It’s about a hundred and sixty miles from the battlefield at Gettysburg to Libby’s Prison in Richmond. I know that because I had to walk it all the way, under the watchful eyes of rebel guards. Not my favourite way to travel - given the choice when having to go any distance I prefer a well appointed steam train with a good dining car, where I could while away the evenings with a hand or two of cards, perhaps being entertained by a good German oom pah pah band.
In this case I didn’t have a choice, though. Having done my best to confound and confuse the rebels, and playing no small part in them losing the battle at Gettysburg, I then found myself caught trying to slip my cable by two infernally nosey rebel soldiers. I ended up being thrown in with a group of a few score or so other federal prisoners, ready for the long walk to Richmond and a probably long spell in chokey.
For once I couldn’t find it in me to blame myself, though. All I did was a bit of appropriate toadying when summoned by the Prime Minister, M’Lud Palmerston, to go and inspect the Confederate Army in the summer of ’61, after their totally unexpected victory over the Federals at Bull Run. Who better to send, after all, than that experienced soldier and traveller, Sir Harry Flashman, VC, hero of Britain and saviour of the empire on so many occasions ? But after completing my inspection I’d had the devil’s own luck, starting with the Trent affair, then seeing the slaughter at Shiloh, before being caught spying on the Yankees at the behest of Lyons, the British minister to the Americans. That led to me being blackmailed by that genial old rascal Lincoln, under the threat of execution, to spy on the rebels from right inside their high command. The rest is, as they say, history, and what a history it was. For a shirker like me I’d been to hell and back as the tides of war swept me across the eastern theatre in the company of Robert Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart. I’d seen Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, plus half a hundred smaller actions, before the fateful events at Gettysburg, where the Confederacy finally lost all chance of a decisive victory which would allow them to secede permanently from the Union.
Lincoln knew his man, of course. We’d met before and despite my fame and unearned reputation as a hero, he knew me for the scoundrel and coward I was, and had no hesitation in threatening and suborning me into spying for him, with the alternative being a stretched neck and a pauper’s grave in the dust somewhere out in the mid west if I didn’t. Given that choice what’s a seasoned poltroon like me to do ? So spy for him I did, and to some effect, until the stupid slaughter at Gettysburg, and my not inconsiderable part in bringing it about, made even me sick of it all, and I determined to make my way back to the Union lines, for surely now I’d done all Lincoln could ask.
T’was my misfortune to get captured the night the battle finished. Though I’d disguised myself by changing my clothes and shaving off my whiskers I was in a blue funk, as I was put with the other prisoners, about whether I’d be spotted by any of my erstwhile comrades in arms. If so I’d be for it, either as a deserter, or worse still, regarded as a Union spy. So I kept myself to myself that night, and burrowed, as best I could, into the centre of the group, looking down and not speaking to anyone. I was told I’d be interrogated the next morning and I had to work on a story that would convince anyone that I was just a plain old newspaper man, reporting on the battle.
As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The rebels were so concerned to get us away before any Union counter attack that may come that we were off before the sun came up the next morning, with no one questioning me at all, as we set off on the long, weary walk to the Confederate capital. As the day went on it promised to be a hot and tiring one as well, as we trudged through the countryside in high summer. There was no prospect of any transport as all the rebel wagons were being used to carry the thousands of wounded back into southern territory. Still, for the moment I was relatively safe, going away from the battlefield where someone might recognise me and as yet unquestioned, but I thought I might have to escape before we got to Richmond.
Our guards, though rough and ready, were friendly enough and shared what rations they had but that changed when we handed over to a Virginia cavalry unit a couple of days later. I’d little enough to steal but those that had found themselves robbed of any item that could be of use to the new guards, from coats and caps, to pens, paper and even their pipes. It was only when one of ‘em tried to steal the blanket I’d been given to keep warm overnight that the officer in charge stepped in and stopped their thievery.
It took about ten days to get to Richmond and by the time we reached there we were all, guards and prisoners, a dirty and bedraggled bunch, as well as hungry. My boots were falling to pieces, my hair was matted with dirt and my clothes filthy from the march and sleeping on the ground. The only consolation was that no one was likely to connect me with the dashing English soldier who’d been seen about the city so much the previous year, fighting for the great cause of freedom – as long as you weren’t a nigger, of course..
Well, if I thought that was bad it was like a walk in the country compared to the prison itself. Of course I’d heard a good deal about conditions there but nothing prepared me for the stark reality of the place.
For one thing it wasn’t really a prison at all but an old brick built warehouse consisting of three storeys. The prisoners, mainly officers, were kept in the upper two floors, with the bottom storey used for storage and administration. As we shuffled inside in the half light of dusk we could smell the reek and filth caused by lack of any decent sanitation. It was damn hot too, with low ceilings and poor ventilation, the air just lying still and thick. There were no cells as such, just eight or nine large rooms in which men were jammed together, sleeping or sitting cheek by jowl on the dirty floor. The windows had no glass in them at all, just thick iron bars to prevent any escape attempt. There was no sort of proper process to admit us – we filed in and were ticked off a list as we entered. Even the wounded and sick were just carried in and dumped wherever there was any space, with no provision at all made for their care. There was a daily roll call but that was just about all. I soon found that our jailers were completely indifferent to whether we lived or died, as long as we didn’t escape.
If that hadn’t already been on my mind when I got there it would soon have become my overriding thought over the next few weeks. Quite apart from the foul conditions, which would have weakened the strongest man, the short rations we were provided with were no better than a starvation diet. There was no meat of any sort, the food consisting mainly of corn bread and sweet potatoes, and only warm, and usually brackish, water to drink, supplemented occasionally by a thick bean soup. Many of the prisoners were sick with dysentery or fever and that sort of diet was no good to them at all. The surgeons who were prisoners did their best but many were completely hopeless cases, with no proper facilities to treat ‘em available. Ambulances would arrive constantly, bearing ten, twelve, or perhaps even more, sick or wounded prisoners and invariably at least half of them would die within a day or so. Apart from that it was a dangerous enough place even if you weren’t sick at all. The day after I got there one of my fellow new arrivals went to get some air at the window and to try to catch a sight of the James River, which wound its way through the city. Before anyone could warn him there was the crack of a rifle and he fell stone dead, a bullet in his forehead. That was the dead line, and anyone who looked out, or even got near the bars or sills, was likely to be shot out of hand. Quite plainly the longer I was in this horrible rat hole the smaller my chances of survival would become, and I had the added incentive that there was always the chance of someone recognising me. Then the game would be up with a vengeance – not that we had many regular visitors, except one.
That visitor was someone called Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, known throughout Richmond, the rebel capital, as Crazy Bet for both her odd behaviour and her opposition to both secession and slavery. That was quite unusual in a lady who counted herself as a natural Virginian. Her opposition to the southern cause had made her many enemies but she took little or no notice of them and was a regular visitor to the prison, bringing whatever was allowed from books and clothes to extra food.
I’d heard of her, of course, in my time there before but never met her in all my time in Richmond for no other reason than chance. My first sight of her was a few days after I’d arrived. There I was, sitting on the floor, trying to remove some lice that had newly taken up residence on me when the door opened and in came a tiny, angular figure, twitching slightly as though with bad nerves, accompanied by two guards. She was carrying a basket in which she had some bread, fruit, and other items of food which she was being allowed to distribute amongst the prisoners there.
As she came close to me I could see that she had once been pretty – she was blonde and had a sharply defined face with high cheekbones – but though she could only have been my age, in her forties, she was quickly turning into an old maid. One thing about her was singular, though, and that was her bright blue eyes which someone once described as unearthly brilliant. As she passed near me those eyes swept briefly over my face and then, just for a second, fixed steadily on my eyes, as if she knew me. Then she was gone, without giving me any of the largesse that she was spreading around the other prisoners there.
One of the other prisoners, by the name of Fletcher, who’d been there for quite some time looked at me and nodded. ‘That’s Crazy Bet Van Lew, as the rebels calls her’, he said. ‘There’s plenty here who owe their lives to her, what with extra food, medcine, or persuadin’ the doctors to put ‘em in a hospital where they kin get well agin’, he continued.
‘Well, I sure have heard of her’, I answered, still playing the unfortunate newspaper man, Prescott Arnold. ‘Don’t seem she had no gifts for me, tho’.
‘That’s a cos she looks after the worse off first of all. She sees you needs somethin’, you’ll likely get it. Bravest little lady in Richmond, that she is’, and with that he went back to dealing with his own infestations, and me to mine.
Crazy Bet came in almost every day, sometimes again with food but sometimes also with books and clothes. After that first day she took little or no notice of me – the state I was in I could hardly blame her. Talk about sic transit gloria Flashy, eh ?
Time dragged on and the days limped slowly into weeks. No one came to question me and it seemed I’d been completely forgotten about – there seemed to be no thought about what to do with any of the prisoners at all. Sometimes a few were exchanged for rebel prisoners but in general we just sat around getting more bored, hungrier and dirtier. For forms sake I complained to the guards about my captivity – it would have seemed damned odd otherwise – but they mainly ignored my complaints or occasionally hit me on the leg with the heavy sticks they carried, which was enough of a discouragement to allow me to stop protesting. No doubt, mostly being dirt poor themselves, that was the most power they’d ever had, and some of them seemed to enjoy exercising it more than others. Teaches you a lot about man’s supposed humanity to each other, when you’ve seen it, or worse, suffered from it. People really aren’t very nice, especially when they have a taste of power. Trust me, I’m an expert on it.
I suppose I’d been there a month when Crazy Bet at last lavished some of her precious attention on me. She’d been working her way round the prisoners who were sat near to me when she came up to me as I sat scratching myself on the dirty floor and handed me an apple and some fresh bread. She gave me a brief stare with those piercing blue eyes, and then nodded slightly, her face and eyes hidden from the guards by the huge battered old bonnet she was wearing. I was that hungry that I paid little attention to anything but the food, which was wrapped in a clean piece of newspaper. After I’d eaten it, though, I was bored enough to look at the paper. Most of it was homely guff, of course, but there was also a brief note about the expected return to the Richmond stage of the actress and southern heroine Patricia Carney – my old bed partner and one of the Union’s most important agents in the Confederacy. That made me start – surely it couldn’t be a coincidence, could it ? The chances of that were far too remote. Just what was Crazy Bet up to I wondered? Was she more than she seemed to be ? Surely an old maid like her couldn’t do more than improve things for the inmates by giving them some extra food and a few trifles to relieve the boredom, could she ?
I waited in quiet eagerness for her next visit but when she next came to Libby she didn’t come near me or even acknowledge me. The boredom and frustration was so bad I was near to tearing my hair out, but all my long experience told me to calm down and wait on developments – no use letting the cat out of the bag by doing anything hasty or ill thought out, though it took my all meagre and wilting willpower to wait and wait.
Sure enough a few days later old Crazy Bet was working her way around to me and gave me some more morsels of food and this time a book – would you believe, a dime novel about my old friend, the scout and trapper Kit Carson, called ‘Prince of the Gold Hunters’, no less. For the first time she spoke to me properly – before there had only been nods or a brief hello. ‘Sit up young man’, she said, somewhat acidly. ‘You’ll do your spine no good at all slouched like that’, and then she moved on, twitching slightly as she went. Well, thinks I, that’s a message of sorts and while I ate the food hungrily I waited until she had gone and the guards with her before I turned to the book.
Going to one of the darker corners I pretended to give my full attention to the book while I carefully felt its spine for anything that might be hidden there. Sure enough, there was a tiny scrap of paper, folded very tightly. I opened it out carefully, being sure there were no prying eyes looking at me. ‘Ross can be bribed’ was all it said. Ross was the chief guard on our floor of the prison, a big, easy going sort of chap who was nearly as scruffy as the prisoners he guarded. That was all very well, as far as it went, but what was I going to bribe him with, and for what? He might well be biddable for the cost of a few dollars, but he could hardly let me escape on his watch, could he ? Still, I thought, at least I know I’ve got a friend and some useful information. That was some progress, I thought, after all this time.
Over the next few weeks Crazy Bet brought me more books in. Instead of a note or message they usually concealed two of the new Yankee ten dollar bills very tightly folded so that over time I had a considerable amount of cash available, which I was obviously meant to use to bribe the said Ross. I’d have to test him out, though, to see if he was the sort to take a backhander. Those prisoners who’d managed to hold onto a little money often used it to bribe the guards to buy them extra food from the shops in Richmond. It was against the rules but as it was a handy supplement to their meagre pay it was common practice and the rule was ignored by the majority of the guards. The question was would Ross go further and help me to escape this horrible rat hole ?
I started to loaf around the door to the room I was incarcerated in, saying a friendly hello to him when he came in. After a few days we got to chatting about this and that until I judged it was time to see if he’d bite.
‘Say, Sarge’, I began, ‘any sign o’the Captain lookin’ at letting me out. I’m no soljer as you kin see.’
‘Well, Mr Arnold, I don’t see no sign o‘ that. Cap’n’s pretty busy running this place and is in no mind tu tak up th’ case of no Yankee found runnin’ round ol’ Gettysberg, soljer or not’.
‘Maybe’s you could talk to him ‘bout me. He’d lissen to you, won’t he?’, I suggested.
‘Maybe he would, maybe not. But I don’t want to go upsettin’ him and makin’ him angry. I got a nice billet here, Arnold, an’ I don’t ‘tend to risk losin’ it by annoying tha’ cap’n’, he replied.
‘I ‘ppreciate that, Sarge, an’ I wouldn’t ‘spect you to do it for nothin’ an’ all’.
At that he looked at me in surprise so I lowered my voice, looked round carefully and said
‘I got fifty good Yankee dollars if you can get him take a peek at my case, maybe get him ta send it up tha’ line for a lookin’ at’, I said.
At this his eyes bulged – fifty dollars was about three month’s pay for him and what’s more they were federal dollars which he could spend anywhere, not like .the useless rebel notes.
‘Where’d you get that frum ?’, he asked suspiciously.
‘I got a stash that no-one found on me’, and I carefully showed him the money.
‘Jus’ for talkin’ ta the cap’n ‘bout you ?’, he asked, fairly twitching with excitement.
‘Fifty more if I get out’, I answered, to encourage him more. After all, he could just take the money and then do nothing. The prospect of another fifty would make sure he’d give it a go.
Ross looked round again – no one was taking any notice of us.
‘Gimme it, an’ I’ll see whut I kin do’, he said, and with that I passed him the cash which he quickly folded up and put into the pocket of his ragged trousers, then turned away and went out of the room, shutting the door behind him. Truth to tell I half hoped his officer would listen. I’d had plenty of time to work on my story and I was sure I could spin him a yarn that would make him push my case up the line for release. After all, I’d had plenty of practice.
Ross avoided me for the next few days, other than a nod or hello, so I guessed he was working on things. It was surprise, then, when he came up to me and said ‘I ain’t spoken to the cap’n’. I must have looked surprised because he quickly added
‘I got a better plan for you – if you’ve got more money’.
‘How much ?’, I asked.
‘Two hunred and fifty dollars’, he replied.
‘Maybe, maybe I have. Depends on what your plan is’, I said.
‘I’ll go git you an ole uniform for a private, frum our army. One evenin’, when ah’m not on dooty, put it on, covered yuself with maybe a blanket as though you’re cold, and help take them there vittling pots back to the kitchen. Take ‘em in, turn arount, then drop the blanket and keep on walkin’ till yous out of the jail door’, he said.
‘Whut ‘bout tha guards on the door, and will it be open ?’, I asked him anxiously.
‘Doors guarded, a’course, but not locked. People are in and out all the time, and you prisoners are all locked in upstairs, so thure’s no need to lock them down thur. More trouble than it’s worth. Jus’ get on out an’ keep walkin’ to wherever it is you plan ta go’, Ross replied. With that he left me to ponder his plan. A few days later, when I went back to my usual place after visiting the latrine there was a scruffy bundle tied up there – inside was a battered tunic and trousers approximating the mish mash of rags that passed for a uniform in the Confederate Army – I’d seen the niggers in India better dressed, and cleaner as well. A couple of days later I loafed over to Ross and passed him his money which he slipped away out of sight in a trice.
Where I planned to go was really the prime question, of course. My only real hope was that Crazy Betty could help, so the next time I returned a book to her on one of her visits I said ‘My back’s much better now’, drawing her attention to a note I’d put in the spine of the book. ‘Glad to hear it’, was all she said, somewhat primly, as she took the book and moved on. The note said I planned to escape sometime in the evening around dusk but not any details – not that it mattered because if it was found I’d bucked and gagged as a punishment whether there were details in it or not. I’d seen it done to other malefactors and it was a damn uncomfortable way to pass the time.
A few days later Crazy Bet was visiting again but for a change she didn’t give me any books this time. Instead I got some boiled eggs to eat – one of which was hollow and contained a note enjoining me to make for St John’s Church in the Church Hill area if I was to escape. Someone would watch out for me between eight and nine in the evening for the next week. Once they were sure I wasn’t being followed they would make themselves known to me and lead me somewhere safe. That was the church where Patrick Henry made his famous ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech just before the revolution – it was no great distance from the prison, being about five or so city blocks away. I couldn’t ask for any more so after carefully destroying the note I got to work on making my escape.
The kitchen was the middle room on the first floor, and it was the only room we prisoners were allowed free access to. I was housed, as it were, on the top floor, in a loft known as Sleight’s room. I’d been down to the kitchen a number of times, as often just for a change of scene as to cook something, so I knew my way around well enough. There was usually no guard on the kitchen door so if I could get that far it would be easy enough to get down the stairs to the ground floor and hopefully escape if I was dressed as a rebel soldier. I had to try soon, though, as Crazy Bet’s note gave me a week. It would be much easier to make my escape if I had somewhere to hide out for a time rather than having to shift for myself. So I went down to the kitchen that evening to see if things were the same as before. As expected there was no guard there so I determined to try escaping around dusk the next evening, which was still fairly late and coincided with when the sentries round the prison were changed. With any luck my absence wouldn’t be noticed until roll call the following day, by which time I’d either be safe in hiding or on my way to the north. I needed help, though, and enlisted Fletcher’s aid, telling him a little of the truth, that I was a Union officer with important information I had to get back to the north. It was risky, if he talked, as I’d be treated like a spy but he was a steady enough fellow and I had to take the chance anyway.
The next evening, as the light began to fade and the prison became gloomy, I slipped into a quiet corner and donned the old rebel uniform. Truth to tell everyone was so scruffy and dirty that in that light you could hardly see any difference between prisoner and guard. I wrapped the blanket over my shoulders as if against the cold and with a few other prisoners, including Fletcher, made my way down to the kitchen with the cooking pots. Once we’d deposited them in the kitchen I made sure I was first out, with Fletcher right behind me. As we got to the doorway I slipped the blanket off onto the floor, Fletcher made to stumble to delay the others behind him and instead of turning right to go back upstairs I turned left and headed down the flight of stairs to the door. It didn’t take long to get to it and I soon reached it, my heart thudding harder and harder as I stretched out my hand to open it – if Ross was wrong and it had been locked I was sunk.
Relief flooded through me as the handle turned easily and I sauntered through, whistling ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’. There were two guards there and they looked up briefly as I nodded to them, then went back to their joking and talking, paying me no more notice. But it was hard to resist the urge to run as any moment I expected a call to stop and my shoulders tensed and my back stiffened, as though anticipating the impact of a musket ball – they weren’t shy about shooting someone they thought was escaping, as I’d seen. But it was something I’d learned to deal with over the years and I always try to teach young men who may find themselves in a similar situation this one simple lesson – don’t panic until you have to. I was safe enough here though, and soon turned a corner, making my way nonchalantly up the hill from the prison by the river to the church. There were a few folk about in the darkening evening but they took little or no notice of me as I made my way along the few city blocks to the rendezvous.
Chapter 2: Escape
This is actually the second part of the first chapter.
It only took a few minutes to get to the church, which stood on its own in a largish church yard at the top of the hill. It was a wooden faced, white painted building with the entrance in a tall tower at the front of the church which looked to me like a lighthouse – quite handsome in its way. There was a fairly old graveyard in the grounds and what appeared to be a schoolhouse in the corner but there was nary a sign of anyone about the place. I’d no idea how long I’d have to wait but I’d no inclination to linger around a graveyard at that time of night. Not that I’m one for ghosts and what have you – once you’re gone it’s a one way journey that you don’t come back from, But in the dark it was quite eerie and I felt as lonely as the policeman at Herne Bay. Nor did I want some nosy military patrol coming along and asking me why I was hanging around there at that time of night, so I began to get quite anxious as I waited for whoever it was I was going to meet. It wasn’t long, though, after I’d sat down on one of the benches at the front of the church that I heard a hiss and a whispered ‘follow me’ and looked up to find a slim young negress, looking to be in her twenties as far as I could tell in the light, leaning round the corner of the church and beckoning. I followed her and we slipped out of the back of the church yard, making our way the short distance to a big house, more of a mansion really, on East Grace St, which was fronted by a low wall that was topped off with iron railings. The front door was had a big portico entrance but we made our way silently around to the back of the house, slipping in through an open door into a large kitchen.
There sat at the kitchen table was Crazy Bet herself. As she looked up at me with those gimlet eyes she said quietly to the girl ‘Thank you, Mary Elizabeth’ and the girl nodded, smiled at me, and left me alone with her mistress. That was a damned pity because she was a very pretty thing and if my situation had been otherwise I’d have much preferred to spend the evening alone with her rather than my hostess – it had been quite a while, after all, but Crazy Bet didn’t look like she was inclined to make arrangements for me to deal with my carnal needs..
With the girl gone Crazy Bet turned her piercing eyes on me. Looking me up and down she nodded to herself and said ‘I expect you’ll want some food’ but as I nodded eagerly she said ‘Best you get cleaned up first, though. Josiah !’, and she wrinkled her nose slightly as she called out. A moment later a middle aged black servant appeared in the kitchen.
‘Josiah, draw this gentleman a bath and find him some clean clothes to wear, please’, and then turned to me ‘When you’re cleaned up came back here and I’ll have some hot food ready for you. Then we’ll need to talk’. I’d have soon as eaten first and washed after but Crazy Bet was never a lady to argue with, and I was in her debt anyway so I followed in the servant’s wake and had a good soak while he found me some decent togs – which fitted uncommon well, though I didn’t ask where they came from.
When I got back to the kitchen Bet was stirring a large pot of some sort of stew which smelled very appetising. Pointing me to a place set at the table she ladled out a large portion of stew, cut some bread and then placed both in front me. I was fairly famished and while she fetched me a glass of water I laid into the stew with a will. It was rabbit as it happened and very tasty but I was so hungry I’d have eaten it even if had been mainly composed of John Charity Spring, though I suppose it might have had a more bitter taste in that case.
As I was eating Crazy Bet now sat in a chair by the fire, looking at me intently, with her chin on her fists, nodding to herself from time to time. If I’d not been so damn hungry it would have been a more than a mite disconcerting but famished as I was I concentrated on the food and took little notice of her while I was eating. It was only when I was mopping the plate with the bread that she stirred herself and said
‘What are we to call you, while you’re here ? I know your real name but we can’t use that – far too dangerous. Nor can we call you by either of the military ranks you’ve been using. What do you suggest ?’ she asked.
Over the years I’ve had that many different names I’ve lost track of them all, so I settled on an old favourite.
‘Call me Tom Arnold’, I said.
At this she smiled a sour grin and said, quietly ‘So you are that Flashman, then. I did wonder’, and as I looked at her in surprise she said ‘I’ve read the book, long time ago. I hope your character’s improved somewhat since then. James seems quite taken with you, so that’s something in your favour.’ So Wild Bill had been here, then. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too long before he was back to guide me to safety, I thought.
Putting on my best manners I said ‘I’m much obliged to you, Mam. Can you tell me what’s to happen to me now, and how did you know I was a prisoner ?’.
‘You’ll stay here for a while’, she answered, ‘until we can make firm plans. You’ll have to stay indoors, out of sight. If the authorities visit the house, which they do from time to time, I’ve somewhere you can hide where you’ll be safe. It’s like those old hideaways they had for priests in England during your religious wars. What were they called, now, can you tell me ?’
‘Priest’s holes’, I replied and then went on ‘Can you at least tell me how you knew I was a prisoner, then ?’.
Again she smiled that bitter smile as she answered.
‘We’ve have our eyes and ears throughout the city. The insurrectionists have many servants it pleases them to call slaves. Not only do they hold them in bondage, but treat them as though they were stupid children and talk of their secrets openly in front of them. Naturally all the news soon reaches me – your disappearance after Gettysburg is a complete mystery to them and is much talked of, throughout their army. When last James was here, a few weeks ago, I asked of him did he know you ? He told me as much as he thought prudent – enough to recognise you if I saw you, not just by your appearance but by your manner as well. Of course I didn’t know you were in Libby’s Prison at first but when news that a new batch of prisoners from the battle had arrived I decided to see if you were amongst them. The rest you already know’, she finished.
She was helping me at some risk to herself, including possibly her life so I had to ask her why she was doing it. After all, while I was no supporter of slavery I wouldn’t put myself out for a moment to fight it, and I didn’t give a fig for the unity of the USA. I was here under duress but for a scion of the old Commonwealth of Virginia to take the road she had done was unusual, and possibly deadly, to say the least.
She fixed those bright eyes on me again.
‘I hold to the honourable Virginian tradition of opposition to human bondage’, she answered. ‘I cannot conceive how anyone can consider they have a right to own another human being. Not only is it bad for the soul of the enslaved, but bad also for the oppressor. Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labour. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state'.
As she paused for a moment I said ‘But it must be difficult for you. Even if your other activities remain secret your visits and help to the federal prisoners must mark you out and make you unpopular’.
‘I do not court popularity. Many is the time I’ve been abused vilely and threatened in the streets of this very city even by those you might consider fine southern gentleman. But it is they that have changed, have forgotten our values and rebelled against their country, not me. That sustains me, even when some I have helped and trusted have tried to betray me’, she answered. ‘Enough of this for now’, she said. ‘Josiah will show to a place where you can sleep in safety. Tomorrow we will consider how we can return you to our friends in the north’. With that she summoned the servant again and he showed me to a small bedroom on the top floor, at the back of the house.
While I was there I began to see how Crazy Bet worked, and how careful she was to avoid being caught. She was able to recruit and encourage the loyalty of many of the simpler folk of Richmond, such as farmers, factory workers, storekeepers and the like, who believed in the Union, by her quite prominent position in society, and she held their loyalty by her example and unceasing work. She was careful who she recruited and what she told them, especially after that earlier attempt at betrayal. For all her dissembling there was those who suspected that she wasn’t just Crazy Bet. One day in the street a man she didn’t know walked past her several times muttering ‘I’m crossing the line tonight’, meaning he was going north. She had an urgent message, coded and cut into strips for concealment, ready to go and was expecting an agent to collect it. Could this be the man, she thought to herself ? But she remained cautious and ignored him, getting on with her daily business. Next day she saw him marching with his regiment, wearing his Confederate grey.
Her servants, mainly blacks, were fiercely loyal and not just because she had given them their freedom. They were ready, at the drop of a hat, to take a message while looking as though they were on an innocent errand, perhaps to her vegetable garden which lay outside the city, or to collect some ‘shopping’. She had spies and agents in the Confederate War Department and the local police. One day I was loafing around reading an old book when I was suddenly hurried up the stairs towards the attic by Crazy Bet. As we reached the top of the stairs she walked quickly to back of the house and touched a panel. It slid back and I was rushed into a secret chamber under the rear roof to hide. Moments later there was a sharp rap on the door and business like voice demanding entry – one of her spies had warned her of yet another raid, led again by a Confederate detective named New, who had often raided the house on the information of a local informant. She was running a damn dangerous business and the longer I was there the more active she seemed to become. Clearly, then, this was no place for Flashy – I’d no desire to be caught in the house of a northern spy and then identified as the errant Colonel Flashman. The game would be well and truly up then, and with only one ending, so I soon began to make some noises about escaping.
While I’d be cooling my heels as a guest of the Confederacy, the war, surprisingly enough, hadn’t ground to halt without my guiding hand. The day after Gettysburg Sam Grant had at last forced the surrender of Vicksburg, splitting the rebel states in two and giving the Union control of the vital Mississippi waterway. Unfortunately Meade had failed to follow up his victory at Gettysburg and the rebels in the east had time to recover. While they couldn’t hope to invade the north again they could still hope to continue the war long enough for the anti-war parties – mainly Democrats and a group calling themselves Copperheads - in the federal states to press for an end to the conflict.
So the war ground on into the autumn and I grew more and more desperate to get away from Richmond. I asked Crazy Bet whether James would be would be in town sometime soon but she’d heard nothing of him since his last visit. I was getting to the point of striking out on my own, however risky, when something happened to force the issue.
Chapter 3: Time To Go
Thunder, Flash, Lightning Conductor
It was an early autumn evening with a thunderstorm building up nicely. Miss Bet and I had just eaten a frugal dinner – the war was playing havoc with both the availability of food and its price, which was not adding to the popularity of the rebel president Davis – when the girl who’d guided me to Bet’s house came rushing in, her eyes wide, face streaming with sweat and her dress with dirty marks on it. She was babbling loudly
‘Mizz Bet, Mizz Bet, I’s dun sumtin terrible, sumtin terrible !’
Bet went over to her, took her by the arms with a grip of iron and said, fixing those steely eyes on the girl's face. ‘Calm down, Mary Elizabeth, calm down. Tell me, quietly now, what have you done ?’, and led her to a chair by the fire.
‘It’s that ol’ gardener at the White House, acalled Tom, Miss Bet. He’s allus makin’ eyes at me an’ tryin’ to touch me.’ At this her eyes filled up again and she started to blub again. Well, I thought, I can see where this is going. At least the old goat had some taste because she was a good looking girl – not that I volunteered that opinion aloud, of course.
‘Calm down, calm down’, said Bet, her voice becoming harsher and grimmer. ‘Did that man try to use you ?’
The girl nodded vigorously through her tears.
‘Did he, did he………’, at that Crazy Bet’s voice faltered for a second, then resumed more strongly ‘did he succeed in forcing himself on you ?’
‘No, Miss Bet’, said the girl, shaking her head rapidly.
‘Are you hurt, then, girl ?’, Bet asked her.
‘No mam, I’se not rilly hurtin, not rilly Jus scared a what I dun.’
Bet breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Good’, she said. ‘As soon as you’ve calmed down we’ll go and see President Jefferson and tell him what happened, and ask what he’s going to do about it’. I suppose I must have let out a gasp of surprise, because Bet looked over at me with a grim smile. ‘I’ve been there many times, often to complain about the harassment I receive and to ask for his protection. He won’t refuse to see me. I won’t have a good, free girl who’s in his service abused by some cowardly old white oaf because he thinks she’s still just a black, to be used as he wishes. At the least he’ll be dismissed, may be even jailed’. At this Mary Elizabeth let out another wail and said, through her tears, ‘No, Miss Bet, you don’t understand. I dun killed him, I dun killed old Tom !’ As she finished speaking there was a loud clap of thunder right overhead. Loud though it was, that clap of thunder wasn’t noisy enough to drown out my reaction. ‘You stupid black bitch’, I bellowed. ‘You’ll swing for this’.
Under the circumstances not the best reaction, you’ll agree. Certainly not as far as Mary Elizabeth was concerned, who started her howling and blubbing anew. Crazy Bet shot me a look so filled with venom I actually took a step back, then turned her attention back to the girl. Kneeling on the floor in front of her as the girl sat in the chair, she took hold of the girl’s hands and gently, but firmly, pried them away from her face. As the girl looked up she fixed those gimlet eyes on her and said, in a quiet voice
‘Mary Elizabeth, I need to know everything. Take a moment and then tell me all that happened. Don’t miss a thing out, not one single thing’. The girl took a deep breath, wiped her eyes with the back of her hands again, and then began speaking.
‘Well, Mizz Bet, I went into the garden at the end of my chores, as I duz sumtimes, when I knows ol’ Tom ain’t around, ta watch da sun go down’, she began.
Immediately Bet interrupted her – ‘Was anyone in the garden when you went there, or while you were there, at all ?’.
‘No, Mizz Bet, no one came ta the garden at all. They’s all busy round da house, getting supper ready, I ‘spect’.
Bet nodded and the girl resumed her story.
‘Well, I didn’t think Tom was there but he musta bin ahidin’ in the stable cos I soon dun heard him, coming up ahind me, saying them dirty things to me again. Dis time, I thought, I’ll show him, maybe teach him a lesson so he don’t come botherin’ me agin. So whin I cud tell he was close ta me I picked up a heavy ol’ bucket and spun rount ta hit him with it. Only thing is, I hit him ona his head, an’ he fell down and cracked his head again on a stone. He lay down on tha’ ground there and din’t move at all.’
‘How do you know he’s dead, girl ?’, asked Bet.
‘Well, I wanted ta run, but I waited a few minutes ta see if he’d wake up. When he dint I went over to look at him. He weren’t breathin’ none, nor movin’ at all, an’ there was blood mixed up wit’ some other stuff runnin’ out of his ears’.
‘You’re sure no one came into the garden ? No one heard anything at all ?’, asked Bet.
.’No one acame – tha’ garden’s hidden ahind the stable, and the thunder and lightnin’ was so loud no one coulda heard a ting’, she answered.
‘What did you do then, Mary Elizabeth ?’, Bet asked her.
‘I wanted ta run, like I said, but I dun remembered what you said, ‘bout leavin no traces of anytin so I started to drag Tom into the stable an’a hide him, then I went ta cleared up all the mess outside’.
Aye, that’s good advice, I thought to myself – if ye’ve the time, that is. I’ve lost all count of the occasions I’ve had to decamp at short notice, leaving everything but a calling card to show that Flashy’s been there. It’s not always been with my breeches in one hand and boots in the other, avoiding an angry husband, either. There are times you’ve just got to hightail out of there, as they say in the States, no matter what you leave behind. Fortunately Mary Elizabeth hadn’t needed to do that, or most likely the traps would be banging on the door already.
‘Then what ?’, asked Bet.
‘I slipped out o’ the garden by tha’ back gate, an’ came here. No one saw me leave, either in the garden or on the street, I’s sure o’ that.’
Bet moved over to the other chair by the fire, sat back for a moment, and sighed. After a moment she said ‘We have to move the body and hide it somewhere’.
Well, that was obvious enough but how was it going to be done was the hard question, I thought to myself.
‘How easy was he to move to the stable, Mary Elizabeth ? Is he a big man ? I seem to recall he’s not’, said Bet.
‘No, mam, he ain’t big, but he’s sorta squat an’ heavy. I don’t think I could lift him none’.
‘I don’t think you can risk going back there even if you could move him. It will take a man’s strength, and we’ll have to find some way of moving him away from the house’. Then to my absolute horror she looked at me. I’ve seen that look so many times that I blurted out ‘You can’t think of sending me for God’s sake ! What if I’m recognised there ? Surely soldiers will be going in and out of there all the time. Someone’s bound to know me or have seen me around the city’.
‘There’s no one else I can send’, she answered simply.
‘What about Josiah, or one of your other blacks ?’, I asked her.
‘Don’t be absurd. What reason would they have to be in the garden of their oppressor’s official home ? They’d be suspected immediately’, she answered. ‘It has to be you. We’ll have to disguise you in some way – from what you’ve told me you’re a practised actor, so in this light, with a darkening storm no one should recognise if you’re careful’.
‘This is madness’, I said. ‘What reason have I to be there, and even if I could get to the body safely, what the hell am I supposed to do with it, or how am I even to move it somewhere ?’.
Bet thought for a moment, and then, as there was another crash of thunder she looked up with a smile. ‘If anyone asks say you’re there to check on storm damage – that you’ve been sent by the city architect to make sure the President isn’t inconvenienced by the weather in any way. That should do it’.
