Second siege of Vicksburg Mississippi. Union lines 1863.
“How did ya get ahold of them?” Felix Hatfield said with a little surprise. His friend Jerome Shockley was holding a small improvised bag made of burlap that held six potatoes of varying sizes which he had just removed from his knapsack. They served in the same Company E of the 114th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, or O.V.I. for short.
“Bartered for ‘em,” Jerome responded in a childish manner, as though he were being questioned by a superior. They were both Privates.
“Well hell, boy! We can fry ‘em up. I got a mess of meal and we can make mush and fry that up and make some pones.” Felix’s quick mind could have been put to good use for the war effort and the serious engagement at hand. But he preferred to scheme. His hastily drawn plans for dinner abruptly ground to a halt as he lifted his head to the overcast sky and scratched his thickly bearded chin.
Continuing, Felix said, “Damn, what I wouldn’t give for some onions.” After a short pause, the slow minded Jerome had a moment of mental transparency.
“Oh, the sutler’s got ‘im some. I saw ‘em.” Jerome, incidentally, was a mountainous man of about six feet and two inches tall. He was two hundred and seventy-five pounds of well fed farmboy. And even though beards of all shapes and sizes were fashionable, he wore his face bare. His britches were specially tailored because of his size and due to the fact that he suspended them a full two inches above his navel.
“Sutler!” Felix snarled. “That thief sold me short on some extra coffee just last month. He prob’ly figures since we can’t get no more than the army allowance that he can sell us whatever he has a mind to. That damned coffee weren’t nothin’ but chicory I tell ya, chicory!” Felix sputtered the last word with outright contempt. Sutlers were civilians that trailed the army into the field and sold the soldiers whatever supplies the army didn’t give them—for a price, of course.
“Well, he’s got ‘em anyhow,” he said to punctuate Felix’s short oration. Jerome didn’t care for his tirades, no matter how justified they were.
It was the late winter months on this second campaign against the Southern stronghold of Vicksburg. The city was a key point along the Mississippi and General Grant’s Union Army had to take it. Here, the mighty river separated the Union and Confederacy just as it separated Mississippi from Louisiana. Vicksburg was across the river to the east. Grant wanted to attack from the city’s thinly protected eastern side, but couldn’t risk going too far downstream to cross.
So the grizzled General had decided to divert the Mississippi through a canal starting above the city and emptying below her, stripping Vicksburg of her natural defenses. And while it was a long shot, these long winter months were so wet and muddy, that not much else could be accomplished. Besides, it kept the men busy, and busy men don’t make as much trouble as idle ones. Felix and Jerome were employed in the canal effort, along with the rest of his company and many others.
“You reckon Cap’n Callahan will let us go to get them onions?” Jerome asked. His analytical companion stopped his already slow shoveling and cast his gray eyes to the fresh, moist earth for a second or two.
“I’ll just tell ‘im you took ill and that I need to help ya. He knows your God-fearin’ and wouldn’t lie about that.”
“But Felix, I ain’t took si … ck” As Jerome was mouthing the word “sick,” Felix hoisted his shovel and rammed the giant’s belly with the tip of the handle. The unfortunate soldier doubled over while gasping so violently that a plug of tobacco shot from his mouth, hitting Felix in his muddy white muslin shirt and leaving a brown stain.
Felix hurriedly reached down and pulled his own dangling suspenders up over his shoulders, realizing that he had to be ready to leave with Jerome. He came to his stricken buddy’s side to assist.
“Cap’n Callahan! Cap’n Callahan!” shouted the schemer.
“What is it?” roared the Captain whose face wore a permanent scowl, not to mention the deep scar on his left cheek, compliments of some Confederate’s rifle. His question seemed more like a command, even from thirty yards away where he was supervising others.
“It’s Shockley. He’s took ill.”
“What’s the matter, Private?” asked Callahan, now within five feet of Jerome.
“Arghhh … I … arghhh.” The poor man was still immobilized from the unexpected blow, his arms folded across his egg-shaped belly. Felix spoke for him.
