(Thank you to Sandra for beta and commas. Anything we missed is my fault.)
A good cavalry man pays heed to his horse.
One of the first lessons Cpl. Scott Lancer learned upon enlisting in the 2nd Regimental Massachusetts Cavalry was “pay heed to your horse, because he probably has more sense than you.” Words of wisdom spoken by their regimental commander.
Facing each batch of new recruits, some of them sitting astride a horse for the first time in their lives, Sergeant Nathaniel Brooks was blunter. “That animal between your legs is a living, breathing member of the United States Army, and he is your responsibility. Before you eat, drink, sleep or even think of taking a piss, you make sure that animal is fed, watered, curried and bedded. His welfare is the fine line between you living and dying or going back to the infantry, whichever is worse.”
Scott had been riding since he was five, was as comfortable in a saddle as he was on his own two feet. He knew the wisdom of his commander’s words. That was why he was on edge as he rode along the wooded lane in upper Virginia in the early spring of 1864. He had been watching the nervous twitch of his own mount’s ears for the last twenty minutes. The horse sensed something he could not. Perhaps it was the hidden presence of animals the Morgan gelding was not familiar with, the scent of the enemy or the sound of his breathing. He watched as the animal’s nostrils flared and it swung its head to the left then right.
“Somethin’s botherin’ all of them.” Trooper Fuller’s voice was barely above a whisper as though he feared he would be overheard. “My mare is twitchier than a dog with a flea.” Gabe Fuller was barely a year older than Scott and his closest friend in the 2nd. Short, muscular, dark haired and coarsely spoken, he hailed from a section of Boston Scott had never seen. They were as opposite as two men could be, yet they made a seamless pair on the battlefield.
The undergrowth along the road’s edge was the fresh, yellow green of spring, and not yet as dense as it would become by midsummer. But it provided enough cover that Scott could not see more than ten feet beyond the packed dirt road. A good horse, ridden by an experienced rider, could cover that short distance in a split second. And the confederate cavalry boasted the most skillful horsemen on the battlefield.
“They could be hidin’ anywhere along here and we’d never see the sneaky bastards,” Gabe added.
“I agree,” Scott said. Glancing down the line of riders behind him, he saw tense, alert expressions on all of their faces.
“Think someone’s hunkered down behind those bushes watchin’ us?” Gabe asked.
Scott nodded, suddenly averse to conversation, alert for any sound that might reveal the presence of the enemy.
The men continued to ride in silence, the only sounds were hoof beats, the groan of leather, the clatter of sabers hung in scabbards over their saddles and the occasional nicker of a nervous horse. The air was charged with expectation and undetected hazard. Scott found his own hand resting on the sidearm at his hip, and he shifted slightly in his saddle, ready to respond should danger present itself in a surprise attack by the rebels. For the past month the men of the 2nd Mass had been patrolling these roads, engaging in hit and run skirmishes with bands of confederate cavalry, guarding against forays by guerilla bands. Every man present knew how quickly a quiet road could become a bloody battlefield.
Scott did not expect the sound of battle to come from the road ahead of them. They were all startled when a distant volley of gunfire echoed between the hills on either side of the road, reverberating like thunder as it rolled towards them in the narrow space. As a man the column split and moved off the open road into the shelter of the trees.
Sergeant Slocum pointed at Scott and Fuller. “Ride ahead and scout the area.”
Working their way through the undergrowth as silently as possible, the two men moved in the direction of the gunfire. As they topped the rise of a small hill they spotted a troop of Union Cavalry hard pressed by a larger band of Confederates. The boys in blue were holding their own, but would not for long.
“Fall back and inform Sergeant Slocum. I’ll wait here,” Scott ordered.
Fuller turned his horse toward the road. There was no longer any need for stealth, and Scott heard the horse’s hooves when they hit the road’s hard packed road. The sound quickly disappeared as he galloped back to the rest of the column.
After the initial volley of gunfire, both groups of riders had dismounted and were engaged in close quarter hand to hand combat. The Union troops had formed a circle and were fighting fiercely to defend the man in the center of that circle. A defense they were rapidly losing to the superior numbers of rebel attackers. Although they could have easily killed him at such close range, the confederates seemed determined to take the man in the middle alive.
If the rebels wanted him that badly, Scott decided, he was too valuable to lose. Glancing quickly over his shoulder he knew he did not have time to wait for the rest of his unit to arrive. The left side of the Union circle was beginning to crumble when Scott dug his heels into the side of his mount pushing it to a full and reckless gallop down the dusty hill.
It took less than two minutes to cover the distance but that was a minute too long. The left side of the Union defense had thinned and collapsed. The Confederates would have their quarry in seconds. Scott gave a shrill whistle to get the attention of the men on the ground, and as a man they seemed to understand his purpose. The soldiers in the front of the line suddenly dove to the left and right leaving only confederates between Scott and the man they were threatening. Hunkered low over his mount the gelding barreled forward into the backs of the Confederates, drawing to a jarring stop between the rebels and their goal.
