"Where's Major Whitlock?" I looked up from cleaning my revolver, an Army Colt model of 1860, and shrugged. Without warning, I gave the rotating cylinder a spin and snapped it into place, rotating in my seat and sighting down its length towards the speaker, giving the trigger a pull. The loud, dry crack of hammer on percussion cap made the other occupants of the ship's hold jump, some reaching for empty Enfields resting at their sides. I grinned at the speaker's frown, spinning the handgun and sliding it into its leather holster, rising heavily to my feet and smoothing out the creases of my grey uniform. The floor beneath us gave a creak and rocked as a wave buffeted the gunboat.
Seeing that the Union hadn't managed to somehow board our ship and attack us by surprise, the other soldiers returned to their important duties involving cards and each other's money, leaving John Harkness and myself to walk down the length of the hold to the far end where the Major had his quarters. He ran and hand through short, dark hair and sighed. "You know…sometime you're going to forget you loaded that thing and put a round in me. Then you'll have to find yourself a new First Sergeant."
I pretended to look wistful at the thought. "Yes indeed…might be a bit difficult. Not many marines get to transfer over these days. But knowing you, you'd probably still survive even then." It was true… John Harkness supposedly should have been killed several times over. A shot round through the chest, a bayonet to the stomach… The first sergeant of Houston 3rd Rifles had developed a reputation for being indestructible. It was good for the troops' morale to think they had such a person leading them. High morale was a good thing.
"So are we almost there?" John nodded, knocking on the wooden door and opening it as a gruff voice called for us to enter, stepping back to let me enter first. "That's the reason I'm here to see the Major. Galveston's on the horizon and we should be within range within the next twenty or so minutes." It was dark inside and we had to squint to make out the silhouette of a man by the far wall.
"Major? It's almost time." The officer in charge of the Confederate reinforcements looked up from his writing desk as we entered. The dim candlelight flickered off the walls, illuminating the shadowy cabin and its sole occupant. Piercing blue eyes peered at us through the gloom, a youthful face worn down by the stress of countless battles in a short space of time, matted blonde hair plastered to his brow. He was hunched over whatever he was working on, fatigue weighing him down. Finally, he managed to pick out who had entered his domain, rising from his chair, legs scraping on the deck, expression changing dramatically.
He buckled on his sword belt and straightened his Confederate grey, his dignity and pride in wearing the uniform evident in the manner of his bearing now on his feet. Previous tiredness seemed to recede into the shadows as he stood erect and tall. Even the star on his collar appeared to gleam more prominently in the glow of the candle. John snapped to attention and I felt obliged to do the same, back straight, chest out as taught back home on the farms of Houston by my father when we'd salute the flag every morning.
"Very good, first sergeant", he said, gruffness gone and his voice regaining the richness and warmth we were used to. His gaze slid from John to me and I straightened just that bit extra under the Major's scrutiny. "You prepare the second and third platoons to lead the charge, Captain. See to their needs and confirm that their morale is at its highest. We can't afford to have the line break today."
"Sir!" John and I saluted and about turned, marching for the door. John was out first but as my foot was on the threshold, Major Whitlock called me back. "Oh and…Jasper? Good luck out there. Father would not be pleased with me I you got killed taking some foolhardy risk."
I grinned back, the well-known roguish smirk of Captain Jasper Whitlock, younger brother of Major Nathaniel Whitlock. "Thank you, brother. I'm glad to see you're so concerned for my well being. I'll try to save some Unions for you when you catch up with the second wave. See you in Galveston."
I'd first joined the Confederacy at the age of 17, pretending I was older to get past the age restrictions. My brother, Nathaniel, six years my senior, was the pride of the family, already an officer in the Texan army and then immediately becoming an officer in the Confederate forces in 1861. Hearing our father daily regale the family on how proud they were in their first son for fighting for the honour of Texas had implanted dreams in my brain, dreams of earning battle honours in the name of the South and being a hero among my fellow Southerners.
It had spurred me on to hurry up and enlist, lying about my age, alongside childhood friends and a number of others from my city. Many were blatantly underage but the Confederates had been desperate for soldiers and a seventeen year old could fire a rifle as well as a twenty-seven year old with the right training. Many were in their graves now. I was one of the few left of the old gang.
So after long years of hard fighting and I'd found myself rising swiftly through the ranks, becoming a Captain under my own brother's command. It seemed that I had an inspiring air about me and that somehow I conveyed this strength to the men in my platoon. The higher-ups had seen the advantage in having a soldier who could rouse such courage in his men and so had promoted me repeatedly until I ended up where I was now. My soldiers were as loyal as they came and I could rely on them to carry the day if I called for them to follow me.
I could feel the cold sea wind whipping irritatingly on my face and a blinked to clear my vision. In the distance, explosions lit up the shores of Galveston as the Confederate ships sat just out of range of the defence guns, sends hails of cannon fire down on the wall defences. A few hours earlier, they'd attempted to take the fortified city alone and been driven back. Even as I watched, they started to advance on the city once again as our gunboat, the Neptune, pulled closer, the top decks crowded with grey-uniformed soldiers, eager to get to grips with their Northern adversaries.
A few moments before, I'd walked between them, exchanging a few words with each in turn, moving down the ranks and affirming their determination and belief in the cause we were fighting for. I knew not all believed in the continuity of slavery but Southern pride burned in each soldier's heart, burned in my own heart, and that's what kept them fighting more than anything. The North wanted to change the very way they lived their lives, proclaiming 'modernization'. A good Southern man didn't let any but God dictate how he lived his life.
I'd seemed to raise the spirits of my troops and it was with greater resolve that they grasped their rifles to their chests and stared ahead towards our destination unflinchingly. They would need their courage where they were going. The second and third platoons would be racing for the walls of Galveston under the covering fire from the Confederate gunboats, struggling up and over the walls and forcing a beachhead for the other troops to follow.
"Might be a bit a challenge, Jasper." I felt another man push through the ranks to my side, broad build allowing him to barge past the others to reach me. Narrowed grey eyes of my second in command, Lieutenant Ethan Hale, surveyed the battlefield that awaited us. He was a dependable sort despite being one of those who had come into conflict with his own relatives over where his loyalties lay. He had split with his family and left them behind in New York, moving down South to live with his uncle shortly before the war broke out.
He had seemed to make it his goal to prove his loyalties beyond all doubt by going the extra mile and leading the charge whenever possible. I had wondered what would happen if he ever came across any of his family on the other side. He'd laughed at that. His family were too tied up with their career-pursuits in some bank and would be more likely to wield a bag of money than a rifle. Wherever he had come from, I found him to be someone I could always rely on whether in a fight or just on a daily basis for his stalwart comradeship. I'd need both for the fight approaching.
"Hmm…maybe. I don't recall having attempted an assault like this before. I only hope Nate know what he's doing or we're going to be crushed between the Union forces and the city walls." I adjusted my sword belt and loosened my revolver from its holster, checking again that it was indeed loaded and I wasn't running in to battle with an empty weapon. It was probably nerves. I knew it was loaded because I'd checked it only five minutes ago. I was good at encouraging others but my…talent, Father had once called it, did not extend to myself and I had to stop my hand shaking to slide the weapon away at my side. "Well…I trust Nate to do his job just fine. Just as long as Magrunder doesn't pull anything stupid then my brother will come through."
"If you say so, Captain. We're almost in range." Ethan unslung his rifle from across his back, his own custom Volcanic rifle that he'd taken from the supplies up North, returning their equipment a round at a time. John had appeared, holding his captured Spencer repeating carbine ready. I walked down the line, slapping soldiers on the shoulder to pass the message down the line before raising my voice above the rush of sea all around them. "Five minutes, everyone! You have your orders. Follow them through and fight for the glory of the South!" The two hundred soldiers under my command roared their affirmation and the Neptune surged forward into the fires of battle, guns blazing.
The Neptune hit the walls, ladders raised immediately under the cover of heavy cannon fire with grey-uniformed soldiers scaling the walls immediately. I led the charge, climbing the last few rungs and vaulting over the battle-scarred fortifications, drawing my weapons as I did so, Colt in my right, light cavalry sabre swinging in the other. We were on top of the walls, a raised platform above the city streets below, allowing a defender to look and fire over the walls at attackers…such as us.
A blue-uniformed soldier lunged at me with a bayonet but I swayed to the side, kicking the man in the chest and slashing out with my blade, opening his chest from shoulder to waist. My revolver fired, again and again, taking Northerners in the chest and spinning them around. A hand clamped around my ankle and I turned to dispatch the Union soldier but Ethan crunched down next to me, kicking the man unconscious with a vicious boot, firing his volcanic rifle with a deafening roar and cutting down a row of running soldiers, reloading with rapid flicks of his wrist. He gave me a nod before sprinting off down the line.
