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Look Away: an alternate history of the Civil War

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In 'Look Away, an alternate history of the Civil War', history hangs by a thread. A single moment can create ripples which change everything. What if Mary Todd Lincoln had a bad night's rest?

Scifi / Adventure
5.0 1 review
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Seed Corn

Jory’s Pa said that inflation meant paying more for less. It looked to the pimply faced boy like when they hitched up their mule team and went into town to trade, there just wasn’t much to be had, at any price. In McClellan’s General Mercantile, half of the shelves were empty, at least of such things as folks needed. The other half were filled with used stuff being re-sold that people had bartered for what they needed but couldn’t make for themselves. The war had been dragging on for over two years, now, longer than anybody had expected or planned for. Most of what got through Wilmington was sent south to the army, instead of up towards them, and if you couldn’t make it yourself or fix it when it broke, folks learned to do without. The Fields family had always made do well enough. Some folks in those parts didn’t cotton to that, and those who’d been hungry all winter worked up the gumption to riot for food when the cold weather broke in 1863. That’s how Jory and his Pa got paid real Bank of North Carolina script by the state to hire out to the Home Guard and help break up the protests over in Kinston. It was pretty near the Federal troop’s patrols around New Bern. That had made Ma scared, until she had worked her way through most of the needful things list she’d scratched on the table leaf with the stub of a charcoal pencil while the snow’d kept fallin’. Then the money the state Home Guard paymaster paid out had looked pretty good, and she’d stopped pitching a hissy fit. Pa had told the company’s register clerk that Jory was already sixteen, instead of the truth; that would have needed a few more months ripenin’.

In other places, where the Home Guard of those too old or too young to enlist were putting down the darkies, the slave rebellions had made the halt and the lame and gray-haired into heroes. The saviors of Southern ladies, alone now with their men off at the front lines, their virtue unshielded, glowed like medieval knights. Lurid newspaper accounts of sporadic uprisings in Louisiana and Georgia fueled the fears, and the preemptive retaliations. Up here, they had the less romantic duty of quelling poor White folks’ feeble demonstrations for handouts of food. But Reverend Johnson’s fire and brimstone sermons about overturning the tables of the moneylenders had switched to homilies about rendering unto Caesar after a sizable donation to the new parsonage roof fund by an unknown benefactor, so that had unruffled Ma’s feathers about Pa’s idea a mite, too. The man of God was known to lick his finger and stick it up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing, before he decided what God’s will was in any matter. Some folks around those parts recollected how he’d flip-flopped on the Union issue at least twice. At least it made Ma feel better about them joining the Home Guard, though, that was all that Pa cared about. The adventure of it was what excited Jory.

Sgt. Horace Greene hadn’t intended to be a career military man. How he had ended up in the Department of North Carolina’s 1st division was a blur. It had been a noble thing at first to enlist in the army to save the Union, in his mind, as divided as his village had been over the tumult. He had just been trying to do the right thing. The patriotic, God-fearing thing. President Lincoln had threatened to free the darkies last fall. Nobody had really been paying him any mind, it seemed. Then that damnable Emancipation Proclamation had started the year off with a bang, for certain, making sure that he could never go home again after wearing blue. Not after what the slave uprisings had cost his family. News that they had been freed was slow to get to many of the states under rebellion, where the law technically held no power, since those states no longer considered themselves a part of the U.S., nor subject to Federal laws. When it did arrive, though, groups like the Nat Turner Brigade, armed and agitated by abolitionists, rose up and killed more of their masters and their master’s families than the civil authorities were happy to admit. Horace’s Uncle had owned a few field hands, down around Charleston, and he and his Aunt and little cousins had all died in a mysterious house fire, the night they all left the farm. His father blamed him, and Lincoln, for that. Several hundred White souls cried out for blood vengeance, as dozens of plantations burned. Retribution commenced.

It didn’t seem fair to the abolitionists that Old Abe hadn’t emancipated the slaves in the states that hadn’t rebelled, but the Sergeant understood the politics of that. So, they just kept sneaking in guns to the small groups of freedmen who were willing to listen. Maryland was only kept in the Union by their state legislature being held under arrest, as it was. If the Union states were declared free, a couple of the border ones like Missouri might join the secession. And nobody wanted to die for any darkies, not even their own. Well, except for the John Browns of the world, the ones who had told the slaves that God wanted them to kill their masters. Too bad so many of them had listened, all across the deep South. Too bad for all concerned, Horace reckoned. Especially him.

