The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War (6 page)

BOOK: The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War
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Bragg stared up to the left, the mass of Lookout Mountain. “The
enemy made no effort to hold that eminence? It is a superior vantage point.”

“Sir, General Longstreet is moving his people onto that peak right now. The enemy offered little resistance.”

Bragg felt a nervousness, an uneasy nagging that he was being led into a trap. He pulled the horse back, moved uphill, Mackall and the aides following. He crested the hill, looked to the north, where hundreds of his men continued their work, saw artillery pieces coming up on various trails, supply wagons gathering down below, the east side of the ridge. He halted the horse, the words coming out in a low whisper. “He gave us this ground?”

“Sir?”

Bragg looked at Mackall, shook his head. “I am baffled by the Federal strategy, General. They could have kept us back from here with little effort. If he intends to remain in the town, he has afforded us this perfect place for observation, for placement of artillery, for gathering supplies. He is inviting us to attack him.”

“Perhaps, sir. If I may suggest … that might not be wise.”

Bragg looked again toward the distant town, the winding sweep of the river. “No. You are correct. That would not be wise at all. There is considerable open ground between the base of this hill and those defensive works. Their artillery would sweep us away should we make the attempt to march across. To the west … the river runs close to the mountains. There is no assault to be made there. Not even Longstreet would attempt such foolishness. The enemy is surely in force directly across the river from that mountain. We do not have bridging material. Am I correct?”

“No, sir. We have no pontoons close at hand.”

Bragg felt a sudden burst of elation, the headache fading. “Oh, my, yes. The president will be greatly pleased.”

“Sir?”

“General Mackall, order the cavalry … Forrest and Wheeler … order them to make every effort to cut that town off from the north and west, from any route of supply.” He paused, thought a moment, had festered over what he now saw as arrogance in Forrest’s report. “Send word to the famous General Forrest. I want him to transfer a significant portion of his strength to the command of General
Wheeler. We do not require more than one romantic cavalier sweeping through this countryside causing heart flutters among the female population. General Wheeler has not displayed as much arrogance as Bedford Forrest, and for that he should be rewarded. If General Rosecrans has a supply train, it must be well to the rear, beyond the river. I want General Wheeler to use the cavalry the way it was intended, and destroy the enemy’s means of supply. If Rosecrans intends to hole himself up behind those marvelous earthworks, we shall oblige him. In fact, it would suit me if the Yankees remained there all winter.”

Mackall moved up closer, lowered his voice, as though keeping his words from other ears. “You mean … we will lay siege?”

Bragg slapped his thigh, made a fist, shook it toward the town. “I mean to starve him. I mean to force Rosecrans to become so weak that he must crawl his way into our lines begging for sustenance, for relief, for the proper opportunity to surrender his army. I shall have his sword, I shall have every sword of every officer in the Army of the Cumberland. You hear me, Mr. Mackall?
Here
is where we shall find the victory. Here is where my generals will learn why the president has such faith in this command. Here is where I shall earn their obedience.”

CHATTANOOGA—SEPTEMBER 24, 1863

“They’re growing stronger. But they are still not coming.”

The staff officers behind him stared out as he did, none of them with the benefit of field glasses. Thomas didn’t need the others to agree, had already seen for himself how the rebels had followed his retreat, what could have been a dangerous maneuver made relatively simple by the lack of a vigorous pursuit. Now they seemed content to occupy the higher ground on two sides of Chattanooga, as though satisfied with the position that Rosecrans had ceded to them. Have to be a cheerful bunch, he thought. They know sure as rain that they whipped us pretty bad. But they could have done so much more. We might have given them the field, but they bled on that ground as much as we did. We hurt them, no doubt about that. So they’re gonna sit up on those heights until … what? We do something stupid? Old Rosy could have kept them off those hills, but he couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted me to do. Or rather, he made up his mind in every direction at once. I could have held them back, until he ordered me not to. By the time he thought better of that, it was too late. This isn’t good. Not good at all. He’ll pay a price for that. Maybe … we all will. But mistakes are not confined to generals
in blue. Bragg might have made a big one, not taking advantage of the mess we left behind. Mistakes and more mistakes. Seems like that’s the way this war’s being fought all over the place. Good men doing idiotic things. Hopefully, every now and then, one of us will do something right.

Already praise was coming Thomas’s way, the few reporters who fluttered about the camp sending dispatches to their papers how Thomas’s vigorous defense had saved the day at Chickamauga. Even Rosecrans’s own staff were speaking of it, how Thomas had rescued so much of the army as the scattered units had found their way back to the defenses around Chattanooga. He wouldn’t listen to any of that, wouldn’t give the reporters what they hoped to hear, the breathtaking tale of a fight to the last, a heroic stand against the rebel hordes. Garbage, he thought. It was the men, men I had never seen before, men from units scattered all over the field who knew where the fight was, who came ready to show the rebels that this army wasn’t going to collapse just because we had one break in our lines. And now we’re here, and very soon we’ll be strong again, ready for anything they have. Bragg’s mistake.

He had ridden past the leading edge of the Federal defensive position, had been given charge of strengthening those defenses, the vast improvement to the earth and log works left behind by the rebels weeks before, the prelude to what had pulled Rosecrans and his Federal forces down into Georgia. Though the bulk of the army was now safely behind their barricades, Thomas was seeing something in Rosecrans he hoped never to see. It was clear even to Rosecrans’s own staff, the men most loyal, that with the collapse of the Federal center at Chickamauga, with the desperate retreat that Rosecrans had led himself, that no matter the lack of pursuit, Rosecrans had found none of the renewed energy of his men. Instead, Thomas had seen clear signs that their commanding general was falling apart.

