Shaara / A CHAIN OF THUNDER
APRIL 16, 1863
The ball was a glorious affair, the Confederate officers in their finest gray, adorned with plumed hats and sashes at their waists. There was dancing and a feast of every kind of local fare, even the wine flowing with no one’s disapproval. By ten o’clock, most of the older citizens had retired, the senior officers gone as well, offering the reasonable excuse that there were duties to perform, an early morning that would come too soon. Those who remained were the young and the unmarried, no one among them objecting to that. The music continued, more lively now, the quartet of violinists respecting the youth in the room, waltzes that brought the officers closer to the young women, hands extended, those girls who had caught the eye, whose furtive glances spoke of flirtation, the daring willingness to accept the invitation of a young man who had the courage or the skills to lead a dance.
As the night wore on, and the matrons drifted away, Lucy had allowed herself a single dance, had caught a beaming smile from a young lieutenant, one of the Louisiana regiments. She knew nothing of a soldier’s life, what authority he carried, but the face was handsome, a firm jaw and bright blue eyes, clean-shaven, the young man’s hand extended toward her with smiling optimism, hinting of hope. She knew he had been watching her for most of the evening, and she had smiled at him once, was immediately embarrassed by that, quick glances to be certain that none of the others noticed. But now, as the energy of the ball rose with the youthfulness of those who remained, so too did her courage. And, apparently, his.
The waltz they danced to had been familiar, the violins doing admirable service with a pleasing rhythm that seemed to intoxicate her, the young officer admirably graceful. The couple was one of a half dozen who moved with elegance across the floor, but it ended too soon. With visible regret, the lieutenant had done what was required, had properly escorted her back to one side of the room, where the ladies sat, the officers returning to their own station, closer to where the wine flowed.
She sat, maneuvering the wide hoops of her finest gown, still glancing at the other girls, the rivalry they all observed. Such occasions were rare now. The welcome invitation had come from Major Watt, the officer spreading word that a gala was well deserved. But many stayed away, a gloomy acceptance that perhaps this kind of frivolity was not yet appropriate, not with the Yankees so close. For months now, the citizens had endured shellfire, Federal gunboats with the audacity to throw their projectiles into the city itself. Most of those boats were anchored far upriver, and the officers in the town boasted of that, that Federal sailors knew they could not match the enormous power of the guns dug into the hillsides across the riverfront. But still the shells came, and many of the civilians had heeded the advice of the army’s senior commanders, had begun to move out of their homes, digging themselves into caves and caverns, most dug by the labor of Negroes.
The first serious violence had come close to Christmas, and the customary Christmas ball had been rudely preempted by one of the first great assaults, what so many of the townspeople described as the bar- barity of the Yankees, their utter disregard for simple courtesy, for the sacred observance of Christmas ritual. Major Watt seemed to recognize that as well, and with the warmer weather came the army’s gift to the town, driven by the kindness of this one major, who seemed to understand that the civilians would be buoyed by a party, a show of defiance toward the ever-present gunboats. Though the attendance was not as large as the major had hoped, the air of protest was there still, and like the others who attended the ball, the young Miss Spence thought it entirely appropriate that the townspeople make some effort to improve their own morale. Since Christmas, most of the people had gone about their business as though nothing were really happening upriver, as if the Yankees were there just for show, a protest of their own. Businesses continued to operate, the markets mostly able to stock their shelves, citizens freely traveling to the countryside. Even the occasional bombardments were part of the routine, and for the most part the damage had been minimal, the shelling more random than targeted. Like Lucy, most of her neighbors had sought the protection of Providence, that if a shell was to find them, it would be the hand of God and not the unfortunate aim of some devilish Yankee gunner. After all, the people of Vicksburg had done nothing to deserve such violence.
She watched her young lieutenant across the room, was disappointed to see a glance at a pocket watch. The music began to slow, and the atmosphere in the grand room was growing heavy with shared sleepiness. It was, after all, near ten o’clock, far beyond the bedtime of even the young.
Lucy felt the same weariness, suppressed a yawn, heard the talk around her, much as it had been all evening. The young women spoke of those things Lucy had kept mostly to herself: who among the men in their gray finery were the best dancers, the most handsome, who had embarrassed himself by enjoying a bit too much wine. She held quietly to the warm glow that came from the single dance with her lieutenant, that it was her young man who outshone them all. She wondered about Louisiana, not the swamps that spread out for miles across the river, but down south, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, sophisticated places she could only imagine. Surely he was from the cities, she thought, a cultured man, familiar with music and libraries, perhaps from a military academy. Her imagination was fed by the sleepiness, and she blinked hard, fought to keep anyone from noticing that, saw him glance at his watch again, a scowl on his face. Then he glanced toward her, and she looked away, then back, wanted to smile, held it, scolded herself. He was speaking to another officer now, a captain, both men showing regret that this one beacon of color and gaiety had to come to an end. He began to move toward her, and her heart jumped, a blend of hope and alarm that he might ask to escort her home. She felt a slight shiver, and he seemed to hesitate, gathering courage of his own.
