Summer is time to travel and to wander – and to read! So, join me during the The Romance Reviews Summer Sizzling Reads Party! I’m giving away a copy of one of my historical romances so read onward!
I’ve traveled to many places, from New York to Los Angeles and places in between. But, with a heritage that includes some Southern ancestors, I like to head South and one of the spots that inspired me is a city along the banks of the Mississippi River.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, visitors find old fashioned charm and grace. Antebellum homes still stand along quiet tree lined streets on the bluffs high above the Mississippi River. On the edge of town, hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and casinos represent the contemporary South but downtown and in the older areas, it’s easy to envision Vicksburg during the Civil War. The battlefield still exists and can be toured.
I’ve visited Vicksburg several times and I have some personal connections to the place. My husband’s family hails from across the river, in Louisiana, but Vicksburg is still familiar country. My great-great grandfather fought at Vicksburg during the Civil War and like many of my other ancestors, he wore Confederate gray. The famous siege led to the Union victory which secured the Mississippi river for the United States and won the war on the western front. So one of my historical romances is set in Vicksburg during the siege, in 1863 and today we’re going to visit with my heroine, Susanna Lambert. The book is Dearest Love (Do You Remember) published by Evernight Publishing. And, it’s written under my pen name I use for my historical romances – Patrice Wayne.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, he meets a beautiful widow who is as attracted to him as he is to her. As the Yankees lay siege to the troops and the city, Isaac and Susanna Lambert fall in love. When he suffers from swamp fever, it’s her tender care that keeps him alive but as he weakens, everyone including Susanna, his brother Zach, and Susanna’s maid Venus knows he’ll die without quinine. Victory seems unlikely for the Rebel soldiers but Isaac would settle for a happy ending with Susanna back home in Texas – but he has to live before it can be possible.
He missed Matilda, and each night, unless it proved impossible due to weather or battle conditions, Isaac read her two letters although he knew them by heart. The paper had worn thin and grown ragged. Her precise handwriting had faded, too. He could scarcely make out the pencil marks anymore, but he squinted at them in the flickering firelight as if he could somehow touch her spirit. After so long, Isaac had trouble remembering how she had looked. He recalled the blonde hair she’d worn braided and pinned like a crown around her head and her eyes, blue as bluebonnets in bloom. He thought she had often smiled but he struggled to remember if her lips were thin or her mouth was wide. He wished she’d had a daguerreotype portrait made but it didn’t matter anyway, not when she lay dead and buried back home. There was another letter, the one her mother had written to inform him of Matilda’s passing. Although he’d read it just once, the sad words penned in black ink were carved into his heart. He folded the letters and pressed his lips against the paper, an old habit he couldn’t seem to shake, then thrust them into his inner jacket pocket. He’d meant to go home and marry Matilda after the war but with her gone, Isaac didn’t know what he’d do if he lived, which he doubted more every day.
He’d joined Waul’s Texas Legion in the fall of 1861 and figured the war wouldn’t last very long. Isaac had figured he’d be home by spring. They trained some here and there in Texas, then went east, but they hadn’t gotten uniforms until November at Jackson, Mississippi. They’d been fighting Billy Yank from Tennessee and Kentucky down into Georgia but now they’d headed back west. Although he’d been born in Tennessee, nothing had seemed familiar to Isaac and no wonder because his family headed for Texas when he was about a year old. He never expected to see the place his ma talked about again but he did and wasn’t impressed. Maybe under different circumstances, he mused, he might’ve liked it more. But the war took the starch plumb out of him and left him empty.
Isaac had once cared about the glorious cause and the South but he didn’t much now. His folks back home seemed more like ghosts or half-forgotten memories. With Matilda dead and his family far away, he had no one except his brother Zachariah, barely seventeen. He’d joined up with the Texas Legion, too, but Ike hadn’t seen him in a couple of days. Fear that his kid brother might be one of the many dead gnawed at his guts but he didn’t speak about it. He figured if he did, the worst notions he worried about might come true. Besides, he had little time to think about Zach or anything else as he drifted through his meager existence. As long as he had a little food, some clean water, and a chance to lay down his head once in a while, he’d consider it as good as it might get. He reckoned he’d die soon and that might be for the best. He wasn’t old, just twenty-three, but his bones ached as if he’d turned ninety last month. If he wasn’t shot, he’d fall sick. Death stalked their ranks like a hunter after prey and claimed as many as it wanted, he thought. He’d seen enough men die, and it didn’t bother him the way it ought. His indifference worried him, though. He’d been raised to be a better man.
“Hey, Ike,” said Tommy, the drummer boy, an infant of about thirteen, as he settled down beside him. “Where’re we headed now? I didn’t make out what the colonel said.”
Their commanding officer hadn’t said much after Grant’s Yankees ran them out of Jackson but everyone pretty well knew where they were headed. “I reckon we’re off to Vicksburg,” Isaac said. “It’s supposed to be a pretty tight town, hard to take, and we’re going to help General Pemberton hold it if we can. If it falls, the Yanks will control the river and probably win the war.”
