September 4, 2015


Joan Leotta has been playing with words on page and stage since childhood. In addition to her work as an award-winning journalist, short story writer, author, poet and essayist, Joan performs folklore and one-woman shows on historic figures, including the Aunt of Civil War spy, Belle Boyd. She can be reached at for performance bookings or appearances on writing.

Her four books of historical fiction (Legacy of Honor series) are available from Desert Breeze Publishing and on along with her newly released collection of short stories, Simply a Smile. Her first picture book, Whoosh! (about a father and young daughter's day out sledding), released  August 2015, can be ordered from . After a lifetime in snowier climes, Joan now lives in Calabash, NC where she walks the beach with husband Joe. She collects shells, pressed pennies and memories. and



The sun seemed so wondrously bright and the sky so blue and when  I looked out my bedroom window I saw two robins perched on a tree limb singing out at me.
From that wonderful moment ,I knew it would be a glorious day.
Why shouldn’t it be?  This day was just one day  after my very own sixteenth birthday and only a few days before the spring ball when I and several of my friends would be celebrated. With music, festive foods, and dancing , dancing, dancing, as late into the night as Papa would allow!

It seemed proper to take a few extra minutes to prepare myself  to greet the rest of the family on such a wondrous day and so, by the time I had decided what to wear and how to fix my hair,  I was late for breakfast,
No one scolded as I approached the table, kissed Papa and then sat down at my place, next to Mamma.
Papa smiled, but seemed more involved with his morning newspaper than with my attentive greeting.
My younger brother Will was standing, leaning against Papa’s chair.
Mamma, still seated, was leaning toward Papa and his newspaper, her elbow  precariously close to Papa’s morning cup of tea.
I coughed delicately into my napkin.
Will  turned to me: “The boys in gray are bringing the fight to
Within just a few miles of our home, right here in the Nation’s Capitol!”

“Here? Is the fighting coming here?” Momma’s voice trembled as she queried Papa.

Will and Papa, immersed in the excitement of the newspaper headlines were oblivious to the tremulous tenor of her voice.
“Not  here in the city, but close, yes very close to our own dear capitol of these U-nited States!” Papa replied.
“They’ve got nerve, those slavers, they’ve got nerve bringing the fight so close to our capitol, but we will show them!.” He shook his handsome head in disbelief and folded the newspaper and laid it down on the table.
” Those rebs in Virginia and all those other states, why we will face them down and show them who can fight!” blurted Will, eleven years old,  and already planning to be a General.
“Now, now, “said Mama, Her voice a bit stronger. “We have friends in Virginia. They may not think the same way we do but this war, it’s just….”
“This WAR  will soon be over,” interrupted Papa.
He continued. “Our boys in blue will show those rebels that there is only ONE  United States. The paper says that the troops will likely meet one another at Manassas—not too terribly far from here. Paper says that this one battle will end all of this foolishness with a Great Victory for Lincoln’s Army and a sad defeat for the forces of slavery.”
As he spoke, Papa leaned over and tapped the folded paper with his knife, reached for the butter and then scooped some butteronto his knife and began spreading the creamy fresh butter on his toast.
”Oh how I wish I could be there and see them crush those rebel forces,” sighed Will.
“The day will be a glorious one!”

Papa looked up at Will and then over to me.
“And, I suppose,” smiled Papa, “that you would like to see young Lt. Harrington and
His Irish friends from New York set those rebels on the path to righteousness, eh, my princess?”
My cheeks flushed a deep pink, a deep shade for the cool of the morning.
Mama clicked her tongue. “She is only fifteen and will be coming out next year, dear—she should not be thinking of young men from New York.”
Papa smiled at me again.
My cheeks burned.
“The papers say the battle will likely be joined in the early part of tomorrow morning.” said Papa.
He added, “I here that many folks are planning to ride out and watch our boys whip those rebels back down to Richmond”
Will jumped. “Oh Papa, May we go?”
Papa laughed. “We’ll see.”
As my cheeks cooled, I sat down.
Jemima brought in breakfast for all of us.
Will could hardly eat .
At last Papa replied, “I will call Mr. Dorffman, our new neighbor and see if he would like to ride along with us.”
“We’re going?” Will’s eyes were bright with anticipation.
“Oh yes, we would not miss it! No, we do not want to miss what will be  the one and only battle of this glorious great war of freedom! “
Papa turned to Jemima the freed slave who worked for us. “Do you want to come?”
“Sir I do not aim to set foot back in Virginia—not ever.  Even here in DC I am not really free—some days I go to the market and think that the slave catchers will take me back!”
“How will we get across Virginia to Manassas?” Mother asked.
The troops have already secured the roads out to there, Papa replied. We will leave before dawn with our best horses hitched to the wagon and then we will show those boys  how we mean to replay that day of  firing off shots at our flag at Fort Sumter!”
”How many battles do you think there will be?” asked Will.
“I am sure that the battle tomorrow will likely end it all, in one cannonade blast blaze of glory!” Papa replied.

