Whitson’s parallel narrative novel WIP
Fort Pillow, Tennessee, April 12, 1864, Afternoon
“Sir, sir. Wake up,” Confederate Lieutenant Emery House said, shaking his commander. “They sounded To Arms.”
Major Geoff Nettles sat up too quickly, slightly dizzy. “Thanks. Get the men moving.”
He had been deep asleep, dreaming of being on a hike in the Smokey Mountains with his wife. She slipped and fell over a steep rock, was hanging on, but he can’t reach her.
The sound of more than one hundred sharpshooters firing on the fort brought him to the present. He stood and walked to a spot where he could see the Union earthwork they would be attacking in minutes. He was about the same height as the top of the parapet and any time he saw a Yank’s head pop-up, three or four Rebel snipers took shots at it from positions on the hill above him.
In minutes, House returned, “They’re ready,” he said.
Shaking his head slightly, Nettles said, “They marched all night and repositioned twice today, with little to eat. We’re all exhausted. And the fight is only about to begin.”
The lieutenant nodded.
Taking a deep breath, Geoff continued, “Line up half the regiment on me, in a row 20-30 yards behind Captain Knight’s company. Just like we practiced. His being in position will help guide us.”
He looked out across the cleared land to the front-ditch and then the sky. Cloudy, better than yesterday. Slight wind might affect the sharpshooters.
“Emory, line up your men directly behind mine.”
Nettles watched as Knight walked along his line, yelling, “Company C get ready. Weapons loaded. Remember to hold fire till you get to the ditch. Trust the sharpshooters.”
The bugle sounded Charge and Knight yelled, “Shoulder-to-shoulder. Ready! At the double-quick—March!”
Nettles watched as Knight’s 90-plus men moved out of the woods. Sharpshooter fire tripled as rounds pelted the ditch in front of the rampart and the parapet, silencing many Union muskets. The ragged line of men broke into a run, yelling and screaming as they crossed the 80-yard clearing toward the ditch. Union solders braved bullets and fired at the on-coming wall of Confederate infantry, killing a considerable number.
Nettles noted that the portion of the ditch he would be attacking was at the closest point to the fort.
As Knight’s men reached the ditch, jumping in without stopping, the noise of gunfire muffled and the sounds of close-contact fighting started.
Major Nettles shouted, “Companies A and D. Ready! Charge!”
There was little gunfire at his men as they crossed the clearing. None from the ditch. And if a musket erupted from the parapet, it was quickly answered by several Rebel snipers from the distant hills.
With adrenaline kicking in, it seemed only seconds before Nettles was standing at the ditch.
Below him, Knight’s men were embraced in hand-to-hand combat, some using swords. One was on the ground being choked, Nettles hit the Yank on the head with his handgun as hard as he could. As the Southerner stood to thank Nettles, the side of his face disappeared in a spray of flesh and bone.
Numerous soldiers, both blue and gray, lay on the ground, most not moving. The ditch was red with blood and mangled limbs.
Nettles looked to the right and saw the black hole of a Union pistol barrel pointed at him from less than six feet. The Yank pulled the trigger and nothing happened. The major quickly raised his revolver and shot the threat in the chest. Without thought, he continued to shoot at anything in blue. Then dropped to his knee and reloaded.
Gray uniforms were trying to climb the back wall of the ditch, but it was steep and the bank crumbled. As the noise level momentarily decreased, Nettles yelled, “Lieutenant Greer, round up the prisoners. Place them where they cannot get to weapons.”
“Major,” yelled one of his men. Nettles turned to see a man with his back against the six-foot dirt bank, his hands cupped just below his waist. Nettles ran forward, stepped in the human stirrup, and jumped out of the ditch onto the 20-foot-wide escarpment between the ditch and rampart.
He ran quickly forward and up the gully-ridden earthwork, hearing Lieutenant Voss’s men enter the ditch behind him. Climbing, he saw that his and Captain Knight’s companies were comingled.
At the top of the rampart, he inched along a wall of mud-filled burlap bags. A Confederate soldier in front of him approached a porthole. As he stepped into the space, a cannon erupted on the other side, blowing bits of the soldier backward, the air filled with smoke.
As it cleared, Nettles looked through the porthole into the mouth of a cannon being recharged. Having just experienced this threat, he again unloaded his handgun into any Union soldier standing there. One got off a musket shot, hitting the stone wall next to his head, filling his eyes with dust. The major ducked, wiped his eyes on his coat-sleeve, stood and resumed firing till empty. He moved aside to reload and someone else took his spot and emptied their gun. He stood and resumed firing. Only after all Yankees inside were dead or wounded, did he notice they were negro artillery.
Nettles climbed over the parapet. In all directions, gray uniforms were crawling over the walls and onto the rampart like swarms of ants. To the north, Bell’s men had come out of the ravine; and to the south, more of his brigade—McCulloch’s—had left the damaged buildings below the fort, and climbed the southern wall.
