Battle of Cedar Creek

From any of the 75 scenic overlooks along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, you can view the broad, green expanse of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. It lies between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. No more than 25 miles wide at any point, it is peaceful, bucolic and semi-rural. Before the American Civil War, it was Virginia’s breadbasket.

And during the war it was hotly contested. aptly describes the valley as pointing “dagger-like at the North and especially at Washington, D.C.” And the Union wanted that dagger blunted.

General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson successfully defended the Valley in 1862. And Robert E Lee used it as the jump-off point for his Gettysburg campaign in 1863, using the mountains to screen his army’s movement.

Prelude to the Battle of Cedar Creek

But by 1864, conditions favored the Union. Stonewall Jackson was dead. The Confederates were running out of supplies and the loss of the valley would deprive Lee’s army of a desperately-needed source of grain and livestock. Grant had Lee pinned down near Petersburg. And three years of war had depleted Confederate manpower.

The 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign was characterized by hubris on both sides. And the Battle of Cedar Creek is particularly interesting because it featured so many surprising twists and turns, all in one day.

In the early summer of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early conducted raids out of the Shenandoah towards Washington, D.C. He hoped to force Ulysses Grant to divert some of his forces to defend the capital, which would bring some relief to Lee at Petersburg. Instead, Grant decided that it was time to eliminate the pesky Early. He gave the job to General Philip Sheridan, along with orders to pursue Early “to the death.”

Sheridan Surprises Early

Early had some initial success in fending off Union forces and Lee became complacent enough to bring a division back to defend Richmond. So, when Sheridan next attacked, he swept the Rebel army out of Winchester, forcing them to retreat south through the Shenandoah Valley to Waynesboro.

Presaging Sherman’s March to the Sea in the west, Sheridan executed a scorched-earth campaign through the valley to deprive the Confederate army of desperately-needed food. Following Grant’s order that he make the valley “so desolate that crows flying over it would have to carry their own provender,” Sheridan slaughtered sheep, hogs and cattle, and claimed to have put the torch to 2000 barns and over 70 mills.

But now it was Sheridan’s turn to become over-confident. Convinced that he had sufficiently weakened his opponent, Sheridan sent a whole corps back to Petersburg. He established his headquarters at Cedar Creek, and left for a meeting in Washington.

Sheridan had some reason for complacency. His troops were well-positioned behind Cedar Creek near Belle Grove Plantation, and they outnumbered the Confederate forces. But the Rebels knew the terrain. And General John Gordon took a look from one of the mountaintops and thought he saw a small chance to surprise their opponents.

Early Turns the Tables

Everything had to work perfectly. Without the benefit of modern communications, three columns of Rebel infantry and two cavalry brigades had to converge on the Union flank at the same time, crossing both Cedar Creek and the Shenandoah River, and travelling by night. Against all odds and aided by heavy fog, the Rebels completely surprised the Union Army of West Virginia, including a division commanded by future president Rutherford B. Hayes. Future business magnate Henry DuPont received a Medal of Honor after the battle, for stalling the Confederate advance with his artillery, and saving nine of his sixteen cannons. But is wasn’t anything close to enough.

Union General William Emory ordered a brigade into the fighting to slow down the Rebels. To me, this is the most poignant moment of the battle. A brigade of no more than 1000 men from Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut is sent towards the battle line to hold off the enemy until a larger force can form a new line. They must have known that they would take heavy casualties. As the Vermonters at the front of the skirmish line moved forward, retreating forces rushed past them in the other direction. 

One Vermonter described the moment when they met the Confederates at dawn in the fog-shrouded woods:

“One of the most desperate and ugly hand-to-hand conflicts over the flag that has ever been recorded…Men seemed more like demons than human beings, as they struck fiercely at each other with clubbed musket and bayonet.”

Of the 165 Vermont men who fought, 110 we killed or wounded. The 47th Pennsylvania suffered 40 killed and 134 wounded out of 300 men. But they had bought precious time – and help was on the way.

The Tables Turn Again

Sheridan had spent the night In Winchester on his way home from Washington. He heard reports as early as 6 a.m. of sounds of artillery coming from the south. But he didn’t round up his cavalry and start riding south until 9 a.m. By the time he reached the battlefield around 10:30, the Union had retreated and begun to form a new defensive line.

It was the Confederates’ turn to be complacent again. Early had thoroughly routed his enemy and failed to pursue. The Rebel troops focused on plundering some much-needed supplies. This is another poignant moment. The Rebel soldiers, barefoot and hungry, cold and wet from their march, come across a bounty. Blankets and uniforms. Boots! Food! And 24 captured union artillery pieces. But they weren’t counting on Sheridan. The Union general immediately began organizing a counter-attack and swore that he would make coffee from Cedar Creek by evening.

