Dance with the Devil by James Dressler
Tom Holloway and his Southern friends are excited about their prospects in joining the war effort, but the only thing they know of battle is what they’ve read about in newspapers. They envision the whole thing as an adventure, something to prove their manhood, to make them into men, and a diversion from their sometimes boring school regimen. Ultimately, they anticipate becoming heroes on a winning team.
Words from a grizzled war veteran makes Tom wonder whether his ideas of war are more romantic than realistic. As he marches off with his friends to battle with the Yankees, he remembers the harsh illumination he’d been given from a soldier with experience. Watching friends and comrades die in a volley of gun- and cannon-fire on blood-soaked ground teaches the foursome the truth of war. Will hell, hunger, cold, fatigue, fear and resignation be the only comrades they have left?
GENRE: Historical: American Civil War Word Count: 144,439
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“Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
James I. 19
Saturday, March 30, 1861
Torchlight washed stark across the faces of angry men before casting dancing shadows against the buildings bordering the Lebanon, Tennessee, town square. Fueled by whiskey, and seething with an anger that had been building all evening, the crowd finally became an unreasoning mob that surged out West Main Street toward the Hatton residence. The trouble had begun to build following a speech delivered from the courthouse steps by Congressman Robert Hatton of the 5th Congressional District earlier that same day.
According to an ebullient Hatton, the Thirty-sixth Congress had made considerable progress toward a resolution of the slavery issue that had plagued the nation for so long. All in spite of what he described as concerted efforts by disunionists to prevent a compromise. Unfortunately, the congressman had badly misjudged the sentiments of his listeners. The few Union men in attendance took heart from what was said, but they were a minority that was growing smaller daily. Now, upon less than sober reflection, Mr. Hatton’s constituents were determined to tell him so in a manner he would tend to remember.
Leading the mob were students from the Deep-South cotton states who attended nearby Cumberland University. The young men shouted encouragement to one another as they marched along beating furiously on an assortment of pots and pans. Every dog in the community seemed inspired to add its own contribution to the melee, and the ensuing barking and howling formed a fitting accompaniment to the steadily growing commotion in the street. The racket thus generated was heard throughout the usually placid town.
Up and down West Main Street, windows and doors were thrown open as residents looked out upon the scene with curiosity and growing concern. Not a few went anxiously scurrying in search of the sheriff as cries of, “Git some tar an’ feathers,” “Hang that nigger lover,” and “Burn ‘im out,” reverberated through the cold night air.
The Hatton residence was only a couple of blocks off the town square and was quickly reached by the men, who then commenced to mill around uncertainly in the street. Before any would-be leader could assert himself, Mr. Hatton appeared upon his second floor balcony dressed in a nightshirt. His wife and small son could be seen fearfully peering from a second floor window as the obviously nervous congressman asked, “Just what is this all about gentlemen?”
“It’s about you bein’ a godamned nigger lover that’s what,” came a loud but anonymous voice from the milling throng.
“Gentlemen, I…,” began Hatton.
“An’ sidin’ with Yankees against yer own,” interrupted another.
“Gentlemen, please, I…,” Hatton attempted to begin again.
“We’ve already heard all from you we wanta hear,” interrupted a young man from the front ranks of the mob. “Now we’re gonna do th’ talkin’ and you’d better damn well do some listenin’.”
“That’s if you know what’s good for you,” yelled another with unmistakable menace.
Taken off guard and confused as he was, the congressman was no coward and bristled, “Gentlemen, I’ll not be threatened,” as nervousness began to give way to anger. “Reasonable disagreement is one thing but…”
The congressman was interrupted yet again by a university student waving his fist in the air and jeering, “You, sir, are a villainous scoundrel and a disgrace to your state and all true southern men of honor.”
“Who are you to talk of honor, sir, coming here as a drunken hoodlum in the dark of night,” Hatton immediately shot back.
Several others moved to stand next to the young man in obvious support as the congressman tried to continue, “Gentlemen I repeat, I will not be threatened. This is not an appropriate time or forum for rational discussion and I strongly suggest you all disperse before the law arrives.”
Some of his more sober listeners murmured agreement, and some even began to drift away when a drunk yelled from the front of the crowd, “We’ll show ‘im boys. Burn the damn nigger lover out!”
As the gate to the fence surrounding the yard was swung open by a man carrying a torch, the congressman abruptly produced a pistol from the folds of his nightshirt and leveled it menacingly.
“That’s far enough, sir, for I swear by all that’s holy I’ll shoot dead the first man who moves to fire this house.”
Instead of backing down, several men in the crowd suddenly produced pistols of their own.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” said Artimous Reed before turning to grab the arms of both his cousin Harrison Reed and his close friend Amos Hawkins. “Let’s get away from here, there’s going to be real trouble,” he continued.
“I’m with you,” responded a wide-eyed Amos in a voice that clearly signaled his own sense of urgency.
“Well, I’m not,” replied Harrison belligerently. “I’m not runnin’ from th’ likes of that nigger lovin’ traitorous, sonofa….”
The sudden crack of a gunshot split the night air, stopping Harrison in mid-word. It was quickly followed by several others. Artimous spun back around just in time to see fire from the muzzle of Hatton’s pistol stab the darkness. There were more flashes from the street and the sudden smell of burnt powder drifted bitter on the night air.
“Run!” yelled Artimous to his companions, as the scene in the street immediately turned to chaos. Cutting through the gunfire, the yelling, the cursing, and the barking of dogs came a woman’s piercing scream. Whoever she was, she was on her own tonight, came Artimous’ unchivalrous thought as he ran wildly down the street. Most of the torches were now mere pools of light in the road where they had been dropped when the shooting started. Nevertheless, Artimous had no trouble distinguishing Sheriff Nathan McCullough calmly walking up the center of the street with a lantern in one hand and a double barrel shotgun in the other. The look on McCullough’s face suggested he was not in a mood to be trifled with. Artimous stopped and called out for his friends.
“This way!” Amos called back from down a side street. “And, for God’s sake, be quiet,” responded Amos from down a side street.
“That’s sheriff…,” began Artimous, breathless as he joined his friends.
“We know, we know,” interrupted Amos anxiously.
Grabbing the first part of Artimous’ anatomy to come within reach, Amos pulled him close saying, “We’ll go down a block and then cut back to your hotel on the square. There’s gonna be hell to pay for tonight.”
“I fear you’re right my friend,” responded Artimous as he shoved his companions ahead of him with a nervous glance over his shoulder. The sheriff continued walking up the street and only when Harrison stumbled and gave out with a groan, did Artimous realize something was terribly wrong.