combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

The Gypsy of Fredericksburg

          After our ruinous assault of the sunken road at bloody Antietem in September 1862, we made camp at Harper's Ferry and licked our wounds. The men of my regiment, the New York 69th, were mostly Irish immigrants like me. Many haled from the slums of lower Manhattan where we learned to fight with clubs, knives and fists as members of gangs like the Roach Guard, which I once aspired to join. Orphaned at the age of ten, I found a place to sleep along with twenty other boys in a filthy cellar of a tenement the Roach Guard controlled. Fetching growlers of beer for my betters from the local saloons was my first occupation. But I soon left the beer pail behind to pick the odd pocket, toss dunks and fight like my life depended on it. And when I turned seventeen, I joined the army.

          Our regiment belonged to the Irish Brigade, which fought with distinction at Bull Run and the Peninsula Campaign before I joined them, just in time for Antietem. Patriotism had nothing to do with my enlistment – the Union be damned; that was a rich man's issue. Nor did I have any burning desire to free the slaves so they could flood north and steal any chance I had of getting a real job. It was the $200 enlistment bonus, which Bull O'Rourke, the captain of the Roach Guard, wanted as my initiation fee into the gang. Being a kind man, he took but $175 of it and left me the rest to squander on a few nights of whiskey and women before I shipped off to Washington City to join the 69th.

          Before Antietem, I spent my time in camp stealing what was not nailed down, and backing other gang members in the regiment when they got in a pickle. But then I was caught with an officer's pocket watch, and for a week I wore a barrel with a sign proclaiming that I was a thief. Back home I was proud to be one; here, I discovered, it was powerfully humiliating to be branded one. The next week, a soldier from the Chicago company turned up with his throat cut one morning after he refused to make good on a gambling debt. He refused to pay because he claimed the dice were loaded. He was right, of course, but it did him no good. Luckily for me, two of the men involved deserted on the eve of battle when word of their guilt spread, and they hanged them as soon as they captured them. So they never had a chance to turn me in. I was not involved in the throat cutting, mind you, and was shocked when it happened. My role was to lure the man from his tent in the middle of the night, which I did with a bottle of whiskey, and to stay with him until the muscle arrived. They killed him as casually as a butcher gutting a hog. I had seen men die before, but never had I helped them die. I vowed that night that I would not get involved in gang business again.

          Then came Antietem where I learned two things – I had sold myself too cheaply, and the gang battles of Five Corners were but child's play compared to the real thing. Our commander, General Meagher, said that we had acquitted ourselves well at my first battle. And I suppose we did – if the aim of the contest was to amass the most casualties, we did ourselves proud with a third of our men killed, wounded, captured or missing that day in Maryland.

          Two months after Antietem, they sacked the head of the entire army, Little Mac, General George McClellan. Most veterans were downhearted at the news. They talked of him as of a god. The war was all but lost now, they said. He transformed us from a mob of hooligans into a disciplined army, they said. He had the interests of the common soldier at heart, they said. But I knew after Antietem that no general gave a fig about the lives of common soldiers.

          General Burnside, who based on his subsequent performance must have been chosen because he had the most foolish face whiskers, took charge of the Army of the Potomac, and we marched south on November 15th. Some of the lambs being led to the next slaughter spoke with great confidence of our prospects. Along the way, our officers fueled their fiery enthusiasm with grandiose predictions that we would throw aside Bobby Lee's boys like so many toy soldiers and spend Christmas in Richmond. Apparently, they had not been fighting in the same war as me. In my war, armies of men shot at each other for several hours until enough men were dead and maimed to call it a great battle, at which point the armies parted without anything to show for it but corpse-strewn fields and bloody streams. But maybe I had not seen enough action to judge, I told myself. So I kept my mouth shut.

          On November 19, 1862, we reached Falmouth Virginia, on the east bank of the Rappahannock River, across from Fredericksburg, which when we found it, found it was a pretty town perched on a bluff overlooking the river. They told us we'd be crossing the river on pontoon bridges the next day and would march down the Telegraph Road right into the Secesh capital about fifty miles away.