At 4:00 the Union began their attack. One of the day’s heroes was General George Armstrong Custer, whose cavalry hit the Rebels hard. By 5:00, there was no more Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley.

Total Union casualties for the day numbered 5665, against 2910 Confederate casualties. But those were men that the South could ill afford to lose. The North would control the Shenandoah Valley for the rest of the war. And Appomattox was only six months in the future. 

NOTE: If you want to drive the battlefield, the National Park Service offers a guided tour that can be downloaded to your phone HERE. Also worth a visit is the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation headquarters, located at 8437 Valley Pike in Middletown, VA. They have a very nice selection of art and books about the battle and the Civil War in general, as well as gift items made by local crafters. They were closed for remodeling when we stopped, but they let us in to look around anyway and were very helpful in directing us to the NPS guided tour download.


Virginia Civil War Battlefields (and more)

My own interest in history focuses primarily on Western Pennsylvania. But Al is a lifelong American Civil War buff. So, as a treat to him for our 38th wedding anniversary last week, we visited some Civil War battlefields in Virginia. The trip also gave us a chance to return to Shenandoah National Park. And we celebrated our anniversary with a fabulous dinner at a tapas bar in downtown Front Royal.

First Stop: Winchester, Virginia

We arrived at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum just as it opened on a Wednesday morning. The museum lives in an 1840 Greek revival building that once served as the Frederick County Courthouse. One the first floor, the courtroom has been restored to its nineteenth-century austere beauty.

The second floor displays an extensive and well-organized collection of Civil War relics, as well as reproductions of pencil sketches made on-site during the many battles that took place in Winchester.

Winchester’s Civil War History

Winchester was an important market town in the nineteenth century. It also stands at the northern gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. These features guaranteed that both armies would fight hard for control of the town. Its location northwest of Washington, DC and almost directly north of Richmond meant whichever army controlled Winchester could threaten the other’s capital.

Local historians estimate that Winchester changed hands at least seventy times in three major campaigns during the four-year course of the war.  The long series of battles and the resulting occupations caused suffering for the citizens of the town. As the armies descended and vacuumed up supplies, prices for necessities spiraled upward, until people had to carry their currency to the stores in baskets. The soldiers brought filth, odors and disease with them, and the wounded needed nursing. Private homes were often looted as one army or the other retreated.

Most of Winchester’s citizens were fiercely loyal to the Confederacy. Many had family members in Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry. Secretary of State William Seward said of Winchester’s populace, “the men are all in the army and the women are all devils.” Women loyal to the Confederacy served as spies. As the Union army retreated from the town in the 1862 campaign, local woman shot at them.

But Union loyalists also lived in Winchester. Rebecca Wright spied for General Sheridan in the 1864 campaign, sharing with him the strength and positions of the Confederate Army.

The Courthouse

During the war, the courthouse served at various times as a prison, a barracks, and a hospital. Soldiers left graffiti on the walls, some of which is still visible. One bitter Union prisoner scratched out this wish for Confederate President Jefferson Davis:

Its a little hard to read. Here’s what it says, “May he be set afloat on a boat without compass or rudder. Then that any contents be swallowed by a shark, the shark by a whale, the whale in a devil’s belly, And the devil in hell, the gates locked and the key lost. And further may he be put in the northwest corner with a southeast wind blowing ashes in his eyes for all eternity.”

By the end of the war, this town, which housed only 4400 citizens in 1860, saw two hundred homes completely destroyed and a hundred more severely damaged.

But, some lovely eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings survive. Several blocks in the historic downtown have been preserved and blocked off for pedestrians only. After our visit to the museum, Al and I had a nice time strolling the historic area, and had wood-fired pizza (and a limoncello martini!) for lunch.

Back to Shenandoah

We had such a good time in April, spending a week at Shenandoah National Park with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson, that we were eager to return. On our April visit, the trees weren’t yet leafed out at the high altitudes. So, this visit, only a month later, looked very different.

We hiked a different trail each day of our stay. The Limberlost, Traces, and Big Meadow trails are all short and level enough to be easy for a hiker with a bad back, like Al. Here are a few pictures from our hikes and our daily drives through the park.

Clockwise from top left: Along the Traces trail; Big Meadow; A bluebird; My favorite spot in the park, about milepost 8 on Skyline Drive, is like a green cathedral; Layer upon layer of mountains like ocean waves.

