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Steele Shadows: Thirteen Days of the Civil War in Camden


Excerpt from the novel by Bill Crumpler

Friday, 15 April 1864 ... The First Day

The awful day of all days . . . .

—John W. Brown, citizen

John Brown (5:15 p.m.)

John William Brown stood in his doorway and gazed westward down Washington Street toward the late evening sun and the thunder of the cannons. They knew it was coming. For days it had been coming. The Union Army. Rumors. Horrible rumors. At least that much was over. There would be no more rumors. The Union Army was here.

Down the road at the Stinson house he thought he saw Mrs. Stinson standing at her window, peering timorously through the curtain. She'd given birth three weeks ago and was still feeling weak and poorly. It is so hard on the women. The widows, the orphans. So hard. The young men are gone. We old men are all that's left. To protect the women and children, to protect the innocent, to—
A shell exploded in the trees behind the Graham house. The window panes rattled and he steadied himself with a trembling hand planted as firmly as possible against the doorjamb. He sipped his Rio coffee—strong, black, thickened with sugar. There wasn't much sugar left these days. Nor coffee. Nor anything.

Suddenly he saw a cavalryman galloping full tilt down the road from town. One of ours. Amazing. Gray clad, gaunt and ghostly. Bold as Satan. The rider reined in his horse right in front of Brown's house, great clumps of moist dirt splattering in all directions. The magnificent animal grunted—one of those deep-souled, internal grunts that stallions make. He wheeled around violently to his right in a 360-degree circle. The rider fumbled for his revolver but couldn't unfasten the covering flap to remove it from his holster. He seemed to be an officer. A captain. One of Colonel Lawther's men—from General Marmaduke's division, Brown thought, but he couldn't tell who.
The horse—a roan stallion lathered with sweat—reared as the unknown captain gave up on the pistol and drew out his sword instead. The lean animal danced nervously on thin legs. Protruding rib cage. Froth at the mouth. Obviously terrified. But the beast had filled his heart with stubborn Confederate resolve, resolve to do his duty or be damned trying.

The slanting sunbeams of the evening glistened off his slick coat, bathing it in iridescent red highlighted with white froth and black shadows. Likewise the rider's face glowed blood red in the setting sun. Perhaps it was not from the sun, thought Brown. Perhaps it was only sunburn. Perhaps it was from rage. Perhaps red was the natural color of the man's face. For an instant the horseman glanced toward old man Brown. The captain's eyes blazed fiery red, blood-shot and demonic. Like a madman he brandished his sword and waved it fiendishly, defiantly in the general direction of the enemy.

God in heaven, Brown thought. Is this all we have? Is this all we can do? One man waving a sword as though it were a magic wand? Would a magic sword make the evil of the world go away?

The act seemed to him symbolic. Gallant, yet quixotic. Metaphysical, perhaps. A lone rider in tattered gray. An exhausted red soldier on an exhausted red horse, trying desperately to fight off the whole Blue Army.

General Steele, U.S.A. (5:20 p.m.)

Major General Frederick Steele and his entourage galloped up to General Eugene A. Carr, commander of the Cavalry Division. Carr and a few of his staff officers and brigade commanders sat atop their mounts in the front yard of the Bragg House about four miles west of Camden.

"How does it look, General?" said Steele, a small, neat man with a pale, almost sickly complexion—a wiry figure with a full silky beard, bright gray eyes, and a shrill little voice that betrayed the godlike power he held as commander of the Union Seventh Corps.

"Looks good, sir," said General Carr. "I believe the Rebs may have a few local militia in town and a sprinkling of cavalry, but that's all. General Salomon reports only token resistance. It's a walk-in affair, General. We'll be in there before nightfall."

"I think we've foxed 'em out of their long johns, sir," said Major Lennon, regimental commander of the Third Missouri Cavalry. "General Carr, you are convinced that enemy resistance will be light?"

"I am, sir."

"Here come the Germans, General," said Lennon. "I'm sure they'll know." His wry sarcasm drew smiles from both Steele and Carr.
Steele looked up the road ahead to see the approach of Prussian-born Brigadier General Frederick Salomon, commander of the Third Division. With him rode Colonel Adolph Engelmann, one of his brigade commanders; Captain Adolph Blocki, Salomon's Chief of Staff; and Captain Frederick Heineman, another staff officer.

Steele turned to the man on his right: "Captain Henry."

"Sir," said the young chief quartermaster.

"As soon as we are situated in town, I want a detailed report on our supply situation—rations for the men, fodder for the animals, everything. Be specific. Don't just tell me things are bad. I know things are bad. I want to know how bad. By the numbers. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

Salomon and party arrived. "General, sir," said Salomon in his distinctly German accent. "It pleases me to report that the enemy has fallen back. The road to Camden is clear."

"How far back?"

"Very far, sir. Shelby and Marmaduke have retired their troops southward to the Middle Road."