I was a bit worried that ending it all would that mean that Lt Harrington would go home to New York. Then I recalled that he was assigned to the guard Congress. Even if the war ended right away, Congress would still need guarding, I was sure.
The rest of the day moved by in a slowly boiling wave of heat that reflected not only the season but also the temperament of the crowds on the street. After a short walk I retired to my room and spent the rest of the day selecting what I would wear to the battle and to the Victory Ball that had been hastily planned for the day after the battle.
At last I selected a red Garibaldi shirt and becoming skirt—not too many hoops for riding in the wagon. But it was just the right hat to show off my eyes when I look up but a brim wide enough to keep the blast of sun from my face.
For celebrating our glorious victory I chose my new gray silk and planned to festoon it with flowers and some of Momma’s best jet jewelry—if she said it was all right.

The moon still glistened in the sky as we clambered into the wagon the following morning---well, middle of the night.
Papa was driving  instead of our man, James.
Will wanted to sit up with him, but Mama said if she was going, she wanted a good view so will and I and the picnic basket were in the back.
Jemima had filled the large straw hamper with cold chicken, cold beef, fruit and cheese and bread. There was water in bottle and lemonade for Momma, Will and me and beer for Papa.
Papa’s  hunting rifle was under the driver’s box—lots of rabbits in the country. A nice rabbit stew  would  make a tasty celebration dinner.

I had thought that the sound of old Charlie’s hoofs on the cobblestones and our own soft breathing would be the only sound in the early morning mist.
But it was not like that.
It seemed that all of our neighbors were heading for that same Potomac River crossing we were going to use to  get to Centreville and then Manassas.
Manassas, that was the little railroad junction where the newspapers said the war would end, that Lee himself would be humbled by our boys in blue this very day!
As the people’s  wagons massed for the crossing I heard the sharp call of a bugle.
A soldier rode up and told us all to pull to the side so that his troops could pass.
“Aren’t our men there already,” asked Papa?
“Yes sir, these troops are to help escort the prisoners back to Washington.”
“Ahh,” murmured Papa.
We watched them march in fine formation, rifles held hire, brass-buttons gleaming as the waning moonlight checked off each one.
The Regimental  Flag flew high and proud next to our own dear stars and stripes—it was Lt Harrington’s New York Regiment!
I craned my neck . I think I saw him but it was not easy to be sure.
All of them  looked so proud and strong and the remaining moonlight flashed and gleamed against the sweat on their smiling faces.
Despite the early hour it was already warm.
Our boys were humming and they waved at us and at the other wagons as they marched off into the early morning mists on their way to glory.

We queued up behind the other wagons and by the time we were on the ferry, the mists had began to clear and the sky turned first purple, then deep orange.
Summer has us tight in its grip.
I did not mind the heat so much—the excitement kept my thoughts cool!
Mama had us stop from time to time and she put water on a damp cloth so that we could press it to the back of our necks or to our foreheads to cool us down.
Even no, at the end of July the heat is already pressing down upon us.
I thought  about how hard it would be for our boys to run around carrying guns wearing thick blue wool suits in the heat.
I was glad they will not have to do it more than this one day.
As we neared Centreville the sun is high
We had already  polished off the last crumbs of our fine picnic basket, though we had plenty of liquid in reserve for the rest of the day and the drive home. We were not strangers to the heat.
I  felt the red dust on my face kicked up by all the horses and men. Dust  from the red dirt roads of Virginia.
For a brief moment, I wished that we could stop and spend the rest of the day in the cool shade of the some trees, maybe by a stream.
Then I heard the loud boom of  the guns, the canon, I expect, pounding our way to glory.
The thunder of them shook my very  heart and filled papa and Will with pride.
Mama squirmed a little on the driver box and moved a bit closer to dad
I felt somehow unsettled by the noise—there was not break in it and an
acrid smelling smoke was drifting our way from the place where the sounds began.
Other smells mingled with the pungent  gunpowder aromas—unpleasant ones. I held my handkerchief to my nose.
This glorious war does not smell good.
It is too noisy by far—a noise that does not seem to let you speak a word to it or with it and certainly not against it.
Boom boom boom, crack crack crack
Be with me, the pounding seems to order us listen to us—there is nothing else to hear
We are the sounds of war and we will fill your ears
You will be ours until we stop

She sees the battlefield
She sees a canon blast a group of boys
The troops come running past them

There are no smiles in the sun
Dirt streaks their faces
The should of war is loud with screams and the blue suits are torn and reddened stumps poke out from them threw arms should have been waving at us
Legs that should have been carrying the blue coats
Are laying like so many blue wool logs near their former owners
Nothing seems connected.
My stomach rebels against what my eyes are taking in—I lean over the wagon and receive it of the lunch. Mama does the same. Papa and Will are white-faced and silent
The war the war it is all around is—I hear bugles but they are not rallying the troops I do not know the tune they are calling
But the action I see around me is our boys in blue running
Running toward our wagon
Running by our wagon
Heading back down the road to Washington
The sunlight does not gleam on teeth held out between parted lips t
Those whose lips are not grimly shut
Have mouths open in large ohs filled with screams and gurgled strangled cries of ear and pain
Faces are not proud or sad—just muddy and streaked with sweat and tears
Where is the glory we were promised?
I see only mud and fear
Where are the sounds of glorious deliverance?
I hear only the cries of wounded men and animals and the relentless laughter of the greedy cannonade and gun lines.
I see a group in blue—but their flag is the other flag—the ones who want the slaves, they are running—they see us and look at us in wide amazement-
They see the other boys in blue heading back to washing ton and realize they have turned in the wrong direction—
They stop and fire at the blue coats carrying the grand old flag of the union
And then carry their stars and bars on back to a man on a big horse
I hear them shouting to stonewall
To stonewall
See how Jackson stands like a stonewall
And indeed he does
The man and his horse a calm duo like a stature in a garden park
But the only flowers here are red spurts of blood upon the ground.
Papa has turned our wagon around and clicked the reins
Out horse is straining to move ahead away form the noises and smells of the glory
If this is glory I hope I never see such again
When we get home
Mama cries.
I did not see Lt Harrington on the way back I do not know if he came back
Will is crying too.
This was not what we expected.
The ride home, north and east, is much longer than the ride west and south
A constant low moan of soldiers streams by us, walking faster than our horse can go. Papa sees a young boy fall to the side.
His companions try to raise him.
We stop and offer t take him back with us.
Thank-ee kindly the Midwest farmer sighs and helps us load his friend into our wagon.
The boy seems hardly older than 12-year old Will.
Will’s face is dirty and streaked with sweat but this boy’s hat is lost and his once-blond hair is matted up with blood and dirt. His face is barely visible behind a mask of grime and sweat and blood.
We clip clop along, a floating island of quiet in the blue wool stream of moans and at last we are almost home.
Papa stops at the hospital to drop off the boy.
He is ever so quiet but his body is still warm as I help push him from the wagon out to Papa and two corporals who are reaching out to take him from us and into the hospital.
I hear screams liked those of battle coming from inside the doors of the hospital.
Even in the gaslight lamp I can see that the two helpers have bloodstains on the front of their uniforms.
War is full of glory—the newspapers told us
War is heroes riding at one another across the silent landscape of large panting,
Rows of men dressed in sashes and ribbons and gaily-colored uniforms bank their bayoneted and grimace at one another
Then everyone goes home and we are victorious
This is our glorious expectation
But glory is not what we thought it would be
Yet this is what it is
This is the glory of war

July 16, 1861
Advance of the Union Army
July 17, 1861
Skirmish at Fairfax Court-House

Skirmish at Vienna

Confederate Army retires to lone of Bull Run
July 18, 1861
Action at Blackburn's Ford

Skirmish at Mitchell's Ford
July 18-19, 1861
Confederate forces under General Johnston re-enforce General Beauregard
July 21, 1861
Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas
July 21, 22, 1861

~Joan Leotta

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