John Given was chilled and damp. He was lying on the ground and thinking earnestly of times when he’d dried his gansey and trousers at a peat fire in Ireland, in Drumboarty, and then drunk his tea. He wanted to crawl into his blanket, but Lieutenant Randolph was ordering them up. He was ordering them to fall in, and John heard the long roll. He made his way into line and wished that he’d burned his letters when he’d had the chance. If he got shot, if he was killed today, he didn’t want some Johnny Reb rifling through his pockets and reading his letters from his father or sisters or his friends. His skin grew hot just thinking of it. He would kill a man who did it. He would rouse himself right up from the dead and break the man’s neck.
It was eleven charged days since the 25th Indiana, Volunteer Infantry, had left St. Louis on the Continental and traveled with the fleet down the Mississippi. The men had watched warily as flatboats edged between ice floes. They’d rushed to fill buckets to keep the deck wet beneath the boat’s fiery chimneys. Steaming past canebrakes and turkeys perched on tree branches, they’d kept a lookout for guerrillas and spotted herons and red-tailed hawks flying at water’s edge, eyed pignut hickories and saw Judas trees not yet in bud. A steamer suddenly crossed their bow, and the captain reversed engines just in time to avoid a collision.
At Cairo, its broad levee swarming with soldiers, they escorted angry mutineers to quarters. One of them, hearing the west of Ireland in John’s voice, cursed him in Gaelic. At Paducah they saw an otherworldly boat, brightly lit: plumed officers and beautifully gowned women strolling its upper deck. Then, the Iatan had turned from the Ohio into the Tennessee. It had pushed down the western knob of Kentucky. It had steamed into Tennessee. It had entered the Confederacy itself where the citizens weren’t just wavering but gone. When at last the boat came into view of the Stars and Stripes newly flying on Fort Henry after the navy’s victory, a thunderous, foot-stomping yell erupted around John. The wood of the boat shuddered clear through him. He was cheering so loud his throat hurt. A big fight was coming. He knew it. They all did.
Now, after a night bivouacking at Fort Henry and the march to Fort Donelson and the long, sleepless hours in front of the Confederate rifle pits, the fight had arrived.