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For more than an hour, heavy artillery thundered, spewing blazing destruction across the mile-long field. Gray-blue smoke clouds tumbled eastward, swallowing bountiful crops, brimming orchards, and the occasional abandoned farmstead. The mid-afternoon sun, raging in the heavens, pounded down heat like a divine scourge. West of this bitterly contested no-man’s-land where a tangle of woods skirted a ridge, a young man attempted to fill his lungs with air, but the stifling humidity, more than the sulfurous smoke, made the task arduous at best. With a pen, inkwell, and leather-bound journal in hand, he settled his lean, muscular frame on a patch of ground somewhat apart from his subordinates. Resting his aching back against an oak, he thumbed to a fresh page, readied his pen, and struggled to find the perfect words to convey to paper his jumbled emotions.

Words abandoned him. He knew what doubtlessly awaited him when the earsplitting racket reached its finale. It would be his turn. The moment of truth. His last chance to prove just how qualified he was to fill his father’s herculean footsteps. In habit, he nervously twisted one end of his thick mustache and combated his frustration. He berated himself—What would Father write? Think! Think!

Then the answer arrived, just as a cannon pumped a final shell into the eastern ridge and the eruption quaked the ground. His gaze descended upon the journal. He gripped the pen, and with a shaky left hand, scratched out the date—July 3, 1863—followed by the three words echoing in his brain—

Today I died!

The truth. Yes, his father would have wanted him to write only that, he decided, as he watched the ink dry under the glare of the homicidal sun.

He climbed to his feet, stretched his long legs, and inspected the pocket of his gray frock coat. That afternoon, just after receiving his orders, he had fastened a note inside, a practice shared by comrades and enemies alike:

Brigadier General Jebediah Simpson Ellsworth
Army of Northern Virginia. Third Corps. Heth’s Division.

Jeb sighed. The compulsory identification to notify his family, the insurance required for a proper headstone, relieved another burden from his heart.

Just then, the clatter of approaching hooves met his ears. Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew halted a lathered mount before Jeb, his staff galloping to his side. The senior brigadier, temporarily commanding the entire division after General Heth had suffered a wound two days earlier, sleeved grime from his cheek. The men exchanged salutes.

“Are you prepared, General?” Pettigrew asked, spiky mustache fluttering in the sultry breeze.

Jeb secured a forage cap over his long, dark hair. He raised his stubbled chin to look the man directly in the eye. “Ready, General.”

“Form your brigade,” Pettigrew commanded, then leaned forward in his saddle and took Jeb’s hand. “Godspeed to you, Jeb.”

“Same to you, James.”

Pettigrew squared his shoulders, then rammed silver spurs into his mount and sped toward another brigade. His staff followed, their horses kicking up a cloud of yellow dust.

Jeb addressed his subordinates. “Colonels—form your battalions!” Within seconds, hundreds of men maneuvered in obedience. Drum rolls cracked, aiding the call to arms, setting the pace.

As the smoke began to settle over the shallow valley, Jeb located the copse of trees, a mile distant, standing on the crest of a ridge beyond a low stone wall. Cemetery Ridge—a befitting name. After two horrendous days of bloody battle, General Lee expected to break the Union line smack dab in the center? With these exhausted men? Balderdash!

Jeb drew his saber; it did nothing to quell the surge of helplessness coursing through his veins. He faced the soldiers, now begrimed and cadaverous after days of struggle and starvation. Thousands of apprehensive eyes dissected him.

The men are looking to me, he reminded himself, for guidance into the depths of hell. I must set an example—for the righteous cause. Father’s cause.

Courage mustered, Jeb lifted his rich baritone. “Boys, we must not disappoint General Lee. We must honor our homes, our loved ones, our sweethearts. We must show all creation that the men of Dixie are the bravest warriors the world has ever known.” He thrust his sword heavenward, its glimmering steel slicing the sun’s rays. “Let’s do the South proud!”

Jeb wheeled toward the east and called over his shoulder. “Let’s cut a path straight to Washington City! Straight to Lincoln! At route step. Forward”—a long breath—“Maaarch!”

