Authors: Gilbert L. Morris
“Pa's the least fightingest man I know! He doesn't hardly ever get angry.”
“No, I reckon he don't. But he's been a Christian a long time.”
“I don't think I'll ever grow up!” Leah lowered her eyes, then looked up with tears. “I'm so selfish, Ezra!”
Ezra shifted his feet and wouldn't raise his eyes to meet hers. He was obviously uncomfortable. “Well, I don't know, Leah, about how to stop being selfish. In the first place, you ain't all that bad.”
“Yes, I am! Why, I am quite likely the most selfish girl in all of Kentucky!”
Ezra smiled, looking at her, her hands on her hips, her lower lip thrust out. “Just as well you think so, I guess. No better incentive to make a change! But whether you know it or not, Leah Carter, you're a sweet, loving girlâthat's what you are!”
Leah was startled by Ezra's words. Her cheeks flushed, and now it was her turn to stare at the ground, not meeting his eyes. She protested, “You don't know me very well if you think that.”
“Sure I do! I know you better than I've ever known any girl. You're worrying yourself to death over being meanâbut if you were as selfish as you claim, you wouldn't have rescued me.”
“Nope. Mean folks seem to just enjoy being mean.”
Leah fixed her large eyes on the tall boy for a long moment. “You sure do know how to make me feel better, Ezra,” she said finally. “Even if I'm not sure I believe you.” She smiled and added, “I'm glad you're here with us. I feel lots safer with you around, especially with my father like he is now.”
“I'm glad of that,” Ezra said. “Now, what we have to do is get your pa all well, get Royal and Ira
and the others through the battle safe, and pray that Jeff and his folks make it.”
“That's a lot, isn't it, Ezra?”
“Wellâas your pa would sayâfor us, maybe, but not for God!”
s the Army of Northern Virginia prepared for battle, more than a few agreed that they had suffered ill fortune since leaving Virginia. General Lee had been thrown by his horse, Traveler, badly injuring both wrists. He could not ride now but had to be driven in a wagon. Strangely enough, Stonewall Jackson had also been thrown by his horse, and the fall had badly wrenched his back, so that he had trouble making the journey. The leader of the second corps, General James Longstreet, had blisters on his feet so bad that he couldn't walk and had to ride wherever he went.
It was a ragtag army indeed that made its way through Maryland. Many of the men had no shoes at all. And worse than the pain of cut feet was their gnawing hunger.
Long after, Leah would read a newspaper account of one Confederate's experience. Private Alexander Hunter of the Seventeenth Virginia wrote home, “For six days, not a morsel of meat or bread had gone into our stomachs. Our menu consisted of apples and corn.”
But the Southern army toiled on, ill and exhausted. Some fell too far behind to catch up. Some simply refused to go, insisting they had enlisted to defend their homeland, not to invade the North. In all, about fifteen hundred men dropped out of Lee's army during the march.
As the troops approached a high bluff, Jeff rattled out the orders on his drum, then his company drew up on the edge of the cliff. Far below, as in the bottom of a bowl, lay Harper's Ferry.
Jeff's father studied the town and said, “I'd rather take that place forty times than try to defend it once.”
Jeff nodded. “And so it's good we're on the side that's doing the taking, PaâCaptain. We sorely need the ammunition and supplies we'll find down below.”
The battle was relatively simple. Stonewall Jackson had brought three divisions to do the job, and there was never any question about the Confederates' superiority, even in their bedraggled state. The armory was impossible to defend, and soon Jackson and his men had performed one of the great feats of the war: they captured the armory plus 11,000 Union troops, not to mention an enormous amount of supplies, including badly needed muskets and cannons.
Despite this victory, the Confederates had little time to savor it or to rest. Orders came for the Stonewall Brigade and the rest of Jackson's troops to come at once to Sharpsburg.
The troops arrived so tired they could hardly stand up. The officers led them to their positions along the creek.
“We'll be the Confederate left,” Tom told Jeff and the rest of the squad. “I expect they'll be coming right across that cornfield, so try to sleep while you can.”
