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Beyond the Western
The Hornet's Nest
Rich Ritter

Beyond the Western

Manfred Herrmann slouched against the crinkled bark of an ancient hickory tree at the verge of a dense grove not far from the western shore of the Tennessee River and nudged the luminous petals of a fire pink with a black-powder-smudged finger. He twisted the fragile green stem between thumb and finger to spin the jagged tips of the petals against his palm, and briefly enjoyed the gentle touch of the scarlet flower. He pressed the fluorescent petals against his scraggly brown moustache and breathed in the nectar’s sweet aroma, then exhaled the fragrant air with a satisfying whoosh.

“Silene Virginica.”

Manfred stroked one of the pedals just as Sergeant-Major Gallagher stopped in front of him. “Beg pardon?”

“I said, Corporal Herrmann, Silene Virginica. The scientific name of the flower you’re impaling on the unkempt bristles of your moustache. Also known, to the less educated of the Seventh Iowa, as the fire pink.”

Manfred broke the long end of the stem off and threaded the flower through a button hole. “Saloon Veronica. I forgot…you collected plants before the war.”

“It’s Silene Virginica, not saloon veronica, and please refer to me as a botanist, not a plant collector.”

“A bottomless. Of course, Sergeant-Major. Please accept my apology. I will use the correct title from now on.”

The sergeant-major stiffened. “Corporal Herrmann, your morning botany lesson has concluded, and I don’t want to put you at any further risk of a general court-martial. Now round up your squad for parade and inspection. Colonel James M. Tuttle requires assurance that the brigade under his command can still march after the sloppy maneuvering he witnessed from Pittsburg Landing to our present bivouac.”

Corporal Herrmann bent the stem of the fire pink to hold it in place. “Yes sir, but it’s not yet six in the morning.”

Sergeant-Major Gallagher grinned. “It is not our place to question the wisdom of the colonel. Now form your men up for the parade, and look sharp about it.”

With the haranguing of lieutenants and sergeants, the ten companies of the Seventh Iowa Infantry Regiment—over 500 strong—poured from the bivouac of neatly arranged white canvas tents and formed loosely into four long files. A captain nodded, and Sergeant Gallagher bellowed: “By file, right, dress!” and each file stepped forward in succession and shuffled into smart alignment. With this maneuver completed and all eyes snapped forward, Sergeant-Major Gallagher continued: “Shoulder, arms!” and the men of the 7th Iowa heaved over 500 Springfield rifles and muskets into the air and snapped them against shoulders toughened by long hours of drill. When the strangely muted echo of hundreds of steel barrels chafing against wool jackets had faded, Sergeant-Major Gallagher intoned: “Company, right, face!” and the men of the 7th Iowa pivoted on heel and toe and snapped their feet together. With the company now facing the approved direction, Sergeant-Major Gallagher barked: “Mark time, march!” and the men of the 7th Iowa commenced marching in place, rhythmically stamping booted feet against the soggy ground. After waiting exactly six steps to allow the cadence of footfalls to synchronize, Sergeant-Major Gallagher prompted: “Forward, march!” and the men of the 7th Iowa stepped off. The ten companies of the 7th Iowa fell into line behind the men of the 14th and 12th Infantry Regiments, and the men of the 2nd Iowa Infantry Regiment fell into line behind them, completing the long blue column of the Union Army’s First Brigade under the command of Colonel James M. Tuttle, Second Division under the command of Brigadier General W. H. L. Wallace.

Manfred peeked down at his flower several times to admire the still vibrant red petals. He thought of pulling the flower up from the button hole to enjoy the soothing fragrance again, but worried he might fall out of step and invoke the wrath of the sergeant-major. He adjusted his spacing from the man marching in front, and then checked his alignment in the rank. After taking another dozen strides, he noticed several men sitting on horses about a hundred yards ahead. He stretched his neck and raised his chin and squinted.

The soldier marching to his right spat a slimy gob of tobacco before declaring, “That there’s General W. H. L. Wallace, leader of this here division we’re a part of.”