The reaction had been swift and not at all unexpected, of course. Militias had lynched four slaves for every White person killed in the uprisings, even those who simply fled in fear of such a fate. It had hurt the Confederacy’s economy, as Lincoln had hoped. It had hurt the enslaved, even more. Especially those who weren’t fast enough to leave. The cycle of violence accelerated as masterless slaves, in desperation, became convinced that they had to fight slaveless masters, or die. Many of them were right. Most of them died, anyway.

The letter telling Sgt. Greene that his father no longer cared for him to return home, regardless of how the cessation of hostilities transpired, came days before his unit left their cramped base camp to burn a railroad bridge. It wasn’t his fault. It was all these secessionists trying to destroy the country that had done it, and now they were reaping the whirlwind. Traitors, that’s what they were. They deserved to be hung, every last one of them. Even General Foster, as mild a man as he was, agreed: “Death to Traitors!”.

If Horace’s father was right there in front of him, he would remind him of how he had told him that the Union must be preserved at all costs, and how evil the sin of slavery his own brother kept involved in was, back when it mattered who was right and who was wrong. But, they were far apart, and growing farther apart by the hour, as the war grew more bitter. What would he do, now that he was disowned? He cast about for a target for his righteous indignation. It seemed like the only people he could trust not to stab him in the back and turn away from him were his fellow soldiers. Well, if they were going to be his future, he would make the most of it. While he was at it, he’d show those rebels what it felt like to be disowned and disinherited.

Pa Fields had voted for Mr. Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate, like some of his neighbors had said they were going to, before the talk of secession had overwhelmed opposing views. Not that he would admit to it, any more, himself. Not out loud. He had even told all three of his sons not to get involved in the fighting by taking sides. One of them even listened to him, mostly because he was too young for his brothers to take along when they enlisted. That still hadn’t kept General Foster’s bluebelly cavalry from wrecking their Christmas last year by stealing all the grain and hay the family had binned when the Yankees rampaged through the pastures and farm on their way back east to New Bern. They hadn’t been stopped at the first Battle of Kinston, or at White Hall, on their raid to Goldsboro to burn the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad bridge there. The blue-coated young officer with the Burnside whiskers read a piece of paper written by Foster talking about the legitimate needs of the military forces to confiscate materials in rebellious areas, especially from ‘families known to be supporters of the rebellion’. That was a jab at Jory’s brothers, and other families like theirs. Ned and James weren’t around to be taken to task, so their family was sufferin’, on their account.

The soldiers had banged open the cabin door at gunpoint right before breakfast and driven the whole family outside in the snow while they searched the cabin and barn and sheds. Jory hoped they checked the outhouse, too, and fell in it. He wanted to say so, but didn’t. Ma and Pa and Jory had just had to stand flat-footed in the front pasture and clench their fists and hope the Yankees wouldn’t burn their house or kill all their livestock, and that Ma would look too old and tired for them to mess with. One of the Sergeants judged her with a leer on his face, causing Jory and Pa to step in front of Ma and the Lieutenant of cavalry to call the soldier back to help load the corn into their wagons. They knew it was just a bluff, a provocation. They hoped. Sounds of things breaking, inside, made Ma flinch, over and over again. Then the Sergeant threw a lantern from the kitchen against the chimney as they were leaving. The glass globe broke and fire poofed out, but the wood was too wet from snowmelt to catch. Kicking the dirt, Jory had pictured his two older brothers being heroic off with another army, burning the Yankee’s bridges and houses, right back. He had a good imagination. He studied the Sergeant’s face from under the blanket wrapped over his head. He had a good memory, too.

At the same time that the Fields farm was being raided for fodder, Union General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders Number 11, to address the issue of widespread smuggling and cotton speculation in the area under his command. This region, known as the “Department of the Tennessee,” stretched from the Mississippi border to Illinois, and from the Mississippi to the Tennessee Rivers. The General Orders stated, in part, “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Furthermore, if they returned, “ (they)will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners.”

