EXCERPT FROM ‘THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE’
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
It was a bleak midwinter in Tennessee and Murfreesboro froze nightly in the weather’s icy grip. With the mercury plummeting, its citizens wrestled with the dark comedy of wartime shortages, their easygoing laughter stifled in frigid throats as they lamented the absence of candles, matches and cough medicine. Trapped in their homes, short of food and warm clothing, memories had long since faded of that euphoric day when the Confederate flag had been hoisted over the town’s courthouse. The war had begun with pageantry, bright uniforms and massed bands. It would be over, people said, in a matter of weeks and young men had rushed off to enlist. How wrong they had been.
By the winter of ’62 innocence had evaporated back into the cold, dry air. There would be no easy victory. Yankee soldiers were just as brave as their Southern counterparts and there were many more of them. All kinds of foreigners were fighting for the Union. German, Polish and Italian immigrants were joining up in their droves while Confederate generals cried out for reinforcements that were not forthcoming. Even more alarming was the economic disparity between North and South. The North had the manufacturing industry – the woollen mills, arsenals and iron foundries – and their gunboats were strangling Southern trade by blockading her harbours. The South lived by selling cotton and tobacco and buying what she did not produce, but now she could neither buy nor sell. Unable to get her money crops to their English market, Tennessee was being bled dry by invading armies living off her land.
The citizens of Murfreesboro had learned what it was like to be occupied when columns of blue-coated infantry marched into their town the previous spring. The Yankee general claimed to be upholding law and order but house searches for guns and ammunition had been a flimsy excuse for widespread looting and, for the first time, local people were forced to lock their doors at night. Attitudes hardened under occupation until General Forrest staged a lightning raid to recapture Murfreesboro in July. What couldn’t be restored, however, was the town’s optimism. Only speculators and profiteers had much cause to cheer with commodity prices sky-high and the Confederate dollar worth only forty cents.
Yet, as the year ended, there were still grounds for hope. With Lancashire’s textile mills standing idle for want of Southern cotton, the British government would surely recognise the fledgling Confederacy and, if that happened, the French might follow suit. Meanwhile, the South was developing her own heavy industries, pumping better equipment up the railway arteries to the battle fronts. And there were military successes to boast about. The heady days of secession may be over but the white stars of the Confederate flag still fluttered overhead, particularly in Tennessee where, on December 7, John Hunt Morgan pulled off an astonishing victory at Hartsville when his Raiders surprised a much larger Federal brigade and took 1800 prisoners.
Within hours, the telegraph wires were humming with the news that, like a Roman general, Morgan would march into Murfreesboro the following morning to celebrate his military triumph. This was the psychological lift the town needed and not even the freezing weather could stop people from turning out to savour it.
Wearing every scrap of protective clothing they could muster, Murfreesboro’s patriotic residents lined their icy, windswept streets to cheer the smiling victors and jeer the frostbitten Yankee prisoners, many of whom had lost their overcoats and boots. What was also noticeable was the artillery power. The six cannons now in tow testified to Morgan’s status as a powerful warlord and to Colonel Grenfell’s surprising skill as a negotiator when sent on a foraging expedition to the Richmond Ordnance Department.
And so the conquering hero rode by, waving his plumed hat and milking the crowd for every last drop of applause, while the Second Kentucky buglers played the de facto anthem of the Confederacy.
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!
The silvery notes of this familiar song pierced the frosty air and hundreds of voices responded to the melody. The massed singing caused eyes to water and spines to chill as Murfreesboro’s citizens were caught up in the emotion of the moment.
I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
To live and die in Dixie.
Morgan’s victory march heralded a weekend of wild celebrations in which his cup positively overflowed. On Saturday, he had the rank of brigadier general conferred on him by no less a person than President Jefferson Davis and, on Sunday, he married Murfreesboro’s most beautiful girl in a ceremony attended by every member of the Confederate High Command within riding distance.
Despite the obvious hindrance that military service posed to courtship, war acted as a catalyst for marriage. Social conventions were waived by soldiers fearing death on the battlefield and young women dreading the prospect of spinsterhood. But even in this feverish atmosphere there were few more romantic love affairs than that of General Morgan and Miss Mattie Ready. The couple had met earlier that year when Mattie’s father invited Morgan to dinner. Months later, with Murfreesboro under occupation, Mattie overheard Federal officers making derogatory remarks about her hero and rebuked them fiercely. ‘By the grace of God,’ she snapped, ‘one day I hope to call myself the wife of John Morgan.’ It was, in effect, a marriage proposal and, when he heard what Mattie had said, Morgan took her up on it.
In a time of death and sorrow, John Hunt Morgan was the dashing cavalier whose presence made female hearts flutter and Mattie was only the latest in a long line of ladies to fall in love with his fleshy good looks and celebrity. As a cynical observer, Grenfell spoke out against the marriage. A wife was a hostage to fortune, he told Morgan. She would slow him down; make him more cautious. Besides which, Mattie was too young for him. There was a sixteen-year age gap between them which beauty alone couldn’t bridge.
That Grenfell should be offering his commanding officer advice on such a highly personal matter was a reflection of the changing nature of their relationship. Always quick to judge his fellow man, the English adjutant general had lost respect for Morgan, who, in his estimation, was neither shrewd nor particularly intelligent. He had the affection of his men but comradeship was not enough. Even in guerrilla warfare there had to be discipline, yet the easygoing Morgan turned a blind eye to the horse stealing and plundering of private property that were such unwholesome features of his well-publicised raids. Now, with the war at a critical stage, Grenfell had concluded that Morgan’s hit-and-run tactics were having little effect on the overall military balance. His thousand-mile rampage across Kentucky had been merely a sideshow.
Whatever Morgan thought about Grenfell’s comments it did not prevent him from asking his subordinate to be a groomsman at his wedding nor did it stop the outspoken Englishman from accepting the invitation. So on that Sunday evening in December, Grenfell stood in front of a bathroom mirror in the Ready household brushing down his dress uniform. To denote his rank as a Confederate colonel he was kitted out in a double-breasted cadet grey tunic with two rows of buttons and cavalry yellow collars and cuffs. He was also obliged to wear light blue trousers with a yellow seam stripe, a tasselled waist sash and a short sabre in its scabbard.
‘All present and correct,’ he muttered to himself, adjusting his leather sword belt and taking a long hard look at the wearer of this fancy dress. A handsome enough face with bold, aquiline features and a full head of hair stared back at him. But there were flecks of grey in the hair and wrinkles forming around the eyes and mouth. There was no denying it; at forty-four, George St Leger Grenfell had entered middle age with a body that was beginning to creak, particularly at night when a urinary obstruction affected his ability to pass water. He had always believed ageing would be a slow process; now it seemed in a tearing hurry.
All the more reason, he considered, to make hay while the sun shone. Down below in the parlour Mattie’s bridesmaids were floating around in their pretty dresses. Surely he could trap one of these young butterflies in his web before the night was out. Dazzle her with stories of derring-do and be rewarded with stolen kisses and maybe even a quick rummage through hooped petticoats, although how this might be achieved at a wedding feast was beyond his powers of imagination.
It was time to join the wedding guests. But his way was blocked by a little girl sitting on the staircase trying to fix a black bow in her glossy chestnut ringlets.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ she said. ‘I wonder if you’d tie this silly bow for me.’
‘It will be my pleasure,’ replied Grenfell gallantly.
The girl stood up. She carried herself with extraordinary grace for one so young and wasn’t in the least self-conscious.
‘How old are you?’
‘How old do you think I am?’
‘Perhaps twelve,’ he guessed.
‘Actually I am nine. Mother says I’m precocious, whatever that means.’
‘It means you’re flowering at an early age.’
‘Why thank you sir.’ The girl curtsied, showing off the green sprigged muslin dress she was wearing. Grenfell thought her enchanting.
‘May I know your name?’
‘It’s Rose but you can call me Rosie. What’s yours by the way?’
‘George, George St Leger Grenfell, ready to slay dragons upon demand.’
‘Now you’re teasing me, George. Have you done much killing, Yankee soldiers I mean?’
He was surprised by the intensity in her emerald eyes. ‘That’s a bloodthirsty thing to say, Rosie.’
‘I’m a fierce little Reb,’ she replied. ‘I hate Yankees. They put me in prison earlier this year. I used to cry myself to sleep from hunger.’
What would a nine-year-old girl be doing in jail? As a practitioner of the art, Grenfell reckoned he could spot a tall story a mile off. She was trying to impress him.
‘You must have been very naughty for that to happen,’ he said, humouring her.
‘No, I hadn’t done anything. It was Mamma whom they wanted to lock up.’
A mother and her daughter arrested and left to rot in prison. Was this one of those sensational tales of Yankee soldiers raping women and bayoneting children currently doing the rounds? Delicately bred Southern ladies seemed to expect the worst, almost gloried in it.
‘So what’s happened to your mother – where is she now?’
‘Down there.’ Rosie pointed through the banisters to a woman surrounded by Confederate officers and the sight of her drove everything else out of his mind. He had seen many handsome women in his time but none more seductive. With raven-black hair parted in the middle and pulled back from a pale olive face in which huge deep-set eyes were offset by a broad brow, a firm mouth and a pointed chin, Rosie’s mother positively radiated sensuality. There was a boldness to the way she displayed her hourglass figure in an off-the-shoulder burgundy velvet gown and a cynical edge to the laughter she bestowed on her male admirers.
