Friday dawned hot and dry as the sounds of reveille brought life into the waking camps. Aidan was showing the boy how to dunk his hardtack in a cup of coffee to make it soft enough to eat, when Sergeant Harris arrived. The twenty-four-year-old looked older than his years having grown a scraggly beard which matched the brown of his long, un-trimmed hair. He was carrying something.
“One a the boys found this among some things ar drummer left behind. It might be a bit big, but thet’s better ‘an bein too tight.” He handed a coat to Blake. “Can’t have ya out a uniform an ridin fer the colonel. I’ve sent Campbell ta git ya a horse. Soon’s he’s back, I’ll take ya to the colonel. Git yer gear packed.” The boy slipped the coat over his sweat-soaked shirt and vest. He had already traded his hat for the grey kepi, having stuffed the hat into the bottom of his pack for safe keeping.
The man left.
“Hey, Bradford.” It was Corporal Elias Campbell, leading a well groomed grey toward him. “This here mare’s well bred and well trained. She’s also experienced, having been in combat at Shiloh. The corporal who assigned her to ya said as the staff officer who rode her at Shiloh was kilt when Colonel Bate, our regimental commander then, was wounded. She should be good fer ya.” He brought the horse to the boy and held her as he suggested, “Roll yer bedroll an gum blanket an tie it behind the saddle. Less weight on yer back.” Blake did as he was told. “Yer not gonna be able to hold yer gun an do yer job. I’ll git ya a piece a rawhide ta tie ta it so’s ya kin hang it on yer back like a canteen.”
Sergeant Harris returned on horseback as Blake finished settling his gear in order, and mounted the grey.
As the two rode off to the regimental staff gathering along-side the Old State Road, the drums began their roll and the regiments of Cleyburne’s division were assembled in order with their brigade commanders, preparing to continue the march toward Lexington. Sergeant Harris introduce Bradford James to the colonel, then left him and returned to the company.
The couriers from the various regiments were sent to General Cleburne’s staff to pick up orders for the day. Blake learned that there was a unit of cavalry under Colonel Scott about five miles ahead on the road and that the division was to be the advance guard for the army. As such, they would be moving up the road first. The boy returned with his instructions for the colonel.
The 2nd Tennessee moved out first as the remaining three regiments of Colonel Hill’s brigade fell in behind and Colonel Preston Smith followed with his brigade. Cleburne’s division was on the move with more than three thousand men.
Great clouds of dust rose up from the parched earth and enveloped the army. The temperature rose into the 90’s. The men suffered in the heat as their woolen uniforms became soaked with their sweat and coated with the dust that clung to their hair, parched lips, and the hairs of their nostrils. Slowly the mass moved north. The sun rose to its zenith then dropped toward the western horizon as the day progressed and the soldiers suffered. Crossing the branches of the Rockcastle River, the army passed through a gap in the hills toward an elevation known as Big Hill.
Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon sounds of gunfire drifted in from the north. It seemed to dissipate. The sounds of cannon roared to the front at about 5 PM. Then quiet and a cavalry officer came riding through to meet with General Cleburne. Orders flew as riders rushed back and forth between command and unit commanders. The division was formed up in line of battle, facing the direction of the enemy. The men of the front brigade, which included the 2nd Tennessee, were ordered to stand to arms and be ready to move at a moment’s notice. By the time this had been accomplished, it was after dark. The 2nd was placed beside the pike and the remaining three regiments in line to the right. The soldiers were dismissed to set camp and light their fires.
In short order firing and yelling were heard to the front and cavalry soldiers, sick men, baggage wagons, and servants leading horses began charging through the camp closely followed by Federal cavalry. The lines were quickly reformed and the road left open for the retreating troops.
Blake was riding alongside the colonel.
“Colonel, what the heck is going on?” Blake asked Colonel Butler.
Colonel Butler answered roughly, “Son, you are in a war.”
Blake looked out into the battlefield. “Wait, how did I get in the…” He paused. A bullet flew overhead.
Two companies from the 48th Tennessee, just beside the 2nd, fired on the enemy and they stopped. One regiment of Federal cavalry dismounted and again advanced. It was dark, just a sliver of a moon, and the enemy couldn’t see the lines of Confederate soldiers, the action having brought them some 300 yards from their campfires. There was a deafening roar as the enemy kept up a continuous fire on the campfires. A few sharpshooters were pushed forward and the Federal soldiers stopped their advance and refused commands to move up. The explosion of riflery mixed with the shouts of orders laced with curses and threats from enemy officers pressed on the boy’s nerves. The action was short-lived as the Federals gave way and retreated in confusion, leaving behind prisoners, guns, and horses.
The men of the brigade settled for the night without any supper and slept in line of battle. Their casualties were 1 man wounded.
