Mine Run, Orange County, Virginia
Captain David Reynolds of the Seventeenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, Company I threw down the riding crop he had wrenched from the man's clammy grasp. "Don't ever let me see you mistreat your animal again, Corporal!" The prancing feet of the huge black stallion he rode stomped the crop deep into the ever-present mud. "What kind of cavalryman are you, Forrester? You'd do well to remember your horse is your life!"
Corporal Silas Forrester's face was beet red under the berating he was receiving, but David didn't care. He had to make sure these men knew what was most important to keep them alive. A few snickers from the other blue-coated men in his unit gathered around on their own mounts just intensified Forrester's scowl.
"Yes, sir," Silas responded, "I understand completely, Captain Reynolds." He yanked hard on the reins of his still-jittery horse, obviously hurting the animal's mouth. Its eyes rolled around, whites showing as it danced and stomped in discomfort. The soldier was barely able to salute his commanding officer and remain seated on the animal.
David regarded his subordinate from under the brim of his hat, "Perhaps you had better have a few riding lessons, Forrester. See Lieutenant Jones later today. That's an order!" He wheeled his own mount around and walked the horse away towards the group of tents clustered nearby in the open field. The voices of the men lingering behind him could still be heard.
"Jones will fix you right up, Forrester," someone jeered.
"Yeah, a few lessons and you'll be a real cavalryman like the rest of us." A burst of raucous laughter followed this remark.
The last voice David heard from the group belonged to Lieutenant Miller, David's right-hand man, taking charge of the situation. "Move, soldiers!" Miller's Irish-accented voice boomed. "Time to make camp! Forrester, get your horse properly settled and get some chow before you see Jones."
Arriving at the cluster of tents, David dismounted, handed the reins to an aide, and strode towards a lone officer sitting in front of the blazing campfire. Anger still simmered under his skin in a rush of hot blood.
"What's going on over there, Dave?"
He gave no answer. Grabbing a tin cup, he helped himself to the strong, black coffee condensing into mud over the flames and sat on the canvas campstool, pulling his wide-brimmed hat low over his eyes. Jack Montgomery, he knew, was not one to be put off by his silence, no matter how hard he tried. Sure enough, Jack asked again. "Trouble in the ranks?"
Finally David looked at the amused face of his best friend, knowing that when he did, all of the anger would diffuse away as if it had never been. There was just no way to meet those kindly brown eyes and familiar boyish face without being affected by the wisdom and understanding he always found there. "Just a fool mistreating his animal. Shouldn't let it get to me, I know."
Jack waved a dismissive hand. "It's our job to try to keep these men as fight-worthy as possible, even if we have to tell them over and over which end of the rifle to point at the enemy!"
The tension flowed out of him like water. He pushed his hat back and regarded his old friend with a reluctant grin. "Done that, have you?" When Jack nodded with a rueful expression, David continued, "Me, too. I just keep telling myself that these are all good Pennsylvania men and they will learn...eventually."
Jack nodded again, and his face brightened suddenly. He plucked a letter from his jacket and waved it in front of David's face. "I got a new letter from Lila!" He grinned and brought the letter up to his nose for a good sniff. "Ahh, sweet perfume! I surely wish I were with her right now rather than here with you! You, my friend, just do not compare to my lovely Lila."
"What does she say? Anything interesting happening in Philadelphia?"
"Nothing much of note. She wants me to come home...and I'd sure like to go."
"You can't be thinking of doing that, are you?"
"Oh, no, I won't leave any more than you will...but you could make some plans for after the war. You could use the money your grandfather left you to buy that farm you always wanted." Jack leaned closer to him, eager as always to discuss his friend's life choices.
David sighed. Jack was always trying to get him to follow his heart no matter how hard it was to do that. The man just didn't understand.
"It wouldn't work out like I'd want. My father would see to it. As long as he could get to me, he would make my life hell. Getting away from his reach is just one of many reasons for me to stay in the army. But you already know that. Besides, I couldn't let you fight without me to watch your back!"
"Right," Jack murmured and nodded, "...watch my back, good, good." Then he opened up the letter from Lila and began to read it again, lost in the news from home.
David took a sip of the strong, hot coffee, and its comforting warmth spread through his stomach. He looked around at the camp starting to settle down in the gathering twilight. Tents and campfires were all around them. The noise of thousands of men and horses going about their business made for quite a racket, but David had long since learned to block it out when necessary.
