The assault came in the dusky-pink dawn on a Sunday. The lone soldier, who slept forty yards from the rest of the bedraggled Confederate company, bolted from his bedroll and was on his chestnut-colored horse in a matter of seconds—urging the bay toward a hill to the east.
Looking over his shoulder, he could see his boys in gray awaken and stagger into a defensive position against the surprise attack from the Yankees. His brothers in arms referred to him as the sharpshooter, the crack shot, the skirmisher. But the soldier, bending low over the neck of his horse, thought of himself by one name only: sniper. He’d heard the term from a British colonel who had told tales of one man’s supreme marksmanship. He’d tried the name on for size then—wore it in his mind and came to love it. It defined him. It was what he did.
The first blare of a Confederate bugle filled the air, and the sniper had the fleeting thought that the bugler should be picking up a rifle instead of his horn when he saw the enemy—the dreaded tide of blue—spilling out of a haze that hung over this piece of Tennessee land nestled between two hills and a meandering river.
The sniper knew from the enormous sound of the war that his boys were vastly outnumbered and the battle would be over almost before it began. He heard the otherworldly rebel yell split the dawn. The cry had always reminded him of an angry, wounded animal baying its intent to fight to the death. If the sound of his own men could send chills up his spine, he could only imagine what it did to the nerves of the Yankees.
He kept riding up the rise and away from the crash of musketry and the storm of leaden hail. His trained ear picked out the distinc- tive sound of the howitzer pummeling the troops as he reached the summit of the hill. He jumped from the saddle with his rifle and dropped to his knees behind a heavy patch of wild, knotted vines, practically becoming part of the landscape in his dark-brown shirt and green trousers.
From his vantage point, the scene below him was shrouded in clouds of gray smoke that rose from the ground. He nestled the long barrel of his rifle on top of the thick vines and looked into the high-powered scope made especially for the nine-pound Whitworth. At the sound of another thundering boom from the howitzer, he swiveled the rifle around until he located the artillery soldier who was manning the cannon six hundred yards in the distance. The sniper caught the buttons of the blue Union jacket in the crosshairs of his scope and fired. The force of the shot blew the Yankee off his feet and knocked him into the soldier behind him. One hundred twelve. As the sniper dropped a new bullet into the muzzle of his rifle, another Federal stepped into the space to fire the howitzer. The sniper squeezed the trigger and watched through the scope as the Yankee dropped. One hundred thirteen.
The sniper turned once again to the panorama of activity below him, where sulfur smoke moved around the soldiers like a living force to be reckoned with. After reloading his weapon, he used the scope to pan across the swarm of blue and gray colliding amid thrusting bayonets. A Union officer with a crust of gold braid on his shoulders charged through the thick of the battle, a rebel cap arrogantly dangling from the tip of his raised bayonet. The sniper adjusted the position of his rifle, momentarily taking the sight off the officer by raising the barrel a hair’s breadth. He cocked back the hammer, braced for the recoil, and squeezed the trigger just as the officer moved back into his view. The bullet hit the man dead center in his forehead. He didn’t even have time to blink before he died. One hundred fourteen.
The sniper figured he had one shot left before he’d foul the bar- rel of his rifle. With alacrity that was second nature, he reloaded. Through his sight, the sniper saw a Union cavalry officer, a captain, he thought, galloping wildly through the fray. The officer reined in his horse and jumped from the saddle. Seemingly oblivious to the barrage of lead flying around him, the man bent toward a wounded infantryman on the ground just as a rebel soldier wielding a bayonet came at him. The soldier managed to ram the tip of the bayonet into the captain’s shoulder, but the Yank swiftly proved himself the better combatant by turning and running his sword into the rebel’s chest. As the captain shoved his sword back into its scabbard, the sniper fixed his sight on the ribbons that decorated the man’s chest. One hundred fifteen …
He felt the pressure of the trigger under his finger and squeezed off the shot just as an artillery shell exploded. Blue-tinged smoke filled the air and obliterated his view of the captain. As the smoke and debris from the shelling cleared, he searched the ground for his target, cursing when he realized that the captain wasn’t dead— he was riding off with the wounded infantryman lying across his saddle. Heedless of the peril, the sniper stood and looked out over the field of battle to watch the Union officer galloping along the river.
The sniper jumped on his horse. Seconds later, as his own company bugler sounded retreat, he was flying down the hill with but one objective: to kill his intended target.
As he neared the bottom of the hill, the sniper dismounted and tied his horse to a low tree branch before creeping the last few yards toward the river. He heard the Union officer’s deep, commanding voice before he saw him. “You’re going to be fine. That’s an order.”
The sniper moved even closer and heard a weak reply. “Your rank doesn’t have authority over me right now, Captain.”
The sniper used the barrel of his rifle to part the tall reeds in front of him, revealing the two men. The infantryman was lying prone near the water’s edge, and the captain was kneeling beside him. From his vantage point, the sniper could see that the officer was powerfully built, with chiseled features and a square jaw. As the sniper watched, the captain pulled at the buttons on the soldier’s blue coat, then turned his face away from the sight that met him. The sniper used the opportunity to continue forward.
“You can’t do this to me, Jed,” the captain said. The sniper could hear the quaking emotion in the Yank’s voice as he spoke. “I promised her I’d bring you back, and I won’t let you render my word worthless.”
The sniper took another step, thinking that for the first time, he would see the terror in a Yank’s eyes before he fired the shot that would end his life. He was so intent on the position of his rifle, he failed to notice the dry branch under his foot. When it snapped, the captain glanced up, and their eyes locked for just a moment before the sniper braced and squeezed the trigger. But there was no recoil. No report of a bullet whizzing through the air. His rifle had jammed, and the captain hadn’t flinched. The officer seemed to summarily dismiss the sniper as he pulled a kerchief from his pocket and dipped it into the river.
The sniper would not be denied. He put his rifle down and, with a trembling hand, pulled his bowie knife from a back pocket. With feet that felt as if they were encased in lead, he took a step forward while the captain washed the grime from the infantryman’s face. The wounded man struggled to lift his hand, and the captain caught it between both of his own. The sniper could hear the effort it took for the young man to utter his next words.
“They were right, Eli. This dying. It doesn’t hurt.”
As close as he was now, the sniper could actually see the captain tighten his grip on the young man’s hand. “Good.”
“Pray me home, Eli.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper.