As ordered, on March 5, 2034, I left for Richmond. I thought about who to take with me, and decided in the end I didn’t want anyone but our Spec Ops chief, Sergeant Danielov. A sergeant would help get me out of trouble, other officers might get me into it. Besides, if I screwed up, Ron wouldn’t tell anyone.
I could have asked the Confederates to send a plane for me – due to the fuel shortage, we didn’t fly ours unless we had to – but I didn’t want to come hat in hand. So I decided to travel as everyone else did.
From Augusta, I took the steam train to Portland. I had to admit I enjoyed bucketing along through the Maine countryside at a stirring 40 miles per hour, the smells of summer mingling with the wood smoke from the engine, the rail joints and the locomotive exhaust playing their leisurely, syncopated song. Old pleasures rediscovered are better than new, because you can muse on your grandparents and great-grandparents enjoying the same things.
At Portland, we booked passage on a freighter sailing for Norfolk, Virginia. There weren’t enough people traveling to support passenger liners, but most freighters had space for half-a-dozen folks. Ours was a Maine vessel, sail with auxiliary diesel, the Silas Lapham out of Castine with a cargo of used cars, newsprint, and live lobsters. I noticed .50 cals mounted on either side of the quarterdeck. Pirates were operating out of Philadelphia.
We left Portland harbor on the evening tide, picking up a strong breeze off the port quarter aft, the remains of a Nor’easter, as we headed south. Dano turned green and spent the night communing with the leeward rail. I enjoyed the sharp sea air and a cigar, then turned in. We’d be in Norfolk on the 29th.
Like so many activities from the past, traveling by ship gave me time to think. The question I needed to think about was, what was I going to do? Our objective was to help the True Confederates. In our Germanic way of war, “help” didn’t mean fiddle and diddle at the margins. Help meant “win,” win decisively, completely, finally, in such a way that the victory could never be reversed. Icy cold and lightning fast, as somebody used to say.
Did that mean keeping the peace or tilting the balance toward war? And what kind of war could our True Confederate allies wage? I’d known a few Marine generals from the old Southern aristocracy. They were fine, upright, honorable men, solid as old Stonewall himself on matters of morals and character. But they seemed to have the notion that it wasn’t quite gentlemanly to make a decision. And the people they chose for their staffs… John Randolph of Roanoke’s simile came to mind: like a rotten mackerel in the moonlight, they shined and they stank.
War, as von Moltke said, is a matter of expedients. You need to know what result you want. That was clear enough in this case. But as to how I’d get there, that would have to depend on what I found, and who. In war, the power of personality is immense. You get a Napoleon, you conquer Europe. You get a Napoleon III, you end up in a chamber pot at Sedan. Sam Yancey even in his younger days had been a cautious, lawyer-like fellow, and few men get bold as they get old. But it isn’t only the people at the top who count. Sometimes it’s a guy at the bottom who takes the action that gains the decision.
Such soliloquies, along with the volume of Horatio Hornblower I always took with me when I went to sea, made the few days pass agreeably. The Silas Lapham carried enough canvas that we bowled along at eight knots or better.
Once Ron got his sea legs, we liberated some lobsters from the tank in the hold and dined in style each night on the quarterdeck. Good sergeant that he was, Dano had a couple bottles of Piesporter Spatlese, the companion God intended for lobster. As we drained the last on the evening of the 12th, I remembered the old Marine rule: don’t whistle while packing for deployment. Detached duty had long been good to captains.
We awoke on the 13th to find ourselves back in the 21st century; a pilot boat was leading us through the minefields into Norfolk. The Confederate ambassador in Augusta had cabled our arrival, and a young CSA officer was on the dock to meet us and whisk us around customs and immigration. He introduced himself as Captain Charles Augustus Ravenal of the Palmetto Horse Guards.
Captain Ravenal splendid in his high-collared gray uniform and mirror-shined cavalry boots with silver spurs. In the simple, forest green hunting jacket that was the uniform of the Northern Confederation, I looked like Grant opposite Lee. Captain Ravenal’s darkey driver bowed us into a Mercedes limo with the CSA crest on the doors and Confederate battle flags on the front fenders, and we were soon speeding up the Interstate toward Richmond. Dixie was indeed rich.