Thomas stared through the glasses at the signal flags on the crest of Missionary Ridge, rebels talking to one another. He knew that artillery had been pulled up on the heights as well, the shelling coming toward the Federal lines in inconsistent waves, scattered and haphazard. They’re trying to scare us, he thought. They must believe we’re ready to scamper out of here completely, that if they drop a few explosives
into our lines, that’s all it’ll take. Not now. Not anymore. Yes, show us how strong you are, all that great power up in those hills, waiting to rush down here and sweep us away. That’s what you want us to believe, isn’t it, Mr. Bragg? Sorry, old friend, but I’m not convinced. We spent two days toe-to-toe with you, beating each other’s brains out, and if you thought your great victory was going to be overwhelming and perfect, my men changed your mind. We held the last piece of good ground, and made you pay for every step you made. How many times did you send those boys against us? Ten? More? And how many of those boys are still out there, lying on those fields? By now, they’ve told you the numbers. It’s what you’re good at. And your burial parties are working still.

Thomas lowered the field glasses, stared out to the larger mountain to the right, but he had seen all he needed to. He thought of Bragg, impetuous, quick to anger, and yet, for more than fifteen years, Bragg had been a good friend. Mexico had been a triumph for both of them, as it had been for so many of the fresh-faced officers who had risen now to command in both these armies. It had been difficult for many of those young men, coming home from their first taste of combat with all the images of horror tempered by the unexpectedly one-sided victory, a job well done. After Mexico, many of the officers had found peacetime to be painfully monotonous, some, like Thomas Jackson and Ulysses Grant, leaving the army completely. But there was opportunity still for a man willing to endure the brutal conditions out west, Texas mostly, newly organized cavalry regiments waging a new kind of war against the Indians. There was adventure in that for certain, and opportunities for promotion, if a man could tolerate the living conditions, and the sheer misery of chasing Comanches through their own territory. It was Bragg who had been selected for a new position with the cavalry, but Bragg had instead recommended Thomas for the assignment. It was an amazingly generous gesture, driven mostly by Bragg’s respect for Thomas’s service in Mexico, as well as their time together in Florida, another kind of misery for the soldiers who fought the Seminoles. It wasn’t because he liked me, Thomas thought. I don’t think he ever
liked
anybody. Probably doesn’t like anybody up on those hills, either. And I assume the feeling is mutual. But I’ll hand it to you, Braxton. You might be the
most cantankerous man I ever met. But along the Chickamauga, you licked us good. We made more mistakes than you did, and you stuck us for it.

Thomas knew what a few of the men closest to Rosecrans were tossing about, that the blame for the catastrophe at Chickamauga lay squarely at the feet of their commanding general. That opinion was shared by most of the higher-ranking commanders, some of those showing undisguised relief that Rosecrans might be the scapegoat, someone besides them to absorb the blame. Thomas didn’t want to hear that kind of talk, or the talk about how he had saved the entire campaign, as though any one man could be responsible for either the failure or the salvation of this army. Whether he was a hero or not was hardly what mattered. A large part of the Army of the Cumberland had been brought back from their disaster, had been allowed to retreat back to Chattanooga because Thomas had commanded a defensive position that the rebels couldn’t break through. It was good ground, he thought. The better ground. Bragg sent his people against a superior defensive position, and the
logical
happened. No genius in that. We had rocks and timber and they had an uphill climb. If we’d have had more ammunition, we could have beaten them back for days.

Several of the brigade and division commanders had come to him privately, as though keeping some dark secret, that Thomas had saved Rosecrans’s career, along with the entire army. He wouldn’t hear that, either. The casualty count at Chickamauga had been catastrophic long before Thomas’s men made their final stand. So much of that battlefield was cloaked in forest, he thought, entire brigades marching right up to their enemy before they knew what was happening. You fight like that, a few yards apart, and you don’t need marksmen. Just … numbers. Well, it’s certainly not like that here. Nobody’s confused about where we are now. And from everything I can see, Bragg’s army is just sitting up there, happy to watch us. A man gets a broken nose, he’s not so much in a hurry for another one. I wish Old Rosy appreciated that. I wish he understood how badly we hurt them, how good this position is around Chattanooga. Bragg knows it, for sure. He loves his paperwork, numbers and organization, so he’ll find out what kind of strength he has, and he’ll play with that, tweak it, nudge
things around, scream at a few people for being stupid. And when he thinks he’s ready, maybe he’ll come down here and try us. But right now, Bragg’s got the good ground, and he’s not real comfortable giving that up just so there’ll be a fair fight. Loves his men too much. That just might be his greatest weakness. Bragg doesn’t think anybody can run that show over there as good as he can, and so he doesn’t trust his generals to do anything unless he’s perfectly sure it will work. And, marching down off those hills right into a hundred artillery pieces, walking those men across all this open ground … nope. That’s not going to work, old friend.

He turned slightly, stared at the base of Lookout Mountain. He could barely make out the flow of the river, winding close beneath the massive rock walls, the waterway any riverboat would have to take to bring supplies directly into Chattanooga. Already, rebel artillery was tossing shells across that part of the river, rebel sharpshooters settling down close, taking aim at any careless soldier who dared to strut out along the river’s edge. That part of the river is useless, he thought. And so, if we want supplies to get in here, they’ll have to halt well back of us, come the rest of the way overland.

He looked back, saw his staff alert, waiting for his instructions, and said, “Did we get confirmation from General Rosecrans what kind of supplies we have?”

Colonel Hough rode up close to him, said, “I spoke with General Garfield this morning. He believes that the first estimates are correct. We can hold out here for about ten days without assistance.”

BOOK: The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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