General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac is positioned across the trenches from the remnants of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. One major Union campaign will put the Confederate capital into Yankee hands.When a Confederate assassin sets his sights on General Grant, it’s up to a young staff officer to stop him at a time when one bullet could change the outcome of the war.
“All we ask is to be left alone.”
— Jefferson Davis,
in his inaugural address
November 8, 1864
Lucas Cole opened his eyes.
Nothing moved. The shapeless gray forms of sleeping soldiers covered the floor of the muddy trench. Some men tossed in their dirty blankets, murmuring to themselves. Others snored.
Only Cole was awake. Anyone watching would have seen only the quick, feral movement of his eyes. Once he was certain that everything was as it should be, Cole sat up. He put aside the loaded Colt Navy revolver that he had gripped in his right hand through the night in case there was any trouble as he slept among these strange men. As a sharpshooter, he roamed freely through the trenches. His Sharps rifle had also shared the blanket with him, lest anyone get notions about taking it.
Morning in the trenches was not greeted eagerly. If anything, it was better to be asleep. At least then a man wouldn’t notice he was wrapped in a thin blanket, lying on some brush to keep himself out of the mud. Asleep, he could dream of mornings years ago when he would wake in a bed, with hard boards under his feet and his young wife busy around the warm stove, making a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, with the smell of coffee lingering.
Cole did not dwell on such thoughts as he woke with the first light showing on the horizon. He always rose before the sun. He had never had much use for gravy and biscuits, or even for coffee. He hated to waste that precious time when the whispery gray predawn gave enough light to move by. It was time he could use for hunting.
Cole reached for his canteen and took a drink. The water tasted muddy and gritty. His head throbbed dully from the whiskey he’d had to drink last night from a bottle shared around the fire.
He quickly made up his blanket roll and stuffed it in a depression in the trench. He slung the canteen and the Sharps over his shoulders, leaving his hands free for the difficult task of picking his way through the trenches in the poor light.
None of the sleeping men heard him go.
Cole quietly threaded his way through the earthworks. The trench where he had spent the night was one of the outermost defenses. Line after line of intertwined trenches ran back toward the city, with the trenches becoming deeper and more elaborate closer in. Some had boarded sides and bombproofs to protect against Yankee shelling. Out this far, the trenches weren’t as deep, and only woven mats of saplings contained the sides.
Some trenches did not run parallel to the Yankee lines but toward them instead, gouged out of the red earth much like the grooves a dying man’s hands might make as he clawed mud. It was into these shallow trenches that Cole now slipped. A sentry saw him, and Cole made sure the man got a look at the sniper’s rifle slung across his back.
Deserters often tried to sneak out into the Yankee lines and give themselves up in hopes of a decent meal. They’d had enough of hunger and fighting. A man took a chance going over to the enemy, because the Yankees had lost patience with the starving Rebels. A dead Reb was less trouble to look after than a live one, after all. Cole wouldn’t trust a Yankee worth a damn. He hated them with a passion that four years of war had not diminished. To Lucas Cole, anyone who wore a blue uniform would always be the enemy.
Cole slipped through the trench, moving ever closer, confident that he couldn’t be seen in the semi-darkness. Still, he was cautious, for the Yankees had their pickets and sharpshooters, too. He reached the limit of the trench—where a tired soldier had simply stopped digging at the end of a day—and settled himself as low as he could into the dirt. He formed a small mound of earth to pillow the iron barrel of the Sharps and stretched himself out behind it to wait for the morning light to come up so he could shoot.
The Yankees in the trenches closest to Cole would be too wary to show themselves. Maybe a foolish boy would pop his head above the trench, but that was too much to hope for. He knew the Yankees farther back wouldn’t be so careful.
As the light grew in the east, Cole spotted what he was looking for through the telescopic sight mounted on his rifle. A Yankee officer was walking along the trenches as if he thought himself perfectly safe. Ordinarily, the officer would only have to worry about ducking for cover if he heard Confederate artillery. He was nearly one thousand yards from where Lucas Cole had hidden himself.
It was an ungodly long way to shoot a rifle.
A Sharps rifle had an accurate range of four hundred and fifty yards. Beyond that it was hard to see the target, let alone hit it, and a man in plain iron sights was only a dot. But even at four hundred and fifty yards, a good marksman could put ten shots within an area four feet square.
Cole could cover his grouping at that distance with his hand.
But Cole wasn’t just good. He was gifted with a rifle. He had been shooting since he was old enough to hold a musket on his own. He was one of those rare backwoods men who had only to look at a target and was able to hit it—even at a thousand yards. But long-range shooting was an uncertain proposition at best, even for the likes of Cole. A sudden tremor of the hand, an eddy of wind, even an imperfection in the bullet was enough to send the shot wildly astray.
