Copperhead, p.1
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       Copperhead, p.1

           Bernard Cornwell
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  Bernard Cornwell




  Copperhead is for Bill and Anne Moir.


























  It was not truly an invasion, just a heavy raid on a rebel encampment that a patrol had spotted among the thick woods that crowned the high bluffs on the Virginia side of the river, but to the two thousand men who waited to cross the bleak slate-gray swirl of the Potomac River this night’s exertions seemed more momentous than a mere raid. This fight across the river was their opportunity to prove their critics wrong. Nursery soldiers, one newspaper had called them; wonderfully trained and beautifully drilled, but much too precious to be dirtied in battle. Yet tonight the despised nursery soldiers would fight. Tonight the Army of the Potomac would carry fire and steel to a rebel encampment and if all went well they would march on to occupy the town of Leesburg, which lay two miles beyond the enemy camp. The expectant soldiers imagined the shamefaced citizens of the Virginia town waking to see the Stars and Stripes flying over their community again, and then they imagined themselves marching south, ever farther south, until the rebellion was crushed and America was reunited in peace and brotherhood.

  “You bastard!” a voice shouted loudly from the river’s edge where a work party had been launching a boat carried from the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. One of the work party had slipped in the clay, dropping the boat’s stern onto a sergeant’s foot. “You no-good son of a bitch goddamn bastard!” The Sergeant hopped away from the boat.

  “Sorry,” the man said nervously.

  “I’ll give you sorry, you bastard!”

  “Silence! Keep it quiet now!” An officer, resplendent in a new gray overcoat that was handsomely lined in red, clambered down the steep bank and helped lift the skiff toward the river’s gray water from which a small mist crept to hide the lower slopes of the far bank. They labored beneath a high moon, no clouds, and a spread of stars so bright and clean they seemed like an augury of success. It was October, the fragrant month when the air smelt of apples and woodsmoke, and when the sweltering dog days of summer gave way to clear sharp weather that held just enough promise of winter to persuade the troops to wear their fine new overcoats that were the same color as the river’s drifting mist.

  The first boats pushed clumsily off the bank. The oars clattered in the oarlocks, then dipped and splashed as the boats receded into the mist. The men, who a moment before had been cursing and cumbersome creatures clambering down the clay bank into the clumsy boats, were mysteriously transformed into warrior silhouettes, spiky with weapons, who glided silent and noble through the vaporous night toward the misted shadows of the enemy shore. The officer who had remonstrated with the Sergeant stared wistfully across the water. “I suppose,” he said softly to the men around him, “that this was how Washington felt on the night he crossed the Delaware?”

  “A much colder night, that one, I think,” a second officer, a young student from Boston, replied.

  “It’ll be cold enough here soon,” the first officer, a major, said. “There’s only two months till Christmas.” When the Major had marched to war, newspapers had promised that the rebellion would be over by fall, but now the Major was wondering whether he would be home with his wife and three children for the family rituals of Christmas. On Christmas Eve they sang carols on Boston Common, the children’s faces lit by lanterns hung on poles, and afterward there were warm punch and slivers of cooked goose in the church vestry. Then on Christmas Day they went to his wife’s parents’ farm in Stoughton, where they harnessed the horses and the children laughed in delight as they trotted down country roads in a cloud of snow and a tinkling of sleigh bells.

  “And I rather suspect General Washington’s organization was superior to ours,” the student-turned-lieutenant said in an amused voice. His name was Holmes and he was clever enough to awe his superiors, but usually intelligent enough not to let that cleverness alienate their affections.

  “I am sure our organization will suffice,” the Major said just a little too defensively.

  “I am sure you’re right,” Lieutenant Holmes said, though he was not sure of that fact at all. Three regiments of northern troops waited to cross, and there were just three small boats to carry them from the Maryland shore to the island that lay close to the river’s far bank, upon which island the troops must land before reembarking on two more boats for the final short crossing to the Virginia mainland. Doubtless they were crossing the river at the spot closest to the enemy encampment, but Lieutenant Holmes could not really understand why they did not cross a mile upstream where no island obstructed the river. Maybe, Holmes surmised, this was such an unlikely crossing place that the rebels would never think to guard it, and that seemed the best explanation he could find.

  But if the choice of crossing place was obscure, at least the night’s purpose was clear. The expedition would climb the Virginia bluffs to attack the rebel camp and capture as many Confederates as possible. Some rebels would get away, but those fugitives would find their flight blocked by a second Yankee force that was crossing the river five miles downstream. That force would cut the turnpike that led from Leesburg to the rebel headquarters at Centreville, and by trapping the defeated rebel forces it would provide the North with a small but significant victory to prove that the Army of the Potomac could do more than just drill and train and mount impressive parades. The capture of Leesburg would be a welcome bonus, but the night’s real purpose was to prove that the newly trained Army of the Potomac was ready and able to whip the rebels ragged.