Confederate Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s successful raids around Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi disrupting communications between Grant and his wide-spread Units, destroying telegraph lines, and sowing confusion, slowed the spread of the General Orders down the chain of command. When Cesar Kaskel, a politically connected Jew, was expelled from Paducah, Kentucky two weeks later, he had John Addison Gurley, a Republican Congressman from Cincinnati, take the matter up with the President. Not wanting to upset wealthy Jewish backers, the President reacted in a flurry. Lincoln immediately ordered General In Chief of the Army Henry Halleck to countermand Grant’s order. Harried by Confederate guerrillas fueled with rage by the slave revolts which had driven them from their homes in Mississippi, Grant was having a particularly bad week. Every White citizen was a hostile belligerent, driven to acts of desperation or righteous vengeance by the uprisings. When word reached his headquarters that his General Orders Number 11 had been countermanded, Grant threw a worse than usual drunk. He also said some unsupportive things about his Commander in Chief.

Many of his detractors, who had called for him to be removed from his command after the debacle at Shiloh, were no doubt overjoyed to hear the report from Grant’s subordinates of that evening’s meeting. Whether due to the “wagonloads” of thousands of negro refugees flooding into his area of control with White blood on their hands, or the fury of their pursuing former masters, the General snapped. He blamed himself for giving the freed slaves wages and a refuge, drawing them to his Department with promises of shelter, then began a verbal attack on the character of the President, claiming that Lincoln had “set the dark race upon our own to save the country at the cost of its people.” He refused to revoke his General Orders until he could speak in person with the President, much to Lincoln’s dismay. As the House moved to censure Grant, he withdrew into his headquarters. An order was issued to suspend providing clothes and shelter to contraband slaves unless they foreswore the use of arms. This was in direct violation of the President’s Emancipation Proclamation, that “the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

As a result of Grant’s Order, some of the slaves turned on the Union soldiers guarding them, resulting in several incidents of bloodshed. Many slaves refused to be easily disarmed, after having so recently won their freedom through revolution. Conflicts and numerous fatalities occurred, on both sides, in Western Tennessee and Northern Mississippi. Grant was losing control of his Department. In a more sober moment, the General telegraphed Washington City that Halleck should leave him alone to win the war for them, and promised to take Vicksburg for Lincoln before the spring. The President had had enough insubordination, however. Grant was recalled to confer with Lincoln, and in his absence, Major General John A. McClernand was placed in command. Grant resigned in protest, before he made it to the train, and went back home to Illinois. They gave him a hero’s welcome in Springfield.

Eager to make points with Lincoln, the new commander moved immediately against the bastion of the Mississippi. As the siege of Vicksburg began, McClernand issued a letter to the press threatening to let loose all of the contraband slaves in what was now his Department on the citizens of the city, if they did not capitulate immediately. This so strengthened the resolve of the defenders that they held firm until Confederate General Johnston’s troops outflanked the Union forces West of Jackson, Mississippi. The siege of Vicksburg was broken before Sherman could reinforce McClernand from the North. Both sides hunkered down for the rest of the winter, except for increasing raids by unregulated guerrillas against Federal troops as targets of opportunity presented themselves. Forrest rode circles around them.

‘Foraging’, they called it. The theft of the grain and fodder by the looting Yankees had led to the moment when Jory had found himself standing forlornly at the stable door, listening to the wheezing of his horse inside. His own horse, with every rib showing and the hips poking out, and nothing vegetable left to cut and haul within walking distance. Ruby needed food they didn’t have for her. They needed food that she could give to them. The sums danced a reel in his head, and he knew it added up. February was just started, and she wouldn’t last ’til full thaw. Nobody wanted to buy her because they all had the same problem. Jory understood it, all right. That didn’t testify to him not being willful about having to do it himself.

There were fewer chickens to feed, and less water to be carried, than last year. Only a couple of the slower birds had been caught by the Yankees. The rest had, one by one, gone into the pot at home. After his morning chores, under Pa’s watchful eye, Jory carried his old flintlock out to the barn. Then, cracking the door and looking into the Quarter Horse’s fevered eyed staring at him hopefully, he shut it again and went back to the house, not meeting Pa’s stern glare of disapproval. Ma, at the stove stirring a thin soup, looked at each of them wildly, then sobbed and took off running back through the pinned up sheet marking off her privy part of the cabin. Jory took the flintlock back outside, walked around the cold barn twice, climbed up in the loft, and wished that he could shoot a damnyankee, instead of his best friend, his Ruby. A few minutes later, the creak of the wooden ladder told him that Pa had joined him. They sat together in silence, there in the dust where the last of the scrounged hay been carefully swept up and portioned out, the week before. When his Pa spoke, the sadness in his voice hurt Jory more than anger would have.