Snare drums snapped, marking his time as he took a step into the windswept field. Then another step, while hundreds followed in perfect formation. Each step brought them closer, ever closer to the blue-clad men ensconced behind the stone wall.

Jeb looked to the azure sky, imagining his father smiling down, sending waves of encouragement to his debilitated legs, driving him forward with his spirit.

One step. Then another. Then another. He passed the cheering, hat-waving artillery soldiers, encircling their still-steaming guns, urging the infantry forward.

Yes, Father—you were right. The South must prevail. We must not falter.

All around him, well-seasoned soldiers in gray and butternut, more than eleven thousand in all, walked shoulder to shoulder, gallant, valiant, as far as his eye could see. The earth shuddered beneath their feet as they tromped toward the wall.

Damn Lincoln. Damn his doctrines. You were right, Father. Damn the Northern tyrant.

One step. Then another. Then another. Just halfway there. Beyond the wall, shapes of heads materialized—the enemy lying in wait. Banners flapped in the afternoon breeze, regimental colors leading the way through fields of wheat and corn, knee-high in places. The fearless, majestic paladins, with tattered threads on their bodies and parade-ground aplomb in their step, pushed ever forward, with bravado, with purpose.

“Onward, men!” Jeb yelled over his shoulder. Sword held high, his vigor returned full force. “For Dixie!” Pickett’s Division, Trimble’s Division, Pettigrew’s Division—all inched their way toward the enemy.

One step. Then another. Then another. A small fence just a few yards ahead. Then the Emmitsburg Road. Then the wall at the crest of the slight incline. Closer. Ever closer. Jeb’s heart pummeled his ribcage.

General Lee—The Army of Northern Virginia—The South—will prevail!

One step. Then another. Then another. The wooden fence. Jeb scaled the obstruction. Statued on the top rail, he spied the cringing blue army—slack jawed, wide eyed at the audacious sight before them. Adrenaline rushed through his veins. He leapt from his perch, continuing forward.

Father would be so proud.

One step. Then another. Then another.

Father would be so—

Yawning black holes of cannon came alive with flaming barbarity. The barrage of sudden fire tore holes in the Confederate formations. Scorching shrapnel burst through the air, ripping, maiming, killing. The lines wavered. Reformed.

A sharp agony crept up Jeb’s leg. Crimson stained his trousers. But still he moved forward. His sword swung in circles above his head, slicing the smoke of battle. “Onward, boys! Onward!”

One step. Then another. Then another.

Rifles poured lead over the field. Cannons spat fire. The salvo of death felled men at Jeb’s side. Yet he dodged the murderous storm and limped onward, setting an example. For his father. For the cause.

One step. Then another. Then another.

Relentless volleys surged to greet them. Artillery shells at pointblank range tore spirits as well as flesh. Crazed with bloodlust, the men pressed forward—invincible. The staggering, withering fire behind the wall increased. Demonic power rocked the earth. More men collapsed, thrust into a better world by blasts of double canister.

One step. Then another. Then another.

Scalding heat shot through Jeb’s leg. Warm blood trickled into his boot. Noxious gunpowder fumes invaded his nostrils, seared his eyes. Bullets buzzed past his ears like enraged hornets. Cannon thumped. Rifles spluttered. The curses and squalls and wails of brawling, charging, bleeding, and dying men cut through the din, each lending a distinctive voice to the cacophony of war.

“Onward, boys! Double quick! Chaaarge!

One step. Another. Another.

Cannon roared.

One step. Another. Another.

Jeb had hoped he had been wrong to pen the three words in his diary—

Fire beckoned.

—That perhaps he would not die today—

Rifles barked.

—Not on foreign soil—

Shells screeched.

—Not in this little town of Gettysburg—

Comrades disintegrated.

—But now he began to wonder—

At his side, a shell erupted in a turmoil of iron, sod, and flesh, hurtling Jeb through the air. His sword escaped his grasp, its steel shot into the sky along with his forage cap. He slammed onto his back. Pain permeated his body, traversed in his veins. Blood seeped into his left eye. Through clouds of battle he beheld the heavens, now veiled in a film of crimson. With a prayer on his lips for a quick, merciful death, he suddenly smiled—

Father would be so proud.

© 1998-2002 Trace Edward Zaber

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