He dipped the end of the quill pen into the indigo. He took one last look out the window towards his farm, before returning to dab the excess ink on the side of the ink-well. He drew in a deep breath and then ran his signature out onto the parchment. That was it. He was a member of the 26th V.I.
That last look out the window would stay with him. The view offered a single-paned perspective on everything that mattered to him in this world. He thought of his beloved wife Harriet. They had been married twenty years—more than half of his lifetime—and this would be the first time they would be apart. He thought of their oldest daughter Nancy-Ann. She had grown into a fine young woman, very mature and helpful to her mother. She would be counted on even more now. Their son Lewis, too, was a fine young man. Job recalled his fourteen year-olds’ confidence in telling him, “Don’t worry. I’ll be the man of the house until you return.” He believed in his son. Then there was Ryl. At seven, he was too young to fully understand what was happening. His innocence provided moments of brevity. And baby Ellen. She was quite the attentive and inquisitive two-year old. “Where are you going, Father?” she would ask each time she saw him pull his boots on. How would his family fare while he was away? How would he fare? Was this cause worth it?
“Mr. Trites!” a cry came from behind him in the trench. Looking back he saw young Thomas writhing in pain. There appeared to be smoke rising from the young man’s chest. And blood—more blood than Job had ever seen or imagined. “God!” Thomas shouted. “God, help me!” Job dropped to his knees next to Thomas and attempted to compress the wound. “Where are the surgeons?” Job wondered aloud, furiously looking backwards and sideways in hopes of spotting someone who could help. “Hang on, Thomas!” he demanded. “Help!” Job himself began to cry out. Beneath his hands, Thomas’ chest rose and fell in awkward rhythms. Although it was only a matter of seconds, this seemed to go on for hours. Thomas grabbed Job’s wrists and gasped, “I’m going to die, Mr. Trites.” All of a sudden it seemed to Job that the entire world went silent and still around them. “No, son, you’re not going to die”, Job insisted. Young Thomas’ breathing labored, their eyes met. Thomas smiled broadly and said, “Sure I am! Don’t you remember? We’re all going to die Mr. Trites.” Then he breathed his last.
The sounds and the realities of the scene rushed back. Shouts and screams encircled him. As he scanned the area, barely a healthy body was to be seen. Members of his regiment littered the trench: men doubled over in agony here; dismembered and furiously working to tourniquet wounds before they bled to death there; everywhere reaching, pleading and begging for assistance. Job replayed Thomas’ words in his mind, “We’re all going to die, Mr. Trites.” That strange silence seemed to return again.
‘I’ll bet Lewis is working the plow right about now’, Job was absolutely stunned that this thought crossed his mind at this terrible moment. It was as if he was having a conversation in his own head. ‘And Nancy-Ann – I’ll bet she’s hanging laundry for her mom.’ He even imagined that he could see them.
It had all happened so fast. There was growing concern locally about the effect the South’s secession would have on control of the Upper Mississippi River and commerce. Then President Lincoln called for 900 men from Iowa, and there was a robust movement among the men in DeWitt to enlist. Job found himself among their number.
For Job it was as clear as right and wrong. He held his religious convictions deeply: Almighty God had created all men equally and Jesus Christ had died to set men free. He was also passionately patriotic. He had lived in the United States thirty of his thirty-nine years and couldn’t fathom that anyone could misconstrue the words of the founding fathers to mean anything less.
Job took in the scene at the Meeting House. He was twice the age of most of the men there to volunteer. In fact, he knew most of their fathers. He looked down at the floor, never had he seen so much mud tracked in. Three solid days of rain—each day the Union officials were there to enlist volunteers—had made a real mess out of the courtyard, and these young men in their zeal to enter and enlist had made a mess of the place. Job glanced down at his own boots. He had contributed.
“Bates, Samuel J.” the secretary called. The 18 year-old son of Job’s dear friend Asa Bates stepped over to the desk. Job eavesdropped on the back-and-forth.
“Where are you from, son?” “DeWitt Township, Sir.” “What do you do?” “I’m a blacksmith, Sir. I don’t know anything about being a soldier.” “You’ll be just fine, son. Blacksmiths make the best soldiers.”
Job smiled. Just a few minutes earlier that same Captain had assured him that farmers made the best soldiers.