“I know it’s a rotten, dirty thing I ask, son. I know you love Ruby. Tarnation, I know it. But I’m making you do it because you need to know that there’s a heavy cost to war, so you don’t end up running off like your brothers, who we ain’t heard from since August. Your Ma couldn’t take it, to lose all her boys, Jory. You think about her, now! You may be all that she has left.” It was the longest speech he’d ever heard his Pa make.

“But I just don’t know how I can do it, Pa.” the boy on the threshold of manhood said, his voice breaking. “I just cain’t.” A tear escaped, to run away like the rest of him wanted to. He cursed it wordlessly for a coward, under his breath, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“I’ll tell you the secret to it, boy. It’s nothing to it. You just aim the gun, and just when you’re about to shoot, you look away. Just look away, son. You can do it. It’ll be over, then. Ruby won’t be hungry no more, and neither will we. Just look away.“

Jory didn’t remember climbing down the ladder, or opening the stable door. He suddenly felt her long red mane in his fingers, pulling her curious starred face towards the barrel he poked at her through the gaps between the slats. Almost too late, he said goodbye to his friend, then spoke to himself, and to Ruby, “Just look away.”

Inside the cabin, the loud boom caused Jory’s Ma to drop a plate, but it was made of tin and just clanged off the stove, where she stirred the soup stock. Soon there would be some meat to go in it, praise the Lord. She lowered her head and let her shoulders slump. When times got better she would get her boy a new horse, then his brothers would come home and they would all have a big old fashioned family dinner, like they used to. They just had to make it through the lean times before then. God would provide.

Outside in the stable, the mood had been changed as if the shot had broken the nervous tension between father and son. Pa had been prepared in his head for Jory to run off blubbering or to throw down the gun or at least, to have to butcher the bony carcass by himself. He had already prayed about it and was prepared to forgive the boy for any kind of foolishness. Once the mare stopped kicking, though, Jory stopped crying. He walked back to the dwindling woodpile and picked up an axe and the good hatchet, which he handed wordlessly to his Pa, not meeting his eyes. Pa put a hand on his shoulder, lightly, to test such a thing. Jory patted the hand just once, and said. “It’s done. Let’s get to work before the meat cools.” Pa smiled. They bent to it. Everybody was hungry, around those parts, that winter. The Fields ate good that week.

Most of The Food Riot duty just meant standing around in front of grocer’s warehouses and guarding grain bins in Kinston. They were more like constables than militia. They had to stomp their feet to keep warm and keep their hands under their arms. Twice they had to fistfight some angry pensioners blocking the streets, then it was over, as soon as it began, when the army paraded through and everybody started cheering just like before. But, after the Home Guard service to put down the Food Riots, Jory and Pa lost a lot of friends among their neighbors and community. Seems that being thought of as traitors against the common folk, they were shunned. Ma shrunk visibly that thawing March Sunday morning when Reverend Johnson and two deacons on furlough from the war met them at the church door steps and advised them that too many of the hungry folks they had beaten back into submission were praying inside for their presence to be welcome. Pa was angry, but wouldn’t hit a preacher man, not with two armed deacons next to him. They walked back home in silence, together. Jory wondered if the Reverend’s daughter would shun him, now, too, and figured so. He hated the thought of it. How could he face her, or his friends?

Jory got up early and took off walking towards Wilmington the next day, without saying goodbye. He had enough knowing of his letters to leave a note carefully printed next to Ma’s list on the table, telling them that he was gone to fetch Ned and James and would be back for the planting. It would hurt too much, and Ma might talk him out of it, if he let her get her claws into him, with her blazing blue eyes and crying. Pa would ask him who would help put in this year’s crops if he didn’t make it home. No, he knew how it would go. Jory needed to find his brothers, and the place to find them was at the front. That’s where they’d be. He only took his knife and a change of clothes and the flintlock, since Pa had a better muzzleloading smoothbore model for himself. That and a gourd canteen and some powder and shot for hunting food along the way. Ma would be happy again when they all three came back home to her together, and wouldn’t care what the neighbors or the biddies at church squawked about. Probably he’d be a hero, and Reverend Johnson would shake his hand at the front of the church, pushing his daughter at him. His Pa would be proud, too. Just you wait and see.

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