"Our scouts confirm that, sir," said Carr. "Sterling Price seems to be moving his main force up to Cypress Creek. My guess is he'll camp there and lick his wounds for a while."

"Hmm. General Salomon, General Carr maintains that the enemy force that lies before us in Camden is only a token force. Do you agree?"

"I do, sir."

"Very well." He turned to Carr. "And how is our rear? What of General Thayer's Frontier Division?"

"Nothing serious, sir. Fagan and Maxey are nipping at our rear like a couple of mongrel dogs, but that's all."

"Good. Very good." Steele stroked his silky beard thoughtfully. "General Carr, bring up whatever units you can to support General

Salomon's advance into Camden." Steele dismissed him with a salute.

"Yes, sir." Carr and his staff returned the salute and reined their horses around, westward down the road from where they had just come, Carr shouting orders to his subordinates as they rode.

Steele said to Salomon: "I understand things got a little heated at that place this side of White Oak Creek—what was it called?"

During the excitement of the skirmish Salomon had taken little note of the place name. He turned to Captain Heineman for help. "Poison Springs, sir," said the twenty-four-year-old Heineman. His flowing brown locks gave him a boyish look, more like a poet than a soldier.

"Damned ominous name," said Steele. "Poison Springs."

"The action was never a real threat, General," said Salomon. "Just delaying tactics."

"Very good. All right. General Salomon, make haste to forward your division into town. I'll send word to General Thayer. I want as many of us as possible within the safety of Camden before nightfall. I want a strong defensive perimeter set up. I doubt the enemy will try anything tonight, but we must be ready in case he does. Is that clear?"

"Quite clear, sir." The Germans saluted and galloped away to the east on horses whose flanks were marked with sweat-slick coats and hungry ribs. The shadows of evening grew longer.

Steele took off his hat and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his coat. "Oh, I wish I was in Dixie," he sang quietly to himself. "To live and die in Dixie." A curious orderly cocked his head in the general's direction. Steele noticed and repeated the line for the young man's benefit: "To live and die in Dixie, son." The commander of the Union Seventh Corps smiled at the irony and rode off, leaving the young man to wonder about living and dying.

Leah Chidester (5:45 p.m.)

Mrs. Leah Chidester stood on her front porch, staring off to the west and listening to the terrifying pop and rattle of musketry. She was five months pregnant. Slowly, anxiously she crossed to the far end of the porch. Around her neck hung a small chain to which was attached a large key. In her hands a leather money belt.

"Aunt Ca'line?"

A voice from inside the house answered: "Yes, ma'am?"

"Will you come out here, please? I'm on the porch. Quickly, if you please."

The young Negro woman walked through the front door and out onto the porch. She was pretty. Smooth skin. Dark. High cheek bones, like an Indian. She wiped her hands with a wet dishrag. Her name was Caroline, but when John, Jr., now age nine, was just learning to talk, "Ca'line" was the best he could do, and the name stuck. All the female house servants were called "Aunt."
Besides John, Jr., there were three other Chidester children, all boys: William, seven; Frank, four; and Jim, two. The family hoped the next child would be a girl. If so, they would name her Mary Lee.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Come, Aunt Ca'line. Please come over here for a moment." Mrs. Chidester gestured for her to come but never took her eyes off the Washington Road to the west. She put her arm absently around her servant's shoulder. "You hear that?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"That's the Yankees, Ca'line. They're coming. They're really coming. See that smoke out there? That must be from the cannons. And the dust from the horses galloping this way. And from the soldiers marching."

"I do wish Mr. John was here, ma'am."

"Yes," she said dreamily, her eyes still fixed on the invisible approaching Yankees. "Yes. But it's better that he is away. He's a fugitive, a wanted man. The Yankees would surely hang him if they catch him. We'll be all right." She thought for a moment. "We'll be all right. It's just that ... well, we must be brave. We must all be brave. How are the children?" Leah looked at her, the worried look of a mother for her children. Now it was Aunt Ca'line's turn to place a soothing arm around the shoulder of someone she respected and cared for.

"Don't fret, Miss Leah. Them boys just as brave as you are."

Leah gave her a gentle hug. "Aunt Ca'line. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"You won't never have to find out, ma'am. Never."

A shell exploded in the woods nearby, giving them a start.

"Ca'line, lift up your apron. I want you to wear this money belt." She began strapping the leather belt around the woman's waist. "The Yankees won't think of you having it. You can be sure they'll look everywhere else. I'll keep the key to the smokehouse upon my person. We will not starve as long as I have breath within me. We should have plenty to eat unless—"

"Miss Leah!" The servant pointed to the west. "I think that's them Yankees!"

Leah turned to see. Yes. Dark blue phantoms emerging from the shadows of the woods. "Oh my. Quickly now. Hurry to the back yard and finish burying the china. China is so delicate."

Ca'line hurried away. She was just going through the front door when Leah called to her: "Tell the children to stay in their room! Tell them not to come out for anything!"