“Mr. Trites!” a familiar voice called to Job. “I didn’t know you were enlisting!” Job turned to see Thomas Goad, a young man who had never attempted to hide his affection for Job’s teenage daughter Nancy-Ann. “What company did they assign you to?” Thomas asked. “I’m in ‘H’.” “Well it looks like we’re serving side by side, Thomas. I’m in company ‘H’ also.”
“I was kinda worried, Mr. Trites, I mean, I’m not a soldier. I’m a cooper, like my father and like my grandfather before him. But that Captain over there”, young Thomas threw a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the officer enrolling the troops, “he said that coopers wind up making the best soldiers. Did you know that?” Again, Job smiled. “Yes Thomas. I believe I have heard that before.”
Job and the others were ordered to assemble on the morning of August 25th. That gave him exactly three weeks to the day to settle his affairs and make provisions for his family.
“So where is this Camp Kirkwood?” Harriet was busy about the task of setting out the utensils for supper. She was thrilled to have three more weeks with Job before he would be mustered in—for her own sake, not just for the kids. By all appearances she was a woman of tremendous strength and certitude, but he knew her like no one else—she was terrified. So was he.
“Forty miles”, he replied, “near Clinton.” Turning to see Lewis listening in over in the doorway, he continued, “’tis named after Governor Samuel Kirkwood. The Union abandoned an outpost in the west called Kirkwood, so they adopted the name back here.”
“Will you stay there, Father?” Lewis entered and sat down at the table. “No, son. I reckon we’ll be there a few weeks for training. I hear tell that the Iowans will be used as a decoy along the river while the Armies of the Illinois and Ohio press the Rebels further south.”
Job wasn’t exactly sure what the role of the 26th V.I. would be. His assumption had come from a conversation earlier in the day with his friend Jonas Sullivan, a West Point graduate who had been a classmate of many of the officers on both sides of the conflict. Sullivan, were he not rendered a cripple in a riding accident a few years earlier, would likely be leading the Iowan regiment himself. “William Tecumseh Sherman is the man who will be given charge of the Army of the Mississippi—that’s where they’ll fold in the Iowans. A good man, Sherman! But there’s talk of a politician from Illinois making noise, and perhaps even having the ear of the President, seeing as how they worked together once when Lincoln was in Illinois. The word is that he wants a command of significance. He’s not a military man. McClernand, I think his name is. Surely Lincoln won’t make such a mistake. The Armies of the Illinois and Ohio are large, well trained and experienced. They will make the frontal assault. The Army of the Mississippi will be support, or even decoys. They’ll have you marching a thousand miles in circles just so the Rebel scouts go back and worry their officers with reports of heavy activity in the west”, Sullivan surmised.
“Decoys?” Harriet stalled her activity. “Isn’t the point of decoys to draw the enemy’s fire?” “I’ll be fine, Maw”, Job smiled and then, feigning indignation he continued, “but, I might just starve to death tonight. Good Lord, woman! Must I smell that stew any longer before you serve me a bowl?” All three of them chuckled.
Later that night, as he did every night, Job knelt down to pray. This night, however, was different. It seemed like tonight he bore the heaviest burden he had ever known upon his heart as he went to prayer: “Lord, God Almighty; Lord of hosts; have mercy on my soul…”
“Fall back to the river!” Shouts wrestled Job back into the moment. “Fall back to the river! Move!” The voice belonged to First Lieutenant James Patterson. With his reputation as a man of great courage for his part in the Utah Blackhawk Indian War, to hear Patterson sounding a call for retreat left Job certain that the assault on Arkansas Post had been a complete and utter failure. Bending down over young Thomas’ lifeless body, Job offered a prayer, “Father, into Your hands I commend young Thomas. Dust to dust; ashes to ashes. Father, have mercy on his soul.”
“Move, Trites!” another voice called, and with that someone snatched Job under an arm and began to drag him forward into a dead-run. “We’ve got to clear that tree-line!” this man yelled as the two ran. As they cleared the tree-line, they found themselves stumbling headlong into the marsh and swampland that occupied the last hundred or so yards to the river’s edge—the same muck that had taken H Company a full hour to negotiate inland from their landing. From this vantage point the men could see Admiral Porter’s fleet repeatedly firing their 32 pound smooth barrels at the Post. They trudged on through thigh and waist deep mud and mire, all the while in the teeth of freezing winds. Utterly exhausted, but thankful to be alive, Job and the rest of the men gathered at the landing. This was their first chance to take an inventory of who was missing. Twenty-six men from Iowa’s 26th were no more.
