Being defeated is often a temporary condition.
Giving up is what makes it permanent.
Lt. Scott Lancer gave up his efforts to sleep. Dawn would be breaking soon, bringing to an end another cold and damp night. It might be early April, but so far spring was only a promise that teased him with the hope that the next day might be more bearable than the day before. He propped himself up against his upturned saddle and pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. His men were still asleep, snoring peacefully on the hard ground. His sergeant, Bart Travis, remained on sentry duty, well concealed from prying eyes.
Scott heard the horses shifting. The sooner they were on their way the better he would feel. This part of Virginia wasn’t healthy for Union troops. They hadn’t even been able to light a fire for fear of discovery. Being so far behind enemy lines they had to be cautious. He calculated that it would take another couple of days for them to reach the safety of their own lines. His hand strayed to his chest. Their reconnaissance mission had gone well and his intelligence report was safely tucked inside his tunic. Wearing Union blue made them clear targets…being caught out of uniform would get them all hanged as spies.
Even at eighteen Scott wasn’t daunted by his responsibilities. He had, after all, been bred for a position of power. For as long as he could remember his grandfather had been grooming him for leadership. In the short time that he had been in the Cavalry he had proved his worth, having a good grasp of tactics and a willingness to get his hands dirty. He led by example and his men respected that, so that his age had quickly become insignificant. He had come a long way from his life of comfort and privilege and each morning brought the undeniable thrill of wondering what the future might hold.
As the sun started to rise, the sky turned pale blue shot through with streaks of pink. There was no warmth in the air to counteract the brisk wind that blew steadily through the large copse of trees where they had made their camp. They were travelling roughly parallel to the road, avoiding inhabited areas. Once there was sufficient light Scott pulled out a map and compass and checked their bearings. They would have to take a long loop round to the west to avoid a town which, by his reckoning, was only about two miles ahead of them.
Subdued mutterings told him that his small company was waking up. He stowed the map and compass back in his saddlebags and stood up stiffly. He had always been slender, to the point where his grandfather’s housekeeper had complained that he didn’t have enough fat about him to cushion his bones. The privations of war, coming hard on the heels of a late growth spurt, had left him tall and lean and acutely aware of every stick and stone that had littered his uncomfortable bed.
Scott smiled across at his Corporal. Jack Welman was a cheerful, red-headed young man only a year or so older than himself. “Can you get the men organised? I’m going to speak to Sergeant Travis. I want to be on the road in fifteen minutes.”
“Yes, Sir.” Jack turned back to his grumbling companions. “Come on, shift yourselves.”
Scott waited where he was for a minute and watched his bedraggled men roll out of their blankets. They had been on this mission for two weeks and were all looking decidedly scruffy. His thoughts turned longingly to the pleasures of a nice hot bath and he could just picture himself soaking his tired body in the steaming water. A nice dream and one that was wholly unrealistic. It had been six months since he had left Boston and that kind of luxury behind him.
He was drawn out of that pleasant daydream by the sound of the horses. He held up a hand to his men, calling silently for absolute quiet. Something wasn’t right. The animals were too restless. He crouched down, taking hold of his rifle, aware of his men grabbing their own weapons. They waited for his instructions which he delivered in a series of hand signals. Within seconds they had all moved stealthily into the shelter of the surrounding trees.
Scott made his way to a point from which he could see the horses. It wasn’t hard to see what had spooked them. His sergeant lay sprawled on his back, the red stain at his throat showing how he had died. Scott froze. He had seen death before and had killed men himself in the heat of battle. This was different…this was cold-blooded murder. For a split second he could neither move nor think.
He caught a hint of movement out of the corner of his eye, a brief flash of grey among the trees. He swung his rifle up and aimed, his finger tightening on the trigger. Then he remembered. The papers he was carrying would, if they were captured, sign their death warrants. He had to get rid of them. He lowered his rifle and backed further into the scant shelter of the foliage.
As he searched for a hiding place a single shot split the silence. The voice that followed marked the speaker clearly as a southerner. “I am Captain Robert Carlin. Your sentry is dead and your camp is surrounded. Throw down your weapons and step into the open.”
