First contest as we wind down to the publication of The Widening Gyre, the third volume of William Hanlin’s Civil War. This is for a signed copy hot off the press.
- Make sure you like the Facebook post
- Share it (please)
- Read, figure out WHEN and WHERE (not a state, by the way) this scene occurs
- Send your best guess via Facebook DM or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- There will be 5 winners – whoever, in Roland’s opinion, gets closest to the right answers win.
- HINT: The Widening Gyre occurs in Virginia and Maryland – entirely – between June 27th and December 14th, 1862.
- Hint squared: Bruce Catton documented the incident in the scene.
Setting the scene: William, Osgood, and their traveling companion, Zacharias Griffin of the New York Times, have just reunited with the 21st Connecticut in the field. It was a long, hot, trek.
We moved outside in early evening, enjoying a stiff breeze, watched the sky darken. I was in that curious state between exhaustion and exhilaration that being the center of attention creates: my supper dissertation on Malvern Hill employing salt and pepper shakers, forks, spoons, mugs as props had riveted all.
Cigars, coffee, I asked the question at last, “Have you seen Pope yet?”
“No,” Seth answered quickly, “haven’t met anyone who has. For a few days there we were getting orders on top of orders from him, but that’s it, no sightings.”
“Conflicting orders?” Griffin asked.
“Five yesterday alone,” Shay sighed, “we prob’ly marched twelve miles ta’ move four.”
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded, “We’d have been going in circles if the roads were built tha’ way.”
“The men certainly noticed,” Arnold added, “no one was too pleased to march by the same damn barn three times in two hours in this heat.”
“Any idea when McClellan and the rest of the army’s coming up?” Ashford asked.
“No idea,” I sighed, “I can only say that no one is rushing out of Alexandria or Aquia, lest they weren’t a couple of days ago.”
“McClellan’s bound to get here before the fighting starts, isn’t he?” Ashford, though it was not so much a question as the recitation of an article of faith.
“One would think,” my uninspiring answer.
“Ya’ don’t tink McClellan’s goin’ ta’ sit this out, do ya’, William?” Shay, somewhat in wonder, the rest in suspicion.
“I hope not,” I answered honestly.
“Tha’s not much of an answer.”
“It’s all I got, Sean.”
“Well, then,” he considered, “could make the next few days very interestin’.”
“I’ll take deadly boring, thank you,” I answered.
“Would you look at that,” Ashford whispered, jackknifed his large frame off his chair, tottered a away from our fire without looking down once, stopped, stood transfixed.
We joined him. At first in confusion, then worry for our moral leader, but eventually our eyes adjusted and we saw the object of his wonder: the dirty-bright, dusty white smudge of a comet
“That,” Osgood, with respectful dread, economically summarizing a few millennia of human experience, “just tops off the last week.”
“Bad omen,” Wycroft whispered in agreement.
“Never heard of a comet bringing good tidings,” Shay at least said it aloud, no whisper for him.
“Don’t be superstitious,” Ashford chided mildly, “the rebels are under the same sky, aren’t they?”
“But we’re the invaders,” Wycroft answered, not taking his eyes off the apostrophe in the night, “one would have to assume it’s meant for us.”
“I got to agree with you there, Simon,” Shay, with even more reverence.
“I am surprised at you, Sean,” Ashford laughed, “you’re a professional soldier, how can –”
“I’m Irish, Padre, tha’ trumps the professional soldier . . . an’ we’ve always been smart enough to accept certain… truths.”
“Amen,” Osgood agreed with passion.
“Osgood,” Ashford’s surprise was evident, “you’re the last person I’d expect to subscribe to old wives tales.”
“More ancient than any wives tale,” Osgood’s dispassionate voice cut through the night with alacrity, “too ancient to ignore, too –”
“When beggars die,” I began, lowly, “there are no comets seen –”
“The heavens themselves blaze forth upon the death of princes’,” Shay finished in a rasp.
“Nice quote,” our Episcopalian voice of reason was not to be cowered, “but hardly relevant, Caesar had other warnings – the soothsayer, Calpurnia’s entreaties to stay home – he chose to attend the Senate, it wasn’t preordained.”
“Ya’ can think that, Thomas,” Shay was respectfully unimpressed, “but it was probably preordained tha’ he ignore the warnings,” he put his hand on Ashford’s shoulder, “it was written in the heavens an’ that was it, the rest is… melodrama.”
“No, Sean,” Ashford persisted, “he ignored warnings from those around him perceptive enough to read the times, the conditions, and pick up on the brewing conspiracy, and –”
“Look up in tha’ sky and see a bloody large comet looming over the city,” Shay laughed.
“What of it, then, really, Sean?” Ashford asked
“Everyone but Caesar read God’s sign, that’s how I see it,” Shay replied.
“What about Halley?” Ashford asked with an edge
“What about Halley?” Shay echoed with real wonder
“If comets are a sign from God, how could he predict when his would get here?”
“There’s a lot more comets out there than Halley’s,” Seth, with eminent good sense.
“Of course, but –” Ashford tried.
“Well then there you go…” Seth finished, “if this was Halley’s we wouldda’ known it was comin’ and even afta’ all the shite we’ve been through this week, it wouldna’ have meant much, but this, here, now, unexpected like . . .”
“Halley’s or not, Sean,” Ashford, with emphasis, as if talking over an unruly child during Easter services, “it’s just a coincidence we see it now, it does not affect our free will, we – “
“All well and good, Thomas,” Sean laughingly cut him off, “but let me ask you – what bloody free will do we have in present circumstances?”
“Exactly, Padre,” Shay, laughing hard, “there’s one man out of our eighty thousand out here with a measure of free will – and he can’t seem to make up his fookin’ mind on anytin’.”
“Yes, but –”
“Unless, of course, you’re advocating mass desertion.”
“I’m not, of course, but –”
“I knew we should’ve enlisted a Calvinist,” I commented, could feel Ashford’s eyes burning through the night into me.
“Makes fun all you like, Colonel,” he said with great dignity, “all I’m trying to say is that comets are merely natural occurrences, phenomena, random and –”
“Reverend,” Osgood interjected with friendliness, “everything you’re about to say is undoubtedly true, strongly rooted in naturalism, rationalism, good sense, philosophy, science, and all that but right now you’re preaching the gospel in Latin to Eskimos.”
“He’s right, Thomas,” I cut him off, gently. In truth, I did not want him convincing me, I was in no rational state of mind nor did I wish to be, “we’re in the middle of a mix-and-match army, commanded by a general we wouldn’t know if he showed up for breakfast in the morning; a general who’s sending out conflicting orders every two damn minutes – all while rumors of treason and betrayal float everywhere and – just to make it so much more interesting – no one knows where Lee, Jackson, Longstreet or the rest of their merry men are. I’d say, as one rationalist to another, it’s the time to bow to superstition.”
“Say it, Brother!” Osgood.
“What he says, Reverend,” Wycroft.
“Normally, Reverend,” Griffin, speaking for the first time, trying to sound dispassionate, failing, “I am completely of your thinking – I am paid significantly well to write in that vein – but even I can… feel… something that my own rationalism –”
“Cynicism,” I corrected.
“Cynicism, fine,” Griffin snorted, “can not explain.”
“You’re agreeing with me?” I asked.
“Perhaps this once.”
“There really is something to this comet thing,” I stated with certainty.
“Well, gentlemen,” Ashford, resignation on every syllable, “then I will retire and say a prayer for us all.”
“Hey, Thomas,” Shay quipped in the dark, “ask God why he sent the damn thing in the first place.”
“Exactly, Sean,” Ashford called back, “I shall do exactly that.”