‘Would you like to meet her, George?’ the girl asked him.
‘I would indeed,’ Grenfell replied, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.
The downstairs parlour was a blaze of colour. Although candles were in short supply in Murfreesboro, scores of them had been lit to create a romantic glow. The walls were decorated with holly and winter berries, mistletoe peeked through the branched supports of the chandelier and a huge log fire roared in the hearth. Black waiters carrying silver trays dispensed frosted julep cups to the wedding guests who were so busy enjoying each other’s company that they hardly seemed to notice what they were drinking. The room hummed with voices, punctuated by light-hearted laughter and the rustle of skirts.
As he weaved his way past giggling teenage girls flirting with Morgan’s cavalry officers, Grenfell couldn’t help noticing how the elderly matrons anchored along the wall on delicate gold-painted chairs were giving his childish companion sour looks and whispering behind their swishing fans. What could she have done to earn their disapproval? Or was it her mother they were talking about?
A boy forced his way through the crowd and grabbed Rosie’s arm. ‘You’d better come now,’ he said with the urgency of youth. ‘The bonfire is lit and the soldiers are about to set off the fireworks.’
Rosie shook her ringlets. ‘Not now, Harry, can’t you see I’m escorting this gentleman?’
The boy looked so crestfallen Grenfell felt obliged to intervene. ‘You don’t want to miss the fireworks, Rosie, do you? You run along with Harry and we’ll meet up later. That’s a promise.’
‘Well,’ she said, wavering, ‘I’d like to see the cascades and rockets.’
‘Off you go then and I’ll introduce myself to your mother.’
His quarry was standing only a few feet away, encircled by uniforms. Close up, she looked older than he’d imagined. There was the odd grey streak in her hair, faint lines at the corner of her eyes and a slight thickening of the waist but these signs of ageing did not diminish her allure.
She spoke in a low husky whisper in which only the occasional flattening of a vowel betrayed her Southern origin. ‘I was fearful at first that she would pine, and said, “My little darling, you must show yourself superior to these Yankees,” and she replied quickly, “O Mamma, never fear, I hate them too much. I intend to dance and sing ‘Jeff Davis is coming,’ just to scare them.”’
‘What a brave little warrior,’ said an admiring captain. ‘You must be very proud of her.’
‘I am indeed, sir. She never complained although the straw cot in our cell was swarming with bedbugs and there was vermin everywhere. But you don’t want to hear about our captivity on a day like today. Nor should you be wasting your time with me when there are so many attractive young women simply dying to make your acquaintance.’
‘I am sure I speak for everyone here when I say how delighted we are to have your company.’ The compliment came from a slightly built officer with a surprisingly deep voice. Recognising its owner, Grenfell wondered whether Colonel Duke had forgotten he was married to Morgan’s sister. Not that he could blame him. The lady in red teased and manipulated men, and the smell of her scent was intoxicating.
Also competing for her attention was Captain Thomas Hines, talking rapidly in a curiously squeaky falsetto voice about his undercover work in Kentucky. ‘Intelligence work requires a lot of patience and stealth,’ he told her. ‘Et calcare diligenter oportet is my motto.’
Straining to hear what was being said, Grenfell picked a glass of punch off a silver salver he’d been offered by one of Ready’s slaves. As he raised the glass to his lips somebody knocked his elbow causing him to spill a few drops. To his horror, he saw they had fallen on the velvet dress.
Without thinking, he dropped to one knee and began to remove the stains with his handkerchief.
‘What the devil are you doing there, sir?’ Dark eyes with long sooty lashes stared down at him. ‘God save me! This is a splendid party and no mistake. A handsome officer on his knees before me and we haven’t even been introduced.’
Taking the hint, he rose stiffly and kissed her hand. ‘Colonel George St Leger Grenfell, Second Kentucky Cavalry, at your service ma’am.’
She looked back at him, her lips slightly parted. ‘Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Confederate spy.’
Here in their midst was the notorious Mrs Greenhow. The military information she’d acquired in Washington was supposed to have helped the Confederacy win the first battle of Manassas. But as Grenfell got over his surprise a question formed in the back of his mind. If she was so outspoken, how could she have been an effective spy?
‘I employed every capacity with which God endowed me. The result was far more successful than my hopes could have flattered me to expect.’ Mrs Greenhow had answered his unspoken question. Then she smiled. It was a startlingly brilliant smile.
‘Men can be such fools,’ she added. ‘Their inflated egos blind them to a woman’s wiles. They will tell you anything if they believe it will help them win your favour. Have I shocked you, Colonel?’
‘Not at all, ma’am, not at all,’ was all he could think to say.
‘Don’t call me ma’am, call me Rose, George.’
‘You named your daughter after you, although she said I should call her Rosie.’
For the first time this self-confident woman seemed taken aback. ‘That’s odd,’ she murmured, ‘I’m the only one who is allowed to call her Rosie. You’ve obviously made an impression.’
Irritated by the interruption, Captain Hines coughed for attention. With his slender build and shaggy moustache Morgan’s intelligence officer looked remarkably like an Airedale terrier. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, Mrs Greenhow, but weren’t you a great hostess in Washington before the war?’
His enquiry was greeted with a silvery laugh. ‘Well, sir, you might say that. I lived near the White House, hosted dinner parties, did my share of lobbying and was a friend of President Buchanan.’
‘Wow!’ said a star-struck Hines. ‘You’re the most famous woman I’ve ever met.’
‘Oh I hardly think so,’ she replied. ‘In any case, the good ladies of Richmond would use a rather different epithet. They’ve heard the Washington gossip about my late-night male callers and suspect me of having loose morals. If it wasn’t for my late husband’s Virginian pedigree I wouldn’t be received in their homes.’
‘But you risked your life for the Cause. Doesn’t that count for anything?’ Hines asked indignantly.
Nobody spoke for a moment as Rose’s male admirers wondered what she had actually done to acquire vital information about Federal troop movements.
‘You were talking about prison, Mrs Greenhow; what was the worst thing about your incarceration?’ Colonel Duke wanted to know.
‘Being treated like a caged animal in a circus. People were queuing up to see us in captivity and the prison superintendent told me he’d been offered a ten-dollar bribe by a Washington businessman for a closer look at the “indomitable rebel”, as I was sometimes called in their papers. The famous photographer Matthew Brady visited our cell to take a picture of me with little Rose. At first I was flattered by all this attention but I soon tired of my notoriety. In truth, I hated prison life – the disgusting food, the filth, the humiliating lack of privacy, the ignorant Northern guards and their Negro helpers – but things could have been worse. It wasn’t the Chateau d’If after all …’
‘So you’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo?’ Grenfell interrupted her.
‘It’s my favourite book.’
‘Mine too; I had the pleasure of meeting Alexandre Dumas shortly after he wrote the novel.’
‘How did that come about?’
‘At the time I was the British vice consul in Morocco and was asked to organise a hunting trip for a party of French visitors headed by Dumas. I remember his astonishment when I appeared hatless in the hot sun and wearing a pair of shorts. I explained that Arabs went barelegged and Africans bareheaded and what was good enough for them was good enough for me.’
Rose laughed at the story. ‘You do end up in some strange places, George. General Lee told me you’d taken part in the heroic Charge of the Light Brigade. Is that true?’
The truth would not serve his purpose. ‘If following that damned haw-hawing idiot Cardigan into the Valley of Death could possibly be called heroic. Someone should have shot him off his horse!’
‘My goodness,’ she said admiringly, ‘you have led an interesting life.’
A clock chimed on the mantelpiece and Rose glanced at her fob watch. ‘It’s almost time for the wedding and I seem to have lost my daughter. You wouldn’t happen to know where she might be?’
Grenfell told her Rosie was watching a fireworks display on the stoop. Rose’s brow furrowed. ‘The poor girl will be freezing out there and she’s not strong, you know. She had such a fever in prison I almost lost her. I must go to her. Perhaps you will accompany me, George.’
He followed her to the door with mixed feelings: pleasure at being selected as her escort and concern because he hadn’t thought to ensure that her daughter was properly dressed for the cold weather. He need not have worried. The girl was wearing mittens and an overcoat and was laughing with a group of soldiers who had lit a bonfire in the main street.
Maternal fears assuaged, Rose turned on her heel and went back inside. ‘We’ll let her be. She is obviously enjoying herself.’
They were alone together for the first time. Grenfell felt his mouth go dry. He knew Rose Greenhow to be an adventuress who ensnared men with her brand of femininity – earthy, courageous and ever so slightly vulnerable – and yet he felt drawn to her like a moth to a flame. His desire was more than physical. He wanted to possess her body and soul.
Once again she read his thoughts. ‘You’re right, I am a dangerous woman,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘I believe in the Mosaic Law which exacts an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and I also believe the end can justify the means. You would be best off, George, having nothing to do with me.’
It was a bold statement delivered with unblinking eyes and he loved her for it. He was about to tell her so when, out in the street, the regimental band struck up a tune. ‘They’re practising for the wedding,’ he murmured. ‘By the way, what brought you here? Are you a friend of the bride?’