And now came a large thump of thunder, a jolt in the floor beneath her feet, the chandelier quivering, the entire room suddenly motionless. Another rumble came, but it was not close. She saw the lieutenant looking past her and realized he was staring toward the river, where the army had anchored its largest guns. Now the firing thundered closer, the officers speaking up, calming voices, that it was their own guns, not the enemy. To one side a door burst open, an older officer moving in quickly, searching, finding Major Watt, a quick word between them. Watt turned to them all and gained their attention.
“I regret,” he said, “this ball has concluded. The Yankee boats are coming downriver, and you must retire to your shelters. Do not hesitate. Officers, report immediately to your posts.”
There was authority in his words, and the men were quick to move, filing toward the wide entranceway, already disappearing into the darkness. She caught sight of the lieutenant, but he did not look back, and she pushed that from her mind, rose up with the other women, some of the officers lingering, standing to one side, allowing them to pass. There were questions, but no panic, so many of the civilians having experienced all of this before. Major Watt stood by the door, still their host, and offered a smile, pleasantries to the women, with the slight edge of firmness.
“Go on home, now. We shall deal with the Yankees. This has been a most pleasant evening. It shall be still, if our artillerymen have their way.”
She passed the major, was outside now, a cool night, no moon, a hint of lantern light from the homes that lined the street. But quickly those grew dark, the usual caution, no needless targets offered to any Yankee gunner who might be telescoping this very place. She stepped onto the hard dirt, being careful to avoid the ruts from wagon wheels, and heard the talk around her in hushed excitement. She felt it as well, that there was something different about this assault. She looked in every direction, still no shells coming into the town, the sounds all toward the river. The soldiers were mostly gone, with only a few, the usual guards drifting past, offering assistance if any was required. Lucy saw a cluster of women moving uphill, not toward their homes, but toward the magnificent vantage point, what they all called Sky Parlor Hill. It was the highest point in the city, a knob of land the width of two city blocks, and during the daytime it was the most popular place for couples to gather, for picnics and courtship. For others, for the lonely, widows perhaps, the women struck hard by the pain of war, it was a place of solace, the perfect place to find comfort from gazing out toward the river, or across, to the flatlands of the Louisiana swamps. Lucy had climbed the heights often, enjoyed the silence, or the warm breezes that rose with the arrival of spring. More recently, her focus had been mostly northward, to where the Yankees had their camps, this high ground offering a perfect glimpse of a distant sea of white tents, and riverboats of all shapes and configurations. She had studied that with intense curiosity, had heard from the soldiers that the Yankees seemed only to be going about their business, more for a show of strength than for any real threat to the town. It was from upriver that the shelling came, though the Yankees had also positioned their guns straight across the wide river, as though taunting the town with their daring. The Confederates had offered daring of their own, the occasional raid, troops slipping across on small boats and rafts, harassing raids that drew pride from the civilians but seemed to accomplish little else.
She moved in line behind several others, most of them women, fumbling with the awkwardness of the ball gowns, helped along by a few old men, too old to be soldiers. The winding path led them higher still, and she was surprised to see a glow of orange light, beyond the hill, as though the sun were rising through a foggy haze, coming up from the wrong direction. She reached the top, breathing heavily, tugging at the hoops, adjusting her dress in the darkness, realized it wasn’t truly dark at all. All around her were curious faces reflected in the glow of what she saw now were a dozen great fires, great fat torchlights on both sides of the river. She knew something of that, the soldiers openly talking for weeks about their preparations if the Yankees dared to bring their boats within range of the big guns. The fires came from enormous mounds of oil-soaked cotton, barrels of tar, wiping away the darkness that would hide any craft that tried to pass on the river. And now she could see them, silhouetted, a parade of vessels spaced far apart, coming downstream in single file. The guns began again, startling bursts of fire down below her, some out to the north, upriver. Out in the river, the fire was returned, small bursts of flame from the gunboats, the impact of those shells against the steep bluffs. But more shelling came from the Yankees, streaks of red and white arcing up and over, coming down far out to one side of the great knob. There was a response from the crowd, angry protest that the Yankees were doing what they had done before, blind destruction thrown into the town. She heard the impact, saw a brief burst of flames on a street close to where the ball had been. She looked again to the river, the firelight reflecting on the water, rippling eddies from the movement of the Yankee boats. Fog was spreading along the water, rising like a wall of reflected fire, the silhouettes of the boats blanketed, hidden. Voices around her rose, protesting the blindness, and she looked toward the town, no fog there, not unusual so high above the water. But the smell came, thick and pungent, brought by a sharp breeze. It was smoke.