‘Christ, Bet’, I said again, ‘this is madness. I don’t even know the way from here’.
‘It’s simple enough to find your way’, she said. ‘It’s only a mile or so, in virtually a straight line. What would be madness would be to do nothing. The first thing the rebels would do would be to come to this house and tear it to pieces to find something. A body in the White House stable and my servant would be the first to be suspected. That would be the end for us all – including you’, she reminded me.
‘They’ll miss him, though, soon enough anyway, won’t they’, I said.
‘Beg pardon’, said the girl, ‘but ol’ Tom’s only part time. There’s weeks he don’t turn up for days at a time’.
‘That gives us time, then’ says Bet. ‘Mary Elizabeth, get Josiah to find some suitable work clothes. He’ll need a big coat with a collar and a wide brimmed hat. Also a bag of tools so he looks like he’s there to fix things up’.
‘That’s all very well, Bet’, I said, ‘but once I get there, and assuming I can get in, what do you suggest I do ? Have you ever tried moving a corpse? It’s not that easy unless you can lay it out straight, which I surely won’t be able to do. Ever heard of the expression a dead weight ? That’s where it comes from. A corpse can’t help you move it by shifting its weight or controlling its limbs – they flop all over the place just when you don’t want them to. And how do you think I’ll be able to get rid of him in secret ? The best thing you can do is send the girl where she’ll be safe before they find the body’.
Crazy Bet was getting angry now, I could see from her expression and the stiff way she was holding herself.
‘And when they come here, looking for her, and begin to tear the house apart, what shall I do then. Make no mistake, if they suspect a black – a free black at that – has killed a white man, however vile he was, they will stop at nothing to find her and punish her’.
‘Well, what if she told them what happened there ? That he was intent on rape, and she was defending herself ? Surely that would make a difference ?’.
‘You’ve been in this country long enough to know better. Free or slave, a black is looked at as less than a white – sub human or worse, an animal. That is how they justify their inhumanity. To them it’s dealing with a lower form of life that does not deserve the same treatment or rights as another human. If they find that body it won’t matter what he did or tried to do. He’s white, she’s black. A lynching would be the best she could expect. More likely they would burn her, in revenge and out of sheer hatred and fear. They use the whip, the gun and what they call justice to enslave people’.
Now you know me well enough. As long as I came out of it in one piece I didn’t much care what happened. I didn’t want to see the girl harmed, but then again, I didn’t kill the gardener by smashing his brains out. How I was involved was, as ever, a matter of bad luck. But I could see what Crazy Bet was getting at – they’d rip this house apart and if I was still here I’d be in Dickie’s meadow, and no mistake. As usual it looked like I had no choice but to put myself back into the fire, yet again.
‘So how am I to move him, then, always assuming I can get into the stable ?’, I asked her.
‘You can take Revere’ – this was her horse, that she’d hidden in all sorts of places, including the library, to prevent him being requisitioned by the rebel cavalry. ‘Hitch him up to the cart we use to take things to the vegetable garden outside town. It’s got a pile of sacks on it so you can hide the body under them’.
‘What do I do with it once I’ve got it ?’, I asked. A stupid question, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had a lime pit somewhere to dispose of the odd inconvenient corpse. There was more to Crazy Bet than even I could guess at.
‘I think, not just from the look of you, that you have more experience in these matters than me. Just don’t bring it back here’, she added, a bit unnecessarily.
So off I went, out into the pouring rain, driving an old cart to pick up yet another cadaver, for once one I’d had no hand in reducing to that state, hoping that no one would recognise me, with tools and old sacks on the back, as a passport into the centre of Confederate power. Fortunately the rain was coming down in sheets by now, meaning there were damn few people on the streets and those that were had no mind to stop and look at a stranger on a cart, as they hurried on to get out of the storm.As Bet said, it wasn’t far from her home to the White House, something around a mile, so it didn’t take me long to get there. It wasn’t white at all, by the way, being a grey, stuccoed mansion in the classical style. It was a bit further away, and higher up from the river than Bet’s house, lying at East Clay Street. This was the upmarket Court End district of town, where I’d been seen out and about many times the previous year so I was doubly grateful that there weren’t too many people about, one of whom might have recognised me.
I rolled up on the cart in the pouring rain at the front of the building. It was set back off the street a little, with a small garden at the front and steps up to the door under a large portico. The entrance to the garden was guarded by two sentries, one of whom walked a little way towards me as I sat up on the cart.
‘What’s yer bizness here, mister’, he said.
‘Name o’ Tom Arnold. Sent by tha’ city archatec to check the storm’s not done damage that’s likely ta be causin’ the President problems’, I told him.
‘Wull, yu can’t get in here with that there cart’, he said. ‘Have to take it round to tha’ back there. There’s a gate yu can git yur wagon in. I’ll fix an’ get someone ta meet you there and let you in’.
‘Much obliged to yu’, I said, and shook the reins to move old Revere round the back of the house. Once round the back I spotted a gate in the back wall. As I got there the gate was opened by a stout chap, obviously one of the house’s general factotums, who waved me in. I went through onto a widish path leading past the garden, which was quite big, straight up to the stables. I stopped for a moment and the servant came over to talk to me.
‘You name o’ Arnold ?’, he asked.
‘That’s me, alright’, I said.
‘Mighty glad ta see you – got a bit of work for you up there on that there roof’, he said. ‘Put your horse and cart in the stable out of the storm. Ma name’s Will, by the way’. With that he went over to open the stable doors as I followed him slowly on the cart, talking quietly to the horse, to keep him calm in the storm.
It was a big building, with enough room alongside the stalls for both horse and cart to get in, though the cart would have to be unhitched before going back out again, as there wasn’t any room to turn it around. As I went in it was quite dark, and Will came over, took the horse’s bridle to stop him and said ‘Best I light a lamp so you can see your way in here’. My eyes were used to the light by now, and he was about to turn away from me I looked past him to the stalls, and gave an involuntary gasp. Sticking from under the straw in the first stall, quite clear if you looked, was a booted foot.
Will looked up at me. ‘What’s up, mister ? Seen a ghost or sumthin ?’
Not a ghost, though, but a body, obviously the gardener’s. If Will saw that the game would be well and truly up. And if he saw it, well, I’d have no choice but to deal with him, and fast. Thinking quickly I said ‘Just cold an’ wet, is all. Hey, before you light the lamp shun’t ya shut that there back gate ?’, and as he swore mightily and hurried off back down the path I jumped off the cart, went over to the stall and pulled the body further under the straw, covering it up properly. As I got back to the cart and started to unhitch it Will came back in and went to light the lamp, as I tied the horse up in the second stall.
‘Right, Mr Arnold, grab your tools an’ follow me. I’ll show ya right where the problem is’, and he set off towards the house. I followed him to the back of the building, where we went up a short flight of steps and inside, out of the pouring rain.
It might surprise you that old Gentleman Harry Flash wasn’t full of nerves at doing some artisan’s work. Well, if you’ve read my history you’ll have seen that I’ve been around a lot and done a deal, in all sorts of odd places, from hauling on the ropes on a slaver to making running repairs on a carriage, and lashing a damaged wheel to an artillery piece, so I was quite used to using tools, at least to a degree and I was pretty certain I could make any minor repairs that would at least do for the moment. After all, they couldn’t expect one man to do much more than that in these foul conditions. So it was a sanguine Harry Flash that followed the factotum up the stairs on the way to the roof. All I needed was to do whatever was required as quick as I could, before anyone decide to have a look in the stables – there’s no end of nosey parkers in the world, don’t you know ?
As Will and I got to the top of the first flight of stairs I almost bumped into a slender, middle aged cove who was starting downstairs with a woman, obviously his wife, on his arm. It could only be Jefferson Davis, the rebel president. We’d not met, which was damn fortunate, considering, but I’d seen him a few times from a distance and thought, this is not a well man. He didn’t look any better close to but I didn’t get a chance to ask after his health because, with barely a glance at me, he barked sharply at Will ‘Who is this person ?’.
Before Will could answer I said ‘I’m here to fix the lightning conductor, Mr Presiden, an’ anything else that needs fixin’’.
I was graced with another curt glance as he again addressed Will.
‘See he gets on with it’, he barked again, and then brushed past me down the stairs.
He had a reputation for being aloof and usually only spoke to senior military men and important politicos but to me he was just seemed a rude bastard – I’ve been around them enough to know ‘em. Full of their own self importance, and damn anyone else who gets in their way Under any other circumstances I’d have sped his way downstairs with a well placed hefty boot hard up his backside but I suppose you’ve got to mind your p’s and q’s around presidents, so I settled for glaring at his back and muttering a few choice words as he made his way down the stairs.
Will tugged on my sleeve, ending that pleasant little interlude, and said
‘I’ll can tak yu up ta tha roof, an ye can see to tha’ there lightnin’ conductor’.
Fortunately the thunderstorm had stopped and it was just raining hard now so I was able to check the rod without taking the risk of being fried by a stray lightning bolt. A couple of brackets that fixed it to the wall had come loose and I was able use some rope to lash it steady until a more permanent repair could be done. As I came off the roof Will was waiting for me.
‘Ain’t no other damage I kin see’, he says. ‘I guess yud like to dry off a bit an’ have a hot drink’, he added, and. when I nodded, led me downstairs and out of the back door to the separate kitchen building that was behind the house.
As I sat by the kitchen fire sipping a hot coffee I considered again the job of getting the gardener’s body off the premises, as you might say, and disposing of it. I’d discounted digging a hole for it – that would take too much effort and time and the conditions were still filthy – but I didn’t just want to leave it hidden in the woods be found in no time, and while I hoped to be well away it wasn’t a chance I’d want to take. In the end I fixed on dumping it in the James River, weighted down in a couple of sacks. I still had to get it onto the cart, however.
I finished my drink and stood ready to leave. Will jumped up and said ‘You goin’ now ?’ and when I nodded he said ‘I’ll come open tha’ gate for ya, then’.
‘Now holt on there a minute’, I said. ‘I still gotta hitch the cart up furst and maybe give tha’ horse a drink. You wait in here till ya see me comin’ out o’ the stable. No sense in ya comin’ out an’ standin’ round in the cold, not till I’m good and ready ta go’.
‘Ok, mister, whutever ya say. I’ll come out an’ open tha gate when I sees youse out o’ the stable’, he said.
I nodded and made my way quickly, but without seeming to hurry, back to the stable. It was still quiet, with no one about because of the rain and when I got inside nothing had moved and the gardener’s body was still where I left it, undisturbed under the straw. I got the wagon hitched up first, then checking outside that there was no one coming to the stable, set to putting the body on the cart. As the girl had said he was squat and heavy but I’m a strong chap and have had a bit of practise with corpses, so I soon had him on the cart, buried under a pile of sacks. He was still quite warm, but rigor hadn’t set in yet and as he’d been under the straw so I thought nothing of it. Once I’d made sure that he wasn’t visible and that the sacks wouldn’t be blown off to expose the body I opened the stable door and led the horse and cart out. Will came hurrying from the kitchen and as I reached the gate he was there unlocking it. I climbed up onto the cart, bid him a cheery good night, and set off back towards Crazy Bet’s, but this time heading for the river.
It wasn’t yet fully dark but even though the rain had eased off there still few folk about as I drove the cart at a steady walk, south east through Richmond to pick up East Main St. It followed the river as it bent south on the outskirts of the city, half a mile or so after the rapids, which sat in the middle of the river between Richmond proper on the north shore and the town of Manchester on the south. Half an hour or so took me a couple of miles out of the city and I began to look for a suitable place to hide the wagon while I disposed of the unfortunate errant gardener. I soon spotted a suitable copse of trees where East Main turned into the Osborne Turnpike, before the road began to bend east away from the river. It was nearly completely dark now so I lit the lamp before I went into the trees, which were nicely spaced so I could drive the cart in without any trouble.
Once I was sure I was hidden I set about my preparations. First I found a few rocks – not too small and not too heavy – and dropped them into the bottom of a large, empty sack, to weight the body down. Next I uncovered the body and, lifting it as best I could, slipped a sack over his head and pulled it down as far as it would go. Fortunately the body hadn’t stiffened up yet, and was even still slightly warm, which I puzzled over for a second, and then got back to work, lashing some rope around the body’s midriff to keep the sack firmly in place. To avoid any noise I lowered the whole bundle as gently as I could to the ground, then pulled the weighted sack up over the feet so it overlapped with the first sack, and tied more rope as tightly as I could around them both.
It was damn tiring work and the worst was yet to come, so I took a moment to catch my breath and listen for any noises that might be carrying through the night. Apart from the rain and the occasional clap of thunder all seemed quiet so after a moment I started the hard job of dragging the sack over the ground the fifty yards or so down to the river’s edge. Fortunately the grass down to the bank was slick with rain, so I was able to move the bundle down the slope more easily than I had expected. I was soon at the water’s edge, and ready to roll the whole damn parcel into the stream, which was flowing fast now, swollen by the heavy rain. Again I listened for carefully anyone who might be nearby. I didn’t want the splash of the body going into the water to attract the attention of a nosey parker who should, by rights, have been in at home out of the rain and minding their own damn business.
For a few seconds there was complete silence, and then I heard a noise like a muffled groan. It seemed nearby, but straining my eyes through the dark though I did I couldn’t see a damn thing moving. Then came the groan again, and a muffled voice and as I looked towards the source of the noise I realised it was coming from the sack ! The stupid black bitch hadn’t killed him at all, and now he was waking up !
Chapter 4: Homeward Bound ?
Murder Most Foul
It’s always been a cardinal rule of mine that when I’m disposing of a body I make sure that he or she is actually dead – it can be damned inconvenient if someone you think you’ve seen off comes calling on you, looking for revenge, all unexpected. I can only recall one case where the body I got rid of wasn’t dead and that was that old rogue De Gautet. However, as I disposed of him by pushing him over a cliff I didn’t think he’s going to come back to bother me – for one thing I don’t believe in ghosts.
This situation, though, was a horse of a different colour altogether, and I cursed myself I hadn’t checked he was dead as soon as I could. Still, there was no time for reflection as Tom, or whatever his name was, was beginning to make a lot of noise and starting to struggle to free himself. Actions speak louder than words so I took hold of him by the rope around his middle, then heaved him bodily into the swollen river. He landed with a splash, then, as the rocks at his feet tugged him down, sank rapidly under the water as the river rushed on towards its lower reaches and eventually the sea. While I wasn’t certain that he was dead yet I could be tolerably sure that he soon would be.
Still, despite getting rid of the almost dead Tom I was still in a ticklish situation. He would be missed sometime, and maybe the girl had been seen hitting him after all, or maybe the rebels would put two and two together and search Crazy Bet’s house more thoroughly. There was one particular confederate policeman who was very suspicious of her and given the opportunity would likely tear her house to pieces in an attempt to find something incriminating. Clearly it was time for Flash to up sticks and leave her to it, post haste.
I hadn’t been completely idle while I was in hiding and had studied some maps of the surrounding area that Bet had in her library so I had a good picture of the surrounding countryside. I’d also put together a bag of oddments that I might need if I were to light out on my own – a blanket, change of clothes, what remained of the dollars I been given to bribe Ross with, and so on. As soon as Bet had blackmailed me to go to the rebel White House I realised it was time to decamp and in giving me the horse she’d also given me the means to escape. It wasn’t just old sacks that had been on the cart but my escape bag as well. While in the stable I’d purloined a saddle and some reins as well, so all in all I was in as good a position to make a run for it as. I would have been happier with a decent pistol as well, but other than that I was as ready as I could be.
I went back to the cart, unhitched Revere from it and saddled him up. I walked him quietly out of the woods to avoid him tripping on any stray roots, mounted up and struck out into the darkness on what I hoped was the first step on my long journey home.
I didn’t try to travel too far that night but just put a reasonable distance between myself and Richmond. Next morning I was up soon after the sun and heading north eastwards. You might have thought that I’d go north, hoping to cross the lines at night, as so many did. But I’d had plenty of time to think of the alternatives and the less time I spent in rebel territory the better, so I’d picked out a different route altogether. I was riding toward Chesapeake Bay, to pick up a boat, probably one of the dozens sailed by smugglers from the myriad of little bays and inlets on the south western shore of the bay. They would ferry arms, men, slaves, medicines, or whatever you wanted, in either direction, no questions asked, as long as you had the hard cash to pay them.
After a few days of gentle, careful riding I found my way to the small town of Point Lookout on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Chesapeake and the Potomac. It was held by the Union and the war had made it a bustling little place, with a large military hospital, prisoner of war camp, and a fort. The waterfront was teeming, so after I’d sold the horse and saddle to a livery stable for a handsome two hundred dollars I made my way there and by discreet enquiries found myself a skipper willing to take me to Baltimore that night. From there I could get a ship home with what remained from the sale of the horse and saddle, without the danger of going near Washington. With my passage booked I started up from the quayside to find a hotel to wash, clean up and get a meal when the skipper called out to me.
‘Say, feller. What’s yer name?’, he asked.
‘Arnold, Tom Arnold’, I called back, and with that he waved and turned back to his boat.
I was back at the boat before dusk and we were soon slipping away from the quay to make our way into the bay and north to Baltimore. It would take a few days to get there, as it was nearly two hundred miles and the skipper had to avoid the boats of the Union’s Chesapeake flotilla that patrolled the bay regularly. There were a few other passengers aboard as well as some cargo but we all kept ourselves to ourselves.
The skipper was an experienced hand, however, and it was in the afternoon, two days on from setting sail that we moored up on a small quay just outside Baltimore. I picked up my few belongings with a sigh of relief and started up the short ladder to the dockside. As I reached the top and stepped ashore I heard a familiar but very unwelcome voice.
‘Well noo, Major, it’s damn gud tae see ye. Damned gud’. It was Alan Pinkerton, Lincoln’s spy catcher in chief, and as usual he wasn’t alone, accompanied by a pair of heavies at his side.
He must have seen me start in shock and fear – and he was right there because he was complicit with Lincoln in blackmailing me to spy in the first place – so he smiled reassuringly. It was like a wolf baring its teeth.
‘Noo, then, Major’, he said, ‘No need tae worry, nae need at all. Ye’ve doon sum damn fine work fer us and Mr Lincoln’s mighty pleased wit’ ye’.
‘Glad to hear it’, I said. ‘But why are you here now? I thought you’d let me go home at last, if you’re so pleased, unless you’re here to give me a pound or two out of the poor box, to see me on the way ?’
‘Afraid not, Major. Our military think there’s a lot more ye can tell them aboot the rebels. How they work, who’s in or out, what it’s like in their headquarters, any weaknesses ye may have seen. But ye can put aside any fear ye may have. That’s long in the past’.
For Pinkerton that was almost a speech but for all that it was very welcome. The thought of being swung up on the end of a rope on a trumped up treason charge had leapt into my head as soon as I’d seen him, so I said ‘Glad to hear it. It was a damned bluff in any case, wasn’t it?’
‘Well, maybes it was, and maybes it wasn’t’, he said. ‘It worked, tho’, an’ I’ll tell ye this, if it were me, knowing Mr Lincoln as I do, I’d no hae taken a chance on it’.
True enough, I suppose. The ruthlessness of politicians when great issues are at stake, like their re-election, is as legendary as the gratitude of princes. By this time Pinkerton was hurrying me along the wharf to a carriage, his heavies looking around carefully for any signs of trouble – Baltimore was not a town that was united in the federal cause, by any means. Once in the carriage the horses clip clopped off and we headed into the city itself.
‘Back to Washington, I suppose?, I asked Pinkerton.
‘That’s correct, Major, we’re heading for the station and a train straight there’, he answered.
‘Well, you might as well tell me how you knew where to find me’, I told him. ‘What of the British Minister in Washington. Does Lord Lyons know where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to ?’
‘One question at a time, Major, one question at a time. As to how we knew about ye, an’ where ye were going, that much must be obvious. Our friend ye lodged with in the south’ – he sushed me quickly before I could say Crazy Bet’s name out loud - ‘told us about ye months ago. We’ve been expecting ye tae come north for some time noo’.
‘Yes, but how did you know where I was coming ashore ?’, I asked him.
‘Och, man’, he exclaimed, ’you’re an experienced agent. Think aboot it !’
Suddenly it became clear to me – the skipper I sailed north with, asking me my name. I said as much to Pinkerton, and then added ‘Was he one of your agents as well, then ?’
‘Agent, no, but he’s sympathetic, especially when there’s a few dollars ta be made. We watch the shore and harbours there all the time, fer spies or contraband coming north, and fer certain people like ye we’ve an interest in. Your name, or names, I should say, were whispered in the ears of our friends there. Once ye’d told him ye were Arnold he passed it on to one of my men, who telegraphed me so we cud make arrangements tae meet ye’.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. While he wasn’t much good gathering military intelligence Pinkerton and his men were damn efficient at finding people, especially spies like me.
‘As tae your other questions’, he went on, ‘His Lordship knows fine well where ye’ve been, and some, but not all of what ye’ve been up to. Noo don’t ye worry about that, either’, he added quickly. ‘Allus changed since the emancipation proclamation. England and France look on our cause now as just, and tha Inglish government has winked the eye at the help ye’ve been giving us. Ye niver know, you may be quite the hero again. That’ll please ye, no doubt’, he added with slightly less enthusiasm.
‘Aren’t you forgetting just one thing ?, I said. ‘A small matter of the USA planning to invade Canada after this little affair is over ?’
‘Aye, well, that cat’s oot tha bag, noo, so it won’t be quite the surprise it may have been. In any case, Mr Lincoln will have none of it. He said he’s not going to end one war so he can start anither straight away. Far too much to do to rebuild the country, he says. That’s been made clear to Lord Lyons, through Mr Seward, an’ while they’ll be careful aboot the reassurance, they’ll soon see it’s honest fact’.
By this time we’d reached the main station, and soon we were on a train, racketing its way southwest to Washington.
I spent the next few weeks as a comfortable prisoner of the Yankees while they pumped me for all the intelligence they could get about the rebels, from relations between Lee and Longstreet, how the militia and regulars got along, to their morale and supply situation. They were especially interested in the workings of divisional and corps headquarters, and how that affected the conduct of battles and decision making. For example they couldn’t understand why the rebels hadn’t tried to capture Cemetery Hill on the first evening of Gettysburg. I was able to give them chapter and verse on that, and managed to modestly include my own part in persuading Ewell, the rebel commander, to delay his attack till it was too late. From time to time I could see one or more of them looking at me, as they considered another gem of intelligence I’d given them, clearly wishing they could send me back to do more spying for them. Of course that was a hare that wouldn’t run now – I was too well known to the rebels and they wouldn’t do anything other than court martial me and then string me up if I went anywhere near them. In fact they might not even bother with the bother of a trial.
While it was fine to play the returning hero for a while I was beginning to get bored with it when I got another extraordinary summons to the White House to see Lincoln one evening, though I doubted I was going to get the Medal of Honour. As usual we went in by the rear entrance and I walked down the same corridor I’d been dragged down by Pinkerton’s heavies over a year before to the same office where, in his genial way, Lincoln had blackmailed me into spying for him.
As before he was behind his desk, leaning over it like a great scrawny spider as he scratched away at something on a large piece of writing paper. He looked up as I came in, smiled a rueful smile, and nodded to me to take a seat.
‘Good evening Major Flashman’, he said – there was a sure sign this wasn’t a happy goodbye as he referred to me by my rank in the Federal army. ‘You look well’, he said, which was more than I could say for him. He was decidedly peaky and to my eyes looked like he should be in his bed resting, not working into the late evening in the dim light of his office. Before I could reply he spoke again.
‘It’s no surprise, though, that you’ve come through all those battles with barely a scratch. Let’s think here, where have you been over the past year or so ? In the battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, as well as spying for us at the heart of the rebel army? Remarkable’, he said as he shook that great ugly head again in mock disbelief. ‘I tell you Flashman, I swear by the good Lord above that you are so slippery, and so charmed, that if you had been Doctor Faustus I think Mephistophilis would have given up the chase and gone back down into hell without the soul you owed him and his master. Anyway, that’s not to the point. We’re not letting you go just yet, but I felt that at least I owed you my thanks, after all you’ve been through’.
Well, there wasn’t much I could say to that but thank him for that, and by way of having something more to say I asked him what he was writing.
‘Another speech, and an important one at that. You’ll have heard of the new national cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg?’ As I nodded he went on ‘I’m due to make an address at the opening ceremony in two days time’.
While he didn’t look to me to be in the sort of health to be stood speechifying for hours on a cold autumn day on a Pennsylvania battlefield and I said something of the same to him.
‘Can’t fault you on that, Major, but the nation expects something special of me. I was only invited two weeks ago by the man organising it, Wills, a local lawyer. The chief speaker was to be that professional orator Everett – I have to say that I was a tad angry that I’d only been thought of after that paid blowhard’.
I looked at the lengthy screed of the desk in front of him. It clearly was the first draft, and was covered with crossings out and corrections. I don’t know why, but suddenly I said ‘You know, Mr Lincoln, you’ll own I’ve a way with words. Let me see if I can help you’. At that he looked up at me in surprise, then nodded and passed across what he had written.
I looked at it – it was four or more pages long. If he gave that speech on the battlefield there was a more than even chance his would be the next grave they would dig there, so poorly and tired did he look. So I said, ‘Sometimes less is more. Let’s see if we can trim it down and perhaps make it a bit more dramatic’, and I read out the opening sentence.
‘Our nation began in this new land 87 years ago’, I read aloud. ‘That would be 1776, then ?, I asked and he nodded. ‘Well, that’s true as far as it goes but it’s not very exciting or inspiring. As you’ll know you’ve got to catch them with your first words. Give me a moment to think…..’, and I mulled it over in my mind while Lincoln leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, resting them for a few minutes, rubbing his temples gently. .I’d have given a week, no more, if he’d stood out there for an hour or more. Got to be a better way saying 87 years of nationhood, I thought to myself. Then it came to me in a moment of inspiration.
‘Well, how does this sound, Mr President, I said and stood up, drawing myself up to my full height, which is considerable, and began
‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation’.
‘That’s more like isn’t it ?’, I said. ‘Nice dramatic ring to it, to capture their attention – at least while they work out what four score and seven years is, and when it was, at least. That’ll get ‘em thinking, eh !’
Lincoln grinned, and said ‘I like it, Flashman. I like it a lot’ and sat forward with renewed vigour. ‘Sit down with me and let’s see what else we do with this’.
I suppose we worked on it for another hour or so and soon got it down to a couple of minutes or so, less than a page. I can’t say I agreed with all its sentiments – I’m more of ‘government of the people, by my people, for my people’ sort of chap myself but Lincoln seemed happy enough with it and so I left him reading through it to himself, a smile on his face as he ran through the words again and again. I’m told it went down very well – eventually.
Chapter 5: I should have known better
Homeward bound ?
And what, dear reader, as our lady novelists might have put it, of the British Minister to the United States, the afore mentioned Lord Lyons ? Pinkerton had said he knew much but not all of what I’d been up to, but the question was what, and how long he would keep quiet about my virtual captivity ? I was soon to find out, as he paid me a visit, incognito, sometime after my return to Washington.
When I say ‘he’ I should have really said his assistant Prosser, who I’d dealt with a number of times on matters too grubby for his Lordship to take care of himself. He was shown in, discreetly, to the accommodation provided to me by the US Army – I was still virtually their prisoner while they considered what further use they could get out of me.
‘Don’t get up, Colonel’, he said, as he was shown in. ‘My word, my word’, he went on, ‘you’ve had some adventures over the past year, haven’t you!’. You know, he actually looked as though he was jealous – he’d enjoyed playing the conspirator when I was looking for the fabled plans for a Yankee invasion of Canada the previous year and probably daydreamed at his desk of being a valiant adventurer himself. Daydream was all it would be though, and probably a good thing for his sake. I couldn’t see him having the presence of mind to throw that Confederate balloon pilot out into thin air, as I’d had to do to save my neck in the not too distant past.
‘Well, Mr Prosser, I’ve been fairly busy over the past year or so, to that I’ll own’, I replied. ‘Still, I hope you’re here to tell me about plans to get me home. I think I can safely say that I’ve done all I can here, and I’m anxious to be back in London. I’ve been away for two years now and I’d rather like to see my wife’ – and make sure the little harlot wasn’t bedding as much of the nobility as she could in my absence, for she’d a rare taste for the marriage mutton and it didn’t necessarily have to be her own husband’s she’d sample. Besides, even Elspeth must have noticed by now I’d been gone for quite a while.
‘Indeed so, my good Colonel, indeed so’, answered Prosser. ‘Lady Flashman has been kept informed by the Foreign Office of your service here, without any great detail of course, and while rightly proud of you has become anxious as to your welfare. In fact I have a letter here for you from her’, and with that he handed me a hefty envelope addressed, unmistakably in Elspeth’s hand, to me. By God I thought, I hope they haven’t told her anything important ! If so it’d likely make the front page of the newspapers if Elspeth thought it would enhance my, and therefore her, social standing to the slightest degree. Like all the daughters of rich tradesman she was an avid social climber and a snob of the first order. Well, I’d heard nothing so I supposed I had to think she hadn’t been told anything too scandalous or juicy, or was for once showing some common sense about it. That’s as may be, of course, but it wasn’t germane to my getting home and away from this ghastly, bloody war, so I replied to Prosser ‘Glad to hear it, very glad indeed, and I can’t wait to be home to see her myself. Tell me, what are my travel arrangements ?’
‘I was about to come to that Colonel and I fully understand your anxiety about the matter’, he answered. ‘We will book you passage on a steamer from Baltimore at the end of next month, or perhaps a little later’ and he looked at me quizzically.
‘End of next month ?’, I answered, a little confused. ‘That’s January – surely there’s got to a be a boat before then ?’.
At this he had the decency to look a bit embarrassed, as he said ‘There are a number but Secretary Seward has requested, through Lord Lyons, your further advice and assistance regarding their war effort for just a little while longer. Lord Russell and the Prime Minister have readily agreed. As it appears more than likely the Union will eventually triumph they are anxious to rebuild and maintain Britain’s previous good relations with the United States. This will be one more sign of our good intent and support for the noble cause of ending slavery. Their Lordships, knowing your sense of duty, had no doubt that you would agree and therefore felt it unnecessary to cause a delay in consulting you about the matter’.
Well, that completed a nice devious little circle, spun, as ever by M’Lud Palmerston, British Prime Minister. Having sent me, two years before, to report on the rebels hopes of success in gaining their independence, with a view to quietly assisting it if possible – for he hated the USA and hoped it would saw itself in half – he was now using me to help repair relations between Britain and America. Of course he was a practical man and saw the importance of restoring the ante bellum status quo with the Yankees, however much he disliked them, for Britain’s advantage. After all, wasn’t it he who said there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests ? Of course with the emancipation declaration at the beginning of the year we couldn’t offer any support whatsoever to the south – it had become politically impossible. The Union victory at Gettysburg had turned the war in the North’s favour and that was no doubt the last weight in the scales that tipped Britain towards the Union. Pam saw that, clear as day, and changed his policy from one he hoped would accomplish his aims to the practical demands of the situation. A few more politicians like him, who judge the situation and adapt accordingly, and they may have become more popular, unlikely though it may sound.
Anyway, whatever his aims it was equally clear what my situation was. As ever I was in no position to refuse, or even cavil, if I wanted to retain my reputation. It was only a few more weeks, after all, and much as I disliked Washington it was at least winter so I wouldn’t be there in the summer when all sorts of illnesses were about. The place was a plague spot, being built on sunken, swampy land. God alone knows the Americans decided to build the damn city there. Anyway, all I could say to Prosser was ‘Very well, I am at his Lordship’s service’, and with that he took his leave of me.
I turned my attention to Elspeth’s letter. It was a lengthy old screed written in her inimitable style, full of gossip, ardent declarations of love, little Scottish phrases that would keep slipping in, no matter how a grand lady she had become, and what was on at The Hippodrome next week, as it would have been for her when she wrote it. Now I’ve been at great pains to show I’m no sentimental soul but her artless prattle brought back again the maudlin self pity that comes over me from time to time when I’ve been away too long. Suddenly I was desperate to be in London, to go riding in the Row with Elspeth, rough and tumble with our boy Havvy, and most of all cuddle up to Elspeth’s glorious, shapely body, with its milk white flesh, and smell the faint scent of perfume on her. I’ve never been sure whether I really loved her but I do know that it doesn’t take very long for me to begin to miss her, especially when what’s been keeping us apart is the sort of danger I’d been in for the past two years. Besides, I liked to be there to keep an eye on her. You never know what well connected guardee might take a fancy to a tumble with her and I know my little trollop was too fond of Adam’s arsenal to resist for long. You see, it wasn’t all sloppy sentiment - there was a fair bit of good, old fashioned, almost murderous, jealousy in me as well.
So I set to my new, hopefully temporary, assignment with a will. The sooner they’d drained me of every piece of information they could the sooner I’d be home, I reasoned. But at the end of January there was a request for me to stay a little longer, and then a few weeks later would their Lordships consent to me remaining a little longer ? Not that I was asked, of course. It was just assumed I would do what was requested by my betters, regardless of my own wishes. You might think that by then I’d told ‘em everything I could, and that since it had been months since I slipped my cable after Gettysberg anything I hadn’t yet dredged up would be so out of date that it would be useless, and you’d be right.
So why would they cling onto me, long after my usefulness would seemed to have been exhausted ? Well, if you think about it for a moment I could offer them far more than little bits of intelligence about the state of rations, ammunition supplies and so on – important things in themselves, but that could go out of date so very quickly. No, what I gave ‘em was an insight into how the rebel army worked, how they thought, what made them do things, how they’d react in certain situations (though if it was Robert Lee anyone could predict his reaction to a tactical or strategic situation, and that was to go on the offensive). It was like having a set of eyes and ears inside the Army of North Virginia’s HQ, far too valuable to lose if it could be avoided. I knew them all, d’you see ? From Lee himself, his Corps commanders ‘Old Pete’ Longstreet, AP Hill, Ewell, Jeb Stuart, right down to many regimental commanders, I’d met them all, seen ‘em in action and understood the way their minds worked. Not that I was infallible but more often than not, given a particular situation, I was able to predict with quite some accuracy what the rebel’s thoughts or reactions would be. So I was kept there, after the end of January 1864, as Prosser had indicated, till I was thoroughly fed up with America, Americans and their damned fratricidal war. Not that it was an uncomfortable time, far from it, as they treated me uncommonly well, but I’d be there long enough. By now, the beginning of March, spring was approaching and I’d no desire to linger through a sweltering and unhealthy Washington spring and summer.
So I made more noises, and without being uncivil, made it quite clear that this was becoming the wrong side of enough, and couldn’t they now conduct their own damned war without the high hand of the sage Flashy to direct and correct it ? It had some effect, and they began to look uncomfortable, and thank me for all the help I’d been, suggesting that if I wished to discuss with my own people my journey back to London they wouldn’t press for me to stay any longer. So it was that I set off for the British Ministry to do just that, one bright morning in early March. I was sauntering along, whistling to myself – I think it was Dixie – and feeling full of good humour at the thought of getting back to London, while a carriage clip clopped past going in the opposite direction. I heard it stop, and the door being swung open but took no notice at all until I heard a firm voice shout ‘Flashman ! Major Flashman !’, and I turned round in surprise. It was Sam Grant.
Of course I knew he was due in Washington for confirmation of his promotion to Lt General, in command of all the Union armies, but it was still something of a surprise to bump into him like that. There’d been a lot of talk about Washington that Lincoln would have preferred someone else to take command as he was concerned that Grant might use it as a stepping stone to the presidency. It was only after he’d had reassurances from Grant through intermediaries that he settled on him. Still, here he was, so I walked up to him, hand outstretched, and beamed ‘General Grant, sir. A pleasure to meet you again. Many congratulations on your promotion and new appointment. No man deserves it more !’.
