Even on bright spring mornings when the world burst with new life and begged her to bask in its energy, the loneliest part of Suzanna’s day was her walk into town. Most mornings she could avoid the walk, waking before dawn and starting her day by instinct. A quick wash in the bowl beside the bed. A tidying of her hair so that, if not fashionable, she was at least presentable. The pulling on of one of three pairs of broadcloth work trousers she had fashioned from what David left behind when he went off to war. A long-sleeved work shirt and boots that had once belonged to her son, John. Breakfast had also become ritual—one link of home-stuffed sausage, a hardboiled egg, and cornbread. By first light she was at the mill, laying out the work schedule and estimating the number of logs that needed to come in by the end of the week to meet orders. Before the men arrived, she inspected the drives and fittings on the Putnam steam engine that had been the first to cross the Mississippi from the factory in Fitchburg, Massachusetts—a curious assembly of pistons, wheels, belts and gauges that had replaced the waterwheel as the source of power for the mill’s single circular blade. Its purchase had fueled the bitterest disagreement in what Suzanna thought of as an idyllic marriage.
David had insisted that the mill would quickly repay the $400 borrowed from Rufus Hays, who operated the closest thing the town of Afton had to a bank from the sitting room of his home on Polk Street. Suzanna argued that the old millwheel and human labor were both less expensive and provided better support to the growing community. Any increase in production, she said, would never justify the cost—or excuse mortgaging the mill. And Rufus Hays could not be trusted. He was an opportunist, a shylock who delighted in defaulted loans, much preferring to go after the properties that secured them.
But David had been right about the mill’s new productivity. Output had increased four-fold and they had been able to pay ten dollars a month on the note, plus the seventy cents Rufus required of them in interest. They now owed less than $200, a sum Suzanna believed would be payable by year’s end.
As long as she was readying herself for the day or was immersed in the clamorous insistence of the mill, the loneliness only railed against Suzanna like a spring storm on a shingle roof—loud and boisterous but held at bay by sturdy outer walls. But when she walked into town, she dressed in town clothes and left the protecting refuge of her consuming work. It was then that quiet depression, like a drizzly fog, soaked her to the skin.
The trousers and work shirt were part of her armor against loneliness. She had learned quickly when taking lunch to David at the mill that her gingham dress and crinolines had no place among the whirling drives and belts of the unrelenting steam engine. She had been there when, during a distracted moment, Benjamin Lanear allowed a loose cuff to slip between the whirling belt and drive wheel and, in an instant, his arm was drawn under the heavy strap and crushed just below the elbow. David’s last instruction before going off to join Colonel Dodge and the 4th Iowa Volunteers was that Lanear must be kept at the mill where he drove the sled that advanced logs into the spinning blade.
“We owe it to the man,” David said firmly. “And even with one arm, Ben gets as much done as any other worker we have.”
Though Suzanna always changed into a dress and women’s shoes when she went to town, she had become derisively known among the gentle women of Afton as “she-male”—the woman who preferred to dress as a man. They were politely distant—something she first attributed to their disapproval of a woman running a mill. But Charlotte Winter, the gossipy assistant to the postmaster, delighted in sharing with Suzanna the real basis for their disapproval.
“Oh, they don’t particularly like you dressing in men’s clothes,” she confided shortly after Suzanna had taken over operation of the mill. “I heard Rebecca Grimes say it just wasn’t womanly to be so manly. But it’s mainly that they don’t like their men working for a woman.”
“The men don’t seem to mind,” Suzanna muttered, sorting through the stack of letters for any that might have come from family. “Either the clothes or the supervision.”
“And there’s that, too,” Charlotte added in her conspiratorial whisper. “The men don’t seem to mind having you around giving them orders. That’s not what a married woman likes to see in another, especially one who makes her look plain by comparison.”