A Hidden Gem of a Museum

After a quick stop at the site of the Battle of Cross Keys, we drove to the nearby town of New Market intending to visit the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. On our way, we passed the New Market Battlefield Military Museum and decided to stop there first. It turned out to be a great decision.

This museum houses one man’s collection of military relics, primarily from the Civil War. The acquisition, preservation and display of these treasures has been his life’s work. The collection is vast, well-organized and well-displayed. Admission was only $12, and we ended up spending the whole afternoon there. We were lucky to meet the owner, John, and have a delightful conversation with him.

The collection includes everything from slave tags to John Wilkes Booth’s travel trunk to a lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair, as well as hundreds of original photographs of Civil War soldiers. The photographs are complete with names, unit identification and history, mostly organized by what battle they fought in. It also displays quirky items like a Sharp’s Carbine with a coffee mill built into the buttstock, and valuable artifacts like the sword that General Barksdale carried in Pickett’s charge.

And finally, our anniversary dinner

We chose ViNoVA Tapas & Wine Bar for our anniversary dinner on the recommendation of the desk clerk at our hotel in Front Royal. Another great choice. We selected seviche, shrimp, and a triple plate of cheese and meat, along with two different breads. Everything was delicious, and our server made it extra fun. Chris is the bar manager as well as a server, and the conversation with him was as good as the food. When I described a really good cocktail that I’d had years ago in New Orleans and forgotten the name of, he tried to reproduce it for me (and came really close). We also bonded over the use of the term “jagoff” in both Pittsburgh and his hometown of New York City.

Later, the owner, also named Chris, came out and we also enjoyed a chat with him about how he started the restaurant eight months before Covid hit and kept it going during the pandemic. The two Chrises made our anniversary extra special!

One our way out of Front Royal on Friday, we visited the site of the Battle of Cedar Creek, which will be the topic of my next post.


The National Road: Beallsville to Scenery Hill

A little town with no fewer than three 18th-century log houses still standing. A 1784 inn that burned to the ground and rose again. And a monument to the unsung heroes of America’s pioneer age. These sights greeted me and Al on our most recent drive along the National Road.

Beallsville Early Days

We stopped first in Beallsville. The drive into town along Route 917 features a pretty stream, sun-dappled woodlands and beautifully-sited homes.

The first significant building that you see when you enter the town is the 1788 log cabin of Zephaniah Beall, one of the town founders (984 Maiden St). The building is still occupied as a private residence. Robert Thornton was the area’s first white settler, in 1774. A few years later, he sold his land to Beall, Christian Kreider, and George Jackson. We don’t know why Beall got the town named after him.

Nineteenth-Century Beallsville

 Beallsville thrived as a stage stop along the National Road in the early nineteenth century. Taverns, inns, stables, general stores, blacksmiths, and wagon makers served travelers along the busy road.

The Greenfield Tavern and hotel (also called the National Hotel) had an especially good reputation. William Greenfield also operated the Beallsville Savings bank in the building and printed his own bank notes which were treated as currency in Beallsville. After William’s death, his daughters Eleanor and Lewiza ran the business until they also died. The tavern closed in 1835, and the building was used as a general store and residence over the years. The building still stands at 2848 Maiden Street. It has recently been completely restored and is once again operated as a restaurant and store.

During the Civil War, Beallsville raised a unit called the Ringgold Cavalry, consisting of 70 initial volunteers, with 100 more added later. Led by a Beallsville doctor, John Keys, they were initially turned down as a cavalry unit by the State of Pennsylvania. The state was interested in infantry, not cavalry. But Dr. Keys persisted. He wrote directly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who accepted the cavalry unit.

The last living veteran of the unit was Hopkins Moffitt. The captain of the Confederate unit, McNeill’s Rangers, who faced Moffitt in battle, declared him “the most intrepid” Union soldier that he faced in the entire war.

On a more personal note…

As we strolled Main Street, taking photographs of Beallsville’s well-preserved architecture, a local man was curious about what we were doing. We struck up a conversation and discovered that he was the owner of a fine 1852 house with an 18th-century log cabin on the property. It turns out that Mark is also a local historian, with family roots in the area going back to the 19th century. He offered us a tour of the log cabin – which was damaged by being rammed by a truck in this past winter’s snowy weather, and which he is hoping to repair and remodel. Mark allowed us to look at some historical documents in his possession, including town histories dated 1952 and 1976, and a receipt written to a former owner of his house, dated 1854: ten cents for a ride to town.

He also told us the story of an old woman who came to their porch one day in the 1990’s and told them that her mother had run a kitchenette from the back porch of the house in the 1890’s – called Etty’s Kitchenetty!