          But the next day and the next, and a score more came and went without us stirring. Every morning a rumor swept through the camp like dysentery. We'd be fording the river that afternoon downstream. The next day the ford would move upstream. The pontoons were arriving tonight, and the bridge'd be up by first light tomorrow. We'd be moving back to winter camp in Washington City on the morrow. And so on. In the beginning we took these tales to heart and were ready to strike camp by the end of each day. After a week, though, we lost interest and settled down to endure a snowy Virginia winter in our two-man dog tents. The cold is a terrible thing when you have but a thin layer of canvas to protect you, but at least they fed us well. Army food was supposed to be awful, but the weevil infested hardtack, salt pork, rice, peas, beans and coffee were better than the meager fare I'd had most days in New York. Plus thirteen dollars a month pay bought the occasional bottle of overpriced whiskey and a tin or two of fruit from the sutlers – the merchants who attached themselves to the army like parasites.

          We passed the time with idle distractions – like drinking. The sutlers were forbid to sell us alcohol, but that did not stop them. If they had any for sale, they folded the flap of their tent at a queer angle and waited for us to find them, which we always did. When we weren't dead drunk, we passed the time with boxing matches, snowball fights, dice, cards, whoring, and visiting the sawbones to cure what the whores gave us. Our regimental medical officer had a very simple system – he kept a ball of opium in one pocket and mercury in the other: opium for dysentery, mercury for venereal disease.

          But even in camp, our casualties mounted. Almost every day we buried one or more of our own who had passed from the dysentery, cholera, fever, flux or some other nameless scourge. Disease ravaged us as badly as the Army of Northern Virginia had.

          But I was in no need of mercury. I was too busy courting Madame Egyptiana, a beautiful dark skinned creature – a Gypsy mystic who dispensed magic potions from a tent pitched among the sutlers on the outskirts of camp. I had never seen anything like her. Some said she was a Gypsy, others said an Indian or a light skinned Negress, or an exotic mixture of the three. I took one look into her eyes and knew that neither her ancestry nor her ability to tell the future mattered, provided her future was linked to mine.

          Whenever I scraped together twenty-five cents, the price of a consultation, I ran to her tent where she would ward off the evil spirits that were hell bent on seeing me fall in the next battle. I was as skeptical of her evil spirits as I was of the priests', but I returned to her tent again and again. Each session was the same. I sat quietly while she swayed around me in her Gypsy skirt, blouse and turban. Her body exuded a warm musky odor that jeopardized my immortal soul with the most delicious impure thoughts and desires.

          Finally, after almost three weeks, I worked up my courage and made my intentions plain: "Oh marvelous flower of the spirit kingdom," I said, "have pity on your humble servant, and vouchsafe to reward him with a kiss." That was how lovers talked, I stupidly assumed, based on the stage performances I had seen on the Bowery.

          To my amazement, she leaned across the little table separating us and kissed me with an ardor I had never experienced from a woman before. We kissed for a while and then she pulled away.

          "I want you to come back with me to New York when this is over," I said after I caught my breath. "We'll be husband and wife. I'll help you set up a grand shop on Broadway. You'll be the Queen of Manhattan."

          "I would like that," she said. "I confess you stole my heart from the moment you walked into my tent weeks ago, Patrick. But first you must survive the coming battle. And the only way to do that is to drink a magic potion I have concocted especially for you. I have consulted the Tarot cards and can see nothing but blackness for you unless you quaff my potion."

          Her admission of her affection for me overwhelmed my senses. Her concern for my safety touched me deeply. "Of course, I will drink the potion, my beloved. Give it to me and I will tie it around my neck, close to my heart, until the time is right to drink it."

          "You have made me very happy, Patrick," she said and took my hand in hers. "Of course, the potion will not work unless you pay for it of your own free will. It costs but a dollar. Please, do this for me, Patrick – for us."

          "I would be happy to oblige, darling Egyptiana, if only my purse were as heavy as my heart when I think of leaving you."

          "But it is only a dollar. Surely you can afford that, Patrick, when your very life depends on it?"

          "Alas, madam, I have spent everything I had on visiting you."