Grant gave me a very short, light handshake, withdrawing his hand as quick as he could. Seeing my surprise at this he gave his head a short shake and said ‘My apologies, Major. I was at a White House reception last night and must have shaken hands a hundred times. It’s most damnable sore – I don’t know how the President does it, all day and every day. It is a tedious and lamentable chore’.
‘No insult taken, General, none at all. Still, I was on my way to the British Ministry so you’ll forgive me if I take my leave of you. Perhaps we could meet later this week, if you are still in Washington ?’, and I started to turn to continue on my way, but Grant barked out ‘Hold on, Flashman. I’m on my way to be formally appointed by the President – surely your business can wait on that a short while ? I’d take it as a great compliment if you’d join me’.
For a moment I hesitated – I was keen to get things organised for my trip home without delay. Then my natural instinct for mingling with the great and perhaps not so good came to the fore. It would only delay me a few hours and it would be nice to go into the White House as a guest for a change, instead of being bundled in through the back door by Pinkerton’s heavies. Besides. I hadn’t seen Lincoln since our previous meeting before his speech at Gettysberg. Likely enough I probably wouldn’t have another chance to meet him again so it would be interesting to see if he was inclined to thank me, publically, for my help in drafting it. I had my doubts, because he was a politician, after all, but as Abe wasn’t quite in the common run of them it would be interesting to see if he’d acknowledge my help, especially if I brought it up quietly and privately. Maybe I could make even him squirm on the horns of this little dilemma which would be a good enough reason to attend on its own. That sort of thing was nuts to a chap like me, after all. So I stepped up into the carriage after him and sat myself down. There were three others in the carriage besides myself – a slim young lad of twelve or so, who I took to be Sam’s eldest son Fred, and two aides, Rawlins, his chief of staff, who I’d met before, and another chap by the name of Comstock. We shook hands briefly while Grant called for the carriage to move on, and presently we were at the gate of the White House itself as the carriage was waved through and we drew up to the main entrance.
As we walked in I said ‘Have you ever met Mr Lincoln before, Sam ?’. ‘Not once’, he replied, ‘though we’ve exchanged letters on military matters as the commander in chief to one of his generals. He was very gracious in them, without once weakening his position as my superior. To tell you the honest truth Flashman, I’d rather not take all this on, but once summoned it’s my duty to do as I’m ordered, regardless of my personal preferences’.
Soon we were shown into a big but rather crowded reception room. Lincoln was there, of course, and at sight of me he gave a quick start,and then smiled ruefully as he nodded his head briefly in my direction. Of course Mrs Lincoln was there and so it seemed was Lincoln’s entire cabinet as well as his military adviser, none other than ‘Old Brains’ Halleck.
Once they’d shaken hands Lincoln drew himself up to his full height, someone called for order, and then he formally presented Grant with his commission. Rather than rely on my memory of exactly what Lincoln said I’ll quote from Grant’s own memoirs, which Mark Twain, who’d arranged their publication, sent to me soon after Grant’s death, in the 80’s. It’s as near as I remember anyway. Lincoln’s speech was short, sparing, and to the point.
‘General Grant, the nation's appreciation of what you have done, and
its reliance upon you for what remains to be done in the existing great struggle, are now presented, with this commission constituting you Lieutenant-General in the Army of the United States. With this high honour, devolves upon you, also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need to add, that, with what I here speak for the nation, goes my own hearty personal concurrence’.
There was a short outbreak of applause and then Grant made a short speech of acceptance. Being a reserved sort and not keen on ‘damn speechifying’ as he would put it after a glass or two he seemed a tad embarrassed and was a little stilted in his response. Even so, it had a deal of dignity about it, and a measure of self effacement that did him credit – clearly he needed some tutoring from me about how to be modest yet still be able to polish your reputation a bit more brightly. Hopefully, though, there’d be no time for that.
‘Mr President’, he said, ‘I accept the commission, with gratitude for the high honour conferred. With the aid of the noble armies that have fought in so many fields for our common country, it will be my earnest endeavour not to disappoint your expectations. I feel the full weight of the responsibilities now devolving on me; and I know that if they are met, it will be due to those armies, and above all, to the favour of that Providence which leads both nations and men."
After that there was a short reception, while the two men spoke for half an hour or so on the conduct of the war, until Rawlins politely interrupted, telling Grant he had an appointment to attend and that it was time to leave. Lincoln walked Grant to the exit as we trailed in their wake but before he left I was witness to an extraordinary conversation, about, believe it or not, monkeys ! As I recall it went something like this:-
Lincoln stopped, faced Sam squarely on, and said,
'Grant, have you ever read the book by Orpheus C. Kerr?'
'Well, no, I never did,' Grant replied.
Lincoln said: 'You ought to read it, it is a very interesting book. I have had a good deal of satisfaction reading that book. There is one poem there that describes a meeting of the animals. The substance of it being that the animals and a dragon, or some dreadful thing, was nearby and had to be conquered, and it was a question as to who would undertake the job. By and by a monkey stepped forward and proposed to do the work up. The monkey said he thought he could do it if he could get an inch or two more put on his tail. The assemblage voted him a few more inches more to his tail, and he went out and tried his hand. He was unsuccessful and returned, stating that he wanted a few more inches put on his tail. The request was granted, and he went again. His second effort was a failure. He asked that more inches be put on his tail and he would try a third time.'
At first Grant looked mystified, as we all were, and then suddenly he nodded, and with a brief smile said ‘: 'Mr Lincoln, I don't want any more inches put on my tail.', at which Lincoln nodded, smiled and said, ‘We understand each other, then’ as he turned away, without even a look in my direction, and we made our way back out to the carriage, drawn up and waiting for us.
Once in and sat down young Fred, who’d been barely able to restrain himself, asked his father ‘what Mr Lincoln had been talking about’. ‘Well, my boy’, he said, ‘it took me a time to figure it out, for sure, but it got through my head what Mr Lincoln was aiming at, as applying to my wanting more men. He doesn’t want any more McClellan’s, sitting on their hands and asking for more and more men and material before they fight. He wants me to get on with the war, no more excuses at all’.
It occurred to me it would have been a damn sight simpler to say so, rather than monkey around but Lincoln was always fond of his little parables and making his wishes known in a roundabout, semi comic way. Part of his strange charm, I suppose you could say.
Still, that didn’t signify now. Having got my wish to go in by the front door of the White House I now had the urgent business of getting myself out of these United States and onto a steamer home so I asked Grant, if his appointment permitted, could his carriage take me to the vicinity of the British Ministry ? He smiled and said
‘Why, Flashman, we can take you right to the front gate if you wish. I have no appointment to keep today.’ Seeing my surprise he continued. ‘That was a little play on the part of Mr Lincoln and myself. Neither of us have a liking for standing around at parties, looking like stuffed shirts, making small talk, especially when there’s work to be done. We agreed that Rawlins would interrupt us so we could get on with the day. But as you’re in my company now’, he continued, ’why don’t you join me for a drink and dinner ? I know the valuable help you’ve been giving us but I only get it second hand. I’d be obliged if we could talk a little, over a glass or two and dinner. Give me a chance to ask you a few questions of my own. What do you say to that ?’
I thought about it briefly. It was a delay, to be sure, but only of a day. I could easily enough arrange my passage tomorrow. After all, I was free to go now. To have the commander of the US Army further in my debt was surely worth the sacrifice of a day, so I said ‘Splendid idea, General, absolutely splendid ! Be delighted !’ and the carriage rolled up to the Willard, where Grant was staying.
After an aperitif or two - bourbon in Grant’s case - we sat down for an early dinner in a private room, together with his son Fred and the two aides. Over the meal Grant asked his usual sharp, judicious questions about Lee, Stuart and the rest of the rebel high command, as well my opinions of the morale of the civilians in the Confederacy. ‘Were they still in support of the war? Were there many dissenters, and how were the various shortages of food and goods affecting them ?’ and so on. ‘For I fear’, he said, ‘that to break the rebellion we may have to bring the war to the people of the south’.
After a little while his aides excused themselves and Fred went to his bed so we settled ourselves by the open fire in two comfortable chairs, cigars and drink at hand, to prose the evening away. At first we talked more of the enemy but as the light outside faded and the fire sparked and its leaping flames lit the shadowy room, we started, as the drink took a hold, to reminisce. I talked of India, and Balaclava, Rajah Brooke and so on while he remembered his time in the Mexican war, serving alongside his friend Pete Longstreet, who’d been a guest at his wedding, by God ! Of course eventually we talked of Shiloh and the battle there. By now Sam was well away, as he liked to be sometimes, and I wasn’t so far behind him. Suddenly he burst out laughing and said ‘Dammit, Flashman, I shouldn’t find it funny because after all you saved my hide, but I when I think back to you in that hospital bed, flat on your face with a giant bandage on your backside I can’t hardly help but laugh’, and he went off into a paroxysm of drunken giggles.
‘Well, Sam’, I answered, ‘in that case don’t think I’ll be doing it again anytime soon !’, which, considering I’d only knocked him out of the way of a snipers bullet as I blundered trying get out of the line of fire, was God’s own truth. ‘Anyway’, I went on, I’d rather be out there now, fighting the rebels, than being stuck here as I have these past few months, being grilled by your intelligence wallahs ! Damn boring for a fighting soldier like me, as I’m sure you’ll agree.’ It’s a sure sign I’m drunk when I start saying things like that. I don’t normally hold with having a drop too much outside your own walls but this seemed safe enough, and I was able to unload all the tension of the last few months in front of that crackling fire, laughing and exchanging memories with the newly appointed commander of the US Army. Last thing I remember before I fell asleep was Grant slurring at me ‘Ye know, Meejah, ol’ Sherman could use yu over in the west. Be a big help to him.’ I tried to shake my head but it was so loose it just nodded forward onto my chest and I didn’t remember anything more of the evening.
When I woke up the next morning it was with a tongue swollen like a dirty dishcloth, a raging headache, and an infernal clickity click, clickity click in my ears, going on and on and on. Groaning softly I sat up, banged my head on something and then someone let the light in, and I saw the countryside rolling by, as the railroad engine blew its whistle loud and clear.
Chapter 6: Uncle Billy ?
The Way West !
There was a young Union officer in the compartment with me – it was he who’d drawn back the curtains to let the light in – and I barked at him ‘Who the devil are you, and where the devil is this train going’, as I clambered up out of the sleeping berth.
He smiled and answered, ‘Wilson, Captain, 12th Illinois Infantry Regiment. Glad to see you’re up and about, sir’.
I looked him up and down. He was a slim chap, a bit shorter than me, with a pale complexion, dark hair and the inevitable face whiskers. He must have been in his early twenties I suppose. Still, while he’d answered one question he hadn’t answered the most important one, which was where the train, and therefore I, were going, so I asked him again, sharply.
‘West, Major’, he said. ‘We’re going west to General Sherman. Uncle Billy is to be promoted head of the Western theatre of war. We’re to join him in Memphis. We should be there in a few hours. You’ve had a good long sleep. Must have been a good night !’.
I sat back on the bunk and groaned as the shakes from last night’s drink started again. Head in hands I said to Wilson, ‘Look, Captain, I should be going in the other direction, home to England, not west to join up with your Uncle Billy’, as Sherman was referred to affectionately by his men.
‘General Grant said you might make a fuss, Major, but he told me not to take any notice, that it was all for show, and that you were desperate to get back into the fight’, he answered.
‘I’m afraid Grant misunderstood me’, I replied. ‘When we get to Memphis I’ll be turning round and going straight back in the opposite direction. In the meantime if there’s a few hours to go I’ll go back to sleep. All this can be sorted out when we get to Memphis’. With that I lay back on the bunk, ignoring the look of surprise on Wilson’s face. I was still too done in to make a fuss, and there was nothing I could do until I got to Memphis anyway. I was soon back off to sleep but it was a fitful rest, as I dreamed about Crazy Bet and the gardener I’d drowned, who’d come back to life out of the river, and Bet said we must cut him up and put him in her lime pit, but as I was about to start cutting him up with an enormous saw he turned from the ugly squat gardener into my beautiful Elspeth, who looked up at me, smiling, and said ‘Why Harry, you’ve been away so long, that is no way for a gentleman to greet his lady’, and I gasped as suddenly a firm hand shook my shoulder and a voice said ‘Wake up Colonel, we’ve arrived’. It was young Wilson, of course, and as I sat up and shook the nightmare out of my mind I saw we’d stopped in a large rail yard. Apart from feeling hungry and having a huge thirst I felt much better for the rest. ‘What time is it now ?’,I said.
‘About 6 am, sir. It’s taken us nearly a day. Usually it takes a few hours less but the driver has to be careful in case the rebels have damaged the line so he has to go more slowly’, Wilson answered.
‘Aye, well, I’ll be going straight back on this train’, I told him. ‘Have I time to get a bite to eat and a drink before we turn round, or is there a dining car on here ?’.
‘Sorry, Major’, he said, ‘this train’s going further west. There won’t be another back east to Washington for two days or more. Anyway, sir, what about your orders ? General Sherman will be expecting you to join his staff as soon as possible’.
I wasn’t going to lose my temper, annoyed though I was about this turn of events – it wasn’t Wilson’s fault anyway, so I just said ‘Stop calling me major, if you please. It’s only an honorary rank, and as such there are no orders that I am obliged to obey. Now, let’s get off this damned train and find somewhere decent I can stay till I can get one back in two days time. Where’s my things ?’, I asked him.
‘They’re being sent on, Major’ – he gulped nervously as I fixed him with a stare – ‘there wasn’t enough time to collect them before you joined the train’.
‘Damn and blast’, I said, ’I’ll have to find a change of clothes as well, then. First things first, a decent breakfast, then a hotel, then some clean clothes. D’ye know Memphis well ?’, I asked him.
‘Quite well, but I will have to report to General Sherman as soon as I can, to tell him you’re declining to join his staff’.
‘I'm damn sure he can wait on that news, then. Let’s get off this train before it decides it’s taking me even further west’, and I set off for the carriage door at a pace, with a confused and worried Wilson struggling to catch up with me.
I’d not been to Memphis before so I was glad that I had someone who knew their way around. It was a lively old place and quite big, on the Mississippi, where another river joins it. Of course Tennessee had seceded with the other slave states – it had one of the biggest slave markets in the south – but about a year later, in mid 1862, the city had been captured using Federal gunboats, and it had become a major supply base for them. Of course being in the south there were plenty of raiders and rebel gangs in the countryside around the city. While they didn’t attempt to raid the town itself there was a lot of irregular fighting round the countryside, and apparently Union columns were forever charging round that corner of the state, in pursuit of them.
The station was fairly central, on the corner of Main and Calhoun Street so we were nicely placed to find a decent hotel. I asked Wilson where he recommended.
‘The Gayoso near the river is very good, well known around the state and up and down the river as the best hotel in Tennessee’.
It’s also the Union army headquarters here, my lad. You don’t get me there that easily. Let’s have another one not so close to that’, I replied.
‘Bell Tavern’s one of my favourites’, he answered, ’it’s about a mile from here, down near the river on Front Street’.
‘Well, I could do with stretching my legs after that journey, so let’s get started’, I said, and we sent off to walk in the growing light. At that time there were only a few people about, so I was surprised to hear, after just a few minutes walking, a lot of noise and shouting, soon followed by the sound of sporadic gun fire, and then, a lot closer, the thunder of horses hooves. I turned round and gasped – there were literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of armed cavalry racing down the street behind us and they weren’t in Union blue. Wilson turned just after me, shouted ‘It’s a damn rebel raid’, and took off like a scalded cat, heading for a narrow alley nearby. I wasn’t far behind him, but that still wasn’t quick enough because as he dashed ahead of me into the alley I heard a horse close behind me, then I saw the shadow of someone leaning over me, felt a sharp crack on the head, and for the second time in 24 hours I passed out.
Chapter 7: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow
For the second day running I woke up with a splitting headache, but I can’t say I enjoyed getting it in the way I had the first. I was lying on a low camp bed in a tent, bound hand and foot but not gagged. As my eyes cleared I could see an officer clad in grey, sat on a camping stool, just a few feet from where I lay. ‘Christ’, I thought, ‘I’m back in rebel hands. What if someone recognises me ? It’ll be the noose or the firing squad – or possibly both – if they do. But before I could do, or even say, anything the soldier stood up.
Comin’ round, are yu ?’, he said. I looked up at him. He was tall, nearly as tall as me, as close as I could judge, and quite well built. He had deep set dark eyes with a jutting forehead, matched by the prominent, bearded chin, with dark hair starting to recede a little at the front. Before I could say anything in reply he spoke again.
‘I bin studyin’ on yu, mister, an’ I don’t know just whit to make of yu. Yu looks like a soljer but yu ain’t wearin’ no uniform. Yu wus with a soljer but he just lit out and left yu, and that ain’t a comradely thing to do. Yer wearin’ some fancy store bought duds but yu ain’t got nuthin’ on yu to tell who yu is. All we cud find was a bill fold with some Yankee dollars in it – don’t worry ‘bout that, we’ll put yer money to gud use. So who are yu, mister ?’
I almost let out a sigh of relief at that. Clearly I’d not been recognised as the former Lt Colonel Flashman, late of General Lee’s staff, who’d been spying and passing information on to the Union army for months. I quickly went through my wardrobe of aliases and picked up an old one that sounded like it might suit the case.
‘Name’s Arnold, newspaper man out of New York, here to report on the war in the west – or I was till you grabbed me’, I told him.
‘Whit paper ?’, he quickly asked.
‘The Tribune. Now who are you, sir, and why am I your prisoner ?, I replied.
‘My name’s Forrest’, he answered, and then went on quickly, as I started, ’No, not that Forrest, he’s my brother. I’m William H Forrest, Captain, 3rd Tennesse Cavalry Regiment. Now why yur here is cos we thought yu were a soljer, and that yu might have some useful information for us’.
‘Well, now you know I’m a newspaper man so I hope you’ll be thinking’ about letting me go’, I said.
‘Yu sez yus a paperman but I dunt know that. We’ll have people ask round Memphis ‘bout you just in case. Meanwhile you can bide yur time here fur a little. I’ll have someone come take a look at that head o’ yours, and mebbe git you a drink, and a bite to eat’. With that he turned and strode out of the tent. A few minutes later a fussy little regimental surgeon came in, accompanied by an armed guard, who stood by the tent’s entrance. The medico undid the rope round my ankles and helped me to the camp stool, then he took a look at the bump on my head and checked my vision.
‘Don’t think you took no real harm’, he said after a few minutes. ‘Git somethin’ fer your belly and then rest easy, you’ll be right by tomorrow’, and with that he bustled out, leaving me with the guard. A few minutes alter another soldier came in with a small tray, which, after untying my hands, he set on my knee. On the tray was a big, chipped enamel mug, with what looked like coffee in it, and a plate with a thick meaty sandwich on it. Oh no, I thought, that damned acorn coffee. I’d had enough of that when I was with Lee. The soldier with the tray must have seen my face because he chuckled briefly and said ‘No need to turn your nose up at that, Mister, that’s proper coffee, an’ good beef an’ bread, from your Yankee friends. Some of the stuff we took from Memphis early today’. Well, I wasn’t in any position to turn it down, and right enough, it was a decent brew, and a good sandwich to boot, the first food I’d had since I’d dined with Grant, what, two nights ago ? So I wolfed it down, and the cook or whatever he was took the tray off me and came back with a rough old army blanket. It was getting dark so I settled myself back on the camp bed, pulled the blanket over myself, and went back to sleep, with the armed guard still stood impassively at the tent’s entrance. Raiding for prisoners and supplies, I thought, before I went off to sleep. That’ll keep them on their toes in Memphis, that’s for sure.
When I woke up the next morning I felt a good deal better. My head didn’t ache anymore and the bump, while still sore to the touch, was beginning to get smaller. I was still under guard – not the same chap as the night before, of course – but after a little while the cook from the night before came in with some coffee and bread for me to break my fast.
The next visitor I had was Forrest, later that morning. Truth to tell, my fears of the previous day were returning. What if someone in Memphis had recognised me, or my name had got out, maybe from Wilson ? What if there was someone in the camp who knew me ? There’d be the devil to pay if there was, so I was more than a little anxious when the said captain strode into the tent again. He was straight to business.
‘Still can’t square yur story, Arnold. None of our folk in Memphis knows a blasted thing ‘bout you. That soljer yu wus with, name of Wilson, has reported in to Sherman but wut about we don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to take yu at yur wurd’, he said.
‘Does that mean I can go, then ?’, I asked him.
‘Not so easy, mister. We can’t hardly let yu go from here, ‘n even if we culd we’ve no horse ta spare for yu. You’ll have to stay here a little while, till we figure somethin’ out. If you give me your parole yu can come out o’ this tent, get some air ‘n stretch yur legs. Maybe yu’ll find somethin’ ta write about for your readers, maybe give them a pitcher o’ this wer frum our side’.
I wasn’t too sure about being seen out too much but it would have looked damned odd to say no, so I duly promised to behave myself, not try to escape, and cautiously stuck my head out of the tent. It wasn’t as if I could escape anywhere in any case. For one thing I’d no real idea where I was, other than somewhere in Tennessee, not that far from Memphis.
I wasn’t surprised to see the camp was a large one, easily accommodating at least a regiment of cavalry, every though it was clearly temporary. It was set in the rolling hilly countryside, east of Memphis, everything set up all ticketty boo, with pickets out on the edge of the camp, on top of the small hills, small patrols coming and going, and the lines drawn up properly, with no mess or confusion. For the middle of March it was pleasantly warm so I had a good wander round, attracting some interested looks and a few friendly greetings but no hostility at all. Of course I kept clear of the edge of the camp – I didn’t want any over eager sentry taking a pot shot at me, thinking I was about to slip my cable. When I wandered back to the tent a little later, towards noon, I found the familiar, friendly cook waiting with a small, but not inadequate, lunch for me.
I was there for a few days and it became a bit of a pattern for me – there was damn all else to do, in any case, though the rations gradually got worse. As I became a familiar figure round the camp more and more of the rebel soldiers would stop to talk to me, or call me over, and I’d sit down to chew the fat with them, and they’d share some of their tobacco with me, or pour me a drink. Of course the word had gone round that I was some sort of newspaper man so the conversation turned inevitably to how the war was viewed in the north, and whether people there wanted to continue with it, or would they be prepared to make peace on some terms or other that would allow both sides to keep their honour. For most of them the slave issue didn’t concern them a jot. After all, I’d seen niggers fighting for the south before, and there were a fair few in this very camp, treated no different from any other soldier.
No, for them the issue was still their right to live the way they wanted, without having the Yankees always poking their noses into southern affairs, and worse still, sending an army to help them do it. I could have told them it was all too late, the sleeping giant in the north had woken, had its tail tweaked just a little too much, and made slavery the issue on which to fight the war. Quite honestly, by this time, they should have realised all this for themselves, but most of ‘em were quite ignorant, many barely literate, and had never been more than twenty miles or so from their homes before. So I told them that the north wanted an honourable peace, just like them, and that hopefully they could come to terms before too much more blood was spilt.
Of course I learned a lot about what they were doing there, and how they operated. The raid I’d been captured on was just to test the alertness of the Union army, and there were plans for more complex and ambitious ones, though naturally they didn’t tell me anything about them. Their main role was to harass the northern invaders, raiding supply columns, attacking small outposts, ambushing larger columns, and generally be a nuisance so that more Union troops were tied down in a passive defensive role, so they couldn’t be used in another area.
Their commander, of course, was the now famous Nathan Bedford Forrest. Having joined as a private he found himself by now promoted to Major General, commanding the Confederate’s cavalry corps in the west. He’d earned this by his courage, aggressive instincts, and a natural ability as a tactician, for all he’d had no formal military training before he became a soldier at the outbreak of the war. His men were devoted to him, not least because he seemed fearless. Many of them told me the same thing – he wouldn’t ask the meanest soldier to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself. Seemed a damn fool to me. If you’re a general you’ve got an excuse to surround yourself with the rest of the army, otherwise what’s the point ? I kept that to myself as well. It didn’t seem likely I’d get to meet him anyway, and I can’t say the prospect upset me very much. But whether I got to meet him or not, he wasn’t the sort of soldier to be content with mere raids and harassment, and he’d fought quite a few large scale actions, sometimes with his entire corps, taking on formations bigger than his own, and usually winning,
After a few days the regiment I was with struck camp and headed north. Of course I was dragged along with them as the cavalry column made its way to join up with the rest of Forrest’s cavalry corps. The weather had turned chill and damp so it was an uncomfortable few days of riding till it joined up with the rest of Forrest’s command. There I got to see the renowned general close to, and I have to say he was an impressive figure. Tall, as tall as me, and well built, he was much like his brother William, though his hair had receded further and his beard was thicker set. He had an air of energy and decisiveness that all great commanders have, and moved and spoke quickly.
Now his force was reunited Forrest issued orders that would take them further north and slightly east, to attack and destroy Federal outposts, capture supplies and generally raise merry hell around those parts. The whole corps saddled up and rode further north sometime just after the middle of March, most heading for Kentucky, while a column of around fifteen hundred, I suppose, was sent to capture Union City in the north west of the state.
Naturally I as dragged along, accompanied by an armed guard and equipped, by now, with pens and paper. Still believing me a ‘noospaper man’ I was to be given the opportunity, as Captain Forrest put it, ‘to see how a southerner fights, and how no Yankee can match him in battle’, so that when I got back to New York I could tell the truth about how the south would never be beaten. He wasn’t to know I’d seen the rebels fight from their own side many times before, and I didn’t need any tutoring to write about them. Still, being expected to write was a damn sight better than being expected to fight. For one thing I’d be kept a safe distance from the fighting so I could observe what was going on, make copious notes, and generally be impressed by the rebel’s martial zeal and esprit de corps.
I suppose we’d been going about a week when Forrest reached his first objective, the small town of Paducah in southern Kentucky. There was a federal infantry regiment there that retreated to an earthwork fort on the edge of the town. After a short but intense period of fighting Forrest sent in his customary demand for surrender, which was summarily refused. The firing started again and one of his brigade commanders went hell for leather to assault the fort with part of his command but was killed by a shell. The attack petered out and with fire still heavy from the fort and from Union gunboats on the nearby Mississippi the rebels pulled back into the town itself and ransacked it, taking a few prisoners at the same time. Not the display, perhaps, that they’d expected Mr Arnold of the New York Tribune to be overly impressed by.
The next week or so was similar, with attacks on other federal held towns such as Bolivar and Raleigh, along with skirmishes with smaller or larger Union formations along the way, most of which were sent hurrying back towards Memphis. But by the early part of April Forrest’s supplies were dwindling and he determined to attack and capture a Union fort on the Miss, about forty miles north of Memphis, which would furnish both horses and supplies. It was called Fort Pillow, and what happened there in a few short hours one early April afternoon has been a cause of both shame and controversy ever since. As I was there I’m able to give as good a picture as any man, and without any bias clouding that picture. I wasn’t in any real danger at any time, so I remember the events of that afternoon clearly, without any of the belly churning moments of fear and confusion that fog a man’s view of a battle.
It began like all the other attacks that had taken place on the expedition. It was the morning of April 12th and Forrest had sent a detachment back to Paducah, while his main force headed for the fort. I supposed we arrived there around mid-morning, and Forrest stopped to survey the objective. It was another earthwork fort, with its back open to the steep drop to the river, as it stood on a bluff. The earthworks consisted of three lines of embankments, in a semi-circle with each end running to the river bank and a ditch in front of each one. On top of them was a parapet, I suppose six or seven feet high, protecting the firing platform.
There was some stray fire going off all around, which made me a more than a little nervous, and while Forrest was surveying the battlefield one of those stray bullets killed his horse, dumping him heavily onto the ground. That stirred him into action, no error, and he ordered sharpshooters onto the higher ground around the Union position, from where they began to pour a steady and effective fire into the fort itself.
After an hour or so the rebels captured some barrack buildings not far from the fort’s southern end, bringing more heavy fire down on the defenders, who were hugely outnumbered. The federal soldiers gave back fire as well as they could but they were facing odds of about eight to one and being pinned down by fire from three separate sides. In mid-afternoon Forrest sent forward a flag of truce to offer them the chance of surrender. After a short ceasefire the offer was declined and firing began again. Unfortunately for the defenders during the lull in fighting the rebels had managed to take a ravine that was positioned to allow them to assault the fort directly.
As the bugle sounded the advance I watched the grey clad soldiers charge down the ravine to the fort itself. The sharpshooters continued a heavy rate of fire into the fort, while the first wave of attackers entered the ditch and allowed the second wave, using their backs as stepping stones, to climb onto the parapet. They then reached down and helped the first wave scramble up a ledge onto the embankment. It was all very neatly done and as the assault continued the sharpshooters held their fire, the attackers went up and over the embankment, firing for the first time into the massed defenders, who fought briefly, but then broke and ran to the landing at the foot of the bluff, where a Union gunboat could cover their withdrawal. Unfortunately for them the gunboat did not fire a single shot, though why not, I couldn’t tell. The fleeing soldiers were subjected to a murderous fire both from the rear and from their flanks. Many were shot as they ran away, while others got to the river only to drown, or be picked off in the water by riflemen above them. There was a stretch of the river by the landing, maybe two hundred yards long, red with the blood of the slaughtered.
It was clear as day that the battle was won, probably with very few Confederate casualties, and soon a messenger came to say I was to accompany General Forrest into the scene of his victory.
As my escort and I reached him he looked over at me and said, ‘Mr Arnold, time yu saw wut southern fightin’ boys can do, so you can report back to the Noo York paper o’ yurs. There’s bin some nigra soldiers in there fightin’ for tha’ Yankees. You’ll see that nigra soldiers cannot cope with Southerners’, and then he motioned his horse forward and I followed in his wake.
By now the fighting should have ended, but it seemed like the firing was continuing, with the rebel yell was still being shouted high and clear, and I could hear other vague cries and shouts. As we rounded the corner of the fort and entered the shooting was still going on, but mainly from the rebels. Most, but not all of the Union soldiers had put down their arms, much good that it did them. Some were shot or bayoneted in the act of surrendering, while black soldiers who went down on their knees to beg for mercy were ordered to their feet and then killed, some with a pistol pushed against their head, blowing their brains out.
I kept hearing the cry ‘No quarter, no quarter ! Kill the damned niggers ! Shoot them down !’ or ‘how yu lik’ yur freedom now, nigger !’ as the killing continued and the ground became covered in bodies, the blood flowing in little streams down towards the river. Forrest froze for a second or two, then drew his sword and rode quickly to where the nearest group of rebels was continuing to kill prisoners. As he reached them I saw him pull up his horse between the poor unfortunates and the rebel soldiers, brandish his sword and bellow ‘Next man kills a prisoner, I’ll cut him down where he stands. Stop, now, by the Lord, stop’. Damn dangerous thing to do, because he could have been killed himself, but it worked and soon the shooting and stabbing slowed, then stopped as the figure of Forrest on his horse shouting and cursing drew the attention of his men.
By god, though, the fort was like a butcher’s yard, a pitiful sight, with shot or stabbed men bleeding into the ground where they’d surrendered, and the cries of those not yet dead shrieking into the late afternoon sky as they shuddered and laboured their way to their last breath. How many were dead I don’t know but it was certainly into the hundreds. I’d seen massacres before – the 44th making their last stand on the hill near Gandamack on the long retreat from Kabul was the first, but by no means the last. But there they were fighting a bunch of cut throat Ghazis who’d as soon kill as have their breakfast. This was a supposedly disciplined army killing at will, when their battle was won.
I don’t suppose there’s a single reason for it. It wasn’t officially sanctioned, as Forrest’s actions made clear. Some of it, no doubt, was the sheer blood lust, set off by the fear, tension, and fighting, felt by the attackers. When you’re on the losing side of a battle, the best thing to do is keep well out of sight till things have calmed down. Then you can safely come out of hiding and surrender without the risk of some asinine private, drunk on the smell of blood and powder smoke, deciding to polish you off as an afterthought to the fighting. But it wasn’t just fear and tension – I could see it in the eyes of many of Forrest’s men. They’d killed because they wanted to, in revenge and hatred, and especially of the black soldiers, who seemed to form by far the largest number of dead and dying on the ground in the fort. How dare some damn nigger take up arms against their overlords seemed to be their attitude, despite most of the soldiers doing the killing being little better off than their victims.
All in all, a damned dirty and wretched business, whatever the cause, and whoever was to blame. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath, each side blamed the other, and still do to this day, I believe. I was just grateful that I hadn’t been on the losing side this time.
The Confederates remained to pillage the supplies they’d come for overnight and the next day a Union gunboat came up the river and, under a flag of truce, negotiated an armistice so that they could load up the injured men that remained alive. Captain Forrest took me down to it and said ‘Yure free ta go, Arnold. Now yu kin tell yur readers th’ trooth ‘bout how the southern man fights. Make sure yu do’. You would think they wouldn’t want me to say what I’d witnessed. I can only conclude that they didn’t really care about the dead blacks, or maybe thought that the story of how many had been slaughtered would deter others from joining the Federal army. Still, I couldn’t fault him, I’d seen how they fought, and while I wouldn’t be doing the writing I’d make damned sure that the story was told. Old Flashy getting a touch of conscience, eh ? Conscience doesn’t matter a damn next to survival, but seeing as I’d come out of it alive I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t, for once, tell the truth about what I saw.
Chapter 8: Back to where ?
Never volunteer for anything...
Getting back to Memphis wasn’t exactly plain sailing, though. For one thing the skipper of the federal gunboat wasn’t about to let me come aboard without a by your leave, in case I was a rebel spy. I couldn’t see why he was so worried as spies were drifting in and out of the city on a daily basis but he insisted I establish my bona fides before he’d let me aboard. It took a fair amount of name dropping, from Sherman to Grant and finally the President himself before he’d let me aboard.
Nor was the journey down the river like a day trip either. The gunboat was packed to the gunnels with wounded and dying men, some of whom were being damned noisy about it. It took me quite a while before I could find somewhere to sit and take a rest.
I suppose the trip took about five hours in all and when I disembarked on the waterfront in Memphis I made straight for the Union army headquarters in the Gayoso hotel. I’d no money and only what I stood up in – hopefully some of my gear had arrived from Washington by now, and if so this is where it would be. Once there I asked to see Wilson, who I’d travelled down with, and after a few minutes was shown into his office. He was sitting at a desk but got up immediately I went in and came round the desk to shake my hand vigorously.
‘Thank the good Lord you’re safe, Major’, he said. ‘When the rebels took you I thought you’d be kept prisoner for the rest of the war, or worse. Tell me what happened’. So I gave him a brief account of what had happened to me over the past few weeks, and in particular the events of the battle the previous day. At the mention of that his face darkened.
‘You’re not the first to speak of the massacre there. We’ve had a number of casualties and escapees from the battle there who tell us the same things. It won’t be forgotten and General Sherman intends to give it the fullest publicity. If they hoped to frighten the coloureds out of joining the fight I think they have made a grave error – it’s more likely to anger them and increase their hatred of their persecutors’, he said. ‘Now, we must get you settled till you can get a train back east’.
‘When will that be ?’, I asked.
‘Not for a few days. The raiding by the rebels has done a lot of damage to the railroads and sections are still being repaired. In the meantime we’ll fix up a room for you here and have your belongings taken to it’, and with that he called for an orderly.
Once I’d been found a room and my gear was delivered I was more or less left on my own. Wilson expected to be able to book me onto the next train that would run, but it wouldn’t be for a few days. Left to my own devices I took to spending my time at the waterfront, watching the boats and steamers come in. There was always something to see there, from the mule market, goods unloading and what have you. Even though the Miss there was almost tidal, with there being periods during the day when no boats could approach the landing, it was a hive of activity. The landing had been partly cobbled over but the work had stopped because of the war so it was unfinished. But there’s nothing as interesting as people so to kill the time I would wonder down to the river front to see what I could see.