Below are some photos of the log house.

Beallsville Architecture

We saw a total of three 18th-century log buildings still standing in Beallsville, and there may be more. Beallsville’s old houses in general are very well preserved, representing almost 150 years, from the 1780’s to the 1920’s. Here’s a gallery of some of the prettiest examples.

Clockwise, from top left: 2872 Main St. (National Road), an Italianate building that once housed a bank; 11 Gay St., formerly the Beallsville school, this beautiful Romanesque style building now houses the community center, post office, and public works offices; An early 20th-century Craftsman-style bungalow; Late 19th-century Queen Anne; Another Craftsman bungalow; Beautifully restored Queen Anne; This duplex was once the home of Beallsville’s National Road toll-keeper

And, just for fun, I’m including this sign which we found on a down-on-its luck Queen Anne along the National Road in Beallsville. Do you know what the three languages are besides English? Answers in the Sources section!

Madonna of the Trail

On our way between Beallstown and Scenery Hill, we stopped to see the Madonna of the Trail statue, a memorial to the pioneer women of the early 19th century. Commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, one of these statues stands in each of the twelve states along the National Road.

The Pennsylvania statue was funded completely by contributions and dedicated by the Pennsylvania DAR on December 8, 1928. The woman depicted is homely and plainly dressed in heavy boots and a simple dress, but she emanates strength and courage.

Scenery Hill

Our last stop was Scenery Hill, home of the historic Century Inn. Like the Greenfield Tavern, it stands right along the old National Road, but predates it by a couple of decades.

The town of Scenery Hill was originally named Springtown when Isaac Bush first surveyed the area in 1785. Later, the town was renamed Hillsboro in honor of George Hill and his son Stephen, the original owner of what was called Hill’s Tavern.

Over the years, the tavern has hosted famous guests such as General Santa Anna, David Bradford, Chief Black Hawk, Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette. Abraham Lincoln also visited and reportedly loved their breakfast.

Al and I were not such famous guests, but enjoyed lunch on the sun porch of the beautiful old building, meticulously decorated in period style. It was hard to believe that the building burned to the ground in 2015 and, over the following 2-1/2 years was lovingly rebuilt and restored. The original fireplace remains, as well as a step stone that led visitors from one building to the other.


Answers to the languages on the Hate Has No Home Here sign: Elvish from Lord of the Rings, Klingon from Star Trek, and . . . whatever the language is in Dr. Who.,after%20a%20major%20Union%20setback%20at%20Harper%27s%20Ferry.

The National Road: Brownsville

Three imposing bank buildings within two blocks, all of them shuttered and deteriorating. Whole blocks of boarded-up storefronts. Lots covered by the rubble of torn-down buildings. These sights first greeted us when we drove into Brownsville, our next stop on our tour of the National Road. We’ve seen many down-at-the-heels Pennsylvania towns on our drives, but Brownsville makes Uniontown look like Paris. The decay was truly shocking. Yet, signs of life appeared, too, and we found much that was worth seeing.  

A Little Brownsville History

Indigenous people occupied he site of Brownsville for at least a thousand years before Europeans came. The indigenes had built earthwork mounds along the Monongahela, which the early European settlers called Redstone Old Fort. During the French and Indian War, a European fort, Fort Burd, stood on the site.

White settlers arrived in the area around 1785. An early settler, Jacob Bowman, built a trading post on the bluffs above the river, with his family’s home on the second floor. Back then, the town was still called Redstone. Jacob his wife had nine children.  His heir, Nelson, and his wife had six children, but only two survived to adulthood. Nelson died in 1892 and left the house to his son Charles, who lived there with his wife well into the twentieth century. The Bowman family added on to the building several times over the course of the nineteenth century, and it earned the name Nemacolin Castle. It still stands today, with tours available by appointment.

The town in the shadow of the Castle thrived in the nineteenth century. Brownsville became a gateway destination for emigrants heading west by river, a transportation hub and a center of boat-building. Small industries related to steel-making grew up later in the century.

Like so many small industrial towns in our state, Brownsville declined in the late twentieth century. But lots of historical sites remain, some of them very well-preserved.

Brownsville’s Historic Buildings

We stopped first at the Flatiron Building, which houses an art museum and a local history museum. Both are closed until further notice. But a peek through the windows and this review made us want to return when the museums are open. The building itself dates to 1835 and is owned by the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation.

A walk toward the creek below town puts you on the Dunlaps Creek Bridge, the first cast-iron metal arch bridge in the United States, dedicated on July 4, 1839.

