This is a preview to the chapter Chapter Eight from the book A Beautiful Glittering Lie by J D R Hawkins.
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On June 17, General Lee sent the 4th Alabama and Hood’s Texans to the Shenandoah Valley to support Stonewall Jackson, while Union General McDowell was ordered to defend Washington against Jackson’s advance. Hiram’s regiment marched 150 miles, and was allowed to rest for only one day during the journey. Eight days later, the men bivouacked near Ashland, twelve miles from Richmond. Circling around McClellan’s army, they were now behind it. The following morning, General Lee pursued the fleeing Federals.
In the early morning coolness, Hiram marched alongside his comrades, noticing his surroundings as he traveled. Mockingbirds sang from overhanging tree limbs, as did orioles, flickers, and red-winged blackbirds, while they flitted above in the shimmering leaves. He could hear soldiers singing behind him, as well as the echoes of clomping boots and horses’ hooves. The dew-covered grass smelled fresh and clean. At 10:00 a.m., the Rebels reached a bridge that had been partially destroyed by Union pickets, who were now on the opposite side, felling trees to impede them.
Confederate General Whiting rode forward, and soon the bridge was repaired, enabling the men to cross. The Confederates shelled the woods to make sure no Yankees were waiting to ambush them, and then they cautiously proceeded, clearing debris from their path while they forged ahead. Generals Ewell and A. P. Hill joined them, taking one road, and the Alabamians took another. On June 27, they reached Cold Harbor, but only after considerable effort, because obstacles and sharpshooters hindered their progress.
At one point, while the men sat by the roadside, waiting for their scouts and pickets to clear the path ahead, an ambulance drawn by a pair of fine bay horses pulled up. The driver realized too late that he was in the midst of the enemy. Soldiers piled into the ambulance, relieving the driver of any foodstuffs he had. Soon the road was cleared, the men marched on, and the stunned driver, who was with Union General Porter’s corps, was taken prisoner.
The Alabamians heard heavy fighting ahead, and knew they were headed for a hornets’ nest. They passed General Porter’s abandoned camp. Everything was still intact, including tents, officers’ tables, and chairs, appearing as though the Federals intended to return once the threat had passed. General Porter, it was learned, fell back to Gaines Farm, which was about a mile from Cold Harbor. Before the 4th reached the firing line, Captain Robbins of Company G requested the men to kneel. He then delivered a heartfelt prayer.
General Jackson ordered his troops to support A. P. Hill’s Virginians, who arrived first, and had been engaged in battle for over two hours. The Alabamians, who were on the far right beside the 11th Mississippi, hesitated upon seeing the open field that they were expected to cross in order to reach the Virginians.
“Forward, boys! Charge them!” their commander, Colonel Law, encouraged.
They advanced across. The stench of smoke and sulfur rose up to meet them as they fell victim to the waiting Union artillery and small guns. The roar was nearly deafening, and several men fell screaming to their deaths while the regiment progressed. Smoke was so thick and suffocating that the Rebels choked and coughed. They could barely see ten feet in front of them, but they knew they had to persevere. The Alabamians advanced to find a brigade of A. P. Hill’s Virginians lying in front of the enemy’s lines. Hill, in his distinctive red shirt, rode up and down the line, immune to the shelling. Out of ammunition, and too exhausted to move, the Virginians were forced to endure the shower of bullets and shrapnel that hailed down upon them.
Lieutenant Colonel McLemore, who had been promoted to the 4th Alabama in May, appeared at the front of the line. Marching backward, he faced his Confederates and loudly ordered the march: “Guide center, keep in step! One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four!”
The 4th Alabama responded, as if they were in a dress parade, until they passed the Virginians. Given the command, the Rebels charged, bounding toward their foe with a shrill, screeching yell.
Caught in the whirlwind, Hiram charged fearlessly. Men dropped around him like flies, the thud of bullets sinking into them before their bodies exploded with blood. The Alabamians kept running until they reached a ravine and the waiting line of Federals, oblivious to the death that surrounded them while bullets whistled and whizzed by. Colonel McLemore fell wounded, and was quickly replaced by Captain Scruggs.
