I Prefer MY Early – From “Death Piled Hard”

Th (1)

-November 6th, 1863-

(Somewhere Near Culpeper, Virginia)


Jubal Early chewed reflectively. “If I understand correctly,” he said.  “You met everybody of importance in Richmond.  You must have been a busy man.”

He and Balthazar lounged in camp chairs built of tree branches.  The weight and bulk of the two of them made those watching wonder if the interview would end in a general collapse of the furniture.  They sat with their backs to the open end of a tent.  You could see General Early’s field desk and camp bed inside.  The chairs were angled toward each other so that discussion was easy but not too intimate.  A bottle and two glasses stood on a small table.

The weather was clear and warm in an Indian summer display of generosity to those who lived in the forest.  There were still birds singing in the trees.  Balthazar noticed a brown bird with a crest and an orange beak.  As he watched a second arrived to sit beside the brown creature.  This one was brilliant red in color.  Ah, the mate, he thought.  I must ask of these birds. 

"Where've you been since then?"

"With General Lee's headquarters."

"And you're an officer of our army?"  Early held a collection of official papers in a large hand.  His morose features darkened in a frown.  The reddish whiskers added to the effect.  He spat a stream of brown liquid onto the green grass out in front of his boots.  The stain lay there among others.

Balthazar liked him.  The Gascon formed impressions of people at once.  Sometimes, these were quite wrong.  He thought of Early as similar in character and physique to the mastiff that one of his English cousins once kept.  As a boy, he feared the dog, but then came to know the kindness which the beast hid in his heart.

The general poured a couple of fingers of brown liquor into each glass.

Balthazar tasted his, expecting the silk, smoky sweetness of his first experience of American whiskey.

Raw, hot power slid down his throat.

He felt the warmth all the way down into his gut.  "General Cooper thought it best that I should become a 'volunteer,'” he said.  “I understand you have a number of these?"  He looked quizzically at Early who spat again.

"Not enough!"

"No?"  Balthazar shrugged.  "In any event, he reasons that there will be fewer unanswered questions if I am taken by the United States authorities, and am truly one of your own…”

"The United States authorities…”  Bitterness appeared in the other's slow, sharp edged speech.

Balthazar tried to remember what he had been told of this man.  "You are a graduate of the military academy at West Point?"

Early dropped his chin in acknowledgment of it.

"But, you did not follow the profession of arms?"

The big, slope shouldered man heaved himself erect in the chair, and spat again.  "No, never intended to, always wanted to be a lawyer.  I Left the army when I could and took up the law.  I was Commonwealth's Attorney in FranklinCounty for a long time."  He saw the lack of understanding on the other's face.  "That's the state prosecutor.  Was a militia officer as well, went to Mexico in fact."  He laughed.  "You probably haven't heard this, so you might as well know it from me first.  I led the fight to keep Virginia in the old Union.  Charles Devereux and I, we fought to the end at the secession convention.  We only lost by one vote, one vote.  It was that bastard Lincoln that caused our defeat.  He wanted us to help him fight South Carolina!  They were right all along, the secessionists were.  The Yankees have always meant to rule us.  This war proves that.  They'll stop at nothing to have their way with us."  He saw that Balthazar's glass was empty and poured.

"And you think you can win your independence?"

Early stared at him, looking for signs of mockery.  "Yes…  I do.  We've hurt'em bad, killed'em in droves.  They're not all crazy.  If we keep on hurtin'em, and don't give up, who knows?  The main thing is to wear'em down."  He saw the doubt in Balthazar's face.  "Not in material things!" he said quickly.  "There are more all the time countin' those they're enlistin' in Europe.  And then, there're the niggers, our own niggers by and large, since they don't have any to speak of."  Early looked up at his orderly.

The uniformed black man stood a few feet away.

"Don't pay me any mind, Justus.  You know who I mean…”

"I do gen'rul.  You mean them trech'rous nigguhs goin' to the Northe'n side."  He looked at Balthazar.  "Them Yankees don't give a dam' for us cull'ed people.  They jus' usin' us.  We not fooled.  After the war it'll be bettuh here."

Early continued to look at Justus for a second, and then turned back to his visitor.  "He's right.  The old way is dead.  It was gonna die soon anyhow.”  He inclined his head toward the black man.  “We'd be finished by now without their help.  We're gonna be somethin' different afterwards, somethin' interestin'…”  He spat again, wiping his lower lip with the back of a hand.  "You look comf’table in that uniform," he said inspecting Balthazar's new clothing.  "You want to paint those stars dark, or not wear'em.   A lot don't.  Sharpshooters are somethin' awful up in the line.  They shoot better than they used to."

"You do not follow your own advice, my general."  Balthazar smiled looking at the faded, corroded, three stars and wreath on Early's collars.

"Well, shit!  They'd be crazy to shoot me.  The Congress might make a mistake, and appoint somebody worthwhile.  Besides, I'm not pretty enough to be taken for a general from a distance.  Thomas Jackson was my only rival for shabbiness, and he's gone now.  No, I'm safe enough.  Well, you suit yourself.  What'd you think of Cooper?"