"I done told 'em to lay low, ma'am. They'll be all right. They more scared of me than they is of them Yankees."

Leah smiled and looked again to the west, shielding her eyes hopelessly against the setting sun. Soldiers were approaching on horseback. Four or five. Blue coated. Right there on Washington Street. In the distance she could see scores of other Union soldiers flanked on either side of the road, moving into position, firing now and then at nothing in particular. There was no resistance—just a walk-in affair.

The four horsemen halted about fifty yards away. They seemed to be officers. The soldiers on the sides of the road produced horses of their own out of the woods and undergrowth as if by magic. They mounted and advanced. Thundering along the road, right in front of her house. Two groups of them. Platoons or companies, she wasn't sure.

The four officers advanced. Tired horses. Low-hung heads. Ambling slowly forward on lanky legs until they cautiously stopped right in front of her gate. One of the officers dismounted, opened the gate, and walked up the walkway to the porch. He removed his cap and said:

"Excuse me, ma'am. Are you Mrs. Chidester?"

She scowled at the man. "How do you know that?"

"Well, ma'am, one of your neighbors out there"—he gestured with his cap toward the west—"told us this was the Chidester house."
"I am Mrs. Chidester."

"I'm Captain Charles A. Henry, chief quartermaster to General Steele. The General sends his compliments, ma'am."

"I would gladly return his compliments if he would return to where he came from." Her icy stare bore down upon the young man.
He smiled and forced a modest laugh. "I wish we could all return to where we came from, ma'am. Mrs. Chidester, I'll come straight to the point. Your facilities are to be appropriated for the use of Federal forces."

"Facilities? You mean my house?"

"Yes, ma'am. Your house."

"Appropriated? For what purpose?"

"For the purpose of providing lodging and headquarters for General Steele and a few of his staff. Do we have your permission, ma'am?"

"My permission? If I refuse permission, will you all just"—she waved her hand, a vague gesture in the general direction of out there somewhere, anywhere other than here—"just go elsewhere?"

"No, ma'am, I'm afraid we can't just go elsewhere."

"What will you do if I refuse?"

The captain shifted his weight. "The General sincerely hopes you will not refuse."

"What you are saying is that I have no choice in the matter. Permission or no, you are intent on ... appropriating my house."

"We would prefer having your permission. But ... no, ma'am, you have no choice in the matter."

"Very well then. The matter is settled. Does the General prefer upstairs or downstairs."

"Your convenience, ma'am."

"Humph! My convenience indeed!"

Captain Henry wiped the dust from the brim of his cap. He'd never enjoyed performing this particular duty. It seemed like stealing. "Okay, boys!" he called in the direction of his three companions, who promptly, though somewhat wearily, dismounted and stepped forward. "Secure the house." The three men saluted and silently carried out their orders.

She followed them with her eyes as they entered the house. Her house. She then turned back to the captain, who remained standing below her on the walkway. She was about to say something, but was interrupted by another coterie of mounted officers approaching at a canter from the west. The newcomers reined in and dismounted at the gate. Captain Henry stepped to one side, placed his dustless cap back on his head, and waited.

Leah Chidester placed her hands defiantly on her hips. She recognized the uniform and insignia of a Union Army major general. She scowled again. Scowling was uncharacteristic for her. Unnatural. Smiling was natural. Her petite, delicate lips. Her dark brown eyes with thin brows and lashes. Her high forehead, not intellectual, but intelligent. Her face was not made for scowling.
Henry saluted as his commanding officer approached and said, "General, sir. Mrs. Chidester, may I present Major General Frederick Steele, United States Army. General, Mrs. Chidester."

"Good evening, ma'am," he said in his tight, unimposing voice. "Has Captain Henry explained the situation?"

"He has."

"I am truly sorry for the inconvenience imposed upon you and your family. But, unfortunately, such impositions are sometimes necessary."

"General Steele, surely there are other, more suitable houses in Camden. I have four children to care for and"—she patted her stomach—"and one on the way. There are other houses that—"

"There are other suitable houses, ma'am. And circumstances may dictate that at some point in time I may have to remove my headquarters to one of them. But as for now, I am here."

"But, sir, my children—"

"Mrs. Chidester, my heart grieves for you and your children, but I have 14,000 starving men to care for! I fully appreciate your reluctance to cooperate, but I'm afraid you have no other choice. My men and I have just marched some twenty-three miles under constant harassment by the enemy. We are tired, hungry, and, I do confess, not in the best of tempers. If you will be so kind ...."

Steele bowed slightly and gestured toward the front door. Leah held her ground for a moment then, yielding to the inevitable, turned and led the general to his new headquarters.

Bill Crumpler was born and raised in Camden, Arkansas. He has taught college-level composition, literature, and philosophy for many years, including for Southern Arkansas University Tech at Camden. He lives in McKinney, Texas.

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