“How far is it over there?”
Ike didn’t know but he did hazard a guess. “Fifty miles, maybe a little more,” he told the kid. “Two days hard march if we don’t run afoul of the enemy.”
Tommy frowned. “Wish we could just stop and rest a spell. I’m tired.”
Tired didn’t begin to describe Isaac’s bone-deep weariness. He’d like a break as much as the kid. Maybe he’d feel almost human again if they stopped, but he shook his head. “I know, boy, but Grant’s probably on our tail so we can’t. No rest for the wicked in this life, Tommy.”
Tommy disagreed. “We ain’t wicked.”
Isaac sighed. He doubted they were, although the ongoing fights and the carnage he’d seen were more than enough to make a man wonder. “No,” he said. “I’m hungry, though, what about you?”
Isaac used to say the same after a hard day’s labor on the farm back home, but it seemed too close to the truth these days to say it in jest. “Gimme your rations and I’ll make us some johnnycake,” Ike said. “If there’s bacon left and it ain’t too moldy, I’ll brown it and crumble it into the batter.”
All around them soldiers were cobbling together makeshift meals from the scanty rations they received. At first, they’d been given a pound of cornmeal each day plus salt pork, bacon, or some fresh meat along with salt, coffee, and sugar. Isaac hadn’t tasted real coffee in so long he doubted he’d recognize the taste, and the sugar would be given out before the coffee. He had a bit of salt tucked back in his bag but unless they got meat, he didn’t plan to use it for a while. These days, if they got meal and cured meat, they were fortunate. Sometimes he would wander off into the woods to snare a squirrel or rabbit but with so many armies on the move, game was scarce. He dug out the bacon, sniffed, and decided although a bit rancid it’d do, so he fried it quick in the iron skillet. Then he mixed the meal with water and poured the thin batter into the same pan. Isaac crumbled the bacon over it and tucked it into the coals to bake. It’d be better if he had an egg or two and milk instead of water but it’d be edible, if barely. A glance around the nearby campsites revealed some soldiers making ramrod rolls with their cornmeal and a few making do with the old bacon.
The cornpone baked to grayish-brown and as Isaac pulled it from the fire, then brushed a few ashes away from the top, his brother stumbled up. Lean and sun-browned, Zach resembled a scarecrow but he walked in on his own power, a good indication despite the bloodstained rag tied around his head. “Is that supper?” Zach asked without any greeting.
“Yep, such as it is,” Isaac said. Some of his worry eased with his brother’s appearance, but not all. “You hurt?”
Zach wrinkled his nose. “Naw. I got hit with some flying shrapnel, that’s all, not shot. It tore me up and it’s no more than a scratch but it hurts like the devil.”
“Did you wash it?” Damn, he probably sounded like their mother, always fussing, but he couldn’t help it. Isaac had seen too many minor wounds fester and not heal. Infection and gangrene spread fast and killed.
His brother snorted. “I splashed a little creek water on it a ways back.”
Thinking back to what a woman pressed into volunteer nursing had done when he’d suffered a minor wound up in Tennessee, Isaac decided to act. “I’ll put some water on to boil and when it cools down I’ll help you clean your wound.”
His brother shrugged. “If you want to play nursemaid, I’ll let you. Gimme some johnnycake, would you?”
Isaac broke it into three pieces, as even as he could get. He gave his brother one and Tommy the other. As he nibbled his, eating slow so it would last as long as possible, he wished he had some of the herbs Ma used on their scrapes. Comfrey was one he recalled and coneflower another but he had no idea where he’d find either around here. Hell, I probably wouldn’t even recognize one if I tripped over it. He finished his coarse, dry cornpone and washed it down with water. The water bubbled in the pot so he pulled it from the fire and searched for a clean scrap of cloth to use. He found none so Ike stripped off the bandana he wore around his neck to sop up sweat and when the water tested warm, he dipped it into the liquid.
“C’mere and hold still,” he told Zach. To his surprise, his brother obeyed and tilted his head up. Isaac removed the filthy bandage with effort. Dried blood crusted the cloth in place and he winced as he jerked it free. His stomach turned over as he studied what Zach called ‘just a scratch’. The gash stretched out two inches or more across the kid’s left temple, and it had bled a lot judging by the brown remnants staining Zach’s dirty neck and shirt. Red ringed the slight wound and when Isaac touched it, yellow pus oozed out. “How long ago did it happen?” he asked, trying not to sound alarmed.
“Day ‘fore yesterday, I think,” Zach said. “Why? Is it gone bad?”
“It ain’t good,” he replied. “But it’s not turned awful bad, not yet. There’s a bit of pus, that’s all, but you’re gonna hafta watch it.”