Cole felt himself slipping into his shooter’s trance. He ignored the November chill that crept into him from the ground and the frosty morning air. His body settled deeper into the trench, letting the Virginia soil hug him and steady his arms. The rifle barrel was immobile atop its pile of dirt. A shot like this required the steadiness of the earth.
All he could see was the Yankee officer walking back and forth. It was impossible at this distance to tell his rank, but Cole guessed from the way the man carried himself that he was a major, or at the very least a captain. Once a man got to be a captain he developed a certain swagger that came with rank.
I’ll take you down a notch, Yank.
Cole liked to send his shots home as unseen as a lightning bolt from the hand of God. He enjoyed the idea of his rifle being a divine instrument.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.
He had heard some preacher say that before the war, and he kept the sound of the words in his head, liked the way they went with the solid thunk of lead hitting flesh, a noise like a ripe watermelon being split with a knife. Goddamn these Yankees.
Hatred boiled up in him and he fought to push it back, because he must be calm to shoot. Yankees had killed his family two years ago. Cole had been off in the army. Bluebellies came to the Cole homestead to steal livestock and shot his father. His sister was in bed, sick with a fever, and the Yankees burned the house down on top of her. Cole’s mother was already gone.
Don’t think on it, he warned himself. Just shoot this Yankee. He forced his mind to go blank. Cole’s breathing slowed and nearly stopped. In the last few moments before he fired, he wouldn’t breathe at all. His heartbeat began to slow like the winding down of a watch, until there was scarcely a flutter in his chest.
The officer stopped and appeared to be staring right at Cole, although he knew it was impossible for the man to see him at that distance. It was a trick of the telescopic sight. In a space between his own gentle heartbeats, Cole’s finger took up the last fraction of tension in the trigger.
The rifle fired.
It took a full second for the bullet to cross a thousand yards. In that time the Yankee could move or some stray gust of wind could alter the bullet’s course. As Cole watched through the scope, he saw the Yankee officer flop over. The body twitched once or twice, then lay still.
One thousand yards. A clean kill.
He felt no emotion after shooting, only a sort of hollowness, much like he felt after being with a woman. He welcomed this emptiness, savored it.
Then Cole quickly reloaded, working the lever action of the Sharps. The Yankees in the works immediately in front of him would just be waking up and would wonder who was firing. Some curious, groggy soldier was bound to put his head above the works and take a look toward the Rebels.
Sure enough, a blue cap appeared. The telescope made it seem as if the Yankee was just a few feet away. The hair was tousled under the kepi, the face still creased from some rude pillow. Cole drove a bullet between the boy’s eyes.
Then he was scuttling backwards like a crab out of the trench. It wouldn’t be long before the Yankee sharpshooters would take up their own deadly work once again, and Cole didn’t want to be their target.
He followed the trench back to the main works, where he found the same sentry on duty.
“I seen what you done,” the man said, plainly awed. “That was some shootin’.”
“It does work up a man’s appetite for breakfast.”
Some of the smile faded off the sentry’s face. “That’s two Yankees that won’t be goin’ home. And here the war’s almost over. It’s election day up North, you know, an’ they say ol’ Abe Lincoln ain’t goin’ to win.”
“Keep your head down, boy,” Cole told the sentry. “Some Yankee might blow it off and end the war right soon for you.”
Heeding the warning, the sentry hunkered down behind his wall of earth and logs, watching as the lean figure of the sharpshooter disappeared into the labyrinth of muddy trenches.
• • •
“You’ve heard the news, General Hill?” asked General George Pickett by way of greeting the gaunt figure who entered the tent.
“It’s Lincoln, then?” he asked.
“I’m afraid so. Those Yankees just don’t know when they’ve had enough.”
“It is unfortunate.”
“C’est la vie,” Picket said. His laugh was almost girlish. “Vive la guerre.”
A.P. Hill glanced sharply at this fellow officer who, for all his style, often seemed not much better than a fool. His hair was pomaded and he emitted a slight odor of lilacs from some cologne he wore. And he still insisted on using the occasional French phrase.
Hill thought the war had reached a point where there was no longer any tolerance for colognes or silly platitudes spoken in French. With Lincoln’s victory, the Confederacy was in desperate straits. The Northern people had shown that they were resolved to fight to the end now, and Hill feared that the end was approaching more quickly than any of them could imagine. The last few months had read like the South’s obituary: the Shenandoah Valley lost to Sheridan, Atlanta fallen to Sherman. In Petersburg, the men were spread so far apart in the sixty-three miles of trenches that he doubted they could withstand a major assault. Hood’s army was just hanging on at Nashville.
“Is Pete coming?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Pickett said. For once, he didn’t joke.
Hill was disappointed that General Longstreet wanted no part of their plan. He had told them before he found it dishonorable and the war should be won on the battlefield, not by the means that some of the officers were considering.
“Shall we begin, gentlemen?” someone said.