So it was a day or two after I got back to Memphis a paddle steamer came in, with the pilot making a good show of docking her properly in the shallowing water, that I saw quite the most beautiful brunette come ashore. One of the deck hands helped her off, and deposited two large bags for her on the landing, then left her to it. The walk up from the river side to where she could get a carriage was clearly too much for her with the bags and she was looking about in some distress, obviously wondering how she could get up the slope to where she could find a carriage to take her wherever she wanted to go. I’d have thought she’d have given one of the many loafers there a dollar or so to help her but for some reason she didn’t seem inclined to do so. Time for gentleman Flash to lend a considerate and kindly hand, I thought, and we would see where this little favour would take us. So I strode down to her and offered a bold good day, and could I be of any assistance ?
She was even more attractive at a closer viewing. She was tall for woman but with a good figure, as far as I could tell, under the coat she wore. I was disappointed to see a ring on her finger but I’d not found that a major problem in the past so I didn’t allow it to deter me.
‘Good day to you, mam’, I said as I got close to her. ‘Can I be of some assistance ?’ She looked at me briefly, and then her eyes darted away, as though nervous, and she began to scan the road above the landing, as if looking for someone. Seemed damn strange to me but I didn’t let it put me off.
‘Now, my dear, can I help you with your bags, at least up to where you can take a carriage ?’, I asked her.
She looked at me quickly and then I was sure I could see fear in her eyes, though of what I couldn’t fathom at all.
‘Thank you, sir’, she answered in a nervous, almost quivering voice, ‘but I expect my husband shortly, and he will provide me with all the help I require’. With that she looked away and her eyes began darting again, up to the road and beyond. Here’s a queer old fish I thought, but nevertheless I picked up her bags.
‘Well, let’s get you up to where he can find you more easily’, I said. ‘It will save him a step or two and get you on to where you’re going a tad quicker’, and I started to stride up to the road above the river, hauling her bags along with me.
‘No, sir, no’, she quavered behind me. ‘My husband will be here any moment and he will not take kindly to your assisting me’.
Well, I was flummoxed at that, but I wasn’t going to make a fool of myself by just dropping her bags and leaving her high and dry so I just answered ‘Nonsense my girl. I’m sure your husband is a gentleman, and will appreciate a gentleman assisting his lady’. At that she openly wailed and said, piping her eye with a handkerchief ‘Sir, you don’t understand. My husband is a very jealous man and will not countenance another man helping me in any way at all’.
I turned to face her, and she dissolved into great sobs, crying openly now. Even cynical old Flash was touched and I put the bags down and put my arms around her as she sobbed heavily into my shoulder. What a to do about such a simple thing, I thought. I soon realised why, though.
I’d scarcely quietened her and stopped her sobbing when I felt a hand on my shoulder and was spun quickly, and with some force, to face a red faced man bristling with rage and shouting in my face. I took a step back and saw he was a junior officer in a Union cavalry regiment.
‘Damn you, mister’, he shouted, his spit hitting me in the face,’ What the hell are you doing with my wife ! Who the hell are you ?’
At this the girl said, in a timid voice, ‘Why, Jonathan, this gentleman was merely helping me with my bags, while I waited for you. Don’t take on so’. Well, if he was mad before he was now incandescent.
‘When I want you to speak I’ll tell you so’, he bellowed. ‘Now you, mister, explain yourself, now !’
You’ll not be surprised to hear, given my past, that I’ve seen enough jealous lunatics before to see this was a prize one here. Clearly it was time to extricate myself from the embarrassing situation before he started chewing the metaphorical carpet.
‘My name is Flashman. My apologies to you, sir. I was merely trying to provide the assistance of a gentleman to your good lady. I am deeply sorry to have caused any offence’, and with that I nodded and turned away, before it became a complete spectacle. Already people were turning to look and listen, and point at what might seem some general entertainment for them.
I’d barely taken a step when I felt a clenched fist smash into the back of my head. Of course it flattened me, and as I turned over to get off my face on the floor the lunatic was on me again. His eyes were wide and I caught the same madness I’d seen in the lunatic slaver Spring, which wasn’t a happy omen, though at least he didn’t quote any Latin tags at me.
‘Damn you, mister’, he spat into my face. ‘I’ve seen plenty of you ‘gentlemen’ making time with my wife’, and with that he pushed me to the ground again. Of course his wife was again in floods of tears. Her arms were round his shoulders trying to pull him back, and saying softly ‘Jonny, Jonny, he was just being kind’. You know, I didn’t even know her name.
After a moment he shrugged her off, turned away, and then came back to me as I got to my feet.
‘Well, mister’, he said, with his eyes bulging and a vein in his forehead throbbing constantly, ‘I believe my wife is honest, but I’ve known men like you since before we were married. Always pretending kindness, but always wanting to take advantage if they can. I’ll see you stand fire with me tomorrow. Here’s my card’, and with that he threw a paste board to the floor in front of me in contempt, grabbed his wife’s arm, and then picking up her bags, strode up towards the road above the landing. I still didn’t know who he, or she for that matter, was, until I picked up his card.
You’ll understand I was feeling damn shaky as I got back to my feet, and not just because of the shock of the blow. I’d only been involved in one duel before, the Bernier affair, years before. Then I’d had the slimey toad Bryant to palm my opponent’s pistol ball, with the promise of ten thou as a reward, which, naturally, I never paid. Since then I’d steered well clear of all such hazards. The trouble was duelling in many parts of the States was almost a national sport, and its legal status was unclear, to say the least. I couldn’t rely on the law to protect me – if I was going to avoid the duel I’d have to make my escape from Memphis. With the trains not running my only alternative was a fast horse out of town but with the countryside around crawling with rebels that wasn’t an attractive prospect either.
Of course it might not come to that. Many duels never took place, with the affair being settled by negotiation between the aggrieved parties. Sometimes the duellists met but both deloped, firing wide, and the affair was considered settled with no loss of face for either party. It was also a clue to the extravagant gentility of the southern man. With a perceived insult not unlikely to result in a challenge folks were very careful around each other to avoid being called out. Still, given this chap’s demeanor I couldn’t see him being likely to call it off, so the sooner I found a way out of town the better. I couldn’t ignore the irony of the situation either – the madman was quite right, my real interest in his wife was purely carnal.
Obviously my first port of call was Wilson. Maybe the railroad was running again, or he could arrange an escort out of town for me. Of course I’d have to put it carefully – I wouldn’t want it going around that I was scared after all, so before I went to see him I made my way back to my room, cleaned and tidied myself up, and got my nerve back. So after an hour or so I tooled down to find the aforesaid Wilson. He was in his office toiling over the usual tediousness that was staff work – and which was essential to keeping a functioning army in the field.
‘Colonel Flashman’, he said, as I was shown in, ‘How are you. Sorry you’ve been kept here so long’.
‘I’m well enough, thankee’, I answered. ‘What’s the news on the railroad repairs ?’
‘Still a couple of days to go yet, I’m sorry to say. What have you been doing with yourself since we last spoke ?’
‘Oh, out and about, been down to the riverfront a few times’, I answered. ‘Tell me, do ye know this chap ?, and with that I passed over the calling card.
He looked it over for a few seconds, his brow furrowed in thought.
‘Porter. Name’s familiar. I think he’s been transferred in recently. What’s your interest in him?, he asked me.
‘Oh, nothing too important’, I answered, nonchalantly. ‘Just challenged me to a duel. Always worth knowing who you’re going up against’, and I gave him a wink and rueful smile. That got his attention.
‘A duel ! What about, for heaven’s sake?’.
‘He misunderstood an offer of assistance to his wife, down by the landing. It’s really quite tedious, and while I’ll face him, it does seem a bit of a waste of time, all round’, I said.
‘I’ll say ! Does he know who he’s up against?’.
‘Doubt it, though if he did I don’t think it would make any difference. He seemed, well, quite detached, or possibly deranged. All I did was offer to carry his wife’s bags up from the landing. He came up behind me, attacked me, and threw all manner of vile accusations at me. Perhaps he needs to see a surgeon’, I answered, hoping getting him certified would put the whole business to bed. It’s not as if he wasn’t at least a bit mad, if not completely off his head, after all.
‘Hold on, and I’ll find out more’, and he bellowed for an orderly, with instructions to find Porter’s file, pdq.
The file was back within a few minutes. It looked quite thick, which wasn’t a good sign. Wilson pored over it, and started to read some of it out aloud. ‘Porter, Jonathan’, he said. ‘Graduated 20th in class, West Point, 1861. He’s been a lieutenant a long time, then’, and he read on further, in silence. Then his brow furrowed, he sighed and sat back in his chair.
‘Well, Colonel, I can tell you why he’s been transferred here, and hasn’t been promoted’.
‘Why’s that ?’, I asked him.
‘He’s trouble’, Wilson answered. ‘Good fighting soldier, expert marksman, but always getting into arguments, being insubordinate and so on. He’s been transferred here recently to get him away from the east, with the hope he’ll learn to behave himself, given a new start. From your point of view that’s irrelevant, of course. What is most relevant is that he’s taken to duelling. Since he married, his wife, wittingly or not, has been the cause of three duels. Two dead and one hospitalized with a serious injury’.
By god, I didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t seem like the sort of chap who’d drop the matter on a handshake and a solemn promise not to try to carry his wife’s bags again. Clearly I needed to hightail out of Memphis as soon as maybe. Of course I didn’t say anything like that to Wilson. As usual, while in the grip of fear, my bowels begin to quake but my face goes quite red, as though in anger.
‘As you say, Captain, he doesn’t know who he’s up against. He’ll find I’m not the man to back down, and apologise’, I said.
‘Well, Colonel, I doubt, from his record, that he’s going to give you the chance’, he answered, which seemed quite true, damn him for saying it. ‘Have any arrangements been made yet ?’, he continued. I shook my head. ‘He just said something about meeting in the usual place’.
‘That’ll be down by the river, in a small field, that’s where these things take place’, he said. He fell quiet and sat there thinking for a few minutes, while my innards turned to water and I began to think about asking for an escort out of town, and bedamned to my reputation. After a few minutes he looked up, and started to speak – for a moment I thought he was going to offer to be my second, damn him ! Instead he said ‘This cannot happen. A distinguished foreign officer who has given great service to our cause being killed in a needless duel by some mad junior officer’ – he clearly didn’t give much for my chances, I could see. ‘But how to stop it ?’, he went on. ‘He can’t be ordered not to call you out, and if you don’t answer – which I’m sure you would – your reputation would be damaged, perhaps permanently’, and he fell silent again, clearly thinking furiously, until he suddenly looked up, shouted ‘Got it’, and beamed a smile at me.
‘Welcome back to the colours, Major Flashman !’, he said.
‘What d’ye mean ?’, I said, in a faltering voice.
‘It’s a court martial offence for a junior officer to call out a senior one’, he said. ‘It must be the same in your army for obvious reasons’, to which I nodded and croaked a quiet ‘Yes’.
‘There’s the solution, then. If General Sherman will reactivate your commission Porter will be unable to fight you. Of course it will mean you staying here a while longer, otherwise it will look like you’ve done it to avoid the man. We certainly can’t transfer him out of the western theatre again, not for a while, and we can’t get you out of town, so this is the only way to avoid the trouble that your death would bring’ – I was glad to see he had my welfare at the forefront of his mind. ‘What do you think ?’, he said.
What I thought was why did I let my baser instincts get me into this trouble, again ? Yet it wasn’t as though I’d actually done anything to provoke Porter, whatever I was thinking. Two or three days before I was ready to take ship home, now I was even further away than before. But that was how I joined Sherman’s famous – or to some infamous – march to the sea
Chapter 9: We'll go marching through.....
Off they go ! Never to be forgiven, even in the 'Beverley Hillbillies'
Of course I didn’t know it was going to be called that – there was enough fighting to do before that signal event, but the matter of Porter was dealt with quick enough. Sherman agreed to re-activate my commission – still only a major, damn him – and I was attached to his staff immediately. Porter had his hash settled by a visit from the Provost Marshal and was sent to a regiment out in the field. I never saw him, or his delectable wife, again.
In the meantime Sherman was welcoming enough. ‘Damn glad to have you with us, Flashman, damn glad’, he said. ‘Grant’ll be pleased too. I know he wanted you to stay on board to the end of this affair. It’s going to be a bloody thing, no mistake about it. War is hell, and there’s no good to come of pretending otherwise. The only thing to do is fight it as hard as you can so it ends sooner. That’s what I purpose to do here so we can end this madness. It helps me in this to have someone like you who knows his business, and the rebels too, on my staff’. I had my own opinion on that of course, but in the meantime I’d little choice but to settle down and pull my weight. With any luck I’d see little actual fighting and could content myself with second guessing the rebels intentions for Sherman’s benefit. The war surely couldn’t last much longer, after all. Gettysburg had seen the rebels at the end of their stick last July, and the fall of Vicksburg the day after the battle had seen the long cherished Federal aim of splitting the Confederacy in two come true. Their economy was going to hell, with prices through the roof, and they were short of all manner of supplies and material. When fighting soldiers like Forrest are forced to mount attacks just to steal supplies you can tell an army is down to its uppers. That’s what I told myself as I settled into my new billet. Just a few more months or weeks, even. All I had to do was keep safe and I’d be on my way soon enough. Little was I to know that the damn thing was to drag on for another year, and that I was fated to see its end, at Appomattox Court House, and its final tragedy, the pointless murder of Lincoln by that little preening popinjay John Wilkes Booth. Still, I mustn’t get ahead of myself – plenty of other things were to happen before then, and you’ll no doubt guess that I’d end up in the thick of it, as usual.
In the meantime there was enough to do organising supplies and provisions for the forthcoming offensive. Sherman had four armies totalling around one hundred thousand men under his command, and was responsible for the military department of the Mississippi. His orders were to begin his advance on the 1st May against Joe Johnston’s much smaller rebel army, co-ordinated with a move by Grant against Lee in the east. To support that advance he built up thirty days of supplies centred on the railhead at Chattanooga to where he moved his headquarters near the end of April, naturally taking me with him. ‘Uncle Billy’ Sherman had given the cautious Johnston a mighty pummelling the previous year in Miss so he was rightly feeling very confident about the coming campaign.
So it proved as over the next few weeks as Sherman advanced on Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, pushing it back from one position to another, usually by flanking to left or right rather than by head on assault, until Johnston was falling back on the city of Atlanta itself. It was a tactic I thoroughly approved of, as it meant fewer casualties, particularly amongst the commander’s all important staff. Not that there weren’t some sharp exchanges at between the armies as Sherman pushed further and further into Georgia, at places like Kennesaw, Pickett’s Mill, and half a dozen other points. His army, consisting mainly of tall, rangey westerners, covered prodigious distances in these outflanking moves but took it all in their stride, literally, as a much better option than costly frontal assaults on entrenched rebels. I never saw an army that could size up an opposition position so quickly, nor dig trenches to keep it out of direct fire with such enthusiasm. Still, even they couldn’t overcome foul weather and the advance was stalled during June by almost continuous rain. The campaign restarted in July and continued in the same vein, with Johnston falling back almost continually in the face of the fast moving Federal armies. I was kept busy, mainly on supply matters using the ubiquitous railroads to move them forward with the armies, usually well out of the firing line.
By 10th July Atlanta’s capture looked inevitable. As the Confederacy’s second city, important both for supplies and as a centre of communications by road and rail it was a loss they could ill afford. The irony, given what happened to it, was that important though it was, capture of Atlanta was not Sherman’s priority. His orders were for the destruction of Johnston’s army - ‘break it up’, Grant had told him – and the destruction of rebel war fighting capacity. That his manoeuvres had forced Johnston back on the city was almost a by product of his campaign. Eventually all this shadow boxing got too much for the Confederate president, Davis, who replaced Joe Johnston with the more aggressive John Bell Hood around the middle of July. It was no secret that Davis and Johnston didn’t get on so his replacement came as no great surprise, especially not to me. Having briefly met the rebel leader, as you’ll recall, I thought even a saint’s patience would have been worn down in the end.
Of course having been put in command as a more aggressive replacement Hood was obliged to act more aggressively than his predecessor. So no sooner than Thomas had started to take the federal Army of the Cumberland across a small creek called the Peachtree some five miles from the centre of Atlanta Hood attacked with his Army of Tennessee. Thomas didn’t panic though, and getting some guns across the creek – prodding the horses with his sword to speed them up – the rebel attack was broken up and Hood was forced back.
One bloody nose wasn’t enough to put Hood off, though, and a few days later he was slashing away at the exposed southern flank of the Federal army led by James McPherson near Decatur, a few miles east of Atlanta. Sherman had foreseen the possibility of an attack there and had me draft an urgent note to McPherson the previous night warning him he was extended too far left, and that he should tighten his line and concentrate on destroying the railroad in the area.
The next morning I, along with part of his staff, accompanied Sherman to the front of Schofield’s rebel 23rd Corps to observe their movements there. They’d abandoned a strong defensive position there to fall back towards Atlanta and were building another set of positions in a valley, and exchanging fire with Union skirmishers who were harassing their efforts. As we watched McPherson and his staff, together with an escort, galloped up for an impromptu meeting. As it was getting a tad dangerous where we were I suggested that we fell back for the meeting to a largish building, called the Howard House, where McPherson and Sherman sat on the porch steps and mulled over both Hood and the prospect of heavy action that day.
Sherman, not one for beating about the bush, asked his subordinate his opinion of the rebel commander – ‘You were at the Point with him, were you not ?’, he said.
‘Indeed so, sir’, McPherson answered. ‘He’s somewhat rash, but brave and determined. I think he’ll fight harder and more directly than Joe Johnston’.
‘That’s my reading of him, too’, answered Sherman, ‘though I hear he’s not so clever. Trouble with Math at the college, or some such tale’.
‘That is so, General, that is so. Schofield was in the same class and without him assisting him I doubt he’d have passed out of the Academy’, said McPherson.
‘Well, I have no doubt that he won’t do, and won’t be allowed to do, what Johnston did so prudently, and trade space for time. That will suit me well, as my orders are to destroy his army. In doing so we may well take Atlanta at the same time’, answered Uncle Billy. They went on to discuss McPherson’s orders after the destruction of the Augusta railroad. For this we moved forward to plump down by a tree, while Sherman unfolded a map, pointed out the position of Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. McPherson was to shift his army around the rear to Thomas’s extreme right and then destroy another rail line at East Point.
Of course while the discussion was going on the fighting, mainly skirmishing, continued down in the valley, with the occasional rebel cannon shot replying to the fire of Schofield’s batteries. After a little while, though, it seemed to go up to another level, and not just down in the valley but back towards Decatur, where the bulk of McPherson's army was positioned.
‘Excuse me, General’, I interrupted, ‘there’s firing to our rear, I think in the direction of General McPherson’s men’. Sherman stopped talking, listened for a moment, checking the direction of fire using his pocket compass.
‘Too far to our left and rear, McPherson’, he said. ‘Must be some action against your army’.
‘Then it’s time for me to return and get control of the situation’, he replied, and called for his horse. As he and his retinue galloped off Sherman’s eye lit on me and he said ‘Go after him, Flashman, and report back to me when you’ve assessed the situation. Don’t get yourself killed’ he added, helpfully, as I mounted my horse and reluctantly followed the retreating general back towards Decatur and the increasing sound of firing.
While I followed McPherson back to his troops I kept a safe distance – I was intent on obeying Sherman’s last order to the letter – but they slowed a little as they reached a patch of forest and I soon caught up with them. As the trees thinned a little McPherson picked up the pace again along the little wagon road we were following but suddenly ran straight into a rebel company positioned on the verge of the road.
For a moment McPherson stared at the enemy and they stared back, just as surprised at finding a Federal general as he was at finding a rebel company, face to face. Then an officer among the rebels pointed his sword at McPherson, as if to say ‘Surrender’ – it seemed quite the sensible thing to do in the circumstances.
Sensible or not, it wasn’t the option he chose. Extraordinarily, he raised his hat as though politely greeting a lady in the city street, wheeled his horse right, and dashed back among the trees, though I was already well ahead of him there. Suddenly there was a crack of rifle fire and as I looked back I saw McPherson tumble from his horse as it passed under the thick branches of a tree, clearly wounded, and maybe dead. As I looked back I heard more shots and the rebels were surging forward, one of them kneeling over McPherson as he lay motionless on the ground. That was enough for me – Sherman had to know if one of his senior commanders was down as soon as maybe, and I needed no encouragement to get the news to him as fast as I could. Fortunately nobody seemed to be taking a shot at me, or even noticing me making my escape.
It didn’t take me long to get back to Sherman who was waiting on the porch of the house where he had his earlier discussion with McPherson, walking back and forth, listening to the sounds of battle. As I dashed up he started, looked at my horse, who was covered in sweat and said ‘You’re in a devil of a hurry, Flashman. What has happened ?’
‘General McPherson, sir’, I answered. ‘He’s been shot. I don’t know whether he’s dead – he may have been taken prisoner – but his army currently has no commander’. At this news Sherman visibly blenched, started to say something, then shook himself back into action. ‘Find Logan, Flashman. Tell him to take command, drive back this incursion, holding fast on Leggett’s Hill. I will look to the security of his rear, towards Decatur. Then return to me to confirm his receipt of the orders’.
By the time I returned McPherson’s body had been recovered and carried into the house on a door that looked like it had been wrenched from its hinges. One of the surgeons, Hewitt, was looking at the wound as I came in. ‘Must have died instantly, General’, he said. ‘The ball’s hit him here in the back, and travelled upwards through his heart’.
Sherman shook his head and looked like he was holding back tears. As much as that grim old soldier had favourites McPherson was one, and he was visibly shocked and hurt at his unexpected loss. After a moment he ordered McPherson’s aides, Steele and Gile, to take the body back to Marietta before it was escorted back to McPherson’s family in Clyde, Ohio. ‘Now, gentlemen’, he said, ‘we still have a battle to win’ and he led everyone out from the house to get on with the job.
Eventually Hood’s assault was repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides though with nothing like the butcher’s bill of Shiloh or Gettysburg, and during the night the rebel pulled back into the city. Looking back on it now, from 40 years on, I have to say I think for once Sherman missed an opportunity. Most of the pressure had been on the late McPherson’s army – Thomas and Schofield’s Armies of the Cumberland and Ohio were mostly unengaged and might have been used to tear through the smaller force in front of them, amounting to a corps or so, and capture the city weeks before it actually fell. Still, everything’s easier in hindsight – I’ve never lost a battle I’ve refought years later. Under the circumstances I supposed Sherman did well enough - all Hood was doing was delaying the inevitable. Logan didn’t retain command of McPherson’s men, by the way. He and Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, didn’t get on and Sherman wanted no friction between his subordinate commanders. Instead the command went to an old sobersides named Howard, who didn’t drink or swear and like to spend his Sundays visiting hospitals handing out fruit and religious tracts in equal measure, yet another good reason for me to keep my head down and avoid any harm.
Having missed his chance to take Atlanta by direct assault Sherman settled down to besiege the city, his artillery lobbing shells into the city and generally giving the populace an extremely unpleasant time. After the battle where McPherson was killed he’d moved that army round to the west of Atlanta and tempted Bell out to make another attempt to drive the federal troops away from the city. This brought on another action at a place called Ezra Church near the end of July. Hood clearly hoped he could fall on part of the federal army in a surprise attack and destroy it. Unfortunately for him Howard had anticipated the attack and it broke on the improvised breastworks he’d had set up, taking around three thousand casualties, around five times the Union losses. It was the third time Hood had tried and failed to drive the Yankees away from Atlanta and to Sherman it looked like they’d reached the end of their rope. ‘No sense in getting men killed by attacking the city’, he said. ‘We’ll put them under siege and cut them off, cut the railroads, and then take both their army and their town’, so we settled down to spend August doing just that.
By this time I’d been with Sherman for some time, months in fact, and ye may be wondering, now that the unpleasantness of the Porter business was settled why I didn’t offer to resign my commission and get a boat home. That same thought had been growing in my mind and as things were quiet enough, and it looked as though the war could only end one way I decided that I’d bring the subject up with Sherman himself when an opportunity presented itself. Then I had another letter from Elspeth.
It had obviously been in transit for some time, chasing me around half a dozen US states for months but I was happy enough to get it. It brought back memories of home, and particularly of my gorgeous scatter brained wife. Happy enough till I read it, that is. Among the artless prattle and gossip, the wistful longings for me, and what Lady Johnson had got up to with her young footman (the upper classes, eh ?) was this particular bombshell:-
‘Now, Harry’, it began ‘You’ll remember Mama took sick a little while ago’ – I remembered it well, it was the spark that had got me involved in this damnable war – ‘I’m sorry to say that she’s recently been ill again’ – now this was getting interesting, I thought as I eagerly turned the page. Perhaps the old harridan’s died and gone to join old man Morrison, her husband, formerly Deacon of Weavers in the city of Glasgow and major shareholder in a slaving company, in whatever corner of hell had been reserved for him. You’ll be able to imagine my disappointment when I turned the page to read ‘Fortunately she has quite recovered’ – aye well, I thought, she can’t have long left anyway. Ne’er mind, the time will soon pass and we’ll be rid of her. Imagine my horror, then, when I read ‘Mama has consented to leave Paisley and live with us in London. She is quite settled here now and looking forward to seeing you when you return’. I absolutely shouted out loud ‘Christ Almighty, no !’, which caused a bit of a commotion in the mess tent where I was reading the letter by lamplight. I turned the page back and read that section again, hoping that I somehow had misread it, that she’d gone to live with Mary or one of Elspeth’s other sisters, though I knew I hadn’t. But there it was, in black and white. The old witch was in my house in London (actually Elspeth’s since her father had saved us from ruin years before), living there, no doubt shouting at the servants and eyeing up the good silver. I could picture her sitting in a chair by the fire, like a great black vulture (she was a big woman) chuntering away to herself, casting baleful glances at me from time to time through her narrowed eyelids, no doubt cursing me under her breath. It wasn’t to be borne, I couldn’t have that horrid old woman living with me, surely Elspeth could see that ? She knew, though she pretended otherwise, that we hated each other. Of course I couldn’t say it outright. Elspeth held the purse strings and while I doubt she’d drop me if I said anything untoward about her mother (unless I suggested murder) she could make things damn sticky for me. That put paid to the idea of rushing home, at least while I schemed of a way of getting rid of my dear mother in law short of homicide. So I settled down to wait out the siege, keeping well away from the firing line as I debated the best course of action.
Chapter 10: Atlanta
Who caused more damage ?
While I was working on these important matters the minor matter of the war was dragging on. Lincoln was up for re-election, his opponent being none other than his former army commander, McClellan, who he’d sacked for his timidity earlier in the war. It was looking like a close run thing as neither Sherman nor Grant looked likely to give the north the decisive victory that would bring peace. McClellan was running on an anti-war ticket, and the movers and shakers in Lincoln’s Republican party were thinking of ditching him for fear of the very real chance that he would lose the election, an outcome that would see an end to the Union he had fought so hard to preserve these last 3 years. Then Sherman gave Lincoln just what he needed.
Throughout August, while he’d been battering Atlanta, Sherman had been extending his lines around the city with the aim of cutting the two main rail road connections and tying Hood up without access to fresh supplies coming into the city. At the end of the month he sent Howard and his men to cut the Macon line. An assault by rebel units was bloodily repulsed causing Hood to withdraw those units into Atlanta. The next day, September 1, Sherman brought up the XIV Corps for an assault on the Confederate lines north of Jonesborough. In the late afternoon they attacked the rebel salient and after hand to hand fighting broke through, forcing the remaining Confederate troops to fall back towards the city. That night, with his supply lines cut and in danger of having the remains of his army encircled and captured Hood ordered the military evacuation of Atlanta.
Next day Sherman received a hand written note from one of his corps commanders, Henry Slocum, that he had entered the city unopposed and that there was no sign of rebel troops anywhere. It seemed the stalemate was broken and as the news ran round the excited army even old Slow Trot Thomas was, for him, almost out of control, skipping around, snapping his fingers and combing his beard excitedly. As Sherman himself said he almost broke out into a dance. The next day Sherman sent his famous message to Washington, ‘So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won’, and his troops settled in to occupy the city and prepare for the next stage of the campaign.
Of course everybody knows what happened before the Union army left Atlanta, and I’ll come to that presently, but it was preceded by a quite extraordinary episode initiated by the taciturn Sherman himself. The city’s mayor, James Calhoun surrendered the city to Sherman on September 2, 1864, writing, "Sir: The fortune of war has placed Atlanta in your hands. As mayor of the city I ask protection of non-combatants and private property." All very reasonable, you might think – there was no point in doing otherwise, after all, if he wanted to pacify the area before moving on. Strangely, though, it threw Sherman into a bit of a bind, which really, even now, after all these years, I can only say was of his own making.
At that time Atlanta was still occupied by Slocum’s 20th Corps, and as Uncle Billy was in no hurry to join him we didn’t actually get into Atlanta before the second week in September, where Sherman set up his HQ in some judge’s residence in the Court House Square of the city. But before he went there he responded to the mayor’s letter with an extraordinary demand that the entire civilian population of the city be evacuated, to go north or south as pleased them. He’d quietly made his intentions clear to his staff and his superiors a few days before and his response to the disquiet it raised among those around him was typically tough and terse. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty”, he said, “I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking”, and with that he despatched a letter to the city’s mayor outlining his demands. Of course he received an anguished response from Calhoun and the city council protesting against the order, claiming that most of those who had not fled could not leave on account of their age, sickness, pregnancy, or destitution. Sherman was unmoved and sent a lengthy reply saying he would not countermand the order. His purpose was to end the war as quickly as possible and restore the Union. The presence of civilians in Atlanta would be an impediment to that purpose and therefore it was logical to him that they must leave. He wrote “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it” – therefore it must be ended as quickly as possible, as that was the only way to ameliorate its effects.
It was clear the population of the city had fallen drastically over the course of the campaign to capture it and was little more than perhaps a few thousands. Over the course of the next week something like half of those left the city, some to go north, but mostly further south, to seek what shelter they could find amongst friends and relatives. But to the southerners this seemed a harsh and unnecessary measure and was the beginning of Sherman’s reputation amongst them as dishonourable, cruel, and inhumane, an opinion they apparently still hold to this day. For me it seemed an unnecessary step but I hadn’t much sympathy for the rebels. As Sherman told ‘em, they’d started the fire and the only way to stop it was for him to put it out, and he’d do that in any way he deemed appropriate. For Sherman, the defeated residents of Atlanta could only be a hindrance to him in his preparations since they represented mouths to feed in addition to his own army. Nor did he want to bear responsibility for women and children in the midst of his army, therefore the removal of Atlanta’s citizens was the most logical solution. He wrote, "I have deemed it to the interest of the United States that the citizens now residing in Atlanta should remove, those who prefer it to go south, and the rest north."
So we settled into Atlanta to prepare for what became famous – or infamous, depending on your view point – as Sherman’s march to the sea. Elsewhere the war rolled on, with Little Phil Sheridan chasing old Jubal Early all around the Shenandoah valley, and eventually giving him a fearsome trashing, while Grant, having engaged in a series of bloody battles known as the Overland campaign earlier in the year, and then getting a bloody nose off Lee at Cold Harbour, was now engaged in front of Petersburg, trying to cut off the town, which was vital to Lee for maintaining supplies.
We waited in Atlanta for some time while the army built up supplies for Sherman’s next move. I was kept busy enough working on Sherman’s staff, planning the next stage of the campaign. Truth to tell, there wasn’t much else to do. The city had taken a fearful battering during the siege from artillery and most civilians had left, so the place was almost deserted apart from soldiery. There was no sign of me being released from service and when I brought the subject up, in a roundabout way, Sherman just replied, laconically that I was proving very useful and that he was sure I’d want to see the end of the great campaign to re unite the nation. Naturally I didn’t give a damn about re uniting the nation – my great campaign was to escape with a whole skin – but I could hardly say that to Sherman so, as ever, I had to swim with the tide to see where it would take me. In any case, with Elspeth’s mother still encamped, as far as I knew, at my house in London I wasn’t that eager to return home just yet.
While preparations were being made Sherman was in discussion with Grant, by letter, about his next move. He’d outlined very fully to his commander his plan to cut a swathe through rebel territory, destroying everything that could assist the enemy to keep fighting. His view was that if a Union army could roam at will throughout the heart of the Confederacy, destroying property as they went, it would make plain to the world, and more importantly the rebels themselves, how their claims to control their own territory were empty. For his part Grant was concerned about the rebel army, led by Hood, that was still undefeated and posed a threat. Grant felt that if he had a chance Sherman should attempt to defeat him and remove him from the war. Sherman had completely discounted Hood as a threat and growled to us that if Hood would go off west to the Ohio and get out of the way he’d supply him with rations. So the discussion went on, until, at the start of November, Grant finally agreed to Sherman’s plans when Sherman pointed out that to destroy Hood he would have to give up Atlanta and all the ground gained in the campaign so far. They fixed on a date just over a week ahead, after the Presidential election due on the 8th November, which Lincoln looked likely to win, the capture of Atlanta having been a big boost to his chances.
On the 10th November, with Lincoln’s re-election secured, Sherman’s army began to move eastwards from Atlanta towards the coast, which lay about three hundred miles away. Off went three of Sherman’s four corps, while he remained in Atlanta with the other one, the Fourteenth, to carry out the act which established his reputation in the south as a cruel and heartless monster, devoid of any human decency – the destruction of Atlanta.
When people learn I was there to see it they remark what a terrible deed it was, and I nod sagely as I agree. ‘War is indeed hell’, I say. Of course if they talk of it further I’m inclined to point out that Sherman didn’t intend to destroy the whole city, just anything that could be used by the rebels were they to re-occupy Atlanta – factories, the railroads and the like. I’d also point out that the place was pretty knocked about already by cannon fire from the siege of the city, and that, furthermore, the rebels probably did more damage to Atlanta when they withdrew at the beginning of September, setting fire to munitions they couldn’t take with them, causing both explosions and fires that flattened large parts of the city.
It wasn't the first time I’d seen destruction on this scale before – I was at the demolition of the Summer Palace, remember – and it always gets out of hand. Not that there was much to loot, unlike in China, the place being stuffed with precious things, but the federal troops hadn’t been too fussy about how they treated empty buildings while they occupied the city and they weren’t inclined to break that habit now, so while Sherman had given strict instructions about what to destroy the Union troops went at it with a will.
Sherman sent me down to see how the destruction was going on. In an attempt to contain the damage to anything that could genuinely be considered a military asset he'd given the job to his chief engineer, Orlando Poe. When I found Poe on the morning of the 15th, I think it was, he'd rigged up some sort of machine to help with the demolition. I suppose the nearest term for it was a battering ram. It was an iron rail, something like twenty feet long, suspended on chains from a large wooden frame.
'Morning, Captain', I called over to him, as he was supervising the positioning of the damn thing in front of some sort of mechanical workshop.
'Good day, Major', he called back, and went back to his work.
'Planning to lay siege to a castle ?', I said, as I reached him. 'What the devil's this for ?'.
'Not a siege engine, Major, but something on the same lines', he said. Calling out to his team he shouted 'In position, let's get on with it. Stand clear, Major', he said to me as his men positioned themselves on either side of the extended rail.
'Swing her', he called, and the engineers, using chains attached to the ram, began to swing the iron rail back and forth till it had built up quite a momentum. I kept well clear – get a whack of the ram, or even the chains and that would likely be that.
It didn't take long till Poe was happy with the speed and as the rail reached the end of the backswing he bellowed 'Let go' and the crew dropped the chains. Freed from their control the rail was launched at the base of the building, slamming into it with tremendous force, smashing the lower brick work, and causing an almost instant collapse from top to bottom, with the contents of the building buried under tons of brick and rubble. Lots of noise came from the vibrating rail, too, as it swung back more slowly, having done its work.
Keeping well clear of the apparatus I made my way to Poe.
'Good Lord, Poe, isn't that more trouble than it's worth ? Wouldn't some well placed explosives make the job easier ?', I asked him.
'Easier, yes, but more dangerous and destructive', he replied. 'The General instructed me to avoid damage to civilian property. Explosives cause fires which can spread, and if not properly laid can destroy adjacent buildings and cause unintended casualties. My machine avoids those risks'.
I looked at him – he was quite serious, so all I said was 'I'd get a patent on that, if I were you', and moved on to see how the work was going elsewhere in the city.
Unfortunately for residents of Atlanta not all charged with it's destruction as a source of military supplies were as fastidious as Poe. In general the order to avoid unnecessary damage was being ignored by the common soldiers of the Union army. Even where some groups were careful only to fire warehouses and such the flames inevitably spread to other buildings nearby. The smoke was so thick it was almost blinding, and the noise of explosions, burning and collapsing buildings, and the devilish yell of over excited, undisciplined men going about their work with a zest was deafening. The racket was supplemented by, believe it or not, a regimental band playing loudly in one of the squares. I don't know if they were taking requests but it seemed to be a selection of light opera, regularly interspered with an enthusiastic rendering of 'John Brown's Body'.
On a few occasions the intercession of an officer – or even a civilian – made some of the troopers think again. For example, I witnessed a tough old infantry sergent about to set fire to a house when a little girl, not more than ten, came and touched his arm, saying ‘Mr. Soldier you would not burn our house would you? If you did where would we live?’ He looked at her for a moment, shook his head, and dropped the torch, walking quickly away as though ashamed. That was the exception, from what I saw but to be fair the soldiers made sure any building they burned was empty first.
As I left with Sherman’s staff and escort the next morning, the 16th, I looked back and saw the city still smouldering, covered by an immense ball of smoke, like an ominous warning to the rest of Georgia that Sherman was on his way. He felt no remorse at the destruction. He laid the whole cost of the war on the south, and this was just retribution – ‘Hell has laid her egg, and right here, it is hatched’, was all he said.
Chapter 11: Savannah Or Bust
Uncle Billy Sherman has been gone 15 years and more now, though I doubt the South speaks any better of him these days than it did in the aftermath of his great march across Georgia to the sea. ‘Attila the Hun’ was about the politest I heard – I won’t trouble ye with the worst of it – t’would make your eyes weep to read it all.
Of course from the rebel’s side of it you could see their point of view. To them it was waging war on innocent civilians, fighting dishonourably and in a cowardly fashion, avoiding direct conflict wherever possible, destroying the South’s ability to fight. I wouldn’t say they were wrong, either, because that was one of his aims, to remove their ability to feed and support their military by destroying their supply base. But he also wanted to show to the rebels that his army could range freely throughout the south, and that no one, from the lowliest soldier through to General Lee himself, could prevent him from doing just as he wished on their land and inside their borders. He wanted to destroy their morale as well as their ability to fight. “I intend to move through Georgia, smashing things to the sea. I can make the march and make Georgia howl”, as he famously said as he prepared to set off. Of course by this stage I doubt the rebels could have mustered much more than half of Sherman’s army of more than sixty thousand to oppose him anyway, many of them old men and untried boys, so perhaps they were lucky that he chose that course of action. There were plenty of minor skirmishes along the way but only really one battle of any note, less than a week into the march at a little place called Griswoldville, just outside Georgia’s state capital at Milledgeville
There were some sound military objectives of course. Savannah was just about the last major sea port that the rebels held, and by swinging round through Georgia Sherman could put pressure on the rear of Lee’s remaining army. This was still under siege in Petersburg, opposing Grant in Virginia, in attempt to save the rebel capital of Richmond. What was not militarily sound, though, and was in complete contrast to Union supply practice of the time, was that as part of the destruction of the South’s fighting capacity Sherman’s army would live off the land. They would supply themselves by sending foraging parties out from the wings of the army, to supplement the 20 days of rations and 3 days of animal fodder they would begin the march with.
Sherman split his army into two wings, Howard’s Army of the Tennessee on the right, with Slocum’s Army of Georgia on the left. The cavalry brigade, under Kilpatrick, went where it was required, protecting flanks, skirmishing, scouting and looking out for the foraging parties. These roamed well away from the flanks of the army, using old census data to find likely sources of supply. Sherman travelled with the northern, left hand wing, and naturally I accompanied him. The distance between the two wings varied day to day according to the country, any resistance, and any feints planned to confuse the enemy. One day it could be 60 miles, another down to 20, but generally the northern arm headed to Augusta, with the southern arm aimed at Macon.
As I said, we set off early on the morning of 16th November, accompanied by Sherman’s personal guard, a company of the 1st Alabama Cavalry, and an infantry company, on the Decatur road out of Atlanta. As we left union troops began tearing up the railroad behind up, twisting and bending the iron into loops, sometimes around trees, so they couldn’t be relaid – Sherman’s neckties, they came to be called, amongst other things. As we rode on in easy fashion the foraging parties began to set out from either wing of the advance, looking for all sorts of supplies such as forage, mules, horses, and food for the army itself. These parties became known as ‘bummers’ and took Sherman’s instruction, from his famous Special Field Order 120, to ‘forage liberally’ to the limit. Much of it was merely looting, of course, with silver and gold in particular targets of theft. Most of the time the bummers discarded larger items such as candelabra or plates and pictures they’d filched as there was no way for them to conveniently carry them on the march or back to the column, though that was no comfort for their former owners, of course. In the meantime the army advanced steadily, 10 or 15 miles a day, with little resistance, though irregular southern militia harassed the flanks from time to time and took a fair toll on the foraging parties away from the main line of advance.
One thing that threatened to slow the army was the large number of negroes, most of ‘em slaves of course, that flocked to the army, or trailed in its rear, as it passed through any place much bigger than a hamlet. To Sherman they were nothing but a damned nuisance – a few could be taken on as cooks, or for labour, but he had neither the time nor the supplies to support the numbers that flocked to the army. Nevertheless, the numbers swelled and the army was soon being followed by thousands of niggers, either hopeful of their freedom or in fear of any rebel soldiers who may follow the Union troops preparing for an attack. Their fears weren’t unfounded as I learned just before reaching the state capital at Midgeville. It was after supper and we’d settled around a campfire, smoking, Sherman sitting with his back to the fire as he watched his army settle for the night. As we sat there talking quietly an elderly black, carrying a candle, made his way cautiously towards the general and examined his face carefully in the candlelight. Noticing him Sherman said "What do you want, old man!". "Dey say you is Massa Sherman.", he answered. Sherman confirmed that was so, and what did he want ? The black just stared at Uncle Billy’s face and kept muttering, "Dis nigger can't sleep dis night."
Sherman saw him trembling and asked him what frightened him – the old man answered that he wanted to be sure that we were the Yankee liberators. In the past some rebel cavalry had put on light-blue overcoats, impersonating Union troops. When the niggers, including himself, had welcomed them they’d been badly beaten – he didn’t want this to happen again, so to make sure we were truly the fabled ‘Yankees’ he wanted to see Sherman there for himself. To convince him Sherman took him by the arm and showed him the campfires of his army, inviting him to say whether he’d seen the like before. ‘No suh’, he said, and by now being convinced we were who we said we were he took advantage of a large swig of whisky, and began to talk fifteen to the dozen, having recognised one of Sherman’s younger officers as a nephew of his owner. I left ‘em to it and went to bed. I was due to go forward early the next morning to observe the advance and capture of Midgeville, so some sleep seemed to be in order.
It was that following day, the 22nd, that the only significant military action took place at a little place called Griswoldville, when the southern arm of the advance, under Howard, was attacked by about two thousand Confederate militia men. After taking some initial casualties Sherman’s seasoned troops easily drove off the enemy, taking about a hundred casualties against around five times that of the rebels, with another five or six hundred prisoners. I saw some of these prisoners and wounded – old grey haired men or young boys, barely strong enough to load and carry a rifle. Hood had quit Georgia and this was what was what was left to oppose Sherman and his tough army of veterans. I don’t feel sorry for many folk after a battle, small or large – preserving a whole skin is what matters to me – but you couldn’t help be affected by the sight of what were really children, persuaded or bullied to take part in a hopeless fight, writhing in agony from wounds that would affect them all their lives, if they were lucky enough to survive at all. It was typical of what we faced throughout the march – little bands of ill trained men and boys, going under what must have seemed to them brave or heroic names, such as Mitchell Thunderbolts, or the ‘Paulding County Raid Repellers’. Aye, well as the bard would say ‘What’s in a name’ ? Having a fancy handle is no bar to being slaughtered if you ain’t well enough equipped, trained, and mustered, as Georgia found to its cost – another reason for them to detest the murderer Sherman, as they saw him.
The next day the two wings of the army converged on Midgeville which fell without a fight. It was about a hundred miles from Atlanta, and had taken exactly a week, just as Uncle Billy had predicted. On entering the city – really a small town – troops headed for the state legislature and found it mostly deserted. The day before the governor and representatives had issued a proclamation drafting all men between the ages of 16 and 55, and then fled the advancing Union army. As they were politicians I wasn’t in the least bit surprised – all bluster and rhetoric, prepared to see any man die in their place. They make me sick, always have and always will. I may be a coward and a craven but I don’t exhort men to go out and die for me – unless a’course I’m at an immediate and personal risk. Our men, though, decided to hold a mock session of the house, fuelled, inevitably, by whisky, mocking the bravado of the previous occupants and voting Georgia back into the Union. Sherman wasn’t there, but as he said himself, he enjoyed the joke when I reported back to him. But he was in no mood to tarry in the town. He ordered the destruction of the arsenal and some public buildings but very little else was damaged, and the next day the march resumed.
After Midgeville the two wings of the army split again, and continued their relentless march towards the coast. As before there were various little skirmishes and minor actions, most involving Kilpatrick’s cavalry as it roamed the flanks or between the two wings. In the meantime the bummers continued their enthusiastic foraging, ranging far and wide over the rich country they passed through. They were nominally supposed to be under an officer’s orders but this soon broke down and the parties broke off into little groups pursuing food, animals, forage and anything else that took their fancy. Often what they couldn’t take they burned, or if animals, killed the poor beasts, leaving families on the brink of destitution. Of the men themselves this is the best description I’ve found, and gives a picture of them far more vivid than I can paint:-
‘Fancy a ragged man, blackened by the smoke of many a pine-knot fire, mounted on a scrawny mule, without a saddle, with a gun, a knapsack, a butcher's knife and a plug hat, stealing his way through the pine forests far out on the flanks of a column, keen on the scent of rebels, or bacon, or silver spoons, or corn, or anything valuable, and you have him in your mind’.
These ragged men didn’t discriminate who they plundered, either. They would steal valuables from rich or poor, black or white, it made no matter to them. Like many whites, then, even in the supposedly abolitionist north, they looked down on the blacks as inferior and couldn’t see the irony in taking part in a campaign that was now, in part, aimed at freeing them from slavery while stealing from them what little they had. One thing, though, was there was rarely use of violence, though of course it did happen from time to time. Often the slaves on an abandoned farm or plantation were quite willing to show them where the booty was, and they became expert in finding it themselves anyway. There were very few cases of rape either, at least of white women. Nobody cared to take a count of any rapes of nigger women, though I daresay there were quite a lot of those. As I said, ironic, ain’t it ?
In the meantime the main body of the army swept across Georgia, kept supplied by the bummers, destroying railroads, bridges and any military facilities they found. Generally they tried to avoid destroying private property, but if, for example, they were fired on from a house, they’d burn that house down once they’d dealt with whoever was doing the shooting. Sounds admirably restrained, don’t it ? Unless you’re there and seeing what an army of sixty thousand can do to the countryside as it fights its way forward and lives off the land it’s fighting on. I’m not a religious type – unless my backside’s in a sling, when I can pray with the best of ‘em – but the picture of a plague of locusts from somewhere in the Bible came to mind when I looked on that great mass of soldiery swarming across the late autumn Georgia countryside.
Now I’ve just said that the bummers engaged in few acts of gratuitous violence and that was generally true. Of course there were casualties on both sides as rebel militia and foraging parties came upon each other but that was to be expected in war. After Midgeville, though, there was something of a change in the attitude of our troops, and there were some gruesome incidents of murder by both sides. I think this was partly because in the town they found some Union escapees from a prison camp called Andersonville, which was soon to become notorious. From my time in Libby’s Prison I knew the Confederates weren’t exactly generous with prisoners of war but the state of these poor devils shocked even me. They were starved, scrawny, some almost skeletal, bursting into tears at the sight of Old Glory and the smell of decent food. How they’d made it the distance from Andersonville, over a hundred miles, I couldn’t say, except, of course, that quite a lot didn’t. Well, if it shocked me it put a new anger and steel into Sherman’s men. They couldn’t fathom how the rebels could treat fellow men, prisoners of war who they had a duty to treat honourably, in such a way especially when there didn’t seem to be any lack of food or supplies available. Of course the answer’s clear to me now – if you can tell yourself it’s alright to keep human beings as slaves you can probably justify any cruelty to your fellow man, especially if he’s one of the hated enemy, invading what you see as your country. It put a new zeal into the army, and they became even more determined to punish the South for its insurrection.
The other cause was what was clearly the brutal fate of some of the bummers if caught by a Confederate patrol. It wasn’t that unusual to find that the members of a foraging party who’d failed to return were dead, obviously murdered by having their throats cut , or being bayoneted when bound, some with rope burns on their necks as though they’d been partly hanged before being killed. Any rebels found in the area were likely to suffer a similar fate, whether they were responsible or not. It reminded me of the mutiny in India, nearly ten years before, when I found myself caught up with a group of British irregulars called Rowbotham’s Moss Troopers. We caught and hung a group of pandies and in their enthusiasm these irregulars also took potshots at them as they dangled. All nasty stuff, with tit for tat killings beginning to take place along the flanks of the march. Whenever I went out to see how the bummers were doing I made sure I took a strong escort with me, just in case.
In spite of these unpleasant distractions the march continued at a steady pace with little opposition. There were small scale nuisance attacks by the Confederates, most of which were cavalry raids under the rebel general Wheeler but they never threatened to seriously delay the advance. The army had split into its two separate wings again, with Sherman (and I) remaining with Slocum’s Army of Georgia on the left, or northern, wing, bypassing the town of Augusta to avoid an entanglement slowing the advance to the coast.
You’ll recall that I mentioned the trail of negroes the army picked up as it passed ? As we’d advanced further eastward that became larger and larger until it numbered in the thousands. Some were employed, as I’ve said, supporting the march in the camp as cooks and what have you. Hundreds more were used as pioneers, repairing or improving the road ahead of the advance, which others acted as guides through country that was quite unknown to the Federal army. All those directly employed were fed and watered like the regular troops but it was impossible for Sherman to feed all the followers and keep the pace of the advance up. Consequently, when the army stopped for the night the camps were invaded by hungry niggers begging for food for themselves and their families. The troopers spared what they could but it was a hungry, desperate march for most of the blacks and as we neared Savannah it was to become far worse for many of them.
On December 9, Slocum's left wing was moving through thick woods about 20 miles west of Savannah itself when it came to a small tributary of the Savannah River called Ebenezer’s Creek. It was forty to fifty yards wide at that point, but swollen to about ten feet in depth, and icy with it, clearly far too deep and fast to ford in safety. A pontoon bridge was put up and I crossed it with the lead elements of the troops and watched as the rest of XIV Corps, commanded by one Jefferson C Davis, no less, marched steadily across the temporary bridge. To ensure his command got across as fast as possible Davis detailed a guard to prevent the following host of blacks interfering with the crossing. A normal precaution, I suppose, though the niggers were so patient and docile it didn’t seem necessary as they held back to allow the soldiers across first.
After a while XIV Corps, including the rear guard, were across. As the blacks began to move towards the bridge to cross I was astonished to hear a shouted order, and the pontoons were pulled from under the bridge, collapsing it into the swollen river and leaving the blacks stranded on the other side. Horrified, they let out a collective howl of fear, fit to freeze the heart. You could hardly blame them as Wheeler’s rebel cavalry was known to be trailing the column, looking for an opportunity to launch a spoiling attack. But if looking at that mass band of frightened humanity, left betrayed on the far bank was bad enough, what followed next almost defied description.
As the desperate crowd looked up and down the banks trying to find another way across someone yelled ‘Rebels’ and what was a frightened mob reacted the only way imaginable and went into a mass panic. There was a wild rush as some people dived into the water, hoping, in desperation, to swim the unfordable river and get away from Wheeler's cavalrymen. Some of the desperate and strongest made it across but far more, especially women and children, began to thrash desperately in the freezing water and quickly drowned. Others ran up and down the bank, not knowing what to do, seeing danger before and behind. Not that the Union soldiers stood by just gaping at the carnage – the rank and file, that is. They threw logs into the water, and chopped down trees to construct a makeshift bridge. That helped a few, but only a few. Most in the water drowned, while the mass remained fearful on the far bank, pressed closer and closer to the edge of the dangerous water by their desperate companions behind who were perhaps nearer to the rebel cavalry. By this time Davis had ordered his men forward and the niggers were left to make shift for themselves, rebels behind or not.
How could such a thing happen, you may ask, when all that was needed was to leave the bridge open, under a small guard, till all the blacks got across ? To me the answer is clear. The union commander Davis (no relation to my old sparring partner the CSA president) was pro union but pro slavery. He resented the drag on his advance that the following crowd of blacks caused and decided this was a good time to be rid of them. I don’t suppose he expected so many to drown, if any, but I doubt he shed any tears over them. T’was as cold blooded a thing as I’ve seen in my military career of fifty years and more. D’ye know, despite the anger among the troops and the testimony of good men like Kerr and Connolly of the 126th Illinois Cavalry, and a chaplain and doctor who had been present not a damn thing was done about the incident. Even Sherman defended Davis, claiming that it was all an accident resulting from the former slaves disobeying his orders to stay away. Well, I thought, if that’s freedom, you can keep it for me.
By 10th December all 4 of Sherman’s corps had reached a position just outside Savannah, with the 14th northernmost, touching the river, and 15th on the extreme right, to the south, the 20th and 17th between them. All seemed ready for an assault on the city itself, and in preparation Sherman did what all good generals do, and went to the front to reconnoitre for himself, dragging his staff, amongst them a reluctant Flashy, along with him. After all, while the rebels hadn’t shown that much fight so far now they were behinds walls and ramparts, no doubt well supplied with shot and shell, and the means to use them. If they caught sight of what was obviously a general’s party they’d do their damnedest to kill them.
Sherman led us onto the Louisville road, and from there we entered a thick forest of oak and pine – some of the pines very handsome and tall, with no branches on them till maybe sixty or seventy feet up, I might say - left the horses, and walked down to the railroad track. He found a point where the railroad was straight, leading into Savannah, where we could see the city before us, its outer defences about half a mile or so away.
As I expected that first line of defence was a manned parapet with cannon pointing outwards, one directly towards us, as though we were expected. Sure enough, though field glasses I could see the crew preparing to fire at us – Uncle Billy called on us to scatter, which I did with alacrity, along with the rest of his staff, though he stayed where he was, ready to watch the flight of the ball. More fool him – I wasn’t going to stay as close to him as I did to Grant at Shiloh and risk another wound or worse. Soon enough there was a puff of smoke and, having watched its flight carefully, Sherman must have decided it was going straight at him so he stepped a distance aside as we all watched the ball heading towards us. Unfortunately the negro crossing the track at right angles close in front of us was unaware of his danger. Though someone shouted a warning it was too late and as the ball bounced and ricocheted onwards it took him under his jaw and literally took his head off, scattering bone, blood and brains to the four winds. I’d seen it before of course but it doesn’t get any easier to experience, especially when Sherman ordered me to take a horse blanket out to cover the poor devil’s remains. I took care not to look too close as I laid it over his body. That brought Sherman to his senses and we retired post haste out of range and back to his headquarters, some five miles short of the city, and well out of direct cannon shot, thankfully.
Reconnaissance by 17th Corps, who’d crossed the canal below the Louisville road, and other units, soon showed the parapet to be continuous, and the outer part of a fairly thick defence. The city was strongly garrisoned and commanded by a rebel general named Hardy, who Sherman reckoned knew his stuff, so it looked to him that it was going to be another siege and he made his arrangements accordingly. First order of business was to make contact with the Union fleet in Ossabaw Sound, which had supplies on board for Sherman’s army. It was commanded by one of their more distinguished sailors, a chap named Dahlgren, whose brother, incidentally, was a slave owner and brigadier general in the Confederate army. The problem was that a rebel fort named McAllister prevented the army linking with the fleet, and also stopped them using the Ogeechee River in general as a supply route. Sherman sent Kilpatrick’s cavalry to invest the area and determine the best way to attack the fort. Soon enough Kilpatrick reported that it was lightly defended and could be taken by a determined infantry attack – I suppose he would say that, wouldn’t he ?
Hazen’s division of four thousand men was chosen to take the fort and on the afternoon of 13th December I accompanied Sherman and a few of his other staff and a small escort down to watch the fun. The Signals had built an observation platform on top of an abandoned rice mill about three miles from the fort, which lay across a salt marsh, together with another platform on the roof of an adjoining shed. Up we clambered onto the shed and once there Sherman made sure he could communicate with the signaller atop the mill. By this time Sherman, who could get excitable, was getting very impatient – he wanted the fort cleared and to be able to link up with the fleet that day. Soon enough though, sometime around 2pm, the rebels began to fire cannon inland and there was the clear sound of skirmishing infantry in the woods that lay to that side of the fort. The signaller above spotted a flag which he confirmed was Hazen’s, who in turn asked if Sherman was there. On confirmation he was there and that he expected the fort taken by that night, Hazen responded that he would soon make the assault.
Still we waited and given it was mid December with the light fading early, Sherman grew even more impatient and was about to order the signaller to find out ‘what the hell the delay was’, when someone spotted smoke on the river, soon identified as coming from part of Dahlgren’s fleet. More signalling between roof and river to establish who was who on board and who on land, and then, with an hour or so of light left Hazen signalled he was ready to attack, and just then the steamer signalled to ask if the fort was taken yet.
‘Tell him not yet, but it will be in a minute !’ Uncle Billy shouted up to the signaller and at the same moment Hazen’s troops advanced in extended line from the edge of the woods facing the fort, moving at a steady pace while the defenders came alive, fired off their cannon and the whole scene became enveloped in the thick smoke that invariably accompanies any large scale action. Through it we could faintly see the Union lines still going forward and then there was a pause, the firing stopped, and as the smoke cleared the fort’s parapets were alive with blue soldiery, waving and firing their rifles in triumph. The whole thing, from the first advance to that moment, had taken about fifteen minutes.
Sherman was so damned pleased about it that he exclaimed, ‘This nigger will have no sleep this night!", echoing the elderly black who’d come to make sure it was really him a few days earlier. He decided it was time for him to make direct contact with Admiral Dahlgren, and spotting a small boat tied to the wharf by the mill called for a volunteer crew to row him, going first to Fort McAllister to see Hazen and his men. To me he said ‘Back to my headquarters, Flashman. I intend to send an ultimatum to Hardy to invite his surrender. Get to work on it at once, then co-ordinate with all the Corps HQ’s in case we need to take this beyond a siege’, and with that he was off, almost skipping, down to the skiff and away upriver.
Sherman was away two days and when he got back he went straight to Howard’s HQ at the Anderson plantation, sending orders to us in his headquarters on the Louisville road to join him there. As we made our way there I could see teams of gunners straining to get the heavy siege guns in place before the city, before the unseasonable weather turned to rain, making the task of moving the guns far more difficult.
While away Sherman had received a number of letters updating him on the overall situation but he’d had one from Grant that, in particular, set him in a bit of a bate. ‘Now see here, gentlemen’, he said, when his staff and senior commanders were gathered together on the afternoon of the 15th, ‘I have had a number of dispatches but one from General Grant enjoins me to leave a garrison here to hold the city in thrall and move the rest of the army northwards by sea. There we would link up with Grant to assist in the reduction of Richmond. I see his logic but my heart is set on capturing Richmond and I am loth to leave an unreduced citadel of the enemy in our rear, after so much time and effort on our behalf. In addition the Carolinas lie virtually undefended to the north. If we can take them on our way to join up with General Grant rebel morale may never recover’.
Well, he was clearly after our opinions but to me it seemed obvious that we needed to see what Grant’s orders were in detail, so I said ‘May we see the General’s letter, sir ?’, to which he replied ‘Surely’, and the short missive was passed around. After a short silence McCoy, one of his long time staffers, said ‘Seems quite clear to me, sir. He wants you and the army to join him as soon as may be’, to which Ewing – Sherman’s brother in law, but a damned good soldier – nodded his agreement, along with most of the rest of those present. Then Sherman looked at me. ‘You’ve said nothing, Major. You look deep in thought. Have you an answer to this conundrum ?’.
‘Perhaps, sir. Maybe not a complete answer but something that might give you a little more time to finish the job here. General Grant orders you to sail the army up to join him. How many ships might that take ?’, I asked.
‘Maybe a hundred’, Beckwith, the Chief Commissary piped up.
I looked at McCoy and said ‘D’ye know how many we have at present, of a suitable size ?’.
‘Not precisely, but with the naval fleet maybe a half of that’, he answered.
‘How long, d’ye think it would take to get the rest together here, up to a week, perhaps ?’, I said.
I didn’t need to say any more, as Sherman jumped in and shouted, with some glee, ‘Damn good, Flashman, damn good. We’ve time to see what our ultimatum does and maybe storm the city from all sides if necessary, while the ships are brought here. Now, do you have that letter for Hardy I asked you to draft ?’. As I passed it over to him he dismissed us all, then sat down the read the ultimatum he would send to Savannah. The next day he drafted a letter to Grant saying that while the necessary shipping was brought together he would see if he could take Savannah. It must surely fall, he said, as it was completely cut off from all supply. That was dispatched via Grant’s messenger, a Lieutenant Dunn, I think he was called, and the following day he called Ewing and I into his HQ, sat us down and said ‘Good letter, Flashman. I’ve changed it a tad, though. You both look it over now as you’ll be the boys taking it to Hardy, under flag of truce, of course’. Rather than summarising it I’ve copied it here, out of Sherman’s own memoirs:-
HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
IN THE FIELD, NEAR SAVANNAH, December 17, 1864.
General WILLIAM J. HARDEE, commanding Confederate Forces in
GENERAL: You have doubtless observed, from your station at Rosedew that sea-going vessels now come through Ossabaw Sound and up the Ogeechee to the rear of my army, giving me abundant supplies of all kinds, and more especially heavy ordnance necessary for the reduction of Savannah. I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah, and its dependent forts, and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer, before opening with heavy ordnance. Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge the national wrong which they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war. I inclose you a copy of General Hood's demand for the surrender of the town of Resaoa, to be used by you for what it is worth. I have the honor to be your obedient servant,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General.
Well, he had changed a bit, but not that much. I seem to have got the tenor of his writing, straight, and to the point, like the way he fought. No mincing words, no flattery about gallant defence, and loyalty to his cause but a straightforward ‘Surrender and things will be dandy. Don’t and I’ll blast the bejaysus out of you. Your choice’.
We rode down with two troopers carrying flags of truce to the battery that had fired on us earlier that week. Once we got with a few hundred yards a warning shot was fired and we halted. After a few minutes a small party of rebels came out, under the same sort of flags, and rode up to us. Salutes were exchanged and Ewing said to the senior officer in the party ‘I have the honour to deliver a message from Major General Sherman to Lt General Hardy, Commander of the Savannah garrison’, and with that he passed over Sherman’s ultimatum.
‘What’s in it ?’, the Confederate officer asked Ewing.
‘An offer of reasonable terms for surrender of the city’, he replied.
At this the rebel grunted, shook his head slightly, and said ‘It will be delivered to General Hardy forthwith. He will answer in his own good time, of that I am sure. Good day to you, gentlemen’, and with another round of salutes we all turned our horses back to our own lines. From the reaction of the rebel officer I didn’t hold out much hope for the city’s capitulation.
I was right, too. Next day Hardy replied, refusing to surrender, claiming he was not completely cut off - though he was – and enjoining Sherman to not deviate from the rules of civilised warfare ( that made Sherman guffaw ), as his obedient servant Hardy, Lt General. I’m all for good manners but t’was the ‘obedient servant’ that made me laugh. ‘Nothing else for it, gentlemen’, said Sherman. ‘Let us prepare for an assault in force, preceded by bombardment from land and sea. Get to it, I want to take the city before the ships are assembled to take us to Virginia’.
Of course it never came to that. On the night of the 20th Hardy and his command slipped away, escaping over the Savannah on a make shift pontoon bridge, and the next morning the city’s mayor and a mixed party of distinguished ladies and gents rode out and offered the surrender of the city to Geary, commander of a division in the 20th Corps, provided the city was left undamaged and unlooted. Geary telegraphed Sherman, who accepted the surrender, and Geary’s troops occupied the city the same day, allowing Uncle Billy to send his famous telegraph to Lincoln, offering him Savannah as a Christmas gift. I was looking forward to another visit to the place – you’ll recall I first landed into the war back in autumn ’61 in the very place, but it wasn’t to be. Before I could take a stride round the place I was heading back north, after another dispatch from Grant arrived.
Chapter 12: South of the Border
I get around
When I say the dispatch was from Grant it’s true as far as it goes. His was an order for me to return to Washington post haste to await further orders. More important was the supplementary from Lord Lyons, our top diplomat in the USA, enjoining me to visit him at the British mission in DC for discussions of a confidential nature. I was not to disclose to anyone what my real destination was.
Not that it was a problem, when I took leave of Sherman. ‘Sorry to see you go, Flashman’, he said. ‘You’ve been a damn fine help to me, to all of us, while you’ve been here. Bet you’re glad you had to stay, now, eh ?’, he added, to which I could only smile and say ‘Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, General’. ‘Anyhow, enjoy your new posting. The people you’re seeing, it’s bound to be interestin’’, and with that he gave me a curious wink, and with a nod of his head dismissed me.
I could only agree with him. I clearly wasn’t being summoned back so I could return home, not from what Lyon’s letter had said. I pondered long and hard about the possibilities as I was ferried back to Baltimore on a steam frigate but couldn’t come up with any certain idea of what it might be. Hopefully it wouldn’t be anything dangerous – I’d seen enough shot and shell over the past 3 years to last a lifetime.
So it was a wary and suspicious Flashy who presented himself to his Lordship in Washington one morning in late December, I think it was. I was shown into his office where he sat alone behind a huge desk, though he had the decency to get up from his chair to welcome me. ‘Good to see you, Flashman, and in good health as well, I’m pleased to see’, he said as he pumped my fin.
That was more than I could say for him. He looked damn piquey, pale and drawn, often rubbing his temples with his forefingers, as though to massage them.
‘Thankee, my Lord’, I said. ‘Forgive me for saying so, but you’re not looking at your best. Perhaps this meeting can be postponed for a day or two ?’.
‘Unfortunately I have been plagued with headaches and exhaustion these last few months, so a postponement would make no difference. Confidentially, Flashman, I have tendered my resignation to the Foreign Secretary, and have hopes it will be accepted. These last few years having been very trying, as I’m sure you’ll understand’, he answered.
‘Indeed so, my Lord. I can understand that you sterling work here has been at a great price’, I reassured him, though I thought if he thinks he’s had a bad time of it he should have had a taste of what I’d been through, the pen pushing pimp ! Sat behind a desk, wining and dining with the best, all creature comforts, while I been crisscrossing the damned continent, either under threat or under fire for most of the time, damn him. These diplomatics don’t know they’re born, damn their eyes !
‘You are very kind, Flashman, but now to business. Please follow me’, and he turned to the back of his office, opened a door and led me down a short corridor to the yard at the back of the building, where a two horse carriage waited. We both got in, and Lyons pulled the shutters up so no one could see us. Leaning across to me he spoke quietly, and said ‘We’re going to see Secretary of State Seward, at the State Department, on a matter of mutual interest’. Seward again, I thought. I knew him well, having met him – or been suborned by him – on a number of occasions. He thought he knew me well, too, but not as well as Lincoln did, I’m glad to say.
‘Very good, my Lord. What is this subject of mutual interest’, I asked. He leaned across again, looked round quickly, just in case someone had sneaked into the small carriage without our noticing, and answered in one word ‘Mexico’. I was nonplussed. What the devil interest have we in that forgotten fleapit of a country ? – that was my first thought. I had to hope they weren’t planning to send me there – the food was vile, far too hot and spicy, full of stodge and beans, and tequila was only fit to soften your boots in. Not my sort of place at all. The odds were that was the plan, though, otherwise why all the hush hush ? I hadn’t been taking much notice of the situation in Mexico, other than to note it was in its usual state of turmoil – most countries run by dagoes usually are, so there was nothing new there. Still, there was nothing for me to do but wait and see. His Lordship had clammed up and didn’t say another word till we got the State Department – tradesman’s entrance for me as usual, though His Lordship clearly wasn’t used having to use to the back door.
We were shown into Seward’s office – he wasn’t sat at a desk but in a comfortable chair by a low table. Standing up he gestured us to two other chairs there. As we sat he spoke first – ‘Your Lordship, it is a pleasure to see you again. Major Flashman, you are very welcome. Your service to the Union is a model of bravery, resource, and gentlemanly conduct’. Aye, thinks I, the same old silver tongued arm twister. I wonder if he’d think I was such a gentleman if he knew I threw that rebel soldier out of the balloon, or dumped Tom the gardener into the river in a weighted sack ? On reflection, I think he’d have said it anyway.
‘Now,’ Seward continued, ‘with your Lordship’s permission I will explain to Flashman our joint need’, to which Lyons gave a slight nod, closed his eyes and settled back in his chair. ‘Now, Major Flashman, what do you know of Mexico ?’.
‘Well, it’s a mess, I know that, but then it always is, isn’t it ? Permanent revolutions and all that’, I answered.
‘True to a point’, Seward answered. ‘At present the elected president Benito Juarez, a liberal, has been driven from the capital to the north of the country, while the French have installed an Austrian nobleman as emperor and to all intents and purposes control the country’.
‘Well, what’s that us ? England, I mean. I can see why you’d be bothered what with your Munroe doctrine – no interference by colonial powers in the western hemisphere’. I didn’t add that the only reason that doctrine had any teeth was because of Pax Britannica, and the Royal Navy’s dominance of the seas, t’wouldn’t have been diplomatic. ‘I’d rather see the frogs messing around in the Americas than in our bailiwick – they’ll only make a mess of it, they always do. In any case we put troops in there with the French and the Spanish a few years ago, didn’t we ?’.
At this Lyons bestirred himself. ‘Indeed so, Flashman, but that was when Juarez defaulted on loans to us. Our only purpose was recover the debt. When we and the Spanish discovered the true intention of the French intervention, to conquer the whole of Mexico, we both withdrew. Since then Napoleon III of France has continued in his efforts to build a new French Empire based on Mexico and installed the brother of the Austrian Emperor, Archduke Ferdinand, as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico’.
‘Good luck to him’, I said. ‘He’ll need it if he’s to make that rat hole into an empire. I still don’t see what this has to do with us’. More particularly to me, was what I was really thinking.
At this Seward jumps in.
‘Your government and mine have a joint interest in forcing the French out. For us politically we have to enforce the Monroe doctrine. As a practical measure we cannot afford to see a new Mexican empire building on our borders, particularly backed by the power of France’.
‘You mean they might want some of the land back you took from them in the Mexican war ?’, I said.
‘There is that consideration, yes. But we also cannot approve of a foreign monarch being imposed on a country that was a republic with a democratically elected president’.
‘Well, that’s all well and good for the USA, but why, as I said, should England be concerned ?’, I replied.
