Midnight and rain pouring down, cold and relentless. John lay shivering on his gun in a battle line that had been formed of pieced-together regiments. His clothes were soaked through. He’d swabbed his gun clean, and he was protecting it with his body and a bit of oilcloth he kept in his ammo box, but he was still afraid it wouldn’t fire when he needed it. When Nelson’s lead columns from Buell’s Army of the Ohio had finally arrived and passed through the line and taken the front, John had gone out on picket duty and had seen the eerie moonlight that lit the details hunting for wounded. It unnerved him, but the lightning flashes that shocked the line were just as bad. Now, every few minutes a Union gunboat threw a shell over their lines, and it howled as it went and shook the ground when it landed in the distance in its own burst of light.
Once, when the line went white with lightning, John saw horses to the south and he thought that the Rebels were waiting to attack at first light, cavalry and all. He wondered what he would do if their own shrunken army was driven clear off the landing and into the Tennessee. He’d seen the astonishing numbers of shirkers and stragglers and men who’d fled from their units—hundreds, thousands maybe. Some had tried to swim the river. Most had crowded under the landing bluff. He doubted that many of those men would fight again—they were too sullen or scared—but the army was still being reinforced with more troops. Nelson’s advance had arrived before nightfall, but the other units of Buell’s army were still coming off steamers that had ferried them from their transports. Even now, they were slogging through the mud to bivouac.
John doubted that a single Union soldier had a tent for the night. A sergeant who’d been caught and then escaped said the Rebels were raising havoc and carrying on in the captured encampments, drinking up the medicinal whiskey and helping themselves to hams and overcoats and to whatever private things a man might have left in his bedroll. They were celebrating, though what they were doing didn’t sound so different from what had gone on at the landing. All night, Union boys had milled around in the rain, and some had found their own whiskey in the sutler stores. They’d brawled like hooligans until their officers put them under guard. A group of the stragglers had built a huge fire a hundred feet from the river and it had flamed up, sending sparks high into the night sky before the rain tamped it down. Max Munte had slipped away, hoping to get close enough to get warm, but he came back more soaked than when he left and said it was impossible, that it was solid men—hundreds of them—the whole way around.
“When we retreated, those first boys charging through?” he said in a while. “You ever see such gray-faced bastards? They were fighting all day. They held the center.” Max lowered his voice. “There’s a cart over there with nothing but arms and legs in it. And peach blossoms.”