The Civil War Battle of Brice's Crossroads.
Her lungs were burning and her legs felt like lead weights were tied to them. Salty sweat poured from her like rain, stinging her eyes, soaking her heavy wool jacket, every breath a wheezing agony. Already, five men had collapsed from heat and sunstroke and Albert was certain she would join them soon.
Their Division Commander, Colonel McMillen, mounted on a horse, had set a man-killing pace. The 108th Illinois in front of them was spread out over a hundred yards from front to rear. Albert was sure that her unit was even more spread out, being towards the rear of the brigade. They had been moving at the double quick over the now dusty roads with a merciless sun beating down on them.
Albert noticed a weary rider pass by in a rush to head up the road. A few moments later the command was passed down for the regiment to slow the pace to quick time. Everyone let out a sigh of relief and quickly turned their rush into a slow walking pace.
Within fifteen minutes the command to halt was given. They were at a small stream that the locals called Little Dry Creek. A command was given for every fifth man to fall out and fill canteens while the remainder of the brigade halted in place to catch their wind.
Albert was thankful for the respite. She had proven on many occasions that she could handle the rigors of the march as well as any man, but even the strongest men in the brigade were showing signs of physical exhaustion.
While sitting in the dusty road, she watched as another courier rode up to Colonel McMillen from the south. The officer shouted loud enough for all to hear "Move the brigade forward at the quick time! Do not stop for any purpose whatever!" Colonel McMillen relayed the order to her brigade commander, Colonel Hoge, then rode quickly south with his staff rapidly disappearing in a cloud of dust.
Colonel Hoge gave the command to move out at a double quick, but told the regimental commanders to keep it at a moderate pace. For a few minutes, the men shuffled forward like a thousand-legged worm, the only thought on their minds was putting one foot in front of the other. Then, another staff officer pounded up and yelled to Colonel Hoge, "The commander orders you to step up your pace, Sir. The enemy has gained the upper hand and the cavalry is being pushed back." Colonel Hoge wearily gave the command to move forward at a very quick march.
General Sturgis rode out ahead of the infantry. He wanted to get to the crossroads so that he could make a good assessment of the situation before the infantry came up. He spotted General Grierson sitting on a log next to a large white house. Several artillery batteries were still limbered in a garden near the house, the artillerymen sitting around, smoking, drinking coffee, and talking. The roads were jammed with ambulances, horses, milling men, and artillery caissons.
General Grierson stood and mounted his horse as General Sturgis rode up and halted near him. "I met one of your aides down by the bridge, General," Sturgis stated. "The man had the gall to tell me where to deploy my infantry. What in Sam hell is going on here, Ben?"
"My men are positioned in the blackjack thickets a few hundred yards in a half circle," Grierson replied, sweeping his arm from the Baldwin Road on his left over to the Guntown Road to his right. "You got bring the infantry up quickly, General, my men are exhausted and almost out of ammunition. We've been fightin' the rebs for near on three hours now. Winslow and Waring tell me they're being hard pressed and may have to pull back to the crossroads if not reinforced soon. We're being hit on both flanks with hundreds of infantrymen. I'd estimate their force at division strength or better"
"Might help if you get these lazy men standing around doing nothing into the fight," General Sturgis sarcastically replied, pointing at the loitering artillery men and stragglers standing around gawking. He yelled for the artillerymen to unlimber their guns on both sides of the road and open fire as soon as the enemy could be seen.
"Who's going to protect my guns, Sir?" a young Captain asked.
"Your name, Captain?" Stugis demanded.
"Captain Joyce, Peter Joyce, 10th Missouri Cavalry, Sir."
"The cavalry to your front and the infantry coming up will support your guns, Captain."
"Colonel Waring's brigade isn't out there anymore, Sir," Captain Joyce replied. "They've pulled back already."
"You are mistaken, Captain."
A young cavalry officer who had been listening to the conversation spoke up. "The Captain's correct, Sir. I know they're gone because I was with the last squadron to pull out."
"By whose order did you withdraw, Lieutenant?" Sturgis demanded.
"I don't know, Sir. Everyone just pulled out."
Anger building, General Sturgis signaled for his escort commander, Colonel Hess, to come forward.
"Joe, take your command down that road and set up a defensive line. As soon as the infantry arrives, I will relieve you." Sturgis was aware that Colonel Hess had only one hundred men of the 19th Pennsylvania with him.
As soon as Colonel Hess rode off, another staff officer rode up and saluted General Grierson. "Colonel Winslow asks that he be relieved from his position Sir." the officer blurted. "The enemy is pressing him hard and the men are exhausted."
"Tell Winslow he must hold his position," General Grierson replied.
"The infantry is coming up as fast as it can," General Sturgis cut in. "Tell Colonel Winslow that if he encounters superior enemy forces, to pull back to the crossroads. However, we need his brigade posted until the infantry arrives. Evidently communication around here is sorely lacking."
Returning to Colonel Winslow, the staff officer repeated the message given by General Sturgis. Winslow, interpreting the message to mean that he could withdraw his brigade, passed the order to his regimental commanders to immediately start retreating to the crossroads.
