The Vicksburg Dead
by Jens Rushing
3rd Place - Best Interior Art - 2010
In May of 1863, General Grant rolled down the Mississippi with his seventy
thousand. He wanted the river, and he only had to take Vicksburg to make it his.
I was serving with the 3rd Tennessee when General John C. Pemberton picked me
for his aide, on account of my good looks and superior penmanship. I wager there
were plenty of folks who would jump at the chance, but not me. I figured my best
chance of getting through the battle would be to catch a round in the leg or maybe
take a tumble down some stairs and sit it out in the hospital. No, as Pemberton's
right hand, I'd have the privilege of dodging shells on the field while seventy
thousand Yankees gunned for me, lunged at me with bayonets bristling, and
generally made my life hell.
Imagine my relief, then, when there was no real battle. No, Vicksburg sat high on a
bluff, with guns overlooking the river, and it was a damned tough nut to crack.
Grant sent just two regiments, and the Louisiana boys waited for them at the redan
north of town and blew them to hell. The Union troops dug in and started shelling,
none of their shells coming anywhere near the mark. We got comfortable, too.
They attacked again three days later, on May 22nd.
Maybe they learned a thing or two from their first licking, but they came on hot, and
the fighting was fierce. I sat on my mare, saber at my side, wondering nervously if
Pemberton would jump into the melee and I'd have to go after him.
But there was no need. Our men in grey beat them back without too much trouble.
Laid out four thousand of them.
"They'll think twice, oh, yes," Pemberton chuckled, tugging on his beard. "Now
we just wait for Johnston to bring more men from Tennessee, and he'll rout them
right out, eh, Ashby?"
Well, it was yours truly who a few days later bravely dodged enemy fire to retrieve
Johnston's message from a fallen courier. The gist was: "Sorry, old boy, but we're
terribly busy in Tennessee. Advise surrender."
Pemberton turned six shades of red and ripped it up. "That coward! That -
blackguard! Abandoning us to Grant!" He bellowed loud enough to make the
windows rattle, "Never! I'll fight him to the last man."
Pemberton was born in Pennsylvania, you see. He married into the Confederacy.
I'm sure Johnston and Jackson and the others never let him forget it, either. So he
couldn't surrender, or there'd be all sorts of talk about his true colors.
"Bravo, General," McNoughton, the major general, said. "Death before dishonor."
"Bravo," I echoed, while my face paled and my bowels dissolved in terror. There
were maybe seventeen thousand in Vicksburg to Grant's seventy. If we wanted
death before dishonor, Grant would be plenty willing and able to give it to us. I
thought of my poor mama in Tennessee, all alone, with no one to care for and
nothing to do but knit one sweater after another. I thought of her poor son brought
home in a box. Or in boxes.
I shuddered. "Maybe, sir," I said, "I'll make out a surrender letter just in case."
"Nonsense, boy," Pemberton said. "We have a defense to plan." And they turned
to the subject of how best to murder me and my friends. I left the commandeered
mansion that served as Pemberton's office, my gut filled with horror, and wandered
down to the earthworks where the 3rd was garrisoned. They had been fairly heavy in
the action, and were in high spirits. They sent up a cheer when they saw me - good
"I'll be plucked if it ain't George Ashby!" Spencer shouted. He hefted a stone jug.
"Come for a wet, Ashby? Plenty to go around, and plenty glad to see you, you
I took the jug. Good corn squeezings, thick and hot in my throat.
"Oh, come down from on high, have you?" Bailey sneered. His sneer broke into a
grin. "Damn glad to see you. How's things in the General's camp, Ashby?"
He must have had bad luck in the battle. His left ear was gone. I was suddenly very
happy to have served at Pemberton's side when the Yankees attacked.
"Just fine," I said, wiping my mouth. "Just dandy. The General's got a plan to
chase these bastards back over the Mason-Dixon line. Grant's already good as
The boys laughed.
"Like hell," Bailey said.
