The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.
It was dusk on the night of April 2, 1865 on the banks of Hatchet’s Run a few miles southwest of Petersburg. Major General Andrew Humphreys of the Army of the Potomac had hurled his II Corps at the remnants of Major General Henry Heth’s once feared Confederate division throughout the day. The Confederates, grimly determined in the midst of the smoke and thunder of battle, fought for every inch of ground. The smoldering orange embers of scattered fires crackled deep inside the breastworks and the timber. Blackened, barren trees sprawled over the land like a sea of twisted thorns, and small shapes scrambled under the cover of sulfuric smoke like mealworms. 10-inch siege mortars thundered in the distance and lit up the horizon with a sickening yellow glow.
In a nearby root cellar, a family whispered around dim candlelight and listened to the sounds of battle crawl near. A goat bellowed in the distance. Its cries were heard between the loud crashes of thunder, and then it was gone. William Gilmore heard it too, and he prayed for the souls of the men and boys who had spewed hot iron and lead at each other in the trenches around nearby Petersburg for almost a year. William had once felt the sting of battle, but now his hair was nearly white, arthritis crippled his hands, and wrinkles cut deep into his skin. Still, he clutched tenaciously to his grandson—as well as to his ancient Springfield flintlock musket—waiting until it was safe to go out.
* * *
The remnants of a battered Confederate infantry company hid in the forest above the farm where they waited for the enemy to come. They had been ordered to cover the retreat of Heth’s Division, and to protect the wagon train from attack, but their dirty and hollowed faces knew it was a useless gesture. The chain of command had disintegrated, and their once formidable force was reduced to fighting in lone pockets with a trickle of supplies and no hope of victory. They faced an ocean of enemies that threatened to wash over them at any moment.
A little more than two dozen of these men, Private Nathaniel Beverley among them, crouched behind makeshift piles of dirt and wood they had hastily thrown up that evening. At any moment, the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps was going to close in on their position, and it was their duty to delay it as long as possible. The group’s self-appointed commander, a middle-aged, grizzled veteran named Dixon, had put Nathaniel on watch that night, so Nathaniel’s eyes were trained on the creek in the valley below. He detected no movement in the growing darkness, but the smoke hovering over the valley did much to obscure his line of sight.
Nathaniel hadn’t slept in days. He was at the point of exhaustion and starving from a sparse diet of hardtack, horsemeat, and rotten potatoes that his unit had taken from the local farmers. They had no fire with which to cook, because the flames would give away their position. Already, the 88-pound mortar shells slammed into the riverbed below. Their report had lost their effect on Nathaniel long ago, and now the strangely rhythmic explosions seduced him to sleep. He struggled to keep his eyes open. It became hard to focus, and his cloudy breath warmed his face just enough to make the soft cradle of his arm inviting.