But beyond Suzanna’s handsome face and well-maintained figure, the men had good reason to support her supervision. The mill paid the best wages in Union County: eleven dollars a week for sixty hours. Twice what a common laborer was paid in rural Iowa and better than skilled labor anywhere between Afton and Council Bluffs or St. Joseph. During the year she had run the mill, Suzanna Whitlock had shown a head for business that added to the men’s admiration. She had gradually moved production from cut lumber and barrel staves to railroad ties. Two wagons now lumbered east each morning along the Osceola Road to Ottumwa, carrying the previous day’s production of ties to support western expansion of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. Two others were a day on their way, and four were making the return trip. More orders than the mill could handle sat on the table she used as a desk at the end of the mill floor. Suzanna employed half the men in the community and treated them well. To them it seemed only sensible for her to dress as they did when she came to work beside the wheels, gears, and belts of the steam engine.
Suzanna walked the mile into Afton three times a week. Letters from David’s mother Lydia, who had gone west to the Mormon city beside the Great Salt Lake, came on the stage on Tuesday afternoons. On those rare occasions when she received a letter from her son Johnny, it came with the same Tuesday post. Thursday’s west-bound stage brought supplies from the east and the possibility of letters from David, Elizabeth, and Thomas. Some weeks passed with no letters at all, but none passed without two visits by Suzanna to the general store where Charlotte had a separate, official-looking grilled window that served as post office.
Her third weekly trip to town was to the Methodist church just south of the square. In Afton, to be absent at Sunday service was tantamount to knocking at the Gates of Hell. If Suzanna and her mill were the economic drivers for the community of six hundred, the Reverend W.C. Williams was its spiritual guide. To be a business leader in Afton, one must have at least the silent approval of the formidable cleric. Though out of deference to his quorum of deacons, many of whom worked at the mill, the Reverend Williams chose to remain silent on the subject of Suzanna’s weekday apparel, he would not be silent about absence from service. And with some of those dear to her constantly in harm’s way, Suzanna needed the weekly spiritual sustenance that came from gathering in common song and prayer. She would have preferred that the sustenance dwell more on the loving and protective nature of the Almighty than on his vengeful wrath. But love and compassion were not the reverend’s forte and she endured the chastening to enjoy the benefits of fellowship.
Yet even when surrounded by the congregation, she felt smothered by the leaden cloak of loneliness. It was a loneliness of never feeling complete—of looking around her at the families of others and feeling emptiness where only months before there had been fullness. In a perfect world, a world Suzanna visited only in the quiet moments of her most private thoughts, families were always together. Children were born and nurtured by a mother like her own, a woman whose memory was now only a warm glow when the spring air dripped with honeysuckle or she savored the yeasty smell of warm bread. And by a father…. Oh, she had lived with a perfect-world father! He had been as solid and unbending as the rough-barked hickories that stood like a fortress about the Missouri homestead of her childhood. Yet the man was as generous and giving as the land he worked, a man who valued an independent spirit in his children but taught them that it should be expressed through a ferocious and uncompromising commitment to each other.
In this perfect world, children married and moved to homes that were only a comfortable stroll away—near enough that work and play, worship and celebration remained family affairs. They lived clustered about common fields where no one worried about the nature of the work, but all did what needed to be done. They came together for Sunday dinner around a table that grew with each generation, joining hands and bowing together to thank the good Lord for ties that bind and for a whole that is greater than any of them could possibly be alone. That whole supported them as they married and gave birth and died, with a love that could not be shaken by any force on earth.
Yet Suzanna had been the one to break that bond—the one to leave. And in leaving, she had become mother to another kind of world. In her new world, that same independent spirit had drawn her family away like four seductive mistresses. The mysterious woman that was the western frontier had taken their oldest son, John. This alluring woman had teased him from his family with whispered stories of the vast openness of the Great Plains that stretched beyond the Missouri River and of the tantalizing ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains.
A finely appareled lady of the north in her aniline-dyed dress and high tatted collar had drawn Suzanna’s only daughter, Elizabeth, to the great city of Chicago where, according to the Afton Eagle, over 100,000 people now lived! Thomas, the youngest and only sixteen, was in the service of the mistress of industry, apprenticed to a maker of rail ties in Massachusetts and farther away than his mother could imagine.