As Scott reached down with his left arm he saw a puff of smoke from the barrel of a confederate handgun and felt a searing burn in his left bicep. His arm went suddenly numb. Only then did he hear the dull bang of the weapon. But he did not stop. The man on the ground grabbed his outreached hand and Scott heaved him upward on to the saddle behind himself, turned his horse sharply, and galloped back toward the rise in the road. Before he had reached the top the rest of his column charged over the hill, bearing down on the Confederates who scattered into the undergrowth as soon as they saw the approaching Union troopers. Scott paused for only a moment, his horse prancing restlessly.
“Take me back to my men,” said the man behind him.
Nudging his horse forward, Scott let the animal trot down the hill, reigning in his excited mount.
Reaching the scene of the attack, Scott’s rider slid effortlessly from the back of the gelding, barking orders to his men even before his feet hit the ground. It was only then that Scott noticed the man’s rank and noted his less than average height. There was only one major general fitting this description. “Little Phil” - Major General Philip T. Sheridan, newly appointed commander of the Cavalry Corp of the Army of the Potomac.
Dismounting, Scott stood at attention, attentive and awaiting orders. “Corporal Scott Lancer awaiting your orders, sir,” he said.
“At ease, Corporal,” Sheridan commanded.
Relaxing his stance, Scott suddenly felt light headed. At first the rush of adrenalin fueled action had masked the pain in his arm. Now a burning ache replaced the initial numbness throbbing in rhythm with his heartbeat. He glanced at the ragged hole in his sleeve and noticed the sticky wetness in his left glove. Easing the glove over still numb fingers he was surprised to see his hand covered with blood.
“Are you all right, man. Are you hit anywhere else?”
Scott felt a firm hand grip his uninjured arm and looked into the concerned face of the general.
“Uh, no sir. Just the arm.”
“Sergeant,” roared Sheridan. His sergeant appeared at his side. “Make sure Corporal Lancer is taken care of. And I mean take good care of him.”
Scott was led to the side of the road and made to sit against a tree. A heavy cloth was wrapped around his upper arm to help staunch the flow of blood running down his arm and dripping off his fingertips. Two other wounded Union troopers were laid beside him. Through the dull pounding in his head he could hear the general snapping orders to the Sergeant Slocum.
“Sergeant, I want half your men to accompany me to our bivouac. The rest are to stay behind with my column to round up horses and assist with the dead. The corporal along with the other wounded will be coming with me.”
“More ether, doctor?”
“No. We’re almost done here. Let him wake up.”
Scott was dimly aware of disembodied voices as he drifted in and out of consciousness. His left arm hurt, and he opened his eyes trying to focus on the person standing next to him.
“I need more lint to pack this wound. That’s it. Now bandages. He looks like he is coming around.”
Flat on his back, the board beneath him slick and hard, Scott was finally able to make out the figure of the surgeon bending over him as the last wraps were finished on his bandages.
“You are very lucky, young man,” the surgeon said wiping his hands on his bloody apron. “Another inch farther in and we’d have been amputating this arm instead of sewing it together.”
Scott’s head swam from the after effects of the ether.
“As it is you’re missing a bite sized piece of muscle that will take some time to heal. Keep it clean. And don’t use it.”
The orderlies helped Scott to a sitting position and were fitting a sling to his injured arm. His sack coat was tossed over his shoulders and he was led to a cot in one corner of the surgeon’s tent. He sat gingerly on the edge, holding his head in his uninjured hand wishing the room, and his stomach, to stop swirling.
“Rest. The dizziness should pass in a few moments,” the orderly assured him before turning to check on the other men that had been brought in with him.
Scott sat for several minutes. The pain from his arm competing with the nausea from the ether. He heard someone clear their throat and looked up to see an unfamiliar lieutenant standing next to his cot. The man smiled at him.
“Whenever you feel up to it, the general would like to speak with you.”
Scott pushed himself to his feet.
“That’s not an order, Corporal. It’s actually a request.”
Scott nodded, then wished he had not as the room spun. He closed his eyes and when he opened them the lieutenant was watching him with a concerned expression on his face.
“I think some air would help, sir,” Scott said suddenly wanting to be away from the cloying metallic odor of blood and pungent stink of ether.
“This way then,” said the lieutenant.
As they stepped outside, Scott glanced around. The camp seemed an endless ocean of white canvas tents and he wondered where the rest of his comrades had gone. Off to the left he could hear the sound of soldiers at drill mingled with the laughter of men at ease. Fortunately, the distance from the surgeon’s tent to the general’s was not great. The ether they had administered before repairing his arm had left him feeling weak kneed and sick to his stomach. The short walk was taxing, but by the time they had arrived at the large wall tent that served as General Sheridan’s field headquarters his head had begun to clear. The lieutenant held aside the flap at the front of the tent and let Scott enter first.
Scott stepped inside and remained by the entrance. Sheridan and three of his officers were huddled over a map spread on the table in the center of the tent. The conversation was heated, the small man energetic as he debated tactics with his officers. In one corner of the tent, taking up almost half the space, was a young civilian photographer and his bulky equipment. Glancing up Sheridan saw Scott standing next to the front of the tent and dismissed his men, coming over to where Scott was standing.
