Wednesday, April 18, 2012

T. E. Story #14

The city lights shone with a clean brilliance after the rain shower, as the cab pulled up to my hotel.  The 12 day train trip had been long and dusty, and the benches hard.  However, I was here, and I was early having had the luck to catch an express train from Chicago, and with my special pass I was honored to spend the latter part of the trip as the guest of the Vice President of the Railroad in his private car.  He had heard of the Topographical Engineer Corps, but was not up on what their duties were.  When he heard about the River Clearance projects he was very excited and wanted to hear all about it.  Apparently, he had served on a steamboat when he was just a tad and knew all about the river and it's problems in regard to navigation.  So the last thousand miles or so was at least enjoyable as far as the food, drink and company was concerned!!!

When I got to my room, I unpacked my dress uniform, and readied everything for the morning.  I had made arrangements for a cab to pick me up at 7:30 A. M.  well knowing that Colonel Abert (Commandant) was an early riser and would be in his office by at least 8:00 A. M., if not earlier.  I had no wish to be thought of as a tourist particularly since this call to Washington City was for a purpose totally unknown to me.  It would be prudent to be as military as possible until such time as I found out what the situation was.  I went to bed immediately after a light supper, still wondering why I was here.

The cab drew up in front of the U. S. Army Headquarters and as I stepped out, I was met by a young Lt. of T. E. , by his shoulder tabs, who asked my name and purpose.  I showed him the letter and he said that he was there to meet me and he bade me follow him.  This was undoubtedly Col. Abert's aide, and I did not envy him his job!  The old hallway leading to the Main Offices was much the same as I remembered when I was last here.  The wall paintings , all of army heros and generals scowling down at the youngsters that came through here was the same.  The carpet had been changed from a worn red to a deep blue which made the hall a much more dignified if a much colder place.  The Lt. bade me sit in on a divan opposite a Sgt. seated at a large desk.  As soon as he saw me the Sgt. immediately stood  at attention until I told him to be at ease.  He again took up his quill but I noticed that he threw a look my way two or three times, as if to try and remember my face.  That did nothing to put my mind at ease.  Colonel Abert was a gentleman who demanded the best from his underlings and if he didn't get what he thought he should, he had ruined the careers of several who thought him to be a little slow.

The big doors opened, and Colonel Abert himself stepped through into the hallway.  "Ian, my boy, how very good to see you again.  It has been far too long.  Please come in and make yourself comfortable."  The Colonel gestured for me to proceed him into the office.  Both the Lt and the Sgt. were standing stiff as boards.  The colonel's invitation to make myself comfortable was something that I was not expecting at all, and that scared me even worse that if I had been told to stand at attention in front of his desk.  What was going on?

"Thank you sir," I said and sought the padded chair next to his desk.

"Will you have a cigar, Ian," the colonel asked offering me a very elaborately carved box of fine cigars.

"Uh, thank you sir, but perhaps later," I said rather weakly.

"Ah good man," the Colonel said.  "Right to the business at hand.  That's what I like about you son, always right to the business at hand."  He sat behind his desk and put the cigar box away.  Then he leaned forwarded and folded his hands on the desk.  " You are wondering why I have pulled you off the job that a few short weeks ago I insisted that you take and catch up on.  You are also wondering if you are in trouble.  Well, you are not in any trouble at this time.  The problem is Ian, we are going to go to War!!!"

Those words rang right through me.  The colonel never made predictions and this last sentence was so assured that I couldn't have disbelieved it if I had wanted to.  If the colonel said so, it must be true.  I said, "Yes Sir,"  wondering what that information spelled out for me.

"Yes, we are going to war, and it won't be long before we are in the thick of it.  The problem for us is that we have no idea of the terrain of the Southern States who will be our opponents which are at all suitable for military activities.  We need those maps now, but we don't have them, and you Major are going to get them for me."

I was about to say something when the words caught in my throat.  Something he said didn't -- he said "Major" -- "Sir," I began  ----

"Yes,  I said Major," the colonel grinned.  "You almost swallowed your tongue son." His grin turned serious.  "I need you to put together a team and get yourself into the hinterland and get the information this Army needs in order to have a chance against a clever and difficult enemy who will certainly be better informed in regard to the terrain, roads, and rivers that we are.  The last maps drawn of that area were done in the Rev War, and things have changed a mite since that time.  You know what needs to be done and I want to to undertake the task to get it done!!!"

I sat for a moment and simply looked at him.  Major, at least six years before my time.  A new task, and a regular command.  "Ah, Yes Sir, I said again very much like a parrot who only had learned one line of human speak.

"I know that what I am asking is in one way somewhat unusual, however in another it is right up your alley.  I like your maps.  I have reviewed your work and your seniors speak well of you.  However, I also know that you will want some of your "river rats" at your side in this endeavor."  He grinned again to take the sting from his words.  He always referred to my people as "river rats" even though he had worked with many more in his explorations that I had.

"Sir," I started again to speak.  Again, he cut me off.

He opened a drawer on his desk, "Major," he said handing me a heavy envelope, " here are your documents.  Inside you will find a travel document that will get you wherever you wish to go by whatever means you shall choose.  It is signed by President Lincoln. There is also a certificate in there that allows you to take command of a unit, a unit which you shall put together.  Your brevet rank certificate is there advancing you to a Major, and a letter authorizing you to raise a detachment of engineers to map the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf Seaboard, and all rivers leading into those bodies of water.  Copies of your maps will be sent here, as soon as they are roughly sketched and with any and all information about them included in the package.  They will be finalized, finished and approved here in our mapping rooms.  Also included are a number of blank commissions.  You have my leave to sign up those whom you think that will serve our service best.  However, I caution you that should any one of your selections do something stupid that could be very bad for our Corps.  You are aware, of course, of the inner-conflict between we and the "mechanics" in this and their Chief Engineer outranks me.  I urge you to be very careful in that respect."  I stood and said my thanks to Colonel Abert.

"Tut Tut my boy, you have proven yourself, now all I expect is work that will be doubly dangerous for you and your group, in half the time it would normally take, under the worst conditions possible.  No, lad, It is I who must thank you." He tapped the desk top as he looked down.  Then the door opened and the Lt. came in and said something in the colonel's ear.

"Ian , my Lad, it is time for you to go.  The great man, the Chief Engineer of the "mechanics" is in the hallway champing at the bit over my last little escapade and he needs a drink badly.  I am sorry to rush you off, but if he sees you here he will know what is being planned, and that's not good.  Lt. Bilby here will show you the back way out, and the best of luck to you, and remember I am depending upon both your ability, your energy and your friends.  Goodbye and Good Luck!!!"

The Lt. and I were out the rear door in a flash, and soon walking through what looked like a little used hallway / tunnel.  Soon I found myself in an alley-way leading to the main street.  The Lt. saluted sharply and slammed the door as he reentered the building.  There I stood, a new Major with enough material in my hands to completely ruin the Corps of Topographical Engineers if the word ever got out, standing in a dusty alley in a strange city to my experience.  The colonel was definitely right, it was going to be an unusual task!

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