The building that housed the Black Horse tavern still stands on Front Street, next door to the Castle, although it has been modernized and expanded. The Black Horse was the site of the first public act of the Whiskey Rebellion, on July 27, 1791. Here,  David Bradford and the other Whiskey rebels intercepted mail from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, looking for evidence that civic leaders in both cities sought to put down the rebellion. 

The Shreve House also still stands, at the corner of Front and Third Streets. Henry Shreve was a prominent local businessman, steamboat captain, boat-builder and inventor. Shreve is most famous for the 1814 construction of the steamboat Enterprise, which he also captained to New Orleans to deliver munitions to Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. The city of Shreveport, LA, is named for him.

The Brashear tavern and house at 519 Market Street, was built around 1796 by Basil Brashear. Lafayette addressed Brownsville citizens from the tavern door when he visited that same year. Basil Brashear’s grandson, John A. Brashear, was born in Brownsville and became a well-known Pittsburgh astronomer, inventor and educator.

Brownsville’s Historic Churches

Two historic churches also grace the town of Brownsville. St. Peter’s, at 188 Church St., is a Gothic revival building constructed in 1845. It houses the oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in Western Pennsylvania, and is believed to be the location of the first Christian services offered west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Christ Protestant Episcopal Church stands on the corner of Church and Fourth Streets. First organized in 1785 and served by missionaries, the first church building was erected in 1823. The current building dates to 1856. Thomas Brown, the founder of Brownsville, is buried near the church door. In the graveyard behind the church, you can also visit the graves of the whole Bowman family. They’re hard to miss; very large obelisks mark them.

A Really Good Lunch – and a surprise bonus

When we do these drives, Al and I like to find a non-chain local restaurant for lunch. We found a great one on this drive: Paci’s in West Brownsville. They serve pub grub, but really, really good pub grub. The French fries were very crisp and not greasy. Al’s steak sandwich contained a real slab of steak, not chipped steak. And – bonus! – the restaurant building formerly served as the stable for a National Road Inn.

The inn also still stands on the site, now the private home of a Paci family member. While waiting for our lunch, we looked at the historical information about the inn that covers a whole wall of the restaurant. The inn, built in 1822, also served as a schoolhouse for many years. The stable was built in 1830 and was converted to a restaurant and bar in 1936. From 1895 until 1924, after the inn closed, the Grimes family owned and farmed the property.

Bonus Photo Gallery: then and now

We got so many interesting pictures in Brownsville that I wanted to include a few more of them. We found some great old photos in the Arcadia book (see Sources) from the town’s heyday, and I was inspired to take photos of the same locations today.


Swetnam, George and Smith, Helen; A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1976

Vivian, Cassandra; Images of America: The National Road in Pennsylvania; Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing; 2003,_Pennsylvania

Jamie’s Crossing

After I wrote my March 26th blog post about French & Indian war sites along the National Road, I remembered a story that I wrote twenty years ago and never published. It imagines a young soldier in Braddock’s fateful double-crossing of the Monongahela River in the summer of 1755 . . .

July 9, 1755

One year and eight months to go

The trees loomed in endless columns like an army of their own, on both sides of the narrow trail. An occasional languid breeze ruffled their very top canopy, but the humid forest was otherwise still on either side of the long, slow-moving line of soldiers, animals and wagons. The chirping whirr of locuts suddenly rose and fell, as if shrieking a warning.

               Jamie’s boots trampled last fall’s leaves to dust and occasionally thunked awkwardly against rocks on the trail. Twigs snapped and leaves rustled, as they snagged on woolen sleeves. Wagon wheels creaked wearily as they had for the last one hundred miles and thirty-one days, up and down one tree-blanketed mountain after another, across rivers gurgling over ox-sized rocks bearded with black moss. Thin blades of light lent a white glow to a spot of fern-carpeted woodland floor. The army Jamie marched with had traveled the dim forest from Fort Cumberland, Maryland, to this dense, humid Monongahela River valley, claimed by the Penn family the Colony of Virginia, and, not incidentally, by King Louis, whose French soldiers and their Indian allies were sparsely entrenched in a small fort on a point of land where the Monongahela met the Allegheny.

               This 1200-man army had been sent to dislodge that stubborn little outpost.

               Jamie Grant, aged 18, short and broad-shouldered, scarred by smallpox, was the youngest son of a cottar family of the Scots lowlands and more recently the indenture of one Daniel Hamilton of Alexandria, Virginia. He knew little about the politics of the territorial dispute and cared less. Jamie marched toward the front of the column with the other blue-coated British colonial road-builders for a single reason: after two years’ service, and assuming that he survived and assuming that the French and their Indian allies could be dislodged, he would be entitled to fifty acres of land of his own. The British would allow him to keep his hatchet, his knapsack, his blanket and his gun, and whatever of his pay he could set aside, and start his own life as a land-owning man.

