Edmund started pushing the boys into as straight a line as he was likely to get. Henry’s crack about West Point made him remember something in a letter he’d gotten about cousin James, who’d been wounded in both legs a couple years ago at a place called Fort Donelson. James was healing up all right – he’d walk again – and he sure didn’t hold any grudge against his commander for getting him shot. He wrote home that their general had laid siege to the fort, and that the Rebs inside were commanded by his old pal from West Point. So they figured he’d let ’em out easy, right? Wrong… When his old friend asked for terms, this is what he got:

"No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works."

Oh boy — now that was a hard case talking. After a while, this fellow seemed like the only Yankee general that hadn’t got his ass whipped by the Johnnies, so Lincoln put him in charge of the whole show.

"Hey, Henry! That new general up yonder somewheres?"

"Ayuh … that’s the word."

They marched and then they stopped … and then they marched and then they stopped. It seemed like they were only going a few hundred yards each time, and Edmund’s feet alternated between pain and numbness. As they approached an intersection that was well lit with campfires and pine torches, Henry had them all stop and make room to one side. Riders were approaching, and with all the fuss and the staff flags it was clear it wasn’t just some lost cavalry patrol.

Edmund wiped his blurry eyes and tried to focus on the rider in the middle of the group, on a large bay. The man was leaning way over to one side, talking to the officer riding next to him and pointing down the road. It struck Edmund how at ease he seemed in that saddle — like the horse was just a natural part of him. Aside from that he looked like a nobody. He wasn’t very tall, and that blouse looked like he’d borrowed it from the soldier who cooked his breakfast that morning; no braids, no sash, and almost no buttons.

"That’s HIM???" Edmund asked Henry.

"Ayuh …"

"Don’t look like much …"

"Nope, he don’t."

The riders passed just a few feet away, so close he could finally see the three stars on the epaulettes that seemed like they were the only things marking this man for what he was. Then Edmund began to notice other, more subtle things about him. The slouch hat was pulled down low, as if it hadn’t been moved since it had shaded his eyes that morning as he searched for signs of enemy movement. The large, lit cigar that went quickly right back between his teeth as soon as he finished pointing with it. The leather gauntlets were worn; the boots were muddy. A short beard covered most of his face.

This man obviously had no time for grooming fancy side whiskers or even a regular shave; and his narrow eyes sloped down at the sides, giving him the sad but determined look of an Old Testament prophet. That was it, Edmund thought. There was something Biblical about his look. What was that verse? Something about flint. Oh yes — now he remembered. It was somewhere in Isaiah: "Therefore have I set my face like a flint…"

Edmund didn’t know why, but looking into that face affected him like a hot cup of strong coffee. His feet didn’t seem to hurt so much anymore. He resumed the march, not paying much attention now to what time it was, or where he was headed.

An hour or so later Edmund saw more lights up ahead as they approached another intersection, and he could hear what sounded like cheering from at least a hundred throats. He took a few fast steps to catch up to Henry, who had been going up and down the lines trying to keep things moving.

"What’s THAT all about? Don’t those boneheads know we’re not supposed to be attractin’ attention? There’s bound to be a Reb cavalry patrol out there someplace. Who are that bunch?"

"II Corps… Hancock’s boys… They’re cheerin’ that new general that passed us back there. Even some of the wounded got up and lined the road for him. Damnedest thing I ever saw."

"Why? What’d he do that’s so God-awful spectacular?"

"It’s not what he’s done; it’s what he’s doing right now."

"And just what might that be?"

"You are as dull as your plow, farm boy. What direction we headed in?"

"How the hell should I know?"

"Didn’t the escaped contraband from around these parts teach you nothin’? Where’s the drinkin’ gourd?"

Edmund looked wearily straight up at the night sky for the little dipper.

"Can’t see it," he mumbled.

"Over behind your left shoulder, stupid. We’re headed SOUTH."

Edmund turned that over in his mind. Let’s see … the Rapidan was to the north; that’s where they had come from. The Rappahannock was due east. Couldn’t think of a river to the south to hide behind. There WAS something else to the south — or more particularly somebody. By God, they were going after LEE.

Cousin James was right. This little "nobody" — this Grant fellow — he WAS worth writing home about. He’d figured out the simple, plain truth that the road home for all the boys was straight through Lee and his army, wherever they might be. Edmund knew Lee was finished as of that night. Grant, on the other hand, was just getting started. That beautiful little white church popped into his mind again, along with something from Ecclesiastes:

"Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit."

Edmund could almost hear the spring peepers calling him, and hornpout jumping, in the swampy brook behind the farm … could almost smell the bread in Ma’s Dutch oven. Home again soon, Lord willing, and this time for good.

*

Author’s Note: Edmund Findlay Churchill was a family cousin who grew up in the same sleepy little town as the author, in a house across the brook from the farm where he was raised. Every Sunday he sat in the same pew in the same church that Edmund had a hundred years or so before.