          "Can you not borrow the money?"

          "It's been more than a month since last we were paid. I doubt anyone has money to lend."

          "But you must get the money. It's a matter of life and death. Given the exigencies of these circumstances, I would not think it amiss for you to steal the money, if necessary."

          But I'd had enough of stealing. The thought of two weeks in a barrel – with each theft, the sentence doubled – was too shameful even to contemplate now. "Alas, I cannot steal," I said without revealing why.

          "Well, when are you paid again?"

          "There are rumors we will be paid soon," I said.

          "The potion will keep you alive through the darkest night," she pleaded. "You must have it."

          "Wait," I said. "Can't you lend me the money?"

          "Impossible," she said. "We cannot hope to trick the spirits through such a sham."

          And so I left the tent ecstatic that my profession of love had not gone unrequited, but disconsolate that I had not the money to buy the potion. But the next day saw my fortunes rise again, as we were paid in the afternoon. The pontoons had finally arrived, the officers said, and we'd be moving out within a day or two. I rushed to Egyptiana's tent with my pay, dodging sutlers demanding pay for the whiskey I had cajoled from them with O.P.'s (orders on the paymaster). When I got there, she was tearing down her tent. She stopped when she saw me and rushed into my arms. I felt at once a peace and a burning desire that surpassed all human understanding.

          "Oh, thank God," she murmured into my neck. "I knew you would come for it. Now we will survive this thing together."

          She fished in my coat pocket for the cash and pulled it all out. "You will need thirteen vials," she said when she saw the money, as though the number had not been but one when I was bankrupt. She ran to her trunk and plucked out thirteen tiny purple bottles. "Drink one tonight," she said. "And every night until you march into harm's way. Keep the empty vials on your person for added protection. When you have drunk them all, you will have another's day protection but see that you fight no more after that day."

          I accepted the vials, as though I were the mighty Achilles who had the power to pick and choose his fights, and took her in my arms – we kissed with the passion of the damned. Sobbing, she swore she would seek me out as soon as the battle was over.

          On December 11, after a heavy snowstorm had frozen us in place for almost another week, the engineers finally completed the pontoon bridge, and the army started moving across in the afternoon. Our artillery gave the town a ferocious shelling. Our brigade did not cross until the next day. We went across to the tune of our marching song, the Gary Owen, and the cheers of the red-legged 14th Brooklyn who crossed before us. The bridge and surrounding water were covered with cards – Daguerreotypes of naked women. And copies of the filthy novels the sutlers hawked littered the bridge and nearby banks. The men before us obviously didn't want to disgrace their families by turning up dead with evidence of their degenerate vices on them. Having no such concerns, I stooped to capture Maria Monk on the way over, curious to see for myself whether any book could measure up to the lurid denunciations of our priests, who worked themselves into a fine frenzy over the monks and nuns cavorting in its pages.

          We spent the rest of the day and that night in the shelled ruins of Fredericksburg. While we waited for the call to battle, some of the men passed the time foraging in the empty houses. The lucky ones came away with hams, whiskey or tobacco – a commodity so precious that some plunged into the icy river to retrieve tobacco from a shipment that the town's citizens had sunk to keep from us. Others looked for something to burn to fend off another frigid December night, and anything was fair game – fancy chairs, feather beds, gaily painted doors, and even pianos. Others, whose greed surpassed their intelligence, came away with treasures of another sort. Michael Coffey and Brian O'Leary, from the Plug Uglies gang back home, returned to our company with a six foot long stuffed alligator, which they exchanged for a merciless beating from Sergeant O'Connor, who was almost mad with rage at the looting going on all around him.

          The next morning, the roar of battle erupted to the south where Hooker's and Franklin's divisions had taken their positions. We waited on Water Street near the town's wharfs. By mid-morning, the Rebel artillery found us, and we huddled against the walls while their shells played havoc with the buildings around us. A few hours later, we moved through the town towards the railroad tracks on the outskirts and heard the Rebel lines in front of us explode with a fury of musket and artillery fire.

          "They must have started the attack," Michael Coffey said. "It'll be our turn soon, boys."

          "Are you in a hurry, Mister Coffey?" Sergeant O'Connor asked. "If you've made other plans for the afternoon, perhaps I could try to fit you into the battle sooner?"

          The brigade's green flag with the golden harp of Ireland had been so tattered at Antietem that they shipped it north for a replacement, which had not yet arrived. So we tore off boxwood sprigs and stuck them through our caps to remind us of who we were, and to give the enemy warning of who they were facing. As if that would matter when the Minié balls started flying.

          Time stood still as we imagined what was happening on Marye's Heights, which is what our officers called the sloping hill to our front. After what seemed an eternity, the thunderous roar coming from the heights ebbed, and we saw another brigade moving into position. When they moved out of the town, the hellish roar began again. Surely, not even a mouse could survive such concentrated fire, I thought, and the knowledge that I would be herded into it filled me with a profound dread. I was young and saw that I had likely sold a long life for a few nights of sin. If I could've run, I would have, but I knew I had a better chance of surviving the battle than I did Sergeant O'Connor. The confederate fire ebbed again and the bloody remnants of the two brigades who had assaulted the Rebel position staggered back through our ranks.

          "It's a death trap," a soldier riddled with the bloody dots of shrapnel moaned.

          "A real meat grinder, boys," said another soldier holding what was left of his left hand above his head.

          "The rebs are up a hill behind a stone wall, shooting down at us without a care in the world," a third said as he limped along. "It's hopeless."

          "Shut your cowardly yaps," Sergeant O'Connor got between the retreating men and our ranks. "We'll see how hopeless it is when the Irish Brigade goes into action."

          Our artillery opened up at the Rebel position then, and we cheered as we imagined the Rebel wall blown to dust by the canon balls tearing into it. Like the walls of Jericho, I fantasized, as Father Corby gave us our final benediction, while he assured us that no general in his right mind would order another attack up that hill. He was right – General Burnside clearly was touched by madness that day.

          We heard another brigade go in, and then we formed ranks for our turn. General Meagher rode up and shouted something at us, but with the roar of battle to our front and my heart pounding within, I heard not a word and did not regret it. I am not the type to surrender my identity to a cheering crowd, to take comfort in stirring words. Words are merely words, as insubstantial as a breath of air. They cannot protect you from a Rebel canon ball, and once hit, all the words in the world will not save you from the consequences of that shot, be it death or the surgeon's saw. The only word that would have comforted me then was retreat, a word I knew I would not hear from our fierce general.

          Each breath I took seemed to chill my very soul, and I shivered so hard I thought I would break apart as we waited for the order to advance. I took some comfort from the vials in my pocket and the thoughts of Egyptiana they evoked. And then we moved out.

          Outside the town, we were exposed briefly to the enemy artillery, as we ran down into a valley and through a canal ditch filled with freezing water, until we reached a ridge that afforded protection before the final assault. Once there, we caught our breath. Ahead of us lay a slope that led up to a stone wall, above which bristled Secesh muskets. Behind them, further up the heights, the Rebel artillery waited. The dead and wounded of the regiments who had advanced before us strewed the slope. And then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a strange calm washed over me. One I had never felt before or since. I believed with the fervor of a nun on her deathbed that my true love's charms would save me. I reached into my pocket and held a vial firmly before the order came to fix bayonets and advance on the double quick.

          As soon as we moved beyond the ridge protecting us from their sight, the enemy artillery started again. They must have perfected their aim on the prior brigades, for no sooner did we show ourselves, then their shells ripped our lines asunder. But on we marched silently up the exposed four hundred yard slope, as though on parade. Despite the human detritus we had to step over and through, my conviction in the vials' magic power did not fade. I felt a blessed certainty in my heart that I would survive.

          Enfilading fire of the Confederate artillery from either side of the hill blew men over like matchsticks as we continued up the slope. Canon shot from the artillery at the top of the hill knocked down our ranks like so many bowling pins. And still I was invulnerable. Then we came within range of their muskets, and all hope of driving them from their positions died. I've heard it described as a hailstorm, with us bending our heads into the wind of it. It's the whiz of the Minié balls that I remember, the thumps and exhalations of my comrades as they struck home, and the ejaculations of those hit but not lucky enough to be killed or knocked unconscious by it.