               He had one year and eight months to go.

               Jamie kept this thought firmly in his mind throughout the long days of clearing trees, hauling rocks to swampy patches of trail, and marching, marching, marching, mile after steep, forested mile. It kept him moving and it kept him from marrying about the Indians.

               Ever since they’d entered the Monongahela valley, the army had been intermittently harassed by an enemy that seemed to emerge from nowhere, strike swiftly and then return to nowhere The column would find itself pelted by rocks for a few minutes. Supplies or horses disappeared in the night. Men learned not to stray from the main column, lest their scalpless bodies be found a few days later on the trail.

               But Jamie resolutely turned his worries to something else. When he got his land, how would he know what to do? How did you make sure no other man could claim it? How did you commence taking down all the trees? Who cold tell you how to build a cabin? What did you do for…

               “Jaysus Christ” screamed Ian MacIsaac in front of him, as an object dropped from a nearby tree, bounced off his shoulder and tumbled to the ground at his feet.

               Distracted by the rustling above them in the tress, Jamie almost tripped over it before jerking back in horror, gasping. It was the scalped head of one of the unit’s stragglers, staring through crusted blood with still-panicked eyes.

Not death but capture

The mood was subdued when they settled down for the night. Jamie, MacIsaac, Mike Miller, and Dan Boone huddled near each other, sleepless.

“They want us to know they’s out there, that’s sure,” Boone remarked.

“Well, we know,” said MacIsaac.

               Boone laughed. “You sure was a sight trying to wash that blood off your face and your jacket.” He imitated his friend, flapping at his face and squealing in a high-pitched voice, “Oooo! Oooo! Get it offa me!”

               MacIsaac blushed and clenched his fists. “Easy for you to laugh! You wasn’t the one had a head fall on you!”

               “Admit it,” Miller needled, “you’re scared of the Indians.”

               “Hell, yeah, I’m scared,” MacIsaac replied, “and so’s anyone with any sense. I heard they cuts the eyelids off the ones they catch. And then you’re lucky if they kills you quick by hacking off your scalp. Some they burns to death, only they don’t do it quick. They takes their time, poking your skins with hot sticks, then when they finally sets you on fire, it’s a slow, roasting fire that kills you real slow. Hell, yeah, I’m scared.”

               Miller enthused, “I’m ready for them. Remember that rabbit I shot back by the Yoxio Genhi? Right between the eyes at fifty feet! Just let some Indian try and get a jump on me.”

               “That weren’t no fifty feet,” MacIsaac objected.

               “And it weren’t right between the eyes, neither,” Boone pointed out.

               “Okay, then, but I got it, and it was too fifty feet – or pretty near. You was there, Jamie. That was forty feet sure, weren’t it?”

               “Yeah, I’d say forty,” Jamie agreed absently. He had avoided participating in the conversation because he didn’t want Boone and Miller to know that he was afraid. Secretly, he agreed with MacIsaac. The great fear that kept him awake at night was not death but capture. Thus far, the French and Indians had done no more than harass the long column and pick off a few stragglers. But everyone knew that the next day would be critical.

               To avoid the obvious attack point of the narrow valley on the north shore of the Monongahela, General Braddock planned to make a double crossing: ford the river at a shallow point before the valley and re-cross at another ford to the west, beyond the dangerous cleft. The crossing points were the times when the army was most likely to be attacked.

               Tension in the company had grown in the past few days, as the crossing neared.

               “Yep, we’ll be crossing the Monongahela tomorrow,” Boone reminded them needlessly.

               “Some’s saying the General’s making a mistake,” Miller whispered. “They’s saying we should take our chances with the ravine instead of taking the time to cross the river twice.”

               “I think the General knows what he’s doing,” Jamie said.

               Boone shrugged. “Maybe and maybe not.”

               “We’d be sitting ducks in the middle of that river,” Miller whispered.

               “Well, I don’t think the British Empire got made by idiots making bad decisions. We got an Empire because our Generals know how to fight, and I aim to do exactly what I’m told tomorrow and stay alive,” Jamie said. “And, now, I aim to get me some sleep.”

               He lay down on his coat and turned his back to his friends. But he lay sleepless for a long time. He wondered if he would be brave tomorrow. He wondered if he would live.