“It’s this flat, hot country, Cap’n. It idn’t no good for ‘im. Not for no northern boy. All this muddiness and humidity’s got ‘im good. He throwed up half hour ago. I saw it.” Felix made sure to speak hurriedly and with wide-eyed conviction.
Except for the untamed beard, Felix cut a striking figure, with sandy blonde hair combed to the side with a razor sharp part. His tall, lean frame exuded confidence and masculinity. He was the perfect counterpart to Jerome. He was also very convincing when he needed to be.
Callahan’s brows were furrowed with dismay. “Get him outta here, why don’t ya!” he barked at Felix. “I don’t need him dispiriting the others.”
Forgetting the knapsack but keeping the potatoes, the two threaded their way back towards camp, Jerome walking more erect every few minutes or so as the pain wore off. He understood why he had to take a shot to the gut, so he didn’t give Felix any problems over it. It was a muggy, gray day and the dirt road that led from the worksite to the outskirts of their encampment at Young’s Point had turned to mealy, brown clods. It had rained constantly over the past few months, making everyone and everything wear a tan caking. The last few days were a respite from the deluge, however.
“There’s the sutler’s tent—bastard,” spat Felix.
“I don’t like it when ya cuss. It ain’t right.”
“Fine. We’ll see if he has any unions and then we’ll get outta there.”
Not another word was spoken between the pair of army regulars. They wore the typical army outfits: heavy white shirts and blue woolen trousers that were so baggy that they folded many times over their black, lace up ankle boots. They were sturdy boots, but hundreds of miles spent walking in the heat, cold, dust, and mud had rendered them old and abused looking, like many of the mere boys that had to become men prematurely. Jerome lumbered and Felix strode like an aristocrat. They were both country boys.
“What can I do for ya, boys?” said the sutler as the two were within feet of his tent. It was like all of the others, a wedge tent. It had a horizontal pole over which a white tarp was draped with privacy flaps on either end. He was a shabbily dressed old man whose teeth had deserted their posts, save one lonely soldier. As it was, he was sitting on an empty goodsbox and resembled a shriveled cypress stump that the two had seen on their march through the deep south.
“Onions?” asked Jerome.
“Sure, I got ‘em—three dollars.”
“What!” proclaimed the incensed schemer. His chest had already puffed out and his hands were clenched with rage at the obvious attempt at extortion.
“If ya don’t like it, don’t buy ‘em, young man,” retorted the oily-faced old timer.
“We’ll take ‘em,” interjected Jerome, attempting to head off a confrontation.
The stumpy man looked at them for a few seconds, rolled his “chaw” around in his mouth, and then spat a brown, liquid bullet on the sparsely grassed dirt in front of his customers. It was a sign of contempt for Felix. He stood up slowly with his eyes trained on his adversary and walked around the tent to the back to rummage in his mule drawn wagon for the goods.
While he was thus engaged, Felix’s eyes fixed on a small oak barrel located just inside the tent with the word “BEEF” stamped on it.
“Jerome,” Felix whispered while poking his buddy’s side, “grab that barl of beef and run. I’ll pay ‘im later, when I get paid. I got sixteen dollars comin’ to me.”
“I dunno, Felix. It don’t seem right.”
“Leave the seemin’ to me. I’ll take responsibility. Hurry now!” A swift jab to the rib kickstarted Jerome’s motor and started him into action. In a swift motion, he stepped forward, heaved the small barrel, held it about his midsection, turned, and lumbered off to another part of the camp where the other tents would shield him from sight.
No sooner had Jerome vanished from view than the old man returned with a small bag of onions. His face showed his surprise. It soon turned to distrust.
“Where’s the fat boy?” he shouted at Felix. The cocky Private returned the favor.
“Don’t make no nevermind, ole timer. I don’t want your shit noways.”
“Get the hell outta here and don’t come back,” he screeched.
“Fine by me, pal. You ain’t nothin’ but a thief. I’ll be tellin’ the Commandant ‘bout your rascally ways.” And with that, he turned and stepped deliberately, smiling over how he had taught that old fool a lesson. I got that codger good, he thought to himself as he rejoined his partner about ten minutes later behind a row of closely placed tents.
