THE DEVIL’S OWN DAY (SHILOH, 1862)

(excerpted from Cole Coonce‘s forthcoming novel, THE DEVIL’S OWN DAY)

artwork by Jack Logan

IN SHILOH, TENNESSEE, the night was a muted grey and the murkiness made it difficult to visualize the aftermath of the first day of a fierce battle. The smoke of artillery and muskets wafted slowly and fought with the gloom of a steady rain. The sound of the heavy drizzle underscored the sporadic sotto voce moans of the wounded and slowly dying. A chorus of animal grunts created a disturbing, bestial rhythm. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed and the brief rod of light cast a glimpse of the carnage and suffering.

The whistle of artillery would follow a distant, muffled boom of cannon. The whistle would get louder and change pitch as it approached its target. A brief blast of light flashed as the artillery hit the battlefield. As dirt, turf and human limbs flew into the air, wild hogs squealed and stopped their feeding on the dead and ran away from the point of impact. As the black of night consumed the dying vestiges of light, the hogs resumed squealing, grunting and fighting each other over human flesh.

Under an oak tree next to cloth tents stood two Generals of the Union’s high command. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman smoked cigars and listened to rain amidst the sporadic shelling.

“Well Grant,” Sherman proffered, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?

Grant puffed on his cigar and thought for a moment. “Yep,” he answered. “Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

Across the battlefield, next to captured Union cloth tents that have now become a Confederate camp, Nathan Bedford Forrest entered the quarters of General Bragg, who is in council with two Generals of the CSA high command. Bragg—a stiff angular man with crow’s eyes flanked by straw hair and thick, wiry muttonchops—smoked and listened to the same rain and sporadic shelling that interrupted Sherman and Grant.

“General Bragg,” Forrest said. “I have been to the river and I have seen Grant receiving troops at the landing.”

“Colonel Forrest,” Bragg wondered. “On whose authority did you go forth on your little scouting mission?”

Forrest was flummoxed. “Authority?”

“Yes, authority. Johnston is dead, so it couldn’t have been him. Beauregard perhaps?”

“No suh,” Forrest answered. “I have been looking for Beauregard to tell him about the arrival of the Union troops, but…”

“It is not your place to tell your superiors anything,” Bragg scolded. “I am your commanding officer, Colonel Forrest.”

“Yes suh. But Beauregard must know that if’n we don’t keep up the skeer into the night, they’re gonna whip us tomorruh’.”

“Colonel Forrest, if there is anything to tell Beauregard, I will tell Beauregard.”

Forrest is livid. “If the enemy come on us in the morning,” he seethed, “we will be whipped like hell.”

Bragg dismissed Forrest with a wave of the hand.

“Suh!” a startled Forrest protested. “I did not lead my men into battle to surrender!”

In the morning battle began again, along green, rolling hills lined with magnolia, oak and pine trees, in a clearing known as Fallen Timbers. As an ineffectual Confederate artillery squad struggled to fire a shot, much less find its target, a slightly chaotic cavalry charge is in full effect. A ragtag ensemble of Southern horsemen galloped in the shadow of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The cavalry riders wore a motley assortment of clothes and uniforms, mostly gray and sundry earth tones whose unifying feature was a distinct lack of anything blue. Saber out, Forrest stood tall out of the saddle and led the charge.

From an adjacent ridge General Sherman watched Forrest outrun his support. “He’s attacking without any artillery support. That half-cocked Secessionist sonofabitch is either fearless or has bats in the belfry.”

Forrest twisted his torso towards his trailing cavalry and shouted, “Put the skeer in ‘em! Keep up the skeer!”

Amidst the growing voluminous smoke from a repetitive barrage of Yankee musket volleys, confederate soldiers pulled back on the reins of their mounts or are knocked off by the impact of gunfire. Oblivious to the carnage and the cowardice of his own troops, Forrest leaned forward and vaulted over the detritus of fallen timbers that served as earthworks for the Yankee infantry.

Forrest was in hostile territory. Alone. He had no cover fire from cannons. He had outrun his own troops. The Federal infantry was stunned at its good fortune, as it had a Confederate Lieutenant General within close range. They began to shoot at Forrest, and the adrenaline-charged barrage of close range musket fire created even more confusion. Forrest and his horse were both hit by Minié balls, Forrest in the left hip, and the force of the explosion momentarily lifted Forrest out of the saddle.

A startled union soldier shouted as he reloaded his musket, “Kill ‘im! Kill ‘im!”

Another union soldier joined the chorus, firing, reloading and shouting, “Kill the goddamn rebel! Kill ‘im!”

Forrest fought for control of his horse, tugged on the reins and turned the horse around. He cleared a path amidst the mass of dark blue-clad enemy soldiers with his saber, and reached down and grabbed one of the soldiers by the collar, swinging him onto the rear of the horse. The hapless Yankee soldier became a human shield, and recoiled from a friendly fusillade of Minié balls. Forrest and his quarry galloped over the fallen timbers back towards safety. Out of range, Forrest let go of the dying bluecoat and trotted on up to a ridge where his stunned men watched with their jaws dropped. Among the witnesses was a young Negro, who had read Forrest’s advertisement in the Memphis paper and heeded its call for volunteers, signing up as a blacksmith.

Forrest’s eyes were ablaze and saliva streamed from his lips. “Goddammit!” he shouted. “War means fighting, and fighting means killing. I will never ask you to fight anywhere I would not fight myself! Now if you follow me boys, I will always lead you to glory!”

The colored blacksmith asked Forrest for permission to check his wounded animal’s shoes. During the examination, the bleeding horse made a pained whine. The two men locked eyes, briefly. There was a flash of recognition as Forrest realized where he has seen this colored boy before. Forrest brushed Young Dobson aside and galloped off.-30-

(from THE DEVIL’S OWN DAY)


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