Homosexuality? Transgenderism? LGBTQ? Topics for today? How about in a courtroom battle in 1863?
“The difference between hell and war is that hell is a bit friendlier.” Captain Sam Lee, USA – Attorney-at-Law.
On the afternoon of July 6, 1862, I rode my horse, Katie, toward the temporary encampment of the newest Union regiment in training—the Maryland Old Liners.
Here I go. Can I make it past the pickets without them discovering my real identity? I’ve got just a little way to go, yet. It’s been an amazing journey … one that I can trace to a single fateful day ten years ago when Uncle Lee gifted my destiny to me.
“Halt!” A chubby private thrust his bayoneted rifle toward me. His tall companion looked equally as serious. “What’s your ….” He snapped to attention. “Yes, Captain.” He and the other private saluted, and I returned them.
“You men ….” I had failed to engage my male voice.
They shook their heads and exchanged glances.
“Men,” I said again, this time in my lower voice, “you will have to pardon me. I’ve been a little ill.” They nodded.
I eased Katie a little closer, drew my saber, and held it overhead. After two half-hearted slashes, I pointed it at them. “You men are now dead. A Rebel spy dressed as a Union captain has slain you.” I swung the saber behind me. “My waiting regiment now has access to your encampment.”
They slipped their rifles back to the ready.
“At ease, men.” I reached into my inner coat pocket, withdrew the orders, and stretched them toward the taller soldier.
The private eased them out of my hand and scrutinized them. “Captain Samuel Lee.” He looked up. “You could be a spy with that name.”
I patted Katie. “There’re Lee’s everywhere. He is related but only distantly. I never met the man or his family, and his sentiments on secession from the Union are of no concern to me.” I looked ahead but couldn’t see the camp through the trees. “The next time anyone comes along, even if it is an officer you know, challenge him. It is your duty to protect the encampment.”
The taller private returned my orders. “You may pass, sir.”
I stared at them. “Don’t take it so badly, gentlemen. We’re all inexperienced now. We must learn from one another … and quickly.” I waited for their salute and returned it. “See you in camp, Old-Liners.”
“Yes, sir,” the chubby private said.
I urged Katie forward along a little path through the woods as my thoughts dwelled back seven years—when fighting for a cause became more than just a child’s fantasy.
I’m about to meet my new commanding officer … one of the few men here with professional soldiering experience. Will he be able to detect my real identity?
I rode toward some big tents careful not to get in the way of the sea of drilling men. Drawing closer, the regimental colors popped into view. Two smaller tents stood before the largest and three smaller ones after it. I rode until a first lieutenant standing outside the biggest tent walked toward me. He stopped simultaneously with my horse Katie and saluted. I saluted back.
“You’re either Captain Lee or Captain Harvey.”
I dismounted as masculine-like as possible and thrust a hand toward him. “Captain Lee, Lieutenant.”
When he grabbed my hand and shook it, I squeezed hard, the way Uncle Lee taught me just before I gave up my real identity. The lieutenant squeezed hard as well, and the pain nearly made me flinch.
“Lieutenant Piper,” he said. “I’ve been made Officer of the Day until your arrival. I’ll be serving under your command in ‘C’ company, sir.”
A man about my age, in his early twenties, he looked eager to respect his commanding officer.
We broke off the shake, and the lieutenant grabbed Katie’s reins. “We’re quartering all officer’s horses with the staff’s. I’ll have some men deliver your personal things to your tent. It’s all set up and waiting for you, sir.”
“Fine.” I patted Katie’s neck.
Can’t hug you, Katie. That would be the womanly thing to do.
“When you’re finished here,” he said, “I’ll return and take you to your tent, show you around the camp, and introduce you to the men.”
“Tell me, Lieutenant, are there any West Pointers amongst us?”
He pointed to the twelve-foot square tent. “Two. The regimental commander … Major Daniel Wilshire. Class of fifty-four. Major Smith is out observing the drilling. He’s the class of fifty-six.”
I squinted. “Major as commander? Aren’t all regimental commanders either full colonels or lieutenant colonels?”
He shrugged. “Hey, everything about this regiment is experimental. Who would believe that a single regiment could be made up of infantry, cavalry and artillery companies?” He pointed to the tent. “Major Wilshire’s there. Report in, and I’ll come back and show you where company ‘C’ is bivouacked.” He walked Katie to the left where the army quartered the staff horses between the parked wagons and men-of-the-train tents. I quickened my pace toward the guards at the tent, and we exchanged salutes.
I held out my orders. “Captain Samuel Lee reporting for duty.”
The buck sergeant took it, looked it over, and glanced at me. “One moment, sir.” He stepped into the tent.
