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Presents a reimagining of the pivotal Civil War battle from the perspectives of a Blue Ridge Confederate sergeant, a bitter survivor of the Great Famine in Ireland, and a German political refugee.
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Ralph Peters, New York Times bestselling author of Cain at Gettysburg, is a retired US Army officer, a strategist and veteran of the intelligence world, a journalist who appears frequently in broadcast media, and a lifelong traveler with experience in over seventy countries on six continents.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
June 28, 1863
Annoyed by flies, Meade fell asleep at last, only to wake with a hand upon his shoulder. The intruder’s lantern cast fantastic shadows. Hardie wore civilian clothes and crouched under the tent’s slant. It took Meade a moment to recognize him.
“What the devil?”
“I’m here to give you trouble,” the colonel said.
Blades of alarm pierced weariness. Meade sat up sharply.
“My conscience is clear,” he declared.
Margaret had warned him to check his temper. Now Hooker had charged him with insubordination, with Halleck’s acquiescence and bespectacled Hardie as henchman. He was being relieved of his command, arrested in the middle of a campaign. There would be a court-martial. Reputation’s assassin sneaking into camp, this colonel from the adjutant general’s office had come in the dark, in disguise. And he had always thought Hardie a decent fellow.
“I’ve done ... nothing dishonorable,” Meade protested. “Nothing.” He yearned for coffee just off the fire, for the light of day, for a friend. “My differences with General Hooker ... have been matters of professional judgment, nothing more.”
The colonel raised a hand to quiet him. The gesture struck Meade as insolent. Hardie grinned.
Black and devilish, flies looped around the lantern the colonel held. Settling the light on the camp desk, Hardie drew a pair of envelopes from a pocket.
“General Meade, you are ordered to assume command of the Army of the Potomac. Effective immediately, sir. I’m to accompany you to General Hooker’s headquarters, to witness the transfer of authority.”
Dumbfounded, Meade took the documents. He didn’t open them, but held the papers atop one knee. He wondered if arrest would not have been preferable. He began to wake fully and bitterly.
Outside, the camp clattered, despite the wretched hour. A sergeant barked and soldiers answered. Chains chimed and horses whinnied. Hardie’s arrival had yanked them all from sleep. His staff officers would be gathering by his tent, waiting to hear the news that had come from Washington.
How much had they guessed? Meade needed coffee. Coffee and John Reynolds. Reynolds was the man for this. Men followed him and loved him. Handsome John. He was the man to take command of the army. How foolish he himself had been to resent Reynolds’ advancement. He rued his pettiness now.
Meade sighed. He meant to rise and put on his uniform coat, to wrap his old bones in a guise of authority. But the flesh hesitated.
“I’m not qualified,” he told Hardie. “I’m the devil’s choice for this. I mustn’t command this army.”
“It’s the president’s decision.”
“What about Reynolds? Is it true he turned it down?”
Hardie shrugged. “I don’t believe there was a formal offer. Anyway, the president chose you, sir. General Halleck and Mr. Stanton concurred. They sent me to Frederick by special train. There’s no time to lose.”
Meade snapped, “Don’t you think I understand that?”
Halleck. The man was devoured by jealousy. Of Reynolds, that much was evident. Of Reynolds and so many others. Apparently, though, he wasn’t jealous of everyone. What does that say of me? Meade asked himself.
He did his best to button up his temper. His wife had warned him, more than once, that his tongue cut worse than his sword.
“I haven’t the seniority on the Army rolls,” Meade insisted. Then he added, “I thought things had been patched up with General Hooker?”
“Mr. Lincoln lost faith in him.”
So has the rest of this blasted army, Meade thought. Yet, removing Hooker now was madness. With battle looming. On a field yet unknown.
“Hardie, I don’t want this,” he said in a tamed voice. “I’m not the man for this.”
His visitor gestured toward the envelopes, which remained unopened. Meade unfolded the fateful order, bending to make out the words. Hardie took up the lantern again and brought it closer.
It was true. He had been selected as the latest general half-expected to fail and be damned forever.
Expected to fail? Was that the nub of it?
Meade tested each word of the order, then studied the accompanying correspondence from the general-in-chief. “Considering the circumstances,” Meade read, “no one has ever received a more important command.”
A sharp-fanged creature slithered through his bowels.