Nettles moved to the inside edge of the rampart and again emptied his gun. Reminding him of his grandfather’s hunting and corralling wild pigs, picking them off one at a time. He also noticed a stream of Yanks heading for the gate at the southwest.
Just then a mini-ball zinged by his head. But grandfather’s boars didn’t shoot back.
Ducking behind a caisson of cannonballs, he looked for someone familiar with artillery. “Sergeant Weeks, can we use this 12-pounder Napoleon against the Union gunboats?”
“We can try, sir.”
Nettles ran down a dirt ramp that led from the top of the rampart to the earthen floor of the fort itself. As Confederates continued to enter the fort over its walls, it looked like dirty-gray water flowing over the edge of a sinking bowl.
As he moved forward, zig-zagging between buildings and tents, he saw two armed negros behind a turned over table. One had just fired, dropped his weapon and ran toward the bluff and escape. The second fired his musket and momentarily froze. As he dropped his weapon and was beginning to stand, a shot rang out from beside Nettles’ head, deafening him as the side of the negro’s neck disappeared.
A yelling Rebel, eyes glazed, firing his handgun wildly, moved past him. The idiot was shooting without aiming and struck a fellow Confederate man in the back of his leg. Nettles kicked the over-excited soldier in the side of his knee, knocking him to the ground, then picked up the soldier’s gun and tucked it in the small of his back.
A few seconds later, he felt a sharp pain in his side. He reached down toward his ammo pouch, felt wetness and withdrew a hand covered in blood.
He heard someone shouting and turned to see General Forrest standing on the rampart, yelling. He had his left arm in a sling and was pointing with the gun in his right hand to the southwest. Nettles’ eyes followed the line and saw five Rebels running along the rampart toward a still flying Yankee flag.
* * *
Confederate Captain Charles Anderson stood on Fort Pillow’s steamship landing, looking up and down the river. After being attacked, the Union gunboat New Era had quieted her cannon and moved to the center of the Mississippi in a hurry.
“Guess we put the skeer into ’em,” said Sergeant Jones, pointing at the New Era.
But the other Union gunboat, Olive Branch, held Anderson’s attention. It had initially appeared to be heading for shore, but when the boat captain recognized that Confederate soldiers controlled the landing, he turned toward Arkansas. Neither side fired a shot.
The New Era moved north up the river, the Olive Branch stopping in its space.
Anderson told his men near the river, “When the full assault is on, return fire at anyone on board the gunboats.”
Pausing to gather his thoughts, “The rest of you prepare for Yanks leaving the fort and trying to slip down this road,” Anderson said, pointing to the wagon trail leading up to the fort from the river, “And be prepared for any others who may come down the bluff.”
“Captain. Take a listen,” said Jones. Anderson heard nothing, but then McCulloch’s bugler repeated Charge loud enough for everyone near the river to hear. This was immediately followed by the explosive sounds of war—incessant yelling, discharge of artillery, and small arms fire.
From Anderson’s position, the bluff was too high and they could only see the southwestern corner of the fort, where Confederates climbed over the earthwork east of the fort’s exit.
After about ten minutes, a yelling stampede of Yankees ran out the fort’s gate and down the winding, sloping road toward the landing. They quickly saw the river was in Rebel hands and sought cover. Further north, the wood and stone steps descending the bluff to the beach soon filled to capacity with fleeing Yanks and became a tripping hazard. A glut of Union soldiers simply slid down the 100-foot steep precipice to escape to the river.
Anderson left one company to watch the gunboat Olive Branch, another company to handle the fleeing Union soldiers on the road, and took the rest up the river bank to encounter the massive numbers exiting the fort via the bluff.
As the beach filled, the runaway Yanks heading south encountered Anderson’s men moving north along the river bank. The first fort deserters were armed, and upon seeing the approaching Confederates, fired their weapons. Others ran to the water’s edge, shouting at the two gunboats in the river. With no response, several of them discarded their weapons and jumped into the water, swimming toward the safety of the boats.
Numerous Union soldiers were out of ammo or had lost their firearm and scrambled to a supply shed below the bluff, retrieving stored guns and ammo, again returning fire.
The Union soldiers on the beach were outnumbered, had no concealment, so started backpedaling north up the beach, where they encountered Bateau’s rebel regiment in the waiting. Anderson’s men followed, still returning fire. Some Yanks dropped their weapons and lay prone in the mud, but others lay down with their pistols concealed under them and when a Confederate approached, quickly shot him.
From that point on, no Yank was trusted; all were simply killed. It was like walking into a nest of slithering snakes, where a few turned and tried to bite.
The Yanks resisted outright, fighting until overpowered and taken prisoner.
Anderson saw the Union flag come down, replaced by the Confederate battle flag.
The battle was over in less than half an hour.
--- END SNEAK PEAK ---