Silence greeted his announcement. Scott had no idea how many men Carlin had with him. The Confederate Captain, on the other hand, would know how many he was facing from the number of horses. Scott could hear movement around him now. The attackers were drawing steadily inward, tightening the cordon and making escape impossible. He was running out of options. His back struck the rough bark of an oak tree and he caught his heel on the snaking roots that had long since pushed to the surface. Mouldering leaves lay on the ground.
He bent down and scrabbled among the leaves, frantically digging a hole in the soft earth under the roots. With fingers that shook too much for his liking, he unbuttoned the top part of his tunic and drew out the papers. He buried them and moved quickly away, anxious to put as much distance between himself and the damning evidence as possible.
“I’m growing impatient,” the voice came again. “I give you my word that if you surrender, you’ll be sent safely to one of our prison camps. If you make us flush you out every last one of you’ll die today on Confederate soil.”
Scott took a deep, steadying breath. “Alright,” he called out. He stepped into the clearing still holding his rifle, but with his arms held away from his body. A faint rustling of leaves announced the arrival of the rest of his men and he heard their angry mutterings as they realised that their sergeant was dead.
“Lose the weapons.” Carlin’s voice echoed from among the trees.
Moving slowly Scott looked round at his men. They returned his gaze steadily, trusting him to make the right decision. Only he and his sergeant had known the specifics of their mission. His men might have guessed that he was carrying incriminating evidence and they had no way to know that he had disposed of it. He allowed his rifle to slip to the ground, where it lay within easy reach. A slight smile touched the corners of his mouth as his men followed his example. While they were alive and uninjured there was always the possibility of escape.
“Your sidearm,” Carlin shouted, a note of impatience now in his voice.
Scott was the only one carrying a revolver. He took his time about unbuckling it, but eventually it fell, to lie beside his rifle. He looked expectantly in the direction that the commands had come from. His breathing was becoming shallower and faster as he waited to see what would happen.
A dozen men emerged into the clearing, rifles trained steadily on their captives. Two of the soldiers approached cautiously and began to gather up the discarded weapons. Scott’s heart sank…they were hopelessly outnumbered and it would be suicide for them to try and make a break for the horses. He concentrated his attention on the middle aged Captain who was the only one not wielding a rifle.
Captain Carlin waited until all the guns had been removed before walking slowly over to stand in front of Scott. He frowned as he looked at the insignia marking Scott as a Lieutenant before looking into the youthful face of his captive. “Your name?” he demanded.
Scott automatically straightened up so that he was standing to attention. “Lancer.”
“You’re a long way from home, Lt. Lancer. Care to tell me what you and your boys have been up to?”
“We’ve been on patrol.” Scott kept his eyes firmly fixed on a spot just to the right of the Captain’s face. It was easier to lie that way.
“Then I guess you must’ve gotten lost, Son.”
“If you say so.”
Captain Carlin removed his gloves and slapped them thoughtfully against his thigh. “You will tell me, Lieutenant…one way or another.”
“I’m not obliged to tell you anything other than my name and rank.”
Carlin stepped aggressively up to Scott so that he was standing only inches away. “If I find evidence that you’ve been spying I’ll string you and your men up right here.”
“I guess that answers the question about Southern honor,” Scott retorted. “Doesn’t your word mean anything to you?” The hard slap across the face wasn’t unexpected and Scott managed to hold his ground.
“Search them and their gear then get the horses saddled,” Carlin ordered his men.
Scott gritted his teeth and endured in silence the indignity of being searched. He could only be thankful, as his saddlebags were rifled, that the map he had been using didn’t contain any clues as to where they had been.
“You,” Carlin pointed at Scott, “stay where you are. Sergeant, secure the prisoners and make ready to leave.”
Scott looked over his right shoulder at the young private who was holding a rifle on him and then watched expressionlessly as his men were herded toward the horses.
“I’d advise you to watch your step when we get back to camp. Major Devereaux’s a hard man to cross. Why not make it easy on yourself and your men and tell me what you’re doing here.”
“I’ve already told you.”
Scott’s heart was hammering so loudly that he was surprised he was the only person who could hear it. He’d encountered bullies before and Carlin was a classic example. Scott had been seen by some as an easy target when he was a child. He had been slender and fair with serious blue-grey eyes. His lack of parents had proved to be a favorite topic among the older and bigger boys whose parents were friends of his grandfather’s. Vicious teasing had turned to spiteful physical acts as they had grown older. One day he had been cornered and matters had gone too far. He had returned home with a black eye and a bloody nose. Even as a child he had held strong views on right and wrong and so had refused to name his attackers. It was a private matter that he would deal with in his own good time.
