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Excerpts from: Missouri Yankees!
Black knights in Yankee blue fight for freedom through the bloody sands of Carolina as Colonel Sidney Sawyer, America’s greatest scalawag, battles in the glare of a calcium sun. From Britain to the Red River bayou, and Charleston to Chattanooga, our ever reluctant hero brawls, battles, spies on and skedaddles from homicidal widows, Frenchified hookers, and the Mighty Wadmalaw, King of the Runaway Slaves. With Liberty (the drummer boy who isn’t what he seems) Sawyer fights for the life of the Union against a treacherous giant. Marching to the beat of Liberty's drums, the Ninety-fourth Colored Infantry wins glory asThe Missouri Yankees
Night came too soon for me but not for the men. They were like virgins at the altar and couldn’t wait to get on with it. I had been up and down the length of the parallel with Smitty, who was in full fig including his black-Irish cummerbund. He and the men in the ranks completely misunderstood my mud-blackened face. The Ace of Spades was one of them. They blessed me and touched me as I slouched by. I believe the brutes loved me. A good reputation is a damned difficult thing to live down. Even the officers missed my true motive and mud appeared on white cheeks along the line. One infant Lieutenant in C Company broke down before the nobility of it all and wept when he grasped my hand. Leadership is a damned queer thing.
But then the sky was black, and the cannonade suddenly sounded like the crack of doom, lobbing shells over us into the enemy ditches. They shrieked like banshees close above our heads with their fuses glowing and spinning like shooting stars before they exploded raining shrapnel on the Confederate works. The calcium lights flared on with a brightness that punished our eyes illuminating targets and blinding the Rebel defenders. Between the smashes of artillery, an odd crash sounded and in seconds sounded again and yet again. It was a new horror of war. To keep Confederate heads below the rims of their ditches a Regua Battery was spraying bullets into their works like water jetting from a hose. And then, under the glare of the lights, the guns stopped with a silence that sounded like the rim of hell.
This was our signal to begin the assault. Off to the right I heard the Massachusetts men give a hurrah as they began their attack. Beside me the color-bearer shook out the green regimental flag. I stood up, waved my Remington, and let out a croak that may have been “Charge!”
Down the parallel the officers blew on their whistles, the men gave a roar of tension and hate, and the 94th clawed up the wall of the trench and charged after the colors. I, of course, slipped on the fire-step. I wouldn’t be the first one out of that ditch for a pension.
I limped after the men bellowing my battle cry, “Go get ’em you black bastards! Oh, get ’em boys.”
And then Liberty was at my side screaming, “Go get ’em you black bastards!” and pulling me along by my sleeve.
What the deuce was he doing here? We sent the drummer boys to the rear before the regiment entered the parallels. His pappy would kill him if the Rebels didn’t kill him first. And where the devil was his drum? Now the Rebels were up on their fire steps firing by the volley with cruel effect as the men swarmed towards their works. It seemed every third man in the first rank was shot down, but the rest lowered their bayonets with a roar and ran on over them like a black landslide. Above the din of musketry I finally heard the real battle cry of the 94th and it almost stopped me in my tracks.
“Missouri Yankees and the Ace of Spades!”
Liberty thought I’d been shot and pulled at my blouse with horror in his eyes.
“Mr. Colonel, sir! Is you? Is you?”
No I wasn’t! This was no time to fall into a swoon. Confederate shot was blasting chunks of red-hot metal into the sand all about. To my right three colored troops were caught under an exploding shell and were thrown into the bracken like they were smashed by the hand of a furious god. Around me men screamed in the agony of wounds that ran with black blood in the ghastly glare of the calcium lights. I was only halfway to the Rebel works and this brat was slowing me down. Ahead of me soldiers halted by the company to fire at Southern heads popping up from the ditches. Damn, these were good troops, but they’d have no time to reload. The issue would be decided with the bayonet, man-to-man, black against white.
We had to reach the enemy rifle pits and go at them with polished steel or we’d be slaughtered like mutton in the open sand.
“Missouri Yankees and…” Oh, damn it to hell. I picked up Liberty, flung him over my shoulder fireman style and finished the battle cry– “Meeee!”