          "Holy mother of God protect me."

          "Jesus, Mary and Joseph have mercy."

          If it weren't for the hellish storm of lead tearing men limb from limb around me, I could have imagined myself on a stroll with a group of pious men, so many were the prayers uttered. But I remained invincible, and so, on I went. I looked around at one point and saw I was the closest one to the wall – only thirty yards away. I could see a green flag with a harp on it up there and thought, for an instant, that they had captured our battle flag. But then I remembered our flag was not with us that day, and that my countrymen were fighting on either side of this war, just like we'd done in our homeland since time immemorial.

          They had schooled us not to stop to fire when advancing on a position, but I heard the scattered sound of musket fire behind me and dropped to my belly to avoid being hit in the back. We still used smoothbore muskets in our brigade, which were not nearly as accurate at a distance as the new rifled muskets most others used. Our officers taught us to close on the enemy as quickly as possible, and the ammunition we used – a musket ball and three large buckshot – was well suited for close range fighting, but not for precision firing. In short, I knew that my comrades' shots were more likely to find me than the enemy. I did not blame those who were shooting at my back. It was maddening to feel the fury of the enemy's fire and your friends dropping all around you and not be able to do anything about it. There's only so much a man can take of it, you see. Besides which, reaching the enemy's position was now a moot point. Those who survived this ill-conceived slaughter would count themselves as luck's very children.

          I gradually backed down the hill on my belly with my face to the front. I would not be hit in the back if I could avoid it. When I reached a cluster of bodies that had once been my messmates, I pulled them around me for protection. The dead feel no pain, I reasoned, and I doubted any of them would mind. And glad I was that I had taken the precaution, as bullets thumped into my wall of flesh with alarming frequency. It was then that I noticed small purple vials spilling from the pants pocket of the corpse that used to be Michael Coffey, and others were scattered around the late Brian O'Leary. The vials had done the poor lads no good, I observed, and I realized that my own had done as much for me. Had I been anywhere else, I might have indulged my emotions, but this was neither the time nor the place for such niceties, so I kept my peace and concentrated on playing dead.

          I lay there for the rest of the day and, pathetic as it is to think now, I was proud that none of the other blue waves crested as high on the hill as we. Come the night, I inched my way back down the slope in the freezing cold, through the banshee cries of the wounded. By morning, I found what was left of my brigade huddled around campfires in the town, brewing coffee. Only about two hundred or so were there for morning assembly, less than a quarter of the men who had gone up the slope, although others straggled in throughout the day.

          I spent the morning in a shivering paralysis in front of a campfire, too numb to talk. The cold and shock huddled us into a single mass of men. In the afternoon, the sergeant sent me to the field hospital to look for missing comrades. I found a few, but they were far beyond comforting. The hospital was a large white tent inside of which blood covered demons sawed off the limbs of the damned. Orderlies collected the limbs in wheelbarrows and carried them to a gigantic heap about one hundred yards away. The wounded lay in lines around the tent like the bloody spokes of a war chariot. If this is what awaited those who survived a shot, I thought, then may any shot that finds me be a kill shot.

          For the rest of the day we waited disconsolately for the madman who had sent us to our doom to renew the carnage, or for Lee to push us into the Rappahannock – all the time serenaded by the unearthly moaning of the pitiful men left on the slope. Except for the occasional shell, the Confederates lobbed into the town, and the sound of skirmishing around us, we were undisturbed in our anguish.

          That night, I joined a group that went to the battlefield to look for wounded comrades. The night was dark without the moon or even the stars to guide us, and we were grateful for the darkness as the Secesh were still firing down from their infernal wall at anything that moved. We stumbled around in the dark turning over frozen corpses, moving among those too wounded to escape, looking for our friends. As we got closer to the wall, we found bodies the Southerners had stripped naked for their overcoats, wool uniforms and sturdy shoes. Some of us were much offended at such a desecration of our dead, but I could not fault the living for taking the warm clothes of those who had no more use for such things.