"A deep subject."

Early smiled broadly.  "That would be fair."

"I assume he is the chief of military information."

"What!  Who said that?  He's the Adjutant-General!"  Early looked around to see who stood nearby.

"No one."  Balthazar replied, pleased to know he had guessed well.  "But, Seddon and Benjamin take him so seriously in my own case…  And then, there is the way in which the British deal with these matters.  The Adjutant-General is the responsible person for such business…  One of his assistants brought me to you."

"You mean that red headed fellah, Jenkins?"

"The very one, a serious man."

"What about that one?"  Early glared across the open space in front of the tent at Isaac Smoot.

Smoot sat on a stump twenty yards away staring back at him.

"I asked for the services of Sergeant Smoot.  General Cooper was kind enough to honor my request.  This is all so strange to me."

"Yes, you need a guide, but one of Mosby's men?"

Balthazar was surprised at the tone.  "You do not care for them?"

Early grimaced, still looking at Smoot.  "I don't like cavalrymen much.  I don't like anybody who can get on a horse and ride away from a fight they started."  He glanced at Balthazar.  "They're good at that, and they ride off and leave my infantry at the same time!  What's so funny?"

"My general, I think I used nearly the same words a few days ago, but I believe Sergeant Smoot to be a good fellow."

"Well, he don't appear to be afraid of me," Early muttered, still peering across the clearing.  "That's somethin' in his favor."

"No, he does not fear easily.  He is not afraid of Major Mosby…”

"Well hell!  In that case…  Sergeant!"

Smoot stood up.

"Come over here!

Smoot stood before them.

"I understand you've signed up to look after our visitor?"

"He can look after himself," Smoot replied.

"You know what I mean."

The partisan nodded.

"Sit down."

Smoot dragged another of the flimsy chairs up to face the two officers.

"So, what do you want to do, major?  What are you after?"  The soft brown eyes gleamed in a weathered face.

Balthazar mentally fingered the edges of the general's disbelief.  "I must see your troops in the field.  I must feel them; see for myself what they can do."

Early said nothing for a moment, then grinned and spat again.  "You want a chaw, Sergeant?" he asked politely.

Smoot accepted the plug, worrying at the tobacco with a clasp knife to get an acceptable piece.

"I'm gonna send you up to Harry Hays first," Early said.  An odd smile played at the corners of his mouth.  "He has my Louisiana brigade.  You may find them more familiar than the rest.  I find them peculiar enough!"  He chuckled, amused by his own words.

Balthazar was pleased.  "But, that is marvelous.  I have read of the 'Tiger Infantry.'  It is they, I hope."

Early chortled, laughing aloud until the staff looked at him in alarm.  He began to cough, hacking dryly for a moment until he managed to get the spasm under control.  He sat there heaving silently, red in the face, a bandanna held to his mouth.  "Sorry, I've had a cold.  I'm really too old for this."  He lowered the cloth from his lips.  "Yes, it's them!  There's another bunch of'em in the Stonewall Division, but they're all the same so far as I can see.  They're not like these," he said, waving a hand at the surrounding camp.

  "How so?"

"Oh!  These are citizens in uniform.  But, the Tigers, they started out with a lot of men that had been in other armies; Europeans, Walker filibusters from Nicaragua, Americans like Jim Wheat who had gone around the world lookin' for a fight, and found it.

"I may know Wheat," Balthazar said thoughtfully.

"Could be," Early opined, "but he's been dead for some time now.  They added on Irishmen from New Orleans, a lot of Creoles, some Cajuns, farmers from upstate, and some fellahs who are said to be white as a matter of courtesy since they want to fight and are somebody's cousin, if you take my meanin'.  It makes a rich stew.  At Sharpsburg I found two of'em on the field after the last Yankee assault.  They were goin' around lookin' for gold teeth in enemy heads, knockin'em out with rifle butts.  Had pockets full of teeth, they did.  One of my staff told'em to stop.  They said he should 'go fuck himself'.  They went right on with what they were doin'."

"Do they fight?"

"Always.  They fight with ferocity and devotion to our cause.  They also are infamous for desertion and crime against civilians, often against our own.  You'll find that this is unusual in this army.  These boys," he waved at the camp again, "are just home folks.  But not the Tigers, they're somethin' real special..  Hope you like'em.  Let's have another drink before you go!  Sergeant, find a glass.”

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15 Responses to I Prefer MY Early – From “Death Piled Hard”

  1. Fred says:

    Thanks for posting this. You bring the men and the era to life. “I led the fight to keep Virginia in the old Union. … we fought to the end at the secession convention. We only lost by one vote, one vote.” One piece of history too many try to eradicate from collective memory than to face it… “We’d be finished by now without their help. We’re gonna be somethin’ different afterwards, somethin’ interestin’…” This truth too, is too painful for too many. None of these folks were worried about their 401Ks or about the latest political poll numbers.