"Yeah, like hell," I said.
"Nah," Spencer said. "All we can do is sit on our rears until Johnston gets here.
He'll lick 'em quick enough." I looked at the ground.
"What is it?" Bailey said. His voice got serious. "You know something we don't?"
"Don't think I'm supposed to say."
"Somethin' we need to know, you come out with it," Bailey said.
I shuffled my feet. I looked at my shoes and bobbed my head like a chicken. I
cleared my throat. "Johnston ain't coming."
"You're jokin'," Spencer said. "Right, Johnston ain't comin'."
"Right," I said. "He ain't. Sorry."
"So - what will Pemberton do?" Bailey asked.
"Hold out to the last man."
"You've gotta be jokin'," Spencer said.
"All right," Bailey said. "That's fine. Wonder when that last man will go down. We
got maybe two boxes of rounds each, a couple barrels of powder per platoon. I
haven't been up to artillery to see how they're doin', but they've been shellin'
without a breather for six days now and must be runnin' low. And for food -
hardtack and beans, and of course what the city has to offer." He snorted. "We'll
be eatin our damn boots, Ashby, just you see."
"Hey," I protested. "It wasn't my call!"
"Course not," Spencer said.
I handed back the jug. No one seemed to want to drink. "Where's old Jarv?" I
Bailey got out a little field glass. "Look." I looked. "See out on the field? See that
old oak standin' all alone about a third of the way between our line and theirs?"
"See that little heap of rags? Near the gutted horse?"
"That's Jarv. Union shell, special for him."
I sat, feeling sick. "I smoked my first pipe with him."
"Joseph and Mary," Spencer said. "He came down here for a pick-me-up and
we've gone and depressed him. Awful sorry, Ashby." And, God bless him, he
was. The more shame for me. While I stood at Pemberton's side and worried
about my own skin, my boys were getting blown to hell.
Mumbling some excuse, I rode back up the hill. As long as Pemberton wasdetermined to hold out, we were all as good as corpses. And even though I had
nothing at all to do with his decision, I couldn't help but feel that Bailey was a little
bit right in holding it against me. Sure, all I did was shine his shoes and write his
letters, but I still had the General's ear. I reckoned I had an obligation to do
everything I could to help my friends. There wasn't any sort of valor in the battle.
Without Johnston coming - hell, with Johnston - we were still outgunned and
outnumbered. Vicksburg would fall, one way or the other, and the only question
was how many bodies would stack up first. If I could convince Pemberton to lay
his ego aside, maybe Bailey and Spencer and I could walk away and not end up like
I turned my mare and looked down the hill, with our earthworks and barricades
swarming with grey uniforms and our artillery banging away, sending huge plumes
of smoke into the clear summer sky. All that thunder wasn't having any effect on
the bluecoats in their trenches below. On the lowest earthwork, gangs of snipers
scanned the field with spyglasses, waiting for a soldier to pop his head up; on the
far side of the field, their men did the same.
I'd do it, by God. My heart lifted in a rare flight of joy. I cupped my hands and
hollered. "Fear not, boys! George Ashby will see you through! I guarantee you'll
be home with your sweethearts before the month is out!"
No one heard me, though, because the enemy picked that moment to answer our
artillery barrage with one of their own. The long line of guns boomed, shaking the
ground beneath my feet, and I heard a long keening whistle that made my spine
shrink, my fingers curl into claws, and my eyes clamp shut. "Oh, God, oh, God,
have mercy on your son," I said. No time to run.
The earth exploded upwards, a volcano of shattering stone and pelting mud. I felt it
rather than heard it. All I heard was that whistle, but it changed timbre in such a way
that I knew I was deaf. The whistle became a tangible thing that crawled inside my
skull and tore into my brains until I could barely stand. Another shell, and the house
on my right was a swelling and fiery cloud of splinters; another bone-breaking
concussion and my horse faltered and fell, with me under it. My legs were broken
for sure. I could feel the long fissured bones grinding on one another. My ribs, too,
were razor shards that raked my lungs and sent fire through my every capillary.