          I found one of ours still alive, with his guts spilling out of his stomach and half his face blown away. His survival was a damned miracle. It was a demonstration that man was put on this earth to suffer. Half-heartedly I summoned the others, and we carried and dragged him back to the hospital where, after a physician examined him, they laid him at the far end of a long line of silent men.

          "There's nothing can be done for him," the orderly who tended to his line said. "If he wakes, we'll give him laudanum for his pain, if there's any left. But with any luck, he'll be dead soon."

          The next night, as ghostly bands of light played above the battlefield, as though celebrating our defeat, we snuck back across the pontoons in silence. Soundly thrashed but glad to be alive.

          I escaped the battle intact, along with half of the twelve hundred men of the Irish Brigade who started up that hill. We had no hate in our hearts for the enemy. It was our incompetent generals who deserved that. The next time, we promised, we would drag Burnside with us if he tried to send us into battle without a concern for the whys and wherefores of the rules of war. Let him see how he liked it, we agreed.

          We made our winter camp outside of Washington City, where we had time enough to build more substantial structures to protect us from the cold. I assisted a journeyman carpenter who was much in demand by those who could afford to pay for snug winter quarters. I didn't earn much, but I learned a lot and demonstrated my value to the carpenter, who promised to take me on as an apprentice if we survived the war.

          By January, Burnside was gone, replaced by Fighting Joe Hooker. He looked and spoke the part of a real general, and for all I knew, he was a real general. He reorganized the Army yet again, and his efforts gradually rebuilt the confidence of the men, who soon talked longingly of another opportunity to chase the Secesh back to Richmond. Little did we know that our next encounter with the enemy at Chancellorsville would prove as disastrous as our last, and Fighting Joe would prove himself as big a dunce as Burnside. But that was in the future, and memories of our defeat on the Rappahannock faded with the winter snow.

          On Saint Patrick's Day, General Meagher put on a grand event for the army, complete with steeplechase races, a gargantuan feast, featuring roasted pig stuffed with fowl and game of every kind, and evening theatricals. The enlisted men had their own celebrations that day. We raced, gorged, chased a greased pig, drank, tested our strength, drank some more, and a few brave souls showed their skill at an Irish dancing competition. It would have been a lovely Saint Paddy's day had I not encountered Madame Egyptiana hawking her purple vials to the boys. I had not thought much of her of late, but she had been much on my mind soon after the battle. Many a sleepless night I agonized over her treachery and scripted our next meeting. Now, my opportunity for revenge had come. I pulled my cap down over my face as I approached her. I wanted to see the full measure of her fear when I revealed myself. Finally when she collected the last dollar she could extract from the group of leering soldiers she was entertaining, I stepped in front of her and pulled off my cap. She laughed and gave me a big smacking kiss on the lips.

          "Oh, Brian," she cried, "I can't believe you've made it. I heard so many were killed. What a tragedy."

          "The name is Patrick, Madam," I said. "And I ran into some of your other lovers on Marye's Heights. Boys named Michael Coffey and Brian O'Leary. The vials you sold them did them no good for they are now worm's meat. I assume you sold them the same lies you sold me. What do you have to say for yourself then?" I fixed her with my best basilisk stare, and she winked.

          The angry words I had prepared died on my lips. I simply could not resist her charm. Of course, she had deceived me. That was her job. That was part of the game. I now realized that, deep in my heart, I had known what she was doing, and had participated willingly for the distraction it afforded. Putting aside my passion and considering the matter in the cool light of a new day, I saw that the thirteen dollars she took from me were the best I had ever spent. They bought me a taste of passion, hope on the eve of annihilation, and confidence on the battlefield. Money well spent, I concluded, money well spent.

by Michael Enright
... who is a student of military history, with works of fiction most recently published by Dispatches Magazine, Gator Springs Gazette, Ragged Edge, Small Spiral Notebook, Lamoille Lamentations, Thieves Jargon, and See You Next Tuesday. His writing has previously appeared in this literary magazine.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones