It wasn’t the fighting that bothered us as much as it was the waiting. Those long days that dragged out into weeks, and then into months, of sitting in camp, knowing the enemy was just a few miles off, probably doing the same things we were, and itching for a chance to get at us as much as we were itching to get at them. Old Rosey was a good enough general, but he was a deliberate man, unwilling to move unless he was sure the odds were in his favor, so we drilled and foraged and whittled and told the same stories to one another over and over again, the number of Rebs we had killed and wounds sustained, increasing with each retelling. One particular old cuss named Tom Magee had apparently repulsed the whole Confederate army by himself at Stones River before the rest of us had loaded up.

One day it was decided that the Rebels had us outmatched in the cavalry department and that two regiments of Wilder’s infantry, of which we were a part, would mount up. There were about 1,500 of us in total and not half that number of horses, so we were sent out to scrounge some up. With orders to seize any horse that still had enough muscle in its back to carry a man, or even mules if we could get them to back to camp, we set out on our hunt.

I was partnered up with Magee, and after a whole day of searching, in which Magee had regaled me with tales of his exploits in every battle in the East and in the West, including a few that had occurred simultaneously, we came upon two old plough horses grazing in a field. With no one about, it was our intent to saunter up to them and haul them off, with no one being the wiser. We were well on our way to accomplishing our mission when I spotted a man on horseback on a hill just past the edge of the field. I pointed this out to Magee, interrupting his account of how he had saved the life of General McClellan by swatting a minie ball out of the air with the butt of his rifle.

“Might be a Rebel scout,” Magee said in a whisper, though the man was too far off to have heard us. “What you think we should do?”

“Think you can hit him from here,” I asked, trying to size up the distance between us and the man.

Magee nodded, loaded up his rifle, and took aim. A second later, I heard the crack of his gun and watched the man fall from his horse through the plume of smoke.

“You got him!” I exclaimed, with a new found respect for my companion.

“Yeah,” he responded glumly, “but we scared off our horses.”

I looked up to see the horses had already galloped off into the distance, far beyond our reach. However, I noticed the horse the Reb had been riding was apparently made of sterner stuff and had lingered by the side of its fallen master. I suggested we make do with it, arguing one good Morgan was at least as good as two old plough horses. Magee agreed, but suggested we should proceed with caution in case there were any more Rebs lurking about.

We made it up the ridge without scaring the horse off or encountering any more of the enemy. I was pleased to see it was indeed a fine animal and a well-trained one, too. It stood still as an oak while I grabbed its reigns and snorted approvingly as I ran my hand down its muzzle. I imagined myself astride the beast, charging into battle, and was already trying to formulate an argument as to why I should be the one to claim it when I noticed my companion seemed less interested in our prize than he was in the man lying on his back a few yards away. He was standing there over the body, a look on his face that I couldn’t quite read. If I had to guess, I would have said he had just discovered he had murdered his best friend.

“He’s just a boy,” he said as I walked over, leading the horse, to examine the corpse. “He hasn’t even sprouted whiskers yet.”

We both stood there, staring down at the youth. He stared back, grinning as though he had just thought of an amusing story he wanted to tell. His homespun butternut uniform was so threadbare it wouldn’t have served as a decent wash rag, and his feet were bare. I knew right off this was no scout. This boy had seen enough of fighting and had tried to skedaddle on a stolen horse. Magee had reached the same conclusion and regretted killing the boy all the more for it.

“Close his eyes, Jim,” he said. “I can’t stand him staring at me like that.”

I reached down and pulled the boy’s eyelids shut, but the grin remained.

Magee was uncharacteristically quiet on the way back to camp. Endeavoring to cheer him up, I suggested he take the horse, but he seemed horrified by the notion, stating he wanted nothing to do with the horse and asking that I not mention the how we had acquired it to anyone. I knew we should report the incident, but promised Magee I would keep it to myself.

Magee was different after that. When we sat around the fire, swapping tales of our valor and invincibility, his voice was conspicuously absent, and when it was announced we would at last be moving on the enemy, he was one of the few who failed to toss his hat into the air. Noticing my friend was unusually subdued, I sauntered over and gave him a punch on the shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Magee?” I asked. “Afraid there won’t be enough minie balls to swat?”

“I’m sure there’ll be plenty,” he responded gloomily, staring down into his rifle like he expected to find a map to El Dorado’s gold stuffed in the barrel.

“This ain’t about the Morgan, is it?” I asked, hating to see him so dejected. “If you changed your mind about wanting it, you can take it. It would only be fair since you’re the one who…”

“Keep the damn horse!” he shouted, throwing down his gun and backing away from me as though I had just burst into flames. “I told you I wanted no part of it, and I still don’t!”

Taken aback by his outburst, I started to object, but thought better of it, and walked away instead. Two officers who had been conversing not far behind watched Magee as he stomped off in the opposite direction.

“That man has a bad case of the nerves,” I heard the young lieutenant say as I passed.

“Yep,” agreed the colonel. “We’ll either be burying him on the field or shooting him as a deserter before it’s all over.”


It had been decided Thomas’ Corps would make an assault on Bragg’s forces through Hoover’s Gap. The terrain was rough, with the pass being barely wide enough to admit two wagons travelling side by side, but it was hoped this very fact would lead the enemy to underestimate its value to us, and to leave it undefended.