Close beside her, a small man stopped, gestured with his cane, and shouted out, “They’s hidin’ from us! Bah! Go ahead with your tricks. We’ll find ya!”
She wanted to ask, Hiding? But the man kept up the chatter.
“They’s throwin’ out smoke so’s we won’t see ’em. Mighty dang stupid. The gunners know the range. Too many of us. Give it to ’em, boys!”
She stared at the river, saw breaks in the smoke, glimpses of the boats again, still the single line, some coming closer, one turning sideways, as though out of control. She saw flames now, on the boat, and the old man said, “Got one! Sink that devil! Hee! Send her to the bottom!”
The cannon fire was increasing, a steady rhythm, the guns downriver opening up as well, shot and shell now launched in both directions. The sounds came in a chorus of thumps and distant thunder, more impacts in the town. She felt a twisting nervousness, stared hard at specks of fire from the boats, obscured then visible, the surface of the river glowing with the fires. There were cheers around her, and she saw a burst on the boat, another hit, the old man coming to life again.
“Good shootin’, boys! Keep it up! Nowhere for those devils to hide!”
She moved closer to the man, but he ignored her, cheered again, spoke out loud, as though everyone would hear him.
“You see that? Took off her smokestack! I’ll bet they hit the boiler next! Whoeee, you might see one of them dang things go up in one big show of hellfire!”
There was another burst of fire mid-river, and the old man’s joy was infectious, more cheering for the raw destruction, the good work of the men who worked the guns. She had a sudden urge to go down there, to be closer to them, to watch the deadly work, different now, the targets genuine, the enemy, the guns doing what so many had hoped for. Killing Yankees.
Her name was Lucy Spence, and she had spent all of her nineteen years in Vicksburg. Her father had been a preacher, made his living mostly traveling the countryside, offering sermons to anyone willing to put a coin in a collection plate. For as long as Lucy could remember, her mother had been sickly, never traveling with her husband, and finally, keeping to the house, then her own room. With her father off for a week or more at a time, it was Lucy who had become the caretaker, the nurse. She had no formal training for that, or for anything else, and so the chores of a household had been learned by necessity. There had never been the luxury of slaves, not even a maid to care for Lucy as a baby. She had clung most strongly to the reunions, when her father would return home, joy and hugs and laughter. But as Lucy grew, and her mother lost strength, the joy faded. With Lucy more able to care for her mother, her father’s journeys lasted even longer. When the war began, he seemed to welcome the necessity of traveling, often for many weeks, and though he spoke of hardship, the people growing poor, she knew from the look in his eye that he looked forward to those days when the journeys began, when he no longer had to watch the skeletal frailness of what had become of his wife. And so it was no surprise that two days after Lucy turned eighteen, her mother died, with no one but her daughter to hear the last struggling breath.
Her father came home a few weeks after, had visited the grave briefly, tears and several days of sad silence. But then he was gone again. Now, more than a year later, there had been no word at all, and Lucy had steeled herself against all of that, did not press the army or the officials in Jackson, did not really want to know where he had gone. If he had ever been a husband, he had rarely been a father. And most certainly, he was not one now.
With the war growing closer to this part of Mississippi, the army came in greater numbers, outposts and defensive works spreading around the town. Lucy had been wary of soldiers, had heard too much talk of barbarism, that the army brought unruly men fueled by liquor and lust. She kept away from the camps, from the defensive works, avoided the men who paraded through the town in small groups. But soon the fear faded, none of the gossip coming to pass, no violation of some young innocent. Even the liquor seemed to affect the civilians more than it did the soldiers, and soon it was clear that the officers, those primly uniformed men on horseback, actually controlled these men. It was not a rabble. It was an army.
Comfortable now with the presence of the soldiers, Lucy kept mostly to herself, minding the family’s home, sometimes helped by friendly neighbors. They were older women mostly, curious about this single girl who seemed to manage quite well. Their respect increased, though the help still came, lessons on cooking, on preserving meats, even a vegetable garden she tended herself. With her father absent for more than a year, talk of her disadvantages as an “orphan” simply drifted away. Not even the gossips taunted her, those who thrived mostly on vicious speculation. She was now an adult, in her own home, with every confidence that she could handle a household. To the neighbors, her greatest requirement was, of course, a husband. It was Lucy herself who realized with perfect logic that the opportunity had come to her along with this army. If it could be an officer, well, more the better.