Stars overhead spangled the velvet blackness of the night. Jeff lay looking up. He knew that Charlie Bowers, who lay next to him, was badly scared, so
he tried to reassure him, urging, “Don't worry, Charlie. God will look out for us.”
But even Jeff, with aching bones and sore feet, dreaded to see morning come. He'd heard rumors that there were 100,000 Yankees across Antietam Creek, and he fully expected half that number to come charging through the cornfield right at the Stonewall Brigade.
Charlie turned to look at him, his youthful face tense. “Aren't you scared, Jeff?”
“About the battle tomorrow?”
“What else? Of course. Are you afraid?”
“I guess I have to admit itâat least a little.”
Jeff rolled over and saw that his friend was as tense as a wire spring. “You know, Charlie, I guess if we went down this line and asked every soldier, âAre you scared?' most of them would say they are.”
Charlie considered this, then objected, “Some of them don't act scared.”
“I hope I don't show it. But most of us spend a lot of time putting on an actâand a lot of time praying.”
This seemed to interest Charlie. He propped himself up on his elbow and peered at Jeff. “How's that?”
“Oh, I reckon you know.” Jeff shrugged. “Lots of stuff goes on inside of us that we wouldn't like everybody to know about.”
“What kind of stuff?” Charlie pursued.
Jeff squirmed, then said, “Look, have you ever had a fight with someone just before church?”
“Well, when you went to the service, what'd you do?”
“Yes, you did.” Jeff grinned at him. “You didn't go around scowling and hitting people. You stood up and sang the hymns and bowed your head when the preacher prayed. You acted nice, even if you were boiling over inside.”
Charlie was somewhat shocked. “How'd you know I done like that, Jeff?”
“Because I've done the same thing. And so have most of the fellows in this line. I guess we don't think much about it at the time, but we hide a lot of what goes on inside us.”
“Be pretty awful if we didn't, wouldn't it?”
Jeff lay back and looked up at the stars that glittered overhead. He could hear the sound of men moving restlessly, and from far away came the mournful sound of a dog howling. “I guess soâbut it's not exactly honest to put on an act.”
Charlie lay back too, and Jeff listened to the sounds of the night.
Finally Charlie murmured, “Well, I'll pray for you, and you pray for me. All right, Jeff?”
“Sure, Charlie, that's fine! We all better be praying up a storm, come dawn!”
eah returned to the wagon and found her father sleeping fitfully on the cot she had made up for him. After watching him for a few minutes, her heart heavy, she heard Ezra's distinctive whistle and looked up to see him coming from the small creek that ran behind their camp.
Ezra had been washing clothes. He nodded to her and began to hang the wet clothes on the ropes he'd hung between two saplings. “He's been kind of restless, Leah. He's had a fever too, I think.”
Leah watched him hang up her father's favorite linsey-woolsey white shirt and add to it several garments of his own. “You didn't have to do that,” she said. “I'll do the washing.”
“Aw, it weren't no trouble.” Ezra shrugged. “I never did mind washing.”
“You're different from most men.” She smiled. “I think Jeff would wear a shirt till it turned stiff as a board with sweat and dirt before he would wash it.”
The mention of Jeff brought a quick frown to her face, and she covered it hurriedly by saying, “They're talking all up and down the line about the battle that's coming. Everybody thinks it's going to be a bad one.”
“I don't think there are any good ones, are there?”
“No, not really. But you know what I mean, Ezra.” She moved over to where the food was stored in a sturdy pine box, lifted the top, and began to
take out yeast starter, flour, lard, salt, and a pinch of her precious sugar. “I think I'll make some biscuits. Will you set up my Dutch oven?”
Ezra had finished hanging up the clothes. “Sure I will,” he said. “Nothing like hot biscuits. I wish we had some sorghum from that mill Mr. Silas had down in Richmond. That was good, wasn't it?”
Leah nodded. “I worry about Uncle Silas sometimes, but the last letter we got said he was doing fine.”
