week now, and he tells Mama she has to rest, but she can’t sleep except with the laudanum, and Doc B doesn’t want to give her much, he says it’s bad for her. I don’t like it when she takes it, it makes her sleep so hard, and then she is so funny when she wakes up, like she doesn’t remember anything…then she remembers you’re gone, and she cries again, and it all starts all over.
Papa hardly talks to me anymore, like he used to. When I tried to get him to talk to me about the books he bought me for my birthday, he walked away like he hadn’t heard me. He’s gotten skinny, and like I said, he drinks now, but only when he doesn’t know I can see it. I found a bunch of empty bourbon bottles in his study last week. I think that’s the only way he can sleep. He keeps reading the newspapers about battles. He heard you were at Shiloh and he didn’t come out of his study for three days, no matter how much Mama Dina and Big John begged him. And I can’t sleep much either. I can only sleep when I go lay down in your room, though if Mama knew I did that she’d have a fit and have to be restrained. Your room is exactly like when you left it, like some kind of shrine.
I hope you are happy that you made this choice, Jasper, because I don’t understand it. I know you say all kinds of things about being a patriot and being a good example for me, but I don’t care. This war is a bad thing. Brothers shouldn’t fight brothers, especially about owning other people and silly things like that. The Union isn’t much different from the Confederacy, except we have different accents. Mama Dina and Big John were slaves, remember? Would you tell them it’s not all right for them to be free? Would you tell them it’s all right for someone to own them, if they went back to Georgia and got captured? Would you tell them they’re not people, that they’re animals to be owned, like a lot of people say? You want to defend that ideal?
I have a bad feeling, Big Brother, a feeling that you’re never coming home. I’ve dreamed about it. I know it’s terrible to say, but I am tired of lying about it, trying to put the “best face” on things. I have tried to write you happy letters before, like Mama and Papa wanted me to do, but I’m tired of it now. Maybe you should know the horrible things that happened when you left, so maybe you’ll reconsider this stupid fool’s errand of yours, going off to fight a stupid war that can’t be won, and come home where you belong, before it’s too late.
No matter how mad I am with you, I always love you, I just wish you’d come home. Soon. Alive.
Love always, Ginny.”
The letter fell to the floor from my numb fingers. I couldn’t keep it from falling. I could barely breathe anymore.
Images flashed through my head.
Mother, crying. Not sleeping. Father, drinking. Not talking to each other anymore. No more laughter in our home. Ginny, tossing and turning in my bed, like I’d imagined her the night in New Orleans, crying out in her sleep with her strange dreams. Mama Dina and Big John, in chains, bound aback for the South, to work again on someone’s plantation.
Me, dead in a ditch somewhere. What would happen to my family then? What if Ginny was right?
I lay there in the tent as the day ended and the night closed in, the evening making the inside of my little cubbyhole impenetrably black. It was stifling in there, but it didn’t matter. I lived inside my mind, my body forgotten.
Even when Henry tapped on the curtain and asked me if I wanted to go play poker, I didn’t respond. After a few minutes he went away, though I heard his concerned mutterings as they faded with distance.
Poker didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. My little sister had a feeling I wouldn’t come home.
And she had almost never been wrong when she made such strange prophecies, usually when she dreamed them.
I lay there until dawn broke. I hadn’t moved an inch. Tears coursed down my cheeks and wet the pillow, but I didn’t care. They dried in the morning heat.
Colonel Cook finally returned from his inspection of the fortified islands off the Gulf Coast and was able to give me my formal promotion to Major. He pinned my new epaulets onto my jacket and shook my hand vigorously, slapping me on the back and offering me a drink of whiskey in celebration. I took it to be polite, but I only took a sip, handing it off to Henry when Colonel Cook wasn’t looking, who chugged it in one slug and placed the glass back into my hand in a moment.
The months flew by. July bled into August, August into September, and September wound to a close. The summer had been oppressively heavy and hotter than Hell’s backyard, steamy-humid down on the Gulf Coast. The men sweated and cursed and swatted at mosquitoes; malaria ran rampant, as well as yellow fever and dysentery.