Zach grunted. Isaac scrubbed until the skin around it gleamed pale and pushed on the edges until no more pus remained. He flushed it out with water squeezed from his bandana and then reached up to tear a section from his undershirt. Isaac bound it around Zach’s head and decided there wasn’t any fever, a good sign. “There, it’s all I can do for now. Stick around and I’ll look at it again tomorrow. Still hurt?”
“Yeah, like a son of a bitch.”
His brother touched the sore spot with a tentative finger. Isaac sighed. “I should’ve left you home with the young ‘uns,” he said but without heat. “I spied a patch of willows down by the creek earlier. If you’ll go bring up some bark, I’ll brew you some willow-bark tea and maybe you’ll get some sleep.”
The sun dropped lower on the western horizon and most of the camp settled down for the night. Isaac, who slept little enough anyway, waited until Zach brought the willow bark. He steeped it in more hot water and after it cooled, he poured a cup of the bitter brew. “Drink it all,” he said when Zach made a face. “It’ll help.”
“I will if you’ll take some of it. You could use some sleep yourself,” Zach said.
Isaac scrubbed one hand over his face. I must look like holy hell if he’s nagging me. Touched by the rare show of concern, he nodded. “I will, then.” They shared the pungent tea, and afterward Isaac sprawled out onto his worn blankets with a measure more of peace than he’d known in some time. As drowsiness clogged his brain and the simple analgesic eased a few of his bodily hurts, Ike thought tomorrow might be better. A timid hope stirred within and for the first time in many months, his last conscious thought wasn’t of his lost Matilda. Instead, Isaac Barclay wondered if one day he might find another woman he could love, if he survived the war.
His fledgling hopes died when they were awakened before dawn with orders to take position against the Federal troops near a hill on the Champion Farm. By seven, birds trilled their spring songs and the sweet scents of blooming flowers wafted on the morning breeze. Magnolia trees were in full bloom, the white blossoms the largest Isaac had ever seen. He kept his brother near as the troops scattered along a three-mile long defense line and they waited. Few of the soldiers spoke as the hours passed, sweat trickling down the weary faces as the day heated. Isaac’s muscles tensed tight as any relaxation the rare night’s sleep brought was gone now. Two columns of Yankees, they’d said, approached, but near mid-morning a courier brought news—a third brought up the rear. As word spread up and down the previously silent lines, Isaac realized they were caught. A battle loomed imminent and within the hour shots rang out and the sound of thousands of voices locked in combat roared through the spring woods and over the just-planted fields.
“Goddamn,” his brother said, as Tommy the young drummer boy advanced, his hands active as he beat an attack tattoo[LiN1] . “We’re in it now.”
Isaac almost hugged him but they seldom exchanged such shows of affection since they’d grown up. “Stay safe,” he said. “I’ll see you after the battle.” Zach nodded and grinned as he cut loose a rebel yell, loud enough to echo over the guns and drums. He cocked his rifle and plunged into the thick of things, vanishing into the smoke already hanging over the battleground. After a moment, Isaac did the same.
Time shifted and held fast. Were it not for the sun overhead, he’d never have known when noon came. He fired and used his bayonet to advance. The now-familiar stench of spilled blood, loose bowels, and gunpowder roared into his nose powerful enough to choke him. Isaac shifted into warrior mode and became a killing machine, bent on survival and willing to destroy any opposition to it. The crushing noise of the battle overwhelmed him at first and then seemed to flow underwater into his ears, muted. He remained aware of it but it no longer caught his full attention. Ike moved forward. Sometimes he shouted and sometimes he said nothing. Men fell to the ground, bloodied, guts spilling out like straw, and their mortal cries added to the cacophony of sound. Sometime in early afternoon, he guessed by the sun’s position, the Yankees overwhelmed them and took Champion Hill in a tide of blue puddled with crimson red. As they pulled back, he caught sight of Zach, and for the first time in hours Isaac let personal thoughts back into his head. Relief caught him hard but he couldn’t push through to his brother. He just rolled with the flow of troops in retreat.
The battle wasn’t over yet. They skirmished along the Jackson-Vicksburg Road for hours, and each time Isaac thought they might be done, another attack hit. Someone said Bowne’s troops had come up from somewhere south and tried to retake Champion Hill. Isaac heard their shouts and cries, the clash of swords, the gunfire, but it wasn’t long until whispers came through the men like a rushing wind. Grant’s troops, greater in number, beat the boys in gray back before they gained either hill or the pretty white house stuck in the middle of the battlefield. Bowen’s troops trailed behind General Pemberton’s Army in defeat and retreat, moving toward Vicksburg. It didn’t matter to the men who wearily trudged westward, bodies aching, minds reeling, and hearts numb. All they could do was pick up one foot, then the other, and lay them down again. The hope he’d claimed the previous night left nothing but a bitter aftertaste as Isaac stumbled onward, his brief dream of a woman in his life forgotten. Living, not loving, became the priority. It would be too much to ask for both.