Jerome had placed the barrel on the ground and was hunkered over it, jealously guarding what he had stolen. His sweaty pie face was genuinely concerned that they might be found out. Felix read this and assured the giant.
“We ain’t gonna eat all this,” stammered Jerome.
“Course not. I know some people that’ll buy it though.”
“Just follow me, will ya? We’ll get rid of it soon enough.”
Where Felix intended to unload their new treasure, Jerome didn’t know. But he followed along a few steps behind his leader, carrying the barrel all the while. Felix, on the other hand, had determined to sell the meat to some of the Union ships that were anchored along the Mississippi. They were part of the siege of Vicksburg.
Felix had learned to love the endeavor of warfare. While many parts of it were awful and horrifying, it was his only opportunity to become a man. Back home he milked cows and tended to other matters about the family farm but now … now he could stand tall, knowing that he was a part of something greater than livestock and crops. The trials and deprivations of the battlefield had hardened him into an eighteen-year-old warrior and traveler. But there was one aspect of his maturation that was lacking and he knew it. Maybe now, he thought to himself, I can really prove myself. In an odd way, this ordeal over onions had morphed into a master plan.
Private Felix Hatfield blended in with the other soldiers as he and Jerome walked through the various sections of the camp. There were row after row of tents and all of the accompanying sights, sounds, and smells. Small, intermittent groups of off duty men were playing cards, arm wrestling, playing various musical instruments, or just sleeping. All the while the smell of horse manure and campfire smoke tinged the air along with the occasional waft of body odor from the men. Nothing in that place was new or fancy. Everything was old, beaten, rusty, dented, or repaired—including the men in the medic’s cabin and the others whose bandages gave them away.
After winding their way to the western banks of the river, which was at full crest and nearly overflowing into the plains where they were situated, they stopped on a hillock to survey the dozen sloops-of-war ships that were either anchored or slowly maneuvering on the river. The navy was in a holding pattern too, but would also see action.
“That one there,” said Felix, pointing in the direction of the USS Brooklyn that was anchored a few hundred yards away with a gangplank connecting the ship to a makeshift pier. As they reached their destination, a sailor of low rank was just disembarking.
“Whoa, there!” said the sailor. His attire was woolen, blue, and baggy like the infantry’s, except for a large white collar that folded over and draped his shoulders and back. He wore a wide brimmed hat painted black with a dark blue ribbon around where the brim and hat met.
“What ya got there?” continued the man as he finally stepped onto the pier where the two were waiting with the barrel.
“Beef. We’re lookin’ to sell it,” Felix said confidently. He was ready to deal.
“We hain’t had good beef in a while. I’ll give ya ten.”
“Done.” Felix caved immediately. Despite his bravado, he knew the beef was like found manna—pure profit. Besides, he had his mind made up on how he was going to spend that money.
The seaman looked puzzled that there was no counteroffer and stared at the would-be merchants a few seconds, wondering when it would come. Finally, he said, “Well, let me take up some money from the boys,” and then deftly scaled the plank. Sailors have a way of walking where their upper body bobs on their legs, these acting like springy cushions. This gait is accentuated by the throwing of their knees and feet outward in an almost bow-legged walk. Jerome leaned and whispered to Felix, “He walks on that there plank like a cat on a fence.”
“Of course,” the confident Felix said, acting as though he knew that already.
After what seemed to be a long time, the man returned with the funds and the transaction was made. But before leaving, Jerome just had to ask, “Why do ya paint your hat black?” The reply was terse: “Keeps the rain out, farmboy.”
Returning to camp, Felix started for the main road leading west, to the small town of Richmond, Louisiana, about 10 miles away.
“Where are we goin’, Felix?” asked Jerome, who was now along for the ride.
“Why? They burned that town not but a few months past … after they done drove the Rebs out first.”
“I know it. I understand they left a few establishments.”