‘No, I was invited by the groom. We met yesterday when my travelling companion, Jefferson Davis, presented General Morgan with his gold stars and wreath. Jeff had to leave this morning to visit another army camp, but I chose to remain to see our golden boy take his vows.’
‘I am very glad you did. But do you always bring your daughter with you on your travels? Shouldn’t she be at school?’
‘You ask a lot of questions, George. No, Little Rose is being privately educated. She has her own tutor and, yes, she often accompanies me. Travel broadens the mind, wouldn’t you say?’
‘I would indeed, ma’am.’
‘There you go again, George, being formal with me. My friends call me Rose.’
Instead of bowing, Grenfell gave her a wicked smile. ‘Well, Rose,’ he said, emphasising her name, ‘I hope you’ll forgive me for asking why an intelligent Washington socialite is such a staunch secessionist when any fool can see we’re going to lose this war? The South hasn’t the industry or the manpower to sustain a long conflict. She will be brought to her knees in a couple of years.’
‘I refuse to recognise that possibility,’ she snapped back at him. ‘I believe in self-determination. That is why we fought for our independence from the British Empire. Time was when the American flag was the proudest emblem of human freedom on earth but now I think there is no pirate flag that floats upon the sea which is not more honourable, for none covers such infamy.’
‘That is a political speech rather than a practical consideration.’
Rose’s eyes flashed. ‘And who are you to speak of such matters? People call you a soldier of fortune but isn’t that just a fancy name for a mercenary?’
Now it was Grenfell’s turn to get angry. ‘Damn it,’ he raged, ‘I haven’t taken a red cent. I believe as strongly as you do in the war but that doesn’t blind me to its probable outcome.’
Their raised voices caused wedding guests to turn their heads, although it was almost impossible to catch what was being said in the general hubbub. That was until General Leonidas Polk exercised his considerable vocal chords. ‘Will guests please take their places?’ he boomed. ‘The wedding is about to begin.’
‘You are a strange man, George, indeed you are,’ Rose whispered. She opened the small silk reticule she was carrying and gave him one of her calling cards. ‘I’ve written my address on there. When you have the opportunity, I trust you will call on us in Richmond.’
The ceremony was to take place in the adjoining parlour where almost a hundred chairs had been set out. As one of Morgan’s groomsmen it was Grenfell’s duty to show people to their seats. He chose one for Rose that gave her an excellent view of the bridegroom and his best man as they stood self-consciously in front of a makeshift altar.
Lounging against a pillar at the back of the room Grenfell had to admire the way the dark-haired bride glided down the aisle to a stirring rendition of ‘The Confederate Flag’. When her father lifted Mattie’s bridal veil Grenfell could see how happy she looked and felt a sudden sadness. She had snared the man of her dreams but her joy wouldn’t last. Nothing in the world was permanent.
Clad in the vestments of a bishop of the Episcopal Church, General Polk opened his copy of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘Dearly beloved,’ he intoned, ‘we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in holy matrimony.’
Grenfell remembered the day on which those words had been said over him. He and his French wife had shared a bed and made a home together but they had never really known each other. Hortense had absorbed his unhappiness and reflected it back to him. He hadn’t seen her in seven years.
His eyes sought out Rose Greenhow sitting demurely in her aisle seat. He was still holding her calling card. It was an invitation he had every intention of taking up.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
The battlefield at Stones River was three miles away from Murfreesboro; close enough for the rumbling of cannon fire to rattle window panes and for the cold northerly wind to carry a whiff of sulphur into the town. News of the conflict came with the cartloads of Confederate casualties needing hospital care. Survivors spoke of a military triumph, a turning point in the war. Yet later, when the battle was over and its dust and debris had become another layer in history, bluecoat soldiers once again occupied Murfreesboro and its bemused citizens wanted to know what had gone wrong. How had the promise of a Southern victory turned into such a shameful defeat?
Drowning their sorrows in a dingy tavern called the Green Dragon, non-combatants held strong views on the subject. One faction of Confederate sympathisers, led by a vociferous veteran who had lost an eye in the Mexican-American War, placed the blame squarely on Braxton Bragg’s shoulders. He had been given command of the Army of Tennessee because he was Jeff Davis’s buddy. Everyone knew he was an unpleasant fellow who rubbed people up the wrong way, lacked imagination on the battlefield and made a habit of retreating when the going got tough.
Another coterie, too young to have fought with Winfield Scott at Veracruz, maintained Bragg shouldn’t be blamed for a political decision that had stripped him of a quarter of his army before the fighting even began. The fault lay with President Davis who had insisted on sending nine thousand troops to reinforce Vicksburg. Peter had been robbed to pay Paul. End of story.
Not so, the one-eyed hero of Veracruz retorted, it was Bragg who stoked the fire. His battle plan was flawed. Having seized the initiative with his dawn attack on the Union right flank, he tossed it away by expecting his advancing troops to execute a right wheel to attack the enemy supply line. Believe me, said the veteran, downing another bourbon and branch, that’s a hard manoeuvre on the parade ground, let alone in the heat of battle when your soldiers are stumbling over rocky scrubland. No wonder the assault stalled. But even this know-it-all had to admit he was relying on well-placed rumour. What actually happened at Stones River was still shrouded in mystery.
The first eye-witness accounts came from Mrs Katharine Cooper’s female volunteers who ventured out to the battlefield with saddlebags laden with bandages. The talk was of twenty thousand casualties and, whether they fought for North or South, they all needed nursing. As Murfreesboro couldn’t cope with the wounded, abandoned farms and outbuildings in the surrounding district were turned into makeshift hospitals and temporary field stations.
These plucky Confederate ladies would never forget their mercy ride. Fields strewn with dead horses and mules, their bloated and decomposing bodies fed on by carrion crows and blowflies. Where the fighting had been worst, farmhouses destroyed, fences flattened and trees mutilated by shot and shell while, on either side of the turnpike, hundreds of bloodless corpses in shallow trenches testified to the slaughter that had taken place.
The first place the women visited was a former school. Scores of men, some severely wounded, were stretched out in rows on the classroom floor. It was a bitterly cold morning and the building was unheated, yet the patients were only wrapped in thin blankets. Their next destination had been a deserted plantation house. What shocked them here was the casual brutality of the stretcher bearers. The corpses of Confederate soldiers who had died on the operating table had been stacked up behind a curtain like forgotten refuse.
Wherever the ladies went the stench was terrible; sweaty, blood-stained bodies, groaning and screaming as surgeons amputated limbs without the benefit of chloroform or morphine. Pressed into action as nurses, the voluntary helpers also became hospital cooks. Drawing on army rations, they conjured up nourishing meals of soup, toast and apple sauce. Recognising the value of their services, a gentleman from the Christian Commission asked them to continue their work. This was agreed to, on the understanding that they could talk to wounded prisoners. Such encounters, Mrs Cooper promised, would only be of a consoling nature, which turned out to be less true than she had imagined.
Sitting on a camp chair in the corridor of a gangrene hospital was a haggard Confederate officer with a red forage cap perched on top of his bandaged head. ‘Pardon me ladies,’ he said, doffing his cap to them. ‘I wonder whether you can tell me how the battle ended.’
This gallant gesture brought a touch of colour to the cheeks of the prettier of the two nurses. She had scarcely looked at another man since her husband died at Shiloh. ‘It would be my pleasure, sir,’ she replied coyly. ‘May I enquire as to your name?’
‘Lieutenant Colonel George St Leger Grenfell and I am at your service, ma’am.’
The young widow began to curtsey before thinking better of it. A bereaved woman shouldn’t behave like that. ‘I’m Mrs Ann Howard and this is Mrs Katharine Cooper.’
Mrs Cooper’s curiosity got the better of her. ‘What are you doing in a gangrene hospital?’
‘I don’t rightly know,’ Grenfell said with a dry chuckle. ‘I think the stretcher bearers dumped me here by mistake but I couldn’t swear to that. I’ve been in a daze ever since.’
‘Where did they find you?’ Mrs Cooper was a tall, big-boned, buxom woman married to a Murfreesboro attorney who prided herself on her bluntness.
‘In a ditch near McFadden’s Ford; the medics think I hit my head on a stone when my horse was shot from under me but I can’t remember anything about that.’
‘Oh, you poor man, you must be suffering from concussion,’ Mrs Howard suggested.
‘It’s also called shaking of the brain, the symptoms of which are headaches, nausea and mild dizziness,’ her companion added. ‘Had any of those ailments?’
‘I’ve had all of them, together with a bit of memory loss. The last thing I remember is taking part in Breckinridge’s charge and coming under heavy artillery fire. But do either of you know what the outcome was? Nobody here can tell me.’
Mrs Howard shook her head sympathetically. ‘I’m sorry to say this, but I think the attack must have failed because once the battle was over General Bragg retreated to Tullahoma.’
‘You mean the battle was lost?’
‘No, they say it was inconclusive but Bragg decided to withdraw his army.’
‘You must be joking!’ Grenfell couldn’t believe it. His commanding officer had given the Union a victory and handed them most of Tennessee in the process. The man was mad.
‘You poor dear, you’ve gone quite white,’ Mrs Howard murmured in her best bedside manner. ‘What you need is one of my eggnogs. I’m making some in the kitchen for the amputees.’
‘Where did you get the fresh milk and eggs from?’