The shelling stopped, and I twisted like a headless snake. I couldn't moan. I
couldn't scream. I could only try to suck air into my leaking lungs.
"Ashby's down!" I heard Spencer cry.
Thank God for you, I thought, as he and Bailey gently lifted me and bore me to the
field hospital. Good old boys. That was the last thought I had for a long time.
Darkness. A benighted landscape, the only contours of which were agony. An
awful deep night, where something huge and terrible moved.
"Nurse, a tourniquet on this one."
". . . where?"
"Right leg - bone's severed the femoral artery."
"Doctor Collier, there are many other wounded."
"Most critical cases first."
"But only if viable."
"That your decision to make?"
"Then put a tourniquet on that leg."
A sound of tearing gauze, and then a sun-bright flare of pain.
"Doctor, by the sound of that scream, he's got a ruptured lung."
"You finished with that tourniquet?"
"He's a goner, Doctor. It's a waste of my time. I'm sorry."
"Get to the other tent, see if you can help there."
A moment later, I felt a cool hand on my forehead.
"Look at me."
I levered my eyelids open. An older man leaned over me, maybe fifty years or so.
He had white-streaked hair that curled in all directions, a thick moustache, and a
twitching left eye. His skin was sweat-slick and of a paleness bordering on
translucence, his thin hands trembled, his eyes were bloodshot and something
caught in his throat when he inhaled - all signs that said clearly "Here is a dying
man" that even as I fell towards death, my first impulse was sympathy.
"Can you talk?" His voice was grave.
I opened my mouth. No sound, just the tortured gurgle of blood.
"You can talk," he said, and something shifted in my chest with a sound of
stretching sinew. I felt my ribs break in reverse, splinters melding one into the other,
the fragments grinding into alignment. Air filled my lungs.
"Mother of God," I said. "Holy Mother of God."
"Yes," Collier said, removing his glasses. "Your leg is broken, too, above the knee.
The femoral artery is severed." He cleaned his glasses with a filthy handkerchief.
"Get up and walk."
Another excruciating moment of movement within my flesh, and the pain in my leg
disappeared. I fled from the dark kingdom of death; the jaws of the black beast
closed just behind me, grasping nothing.
"Grave, where is your victory?" I whispered. "Death, where is your sting?"
"Shut your mouth with that nonsense," Collier said sharply.
I sat up. I felt like I had never sat up before. Profound amazement at living muted
Doctor Collier slumped in a chair. If anything, he looked worse than he had only
moments ago. It seemed that there was more white in his hair. He grasped the arms
of his chair. A thin rivulet of spittle forged a path on his stubbly jaw. The doctor
wiped it away with shaking hands, then heaved a rattling sigh.
Words came to me at last. "How?" I said. "Why?"
"Never mind the how," Collier said. "And the why's my affair. Just go back to
your business, boy, and try not to get under any more shells."
"How can I thank you?" It sounded trite but I was sincerely at a loss. I owed the
man too much to comprehend.
"By going back to your business and not getting your stupid self killed," he
I swung my legs off the cot and stood, a little unsteady, and tripped over to the
doctor. His eyes were closed and his hands white-knuckled on the chair. I imagine
he was suffering tremendously. I pried his hands from the chair - how they shook!
- and knelt, overcome by gratitude that denied expression. I clasped his hands in
mine and bowed my head.
"I thank you," I said, "and I thank God for my deliverance."
He flung off my hands with an annoyed gesture. "God doesn't enter into it," he
"How then?" I said. "How, if not by the grace of God, could you heal me?"
He shrugged. "Healed only to die later," he said. "You'll catch a bullet or another
shell. Maybe you'll starve as this damnable siege drags on or maybe typhoid or
cholera will get you. Maybe you'll die under my own knife like so many have. No
escaping this slaughter."
"The war won't go on forever," I said.