“You Private Trites?” Patterson’s voice startled Job. “Yes, Sir.” “Trites, I’m giving you a field promotion to 1st Corporal.”
Job nodded but couldn’t speak. The whole scene seemed ridiculous to him. A promotion? For what? For making it through the marsh not once, but twice? For having carried himself slightly lower than young Thomas did at the moment a Rebel ball ripped through his rib cage? His mind recalled the scene. When they had made their way into the left flank of the Post, where were all the finely uniformed officers? Privates, Corporals and Sergeants were everywhere, their uniforms torn and tattered—as a lot they appeared anything but uniform. Where were the West Point grads when the pickets came under heavy fire?
Job would spend the rest of the afternoon and into the evening struggling to get warm. There simply were not enough blankets to cut the chill that had settled in. He decided to put his energy into scratching out a note to his beloved bride. Pulling one more scrap of paper from his sack, he grabbed his lead and began, ‘My Dearest Heart’…
Meanwhile, the men of the Third Brigade—and thereby the men of Iowa’s 26th V.I.— were being penciled in by commanders to take the lead in an early morning assault on the Post. Many lives would be lost on the morrow, and no unit would pay a heavier price than the 26th.
‘10 January 1863 ~ My Dearest Heart, we’ve landed below Arkansas Post, and have spent the better part of the day under heavy fire. Brave and valiant men have lost their lives this day, including young Thomas the cooper who succumbed to a Rebel ball in the late afternoon. I am fearful for the first time in this endeavor, my dear, that I may be lost to you and the children, forever. We are sore under-prepared for this assignment, having had only one day of drills and maneuvers out of harm’s way up to this encounter. Now we are facing artillery and muskets from Rebel fortifications with no more than our picket line. My God, woman, they’ve spent more time teaching us how to set up our tents than the art of warfare. And our tents? They are on the transport, so this night we weather the cruel elements with a blanket and no more. The terrain is more formidable a foe than they planned. The Rebel positions appear as impregnable as nature could make them. To even secure footing for an assault leaves us vulnerable to their rife-pits and blockades. From the landing, swamp gives way to a steep climb, underbrush and trail alike are blanketed with vines and the overhanging limbs draped with Spanish moss. And cold! The temperatures have been a most menacing ally to the Rebels in their fortifications. We cannot even light a fire to warm ourselves this night for fear of artillery strikes. I’ve thoughts just now of…’
Job lifted his lead from the paper, and raised his eyes to the heavens. The sky was absolutely clear. That, he recognized, was the reason for the plunging temperatures. As Job looked into the heavens, he was momentarily transported back to a scene from his childhood.
At the height of a difficult season, his father had taken work with the North American Railroad, hoping to earn enough money to move the family to America. As such, he announced that he would have to spend many months away from their homestead. Job recalled his father taking him outside and that it was a very clear starry night in New Brunswick. Job’s father, William, took time to point out the constellations to him. “Job”, he said, “Whenever you miss me, just look up into the sky. You can be comforted by the fact that the very stars above you are also above me, wherever I am. We share the space under the good Lord’s canopy. When you look up at them, know that I’m thinking of you. When I look up at them, I’ll know you’re thinking of me.”
Job had had a similar talk with Nancy-Ann, Lewis and Ryl before he left home last August. He crumpled up the note he had begun writing to Harriet. He started again.
’10 January 1863 ~ My Dearest Heart, have you had clear skies to see the stars lately? I wonder if you’re looking at this very moment! I’m overwhelmed this night by our Creator’s handiwork. It is a dazzling display, and I cannot parlay my thoughts from you and the children…’ He continued, composing many paragraphs—all upbeat and hopeful—and ended with a promise to write again soon. He filed the letter with the dispatch, and would attempt to close his eyes for a few hours. This night as he prayed, he whispered the prayer his father had taught him as a child, and that he had taught each of his children: ‘Now I lay me, down to sleep. I pray, Thee Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord, my soul to take.”