‘From the one farm the Yankee soldiers didn’t raid. Do you know the drink?’
‘Yes, in England it’s served at breakfast time in fashionable homes.’
‘We make it for special occasions like Christmas. Not that we’ve much to celebrate this year.’
‘Hard times,’ he agreed. ‘But we’ll try and turn it around. I promise you that. The Confederacy isn’t beaten yet.’
His fierce dark eyes softened into a smile and, as he looked at her, Ann Howard felt something stir inside her.
‘What’s an Englishman doing fighting for the South?’ she blurted out. ‘It’s not your war.’
‘Maybe not, but I believe in your cause. People should be free to decide their own destiny.’
She could see Katharine Cooper frowning and pointing to her pendant watch. There was work to be done. But Ann rebelled against it. She wanted to prolong the conversation.
‘Where’s your home in England?’ she asked.
‘I don’t really have one but I grew up in Cornwall. My father had an estate in Penzance. We were a large family – five boys and five girls – but there was plenty of room for us all at Penalverne.’
‘My goodness, you’re an aristocrat.’
‘I’d hardly say that,’ Grenfell laughed, displaying his white teeth. ‘We made our money out of tin smelting and banking. What about you? Where do you come from?’
‘Originally from Savannah, Georgia, but when I married Johnny we moved to his home town of Murfreesboro and bought a farm nearby.’
‘Is your husband in the army?’
‘Not any more. Johnny died at Shiloh. He went into battle with a hunting rifle. They couldn’t give him anything better.’ I’m not going to cry, she told herself, but the tears came anyway.
Katharine put a consoling arm around her shoulders. ‘You mustn’t go on so. I don’t know what Colonel Grenfell will think of us.’ She was certain he wasn’t thinking of her at all, and was tired of playing gooseberry. ‘Come along, Ann, surgery is due to start at any moment.’
A flushed Ann Howard took her leave, promising to return as soon as possible with a glass of eggnog. Watching her depart in a flurry of skirts, Grenfell felt better than he’d done in days. Flirting always put him in good spirits.
Soon he’d be out of this Union hospital. And then what? His cheerfulness departed. Most likely a long train journey north to the prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island where, as an Englishman, he could expect to be treated harshly. He had to escape. Perhaps he could persuade the pretty widow to help him? But even if she did so, what would he do next? As an aide-de-camp, he was duty bound to report to General Bragg at Tullahoma.
Grenfell’s vision blurred. He could feel another headache coming on. Once again in his chequered career, he’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. How could he have been so stupid? Whatever had possessed him?
No sooner had John Hunt Morgan left on his honeymoon than he’d requested a transfer to Bragg’s staff, arguing that he wanted to experience proper military action instead of lightweight skirmishing. Well, he’d certainly had his fill at Stones River, three days of ultimately pointless savagery, in which, as Bragg’s message carrier, he’d constantly been caught in the crossfire between the general and his uncooperative field commanders. At times, Bragg seemed to be fighting his subordinates rather than the enemy and they, in turn, had scant respect for an abrasive commanding officer who was far better at planning attacks than executing them.
Sitting in the gangrene hospital corridor, nursing his head, he had to admit that a great deal had changed in the three weeks since he’d first visited the Army of Tennessee’s winter headquarters. Such had been his optimism then that the narrow path to Bragg’s command post might have been strewn with primroses rather than frozen thistles. Confederate camps were supposed to be laid out on a fixed grid pattern but this hastily erected cantonment was a haphazard collection of canvas tents and huts floating on a sea of caked mud. The general’s own living quarters were in a large log cabin with a tumble-down chimney. That the chimney wasn’t working properly was apparent as soon as he stepped over the threshold to be confronted by a thick cloud of smoke and soot. Coughing and spluttering and with watering eyes, he had searched the room for the man he’d come to see.
Out of this acrid haze loomed an Old Testament prophet with a tortured face ready to smite the enemies of the Lord; a haggard beetle-browed man with frizzy grey hair, wild eyes and a beard that positively bristled. ‘Grenfell, isn’t it,’ Braxton Bragg growled. ‘Saw you last weekend at the Morgan wedding, dancing with that devious Delilah of whom President Davis is so enamoured.’
He could feel his face flushing. Defending Rose’s honour was not how he’d planned to start this interview. ‘I didn’t see you there, sir,’ he replied rather lamely.
‘No, well, I arrived late, after the feasting was over, and spent my time in the smoking room with those who didn’t have partners. Still, enough of that; I hear you want to join my staff rather than ride with Morgan. You’ve heard I’m sending him north to rip up railroads and burn bridges?’
‘Yes, sir, and I fully recognise the importance of guerrilla warfare, but with Rosecrans gathering strength in Nashville it’s only a question of time before he attacks you here and that will be a major battle in which I’d like to play a part.’
He had felt fairly happy with this tactful statement until he saw the deep furrows and raised eyebrows. ‘Wrong answer,’ Bragg barked. The general was displeased.
‘What would the right one be?’ Grenfell wanted to know, flustered by Bragg’s bullying manner.
‘That you’re like me – you don’t trust Kentuckians. They’re not good soldiers. They look after one another, no one else, they’re very close. When your friend Morgan was given a second brigade the word was that he’d offer you its command, instead of which he appointed General Breckinridge’s cousin, a newspaper editor who’d been in the army for less than six months. And do you know why? Let me tell you. They all come from Lexington. They’re good ole Kentucky boys!’
Grenfell bit his lip. Bragg was prodding his weak spot. He had been almost incandescent with rage when he’d heard about Willie Breckinridge’s brigade command and had told Morgan what he thought of the appointment. Promotions came thick and fast in the Confederate army but Breckinridge’s advancement had been nothing short of meteoric. Having enlisted as a private, he was promoted to captain the very next day and made a colonel a few months later.
‘You think Morgan let you down because you’re twice the soldier little Willie will ever be.’
Once again, Bragg had hit the mark. With his military record, Grenfell had every reason to think he was better qualified for the post. Had he been a Kentuckian, he felt sure it would have been offered to him.
‘You can’t rely on them, Grenfell. They are slippery customers, indeed they are. They are willing to accept their independence but are neither disposed nor willing to risk their lives or their property in its achievement. When I invaded the state last summer I expected thousands of Kentuckians to flock to my banner. My campaign was predicated on assurances that this would happen.’
There was a frenzied gleam in Bragg’s deep-set eyes as he paced up and down his sawn pinewood floor, ranting about the shortcomings of his bluegrass troopers. It was almost as if he’d forgotten that the Confederacy was supposed to defend states’ rights rather than attack them.
‘I’ll tell you what I do think, sir. Rosecrans will move against you as soon as he hears that a quarter of your infantry has been sent to Vicksburg to reinforce Pemberton’s army.’
‘Stevenson’s division left for the Mississippi yesterday. But I don’t agree about General William S Rosecrans’s intentions. The reports I’ve received suggest he’ll stay where he is in Nashville.’
Bragg slumped onto a chair behind his desk and held his head in his hands. Looking at this hunched figure, Grenfell couldn’t help feeling sympathy for someone who was obviously suffering. The question was whether the general’s illness was physical or mental.
‘My troops are no longer barefooted and ragged. The deficiency in clothing and shoes has been met. They are well fed and healthy, yet they are deserting in their droves. Why do you think that is? I’ll tell you why. The Confederate Conscription Act was designed to boost recruitment but what it’s done is cause resentment, particularly among Kentuckian conscripts who keep on taking French leave. We’re trying one of these deserters tomorrow and already I’ve had General high-and-mighty Breckinridge, former vice president of our now divided land, warning me that passing a death sentence on this soldier is tantamount to murder. What do you think of that, Grenfell?’
He would have to choose his words carefully. ‘I think military law has to be upheld.’
‘Precisely so, although in making a plea for clemency, Breckinridge claims there are extenuating circumstances. Apparently, Corporal Asa Lewis is a farm boy who ran away to help his starving mother and sisters, after which he intended to return to camp. My view is he shouldn’t have left in the first place. Besides which, Lewis has done this before. He is a multiple offender who deserves to be court-martialled. Bleeding-heart Breckinridge won’t like my decision but I’m his superior officer and he’ll just have to accept it. By God, he will!’
‘You will be doing no more, sir, than enforcing the discipline without which an army cannot operate.’
‘My thoughts entirely. We seem to be of one mind. Look here, Grenfell, I need a new aide-de-camp to act as my assistant, take messages and see they are carried out. When can you start?’
And so it was, a fortnight later, on a frosty New Year’s Eve, that Grenfell came to be carrying battle orders to one of Bragg’s corps commanders. His gut instinct had proved correct. Hearing of Bragg’s troop depletions, Rosecrans had decided to advance and the formidably strong Army of the Cumberland was encamped on the Nashville Turnpike, ready for battle the following morning. But Bragg had a surprise in store. Although outnumbered, he intended to beat the Union general to the punch by staging a dawn attack.
Grenfell watched as General William Hardee lit the oil lamp in his tent before reading his orders. His men called him ‘Old Reliable’ and it was easy to see why. His neatly trimmed beard and waspish expression were softened by shrewd, intelligent eyes and, when he talked, there was something calm and reassuring about his manner. ‘Tell Bragg I’m fixin’ to do what he’s askin’ for,’ he said in a soft drawl. ‘Let’s hit them before they hit us.’