I was assigned a company of men, and I kept my discipline strict. Even though they didn’t understand why, they followed my orders to boil their drinking and washing water, to keep the horses far from the water tubs, and to build smoky fires to keep away the insects. When a whole month had passed and hardly any of my men fell sick, they began to understand and respect me, rather than just obey by custom.
The Union was coming. They’d actually arrived at the mouth of Galveston Harbor in July, right after I had come, blockading the entrance, keeping anyone from entering or exiting the harbor. They’d also engaged in a few lightning raids, terrorizing locals, who withdrew from the outlying farms and small towns into the city proper, or relocated entirely to the interior of the state, never to return.
The city and the state as a whole were suffering from the blockade. Although some things were brought overland, the war had taken its toll on the land routes as well, and the bad spring weather had made it all but impossible for caravans to pass. Back then, the trains weren’t running across the country like they were a few years later, and the steamships on the Mississippi were under Union control. The city soon began to feel the effects of the blockade: perishables not produced locally were becoming scare, and manufactured and finished goods such as tools, machinery, paper, and other dry goods were becoming rare as well. I felt lucky to be able to drink coffee every day, when many of the men had only water or tea. I was an officer, after all.
I had a good working relationship with my superiors and my men; they listened to me and I had developed a good deal of respect among everyone. I understand now that a lot of it was due to my “gift” with people, even in its weak mortal form, but I do hope that at least a portion was due to the fact that I was raised well and educated properly.
I never got past what Ginny had written to me. I read and re-read that letter so many times the paper began to yellow and thin in places, where I would clutch it and rub my thumbs along her neat lines of elegant script. She hadn’t written me since, though I’d received several letters from Mother and Father, always the same dull propaganda. Whenever there was a mail call, I’d tense up until I held whatever I received in my hands, but it never was a letter from Ginny.
On October 2, 1862, my commander summoned me into his tent. I knew it was bad news. The whole garrison had been awash in rumors over the last few days, rumors of a Union invasion.
Commander Cook was sitting at his desk, looking over a sheaf of orders when I rapped on the door flap and asked for admittance; he’s had the curtains drawn and tied aside, admitting a bit of fresh air. I remember the afternoon was stiflingly hot, even though it was October. Flies buzzed everywhere, a mind-numbing backdrop that escalated everyone’s tension.
“Ah, Major Whitlock, please come in,” he said evenly, setting his papers down and looking up at me. I entered and saluted; he motioned for me to relax. “At ease, sir.”
I put down my arm but remained at attention, waiting for him to speak.
“Major Whitlock, we are going to begin evacuating the city in the morning. You are going to be in charge of this operation.”
His words stunned me. Evacuation? Me, in charge? “Surely, sir, there are other, older, more qualified officers than myself…“ I stammered.
Cook held up a hand to silence me; I snapped my mouth shut.
“Be that as it may, Whitlock, be that as it may.” He sighed, stroking his thick, luxuriant beard, preoccupied. “You’re the youngest Major in the Confederate Army, but also one of the most competent, Whitlock. You’re the only one I have here right now that I can trust. I need everyone else to be on alert, ready for the battle when it comes. You are to escort the first column of women and children up to Houston. I know you are an excellent soldier, Whitlock, but you are also one of the few men I can trust to convey those civilians safely and in an organized fashion. Anyone can hold a gun, son, but not just anyone can do a job like this one.”
I couldn’t argue with him. And Houston! I would be so close to home! Perhaps…
It was as if he could read my mind, almost as if he delighted in squashing my idea. “I need you back here as soon as possible, Whitlock. We want to try to keep these damn Union devils from taking the city. And I’ll be relying on you very heavily then, as well. So full speed ahead, sir.”
With those few words he dashed my hopes. But I pushed my bitterness down as deep as possible, and nodded my acceptance. That’s what a good officer does.
Colonel Cook shook his head sadly, looking off into space moodily. “I have a bad feeling about this, Whitlock. I don’t want to sound like a traitor, but our luck lately hasn’t been what it should be…I hope we hold them off this time. Not another New Orleans.”