Had it come to this? With the Confederates already marching on Philadelphia, for all he knew? For all anyone knew? The evening before, he had worn himself out riding through the Maryland countryside trying to find Hooker, the man who held the string and hid both ends. The raw, hot roads had been burdened with batteries and commissary wagons, with regiments coming late to their camps and with stragglers, some of them drunk. No one knew where the army’s commander could be found.
“I don’t want this,” Meade said. “It’s impossible. I shall send a message to Halleck.”
Fixing his spectacles higher on his nose, Hardie said, “It won’t do any good, sir. The president’s mind is made up.” He set the lantern back down on the desk.
Meade arched his back. The camp bed creaked. “Does General Hooker know?”
“He sent in a letter of resignation.” A quarter-smile cut into Hardie’s cheek. “I’m not sure he meant it to be accepted. But it was.” The smile turned cruel enough to tell Meade that Hooker had earned Hardie’s enmity. “I suspect he’ll know by the time we reach army headquarters.”
Meade snorted. “I don’t even know where that is.”
“I’ll guide you there, if you’ll loan me a horse. I came in a rented buggy.”
Irritated anew that he had failed to find Hooker’s camp the evening before, Meade asked, “Since you’re so well-informed, Hardie, would you happen to know where General Lee and his army are strolling just now? No one else seems to have any blasted idea. Certainly not this army’s corps commanders.”
The colonel shook his head. “General Hooker’s communications with Washington have been ... limited.” Posture deformed by the slope of the canvas, he shed another layer of formality. “To tell you the truth, sir, he hasn’t told us much of anything. He wouldn’t even share his plan of campaign with Mr. Lincoln. All we heard from old Fighting Joe were calls for reinforcements and wails that the army’s outnumbered. He sounded more and more like Little Mac. It set the president out of temper. And that’s putting it soft.”
“Hardie, do you know where the corps of this army are right now?”
“Not all of them. It took some work to find you.”
The situation reminded Meade of a game he had seen blindfolded children play in Tampico. Spun round, they lashed out with a stick, trying to shatter a dangling plaster animal filled with treats. Except that there would be no treats this time. Only the blind lashing out.
Meade reached for his watch. Instead of metal, his hand met the sweat-heavy cloth of an undergarment. Wake up, he commanded himself. Take hold of yourself. “What time is it, Hardie?”
The colonel drew out his watch and clicked open the cover. “Half past three, sir.”
“Well, we’ll have a ride before us. If we must go through with this.” He cleared his throat, tasting bile. “I’d like a few moments alone. And you’ll want your breakfast.”
“Yes, sir.” The colonel turned to go.
Hand on the tent’s flap, the visitor turned again. Reflections of the lantern’s flame flickered on his spectacles.
“I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution,” Meade said. He attempted a smile and failed. “Send Captain Meade to me. And tell my staff I’ll join them shortly.”
“Shall I let them know, sir? About the order?”
Meade brushed a fly from his beard. “Do as you see fit.”
Left alone, Meade clutched the paper that damned him. His bowels winced again. The flesh always reminded a man of the constraints on human dignity.
In those last private moments, he thought about young George. It had wounded Meade when the boy was cast from West Point for his follies. Now he himself had been pointed toward failure, toward a far greater failure, a failure that would resound for generations. Was it a curse on the family? His father, too, had failed, in a different way, in a different world.
Still waking to the charge that had been given him, Meade felt a wave of shame, as if one of those Barnegat rip currents had changed the direction of an inner sea. He needed to control himself, if he hoped to control the army. To put up a manly show. How could he have indulged in such fretting in front of Hardie? How could he have shown such weakness? Weariness was no excuse, nor was confusion.
He imagined the colonel telling tales at the bar in Willard’s Hotel. He could hear the laughter of clerks and politicians.
Well, the thing was done.
In the sour air of his tent, Meade viewed himself with an engineer’s cold eye: too dark of thought, too dour, a man alert to the smell of sulfur, but not to Heaven’s scent. He could hear Margaret teasing, “George, I know you can smile!” His wife was a proud, loyal woman, of good family. She had got him a brigadier’s rank at the start of the war, when his merits had not sufficed. He would have to do his best for her. And for the Union, of course.
Major General George Gordon Meade ha...
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