As Hardee issued his staff instructions, Grenfell got the tingling sensation he knew so well, the heady cocktail of fear and excitement that came before a battle. General Lee claimed war needed to be terrible or people would grow too fond of it. Well, he was totally infatuated. He embraced war like a lover. It stirred him as nothing else did. The harder the conflict, the more glorious it became. Yet here at Stones River he was to be denied the thrill of combat. As Bragg’s aide-de-camp, it was his job to act as a message-taker, a glorified go-between for a commander who preferred to stay in his tent.
‘Would you mind if I accompanied the attack?’ he asked Hardee. ‘General Bragg expects me to report on its progress.’
There was a glint of amusement in the Georgian’s eyes as he let this white lie go unchallenged. ‘Fine by me,’ was his laconic response. ‘Be here by six o’clock.’
In volunteering for an early morning start, Grenfell hadn’t counted on spending the better part of the night on horseback carrying last-minute orders to Bragg’s frontline officers, and it was with bleary eyes and saddle sores that he rode past the darkly silhouetted corn cribs and cotton gins out onto the open farmland where a ghostly army was assembling.
Emerging eerily out of the grey mist was a solid wall of butternut and grey: thousands of infantrymen from McCown and Cleburne’s divisions drawn up in a long double line, rubbing chilled hands together as they waited for their whiskey ration. Once they had had their tots, and without so much as a spoken command, the foot soldiers picked up their rifles and came to attention. They were mostly unpaid and self-equipped, a homogeneous army of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants fighting for self-determination.
The colours were lifted, the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy and the Hardee battle flag with its blue field and full moon. The silk barely flapped in the still air. It was time for the blessing. General Leonidas Polk, the fighting bishop, showed the men the cross and absolved them from guilt. They were doing the Lord’s work, taking part in a righteous crusade.
With enemy campfires’ little more than half a mile away on the Franklin Turnpike, the silence was almost tangible. Grenfell had muffled Barbary’s hooves in burlap sacking and when the big chestnut mare threatened to whinny he backed her up with expert horsemanship. All eyes turned to the wiry little man on the white horse. General Hardee waved his felt hat in the air. ‘Go fast but be real quiet!’ he warned his troops. ‘Drive these damned Yankees off our land.’
Another voice took over. ‘Are you ready?’ questioned divisional commander Major General John McCown, whose long drooping moustache and goatee beard strengthened a pinched face and rapidly receding hairline. ‘Ready!’ the men growled, anxious to get on with it. Battalions from North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee lined up on the left, dismounted cavalrymen from Texas took the centre with the 1st and 2nd Arkansas Rifles on the right, ready to storm across the frosted fields. The weather had come to their aid with sufficient moisture in the air to reduce visibility to a hundred yards. These water droplets were Bragg’s secret weapon.
The attack was to be led by ‘Reckless’ Rains. Handsome, fearless and only twenty-nine, Rains was an iconic figure in the Army of Tennessee. Stepping forward, he pointed to the enemy’s cooking fires. ‘Fix your bayonets, boys, and let’s catch those Yankees having breakfast,’ Rains said. ‘When I give the order scream as loud as you can and show them your steel. They’ll panic, I promise you!’
Grenfell looked at his watch. It was twenty past six. He tightened the reins on his chestnut mare and set her off at a steady trot. The thick fog deadened the sound of pounding feet as the Rebel infantry raced across the flat icy ground toward the enemy encampment. The loudest noise came from fluttering birds, disturbed by the advancing troops. They had almost reached the breakfast fires before Rains gave the command. ‘Now!’ he roared, and the Rebel yell went up. It was a weird, ululating cry like the howl of a wild beast, guaranteed to frighten all but the stoutest hearts.
The sight of so many shrieking Southern fiends in rat-grey uniforms swarming out of the fog caused some startled Union pickets to turn and flee but others held their ground. A hail of bullets splintered a clump of cedars behind the onrushing Rebels, bringing down a shower of needle-like leaves and torn twigs. ‘Fire!’ a Yankee voice shouted and a better-directed volley slashed into the attackers. Above the crackle of gunfire and the screams of anger and pain, Rains could be heard exhorting his troops. ‘Forward my brave boys, forward!’ he yelled. Those were his last words. A cartridge tore through his double-breasted tunic and thudded into his chest.
Seeing Rains fall, Grenfell didn’t hesitate. He spurred Barbary forward. His blood was up and he wanted vengeance. A blue-coated colonel with an eye patch was bawling orders to his men. Grenfell drew his Remington from its holster and shot from the saddle. Through a pall of gun smoke he saw the officer’s head jerk back as bullets entered his neck. The colonel staggered backwards before crumpling to the turf. But instead of weakening morale, the death of their commanding officer seemed to strengthen Union resolve. In the oaks and poplars ahead, steel ramrods rattled and scraped in rifle barrels as marksmen reloaded for another round of fire.
Left on the edge of the woods, Grenfell weighed up his chances. He could either turn tail or continue with the attack and trust to luck. He had never backed down before and didn’t intend to start now. With sabre in one hand and pistol in the other, he rode towards the trees. ‘Tally ho!’ he shouted at the top of his voice, caught up in the excitement of the moment. Hearing the solitary horseman’s strange cry, hundreds of whooping, long-haired Southerners followed his lead, diving into the thicket, hell-bent on hand-to-hand combat.
A frenzied mass of sweating, screaming antagonists wrestled for supremacy in a couple of acres of blood-soaked brushwood. In such a whirlwind of lead and iron there was only one rule: kill or be killed. Bayonet parried bayonet, swords hacked, knives flashed and rifles exploded at close quarters. Bullets pinged off trees and soldiers were hit by ricochets. Unaware he was yelling like a maniac, Grenfell sliced at a soldier’s face with his sabre and stamped on the fallen man with his horse’s hooves. He was a savage at heart.
Barbary emerged from this smoke-filled inferno into a forest clearing where, to his surprise, Grenfell was challenged to a mounted duel by a major from an Illinois regiment. One thrust and a couple of parries were all the chivalrous major managed before a quick slash of the Englishman’s sabre left him gasping for air. The wounded man tried to say something, but the words wouldn’t come, just blood and spittle, as he slowly slid out of the saddle, only for one of his feet to be trapped in a stirrup iron.
The sight of the major’s horse dragging its dead rider off into the distance persuaded the remaining Union pickets to make a bolt for safety. Fleeing out of the trees they came under attack from ‘Old Punch’, the Eufaula Light Artillery’s fourteen-pound cannon. The Alabamian gunners flayed the retreating bluecoats with a hail of canister that turned the rocky scrubland into a slaughter pen. The Rebel horde swept on. The 34th Illinois and the 29th Indiana had hardly finished breakfast when the dismounted Texas Cavalry slammed into them. One brigade after another collapsed under the sheer weight of the Confederate attack, losing thousands of men in the process.
So far, Bragg’s battle plan had worked perfectly. A well-timed dawn offensive had taken the Union army by surprise causing its right flank to crumble, but his next move was the difficult one. He wanted McCown’s division to wheel right and sweep up the Yankee supply line. This enveloping strategy looked good on paper but, as Grenfell knew, such manoeuvres rarely worked in practice. To expect a bunch of hot-headed farm boys to change direction under enemy fire was asking a lot, particularly when the terrain was against them. Bragg hadn’t taken the stony outcroppings and woodland into account. Nor had he considered how easily discipline could disappear.
Wherever Grenfell looked, excited groups of young soldiers were disobeying orders by chasing rapidly scattering Federal forces through the wheat fields. He could see the bloodlust in their eyes; the primal instinct that defeated reason. Suddenly he stiffened, sensing danger. Were enemy sharpshooters training their telescopic sights on him at this moment? It certainly felt like it. He knew war was a game of chance. It did not determine who was right, only who was left.
The crackle of distant gunfire ended his introspection. Judging by the clouds of black smoke drifting overhead, the main battle was raging two miles away to the east. It was time to report back to Bragg. His path lay across broken ground. Fields of cotton and corn tested Barbary’s prowess as a hunter but the big mare relished the challenge. Soaring over a split-rail fence, Grenfell almost collided with an infantry brigade. The men of the 5th Arkansas were all lean weather-beaten veterans. Their boots were falling to pieces and their trousers held up by string, and they too had succumbed to the temptation of chasing a beaten enemy.
‘There was a whole Yankee skirmish line in them woods back there,’ a lieutenant explained, ‘and we Dixie boys gave them a good whooping, but we don’t rightly know our way back now. I’ve lost my goddam binoculaters.’
Grenfell struggled to keep a straight face. ‘You don’t need binoculars. All you’ve got to do is follow the sun.’ The early morning fog had lifted and a weak light was struggling to break through the grey clouds overhead. ‘Follow me,’ he suggested, turning his horse towards the Wilkinson Pike.
The road’s corduroyed surface was decidedly the worse for wear. Its splintered wooden planks were smoking with shell fragments, burning wagons and wrecked artillery pieces. But what gave this sorry scene a truly macabre quality were the dead soldiers and horses lying in pools of blood in the surrounding fields. There was so much limestone in the soil the blood couldn’t seep through.
Bragg had set up his headquarters near the intersection of the Nashville and Wilkinson pikes and his command post was swarming with staff officers. Grenfell gave the reins of his horse to an orderly before entering the tent. ‘Where’s the general?’ he enquired.
‘Don’t ask,’ replied an ashen-faced major. ‘Bragg’s in an absolutely foul mood.’
There was however one friendly face under canvas. ‘Hi there, George, I hear you’ve brought some of my Arkansans back to me. You sure are the Good Shepherd.’ Brigadier General St John Richardson Liddell was, by his own admission, a curious cove. As well as being the only plantation owner in Louisiana to emancipate his slaves, he was a fearless critic of the Confederate leadership from President Davis downwards.
‘All this gold braid and they don’t know what to do next.’ Liddell spoke with a Cajun drawl. ‘Little Phil is holding them up good and proper. You see, size doesn’t matter on the battlefield. Napoleon surely taught us that!’ Little Phil was the diminutive Union general Philip Sheridan who, alone among his colleagues, had anticipated a dawn attack and positioned himself accordingly. His skilful rearguard action had allowed Rosecrans to rally his shattered troops and form a new defensive line along the Nashville Pike, although he had been greatly aided by the piecemeal nature of the Rebel assaults on his position.
‘Our attack has lost momentum,’ Liddell observed. ‘Some units are out of ammunition and most of them are totally exhausted. We need reinforcements badly.’
‘You know what I think, George,’ he added rhetorically. ‘John Barleycorn is in charge of things. Our eagles have kissed John a little too often. They can’t see straight.’
Grenfell smiled thinly. Confederate generals could be distinguished by the eagles imprinted on the brass buttons of their uniforms and several of those under Bragg’s command were rumoured to have a love of the bottle. ‘We call it Dutch courage in the British army,’ he told his friend.
‘What’s the origin of that phrase?’ asked Liddell, taking an academic interest.
‘I’m not sure anyone knows. It may go back to the seventeenth century when British troops were fighting in the Low Countries and liked a few drops of Dutch gin before battle.’
‘A few drops you say? More like whole whiskey jugs, where Frank Cheatham is concerned.’
Grenfell liked the hard-drinking Tennessean major general Benjamin F Cheatham, rating him a functioning alcoholic, rather like the Union’s star performer Ulysses Grant who was a belligerent drunk in off-duty moments. Generals were only human and had different ways of letting off steam.
‘What do you make of our commander-in-chief who is, to my certain knowledge, stone cold sober?’ he asked disingenuously.
‘Sober as a judge,’ agreed Liddell lighting a long cigar, ‘which leaves only two possibilities: General Bragg is either stark mad or utterly incompetent. He has lost the confidence of his officers. Hardee can’t abide him and Breckinridge openly rejects his orders. Mark my words George; we’re going to lose this battle because of our leadership.’
Suddenly the tent flap was pulled open and Braxton Bragg entered, doing up his flies. He looked a sick man and his shoulders were drooping as if weighed down by an invisible burden. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he growled. ‘You’re supposed to be my eyes and ears, Grenfell, yet this is the first I’ve seen of you today. What have you been doing, man?’
‘I’ve been doing my duty,’ Grenfell replied evenly. ‘I joined the dawn attack and was with Brigadier General Rains when he fell. After that I helped Rains’ brigade drive the Union troops back. The first stage of your plan worked perfectly …’
‘No it didn’t, that fool McCown disobeyed orders and I’ve a good mind to have him court-martialled,’ Bragg snarled. ‘Instead of chasing after the enemy he was supposed to wheel to the right.’
‘With respect, sir, it’s a difficult manoeuvre and McCown’s men are pretty undisciplined.’
‘For God’s sake, that’s why we have generals!’
Suddenly Grenfell had had enough. He regretted joining the Army of Tennessee and being harnessed to this paranoid old porcupine. Bragg was, in essence, a desk soldier commanding from the rear, who believed he could motivate people by belittling their efforts.
‘Your generals have done you proud,’ he said, bridling at Bragg’s negativity. ‘Cleburne has smashed into Sheridan’s flank while Polk …’
‘Don’t talk to me about Polk! Bishop Polk is a pompous priest who thinks he knows best! He may have buckled a sword over his gown but holy orders are the only ones he takes! I ask him to mount a coordinated attack on the centre and what does he do? The bishop commits one brigade at a time and allows Rosecrans to hunker down on the Nashville Pike and in that damned cedar thicket. If he’d followed my instructions, we would have routed the entire Federal army by now.
‘And General Cheatham’s no better. His division was supposed to hit Sheridan’s front but his assault was sluggish and half-hearted. Do you know why? I’ll tell you. Because Cheatham is a hopeless alcoholic, that’s why. He was so drunk this morning he actually fell off his horse. What sort of example does that set?’
Grenfell was saved from having to answer such a loaded question by the appearance of an aide. Major William Clare had brought a message from Major General John Breckinridge. Bragg’s brows beetled together in an angry frown as he read the dispatch. Breckinridge was his bête noire.
‘Clear the tent,’ he barked. ‘No, not you Grenfell, you stay behind.’
Once his staff officers had filed out, Bragg took Breckinridge’s message and tore it into little pieces. ‘You see what I’m up against!’ he ranted. ‘That lily-livered Kentuckian constantly undermines my authority. He wants me to fail! I hold Breckinridge’s division in reserve but when I ask him to reinforce Polk he refuses to do so because he reckons he is about to come under heavy attack. So I order him to confront the enemy and he has the nerve to ask for reinforcements. I mean how many men does he need? He already has seven thousand and they haven’t done anything all morning!’
Grenfell couldn’t believe it. Rosecrans was hardly likely to have sent a substantial force across the Stones River to attack the Confederate right flank when he was fighting for his life on the Nashville Pike. It didn’t ring true. But nothing made much sense. What, for example, was the logic behind Bragg’s decision to station Breckinridge’s division east of the river when his brigades could and should have been adding their considerable weight to his enveloping manoeuvre? It was almost as if the man was trying to fight two different battles at the same time.
‘May I make a suggestion, sir?’ he asked.
‘I hope it’s a good one.’ Bragg slumped on his camp bed, tugging at his ear lobes.
‘Clare’s horse is spent, why not send me instead, urge Breckinridge to check his intelligence, and ask him to advance at least two brigades to the river, ready to go to Polk’s assistance?’
Bragg peered at him. ‘That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard all day. Jump to it! Time is precious. I need our political general to stir himself.’
Grenfell mounted Barbary and made for the ford where Federal troops were supposed to be massing. It was a calculated risk. He followed the bends in the river until he found a shallow crossing place where hardened mud had been scuffed up by trampling boots. There had been a Northern incursion but judging by the way the footprints criss-crossed, it had come and gone away again.
He knew what had happened. Bragg and Rosecrans had had the same idea: they had both planned to attack their opponent’s right flank but Bragg had got it first with his dawn raid, forcing Rosecrans to recall the infantry he’d sent east of the river. Why hadn’t anyone else realised this?
Breckinridge was camped on Wayne’s Hill, a high ridge which gave his artillery command of the surrounding countryside. He found the general carrying out an inventory amidst the upturned shafts of wagons and gun limbers in the baggage area. Grenfell coughed politely. Breckinridge swung around. ‘What can I do for you, Colonel?’ he asked with an easy grace.
‘Fresh orders from General Bragg, sir, if I may be so bold.’
Breckinridge said nothing but held out a manicured hand to receive them.
Grenfell shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but General Bragg didn’t have time to write anything down. He hopes you might accept oral instructions.’
Breckinridge’s large, round eyes widened further. ‘Then we have a problem here, Colonel. I would want you to understand that, in little more than an hour, I have received three sets of orders from General Bragg instructing me to advance my division west of the river to support Polk, to fight the Federal forces east of the river and to defend my present position. What does he want me to do now?’
The question was asked with a smile but in the manner of a man accustomed to being the centre of attention. No wonder Bragg loathed him.
‘May I ask you something, sir?’
‘Ask away,’ Breckinridge replied with an airy wave.
‘Have you checked the intelligence you received about enemy movements on your side of the river?’
The general brushed an imaginary crumb off his uniform before replying. ‘No, I haven’t. Our cavalry spotted a substantial Federal force crossing the stream early this morning and, as intelligence gathering is the cavalry’s chief role, I never doubted the accuracy of what I was told. Put it another way, why keep a dog and do your own barking?’
To answer one question with another was political sophistry and Grenfell wondered how best to respond. ‘I’m sorry, General Breckinridge, but you’ve been misled,’ he said. ‘Yes, Union infantry crossed the river but they were called back to defend Rosecrans’s position on the Nashville Turnpike.’
‘And what makes you so sure of this?’ An angry note had crept into the general’s voice.
‘I followed the path they took and saw where they turned round. I am surprised your cavalry scouts didn’t spot that.’
The general considered this carefully. He was, Grenfell thought, a truly charismatic man, handsome, charming and self-confident. ‘If you are right,’ he said, with a tell-tale quivering of the jawline, ‘we have been very remiss and precious time has been wasted in waiting to fight an imaginary enemy.’
Encouraged by this response, Grenfell offered to accompany Breckinridge’s outriders in reconnoitring the area around his camp.
‘And what would Bragg have me do in the meanwhile?’
‘I think he’d want you to use your discretion but Polk could do with a couple of your brigades.’
‘And he shall have them. Tell me, Colonel, what’s your name? You sound English.’
The conversation had taken a new twist. ‘I am English and my name is George St Leger Grenfell, late of Her Majesty’s Army in India.’
‘Well, Colonel Grenfell, before you go off in search of enemies, I’d like you to tell me what Bragg is up to. Is he trying to destroy me?’
Grenfell’s mouth fell open. Paranoia was obviously a contagious disease in the Army of Tennessee. ‘No, sir, not to my knowledge,’ he stammered.
‘Then you can’t have been at the staff dinner where he described me as being “an utterly worthless old woman”. To insult me publicly in such a fashion is not to be borne. When this battle is over I intend to challenge him to a duel and I think he knows that. As the man is a coward, he would like nothing better than for me to die in combat. Second book of Samuel, Chapter 11, Verse 15!’
Brought up in a devout Christian household, Grenfell knew his Bible. ‘You mean King David putting Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle.’
‘You think I am exaggerating, don’t you?’ Breckinridge said bitterly. ‘But there is so much bad blood between us. It began, I suppose, during Bragg’s Kentucky campaign when he blamed me for the lack of volunteers in my state. He doesn’t like my family connections either. I’m related to half a dozen Confederate commanders. But what really sticks in his craw is my popularity, whereas he’s despised, particularly after poor Corporal Lewis was executed for desertion. I pleaded for clemency but Bragg wouldn’t hear of it, forcing me and my fellow Kentuckians to witness the execution. Bragg may be my commanding officer but I warn you Grenfell, the man’s a monster!’
There was a stunned silence as Grenfell considered how best to reply. He couldn’t tell Breckinridge the truth, namely, that Bragg would like to skewer his elegant body on a spit. Besides which, the two generals needed each other if the South was to win a vital victory.
‘I’ve only known General Bragg for a few weeks,’ he said eventually, ‘and as his aide-de-camp you wouldn’t expect me to comment on his character. What I do know is that he’s trying to win this battle, and he needs your help.’
Breckinridge clapped his hands in approval. ‘You, sir, could be a politician,’ he said, grinning broadly. ‘Forget about the scouting – I’ll get that done. Tell Bragg that two of my brigades are on their way to the front. Not that it will do anything to improve his mood!’
Breckinridge was right about that. Bragg talked about having the general horse-whipped. ‘Politicians don’t make real soldiers,’ he shouted. ‘They can’t be trusted. Men like Breckinridge were born under a treacherous star. I want you to go to the front to make sure his men actually turn up.’
The Union battle line was drawn up on a sharp salient, north-east of the Nashville Pike. Within this salient, Confederate assaults were concentrating on a timbered four-acre knoll known as the Round Forest which looked out onto open fields of cotton and winter wheat. Brigades of bluecoat riflemen with scores of artillery pieces had been defending this cedar thicket since mid-morning and repeated attacks had failed to dislodge them.
Wondering why this small enemy position mattered so much, Grenfell rode along the turnpike with the discordant screech of shot and shell swelling in his ears. On either side of the road, fields had become open-air hospitals, full of wounded men waiting for surgeons to operate on their torn and shattered flesh. A canister round exploded in front of Barbary and pieces of casing whipped past horse and rider. As the smoke lifted, he could see puffs of artillery fire coming from a clump of cedars and hundreds of butternut soldiers running away from the guns through already trampled fields.
Dismounting in front of the burnt-out ruins of a brick house he joined the group of foreign observers who followed the Army of Tennessee. He thought, with irrational savagery, that they were like vultures hovering around the kill, although far more brightly coloured in their gold braid uniforms. One of them was a French cavalryman. ‘Mon Dieu, ils on subi au moins cinq cents blesses,’ the officer said, lowering his field glasses. ‘Cet évêque damné est a blâmer.’ The attackers had incurred at least five hundred casualties and, in the Frenchman’s opinion, that ‘damned bishop was to blame’. Instead of waiting for all of Breckinridge’s men to reach him, Polk had ordered Adams’s Louisiana infantry to charge the enemy stronghold on their own. Showing the utmost gallantry, they had marched towards the guns with heavy losses, until they could take no more. When Breckinridge’s other brigade reported for duty, it too was ordered to make a frontal assault on the Round Forest and was quickly shot to pieces.
Grenfell shook his head in disbelief. It was utter folly. Hundreds of men had been sacrificed in futile attacks on a defensive position that was growing stronger by the minute as the already crowded thicket was further reinforced.
Finally, as the winter sky began to darken, Breckinridge arrived with the rest of his troops and was appalled to see the carnage. Like the French officer, he blamed Polk for what had happened and refused to talk to the corps commander whom, he said, was more of a butcher than a bishop. Instead, he singled out Grenfell. ‘Ah, there you are, Colonel. If the British fought like this you’d lose all your wars. The best way to get these Yankees out of the forest is to outflank them. Don’t you agree?’
‘Absolutely, sir,’ Grenfell replied, relieved to find someone thinking clearly. ‘What do you have in mind?’
Breckinridge unfolded a map of the area. ‘Perhaps the best approach would be to get Colonel Palmer’s brigade to slip into the woods here, near McFadden Lane, move up to the cotton field west of the Nashville Pike, and attack the Federal back door while they are busy dealing with Brigadier General Preston’s frontal assault. What do you think?’
‘Perhaps I could accompany Colonel Palmer?’
Breckinridge shook his head. ‘Not this time, my friend. I have enough problems with Bragg without putting his special staff in the firing line. You and I must sit this out.’
‘As you wish, sir,’ Grenfell shrugged his shoulders. Breckinridge was right of course. Why, he wondered, did he get such a thrill out fighting? War was at best a necessary evil, a duty to be performed. To love war was to scorn the values for which people fight. But what war gave him, as nothing else did, was moral clarity. Gone were the grey areas. In war you knew who your friends were. You trusted your comrades with your life. War was also a fresh start, an opportunity to reinvent oneself. Before the war, Ulysses Grant had been selling firewood on street corners in St Louis. If Grant could change his stars, anyone could.
Cheers of encouragement greeted General Preston’s brigade as they began their charge in double-quick time. ‘Fire!’ a Federal officer shouted from the cedar thicket and hundreds of rifles slashed flame into the gathering dusk. Bullets whipped over the corn stalks before finding their mark in human flesh. The grey line faltered. Grenfell watched men flung backwards like rag dolls, haloed in their own blood. A flag was dropped, snatched up again and lost in the billowing gun smoke. Men screamed, fell and died. The survivors regrouped and fired a volley of their own, only to be raked by a deadly hail of grapeshot, canister and shell.
Out of this bedlam came a new command. Preston’s remaining troops turned sideways and ran for cover in the woods. Tied down by artillery fire, Palmer’s encircling brigade took shelter in a cane brake and stayed there. Like all the other attacks on the Round Forest, Breckinridge’s offensive had failed. The enemy position was too well defended.
The general sat impassively on his horse surveying the battlefield. ‘My men have given this place a name,’ he told the French cavalry colonel. ‘They call it Hell’s Half-Acre.’ What Grenfell couldn’t understand was why Bragg and his commanders had become so fixated on storming this cedar thicket. There were more profitable ways of attacking the Union left.
The setting sun signalled an end to the day’s hostilities and Grenfell reluctantly returned to the command post where he found his general dictating a wire report for Richmond. ‘God has granted us a happy New Year,’ Bragg was boasting. ‘We attacked Rosecrans’s army near Murfreesboro and gained a great victory. We drove him from all of his positions, except the extreme left, and after ten hours’ fighting occupied almost the whole field.’ Bragg seemed to think a defeated Union army would withdraw under cover of darkness.
Grenfell retired to his tent with a heavy heart. He was serving a military leader who couldn’t adjust to the ebb and flow of battle. When his initial attack stalled, Bragg’s only answer had been to commit his reserves to a suicidal frontal offensive which was like putting steak into a meat grinder. It had been a criminal waste of men. And what might tomorrow bring? The Federal commander had managed to protect his supply line and would almost certainly reinforce his position by morning. Bragg was living in cuckoo land if he believed the battle was over.
It was a clear night, with a cold crust of stars illuminating the sky. Lifting the tent flap, the depressed Englishman hoped to hear a welcoming bark. He had adopted a starving mongrel bitch he’d found scavenging for food in the army camp. Tonight, Belle would share his unappetising supper of salted beef and hardtack which he intended to wash down with a tumbler of Applejack. He had developed a taste for apple brandy and a full bottle was waiting on his bedside table.
When Grenfell lit his oil lamp a bad day got even worse. On the ground beneath the canvas awning were shards of glass and puddles of amber liquid. The lamp’s fitful gleam also revealed Belle, curled up on his sleeping bag as if asleep. But the dog was inert and her fur stiff and rigid. In the grip of an unfamiliar feeling, he dropped to his knees and cradled Belle’s lifeless body in his arms. It was years since he had last cried but he did so now. He had loved his scruffy little dog.
With spade in hand, he took her outside and began to dig a grave in the hard, unyielding earth. How had she come to die? There had to be a connection between the spilt brandy and the dead animal. But why should apple brandy kill a dog? It didn’t make any sense, unless, of course, the drink had been poisoned. Paranoia took over. Someone was trying to kill him. Denied images rose before his eyes: the bullet hole in the back of his forage cap at Cynthiana, the feeling he’d had earlier of being caught in the crosshairs of a telescopic rifle sight.
His spade bit into the frozen soil. The sound it made seemed unnaturally loud in the thickening silence. As he lowered Belle into the ground he thought he saw something move behind him, a shadow flitting across his peripheral vision. An ice-cold wave crashed over him and he shuddered beneath its impact. His mind was playing tricks. Click – a gun’s trigger being cocked. Now that was real enough.
He threw himself sideways as a bullet whistled past his ear. Whipping out his own revolver he fired into the darkness. There was movement off to his left. A running figure silhouetted against the full moon. He fired again and missed. The camp woke up. Sentries rushed towards him, shouting warnings, fearing a surprise attack.
Grenfell stood up and raised his hands in the air. A candle lantern shone in his eyes as he identified himself. He had been shot at, he said, but he didn’t know by whom. Anyway, whoever it was had gone now, and he was off to bed.
Tossing and turning in his sleeping bag that night, he reckoned there had to be better ways of seeing in the New Year.
Braxton Bragg was woken the next morning by a smiling orderly carrying a cup of rye coffee and wishing him a Happy New Year. But that was as good as it got. Outside, in the cold morning air, he received a nasty shock. The same blue lines of infantry were there to greet him. The sight of the Union army seemed to paralyse Bragg. When his corps commanders asked for fresh battle plans he had none to give them. Instead, he sank into a kind of torpor and the only orders Grenfell could get out of him were for the retrieval of dead bodies and the movement of wounded into field hospitals.
By Friday morning Bragg had perked up sufficiently to change his headquarters to a riverside farmhouse and to take a close interest in the positioning of his batteries. He wanted his guns placed on high ground and was horrified to learn that the hill he’d chosen on the east side of the river was already occupied by the enemy. Believing that Van Cleve’s field howitzers, twelve-pound Napoleons and Parrott rifles could pour down a devastating fire on his army, Bragg decided to storm the Federal- held ridge and sent a courier to General Breckinridge demanding his immediate presence.
It was a cold, gloomy day. Wrapped in his woollen frockcoat, Bragg paced up and down the river bank until Breckinridge arrived. They met under a large sycamore where, without ceremony, Bragg began to bark out orders. Frustration was etched on Breckinridge’s face as he listened to the plan of attack. Once Bragg finished, he exploded angrily. ‘Your plan won’t work. You are asking for the impossible.’ Picking a stick off the ground, Breckinridge illustrated his objections in the river bank’s soft mud. His men would have to advance over exposed ground, subject to heavy enemy fire, and, if they reached the Yankee artillery, all they could do was to push Van Cleve’s batteries back onto even higher ground which had to be self-defeating.
Observing this exchange of views from a discreet distance, Grenfell knew trouble was brewing. Bragg would never allow a hated subordinate to lecture him on tactics.
‘You’re not much of a soldier, are you Breckinridge?’ sneered the wild-eyed commanding officer. ‘Your Kentucky soldiers have got off lightly so far. Now it’s time for them to show their mettle.’
‘That’s not at issue,’ Breckinridge persisted. ‘I’ve seen the Federal gun emplacements from the top of Wayne’s Hill and I am telling you again they cannot be taken by direct assault.’
Bragg’s mind was made up. ‘My information is different. You are to begin your assault at four o’clock and that’s an order!’ Faced with such intransigence Breckinridge offered a mocking salute before turning on his heel and riding off to make the necessary arrangements.
‘Follow him, Grenfell,’ Bragg demanded. ‘Make sure he does as I say.’
The unwilling messenger arrived at the Wayne’s Hill camp in time to hear the cries of outrage as Breckinridge told his senior officers about their mission. General Roger Hanson, commander of the Fourth Brigade, offered a ‘practical solution’. He would go down to headquarters and shoot Bragg.
‘No, Roger, we must exercise proper restraint,’ said a tight-lipped Breckinridge.
Once his angry officers had stomped off to prepare their troops, he turned to Grenfell and shook his head despairingly. ‘When I was doing my rounds yesterday, I overheard a couple of privates in Palmer’s 45th Tennessee bemoaning the quality of our leadership. “Those danged fools,” and I’m quoting now, “don’t never seem to learn anything. They keep throwin’ us in thar piecemeal just like at the Hornet’s Nest.” That’s what ordinary soldiers think and you know what? They are absolutely right. It’s Shiloh all over again.’
The two men looked at one another. Breckinridge broke the silence by asking a political question. ‘What does Bragg think I’m going to do?’
‘He expects you to reject his order. Bragg is looking for a scapegoat in case he loses this battle. Turn the mission down and he’ll tell Jeff Davis you sabotaged his victory and, who knows, the president may believe him.’
Breckinridge smiled wearily. ‘My sentiments exactly and, for that reason alone, we must do our duty and fight the best we can, but it goes against the grain. If I am among the fallen, perhaps you will do justice to my memory, Grenfell, by telling people I believed this attack to be unwise.’
‘I am sorry, sir, but you’ll have to get someone else to do that. I mean to accompany you this afternoon. Make sure you come to no harm.’
The general hid his emotions with a brittle laugh. ‘I am honoured to have your company,’ he murmured, ‘and to hell with Bragg!’
‘That sounds like a good battle cry.’
The last light was filtering through the clouds and icy rain was falling when the doomed assault began. Breckinridge had arranged his division at the edge of the wood in two long rows. The front line was made up of Hanson’s Kentucky Brigade and the Second Brigade, commanded by a Bragg appointee General Gideon Pillow. Preston and Gibson’s brigades were placed three hundred yards in the rear with Breckinridge and his staff officers behind the centre of the second line.
A cannon shot acted as the starting gun. The grey and butternut troops surged through the brushwood with fixed bayonets. Many of the marchers hadn’t any boots and the prickly shrubs and sassafras roots tore at their bare feet. Yet they kept perfect order as they swept out onto the open, undulating plain, their regimental flags flying in the driving sleet. The Rebel yell echoed eerily as they rushed forward, an advancing wave that quickly engulfed enemy skirmishers.
‘This is going well,’ Breckinridge yelled. He spoke too soon. White puffs of smoke and spitting orange flame erupted from the Union artillery concealed in the wooded limestone bluffs across the river. Cannons pumped their percussive explosions through the cold wet air. Shot and shell screamed overhead. Smoke poured off the hillside where Van Cleve’s howitzers were placed. An iron ball thumped into the dirt, parting the hurrying ranks. The Northern gunners had found their range.
Shredded by shrapnel, Breckinridge’s front line wouldn’t give up. Wounded men staggered and fell into the craters created by earlier shells. Blue-coated infantry rose from behind the rocks near the river and let fly with a murderous volley. Hanson’s Kentuckians shuddered like a wounded beast but didn’t stop, forcing the Federal soldiers to turn and flee.
A jubilant Breckinridge galloped over the scrubland in pursuit of his troops. ‘Perhaps we can do this after all!’ he shouted into the wind. ‘The Orphan Brigade has done us proud. They are a credit to Kentucky.’ But joy quickly turned to sorrow. Someone had spotted General Hanson lying against a rail fence. He was white-faced and breathing shallowly. A shell fragment had entered his leg, slicing open the femoral artery.
‘No, no, not you,’ Breckinridge moaned. He vaulted off his horse and knelt beside his injured friend. ‘Call an ambulance wagon. General Hanson needs a tourniquet!’
He cushioned Hanson’s head in his bent arm and whispered. ‘How are you, Roger?’
‘Dying, I think,’ his friend murmured. ‘You should have let me shoot Bragg.’ The wagon arrived and Hanson was lifted into it. No one believed he’d survive the journey to the field hospital.
Once the ambulance had gone, Breckinridge wanted to know the whereabouts of his remaining frontline general and was told General Pillow had been spotted in the woods, being sick. Breckinridge’s anger soared uncontrollably. ‘What’s that sycophantic son of a bitch doing there?’ he roared. ‘His troops are all over the place. They’ve got to get back into line.’
Grenfell didn’t stop to think. ‘Leave it to me, General,’ he said, spurring Barbary towards the limestone bluff where the fighting was fiercest. With sleet driving into his face, he galloped down to the river bank. It was the same old story, he thought. The Southern boys were fighting like demons but without discipline. They had turned the Yankee line and were splashing across the creek in hot pursuit. As the triumphant greys crested the mound above McFadden’s Ford, they were greeted with a deafening salvo. Grenfell could feel the earth tremble beneath his horse’s hooves as a pitiless hail of iron hissed around his ears. Rebel soldiers were snatched backward, their blood splattering Barbary. Those who could still stand turned away from the blinding flashes and exploding shells, stumbling over the bodies of their fallen comrades in the soggy river bottom, trying to retrace their steps.
‘To me,’ Grenfell bellowed. ‘Fight as you go, damn it!’ But it was too late. Panic had set in. Breckinridge’s remaining troops thrashed their way through the crimson water, desperate to escape the deadly fire raining down on them. One frightened man screamed as he was hit in the calf and another collapsed onto the muddy bank clutching his lower back.
The Confederate retreat was turning into a rout. Grenfell felt both shame and anger. He had failed once again.
This was his last thought before an enemy shell smacked into his beloved horse sending him spinning through the air into a world of complete darkness.