Excerpt from High Tide: Early passes through Gettysburg

A view of the town of Gettysburg from Cemetery Hill.

A view of the town of Gettysburg from Cemetery Hill.

As long as I can remember, one of the many things about the War Between the States that fascinates me is the story of the civilians who lived through the battles.

Imagine sitting safe at home one day and the next day two armies with a combined 100,000 men descend upon your town of 3,000. And then they commence to killing each other, and when they leave, all your homes and public buildings are hospitals and there are more dead people on the hills around your town than there are townsfolk.

As I said, as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with this aspect of the American Civil War.

So as I prepared to write Jackson Speed at the High Tide, I knew that I wanted to place Speed in Gettysburg prior to the battle.

If you’ve read the book, you know that Speed arrives in Gettysburg in June, 1863, just a few weeks before the two armies.

What you may not know is that both the Confederate and Union army had large units pass through Gettysburg prior to the battle. In both instances, the citizens of Gettysburg interacted with the passing soldiers.

One of my favorite scenes from the book takes place as the Confederates are passing through Gettysburg prior to the battle. Jackson Speed is playing the role of a wounded Union officer on leave to recuperate from his wounds.

As unlikely as it seems, I believe the scene is consistent with actual events in terms of the friendly banter that took place between the Confederate invaders and the townspeople. The scene takes place on June 26, 1863 when Confederate General Jubal Early’s division passed through Gettysburg on its way to York, Pennsylvania. This is about five days prior to the battle. As Lee advanced north into Pennsylvania, very strict orders were in place to prevent looting and thievery and other bad behavior toward the citizens. In lieu of looting, Confederate soldiers sometimes took what they wanted and paid for it with Confederate cash which, of course, was worthless in Gettysburg (and pretty well worthless everywhere). So, maybe it’s splitting hairs to say they didn’t loot and steal.

The following is an excerpt from High Tide in which Jackson Speed, a spy for the Confederacy, encounters Jubal Early’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia in Gettysburg on June 26, 1863.

 

I won’t say that here and there they didn’t do some rotten things – vandalism and theft was the worst of it – but on the whole I thought Bobby Lee’s army behaved themselves very well. Those who might have been inclined to do worse to the women had fellow Confederates keeping a pretty sharp eye on them.

Mostly the soldiers walked through the town. I think they were intent on putting up a good show for the citizenry – as the cavalry had done – because soon enough Jube Early would be riding into town making demands for cash. In groups or sometimes in ones and twos, the Rebels engaged the women and men who were now almost universally coming out of their homes. Some shopped in stores. Many stopped by one of the city’s hotels or restaurants for a drink or two or three of whiskey. I saw for myself a small group of Southern privates bust into a sweets shop, roust out the owner and then pay him in Confederate bills for all they took.

I witnessed one rebel private who had clearly got hold of some liquor stumble into a yard where another private was sitting on the front steps. The boy on the steps had asked for food, and the woman of the house had gone inside to get him some. Having seen the woman moments ago, before she’d turned to go back into the house, the drunken private said something pretty rough about what he intended to do to the “Yankee bitch.”

The private on the steps had a pretty calm air about him. As I recall, he was picking at his fingernails with a knife, or maybe he was whittling a stick. Either way, he didn’t look up from his business. But he said pretty clear and loudly, “You do it, and I’ll report you.”

Whatever warnings were issued among the men to behave themselves must have carried with them the promise of swift and merciless punishment, for the threat of being reported was all it took for the drunken private. He did an about-face and fell back in with the rest of the marchers, muttering to himself but making no real objection.

I was at my ease walking among them in civilian clothes, and not a one of them paid me any mind. Nevertheless, with an invading army in the streets and whiskey available on every block, I decided I didn’t need to linger too long in the streets, so I returned to Jenny’s house where I found her on the front porch giving bread and butter to a group of soldiers.

“Cavorting with the enemy now?” I asked her as they wandered off.

Jenny shrugged. “They looked hungry,” she said, “and they’re causing no harm. It’s not as if they’re stealing or burning or killing. Most of them are just boys, anyway.”

Well, those who were boys were not much younger than Jenny herself, but her work as a spy had turned her into an old soul. Of course, these boys in the infantry had souls old enough, too.

It should say something of how Johnny Reb behaved that as Early’s army passed through Gettysburg, some searching houses and others demanding bread and butter, that I felt at ease enough to lounge on Jenny’s front porch with her, rocking in a chair. Lee’s army was in high spirits, and the worst I saw from any of them was gentle teasing.

“How come you ain’t fighting fer the Yankees?” one of them asked me, stopping at the white fence in front of Jenny’s house while Jenny and I watched the soldiers pass from her rocking chairs. He was a young man, probably around twenty years old, and he wore a hat with no crown, a pair of pants with a hole in one knee and a white shirt so grimy with road dirt you’d have thought it was butternut brown. A couple of his buddies – one of them wearing a hat with no brim, a thing I will not forget for between them they had one good hat for two heads – stopped with him, grinning like buffoons as he questioned me.

“Wounded at Antietam,” I told him.

“Antietam, eh?” he called back, thoughtful like. “I was at Antietam. May be I’m the one that did it?”

I grinned back at him. “Could be,” I said, adopting his thoughtful attitude. “I was wounded when a jack ass kicked me and broke my leg. You look very much like the fellow.”

His buffoon friends guffawed all the louder now, slapping my inquisitor on the back. “Haha! You do look like a jack ass, Mose,” one of them said.

Young Moses, without a quick enough wit to find retort, accepted his besting pretty well and laughed along with his friends. He stood at the fence for a moment longer, searching for some sort of response. In the end, he grinned widely, shook his head and said, “Well don’t ye get behind me or I’ll kick ye again.” And with that Moses and his friends continued on their way.

Those boys were in high spirits. I do not think that any of them even realized it was possible that they would not have Philadelphia or Washington D.C. within the week. I think they all just accepted as fact that wherever Bobby Lee wanted them to go they would win another victory.

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