And the coldest mistress of all, the fierce goddess of war, had taken her husband south where only the fates knew if he were still alive. These were the four cruel mistresses of the new world she had created. It was April of 1862 and Suzanna had never been so alone.
The loneliness added to a gnawing sense of vulnerability that grew each time she made the weekday walks into town. It dropped heavily into her breast when she passed Morgan Lewellen’s smithy and he stepped out to greet her as if he had spent his morning watching the road for her to pass. He was always polite, leaning casually against the rough-hewn ridgepole of his open forge. His politeness required her to be polite in return, which added to her unease.
“Mornin’ to ya,” he would say in his rolling Welsh accent, wiping his thick hands on a greasy cloth. “Isn’t it a beautiful mornin’!” Or, “We may be gettin’ some rain, from the looks o’ things.”
She would nod and keep walking, glancing at the sky if his comment was about the weather.
“You could be right, Mr. Lewellen,” she would say, barely able to force the words from beneath the heaviness. His waiting—and the way he looked at her as she passed—left her feeling that he believed she may soon be available for a more personal kind of approach.
On this Thursday morning in April, she heard the clanging of hammer against anvil cease when she was a quarter mile from the smithy and as she approached, Morgan stepped from the shadows of his sheltered forge. The day was unseasonably warm and he was shirtless beneath his stained leather apron. A giant of a man—much taller than David—the blacksmith’s body was hammered hard as the steel he shaped. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his forge-tanned hide, accentuating spotted scars on his rippled arms and shoulders where sparks and hot metal had seared the skin. He had lost his wife to the brain fever four years earlier and had shown little interest in anyone until David left for the war. Even then he limited his attention to these brief encounters when Suzanna passed his shop on the north edge of town.
“Good mornin’, Mizz Whitlock,” he said with a casual glance down Douglas Street toward the square. “A warm enough day for ya?”
“I’d prefer that it remain cooler into late spring,” she said, offering a polite smile but continuing her pace. “This heat is hard on my spring garden. The cabbages, lettuce, and beetroot seem to want to hurry themselves a little too much.”
“You shouldn’t be tryin’ to keep up with all of that by yerself,” he said. “What with managin’ the mill and all. If you’re needin’ a bit o’ help out there, just let me know. I could come by of an evenin’.”
“I’m managing very well, Mr. Lewellen,” she said, the smile tightening into a thin line. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m staying right on top of things.”
“Just wanted to be of service if needed,” he said. “Good day to ya,” and he stood and watched her pass until she reached the square. She refused to look back until she was well into the shadows of the awning over the porch of Doc Blanchard’s drugs and medicine store. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that his eyes were still playing like little fingers across her back. He leaned loosely against the ridgepole and nodded as she turned. She stepped briskly off the porch, hiked her skirt enough to clear the piles of horse dung that covered much of the hard-packed road and hurried toward the corner of the courthouse.
When out of sight of the smithy, she paused and adjusted the stiff crinolines that made her long dress billow, longing to be back in the trousers and work shirt of the mill. In front of her, the two floors of the white frame courthouse filled most of the square, the pride of Afton with its central bell tower, oak-paneled courtroom and county offices. She and David had joined the effort three years earlier to keep the county seat in Afton when nearby Highland demanded a county-wide vote to move it, claiming the railroad was planning to bypass Afton. But a timely letter to Afton’s Judge Blanchard from the president of the Burlington and Missouri Railroad identified Afton as a planned station on the route west, sealing the vote for the local community. Rumor had since been rampant about town that with collaboration of postmaster Robinson, the judge had written and mailed the letter to himself. But the county seat remained in Afton and the railroad had indeed confirmed that the town would be a stop when the new line eventually reached the community.
