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A Soft Place to Sleep:

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by L.E. Dieffenbach
1st place winner,
Annual Historic Fiction Contest


HISTORIC GROUNDS: fort Fisher North Carolina. Gun with muzzle shot away. Forms part of Civil War glass negative collection. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

After the fighting along the blasted earthworks and in the trenches was over, Federal troops looked for a soft place to sleep. The soldier’s ears still rang from a two day bombardment of the Confederate stronghold. The fighting, once the landing force made contact with the defenders in the redoubt was fierce, bloody, brutal and confused.

Corporal Lance Jacksland, from Amsterdam, New York, set his rucksack down on the grass. It was after 11 p.m. on a cold, clear January night. The fort’s garrison finally surrendered. The firing stopped. The knoll upon which Jacksland stood overlooked the river, just a grassy knob that felt peaceful and untouched in all the darkness compared to the carnage that worked the edges for three straight days all around it. Storming ashore, the soldiers failed to notice the fallen oak leaves upon which they tread. They paid no attention to the tall, dry stalks of marsh grass with the white tuffs on top, or the shorter tan Spartina that spread to the river’s edge and would turn green in spring as life returned to the tidal basin.

Corporal Jacksland was among the Federal troops in the first landing on Christmas Day, 1864 at Fort Fisher. What a way to spend Christmas. Two days before that assault, the Louisiana, a flat-bottomed blockader packed with 200 tons of explosives, was detonated 600 yards north of the fort in a volcanic explosion which, in theory, was supposed to shimmer the sands of Fort Fisher with shock waves, collapsing tunnels and mounds, vibrating berms and earthworks so there would be little left for Federal troops to do but mop up (with .52 caliber Spencer carbines) dazed Rebels digging themselves like moles from the sand.

The Yankee plan did not work. The sun rose on a mild December 24 in coastal North Carolina and Fort Fisher, despite the stupendous explosion early that morning, still stood. The warm weather, however, was perfect for an amphibious landing. New Orleans had fallen. General Grant urged his commanders to crush Fort Fisher. General Lee ordered Fort Fisher held at all costs.

The only problem was that most of the 20,000 Federal shells fired from the 60-ship fleet of man-of-wars and ironclads, sailed over the fort, having little impact upon the defenders of this last port of access to the Confederacy.

It was May 1861, with the marsh grass just starting to green, that the Confederates began construction on Fort Fisher. They chopped pine trees to build palisades and spent their days cleaning and mounting heavy guns or standing guard duty on long stretches of beach near the fort. Summer duty was hot and humid. Mosquitoes and deerflies tormented the men. The winters were cold and damp. Soldiers played poker, shot marbles or fished to pass the time. There was always a shortage of food and other supplies at the fort. Wild Wilmington lay due north about 18 miles, a blockade runner town flush with wealth, thieves and prostitutes ready to take a soldier’s money, or his life, should he make it there by transport wagon for a little R and R.

The water on Christmas Eve day lay flat on the river. The shelling seemed to go on forever. Corporal Jacksland landed north of Fort Fisher along with a contingent 2,500 men. After getting their troops ashore, the Yankee commanders determined that the naval bombardment was unsuccessful. A stable and lighthouse keeper’s cottage had been destroyed, but the majority of the Confederate troops remained safe in bombproof casements, dug-in, ready for a last stand. It was decided that the fort had not been sufficiently pulverized to justify the high losses anticipated by a ground assault. It took two days to get Yankee troops back aboard the ships once the attack was aborted. The Federal fleet withdrew.

The final assault on Fort Fisher took place on January 13, 1865 on a much colder but still sunny, clear, high-blue winter day. Fort Fisher’s men had little ammunition and were unable to return fire because of the heavy Union bombardment. Federal shells shredded the fort’s palisades, dug great holes in sand earthworks, cut electrical wires to land mines and disabled cannons. No Rebel reinforcements rushed down from wealthy Wilmington to help. The fort’s defenders were left on their own.

Great steam whistle blasts from the assembled Yankee armada signaled the beginning of the second amphibious attack. Federal troops again landed north of the fort. Once near the fort’s defenses, Lance saw the tall, wooden-stake fences backed by sand-mound earthworks as he moved forward with the other soldiers toward the prize. The capture of Fort Fisher would help end the Civil War. They were all for that. The war seemed like it had gone on forever. Men wanted to get back to their lives.

