Along a line extending nearly thirty-five miles, running roughly parallel to the remnants of the Norfolk-Petersburg railway and all the way to the banks of the Chickahominy and Appomattox Rivers, battle-worn men with rifles quietly eyed each other across a bleak landscape of man-made destruction. Occasionally engaging in contests of marksmanship, their half-hearted efforts managed to do little harm to one another for, by this point in the campaign, the protective trenches on both sides had become well established. Not luxurious by any stretch, the trenches were comfortable and reasonably safe if a soldier was careful to stay down. Now, in the waning months of the war, these veterans were mostly careful--or lucky. All the careless or unlucky ones were long since gone.
With the bitter recollection of Cold Harbor still fresh in the memories of the blue-coated soldiers, yet again they found themselves firmly stuck against fortified Confederate positions. This time they had Petersburg under siege. Much like a great sailing-ship denied a passage through a barrier reef, the army had grounded. Still, everyone knew a storm--the coming storm of battle--would soon force them in. And, like that sailing ship running before the storm, the soldiers would be at the mercy of forces they couldn't control. There would be no room to maneuver, to seek a safe channel. These men knew they would soon be ordered to risk all, just like that tired and aged sailing-ship, when they were forced into the rocks and shoals that were the Petersburg trenches.
Through the Union lines, choked with many obstacles and the refuse of an army stalled and waiting, a young corporal scurried rat-like in the maze of trenches. Bent at the waist, his movements were awkward. In spite of his haste, the young man fought the urge to stand up and run, knowing that to do so would invite the earnest efforts of a hundred Confederate riflemen along that section of line and a hundred more farther on and still more beyond that. The corporal had long since learned that those shoeless bastards in their tattered remnants of gray uniforms were expert shooters if they were nothing else. Few northern recruits knew their way around a rifle as well as their brothers to the south, so the corporal accepted the strain and discomfort of his ape-like gait in favor of the safety it afforded. Still, an occasional rebel sharpshooter caught a hint of blue and tried his luck. Each time the corporal heard the whip of a passing shot or the nasty whine of a ricocheting Minié ball, he pretended not to notice. Despite his bravado, the sweat on his face was as much from fear as from the physical exertions in the heat of the day.
The corporal stopped for a breather. Sitting down, he leaned his back against the rough ground of the trench. The young soldier's tunic was unbuttoned, for despite the time of year, the heat was oppressive. With the stagnation of movement and purpose, the discipline of the troops in some units had slipped noticeably. Many soldiers no longer wore complete uniforms; some wore no uniforms at all. One of the ironies of this seemingly endless conflict was that the opponents were becoming less remarkable as opposing armies, and more similar in appearance and attitude. That they could still muster the strength, courage and desire to rise up and advance on a line against twenty thousand enemy muskets would amaze anyone otherwise disassociated with the whole tedious and bloody affair.
The corporal closed his eyes against the bright sun, and let his breath return and the hammering of his heart slow to a more normal pace. His constantly sweating face had become a gathering place for what seemed like pounds of Virginia dust and grime. Water--fresh, clean water--was a scarce commodity amid the trenches. Water fit for drinking was little enough, but for washing there was none. The men on both sides were a dirty lot, and even when it rained, they could not adequately wash, for then they were covered in mud. Out of necessity and pride, the weapons carried by the soldiers of both sides were the only things kept meticulously clean.
After his brief rest, the corporal continued on his way. He was searching desperately for Ballou. He'd seen him earlier, with his back propped against a broken carton, the Stephens rifle cradled like a baby in his arms. No one deliberately went looking for Ballou except on a mission like this. Ballou was mostly left alone. He preferred it, many believed. He didn't make friends; didn't take part in general camp life. He always sat alone with just his rifle and his private thoughts.
The corporal spied Ballou and hesitated. The man had moved some distance from where the corporal had last seen him, evidently following the fleeting bits of shade that never remained long in one place. Where Ballou moved, men made room and he always had shade.
Though Ballou's eyes were closed as the corporal approached, it was doubtful he was asleep. The corporal slid into the trench, raising a small cloud of dust that danced and swirled about despite the lack of a discernible breeze. He heaved a deep breath and, taking off his hat, leaned the back of his sweat-slick head against the dirt wall. Wiping his grimy brow with an equally grimy sleeve, the corporal spoke.
"Sergeant told me to find you, Ballou. He's got a shot for you!"
At first Ballou didn't respond and the corporal found himself studying the fuzzy-faced soldier. Ballou was no older than the corporal, perhaps even a bit younger. His soft blonde hair was wispy and uncontrollable and badly in need of cutting and washing. His face was sunburned and, despite his youth, there were crows-feet deeply etched into the corners of his eyes. The wrinkles may have come from squinting through a gun-sight all the time, the corporal surmised.
After a long moment, Ballou answered softly, without opening his eyes. "What is it?"
The corporal shivered, in spite of the heat. There was a distinctive coldness about Ballou. It was a coldness likened to the slithering skin of a water moccasin. The corporal knew it was only his imagination, but the air always seemed ten degrees cooler in Ballou's presence. He shook his head to clear away his musings.
"It's an officer," the corporal replied. "A damned 'Reb' officer who won't keep his damned head down. He keeps walking the Confederate fortifications and daring us to hit him."
Despite himself, the corporal grinned, exposing stubby, tobacco-stained teeth. "Don't think we ain't tried, neither. Anyway, Sergeant said for you to get your rifle and your ass over to 'B' Battery and he'll show you the shot."
His mission accomplished, the corporal was glad for the opportunity to be away. Without another word, he donned his hat, pushed himself to his feet and hurried off.