Even as Job tried to rest his body, his mind labored on. What would tomorrow bring? He was certain that the mass of ironclads on the river were there for more than a show of force. Admiral Porter’s flagship, Black Hawk, had taken the lead earlier in the day. Certainly the silence of this night would break with the dawn.
Job’s thoughts raced back through the sights and sounds of the day: the thunder of the large-bores on the river; the echoes of the firearm repeats in the field; the sound of human bodies collecting shot and collapsing to the ground; and finally the cries and pleadings of grown men, fully aware of their impending deaths. He shed his first tears as his head lay on his bedroll—tears for young Thomas the cooper. This young man may well have become a son-in-law to Job. No longer. The world was forever robbed of him. Job wondered how Nancy-Ann would take the news. Job wondered how he would tell her.
Many questions crowded his thoughts. What became of the wounded? Job had seen dozens of men being assisted to the transport. Where were they bound? How many of them would live? Though he wasn’t a doctor, Job’s observations convinced him that some of the medical care those men had received may have been more damnable than the wounds themselves. If the cries of dying men were not enough, the screams of men having their limbs amputated by field surgeons would surely never leave him.
Then there were the sounds of the encampment this night. Small talk among Job’s company all around him suggested that many of the men were having trouble getting sleep. The haunt of the wind as it sliced through the leafless trees of this Arkansas winter provided an eerie musical backdrop.
“Job! You awake?” was spoken in a rather hushed voice. Rolling over, Job strained to see in the dark, “Who’s that?” “It’s William. Job, we got our orders. We’re to take to the left flank of the Post. We’re to begin moving into position at sun-up. If you’re praying tonight, we’ll need all the prayers you can muster.”
William was William English. Four years Job’s junior, but ranking as a Lieutenant by virtue of his prior military service, William had the benefit of hearing orders as they were passed down to Colonel Smith. He usually knew the movements of every company and brigade hours before the men themselves were informed.
“William!” Job called out as his friend turned to leave. Others would have referred to him as Lieutenant, but these two men had been friends for years, William having known Job’s wife Harriet from the time she was a girl—between them it was always simply William and Job.
“Yes, Job,” he turned back. “Is this a good plan? Are we going to make it?” “It is a good plan. By tomorrow at this time we shall be heroes.” After a pregnant pause, he concluded, “…or martyrs.”
Job was up with the sun every morning. In twenty years of marriage the only time he slept past sun-up was when he had typhoid fever back in ‘53. That was actually how Harriet knew he was sick before he exhibited symptoms—it was so unlike him to stay in bed. He was a fixture when she would rise in the morning, always sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee in hand and the Good Book open on his lap. She would watch him sometimes. He would glance down at the page for a moment, and then raise his head to fix his gaze on the horizon. He’d sit like that for several moments and then repeat the pattern. “Chewing the cud”, he would say whenever she’d ask what he was doing.
Now that he was away, she held his Bible in her hands. It was well worn, especially the pages that contained the Psalms—the cud he spent the most time chewing.
In the back of his Bible were many notes written in his own hand. She looked through them. She came upon a list of all of their children—names, and the dates that they were born. Included on the list were the names of the two dear children they had lost, Louisa who had come prematurely and died within hours of being born and Francis Leonard. Next to Francis’ name Job had scribbled the words “Why not me, Lord?” As if it were yesterday, Harriet recalled that October morning in 1853 when Francis succumbed to the fever. Job had been the first to come down with the dreaded Yellow Jack. Harriet had experienced several symptoms, but her case was never more than mild. Nancy-Ann, only eight at the time, had somehow managed to avoid the sickness altogether, even though she had taken an active role in helping her mother care for the rest of the family. Lewis, at six, had given them all quite a scare. Many nights Harriet was forced to bathe him in cold water from the river in order to reduce the fever. In time, he recovered. But not Francis. “He was just too little to fight”, Harriet tried to comfort her husband. Job cried out to God, “Why not me?” Looking now at the words written in Job’s hand, she ran her fingers across the impression, her eyes filled with tears.