  2. turcopolier says:

    Yes,this collective memory loss is tragic especially for the Blacks. What Early means by “their help,” is not only the civilian contract service with the CS Army, but all the agricultural and industrial labor at places like Tredegar that kept the Confederacy alive for so long. pl

  3. Andre says:

    Col.: I enjoyed reading your excerpt. Many of Wheat’s Tigers were Irish dock workers from New Orleans idled by the blockade and barely citizens. No doubt many units from port cities on both sides employed such rough material but the Tigers were legendary. They must have been tough, bitter, feeling discriminated against, and perfect for recruiting by Wheat who set up his reception off of Canal Street not far from the riverfront. My great-great grandfather was in 8th Louisiana, part of Hays Brigade and captured in VA. He was a lawyer prior to the war and probably added to the ‘interesting’ mix of the huge number of LA troops sent by the state to fight in VA ironically leaving weakly defended New Orleans open to an easy capitulation early in the war.

  4. Matthew says:

    Col: I think the best job in the world is held by Prof. Allen Guelzo. He is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College. I would gladly spend a lifetime on that subject!

  5. Tyler says:

    This was probably the most amusing line that stood out to me: “and some fellahs who are said to be white as a matter of courtesy since they want to fight and are somebody’s cousin, if you take my meanin’.”
    I think you encapsulate the era in that one sentence.

  6. Ryan says:

    That’s a good story. That sounds like Early.
    There is another story I read about Early some years ago. From memory I recall Early was attending a church service at Waynesboro, VA in January, 1865. The preacher was carrying on about what would you do if the dead were raised or something along those lines.
    Early replied from the pews “I would conscript every damn one of them.”

  7. turcopolier says:

    That would have been just before his remnant were driven out of The Valley and he was relieved. pl

  8. WILL says:

    off topic b/ hope you find it interesting.
    i saw Tredegar Iron Works mentioned above.
    What does Tredegar share with Donetsk?
    In both, iron works and steel mills were started by Welshmen.
    “The city was founded in 1869 by a Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and several coal mines in the region; the town was thus named Yuzovka (Юзовка) in recognition of his role in its founding (“Yuz” being a Russian or Ukrainian approximation of Hughes).”

  9. Stephanie says:

    Magruder on the Tigers at Jamestown Island: “[they] eat up every living thing on the Island but two horses and their own species.”
    I wouldn’t want to meet any of them in a dark alley, but they sure could fight. I especially admire the rock-throwing exploits at Second Manassas.

  10. WILL says:

    Jubal E. was not treated too kindly in the Gettysburg book “Killer Angels.” But if the Col. likes him, that’s good enough for me!

  11. Mark Logan says:

    My favorite Early story is his chapter on his account of the battle of Chancellorsville. A mis-communicated order resulted in him stripping most of his already skeleton force from the hill on Lee’s rear and marching towards Lee. Lee must have thought Early and his men were fleeing from a disaster at his rear when he saw them coming. What else could it be? If he had a non-grey hair left…

  12. turcopolier says:

    Somewhere here or on my FB page I explained that after the WBS the Confederates divided into factions in the effort to explain their defeat to themselves. The Virginians defended Lee and his judgment at all cost and most of the others were simply anti-Lee with Longstreet as their leader.Early and Pendleton were the leaders of the Virginia faction. Michael Shaara clearly favors the anti-Lee faction. His description of Early’s actions on the first day at Gettysburg is not correct. Early’s division arrived late in the town of Gettysburg and Early found the corps commander, Baldy Ewell to be paralyzed at the thought of continuing the assault onto the north end of Cemetery Hill. He advised Ewell to attack immediately and Ewell refused. Shortly thereafter Lee arrived at the 2nd corps CP ant told Ewell to attack but the moment hd passed. It is NOT true as Shaara implies that Early had told Ewell not to attack. pl

  13. WILL says:

    So Lee’s “bad old man” got a bad rap from Shiraa. After Gettysburg, Longstreet didn’t do all that well on his own in TN. I thought George Pickett had the best reasoning on why the South didn’t come out ahead. “Asked by reporters why Pickett’s Charge failed, Pickett frequently replied: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”” wiki bio
    i didn’t realize it but after Gettysburg, Pickett led the second battle of New Bern, NC. Burnside’s expedition had taken the NC Sounds, Roanoke Island (which got J. Benjamin dismissed as sec of war), Cape Hatteras, and New Bern early in the war.

  14. turcopolier says:

    Pickett’s second big moment was at Drewry’s Bluff on the James south of Richmond, 12 May, 1864. There, his reconstituted division formed the centerpiece of an attack that threw back Beast Butler’s southern prong of Grant’s final plan back in his effort against Richmond. The division once again took heavy losses. VMI lost many alumni there. This features in “Death Piled Hard.” pl

  15. optimax says:

    Nice scene, dense and relaxed like the men.

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