That seems droll to me now, especially since I’ve just emptied the decanter. You know I drink when I write. I know that Amy’s carpet-pounder, Mairead, will fetch me another relay of brandy. She’s a good girl and Irish. That race has a sixth sense for when liquor is needed and why. It’s needed now. I must have been mad, racing with a mob of armed n––rs into the muzzles of Confederate guns, across a battlefield lit like a circle of hell by lights brighter than the sun, with a colored brat over my shoulder shouting a battle cry straight from a show-boat minstrel skit. I’d been in fights before. This was only a sizable skirmish besides the slaughters of Donalson, Shiloh, Antietam or Vicksburg, but it was big enough for the men, white and black who struggled over that ditch. I ran past what shrapnel had left of the infant lieutenant from C Company. His mother wouldn’t care about the size of the battle that laid her darling low.
I trotted as fast as my blistered arse would let me, waving my pistol and bellowing nonsense. Twenty yards ahead of me the first of the men had reached the Rebel works and stood on the rim of the pits shooting into the mass of Confederate riflemen. They were blown back from the edge by fire from below, but in an instant swarms of avengers in blue were thick before the ditches. They fired down into the Rebels, pointed their terrible bayonets low and disappeared into the trench like a waterfall of men. It was over in minutes. The Confederates were only defending a ditch. The 94th Missouri USCT was proving a point– that black men could be men-o-war, and none of the Johnnys in the ditch, tossing down their weapons and throwing up their hands before the steel wielded by these colored troops had any doubts. If their defeat had an extra measure of gall because it was at the black hands of Missouri Yankees, they could go to hell. Every man in the ranks knew that if it was they who were defeated, the Rebels would have given no quarter. It would be death or slavery. White officers would be killed out of hand.
The officers were bringing order to chaos in the bloody ditches. Corpses of both races were manhandled up and out. Prisoners were hustled back to the parallel before the prick of bayonets wielded by Africans with a grudge. I knew it was time to deploy our secret weapon.
“Smith!” I bellowed. I needn’t have shouted. He was right there, gray with sorrow. He must have seen me dump Liberty into the ditch and reckoned he was dead. I pointed to the child squatting amid the carnage at the bottom of the trench and shouted, “Tend to your brat later. See to your duty. Runners up and down the works. You know the order– dig!”
And the men dug with a will. Each man had two spades strapped to his back. The guns from the fort had already begun shelling us and we had only minutes to pile dirt up on the north side of the ditch or we’d be thrown back like the New York troops the night before. The sand and mud was literally flying. The men of the 94th were mostly free men, but by buckwheat and butter, they could dig like delta plantation field hands when they needed to. Now confederate riflemen opened fire on the ditch, but a rampart was forming before my eyes, growing taller by the spade full. And the men began to sing. They’d won and knew it. The sand flew and they sang with fierce joy.
The Ninety-fourth, Ha-Ha! I’ll love you all my days!
Missouri Yankees, on parade,
an’ I love de Ace of Spades!
If you wonder why each man had two spades, well, as Aunt Polly always said, you never know.
On the mighty ironclad Neosho, Sidney rides the roaring water over the collapsed Red River dam.
Howard shouted to be heard, “The fools going to run the gap, God help him, it can’t be done!”
But the timberclad never hesitated. If anything she went faster as the current sliding into the falls locked it in its grip. And then it was there between the sunken barges that had shifted to let the Red River run wild. The Lexington’s bow was tossed high and water cascaded over the bow. It rolled hard to its starboard and we saw the paddles of its great wheel spinning in the air for a count of one – two – and three before it crashed down into the river, and the boat lurched forward to show its bottom from stern to midships. And then the boat was gone. It was simply gone into the towering splash of falling water and smashing ship.
Ferrell roared again, “There– there she is!
And there she was– a hundred yards farther downstream from the gap. She only showed from her gunports up, so steep was its drop, but there she was, still afloat with smoke pouring from her stacks and the howl from the mob of spectators lining the shore reaching our ears.