So faint that it was barely legible, Harriet noticed a note scribbled next to the name Louisa as well. It read: ‘2 Sam. 12.’ Having been raised in the church, she recognized immediately that passage—the occasion of the death of King David’s child, where he grieved greatly, and then concluded that although his child could not return to him, one day he would go to the child. She was sure that was how Job had comforted himself in their great loss. Job wasn’t a man who wore his emotions on his sleeve for everyone to see. When they had lost Louisa and again when they had lost Francis, he maintained a very strong composure—for her, she imagined.
Also folded in the back of his Bible were lists of ciphers—page after page of scratches and tally marks. ‘The weather’, she thought to herself. Job was meticulous about observing and recording whatever patterns of weather they were experiencing and following them closely where his farming was concerned. She smiled as she read through what looked like a foreign language to her—his own manner of shorthand that he maintained.
Then another note caught her eye. The paper it was on appeared new in comparison to the others. Folded, it was marked with the words “To my beloveds”. Harriet unfolded the top to reveal the greeting: “If you are reading these words, I’ll not be returning home.”
Job expected the cannonade to start with the sun. Instead, the day dawned with a peaceful quiet. Even the winds that had swirled through the night had stilled. It was clear and brisk, not a cloud in the sky—a very different feel than any morning in recent memory. Job ordered his things as he waited for direction. Some twenty yards away Colonel Milo Smith and others of the company commanders encircled an officer Job had not seen before. 'He is an amazingly groomed officer', Job thought to himself. The officer's beard was meticulously trimmed. His moustache looked as if you could hang a shirt from its stiff handles. This man's blue uniform jacket appeared brand new and was adorned with blazing buttons aglow; a chord dressing his shoulder; a sash elegantly draping his torso, and a sword that looked as if it were spit-polished for a parade completed his ensemble. Though the men were standing in marsh, Job noticed that this man’s boots were virtually mud free.
Before the men, this officer was pointing to a drawing that topographers had been working on overnight with the help of guides and scouts. They huddled over it, every so often raising up to follow this officer as he pointed and marked fixed points on the field. Several of the men nodded, as if they were receiving direction. Others looked confused.
This was the choreography of war—well kempt men in splendid uniforms dropped in to direct underlings who would, in minutes, hours or days, maneuver their foot-soldiers and artillery pieces into place. As Job surveyed those soldiers to his left and his right, they were all shoddily dressed, unshaven, their hair mussed from having just rolled out this morning, and no doubt, many days in which the only tonic their scalps had seen was sweat, dirt and wind.
Colonel Smith, for his part, stood expressionless. Occasionally he would look away from the officer’s gesticulations and glance back at his men—nearly meeting Job’s eyes, it seemed, each time. Smith was a hard man to read. He wasn’t known as a particularly warm fellow. Five years Job’s senior, he had been commissioned a Colonel by Governor Kirkwood when the war broke out, and assigned to form the 26th. Rumor had it that Smith was not at all thrilled with having been selected by the Governor, but served out of a sense of duty. He had made a reputation for himself as the chief superintendent for successive railroad companies in Iowa and Illinois, as was known as a methodical man, driven to complete tasks in pursuit of a goal.
The meeting broke up. Most of the company commanders returned to their men, no doubt, to put the officer's directions to work. A few of those who had looked confused studied the map that the officer had left behind. Smith among them, these men seemed to be agreeing with one another—their confusion looking every bit the part of concern, now.
“Mother! A letter has arrived from Father!” Lewis shouted as he ran with the letter, held overhead, up the road from the mercantile. Harriet rose up from a stooped position in the garden and wiped her hands on her apron, eager to receive the envelope. From inside the house, Nancy-Ann had heard her brother’s approach and she hurried out the door, anxious for news.
“What does it say, Mother?” Lewis began asking before she had even managed to unfold the note. “Give me a moment”, she instructed, turning from her children to preview Job’s words silently at first.