The Confederates jumped into the Union breastworks, stampeding like cattle. In response, the Federals broke and ran as the Alabamians thundered up the ascent to the second line of defense. The Yankees from the first line swept through the second, and all turned tail. The Rebels kept shrieking, cursing, and running in pursuit. They attacked the third line that waited at the top of the hill. The Union soldiers panicked and fell back, retreating at a run to avoid the charging Confederates, who fired a successful volley into the fleeing enemy. Before the Federals could remove their artillery pieces, the Rebels captured fourteen of them. As the Alabamians watched their enemies escape, their voices rose up in triumphant cheers, which spread through the ranks.
Hiram stopped to catch his breath, watching the smoke clear. He looked around for Bud until he finally saw him walking toward him. The two congratulated each other amidst their shouting, jubilant comrades. As darkness fell, the Yankees escaped across the Chickahominy. General Lee was rewarded with his first victory, and the Confederates’ shock tactics had proved to be successful.
It was discovered the following day that the 4th Alabama lost twenty-three, including Captain Armistead and Captain Price, and 109 were either wounded or missing. Jim Harrison of Company D received admiration for his ability to capture twenty-three men and an officer. In the excitement of battle, he had unintentionally jumped into a trench filled with Federals, so he shot one and took the rest prisoner. Among the Yankees captured by the Confederates was Colonel McLemore’s old regiment, the 8th U.S. Infantry, which he had resigned from at the onset of the war.
The Alabamians spent the day tending to their dead and wounded, and repairing the bridge across the Chickahominy, which the Federals had destroyed upon their departure. Bud and Hiram volunteered for bridge repair, since they preferred to evade the morose task of burial duty.
On June 29, the Rebels crossed the bridge and followed the retreating Union army to Malvern Hill, where McClellan made a stand. The 4th Alabama was subjected to heavy artillery fire while they supported their batteries, until darkness fell, when they were forced to endure a heavy thunderstorm.
In the morning, it was discovered that the Federals had run off, leaving their casualties behind, as well as a few artillery pieces and some small arms. Wails from thousands of wounded men could be heard, but once the fog lifted, the horrible scene that played out before the Alabamians was nothing less than heartrending. They could see at least five thousand dead or wounded soldiers. A third of the victims lay still in death, but the rest were alive, crawling over the battlefield like maggots on a carcass. Only two men of the 4th Alabama were killed, but thirteen were wounded.
The injured Confederates were carried to Richmond, where nearly every house was a hospital, and every woman served as a nurse. General McClellan retreated to his gunboats on the James River, while General Jackson moved his troops to Harrison’s Landing. They arrived on July 3, and remained there for five more days, until General Lee ordered his army back to Richmond, and restructured it into two corps. The 4th Alabama fell under the command of Generals Lee and Longstreet, and General Jackson led the other corps. General Whiting was transferred, so General Hood took his command. While camped at Richmond, the men acquired new clothing, cooking utensils, kettles, frying pans, and “spiders,” or skillets.
Orange Hugh received a gift of admiration from a young Richmond woman named Betsy. They had struck up a conversation one morning when she came to deliver clothing and food to the “orphans,” a nickname the North Alabamians had acquired because they were without correspondence from their loved ones, due to the Yankee occupation in north Alabama. Betsy felt sorry for the young man, so she gave him a small white dog to keep him company, and to remind him of her. Orange Hugh named the canine Bo, and the two became inseparable.
The Union army was far superior in numbers and rations, although McClellan had been fooled into thinking otherwise. The Rebels realized that they had an enormous task before them, but they were willing to accept the challenge, because they adored “Bobby” Lee and Colonel Law. Their loyalty ran deep, even though the men were all too familiar with hunger, as well as discomfort brought on by rain and vermin. Despite new clothing, their shoes were wearing thin. Regardless, they still intended to keep their vow to the Confederacy. Hiram was no different. He fully intended to see the thing through, because his conscience wouldn’t allow it any other way. It was his duty to remain.
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