by  Kit



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 Sheridan. Things just didn’t jive.

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.”

Scott 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 Sheridan’s command. His first incursion into a combat zone had been down a narrow mud-slick roadway lined on both sides with the corpses of Union and Confederate dead; stacked like cord wood awaiting burial in a common grave. But this…

He knew these men. Three days before the troop had ridden back into Sheridan’s encampment to report what they had encountered during their scavenging; and to share their bounty of captured poultry with their comrades. That same evening, he had been invited to join the men for a bowl of something they called rivulets, a thick peppery broth with rice-sized egg noodles and minuscule bits of chicken; a welcome change from the usual diet of hard tack and potted beef.

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 United States, who had enlisted immediately at the beginning of the War; an avowed abolitionist who had likened slavery to the feudal system that still existed in his homeland. And now he was dead.

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 Denton. “Is there enough light?” He began brushing off his tunic.

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.

Six hours later, the small cadre of foot-sore cavalrymen guided their horses into Sheridan’s camp. Only Gibbons was mounted. Scott Lancer and his ten troopers were leading their animals, a dead body draped across each saddle. Sergeant Schömmer was secured across the young Lieutenant’s dark Morgan gelding Attila, the cavalryman’s severed hands carefully wrapped and stowed behind the black McClellan saddle.



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.

There was a chuffing sound as Sheridan stifled a cough behind his clenched right fist. “Again?” he asked. Since the young Lieutenant’s assignment to his staff there had been almost weekly requests for transfer. Sheridan leaned back in his chair and dug into his vest pocket for a silver case, opening it and withdrawing a cigar.

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 Sheridan took his time getting the blunt going; finally pinching the match and rolling it between his thumb and forefinger until it was cold. “I was hoping, sir,” he pulled himself erect, “bearing in mind what we found this morning, you would now be more amenable to my request.”

Sheridan inhaled and removed the cigar from his mouth, studying the orange nub of ash. “And I would think, Lieutenant – as a Harvard boy of commendable scholastic standing – considering what you saw out there,” he gestured with his smoke toward the growing darkness beyond the tent’s opening, “you would have changed your mind.” He resumed smoking. “You wouldn’t be the first young man from Harvard willing to take advantage of…” he coughed, “…the connections available…”

“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.”

Scott Lancer had once again come to attention. His eyes closed briefly as he considered Sheridan’s thinly veiled threat. Harlan Garrett could be a truly generous mentor to the people whose favor he carefully cultivated; but a cold, formidable enemy to those who betrayed his trust. He cleared his throat, speaking softly. “While I appreciate my Grandfather’s intentions, sir,” the lie tripped with surprising ease across his lips, “I also feel that my position here is an affront to friends – good friends – who have knowingly put themselves in harms way for a cause they believe in.” He took a steadying breath in an effort to remain calm; determined not to lose his temper.

Sensing the younger man’s distress, Sheridan’s eyes narrowed. He took another long draw on the cigar. “You’re talking about Clay Porter,” he breathed, “the engineer.” Harlan Garrett’s original letter had addressed the issue of Scott’s missing friend, and his grandson’s dogged determination to find the man; an idea Garrett had dismissed as the ludicrous dreams of a naïve boy.

If Scott was surprised that Sheridan was aware of Clay Porter’s status as missing in action, presumed dead, it didn’t show. “Yes,” he declared, standing even more erect.

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.

“You do know,” Sheridan began, carefully watching the young Lieutenant’s face, “that Porter is probably dead.”

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.”

Sheridan’s expression softened; briefly. The strength and conviction he saw in the young man’s face was impressive, the slate-blue eyes conveying a maturity well beyond his actual years. He found himself filled with an incredible sense of genuine respect; and decided to hear the man out. “Sit down, Lieutenant,” he ordered, tempering the command with a barely perceivable smile and a casual wave of his hand.

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.

Sheridan took another long pull on his cigar, a halo of blue smoke hovering above his head. “It’s my understanding, son, that you defied your Grandfather’s wishes and enlisted without his permission. That, in fact, you indulged in some major deception to go against his wishes. Is that true?”

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.”

Sheridan stifled a laugh. There was no humor in the sound. He immediately thought of Robert Lincoln; the President’s son, whose mother had used her considerable influence and no small amount of pressure and innuendo to insure her elder son remained safe behind ivy covered walls. “Why?” he asked bluntly.

