Disclaimer: As usual, this story came into being after a great deal of thought and research regarding the historical inaccuracies that sometimes made Lancer very difficult to watch. (Yep. I was one of those annoying kids at the movies who counted the stars on the American flag when the cavalry was charging.) It wasn’t just the incongruities in weaponry, or tack, or the dozen other things that drove me nuts; it was the vagaries.
Libby was never mentioned as the POW camp where Scott Lancer was imprisoned, but it’s been a favorite with the fan fiction writers. I was always dubious: mainly because my Great grandfather was actually a POW at Libby, and unlike Scott Lancer, a.) was not in the cavalry; and b.) certainly not an officer.
And then there was that pesky picture showing Scott with
So this is my version of what might have happened.
The odor of death and decay was all around them; held fast to the ground by a layer of dense, grey fog that made the hanged men appear to be dancing atop the fragile vapor. They pirouetted in macabre, graceful circles; their heads tilted at odd angles, the only music the creak of the taut ropes around their necks.
Captain Franklin Gibbons was the first of the horse soldiers to dismount. He steeled himself for what he was about to do, handing off the reins of his Morgan gelding to his Sergeant as he moved forward. He called out to his second in command.
The tall blond slid gracefully from his saddle, his jaws tensing as he followed the older man into the shell of the abandoned barn. Ten men hung from the exposed twelve by twelve cross beam; the first one bearing a crudely lettered sign that had been pinned to his shirt: DEATH TO ALL FORAGERS.
Dark, near black stains puddled tar-like atop the sparse straw littering the earthen barn floor; the uneven row of blotches silent testimony to the barbaric treatment the men had endured. Gibbons took a step forward, faltered, and then squared his shoulders before moving even closer. “Mother of God,” he murmured. “They cut off their hands before they hung them.”
Lancer surveyed the scene, his mouth dry. He was no stranger to death, had
lost count of the dead bodies he had seen since his assignment to
knew these men. Three days before the troop had ridden back into
The night had ended in a spirited game of Schafkopf (Sheepshead), hosted by a boisterous Pennsylvania Deutchman Sergeant named Heinrich Schömmer who had once again joyfully shared his card playing skills with the young Bostonian. The same Sergeant who was now hanging first in line, his severed hands lying in the dirt at his feet.
Scott choked back
a deep breath; his heart pounding in his ears as he fought the growing rage
in the pit of his stomach. Schömmer was a recent émigré to the
His senses heightened, the young man was aware of everything around him; the smells, the noise. Directly behind him, he could hear the sound of violent bile-producing retching; and beyond that the slow plod of a team of horses and the crunch of iron wheels against the gravel littered earth. The wagon stopped; the noise of the vomiting did not.
Reaching out, Scott tapped Frank Gibbons’ right arm. His deep voice cut into the near stillness. “We need to cut them down, sir. Now.”
Before Gibbons could respond, a middle aged man – dressed in civilian clothing – stepped forward and spoke up. “I’d like to take a photograph,” he announced, “just as they are.”
Scott’s jaws tensed as he turned to face the intruder. While he found the process of glass plate photography intriguing, and appreciated the near microscopic detail of the finished prints, he resented the tradesman’s cold approach to his work. There were times, he knew, when the photographer – Carl Denton – had staged some of his more dramatic panoramas; as if the reality of violent death was not enough. He eyed the man carefully. “No,” he said.
Gibbons was still composing himself. A recent graduate of West Point, he
had begun to seriously question his decision to pursue a military career,
and was determined to survive the War with the intention of moving on to a
higher, more profitable calling; politics. Eyes narrowing, he considered his
next move. Ignoring his Lieutenant, he spoke directly to
Hands fisted at his sides, Scott Lancer did an immediate about face and headed for the barn’s entrance. Signaling for his men to dismount, he quietly ordered them to stand at ease.
hours later, the small cadre of foot-sore cavalrymen guided their horses
Lieutenant Scott Lancer stood at full attention, his right hand raised in a precise salute. He had just returned from burying his fallen comrades. “Permission to speak, sir,” he said, his eyes straight ahead.
Philip Sheridan, bone tired from a long day writing dispatches and conferring with his officers, returned the salute without standing up. Weariness was not the only reason he remained seated. The whipcord, lean young man standing before him was unusually tall compared to other men in his unit; and – being a man of short stature – he did not relish the idea of being on his feet and having to look up at the young officer. No, he mused, it was better to remain seated and aloof; and in command.
The General squared his shoulders. “Permission granted,” he said. “Within limits.” He paused. “And you may stand at ease, Lieutenant.”
Scott Lancer fought the smile that tugged at the right-hand corner of his mouth. He relaxed, but still remained erect. Reaching into the inside pocket of his well tailored tunic; he withdrew a thin sheaf of papers. “Request for transfer, sir,” he announced.
was a chuffing sound as
Leaning forward, Scott produced a Lucifer stick, lighting it with his thumb
nail. He cupped his hand, shielding the match from the breeze coming through
the tent’s opening. He watched as
“My grandfather’s connections,” the young man interrupted; flushing slightly at his uncharacteristic lapse in good manners.
A by-the-book commander, Sheridan was clearly annoyed at the interruption, his face grim. “Be that as it may, Lieutenant,” he ground out, “the fact Harlan Garrett cares enough to use his influence to assure your relative safety at the front will remain a major factor in determining the final outcome of your request for transfer. I would strongly recommend before you proceed you remember that.”
Lancer had once again come to attention. His eyes closed briefly as he
Sensing the younger man’s distress,
Scott was surprised that
Clay Porter had been Scott Lancer’s mentor; an upperclassman at Harvard and a long time friend. Like his father and grandfather before him, Porter had joined the family business to carry on a tradition of design, construction and maintenance of the many railroad bridges scattered across the length and breadth of the southeastern coast. To the dismay of the Rebels, the talented engineer proved as good at destroying the bridges as his family had been in building them; so good, the Confederate’s had put a price on his head.
Scott shook his head in denial. “The Confederate’s are still offering the reward,” he countered. His voice lowered, the next words filled with great passion as he leaned forward; bracing himself against the desk with both hands. “I would know if he was dead, sir,” he declared fervently, his right hand rising to cover the place just above his heart. “I would know it here.”
Scott considered the request; something that had come as a complete surprise. “By your leave, sir,” he said; pulling up a small folding camp chair and settling in.
Scott paused for a heartbeat. “I made a decision I knew he wouldn’t approve of; but only after his refusal to listen to me when I asked for his blessing.” He inhaled. “I’m not proud of what I did to circumvent his rejection of my repeated requests, but I do not regret for one moment my final decision.
“I’m aware, sir, of the number of classmates at Harvard who used the influence of their parents to evade the draft, and of those who paid other young men to serve in their stead. But that was their choice, General; a choice I knew I couldn’t live with, not in good conscience.”
Scott had expected the question and was determined to answer it truthfully. “I felt it was my duty, sir. To the country, to myself, and to men like Clay Porter; who willingly gave up their security and the comfort of home to do what they knew was right.” He hesitated and then continued. “But it was not my intention to serve here,” he gestured with his right hand, “as a…”
Scott felt his cheeks flush and he lowered his head. “Point taken, sir,” he responded. He looked up, meeting the older man’s gaze directly. “Although I intended to be more tactful in my wording,” he smiled.
an empty potted meat tin,
Again, Scott kept his gaze firmly on his commander. “At first,” he confessed. “But after today; after what we found when we went looking for Sergeant Schömmer and his men…” the words faded into the twilight quiet.
sat for a time in quiet reflection, both men lost in their own thoughts.
Scott nodded his
head. “He has a wife and two sons,” he said. “They have a small lodging
“Heinrich told me she doesn’t read or write English. I don’t speak German all that well, but I am fluent enough in writing the language. I just felt that conveying condolences in her native tongue would be more comforting than a letter someone else would have to read to her. It was presumptuous of me, sir, and if you feel I was out of line…”
Scott accepted the drink, gesturing with the small cup. “To your health, sir,” he toasted.