Until now, the artillery duels had been mostly brief affairs, mere target practice. Throughout the chilly winter and into spring, the townspeople had often drifted down among the gun emplacements to watch the drills, the preparation. The artillery officers had encouraged that, their men showing off their accuracy, seeking targets on the far side of the river. Some had been offered by Yankees, men or wagons rising high up on some levee, inviting a response from the Confederate cannoneers. She had heard the talk, that it was something of sport, to both sides surely, and rarely did any harm result. But along with that playfulness, the talk had grown that the Yankees across the river were many, and now they were in motion, great columns marching south. Few of the officers would speak openly of that, and if the commanders had any real information about what the enemy was doing, they kept that to themselves, and so the soldiers spread rumors of their own. The boasting had been endless, the Yankees marching away altogether, those men across the river making their escape all the way to New Orleans. The civilians had come to believe what the soldiers insisted was true, that Vicksburg was a fortress, impregnable, that the bluffs that rose so high above the river could never be conquered. The presence of the massive cannon had only increased that confidence, and Lucy had toured through the artillery camps, awed by the sheer immensity of the great black barrels. The artillerymen were awed right back, pausing to watch any young woman strolling through their camps.
She kept her gaze on the river, could see more of the Yankee boats coming downstream from the far bend, outlined still by the great fires. The cheers were constant, louder when the impact on the boats could be seen, the destruction seeming to impact every boat that passed. Beside her, the old man spoke again, his cane pointing high in the air.
“Damn fools! Sendin’ them boats down one at a time! Dang shootin’ gallery! Oh . . . well lookee there. They’s comin’ closer! And listen to them hound dogs! They know what’s happenin’. Even they hate the Yankees! They’re cheering us on, sure as can be!”
The howling came all through the town, the dogs reacting to the sounds with as much enthusiasm as the people on Sky Parlor Hill. It was a strange sound, a chorus of howls, low-pitched and high, and Lucy sensed more than some echo of their masters’ devotion to the Cause. They’re afraid, she thought. They hear the screams of the shells and don’t know what it is. Maybe it hurts their ears. Glad I don’t have one. If he was that afraid, I wouldn’t know what to do. Like having a frightened child. I don’t envy the mothers.
She tried to see the Federal gunboats that were easing closer to the near bank, but the lay of the land and the rows of buildings below the hill hid them from view. She caught a glimpse of one slipping into the firelight, the reflection revealing the immense ironclad.
She moved closer to the old man and shouted above the din, “Are they coming? Will they land?”
“Missy, I served in the navy for thirty-odd years, learned somethin’ about artillery. Hard to shoot pointing down. Some damn Yankee captain figured that out, too. Got hisself all shot to pieces, and so figured out that movin’ closer to this side might protect him. Not gonna work, though. They ain’t figuring on landing, no sir. There’s a pot full of sharpshooters down low on the river, and if’n they don’t kill every dang one of ’em, they’ll be haulin’ up prisoners!”
She coughed, fought through the smell of the smoke, looked at the old man, tried to see his face in the glow of firelight, familiar, a man some said was addled. But his words held authority, and she kept close to him, with an instinct that he really did know what was happening. He pointed the cane, kept up his monologue, didn’t seem to care now if anyone heard him at all.
“Yankee navy’s done for. Only thing that gave ’em hope. This is desperation, pure and simple! They’s making a run for it, headin’ to Orleens. I heerd word that a bunch of them Yankees upriver are already marchin’ back to Memphis. Them scoundrels can do whatever they want back east, Virginee and all, but out here . . . they got no hope. No hope a’tall.”
His speech was becoming redundant, a hint of boastfulness that began to sound more like exaggeration than fact. Addled. She focused more now on the sights, the stink of smoke, more explosions on the river, the parade of boats still ongoing, endless. The big guns farther downriver began firing, one more part of the great Confederate gauntlet, and she understood now what the army had done, that no matter how many boats came past, the army’s guns were certainly too many, that Vicksburg was protected, invulnerable, just as the officers had claimed.
She felt stiffness in her legs, her eyes fogging, the sleepiness coming now, a long night made longer by the steady roar. There was nowhere to sit, the dress too clumsy, but the sleepiness was growing, the sights and sounds from the river blending together in a dreamy haze. She turned, moved past the glow on a hundred faces, and back toward the winding pathway that led below. She thought of her young lieutenant, wondered where he was, if he was a part of this spectacle, the marvelous destruction of those who dared to disrespect the town, the army, the Cause. I’ll see him again, she thought. I’ll ask him all about guns and boats. She eased carefully down the path, smiled in the darkness, Yes, you will be proud of that, will try to impress me with all that you know, will show off in front of your men. And I will blush and hide my smile, and enjoy every moment.
Behind her, up on the hill, people cheered again, the battle ongoing, the civilians knowing that no matter what the Yankees might believe about power, no matter the planning of their generals, the bravery of their sailors, tonight the vast fleet that dared trespass on this mighty river would be utterly destroyed.
Excerpted from A Chain of Thunder: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg
by Jeff Shaara
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