B. C. Nance is a writer who has not given up his day job yet. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works as a historical archaeologist by day. By night he writes fiction and poetry and has had several pieces published in print and online.
Jonas Bracey died on the battlefield at Shiloh. The young Captain’s corpse lay on the ground, his unmarred countenance still bearing an expression of astonishment. The surviving men of his company stood around his body in silent contemplation until Lieutenant Cogan bent over the body and lifted the captain’s chin to look at the small round hole. Blood trickled from under the captain’s cap and down his temple. Finally the lieutenant spoke.
“I’d best go tell the colonel,” was all he said.
Billy Evans, who at 42 was the oldest private in Company D, removed one of his patched and ragged brogans and placed it next to the captain’s feet, the young officer’s boots still bearing some of the shine with which they had started that fateful April Sunday.
“Damned if this boy ain’t got the smallest feet I ever did see,” Evans said. He put his tattered shoe back on his foot. “You remember,” he continued to no one in particular, “that morning when he rode into Trousdale?”
Several of the gathered men nodded, memories taking them back to the previous year and the day when a cock-sure boy rode his fine black mare into Camp Trousdale just north of Nashville, where southern boys were gathering for what they had been promised would be a grand adventure as they defended their homes, their families, and their way of life against the Yankee invaders. A Negro servant named Solomon trailed the boy driving an old donkey cart carrying Bracey’s personal belongings packed in two large, brass-bound leather trunks.
David Cogan was standing with some of the score of men he had led to Camp Trousdale from Nashville, men who would form the core of a company in one of the Tennessee regiments. David possessed the only formal education among those men, and all fully expected that this shopkeeper’s son would command the company. Jonas Bracey, however, was the son of a wealthy ironmonger who supplied, in addition to his son, the much needed iron that was now being turned into artillery at the Brennan foundry in Nashville. The boy, just two months past his nineteenth birthday, handed a letter to the commanding general, and David Cogan became a lieutenant in Captain Bracey’s Company D.
Captain Bracey expected respect from his men simply because he outranked them, but the closest he could get was pity at how hopelessly out of place the boy was. Most of what he earned was scorn for his superior attitude and his disdain for the rough and uneducated men. As the training progressed and the regiment began to draw together, the men turned toward the lieutenant for leadership, and the young captain was largely ignored.
They had marched and countermarched, camped and decamped, and marched again for months since leaving camp Trousdale. After an idle winter the regiment found itself as part of a vast force gathering at Corinth, Mississippi in the spring of 1862. They followed Albert Sydney Johnston toward the Union army gathered at Pittsburg Landing with a chance to push Grant into the Tennessee River.
The first day’s intense fighting had continued into the night, but as the firing became sporadic, scattered men began groping through the darkness to find their units. Much of Company D lay scattered along the path of the advance from the point at which they had emerged from the woods early that morning, now a lifetime ago, to where the Yankee resistance had stiffened at an old sunken road and held the southern soldiers at bay for a time. The Union men had finally been dislodged, but at a great cost. Of the 76 men of Company D who had marched into battle, fewer than two dozen now gathered, and Lieutenant Cogan did his best to put them in some semblance of a battle line.
Sergeant James Maddox strode in with Parry, Griffith, and one of the Pugh brothers, Cogan couldn’t tell which in the dim light of the campfire. Cogan had sent Maddox to the right of the company to find out which units had formed there. The Pugh boy began to search the surviving men for his brother, but he would not find him. Jack Jenkins put his hand on Morgan Pugh’s shoulder and shook his head. Morgan fought back the tears but to no avail. Jack decided he would not tell the younger Pugh that he had seen his older brother Luke, born just 11 months before Morgan, when the Yankee artillery cut him in half as the Regiment assaulted the sunken road.
“The Company C boys are next to us,” Maddox told Cogan as he pointed out into the darkness from which he had just emerged. “B is past them then the 9th Arkansas.”
“Any sign of the captain?” Cogan asked.
Maddox let out a stifled laugh and shook his head.
Sean Evans, whom Cogan had sent to the left, wandered back with Prosser, and the two carried between them a badly wounded Private Vaughn suspended in a tattered wool blanket. They carefully lowered their comrade to the ground, the man grimacing from the pain.
“Some Alabama boys picked him up not far from here,” Evans reported. “Their regiment is on our left after our other companies. A, K, and maybe H,” Evans ticked off the companies on his fingers. “The colonel is out that way, too.”
“Bracey?” Cogan asked.
“No, sir,” Evans said. “But the major says no fires.” He eyed the small blaze and a memory of earlier that morning flashed into his mind.
The regiment had emerged from the woods in some disarray, but Major Ellis energetically pushed them back into order aided by most of the captains. The colonel sat on his horse looking ahead with his small brass telescope then he shut the instrument and ran a hand through his white hair. Aberthol, the colonel’s roan horse with the white-patched nose, was the regiment’s first victim. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Westmoore landed heavily on his leg, but the middle-aged man would not leave his boys, so he drew his sword and limped heavily toward the enemy.
Captain Jonas Bracey walked forward in a stupor when the advance started. He had not thought to draw his own sword nor address his company. Lieutenant Cogan and the company sergeants pushed the men into their lines and started them forward, but as they advanced, Bracey’s steps grew more tentative, and the company began to overtake him. When the snap of the first shots began to ripple along the line, Jonas Bracey was behind the first two lines of his men, his trembling hand grasping the bill of his hat and pulling it down as if it could shield him from harm.
The grey-clad southerners overran the outlying Yankee camps where some of the blue-bellies were frying up bacon and boiling coffee. Evans burned his fingertips grabbing the popping meat right out of the pan then burned his tongue shoving the half-cooked bacon into his mouth so he could aim his weapon, an outdated flintlock musket that was the best his fledgling country had been able to provide him.
“Seth?” Cogan’s voice brought Private Evans back to the present, still staring into the forbidden flames. Evans looked at his lieutenant and smiled.
“I saw Bracey,” Vaughn said as he tried to raise himself onto one elbow. The men all turned to their wounded friend. Vaughn’s leg had been shattered in several places so that the appendage resembled a mere bag full of marbles. He was bleeding from an abdominal wound that soaked his shirt. His right shoulder was dislocated, and a Yankee bullet or piece of shrapnel had furrowed the left side of his face.
“Way back when we pushed the Yanks past that little church,” Vaughn continued. Vaughn had been in the second line of men as they advanced across the field, and Captain Bracey was behind him. Vaughn could smell the ammonia stink coming from the boy captain, but he didn’t think the captain was the only man who would lose control of his bladder that day. Vaughn looked back at the captain and gave his commander a wild smile. Before Bracey could speak a shell exploded nearby. Several men went down, some from the concussion of the blast. Vaughn lay on Captain Bracey’s legs, the young officer not moving. Vaughn got to his feet and shook the confusion from his head.
“Captain?” he said, shaking Bracey’s shoulder, but Bracey still did not move. Vaughn picked up his musket and hurried to catch up to his company. He thought Bracey’s death was no great loss to anyone, but as he glanced back one last time, he saw Bracey lift his head and look toward his advancing company.
Cogan and the men took in Vaughn’s tale as the wounded private lay back again. The blanket on which he rested was soaked red, and the lieutenant began to wonder how far back the hospital tents were. There was silence in the camp, the fire still crackling and no one moving to comply with the major’s order to extinguish it. It was Andy Pritchard who broke the silence.
“I’ll be damned, boys,” Pritchard said, looking into the darkness at an approaching figure. “I believe we’re being visited by a ghost.” Everyone turned to see Captain Jonas Bracey stroll into the camp.
“Well, here you are at last,” Bracey said as if to a truant child. We sure did get separated in the fury of this victory.”
“Is this a victory?” Private Prosser asked then added, “Sir.”
“Well we sure pushed the Yankees from the field,” Bracey said while striking a dramatic pose with his right hand on his hip and his left on his sword pommel. “I must have gotten ahead of you boys in the confusion.”
Private Vaughn began to chuckle until it caused him too much pain. He took a deep breath and looked at the captain.
“Yeah, we sure did push them blue-bellies, didn’t we, Captain?” Vaughn said. “And you sure do push fine from behind us.”
Bracey scowled at the private.
“Did you change your wet britches back at the little church, boy?” Vaughn spat caustically.
“Vaughn,” Lieutenant Cogan snapped, but Vaughn heeded no warnings.
“Maybe you should have just put old Solomon into the line and give him your sword.”
Captain Bracey went down on one knee leaning over the prostrate Vaughn. He patted the Remington revolver at his right side.
“I’ll see you’re put in front of a firing squad for that, private,” Bracey hissed through gritted teeth. He had no idea if a firing squad was even possible, but it was the first threat that cam to mind.
Vaughn smiled and pointed to his leg. “Yankees beat you to it, rich boy. So why don’t you take your slave and run back to your rich daddy and leave the work to us poor dirt farmers.”
Bracey snapped his head around toward Cogan. “Lieutenant,” he growled. “Get Major Ellis and inform him that I wish to…” Bracey stopped when he felt the Remington slide out of its holster.
Bracey turned back toward Vaughn just as the wounded man pulled back the revolver’s hammer and pushed it under the young captain’s chin. The shot lifted the officer’s hat from his head then it dropped back into place to cover the large hole in the man’s skull. Bracey went limp and oozed to the ground.
Before anyone could react, Vaughn cocked the weapon a second time and placed it under his own chin.
“Good luck, boys,” Vaughn said with genuine cheer. “If any of you survive this mess, please tell my Pa I died well.”
Vaughn looked up at Evans who was kneeling at his head.
“Best step aside, Seth,” Vaughn said. Evans sprang away as the lead projectile sprayed a generous portion of Private Vaughn’s brain across the ground.
When Lieutenant Cogan found Major Ellis, he was smoking a cigar in front of the Colonel’s tent. Cogan felt as weary as the major looked, and he kept his explanation brief. Ellis puffed on the cigar for a moment as if he had heard none of it. Finally he turned to Cogan.
“It’s your company now, Cogan,” Ellis said. “Get the men ready for tomorrow. I think we’re in for another fight. Word is that Grant’s being reinforced as we speak.”
Cogan walked with weary deliberation back to his men while the Union gunboats on the Tennessee River began shelling the Confederate positions in the darkness. There would be little sleep that night, and the next day promised fresh hell. David briefly thought of Bracey’s slave Solomon, waiting somewhere toward the rear with the Captain’s horse and belongings, more goods than all of the privates in the company combined carried with them. A fleeting thought of finding the captain’s fine black mare and leaving this place of horror crossed Cogan’s mind, but he knew he could never abandon the men. It was his company now, and Cogan would lead the men into whatever fate awaited them all.