"I don't mean the war," he said, and turned away from me, after which he would
say no more.
"Hallelujah, hallelujah, praise God Almighty," I said. "I will never forget this." I left,
my head filled with wonder, my heart filled with praise.
The shelling that got me had marked the beginning of another Union assault, so it
seemed no one knew of my wounding beyond Spencer and Bailey. The camp was
still fairly chaotic when I left the hospital and I was able to slip back to the
General's office without alarming anyone.
"Where the devil have you been, Ashby?" Pemberton said crossly when I entered
the office. "Pen and paper, right away."
"Do you want me to draft our surrender, General?" I said. McNoughton frowned at
"Of course not, Ashby." He cleared his throat. "A letter. 'Dear Mr. Beasley, I
regret your treatment at the hands of my soldiers; however, firing on trespassers in
your vegetable garden, even during wartime, is hardly proper' - no, scratch that -
ugh! I'm a busy man! I don't have time for this." He flopped in his big, well-cushioned chair. "Tell me, McNoughton, do we have a chance in hell here?"
"Grant is committed to the battle. He has lost too many troops to leave without a
victory. But if he attempts to overrun us, we'll take three men for each of ours.
We'll show him that Confederate men do not sell their lives cheaply."
I broiled in my hatred for the Major General. "Speak for yourself," I mumbled.
McNoughton had not recently glimpsed death. The thought of that black pit filled
me with terror.
"He'll destroy us only at a great, great cost. If we hold out, we can cripple his
army, and though he might take Vicksburg, the Union's operations in the western
theatre will be severely hampered. In fact, I believe that if we inflict casualties in
sufficient numbers, Grant will withdraw to reconsider his strategy. Furthermore,
every week that we hold out here gives Lee's offensive in Pennsylvania that much
more chance of success."
"But he'll destroy us eventually."
McNoughton's eyes glistened. "A hero's death, sir. Our legacies will endure
How appealing that must be for Pemberton, I thought. His loyalty to the
Confederacy would be forever beyond question.
The experience of the past few hours had given me unwonted courage. I had toed
the brink of the abyss and it was horrible.
"Sir," I said. "If I may say a word on behalf of the men of the 3rd Tennessee."
Pemberton arched an eyebrow. "Go ahead."
"And on behalf of the men of the 39th, 43rd, and 59th Tennessee regiments. And the
men from Georgia and Louisiana and Alabama and all the many little children
gathered under your command."
"I think that's enough," McNoughton said.
"Just this, sir!" I held up a finger. "Just one thing. We don't get legacies."
"What do you mean?" Pemberton said.
"My papa was a farmer, sir," I said, my face reddening under McNoughton's glare.
"My mama knits sweaters. And if I die here because you say it's glorious, nobody
will know or care beyond her. I'll be just one more of the Vicksburg dead. And I'm
very much obliged to you for the opportunity, Major General McNoughton, but my
little life means a lot more to me than your legacy."
"Insubordination!" he hissed. "Pemberton, I'll have this man hung by his thumbs."
The thought of that cruel punishment, formerly so terrifying, stirred nothing in me. I
stood, clicked my heels, and saluted. "If that's what you want, sir. Hung by the
thumbs is not dead. I said what needed saying."
"Come off it, McNoughton," Pemberton said. "Forget it. Ashby, get out of here."
McNoughton gave me one last searing look that told me that he would not soon
follow Pemberton's suggestion, and returned to the conversation. "Now, I believe
that with the first assaults so bloodily repulsed, Grant will settle into a siege. The
city has provisions for a month at least . . ."
McNoughton had his way, and the slow slaughter of seventeen thousand men
began. For the next two weeks, the Union guns gave us hell and we gave it right
back, and snipers on both sides stood at attention twenty-four hours a day,
combing the opposite line for any head foolish enough to show itself for a half
second. Once a snow-white mourning dove fluttered down from the heavens and
rested on the skyward hoof of a slain artillery horse. The moment its wings stilled
their movement, four or five shots from each side tore it to pieces, leaving only a
settling cloud of bloody feathers. So the broad verdant land between the lines that
had once brought forth sustenance now rendered only death.