Saturday morning dawned another hot and dry day. At daylight, a company of cavalry was sent forward to find the enemy. Hill’s brigade began to move along with a battery of artillery, followed by a quarter mile by Colonel Preston Smith’s brigade, also with a battery of artillery. Blake soon found himself in a line of battle on the right side of the road within a few hundred yards of the enemy. A brief explosion of gunfire filled the air as the two armies engaged for a short time. The boy heard the whistle of bullets as they passed through the air near him, and suddenly felt afraid. Very shortly, the enemy skirmishers fell back to their main army. A battery of artillery was placed in front of the Confederate line near its center. Blake suddenly felt the vibration of air all about him and the pressure of the concussion as the artillery and musketry opened against the enemy and the enemy fired back. The air filled with the screams of agony, the shouts of orders, the explosion of artillery, the roaring clatter of musket fire, and the life blood of wounded and dying soldiers. Colonel Butler scribbled some notes and handed them to the boy to take to Hill. As Blake turned his horse he heard the swarm of bullets, felt the pull on his clothing as some passed through, and heard a nearby thump. Glancing in the direction of the last noise as he pulled away toward Hill, he saw Butler lean forward in his saddle, then slip to the ground as several of his aides rushed to his side. Men were falling all along the line as Blake rode. The engagement lasted for two fear-filled hours. But reflex action took hold and the boy soon forgot his fear, being too busy to dwell upon it. A second battery opened from the lines of the brigade and the compression of the conflict became more intense. A surge of motion of masses of men began to sweep across the landscape as enemy troops began to push along the Confederate right and the regiments of Smith’s brigade located behind the front began to shift toward the right to meet the enemy and push them back. As the conflict roared on, Blake saw thousands more troops arrive and pour into position against the enemy along the left side of the action. Around one o’clock, he heard heavy fighting about one half mile to the west and witnessed Yankees to his front and left retreating in poor order. The Federal line broke and began to fall back toward Richmond. The boy carried instructions that the brigade would strike the center of the new Federal position, setting up some two miles further north. General Cleburne had been wounded and Colonel Preston Smith was in command. Blake found Captain Charles P. Moore was in temporary command of the regiment.
The concussion of battle faded as the Union line retreated north, up the Richmond Pike toward the cemetery, and the temperature soared into the upper 90’s.
A new Federal position was established on a commanding ridge with its left on a stone wall in the cemetery and its right protected by a wooded thicket. The men of Cleburne’s command were tired. They had fought all day without water. Blake watched from Colonel Smith’s command as the men in the frontal attack scrambled up the slope of the ridge and poured over the stone wall. The cheering troops engaged the Federals in fierce hand to hand combat among the tombstones of the cemetery. More troops smashed into the wooded thicket. The Federal troops got off about three rounds of musket fire, then panicked, turned, and fled. They raced back through the town and onto the Lexington Road. This time Colonel Scott’s cavalry met them from the back side of the town, having been sent around to the back of the enemy earlier in the day.
It was over.
General Kirby Smith had lost 78 killed, 372 wounded, and 1 missing. The Union Army had lost 206 killed, 844 wounded, 4303 captured. Blake felt proud to have been a part of it. He learned later that Colonel Butler had been killed during the action.
It was nearing seven o’clock in the evening as the battle came to a close. Blake returned to his company as the regiments started back to their camps. The men were exhausted, miserable from the heat, hungry, and thirsty. As they headed south across the battlefield they observed the wreckage of war. The dead lay about the fields along with dead horses, broken artillery, scattered equipment and personal gear. The air was filled with the moans and cries of the wounded. It was filled, too, with the stench of death as the heat of the high 90’s hastened the decay of the dead, and the stench of sweat-soaked wool on the living whose clothing clung to their bodies, saturated in their own perspiration and heated by the bodies within and the air temperatures without. They walked in silence, stunned by what they had experienced and the scene of destruction that surrounded them and the bloody ground beneath their feet.
“Bradford.” It was young Todd Johnson. “Ya okay?”
The boy walked silently beside his comrade, leading his horse, his rifle still slung over his shoulder and hanging on his wet back. “I guess,” he responded checking the holes in his uniform. “I hate war,” he whispered. “I jest left the colonel when he was kilt. My friend, Tyler, was with my father when he was kilt. He saw the face of the soldier thet did it. Taday ya couldn’t see them. They was too fer away.” He swept the scene with his hand. “All ‘bout these wounded are hurtin and cryin an I don’t know what ta do fer em.” His voice was on the edge of breaking as tears slipped down his cheeks.
“Hey, Soldier,” a soft voice called from nearby. “Help me.”
Todd stopped, startled by the voice. Searching for the voice, he found a young Union soldier, about his own age, lying along the side of the pike. He walked over and knelt in the blood-soaked mud beside him.
“What’s yer name?” he asked.
“Roger, Roger Stanley.”
“How old ar ya, Roger?”
“How bad ya hurt?”
“I’m done for.” He opened his shirt. “A shell fragment went right through.” The wound under his shirt was a ragged hole through his lower ribs, soaked red with blood and gore leaking from the boy’s body, saturating his clothes and puddling on the ground.
The boys covered their noses. “The stink is fearsome,” Blake stated.
He knelt beside Todd and handed him his canteen as the older youth closed the bloody shirt and covered the wound. “Water?” Todd offered.
Roger took the canteen and drank. “Thanks.” He shuddered in pain and clenched his fists.
Others in the company paused to watch. Captain Wilson walked over. “There’s hospitals in most a these barns,” he suggested.
“Too late fer this one,” Todd stated. “I’ll stay here a while if it’s okay, Sir.”
“Kin I?” Blake asked.
“Yes, but come straight back soon’s yer done.”
“Yes, Sir,” Blake responded.
The rest of the company continued on their way. Blake and Todd remained with the dying soldier. Little was said. The two sat in silence, their eyes on the youth lying on the ground.
“Hold me,” Roger begged, his voice fading.
Todd gathered him into his lap and leaned over to embrace him. He felt the body quiver as if catching a chill. Blake watched, crying within. This wasn’t the enemy? He’s jest a kid! Tyler said he saw the soldier who killed his father. He said he was jest a kid, too.
The body stilled. Todd felt the warmth fade from the face as he caressed the skin and laid him back down. Tears slid down his face and dripped from his cheeks. He stood up. “Let’s go,” he said.
“We kin ride ma horse,” Blake offered.
Todd climbed on first, then reached down and pulled his younger companion up and helped him slip on behind.
The two started back toward the army’s camps, about five miles south of the town.