Suzanna again hiked her skirts and crossed to Fife’s General Store where a tinny bell clattered overhead as she pushed through into the shop. The air was heavy with the aroma of rolled tobacco, roasted coffee beans, and the sharp tang of vinegar from a pickle barrel beside the door. She stepped around the squat, potbelly stove that, even on warm spring days, held its position in the center of the room. Two of the Cantrill boys and Ezra Elliott were already in line at the postal window at the rear of the store. From beside the shop’s main counter, Mary Elliott glanced over at Suzanna and, without a nod, turned quickly back to her conversation with Naomi Norris, leaning toward her friend in a hushed whisper.
Behind the mail counter Charlotte Winter’s face drained to a pasty white as she looked up at her new customer. Suzanna’s heart seized in her chest. Charlotte was not a person who could disguise bad news, and bad news from the postmistress was Suzanna’s most consuming fear.
Ahead of her, Ezra Norris was sending a package east to his daughter in Cincinnati and seemed to feel the need to explain to Charlotte in minute detail what the girl had been doing since she married Frederic Wolcott and moved to Ohio. In uncharacteristic fashion, Charlotte listened mutely and hurried him along, her face sagging to a look of deep sympathy as Ezra moved aside and Suzanna stepped to the counter.
“I’ve nothing for you,” she said before Suzanna could ask. “But you didn’t chance to meet Rachel Davis on your way into town …?”
“I didn’t,” Suzanna said cautiously. “And is there some reason I should talk to her?” Mention of need to speak to Rachel was second only among Suzanna’s fears to being handed a letter from the War Department. Rachel’s Clarence had joined the 4th Iowa Volunteers the day David enlisted.
“I think you need to speak to her direct,” Charlotte said, glancing quickly across the room at the women by the counter. “You might find her at Reverend Williams’. She was first here this morning and read her letter here at the counter—then said she’d better go talk to the reverend.”
“Was her letter from the War Department?” Suzanna managed to whisper. “Has something happened to Clarence?”
“Go see the reverend,” Charlotte said quietly. “And please know that you are in my prayers.”
He had promised to write her weekly, convincing her that a pledge to be more frequent would result in undue worry if he found himself where the post was less than reliable. He was a man of few words by nature and feared that any attempt to write more often would result in letters short on news and heavy with complaint. And he could not afford complaint when she had been so opposed to his decision to enlist.
“We have no stake in this war,” she argued when he suggested he should go to Winterset to meet with one of the men Governor Kirkwood was sending throughout the state to recruit volunteers. Her fair face had reddened, her mouth drawn into a tight line. “And if we do, it is in supplying kegs and barrels to support the Union.”
He struggled to keep his voice even, not wanting to fuel an argument by appearing insistent. “Every free man has a stake in this war,” he countered. “And every free state. We cannot afford to let the country remain divided.”
“But we’re frontier people,” she said. “Two days’ ride to the west and we’re in Indian country. One of your sons has already chosen to go where there is no United States. Where there are no political parties and no concern about states and their rights. We are more a part of that life than of Mr. Lincoln’s sacred union.”
“But we voted five years ago to join that union and it will not survive without every man’s willingness to fight for it,” he said. “And Johnny’s letters tell us that there is already another persecuted people who may be enslaved if we can’t protect those who are already treated as if they were cattle.”
She was staring out the window at the mill that stood idle at the base of the hill in the growing dusk of a June evening. He turned her toward him and waited until she looked up into his face. “And we should know better than most the horrors that can be heaped upon a persecuted people,” he reminded her.
“But we fought that war once already—lost your father and barely escaped with the rest of our lives.”
“And we will fight it again and again until there is no hatred of one man for another because of his faith in God or the color of his skin.”
She pulled away from him and turned again to stare into the deepening evening. “Then we will be fighting forever. But if you must go, you must go.” Her head drooped and her voice fell to a whisper. “Just promise that you will always come back to me.”
He had promised and had gone to Winterset. When he returned, he was a private in the 4th Iowa Volunteers with orders to be in Council Bluffs the first week in August.