The walk was long but they were used to it. After clearing camp, vast, flat plains stretched before them with occasional tufts of trees clumped here or there. They would pass a few soldiers, supply wagons, or cavalrymen along the deeply rutted road that was a mixture of dust, mud, and horse dung.
They saw houses inhabited by Southerners who, if they looked at Union soldiers at all, shot a look of disgust. These souls knew that the Union wouldn’t leave and that the southern way of life had changed forever. Besides that, their small farms and pantries had been foraged by hungry army men a few times over. Needless to say, the Northerners weren’t welcome guests, so the famed “southern hospitality” didn’t apply to them.
At first they walked silently, the tepid, muggy air laboring their breathing. Getting used to the walk, a reflective Jerome started a serious discussion.
“I’m tired of this here war, Felix.”
“Well,” started Felix in an almost fatherly tone, “we’re men now. We gotta do our duties.”
“I don’t like all the blood, arms, and legs all over the place. I don’t like hearin’ men cryin’ for their mammas.” Jerome was growing morose.
“It don’t bother me no more. That’s the way it goes, Jerome. Lieutenant Mahoney’s nose was blowed clean off in the Arkansas Post engagement. I looked for it but couldn’t find it. I did what I could, but it was his misfortune. Men don’t cry and they sure as hell don’t whine ‘bout it.” Those words seemed out of place for a boy whose only sign of puberty was a fresh beard.
“Still, it ain’t no kinda life.”
“You need to get tough as tack leather, like me,” trumpeted Felix as he walked taller. It was true, the stripling had seen more death than most men ever would.
“I dunno, Felix. I’ll never be as tough as you.”
“Tough is one thing; Experience is another. I got plenty of both. You’ll get ‘em too.”
There ensued another long silence as Jerome pondered the admonition from his trusted friend. Despite those well-meaning words, he still disliked the way men killed each other. He had seen young men blown to pieces by his side and more blood and entrails than he wanted. He merely desired to fill his term and go home to see his mother again.
Soon Richmond appeared like a ghost in the distance. The sight of the town was one of devastation and recovery. They could make out the piles of bricks lining Main Street with buildings in various stages of reconstruction. People milled about trying to regain normalcy and stray wagons pulled out of town headed for the countryside. But this was in the distance. It was then that Felix spotted smoke rising from a chimney attached to an undestroyed two-story house one hundred yards in front of them and to the left of the road.
“I think that’s it,” said Felix, rubbing his beard while walking.
“A bawdy house.”
“No, Felix. Momma told me all ‘bout them. I don’t want no part.”
“Fine. Just stand outside then.”
“I don’t like this.”
In spite of Jerome’s hesitation, he walked with Felix right to the gated picket fence. The sign outside read “Miss Lowry’s House.” The house was a typical wooden structure with a cedar shingled roof. Lacy curtains adorned the paned windows like a gaudily dressed woman adorned the porch swing.
Felix knew not only where to find this establishment from other’s gossip back at camp, but what to expect. Standing like two duckpins, they anxiously waited while the woman stepped from the porch and approached. Her white, heavy silk gown flowed at the bottom but her shoulders—and most of her ample bosom—were exposed by the large frilly collar that folded down and over her arms to the elbows. Her makeup was thick and her skin was like porcelain. With auburn hair turned up at the ears and decorated with flowers, she was beautiful, especially when everything else in their lives was ugly.
She drew near, holding her dress off the ground and walking sensuously, resembling the flame of a candle as it flickers. Now within a few feet, only the low gate separated them. That obstacle didn’t prevent her lilac perfume from reaching their expectant noses.
The entire experience was too much for Jerome who promptly spun about on his heels and fled the scene. If Felix could have broken out of his death stare at the woman, he would have seen his elephant-like friend flying as though shot from a cannon. The woman wasn’t surprised but watched Jerome run for a few seconds and then looked directly into Felix’s eyes.
“Your poor friend mus’ be shy. Such a strong, brave man like yourself ain’t scared of a woman, are ya?”
Felix stood like a statue, fear seizing every muscle, joint, and bone. At that moment he urinated himself. Looking down, the woman saw what had happened, looked back at the still frozen man, and laughed.