So far, very good. Not many mistakes. The men really seem to accept me. None have challenged my female appearance and clean-shaven look. Then, they’re not expecting any females to come riding in wearing an officer’s uniform. But the major’s eye will be sharper. He is West Point after all.
A minute later, the sergeant re-emerged from the tent and returned my orders. “Sir, you may present them to the major.” He saluted.
“Thank you, Sergeant.” I returned his salute with the orders and walked into the tent.
My first commanding officer sat with his back to me behind a small table that supported a legless desk against the far tent wall. A hinged door on the desk lay open before him. Many pigeonhole slots bulged with papers. The sand shaker, quill pen, and ink bottle sat inside the two smaller slots at the bottom center. Next to them leaned a Carte-de-visite image of a pretty woman from the chest up. I studied the man who had not yet turned around.
In his early thirties, a few years older than my immoral brother Marcus, the hatless major’s hair shone as dark as the pitch used to seal the bottoms of sailing vessels. Big-shouldered and huge-breasted, he would be tall when standing. His over-sized right hand lay on the second page of an open journal, the page where the manufacturer bragged about itself. It read, “Francis’s Highly Improved Manifold Writer,” and it looked as though he had yet to start working in it.
Though his back faced me, I saluted, held it, and waited. He turned a few pages filled with numbers—and I waited. He lifted a brandy decanter and poured some in his silver chalice. I glanced at the floor next to the front, left table leg. A traveling liquor case sat open, three of the four back slots filled with other decanters.
I held my salute.
He pulled a multi-folded piece of paper from an upper slot, unfolded it, and stared at a map of Maryland. “I know you’re there, Captain Lee. At ease, please.” I lowered my hand and threw both behind my back, my left open hand holding the right.
Good. Standing at parade rest will keep my gloved hands from issuing false gestures.
“Captain Lee? Are you sure you’re reporting to the right army?”
“Yes, sir. General Lee is a distant cousin whom I’ve never met. I come from a Maryland plantation … a house divided. My two older brothers, Marcus and John, will be joining the Confederates along with George, my younger brother. I didn’t want to serve in a lost cause, sir.”
“So, tell me … where did you get your commission?”
I drew a deep breath. “To be honest, sir. I purchased it.”
I felt my eyes bulge. “My father’s money. He gave me a stake before throwing me out of the family, sir.”
He smacked a hand on the map, turned, and glared at me. “Great tarnations. Another dandy.”
My mouth dropped open, and I jammed it shut again. “I’m no dandy … inexperienced and eager to become experienced, sir.”
He turned his chair sideways, lifted the chalice, and gulped. “Oh, yes … ready to do honor and service to country and cause … and you don’t know what in the hell you just got yourself into.”
I’ve got to get his attention off me. “I hear you’re West Point, sir.”
“Yes, the pearl amongst the swine.” He looked at me. “Care for a drink, Captain?”
“I’m a teetotaler, if it’s all the same to you, sir.”
He grinned. “Good. More for me. You probably don’t swear or play cards. He scrutinized me. “… or associate with the ladies.”
“No swearing, sir, but I do engage in a friendly game of poker now and again. As for the ladies, sir … I have associated with them on many occasions.” Only not in the way you’re thinking.
“Well, you don’t look like a ladies’ man to me.” He tsked three times. “Ever kick another man’s ass?”
“I did my father’s overseer … twice … in three days. It’s why my father kicked me out.”
He held his hand not far off the ground. “He must have been about three feet tall.” I smiled while he took another swig, set his chalice down, and leaned back in his wooden chair. “My God, Lee, whoever said you could soldier? You’re certainly not built for it. You’re small, wedding-dress white … you don’t look like you could lift a sack of potatoes.”
I covered a gulp with a chuckle. “Maybe not, sir. I’ve never tried.”
“Never did any physical labor? It figures.” He sat forward and stretched a hand toward me. “Let me see your revolver.”
I pulled it from its leather holster on my right hip, transferred it to my left hand, and jutted it toward him.
He sat back and threw up his hands. “Not barrel first!”
I turned it around and thrust it toward him again. He’ll regard that as more inexperience than lack of manliness.
“Neophyte!” He yanked the weapon out of my hand, examined it, then eased it onto the map. “A forty-four caliber U.S. Colt Walker. This is one of the heaviest revolvers ever made.” His upper body shook up-and-down as he giggled silently. “I’m surprised you can lift it.” He glanced at it again. “From the Mexican War.” He looked up and grinned. “Daddy’s revolver?”
“Just so, sir. It’s a model 1847.”