  To which end the small boats struggled back and forth in the mist. Each crossing seemed to take forever, and to the impatient men on the Maryland shore the waiting files seemed to get no shorter. The 15th Massachusetts was crossing first, and some men in the 20th Massachusetts feared that their sister regiment would capture the enemy camp long before the few boats succeeded in ferrying the 20th across the river. Everything seemed so slow and clumsy. Rifle butts clattered on gunwales and bayonet scabbards snagged themselves on the bushes at the water’s edge as the men clambered into the row boats. At two in the morning a larger boat was discovered upstream and brought down to the crossing place, where it was greeted with an ironic cheer. It seemed to Lieutenant Holmes that the waiting men were making a lot of noise, enough surely to alert any rebels who might be guarding the Virginia bank, but no challenge sounded through the mist and no rifle shots echoed from the high wooded slope that loomed so ominously beyond the island. “Does the island have a name?” Lieutenant Holmes asked the Major who had spoken so wistfully of Christmas.

  “Harrison’s Island, I think. Yes, Harrison’s.”

  It sounded an undramatic name to Lieutenant Holmes. He would have preferred something nobler to have
marked the 20th Massachusetts’s baptism of fire. Maybe a name with the iron ring of Valley Forge, or the simple nobility of Yorktown. Something that would ring through history and look fine when it was embroidered on the regiment’s battle flag. Harrison’s Island sounded much too prosaic. “And the hill beyond it?” he asked hopefully. “On the far bank?”

  “That’s called Ball’s Bluff,” the Major said, and that was even less heroic. The battle of Ball’s Bluff sounded like a poker game rather than the signal event that would mark the resurgence of northern arms.

  Holmes waited with his company. They would be the first of the 20th Massachusetts to cross and so the likeliest of their regiment to be in a fight if the 15th had not already captured the encampment. That possibility of battle made the men nervous. None of them had fought before, though all had heard tales of the battle fought at Bull Run three months before and how the ragged gray-clad rebel ranks had somehow clung together long enough to drive the larger Federal army into panicked retreat, but none of the 20th Massachusetts believed they would suffer a similar fate. They were superbly equipped, well-trained, led by a professional soldier, and confident they could outfight any rebel born. There would be danger, of course—they expected and even wanted some danger—but the night’s work would be crowned with victory.

  One of the boats coming back from Harrison’s Island brought a captain of the 15th Massachusetts who had crossed with the very first troops and who now returned to report to the commanding officers of the waiting regiments. The Captain slipped as he jumped from the boat’s bows and would have fallen if Lieutenant Holmes had not reached out a steadying hand. “All quiet on the Potomac?” Holmes asked jocularly.

  “All’s quiet, Wendell.” The Captain sounded disappointed. “Too quiet. There’s not even an enemy encampment up there.”

  “No tents?” Lieutenant Holmes asked in surprise. “Truly?” And he hoped his voice sounded properly disappointed as befitted a warrior denied a chance of battle, and in part he was disappointed because he had been looking forward to the excitement, but he was also aware of a shameful relief that perhaps no enemy waited on the far bluff.

  The Captain straightened his coat. “God knows what that patrol thought they saw last night, but we can’t find anything.” He walked away with his news while Lieutenant Holmes passed the word on to his company. There was no enemy waiting across the river, which meant the expedition would most probably march on to occupy Leesburg. A sergeant wanted to know if there were any rebel troops in Leesburg and Holmes had to confess he did not know, but the Major, overhearing the conversation, volunteered that at best there would be only a handful of the Virginia Militia probably armed with the same guns with which their grandfathers had fought the British. The Major went on to say that their new task would be to capture the harvest that would have been newly gathered into the barns and storerooms of Leesburg, and that while such supplies were a legitimate military target, other private property should be respected. “We’re not here to make war on the homes of women and children,” the Major said sternly. “We must show the seceshers that northern troops are their friends.”

  “Amen,” the Sergeant said. He was a lay preacher who was trying to rid the regiment of the sins of card-playing, liquor, and womanizing.

  The last of the 15th Massachusetts crossed to the island and Holmes’s gray-coated men shuffled down the bank to wait their turn in the boats. There was a feeling of disappointment among the men. They had anticipated a whooping hunt through the woods, but instead it seemed they would merely be disarming a town’s old men of muskets.

  In the shadows of the Virginia bank a fox pounced and a rabbit died. The beast’s cry was sudden and shrill, gone almost as soon as it had begun, to leave nothing behind but the scent of blood and the echo of death in the dark, sleeping, and unsuspecting woods.

  Captain Nathaniel Starbuck reached his regiment’s campsite at three in the morning. It was a clear night, star-bright and moonlit, with just a hint of mist showing in the hollows. He had walked from Leesburg and was dog-tired by the time he reached the field where the Legion’s tents and shelters were lined in four neat rows. A sentry from C Company nodded companionably at the young black-haired officer. “Hear the rabbit, Captain?”

  “Willis? You’re Willis, right?” Starbuck asked.

  “Bob Willis.”

  “Aren’t you supposed to challenge me, Bob Willis? Aren’t you supposed to level your rifle, demand the password, and shoot me dead if I get it wrong?”

  “I know who you are, Captain.” Willis grinned in the moonlight.