Along the length of the wall, grey-clad Confederates landed en mass, Enfields locking into shoulders and opening fire into the Union soldiers below, shot raining down on their heads and scything them down. Bayonets flashed, gleaming blades cutting and stabbing through Union flesh, cracks of rifle butts throwing their Northern enemies from the high walls. Even as they reached the high battlements, my troops threw themselves down flat, taking cover behind the Union's own sandbags. Grenades exploded all around us, shrapnel scoring deep cuts across those they detonated near. I saw one bouncing to a halt near me, eyes widening even as I acted, kicking a Union soldier's body over so it rolled on top of the grenade, muffling the detonation beneath it.
Raising my head, I saw a fierce sea battle raging beyond the walls. The Neptune that had conveyed us to shore was being pounded by Union ships, being repeatedly struck by cannon round after cannon round. The Bayou City was charging for one of the Union's ships, all guns blazing as it charged. I didn't really have the luxury of seeing how the outcome as at that moment, the Union soldiers below having brought out the heavy weapons, gatling guns raking the top of the walls all around us, the stone exploding around us. Some of my men were caught in the blasts, their riddled bodies toppling over the edge, staining the ground with their blood. We had taken the walls but could advance no further
John crashed down to my right, rolling until he was alongside me, clutching his Spencer close to his chest. He had taken a shot to the shoulder and it was bleeding, a hastily applied bandage soaked crimson. Fiddling with a pouch, he ejected the spent magazine and slapped a fresh one in, racking the lever. "Now might be a good time for the Major to show up, Jasper. We need to break out before the Union can completely surround us."
"I know, damn it", I said, gritting my teeth. My revolver cracked twice, two Union soldiers tumbling back from the stairs as they tried to advance on our position. Empty… I loosened the rotating cylinder and reloaded. I glanced up and down the line. The wall top, taken in a matter of minutes by my soldiers, was littered with the dead, both those in blue and those in grey, bearing red medals of honour on their chests that had laid them low.
Of the two hundred who I had led here, about a quarter had been lost, both ascending the walls and then holding them. I could see fear in their eyes but at the same time courage in their bearing. I slapped John on the shoulder to my right and the soldier to my left. "Pass along the message. They've done the South proud so far. Nate will not forsake us. They just have to weather it just a bit longer."
As if to lend weight to my words, the Northern wall erupted in a shower of broken stone and fire, killing a squad of Union soldiers running to reinforce the enemy pinning us down. There was a sudden roar of a hundred Enfields firing in concert and blue-uniformed troops halted and jerked as shot filled the air, each tiny metal ball blowing gaping holes in them. As the smoke cleared, I could make out the shapes of the Houston 1st Marine Corps detachment forced their way into the streets below us, my brother leading them, sword flashing and pistol unholstered, bucking as he cut down those who fled before them.
Our assault from the front had tied up the Union forces as they attempted to repel the major surge to the East. While they had held us pinned, we in turn had been holding them in position, drawing all their attention and buying time with our blood. All the while, Major Whitlock had been leading the Confederate Marine detachment around to the now-less defended Northern face, breaching it and driving a wedge of troops into the gap in the wall, the Southern cross flying high.
I grinned, feeling the surge of hope at this sight. The day would be won. Galveston belonged to the South and it would be ours. I rose from where I had lain, drawing my own cavalry sword with a flourish and raised it above my head. "For the South and the blood of our brothers!" My shout was taken up by the man next to me, and then the next, moving down the line with unstoppable alacrity. John was shouting at my side, racking his Spencer and firing as he rose to his feet. As one, the Confederate line regained their feet and unleashed a withering volley of fire before leaping down to the streets below to link up with marines as they ploughed through the scattered enemy forces.
The Union forces were running and we gunned them down. They asked for no quarter and we gave none. Our blood was burning with the deaths of our comrades and vengeance was demanded. I was running, sabre cutting down one, then two Unions as they lashed out with bayonets. Warm red spattered my uniform and I tried to wipe it off with disgust. It was the part I hated about fighting up close like this; the blood spilled. Far cleaner to dispatch an enemy from afar with a revolver but we were caught up in a charge and such distinct battle lines had been cast aside as we pressed our advantage.
"Seems you did leave some Union soldiers for me, after all, Jasper. How generous of you." My brother wore a smirk similar to my own as we fought to each other's side, a tide of Confederate grey now racing through the open space now rather than Union blue. I returned the smirk and shrugged. "Father always taught us not to be selfish with what we have."
