THE ADVENTURES OF SIDNEY SAWYER:
The River War
and biographical notes completes the novel.
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The River War or David M. Smeltz)
The River War
And then commands were shouted through huge megaphones, the great stern wheels in their armored barns churned the Tennessee to foam, and the flotilla inched its way against the winter current in line of battle before the works of Fort Henry. The petty officers barked commands, the deck apes heaved thick lines, and the massive gun ports flew open with a smash. The cannon opened up all at once, with a sound that was the crack of doom, and the gunners swarmed to reload their battery. I had the run of the ship and used it to try and find a corner away from the hell that was a gun deck on a ship of war during a battle. There was no safe place. For damn sure, there was no quiet place. I could have skulked below, but the thought of being scalded to boiled mutton if a shot ripped through the pipes or boilers, was enough to send me back to the steps below the pilothouse. It was the safest place on the tub.
Looking up the steps, I could watch the Skipper and Foote in the pilothouse orchestrating the battle. The pilothouse, looking for all the world like an upside down cupcake, was stuck like an afterthought on the top of the gun deck forward of the stacks. Its only armor was oak. It looked a death trap to me as the first of the Rebel shot found its range and slammed into the bow. From there I turned and saw the full length of the teeming gun deck. It looked like bedlam with a mad ballet of grunting and swearing swabs tending their guns like angry lovers. For over an hour we pounded the muddy fort with the biggest guns the navy had. From the inside of the ironclad the sound of the guns was positively sickening. How the shellbacks stood the noise of those giant Dahlgren and Parrot guns was beyond credit. From inside the iron armor the guns made a gut-wrenching WHANG rather than a proper boom. The WHANG– WHANG– WHANG– reverberated from all around and up from the deck, and was fit to make your very heart stop beating.
Old Commodore Foote loved it. For a Bible-basher he was a bloodthirsty bastard. He grinned through his beard with shining eyes, barking orders to signal his boats to close the distance and pour in the fire. A few minutes into the bombardment he bounded down the stairs and scurried from one gun crew to the next.
“Damn you, gentlemen! Damn you, sirs. You’re missing them high. Each shot costs the government a full eight dollars. Eight dollars, damn you! There, sir– There! Another eight dollars gone into the trees behind the Rebel guns! Don’t make it sixteen dollars, sir!” Foote flew back up to the pilothouse.
The silly swabs knew it was all applesauce and nonsense, and they loved him for it. They bent over their guns with mad grins on their blackened faces.
“Sixteen!” They began to yell when the gun beside them missed a shot. “Twenty-four! Aim that gun, you damn drover!” The maniacs were making a game of it.
“Thirty-two dollars! You’re gonna break the government! Shell the fort, you cock-eyed lubber, not the mud!”
Most of the smoke was blown out of the gun ports, but after fifteen minutes it was so thick inboard you couldn’t see the measure of the deck. The tars ripped off their wool jumpers despite the February chill, and the sweat poured off their grimy bodies as they swabbed sizzling barrels, stuffed in shot, and scooted back to avoid being crushed to paste by the recoil of the guns as they blasted another shell at the crumbling fort. Petty officers screamed orders that no one could hear as the men tended their Dahlgrens like imps in a scene from the Inferno. Often– too often, a Rebel ball would slam into the side of the Cincinnati with a crash that would punish our knees as the deck sprang beneath our feet, but the gunners like faithful acolytes never paused in their duty to the cannon. Confederate shot dented and ripped the bluff bow armor with the oak beneath bulging in with a CRACK that could be heard above the cannonade. Without the iron armor the splinters would have ripped through us like birdshot.
A great blast from the starboard side pulled my attention to a gun port where I saw billows of steam erupting from Essex, the next boat in the battle line. The explosion caused the gunners on water and land to pause in their work for long seconds, and in the sudden stillness the screams of scalded men could be heard clearly across the water. The Essex pilothouse was in splinters, men were pouring from the forward gun ports, and into the swirling river to escape the steam. Later we were told that both pilots were scalded to death. The helmsman was found poached with one hand still on the wheel and the other on the whistle.
After those quiet seconds the fleet’s
guns opened up again all together with a sound that sent my biscuits north for
the safety of my belly. Foote, the old maniac, ordered his remaining boats to
stand on their wheels, and kept up the fire on the stubborn Rebel gunners, even
as the crippled Essex
spun with the current back out of the fight, and another Confederate ball
blasted a rip in our iron armor.The oak cracked and bulged mere inches
from the back of my head. My God! Did Foote want to kill us all? I swallowed
back the urge to rush up the stairs and knock the bloodthirsty old madman to
the deck. My knees wouldn’t have answered for it anyway. At the point when I thought I
would have to dump another pair of under-britches into the river there was a
great shout from the pilothouse and orders were relayed to the chiefs to
cease-fire. The hollow sound of the silence hurt my ears. I felt they must be
bleeding, but the powder-blacked ears of the cheering grinning sailor boys
looked just fine as they waved their ramrods and sponges in the air, and broke
into a prancing kind of dance that may have been a hornpipe.