Lance’s home town was located along the banks of the Hudson River. He made his living as a dairy farmer but was conscripted into Lincoln’s army to save the Union. Corporal Jacksland liked the look of the Cape Fear as the Federal warships steamed up the mouth of the broad water with low-slung oak forests on the west bank and the ugly mounds of Fort Fisher rising like contagious warts to the east. Lance nervously waited, like the rest of the Federal troops, until the second bombardment was over, hoping this time the Yankee naval gunners proved more accurate.

They were. Big Rebel guns on swivel pedestals were torn apart by the two-day bombardment. The earthworks lay in shambles. Rebel cannons, the mainstay Columbiad, a massive smoothbore that could fire a 120-pound round ball about three miles, remained silent as the Federal troops fought their American brothers, hand-to-hand, in the trench works.

That night, when the fighting was over, Jacksland spread his bedroll upon the soft grass on that high spot overlooking the river. Union ironclads, moored just offshore, resembled squat drum cans set atop big sheets of metal under the stars. The masts of man-of-wars looked like tall trees. The men around Jacksland felt the expectation and terror of the day wear away into a bone tiredness from which Lance felt impossible to awake. He thought about his wife and daughter in New York. He thought about milking cows in a cold barn, the plume of his breath, the smell of manure and dry hay, remembered the deep white snow spread across rolling fields in January and the way the north winds swept down from Canada to pile high drifts along the glacier-stone-fence-rows. Lance remembered the way the Hudson River always froze solid this time of year.

The infantryman woke just before sunrise to sounds of drunken shouting. It was cold and clear. Orion tracked far overhead. Lance willed himself awake. He saw reeling flames below him, dancing in the darkness. Two Union sailors, drunk on whiskey obtained from a plundered blockade runner and given to them by a Rebel soldier, carried pine-pitch torches to see their way back to the knoll where Lance and the others slept. The men had no idea where they were going. They were drunk, happy and flushed with victory. They came to the base of the knoll and stumbled into a slender door framed by heavy pine beams, carrying fire before them. The torches ignited a great store of Confederate munitions still held inside Fort Fisher’s main magazine.

The grass, although dormant, was soft up there on the knoll. Lance never slept a better sleep his entire life. Much better than trying to sleep on a warship’s blood-stained deck where Parrot cannons had a tendency to explode, tearing apart their hard-working gun crews. When the fort’s magazine exploded, the blast sent Lance and 104 fellow Yankee soldiers, each a unique individual condensed like their Confederate brothers of that unique American character, skyward like angels to the Lord.The mangled bodies fell back into smoldering earthworks, a new pit of Hell on Earth, smoldering in the ruins of black powder smoke, a big fire now burning along a wide stretch of the river.

Playing cards fluttered down from the sky after that final explosion. A Queen of Spades landed in the dry leaves at the base of a bare, wind-bent water oak. A large agate shooter, propelled by the force of the blast, landed in the Cape Fear, making a small splash near the shoreline beyond thin spires of grass. The ripple from the splash was felt on the other side of the universe.

Lance’s corpse landed about one hundred feet away in the tan marsh grass. Corporal Jacksland would have liked that. It would have reminded him of the pasture grass lying dormant under deep snow ready to turn green and lush again in summer fields on his farm where, to this day, horse-drawn hay cutters driven by Amish farmers make that distinct, beautiful clicking sound of useful metal machines from another era. By August’s end in upstate New York, thistle and sumac still grow high along the fence rows. Confederate solders stationed at Fort Fisher smoked sumac when they ran out of tobacco.

And when the sun finally rose over the Atlantic that morning after Fort Fisher fell, you could still see the fleet of man-of-wars, steamships and ironclads moored against the current, the largest armada (up until that time) ever assembled, big guns now silent, the Federal ships anchored at rest with their bows aligned NOrth against the broad and powerful sweep of a big Southern river flowing slowly out to sea.

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  1. Ego Nemo

    June 16, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I like the impressionistic bits, but is this fiction? Does it really tell a story?

  2. Ego Nemo

    June 16, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I like the impressionistic bits, but is this fiction? Does it really tell a story?

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