“Corporal Lancer,” Sheridan said, a congenial smile on his face.
“Sir.” Scott stood as close to attention as he was able.
“At ease, Corporal. I wanted to thank you. Your actions this afternoon might have saved me a long sojourn in a Confederate prisoner of war camp and for that I am very grateful.” Sheridan’s gruff voice and manner at odds with his obvious concern for Scott.
“It was my duty, sir.”
“Above and beyond your duty, and you performed it well. I could use more men like you. Men willing to take the initiative.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted the young man with the camera. “I’m ready, General.”
“Blast,” said Sheridan. “Is this necessary? Right now?”
“The loyal citizens of the Union want to be informed, General Sheridan. Kept abreast of the goings on of war. I think there will be great interest in Grant’s hand-picked cavalry commander.”
“Hmph,” Sheridan grumbled. “They should be more interested in men like young Lancer here. Instead of wasting my time.”
“There’s nothing says I can’t take a photograph of both of you.”
For a second Sheridan’s features darkened, then he smiled and nodded his head in agreement. “That’s an excellent idea. Come over here, Corporal. “
Scott could feel the blood begin to creep up his cheeks. “But, sir…”
Scott self-consciously glanced down at his tattered, blood stained uniform, then looked to the general’s surprisingly impeccable clothing. Sheridan seemed to understand his discomfort. Not that Scott was vane.
“Lieutenant,” Sheridan said to the young officer who had accompanied Scott from the surgeon’s tent. “Give us your coat. You’re about the right size.”
Without questioning the request the man removed his frock coat.
“Put that on,” the general ordered.
Scott hesitated. “But, sir, I’m not…I don’t want anyone to think I was trying to impersonate an officer.”
“Nonsense,” Sheridan answered.
“But I’m not a lieutenant.” Scott gulped. His tone was dangerously close to insubordinate.
“Not, yet,” Sheridan said, with a wry grin.
Scott stared at the general as his assistant helped him into the borrowed frock coat taking care not to jostle his injured arm.
Sheridan reached over to the mess of papers on his map table and picked up a sealed envelope. Handing it to Scott he said, “I’m recommending that your commanding officer make you a brevet lieutenant. Effective immediately.”
Scott accepted the proffered envelope, staring at it for a moment as though it would burst into flames. He was honored but truth be told, the responsibility of being an officer both terrified and delighted him. “Thank you, sir,” he said at last. “I will do my best.”
“You earned it, young man. And if you are interested, I could use a man like you on my command staff.”
For the briefest second Scott considered the proposal. “Thank you, sir. But I think I would prefer to remain with the 2nd Massachusetts.”
“I thought you might. Though your unit is to be attached to my brigade, at which point the offer will still stand.”
“Well, well,” the man behind the camera said. “Why don’t we celebrate this momentous occasion by taking this photograph? So I can get on with another project.”
The general stood next to Scott and looked at the camera, his face frozen in a solemn expression. The photographer disappeared under his hood, then moments later reappeared. Scott knew he had not taken time to properly expose the plate.
“You need the box, General.”
Sheridan scowled as the photographer brought over a small wooden box.
“The new lieutenant is considerably taller than you are, sir.” It was obvious the civilian was not daunted by either the rank of the officer he was dealing with or by his temper. “You don’t want him looking down on you too far do you?”
“Hmph,” Sheridan continued to scowl as he stepped up onto the box, bringing his five foot five inch height a half foot closer to Scott’s six foot.
“So, Harlan,” Jacobs said through a blue haze of cigar smoke. “You must be proud of your grandson now. Or at least over the infernal mood you’ve been in since he enlisted.”
“What are you blathering about, Jacobs.” Harlan settled into an arm chair near the fireplace, a glass of brandy in one hand, a financial report in the other. It had been months since he had dropped in at the hunt club, and was not in a mood for Jacobs’ mindless platitudes. Harlan’s relationship with Scott was none of his business.
Jacobs puffed out another gout of noxious smoke, then placed the latest issue of the Boston Herald on the end table next to Harlan. Without another word the man turned and walked away. Harlan glared after him for several minutes before turning his attention to the newspaper he had left behind. The headline read Sheridan’s Cavalry Advances in the South. But Harlan did not see the words. He had eyes only for the grainy reproduction of the photograph printed beneath.
Author’s Note: I tried six ways to Sunday to figure out a way to get Scott and Sheridan in the same place at the same time to take that damn picture. The 2nd Mass did become part of Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corp, commanded by Sheridan. And the regimental history says the 2nd Mass served with him at Cedar Creek and other campaigns late in the war. And therein lies the problem. Late in the war. If Scott spent the last year of the war in a POW camp he had to have been captured in April of 1864. Sheridan commanded 10,000 cavalry men at the battle of Yellow Tavern, May 11, 1864 so he had to have travelled to Virginia before May. Around that time the 2nd Mass regimental history states they were performing patrols and guarding against Confederate raiders. So I’m setting this all about March or early April. Stick with me here. I’m probably overthinking the whole thing, but I need to sort out all this to have the story make sense to me.)