I nodded. I would hate to have the Union in charge of a city so close to my home.
“Ah well,” he muttered, slapping the top of his desk. “Dismissed, Whitlock. Go get yourself and your men ready. The civilians will be ready to depart at dawn, according to the Mayor. You should be ready before then.”
I saluted again and left his tent, my mind whirling with all the things I needed to do.
The next morning, dawn broke to find me at the head of a column of women, children, and old folks, headed northwest. Some were mounted, some rode in wagons or carriages, but most were on foot. A staggering tide of humanity trailed behind me, winding our way up from the Galveston lowlands up into the arid, rolling hills of East Texas, heading for Houston.
Henry, Newt, and I rode point, flanking each other; we rarely spoke. We weren’t flying the Confederate colors, because there was no telling if the Union had sent any patrols onto land to pen us in or cut us off from Houston. We had a small contingent of soldiers riding with us; they ranged around the column of civilians in a moving pattern, constantly covering the vulnerable, unarmed people, in case someone opened fire on us.
I rode with a heavy heart. It still felt so wrong, to be going so very close to home, so close to Mother and Father…and Ginny…and not be able to go see them.
I kept rationalizing with myself, that I could slip away for a few hours, ride hard, and return quickly after a brief visit. I entertained myself with these idle fantasies…but I always knew it wouldn’t work. It would be known if I took off, and Colonel Cook would find out I directly flouted his orders to head straight back. I didn’t want a disciplinary case on my record; I had gone through too much for this dream of war I’d had, to ruin any good reputation I might have earned like that, making it all for nothing. Also, I was needed. People depended on me.
We rode in relative silence all day, pressing hard. It was well after nightfall when the city lights hove into view; I had not allowed many stops, knowing that we couldn’t afford to make camp in the lonesome, unprotected wilderness that stretched between Galveston and Houston, and I needed to head back to Galveston the same night. Even though the civilians groaned in protest, they kept walking, and it was a welcome sight when we reached the torches lit at the boundaries of the refugee camp on the outskirts of Houston.
I stood by while Newt and Henry finished the head count, making sure that all of the people we’d left with from Galveston had reached their destination. When I was satisfied, I took Star to the local picket line and handed her off to a quartermaster’s assistant.
“Rub her down and give her a mash, she’s been ridden hard all day, and I want her in good shape when I come back to claim her tomorrow.”
The man nodded his assent and passed Star off to the groom who brought my fresh replacement; the man murmured over her as he led her away. I watched them disappear into the gloom, my stomach sinking. I hated riding a different horse.
“Oh well, boy, I suppose we’d better get used to each other, then, eh?” I rubbed the new horse’s nose, scratched behind his poll. He was a bay gelding, with a star on his forehead similar to Star’s. At least he was a decent animal, good legs, not skittish. “We’ll get along well, I suppose.”
I mounted up and called out to Henry and Newt. “Let’s go, boys!”
Newt walked over, looking upset. “Jas, I think we need to stay here tonight,” he whispered up at me, reaching up to grab my stirrup. “Henry’s not feeling well, he’s been sicking up ever since we got here.”
I frowned. I had noticed Henry’s uncharacteristic quiet during the long ride from Galveston, but I’d been so totally lost in my own melancholy that I hadn’t thought much of it, except thinking perhaps he’d been drinking again til late the night before. “Is he feverish?” I asked, feeling guilty for not having paid more attention to my man.
Newt nodded, glancing back over his shoulder. I could hear Henry in the darkness beyond, groaning now. “Yes, he’s got fever, and he looks awful yellow.”
I groaned. “Of course. Yellow fever.” Shaking my head, I reached down and patted Newt’s hand. “All right, Newt, get him settled in here, and I’ll be back tomorrow night to collect you and Star. He can stay here til he’s better, no use him going to battle when he’s sick.” We both laughed a little.
With a parting grin and wave, I set off for Galveston, the cool night swallowing me whole.
I never saw them again.
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