“The regiment’s made up of men from the southwest counties,” he told her when she responded with the same tight jaw and eyes that blinked back tears. “We’re organizing under Colonel Grenville Dodge and will be protecting the roads across north Missouri to Saint Jo. Missouri’s a divided state, but the colonel doesn’t expect much resistance. In fact, Dodge thinks the secessionists don’t have much fight in them and that there will be a quick victory for the Union. I think you’ve little to worry about.”
“I worry about one ball hitting one person,” she said and didn’t question his decision again until he left for Council Bluffs.
“Are you coming for the mustering in?” he asked the week of his departure. “I’m hearing Iowa has responded to the President’s appeal for troops better than any other state.”
“Young men thinking this is going to be some kind of adventure,” she muttered. “Not men as old as their fathers. No. I will not be going to see you mustered in. Someone has to be here to see that the Union’s commerce doesn’t grind to a halt.”
But the night before he left she had given herself to him as she hadn’t since they were young lovers and whispered to him before they fell asleep, “You are the finest man I know, David Whitlock, and the only man I have ever loved. I know you are doing what you must do, and my love will be with you every minute of every day. Let it sustain you and keep you safe.”
In his first letter he had described as well as a man of few words can the mustering in at Camp Kirkwood, telling her that he was now part of Company F, combined with the men of Madison County.
“There were too few from Union to form a company,” he wrote. “Eli Jasperson, Clarence Davis and Horace Nance have joined from Afton and are all good companions. Other companies have been formed from Guthrie, Mills, Pottawatomie, Polk and Decatur, and the colonel expects Adams, Ringgold and Wayne to produce enough for companies of their own.” He knew she would not find this interesting news but wanted her to feel the energy and magnitude of the effort. The risk to a single man would be diminished if there were thousands of soldiers. His letter of a week later added assurance that the might of the Union and the weakness of Rebel resolve should bring a hasty close to the conflict.
You can feel better assured, my dearest love, that God is keeping us beneath His protecting wing. We were sent to secure the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad against an ill-equipped rabble of Missouri Rebs who scattered at the news of our coming. Not a shot was fired and no one in the company was as much as snakebit. I fear you are in greater danger standing beside a log as it meets the saw blade than I am as part of this great war.
When the regiment was sent to winter at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, he tried to pacify her concern that this no longer seemed to be a defense of access to the Missouri River. They were being formed, he explained, into a greater Army of the Southwest under General Samuel Curtis and would be returning to defend the western reaches of the Union.
“The general is an Iowa man from Keokuk,” he wrote, “and a graduate of the Military Academy. From the way he has organized the chaos that filled the barracks when we first arrived, I would judge him to be a most capable leader and we are in good hands.”
As the barracks swelled during the winter with German immigrant recruits from central Missouri and with volunteer regiments from Illinois and Wisconsin, word reached St. Louis that a Confederate army of even greater strength had come up into the southwest part of the state from Arkansas. The Rebels under a General Van Dorn were rumored to have more than 12,000 men: southern sympathizers from Missouri, a sizable enlistment from Arkansas and Mississippi, and a thousand Cherokee warriors, anxious to protect their own slave holdings. This was not, David realized, going to be a skirmish against ill-equipped frontier farmers. Nor was it going to be brief and bloodless. He enlisted his fellows from Afton to say nothing in messages home about troop buildup or enemy strength. His letters from Jefferson Barracks spoke mainly of life in the booming Missouri river city of St. Louis and of the endless routine of training.
We are billeted south of the city along the river,” he wrote. “And what a city it is! It sits on a broad sweeping bend in the Mississippi River where it joins the Missouri, and its wide streets run away from the landings like the ribs of a woman’s fan. By some reports there are more than 160,000 residents with more arriving daily, many from Germany and Ireland. Several regiments of our new army are German immigrants and are led by officers who must command them in their own language.
When the army relocated to the Missouri city of Rolla where Curtis had chosen to establish a headquarters that would place him closer to Confederate activity in Arkansas, David felt that he must let her know that he was likely to go into battle. He wrote from Rolla:
We have been ordered southwest to Springfield, Missouri. Though there are not uniforms for every man and most of us wear what we brought with us, we are looking more like an army and Curtis seems pleased with our progress. Each man has been equipped with a new Springfield rifle and we have drilled until we can load and fire at the rate of three rounds per minute. There is talk that we may first encounter a larger Rebel force near Springfield but fear not, my dearest. I am in company with a group of brave and capable comrades and we have become as brothers. We will care for each other as brothers do, and right is our protector.