Lyons stirred again, sighed wearily, then said ‘I agree it does seem strange but there are sound reasons for Britain to have an interest in this matter. The new emperor, while a liberal man himself, will rule as an autocrat. He maybe an enlightened one – indeed some of the measures he has taken or proposed have upset many of the conservatives who welcomed him in the first place – but an autocrat all the same. We cannot stand idly by, as a democratic nation, to see this imposed on a formerly free country. Secondly, Her Majesty’s Government believes that the age of empire building is over, and that it is not in France’s interest to entangle herself further abroad’. By gum, thinks I, I haven’t seen the pace of our empire building slowing down – we just don’t want the Frogs to start a new one in the Americas. I suppose that’s why they call us perfidious Albion. ‘Which brings me to the final reason’, he continued. ‘The Prussian Chancellor Bismarck is pursuing an aggressive policy of uniting the individual German states. It is inevitable this will bring him into conflict with a France nervous of growing German power. It is our view that France needs to concentrate its strength at home to deter any aggression by Prussia and its vassal states’.
All the usual power games, then. In this case it suited Seward, who’d hardly a good word for us a few years before, to make common cause with us against France, who was nominally our ally, as it suited us to have a new French empire stopped before in was started, and have ‘em ready to deal with the sausage eaters should the need arise. Very good, thinks I, so what’s Flashy’s part in it all ? So I asked them straight out.
‘We want you to go to the legitimate president, Juarez, in his northern stronghold of Chihuahua, and present him with documents assuring our support with arms, and if necessary with direct military support from Texas, once the Confederacy has been beaten’, said Seward.
Lyons added, ‘HMG will offer covert financial support to President Juarez as required, to a certain limit, to help him free his country, will forgo certain debts Mexico still owes, and will recognise his government as the legitimate rulers of Mexico as soon as is practically possible’ – which really meant if he won, of course.
‘But why me’, I asked.
‘Your position is unique, Flashman’, said Lyons. ‘You are distinguished officer of both the United States and Great Britain. You are a byword for honesty and courage in both armies, and the representatives of President Juarez, who are active in Washington in his cause, are very much aware of your fame and reputation. You can represent both governments without having to be second guessed or contradicted by another delegate either from Britain or the USA’.
Aye, well, I thought, at least they’re not sending me back into battle, or on some secret and deadly dangerous mission. Mind you, it baffled me then, and still does, why any top flight politico would be so impressed with me as a diplomat. I’ve the gift of the gab, to be sure, and can steer things the right way if circumstances are favourable, but that’s in military circles, not in relations between nations. Ne’er mind, I thought, out of the firing line for a time, at least. By the time I get back from this little jaunt the war should be over, bar the shouting, for it must be six to eight weeks with all the travelling. So I nodded my head and said,’ Very well, my Lord, Mr Secretary. What are my travelling arrangements ?’
‘All in hand at the British Ministry, Flashman’, says Lyons, ‘but in brief you will take the train to St Louis, embark on the river boat SS Sultana to New Orleans, and from there make your way to San Antonio in Texas, where a representative of President Juarez will make himself known to you and conduct you to his government in exile in Chihuahua’, then with a nod and a short ‘Good evening’ to Seward he motioned me to the door.
In hand it all was, so that two days later, loaded up with tickets, an itinerary that would have made Marco Polo baulk, and the precious representations to this dago president, who I’d barely heard of before, I was on a train rattling to St Louis, to pick up this paddle steamer, the Sultana. It was four or five days to the coast from there and it seemed like it would be a jolly little trip, with plenty of opportunity for some cards and some judicious fornication, for these boats could be like floating Babylons, full of card sharps and mavericks, with floozies on hand to tend to your every need, at a price of course. I’d enjoyed my previous trips on the river until fate had conspired for me to have to jump ship, one way or another. Since the capture of Vicksburg nearly two years previously the north had been in complete control of the river, so while there were occasional pot shots at boats from the banks by rebel irregulars there was little enough real danger.
Once in St Louis I found the small hotel I’d been booked into near the waterfront and tooled down to dock to see if the Sultana was in port. Of course the dock was teeming but she was easy enough to spot, a big side paddled four decker not far short of three hundred feet long, with twin stacks, and of course her name spelt out in letters that must have been six feet high along her side. Her crew and the riverfront workers were going nineteen to the dozen to load her with all manner of cargo, most of it destined for New Orleans. She was due to leave on the morning tide, which wasn’t too early, so all I had to do was make sure I was up early enough to get aboard before then. The river was partially frozen but passable so unless there was a sudden drop in temperature departure wasn’t likely to be delayed. Though it was only mid afternoon the light was already beginning to fade so I started to make my way back up from the waterfront. Of course even at that time there were street walkers about – always is, whatever the port and, usually, whatever the temperature – and as I passed near one she called out ‘Hey, mister !’ . I looked at her – she was blonde under the hat, very pretty and obviously a cut above the usual sluts that lusty sailormen could afford. Well, she was fetching enough, to be sure, but it was a damn cold afternoon to think about riding rantipole so I just smiled politely, tipped the brim of my hat with my cane and strolled on. I found my way to one of the better class bars and ordered up a hot toddy to warm me up. I drank it down quick enough and, blow me, as I left I found little blond tart was waiting outside for me. Closer to, despite being under a heavy coat, scarf and hat she was even more attractive.
‘Hey, mister’, she said again, ‘you look like a lovin’ man. Want some compnee ?’
I’m not one to turn up my nose at paying for a tumble, especially if the rations had been very short, which they had of late. Of course I was careful about it - as long as it was some clean looking girl and not some dirty drab from the backstreets. It was a pound to a pinch of snuff you’d be poxed up in no time and I wasn’t well placed to deal with a case of Cupid’s measles just then. This didn’t seem to be the case here, with this chit, so I just said ‘How expensive is this company going to be ?’
‘Twenty dollars, US, not rebel, an’ if you like me enuff you kin take me out for dinner after. I know a place that cooks the best steak in Missouri’.
Twenty dollars was a fortune – to her, not me – but I was in funds, had little else to do and most important, was thoroughly warmed up, in both senses. We repaired to my hotel, the desk clerk smirking as he gave me the key to my room, and I fairly ran up the stairs almost dragging the girl after me. Y’know, I didn’t even know her name yet.
She soon put that right though, as I was teasing her out of her clothes. ‘I’m Lorena, mister, though most folk jus’ call me Lola. What’s yur name ?’
‘You can call me Harry’, I said, as I worked at the ribbons on the back of her dress – she liked to play the coy minx, and pretended she was trying to fight me off, which I must say added to the fun.
‘Jus’ Harry ? No other name ?’
‘None that need concern you, my girl’. I’d just managed to undo her dress and pulled it down from her shoulders, revealing the bounties beneath.
‘Hold on’, she said, and gave me a little push away. ‘If you can’t tell me yur name, you can at least tell me where yur frum. You ain’t ‘merican, are yu ? Don’t recall no accent quite like yurs. Oh, and it’s payment in advance’.
‘Well, if it matters, and I don’t see why, but since you ask, I’m from England. Now here’s your money’, I replied as I handed over two ten dollars bills. She held them briefly up to the light, smiled, hid the notes in a trice, and pulled my head down to her dumplings. Once started, she dropped the coy act and we went to it with a will. It was the happiest couple of hours I could remember in months.
I suppose we must have both drowsed off, because when I woke up it had gone quite dark, though it was still early evening. I shook Lola awake and whispered in her ear ‘How about that steak, then ?’, at which she opened her eyes lazily, smiled, and slowly got out of bed.
It didn’t take us long to wash and brush up, as it were, so we were soon on our way downstairs and out onto the street.
‘What’s this place called’, I asked. ‘Joe’s’, she replied, slipping her hand into my arm, not far from here, mebbe ten minutes, strollin’ gently’, and she started to steer me in the direction of said ‘Joe’s’. After a couple of minutes she tugged my arm gently, saying ‘There’s a short cut through here’ and we turned off the main street and down a dark side alley. One moment she was there, and the next she’d slipped my arm and was away. I barely had time to say ‘Lola’ when both my arms were grabbed firmly, someone slipped a bag over my head, and I felt a hefty crack on my head, and dropped into darkness. I can’t be sure, after all these years, but I do seem to remember thinking ‘Not again’ before the lights went out.
When I came round it was no surprise that I was bound hand and foot. I was lying face down on some straw, and as my senses came to me I could tell I wasn’t in St Louis – it was too quiet for one thing. The light was just coming up and there was still a chill in the air, which wasn’t a surprise because there was snow on the ground. I groaned, turned over with difficulty, and sat up. I was in a large barn – outside the door I could see all the trappings of a big farm. Of course I wasn’t alone.
As I sat up I saw a tall, well built, man, with long dark hair, blue eyes and the inevitable whiskers. He was sombrely dressed in a dark overcoat, worn over what seemed to be a dark suit, with a white shirt and bow tie. He looked remarkably like some sort of vicar or minister. Seeing me sit up he motioned to someone and a cove a bit older than me, dressed rough and warm for riding, put his arm round my shoulders to steady me and gave me a drink of water from a canteen. I coughed and choked a bit, then cleared my throat and looked round.
There were four men in the barn in all - the big chap, the one who’d helped me to a drink, and two somewhat younger men, in their twenties I guessed, and both very large – bigger than me, even. It must be all the steaks they I eat, I remember thinking. They were the spitting image of each other, so it was obvious that they were twins. All but the big chap were armed with pistols, in holsters by their sides. As I finished my coughing and spluttering the big chap nodded at me, and spoke to Gunga Din.
‘You are sure this is him, Joseph ?’, he said.
‘Gotta be, Mr Tucker’, the older chap, evidently ‘Joseph’, replied. ‘Lola couldn’t get his full name, but he’s called Harry, an’ he’s Inglish. Nuthin’ in his wallet but US dollars. Din’t have no time to check who he’s registered as at the hotel, but I can’t see as he’s anyone else than man we wus asked to capture by our friends’.
‘No’, this Tucker chap replied, ‘It can only be him’. Turning to me he said ‘Can you confirm your name is Flashman ? No point in lying if it is, because we can soon check the hotel register’.
Well, that was true enough, so I nodded and then said ‘Now you know who I am you’ll probably realise that I’m an important British envoy, on Her Majesty’s business and travelling through the US to a foreign country. There’ll be the very devil to pay if I’m not released at once. It would be best if you took me back to the city straightaway, before you get yourselves into any more trouble’.
Tucker looked at me and said ‘Now we know for certain who you are I’ll agree, there will be the very devil to pay, but it will be you, Colonel Flashman, formerly of General Lee’s staff, who will be likely to be doing the paying’. I must have looked shocked for he went on ‘Our friends in the southern Confederacy would dearly like to put you on trial as a spy and a traitor. They have many agents and sympathisers in Washington and once you reappeared there the news soon found its way to Richmond. To take you in Washington and transport you south would have been too difficult, but once they knew you were headed to St Louis they contacted us. As a favour to our fellow confederates we agreed to capture you and send you south, to meet justice at the hands of a court martial. I’m sure you’ll get a fair hearing, before they hang you, or if you’re lucky, shoot you by firing squad instead’.
‘Christ’, I said, at which he bristled, ‘you can’t do that ! I’m British officer, seconded to the US Army. I was only obeying orders. That’s not treason, that’s war !’
‘Even if you’d not taken the oath as an officer of the Confederate Army you’d still be a spy and liable to execution for that reason alone. As it is I fear our southern friends only regret will be that they can’t execute you twice. You haven’t asked who we are. Aren’t you interested in knowing who it is sending you to meet justice ?’.
At that particular point I didn’t really give a damn. If they got me back to Richmond, or wherever in their territory – they might decide to court martial me and string me up as soon as they could arrange it – I was a goner, that was for certain.
Despite my lack of interest Tucker decided he’d tell me anyway. ‘We are the Order of American Knights, created from the remains of the Knights of the Golden Circle. We hold our honour and independence dearly. Just as the southern states have the right to secede from the vile corruption that is the abolitionist north, so we in the western states have the right to create a confederacy of our own. With the help of the CSA we will do just that’.
He didn’t look mad in any way, though he was clearly a zealot, but I couldn’t believe he still thought the rebels had a chance of winning. It was just a matter of time and how many deaths on both sides it would take for the Union to finish the job. He was living in a fool’s paradise, that was plain enough for me to see.
‘Aye, well, your honour extended to using a public woman’, as they called harlots there, ‘to trap me and kidnap me like cowards’, I blustered.
‘Despite her regrettable calling, Lola is a lady of courage and spirit. Like us she believes in a state’s right of secession, and in its independence from the control of Washington’. Well, I’d have to take his word on that, I suppose, as we didn’t get onto the finer points of constitutional law during our brief, frantic and pleasurable time together. ‘I shudder to think what she had to make herself do, to lie with a vile,traitorous creature like you’, Tucker went on. Well, now, on that one I could set him right, as he hadn’t been there, for Lola entered into the spirit of it with nothing less than gusto, and seemed to enjoy fornicating as much as I did. I’ll bet she kept the twenty bucks as well. I didn’t correct him, though, and ignoring my silence he went on to tell me that Joseph and the two strapping lads with him, both his sons, it seems, called Jem and Luke, would be taking me south where they would meet up with a small rebel cavalry troop who would take me on from there. With that he turned and left the barn. I never saw him again, and I never was able to tell which of the sons was Jem, and which was Luke, either.
I was there for a few days before we set off. Joe was clearly waiting to see if there would be a snap January thaw, as there often was in that part of the country, which would make the travelling a damn sight easier. Sure enough, the thaw came as he expected and with me trussed up in the back of a small wagon, usually under guard by Jem/Luke we set off trundling through the slush. It wasn’t the most comfortable of journeys but Joseph and his boys didn’t treat me too badly, I have to say. I was bundled up enough to keep warm – ‘No sense in us freezin’ yu ta death, afore they can hang you’, he jocularly remarked – and reasonably well fed. They wouldn’t tell me where we were headed nor where we were to meet the rebel reception party but from the general direction we went I guessed we were heading for Arkansas.
At another time I might have enjoyed a gentle trip though the rolling low country of the eastern part of the state – I’m told in the summer it’s very beautiful - but quite apart from it being winter I was in a blue funk at the thought of what waited for me at the end of the journey. Would someone have missed me ? Did anyone see me being kidnapped in the alley ? What if I didn’t turn up to catch the steamer? Could I escape, and if I did how would I fare on my own in a hostile landscape that I barely knew ? All in all, it seemed to be a hopeless situation but I had to keep my spirits up so I took to talking Jem/Luke or Joe as we trundled along the back roads of Missouri.
They were a taciturn bunch, the three of them, but eventually they’d warm up enough to pass the time of day. Mostly they were interested in where I’d been in their country and what I’d seen of their damn fratricidal war. When I tried to talk about India for example all they’d say was something like ‘Did yu see any o’ they elephants’ or ‘How’d that place get its name ? Is there injuns there, jus’ like a’here ?. That was the extent of their interest outside their little world. I was careful what I told them, of course, no point in providing them with any other evidence of my guilt, as if it were needed, after all. Most of all they were convinced of the rightness of their cause and that ‘God was on their side, the side of freedom’ – not for blacks of course – and that victory was sure to be theirs because of it. Nothing I could tell them could shake this confident belief and the idea that they’d be better off freeing me in case they lost the war was frankly laughable to them. So we trundled on, quite slowly, through the frost and melting snow, with me beginning to give up hope of either escape or rescue. Surely, I told myself, on the long ride to Richmond I’d get a chance to escape. I must just be careful and bide my time till the chance came, and then seize it with both hands. To show how downcast I was I even began to consider that it would be best to be killed trying to escape rather than being dragged up the steps to that damned scaffold, feel the hood being pulled roughly over my head, and then the harsh rasp of the rope around my neck, waiting for the drop into nothingness. I was nearly sick just at the thought of it, my legs turned to jelly and my innards quaked and heaved in fear. As you may imagine I didn’t sleep too well that night. This was definitely one of those journeys when it was better to travel than arrive.
Not being sure exactly where we started from, and not knowing anything but that my ultimate destination was Richmond it was impossible to say where we were. I suppose we’d been making fifteen or so miles a day, which didn’t seem a lot, and it occurred to me that if this thaw ended we’d be stuck out in the deep snow and in real danger. Joe and Luke/Jem didn’t seem concerned when I brought this up – ‘You sure seem in a hurry to be hanged, mister. Don’t you worry none, though. I know this country an’ its weather better than I know my own boys – been travelling it for nigh on fifty years, from a boy’.
Of course we didn’t – couldn’t - travel for too long as the days were very short. The usual routine was that we’d stop somewhere where there was some sort of shelter just before dusk, and camp there for the night. Joe and his boys would take turns to stand guard while the other two slept in the back of the wagon, where I was jammed in, still trussed up, of course. At first light whoever was last on guard would rouse everyone, someone would start a small fire, and we’d have a brew of coffee, together with some bacon or oat cakes, all heated up on the fire.
The fourth morning of our little expedition started just the same way. Luke/Jem untied my feet and helped me down from the wagon. I plumped myself down by the small fire and warmed my hands, which were still tied up, around the tin mug of coffee I’d been handed. Suddenly a strange voice called out, ‘Howdy, can I join you ? Coffee smells real good !’ My bowels froze in an instant – suppose this was the rebel cavalry Joe was to hand me over to ?
Joe picked up his rifle, never far from his grip, carefully and called, ‘Step in mister, but keep yer hands whur I kin see ‘em’. The newcomer called back, ‘Ok, coming in, pour me a cup of that coffee’, and a tall figure, bundled up in heavy coat, stepped into the clearing. I couldn’t make his face out at all under his muffler, but as he came in he kept his hands well away from his sides. As he approached Joe seemed satisfied, and put down his rifle, while Luke/Jem went to pour the stranger a mug of coffee.
‘Say, mister, you’re a long ways from home I guess. Who are yu, an’ what yu doin’ out here ?’, said Joe.
‘Reckon I could say the same to you people’, the stranger replied. ‘My name is James Butler Hickok, though most folks call me Wild Bill. I was lookin’ for someone and now I’ve found him. Before Joe and Luke/Jem could move they found themselves staring at the business end of a pair of Navy Colt repeaters.
Chapter 13: Home or Away
Elspeth needs you - or someone else....
‘Morning, Harry’, said James. ‘Treating you well, are they ?’
‘By god’, I answered, ’What are you doing here ? I thought you were still in Washington working for Pinkerton ?’
‘Nope, based out of Springfield these days. No time for explanations just now, though. Tell me, what were these fellows doing with you ?’
‘Taking me to be hanged’, I said.
‘That so ?’, he said, and his eyes narrowed as he looked Joe and Jem/Luke.
Joe could see the danger and shouted ‘Now hold on, Mister ! We weren’t goin’ to do no hanging, just taking him to meet some soldiers who’d take him for proper trial in Richmond. No need to git excited ! We weren’t plannin’ no lynching’.
‘Is that right, Harry ?’, James asked me. ‘How have they been treating you – have they been beating up on you ?’.
Normally anyone whose putting my carcass at risk gets what’s coming to him, no mistake, but in my relief at my rescue I put my usual instincts aside, so I answered, ‘That’s what they were doing, but they treated me as well as they could, kept me reasonably warm and fed, so I’ve no complaints on that score’. He relaxed a little at that, and Joe and his boys let out a sigh of relief. In any case, though he was a born killer, James was no murderer and he would be loath to shoot these three unless there was good cause. Still, they presented something of a problem. He couldn’t let them go, and if he tied them up and left them there that would be like murdering them if the snows came again. While he was thinking it over he told Joe to untie my hands, no tricks now, because he had his guns on Jem/Luke. Once that was done he gestured Joe back to the other two. I joined him and he passed me one of the pistols butt first so the two of us could keep them covered.
After a few moments thinking he looked at Joe – ‘Know this country well, do you ? Find your way back here easy enough ?’, at which Joe nodded vigorously. ‘Ok, this is what we’ll do, Joe, is it ?’ - as he nodded again James continued to talk. ‘Take that rope there and tie one of these two by his wrists to the back wheel of the wagon on this side. Remember there’s two of us with guns now’. Joe had it done in no time at all, then James had him tie the other boy to the wheel on the other side. ‘Give me your gun, Harry, and check those knots. ’ Good enough ?’ he asked when I’d done.
‘Good for an hour or so, I’d say’, I answered. He nodded and then looked back at Joe. ‘We’re taking you with us a little, Mr Joe, not too far, but far enough. Then we’ll let you go and you can come back and release those boys of yours. Fair enough ?’
‘Kin I take a horse ? I’ll need it if the snows come to git back here in time’, Joe asked him. After a nod from James he unhitched one of the wagon horses from the tree where they were tied up and the three of us stepped out of the clearing and back onto the trail we’d been following the previous day. A few hundred yards on James had tethered and hobbled two horses, which I released and we mounted up while Joe walked ahead, leading the horse while James kept an unwavering bead on him. I suppose we’d gone about a mile as quick as we could when James called a halt and ordered Joe to tie and hobble his horse to a tree. That done we set off again, with Joe still trudging in front of us. Another mile or so and we stopped again. ‘Right, Mr Joe you get back to your horse and then to your boys. If I see you coming after us I won’t be so kind, understand ?’. Joe nodded gratefully, turned and walked as fast as he could back the way we came.
‘Right, Harry, it’ll take him more than an hour to get back to free those boys. We’ll be long gone before they can come after us, if they do, which I doubt’.
‘But where are we going, and how did you know where to look – or even look at all ?’, I said.
‘I’ll explain it all when we get back to camp. It’s not too far but I’d rather get there sooner than later, in case there are any of Joe’s friends around here’.
So we rode on for rather over an hour, keeping parallel to the south road but off it, until James said ‘Nearly there, Harry’, and a few minutes later we pulled off the track into a small camp with I suppose, a dozen men there, most of them soldiers but one or two like James, scouts and plainsmen. Evidently Wild Bill was in charge here, as he soon called everyone together. Apart from a couple of scouts still out looking for me it seemed this was the full complement of this little outpost.
‘This is who we’ve been looking for, boys, my good friend Major Flashman, done some fine things in our cause. Took him from some rebs who were planning to send him to Richmond to hang. Left them tied up - by now they’ll be making their sorry way home’, he said. There was a quiet muttering of satisfaction and then James told them we’d stay here tonight, waiting for the other scouts to come in, then break camp in the morning. ‘Double guard, tonight, boys’, he added, ‘in case them rebs come looking for the major again’. Then the little assembly broke up and they went about their duties while James took my arm and sat me beside the fire they had going there.
‘I still don’t know how you found me, James, though I’m damn grateful you did, of course’, I told him.
‘Simple police work’, says he, to my complete surprise.
‘Police work – I thought you were still working for Pinkerton and his crew ?’.
‘No, I came back over here a while back, and was working for the Springfield police for a time, then I signed on as a scout for General Sanford, US Army commander round here. More my line of work, though I learned a whole lot while with the Springfield police’.
‘Still, police work or not, you’ve still to tell me how you found me and even why anyone was looking for me’.
‘Things started when you didn’t take the Sultana at St Louis. It was being watched to make sure you got safely aboard. When you didn’t turn up our people in St Louis went straight to your hotel, found all your clothes and things there but not a sign of you. Took them quite a while to find those confidential letters you had, by the way, but they’re safe, so there’s no need to worry about them’.
To tell the truth I’d forgotten about the damn things myself, in my fear of being executed, but when I didn’t say anything James continued.
‘First thing was to talk to the hotel clerk, of course. He saw you come in with some blonde lady, obviously a whore, known as called Lola. Of course she’s a well known rebel sympathiser, helps out some big shot rebel there by the name of Tucker from time to time. He’s being watched close as well – they think he’s behind some of the explosions on boats up there, but they’ve yet to catch him at it. Our people there have one or two ears inside these Knights of the American Order. They were able to find out there had been some kidnap of someone, though not who or why, and link Tucker to some farm outside St Louis, where I guess Joe and his boys are from, and that the victim was being taken somewhere south. After that it was a case of organising a few scouts and camps like this and watching the way south to see if we could find you’.
‘By god, James, I don’t know how to thank you, but it was a devilish long shot, though, wasn’t it ?’, I told him.
‘Long, sure, but not as long as it could have been. If they’d not waited out for the thaw I doubt we’d have had time to get anything properly organised. Still, we were lucky, so were you, of course. Next step is to take you to the General so we can get you sent on your way safely’.
It took a few days to get to Springfield by horse and then rail, where James was based. Once there I was properly grilled by the police wallahs on what I could tell them about Tucker, Joe, and Luke/Jem et al, not excluding the delightful Miss Lola, though I glad to say the details they wanted about her were not of the scurrilous kind. I can’t really say it seemed all that worthwhile to me as they already seemed to know enough but, like all peelers, I suppose, they liked to have their information confirmed by a number of sources.
I never got to meet General Sanford, though, which was no great loss, though I’ve no doubt he a decent chap. James was deputed to bear lead me everywhere and it was from him I heard that I was no longer to go to pay a diplomatic call on the dago president but to return to Washing ton ‘by the safest and swiftest route’, which was fine by me. I’d no desire to continue on south through the US – by now I must have covered a damn sight more of the blasted place than Lewis and Clarke ever did. ‘Can’t send you back to St Louis, tho’, Harry’, said James. ‘Far too dangerous a place for you now, even tho’ it’d be the quickest way’, to which I could only agree. I always make it a cardinal rule never to be kidnapped more than once in any one place, so clearly another route back to the north was required.
In the end I was escorted back to Memphis in Tennessee where I picked up passage on another river boat to New Orleans and then back to Baltimore by sea. It was a change from the railroad and riding all over the place I suppose, but it was damned tedious all round, and it was the beginning of February before I was back in Washington.
Of course I had to pay a visit to British Mission to give a full account of my failure to deliver the documents to this Juarez chap. By this time Lord Lyons had taken himself off on sick leave, though it was hoped he’d be able to return at some stage, so instead of him I saw his deputy at that time, a chap named Joseph H. Burnley, no less. He was a reasonable sort and, happy to say, he laid no blame on me for my misadventure – ‘We should have thought to have you escorted’, he said, ‘but we wanted no great fuss to be made in order to keep it as confidential as possible. Of course your kidnapping made continuation of your mission to Mexico completely impossible, even after your release’, he went on, ‘as it would have drawn great attention to it. We have made other arrangements in that area now, so you need have no fears on that score. In any case, Colonel, I’m quite sure it’s time for you to think about your trip home. You’ve done as much and more as any man can during this unfortunate affair’ - I assumed he meant the war – ‘and I have here a letter from Lady Flashman which will no doubt increase your desire to be back in the bosom of your family’.
That set me thinking first about her bosom, which was a very pleasant thought, and then about who else might have been in her bosom while I was away. I’d caught that great incompetent snob Cardigan about to mount her a few years before and while even he was now beyond the pale for her – the booze had done terrible damage to his fine aristocratic looks – I’d no doubt there was some lord or even duke ready to play houghmagandie, as Elspeth calls the capital act when she forgets what a grand lady she’s become, with her. Clearly time to be home, so I took the letter, and my leave of Mr Burnley and repaired back to my hotel, not the Willard this time, but the much grander National Hotel, on the corner of 6th Avenue and Pennsylvania Ave, a big handsome building, square but in the Greek style, now built up to five storeys high, no less. It was much used by the great and the good of the city, and apparently every US president had been a guest there at some time or another. Damn handy if Lincoln needed my judicious advice on short notice, I thought at the time. It was a decent enough place, to be sure, but some people had no high opinion of its hygene, there having been a number of outbreaks of food poisoning over the years.
For once Elspeth’s letter, when I opened it, was quite short, which surprised me. No gossip about the high and mighty, no chit chat about what shows she’d seen, or the new dresses she’d bought recently, which was a surprise. The paper she’d written it on, about two months earlier, had a black border, and there seemed to be smudges on the writing like faded tear stains. What’s this, I thought, a death in the family ? Her father, the old crook, had died years before, of course. It could be my Uncle Bindley, perhaps, as he was getting on a bit now. He’d been damn useful to me in the past so that would be a bit of a blow. Of course Elspeth had taken to him in a trice, particularly as he was from my mother’s side of the family, the Paget’s, who of course sit at the right hand of God, making sure He doesn’t make any unfortunate mistakes.
Twasn’t old Uncle Bindley, though, but Elspeth’s mother, who you’ll recall had imposed her sweet self on Elspeth in London while I’d been guiding the Union’s war efforts in the west. ‘My dearest Harry’, she wrote, ’Dear Mama passed on to her eternal reward on Tuesday’. Hopefully that meant she was toasting her toes in whatever circle of hell they reserve for the wives of slavers and crooks like Elspeth’s father, I thought. ‘Agnes, Grizel, and Mary, my sisters’, she continued, just in case I’d forgotten who they were, ‘will attend the funeral in London, and will stay with me for quite some time. I know this will reach you long after the ceremony but I beg you to come home and comfort me and mine in this desperate hour, as soon as you can’. Unlike most Scots her family weren’t great drinkers, but what they missed in alcohol they more than made up for in wallowing in misery, self pity and a general misanthropy to the world, at every available opportunity. Elspeth was an exception, though, always a bright and lively featherhead. I often wondered about her parentage, though she was her father’s favourite, no doubt about that, much to her sisters obvious annoyance. No surprise, quite apart from the damnable weather, that some of their brighter sparks lit out abroad to Canada or wherever to avoid going the same way – though if anyone thinks Canada’s an improvement on Scotland I can only conclude they’ve been at the bottle themselves. D’ye know, it sometimes makes me wonder from time to time just how Elspeth and I came to be together ? Back then it seemed just her sheer lack of any sort of common sense to blab about what we did on the bank of the Clyde all those years ago, but now I’m not so sure. Anyway, after this clearly tearful enjoinder she finished with ‘dear Mama’s last words. Do you know Harry’, she wrote, ‘her last thoughts were for you ! Just before she slipped away she gestured to me, and as I leaned towards her she whispered ‘I wish I could say to Flashman…..’, but then she was gone ! But isn’t it a comfort to you, Harry, that you were the last thought on her mind ! I wonder what she wanted to say ? After all that’s happened she cared for you after all !’.
All in all, then, a damn good job I hadn’t been there, I thought. I knew for sure that her last words would have been to curse me to hell and back again. I’ve no doubt I would be just the same if I was on my death bed and was confronted by the leering face of someone I’d detested so deeply, for so long. She might even have begged Elspeth to put me out, which at the least would have been damn embarrassing, if nothing else. All in all, then, a mixed bag of news, both good and bad. Good being that dreadful old woman wouldn’t be there when I got home, bad that her sisters, who were certainly no fonder of me than her mother, had taken up residence in Maison Flashy for God knows however long they felt like staying. I’d not lost any of my eagerness to get back to England but the thought of spending time with the three witches was a bit of a facer. It wouldn’t do to be so rude that they left, or to try to force them out in any way. That would only upset Elspeth and as she controlled the purse strings it was a course I couldn’t afford to sail. Once back I’d just have to make the best of it and see how things turned out. Swim with the tide, not against it, that’s always been my motto.
While I’d been on my travels the war had ground to a halt, at least in the east. Sherman, after reaching Savannah, had started to prepare for his campaign through the Carolinas with the aim of threatening the rear of Lee’s army and eventually linking up with Grant. After the debacle at Cold Harbour the previous June Grant had made Petersburg in Virginia his major objective. It was an important centre for the railroads, linking it to Richmond and other parts of the Confederacy in the south and west. Once his attempts to capture it by storm had been defeated Grant settled down to put the city in siege – a full seven months after beginning the siege he was, bit by bit, beginning to cut off supply lines to Lee’s army, who’d arrived in mid June to bolster the city’s garrison. However, in February 1865, as I was settling in at my hotel, things began to stir once more, as Sherman began his march northwards, and Grant launched an attack to cut off one of Lee’s last supply routes near the city. It was to lead to the final act in this long, long war, and its denouement at a little place of no real account called Appomattox Court House just two months later where I saw, for the first time since I’d decamped after Gettysburg, Robert E Lee, one of the greatest soldiers of the age, come to surrender his army.
Of course that was all in the future at that point in mid February 1865, and I’d not thought to be in at what was now the inevitable Confederate surrender. Until, that is, I had yet another surprise visitor. I’d been lunching with some US Army officers I’d become friends with, returning to the National in mid afternoon. I was heading to the stairs for my room when I heard a familiar voice call out ‘Major Flashman’, very loudly. Quite a few people in the hotel lobby looked round and saw, as I did, the commander of the US Army himself, Lt General Ulysses S Grant.
‘Good lord’, I said, as he walked towards me, ’Sam Grant ! How are you ? Not here to Shanghai me again are you ?’.
‘It’s still General Grant to you, Major. You hold a US Army Commission, as I recall’, he replied, then seeing my surprise, went on, ‘Only joking with you, Flashman. I’m not here to Shanghai you again, as you put it, though I’d call it a plain misunderstanding on my part. I’m in Washington briefly to see Secretary of War Stanton and Mr Lincoln. Thought I’d pay you a call, see how you were. General Sherman was very appreciative of all your help in Georgia’.
‘Well, misunderstanding or not, General, you won’t find me quite as easy to handle this time’, I replied.
‘We can still have a drink, though, can’t we ?’, and with that he took my arm and called a waiter to bring some drinks as he guided me to the now empty hotel dining room. Settling in a quiet corner Sam was silent until the waiter had left us in peace, then, picking up his drink, he took a deep slug of it, then regarded me with those steady sharp eyes. ‘Now, then, Major’, he said, returning to formality, ‘I guess you’ve seen more of this war than any one man, wouldn’t you say ? That’s right, isn’t it ?’
‘You may well be right, General, more of it, and more than enough for any man, if I may add’, I replied.
‘I can see why you’d feel that way, to be sure. Still, not much left now, the rebels are nearly done for’, he answered.
‘I’m sure you’re right – how long, another three months, maybe ?’, I asked him.
‘Might be less, might be just two, if things work out the way I think they will’, Grant said in response.
‘Well, if it does the country will owe its victory to you, principally, but also to Sherman’, I replied.
‘That’s so. Sherman deserves great credit – he’s been my loyal right hand since Shiloh and before. I will see to it that he gets all the credit he deserves’, he said. That was Sam Grant all over, of course. One of his great virtues was loyalty to his friends and supporters. Of course it was one of his faults as well, which later hampered his presidency, many would say. Still, that’s another story, which I’ve written about elsewhere. ‘Still, now’, he went on, ‘how do you feel about seeing this thing to the end with me ?’.
I was nonplussed for a moment. I thought he’d just come to have a drink and chew the fat, and now he was asking me to join him in his final victory after four hard years of war. It was a hell of a compliment, no doubt about it. After all, he’d proved himself America’s finest soldier, eclipsing even Lee, and no doubt up there with the great commanders like Wellington or Bonaparte. It was going to be difficult to turn it down politely, which is what I intended to do.
Grant could clearly see my uncertainty, as he barked, ‘Come on, Flashman. Why not ? You’d be on my staff, at City Point, where I’ll be directing strategy. General Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, will be entrusted with carrying out my orders to fulfil that strategy. Have you anything urgent to go home for ?’, he finished.
Without knowing it he’d reminded me of the ghastly prospect of an extended wake at home. That was something I could do without, to be sure. Instead I could stay here just a little longer, earn the gratitude and trust of one of the world’s great soldiers, and have something else to impress the loafers – and more important than that, their ladies – back in London. I’d be with Grant, who wasn’t allowed to take any chances now he was commander in chief, away from the firing line, and have the chance to witness the end of a war that was going to shape America, and maybe the rest of the world for the next 50 years or more. Against that the prospect of Elspeth and her family in long term mourning, with endless hymns for her mother’s soul, stood round the fireside at night seemed even more unattractive. So I raised my glass, said ‘I’m your man, General’, and downed my drink in one, while Grant called noisily for the waiter.
