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Although large numbers of troops on both sides were being sent by train west to Tennessee (to take part in the fighting around the strategic rail and river hub of Chattanooga), Virginia was still very much a bone of contention. Lee and Meade were both there, positioning for advantage before the winter would bring a halt to most fighting. Now the action centered on the plain of Manassas, for the same reason the first battle of the war had occurred there: its crucial railroad junction of the Manassas Gap railroad and the Orange & Alexandria railroad. The O&A was the only direct rail link between Washington and Richmond. Meade needed the single-track road to move supplies, equipment, and men. Lee wanted to destroy it and push Meade out of Virginia.
At midnight on October 13, the Dragoons were roused by bugle calls and shouted orders. Nathan heard it from Lieutenant Burleson, and passed it along to his boys. "Break camp! We're moving at daylight!"
"Where are we going, Sarge?"
"I haven't been informed. Get ready to move. We asked to be in the cavalry, and now we got it!"
"Don't worry, Sarge. We'll show'em what Dragoons are made of. Still, would've been nice to get a little more sleep."
"Don't I know it."
October 14, 1863
The morning of the 14th, the Dragoons had gone no more than ten miles when they saw Meade's whole army moving at the quickstep towards Centreville. Cresting a hill, Nathan saw that some of the Dragoons' officers had stopped by the road and were using spyglasses, looking back towards Bristoe Station. He rode his horse over to see what they were looking at. He could see a large movement in battle formation by a Confederate force. From the officers' talk, Nathan gathered those were A.P. Hill's men. The charge was suddenly hit from the side by a large Union force. An officer with a spyglass announced, "That's Warren!" There was shooting and from this vantage point, a pattern of fighting could be discerned, as some areas exhibited movement, like a tug-of-war, or several tugs-of-war going on at once. "Look! They're surrendering!" Shouts of exultation erupted from the officers. Nathan wasn't an officer, and knew he should go. He took a last look. He saw thousands of rebels, surrounded by even more Federals, with some rebels getting away farther off. Nathan turned his horse and resumed his place alongside his squadron.
The Dragoons, those infantry veterans who were now mint-condition cavalrymen, looked forward to their first combat ahorse. Sitting atop a responsive, fast-moving animal among large numbers of coordinated fast-moving animals changed one's perspective. Nathan began to feel like the cavalry must be invincible in large numbers. Certainly, battle as cavalry could never be anywhere near as bad as battle as infantry. How could it possibly be worse?
The cavalrymen marched 15 to 20 hours each day. As their march took them across the Manassas plain, Nathan and the boys of his squadron came across something shocking.
"Dear Lord above, look there! Skulls, bones!"
"There was a battle here."
"No, two. First Bull Run and Second Bull Run."
"Look at how many bones! There, and there, and there..."
"Those men weren't buried deep enough."
"That one looks like he was never buried at all."
"Be quiet! This is a sacred place. Have some respect for the honored dead." Several of the boys doffed their caps.
Riding on, the chatter became decidedly somber. "That might as well be us there. That could be our bones bleaching in the air."
Nathan saw a bony hand sticking up out of the ground, as if struck motionless while reaching for heaven. The image stuck in his mind and he knew he'd never be rid of it so long as he lived. There came a ferocious storm of wind and rain, the wind so strong that men in their ponchos were almost blown out of their saddles. The rain didn't let up for three days. Even if the Dragoons had time to build fires to cook, they wouldn't have been able, what with the land being so thoroughly drenched. The men had to make do with only hardtack and raw pork.* Every time Nathan closed his eyes to get some sleep in the rain, he could not but see in his mind's eye that bony hand, dripping wet, spattered with Virginia mud, forever forelornly reaching heavenward amidst the storm.
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