This original story appears in my book Stories: Short and Strange, available on this website and at Amazon.com in both paperback (https://www.amazon.com/Stories-Short-Strange-Bob-Welbaum/dp/B0874PCH2G/ref=sr_1_1?) and download editions (https://www.amazon.com/Stories-Short-Strange-Bob-Welbaum-ebook/dp/B0876GGCMG/ref=sr_1_14?).
A Second Chance at History
Jerome had felt fear before, but this was different. Much different. The man on his right disappeared from his peripheral vision with a scream. There was a deafening explosion to his left. Then another. Then they came so quickly he lost count. In front of them arose a yell, long, high-pitched and blood-curdling. But he couldn’t do anything but stay where he was. The company had elected him captain.
“There they are,” someone yelled as musket shots rang out. Jerome peered straight ahead. He saw them, too. Shadowy figures emerging from the smoke, carrying their muskets high, stopping, firing, running toward him.
What was a captain supposed to do in combat again? He could’ve yelled “Fire,” but there was no need. The men around him, his men, were already firing, reaching into cartridge boxes, grabbing ramrods, slapping on percussion caps. Encourage them? His throat was too dry to make more than primitive sounds. All he could do was stand with everyone else and fire his revolver at the forms charging toward him.
One went down, then another. Something whizzed by inches from his head. Somehow he found his voice, croaking “STAND FAST. WE’VE GOT TO STICK TOGETHER.” With trembling hands, he crouched to reload. Sure, he’d practiced this, but it was different now. He cursed as his fingers fumbled with the lead shot.
Suddenly he went down, knocked to the ground as a minie ball slammed into his thigh. His mind raced. So this is what it’s like to be shot, where is the wound, why don’t I feel more pain? Frantically, he looked down. His scabbard had a huge dent square in the middle. He allowed himself a giddy sigh of relief and quickly went back to reloading.
The firing around him slacked off, then died out. He looked up. The shadowy figures were gone. The smoke began to clear and the explosions decreased in frequency, did they ever stop?
A figure materialized on his left, breathing heavily. “Yes, sir?”
“How many have we lost?” He heard moans and an occasional scream, but he couldn’t tell from whom. He was hoping they were all coming from those poor bastards who had charged their position, but no such luck.
Sergeant finally caught his breath. “Dunno, sir, I’ll find out.” A perfunctory salute and he was gone.
Jerome called after him, “TELL EVERYONE TO HOLD THEIR POSITIONS AND RELOAD. I’M EXPECTING ANOTHER CHARGE.” Then he slumped onto the grass and groped for his canteen. The sudden change in the woods around him almost made him laugh. Yesterday it was Spring. Today it’s Hell.
“Dang! An eleven!” Steve stared at the two dice than had landed so neatly in the middle of the game board and swore. “Cripes, what are the odds!”
“Two out of 36,” John quickly shot back. Outwardly, he was grinning. Inwardly, he heaved a huge sigh of relief, took a long drink from his soda can, and grabbed the Morale Chart. Here it is — a morale roll of an 11 on a C unit with 20 percent casualties, yep, they’re broken. Steve’ll have to pull them back to recover for at least a turn. And there were only two daylight turns left. No, he won’t be seeing that brigade for a while.
John stared at the map. The Battle of Shiloh was a Confederate surprise attack and a near-disaster for the Union. But some good die rolls had allowed him to change history, at least so far. At last his cardboard counters weren’t scattered all over the mapboard. They began to look like an army again, aligned in rows, each in its own hexagon, roughly following the terrain contours painted on the map. The roads were guarded as best he could, the decimated regiments retreated. He just hoped Steve didn’t see the weaknesses he saw. Just get through the next two turns and he would have eight night turns to reposition and recover.
“Next turn,” Steve sighed. “Roll for reinforcements”
John grabbed the dice, shook them, then threw. He needed this.
“A nine.” Steve consulted the Reinforcement Table. “That was enough. You get McCook’s Division the beginning of the next turn.”
John tried not to show his elation. Finally!
“Your movement phase,” Steve said briskly. “Gonna move anything?”
“Yeah, gotta move my supply train up. I’ve got two units with low-ammo markers.” John quickly moved the cardboard counter. Six movement factors, that’s 12 hexes on the road. “Okay, your movement.”
As Steve repositioned his attack, John mused “You know, I had a relative in this battle.”
“Yeah. Lessee, that must’ve been my great-great-grandfather. He was a captain in the 54th Ohio.”
“Interesting. I didn’t know that.”
John smiled. “We still have some of his letters. He was quite the war hero.”
Jerome now had his nerves under control. He went up and down the battle line of what was left of his company, talking to each man. It’s almost dark, hold them off one more time, they have to be almost spent, how much ammo do you have left?
Then he heard someone yell his name. “Captain Johnson!”
“Yessir,” he called reflexively. Then he turned.
It was the colonel, reining in his horse. “You can tell the men the Army of Ohio is arriving. McCook’s Division has just crossed the Tennessee River and is coming into camp.”