He slapped me on the shoulder with a bark of laughter. The long months of reports of losses on all fronts had worn him down but now with victory on hand, his choler had been aroused and his spirit restored. He had regained the image of the patriotic warrior whom our father had constantly informed me about. I felt filial pride beyond anything as we faced our enemies. "Insolent whelp. We still have a battle to win. The day is not yet carried."
"Yes, sir." We leapt into the fray, our troops converging on the two Whitlocks as they forged onwards, deeper into the city to purge the Union soldiers from good Southern land. Civilians stayed inside as we charged, many we knew were loyal to the South but held under occupation by the Union. When the battle was done here, we'd deal with where loyalties lay. There were still Union soldiers to defeat.
We had reached the city square, our soldiers spreading out to cover all approaches. Vaulting up to the central plinth, Nate seized the cord of the flagpole where the Stars and stripes flew, arms working furiously to drop the Northern symbol from over the Southern city.
Within seconds, the Southern Cross had replaced it and was rising high over the city of Galveston, the deep blue cross over blood red fluttering in the southern wind. A cheer rose from the Confederate soldiers, which I joined in with, feeling the elation of victory as we all looked upon our colours high above, held by Confederate Major Nathaniel Whitlock, sword pointed to the heavens. It was a glorious sight; one that I'll never forget, one that I can't ever forget…
To this day, I still blame myself for not seeing the sniper. Impossible, of course, that I could have spotted the man hidden in the clock tower, who had changed Union blue to all-black to remain hidden, who had dulled the metal of his rifle it didn't even catch the light. Not one of the hundred Confederate soldiers in the square noticed him until a violent crack shattered the sky. My eyes widened as a red stain slowly spread across Nate's chest. The shock struck me such that I felt like I'd been hit too. He looked down at it, almost curious, before slumping forward, falling from the plinth. I caught him before he fell. "Oh no… No…"
"Jasper…?" His voice had been softened as death drew near. My uniform was slowly being dyed red, my hands sticky with his blood as I held my brother in my arms. A squad had raced to the clock tower to drag the assassin out and the others were crowding around their fallen leader though I barely noticed them. This couldn't be happening… My brother, the pride of the Whitlock family, the greatest Confederate officer to have served the South…dying? "I'm here, brother."
He gave a shuddering cough and blood emerged, running down his front. I could feel tears wet my cheeks. I hadn't cried since I was…four, five? But now they came freely, unrestricted. Though he wasn't yet completely faded, the hole in my chest, deeper than any rifle could penetrate, was opening up, a hollowness where my brother had once occupied. "You can't leave, Nate. We still have a war to win…"
"Ha…I think I'm done for now, Jasper. It's up to you to carry the fight and regain the pride of the South. I have faith in you. Father would be proud if he could see you now." He was almost gone now. I could feel his breathing become shallow and strained. Soldiers all around us had taken off their caps, holding them to their chests in grieving respect. "Remember why we fight, Jasper. Hold on to your dreams and never forget to protect your honour. Without it, victory is nothing…"
He was gone… Major Nathaniel Whitlock was dead. I screamed to the heavens above until my voice was ragged and hoarse. It was starting to rain, as if God on high was weeping for the death of Nate. My matted hair was plastered to my forehead, my uniform was sodden and clung heavily to my body. It was stained blood red, the grey replaced by crimson. The rain cleansed the red and smoke from Nate's face, leaving him unscathed by the battle he had fought hard to win.
There was a scuffle and in my peripheral vision, I saw the blur of grey as Confederate soldiers dragged the sniper into the courtyard. There was a collective cocking of rifles and the ring of blades being unsheathed but I held up a hand. Laying Nate's body down carefully, I rose heavily to my feet. My revolver was in my hand though I didn't remember picking it up. The sniper was hurled at my feet and held there. He looked scared now, surrounded by so many enemy soldiers, fury and grief twisting their faces. I cocked the revolver, the sound reverberating around the silent square.
I looked into the man's eyes as I levelled the weapon, pressing the muzzle against his head. My hand shook furiously as I fought the urge to just pull the trigger. It seemed such a simple thing to do but I knew it wouldn't bring my brother back. He was gone and no execution would make up for the loss I felt, the emptiness and cold that crept through my body. My finger tightened on the trigger, the rotating cylinder half locked. Fury coursed through my veins, rage, the urge to kill… I could see my brother's face, eyes closed in death, still feel his blood warm on my hands, making the grip of the revolver slick in them. A single roar and it was over…
I dropped the smoking revolver and sank to my knees, burying my face in my hands. The rain intensified and I let it envelop me until I was lost in the storm, leaving me with nothing but my grief and the silence howl of the wind.