When he had dealt with it…sending the largest of the bullies home with similar injuries…things had not gone quite as expected. The boy had run crying to his mother who in turn had complained to Scott’s grandfather. Harlan Garrett had rarely used corporal punishment, but on this occasion he had taken a cane to Scott’s backside. Afterwards Scott had wondered if his grandfather had been more annoyed by his earlier silence than by his retaliation.
He kept his steady gaze fixed on the Captain until the older man looked away. Scott’s momentary sense of achievement was brought abruptly to an end as he was ungently prodded toward his horse. His men were all mounted and had been bound to their saddles. A corporal grabbed his hands and forced them into a crossed position before binding them together with a sturdy length of rope.
“Get on your horse.” A shove in the right direction accompanied the command.
Scott took hold of the saddle horn and then looked back to where the body of his sergeant lay. “You can’t leave him here for the vultures.”
Carlin looked disinterested. “We don’t have any shovels and none of my men are going to break sweat for an enemy soldier.”
“Then let us do it,” Scott begged. He had liked and respected the sergeant, but regardless of that, it was his view that everyone deserved a decent burial.
“I don’t have time to argue with you,” Carlin snapped. “Mount up or I’ll have my men tie you face down over the saddle.”
Scott stepped away from his horse. “All I’m asking is that you wrap him in a blanket and take his body back to your camp. Would you leave one of your men?” He held his breath as he waited for a response. He wasn’t sure what he would do if Carlin refused. He only knew that he wasn’t going to leave Bart Travis lying alone and abandoned.
“Corporal Taylor – wrap this piece of scum in a blanket and tie him to his horse.” Carlin gestured to the body before turning a ferocious scowl on Scott. “Don’t question my orders again, boy.”
“Thank you,” Scott answered quietly. As soon as he had settled in his saddle his feet were bound to the stirrups. A Confederate soldier took hold of the reins and he was led at a fast trot toward a very uncertain future.
Major Lucas Devereaux had, until war had broken out, been the proud owner of a plantation near Charleston in South Carolina. He was fiercely loyal to the Confederate cause and was disturbed by rumors that the North were about to launch a major offensive. He looked dispassionately at the young lieutenant who had so far refused to explain what he was doing in Confederate held territory. The young man had passed out some time ago following a brisk interrogation session and was only now starting to rouse again.
Major Devereaux squatted down in front of his prisoner who was slumped forward in his chair. If it hadn’t been for the ropes tethering him to the chair he would have slipped to the floor well before he had finally given up the fight to remain conscious. The Major could admire courage and devotion to duty and this young Cavalry officer had displayed both. Physical violence sickened him and he had tried using rational argument to persuade Lancer to co-operate. Only when that failed had he called in the two sergeants who had proved to be horribly efficient at inflicting pain and coercing confessions. He had no doubt that this ‘patrol’ had been on a specific spying mission. Without proof he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, hang them out of hand. If he couldn’t break his prisoner then he would have no option but to send him and his men to one of the prison camps.
The need to know what the Union Army had planned burned within him. He had responsibilities to his cause, his family and his friends. He feared failure and an end to his old way of life. What right did the northerners have to criticise the way he lived? Slavery was a time honored tradition in the south. He treated his slaves well. They were housed and fed, and in return, he expected them to put in a full days work. What was wrong with that?
He straightened wearily and walked over to his desk. He poured some water into a battered tin cup and carried it back to his prisoner. One blue-grey eye watched him warily. The other eye was swollen shut and blood was trickling from nose and mouth. Major Devereaux held the cup to the man’s swollen and bruised lips. After only a fractional hesitation Lancer drank.
After returning the cup to his desk the Major pulled over a camp stool and sat in front of his captive. “How old are you?”
The wariness increased. This change of tactic would be confusing as it was meant to be. “Eighteen.” The single word emerged painfully.
“Such a short life,” Major Devereaux observed. “Are you ready to die for your cause, Lieutenant?”
“Yes.” There was no hesitation before the answer was given.
“I envy you your conviction. I wonder if your men feel quite as strongly. I am having them questioned as well.” Major Devereaux looked in vain for a reaction. “They don’t know, do they? They have no idea what information you were carrying? What did you do with it?”
“Told you…on patrol.” Pain made the words sound weary and lacking in conviction.
“Do you want me to send for my men again? How much more pain do you think you can withstand?”
“Won’t…won’t make any difference.”
The Major stood up, aware that his prisoner was watching his every move. “Perhaps not, but I have my duty.” He walked reluctantly to the tent flap, pulled it open and issued an order to the soldier on guard duty.
When he returned to his prisoner he saw a hint of fear on the boy’s face. Was it fear of further pain or fear of finally telling what he knew? “It doesn’t have to be like this,” the Major said softly.
The blue-grey eye shut and there was a tightening of the bruised jaw. Major Devereaux turned as he heard the heavy tread of boots and looked into the eager faces of his two sergeants. With a feeling of self-disgust he gestured toward the prisoner. “He’s awake. Call me when he’s ready to talk.”
Scott didn’t remember how or when his interrogation had ended. He did remember rather too vividly being untied from the chair and held while one of the soldiers had turned his attention to his ribs rather than his face. That had been two weeks ago or so he had been told. Time had ceased to have any meaning for him. He had awoken to find himself in the hospital tent, chained by one wrist to the hard narrow cot. The doctor hadn’t been in any hurry to treat an enemy prisoner and Scott could understand why. The tent had been filled with seriously injured men, all vying for what little time the doctor could spare for each of them. The doctor himself looked close to collapsing from exhaustion.
An orderly had cleaned up Scott’s face and had bound his ribs, making no apology for the fact that medication was in short supply so pain relief was out of the question. Scott felt as if he had descended into hell. The moans and screams of the injured seeped into his consciousness even while he drifted uneasily in pain filled sleep. He supposed that he had been lucky that no permanent damage had been done. His injuries had slowly begun to heal with the pain subsiding a little more each day. Water had been in plentiful supply, providing his battered body with much needed moisture. Food had been basic and rationed. At first that hadn’t bothered him as he couldn’t stomach the thought of eating. Now hunger was his constant companion along with a lingering weakness that only time, rest and nourishment would dispel.
Major Devereaux had visited him yesterday and Scott supposed that he ought to feel grateful for the compassion he had seen on the man’s face. Did the Major’s obvious distaste for the brutality that he had ordered make it better or worse? If their roles had been reversed what would he have done? For the first time he realised that he hadn’t broken under torture…he hadn’t been sure before what words might have slipped out unbidden and unwanted. Since regaining consciousness he had been haunted by the fear that he and his men would be dragged out and hanged.
He was told that his men had already been transferred to a prison camp and that he would follow now that he was well enough to travel. Libby prison was to be his destination and likely his home until the end of the war. He could only hope that his suspicions were correct and that a major Union offensive was being planned. He had regrets that the information gathered by him and his sergeant in the Spotsylvania area of the state wouldn’t now be of any use.
His guard was waiting impatiently for him to finish dressing. Scott buttoned up his tunic, a tunic that now hung loosely on his slender frame. As he wearily tried to smooth the creases out of his dirty, blood stained clothes a pair of handcuffs was shoved under his nose and he was ordered to put them on. As the cold metal snapped into place around his wrists he raised his head with as much dignity as he could muster and waited for his instructions. He was directed toward a wagon and he climbed into the back. His guard settled on the seat beside the driver and he began the long journey that would end in the Confederate capital of Richmond.
By the time Scott disembarked from the train in Richmond his natural optimism was starting to re-assert itself. For the last few days he had been travelling with several dozen other prisoners all bound for Libby. It had been a relief to have others to talk to. There had been no opportunities for escape; the security around the prisoners had been too tight. That didn’t stop them planning and discussing options. Suddenly his situation didn’t seem so hopeless.
Once all the regular passengers had left the train they were herded out of the cattle trucks in which they had been travelling and loaded into wagons. Scott looked around with interest. He had never been to Richmond and had no idea what to expect. As the wagons ground slowly through the town people turned and looked at the prisoners with hatred and contempt. Shouts and jeers and a few stones hurtled in their direction. Only the slaves, trailing along behind their masters, looked at them with gratitude and sympathy. The air was heavy with a feeling of suppressed violence and it was almost a relief when the route led them to the James River and away from the populated areas. Their journey took them past warehouses, shanty towns and vacant lots.