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…”

“…glorified clerk?” Sheridan interrupted. This time, the smile was genuine.  

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.

Using an empty potted meat tin, Sheridan stubbed out the remainder of his cigar and immediately retrieved another from his pocket. This time, he lit his own smoke. “Your determination to find your friend Porter,” he began between puffs, “is that your primary reason for making this request for transfer?”

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.

They sat for a time in quiet reflection, both men lost in their own thoughts.  Sheridan was the first to break the silence. “I understand you gathered Sergeant Schömmer’s personal belongings, and have taken it upon yourself to write to his family.” One of the young Lieutenant’s first jobs when he had begun his service as one of Sheridan’s aides was composing letters of condolences for the General’s signature. So many letters, the man mused. Too many.

Scott nodded his head. “He has a wife and two sons,” he said. “They have a small lodging house in Philadelphia and Margareta – his wife – is a skilled seamstress.

“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…”

Sheridan shook his head. “I don’t think you were out of line, Lieutenant. In fact, I think it is commendable you would take the time to consider the woman’s feelings.”  He took a deep breath, and then bent down to open the field chest next to his chair. He withdrew a bottle of whisky and two sterling silver jiggers.

Scott accepted the drink, gesturing with the small cup. “To your health, sir,” he toasted.

Sheridan downed the liquor in a single swallow and got down to the business at hand. “I’m assuming, Lieutenant, you have a plan.”


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.”

Sheridan listened intently. His past experiences had taught him that men fired with a need to avenge a perceived wrong could be valuable assets in the field; but also knew that misdirected bravado could lead to disaster. “Revenge can be a great motivator, Lieutenant; and can rally good men to accomplish remarkable objectives. But it can also evoke a degree of carelessness that can lead to tragedy. This can’t be a mission based solely on retribution. I need reliable foragers, not a band of vigilantes bent on revenge.”

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.”

“Ten men of your choosing, Lieutenant?” Sheridan asked.

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.

Sheridan leaned back in his chair. “You know what I would expect – demand – from these men.”

Scott smiled. He had done his homework; had made a point of learning as much about Sheridan as he could from the man’s peers, his junior officers and his own astute observations. At the beginning of the conflict, Sheridan – like other officers serving at the front – had vehemently opposed scavenging. The prolonged fighting, the lapse in dependable reinforcement and supplies had changed that line of thinking; but not Sheridan’s rules.  “No profiteering, and no jayhawking,” he responded. “And absolutely no confiscating of personal belongings.”

“I will not tolerate looting,” Sheridan declared.

“Understood, sir,” Scott agreed.

The General was quiet, pondering what he was hearing. “And you think I should allow you to lead these men?”

Scott 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 Sheridan was watching him very carefully, he tossed the dice. “I traveled extensively with my Grandfather, whenever he found it necessary to leave Boston on business. By ship, but more often by rail. And not just to the major cities.”

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.

Sheridan’s expression was benign; betraying nothing of what he was thinking.  In his mind he was picturing Scott Lancer as a child, the image of a well mannered, golden-haired young boy in the company of much older companions; and silently wondered if the lad had ever enjoyed – or even experienced – the joy of childhood play. He shook the thought away, and turned his gaze toward the young officer.

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.

Sheridan’s right eyebrow arched slightly. He immediately recognized the quote. “Euripides,” he remarked casually; “last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens.”

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?”

Sheridan was lighting another cigar.  “The photographer,” he said.  “Is he still in his wagon?”

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.

If Sheridan was aware of his Lieutenant’s displeasure with the photographer, it wasn’t evident. Fumbling among the stack of papers and parcels atop his littered desk, he picked up a small packet and displayed an elegant but empty silver frame.  “Your Grandfather sent a request asking for a photograph of the two of us; something, no doubt, he intends to share with his friends and associates.” He smiled, wryly.  “Considering what I’ve just done, it seems the least I can do.” Pausing to take a long draw on the cigar, he gestured in the younger man’s direction. “So, Lieutenant, before you change out of that finely tailored uniform, I suggest you summon Mr. Denton, and let him do what he does best: glorify war and its noble combatants.”

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.

He had just passed between the tent’s flaps when Sheridan called out to him a final time. Turning back, he saw the General sit back down and begin writing. “Sir?”

Sheridan responded without looking up. “Some more words of wisdom from your friend, Euripides,” he said. “‘Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred with a head.’”

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.






Submission Guidelines