For the next half hour, the young Bostonian laid out his intentions; the words coming with surprising ease. “I’ve spoken with several men, sir; beginning with the soldiers who were with me when we found Sergeant Schömmer and the others. All of them expressed the same sentiments: that they not only want to find the men responsible for the atrocity, but who are dedicated to the idea of assuming Schömmer’s place within the regiment. They recognize the danger they will be facing and fully recognize our continued need for reliable foragers. They’ve asked that they be allowed to volunteer.”
Scott nodded. “I realize that, sir.” He hesitated, and then plowed on. “I’ve chosen ten men I feel we can depend on to carry out their duty as foragers, but who will be capable of defending themselves should the need arise. They are well aware of the danger, and the risk.”
men of your choosing, Lieutenant?”
Again, the young man nodded in affirmation. “Seasoned troopers,” he answered without hesitation. “Single men, well disciplined; with the ability to take orders. Two of them have functioned well as scouts, two more as sharpshooters; and the others are from farming families with superior knowledge of livestock and the general layout of outbuildings, granaries, and storage facilities.” Short, sweet and to the point.
Scott smiled. He
had done his homework; had made a point of learning as much about
will not tolerate looting,”
“Understood, sir,” Scott agreed.
The General was quiet, pondering what he was hearing. “And you think I should allow you to lead these men?”
had anticipated the question. “I know the country,” he began. He knew he
needed to press his argument with hard facts, but wasn’t entirely
comfortable with where the conversation was inevitably headed. Then, aware
It was true. From the time he was old enough to no longer require the care of a full time nurse; he had accompanied Harlan Garrett on long business trips throughout the Southeast. Granted, their entourage included a maid, a cook and a multilingual tutor; but Scott had enjoyed their travels. And he had been a judicious observer.
Sitting before him was a disciplined, intelligent young man, confident in his own abilities; a wizened old soul in a vibrant body. Still, the General felt compelled to once again warn the young man of the dangers he would be facing. “You do realize, Lieutenant,” he began, “if I grant your request you will be operating well forward of the main forces. You will be alone in enemy territory, without support or protection; and your fate will be no different than that of a spy, with swift retribution for your trespass.”
Scott’s relaxed posture and calm countenance belied his inner turmoil. He was painfully aware the risk he was taking would be a burden shared by the men he had chosen to ride with him. The responsibility was overwhelming; but the cards had been dealt, and he intended to play out his hand. “‘No one can confidently say he will still be living tomorrow,’” he said, the words coming in a near whisper.
Composing himself and becoming more alert, Scott graced the older man with a broad smile. “A wise man,” he said; “who wrote more about the faults and virtues of mere mortals, and less regarding the supreme power of their many gods.”
A look of surprise registered briefly on the General’s lined face before his lips parted in an amused smile. And then he sobered. He signaled for the younger man to rise, waiting until he came to full attention. “I’m going to grant your request, Lieutenant. You will organize your volunteers and prepare them to take to the field. Three days rations per man, one mount each; and sufficient armament and ammunition to secure your reasonable safety. You will commence your mission within the next twenty-four hours.” This time, he rose to his feet and returned the younger man’s salute.
Scott waited to be formally dismissed. “Sir?”
Puzzled, Scott nodded. “Yes, sir. Developing the plates he made when we discovered Sergeant Schömmer and his men.” There was a slight element of censure in his tone.
Scott detected the dry humor in the older man’s words; and appreciated them for what they were: the final break from the chain that had bound him to his Grandfather. It was an exhilarating feeling. “As you wish, sir,” he said, taking his leave.
had just passed between the tent’s flaps when
The General didn’t look up until he heard the whisper of stiff fabric and the cadence of retreating footsteps. He breathed a silent prayer; that something more tangible than a single photograph would be all that remained of the young Lieutenant when the long War was finally over. He hoped God was listening.