Sample Chapter

Chapter 14

Friday, June 27, 1862  — Contact

Orders were therefore given to fall back to Gaines’s Mill, select a good position and await the approach of the enemy.                                         –– Captain Amos Judson

At dawn Captain Morris ordered Little to take his squad out of the mill, to cross the mill’s dam on Powhite Creek and to patrol north toward Mechanicsville, the site of yesterday’s battle.

“Me, sir?”

“You’re first corporal.”

Little’s heart pounded and his mouth went dry. He never had led a real patrol, much less to some unknown place filed with numberless Rebels aching to kill him.

“What are we likely to run into, sir?”

“Well now, Corporal, that’s exactly what I want you to find out,” Morris said. Little’s ears burned with embarrassment. “Don’t worry,” Morris said. “I don’t want you to fight the whole Reb army, but I do want you to develop whether they’re headed this way. And then get right back and let us know.”

“Yes, sir,” Little nodded. With a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, he ordered his squad out of the mill and across the bridge over the creek.

As he deployed the men, he looked south. A half mile downstream the creek passed the cluster of buildings at the Gaines’ family home and beyond that it cascaded down into the Chickahominy swamps. It looked quiet, like some painting.

Moving north about 200 yards, they passed a battery of 12-pounders pointing along the road. “Be sure and aim over us,” Blake called as the squad passed. A red-capped sergeant glanced up and spat.

“Damned regulars,” Jacques said.

“Will you just worry about the Rebs?” Little snapped.

Without Little telling them, the eight riflemen deployed in a 50-yard line centered on the road. The dew on the weeds and brush quickly soaked their jeans and shoes. They found themselves paralleling a broad swath of trampled brush along the sparse woods south of the road.

It was the route taken by Sykes’ Regulars, a full division, when they pulled back from Mechanicsville before dawn. It looked like the division’s artillery used the road while the infantry clambered through the brush. The clearings and second growth hadn’t rebounded yet from the passage of about 15,000 Yankee feet.

As Little’s patrol swung into a shallow draw, a spooked doe plunged across the road into the woods, tail hiked. Little grinned and relaxed a bit. Her faun remained behind staring at them and then gamboling sideways as if inviting someone to play.

Maas stamped his foot and said, “Get out of this you young fool.” The faun just stared. He stooped and tossed a pebble. The faun bobbed its head, paused, and stamped its tiny foot. Then the doe snorted from the woods and the faun followed her.

Little sobered when Blake said, “Hey, Corporal Joe, this is just a little patrol, right? ’Little’ for ‘Corporal Little’? Get it?”

Little turned cold eyes on him. “Blake, you better hope this little patrol don’t stumble onto lots of Rebs.” Blake’s face sobered. A half mile further, Blake looked nervous when Little ordered him to jog 100 yards ahead, far enough to peek over a rise in the road.

Blake no sooner arrived at the hump in the road than he crouched, cupped his hands both sides of his mouth and called softly, “Corporal Joe! Riders! Way far off.”

Good Lord . . . here we go. Little halted the squad, ordered Corse to keep an eye on the men, and ran forward to Blake.

When he reached the military crest of the hump in the road, he called Blake back to him so that their line of sight just cleared the top of the rise. Perhaps three-quarters mile off, four Reb riders were clustered in a slanted shaft of sunlight. Oh, oh! Four horsemen — right out’n Revelation.

“Okay,” Little whispered, “I want you to run back . . .”

“Corporal Joe,” Blake interrupted with an innocent wide-eyed look, “why are you whispering? The Rebs is as way beyond earshot.”

Little grinned. “Blake, one of these days you’re going to make one too many wisecracks and I’m going to kick you halfway into next year. Now pay heed! Run back to the mill to tell Captain Morris about the Reb cavalry patrol. Tell him we’ll stick here a bit unless more Rebs show. Then we’ll ease back toward the guns.”

Blake turned to run back.

“Whoa! On your way, let the battery captain know what we seen.”

Blake nodded and trotted off.

As Little waited, a fifth horseman joined the group which spread out and slowly headed straight toward Little. Patrolling, just like us. Now what? Nervously, he checked to make sure he had a percussion cap on his rifle. He looked back at the squad. Each man had taken a knee and was scanning the woods.

 Minutes later, Blake came running back, panting and sweating. “Corporal Joe, Cap’n wants us back to the mill.”

“Whew!” Little said. “Men, let’s face backward as we move along the road. Keep your eyes skinned on the flanks, too.”

A minute later, Jacques halted and aimed into the woods to the west. He slowly swiveled, keeping his aim. The rifle stock muffled his voice. “Rider in the trees.”

Little waved for Blake to join him, but Blake suddenly stopped and drew a bead further north.

“’Another,” he whispered.

“Can you get him?”

“Too much brush.”

Movement caught Little’s eye. A third rider, emerging from the tree line 75 yards away, head down, swaying on his mount. The man looked up, surprised, just as Little welded his cheek to the rifle stock. As he pulled the trigger, he mentally pictured his target as a flanker of a second Reb cavalry patrol filtering through the trees.

Blake fired with him. Through the smoke Little glimpsed the sole of the rider’s nearside boot as it disappeared beyond the top of the saddle. The other horsemen galloped off. Running quickly to investigate, Little and Blake found the Southerner sprawled face down on a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun, two bloody holes through the back of his canvas jacket. His horse nuzzled at a spilled bag of oats.

“He must have been dozing,” Blake said, “or he’d of veered off or yelled.”