As the newly formed Army of the Southwest arrived in Springfield, word reached General Curtis that the Confederates had retreated into Arkansas and were bivouacked near the town of Fayetteville. Curtis was determined to pursue and, after a brief stop for provisions, led his men south out of town along the Old Wire Road, no more than a dusty wagon track strung along one side by a sagging telegraph line.
They left the city marching smartly, three abreast, with those in the town who supported the Union waving blue kerchiefs and cheering them forward. Beyond the limits of the city, the men lapsed into a more comfortable cadence, roughly staying in rank but each adjusting to a gait that suited his stride. David walked behind Clarence Davis and between Eli and Horace, each with his Springfield slung loosely across his right shoulder. Though men quipped nervously about the speed with which the Rebels were retreating ahead of them, the mood had become somber.
“You’re pretty good with this thing,” Eli said to David, lifting the butt of the rifle to indicate he was talking about the Springfield. “You’re the only one of us can get off three shots in a minute and hit what you’re supposed to be aiming at.”
“I’ve been hunting since I could lift a musket,” David said, hoping to turn the conversation. “But not with anything like this. With an old Hall breach-loader that spit smoke and flame back at me like a smithy’s forge. About as dangerous to me as to whatever I was trying to shoot.”
Eli refused to be led from the question that was tugging at each man’s soul. “You ever shot a man?”
David trudged forward in silence until a nudge from Eli’s elbow forced an answer. “Have you, Whitlock?”
“Once, when I was living about as far from here as you can get and still be in Missouri. Up along the Chariton River.”
“Indians?” Clarence asked over his shoulder.
“Indians up there were friendly,” David said, his jaw tightening and forehead furrowing as his memory saw again the armed riders urging their horses into the Chariton ford that crossed to the family homestead. “No. This was a band of marauders that were terrorizing settlers up there. Would have murdered us all if Suzanna’s father and brothers hadn’t showed up just in time.”
“You had to shoot some of ‘em?” Eli asked.
“We all did,” David muttered. “All of us did.”
“If we run into the Rebs, you’ll know what to do then,” Eli said, chuckling nervously.
“We’ll all know what to do,” David said. “We’ll all go mad in our own way, doing whatever we need to do to keep alive. Let’s hope the Rebs keep moving south.”
“Maybe this will all end before we have to fight,” Horace said.
“Maybe,” David muttered, but he knew it wouldn’t.
The afternoon of the sixth day out of Springfield, four hours beyond a crude stone marker that indicated they had crossed into Arkansas, the loose rank marched mechanically through low rocky hills that pressed tightly against the road on either side. Thick stands of hardwoods—oak and hickory not yet in bud from a bitterly cold winter—towered above them on the slopes, adding thin strips of shadow to an already oppressive day. David and the Afton men marched midway back in the column and heard a rippled shout move toward them along the uneven line like the wake from a river barge.
“Scout’s just reached the general,” a man two rows in front of them relayed. “The Rebs have stopped and are moving back toward us. They’re still ten, maybe fifteen miles ahead but are turning back.”
Men swung their weapons from their shoulders and bunched more closely together, eyes raking the trees that suddenly seemed alive with shadows. A horseman rode along the line, shouting instructions as they descended the steep bank of a creek.
“The general’s orders are for you men to spread out along this upper bank,” the rider ordered. “Find a good place and dig in along the ridge.” He reined his horse to a halt beside Colonel Dodge, who had fallen back to be beside the Iowa volunteers.
“Curtis wants a couple of your companies to move forward, Colonel,” the rider said. “Have them pick up axes and logging saws from the supply wagon and move up the road until they find a place where it’s hard to skirt the trail, then drop as many trees across the road as you can. We need to slow down any advance.”