“My Dearest Heart: ‘Tis three days after Christmas. I am heavy burdened to have missed the celebration with my dearest. Did you and the children receive the gifts I sent? Rupert Dupree was to have delivered a package to you on Christmas Eve. I trust he succeeded. The days continue to move too slowly for me. Not an hour passes that I fail to utter prayers for yours and the children’s well-being. How are my precious girls? How are my fine young men? I long to hear from you, but expect that correspondence will have great difficulty finding me. We’ve moved again twice since the last dispatch. The Army of the Mississippi—as now they call us—has been engaged at Chickasaw Bayou. ‘Tis a God-forsaken swamp, from what I have seen. Our company has been kept well away from action. I am thankful, mind you. But I am also growing weary of the constant movement and no real concept of what progress is in view. So, tell the children that their father is marching for the sake of our country—and that he is marching very well through all the swampland of Tennessee. We are stationary at the moment. The brass, apparently, are revisiting their maps. Certainly, they will find a new swamp for us to traverse in order to preserve the Union. Thomas the cooper has not ceased in asking if I have sent his greetings on to Nancy-Ann. He has yet to ask me if he can write to her. Perhaps I’d let him. I am taking sinful pleasure in his uneasiness to ask. Your father would be proud of me. Do you remember how he thrilled to watch me squirm before him? I’ve heard reports of heavy winter weather arriving there. Here, we are very cold, but no snow. Many of our number are ill, owing to exposure, I am sure. I, however, am well fit. The Lord provides strength for this old man like the widow’s oil. Thank you for your prayers. Now if only He would hasten the days. We’re rumored to board transports again and move down river. I believe I’ll be able to make dispatch there to write you again. My heart ever belongs to you. Tell my children that I love them. And that I march! Your husband, Job.”
“Three days after Christmas”, Harriet spoke under her breath, clutching the letter to her chest. It was now January 3rd. Six days! That was the quickest, yet, that one of Job’s posts had arrived.
“What does he say, Mother?” Nancy-Ann begged. Harriet read the letter aloud for the hearing of her daughter and son. As she read the parts about Job’s marching, young Lewis sprung into formal step as if he were in their number. At the mention of the Christmas presents, Nancy-Ann placed her hand on the cord-necklace around her neck that her father had woven together for her. Mr. Dupree had indeed made it to the Trites house the evening before Christmas—his arrival with gifts from Job had made this Christmas more special than any in the family’s memory.
Fort Hindman stood some two miles inland from the swampy bivouac that Job Trites and the other Union soldiers had called home that January night. The advance against the fort would be nearly a steady incline. A half-mile shy of Fort Hindman, a network of Rebel rife-pits and breastworks provided a last line of defense. These figured to be a most formidable obstacle to taking Arkansas Post.
Simple math alerted the Confederate General Churchill that the Post was in peril—roughly 5000 Rebel troops were under his command to protect Fort Hindman. Nearly 32,000 Union Troops were forming beneath them. A dispatch to Churchill ordered that he and his men defend the Post until reinforcements arrived, or until the last man had died.
Admiral Porter ordered a few of his ironclads upriver at sun-up, passing the fort, drawing the attention of rebel artillery as Union troops began to take up their positions. The Union soldiers were to take their positions by ten o’clock in the morning, though the actual advance wouldn’t begin until nearly one in the afternoon.
The terrain produced its own obstacles for Smith’s regiment as they maneuvered into position. First there was the swamp and marsh to traverse. At the end of the marsh a rather steep incline thick with brush and moss waited. They were to hold at the tree line for the general advance to begin. Beyond that tree line stood an open field—a field purposefully cleared before the rife-pits and breastworks that defended the fort. The rife-pits themselves were enveloped in trees and brush, allowing for clear rifle fire out, but extreme difficulty in firing in. Beyond that line of defenses stood another clearing before Fort Hindman, an unprotected approach staring straight into the southern casemate of the fort and its biggest guns. Smith was experienced enough to know that these two clearings would be the most daunting challenge of his company’s advance.
The mood of the men was surprisingly upbeat. Word had circulated that General William Tecumseh Sherman, himself, was on hand to lead the men on the right flank of the advance. His name was well known. His presence, it seemed, gave credence to the importance of this mission. It was said that he had been in Vicksburg, but was dispatched here by General Grant to take Arkansas Post—a prelude to victory there. Job himself was thankful to be moving in a manner that made sense—no longer marching back and forth with no apparent destination in view.
Job rested against a tree. They were in position. Now they had a three-hour wait. It was eerily quiet. It was a beautiful morning. The sun had not shined brighter and warmer since he left home. He took out his lead and scratch paper. “My dearest: I am presently experiencing the proverbial calm before the storm”, he began.