Jack gave a loud, theatrical sigh, startling David from his thoughts and drawing his attention back to his friend. "Why the hell am I here in this mud hole, cold in Virginia, with thousands of smelly men instead of home with my sweet Lila, snug in our bed?" he asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "You really should get yourself a girl, Dave old buddy. Women like Lila make this life worth living..."
David raised his tin cup in mock salute, stopping his fellow officer's discourse on the female sex. "I know, I know. To women everywhere, especially to Lila." As expected, his friend began to expound enthusiastically on the virtues of marriage to his lovely wife. Having heard this all before, he barely listened as the speech went on and on. But maybe, just maybe, Jack had a point. Maybe the unsettling, growing aggression he experienced in battle would be lessened if he too had someone to come home to.
The battle lines were drawn. It could start all over again at any time. David sat high on a densely wooded hilltop astride his stallion, Napoleon, with a pair of field glasses trained on the earthen trenches and stacks of felled trees below him. This way of fighting was something relatively new, new since the great losses of Gettysburg. He shuddered at the memory. That hideous clash was the last time the two armies had ordered their men to meet the enemy shoulder to shoulder in tight formations across open fields only to watch them die by the hundreds as cannonballs mowed them down. He watched as the infantry on both sides used shovels and axes to provide any kind of scant protection from the guns and the carnage.
The Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, however, did little of this type of defensive warfare. They were, by nature, supposed to move in and strike quickly on their horses. It was fast, dangerous, and exciting work. This was what had drawn David to join them. Ride hard into battle. Feel the horse's powerful strength under you, carrying you forward, always forward. Clash with the enemy. Fight off bayonets, dodge the bullets, and only dismount when needed. Slash and shoot, push the enemy back then move on.
His first battle had sickened him. Killing men with whom he had no argument, aside from their affiliation with the Confederate beliefs, was hard in the beginning. To ride in and see the face of a man when your saber slashed open his gut or your bullet smashed into his face, had made David doubt his commitment to this fight. Gradually, with each passing skirmish and fight, he became hardened to the screams and began to feel the strange thrill of the battle. The joy that could accompany the fight when the bugles blew, and the horses thundered down towards the masses of gray troops, was something akin to a religious experience now.
This was something locked deep in the nature of man that had been passed on through centuries--man the hunter, man the conqueror, man the beast. It was something felt in the gut and not experienced with the mind. If you thought about what you were doing, you could never function, and death would come in the blink of an eye.
The dawn was just breaking over the eastern horizon. Men in gray uniforms swarmed around, attempting to fortify their positions and provide themselves with cover, wheel cannon into position, load rifles, and fix bayonets. Scattered shots rang out. Sharpshooters were already at work trying to pick off each other. All around David the Union soldiers were amassing. His company sat silently on their mounts awaiting the order to charge the enemy. As they watched the activity between the trees each, undoubtedly, wondered how many of them would die today.
"Hold your position, men," David shouted, hearing his words echoed down the line.
Loud booming started. The Union cannons had begun the assault. The noise from the big guns seemed to incite the Rebels into a more frenzied state as he watched them scrambling to engage the enemy--his men. The spine-tingling Rebel yell could be heard above the roar of the cannon. It was time.
He gave the order to Lieutenant Thomas Miller, who sat on his horse to his left. "Move it out, get into position at the bottom of this hill quickly now."
"Move out!" came the order passed from one horseman to the next, fanning out on either side.
Down the hill the blue line streamed, flowing between the trees until they melded into a unit at the bottom. The red, white, and blue flag carried by one cavalryman billowed out in the breeze, readily visible by all who looked on and an inspirational sight to all. David raised his arm, saber in hand as the horse pranced excitedly under him. Napoleon was ready. The big horse seemed to thrive on the noise and excitement of this war. How would the animal adjust to a quiet life on the farm he planned to buy when this war was over? If he survived, he reminded himself. But there was no time to dwell on these thoughts. The war raged in front of them and the men in gray were coming closer.
The bugle's tones rang out, its sound distorted by the trees, but identifiable nonetheless--Colonel Kellogg had ordered the charge.
David indulged himself with a quick look to his right. Down the long blue line of cavalrymen he saw Captain Jack Montgomery, his saber raised as well. They exchanged an unspoken message. Each man was ready to lead their men into battle. The familiar excitement was starting to build now, and he welcomed it.
"Charge!" he yelled, hearing the command echoed by the other officers. A shout went up from the cavalry. It had begun again. God save them all.