As the column divided left and right and scattered along the ridgeline, David and the men of F and G Companies fell back to a trailing supply wagon and gathered axes and two crosscut saws. With a newly-appointed captain leading astride a black mount, they splashed through the shallow creek and moved southwest along the road in broken formation. At every turn in the dirt track, the officer rode boldly forward around the bend, returning to advance the column when certain the road was clear. The man looked no older than David’s son Johnny, and David admired his early display of courage.
Two miles beyond the creek they passed a small store, hastily abandoned by its proprietors when the Rebel forces warned that Yankee troops were close behind. A mile beyond, the road squeezed through a steep, narrow cut with sturdy oaks arching above the path, their leafless branches joined in a wiry lattice overhead. The captain ordered the column to halt and directed his horse back along the center of the road, his men parting in front of him.
“You, to the right, cut on that side,” he shouted, waving at the trees on the eastern slope. “You men to the left, up that bank! Drop trees that will completely cross the road. Nothing too far up the hill. Let’s see what we can bring down before dark.”
They cut well after sundown, starting at the south end of the passage and working back toward where their comrades were securing a position along the ridge. The night favored them with a bright moon and when the captain ordered them to rest, David looked back at a shadowy fortress of skeleton trunks and limbs that filled the ravine as if no road had ever been cut through. The crash of falling trees had been thunderous and he wondered if the roar had carried far enough in the crisp March air to be heard by the enemy.
They fell back to the abandoned store for a few hours’ sleep, broken at early dawn by the shouts of a rider galloping from the north on a lathered mare.
“They’ve circled round us during the night,” he yelled to the scramble of men who rose from the wooden porch and poured from the doorway of the empty store. “They’ve mounted an attack from the north near a public house. Dodge wants all men back to shore up the right flank.”
When David’s company reached the battlefield, the world seemed to have turned. Confederate troops held the ground to the north, with Dodge’s forces pulled off the ridgeline into open fields, defending what they thought would be their rear. With cannons pounding the fields beside the tavern from higher ground, David and his comrades engaged the enemy in light skirmishes throughout the morning, exchanging fire with fleeting figures that moved among the trees on the enemy side. They fell back to the tavern to re-group, then were hastily called forward again as the Rebels mounted a ferocious frontal assault. David shouted for his Afton comrades to gather beside him on the road in front of the tavern, masking the fear that stabbed at his body like an icy blade behind a glare of fierce resolve.
“Stay close!” he shouted over the rumble of the approaching assault and, in a stooped run, the four men joined the blue line that surged forward onto the battle-ravaged field.
The Iowa Volunteers had drilled at Camp Kirkwood when first mustered in and at Jefferson Barracks while in St. Louis, practicing loading and firing their Springfields and parrying and thrusting with bayonets. But nothing prepares a man for the chaotic madness of a battle charge. David had known what it meant to be exhausted—the tired that came from slogging through waist-deep snow to bring a log to the mill, or that followed a full day of hard labor when they had framed the house. But this was a new kind of exhaustion—one that the relentless grip of fear squeezed into every fiber of his body. It came from running blindly forward through smoke and tangled brush in a terrified crouch, pitching onto his belly to crawl another fifty yards before pushing to his knees behind a cannon-shattered tree or fallen horse. Mindlessly firing, loading, and firing again. He had experienced terror as a boy when, at the small Missouri community of Haun’s Mill, mobsters had splashed through the creek to massacre the unsuspecting villagers, and again when battling the band of marauders at his parents’ home on the Chariton River. But he had never witnessed man’s basest brutal nature as he saw it on the bloody field beside Elkhorn Tavern.
The enemy came first on horseback, trampling men underfoot and slashing madly with sabers. The gray line of foot soldiers followed, the air above them screaming with Rebel cannon fire from a low rise to his right. The Iowa men launched themselves toward the cavalry as a screaming mob, the shouting as much to fortify their own failing hearts and smother the agonizing cries of men falling beside them as to bring fear to the enemy.