In this fourth, final, and rousing installment of Nathaniel Starbuck's Civil War adventures, Nate is given command of a punishment battalion: a motley collection of cowards, thieves, deserters, and murderers. Setting off to Join General Robert E. Lee's army, Starbuck's men reach Harper's Ferry in time to take part in Stonewall Jackson's capture of the Union garrison. From there, the regiment moves on to the legendary horror of Sharpsburg, beside the Antietam Creek, forever to be remembered as the bloodiest single day of the war. There, Starbuck and his troop will have their courage and commitment tested as never before.
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August 31, 2001
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Excerpt from The Bloody Ground by Bernard Cornwell
It rained. It had rained all day. At first it had been a quick, warm rain gusted by fitful southern winds, but in the late afternoon the wind had turned east and the rain became malevolent. It pelted down; a stinging, slashing, heavy rain fit to float an ark. It drummed on the armies' inadequate tents; it flooded the abandoned Yankee earthworks at Centreville; and it washed the shallow dirt off the grave mounds beside the Bull Run so that an army of fish-white corpses, scarcely a day or two buried, surfaced like the dead on Judgment Day. The Virginia dirt was red, and the water that poured in ever-widening muddy streams toward the Chesapeake Bay took on the color of the soil so that it seemed as if the whole tidewater was being drenched in blood. It was the first day of September 1862. The sun would not set on Washington till thirty-four minutes after six, yet by half past three the gas mantles had been lit in the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue was a foot deep in mud, and the open sewers of Swampoodle were overflowing. In the Capitol the rain slashed through the beams and scaffolding of the half-finished dome to pour onto the newly arrived wounded from the North's defeat at Manassas, who lay in misery on the rotunda's marble floor.
Twenty miles west of Washington more fugitives from John Pope's beaten army trudged toward the safety of the capital. Rebels tried to bar their road, but rain turned the confrontation into confusion. Infantrymen huddled for shelter under soaking trees, artillerymen cursed their rain-soaked powder charges, cavalrymen tried to calm horses terrified by the bolts of lightning that raked from the heavy clouds. MajorNathaniel Starbuck, commander of the Faulconer Legion of Swynyard's Brigade of Jackson's Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, was trying to keep a cartridge dry as he poured its powder into his rifle. He tried to protect the cartridge with his hat, but the hat was drenched and the powder that he shook from the wax paper was suspiciously lumpy. He shoved the crumpled paper onto the powder, spat the bullet into the rifle's muzzle, then rammed the charge hard down. He pulled back the hammer, fished a percussion cap from the box at his belt and fitted it onto the rifle's cone, then took aim through the silver sheeting of the rain. His regiment was at the edge of a dripping wood, facing north across a rain-beaten cornfield toward another stand of trees where the Yankees sheltered. There was no target in Starbuck's sights, but he pulled the trigger anyway. The hammer thumped onto the percussion cap that exploded to puff its little wisp of smoke, but the powder in the rifle's breech obstinately refused to catch the fire. Starbuck swore. He eased back the hammer, prised the shattered percussion cap off the cone, and put another in its place. He tried again, but still the rifle would not fire. "Might as well throw rocks at the bastards," he said to no one in particular. A rifle fired from the far trees, but the bullet's passage through the leaves over Starbuck's head was drowned by the thrashing rain. Starbuck crouched with his useless rifle and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do now.