excerpt from THE COLOR OF PRAYER
Journal of 2d Lt. E.L. Lybarger
43d O.V.I. Co. K Corinth, Miss.
Oct. 3, 1862
Commenced march at 1 o’clock A.M. near Kossuth. Hot as blazes all day, covered in dust, water gone. The earth shook twice that I felt underfoot, some say three. We could hear the fight. The boys who lost the day to the enemy cheered us into Corinth to help win to-morrow. Old Rosie raised his hat to the Buckeye boys. Water in short supply, but lots of whiskey & quinine, drink at our own risk. Now it is nine o’clock P.M. on College Hill and we are being marched to new position. The moon may be our undoing. We can hear the enemy in the trees below.
* * *
There Goes the Music
After the hot, long day’s march, by ten o’clock Edwin and the Forty-third Ohio, along with the other three regiments in the Ohio Brigade, made a tentless night’s bivouac on the end of the ridge in front of Battery Robinett, an earthenworks fortress with fifteen-foot walls, encircled by a waterless moat ten feet wide and five feet deep. It was one of five batteries atop the ridge, with its three twenty-pound Parrotts primed and ready to fire over their heads at the enemy. Until sunrise when the battle resumed, General Rosecrans’ four divisions on the ridge waited in the dark.
They were on their own to answer the call of nature, Lieutenant Colonel Swayne had warned, but wandering afar or lighting a fire would likely get a fellow shot. Edwin’s throat was parched dry, but he drank only one swallow from his canteen. With drinking water in low supply, earlier that night their canteens had been filled from whiskey barrels no one wanted falling into enemy hands, and on the surgeon’s orders, laced with quinine for fortitude.
“Stop,” he warned when he heard Van taking several swallows.
Van took another swallow before he stopped. “I’m bad thirsty, Ed.”
Edwin pulled the canteen away from him. “You’ll be hung over in the morning when you’ll most need all your wits.”
“Which you ain’t got so many to spare,” John Hawn said with a chuckle.
“Give it back,” Van griped to Edwin.
“In a while.”
“It’s cold as blazes.” Wearing only his trousers and a shirt, Van lay shivering on the open ground that gave back none of the day’s scorching heat.
“Sit up. Sit back to back with me.” Edwin was glad he’d kept his jacket on earlier that day in the worst of the heat, when they’d been ordered to leave their blankets on the wagons and no one could imagine ever again being cold. It was harder to fall asleep sitting up, but warmer. He felt Van shivering less, and let him have one more gulp of whiskey water.
The night deepened, punctuated by the noises of men awake and waiting—sniffs, coughs, flatulence, curses, prayers. He envied the men who were snoring. Every now and then the pop of an enemy rifle, a wasted shot, earned epithets for cowards who shoot in the dark. When it was quietest, Edwin thought he could hear the sound of feet marching into position down in the woods. The sound of an axe biting into a trunk. The groans of limber hauling artillery guns into place against them.
“Hold steady,” he heard a distant voice command. Friend or foe?
After forty-four days of chasing Van Dorn’s troops, Edwin was ready for the show-down, with an equal measure of exhaustion, impatience, dread—and the determination to beat them bad. Courtesy of the moonlight and the panorama view from the hill, he realized that even if they’d tried, the Forty-third could not be more in the bulls-eye for the coming fight. To the north lay the intersection of the Mobile & Ohio and the Memphis & Charleston rail lines, and beyond that the town of Corinth and its depots of supplies. General Rosecrans wanted them to keep it all. In the opposite direction, the hill sloped down five or six hundred yards into an expansive arc of dense forest that concealed no one knew how many enemy regiments quietly amassing.
He saw the likely battle plan. At dawn, the enemy would start shelling the batteries. Then enemy infantry would yell and run out of the trees on the attack. Maybe cavalry, too. The ones that didn’t get smashed by Union cannon balls would run across open land and get slowed by the abatis, felled trees, and scattered debris that littered the slopes. They’d make worthy targets for artillery fire or, closer yet, the Springfield rifles of the Ohio Brigade shooting down on them from the ridge. Those who managed to make their way up the hill would face the wide moat surrounding the battery. Swimming across it would make more of them sitting ducks. Any who survived and dared to try climbing the high walls of the battery would face more rifle fire at very close range. If by the slimmest remaining miracle a reb survived such a fierce shower of Union armament, the cannoneers inside Battery Robinett would be more than happy to cock their side arms and blow the sesech intruder’s head off.
