Thursday, April 3, 2008

Throw Away the Scabbard - Prologue

Virginia Wilderness
Near Chancellor’s Crossing
May 2, 1863

Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson, commanding the Second Corps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, raised his hand. His small party of eight staff members halted on the Mountain Road, a half-mile in front of the corps’ skirmishers. Jackson was inching his way down the heavily-rutted road, cut through an impenetrable terrain of pines, shrubs, and hardwood trees, trying to spy out whether the Union army was going to run all the way back to Washington or make a stand in the wilderness and fight. Since he heard nothing but tree limbs rasping in the cool evening breeze, Jackson nudged Little Sorrel, his small red Morgan, and continued down the road.

The moon escaped from its cloudy shroud, illuminating the road and the thickets on either side of him. He scanned them, but they were empty. A flurry of activity, two hundred, no, maybe three hundred yards directly in front of him caught his attention. He flung up his hand. His aides pulled up, not making a sound. Jackson leaned forward in his saddle, listening. The sounds were recognizable: the sharp ring of axes on trees, shovels scraping against the rocky ground, shouts, and commands. All the sounds associated with the hasty construction of breastworks.

Jackson took out his watch, tilting it until he could read the thin black hands in the faint moonlight. It was nine o’clock. Four hours ago, the Second Corps had smashed into the Union’s right flank, surprising the Yankees at dinner. When 25,000 Rebels came screaming out of the woods, the Yankees threw down their plates and ran. Jackson ordered his men to give chase. With fatigue, darkness, and the thick undergrowth unraveling his assault, Jackson instructed his three division commanders to reorganize the men as quickly as possible. Not satisfied with routing the Yankees, he was determined to cut them off from the fords along the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, which bordered the wilderness to the north and west. While his men hastened into formation, he had pressed ahead to see if he could determine what the Yankees planned to do. A tree crashed to the ground. He had his answer. They were going to fight.

“Let’s return,” he said, turning Little Sorrel around and heading back toward the Confederate line, back to the battle, and back to the two year war for Southern Independence.

He followed his aides onto the Bullock Road where he had left the 18th North Carolina Infantry Regiment holding the Confederate forward position. Suddenly the woods exploded with the thunder of hundreds of guns. Musket flashes pierced the darkness, lighting up the blooming dogwoods. Bullets ricocheted off trees, whistled through the underbrush, and slammed into the dirt. A branch crashed to the ground on Jackson’s left. His aides stampeded to avoid the deadly fire.

Before Jackson could flee, someone knocked him out of his saddle and onto the hard earth. He groaned when his ribs smashed onto a large root. A heavy body landed on top of him, pinning him down, while bullets smashed into the tree above his head. “Lie still, General.” Jackson recognized the voice of his brother-in-law, Joseph Morrison.

Another volley pierced the night. He tried to rise, but Joe shoved him back down to the ground. The root dug into his sore ribs. Overhead, his men yelled for the Tarheels to cease firing. Slowly, the gunfire abated, like the end of a rain storm.

Jackson shifted impatiently. “Lieutenant, you can get off me now. The shooting has stopped.”

Joe released his grip and rose to his knees. Jackson sat up, leaned against the tree, and felt his ribs. He winced.

“Are you bad hurt?” Joe asked.

“It’s a trifling. Providence has been kind to us this evening.”

More horses poured down the road, this time from the direction of the Confederate line. In the moonlight, Jackson saw the red shirted Ambrose Powell Hill, commander of the Light Division, jumping off his horse. He knelt down next to Jackson. “General, are you hurt?”

“Just a couple of bruised ribs,” Jackson replied, after completing a very thorough search of his person. He stood, plucking his weather-stained kepi from the ground. He shook the dust from it. “Tell me, Hill, have you managed to find your way to the Rappahannock?” Jackson asked. He drew the kepi down over his eyes.

“Yes, sir, but the men are exhausted. I think we should hold off the attack until morning.”

“No, sir. No! Press them!” Jackson stabbed his finger into Hill’s chest. “Don’t let them escape. Cut them off from the United States Ford.”

“Yes, sir.” Hill remounted and disappeared into the night.

“Lieutenant Morrison, I want you to return to General Lee. Tell him we’re in possession of the fords along the Rappahannock River. He must press forward immediately.”

Joe galloped away. Jackson swung up on Little Sorrel and rode back in the direction of the army, leaving the rest of his aides scrambling to catch up.