Gettysburg – July 1 – Morning – 1863:
Private James Wells knelt behind an oak stump, his rifle propped on the flat sawed top. An early morning shower had done little more than dampen the ground and push up the humidity. The sun sat low, no heat in the rays yet, but that would change. He chewed on a soggy biscuit and looked ahead into the woods off to the west where the enemy would come. He had never heard the rebel yell but the others had warned him. In fact, he had never done any of this before, he knew he wasn’t thinking straight. Sleeping on the ground can confuse a man’s mind. It had been a sticky damp night with rumbles of thunder in the distance. His sleep was filled with nightmares, especially a recurring one in which he was buried alive, wrapped in a blanket on a moonlit battlefield. Just before dawn he had removed his shoes to rub his itchy feet, then fallen back asleep with only his socks on.
When he woke at first light he realized he’d slept under a fig tree. He stared up into gray branches covered with deeply lobed leaves, but there was no fruit, the figs wouldn’t be ready until August. A blue jay landed on a branch just above his face and sent bird droppings flying past his left ear. He jumped up cursing and stubbed his toe on a high root. His father’s admonition came back to him: Check your shoes for spiders and centipedes before you put them on. When he went on overnight hunting trips his dad always gave him too much advice. Once he found a small garter snake in his shoe and held it out to his son to prove the point. That’s exactly why Wells now put on his shoes without checking them. He took satisfaction in doing things his way. Surely his stinky feet would kill anything lurking inside.
A major walked out of the Seminary building and headed right for Private Wells. About time, he thought. He had been waiting for some direction ever since the 126th New York had detached him for duty with Buford’s Cavalry. Bad enough to be going fresh into battle, but no one should have to go alone, who knows whose got a man’s back when you’re a stranger. To his left and right, cavalry troopers were tearing up fences to make breastworks. Wells didn’t like anything about his situation. When the Reb infantry came, he knew it would be an unfair match—cavalry could not stop an infantry charge.
“This here’s a perfect spot for ya, Private, they’ll be coming soon.” The major was covered in dust and smelled of tired horses. His scrunched-up eyes gave him a cranky look.
“How many we expecting, sir, only got cavalry on this line?” Wells spoke respectfully, but he wanted the man to know how wrong it looked.
“That’s why you’re here, son, to hold ‘em down till our infantry can get up, might be noon before we’re relieved.”
Wells looked down and realized his pocket watch was gone. He tried to hold back his anger, but not too much, he knew it would mask his fear. “What time ya got Major, seems like a lotta time you all expecting us to hold on?”
“Seven-thirty son…we got at least an hour yet, scouts said their lead elements are still crossing the pike beyond Cashtown.” The major looked away, wanted to change the subject, he knew what a mess they were in. “Fourth of July, be here in two days, can’t hardly believe it. Where you from, Private?”
“Waterloo, sir, small village north of here in Western New York…I’m with the 126th.” The major’s eyes narrowed. Wells had made a mistake, he knew better. Early in the war the 126th had surrendered at Harper’s Ferry and had been branded as cowards. It wasn’t the men’s fault, just bad leadership, but they had to live with it. “Reckon ya need me to pick off some Rebs when they step outta that tree line?”
“Not some, Private…lots! How fast ya shoot?”
“I’ll be sending three of them Johnnies to St. Peter each minute!” Wells knew his abilities. He was the best squirrel and rabbit shot in Waterloo. He’d be missed in town. The stews wouldn’t be so tasty this year.
The major looked him up and down. “That’s an interesting weapon you got there, son, never seen a rifle with a hexagonal bore.”
“It’s a Whitworth, English made, got it off a dead Reb.”
“What’s your range, Private?”
Wells patted his rifle. “With this telescopic sight a Reb’s dead at 1,500 yards, a .45 caliber bullet hits real hard.”
“Three kills a minute, that’s almost two hundred an hour, you got the ammo for that?”
“You keep the Rebs away from me, I got what I need.”
“We’re trying to keep them boys tied down long enough so our army can grab the high ground behind us in Gettysburg.” The major liked the private’s attitude, he reached out and patted Wells on the shoulder. “We want the Rebs to think we’re infantry, to give them pause.” The major winked then scratched his crotch. “You sting ‘em good, son.”
“I’ll do what I say, Major, but the infantry better get here fast.”
“Some regiments will arrive in a few hours but the main army, well…” the major paused, thought for a moment, “truth is, son, they’re a day away.”
Wells didn’t like the sound of any of this. “Forgive me asking, Major, but I reckon the Confederates got a bunch of regiments gonna be walking out them woods?”
“Heth, son, it’s Heth we’re facing, one of Lee’s best divisions. That’s why we brought up you sharpshooters.”
Wells pointed across the field toward the tree line. “Looks like it’s about three hundred yards to the edge of that woods. Anyone comes outta them trees, you just tell me where you want the bullet.” He tapped the long scope on his rifle to reassure the major. “I’m good, but those cavalry boys…just don’t seem like ya have the muscle we need.”
“Hear me good, Wells, I don’t want ya wasting shots on the Reb troops, we’ve only got two horse brigades here.”
“No disrespect meant, sir, but this seems like a suicide mission.”
The major coughed up some phlegm then swallowed it. “Take out the officers, maybe you’ll buy us some time, Private.”
“Sir, I expect those’ll be the one’s mounted?”
The major cracked a smile. “Excellent, son, you’ll do well. Shoot the riders but look for others, could be some dismounted officers with the troops. Shit, what’s this?” The officer pulled up his sleeve, picked a tick off his arm and crushed it with his teeth. “So let’s make it simple, Private, all ya gotta do is look for the Confederates with sabers. Reb officers love to show their metal, even whack a few stragglers with the flat of the blade to keep ‘em moving.” With that the major turned away and headed back. The smell of coffee and bacon hung in the air.