He bent down and looked at the barrel. “‘C Company No. 66’. Who did he fight with?”
“The U.S. Second Dragoon Regiment.”
“Good outfit.” He slapped his knees and stood up—and up, and up, and up. My eyes widened, staring at a man at least fourteen inches taller than me. “There is another captain scheduled to take over ‘F’ Company. Another wet-behind-the-ears, strawfoot greenhorn for me to nursemaid. Hopefully, both of you can at least change your own breechcloths.”
Wouldn’t he just love to change mine. “Admittedly, sir, your experience far surpasses mine. My intention is to do the best that I can.”
“Sounds all well and good. We’ll see how well you take to it. And if you do well here, it will be a whole different thing when the enemy starts shooting at you.”
I smiled. “Did you see action, sir?”
He waved his hands. “There’s no need to get into that, nor to become too chummy with novice soldiers.”
“Obviously, sir, you have no joy in your assignment.”
He held up his chalice. “Obviously, you are correct.”
The sergeant entered the tent and snapped to a fancy salute. “Captain Harvey has arrived, sir.”
Major Wilshire sucked in his lips and squinted. “Great tarnations. Dandy number two. Isn’t that just dandy?” He flipped a hand and sat down again. “Send him in.”
Captain Harvey entered, hat ajar and a grin on his face that looked as if he had just come from some serious mischief. He stopped beside me and snapped to attention facing the major.
“Captain Mortimer Harvey reporting for duty, sir.”
He glanced at me, and then down at the patent, cast iron camp stove on which perched a tin coffee cup. A coffee boiler sat on a flat rock next to it. He jerked his head back toward Major Wilshire. “Ding doggity ding, sir, coffee sure would be appreciated about now.”
“You on a hangover, Captain?” the major asked.
He laughed and flailed his arms. “Hell no, Colonel. I never drink before sundown.”
He can’t tell the major’s oak leaf from a colonel’s eagle on the shoulder straps?
Major Wilshire rose shaking his head. “When did you enlist, Harvey?”
“Three days ago.”
“Have you been studying the manuals, laughing boy?”
He grinned. “Oops. Been too busy celebrating. After all, getting a commission is an important step in a man’s life.”
“You buy yours?”
He stared at the major and broke into laughter. “Well, I didn’t get it at an auction.”
“And whatever possessed you to pursue soldiering?”
Captain Harvey laughed again. “It looked as if it would be great fun.”
“Great tarnations!” Major Wilshire plopped down on his small, wooden chair so hard that I expected it to shatter into a thousand pieces—but it didn’t. “Well, I’m at least fortunate that Captain Lee here outranks you by two days.” He stood again. “At any rate, we’re stuck with what we’re stuck with. We’ve been training in camp now for four weeks. I can’t get replacements for either of you before our training is completed.” He stepped forward and stopped beside us. “After the two of you get settled in your tents, find your companies and join them.”
He extended an arm toward the exit. “You will join me for officers’ mess this evening with the other company commanders.”
Captain Harvey held out his orders and Major Wilshire plucked it from his grasp and tossed them on his desk.
We walked through the exit followed by Major Wilshire. “You’re dismissed.” I snapped to attention and saluted. The major returned it.
“You all take this so seriously.” Captain Harvey laughed, turned, and walked off.
“Captain Neophyte,” the major said to him, “do you even know where you’re going?”
Lieutenant Piper stepped forward and saluted. “If you will wait one moment, Captains, I shall escort you to your respective companies.”
“Just a second, Lieutenant.” Major Wilshire looked at me. “Come back inside a minute, Captain Lee.”
We stepped into the tent, and he moved closer to my ear.
No. This won’t do. If he gets his face too close to me, he may sense my womanhood. “Sir, what are you doing?” I pulled away. “My apologies, sir, but I’m pretty much a loner and a little sensitive about getting close to other men.”
The major grinned. “Were you expecting a marriage proposal, Captain? I just wanted to say that I’m going to like you.”
Does he sense my sex? “Why … thank you, sir.”
“You may not want to thank me. Captain Harvey can lick you in combat. In fact, every man in this regiment can lick you.”
I looked down and then up again. “Well, that’s not for me to say.”
“I still like you better, but not because I like you. It’s that I like Captain Harvey far less.”
I paused, felt my nose wrinkle, and then nodded.
“Steer clear of him, Captain Lee. Don’t let any of him rub off on you. He will either wash out quickly, or get his ass blown off in our first engagement.”
I squinted. “Yes, sir. Uh … no, sir. He is a true dandy, and no one rubs off on me. I am my own man, sir.”
Saluting, I spun and left the tent.
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