The groans of the dying were all that remained after the gunshots ebbed under the July moon. Messengers, exhausted, came and went, but Robert E. Lee had ceased to hear their reports on positions and dispositions — news of deaths that were drowned by the ascending drone of the bleeding, the gut-shot, the maimed.
General Lee answered and spoke and planned, but his inner self, his quiet self, was distracted by the light reflecting off the spiraling wails of the spirits of men, tugged from their bodies, a teeming, turning column between his headquarters on Seminary Ridge and the enemy on Cemetery Ridge.
Charles, his aide-de-camp, withdrew, researching a rumor of enemy movements near Gettysburg. General Lee, alone with the gunpowder in his nostrils and the weary ache in his spine, tilted his head and saw the shimmer of the ghastly pillar. He could not tear his eyes away from the lattice of souls to study the messenger who slouched toward him. The man said, “A day’s harvest, General Lee?”
“Ghastly,” he replied. He stared at the vortex.
“The Bible says, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ General. The men gave as much as they took today.”
Something in the timbre of that voice resonated within Lee. The man’s hat slumped low and his uniform was worn through in places, nearly bereft of buttons, the empty left sleeve pinned across his chest to his right shoulder.
Lee hesitated. It was madness to suggest that he saw clearly, but he could not help asking, “Thomas?” Preposterous. He immediately wished he had not asked.
General Thomas Jackson, whom the men called Stonewall, dead two months, shoved his hat up with a finger. The shimmer of the pillar of souls played in his eyes.
General Lee almost inquired after Jackson’s health, as came naturally when greeting an old friend. Lee laughed nervously. A corner of Jackson’s mouth edged upward, hinting at a rare smile.
Jackson said, “I am pressed by the enemy on the other side of the river. The trees have been torn asunder by the war.”
“The war?” Lee said. “There is war in the life after?”
Jackson nodded, eyes locked on Lee. “You led us well in this world. The land beyond is teeming with Yankees. As you conquer in this world, my side fails in eternity.”
“That well? We have prevailed in battle… but surely not… Do you command the army, Thomas?”
“Albert Johnston commands competently. He could not exceed your own abilities, but you will not be ours for seven years.”
The moans of the dead mounted. “I will not? You are saying that you perceive the future — of this war?”
A thousand questions spun in Lee’s mind. He asked, “How will we fare on this field? Can you foresee?”
Jackson said, “You have decided to quit this field. James Longstreet has convinced you to position your force between the Union army and their capitol, to dig in and invite them to come to you. That would not end well. The enemy’s reinforcements would disrupt your march. You would never dig your trenches — only your graves.”
Lee’s heart leapt. “Then you know. You can tell me. On which course will we prevail, Thomas? I beg you…”
Jackson raised his hand for silence. Lee heard the certainty of the grave when Jackson said, “It can end here.” He pointed back to the Union lines. “That can be their graveyard. They are thinned and weak. One push and they will flee. You would be on Lincoln’s doorstep in a fortnight.”
Lee nodded. “I had entertained such thoughts. But their position is well established. You are certain?”
Jackson nodded and reached to shake Lee’s hand. “I must go. I am torn away.”
Lee extended his hand to his most able general, but nothing of substance met him. Lee looked down and saw his own hand. When he looked up, he saw only the silhouette of Cemetery Ridge.
The next afternoon, Lee watched his line of men advance up the ridge. Northern guns, untouched by the earlier bombardment, roared, and the line gaped. The guns, mixed with Yankee rifles, thundered and his line tattered. The line straggled on. They would prevail. Surely they would. A worm in Lee’s stomach turned.
At nightfall, Lee sat astride Traveler, looking over the field as the men decamped. The vortex of souls roared, redoubled from the night before. He felt shame for the abject apologies he had earlier made to his men, but felt more shame that hundreds of husbands and sons would not return home. “Jackson,” he whispered.
“A long day for you,” Jackson answered, now mounted on Big Sorrell.
Lee swallowed. Struggling with a knot in his throat, he said, “Thomas, what went awry? I expected that we would chase them over Cemetery Ridge — that our only activity this night would be planning our pursuit. This is a setback from which it will be difficult to recover.”
Jackson shook his head. “It is a terrible thing — the end of this campaign.”
Lee found his voice. “How could you make such a mistake? How could you direct our armies into such a grave defeat?”
Jackson bowed his head. “The war will fare much better now, on my side.”
John Arkwright was published in Writers of the Future, Volume 27. He is an economist who writes fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, and other historical speculative fiction. His current fixations are the British East India Company and the Civil War.