Starbuck Chronicles : Field of Valor
The air was thick with mist, covering the grass of the Virginian landscape in a sea of morning dew. Although stunning in beauty, the weather offered little comfort to the columns of grey coated infantry as they marched, soaked to the bone. Each soldier trudged on solemnly, their entire world condensed into the space they occupied as they felt the drips of water stab at them from the branches above, soaking through their tattered rags and greatcoats. No one minded of course, as they were numbed to the discomforts of soldiering. Still, one consolation the heavy offered was that if provided them invaluable cover as they began the withdrawal back to Virginia. Although some had believed it a defeat, many a soldier marched with their heads held high, for they had braved the storm of the endless legions the North had to offer, and their efforts were forever immortalized at a place called Antietam.
It was not a defeat, the soldiers thought, not in the true sense of the word, for the Confederates had stayed on the field, quitting it of their own accord when it was apparent the North would not venture another attack, despite the fact that they had outnumbered the Confederates almost four to one. General Robert E Lee had the perfect plan, one with which to smash the North despite their superiority in numbers, but if not for a lost order, they would have succeeded. Now, they were turned back, the great invasion that would end the war was over.
It was not a defeat, yet, for an army used to victory, it may as well have been one. The Army of Northern Virginia had taken a beating, and the only slight consolation they had was at least they inflicted a similar wound onto the Union army, for the Yankees were not too keen to move or chase them with their cavalry. The Army of Northern Virginia would live to fight another day.
It was not the hammer blow that the men had been promised. Nothing decisive had been achieved, and so the killing would go on.
All those thoughts however, were irrelevant to Major Nathaniel Starbuck, as he contemplated the situation with his new amalgamated command. The Legion, and his new command, the 'yellowlegs' were now his, and together they formed barely two hundred men under arms. The Yellowlegs were a special punishment battalion, consisting of crooks, cowards and stragglers. They were the lowest of the low, and the army had looked down on them derisively. Now, they marched proudly, knowing full well that they stood face to face with their brothers in arms during the worst battle of the war thus far. They had seen the carnage, the shells, and bullets tearing men to ribbons, and they stood, fought and prevailed. Now the men wore the name 'yellowlegs' with pride, and the other regiments gave an appreciative nod to Starbuck's men as they passed, talk of what they did at the sunken road spreading throughout the army.
"We should be out of it soon," another officer spoke, prompting Starbuck out of his daydream.
Griffin Swynyard, the former drunk and sinner, now newly saved, and newly promoted Brigadier General, offered a salute. "Looks like the Yanks aren't giving chase, we should be back safely in glorious Virginia soon."
"It was a close run thing. They could have ended it." Nate remarked gloomily as he reminded himself of the shrunken roster of the Legion, and the carpet of bodies along the sunken road.
"And yet, they didn't!" Swynyard said cheerfully. "I think, Nate, you overestimate the tenacity of Young Napoleon. He may build a large host, but once he has it, he sits on it. I heard the reports, one look on that field and he retired to his headquarters for the rest of the day."
"Can't say I blame him." Starbuck nodded, his mouth still wrapped in bandages from the wound he took at Antietam. The Yankee army, despite having a full quarter of its troops fresh in reserve, had held back, little Mac still struggling with his inner demons.
"Blame his Intelligence staff. I think we can credit them with our continued existance up to this point. Sadly, it won't last." Swynyard said wispfully.
"Won't sir?" Nate replied.
The old general nodded. "The North is an impatient beast, Starbuck, a beast that by all rights should have rolled over us by now. Their newspapers and voters will demand glory. McClellan may be able to claim this was his Austerlitz, but it won't take long before the truth sets in. Soon, another general will come in, and he'll be impetuous Nate, because old Abe will need a general who is willing to use that behemoth of an army McClellan built up, and when they find out, they'll make fields like this look like a stroll through the garden of Eden."
"We'll be ready sir." Nate said grimly.
"Know you will Nate, know you will."
Swynyard spat a wad of tobacco, deciding to lighten up the mood after that last prophecy.
"How's that face of yours doing Starbuck?"
"It's mending General." Starbuck said awkwardly, the musket ball had clean pierced his cheeks, luckily missing his tongue and skull, but made it mightly uncomfortable to talk.
Swynyard nodded. "Good, because god knows I'll need every officer when we get back. I've got some ideas on how to rearrange my brigade."
The General said 'my brigade' with a touch of pride. Only a few months ago, Washington Faulconer, Starbuck's former benefactor, now turned enemy, and father of his best friend, had brought Swynyard in as a favour to his political friends. Swynyard was a notorious drunk, a cruel man who had used his authority and position to serve his own ends, even going as far as ordering Starbuck's company to the forefront in the hopes that it, along with troublesome Nathaniel Starbuck, would be destroyed. And now, since the General's epiphany, he was a changed man, and Starbuck would trust the man with his Legion, and his life. Strange how this war turned out.
"Where to now General?"
Swynyard pointed southwards, past the copse of trees to the Shenandoah Valley. "Old Jack wants us off to Winchester, we'll rest a few days on this side of the Potomac before crossing. Next, we need to replenish our regiments for the next battle. God knows the Yankees can move anytime, but I think Lee's got the measure of young Napoleon. They won't be moving anytime soon."
Nate nodded, although his face burned in pain, he was optimistic, even hopeful at the few weeks rest south of the Potomac. More time to reorganize his new command, as well as train the men for the trials ahead. Who knows what old Jack had in store for them next.
"I'll leave you to your men Nate." Swynyard said cheerfully. "and God be with you."
"You too General." Starbuck saluted.
The old man gave one of his sly grins as he returned the salute. "You know Nate, there's always a place for you at the prayer table. My door is always open."
Nate chuckled. "Not on your damned life."
"From my standpoint, it's not just my life that's damned." The General laughed, wheeling his horse and marching to the commanding major of the 65th Virginia. Their colonel having been shot down during the battle at Antietam.
Nate waved goodbye, just as he spotted Captain Thomas Truslow kick a bunch of stragglers on the side of the road. They were a ragged bunch, belonging to Haxall's Arkansas regiment.
"Get up you lily livered bastards. If I don't see you on the road in the next thirty seconds, I'll save the Yankees the trouble of having to put a bullet into your god damn useless hides." Truslow shouted this in his old sergeants voice, carried back from the time he had fought in the Mexican war and leading up to his recent promotion from Sergeant. The man was a thief, a murderer, a scoundrel and a widower, but Starbuck reckoned he was the best soldier the Legion had to offer, and that was quickly verified as the stragglers picked up their gear and started back on the road.
"God damn useless." Truslow spat in derision as he watched the stragglers limp back into column.
"That was kinder than I expected from you." Nate remarked.
"Weren't my men to begin with Nate, otherwise I'd have done it your way." Truslow gave a dark grin, remembering the one time Nate had ordered a straggler to strip buck naked before kicking him out of the army.
"So I guess it's back to Virginia." Truslow remarked.
Starbuck nodded. "The Yankees gave us a beating, but nothing serious. Lee knows we can't stay in Maryland forever, better to rest up the brigade. Swynyard says he'll reorganize the brigade."
"More work for you Nate, but for now, I say you commandeer one of the horses we took off Maitland. You look like hell." Truslow offered, in a rare show of sympathy for his friend.
Nate shook his head. There was too much on his mind right now, the regiment, the supplies, the next campaign, but he'd be damned before he showed any weakness in front of his men. "You walk, I'll walk."
"Your business Nate." Captain Truslow shrugged, then yelled at his company to march at the double quick. The column gave a furious rebel yell as they cheered their commander on. Knowing they had seen the worst of it, and they had prevailed.
The Army of Northern Virginia, though battered, had survived, and by god, it would fight and win another day.
Colonel Lyman Thorne almost wept as he surveyed the scene. For miles around, there was nothing but a sea of bodies and wreckage as far as the eye could see. Columns of smoke filled in the air, denoting the various positions where artillery batteries had been destroyed in the previous battle. Union burial parties went to work, loading the dead onto their wagons and preparing mass graves for the fallen. Over twenty thousand men had died on the fields of Antietam and not a single result had been achieved, thanks to the efforts of General McClellan, who had snatched a stalemate from the jaws of victory. By god! He had Lee right where anyone in their right mind could have wanted them. How many commanders were handed the key to victory, the information of their entire opponent's hand and strength before a battle, and somehow found a way to waste it away. It was at a high cost as well, since it cost the lives of one of his best agents to retrieve that information. In the end, it was for naught.
The Colonel rode solemnly across the battlefield, and swore to himself that he would do everything in his god given power to make sure McClellan did not hold command again. At best he was incompetent, but more than ever now, he was convinced the man was a traitor to the republic. Whether he intended to be one or not.
He did well to mask this intent as he waved a greeting at a staff officer coming towards him.
"Major Starbuck," Thorne said gruffly. "I did not expect you to be out here surveying the dead."
Major James Starbuck was a Boston lawyer turned soldier, who had the misfortune to be part of McClellan's intelligence staff. Thorne had once believed the man would do well in the intelligence field, but that fool Pinkerton had gotten to him first, and now whatever potential he might have had was squandered here.
"Looks like we were lucky here, sir."
Thorne scoffed as he observed the scene. "Luck had nothing to do with it, we had Lee in the bag and he got away."
James, utterly convinced that the enemy legions had numbered in the hundreds of thousands, shook his head. "It was by the grace of god we avoided disaster today sir, you've read the reports." He insisted loyally.
"A pox on your reports Major. We outnumbered Lee two to one and we let him slip! By god, what a waste…"
James shifted uneasily in his saddle. A naturally shy man, he was fearful of confrontation yet he could not help but feel as though he needed to defend his commanding general. "General McClellan sees it differently sir, and I can assure you-"
"McClellan's days are numbered." Thorne spouted out. "Mark my words Starbuck. He had the bird in the hand, and he simply let it get away. I know Old Abe won't be too pleased to hear it."
James sighed, the newspapers across the north were already proclaiming this a great victory, surpassing Waterloo and Austerlitz. The rebellion's turning point had come and it was all thanks to Little Mac, how could he not see?
"The President, as far as I know, has already sent McClellan a letter of congratulations, they are celebrating in Washington sir, can you not at least acknowledge that."
"I can accept it major," The Colonel remarked, "If we follow up this victory with action, but where are the troops marching in pursuit of Lee? He should be crossing the Potomac any day now, instead, the Grand Army of the Republic is sitting here twiddling their thumbs."
"The army will move when it's re-equipped and rested sir, we weren't fit to press the fight any longer." James insisted.
"Just like the reb army is moving now?" Thorne grunted, although he agreed in part with the exhaustion of the army, his patience long evaporated. He had tolerated the presence of fools long enough.
"There are extenuating circumstances sir! Besides-"
James paused, just as General McClellan and his staff trotted up beside them.
"A splendid victory! Wouldn't you say Thorne? By god we sent Lee off with a whipping! And with half his numbers!"
"The papers will be talking about it for some time, that you can be sure." Thorne remarked vaguely.
"Indeed, now with our position secure, we can finally start building the army we need to take Richmond, maybe now the White House will finally agree on what we need to finally end this war. There will be changes Thorne, mark my words, there will be changes!" the General exulted happily. Antietam had restored his favor with the administration and in the process, the union was saved. Now, he would have the stature to persuade the president to institute his own allies into the department of war, men who had no problem seeing his vision for an optimal end to the conflict.
"Word has it general," Thorne added in, "That the president is looking towards releasing a proclamation of emancipation in light of this victory." The Emancipation Proclamation, as it was being heralded, was supposed to be Lincoln's response to this victory, forever declaring that the slaves in the rebellious states were forever freed due to the treasons of the secessionists.
McClellan's features darkened as he heard the words. "An accursed doctrine! That has no place in this war. By god man, we are this close to winning it and the gorilla wishes to incite servile insurrection. It will be a disaster man! I signed up to restore the Union, not destroy the south. Which is what we must do if we ever hope to impose such a measure."
"It will give us the moral advantage." Thorne insisted.
"The Union, is our moral advantage. Mark my words Thorne, this is will cripple our efforts, and I would sooner resign than see it passed through."
"Are you saying that you will not follow our President's order?"
McClellan eyed Thorne warily, knowing full well that this man was not among his allies. "I would do whatever the government requires of me colonel, but that does not prevent me from voicing my views. Besides, this is just a rumor, nothing more. My victory here sees that it will be nothing more than just that. A rumor."
"Well now, I'm sure you're satisfied with what you had to see here Thorne? I've got an army to run, and I think our signals are in order." He said it mockingly, knowing full well that the colonel was sent here to spy on him, nothing more.
"I've seen enough General. It's time I head back to Washington." Thorne replied icily.
"I will provide you an escort." McClellan said cheerfully. "Never forget this day Colonel, you were here to witness history."
He'd sooner forget this day ever happened. Thorne thought, then saluted the General and Major Starbuck. He would return to Washignton, he would speak with the President and let him know the truth. The field was full of dead, and there would be many more now thanks to the stunning incompetence of this man, and the worse crime was that he didn't even see it! Thorne was determined, once this illusion of victory had passed, as the Union expected a complete victory, not an incomplete one, new men would take charge, and by god Thorne would be there to support them when that inevitable time came.
Author's note: Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series was what got me into fiction in the first place, so i may as well take a stab at writing something in this universe. I don't own Starbuck or any of Bernard Cornwell's characters, just playing in the sandbox ;)