Southerners are good at small talk. Mainiacs aren’t, but we listen carefully. As the captain went on, I got the sense he was uncomfortable about something. So in Maine fashion, I went right at him. “Something’s bothering you, Captain. If it’s that we smell like lobsters, well, most folks up north smell like fish, ‘cause it’s all we’ve got to eat. If it’s something else, why don’t you tell us about it?”
“I am truly sorry, sir, if I have in any way offended,” Captain Ravenal replied. “We are all deeply grateful for your time and trouble in coming here. But to be entirely honest, sir, there is a small matter that gives us some difficulty in our protocol.”
Welcome to the South, I thought. Up our way, protocol meant seeing that the other guy was warm and had something to eat. “I am certain we can resolve the matter easily, Captain, if you’ll tell us what it is,” I replied.
“Sir, we are all aware that you are Chief of the General Staff of the Northern Confederation,” Captain Ravenal answered. “You will be accorded every honor due to your position. Our difficulty, sir, is that formally your rank is that of captain. That required that you be met by someone of similar rank, which is why I am your escort. Again, I assure you no offense was intended.”
“None taken, Captain,” I replied. “I rather like the rank.”
“Thank you, sir. But you will be meeting with our generals and our President, Mr. Yancey. Normally, a captain would not be included in such circles, and there is some concern about seating arrangements, precedence, and the like. We do not wish to offend, as I have said.”
“No problem, Captain. Sergeant Danielov and I are happy to stand in the back.”
“Er, sergeant, sir? Would you expect the sergeant to accompany you, sir? I assumed he was your servant.”
“Sergeant Danielov is head of Special Operations for the Northern Confederation. In effect, he’s a CINC. Besides, he might have something useful to say.”
“Yes, sir. I’m afraid we have made arrangements for the sergeant to stay in our NCO quarters.”
“Is the NCO mess good?” Dano asked.
“The specialty is Tennessee barbecue,” Ravenal answered.
“Then I’m not moving. Captain Rumford can go to the meetings. I’ll just potter around on my own.”
“I’m certain that will be agreeable with us,” Ravenal said, making a mistake of serious proportions.
“Captain Rumford,” Ravenal continued, “if I may put forward an entirely unofficial proposal, for which I take full responsibility, would you possibly be willing to take on a higher rank while you are our guest here in the Confederacy? It would make our situation a great deal easier, in term of providing the hospitality which is our duty as officers and gentlemen. Please understand that I intend no disrespect to the rank you hold up North. It’s just that, well, things are different down here.”
I remembered how my Senate staff friend back in Washington in the old days had always been given three-star rank when he spent time with the American military. He found it funny as hell, but without that, they didn’t know how to deal with him.
“If that would make your situation easier, Captain Ravenal, I have no objection,” I said. “After all, we are allies, and I hope we will be friends. Anything I can do to assist, I am ready to do. What rank did you have in mind?”
“Whatever you think suitable, sir, so long as it is of a general officer grade.”
This was too delicious an opportunity to pass up. I could play a joke on the South and on Bill Kraft at the same time. “How about Field Marshal?” I suggested.
The captain’s eyes popped. But he recovered quickly, and said, “I am certain that would be agreeable with our people, sir. In fact, there has been some discussion about introducing such a rank in our Army, and I know some of our officers would find such a precedent useful. Thank you, sir.”
As I settled back into the leather upholstery of the Benz for the remainder of our drive, I suspected this might be a long war.
Now that I was formally an Exalted High Wingwang, Richmond was rich with hospitality. I was met by a 500-man honor guard, all in first Civil War uniforms, though much too well fed to be real Confederate soldiers. For quarters I was given my own mansion, right off Monument Avenue. The butler was even white. For a solid week I was toured about in the daytime and feted and admired at balls and cotillions in the evenings. Not a lick of work was done. It was just like Richmond in 1863.