Soon the smell of stew cooking was in the air. Biscuits were browning in the Dutch oven, and the sky was beginning to darken. Leah added a scant measure of fresh ground coffee to the morning's grounds, poured in fresh spring water, and set the pot to boil by the side of the cooking fire.
From far away a soldier with a fine tenor voice began singing. She sat listening, and Ezra, who had been adding wood to the fire, stopped to listen also as the plaintive words hovered over the sprawling camp.
“Just before the battle, Mother,
I am thinking most of you,
While upon the field we're watching
With the enemy in view.
Comrades brave are round me lying,
Filled with thoughts of home and God;
For well they know that on the morrow
Some will sleep beneath the sod.”
As the young soldier's voice faltered, other voices joined in on the chorus:
“Farewell, Mother, you may never
Press me to your heart again;
But O, you'll not forget me, Mother,
If I'm numbered with the slain.”
The night was quiet, and the voices clear as bells. The words carried over the fields, and no one could tell where the Union voices ended and the Confederate voices began.
“Oh, I long to see you, Mother,
And the loving ones at home,
But I'll never leave our banner
Till in honor I can come.
Tell the traitors all around you
That their cruel words, we know,
In every battle kill our soldiers
By the help they give the foe.”
When the last notes died away, Leah gave a slight shudder. “I don't like that song,” she said. “It's too sad. I wish he hadn't started it.”
Ezra looked down to his right along the line and nodded. “General Mac over there, I guess he's doing some heavy thinking. He can't afford to let the Rebs whup us this time.”
General McClellan stood before his officers and examined them carefully. All day he'd been getting little information, and now as dark blanketed the field he said irritably, “I have no idea where Jackson is.”
General Hooker, standing across the table, asserted, “He's right across that creek, General. I'd bet my right eye on it.”
Hooker was a big, fine-looking soldier called “Fighting Joe Hooker.” He had little respect for McClellan as a fighting general, believing that he himself would do a better job.
McClellan moved nervously. He was a small, dapper man, who wore his uniform proudly. He had been president of a railroad before the war, and his soldiers adored him. They called him “Little Mac,” and no matter how many times he lost, they never lost faith in him.
McClellan looked down at the map in front of him and ran his finger along a twisting, winding line. “Antietam Creek,” he said. “All we have to do is get across, and we'll have them.”
“Might be harder than you think, General,” another officer said. “The Rebs have had plenty of time to get in place over there.”
McClellan nodded. “They're a big force.” He turned to Hooker. “I want you to lead the attack against the Confederate left in the morning.”
“Yes, General. You can count on me. My boys are ready for a fight.”
McClellan turned to look out the door of the tent. There was a nervousness in his mannerisms that the officers didn't like. He showed none of the confidence that he usually manifested.
After the officers had left the tent, Hooker said to his second in command, “McClellan's good at training troops, but he's worthless as a fighting general.”
While the Union generals talked, across the creek the Confederates were digging in. Tom Majors grabbed a shovel and was helping the members of the squad. He made the dirt fly for a while, then looked up and said, “I reckon they'll be coming at us with everything they've got, Curly.”
Curly Henson, sweat running down his face, stopped working on the long defensive trench and nodded. “I wish that creek was as big as the Mississippi River!” he muttered. “And I wish all them Yankees were right in the pit.”
Jed Hawkins, who had stripped off his shirt to do his part of the work, laughed. “Don't wish that. Stonewall would send us right into the pit after them! There ain't nothing that man won't do!”
All up and down the line, members of the Stonewall Brigade were throwing up whatever protection they could. They knew that there would be no time to put up a defense in the morning.
“Where's Jeff?” Tom asked suddenly. “I haven't seen him nearly all day.”
Charlie Bowers was too small to do much work. He was helping Sergeant Henry Mapes drag some brush to put in front of a hole. “Jeff's pretty bad sick, Tom,” he said. “I think he's lying down back in the shade.”
Tom straightened suddenly. “He hasn't felt good since he got back. I'll go check on him.”