The morning had turned hotter but a mist lingered in the deepest part of the woods. A westerly wind filtering through the oak and hickory trees delivered a chilly breeze. The physical sensation of the unexpected coolness distracted Wells, lifted his spirit. He stood up to stretch his legs and look around. There was no comfort in what he found. The big guns the infantry counted on were absent. “Four hours,” he mumbled, “no way we hold ‘em for even two.”
An artillery sergeant walked over and introduced himself. “This is where you be settling, Private,” he began, then turned his head and spat a wad of chaw across the grass, “cause we want to keep our guns away from ya ass?” The gunner seemed younger than Wells, barely out of his teens, but his sunken eye sockets and mottled skin made him look much older.
“Yes, sir, Sergeant, this here’s where the major placed me.” Disdain burned in the sergeant’s eyes. Wells had grown to expect this, it went with his green uniform. All sharpshooters wore a green coat and kepi instead of the standard Union blue, and all were marked men. Rebs and Yanks agreed on few things, but they both despised enemy sharpshooters only a bit more than their own.
The sergeant spat a stream of yellow liquid onto the stump. “You git yourself lots of gray coats, Private,” he began, then laughed, “we’ll feed some canister up their craw if ya miss any!”
“You boys gonna need more than canister to hold off what’s coming!”
“Shit, what’s the major been telling you, Private?”
“Says Heth’s whole division is expected soon.”
“Holy Jesus, I reckon that’s all infantry!”
“Not gonna be pretty, Sergeant. I don’t fear dying so much as being wounded…left to suffer. One of my best friends from Waterloo was deserted at Savages Station, Virginia last summer…his regiment abandoned him in a field hospital.”
“They just left him?”
“Never been seen again…the Rebs overran the position.”
“33rd New York, his name was Fabrizio…Fabrizio Cenci of Company C…his mother and father were from Sicily, she was the best cook in town.”
“Sorry to hear that, Private.” The sergeant stared at Wells for a moment then rejoined his unit. Sounds of digging, stacking and talking filled the still air of the muggy July morning.
Wells expected no one else would approach; sharpshooters were to be avoided. “No way we hold off a whole division of Rebs,” he whispered, then looked back to lay out a path of retreat. It was inevitable, he would have to move fast when the time came. The possibility of a desperate retreat frightened him, brought on waves of homesickness. He had no appetite, his stomach ached for home. One friend, he thought, just one, and I’d feel whole again. Off in the distance, beyond the fog shrouded hills to the south, his regiment approached, but the Rebs were coming faster. He pictured his comrades, tried to will them to run, but he knew it was no good, he’d be facing the onslaught with strangers today. Better get used to it.
He removed the cloth from his scope. The stump stood chest high, just right for steadying his rifle while giving full cover. Wells loved his weapon. He was glad he no longer had the standard Union issue Sharps Rifle. It was a decent carbine but not the best for precise killing beyond 500 yards. The Rebs didn’t have much equipment that was better than the Yanks, but their English Whitworth stood apart as a superior weapon.
Wells squinted into the glass lens. The smell of the thin coat of oil on the barrel made his nose itch so he pinched it up high to hold back a sneeze. Two deer, a doe and a buck, jumped out of the woods. He moved the cross hairs onto the right shoulder of the male and began to pull the trigger, but held back at the last moment. God knows, he thought, it could spook the cavalry and they’d all start shooting at nothing. Not the proper way to impress the Rebs. If you want the enemy to think you’re infantry you have to act the part.
He removed a flannel rag from his pocket, blew on the scope lens, then wiped it off. Wells scanned the tree line, then drew the scope closer to his eye for a better look. He caught a blurred motion, then the first Reb picket stepped out of the woods. An electric shock raced up his spine, his fingertips went numb.
Wells knew that blind fear can send a mind to crazy places; panic has ended many a battle before it began. Every Yankee on that line was well aware that they were outnumbered, knew that for the past two years the Rebs had pretty much had their way in the fighting. The Confederate infantry with their manic battle scream and fearless attacking style had turned more than a few Yankee regiments into mass confusion. It all began in 1861, at Bull Run, where the Yanks threw down their guns and ran all the way back to Washington.
Wells shifted his elbow to grasp the rifle tighter, to be sure he saw right. He rubbed his left eye, took a deep breath and looked again, but he had no doubt what the sudden quiet up and down the line meant. Only one Reb stood there, like a lost hunter in search of the deer he’d flushed out of the trees. The picket started to move forward. The soldier, dressed in a tattered gray jacket and black pants, moved with an easy confidence. And it was not the wild-eyed Reb he’d expected. The Confederate’s cool demeanor shook Wells.
He lowered his rifle to get a wider view. More pickets stepped out of the forest gloom, twenty men spread out over a quarter mile front. The Reb uniforms were remarkable for their variety. Some had gray jackets, others wore butternut brown jackets with matching pants. A few had blue pants taken from dead Yankees. The only uniformity in their appearance was the blanket roll each wore over the shoulder and down across the chest.
“Let them come, don’t fire,” a lieutenant yelled down the line. The only sound Wells heard came from the men in blue fumbling for cartridges. He prayed the Rebs couldn’t see this, they’d know for sure their opposition was only dismounted cavalry.
It’s just a patrol, Wells prayed, maybe nothing will happen here. He scanned the forest edge, still murky in the early light. The Rebs stopped about half way across the field and knelt down, then a glint of metal flashed in the distance and the first infantry regiment stepped out in a straight line. Adrenaline coursed through his body, but it felt good, he was ready. He licked his forefinger and touched it to the tip of the rifle.
Except from Memorial Day, the first of the three stories in Savages Station.