When I gently reminded Captain Ravenal, who I had asked to remain as my escort despite my promotion, that I had come south to do more than drink Bourbon and admire the fine figures of Southern ladies, he seemed surprised. “The town would be deeply disappointed if it did not get to meet such a distinguished visitor,” he explained. “President Yancey would be deluged with complaints from the fair sex. The brilliance of your campaigns up north has our newspapers calling you ‘the new Moltke,’ you know.”
“That’s butter without much bread,” I replied. “I only know how to be silent in two languages. But I also know the South wants its guests to be happy. Would you do me the favor to convey the message that this guest would be happier if he could do some work?”
Putting it that way seemed to do the trick. Three days later, on March 23rd, I was invited to a briefing on the situation in the South by the Commanding General of the Confederate States Army, General Loren Laclede. Following the brief and a formal luncheon, I would be received by President Yancey.
The CSA headquarters wasn’t a building. It was three whole city blocks in downtown Richmond, mostly highrises, filled to overflowing with staff officers. To take me there, instead of the usual Mercedes, I was met at my door on the 25th by an elegant barouche with a cavalry escort. Another honor guard was waiting on arrival (I found out later there was a brigade-worth of ceremonial troops in and around Richmond). General Laclede received me in a gorgeous uniform, complete with that nice Latin American touch, a sash, amongst a vast entourage of other generals and colonels. Great material for a couple of mine clearing battalions, I thought.
After coffee in his mahogany-paneled office, furnished with Second Empire antiques and decorated largely with pictures of himself, General Laclede escorted me to the briefing room. It was nothing less than a thousand-seat auditorium, and every seat was taken. On the stage, three huge screens were set up for the Power Point slides.
Shit, it’s the Pentagon all over again, I said to myself. Just as the Confederacy had gotten the old American politicians, it had also built its military on the old American senior officer caste. I knew what was coming: a highly choreographed presentation of absolutely nothing.
I was right. For three hours we sat in wonderfully comfortable chairs as one staff officer after the other delivered a scripted, meaningless patter. The maps did indicate which areas were held by the New South and which by the Old, but the newspapers had published the same maps long ago. Beyond that, we heard about the weather in each area, the roads, the telecommunications; the general locations of units; endless equipment rosters and readiness reports (most of which I knew were bullshit); and I can’t remember what else.
The reason I can’t remember is that I offered the most appropriate comment on the whole affair. I went to sleep.
It was rude, no doubt. But Southern gentlemen dealt with it with Southern manners. They pretended it hadn’t happened. When the lights finally came up again, Capt. Ravenal discreetly elbowed me awake. General Laclede then took to the stage himself, summed up by thanking his regiment of briefers for a splendid performance, and asked if I had any questions.
“Just one, General,” I replied. “What are you going to do?”
Das Wesentliche ist die Tat. I thought of quoting von Seekt, but realized that if any of these buffoons spoke a second language, it was Spanish, not German.
“A most important question, Field Marshal Rumford,” Laclede replied. “It is one which we have under study. Fourteen Colonels in my G-3 section have been working on it for most of the summer. Those are all full colonels, I might add, not lieutenant colonels. We have more than fifty contractors and consultants supporting them. Confidentially – this is the first my own staff has heard of this, and I apologize for surprising them – President Yancey is thinking about appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission of retired senior officers to investigate the matter and give us the benefit of their recommendations. I can assure you, we are considering every possible aspect of the situation in the most thorough manner.”
“When do you expect to make a decision?” I asked.
“Well, sir, I am not certain I am prepared to put a time line on it. I would certainly need to consult further with my staff before attempting to do so,” Laclede replied. “After all, I’m just the coach,” he added, smiling benignly on his vast staff horde. They smiled back, with the grin of the apparatchik who know that nothing is likely to disturb his comfortable routine anytime soon.
I realized further questions were pointless. It was the worst of the French way of war combined with the worst of the British: endless staff action and a commander who played umpire. I’d seen it all before, in the Marine Corps and, even more, whenever we did a CPX with the United States Army. Like the French Bourbons, the Confederates had forgotten nothing and they had learned nothing.