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” The whole town along with the entire Army had turned out to see the catastrophe of the collapsing dam, and instead they were treated to the salvation of the brave Lexington. And then Captain Howard was shouting down the speaking tube to the engine spaces bellowing for full steam. Winchel and a pair of deck apes flew past the pilot house at a run to slip the stern anchor, Ferrell tossed his pipe over the side, squared his cap and gripped the wheel– by God if the Lexington could do it so could the Neosho. The maniacs! The Lexington was a timber clad. It couldn’t have drawn two feet of water. Ferrell was driving an ironclad monitor with a great armored turret at the bow that must have weighed fifty tons. It sported two eleven inch Dahlgren smoothbores that weighed sixteen tons between them. This ugly tub must have drawn six feet of water.
And we weren’t the only mad ones. Behind us the two other boats that had run the upper falls were billowing cinders from their stacks, their whistles were blowing and bluejackets were swarming the decks to secure every loose end for the plunge. Captain Howard was a game bird. Once the Lexington showed the way he never hesitated. His orders were given, it was neck or nothing and his work was done. Ferrell was the pilot. Howard left him to do his job and steer the boat! He strode to the signal staff before the pilothouse and stood foursquare with hands on hips and face to the wind. I headed for the signal staff too. I wrapped arms and legs around it like a squid and hung on in terror.
A monitor can do ten knots without blowing its boilers. The deck was quivering beneath my boots like a living thing. The river was booming along at another eight knots and when the current caught the boat and sucked it into the maelstrom between the torn wings of the dam we were clipping along at the speed of a galloping horse.
And then the deck gave a lunge and Howard stumbled into me and grabbed my jacket to keep his feet. The great stern wheel had stopped! I looked up to the pilothouse and Ferrell’s face was frozen in terror. He had lost his nerve and was trying to stop the Neosho from its plunge to destruction. Too late! Too late! Any fool could see that we were committed. The pull of the roaring, rushing red water had us and wouldn’t let us go. Our only hope to avoid the rocks and sunken barges was a cool hand on the wheel and enough speed for the rudder to bite and Ferrell was paralyzed with fear. He had ordered full stop. We had lost all way in relation to the current and the rudder was useless. He opened his mouth in a scream that was lost above the rush of foam and water. I turned to forward and joined him with my own scream.
Thirty yards ahead the river disappeared. It was there racing before us in waves as thick and slick as oil, and then it wasn’t. We were racing over a cliff and then the current gripped us like a dog with a rat and the monitor lunged sideways, out of all control and slammed into a half-sunken barge like a drunken dancer. The collision slewed us back around and the Neosho went over the falls bow first in a swoop that brought last night’s bourbon up and out. The bow went under up to the great turret and then the river boiled around it and up past to the stack. She hit bottom with a jar that set the signal staff whipping like a cane pole. My hands tore from the mast and I tumbled half the length of the deck before I came up hard against a davit, gulping like a catfish and howling like a wet dog. It seems that I broke my right thumb.
The Neosho spun around like a kiddy’s top in a complete pirouette before that fool Ferrell gathered his guts and began to pilot his boat. The craven had almost scuppered us all, losing his nerve in the breach, stopping the engines and letting the boat find its own way over the falls. If we hadn’t fetched into the barge we’d have gone over the drop sideways. The boat would have turned turtle and I would have been smashed on the bottom of the Red River with the weight of an ironclad river monitor driving me into the mud.
Damnation in a berry basket, but I was hard used. I was sopping wet, blowing snot from my snoot in slimy ropes and the knees were out of my britches. My poor thumb, twisted behind my knuckles was turning purple, hurting like blazes and swelling like a blood-gorged leach. The bluejackets ignored my distress, rot their rations, and began a cheer of salvation and pride. It was returned three times three from the mob along the levee. I looked upstream to the dam and it was a sight to see. Red water boiled in a Niagara over the gap that tumbled down a ten-foot drop into the placid Alexandria riverfront. How the blazes could we have done it without smashing to bits? And then I saw exactly how we did it. The bow of the other monitor appeared like a specter through the mist thrown up by the cascade. It flew out over the drop for half its length before it tipped in a sickening plunge that took it underwater to its turret, but there was no smash from hitting the bottom. This boat had gone over under full steam and control and she shook the water from her bow like a spaniel. With flags flying and whistle blowing it bobbed even with the Neosho. A few minutes later the tinclad made her run with spectacular splashing, frenzied cheering and the spectacle was over.