Standing beside his horse, Union Captain Ring McCollum studied the eastern slope of a silent Shenandoah Valley with his field glass. He was looking for signs of Jubal Early’s army retreating in their direction. Waiting around him was a company of battle-hardened horsemen, his cavalry unit since two years ago, an elite part of Wright’s IV Corps.
Their job was to turn the hard-pressed Rebels back toward Sherman’s main force of 5,700 cavalrymen. The Confederates would come, he knew it. Just a matter of time. He and his men would be outnumbered. Greatly so. Their only advantage lay in surprise. The Rebels would be expecting this end of the valley to be open. Would the shock be enough? It had to be. There was nothing behind them. Nothing Union anyway.
Ring tugged on his worn gauntlets, noticed the right sleeve of his officer’s coat was torn and then pulled on the brim of his hat. His long brown hair almost brushed against his shoulders. Waiting was the worst part, he decided. And, sometimes, the most important. He touched the ring under his gloved left hand. It was a family ring. Touching it had become a habit before battle. He was barely aware of the action.
“Be ye seein’ any o’ them gray bastirds, me captain?” Sergeant Ferguson Cook asked. He stood next to Ring, fiddling with his saddle to make certain it was on tight, a task he had repeated nervously four times this morning.
The Irishman had been with Ring McCollum since the beginning of the awful war some four years ago. Together, they had covered too many miles and fought in too many battles to remember. Or care, any more. Both were hardened warriors, men who understood battle and its all-consuming demands. Both were realistic about their own chances of surviving. Slim. They had seen too many good men die; too many, wounded.
“Not yet, Sergeant, but they’ll come.” Ring lowered the glass from his tanned face. A hint of a life-long lisp remained in his terse voice.
“By Jaysus, I reckon ye be ri’t. The wee people be tellin’ meself,” Cook declared.
Theirs was a friendship of few words. That fit Ring McCollum’s intensely private ways. His parents had wanted him to become a lawyer, but the war had changed all that and he and his two brothers had insisted on enlisting. It was their duty, they said. Ring and his oldest brother went first; his younger brother had waited and joined a Kansas regiment. Their mother and father had reluctantly agreed. That’s when the rings were made.
Around them were the morning smells of campfire smoke, latrines and a quick and early breakfast. Men and horses filled the cold air around them with clouds of breath-smoke. It was late March 1865 and the Confederacy was collapsing. Sherman was searing his way through Georgia to the sea. Thomas was destroying Hood in Tennessee. Terry had captured Fort Fisher in North Carolina which closed Wilmington and cut off the Confederacy from all sea trade. Lee’s starving army was being hounded by Grant. Southerners in Richmond were paying $45 in Confederate money for a pound of coffee and $25 for a pound of butter. Elsewhere, Grant's 125,000-man force was closing on Lee's 57,000 wornout Rebels, but the matchless Confederate leader was still looking for a way to escape with his men. The charismatic Rebel leader would not allow his Army of Northern Virginia to quit without every ounce of strategy, courage and determination being spent, if there was any possibility of fighting on. Lee had never surrendered before – and he didn’t intend to do so now. Victory wasn’t possible. Not anymore. Just being able to fight another day.
Grant was totally focused on Lee’s army and worried that he might escape to the mountains and prolong the fight for months. To that end, he ordered special units, made up of men experienced in mountainous terrain, to spread out within them and act as early warning points in case Lee’s embattled army tried to pull one more disappearing act.
But there were plenty of courageous Rebels left, even without enough food or ammunition. But the Union armies of Sherman and Scofield would soon unite at Goldsboro, North Carolina. There was no way General Joseph Johnston could stop them from joining Grant in Virginia. No way.
Captain McCollum knew it was nearing the end. Thank God. So did Sergeant Cook. All his men knew it. The key was to keep them focused – and intense.
General Sherman was counting on Early’s force believing they had discovered relief from his constant pressure. This end of the valley was open yesterday or so Early’s scouts had reported to him. That’s why Sherman ordered Ring to rush his elite cavalry company into the gap. There wasn’t time to bring any infantry. The horsemen had arrived last night after dark.
“Hope no Rebel scouts saw us come in,” Ring muttered.
“What ye be sayin’, me captain?”
“Oh, nothing, Cook. Just muttering.”
“We’ll be fine, sir. Just like old times it be.”
Ring McCollum was a natural leader himself, a man who others would follow unquestioned. He had led this company since late 1862. Battlefield officer attrition, combined with his abilities, carried him to the temporary rank of captain. Now, though, he was weary of the fighting. It had gone on too long. Way too long. He brushed off a layer of trail dust from his worn uniform coat, as if that would relieve the anxiety. A medium-sized man, he was gifted with fighting instincts that few could match. Somewhere in this awful war, his two brothers also fought. He had lost contact with them. Their home in the middle of Kansas seemed like another world. A world lost to him – and his brothers.
The War had hardened him like a hammer framing red-hot iron. No longer was he easy to talk to, or likely to pull pranks or even be friendly. His good humor was long gone. In its place was a steeled warrior. His wounds during this awful conflict had added up as well. None that he would talk about. With anyone. Three horses had been shot from under him in battle.
When he was given command of the company, it was like the men had been
struck with a bolt of lightning. He was strict and demanding, but equally fair. His men responded to his hard leadership and would follow him anywhere, and had. Their reputation was one of gallantry in action; their losses, heavy. But they were proud to serve under Ring McCollum. There wasn’t a vain or arrogant bone in his body. Maybe there never was, but the long war had made certain of it. Even his Scottish heritage had disappeared; only his light blue eyes spoke of that linage.
