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«Battle Flag», Bernard Cornwell

Battle Flag

is for my father, with love

PART ONE

*  *  *

CAPTAIN NATHANIEL STARBUCK first saw his new commanding general when the Faulconer Legion forded the Rapidan. Thomas Jackson was on the river's northern bank, where he appeared to be in a trance, for he was motionless in his saddle with his left hand held high in the air while his eyes, blue and resentful, stared into the river's vacant and murky depths. His glum stillness was so uncanny that the marching column edged to the far margin of the ford rather than pass near a man whose stance so presaged death. The General's physical appearance was equally disturbing. Jackson had a ragged beard, a plain coat, and a dirty cap, while his horse looked as if it should have been taken to a slaughterhouse long before. It was hard to credit that this was the South's most controversial general, the man who gave the North sleepless nights and nervous days, but Lieutenant Franklin Coffman, sixteen years old and newly arrived in the Faulconer Legion, asserted that the odd-looking figure was indeed the famous Stonewall Jackson. Coffman had once been taught by Professor Thomas Jackson. "Mind you," Lieutenant Coffman confided in Starbuck, "I don't believe generals make any real difference to battles."

"Such wisdom in one so young," said Starbuck, who was twenty-two years old.

"It's the men who win battles, not generals," Coffman said, ignoring his Captain's sarcasm. Lieutenant

Coffman had received one year's schooling at the Virginia Military Institute, where Thomas Jackson had ineffectively lectured him in artillery drill and Natural Philosophy. Now Coffman looked at the rigid figure sitting motionless in the shabby saddle. "I can't imagine old Square Box as a general," Coffman said scornfully. "He couldn't keep a schoolroom in order, let alone an army."

"Square Box?" Starbuck asked. General Jackson had many nicknames. The newspapers called him Stonewall, his soldiers called him Old Jack or even Old Mad Jack, while many of Old Jack's former students liked to refer to him as Tom Fool Jack, but Square Box was a name new to Starbuck.

"He's got the biggest feet in the world," Coffman explained. "Really huge! And the only shoes that ever fitted him were like boxes."

"What a fount of useful information you are, Lieutenant," Starbuck said casually. The Legion was still too far from the river for Starbuck to see the General's feet, but he made a mental note to look at these prodigies when he did finally reach the Rapidan. The Legion was presently not moving at all, its progress halted by the reluctance of the men ahead to march straight through the ford without first removing their tattered boots. Mad Jack Stonewall Square Box Jackson was reputed to detest such delays, but he seemed oblivious to this holdup. Instead he just sat, hand in the air and eyes on the river, while right in front of him the column bunched and halted. The men behind the obstruction were grateful for the enforced halt, for the day was blistering hot, the air motionless, and the heat as damp as steam. "You were remarking, Coffman, on the ineffectiveness of generals?" Starbuck prompted his new junior officer.

"If you think about it, sir," Coffman said with a youthful passion, "we haven't got any real generals, not like the Yankees, but we still win battles. I reckon that's because the Southerner is unbeatable."

"What about Robert Lee?" Starbuck asked. "Isn't he a real general?"

"Lee's old! He's antediluvian!" Coffman said, shocked that Starbuck should even have suggested the name of the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. "He must be fifty-five, at least!"

"Jackson's not old," Starbuck pointed out. "He isn't even forty yet."

"But he's mad, sir. Honest! We used to call him Tom Fool."

"He must be mad then," Starbuck teased Coffman. "So why do we win battles despite having mad generals, ancient generals, or no generals at all?"

"Because fighting is in the Southern blood, sir. It really is." Coffman was an eager young man who was determined to be a hero. His father had died of consumption, leaving his mother with four young sons and two small daughters. His father's death had forced Coffman to leave the Virginia Military Institute after his first year, but that one year's military schooling had equipped him with a wealth of martial theories. "Northerners," he now explained to Starbuck, "have diluted blood. There are too many immigrants in the North, sir. But the South has pure blood, sir. Real American blood."

"You mean the Yankees are an inferior race?"

"It's an acknowledged fact, sir. They've lost the thoroughbred strain, sir."

"You do know I'm a Yankee, Coffman, don't you?" Starbuck asked.

Coffman immediately looked confused, though before he could frame any response he was interrupted by. Colonel Thaddeus Bird, the Faulconer Legion's commanding officer, who came striding long-legged from the rear of the stalled column. "Is that really Jackson?" Bird asked, gazing across the river.

"Lieutenant Coffman informs me that the General's real name is Old Mad Tom Fool Square Box Jackson, and that is indeed the man himself," Starbuck answered.

"Ah, Coffman," Bird said, peering down at the small Lieutenant as though Coffman was some curious specimen of scientific interest, "I remember when you were nothing but a chirruping infant imbibing the lesser jewels of my glittering wisdom." Bird, before he became a soldier, had been the schoolmaster in Faulconer Court House, where Coffman's family lived.


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