April 1, 6:00pm
We never got to bury poor Israel.
After a while of standing by his body a horse came up through the thinning smoke. We heard it, its hooves striking fallen wood, and the skittish sound a horse makes when it can smell blood. It was only yards away, but we paid it no mind. I had no sense for the passage of time, but when I heard the sounds of a rider dismounting, I turned at last.
It was General Chamberlain, and I had never been so close to the man. I must have made some noise, or a sudden, clumsy move to salute, for then Boytz turned, his musket level at his hip. Enoch looked up and wiped a hand across his face, but remained kneeling. Only Abraham couldn’t take his eyes off Israel.
“Don’t salute,” the General said. He stepped down hard out of the saddle, his mount shying away, and he stamped one foot, working the feeling back into it. “There’s been enough of that today.”
April 1, 1pm
It’s a wonder we made it to the farm.
It was a fine collection of buildings – a big, red barn, a white-panelled house, white-fenced yard. Nothing grand; not a palatial residence, but comfortable, and set in acres of good farming land. Some shade trees, flowers in a turned bed of earth. Kind of place you’d have and be proud for the having.
All that ruined it was the 12,000 men now arrayed about its fields, under hastily thrown up tents, hunching wearily over pots of coffee and half-cooked rations. There were some animals, in the barn – I could hear the lowing of cattle – and I feared they would not last our occupation. Tents stretched to the very edges of the fields, and smoke from numerous fires turned the sky a dirty brown below a cloud-streaked sky.
The farm, I had learned soon after pitching my tent as the sun had come up this morning, belonged to one Mr Boisseau. We’d been ordered here by General Sheridan – whose army we were now a part of, though many in the ranks did not approve of this shift – and it was as good place as any, putting us hard on the right flank of his cavalry. It was very likely we would move north and west to the crossroads known as Five Forks – five roads all leading around various points into and out of the Confederate rear.
April 1, 4am
“But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud,” Enoch said.
He was quoting scripture, as he was often want to do in extremes, but in this case he was correcting me. Though we had taken a huge bite out of the Confederate line, taken not inconsiderable casualties in the execution of which, and despite most of our Corps having broke, run, and reformed, and fought significant action, we were given no rest.
Instead, we had the particular joy of breaking contact with the enemy to our front, who we had soundly licked just hours ago, and marching away.
The ground was not to be given up, though, and it wasn’t as if we were fleeing. Rather, as one unit about-faced, and marched from the field, another swung in behind. If you could have looked at the thing from the air like a hawk, or on a well-drawn map, it may look like a piece of very fine military precision. In the dark, muddy fields, however, it was only a whisker from chaos at all times.
March 31, 6:00am
The rain had let up at some point during the night. I had only a vague memory of the exact moment, for I was awake one second, and dead asleep the next for the silence. To wake up in a tent that was merely muddy and sodden, and not situated in a swift rushing stream, was quite the luxury.
That I was alone, in Corporal Anderson’s old tent, was… I don’t know how to describe it. For about half a year I had lived cheek by jowl with anywhere between one other private, and ten, back when we were initially formed, in these big, rotten, bell shaped tents that must have been old when the Mexican War was still a going concern. Even at home, I had shared a room with two brothers.
It was odd, is the best way to put. Not good, nor bad. Peculiar, so to say. But it was nice to have room to dress properly, to brush my coat, which was all muddy and riddled with burrs; to have a care with my boots, which were in sore repair, and well beyond polishing by now. I was looking forlornly at the mirror I had hung on one of tent poles the night before, and wishing for a pot of hot water to go with my razor.
March 30, 6:00am
I knew it was coming. I do not say that I had grown to dread that sound, but I certainly felt something like it. Every day since I’d first marched into training camp last September, it had roused me from sleep, and I still could not reconcile it.
Reveille. The shrill blast of a trumpet that was the soldier’s signal that the only part of his service to these United States that was not at their beck and call – sleep, and whatever dreams or demons may haunt it – was at an end.
No matter, that day. A smothering downpour had broken out during the long night, and was even now drumming on my tent. Boltz, of course, was sound asleep, his snore a steady, oddly calming rhythm in the predawn dark. But I lay there, a sodden blanket over sodden, stinking clothes. An itch on my skin that suggested some kind of wet rash in my not too distant future; an ache in my skull from yesterday’s noise and action.
March 29, 7:00am
It takes a while to get a large body of men moving. First brigade was out and on the road with some alacrity, but there was confusion elsewhere on the march. As we moved out, another Corp was moving, and somewhere in the dark before sunrise we could hear a column of horses, and the sound of their tackle sharp and distinct in the pre-dawn black.
We knew the country, so at first we moved in column. It was almost like being back on the parade ground, though as first light broke, instead of officers and family regarding us, it was sullen Virginian farmers, looking at us like we were invading their country, rather than fighting to restore it. I could only imagine how they’d feel about some of the coloured regiments that were fighting elsewhere in the siege.
March 29, 3:00am
I think it was March 29 when the order to move out came down. I was out on picket duty; me, and a few boys from the squad. I was thankful for the fire. Older hands in the regiment – there weren’t many, but some of the sergeants had seen the elephant plenty of times – talked about long, cold nights with not even a pipe to keep ‘em warm. Cold hard-tack; cold coffee if they were lucky. Hard times, they said, followed with some hard marching, and harder battles.
Especially since General Grant took command.
“March by the left!” they’d say. Some would laugh, most didn’t. None of us in the regiment did. We’d only been formed this last September, to make up for losses in places like Cold Harbor, and Spotsylvania Court House. I couldn’t put ‘em on a map, but I knew a lot of good Union men had died during Grant’s march into Virginia.
“March by the left!” Grant was doing it even these past weeks, like some stubborn bare-knuckle fighter too ornery to know he was beat. But it had gotten him to Petersburg, and I could see the glow of that city now, north a bit, and to the east. And lots more glowing besides – little fires, big fires, all the signs of two great armies lined up behind breastworks and trenches, streams and roads… Facing each other across some cratered no-man’s land.
The older men called it a new war. The way of all wars now, they said.
The 182nd Pennsylvania didn’t know any other kind.
So a couple of weeks ago I had bit of a rant on Twitter. I’d discovered that in the PC game Middle Earth, Shadow of War, that Shelob gets a… Jesus, it hurts just writing this.
A sexy makeover.
Thus, a rant. But it was a popular rant, so I’ve since started asking for questions around lunchtime each Friday, and then going on a long, twisty and somewhat irreverent discussion on topics that have gone from “Who is the Witch King” to “Tom Bombadil – WTF?” I enjoy them, people seem to like them, and so I think they’re worth recording for posterity.
Okay, quick break from personal insight and crappy fan-writing. This is real-talk time, and I’m going to get pretty blunt.
What the fuck is wrong with bartenders in this godsforsaken town? There was a point when Sydney bars were on the top of their game, when you could trust your bartender, and belly up, order a drink, and know what you were going to get. In those days, admittedly, you were liable to get a good old-fashioned side-eye if you ordered your drink wrong, but let me tell you…
They could make a fucking proper dry martini, no sweat. They’d judge you for ordering with a twist, and maybe that’s fair, but you’d get the drink made well, and made right.
I lived with a constant Burner for something close to a year. I’d been following the original event, Burning Man, in the US, for years before that. And years before that, I’d go to festivals like Woodford. Before that, I’d spend a week at a time camping at re-enactment events, and before that, I’d go bush for days at a time when I was still hunting.
A Burn seems like a lot of things – but I’d not been to one, and I knew they were different. And this year’s Burning Seed 2017 would be my first.