Reaching our destination on the appointed day, we dismounted, and all horses not needed to pull the artillery were sent to the back. We were ordered to advance through the pass until we engaged the enemy, and to hold them until our artillery could be brought up, though many of us doubted if they would ever get close enough to do any good. With our advance had come the rain, and by the time we had reached the south entrance to the gap, the mud was ankle deep. John Demaris, a boy from Chicago, lost his shoe and never did find it. He ended up kicking off the other one and fighting the Rebs barefooted. The artillery carts sank and could not be extracted, the wheels buried up to the axel, and at least one horse I know of broke its leg trying to wade through the mire and had to be put down.

At first, it was just some scattered fire from the hills on both sides, and then a volley of artillery meant to soften us up, but then we heard it, that long hideous wail, halfway between a cheer and a dirge that signaled the approach of enemy infantry. I don’t think any of us were prepared when we heard the whooping of the Rebs, or when we finally saw them rushing at us through the gap, kicking up a wall of frothy brown sludge before them, but you’re never really ready. No matter how much you tell yourself you’re ready, maybe even eager for the fight, there is always that moment when your stomach crawls up into your throat and it takes all you have to keep moving forward.

Most of us held our ground until it became clear we couldn’t hold them. Then, instead of retreating back the way we had come, we scattered up the sides of the passage, both confusing our foe and giving us the high ground. Suddenly, to their probable astonishment, they were the ones in a pickle. They scampered for cover, but there weren’t many places to hide, and we had the advantage of having Spencer rifles, with which we could take out two or three of them before they even managed to reload the old smoothbore muskets many of them carried.

Through it all, Magee seemed to regain a measure of his old vitality and spirit. One of the last to scurry up the hill, he had covered the rest of us, swinging his rifle around like a corn stalk caught in a hurricane when he didn’t have time to load up. A good many gray attired lads felt his stock against the side of their heads and his bayonet in their bellies.

Seeing Magee finally making his way up the hill, I hailed him from behind the fallen redwood me and some of the other boys were using for cover, and within a few minutes, he was bounding over it to settle in beside us.

“Save some Rebs for us, old man,” I told him, aiming my gun down the hill while he checked himself for bullet holes.

“That’s three!” he announced, sticking his finger through a hole in his sleeve. “I almost beat my record!”

A handful of Confederates tried to get up to us, coming in from an angle, but we knocked them back pretty easily. It was only later we learned from a private captured at Chattanooga that there was a whole regiment of Rebels stationed farther up on the ridge that could have fired down on us. I don’t know if it was divine province, or just dumb luck, that they had just sat there, assuming we had already been whipped.

As the sun set and things quieted down a bit, we were all shocked to see Magee slumbering away, oblivious to the mosquitoes swarming around his face. Sitting with his back to the tree, his legs half sunk in the mud, he was sawing wood so loud another of the fellows wanted to wake him for fear he would give us away. I stopped him, saying Magee had earned his nap, to the agreement of all present.

Later, as the rain, which had let up for a spell, started coming down again, Magee awoke with a start and stared off wildly into the darkness behind us. We all swung around and pointed our rifles at the trees, but nothing stirred other than the leaves being knocked about by the rain.
“What is it, Magee? What did you see?” I asked him, but he just sat there, trying to squint away the darkness.

“You boys see ‘em?” Magee asked, his voice trembling a little. I told him I saw nothing, and he nodded solemnly. “I guess that’s ‘cause he ain’t here for you,” he said, standing up and giving his leg a shake to knock off the mud clinging to it.

We all stood there, gaping like fish on a line, as Magee straightened his cap, leaned his rifle against the tree, and started off in the direction where he had been staring. I stepped up and grabbed him by the shoulder, but he knocked my hand away, and shook his head at me. He stared at me for a moment, his expression one of sorrow, before attempting a wan smile.

“It’ll be just fine,” he said. “I’ve been expecting it, and I’m resigned to it now.”

“Expecting what, Tom?” I asked, but he only shook his head again before patting me on the shoulder and then continuing on his way.

After marching about a hundred yards or so, Magee stopped and we could hear him conversing with someone shrouded in the darkness. Though I couldn’t make out his words, his tone was plaintive, his words filled with an urgency as though he feared he wouldn’t have time to get them all out. Then we heard a peal of thunder and Tom Magee fell over onto his back. He reached up, his hands clawing at the rain before thudding down, one after the other, into the mud.

Shaking off the shock of seeing Magee shot down, we bolted over the tree to put some cover between us and the sniper. A lad named Berkhart took aim at the darkness and was about to fire when I pushed the barrel of his rifle down and raised a finger to my lips. There was no point wasting ammunition and possibly bringing more Rebels down on our heads when we couldn’t even see the enemy we were shooting at. We sat there, huddled behind the tree, until dawn when word spread we were to advance a little back down the hill to cover a gap in the line.

Before heading out, I walked over to pull some branches over Tom and to promise him we would be back to bury him as soon as the Rebels would let us. I was pleased to find his eyes closed and a slight smile upon his lips, as though he had been relieved at last of a terrible burden and now could rest. The soggy ground before him was scared and pockmarked from the rain, but was unmarred by foot prints or signs of human trespass, though it was possible the storm had obscured them.

We went on to renown for holding off the Rebels until more men could be brought up to chase them from Hoover’s Gap all the way back to Tullahoma and beyond, being dubbed the Lightning Brigade by General Thomas himself. I’ve often wondered how Magee could have possibly added anything to that to beef it up for his audience around the campfire, but I was sure he would have managed had his bones not rested on that hill where we finally buried him. Or maybe he would have told us he was never really there, but had died that day he shot a young Confederate deserter off of his horse.