Despite the warmth of the day Scott began to feel a chill creeping into his bones. The areas they were passing through were becoming more and more rundown and isolated. Finally he saw a large building surrounded by a high wire fence. The stone walls had a look of permanence about them, a solidity that crushed his newly born hopes. Scott counted the windows, three groups of four small windows on each of three floors. Once they were within the compound itself he could see that many of the windows were broken and that they, together with the doors, were shielded by thick iron bars. The area between the building and the fence was full of Confederate soldiers, some patrolling and others unloading large barrels which were being rolled into the building.
The wagons were brought to a halt and the guard commander handed a sheet of paper to a waiting officer. He scanned the paper quickly and then looked at the dispirited prisoners. “I am Lt. George Emack, second in command of this camp and in charge of discipline. Welcome to Libby,” he sneered. “Some of you will be staying here and some will be transferred to other prisons. You will report to the prison clerk and he will tell you where you are to be housed. There are some rules and you would do well to remember them. The first is that any escape attempt will be severely punished. Do you see those barrels?”
Everyone’s eyes followed the direction of his arm. “Not so long ago some of your compatriots tried to tunnel out of here. Most were recaptured. The Commandant, Major Turner, has ordered that a substantial amount of gunpowder to be stored in the cellars. If there is any sign of another mass escape attempt it will be detonated. The lives of hundreds of men will be lost. Would you want that on your conscience?” His cold gaze swept across the prisoners.
“You will see the windows. Anyone caught within three feet of any window will be shot. Disobey an order and you will find yourself in solitary confinement in the cellar after a visit to the whipping post. Are these rules clear?”
There was a shocked silence as Scott and his fellow prisoners struggled to come to terms with the harsh reality of their captivity. They were ordered out of the wagons and herded toward the door leading to the west wing of the prison. They passed from sunshine into the gloomy interior of the building where they were pushed into a line before having their shackles removed. The presence of half a dozen armed guards demonstrated the futility of even considering disobedience.
Scott rubbed his sore wrists and looked around him. They were in a large open hallway with stairs leading both up and down. Through a doorway he glimpsed a busy office, not unlike the outer office of his grandfather’s firm. They shuffled slowly forward and he stopped when he reached a small desk, behind which sat a grim faced clerk. The nameplate on the desk identified the man as Erasmus Ross.
“Name and rank,” the man snapped without looking up.
“Scott Lancer, Lieutenant.” Scott waited while Ross adjusted his spectacles and consulted a long list of names.
“You’re staying here. West room on the second floor.”
Scott looked around in bewilderment and was pointed in the direction of the stairway. Having reached the second floor he found two guards on duty outside a heavy wooden door. He was again asked to give his name and the door was unlocked. In his worst nightmares he could never have imagined the conditions that awaited him as he was pushed through the opening with the door slamming shut behind him.
The first thing Scott noticed was the smell followed swiftly by a confused babble of sound. The room was filled with men, sitting, standing in groups or lying motionless on the floor. There was no furniture…no chairs or beds. He stood in stunned silence, ignored by the other occupants, and looked around. The room was no more than fifty feet wide and twice that in length. The low exposed beams of the ceiling seemed to be pressing down on him with suffocating force. There were windows at either end of the room with a small unoccupied space in front of each as if an invisible line had been drawn on the floor. Scott remembered the words of Lt. Emack, words that had clearly not been an empty threat.
The windows were too small to allow much natural light to penetrate the room, leaving it gloomy and oppressive. A small wood burning stove positioned to the right of the door gave off a pathetic amount of heat. Scott discovered that the worst of the smell was emanating from a makeshift water closet situated in the corner.
Nothing in Scott’s young life had prepared him for such primitive conditions. A feeling of panic engulfed him as his brain tried to cope with the confused jumble of images and sounds. How had he ended up in such a place? His innate sense of justice and equality had led him to enlist a few months before his eighteenth birthday. He had not consulted with his grandfather who had been horrified to learn what he had done. Harlan Garrett had threatened to intervene, to have the commission withdrawn.