This would be the scene at all five batteries the length of the ridge. Corinth would stay in Union hands. They had Rosecrans, an Ohio man. They had the high ground. They had the might, and the right.
“Now we know what Hell’s like,” Miles muttered. “Boils by day and freezes by night. Smells like a swamp and you get to die of thirst. And they’re waitin’ in the trees to shoot us.”
“Hell, we got nothin’ but whiskey to drink,” Hugh said. “Seems more like Heaven to me.”
“Have another swig, Miles.”
The laughter of Company K men surrounded them in the dark. Miles could always find something to complain about. Chiding him made everyone laugh and forget his own complaints. Miles even ended up laughing along. Edwin took his strength from the constant feel of the loaded rifle by his side and the ninety cartridges in his belt. He stared up in search of Orion.
“Ed, you still there?” Van asked.
“Where is it I’d go, Van?”
“Hope they don’t yell that yell. Gives me the jeebers.”
“Pigs a-squealin’, that’s all.” Rainer’s imitation of an irate sow earned more laughs in the dark.
“How many guns you think they got?” Van asked.
“Don’t matter,” John Hawn said. “Ours are bigger.”
“Rosecrans was fifth from the top of the class at West Point in Forty-two,” Edwin said, “and Van Dorn was fifth from the bottom. That’s how low the rebs have to go for generals.”
“Don’t turn your head too fast, Lieutenant,” Rainer said, “or all them things you know is gonna fall out your ears.”
Edwin joined the laughter, no offense taken. When in Rome. He’d discarded all his books except Mother’s pocket Bible. He’d stopped muttering anything in Latin. He’d even started spreading rumors that came his way. He noticed a spit of flame higher on the ridge, someone lighting something. A rifle cracked. They all ducked and cursed, but a second shot didn’t come.
“Anyone tries lightin’ a fire again,” an angry officer ordered from their flank, “I’ll shoot him myself.”
Edwin heard a chaplain moving closer among them, intoning, “The night be far spent, the day be at hand. Let us theresoever cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light. God’s will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. The night be far spent, the day be at–”
“Nuts to that noise.” Rainer began to sing loudly and off-key, drowning out the clergyman’s miserable dirge.
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho.
Hamden took it up, his baritone taking command as more and more joined in, Edwin and Van included.
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
And the walls came tumbling down.
The song rolled up the hill and around the battery, spreading its courage.
“Shut up,” Edwin heard a few voices shout from on high. Looking up, he saw some men waving and calling from atop the battery wall, but the singing made it impossible to hear more.
Oh, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
And the walls came tumbling down
“Shut up,” someone shouted in the lull. “It’s us that’s the goddamn walls, you idiots.”
“Quiet.” More officers took up the command. “Get some rest.”
The song ran out of steam and an obedient silence settled over the Union men on the hillside. Then an unmistakable refrain rose from the rebels hidden in the woods at the bottom of the hill.
I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland
“We got a better version,” Rainer called.
Edwin heard Hamden’s handy drumsticks tapping on a rifle stock and he and Rainer sang louder than the hidden enemy. More loyal voices took it up.
Away down South in the land of traitors,
Rattlesnakes and alligators
Ride away, come away, ride away, come away
Hundreds were singing now, banishing sleep and dreams and fears.
We’ll put the traitors all to rout,
I’ll bet my boots we’ll whip them out
Ride away, come away, ride away, come away
Edwin and Van loudly sang along. At dawn, they would drive the enemy back, hold the batteries, take the day. Silhouetted on the ridge in the moonlight, Colonel Smith waved his hat from astride his glowing white horse.
We’ll all go down to Dixie, away, away
Each Dixie boy must understand
That he must fight his Uncle Sam—
Fire flashed in the dark woods to give a half-second warning, then a deafening boom shook the ground. Edwin thought it was another earthquake, until the whine overhead soured his gut. The rebs—the cowards—were shooting at them in the dark. Not even the moon could reveal where the enemy’s cannon ball would land or how to escape its heedless wrath.
“There goes the goddamn music,” came a shout. “Hold steady.”