Once I crept up to the field hospital. I wanted to see Collier. I felt like one of the
first disciples creeping back to Golgotha, the site of my salvation, to pry a splinter
from the Holy Cross. I peeked inside. He was standing over a fallen soldier, red to
"Now keep that in his mouth. Hold it down good," he said, and picked up a bone
saw. Muffled screams followed me back to headquarters.
Three weeks, then four weeks went by. After one visit, for which I wrapped my
head in gauze and borrowed a pair of crutches, I didn't see the boys anymore.
How could I, when I ate at the General's table, and they chewed bones from
unknown animals? No one had seen a cat in weeks, and I couldn't recall the last
time I heard a dog bark. In the trenches men were cutting slices of leather from their
boots, until they had to walk around in bits of sack tied up with rope. And then
they ate the rope.
McNoughton never rested. Every day he reviewed the troops, riding the lines on
one of the few remaining horses and barking orders. A soldier might have his ribs
sticking out, but he'd better have a tidy uniform and he'd better jump to his feet
when Our Lord McNoughton rode in. The Army of the Mississippi was in
shipshape order, a perfect creation in which McNoughton could entomb himself.
With July came a new sort of hopelessness. Everyone had eaten everything that
could be eaten, and many things that couldn't. Bones of fallen horses were ground
for broth, and many times I caught my comrades looking sideways at the heaps of
freshly dead soldiers.
The bodies stacked up. Cholera and typhoid, just as Collier had predicted.
Starvation hung like a specter over the city.
To compound this, the Union seemed to be preparing for a final assault.
Reinforcements streamed in. Some weeks ago, Grant had cut through a sandbank,
allowing him to bypass the guns overlooking the river and bring in fresh men by
boat. Heavier artillery arrived. Most homes had been bombed out. There wasn't a
single window left in Vicksburg. The civilians had long since relocated to the
We all waited for the final assault.
It began with a vigorous shelling on the first day of the new month.
They walked their aim up the hill, raking the ruins of houses and searching for our
own artillery. A stray shell found a powder magazine and the hill shook with a series
"Oh, hell, no," I moaned, as a shell landed near the earthworks where the 3rd was
quartered. Then the shell I had feared hit their dugout squarely, collapsing the sod
ceiling inward. "No!" I ran down the hill, coughing on the smoky air, and a handful
of troops joined me. We dug with our hands, not wanting to use shovels for fear of
cutting our friends, and soon we found a foot protruding through the earth. We
hauled and out came Spencer, gasping for breath.
"I'm okay," he said. "Bailey's inside still."
We flung handfuls of dirt over our shoulders.
"I've got him!" I shouted.
Bailey was in a bad way. He must have been near the shell. His face was burned,
one eye gone completely, and his left hand was crushed. Blood streamed from a
hundred cuts on his face. Spencer and I took him by the feet and armpits and ran
him to the field hospital.
"Doctor!" I cried, throwing back the tent flap. "Don't worry, Spence, this guy'll fix
him up. No worries, Spence!"
We deposited Bailey on a blood-stained cot and I searched for Collier. I found him
one tent over, sleeping in a chair. He looked bad. His hair had gone entirely white.
He shook in his sleep, his mouth contorting in wordless mutters. I can't imagine
what dreams of death and dying played in his head.
"Doctor," I said, "wake up. My friend - my friend!"
"Of course," he said, and gathered his tools.
"Doctor, no," I said. "No. No tools. Do what you did for me. He may not live."
He brushed past me.
Bailey was conscious by now, screaming something awful. I don't think I've ever
heard anyone scream that way, before or since. He kept reaching up to touch his
disfigured face and jerking his hand back. "Give me a mirror," he said between
"No, Bill, I won't," Spencer said.