Manfred lowered his chin. “You don’t say. I think I was about to figure it out for myself. My vision just gets a little blurry when we march.”

Not losing a step, the soldier spat again and grinned. “Maybe you need some of them fancy spectacles if you can’t see who’s leading the division.”

Manfred now reached within two-hundred feet of the seated horsemen, and still could not see the faces clearly or distinguish the emblems of rank on the uniforms. “I don’t need any spectacles. I can see just fine.”

“Couldn’t see General W. H. L. Wallace sitting high up off the ground on a horse. Don’t suppose you can see him now.”

“I’m about to see him.”

“Don’t look like you is about to see anything. Like I said, you ought to get some of them fancy spectacles.”

Manfred fumed, “See here, farm boy, I don’t need any fancy—” A cascading volley of musket-fire rumbled in the distance behind and to the left of the marching brigade and echoed through the dense hickory and oak trees, interrupting the delivery of Manfred’s angry retort. Manfred gazed up at the serene clouds. A second volley reverberated through the dense woods.

Surprised by the sudden and unexpected noise, the tobacco-chewing farm boy swallowed some of the brown goo. “Must be Union troops taking some early morning target practice.”

Still angry, Manfred snarled, “And now you’re an expert on the daily activities of the whole Union Army?”

At least three, maybe four trumpets shrilled to the southwest, and then a third volley chattered. Manfred listened for a fourth volley, but after a brief silence—no more than 10 seconds—scattered and chaotic rifle and musket fire erupted across the western horizon and rattled through the thickets of trees. The sound grew ominously louder with each footfall of the marching troops now passing on parade in front of the mounted officers.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher boomed, “Companies…halt!” and the men of the 7th Iowa came to a rolling standstill. Sergeants up and down the line echoed the same command to the other regiments of the First Brigade. Manfred now stood close enough to the group of men sitting on horses to recognize General W. H. L. Wallace. With some pleasure, he also identified Colonel Tuttle. He watched the general and the colonel and the other men surrounding them as they took turns standing up in their stirrups and pointing into the trees separating the regiment from the approaching commotion.

A sweat-lathered horse ridden by an agitated corporal burst from the trees and kicked up ragged chunks of muddy ground as it galloped along the western side of the long files of the 7th Iowa. When he arrived directly across from General W. H. L. Wallace and his entourage, the corporal pulled the horse up and yanked the snorting animal to the right and drove it between two of the ranks of the 7th Iowa, shoving shouting men to either side and nearly trampling their feet. The corporal trotted up to General W. H. L. Wallace, saluted, opened a black pouch slung over his back, pulled out a folded sheet of paper, and shoved it into the general’s hand. The general opened the paper and read whatever message someone had scrawled on the page, folded it up again, and crumpled it in his hand. General W. H. L. Wallace leaned sideways in his saddle and spoke into the ear of Colonel Tuttle. Colonel Tuttle pulled his mount out of the line of officers and rode over to the bugler standing to his right. He bent down in his saddle and spoke into the top of the bugler’s cap. The bugler saluted, spit twice, wetted his lips, raised the polished instrument to his mouth, and sounded the allegro eighth and sixteenth note command for “quick time.” The four regiments of the First Brigade tramped ahead in a rolling surge.