Chapter 14: City Point
The Beginning of the End
Two days later, his business in Washington concluded, Grant returned to the siege at Petersburg, with me alongside him. By train the journey only took a few hours so we were back at City Point, in Virginia, where he’d made his headquarters, before the end of the day. While I’d informed Prosser where I was going I didn’t reply to Elspeth’s letter – time enough for that when the last scenes in the war had been played out, I thought.
City Point itself had been quite a small place before the war, standing where the James and Appomattox rivers met. It had expanded tremendously over the preceding year when Grant chose it for the site of his HQ for the Petersburg campaign and a huge supply depot and a series of field hospitals had been built, along with dozens of other military installations and half a mile of wharves along the James River, which transformed the small town into a bustling port for the hundreds of ships and barges which daily serviced the Union army. The supply depot had actually been rebuilt the previous August, after sabotage had resulted in it being blown up, causing dozens of deaths and the loss of millions of dollars of military supplies.
When I say Petersburg was under siege I should make clear that it wasn’t a siege in the classic sense. Grant had gradually extended his lines around the place but it wasn’t yet fully cut off and it was still in contact with the Confederate capital at Richmond to the north. Nor did Grant really intend to besiege it. His original plan had been to use his vastly superior numbers to pressure Lee at different points and eventually force his army into another battle where it could be finally crushed. This strategy failed for a number of reasons, not least the incompetence of some of Grant’s subordinate commanders, who were political appointees rather than professional soldiers. It was a familiar problem to me, though in our army it was the purchase of commissions and the appointment of aristocratic idiots like Cardigan to major commands that caused the problem, rather than paying off political debts. Aye, well, there’s no real difference I suppose. Privilege or political debt always wins, whatever the real needs of the things. T’would make you sick, if you cared enough, which I didn’t really, as long as I was in comfort, naturally.
After the disaster at Cold Harbour the previous June Grant changed his strategy completely. Instead of trying to defeat Lee in the field in open battle he determined to strangle Lee’s army by depriving it of the supplies it needed, most of which came through Petersburg. His failure to capture the city resulted in the evolving siege, as it turned into a campaign of attrition and trench warfare instead of the sort of open clashes in the field which had been more typical of the war before then. That’s not to say there weren’t any open clashes at all. There’d been quite a few actions, varying in size, such as at Deep Bottom, the Jerusalem Plank Road, Peebles Farm and Darbytown, but they were all a result of the attempt to cut off Lee rather than to bring him out into open battle.
The main forces Grant had to conduct the operation were the Army of the James under Ed Ord, who’d replaced the bungling Ben Butler after his inept attempt to capture Fort Fisher, and the Army of the Potomac, commanded by none other than the victor of Gettysburg, the old snapping turtle himself, George Meade. Grant had headquartered himself on Meade, which seemed to have caused problems in the past, as Meade felt himself constrained by Grant’s proximity and what he felt was unduly close supervision. He also resented Grant’s interference in matters which were directly Meade’s responsibility, and what he saw as preferential treatment of some officers Grant had brought with him from the western campaign, most notably Little Phil Sheridan, who’d apparently been openly insubordinate to Meade over what Sheridan felt was the misuse of ‘his’ cavalry by Meade, his direct commander. Not a situation conducive to a harmonious atmosphere you might think, and you’d be right. Not that this was of any real concern to me at the time. I was just there to advise Grant – as if he needed any, from anyone – and to see the end of the war for myself. I wouldn’t be involved in any squabbles between the Union’s senior commanders, of that I was sure.
Grant’s HQ was on the lawn of a plantation called Appomattox Manor, on a promontory overlooking the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers. At first it consisted entirely of tents but once it was clear they were there for the winter log cabins were built for him and his staff, a couple of dozen I suppose, in total, laid out on three sides. Grant’s cabin – one of the few with two rooms, as his wife often visited – was in the middle of one row, facing north to the rivers. As I remember it, the large flag pole planted in the middle of the camp always had ‘Old Glory’ flying. He often telegraphed his orders so there was a tent close by from where signals could be sent.
I’d been with Grant at Shiloh, of course, though not as part of his staff, so I was familiar with his working methods and manner. While there was a friendly informality there was no over familiarity. The only person who he seemed close to was his chief of staff Rawlins, who’d been with him since his time in the western theatre of the war. He was invariably polite and courteous, never spoke badly about people behind their backs and could not endure anything he considered camp gossip, though he liked to sit by the fire late into the night with his staff, smoking and discussing things, mainly the war, and receiving occasional despatches, which he retired to his cabin to consider before he replied, if that was required.
As in everything he did Grant maintained a close focus on his job as commander in chief and would not let himself be diverted by details or tasks he considered not in his remit. Instead he would delegate them to someone he trusted and then let them get on with it. Once he came to a decision he generally stuck with it, and never held any councils of war with his senior subordinate commanders. He considered them divisive and time wasting. While with him I worked a lot on supply matters but I remember someone suggesting that Sherman should be instructed to convene one. Grant was as succinct and sharp in discounting the suggestion as he was about everything else.
‘No’, said he, ‘I will not direct any one to do what I would not do myself under similar circumstances. I never held what might be called formal councils of war, and I do not believe in them. They create a divided responsibility, and at times prevent that unity of action so necessary in the field. Some officers will in all likelihood oppose any plan that may be adopted; and when it is put into execution, such officers may, by their arguments in opposition, have so far convinced themselves that the movement will fail that they cannot enter upon it with enthusiasm, and might possibly be influenced in their actions by the feeling that a victory would be a reflection upon their judgment. I believe it is better for a commander charged with the responsibility of all the operations of his army to consult his generals freely but informally, get their views and opinions, and then make up his mind what action to take, and act accordingly. There is too much truth in the old adage, Councils of war do not fight’.
So it was generally a very relaxed HQ, with everyone knowing their jobs and getting on with them in a confident and competent way. But as I suggested, it wasn’t always as easy dealing with Meade, whose HQ was just a few miles away. It wasn’t that Grant and Meade didn’t get on but Meade resented, as I’ve mentioned, some of Grant’s actions. He was especially angered by the lack of credit he received for his victory at Gettysburg – ‘Old Brains’ Halleck had actually written to him soon after the battle to admonish him for not pursuing the retreating Lee and his army. He’d been heard to say that after a while it will be discovered he wasn’t at Gettysburg at all.
Of course he didn’t help himself. He was famously short tempered, and when he lost it his anger could be almost volcanic – as his aide de camp Lyman wrote ‘He is a slasher, is the General, and cuts up people without much mercy’. That lack of tact made him enemies, especially among the press, who left his name out of all the dispatches where the north had had success, but always tried to include him in the reports of any setbacks. I suppose in appearance he didn’t dress or ‘look’ like a general, however they are supposed to look, but he wasn’t alone in that, as I’d seen with Grant and Jackson in the past, for example. While quite tall and slim, Meade was going bald and had a beaky nose, and he wore spectacles almost all the time. The large pouches under his eyes made him look permanently miserable or out of sorts with the world, hardly the appearance he needed to encourage his men in the grim and dirty business that they were engaged in around Petersburg. Of course, quite apart from the frustrations he felt professionally he also had personal worries, - his eldest son John, who was in his twenties, had been ill with tuberculosis for some time, and Meade had been given special leave at the start of the year to visit him.
Well, if Grant and his staff were reasonably well quartered that couldn’t be said of most of the soldiery there on the front line of the siege. I had to go down to the lines before Petersburg a number of times – being very careful to keep my head down because of the sharpshooters on the rebel side, who made putting your head above the parapet a damn dangerous thing to do. The siege line consisted of trenches and earthen strong points, dug out by the hard sweat of the Union soldiers, who then lived in these muddy holes. The tramp of thousands of heavy feet and hooves had removed all the grass and any other vegetation from the ground, and any trees had long been taken down to burn so the troops could keep warm. The result was a filthy, muddy landscape, made even worse when it was wet which, it being winter, it was most of the time. Most of the troopers were both cold and filthy, and in the worst weather, or when under bombardment, burrowed deeper and deeper into the earth, getting even filthier in the process. It couldn’t have been any better on the rebel side as the colder and wetter it was the more of them deserted over to the Union side of the lines. On particularly bad days the Union soldiers would sit around and speculate about how many Johnny Rebs would come over that night, like fishermen discussing their potential catch.
It seemed to me that a new kind of warfare was developing, where battles were not fought on open ground between two armies, but between thousands of men hidden in trenches and semi-permanent fortifications each trying to grind the other down until one sides will broke. Any sort of direct assault on either line would have been a lunatic undertaking, doubtless causing mass casualties, so any commander ordering it could break his army in just a few hours. I began to wonder why I’d signed up for all this. All things considered, I think I‘d have preferred to have been in Philadelphia. Still, I settled down to work steadily on Grant’s staff, as he continued to work on cutting off Petersburg and starving the rebels into a final submission. One notable member of said staff was Lincoln’s eldest son Robert, who, having graduated from Harvard, was commissioned as a captain and appointed assistant adjutant to Grant in mid-February, much against the wishes of Robert’s mother. Meanwhile the seige dragged on with various actions, large and small, happening as Grant attempted to close the noose on Lee, whose Army of North Virginia was by then virtually the only major military formation left in the rebel army.
One such was Hatcher's Run around the first week of February. Like many American battles it seems to have half a dozen different names depending on who you are talking to at the time. It was mainly a cavalry action by Union troops aimed at cutting rebel supply traffic on the vital Boydton Plank Road and the Weldon Railroad west of Petersburg. Over the course of three days the two sides attacked and counter attacked with land exchanging hands several times. Eventually the rebels retained control of the road but were forced to extend their already thin lines even more as the Union forces seige lines went further and further west around them.
So things went on, day after dreary day, as the northerner's army chipped away at Lee's defences. I began to get bored, having little to do except mundane staff work. Not that I wanted to get near any action, of course. At least I had reasonable accommodation and food, unlike the poor devils roughing it in their filthy trenches, covered in mud and freezing in the harsh weather. But boredom tends to make me homesick, which then makes me think of Elspeth. How long had it been since I last saw her, I wondered, and then, inevitably, how many had she been over the jumps with since I last thrashed the mattress with her ? The idea of having to put up with her ghastly family, endlessly mourning over her old vulture of a mother, didn't seem half so bad as it did a few short weeks before. I might have to put up with the hymn singing round the hearth while one of her sister's, Grizel probably, thrashed away at the harmonium, but after that I'd have Elspeth to myself. Unless she'd been sharing the bed with one of her sisters, of course, which was an interesting thought in itself. For one thing I'd no doubt that my little trollop still had a rare taste for my marriage mutton, wherever she'd been getting her rations before – aside from horsemanship and languages it was my true talent. Ay, well, this ain't the point to reminisce on that.
While I was maundering around City Point, musing on my ill fortune, to the south Sherman was stomping his way through the Carolinas, in an attempt to outdo his march through Georgia the previous year, destroying anything of military value. To William Tecumseh Sherman that meant just about everything within reach. Grant had wanted him to join the seige but had been persuaded that if Sherman could take South Carolina, which had been the first state to secede, it would be a crushing blow to rebel morale. I just reckoned that he'd come to like his way of waging war and was reluctant to call a halt to it, capable savage that he was..
All this was to change with the arrival of 'Little' Phil Sheridan, and his cavalry from the Army of the Shenandoah at the beginning of March. Sheridan was to light the fuse for the final collapse of the Confederacy, unlikely though it seemed then. While he was a good soldier he always had an eye on burnishing his own reputation (a bit like me, ye may think) and he didn't intend to miss out on the final act of the bloody fratricide that Americans still refer to as 'the war'. I liked him well enough, to be sure, but I could see he always had his eye set on the main chance. I was not averse to buffing up my reputation but not at the cost of soldiers lives – it tends to backfire on you, for one thing.
Now I've mentioned this scheming little jackanapes elsewhere in my memoirs but on the chance they don't all survive it's perhaps as well that I give a picture of him and what he'd recently been up to. That might show why he was given him this singular opportunity to stick his oar in the wheel of the war's conduct, which he proceeded to do, with great effect.
When I call him little it isn't meant as an insult – I doubt he was much above five foot 4 inches. Lincoln described Sheridan as a “brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.” But what he lacked in stature he made up for in energy and, frankly, bravado. It's often the way, don't you observe, that some little folk can shout longer, harder, and louder than many a stalwart man who could have lent them half a foot in height and still towered over them ?
Sheridan had started his war in the west, under 'Old Brains' Halleck, where he made his name as a capable staff officer and later a field commander. He'd risen from a mere captain to General rank in around six months. Even for a war that claimed an excessive proportion of General officers compared to other conflicts that was a rise that could only be described as meteoric.
When Grant was promoted to Lt General and in command of all of the Union's land forces he summoned Sheridan back to the east, to serve in the mammoth Overland campaign. Some questioned Sheridan's fitness for the job of commander of Grant's cavalry but got short shrift from the blunt and often acerbic Grant.
One officer in the War Department said to him “The officer you brought from on from the West is rather a little fellow to handle your cavalry.” To which Grant responded, “You will find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him.”
Sheridan was put under the command of the old snapping turtle himself, General Meade, victor of Gettysberg. It was there that his ambition – some might say insubordination – really started to be noticed. He quarrelled endlessly with Meade about his forces being used in the traditional cavalry role of scouting and screening the army and they performed less than well on a number of occasions. When Meade reported to Grant that Sheridan was boasting he could 'whip Stuart', Grant famously replied, "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it."
Deferring to Grant's judgement Meade allowed Sheridan to make a raid in the direction of Richmond, in order to engage the enemy cavalty directly. Sheridan saw a chance to make his name, staying away from the main body of Grant's army for too long, depriving it of its eyes and ears, just like Jeb Stuart at Gettysberg a year earlier. The rest of his campaign was less than successful and many regarded him (rightly, in my view) as a showboater whose antics cost the army dear. putting his command at hazard a number of times. What most likely saved him was the successful action at Yellow Tavern when, ironically, my old friend Jeb Stuart was killed, but it was a close call overall.
What really made his reputation, though, was his command of the Army of the Shenandoah. Following the Overland campaign in mid 1864. Sheridan was put in command of a mostly cavalry force with orders to both clear the rich valley of Jubal Early's Confederates, who posed a constant threat to Washington, and to deprive the south of one of its most important sources of supplies. After a slow start, which clearly frustrated Grant, in September Sheridan began to seriously engage Early's much smaller forces, beating him at the third battle of Winchester and then, a few days later, at Fisher's Hill. He also began to systematically destroy farms and villages to deprive his enemy of supplies.
While being harrassed by Mosby's irregular raiders Sheridan believed he had achieved his first objective of destroying the rebel army in the valley. But without his knowledge Early had received reinforcements and in mid – October, while Sheridan was in Winchester ten miles away from his army, Early mounted a surprise and well co-ordinated counter attack on the Union forces at Cedar Creek. Hearing the distant sounds of artillery fire Sheridan made his famous dash to the battlefield and rallied his forces to defeat Early so heavily his army ceased to exist as an offensive formation. Some scribe wrote a famous poem about it all, which cemented Sheridan's reputation to all and sundry, though I doubt it will last as long as anything Homer wrote about the Greeks and Troy. Still, it brought him fame and the gratitude of both Grant and Lincoln, so I suppose it served its purpose, Damned if I can remember anybody writing a poem about my service, apart from my boy Havvy's bits of doggerel, of course.
Having disposed of Early Sheridan spent the next few months skirmishing with small pockets of rebel soldiers and dealing with raids by irregular troops until at last, in late February of 1865, after lengthy exhortations from Grant to move back east, Sheridan deigned to acquiesce
His orders from Grant were largely discretionary. Destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal, capture Lynchburg if possible, then either join Sherman in North Carolina or return to Winchester, It might seem strange that a commander such as Grant, normally so decisive and authoritative, should allow a subordinate like Sheridan such latitude but I suppose, given that Sheridan's star was in the ascendant, and because Grant had backed him so solidly despite others doubts, Grant felt inclined to allow him a lot of leeway.
Chapter 15: Little Phil
Sheridan being Sheridan he interpreted Grant's orders liberally and instead of heading to North Carolina in March, he rejoined the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. As I said, he knew where the final drama was to be played out in this war and he had no intention of missing it. As it turned out it was a damned good job he didn't.
I finally met the little bombast at City Point, near the end of March when he came to confer with Grant, taking a boat there from where he'd left his cavalry at Harrison's Landing on the James River. He'd given Jubal Early a final wallop at Waynesboro early that month and as he entered Grant's little cabin, full of bounce, I got my first sight of him. As I've said elsewhere he looked like he'd fallen in the river and let his uniform dry on him. Other than that he was much as Lincoln had described him – short, slim, clean shaven apart from the inevitable moustache, with his hair trimmed quite close. Rawlin's, Grant's chief of Staff showed him in, but left, so there was just Grant, myself, and Sheridan there.
After briefly introducing me, and asking him how he was Grant waited quietly for Sheridan to open the conversation – perhaps to explain his presence, and that of his command, in what, to me, seemed open defiance of his orders.
Sheridan began by describing to Grant the details of his march from Winchester. He then moved onto his reasons for not joining Sherman – chiefly that he thought it impractical to make such a move south, and because he felt that his cavalry needed rest and would better serve the Union cause by being available to the Commander-in-Chief – Grant himself.
Grant listened quietly to this nonsense and when Sheridan had finished he nodded and said that he appreciated the trials that Sheridan and his cavalry had been through, and Sheridan had deprived himself of an independent command by rejoining the Army of the Potomac - 'a rare thing, and you shall not suffer for it', he said.
Knowing Grant as I did by this time I wasn't surprised by his quiet manner but even so I'd expected him to tear a strip off Sheridan, threaten him with loss of his command, and order him to obey his original instructions. Instead he just re-issued the order to join Sherman by passing the left flank of the army and crossing the Roanoke river, leaving part of his cavalry – mostly troopers without mounts - to reinforce the garrison at City Point. He then passed Sheridan the original letter, drawn up a few days before, outlining his orders.
I could see Little Phil beginning to bristle as he read the letter again – his temper could be as volcanic as Meade's – and he began to protest vigorously against the plan.
General', he began, 'my command is part of the Army of the Potomac and I must oppose any oppose any dispersion of it, as it would diminish most seriously its effectiveness. It would also be bad policy to send me down to the Carolinas with a part of the Army of the Potomac, to come back to crush Lee after the destruction of General Johnston's army. Such a course would give rise to the charge that your own forces around Petersburg were not equal to the task, and would seriously affect public opinion in the North'.
To me this was all bluster, of course, but perhaps Grant was just giving him a little more rope to hang himself by. It was plain as a pikestaff that Sheridan wanted to be in at the kill so he could get more credit and burnish his personal reputation, whatever the requirements of his commander-in-chief. But if I was surprised by Grant's earlier demeanour I can fairly say my jaw dropped as he responded to Sheridan.
'The instruction to join Sherman was a blind, General', said Grant. 'Your move to the left is intended to cover any check the army might meet with as we move to the final objective, the crushing of the Army of North Virginia. Any defeat now will encourage those in the north who wish still to negotiate to agitate for a truce and talks on what they call an honourable peace. My view, and that of Sherman's, is that only by total victory will we maintain the Union and prevent further rebellions in the future'. With that he dismissed Sheridan and as he left, looked sidelong at me and asked, 'What do you think of that, Flashman ?'
I started to choose my words carefully. 'It depends, sir', I said, 'if your remark that Sheridan's move to join Sherman was a blind, as you said. Even so he has totally disregarded his orders, plainly because he wants to see the war finished here at Petersburg'.
At this Grant laughed shortly, and said 'No blind at all. My original order for him to join Sherman was my full intent. You're too sharp a bird, Flashman, to believe anything other than that. So why do you think I put up with Sheridan's gross insubordination, then ?', he asked.
'I wouldn't presume to guess, General', I replied.
Grant shrugged his shoulders. 'You recall my position prior to Shiloh, when all were calling for my dismissal and the President stood by me – this man fights, he said. Well, Sheridan is the same – show him an objective, face him toward the enemy, and he will go full tilt to defeat him. No digging in, no saving part of his force to cover any possible retreat. He goes all out for victory, at full pelt, and damn anyone's eyes who thinks any different. What's more is that he usually wins. That's why I tolerate and protect him. He's the best general this sorry episode in our history has produced. I do not think there's any force he could not competently command, whatever its size and I trust him as a commander even more than I do Sherman. I have no problem with his desire for glory as long as he accomplishes his tasks. Moreover, like Sherman and I, he believes that the total defeat of the rebels is the right way, the only way, to end this war. But from now to the end of the war I'll keep him on a tighter rein, by sending a good reliable man to ensure he isn't tempted to go astray again. You will accompany General Sheridan when he returns to his command, Major, and keep me fully informed of his actions by telegraph, scout, or whatever means are available'.
With that he dismissed me, and I made my way back to my own quarters, thinking about two matters. Firstly, what a contrast to our own army ! Sheridan would have been damn lucky to escape a Court Martial, and chokey, had he tried his little scheme on Horse Guards. More importantly, though, he had a reputation for leading from the front, where the shot and shell was hottest. If he was going there poor old Flashy would have to follow, putting his head above the parapet yet again. It wasn't a prospect that pleased me, and as I turned in and pulled the thin blankets over my head I began to pray for a sudden rebel collapse, or, better still, for Sheridan to be hit by a bolt of lightning. It had damn well rained hard enough over the previous few weeks, after all.
Lincoln had been at City Point for some days, aboard the steamer Mary Martin, along with his wife. He was there to consult with Grant and the other commanders, and to be near the front so he could get the news of what was hopefully a rebel collapse as soon as possible. I'd not seen him since Grant had been appointed C-in-C but it was no surprise when I was ordered to accompany Grant and Sheridan up river to see him. After boarding the steamer, after Grant had done the formal introductions, Lincoln turned to me, a wry grin on his face.
'Flashman, again. You're like the proverbial bad penny, always turning up. I knew you were on the General's staff, of course. I hope you're proving as useful to the General as you were to me. I don't doubt that you're being just as slippery, of course', he added.
'Honoured to meet you again, Mr President. I hope I'm proving of some small service to General Grant', I replied, as Grant chimed in 'He's not my right hand but he's damn useful, sir'. Lincoln smiled his rueful smile again, nodded to me, and then began to discuss the overall situation with Grant. He was anxious that Lee wasn't allowed to slip away, meet up with Joe Johnston and drag the war on even longer. Lee's abortive attempt to break or at least shorten Grant's beseiging lines at Fort Stedman just a day or so earlier clearly weighed heavily on his mind. While he agreed with the need for it to end in a clear Union victory he was emphatic that once that was achieved the South should not be humiliated, so that the wounds would heal. Maybe if he'd lived that might have happened, maybe, who can tell ? In my opinion so much blood and treasure had been expended that I doubted the wounds would be fully healed even a century later. But then I'm a cynic and know man and his nature for what it is. Whatever happened I wouldn't be around to see it in any case, so I didn't expend a lot of thought or energy on the matter.
As we steamed up river the discussions went on, with Lincoln asking Sheridan more specific questions, particularly about the vulnerability of City Point. To tell the truth Lincoln was not his usual self, seeming dejected and looking very tired, with none of the wise cracking and odd quaint old stories that he was inclined to include in his conversation. We watched Sherman's cavalry crossing the river on a bridge, with, unusually, warm sunshine lighting up the spectacle but even that failed to cheer him up. When we left him later that night that was almost, but not quite, the last time I was to see him alive. The next day I accompanied Sheridan back to Hancock Station, where he was to prepare his cavalry for its next move.
On 29th March Sheridan led his cavalry, supported by a mass of infantry from the Army of the Potomac, west in accordance with Grant's overall plan of cutting Lee's remaining supply routes and blocking any lines of retreat from the area. Two days earlier he'd been summoned back to City Point where this time Sherman tried to persuade him to move south to North Carolina to join his forces, to no avail.
Heading west and south we made slow and heavy progress along roads devastated by the frost and winds of the winter. Any attempt we made to bypass the roads soon foundered in the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields so in the end Sheridan stuck to the roads and made what progress he could. By late afternoon his First and Second divisions, under Devin and Crook, had occupied Dinwiddie Court House on the Boydton Plank Road unopposed. It was a scruffy little hamlet, with less than a dozen houses and a ramshackle tavern but a strategic crossroads as the Vaughn, Flatfoot, Boydton, and Five Forks roads all intersected there. If held by the rebels it would give them the chance to attack the rear of Warren's Fifth Infantry Corps, as they moved left across the Boydton road. By holding the place the Union forces would be able to assault Lee's right flank, should the opportunity arise.
Next morning, the 30th March, in the driving rain Sheridan sent out cavalry patrols to seize Five Forks, in order to cut one of Lee's supply routes, the South Side Railroad, where they ran into, and skirmished with, elements of Confederate cavalry. Not long after they'd set off a new message arrived from Grant suggesting that as the roads were so bad Sheridan should leave a force to hold the ground he had and withdraw the rest to reforage and rest at a place clalled Humphrey's Station.
That didn't suit Sheridan at all. He was ready and spoiling for a fight so he rustled up an escort and with one of his aides – Newhall, I think it was – dashed off to see Grant. He managed to persuade Grant to let him move on to Five Forks with just his cavalry. For someone supposed to be keeping Sheridan on a tighter rein Grant seemed easily biddable.
By the evening Sheridan was told that his advanced cavalry had now been in contact with rebel infantry, probably Pickett's division, and had just managed to hold them off after heavy and determined fighting by the rebels. The near defeat prevented Sheridan from taking Five Forks as he had promised and that put him in a fearful mood, made worse by being given Warren's Fifth Corps to assist in the capture of Five Forks. Sheridan didn't trust Warren, thinking him too timid, a view which Grant had some sympathy with. The result was that Grant authorised him to relieve Warren of command if he felt he was not making enough progress with his corps. Not a happy prospect, as I remarked to one of Grant's adc's – 'Not good to have General Sheridan mistrusting a fellow commander with whom he has to co-operate, is it ?' . He could only nod ruefully in agreement. If Sheridan did feel he had to sack Warren there'd be hell to pay, and it might cost the army dear.
By now,though, Little Phil was bouncing about, full of nervous energy. He prepared orders for Warren, telling him to attack the isolated Confederate forces flank and rear should they move to attack the position Sheridan's cavalry – mainly the division of a certain G A Custer – currently held, and in any case to attack at daylight.
The rebels, under Pickett, had pulled back to the Five Forks intersection and on the 1st April Sheridan's cavalry began the attack, fighting mainly dismounted from their horses. Sheridan was up at the front of them, with a nervous Flashy keeping well clear of him. Given his small stature, he was very recognisable and a sharpshooter might decide to deprive the enemy of yet another General officer – and anyone else who happened to be around him. As the time went on it seemed to me that the dismounted troopers, using their cavalry carbines, were making little progress, and that it was time to use Warren's Fifth Corps to hit the rebel's left flank.
Sure enough, around 1pm Sheridan summoned Warren and ordered him to form his corps up with two divisions on the Gravelly Church Road and one in reserve.
After an hour or so Little Phil, who'd been jumpy before, was now leaping about like a scalded cat. 'Where the devil's Fifth Corps', he shouted out every few minutes, casting about with his field glasses for Warren's men. After a little while he could restrain himself no longer, and dragging me and a small escort along he rode over to Warren to chivvy him up. Finding him he warned that if he didn't attack soon the cavalry might have expended its ammunition and would have to withdraw, leaving the whole engagement a waste of men, materiel, and time. It was clear to all from the way he snapped out at Warren that what little patience he had was coming to an end.
Still, despite Sheridan's anger at what he perceived to be Warren's tardiness, the Fifth Corps didn't begin its attack until around 4pm. By this time Sheridan was beginning to worry that the light might fade, causing the whole attack to founder. Even more worrying, it soon became clear that one of Warren's divisions, led by Ayres, was marching too far right, and had to swing in to attack the rebel line at a place called The Angle, while the other divisions, led by Crawford & Griffin, seemed to have missed the Confederate line completely. Fortunately one of Griffin's brigade commanders noticed the error and turned his command back to the rebel lines, soon being followed by the other Union forces on that flank.
Sheridan's temper was getting fouler by the minute, as he saw a disjointed attack going in later than he'd expected. He couldn't see Warren leading the attack and began a frantic ride to find him and order him to increase the momentum of the attack, Riding with him we came across Ayres. ' Where's Warren ?', snapped Little Phil. Told he was at the rear he roared, unforgivably, 'That's where I expected to find him'.
Looking down on the Union assault at The Angle I could see it had reached the rebel line but was beginning to falter. Through my field glasses I could see Chamberlain – the hero of Little Round Top – leading his brigade into the fire and slaughter at the rebel lines. I turned to Sheridan and said 'Chamberlain's at the enemy line but it looks to me that the attack is stalling, General Sheridan',
He swung round wildly and looked down to where I was pointing and roared 'By God, that's what I want to see ! General officers leading from the front !'. With that he dashed down on his horse to where the fighting was thickest, dragging his staff, body guard and a most reluctant Flashman with him. I was only trying to be helpful, after all, it wasn't my job to go down where the fighting was fiercest. There was no helping it of course, and I had to follow him down, making sure I was in the middle of his staff. They were welcome to take any stray bullets that were flying round as long as they kept them from Flashy's shrinking hide.
When I caught up with him Sheridan was riding amongst the Union infantry bellowing bellicoselly to all and sundry, “We’ll get the twist on ‘em, boys! There won’t be a grease spot of them left!” The madman then rode right to the front, and seized the division's battle flag from the sergeant holding it. Rearing his horse he waved the flag wildly above his head, continuing to roar encouragement to his troops. Inevitably he drew fire from the rebel ranks, with bullets zipping past us like angry wasps and shells beginning to fall into our ranks. All I could do was the old standby of getting my head down beside my horse's neck, t'other side of the firing, and hoping a shell or stray bullet didn't take both the horse and me with it.
Meanwhile Sheridan was dashing among the ranks of the attackers, still waving the flag like a lunatic,.pushing men into gaps, bullying, chivvying, shouting, swearing, and entreating them to break in behind the Confederate lines and push them out of their positions. The flag was pockmarked by musket balls by then, the sergeant who'd carried it was dead and several of Sheridan's staff were injured by bullets or shell splinters.
Spurred on by the mad dwarf Chamberlain's brigade finally burst through into the enemy's rear, collapsing their resistence there. Grey clad soldiers began to run from the front line in swarms. Cheering his men on Sheridan called out 'Chase them from the field boys, chase them all !' As we rode back from the front we could now see the entire defensive line beginning to collapse as Sheridan's cavalry applied further pressure along the front, and Fifth Corps infantry broke into the rear of the line, threatening the whole position with envelopment.
Sheridan was cock-a-hoop, as well he might be – the cavalry and Fifth Corps were in a position to cut off the South Side Railroad, which Lee depended on for supply. Furthermore, if Lee attempted to flee toward the west with his army they could block off his line of retreat, and hamper any attempt to meet up with the Confederate forces under Joe Johnston to the south. There'd be more fighting to come, but handled properly the day's work would likely see the capture of Petersburg, the fall of Richmond, and the collapse of the main Confederate army in the east. The war, to all intents and purposes, would be over, at long last.
Unfortunately for one man, though, Sheridan's good mood would not extend to him and as a result I saw one of the most extraordinary, and humiliating, episodes of the entire war.
Sheridan had not forgotten Warren, and what he saw as, at best, tardiness, at worst, lack of enthusiasm, for the assault. With Grant's prior agreement in his pocket, he decided not to wait, but to deal with him in the most severe way, short of a Courts Martial. He sent Newhall to find Griffin, Warren's senior subordinate, with instructions for him to take command of Fifth Corps. While he was away Fred Locke, a colonel
on Warren's staff, arrived to tell Sheridan of the successful breakthrough by Warren's corps and to ask for further orders.
This seemed to enrage Sheridan even further. Raising a fist he shouted 'Tell General Warren I say, by God, he was not at the front ! That's all I've got to say to him'. He then turned to the nearest officer on his staff, which happened to be me, and barked out an order for Warren, telling him he'd lost his command and was to report to Grant at City Point, which I hastily scribbled down.
It wasn't long before an amazed Warren galloped up to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider.
Sheridan gave him short shrift – 'Reconsider ? Hell ! I don't reconsider my determination. Obey the order !' On that Warren turned without a word, head bowed, and rode slowly away from Sheridan, his military career in ruins.
Now I've seen officers relieved of command in battle and been damned glad of it. I've seen some – Elphy Bey, Custer and Cardigan come to mind – who should have been relieved of command, but weren't. But I never seen a general whose forces effectively won the battle – Fifth Corps broke the rebel line, remember – and who'd had a horse shot out from under him at the front in the final stages of battle, publicly and humiliatingly relieved of command so soon after the action. I kept out of it myself, but Sheridan's staff, many of whom knew Warren for a good soldier, said nary a word to stay him either. Mind you, Sheridan had form for it, having dismissed another subordinate out of hand in the Shennandoah.
Why, you might ask, did he do it ? The obvious reasons were what Sheridan saw as his slowness to join the action, that Sheridan hadn't seen him leading from the front, and his perceived lack of enthusiasm for the engagement. Those were certainly what he cited after the war and in his memoirs. I think it ran deeper than that, though. He'd not wanted Fifth Corps in the first place, preferring the Sixth Corps, who'd been under his command in the past. He also had a pre-conceived notion of Warren as a soldier which he found confirmed by Warren's conduct of his command during the battle. Most of all, though, I think he wanted Warren out of the way because it was Fifth Corps that eventually won the battle. Sheridan's troopers had come up short when assaulting the front of the rebel line, and it was Warren's actions at The Angle that dug them out of that particular hole. Sheridan wasn't the sort of man to allow that he'd been saved from a sticky wicket, and he also wasn't the sort of man to let other men have the credit he felt he deserved.
As I said he effectively destroyed Warren's career – he resigned soon after. Years later there was a commission of enquiry – I wasn't asked to attend, fortunately – which exonerated Warren. I didn't bother to read its report, but I didn't have to. I knew that a wrong had been done, on the whim of Little Phil, who should have been damn grateful to Warren and his men for their sturdy work that day.
Chapter 16: Appomattox Court House
Almost the end
In the early hours of April 4th the Union Ninth Corps attacked Confederate lines near to Fort Mahone, a three sided earthwork which stood slightly forward of the right side of the rebels Petersburg lines. Shortly after Sixth Corps began an attack along the Boydton Plank Road. Both attacks began well but Ninth Corps were soon bogged down and started to take heavy casualties. Fortunately Sixth Corps were more successful, and broke the enemy line soon after 5 am and a few hours later swung east, heading toward Petersburg, followed by the Union 24th Corps. This relieved the pressure on the Ninth Corps, which was now under counter attack and in danger of being pushed back to its own lines.. With the whole Confederate line about to collapse wasting time and men to regain a position which would soon be untenable itself was out of the question and Ninth Corps was able to hold onto its position, with reinforcement from a brigade of Sixth Corps.
Grant now ordered his men to take the city of Petersburg but a stout defence at Fort Gregg by a few hundred Confederates, who were out numbered around ten to one, stalled the attack long enough to prevent them taking the city that day, buying Lee time to consider his options overnight. With his defensive line broken and all his supply routes cut off he seemed to have little option but to abandon both Petersburg and the Confederate capital it had protected at Richmond. Lee being Lee, though, no one was counting on anything.
