The Civil War Battle of Brice's Crossroads.
(Based on true history)
He threw the yellowing and frayed packet of papers down upon a rickety old field table with a resounding thud then slowly turned to face the man standing slouched against one of the well-worn tent posts. The chevrons of a Sergeant Major were carelessly sewn to the upper sleeve of the man's left buckskin jacket, the right sleeve bearing the faded markings where once another chevron had long since disappeared.
The man he faced was clad in the time-polished buckskins of a frontier trapper, and though he constantly resisted any attempts to conform to even a modicum of military dress or bearing, he was considered to be one of the best, if not the best, sergeant majors in the entire Confederate Army.
“For the last time, will you accept President Jefferson Davis’ offer?” he asked the man, looking directly into his startlingly bright blue eyes. The man's general appearance gave the impression of ignorance, insolence, and nonchalance. But, one quick glance at his eyes shattered those initial impressions to the wind. His gaze held determination, intelligence, a wisp of humor, but above all else dominance. They portrayed a man accustomed to leading other men, a man no one in their right mind would intentionally challenge, a man no one would willingly cross.
His name was Sergeant Major Keane Monday Stiehl (originally Von Stiehl) pronounced steel, known to his few close friends simply as Monday. His Austrian father had remarked, “Vat a keen Monday to haff a szohn, und keen steel, sharp, Ja?” in his New World English; therein had been created the two mates to his proper name. Fortunately, his Irish mother had possessed enough foresight and presence of mind to spell his first name with the Irish “Keane.”
Monday casually glanced at the tattered papers then straight into the fierce piercing eyes of the officer standing before him. This officer was one of the few men, living or dead, he would consider as an equal. By way of reply, he stuck his index finger into his left ear canal to dig out the built up wax and slowly shook his head in a negative gesture. “Naw, don't reckon I will,” he finally muttered.
“President Davis wants to make you a full Colonel this time,” General Nathan Bedford Forrest stated. “Lord knows, Monday, with things as they be, we need - desperately need - good, capable, and battle-tested regimental commanders.”
“Ol' Jeff's been trying to get me to slap on officer bars ever since that shindig down at Buena Vista, Mexico back in 47,” Monday replied. “And you know darn well, Bedford, I don't cotton to bein' no fancy pants officer. Couldn't tolerate that saluting nonsense or being fussed over, not to mention all the politics and everybody tellin' me to get behind the troopers or get down off my horse so I won't get shot. I reckon I've learned enough of these here greenhorns how to fight and how to keep from getting their fool heads shot off to make up for a regiment or two. An’ you know, Bedford, I do my best work in the front lines with the troopers, same as you. I know Jeff Davis is beholding to me on account of my saving his hide at that Mexican pass, but that ain't no reason for him to insist I accept a commission as a dad-blamed officer, don't care even if it was as a high mucky-muck general.”
That was just about the longest speech General Forrest had ever heard his friend Monday speak, except when training the troops, since he had first met him back in ‘61 when he himself was a buck private in the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry. Monday was already a Sergeant Major back then and many soldiers to this day think he's been a Sergeant Major since the war with Mexico eighteen years earlier, or even as far back as the war against the English Red Coats. Forrest took a quick sip from the excellent Yankee coffee he was holding and pointed towards the stack of papers lying askew on the old field table. “Knew you'd say no,” he stated, “Told General Lee you would, but he insisted I try again. I’ll send your answer back with the next dispatch rider.”
Monday nodded his thanks and reached down to pour himself a steaming cup of the strong brackish brew. With relief he gently lowered his tired and worn out body down into one of the canvas chairs near the tent opening. General Forrest followed his lead and sat heavily down into a seat next to him, both men savoring the nasty brew.
When his parents had died of the fever back in ‘25, Monday, then just the tender age of 13, ran away from well-meaning relatives and eventually found himself deep into the western mountains living with wild Indians and much wilder mountain trappers. He signed on with the U.S. Army as a scout 10 years later, just in time to fight with the Texicans, then with the Mississippi Rifles and Colonel Jeff Davis against the Mexicans.
During the battle of La Angostura Pass, a place just a little south of a small ranch called Buena Vista, Colonel Davis had been shot in the foot by a crazy berserk Mexican who was coming in with his lance to finish the job when Monday stepped in and gutted the mad lancer with his skinning knife. Throughout the fierce fighting that followed, Monday remained by the Colonel's horse and helped him to stay in the saddle, quickly eliminating any Mexican lancers or infantry who got too close.
After the Mexican war he signed on as a scout and guide for a number of wagon trains heading west. He was still doing that work when the South started their struggle for independence against the Union. Although not politically opinionated in either direction, for he had many old army friends try to talk him into joining their great cause both north and south, it wasn't until his home state of Mississippi left the union and his old Colonel and friend Jeff Davis was placed at the helm of the new Confederacy of States that he finally took the plunge and joined the Confederate Cavalry. He had been with General Forrest from the very beginning, except for a few months with General Longstreet up in Pennsylvania.
“Still on your mind, ain't it?” Forrest muttered, watching the dim flickering of a small candle disturbed by a sudden gust of wind. Although it was still early evening and the hot sun steadily beat down on the withered brush and steaming fields, it was much too dim in the heavy tent to read by. He watched as Monday took time to light a thin black cigar from the gasping candle, then expel the thick languid smoke from his lungs before answering.