Earlier, he had ordered them to check their saddle girths, leave behind their non-fighting gear and check their handguns for readiness. Each man carried three or four revolvers, a trick learned from Rebel guerillas. In the middle of battle, it was impossible to reload on horseback. And a carbine would likely be cumbersome. The fighting would likely be mostly close and fierce with saber and pistol.
As always, Ring McCollum had been one of General Sherman's fists he liked to swing when least expected.
About half the company had been with him from the beginning. The others had been filled in. They were from all over the Union, and from all walks of life. Farmers. Clerks. Teachers. Lawyers. All now were a superior fighting force led by a warrior they admired. A force of swift terror. Up and down the line, the talking was low and infrequent. Ring patted the neck of his bay and rechecked his cinch for the fourth time.
“Waitin’ be the worst part, ain’t it?” Cooke asked, glancing at the intense officer.
Ring snorted. “Well, hell will start soon enough.”
His sun-burned, angular face was dark under the wide-brimmed hat and his light blue eyes seemed to see everything at once. A slight saber scar was still evident along his right cheek, a reminder of an earlier battle.
He returned his spyglass to his eyes and looked again at the far ridge. The Rebels would come from there. Sunlight danced across the ridge that held an almost treeless meadow in front of it. Signs of previous camps and previous fights still scarred the flattened land ahead of them. Abandoned supply wagons, dead horses and ruined artillery limber were strewn about the cold ground. Even blankets, muskets and a pair of Confederate brogans with holes in the soles offered mute evidence of earlier engagement from another time, like some strange and twisted oil painting.
From over the ridge came a lone silhouette, then another, and another.
“Mount up. Here they come,” he ordered.
Somewhere a man cursed. Another prayed. Ring himself said a silent prayer as he swung into the saddle. His big bay was nervous now, stutterstepping and its ears alert. The animal knew what was coming.
“Sabers at the ready.”
He had learned this trick from the flamboyant and vainglorious Custer, who had graduated at the bottom of his West Point class, but was excelling in the reality of battle. Attacking even a large force with sabers had a devastating effect on the enemy. It wasn’t something taught in the classroom. Custer’s reputation for fearless courage – and merciless action – was being reinforced every day with his cavalry’s swift and bold attacks on Rebels in Virginia.
Ring touched his ring and drew his saber.
“Be right with ye, me captain.”
He slammed his spurs into his bay and the animal sprung into a wild-eyed run,
heading for the stunned Confederates struggling over the ridge. He didn’t want to want for the Confederates to get set or realize how few were in front of them. Some wore gray; some buttermilk; others in tattered brown clothes and barefoot. A lanky Confederate lieutenant screamed at his men to form a skirmish line. Quickly a long stream of soldiers took to a knee and prepared to fire at the advancing line of blue and steel. More Rebels cascaded over the hill and joined them.
“Follow me. Don’t let them get set.”
Behind Ring McCollum came his entire company with sabers raised and their horses snorting puffs of frost-smoke, making them look like fiery dragons.
Bullets and musket balls roared in Ring’s ears and whipped around his body as he closed the open land between him and the rapidly firing Rebels. His bay thundered into the Rebels, sending two flying. He slashed on both sides of him; blood splattered across his face and uniform. Breaking through the traumatized Rebels, he wheeled his horse back toward them. Around him, his men yelled and hacked. The Rebels hesitated, broke and began to run; their officers’ calls to stand unheard or unwanted. On the edge of the ridge, a battery of mounted artillery worked frantically to load and aim their short howitzers at the advancing blue line as Rebels streamed past them in full retreat.
“Come on, men. Let’s end this thing!” he yelled as loud as he could over the roar of bullets and hooves. Sherman had guessed right; the surprise was total and Ring McCollum’s small company looked huge and fierce in the red morning sun.
A ball snapped along the top of his right shoulder and he dropped his saber in response. He winced, yanked the heavy Moore seven-shot revolver with its oversized cylinder from its flapped holster and returned fire, pushing his sweating bay to catch the disappearing enemy. From behind a log, a Rebel soldier took aim and fired at the advancing Union officer. His musket ball drove deep into Ring’s left arm.
The Union captain’s left arm was stunned by the lead’s impact as blood flowed freely down his hand. Staggering in the saddle, he held it at his side and turned his horse toward the Rebel who was trying to recharge his rifle. Ring’s bullet took him in the head and blood splattered against the log.
His revolver empty, Ring shoved it back into his holster and drew a second handgun carried in his belt, a navy Colt converted to metallic cartridges. He fired at fleeing shadows, urging his horse to run even harder. From behind a stripped-bare tree, a whiskered Rebel took aim and fired at the same moment Ring saw the man. Ring’s bullet hit the Rebel in the chest and the Rebel’s shot sang past his head.
On the fierce Union leader rode, firing and urging his men to follow. He emptied his second revolver and drew a third from his belt. The practice of carrying multiple handguns had been learned the hard way. Riding a horse in battle was no time to reload.
Like pile drivers, his men crashed their horses into the retreating gray riflemen. Eight would not rise again. To his left, he thought he heard his Irish sergeant yell something. Ring’s next three shots dropped the lanky lieutenant as the Rebels were now in full flight.
“Come on! Come on!” Ring yelled and turned his bay toward the fleeing Rebels.
From the hillside, the Rebel artillery finally began to launch its deadly lead from their short howitzers.
An explosion near Ring threw him and his horse into the air. He bounced unconscious on the bloody ground.
His men galloped past him in search of fleeing Rebels.