The Picket Line

Yankee and Rebel pickets meet on the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The setting of my story.

Two summers ago I joined a fiction writing group that was designed to provide guidance and insight for writers intending on creating a novel. Over that summer I wrote six chapters of what I hope to become a historical novel set during the American Civil War. Besides needing to get back to that effort, I have written three stand alone stories using the same characters. The prompt for the Tuesday Sturgis Library Writers Group was “I Heard That…”. I went back to my historical novel characters and wrote a fourth stand alone story, which could be incorporated into the novel. I italicized and emboldened the prompt in the following story.

The Picket Line

Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 12, 1862

The waning Gibbous Moon illuminated the rutted path to the Rappahannock River crossing.  The temperature had dropped as the sun set making the path icy in spots.  Fearing his horse may slip, the rider dismounted, tied its reins to a sapling and walked the rest of the way to the river.

A voice with an Irish brogue called out of the shadows of the trail, “Halt! Who goes there!”  

“Captain James Bartlett, Corp of Engineers, and aide to General Burnside.”

The guard called for Bartlett to approach.  After exchanging salutes, Bartlett noted the brass numbers and letters on the guards’ cap, “69th New York Volunteers, cheers to the Irish Brigade!”

“Thank you, sir.  How can I be of service?”

“Can you direct me to the sergeant of the guard?”

“Follow the path to the river sir, Sergeant Quincannon’s ‘is name.”  Bartlett thanked the guard and continued towards the river.  Soon he could hear the river gurgling over the stones at the crossing.  The guards at the crossing had lit a small fire.  There were blankets tied to the tree trunks and branches to conceal its flickering flames.  Quincannon, sitting near the fire and sipping from a tin cup, stood and saluted Bartlett, then offered him a cup of tea.  Inquiring about the Captain’s visit, Bartlett answered, “I heard that men on the picket lines engage in commerce with our Rebel opponents across the river.”

Quincannon stammered, “That’s against regulations sir.”

Bartlett chuckled and said, “Don’t worry Sergeant, I know it happens.  I need to get a message to a friend on the other side. How do I arrange for that transaction?”

Quincannon hesitated a moment, leaned out from the cover of the blankets and called into the dark, “Corliss, you over there?”

A voice called back, “Howdy Quinn, what can I do fer ya’ll?”

“There’s an officer of engineers here says he needs to get a note to someone, can you help?”

“And what’s this officer of engineers have to offer us to be his messenger?”

Quincannon gave Bartlett a questioning look.  “Coffee and some brandy.”

Quincannon called back, “He’s got coffee and brandy Corliss.”

“I’ll be damned!  Send him over Quinn.”  Corliss told the other Rebels with him to not shoot.

Bartlett splashed across the cold, shallow river and walked into a circle of rather seedy looking Rebel soldiers.  Corliss stepped forward and gave a lazy salute.  Bartlett saluted back and handed over the brandy and coffee.  The circle of Rebels gasped.  Reaching into his coat pocket, Bartlett withdrew a letter and asked Corliss if he could get it to a cavalry officer named Captain Redmond Downes.  

“T’aint no cavalry here Captain”, said Corliss.

“I know there is, I saw them from the observation balloon today,” replied Bartlett.

Corliss was astounded.  “You were in that thang? I saw it today!  What’s it like to be so high up?”

“Scary as hell when it’s windy.  But you can see for miles. Please get this letter to Captain Downes,it is about a mutual friend of ours.  A young woman named Lizz.. Miss Elizabeth Haw.”

Balloons filled with hydrogen gas were used by the Union Army for aerial observation in the Virginia Theater of War until May of 1863. It was cumbersome transporting the balloons and gas generating equipage.

Corliss’ eyes narrowed, then his mouth twisted in a wry grin.  “Mutual friend, eh?  Soon to be closer to one than t’other I’m guessin’.”

“Please see that he gets it Mr. Corliss. I’d also like for him to know that I am still alive.”  

Corliss became serious again, “I am sorry Captain, I was just joshin’ with ya’all.  I’ll do my best.”

A Rebel burst through the brush startling everyone.  “Officers approaching”, he blurted out breathlessly.

Corliss turned to Bartlett, “You have to scoot sir.  I’m gonna to count to 10 and then we will fire off a volley.  Tell Quinn we’ll be shootin’ high, we’d be much obliged if ya’ll return the favor.”

Bartlett slipped, tripped and scrambled his way back to the Yankee side of the river, counting to 10 as well.  Reaching for Quincannon’s outstretched hand he told him what was about to unfold.  Sure enough, a volley rang out from the Rebel side of the river, the bullets humming through the branches high above their heads.  The Yankees aimed high and fired off a volley into the heavens over the Rebs.  A few insults were hurled back and forth.

Catching his breath, Bartlett thanked Sergeant Quincannon for his help.  Reaching into his sack, he handed the Sergeant a flask of brandy.

“Be’Jesus, you’re a saint sir.  You surely are!” Sergeant Quincannon exclaimed.

Bartlett shook the Sergeant’s hand and walked up the moonlit trail to his tethered horse.

Ernie Stricsek

Sturgis Library Writers Group, Barnstable MA

April 25, 2023

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