"Damn you then," Bailey said.
"Get the nurse in here," Collier said, and I ran for that man.
"That hand's gotta come off."
"No!" I said.
"Look at the burns. Look at the mess. It'll turn by morning. Hold this over his
face." He soaked his handkerchief in a clear liquid and gave it to the nurse, who
clamped it over Bailey's mouth and nose. Soon he stopped his struggles.
Collier prepared a tourniquet on Bailey's forearm and reached for his bone saw. He
When Collier had wiped his instruments clean and ordered the nurses to take Bailey
away, I approached him, my heart raging. He must have seen it on my face.
"I did what I could for your friend. The wound will suppurate properly now." He
was clearly exhausted.
"Why didn't you do for him what you did for me?"
He sighed. "Look at me, boy. What do you see?"
"A dying man."
"Dying of what?"
"Consumption, it looks like."
"Yet I'm not tubercular. I have no blood in my cough nor pain in my chest. That's
"Simply, my life has run away from me. A year ago I was a healthy man."
"What happened?" My curiosity overpowered my anger.
"This war." His lip twitched in disgust. Or maybe it was just one of the many
spasms that marked his internal decay. "I first discovered what I could do a year
ago. I was at the great bloodletting at Antietam. A soldier was brought to me with a
bullet in his liver. I extracted it, said, 'Live, damn you!' and the skin closed over the
wound. He walked away. But I coughed all the night through, and that cough has
never left me. Soon I found myself unable to do tasks which were within my
strength only days before. In giving that soldier his life, I surrendered a piece of
"And you've done it many times since, by the look of you," I said.
"True. And I expect I only have one more left in me. The next will take my last
heartbeat. In the best case, I'm not long for this world." He snorted. "Where's
God's love of justice?"
"Then why don't you save the next soldier who comes to you? Bailey's life is just
as precious as anyone's."
"He might yet live."
"He has a chance of living!" I cried. "More likely than not, he'll get blood
poisoning and come back for you to take off his arm - but it'll be too late. He was
a musician, did you know? He played the fiddle and the guitar. Why didn't you
"Because of all I have seen of death!" he snapped. "Not a day goes by that I don't
send someone from this world. I have held the hands of a hundred thousand men,
old men and children both, while darkness took them and their eyes went glassy
with their last sight. And then the next carcass comes in, and I superintend its
passage. I have seen death so many times - no one knows his face like I do!
Having seen his face so many times, how could I know anything for him but fear?
He is the destroyer, the thief in the night, who steals, kills, and destroys; the devil,
boy, the devil himself!"
He clenched his hands and rubbed his fists on his temples. "And you ask why I
don't throw myself into his jaws. Well? Do you call it selfishness?"
"No," I admitted. I sat on a cot, cradling my head in my hands. "Then why did you
"You remind me of someone. That's all you need to know."
"Someone you lost?"
"That's all you need to know." He closed his eyes and stiffened in a momentary
spasm. Pain clouded his face, then passed. Pity for the man overwhelmed me. I
knelt before him. "Don't do that," he said.
"What can I do?" I said. "You are giving so much."
He took my chin in his hand. I was surprised again at its coolness. "Live, boy, just
live. You will be my testament against God."
Disease and death assaulted me as I left the field hospital. Everywhere lay the fruits
of war: men of every age, from a beardless drummer boy to a silver-haired
lieutenant, frozen forever in their final agonies, claimed by disease, starvation, shell,
or bullet. A small cart worked its way up the hill, already laden with fallen soldiers
to crowd coffinless into the graveyard.
McNoughton galloped by. Here is your legacy, I thought. A horrible idea came to
I ran to the burial cart. "McNoughton wants you," I told the driver. "I'll take over."
Recognizing me as the General's aide, he offered no argument. I took the reins and
whipped the horses up the hill. They strained at their stinking cargo.