We adjourned to a splendid lunch, including a concert by the CSA band and chorus. If these guys ever did win a war, they’d put on one fine victory parade. But in this case, someone else would have to win the war for them. I now understood why New Orleans had gone as it did. Nobody could decide anything.
My session that afternoon with Confederate President Yancey confirmed my depression. He was a splendid old gentleman, earnest, decent, upright. Over and over, he impressed upon me his urgency to do the right thing. Unfortunately, in war the right thing is never clear, so he too would do nothing.
On the way out of the Confederate White House, I told Captain Ravenal to ask Sergeant Danielov to come see me that evening. Dano might have found out something useful. I certainly hadn’t.
“You want to see your sergeant, sir?” Ravenal replied, clearly concerned that someone of Field Marshal rank would stoop so low. “Is it a matter I could take care of for you?”
“Well, to be honest, Captain, I’m not quite satisfied with the way my uniform is being ironed,” I replied. “It takes a Northern man to know how to do it just right.”
“I understand, sir,” Ravenal responded, reassured and comfortable again. “I’ll have your sergeant sent over right away.”
I had requested from General Laclede the papers his staff was developing on possible courses of action, which arrived during the first solitary dinner I’d enjoyed since I came South. True to form, the Confederates had made sure my house had a first-rate cook, an old black mammy who could have stood in for Aunt Jemima and whose biscuits and cornbread would have made Escoffier swoon. After stuffing down a third piece of her ambrosial peach pie, I waddled upstairs, leaving her beaming. I’d put on a pound for each day I’d been in Dixie, and enjoyed every bite of it. I knew it would come off again as soon as I got back North, back to codfish cakes and boiled potatoes.
I settled in my study, lit my cigar and took up the papers. The old U.S. Army stared out at me from every page. It was endless, badly-written, jargonized nothing. With the best of intentions, hoping to find a diamond among the dung, I plowed on. But drivel on top of the dinner was too much for me. I last heard the great old grandfather clock, once the property of General Longstreet, chime eight. My brain swam lazily, back to The Basic School, to happy days playing in the mud and nights of beer and bullshit . . .
Someone was trying to get me up. Crap, it’s o’dark thirty and I want to sleep. Tell the SPC to go play with himself. I’m too full for a company run. I’ll puke up all that wonderful chow, and it never tastes as good the second time around.
I was awake. Someone was rapping at my second floor window. The clock said 9:15. If it was Poe’s raven, I’d eaten my last piece of peach pie. It wasn’t. It was Danielov, and he had somebody with him.
I threw up the sash and screen, and they scrambled in. “Glad to see you got my message, Dano” I said. “But this place does have a front door. Or were you just testing our security?”
“It’s Southern security,” Ron replied. “Sentries in perfect uniforms walking a regular beat. Let’s just say we didn’t have a problem getting in. I came this way because I wanted you to meet someone. This is Captain Walt Armbruster, 3rd Texas Rangers.”
“Happy to meet you, Captain,” I replied, “and happier still to dispense with the usual Southern formalities.”
“I’m more than happy to meet you, sir,” he replied. “We’ve been down on our knees praying you’d come.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked.
“The real soldiers, sir,” he replied.
“Are there any in the Confederacy?”
“Yes, sir, there are,” he answered, meeting my eyes. “Despite what you’ve seen here in Richmond.”
“It was to discuss what I’ve seen here in Richmond that I asked Sergeant Danielov to meet me tonight,” I said. “I find myself in a somewhat awkward position, since what I have to say may appear poor return for lavish hospitality. Captain, would you excuse us if we go in the other room to talk privately?”
Dano answered before the captain could. “No need, sir. I know what you’ve found here, and I know it through Captain Armbruster. You’ve found the worst of the old U.S. military: bloated staffs, meaningless briefings, commanders who can’t make decisions, process without content.”
“All covered in syrup,” Captain Armbruster added. “That’s the Southern touch.”