“Well for sure the Rebs ain’t dozing now,” Little said, “Let’s git.” He picked up the shotgun. “This might come in handy.” He led the horse,

When they reached the battery, Little turned the Reb’s horse over to its commander and reported that more Reb cavalry was coming through the woods.

The captain thanked him for the horse. “As for the horse patrol,” the captan said, “it’s alright.” He pointed to a column of Unions troops coming up the road from the mill. “The Boston infantry will support us.”

Little’s squad filed past the Massachusetts regiment, men on both sides flinging friendly insults at each other.

“Damn,” Maas said after they passed, “those boys are even harder to understand than them New Yorkers.” Blake, not at all sobered by just killing a man, said “Baaaahston! Baaahston! Sound like a bunch of sheep.”

Back at the dam, Little’s men waved to Carrigan’s squad in the mill’s second-story windows.

#  #  #

The squad trailed across the dam leading to the mill and the little footbridge over the millrace just upstream from the water wheel. Once inside the mill, Little found Breed and Mieks jabbing their bayonets at the cogs in the wheel’s wooden gears. An old black man with a scraggly white beard had sidled between the two soldiers and the equipment.

“Gentlemens,” he pleaded, “please to stop.”

Mieks slammed his rifle against the man’s chest, knocking him flat. Breed seemed delighted, laughing aloud.

With a roundhouse swing, Little slammed the shotgun’s barrels flat across Mieks’s back, knocking him face down into a pile of grain sacks.

“Jesus!” Mieks gasped. As Mieks turned over, Little smacked his cheekbone smartly with the shotgun’s barrels. “It ain’t Jesus,” he said. “Just me. I wanted you to know what it’s like when somebody beats on you.”

But he’s only a nigger, Corporal,” Breed said.

Little whirled and Breed jumped back a foot. “Don’t matter what he is,” Little blared. “He wasn’t armed. He wasn’t hurting nobody. And nobody ordered you bastards to hit slaves or to mess with the mill machinery. Did they? Well, damn you, did they?”

“N-n-n-no, Corporal,” Breed said, recoiling through the door into the courtyard behind the mill.

Mieks had cocked his rifle and was raising it toward Little when Corse rumbled, “If I was you, Mieks, I dasn’t raise that rifle one more inch. Not unless you want your brains blowed all over the wall behind you. You just best put her back on half cock.”

Mieks glared, uncocked the rifle and followed Breed out of the mill.

“Now do you believe us?” Blake whispered.

“I’ll think on it,” Little said. “I appreciate you and Corse keeping an eye skinned on him. Maybe you’re right about him wanting to kill me. But the way he was treating this old-timer. . .” his voice was shaking “. . . well, I just hate bullies. When I was a kiddy I had to fight them all the time in lumber camp.”

Little reached down to help the old man to his feet. “You gonna be all right, Granddad?”

The slave’s hands were gnarled but his grip on Little’s hand and forearm was like steel. “I be fine soon as y’all gets out of this here mill,” he said resentfully. “It belong to Dr. Gaines and I be looking out for it while the miller’s gone.”

“We’re probably leaving,” Little said. “You best hunker down somewhere else, though. Don’t get in the way of somebody’s bullet.”

Corse asked, “What’s your name, mister?”

“I ain’t no mister,” the slave said. “I be Uncle Anthony and I work the garden for the doctor and the missus.”

“That’s why I recollect you,” Corse said. “You was selling flowers to the boys. You have to give all that money to the Gaineses?”

Uncle Anthony beamed. “No sir! Miz Gaines, she tells me keep the pennies and nickels for candy and pretties for the chillren when I carries her to Richmond again.”

“Carry her?” Little asked blankly. More Southern talk again.

Uncle Anthony nodded proudly. “That old buggy down to the home? Before you blue soldiers come, I hitch the pony to it ever’ two-three days and carry her to market in Richmond and to call on her lady friends.”

The heart-stopping slam of a cannon blast made them all jump. “Land’s sakes!” Uncle Anthony quavered.

Little stepped out into the courtyard’s sunlight. Mieks glared as he wiped the blood from his cheek. “You’re mighty big with them stripes on your arm, Little, but I’d like . . . .”

“Stripes are off, Mieks.” Little handed his rifle to Corse and shrugged off his tunic. He knitted his fingers together, turned them under and cracked his knuckles.

“Now’s your chance,” he said. “You too, Breed.” He held his fists at chest level, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet.

“Careful, Joe,” Corse said. “Watch him”

Breed shook his head and backed away. Mieks looked away, and then lashed out with a kick. Expecting the attack, Little sidestepped, grabbed the foot and yanked it high. Mieks’ rifle clattered to the flagstones as he fell onto his shoulders and neck.

Holding the foot high and keeping Mieks helpless and squirming, Little said, “You know, Mieks, I learned that trick years ago in lumber camp. Now it’s my turn. What should I do? Should I kick? Or should I maybe stomp you-know-where? What do you think, Mieks? How about you, Breed, what do you think? Oh, too bad, Mieks, your friend Breed done took off somewheres.”

Mieks waved his hands frantically. “I’m sorry, Corporal!” he said. “I was wrong. I won’t cause no more trouble.”

“I don’t care if you do,” Little said, releasing Mieks’s foot. Mieks rolled away, got to his feet and backed up to the mill’s door.

“You just flat puzzle my military mind, Mieks,” Little said as he took his tunic back from Corse. “Now, come back here and pick up your rifle. You’re probably going to need it real soon.”

Carrigan came out of the mill. “Hey, Joe! We just spotted a column of Reb infantry coming down that road.”