  “The way I feel, Willis, you would have done me a favor by shooting me. What did the rabbit say to you?”

  “Shrieked like he was dying, Captain. Reckon a fox got him.”

  Starbuck shuddered at the relish in the sentry’s voice. “Good night, Willis, and may sweet angels sing thee to thy rest.” Starbuck walked on between the remnants of the night’s fires and the handful of Sibley tents where a few men of the Faulconer Legion slept. Most of the regiment’s tents had been lost in the chaos of the Manassas battlefield, so now the majority of the regiment slept either in the open air or in neat shelters made of branches and sod. A fire flickered among the shelters of Starbuck’s K Company and a man looked up as Starbuck approached.

  “Sober?” the man asked.

  “Sergeant Truslow is awake,” Starbuck declaimed. “Do you never sleep, Truslow? I am perfectly sober. Sober as a preacher, in fact.”

  “I’ve known a few drunk preachers in my time,” Sergeant Truslow said sourly. “There’s a snake-oil Baptist down in Rosskill who can’t say the Lord’s Prayer without taking a gut-ful of pine-top whiskey first. He nearly drowned once, trying to baptize a passel of weeping women in the river behind the church. Them all praying and him so full of liquor he couldn’t stand up straight. So what were you doing, caterwauling?”

  “Caterwauling” was the Sergeant’s disapproving word for womanizing. Starbuck pretended to consider the question as he settled beside the fire, then he nodded. “I was caterwauling, Sergeant.”

  “Who with?”

  “A gentleman does not tell.”

  Truslow grunted. He was a short, squat, hard-faced man who ruled K Company with a discipline born of pure fear, though the fear was not of Truslow’s physical violence, but rather of his scorn. He was a man whose approval other men sought, maybe because he seemed such a master of his own brutal world. In his time he had been a farmer, a horse thief, a soldier, a murderer, a father, and a husband. Now he was a widower and, for the second time in his life, a soldier, who brought to his trade a pure, uncomplicated hatred of Yankees. Which made his friendship with Captain Nathaniel Starbuck all the more mysterious, for Starbuck was a Yankee.

  Starbuck came from Boston, second son of the Reverend Elial Starbuck, who was a famous excoriator of the South, a fearsome opponent of slavery, and an impassioned preacher whose printed sermons had shivered guilty consciences throughout the Christian world. Nathaniel Starbuck had been well on the path to his own ordination when a woman had tempted him from his studies at Yale College’s seminary. The woman had abandoned him in Richmond, where, too scared to go home and face his father’s terrible wrath, Starbuck had joined the army of the Confederate States of America instead.

  “Was it the yellow-haired bitch?” Truslow now asked. “The one you met in the prayer meeting after worship service?”

  “She is not a bitch, Sergeant,” Starbuck said with pained dignity. Truslow responded by spitting into the fire, and Starbuck shook his head sadly. “Did you never seek the solace of female company, Sergeant?”

  “Do you mean did I ever behave like a tomcat? Of course I did, but I got it out of my system before I grew a beard.” Truslow paused, maybe thinking of his wife in her lonely grave in the high hills. “So where does the yellow bitch keep her husband?”

  Starbuck yawned. “With Magruder’s forces at Yorktown. He’s an artillery major.”

  Truslow shook his head
. “You’ll be caught one of these days and have your giblets beaten out of you.”

  “Is that coffee?”

  “So they say.” Truslow poured his captain a mug of the thick, sweet, treacly liquid. “Did you get any sleep?”

  “Sleep was not the purpose of the evening.”

  “You’re just like all preachers’ sons, aren’t you? Get one smell of sin and you wallow like a hog in mud.” There was more than a hint of disapproval in Truslow’s voice, not because he disliked womanizers, but because he knew his own daughter had contributed to Starbuck’s education. Sally Truslow, estranged from her father, was a whore in Richmond. That was a matter of bitter shame to Truslow, and while he was uncomfortable with the knowledge that Starbuck and Sally had been lovers, he also saw in their friendship his daughter’s only chance of salvation. Life could sometimes seem very complicated even for an uncomplicated man like Thomas Truslow. “So what happened to all your Bible reading?” he now asked his officer, referring to the half-hearted attempts at piety that Starbuck still made from time to time.

  “I am a backslider, Sergeant,” Starbuck said carelessly, though in truth his conscience was not as easy as his flippant tone suggested. At times, assailed by the fears of hell, he felt so trapped in sin that he suspected he could never find God’s forgiveness, and at such moments he would suffer agonies of remorse, but come the evening, he would find himself being impelled back to whatever tempted him.

  Now he rested against the trunk of an apple tree and sipped the coffee. He was tall, thin, hardened by a season’s soldiering, and had long black hair that framed an angular, clean-shaven face. When the Legion marched into a new town or village, Truslow always noticed how the girls looked at Starbuck, always at Starbuck. Just as his own daughter had been drawn to the tall northerner with his gray eyes and quick grin. Keeping Starbuck from sin, the Sergeant reflected, was like keeping a dog out of a butcher’s shop. “What time is reveille?” Starbuck now asked.


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