Jerome broken into a big grin that was as much relief as joy. “That is good news. Thank you, sir, I’ll tell them right away.”
“And good job, Johnson, holding that line. We’re going to win this thing yet.”
“Yessir, I’ll tell them that, too.” Jermone snapped a salute and Colonel was off down the line to the next company.
Then the captain turned to tell his men the good news, and to prepare for the next attack… which never came. The sun was setting. They had survived the day.
Steve sighed. Dawn of the second day and the situation had changed completely. He had gained a lot of ground, but hadn’t met the victory conditions and now all the Union reinforcements had arrived. He could still win by doing better than what had actually happened historically, but now it would require a lot of luck, and Lady Luck seemed to be frowning.
John had used the night turns well. The entire Army of Ohio was in the line of battle the length of the front. Morale of some of the broken units had recovered and they had moved back into the line, too. The first day, his options had been limited, partly to simulate the surprise attack, partly because his units were scattered and outnumbered. Now he could do almost anything he wanted.
At dawn the blue cardboard line moved forward, the dice rolled, and slowly, gradually, the Confederate units gave way. By the end of the game, the Union had recovered all its lost ground, and then some.
John tried to be magnanimous as he picked up the rule book and turned to the back. “Victory Conditions. How many objectives did the Confederates capture and hold?”
“None,” mumbled Steve.
“How many brigades were broken? The Union had….thirteen, fourteen, fifteen of twenty-eight.”
“Ten of sixteen for the Confederates.”
And so it went. The totals gave the Union a “Major Victory.” All Steve could do was mumble “Well played” as inwardly he cursed his luck.
The sun was well on its way toward the west as the Union counterattack played itself out and the Confederates melted away behind a haze of acrid smoke. No one in blue was in the mood to pursue further. The rifle shots and explosions gave way to the plaintive cries of wounded men and frightened neighs of injured horses.
“Report, Sergeant.” Jerome didn’t realize the irony of an authoritative command when everyone around him was lying on the ground, exhausted.
Sergeant took a deep breath. “Sir, yesterday morning we had 79 men fit for duty. Right now I count 36.”
“Praise the Lord there are that many. How many wounded?”
“Dunno, sir. I’ll check around and see what I can find out.”
“Aw, take your time.” Jerome’s leadership instincts told him he should get on his feet and give his surviving men a stirring speech, praising their bravery and thanking them for their spirit. But his feet weren’t cooperating.
Then he heard a familiar clip-clop behind him. He tried to raise himself, but the colonel barked “At ease, Captain. Just came to say I‘m very pleased. You Ohio boys sure showed those Rebels a thing or two today.” Then he raised his voice. “YOU’VE ALL FOUGHT VERY WELL.” Those within earshot acknowledged with nods and half-hearted salutes.
Colonel returned his attention to Jerome. “Captain, care for any wounded, make sure the men are fed, then rest up and scavenge whatever is useful from the battlefield. I‘ll check with you later.” Without waiting for a reply, he was riding off to the next position in his command, shouting “YOU’VE ALL FOUGHT VERY WELL.”
Time passed quickly, too quickly for Jerome’s taste. The dead were buried, the walking wounded and cowardly straggled back, cartridge boxes were refilled, letters were written home.
Soon the army was on the march again, heading deeper into Confederate territory. Jerome trudged along with his men through the dust and midday heat, trying to keep them together, telling them they had just won a great victory and the war would be over soon. They didn’t seem to believe him.
“So where we goin’ now, sir?” one of the privates asked.
“I don’t know for sure, but the colonel says General Grant wants to move on Vicksburg.”
“Yes, it’s a Mississippi River stronghold. If we can capture it, we can control the river. That would cut the Confederacy in two. Then maybe the Rebels will come to their senses and end the war, and we can all go home.”
“I’m with you on that one, sir. Sure do miss the folks back home.”
Jerome smiled sadly. “So do I, Private.” He gazed wistfully into the distance. “So do I.”
It didn’t take long for all the cardboard counters to be put back into their trays, Union by division into one row, Confederates by commander into another. Then came the markers for low ammo, broken brigades, replacement leaders, gunboats, and so forth. The map folded into three sections. The scraps of notepaper were thrown away and the empty soda cans went into Recycling.
“Well, that was fun,” Steve said with just a touch of sarcasm as he put the top on the box. “What do you want to play next?”
“I haven’t really thought about it. Do you want to stay with this or change wars?”
Steve moved to the shelf labeled “American Civil War” and slid the box back into place. “Let’s see here, hummm.” He studied the rows of boxes, then brightened. “Here’s one we’ve never played: ‘Grant Moves on Vicksburg’. Want to give it a look-see?”
John frowned. “No, actually, I’d rather not play that one.”
“Really? Are you getting tired of the Civil War? I thought this was your favorite part of history.”
“No, I’d just rather not. You see…. I mean…. Actually, that was the campaign in which Great-Great Grandpa was killed.”