Authors: Michael Wallace
lso by Michael Wallace
The Devil’s Deep
The Righteous series
The Red Rooster
The Wolves of Paris
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Michael Wallace
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
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ISBN-13: 9781503949454 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1503949451 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: 9781503945586 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 1503945588 (paperback)
Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa
Bull Run, July 21, 1861, outside Manassas Rail Junction, Virginia
osephine Breaux was only one of the many civilians fleeing north with the defeated Union army but was surely the only one who had spoken to both Union and Confederate generals before the battle. She carried a sheaf of papers in her saddlebags that either army would have been very keen to see. Neither side would get them.
Clouds of dust rose off the road, left by hundreds of fleeing horses, carriages, men on foot. The discarded goods of the Union troops lay everywhere: mess kits, tent stakes, bedrolls, broken barrels, even guns and ammunition pouches.
A pale, shaking young man in a bloodied butternut uniform sawed at the harness of a mule still tethered to an overturned cart of flour and cornmeal. He cut the mule loose as Josephine arrived, gave her a quick glance, then leaped onto the mule and rode it bareback up the road, kicking and cursing to get the animal to move faster. Other soldiers cursed him as he muscled them aside with the mule.
As Josephine was riding past the cart, she glanced down and saw a man in a gray uniform trapped beneath it. His shoulder was a bloody mess from a gunshot, and to add to the insult of war, a Union supply cart had tipped over and pinned his legs.
“Water,” he said. “Somebody bring me water.” He had a soft Southern accent. South Carolina or Georgia, from the coast, near as she could tell.
None of the fleeing soldiers paid him any attention, but his voice was so pleading, his injuries so pitiable, that she couldn’t help herself. She dismounted from the horse given to her by a Pennsylvania cavalryman and untied the metal canteen in its wool shoddy from the saddlebag.
She secured her frightened horse to the overturned cart and bent and put her canteen at the man’s lips. “Here, drink this.”
The man took a long pull of water and looked at her through clear blue eyes. He was eighteen or nineteen, at most. Only a year or two younger than she was. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”
“A patriotic Southern lady. Please. I need a surgeon.”
She looked him over. Doubtful he would survive even if he could reach medical care at once. But with both armies badly mauled and suffering varying degrees of panic, that would never happen.
Josephine had thought herself hardened to bloodshed. She’d inspected the makeshift hospitals of Washington after the skirmishes earlier in the summer, noted with horror, but an iron stomach, the baskets of legs and feet, the brutal harvest of the surgeon’s saw. And once, as a girl, traveling the Mississippi with her mother, she’d seen the aftermath of a steamboat’s boiler explosion. Men, women, and children blown to bits.
This battle had been more horrible still. At first, she’d observed at a distance, watching from a Confederate command post atop a ridge that offered a fine vantage point over rolling green hills, woods, and pastureland. Gunfire filled the air with crackles and puffs of smoke. Artillery pieces boomed and lifted off the ground and rolled violently backward as they fired. Men crumpled and fell. But at a distance.
Then, without warning, a regiment of Union troops broke toward their hill. The Confederate general ordered his reserve company to defend their outpost and sent for reinforcements. For the next half hour, the ridge became the scene of a hellacious firefight. Artillery trained on their position, and soon the entire hillside shook with explosions. Dead and dying men lay everywhere. Josephine hunkered behind a fallen tree, bracing against the rocks and clods of dirt that rained down on her every time a shell landed nearby.
“Please,” the trapped Confederate soldier repeated. “Ride back. Tell Colonel Hampton I’m injured.”
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
Josephine couldn’t go back to Confederate lines. After escaping the battle on the ridge, she’d spent an hour furiously scribbling notes while hiding in the woods. If the Confederates read what she’d written, they’d take her for a spy.
Through the dust clouds she heard other men crying out, groaning, begging for help. Gunfire sounded from her left—close, but obscured from sight by the dust. She had to get out of here before the battle swept over the road. Reluctantly, she put the canteen in the man’s hand and rose to her feet. He begged her not to go. She had no choice but to harden her heart and ride for Washington.
But when she tried to regain the saddle of her horse, she found she could not get herself up with the stiff crinoline underwire holding her skirts at a distance. The Pennsylvania cavalryman had hoisted her into the saddle, and she couldn’t manage it alone.
More gunfire sounded to her rear. By now, few Union troops were left on the road, and these ones were wounded, panicked at being left behind. She asked one man for help regaining her horse, but he shoved her aside and kept running. A bullet whizzed across the road. From the hazy woods on the other side came answering fire. She tried again to reach the saddle.
The blasted crinoline was like a coiled spring, pushing her back from getting her foot in the stirrup. Josephine unsheathed the huge bowie knife strapped to the saddle and sliced open her dress and the underwire beneath it. She peeled off the crinoline. In moments, she stood in her bloomers with the expensive dress and its underwire lying eviscerated in the dirt road. She gained the saddle and rode northeast toward Washington.
Within minutes she was pushing through the shattered Union regiments. First the walking injured, then the footsore already exhausted by forced marches before the battle, and finally the reserve units who had broken in fear at the Confederate counterattack instead of holding their position. The stink of battle clung to them: gunpowder, sweat, blood.
Here and there officers were attempting to form a rearguard defense against the Confederates who would surely be sweeping up the road. Josephine was not so sure—the Southerners had seemed as disorganized in victory as the Union was in loss. And she’d seen the rebels’ own panic earlier in the battle. Most of them, she guessed, would be reluctant to march one more mile toward Washington. Not today.
A man wearing the bars of a first lieutenant snatched the reins of her horse as she tried to force her way through. A second man, a private, jerked her, kicking, from the saddle. He set her down in the road, while the lieutenant climbed up. Josephine had the presence of mind to snatch out her papers from the saddlebags.