“That about sums it up,” I replied. “Make no mistake, Captain, the Northern Confederation is with the True Confederate party all the way when it comes to the important things, to morals and culture and religion. But I was sent down here to help win a war. At the moment, I have some difficulty seeing how I’m going to accomplish that, since your leaders seem unable to make up their minds about anything important, like what to do.”
“Sir, our leaders don’t have any minds to make up,” the captain replied.
Having been a captain in the American military, I knew what I was dealing with in Captain Armbruster. He was a warrior himself, but he was more than that. He was a warrior who realized that most of his superiors were not warriors. I didn’t figure that out until right at the end of my brief and lusterless Marine Corps career. This guy was ahead of where I had been.
“Captain, I think I understand where you’re coming from. Earlier, you used the pronoun ‘we.’ Are there any more like you?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied. “There’s a lot of us among the junior officers. We never belonged to the old U.S. Army, so we never learned how to be feather merchants. We joined up with the Confederate States Army for the same reason our ancestors did: to fight. We’re eager to get at these “New South” traitors to our Cause. But what can we do? Some of us have even thought about a coup, sir, but we don’t want to turn the Confederacy into some Latin American banana republic. Frankly, we’re stumped.”
“Are you in touch with each other?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve got our own network. We can get the word out, if you’ve got a word for us.”
“Do you have a base?”
“Yes, sir, a couple, wherever we have a commanding officer who thinks like we do. My unit is on one of our bases. We’re in Savannah, right where the old 3rd Ranger Battalion of the U.S. Army used to be stationed. We’re all Texas boys, and our colonel, Colonel McMoster, is on the right side.”
“How do you know that?” I asked sharply. Trust demanded deeds, not just words.
“During the burning of New Orleans, Colonel McMoster came to Richmond with a plan for our battalion to jump on the city and take it in a coup de main. He couldn’t get an answer from Richmond, so he decided we’d do it anyway. We were commandeering civilian aircraft at the Savannah airport when the word came over CNN that we were too late. The city was already gone.”
“Why wasn’t he relieved for disobedience?”
“His wife is distantly related to President Yancey’s wife. This is the South, sir,” the captain replied.
Nepotism has its random virtues, I thought. “All right, Captain, I trust you and I’ll have to trust your colonel as well. I’m going to head down to Atlanta myself and see what’s going on there. Once I’ve done that, I’ll come see you and your CO over in Savannah. You get there first and tell Colonel McMoster that I don’t plan to go home until I’ve done something. What, I don’t know yet, but whatever it is it’s not going to happen here in Richmond.”
“Nothing ever happens here in Richmond,” Captain Armbruster replied. “I’ll head back tonight. Sir, I speak for our colonel when I say I hope you will regard the 3rd Texas Rangers as under your command.”
“Thank you, Captain,” I replied. “What’s the old Texas Ranger rule, ‘One riot, one Ranger?’ Maybe here we can say, ‘One civil war, one Ranger battalion.’” In any case, you can count on some action.”
I turned to Danielov. “Dano, go with him. We’re going to need some aircraft. See if you can find a former Marine or two who has some.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Ron replied.
The next morning, when Captain Ravenal came to pick me up for another visit to another useless headquarters, I told him I had a special favor to request.
“President Yancey has personally directed that we assist you in every way, sir,” he replied. “If it can be done, we will do it.”
“I want a Pullman berth on tonight’s train for Atlanta,” I said.
The captain stiffened. “Sir, I cannot advise that. It would be extremely dangerous.”
“That is my request, Captain. Will you meet it, or do I have to give you the slip, find the rail yards and hop a freight?”
Captain Ravenal’s face was a study as he wrestled with the greatest of military challenges, the need to make a fast decision in the face of unexpected events. Finally, he said, “Sir, President Yancey’s order was quite clear. Your ticket will be waiting at the station. I will of course have to inform my superiors of what I have done – tomorrow.”
Maybe Captain Ravenal had the makings of a real military officer after all.
That night, at 8 PM, at Richmond’s Broad Street station I boarded the Southern Railway’s crack express for Atlanta, Birmingham, and Mobile, the John Wilkes Booth.