This army’s in a panic

Miller was wrong. They made both crossings in complete safety the next day. Jamie felt a euphoric sense of relief, as if a huge burden had been lifted. His sodden wool uniform felt light and the road to the forks of the Ohio might as well have been ten feet wide and as flat as your little sister’s chest. He felt that he could run to Fort duQuesne.

                 Even the immense trees looked friendlier, like guardians instead of jailers. The splayed branches of hemlock and glossy leaves of mountain laurel reached into the trail like welcoming hands.

               Jamie heard the ululating whoop and the crack of gunshot at the same second. The column stopped suddenly, clumsily, men tripping over each other as bodies fell in front of them.

               Then the whoops and the gunfire surrounded them. Jamie heard a wet thud and a grunt, felt himself splatted with warm liquid and saw Miller fall to the ground beside him. He stared, paralyzed, for a mere second. Then, several of the blue-coated colonials run into the brush along the trail and Jamie’s instinct took him right behind them. He flinched and squeezed his eyes shut as a bullet cracked into the tree beside him.

Okay, okay, okay, just do what the officers taught you. Do what you practiced. Oh God, oh God, oh God, please help me.

With shaking hands, he groped in his box and drew out a cartridge. He brought it to his mouth and bit the end off. Trembling so much that half of it spilled, he poured a little powder in the pan and flipped the cover back over the pan, then hastily withdrew his ramrod and shoved the rest of the cartridge into the barrel of his musket. He tossed the ramrod aside, and pulled his musket up. But what to fire at? He could hear the attackers, but couldn’t see them. They were hiding, damn them! This was no way to fight. How could he get a shot if they wouldn’t show themselves? He squeezed his eyes shut again and blindly fired in the general direction o the high-pitched, staccato war whoops.

               His heart was pounding and he was shaking from head to foot. He didn’t think he’d hit anything. He took a deep breath, reached back into his cartridge box and repeated his loading procedure. Damn! He’d thrown aside his ramrod! Where was it? He frantically scanned the fern-covered ground around him, then blindly groped through it. Where was that thing? He heard a cracking sound and felt a sharp stinging on his cheek. He raised a hand to his face and it came away covered with sticky blood and small splinters. The tree was shot again, then, not him. The narrow escape gave him courage. He twisted toward the trail, pulled Miller’s musket toward him, withdrew its ramrod and swiftly and firmly tamped it into his own weapon.

               There! A bronzed body popped out of the brush only thirty feet from him, aiming a rifle. Jamie leapt up, raised his musket and fired without aiming, opening his eyes just in time to watch the body fall. I killed him! I killed me an Indian! he exulted and sank to the ground.

               He felt a strong hand on the back of his coat and knew a second of panic before recognizing the voice of the British officer in charge of his unit. “Here, boy! Come out of there and fight like a man!” The officer shoved Jamie back onto the trail. “We’re forming a line about a quarter mile ahead. Get there on the double and don’t let me catch you skulking in the brush again or I’ll have you shot!”

               Jamie leaned forward as he ran, trying to keep his head below the line of brush. The smell of gunpowder hung in the humid air, and shouted orders were drowned out by the crack of musket fire, the splintering of wood, the thwack-grunt of lead piercing flesh. He leapt over the occasional bloody body, but kept moving until he reached the line.

               Incredibly, Colonel Waters was still mounted on horseback, shouting orders to the double line of blue and red coated soldiers, back to back on the trail, each line facing into the forest. Waters motioned him into a position at the end of the line.

               “Fire!” Waters shouted, and the lines rose as one and fired into the dense woods. Immediately, fire was returned and Jamie watched several of his comrades sink to the ground. “Reload!” the colonel ordered and James joined his surviving companions in hastily reloading their weapons. “Ready! Aim!”

               The men rose as one.


               Blinded by the smoke in the air and the sweat running into his eyes, Jamie pulled his trigger and quickly sank back to the ground. Another dozen or so men fell in a widening pool of blood.

               Jamie already had another cartridge in his hand as the colonel raised his arm to begin the reload command. Suddenly, the colonel jerked backward and a burst of blood bloomed on his white vest before he fell, one foot still in a stirrup, body dangling under his panicked horse.

               The men on the trail looked around nervously, waiting to be told what to do, but there were no other officers nearby. A few of the men glanced guiltily at their comrades before loping off down the trail. Others dropped their muskets and ran. Jamie held on to his musket and followed them, head down again, frantically butting anyone who got in his way. In his panic, he tripped over a body with its face blown to a featureless pulp, his chin hitting the rock-strewn ground. He picked himself back up and ran on.