Manfred struggled to match step with the men around him. He nearly stumbled to the muddy ground when the man behind him kicked the back of his boot. He glanced to his side and the farm boy grinned tobacco-stained teeth back at him. When he had finally settled into a comfortable pace, the bugler sounded the allegro sixteenth and dotted-sixteenth note melody to signal “double quick time,” and the 14th, 12th, 7th, and 2nd Iowa Infantry Regiments accelerated in turn. Manfred nearly fell again when the regiment climbed over a bushy hillock and splashed across the slimy stones of a shallow steam. The four long files separated when the men swarmed around a copse of tangled oaks, then broke apart completely as the regiment stumbled across a deeper stream. Manfred’s boots filled with icy water and water splashed against his crotch. When the men had reached the swampy ground beyond the stream, the four files of the 7th Iowa reformed behind the 12th Iowa before following a long, sweeping arc to the left. Manfred trotted along; muddy water squished from holes in the leather soles of his boots and his Springfield rifle slapped against his shoulder. The long column of the First Brigade emerged from the swampy ground and curved across the Hamburg-Savannah Road where it roughly paralleled the southerly-flowing Tennessee River. The column continued to veer until it pointed southwest and then south and then southeast. As the long files of men completed a final sweep and began to straighten, they quick-stepped into the scattered paths of wounded soldiers retreating east from the remnants of their shattered regiment. Hundreds of discouraged men trudged through the advancing Iowa regiments—alone, in pairs, in small clusters, limping, bent over, assisted by other men, on makeshift crutches, dragging rifles, empty handed, torn and blood soaked. The bugler screeched the presto sixteenth note call to signal halt. Sergeants and lieutenants darted along the lines screaming commands to form a line of battle two ranks deep. The four regiments of the First Brigade quickly reformed into a pair of ragged lines facing southwesterly. Muskets and rifles crackled beyond the forest of oaks and hickories, much closer than before—and the men waited.

Manfred spoke to the farm boy, miraculously still standing to his right. “That was a hell of a run. I didn’t think I was going to make it across the second stream. Nearly fell in the deep water.”

The farm boy grinned and spat a lump of chewed tobacco spit in front of Manfred’s muddy boots. “I didn’t think you was going to make it neither, seeing how you can’t see much of what’s going on right in front of your own nose.”

Manfred’s anger had diminished while crossing the swamps north of the second stream, and he took no offense. “Did you get a look at those stragglers? They’d been shot up pretty—”

The bugler sounded the lilting eighth and quarter notes in two-four meter to signal the command to “fix bayonets,” and four regiments of bayonets rattled metallically as men yanked them from leather scabbards and rammed them into place. The bugler sounded presto quarter and eighth notes in six-eight time to call the Iowa men to move “forward,” and the two-rank-deep line of battle, nearly a thousand yards long, marched over the uneven ground and advanced raggedly through the oak and hickory trees and tangled underbrush. A minie ball zinged overhead, and then another, and then two or three in quick succession, and as the shadows of the forest slowly gave way to the overcast light of an open field, Manfred Herrmann and the tobacco-chewing farm boy and the men of the 7th Iowa Infantry Regiment reached the shoulder of a sunken road just beyond the boundary of the trees. The field swept away from the road and revealed a battleground shrouded in bloody carnage and swirling smoke. The 12th and 14th Regiments formed the line of battle just inside the tree line along the sunken road to the left, and the two ranks of the 2nd Iowa formed to the right. The bugler trumpeted the command to halt, and the men settled into position. Before Manfred’s pounding heart had begun to slow, two long gray lines of Confederate infantry issued from the blanket of smoke less than 200 yards away and marched directly toward the 12th and 14th Regiments—the new left flank of the First Brigade.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher strolled purposefully along the front of the first rank of the 7th Iowa, stopping several times to contemplate the advancing Confederate infantry. He repeated the same commands at each new platoon. “Hold your ground. Do not yield. Hold your ground. Do not yield. Hold your….” When he reached Manfred’s platoon, he stopped again, but not to observe the approaching infantry—which had suddenly halted and was now preparing to fire on the 12th and 14th Iowa. “Corporal Herrmann. Do you still have your fire pink?”

Manfred watched the first rank of Rebel infantry take aim. “Yes, Sergeant-Major. I still have it.” He glanced down at the flower and a wave of smoke exploded along the Rebel line. Seconds later, the men of the 12th Iowa (to his left) answered with a deafening crackle of rifle fire. Dozens of Rebel soldiers crumpled to the ground.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher did not flinch. “Do you perchance remember the scientific name I taught you this morning?”

Manfred thought back on his early morning conversation. He watched the second rank of Rebel infantry lower muskets and take aim. “Yes I do, Sergeant-Major. It is Silene Virginica.” A second wave of billowing smoke ejected from the line, and again the 12th Iowa responded in kind. Dozens more Rebel soldiers collapsed in scattered mounds across the front of the diminishing line.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher stepped behind the ranks of the 7th Iowa and then faced the battlefield. “Very good Corporal Herrmann. But now we have work to do.” A trumpet shrilled and the Confederates, bayonets flashing, surged into a running charge. The sound of a thousand stamping feet and whooping voices washed across the field and crashed against the trees.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher coughed to clear his throat, then boomed, “Fire by rank…company…left oblique.” The two ranks of the 7th Iowa pressed over 500 Springfield rifles and muskets against their shoulders and swung to the left. Sergeant-Major Gallagher calmly observed the charging enemy troops as they approached the lethal field of fire he now prepared for them. “Front rank…aim….” He paused until a sufficient number of Confederates had entered the killing zone. “Fire! Load!” Hundreds of minie balls spewed across the open field to tear the flesh and break the bones of the advancing men. A Confederate officer waved his saber wildly in the air and screamed at his men to form a new line. A hundred men or more formed a ragged line facing the 7th Iowa and frantically poured black powder into hungry muskets and rammed lead balls into place. Sergeant-Major Gallagher continued without emotion. “Rear rank…aim….” This time he did not pause. “Fire! Load!”

After firing with the second rank, Manfred frantically plucked a fresh paper cartridge from the black-leather box slung over his shoulder. He used his teeth to tear off the end of the cartridge with the minie ball. He poured black powder from the cartridge into the barrel of his Springfield Rifle, then extracted the ball from his mouth with calloused thumb and finger and pressed it into the waiting barrel. He spit the paper cartridge remnant to the ground and rammed the ball and powder into place. He flipped open the lid of a small leather box attached to his belt and removed a percussion cap. His hand trembled and the cap fell to the ground. Without hesitation, he pinched out another, cocked the hammer one click, pressed the cap into place, and fully cocked the hammer. As he waited for the next command he peeked over his shoulder; the tobacco-chewing farm boy grinned at him again. Before Manfred could look away the farm boy’s head fulminated, showering blood and teeth and a chunk of nose across Manfred’s uniform. The farm boy, the side of his face shredded by a Rebel ball, tried to remind Manfred about the fancy spectacles but only gurgled incoherently before staggering backwards and stumbling over a rotten log.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher continued, “First rank…aim…Fire! Load!”

More Confederate soldiers fell to the ground, adding to the grim human litter now choking the open field. The Confederate officer waved his saber at the 7th Iowa and a bugle shrilled again. Hundreds of gray men pulled away from the assault of the 12th and 14th Iowa Regiments and charged toward Manfred’s position.

Sergeant-Major Gallagher did not break his melodic cadence. When the charging Rebels reached within 50 yards of the 7th Iowa, he bellowed, “Second rank….” The Rebels reached within 40 yards. “Aim….” The Rebels reached within 30 yards. Sergeant-Major Gallagher waited, and a sweaty spasm convulsed across Manfred’s back and rolled up his neck when he pressed his finger against the trigger. The rebels reached within 20 yards, and Manfred identified the delicate face of a young boy. “Fire!” The attacking Rebels vanished in a blanket of smoke, but quickly broke through the murky shroud and dove into the first rank of the 7th Iowa Infantry Regiment. The man in front of Manfred hissed when a Rebel bayonet stabbed through his gut and burst from his back. When the man slid off the blade and fell to the ground, he revealed the young boy Manfred had seen before the obscuring smoke had swallowed him up. The young boy aimed his bloody bayonet and lunged, but Manfred knocked the boy’s musket to the side before swinging his rifle butt around to slam the boy to the ground. When the boy tried to stand Manfred kicked him to the ground again and pressed the sharp tip of his bayonet against the boy’s chest, just below the throat. Manfred allowed a moment to appreciate the boy’s dirt-smudged face, tangled brown hair, and age—fifteen, maybe sixteen at the most—and while tears bathed the boy’s dirty cheeks, Manfred thrust the bayonet in. Then, as his hands trembled and the men of the 7th Iowa drove back the Rebel assault, Manfred watched the young boy choke on his own blood and the light fade from his brown eyes.


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