Near Sutherland’s Station April 4, 1865
He was dead tired but couldn’t sleep. Allen Kell Edwards had been on the run since…since early morning two days previous. Was it just two days ago? He and the remnants of his Louisiana “Tiger Rifles” had been overwhelmed at Sutherland’s Station. It wasn’t just the Tigers, one hundred men held a salient meant for a thousand. Damn blue-belly infantry hit in force before daylight and broke through, turning their flank. Falling back, they had rallied and fought off two attacks before being pushed aside by a third. Petersburg and the South Side Railroad were doomed as was the war effort.
Told to head west and attempt to hook up with Lee’s remaining forces, he and the other nine soldiers had eaten the last of their food a day ago. Allen Kell was down to just three musket balls, having run out of minie’ balls weeks ago. He wasn’t sure he had enough powder to even fire them. He still had a loaded Navy Colt revolver he had taken off a dead Yank officer but that only gave him nine rounds total…if the Colt even fired. He hadn’t tried to fire it, powder was too scarce. “I guess I can always use the old Mississippi Rifle as a Mississippi club,” he muttered to himself.
They were hiding and trying to sleep in a barn somewhere near the village of Dinwiddie. He was drifting into his memories. Allen Kell and his father, William, had joined the fight right after word Fort Sumter had fallen reached them on their small farm. Twenty acres of dirt, a four-room, dirt floor house, a small barn with workshop for cabinet making and the still. A one-horse, one-cow farm at a crossroads on what was simply called the river road. Five acres to feed the family and fifteen to grow corn to feed the still used to make the corn likker they sold to weary travelers making their way to the river and on to New Orleans. Word was the Yanks were all over southern Louisiana. He wondered if the Yankees had found their way north, about his sister Mamie, and his momma. He wondered how they were holding up and if James, their colored boy, was still there and helping them out. Allen Kell had seen the lines of “contraband”–the ex-slaves moving toward Yankee lines…maybe James had gone over too.
Allen Kell and his father, John, had gone to New Orleans and joined the “Tiger Rifles” volunteer infantry. Outfitted in those goddamned Zouave uniforms, he had wondered if the enemy would laugh itself to death. Might as well had a bullseye sewn on them with their stripped blue and white pantaloons, blue sashes and red fezzes with tassels. After First Manassas, they had been issued blue-gray uniforms with matching kepis. All he had left was the gray jacket, now butternut in color, and Yankee trousers. A floppy hat had replaced the kepi. He had kept his red, Garibaldi shirt and at least he had shoes courtesy of a deceased Yank soldier.
Seventeen when he joined, Allen Kell was a tall lad with blue-green eyes and unruly, dark red hair like his father. He had the beginnings of the powerful physique of someone not unfamiliar with physical labor. His hands had begun to grow the same calluses that characterized his father’s hands. No one would have described him as handsome…he was rugged with a long face and a nose that was its most prominent feature. The nose had grown more prominent as his face became gaunter from the lack of food and rest. A sparse, unkempt and tangled beard and mustache covered the lower half of his face. A smiling and happy child and young man, he had grown quiet, brutish and more unfeeling as the war progressed. Had he thought about it he would have realized he felt most alive when killing with the adrenalin rush that went with the act…something he would not realize until the war was over.
Instead of counting sheep, he tried to remember the battles he had fought and their order. First Manassas where he had first spilled Yankee blood. He remembered the taste of bile rising into his throat as fear swelled in his chest from musketry, grape, canister, round shot and shells bursting around him. Later that bile turned to a honey like sweetness as they chased the Yanks back to Washington in “The Great Skedaddle”. Along side Stonewall Jackson, the Tigers had fought at Guard Hill, Winchester, Port Republic, Gaines Mill and the hell on earth, Sharpsburg. He was at Second Manassas when the Ninth Louisiana beat back four Union attacks, the last with rocks when they ran out of ammunition. Later it would be Gettysburg where Papa William was killed, his blood coloring the sparse grass on Cemetery Hill. Battles near the Rappahannock, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. There were at least as many skirmishes. It seemed the Tigers were always on the cutting edge of the attack. Most of the originals had themselves been cut down. Somehow, he had remained unhurt. With men falling all around him, he had not one scratch. Allen Kell was a grizzled veteran at twenty-one. Finally, ten months ago, he had ended up in the trenches defending Petersburg and the last open railroad. Even they were now lost. Finally, he slept but his sleep was a restless slumber, dream filled with the horrors of the twenty-eight battles and skirmishes he had lived through in the past four years.
“Wake up Allen Kell! We got company!” It was the Irishman Dugan.
Allen Kell was instantly awake. He could tell from the gray light, dawn was about to break. “What is it?”
“Looks like Yankee cavalry. About fifty of ’em. What we gonna do? They bound to come in here lookin’ for forage. We got what, fifty rounds betweens us. Ten against fifty ain’t good odds.”
Because Allen Kell was the oldest among them and the most seasoned, the other nine looked to him for guidance. He had already decided on his only option.
“Everybody gather round.” There was a quiet shuffling as they all moved in close. “We got two choices. We can rush’em and hope we can confound ’em enough for some of us to get away or someone can find me a white piece of cloth for a flag. I ain’t gonna make the decision for y’all but I’m gonna say this. The war is as good as over. We ain’t got nothin’ left to fight with or for.”
“What will happen if we surrender?” He was the youngest, Wyatt, barely sixteen.
“We’ll still be alive.”
Dugan blew himself up, “I ain’t surrendering, I’ll die first but I’ll take as many with me as I can. I ain’t no yellow belly.”
“I ain’t neither,” Allen Kell angrily spat back at Dugan, “I’m just wore out. I’ve fought nearly non-stop since First Manassas. There ain’t no sense in dying for a cause that’s already lost. Somebody get me a stick, anybody got anything white?”
“Here’s an old feed sack will it work?”
“I guess we will just have to see. If the Yanks shoot me, you’ll know I was wrong. If they don’t, Dugan, you’ll need to be making a decision.”
As he made his way to the barndoor he heard young Wyatt praying to himself. Allen Kell had quit praying after Sharpsburg. If there was a God, and after four years of fighting he doubted it, there would be nothing but the hellfire and brimstone his mother had preached while teaching him to read from the big family Bible. No, they were all doomed to hell.
Fiction from a historical novel by Don Miller. “Legacies” will be published the Spring, 2017.
Until then works by Don Miller may be purchased at http://goo.gl/lomuQf