Colonel McMillen, in advance of the infantry, finally reached the crossroads with his staff. The sight he saw was a very discouraging one. Generals Sturgis and Grierson appeared to be in a heated argument, dismounted cavalrymen were coming out of the blackjack thickets in mobs, stray mounts ran amuck, and ambulances and artillery caissons made a traffic jam at the intersection. "Everything is going to the devil as fast as it can," he remarked to one of his aides.
Colonel Waring rode up and cast a sidelong glance at McMillen, then gave him an angry stare. "How long will it be before the infantry arrives, Colonel?" Waring asked, showing a tired and weary voice. "It's only a question of seconds as to whether I can hold the Baldwin Road."
"The infantry is still a good quarter hour away, George," McMillen replied. Colonel Waring cast him a look that said that in a quarter of an hour, the Confederates would be storming the crossroads. McMillen vented a curse and jerked his mount around and headed back down the Ripley Road. At the Tishomingo bridge he met Colonel Hoge in advance of the second brigade. The tired men behind Hoge were exhausted and could barely move.
"The damn cavalry is retreating, George," he told Colonel Hoge. "You must hurry your brigade up, on the double if we are to save the day."
With a supreme effort, the men of the 113th Illinois started up the incline towards the crossroads at the double quick, the rest of the strung out brigade quickly following suit. The last quarter mile was especially grueling. When they finally reached the clearing by Brice's house, most were so exhausted they could barely stand. While Colonel Hoge and Colonel Clarke went to talk with General Sturgis, they were ordered to load their heavy rifles. Many were so tired; they could barely lift the heavy weapons. It took several commands from their line officers to sink in before they finally stood and slowly headed down the Baldwin Road.
Colonel Hoge was ordered to relieve the 19th Pennsylvania first, then form a protective line running south and west in a semicircle towards the Guntown Road. He placed the 113th on the Baldwin Road and deployed them towards the south. Next to the 113th, the 120th Illinois under Colonel McKeaig went into position, and to McKeaig's right, he placed the 108th under Colonel Sidwell. To relieve some of Colonel Winslow's fatigued cavalrymen, who had already started leaving the field, the 95th and 81st Illinois regiments were placed to the right flank of the 108th. The 81st extended to within sixty yards of the Guntown Road. Colonel Campbell, commander of the 81st, was so overcome by the heat, he turned command over to his executive officer, Lt. Colonel Rogers. The area where the 113th was deployed was one of the few open areas, without a leaf of shade. Several of the soldiers collapsed from the heat and the intense exertion of the grueling six-mile run.
Colonel Wilkins’ infantry brigade came to the crossroads on the double quick. Like the men of the second brigade, they were also exhausted and dripping with sweat. Many were too fatigued to even load their weapons.
The lead regiment, the 95th Ohio, was posted on the north side of the Baldwyn Road, their right flank tied into the 113th Illinois. The ground they occupied was thick scrub, briars, and blackjack oak. As soon as they were in position, pickets were posted forward, approximately fifty yards.
The 114th Illinois was posted on the right of the 81st and stretched to the Guntown Road, the 93d Indiana under Colonel Thomas, was placed to the right of the 114th, and the third and fourth Iowa Cavalry were told to retire from the field. The 72nd Ohio regiment, commanded by Lt. Colonel Eaton, was ordered to retrace their steps and established a position on a hill just north of the Tishomingo bridge. Two cannons of the 6th Indiana battery were placed in support of the 72nd. The last regiment of Colonel Wilkins’ brigade, the 9th Minnesota, was kept in ready reserve.
As they were hustled into position, Albert was near to passing out from the heat and terrible exertion. The regimental surgeon was already working feverishly to revive several men who had succumbed to the intense heat. Their regimental commander, Colonel Humphrey, had removed his jacket and a junior aide was wiping his face and neck with a wet handkerchief. His face was the color of a beet and even the bald spot on the top of his head had been burned by the merciless sun.
Not a single cloud could be seen anywhere in the bright sky and the only cover Albert could get was the overhanging limbs of the thickets in which they lay. Her uniform was soaked through with sweat, small circles left by the salty sweat hung down beneath her armpits like sergeant chevrons.
"Remove your bayonets and cut the lower branches off the bushes in front of you," Captain Schellenger ordered. "Cut yourselves a clear field of fire so you can see the Rebs coming."
"These Rebs done whipped three thousand of our best cavalrymen," Private Johnston remarked, swinging at a branch with his dented bayonet. "They must be twenty or thirty thousand of them, like that old sesh woman back in Ripley done told Colonel Thomas."
"If they's that many, they would of already run over us," a private on the other side of Albert named Jefferies replied. "Most of the Rebs are supposed to be in Georgia fightin' again Billy Sherman."
"That's Bedford Forrest out there facing us," Albert stated. "Heard tell he's whooped many Union outfits two or three times his size ‘cuz he's mean as hellfire. Could be a lot less Rebs out there than we think"
"Well, he's up against the 95th now," Johnson returned. "We'll see what kind of devil he is."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Albert muttered, worry heavy in her tone. She did not share her friends’ disdain for General Forrest.