The mansion that served as the General's office had large French windows on the
rear, the glass long since shattered. I jumped down and opened the windows. The
General napped on a leather sofa within. The room was dark, all the drapes having
been closed as caution against snipers. I urged the horses on and they stepped
tentatively through. Their hooves on the hardwood floor awakened Pemberton. He
rose with a long lionesque yawn.
He saw what I was doing and his eyes popped. "What is the meaning -" he said.
I whipped the horses, hard, and they sprang forward. A forward wheel caught on
the window jamb while the other wheel went over. The frantic horses continued to
tug. The cart capsized, spilling its grotesque freight into the room. Bodies slipped
and slid over one another, swollen tongues lolling in swollen heads, digits bloated
with fever or sticklike with starvation. The tide of the fallen filled the room. The
General leapt back, his mouth moving like that of a fish.
"What - what in blazes -"
"An accident, sir, an accident! I'm awful sorry, sir, just awful sorry that you had to
see this!" I took the tongs from the fireplace and made a ludicrous attempt to move
a corpse. "Legacies are fine things indeed, sir, but it's not so pleasant to see what
they're built on. I'll just get these men back to the graveyard. Again, awful sorry to
bother you with this."
He glared at me. "Do you think I don't understand what my decision means,
Ashby? Do you think I don't comprehend the suffering of the men under my
"All due respect, sir - no. You've eaten very well these six weeks, sir, and so have
I, I'll admit. But in the trenches, they're dying by the hundreds. And for what? If I
may speak baldly, sir."
"I doubt you'll demand my permission," he said, seething with anger.
"For your ego, sir, and for McNoughton's. You're too scared to surrender and
reveal your northern heritage. Rather than face the scorn of your adopted society,
you'd drag seventeen thousand men to the grave with you. Seventeen thousand
men, every single one of them braver than you."
"This city is of incalculable strategic importance," he said. "If Vicksburg falls, the
Union will control the Mississippi." The words were hollow. I sensed my grisly
theatric display eroding his resistance.
"It's fallen, sir," I said. "If you spent more time outside, instead of napping and
letting McNoughton do your job, you'd know that. Sir." I spoke coolly as you
please. Pemberton wouldn't kill me for speaking out, and that black beast Death
was the only thing I feared. "As for your ego, sir - surrender. Grant won't keep
you or any of us prisoner. He's too busy fighting a war to ship so many men up
north. You'll get paroled soon enough, and then you resign your commission,
showing that you are truly ashamed of your failure. Your loyalty to the Confederacy
will go unquestioned. And for McNoughton's ego - let it hang."
He fell on his couch. "By God. If there's truth to your words, then I have acted
I had nothing to say. The evidence was piled at his feet.
With a half-dozen soldiers, I cleaned up the mess and turned the cart over to the
driver. "Had an accident," I explained.
Pemberton summoned McNoughton. "Tell the artillery to stand down."
"What do you mean by this, sir?" he said, his eyes flashing.
"I mean that we're surrendering. We've lost."
McNoughton clicked his heels and threw a salute. "I have too much respect for the
chain of command to disagree with you, sir," he said, clipping out his syllables one
by one. "I will inform the men of their commander's decision." He marched away.
Pemberton beamed with relief. "Ah . . . Ashby, find something white." I laughed
aloud and dashed upstairs to rummage the linen drawers.
I opened a wardrobe and tore out the sheets: maroon, orange, blue. Not even a
yellow. None of the beds yielded better results. I rifled through a footlocker and
hauled out a pair of long johns - purple. I threw them on the floor. Not a scrap of
white cloth to be found!
And then I heard a scream. I heard screams every day, of course. But this scream
momentarily froze my blood and paralyzed my brains. It was the General.
I vaulted down the stairs and into the office. Revolver drawn, McNoughton stood
behind Pemberton, who was sprawled facedown on the floor with blood pooling
on his back. The eastern curtains were open. "He threw the curtains open in his
excitement," McNoughton said calmly. "He forgot about the snipers. I was coming
in when I heard the shot."