Scott’s determination had finally worn the older man down. The day he had left Boston Scott was sure that he had seen pride on his grandfather’s face. He wondered if his father would have been proud, or if he would even have cared. Not for the first time he cursed his absent father. If Murdoch Lancer had given a damn about him he would have claimed him long since. Had he been living in California perhaps this war wouldn’t have touched him. Scott gave himself a mental shake. He was here because he had followed his conscience and trying to lay the blame on a man he had never met was pointless and dishonest.
The sound of someone calling his name penetrated his shock and he studied the mass of faces, trying to work out where the voice had come from. A feeling of relief swept over him as he recognised his red-headed Corporal. Jack Welman was pushing his way through the crowd, pulling with him another young man that Scott didn’t recognise.
“We were afraid you were dead, Sir. They told us they were questioning you and we knew you wouldn’t talk. When they shipped us out no-one would say whether you were still alive.”
“What about the others?” Concern for himself was swept aside by his sense of responsibility for his men.
Jack shook his head. “Don’t know, Sir. Everyone was brought here then we were split up. That Major…he let us bury Sergeant Travis. It meant a lot to the men having you stand up for him like that.”
Scott ducked his head to hide his embarrassment. “I just did what any decent person would do.”
“This is Corporal Lewis.” Jack nodded toward his companion. “He and I arrived at the same time. Kyle, this is Lt. Lancer, my commanding officer.”
Lewis pulled himself up to attention and would have saluted except that Scott put out a hand to stop him. “I think we can do without the formality.”
They moved away from the door and found themselves enough room to sit down. “What’s the routine here?” Scott enquired.
“The guards wake us up at daybreak and then that clerk, Ross, takes roll call. Twice a day we go down to the kitchen on the first floor for our rations. It ain’t much and the men who’ve been here the longest say that the food situation’s getting worse. At least there’s still some meat to be had. There’s a supply of drinking water though it’s foul stuff. They haul it up from the river.”
“What about exercise? Are we allowed outside?”
“Sometimes they come to get men for work details. Mostly we’re stuck in here.”
Scott’s gaze wandered around the room. “I’m not staying here.” He spoke almost to himself. “There have been escape attempts?”
“There was a big one a couple of weeks before we arrived.” Lewis spoke self-consciously, clearly uncomfortable at conversing with a senior officer. “Over a hundred men escaped and sixty were never recaptured.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed in thought and a frown creased his forehead. “Then that Lieutenant lied to us. They want us to lose hope.”
His train of thought was interrupted by the door slamming open. All the sound in the room stilled and Scott saw a number of armed guards enter the room.
“Get down to the kitchen. You’ve got thirty minutes.” The guards fanned out around the room as the prisoners dutifully filed out and down the stairs.
As they entered the kitchen block each man collected a plate, cup and spoon. Their meal consisted of a couple of spoonfuls of some unidentifiable stew, a cup of boiled rice and a quarter of a loaf of bread. Scott and his two companions made their way over to a bench at one of the long wooden tables. He resisted the urge to bolt down the food. The stew was greasy and tasteless, but the bread was warm and freshly baked. Scott had never imagined how wonderful such simple food could be.
After washing up their dishes in large bowls of soapy water they were returned to their room. While they had been eating the sun had slipped below the horizon and what little natural light there had been had disappeared. Piles of thin blankets had been left just inside the doorway and each prisoner collected one before choosing a spot on the hard wooden floor as his bed.
As Scott tried to settle that first dreadful night his thoughts turned again to Boston and his grandfather. He refused to believe that he would never see his home, friends and family again. He resolved to hold tight to the belief that he would survive this nightmare.
He closed his eyes and the vision he saw in his mind wasn’t Boston. It was a place he had never seen and had no expectation of ever visiting. He saw vast plains, lush meadows, rolling hills and clear mountain streams… a place without walls where a man could feel free. It brought him a peace he had never expected to find and carried him gently into sleep.
The battle of Spotsylvania was fought in Virginia between the 8th and the 12th May 1864.
It was not until 3rd April 1865 that Union troops entered Richmond, the city having been abandoned by the Confederates the previous day.
The prisoners were evacuated from Libby on the 2nd April 1865 so it is perfectly possible that Scott would not have been freed until a few days later when the war ended.