               He stopped only when he was blocked by a solid wall of read and blue wood coats. From a rise to their left, gunfire pelted down. The bodies were so packed together that men who were hit remaining standing, held up by the living. Jamie saw Boone and MacIsaac in the crush.

               He grabbed hold of MacIsaac’s sleeve. “MacIsaac! Come on!” He dragged his friend into the brush along along the path. Boone followed them, swift as a hare.

               The three crouched, panting.

               “This army’s in a panic,” Boone shouted above the gunfire. “I think most of the officers is dead.”

               Jamie wiped his sweaty, blackened brow with a sleeve. “Way I see it, we got only one chance, and that’s to make our retreat in this here brush.”

               “But this is where the Indians is!” MacIsaac objected.

               “Yeah, and can you see them?”

               “No! That’s the trouble!”

               “Well, then, they can’t see us neither if we stay along the side. It’s our only chance, MacIsaac.”

               MacIsaac squeezed his eyes shut and nodded rapidly.

               Boone gave Jamie a steady, appraising look for a second, then nodded once.

A clearing, a cabin and a man

It took the three men more than an hour to fight their way back to the Monongahela River, leaping from the shelter of one tree trunk to another, firing quick, mostly inaccurate shots when an enemy raised his head nearby. They seldom saw the enemy, but constantly heard him in the continuous crack of gunfire and the hideous, wailing war cries.

                             Finally, Jamie faintly heard the rushing and gurgling of the Monongahela over the waning din of the battle. He turned to MacIsaac and opened his mouth to shout to him, when the Indian came at him.

               The moment seemed to last forever. Every detail of the man registered vividly in that instant: the hairless bronze chest, gleaming with an officer’s bronze neckpiece, the black-and-white face paint, the feathered earring, the rippling cable of arm muscle, lifting a tomahawk. I’m about to die, Jamie thought as he lifted his musket and fired. When he opened his eyes, the Indian was still coming, a blackened shoulder wound spurting blood, but still brandishing his tomahawk in the other hand. Heart pounding wildly, Jamie desperately shoved the butt of his musket into the man’s chin, then swung it the other way and hit the side of his head with the barrel. He heard a muffled crack as he made contact, and his enemy fell to his knees and then sank face down on the ground.

               He glanced around for his companions and saw MacIsaac shoot down another approaching Indian. Boone was grappling desperately with a third. MacIsaac was frantically reloading his musket. Jamie scooped up the dead Indian’s tomahawk and ran at the struggling Boone. Without thinking, he swung the tomahawk down on the Indian’s neck and watched him collapse.

               The three friends spun their heads around, but no more enemy approached. “Come on,” Boone yelled, already on the run toward the river.

               Within just a few more yards, they slid down a bank to the river, snapping twigs and scattering small rocks ahead of them.

               When they reached the river bank, they saw the remnants of the army splashing madly back across the river. Men fell and dropped their guns, scrambled back up and flailed forward some more, only to fall again. A few others dropped one foot in front of the other mechanically, shoulders sagging, guns long gone.

               “Jaysus,” MacIsaac whispered.

               “It don’t look like they’re being fired on,” Jamie observed.

               “Well, then, you for it, boys?” Boone asked, and they began their own crossing.

               Early in the dispirited, straggling retreat, few men spoke. Once they were safely away from the river and it was clear that there would be no pursuit, the army camped for the night.

               Jamie, Boone and MacIsaac gathered as they had the previous night. They sat quietly for a few moments.

               “I saw Miller fall,” Jamie said finally.

               “He died right away?” Miller asked. “He wasn’t – “

               “He died right away.”

               MacIsaac sighed.

               “Sure were a botch today,” Boone remarked. “I heard General Braddock’s mortal wounded.”

               “So’s most of the officers: dead or wounded,” MacIsaac added.

               The three friends were quiet again. I should be sad, Jamie thought. My friend is dead, our army’s beat and now I wonder will I still get my land after my two years is up. Instead, he felt something else. It wasn’t the euphoria he’d felt after the morning’s crossing, when he’d foolishly felt his way to the forks was clear. It was something harder and deeper. He was alive. He’d learned that he was no coward. But there was something else that he struggled to put a name to.

               “Seems to me,” Boone said slowly, “them officers and regulars wasn’t much good anyway. The smart ones was the ones disobeyed orders like we did. And that thing we had to do by the river: nobody taught us that in no drill.”

               Neither Jamie nor MacIsaac replied to this. But Jamie felt something opening up in his chest. It was a strange sensation, like fear and like excitement, and like seeing a clearing and a cabin and a man.

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