“Reckon I failed the boy,” Monday stated, picking a piece of tobacco from between his teeth. General Forrest waited patiently for him to continue, aware now that for some time that something had been gnawing at his friend’s thoughts, and since he had helped to precipitate the event that continued to bother Monday, he had a good idea what it was.
The heat in the canvas tent was becoming almost unbearable. Forrest pushed aside the one unopened flap and motioned for Monday to join him outside. They took the folding chairs and sat in the shade of the tent looking out across the sprawling camp.
“Can't be every place at every time,” Forrest commented. “Although I've been accused by the damn Yankees of that very thing and been reported in as many as three places on the same day at the same hour.”
“Least I can do is write down what happened so that people will be remembering,” Monday stated. “I reckon I owe the boy that much at least.”
Forrest looked at Monday with a knowing expression before stating, “Reckon you are about as bad as me when it comes to your letters.” He was referring to both his and Monday's complete lack of formal schooling.
“Mayhap you're right Bedford. I kinda figured you'd let me use Major Anderson to correct my chicken scratching and lack of grammar. I learned my letters from a settler woman going west but I ain't had much cause for using them afore now. Sort of figured I’d write down a full accounting of all that went on down at Brice's. Kinda let people know how well the boy did so they don't judge him poorly.”
“You got time coming," General Forrest pointed out. “You ain’t taken as much as a single day off since the war started. With General Smith back in Memphis licking his wounds, I don't reckon the damn Yankees will put up much of a ruckus for a spell. Why don’t you go find a nice quiet place and do what you gotta do? I'll be pleased to ask Major Anderson to correct you’re lettering for you once you’re satisfied that you done wrote down what you gotta tell.”
Monday realized that his friend was right. Unless he took time to write down the thoughts that had been pestering him for several months, he’d never free his mind enough to concentrate on keeping himself and the goat-brained greenhorns under his care from getting killed. He took a deep breath as the sudden aroma of frying bacon overwhelmed his sense of smell, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since well before daybreak.
“I think you’re right, Bedford,” he admitted, slowly standing as Major Strange and Doctor Cowan approached the tent. The Major had his arm in a sling, a souvenir from a short engagement in Bolivar, Tennessee a few months back when a Yankee carbine ball broke his arm. “There’s an old cabin back at the crossroads that ain’t being used by anyone. Parson Young said I was welcome to use it when I went back for his son Francis’ funeral. Reckon I’ll get away for a spell and think on this matter some.”
He threw the grounds of the coffee in the wilted grass and hooked the fire-blackened tin cup on the thick piece of rawhide he used as a belt. The cup was one of his most valued and useful possessions. Like ninety percent of the soldiers on both sides, the cup was used for drinking coffee and water, used for boiling beans or corn, for soup, and often used for digging in the absence of something better. A valuable possession indeed.
“Take whatever time you need,” General Forrest stated, “Likely we’ll be here a spell.” He nodded as Monday turned and gently patted him on the shoulder. The General was not accustomed to such familiarity, however, with Sergeant Major Stiehl there were no holdbacks. “Remember your promise,” Monday reminded him, a serious yet gentle look on his face. He then hitched his pants up with his left hand as if they were about to fall down, nodded a greeting to the Major and Doctor, and strolled away without looking back. How could I ever forget, General Forrest thought, how could I possibly forget?
The old cabin was warm, despite the large open cracks between the rough-cut logs and the thin blanket tacked up where a door had once stood. A lazy fire was crackling in the small natural stone fireplace and the rich aroma of bubbling stew permeated the dusty room. He swung the boiling soot-blackened pot from over the hot coals and quickly removed the heavy cast iron lid. Reaching in with a fire-scorched wooden spoon, he rapidly stirred the wonderful smelling contents then raised a small spoonful to his lips and gently blew to cool it down. More salt, he thought, reaching into a skin bag and removing a pinch with his fingers, then sprinkling it into the simmering pot.
After he had eaten his fill of the tasty stew, he swung the cast iron pot against the side of the fireplace to keep it warm, then removed an old battered pipe from a leather pouch lying on the sturdy rough-hewn table he’d built from remnants of lumber found scattered about the area. After filling and tamping down the rich Virginia tobacco, he used a burning ember to light it then drew the rich nicotine-charged smoke deep into his lungs, savoring the rich smell and taste. Fully aware of the purpose for being where he was, he reached over and removed from his worn saddlebags a thick ream of writing paper and several new pencils.
After taking paper and pencil in hand, he hesitated, looking down into the mesmerizing coals of the lazy, burning fire. Where to start, he thought, how to begin? What to put down? With a determination barely held in check, he begin to write.
“Don’t know as how I can do justice with my poor grasp of the letters,” he wrote, “but I reckon Major Anderson will pretty this up a bit so by the time anyone reads it, iffen they do, it’ll at least be understandable. Back a spell, we had an awful big fight here at a place most people been calling Brice's Crossroads, on account of Mr. Bill Brice had his home and ran a small store right here where several roads cross. Well, this story ain't really about that battle we had, although to tell the tale I gotta write down, I must needs to tell the story about the battle itself.
“Let me put down here from the git-go, a lot of the things I’m gonna write down were told to me by other people a long time after they really happened, and some things I have no honest way of proving other than I knowed the two quite well. But, memories being what they are, and the fact that some people just naturally add their own bits and pieces of remembering to things they heard or thought they heard, some parts of this here story may not be exactly as it really happened. To the best of my recollecting I'm going to try to be fair and accurate.
Well, here goes...