Then she grabbed the lieutenant’s leg before he could ride off. “That’s my horse.”
He kicked at her. “Let go, woman. We don’t stop the rebs and they’ll be in Washington by morning.”
He turned the horse and rode several paces back toward the battle, shouting instructions. The man had a full mustache on an otherwise smooth face and carried himself with the same confidence that rang out in his voice.
At first his commands had no effect whatsoever. Men kept streaming past him, sweaty and sunburned, their lips chapped. Black powder stained their lips and cheeks from tearing open cartridge packets. Many had tossed down their weapons, but several still carried muskets and rifles.
“You!” the lieutenant cried at one of the armed men as he drew his pistol. “Stop there, you coward, or by God I will blow out your brains.”
The man’s only response was to toss down his rifle and run. The lieutenant cursed him but didn’t shoot. Gradually, however, he found men willing to obey. A small but growing knot formed around the horse. They were mostly Massachusetts men in green coats and pants, but two wore the baggy trousers, open jackets, and red caps of the Fire Zouaves, a regiment of volunteers raised from the New York Fire Department.
Meanwhile, the private who’d yanked Josephine from the saddle now gave her a regular inspection, eyes widening as he seemed to notice for the first time that she was in her bloomers.
Once dragged from the saddle, she should have set off at once, but she’d been transfixed by the sight of the lieutenant trying to rally his men against a Confederate attack. She’d been composing a description of the scene in her mind. Belatedly, she realized the danger in lingering.
“What in tarnation happened to you?” the private asked.
A lie came easily to her lips but not a very good one. “My carriage upended fording Bull Run. I had to get out of my dress or drown.”
Except she was dry, her bloomers clean. She waited for him to point out this obvious flaw in her story.
The young man stared at the papers in her hand with a slow, dull expression. Nevertheless, she could see the gears turning in his mind. He took off his hat and scratched at his sweat-matted hair.
Her heart leaped into her throat. This was it. He would
snatch her notes and see everything she’d written. Then what would happen?
With as much dignity as she could muster, she turned away and continued up the road, wearing her bloomers and her white and brown Balmoral boots, her waist pinched in by a corset. She’d lost the pins in her hair, and her curls spilled out. Bits of leaves and twigs had lodged in her hair during a spill on the hillside above the battle. The only thing that would make her look more ridiculous would be a parasol to shield her from the hot afternoon sun.
The private abandoned his lieutenant for the moment and fell in next to her, gawking. Two more soldiers came in next to him, muttering as they trudged away from the men who were forming a defensive picket at their rear.
Josephine had taken a risk making her notes while still behind Confederate lines, but she was no safer here. Pinkerton agents were busy in Washington, searching for spies, and if they had any value at all, they’d be looking for infiltrators and secessionists trying to sneak their way over the Potomac in the aftermath of the battle. If they saw what she’d written, she might face arrest.
“We’d better take her in, Murdock,” one of the other men said at last.
“I suppose you’re right,” the first man said. Murdock, presumably. He had a wisp of a beard at his chin that made him look younger than if he’d shaved it off. “You seen the captain?”
“You’re a fine pair of scoundrels,” the third man said with a chuckle. “You just want to stare at a pretty lady in her bloomers. Why don’t you let her be?”
“That’s right,” Josephine said. “I can manage perfectly well on my own. Now leave me alone.”
“What are you carrying there?” Murdock asked.
“Have you men no honor?” she asked. “The enemy is about to overrun Washington. Your officer is trying to form a defense. Why don’t you go back and help him?”
“Ain’t no officer of mine,” Murdock said. “I just helped him get a horse. Anyways, I’m a ninety-day recruit, and my time is up in another week. I’m not going to die here. Let the rebs have their slaves and their confounded honor. I’m going back to the farm to help my pa with the harvest.”
He spoke with plenty of swagger for a man fleeing the battlefield, carrying a musket and a pouch still bulging with ammunition. She was about to point this out, even mention what she’d heard about General Jackson holding firm on the other side under a withering Union attack, when snipers began shooting from a farmhouse to the left of the road.
There couldn’t have been more than five men firing through the broken-out windows, and the house was not more than fifty yards from the road. A dozen determined men could have put the attackers to flight, but instead a fresh wave of panic swept over the beaten Union troops. More guns clattered to the ground, and the men fled on up the road. Josephine ran after them.
When she regained her bearings several minutes later, she found herself in the middle of an entirely new group of soldiers, with a number of civilians in their midst. She turned at the sound of an open carriage clattering up the dusty road, pulled by two horses.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” a slow, deep voice said.
The driver was an elderly black gentleman sitting on the perch. He held the reins in one hand and mopped at his bald, sweating head with a handkerchief in the other.
“Don’t you stop, John!” a woman said from inside the open carriage. “Run them off the road if you must.”
“But it’s a lady, mistress. Caught out in her unawares.”
The woman stood and peered over the driver’s shoulder. She was an older woman with silver-gray hair pinned into a bun beneath a red velvet bonnet. She carried a parasol as additional protection against the blasting sun. Josephine had seen this woman before but couldn’t place where. At a society ball, perhaps.
“Good heavens, child, what happened to you?” the woman asked.
Josephine cast a quick glance around to make sure that Murdock and his companions hadn’t found her anew, then told the woman a better lie than she’d told the soldier, explaining that she’d been with a group of sightseers from the city when stray artillery began to land in their midst. Her dress caught on fire and had to be cut off. Later, she’d lost contact with her companions.
“Mercy!” the woman exclaimed. “And to think we were fools enough to treat the battle as a picnic. I’ll never make that mistake again,” she added wryly.
“May I have a ride back to the city?” Josephine asked.