This time Lee, outnumbered four or five to one and with all his supply lines cut off, bowed to the inevitable and under cover of night withdrew from Petersburg and Richmond, hoping to link up with 'Old Pete' Longstreet's corps, and Joe Johnston's forces in North Carolina. As Federal pickets pushed forward the following morning they found the rebels had abandoned Petersberg. Soon the smoke from burning sections of Richmond rose into the early Spring air, a sure sign, just as at Atlanta, that the city had been abandoned. By mid-morning the Stars and Stripes were fluttering over Richmond and Lincoln had met up with Grant in Petersburg to discuss the final days of the war and its prosecution. Not that I was there – I was still with Sheridan out to the west of the city as he pursued the remnants of the Confederate cavalry he had fought at Five Forks. At Namozine Church units under Custer fought a running battle against rebel forces as they attempted to cover the withdrawl of Confederate infantry. It was here that Custer's brother Tom earned his first Medal of Honour, though I wasn't there to witness, attempting, mostly in vain, to keep Little Phil within shouting distance of his orders from Grant, much good that it did me. Tom won another one a few days later, which put poor old Tom one ahead of me, but as I'm still here and Tom's been dead nigh on 30 years I think I'll let that one go..
Though the end seemed inevitable Lee wasn't yet ready to concede. The remaining rebel forces began to concentrate on the railway station at Amelia Courthouse some forty miles to the south of Richmond, presumably in the hope of receiving supplies, while Grant began to concentrate his vastly larger and better equipped army for the final blow. By the afternoon of the 4th April Sheridan, with me still in tow, had arrived at a small place called Jetersville with his cavalry and Fifth Corps under his command, soon to be joined by more and more Federal troops.
Already there was the old snapping turtle himself, George Meade, looking dyspeptic and in need of a long rest. He was nominally Sheridan's commander but that didn't stop Little Phil barging in and demanding that Meade commit his forces to attack Lee immediately.
'I can't do that, Sheridan', Meade replied with surprising calmness. 'My infantry isn't here yet. They'll be here by morning. We'll then advance the right flank to attack Lee at Amelia Court House.
'Damn it, Meade', Sheridan replied, with his usual lack of respect, 'Lee will have gone by then ! This is a chance to trap and crush them at last. We can finish the war in a day ! We need to move west as soon as possible. Tell him, Flashman', he said, looking to me.
I could see that things were at an impasse – Sheridan had a point, but Meade hardly knew me, and he knew the state of his command better than either Sheridan or I. Sheridan was beginning to boil over in his impatience. If he went to far with Meade – who was the victor at Gettysberg, after all – not even Grant could save him, and where would that leave things ? Lee might well slip away again, as he had done so often. In desperation I said 'How would General Grant see it ? He's not far away, perhaps we could ask for his advice ?'
Sheridan seized upon the idea immediately. No doubt he expected the total support of his mentor. Meade nodded wearily and took himself off for a rest in his tent, until there was word from Grant. Meanwhile Sheridan dashed of a note telling Grant he could see no escape for Lee and wishing Grant was here to see it himself.
By midnight he had his wish. Grant arrived with a small escort. He and Sheridan repaired to Meade's tent at once, with me trailing behind, wishing for a bite to eat, a drink, and a chance to sleep for a few hours.
To Sheridan's surprise – and mine – Grant didn't overrule Meade, at least not completely.
'I have no doubt that Lee is moving', Sam said. 'If we wait till morning he will escape. Besides we don't want to trail after him, we want to get ahead of him. Meade, can you advance earlier than daylight ? That will give you a chance to prevent Lee's escape, and give you time for the rest of your forces to catch up'. Meade nodded his assent. 'Good', Grant went on. 'Sheridan, be ready to move your cavalry as soon as possible, with the aim of outflanking Lee. Follow him left of the Deatonsville road, harrass and raid him but make no final attack till we are ready to fix his army and destroy it'. With that he turned to me. 'Major Flashman, if General Sheridan will permit it I want you to return to my staff at once. Your place is now with me'. He turned to Sheridan, who gave a little nod, and with that I was plucked out of the last bloody days at the front line of this seemingly interminable war.
On the afternoon of the following day, 6th April, Sheridan sent Grant his famous message 'If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender'. Aided by VIth Corps infantry his cavalry had been harrying Lee, who was trying to link up with Joe Johnstone and also obtain desperately needed supplies. There'd been a number of smaller actions until Sheridan had isolated Ewell and his corps at a place called Sayler's Creek where the rebels were thoroughly defeated. Sheridan reckoned he'd captured around ten thousand men, including half a dozen generals, around a third or a quarter of Lee's remaining forces. Grant sent a copy of his report straight to Lincoln, who immediately replied with a terse 'Let the thing be pressed'.
Over the next few days the Union forces engaged rebels units at various places such as Rice's Station Cumberland Church, and High Bridge, while Lee tried to move the remains of his main force towards Farmville, where he still hoped to obtain supplies. Reaching Farmville on the night of 6th/7th Lee obtained some supplies and sent the rest off to Appomattox. He was still being harried by Sheridan and after fending off an attack in the town he withdrew, following the supplies.
Determined to follow Lee, Grant moved his HQ first to Barksville Junction, and then on to Farmville, once it had been abandoned. I was happy enough to be with him, well away from any fighting which is just where the commanding general should be. As we rode into town in a light rain soldiers applauded him as he passed, which he acknowledged with a casual salute.
Grant set up his HQ in the town hotel, the Randolph or something similar, a handsome large brick building with a big porch and verandah at the front. There, in the late afternoon, he summoned Ord, Gibbons and I. Slouched back in a chair, his legs stretched out, he lit a cigar, and invited us to sit down.
Looking at each of us in turn he then said 'Well, gentlemen, how much string do you reckon General Lee has left for his bow ?'
Ord spoke first. 'Very little, I would reckon. He's desperate for supplies. Now Richmond's fallen that's his main source cut off. We can track him and eventually he'll be forced to surrender.
'True enough', said Grant, 'but I'm under orders from Mr Lincoln to press him in battle. What do you say, Major Flashman ?'
'I'd agree with General Ord under normal circumstances. Run him into the ground till he gives up, exhausted. Save a lot of casualties that way', I said. 'But if the President wants it finished then I don't see you have any choice. He must have known that the race was lost. once we'd crossed the James river'.
Grant nodded. 'I think you see it right Flashman. No doubt Mr Lincoln is eager to finish this endless night, and begin reconciliation and reconstruction. He's also aware of how resourceful Lee is. Even though we look like we have him like a rat in a trap if he finds a way out he could disappear into the Blue Ridge Mountains and carry on the fight from there. But before I commit us to one more battle I have a great mind to summon Lee to surrender. Picking up his despatch book he penned a short message to Lee, which I was required to make a copy of. I still have so I'll reproduce it in full:-
HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE U. S.
5 P.M., April 7, 1865.
GENERAL R E Lee
Commanding C. S. A.
The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle.
I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
U. S. GRANT,
He read it out and after nods from the three of us he looked at me.
'Like to be in on the last act, Harry ?', he said, informally. 'Take this down to General Lee under a flag of truce ?'
I must have flushed red – my normal reaction when I'm faced with riding into hell again. Given my activities over the past 3 years Lee might consider the ticklish choice of hanging me before or after he'd read it. Seeing this Sam Grant chuckled gently. 'I guess not. You look like you're ready to fight the rebels all over again, which is singularly not the point of this expedition'. As a result of this discussion Seth Williams, accompanied by an aide carrying a flag of truce, rode off into the gloaming night to deliver the first of half a dozen messages between the two great generals.
We settled down on the verandah to wait for a reply, Grant inevitably smoking a cigar. While we waited Wright's Vith Corps came past on a night march. Spotting Grant they began to whistle, sing 'John Brown's Body' and cheer him. He got up from his chair and stood by the verandah rail, puffing on his cigar and the cheers rose even louder. What began as a night march turned, as Horace Porter noted, into a grand review. It's always puzzled me how a leader like Grant can be so popular with the men he's sent into battle so many times. Don't get me wrong – he was a fine soldier and a good man, for what that's worth. But his strategy for defeating the Confederacy was to grind them down with his superior manpower. That's inevitably costly in casualties and those casualties were mainly the sort of men marching past and cheering him like billy–oh now. Of course they were bucked by the prospect of final victory at last, but I can't say that would have led me to cheer the chief orchestrator of all that bloody slaughter. Aye well, it's a funny old world, filled by funny people.
Lee's response was prompt, coming that evening. I've not got a copy of it but the gist of it was that if he was to surrender his army he wanted to know the terms of surrender. Grant looked at it quickly, gave us an idea of its contents, and said 'He's playing for time, even though he must know time has run out. I'll answer him tomorrow when we see what has transpired overnight', and with that he went to his bed.
Next day, Grant having amplified his terms in another letter to Lee, we set off to follow the Army of the Potomac, which was pressing to catch the rear of Lee's army. It was a dull ride as Grant was suffering another one of his sick headaches that many had put down to drink in the past and wasn't inclined to idle conversation. That afternoon Custer's cavalry engaged a mixed force of artillery and engineers at Appomattox Station capturing a couple of dozen cannon and and some supply trains. More important, though, was that he'd secured the Richmond-Lynchburg road. Union now held the high ground west of Appomattox Court House, squarely across Lee's line of march. With his line of retreat blocked his only choices were surrender or attack. We stopped that night at a farmhouse and had a jolly evening assisting Grant applying mustard poultices while he bathed his feet in hot water and mustard and replied to another delaying dispatch from Lee. "It looks as if Lee still means to fight” was his terse comment.
Next morning Grant was still suffering when we set off in the direction of the small settlement of Appomattox Court House, Late in the morning though, his headache vanished. Nursing his head in front of a tent, a rider came galloping up, whooping and hollering. Jumping off his horse he rushed to Grant and handed him an envelope. Grant opened it in silence, read the contents, and then passed it to Rawlins to read out aloud to us all. Lee had offered him the surrender of the Army of North Virginia. The expected attack at Appomattox Court House had foundered against the far superior Federal forces. With no line of retreat available the rebels at last faced the inevitable. Duff, Grant's head of artillery jumped on a nearby log and called for three cheers – few answered him. Grant's staff, almost to a man, where silently crying. Rest assured I was the exception.
Eventually it was agreed that the surrender would be negotiated in Appomattox Court House so about 1pm I rode with Grant and his staff down to what was little more than a hamlet, with less than a dozen houses on one little street. We met Sheridan and a number of his staff on the fringes of the settlement. Grant called out to him 'How are you, Sheridan?', who responded 'First-rate, thank you; how are you?'. Clearly in a hurry Grant said 'Is Lee over there ?', as he pointed up the street.
'Yes, he is in that brick house," answered Sheridan. 'Well, then, we'll go over', said Grant in his usual laconic manner, gesturing for his staff to follow. Most needed no urging, being eager to see the end of the war for themselves, with one exception, of course.
I'd last seen Lee at Gettysburg before I jumped ship, as it were, and made my way back north. While nearly two years had passed I doubt either he – or the rest of his army for that matter – would greet me with any warmth. I hung back a little but Grant, eyes and ears sharp as ever, noticed and called me forward to ride next to him. 'You should see the end of what you've played such a part in', he told me as we walked the horses down to a two storey house fronted by a porch, apparently belonging to an unlucky chap by the name of McLean.
As we went up the steps to the porch a rebel soldier watching for us jumped up and opened the front door. Grant gestured for us all to wait and disappeared inside the house. A few minutes later we were summoned in – I tried hanging back but the press of Grant's staff carried me before them and we entered a room off the left of the entrance hall, to see both commanders waiting. Grant was sitting at a marble topped table in the centre of the room, Lee sitting beside a small oval table at the front window, in the corner opposite to the door and facing General Grant. At Lee's side was Marshall, his military secretary.
The press of officers crowding in arranged themselves as best they could around the walls or on what seats were available. Of course it was impossible to hide from Lee, who started when he saw me, and fixed my eyes with a steady, unforgiving gaze. I began to wilt but then he realised it was time to get on with the business at hand and turned back to Grant.
Looking at them it would be hard for anyone to think Grant was the victor and Lee the vanquished from their appearance. Apart from his shoulder boards showing his rank Grant was dressed like a private soldier, in mud splashed boots and uniform, which was unbuttoned, sitting slightly slouched, without any weapons. In contrast Lee was wearing a new uniform, buttoned up to the throat, and he had a sword of fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels. His boots were polished and clean, with large spurs attached.
Grant spoke first. 'I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott's headquarters to visit Garland's brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere'.
'Yes', replied Lee, 'I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature'.
They talked for a while about their service in the Mexican war until I thought Grant had forgotten that he was there to receive the surrender of his enemy's army. Lee brought it back to his attention.
'I suppose, General Grant, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood. I asked to see you to ascertain upon what terms you would receive the surrender of my army', he said.
Grant replied: 'The terms I propose are those stated substantially in my letter of yesterday - that is, the officers and men surrendered to be paroled and disqualified from taking up arms again until properly exchanged, and all arms, ammunition, and supplies to be delivered up as captured property'.
'Those are about the conditions which I expected would be proposed', said Lee in reply
Grant then said 'Yes, I think our correspondence indicated pretty clearly the action that would be taken at our meeting; and I hope it may lead to a general suspension of hostilities and be the means of preventing any further loss of life'. For some reason he then wandered away from the rebels surrender into what the peace might bring, how happy he was at the prospect, and how the apple crop in New England was doing, for all I know, till Lee brought the conversation back to the surrender and the drafting of the agreement.
Taking his order book Grant began to draft out the surrender terms and on finishing passed them over to Lee. I was happy to see him occupied again. From time to time I saw him glancing towards me as Grant was writing – it wasn't a comradely look. The two men talked over the exact wording for some time – the rebels being allowed to keep their horses was one issue – until the draft was agreed and a fair copy made by Ely Parker, Grant's military secretary, who was a full blooded Indian. Lee asked for, and was granted, access to captured provisions for his men. I suppose it was about 4 pm when all was done, and Lee shook hands with Grant's senior staff, and took his leave with his aide, Colonel Marshall. Grant left soon after and as he rode away all hell broke loose in the McLean household.
The parlour was ransacked as all the Union officers left tried to get souvenirs of the room in which the great surrender had been made. First off were the chairs and tables Lee and Grant had sat at – Sheridan had one of those. Candlesticks, inkpots, even Mclean's children's toys were appropriated, his sofa slashed to ribbons and pieces taken in a manic desperation to obtain something, anything, as a memento. I felt sorry for McLean as his parlour was ruined. Some of the vandals tried to pay him in greenbacks for what they were stealing but he just stood watching, refusing the money offered, much of which was just thrown on the floor. Leaving them to it I followed Grant's party back to his encampment.
Chapter 17: Homeward Bound
Grant visited Lee again the next morning, behind the rebel lines. He was accompanied by many Union officers, eager to meet old comrades they had spent four years fighting. By that time I was making my way to City Point via the Burkesvillerailroad, to take a dispatch boat to Washington. With the war over I was more than ready to set off for home. God knows what I'd say to Elspeth – I'd been gone longer than ever before and knowing her I was sure she hadn't missed out on Adam's arsenal in my absence. But there was a more urgent reason for me to hightail it out of Dodge, after a conversation with Grant the night before.
I was called to his tent mid-evening. He was sat on a campstool in front of it, by a small fire, puffing contentedly on a cigar. When I reached him he said 'Pull up a chair, Major, and make yourself comfortable'. I sat down and said 'I think it's time to resign my commission, General'. To my surprise he said 'You might want to keep that uniform on a while longer, Harry'.
'Why is that, Sam ?', I asked.
'Your former friends amongst the rebels haven't forgiven you for what they believe is your treachery. Some of them, according to reports from our agents, think a reckoning is due'.
'Did Lee say anything about it ?', I asked, in shock.
'He didn't say a word about it. I doubt he would arrange it, but the way he was looking at you I'd say he'd not be inclined to stop it'.
'Good Lord,it's two years ago now', I said. 'They've had spies as well. Do they expect them to be assassinated by the Federals now ? The war is over, after all. Anyway, why will keeping my commission help ?'
'As for that, some are less likely to try to kill you while you remain a former combatant, and covered by the terms of surrender', Grant answered. 'But not all are of the same mind. They see you as betraying them, not as an agent, because you came to them and offered your help'.
'But I only did that under threats from Mr Lincoln ! Don't they know that ?'
'I doubt it, and if they did, what of it ? It's not why you did it, it's that you did spy on them'.
Typical, I thought. I didn't want to help the Union, I was bullied into it. As a result of my weakness then I was now at risk for doing something I had little choice in. This is what comes of mixing with politicians and diplomats – never again, I thought. Looking at it dispassionately I was at little risk at present, in the middle of a victorious army. Still, if I needed any further incentive to get back to England this was it. I said much the same to Grant.
'You're safe enough here, for now', he said. 'But we'll get you on your road home in the morning, and back to Washington where I've no doubt your own people will see you right. Mr Lincoln will contact them via Secretary Seward with a letter, no doubt fulsome in its praise, telling of your considerable assistance in the cause of freedom. Good night, and thank you from myself for all your valuable help'. With that he put out his cigar, rose and went into his tent, leaving me ready to start at shadows, again.
By rail and then boat I was back in Washington on the afternoon of the 12th. Grant's staff had arranged accommodation for me there. Not the Willard this time – I was too well known there so if any vengeful rebels were after me I'd best avoid it this time. I was put up at the National Hotel, just 6 blocks from the Capitol on the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. I decided to ditch the uniform as well. I was too conspicuous in it and and I doubted if it would put off anyone who'd made the effort to find me in Washington. Scruples only go so far.
The National was a big place, long and broad with five storeys. It was as popular as the Willard and the scene of a lot of history – Lincoln had held his first inaugral dinner there, and Andrew Jackson and a number of other presidents had stayed there prior to inauguration. It had a reputation for good food and wine, so it seemed a snug enough place to hole up in, till I could get a ship home, probably from Baltimore. What I didn't know, until I registered at the reception desk was that another guest was one John Wilkes Booth.
I had just finished registering at reception when I caught a glimpse of a slim elegantly dressed man in his twenties. It was Booth, just as I remembered him when I put a spoke in his plan to kidnap Lincoln two years before. I'd expected him to stay in the south after that or face arrest but he was soon back in Washington carrying on with his acting career, as though nothing had happened. I could only assume that the fear of giving away my part in foiling the plot, and exposing me as a Federal agent in the heart of Lee's army had kept him free.
Fortunately I was able to turn slightly so he didn't spot me. As he passed I remarked to the clerk 'That gentleman is familiar to me', as I pointed to Booth. 'Should I know him ?'
The clerk looked at me in surprise. 'You surely should, sir. That's Mr John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor'.
'So it is', I answered. 'Staying here, is he ?'
'Yes, sir, regular guest here when he's in a play. Has the same room whenever he can, number 228', he replied. As I made my way to my room I determined to keep clear of Booth. Not that I was scared of him but if he recognised me he might mention it to one of his southern friends. With Grant's warning in mind that was something I was naturally keen to avoid.
I spent much of the following day at the British Ministry, arranging for a diplomatic passage home and recounting my adventures to Prosser, my old co-conspirator. Lord Lyons was no longer British Minister there, having gone home in ill health the previous year. The new man was Frederick Bruce, who I knew from my time in China where he was secretary to his brother Lord Elgin – not that he deigned to see me on this occasion. Still as he'd only arrived a week before I suppose he might have been somewhat busy. When I returned to the hotel I found a nice quiet corner in the large main dining room, where I'd be out of immediate view, had dinner, and retired for the night. On reaching my room I was delighted to find, propped up on the nightstand, an invitation to visit Mr Lincoln at the White House the following morning.
When I woke the next day, the 14th, I found the weather was better than expected and decided to take a stroll later in the morning round the centre of the city. My fears of kidnap or murder had subsided and I didn't relish the prospect of staying in my room most of the day. If I was careful I should be safe enough. Besides, I had to pay my respects to the President. I won't go into that here, as I've discussed it elsewhere, but that duty done, I went out into the city.
The city, of course, was packed. Visitors had poured into the capital to celebrate the end of the war, a grand military parade was being planned and there were fairs and entertainments being set up or arranged all over the place. Where there were these sort of entertainments they were usually accompanied by ones of a coarser, more earthy style that was more to my taste. I'd almost forgotten when I last had a woman and decided that was my immediate priority. It was around noon when I was strolling in the weak sunshine when I spotted a familiar figure heading for a livery stable. It was Booth. As ever he cut quite the dandy figure, wearing a tall black silk hat, flourishing a cane in one hand, with a light overcoat slung over his other arm. I ducked out of sight and out of nothing more than sheer curiousity decided to see what he was up to.
Booth walked up to the stable and called out a name, but I was too far away to make it out. After a moment a man in his thirties, I suppose, wearing a battered round hat and dressed like a stablehand appeared. He seemed to know Booth as he greeted him with a nod and a handshake. They talked for a few moments and then the stablehand – I supposed he must be the owner – reappeared leading a pretty little bay mare. Booth looked her over for a moment, then nodded, spoke again, and after shaking hands turned and walked off back the way he came.
Well, thinks I, he can't be buying the horse as he didn't look it over for long or very intently. Why would he be hiring a horse, I wondered ? I waited a few minutes in case he came back, then sauntered down to the stable to have a nosey around.
As I got there I saw the same man tidying some tack up at the front of the stable, so I called out a cheery 'hello'. Looking up he saw me and came out.
'Hello, mister', he said. 'I'm Jim Pumphrey, and this is my livery yard. What kin I do for you ?'
'Just the man I need', I replied. 'I need to hire a horse mid–morning tomorrow for the day. What have you got available ?'
'Most of my horses are out or are already hired. I gotta couple left free if you wanna come in and take a look', he said.
'Splendid, splendid', says I, and followed Pumphrey into the stable.
'What kinda horse was you looking for ?' he said over his shoulder as I followed. 'Planning a longish ride, or just riding the town for pleasure ?'
'Just a short jaunt out to see the sights beyond the city', I answered. 'I like an animal with a bit of spirit, ready for a sharp gallop when the road is clear'. Spotting the mare Booth had apparently hired I said 'That looks a mettlesome beast. Is she available ?'
He looked me over. 'You're a big fella. If you were going any distance I'd say you'd need something bigger and stronger. In any case she's hired out. I don't expect her back in time for you tomorrow'.
'Oh, what a shame', I replied. 'I'm not going far. Perhaps the other chap wouldn't mind taking another animal? She looks just like my sort of horse'.
Pumphrey shook his head. 'Even iff'n he would I wouldn't want to be discourteous to him. One of my best customers. Famous too'.
'Really', says I. 'General, perhaps, or bigwig politico ?'
'Nope. Neither o' them. He's a famous actor, probably the most famous in America', he said, with a note of reflected glory in his voice.
'I say, I follow the stage', I answered, with an edge of excitement in my voice. 'Would I know him ?'
'I should say so – Mr John W Booth', Pumphrey said.
'Well, he is a celebrity, I'm sure. I've not been in the US long but I've heard his name an awful lot', I said.
'I could tell you wasn't American', answered this bright spark. 'Where you frum, anyways ?'
'England, my dear chap. My name is Comber. Do you think Mr Booth might bring this darling little mare back before tomorrow ?'
'Well, he's only paid a day's hire so I guess he might. Can't be going far, said he was off to some theatre after he'd picked her up. Grover's, he said it was.
'I tell you what, old fellow', I said, 'I'll come back in the morning to see if she's ready. If not I'll see what else you've got'. With that I shook his hand, ruffled the mare's mane affectionately and left him to it.
Curiousity satisfied I set about finding a suitable establishment to sate my other inclinations. Being the capital, and wartime, with the city filled with soldiers there was no shortage of options. Still, I didn't want a rough house run by an old slattern where any common soldier could go, and likely get rolled and his money stolen. Discreet enquiries led me to one ran by a stern but polite Madam in her fifties named Mary Ann. Pleasantly appointed, the dozen or so whores there were nice and clean, and it even ran to good French champagne - Piper-Heidsieck if I remember right. Handily placed for the Capitol, too, so I knew it wouldn't have any rough necks among the clientele – more likely the odd senator or congressman. American politicos are damned censorious about sex – except for themselves. of course.
So it was in a relaxed mood that I sauntered back to the International in the pleasant afternoon sunshine. I contemplated dinner, speculated on whether my ticket home would be waiting on me, and wondered how I'd explain at this to Elspeth – assuming she recalled that I was her husband, of course. Reaching my room I turned the key in the lock and opened the door. As I stepped over the threshold I sensed a movement beside me, turned slightly towards it, and saw a figure with its arm raised. Instinctively I tried to step away but too late, whatever was in his hand hit me on the side of the head and everything went black.
I woke up some time later, with my head ringing and a sickening feeling in my stomach. I tried to move and found I was on the floor, bound hand and foot. It was now fully dark so it must have been late evening or even early morning but the curtains hadn't been drawn so I was able to see what I was doing in the bright moonlight that came in through the window.
With a great effort I sat up, my heading pounding again, and after a moment looked at my bonds. Hands and feet were lashed together by some thick rope, with tight, expertly tied knots. The only way out of them was to cut them. Looking round I saw my valise a few feet away, by the dresser. If I could get to that I might be able to tip my razor out and use it to cut through the rope. Rolling over to it was a huge effort which made my head pound more fiercely and my stomach heave again but after a moment I reached it. Fortunately my fingers and thumbs were fairly free so I was able to open the case, then tip it upside down. Out fell all my shaving gear along with brush, comb, tooth powder and what have you. In the middle was the precious razor. I opened the blade, nicking myself in the process. With some effort I cut through the knot joining hands and feet together, and fell back, able to stretch my legs for the first time in hours, chest heaving, sweat pouring off me in little streams, and my head feeling it was about to burst.
After a few minutes, with the circulation restored to my legs, and the pounding in my head receding slightly I sat up.. Shuffling on my backside I made my way back to the razor. Picking up the sharp blade with care between my hands I cut the rope round my ankles free. From there things were much easier, as I stood up, and made my way to a chair, blade in hand. Putting the razor between my knees, facing away from me, I was able to saw through the ropes around my wrists till they fell away to the floor.
Exhausted, with renewed pounding in my head, I slumped back in the chair for a few moments, resting, till I felt well enough to stand, then made my way to the wash stand. There was a ewer with clean, cool water in it. I emptied the water into the washbowl, soaked a small towel in it and staggered back to the chair, using the towel as a compress on the egg shaped lump on the side of my head where I'd been struck.
I'm not sure how long I sat there in the semi dark with the towel pressed to my head, but eventually the pounding and sickness began to wear off and I was able to pay some attention to my situation. I'd no notion of the time so the first thing I did was to take out my pocket watch. It was just after 9:15 pm. I needed a drink, now, and not water so I took the little tooth glass from the wash stand and filled it to the brim from a bottle of brandy I kept hidden in the wardrobe.
The first one went straight down in a gulp, hardly touching my lips. The fiery liquid burst into my stomach, warming and settling it, and sending that warmth through my aching limbs, reviving me in a few seconds. I poured another but this time took it to the chair where I sipped at it carefully, while I considered the situation.
Clearly someone had got access to my room and waited who knows how long till I returned, and then coshed me and trussed me up while I was unconscious. The question was who and why they did it.
My first thought was robbery but I soon discounted that. My room didn't look like it had been searched, I still had my wallet and pocket watch, which was worth stealing on its own. That ruled that theory out. My next thought made me shudder. What if it was rebels out for revenge for my treachery ? Another sip of brandy, and I ruled that out. Why tie me up and leave me ? If they'd been intent on revenge they'd have killed me on the spot, or more likely, considering their delicate notions, have spirited me away so they could put me on trial in some kangaroo court, before slitting my weasand, their consciences clear. Who the hell, then, would go to all this trouble but leave me trussed up and essentially in good health ? I thought back through the last few days and then it came to me like a bolt from the blue. It could only be Booth ! What if he'd picked up his horse, and Pumphrey had told him someone else had been interested in it ? He'd soon recognise me if Pumphrey described my appearance. Or what if he'd seen me in the hotel despite my care and decided that I might be a fly in the ointment that would be best removed from the scene ? He'd surely know by now that I'd been working for the Union all along. That was the only realistic possibility.
That left the question why ? Was he planning another kidnap attempt like the one I'd foiled before ? How could he get away with that ? Washington was crammed to the gunnels with soldiers and visitors. How could he spirit the US President away from the city ? He'd not get a mile with a prisoner, especially as he'd only hired one horse. One horse. With that thought the truth shot into my brain. He's not trying to capture Lincoln, he's hired a speedy little mare for a getaway. He's going to kill him ! I shot up from my chair, then sank down into it again, groaning, as the effort made my head start pounding again.
After a moment my head cleared and I started to think again. What could I do to stop him ? I'd no idea where he was, or Lincoln for that matter. I was in no condition for gun play or wrestling, even with a little weed like Booth. Lincoln wasn't my President, he'd used me abominably over the past two years, and he knew me for what I was. Not my place to act as his saviour, putting my precious hide at risk, after all. Perhaps I could get a message to Pinkerton or someone, warning them ?
With that intention I stood up, more slowly this time, and started for the door. What time was it, I wondered ? Looking at my watch it was just about 9:45. Of course I could be too late, he might have murdered Lincoln already. But if that was the case the news would spread like wildfire. Surely there'd be a commotion, a hubbub throughout the city ? I couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary going on. But he must be planning to do it this very night, and it must be soon, given the time now. There was no time to find Pinkerton or anyone else – if he was to be stopped it had to be now, and I was the only one who could do it. But where would he do the deed ? Then I remembered about the theatre – Booth was going there tonight. It had to be there. After all, he was an actor and it would suit the little montebank's sense of the dramatic to commit the act there. As I stepped out onto the pavement I picked up the pace and headed off into the night.
You might find it strange that I, with my innards still grumbling and a ringing head from my recent assault and moreover a self confessed poltroon who'd learned to steer clear of violence, would go off into the night on what was a probably a fool's errand. I had no real obligation to put my oar into whatever scheme Booth had planned. I might be completely wrong about Booth's intentions – it was all supposition on my part, with no concrete evidence he was planning an assassination. Even after all these years I'm still not sure why. These days, of course, it would be a simple matter of telephoning the requisite authority, or even the nearest police station to set the apparatus of the state in motion. For that reason I can't see any future in political assassination, not in a civilised country, anyway. Communication is too quick now for a lone gunman to succeed, what with how the top rank politicos are now guarded. A more complex plot involving more people would leak out – they always do.
That wasn't so in 1865 Washington though. I wasn't even sure how well guarded Lincoln was. When Booth had hatched his earlier kidnap plan Lincoln's guard was merely an amateur detective. In any case I can only think that my quixotic attempt to save Lincoln was partly down to the bash on the head, and being slightly fuddled with brandy on an empty stomach. Most of all, though, was the fear that if Booth succeeded I'd somehow be blamed if they found out I knew he was up to something. So I blundered on towards the theatre, occasionally stumbling or bumping into people on the crowded streets, as I made my way there, hoping I wouldn't be too late.
It was less than a mile to the theatre but on Washington's unlit and unpaved streets, full of people in the late evening. In my less than perfect state I suppose it must have taken me quarter of an hour to reach the theatre. It was situated on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks down from the White House itself. As I stumbled in througfh the main entrance I started to shout 'Mr Lincoln ! Where's Mr Lincoln ? I need to see him urgently ! Mr Lincoln !'
As the play, or whatever it was, was in mid performance there were only a few people in the foyer but they all looked round at this dishevelled madman, who'd burst in and begun bellowing like a wounded cow. I stumbled towards the nearest door into the auditorium but before I got there two sturdy ushers had grabbed my arms and restrained me.
'Can't go in there, mister', said one,. 'performance is still on. Your shouting and raving will interrupt the show'.
'That doesn't matter', I replied, chest heaving and sweat pouring down my face in streams. 'I must see Mr Lincoln this very minute !'
As I twisted in their grip, trying to free myself I heard a voice behind me.
'Bart, what in the devil's name is going on here ?'
'This feller's come crashing in, shouting for Mr Lincoln, Mr Hess. Don't rightly know if he's mad or just drunk', said the chap who'd first spoken to me.
By now I could see this new arrival, who was evidently the manager or owner of the place. He was a non-descript chap, quite tall but slim, with a big brush of a moustache but no other whiskers. He looked at me quizically.
'Only Lincoln here tonight is Tad, Mr Lincoln's son. He's here to see this', and he showed me a playbill. which read” Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp” 'The President is at Ford's theatre, on 10th St, to see 'Our American Cousin', he went on.
'Christ', I've come to the wrong theatre !', I shouted, and shook myself free from the ushers. 'Which way is it ?', I asked Hess.
'It's back on 10th street, about half a mile or so, he answered. 'Take you about 10 minutes at this time I guess. What do you want with the President ?'
By this time I was headed for the exit. 'Danger, he's in danger from Booth. Tell Pinkerton,tell Pinkerton', I called back over my shoulder, as I dashed out onto the crowded streets again. I must have been in there for less than 2 minutes.
Fuelled by the energy of the desperate I ran through the crowded streets, yelling fiercely about 'murder, murder', with people either staring at the madman, or hurrying to get out of his way. I reached Ford's in less than ten minutes. As I approached it all seemed quiet with none of the noise and commotion that could be expected if Booth had made his assassination attempt. Perhaps he'd changed his mind, I thought. After all, for all his bluster he didn't seem to have the nerve to shoot a man in cold blood. But of course I couldn't rely on that so I ran up the few steps into the entrance hall. As I entered I glanced up at the clock above the main theatre doors – it was just coming up to 10 past 10.
There was a ticket collector just inside. As I went to go past him he stopped me. 'You gotta a ticket, mister', he asked me, as he put a hand on my right arm.
'No time for that', I said, shaking his hand off. 'Is Booth here ? Is Booth here ?'.
'What do you want with Mr Booth?', he asked.
I grabbed him by his lapels, pulling him to me, and glaring like a madmen.
'Is he here ?', I shouted at him, his face mere inches from mine. His face went pale and he started to stammer – Flashy in a fright can be quite intimidating.
'He's been in and out all night. Last I saw him was just a few minutes ago, going up the stairs over there, to the dress circle. He pointed to a spiral staircase in the corner of the lobby, which lead up to the seats on the right hand of the stage. 'That's where the President's private box is', he added. Without a seconds thought I flung him away and dashed up the stairs, hoping to God not to hear the crash of pistol shots and the screams of Mrs Lincoln.
I reached the top of the stairs in seconds and looking round saw a door with a guard sitting outside it. As I approached he stood up and barred my way.
'Can't go in there, mister', he told me. 'that's Mr Lincoln's state box through there'.
'Has anyone else gone in there apart from Mr Lincoln and his party ?', I asked him, struggling to keep in some sort of calm state, though by now I was soaking with sweat, my face was burning red and I could hardly stop shaking.
'No one except that actor feller whose always round here. Booth is his name', he said.
'My God, no !', I shouted and flung him aside, crashing my way to the doorway. I tried to push it open but it seemed to be stuck. I started to heave at it, cursing vilely but it wouldn't move – it was locked or wedged shut somehow. Exhausted though I was I took my boot to it. After a few seconds I heard a splintering from the other side of the door and I rammed my shoulder against it to burst through. On the other side were two doors. The one on the left was part open – strangely I noticed it was numbered 8. As I stepped towards it I heard a gale of laughter from the audience and, the sound mostly drowned by the audience, a single pistol shot, followed by someone shouting, indistinctly, in Latin.
As I burst through the door I saw Booth wrestling with a young man in army uniform. He slashed at the man with a large hunting knife, aiming for his chest but the soldier parried the thrust with his arm, receiving a long, deep wound from his shoulder to the bottom of his arm. Booth thrust him aside and jumped over the balcony, landing awkwardly on the stage as the audience, as one, stared in horror at the drama now taking place offstage.
It was utter bedlam in the box, with Mary Lincoln and another woman staring and shrieking at the same time, the soldier bleeding copiously from his wound, and face down on the floor, completely still, blood running from a large wound on the back of his head, lay the President of the United States.
This is the final entry in this packet of the Flashman Papers.