"Why is your revolver out?" I shouted.
"I drew it in alarm. I thought we were under attack. You can check the cartridges if
you don't believe me. You'll find them all there." He put his revolver on the desk.
"But you forget yourself, private." The usual imperious tone returned. "I am your
commanding officer now. And I command you to belay the General's last order.
There will be no surrender." Far away, the Union guns boomed. "They're resuming
their assault. I must prepare the defenses."
I didn't lose a second. I bolted through the French windows and down the hill to
the field hospital, where I found Collier bent over a soldier with a foot-long splinter
in his back. "Hold still, dammit. Hold him still!"
"Doctor," I said, breathlessly, "Doctor. I need you immediately. The General's
He threw me an impatient glance, then withdrew the splinter hastily. "Bandage it,"
he told the nurse. "I'll get my tools."
Collier grabbed a black bag and we headed up the hill. Shells wrought their awful
handiwork on the barricades below us. Collier leaned heavily on my arm and by the
time we reached the mansion, I was all but carrying him. He breathed heavily and
with great difficulty. I ushered him inside.
He knelt beside Pemberton. "He's dead," he said angrily. "I have other things I
could be doing."
"He just issued the surrender," I said. "McNoughton's in charge now. That means
no surrender. That means your work won't end. You'll be watching men die for
days on days."
He shook his head. "I can't do anything."
"Bring him back."
"Bring him back and everyone lives. McNoughton and the enemies of life lose. No
more shells. No more slow death of starvation. Seventeen thousand men - or
thirteen or fourteen by now, I don't know - all living testaments against God, who
so desires our destruction."
"I can't," he said. "I've seen the face of death. He wants me more than anyone."
"You have to."
A coughing fit seized him. He covered his mouth with his handkerchief.
"You're dying, Doctor. So many others have died without meaning or worth. You
can be different."
"Shut your damn mouth," Collier said, and placed his hands on the General's back.
A moment later he held up a little piece of metal and tossed it away. He staggered
to his feet, pressed his handkerchief into my hands, and lurched through the door.
"Hell of a headache," he croaked. "Help me up, boy."
So it was Collier's bloodstained, grimy, stinking handkerchief that flew on the roof
of the mansion when Pemberton presented Grant with his sword under the lone oak
tree on the morning of July 4th. I stood beside McNoughton in the honor guard.
"After you're paroled," I whispered, "make your way to Pennsylvania. Maybe Lee
can find a way for you to die gloriously."
McNoughton kept his eyes forward. "I will serve my country as best I can. I
wouldn't expect a coward like you to understand that."
I laughed quietly. "If the past six weeks have taught me anything, Major General,
it's this: it's easy to die."
And, laughing with the joy of life, I left him frowning under the tree, to be led away
by Grant with all the other officers.
As for us of the 3rd, we were free to go after turning in our uniforms. Just as I'd
predicted, Grant had no time to bother with transporting us up north. He figured
we'd want to head straight home to our families, and he was right. Spencer and I
packed some things for the long walk to Tennessee, while Bailey, still weak with his
wounds, looked on. I sold my rifle and sword to a bluecoat sergeant. I was done
"Wait one second," I said when we were ready to head out. I walked up the hill,
past the crews toiling with the dead in the hot summer sun, to the field hospital.
I found Collier right where I expected him, curled up in his chair, resting at last. He
was so small and light that I could carry him with ease down to the field - where I
scooped a grave in the soft loam with my hands.
"You'll feed the corn," I said. "Or cotton or okra." Flowering life after death - I
think that's how he would have wanted it. "Yessir, the grass will come back, and
the cotton will grow up tall and with white bolls bursting, and the trees will be green
again. It can be made right again." After a pause, I added, "There's a brook in the
mountains back in Tennessee where the brown trout stand in the clear running
water, and I think, even after all this dying, that brook is still there."
Further words failing me, I tipped my hat and took the first step toward Tennessee.