Ancient General Sawyer Explains The Battle of Shiloh to His Buffalo Cronies–
When my Amy invites some damn politico or Buffalo Brahmin to our grand, drafty, gray stone pile on Delaware Avenue for coffee, cards, and tea, it never fails that the conversation veers around to the War Between the States. Especially when that silly bastard Louie Fuhrman shows up. Well, what do you expect? He’s a Democrat. You see, there ain’t many of us Civil War veterans left, and folks like to hear the glory and gore from the horse’s mouth while the horse is still shy of the knacker’s yard. Our girl Maeve (or is it Mairead? I can never keep Amy’s Hibernian carpet-pounders straight.) knows enough of my style to see to it that my tea is well spiked with the cheap Cincinnati bourbon I cotton to. If I’m not half-toasted whenever that damn copperhead Fuhrman brings up that awful day of Shiloh there’s no way that I wouldn’t take a swing at him for his wooly-headedness. You see, they all want to hear stories of the great battles, but when I tell ’em gospel they want to argue with me. Some of those pups weren’t even born when I boarded the packet at Cherry Mansion with Grant and headed to the panicked landing below the bluffs on that Sunday in April back in ’62. Nonetheless, they all know the legend of Shiloh and the truth won’t shake ’em. You see they know that Grant was drunk. They know that Sherman’s boys were bayoneted sleeping in their tents, or caught strumming banjos at breakfast when the Rebels came swarming from the thickets like the hand of Jehovah. When I tell them it was three companies of Ohio infantry that opened the ball in the dew of dawn when they met the Confederate battle line before it reached our camps, they simply pass the cookies and wonder as to how the old general’s memory must be going a’ glimmer. When I bang the table, and upset the deal, and tell them flat that Grant, far from being pie-eyed, was sober as a bishop and snarling at his breakfast beefsteak because it wasn’t burned quite to a crisp when we heard the distant rumbles of the first big guns from Shiloh, they just smile, and pick their cards up off of their laps.
You see, when the first battle line of Confederates swarmed out of the woods and into our camps, thousands of our boys panicked and flew like pigeons from the fight. In the shelter of the bluffs, they spent the rest of the day milling about like sheep, making up tales of surprise, drunken officers, and mismanagement to justify their own yellow livers. Don’t mistake me. They were the sanest men on the field that terrible day. Looking back, if I’d had half the sense that God gave a goat, I’d have been skulking on the flats with ’em. That’s where the reporters from the big newspapers from St. Louis, and Cincinnati, and Chicago were. They heard the stories from the rabble, heard the din of battle drawing closer, and skedaddled north on the first riverboats away. The boats came back stuffed with reinforcements from Nelson’s division of Buell’s Army, but the reporters kept going to report rumors of defeat, disaster, and massacre across the Union. There are still people today who will argue with me that this first great battle of the modern age was a Rebel victory, even though Grant kicked their backsides back to Corinth.
People believe what they want to believe and more the better for the likes of me. If the mob still wants to reckon me a hero and the salt of the earth, then let ’em. It ain’t just my Borden’s Milk money that lets Amy mix with the clowns that pass for gentry here in Buffalo. It’s my rank and reputation as a hero that keeps the calling cards slipping under our door. I came out of Shiloh dripping with glory, and honor, and blood. Some of it was my own. If the real story would have got me drummed from the service, well, the Union needed heroes and I had the whiskers for it.
There were a thousand sparkles amongst the trees as advancing infantry loosed a volley into us. The air above our heads sang with the passage of the lead and meaty slaps of heavy slugs striking flesh sounded up and down the lane. As their friends tumbled down in their midst, the men held fire until the Johnnies cleared cover, and then they let go with a hail of bullets that swept the entire first line of butternut away like leaves in a gale. The rest were on us in seconds, boiling out of the trees, tripping on the fresh bodies of the slaughtered first wave, and stomping into the carpet of dead from the morning assaults. With muskets held across their chests, and long bayonets dull in the gloom of the smoke, they stopped on command to reload in plain sight of our line.
It was a race for life to see which line reloaded first, but our boys had had a dozen chances that day to practice. Any Rebels who had been through this drill earlier today were lying dead in piles before our thin line. The men in blue won the race by seconds and there was a groan of despair from the butternut lines as our men swung their rifles to their shoulders and paused for that half-second as they took aim. The Rebs were blown to hell by that point-blank volley from those Middle West boys. They fell in ranks as if by command and the survivors stood in a trance of confusion and indecision. I knew an opportunity when I saw one. I drew my saber, advanced two steps, screamed “Charge!” in my best parade ground voice, and watched in relief as the Yankee men jumped forward with a roar and slashed into the remaining dazed Confederates with bayonet and clubbed muskets. All of my practice with a saber was spilled beer. I swung it like a club and bashed at faces with the hand-guard. I emptied Becky’s .22 at a wild-eyed Confederate without any notion if the tiny bullets had any effect. I threw it like a baseball at the back of a running butternut and then it was over. It was over and the remnants of the assault were scuttling and limping back into the woods.
I was elated and sickened all at once. That was my first command ever in combat– “Charge!” Damned if the men didn’t obey. Damned if it wasn’t the right command at the right time. We’d cleared the field of the enemy and I was ready to whoop for joy, but with a sick realization of what was to come that thought died in my mind.
My blood turned to ice as I screamed “Down! Down now”!
As I dove in the sticky mud between the corpses, the line of Confederate guns thundered again like mountains falling, and canister blew through the woods in solid waves that ripped trees and bodies to splinters and paste and butchered bits of meat. After that the Johnny gunners didn’t bother with volley fire but simply poured lead and iron into us as fast as they could service their guns. They rotated from solid shot to canister and it became death for us to stand anywhere on that road. The only thing that let any of us live those next hours was the shallow dip in the lane and the piles of dead to our front. The bodies of the Confederate dead were smashed and torn by the canister to create a sight from hell that would make the angels weep. It went on and on for long minutes that stretched into an hour, and that hour into two. The sun was dipping lower in the sky, but there was still plenty of light left for the Rebels to sweep us out of these woods, and you could hear them preparing to do it.