The crowded tent grew quiet. A single oil lamp provided light, and the faces it lit looked haggard and worn. All of them wore beards because it was impossible to keep a clean-shaven face under the conditions in which they lived. Their uniforms were shabby and dirty, but at least they still resembled uniforms. After all, these were the generals and high-ranking officers. The soldiers wore rags and had no shoes.
Hill looked from face to face before he unfolded his plan. Good men, all of them, he thought. He longed for some of the faces that were missing and would never be present again. Such was the price of war.
“You know, gentlemen, that these are desperate times. I would ask that any of you who aren’t prepared for equally desperate measures would kindly leave.”
No one stirred. It was as he had hoped.
“So much of the recent success of the North can be laid at the feet of its political and military leaders,” he said. “Strong leadership has also led our own cause to past victories.”
“It’s late, General. Save your speeches. None of us needs convincing. We know what needs to be done.”
“The leaders,” Hill said, getting to the point. “We must eliminate the North’s leaders.”
“There will only be others to take their place.”
Pickett laughed. “Who? Hooker, who lay drunk at Chancellorsville? Burnside, who killed all his men storming that stone wall at Fredericksburg? Up until Grant came along, the North has had no military leaders to speak of.”
“But now there is Meade, Sheridan, Sherman—”
“Grant, gentlemen,” Hill said. “We must show the North its vulnerability.”
“And what would stop them from taking action against General Lee?”
“Grant will die by an assassin,” Hill said. “A man acting alone. No one must know where the plan originated.”
“And what of Lincoln? Should he not be eliminated as well?”
Hill considered the question. It was a problem he had turned over in his mind for some time.
“Lincoln is a political leader.”
“He is also commander-in-chief of the Union’s armies.”
“Lincoln is a civilian.” Hill had rehearsed his argument. “Grant is a military man. He is the true leader of the armies. The difference between plotting to eliminate Grant or Lincoln is the difference between war and murder.”
He knew it was a weak argument, but it served to veil a greater fact, which was that Abraham Lincoln had shown himself to be a reasonable man. If the South lost, it would depend upon him to be merciful.
“How should it be done?” someone asked.
“He should be poisoned,” Pickett said, affecting an English accent. “Like a character in Shakespeare.”
Soft laughter filled the tent. Leave it to Pickett to be the dramatist, Hill thought.
“We have some fine sharpshooters in this army,” Hill said. This, too, he had considered.
“I have a man in my regiment who can make a shot from a thousand yards,” a colonel remarked.
There was a low whistle of respect.
“A bullet would be the best way,” Hill agreed, glad the idea was taking hold. “Grant is surrounded at all times by his staff, and I doubt we could get close enough for some other method, like poison. Besides, a sharpshooter would show them that their leaders are never safe. Not Grant, and not whoever the Yankees find to take his place. We can reach them at any time. Now, if we agree to using one of our sharpshooters, the first question might be, ‘where?’ ”
“Through the heart, of course,” Pickett said. More laughter. Even Hill joined in.
“Our agents have had no trouble infiltrating City Point,” someone said. “He would be an easy enough target.”
“It could be done at City Point,” Pickett said. “Grant goes out to inspect his little kindgom there—and bang!”
“I propose Washington,” Hill said.
Several heads turned his way in surprise.
“City Point would be so much easier,” Pickett said, being practical for a change.
“But think of it. The general-in-chief of the Yankee army being shot down in the streets of the capital. It would not be a hero’s death on the battlefield. And it would show how vulnerable they are.”
“And that Lincoln could be next.”
Hill nodded. “They might rethink their position.”
“Washington would be more difficult.”
“He goes there from time to time.”
“If the Washington attempt fails, there is always City Point.”
Hill found it amazing that they had already decided. He had feared he would have to argue his case, let them think on it. Now it was only a matter of putting the plan in motion.
“Who will do it?” Pickett asked.
“I know a man,” Hill said. He had already made inquiries among his various colonels. One name had come up several times, and Hill was intrigued that a mere private could have such a reputation as a killer.
“It’s better, perhaps, that only I know,” Hill said. “If something should go wrong . . .”
“If he’s captured—”
“This man would keep his secrets, from what I hear,” Hill reassured them.
“And the general?”
“Lee? He must know nothing, of course. He would never allow it.”
“He would consider this treason,” a general remarked.
“Perhaps,” Hill said. “But there is not much hope otherwise.”
There were no arguments. These men knew better than any that the Confederacy was waning. There was still hope, but it dwindled with each passing day as the Northern army grew stronger and the Southern army melted away through desertion, hunger and disease.
“Good night, gentlemen,” Hill said, standing. “Morning comes early.”
“You’ll make the necessary arrangements, then?” Pickett asked, as if Hill were doing him the favor of having a broken carriage mended.
“I will see that it is done,” he said.
Thank you for reading the first chapter. First published in 1999 by Jove Books, Sharpshooter is available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble as a paperback or ebook, or directly from the publisher, Bella Rosa Books.