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Authors: Howard Fast

Conceived in Liberty

Conceived in Liberty

A Novel of Valley Forge

Howard Fast

For my Wife






























A Biography of Howard Fast

Copyright Page




, and the word comes down the line to bivouac. It's early; there's a good hour of daylight left. We are used to march until the light is gone, stumble into camp in the dark, wake up in the morning before the light and go on.

There is a faint sound of a bugle, far up the line, dismount. Jacob Eagen drops his pack. Charley Green sits down at the side of the road. His round, bearded, elf's face attempts a smile. His little form is a punctured bubble of weariness. I look up and down the line. Toward evening, the line is four, five, maybe six miles long.

I crawl out of my pack, say: “Ah, Jesus, I'm tired.”

All up and down the road men are dropping to the ground. Their muskets clatter against the frozen road. That's the first idea; get rid of your musket. It weighs twenty pounds. It's twenty pounds of hell with a rusty bayonet.

“Why do we stop?” Jacob asks, but of no one. He alone is tireless. He stands stiff and grim, his dark eyes questioning. He probes face after face, and desires to know why we don't go on. He's a tall, spare man, bearded, his long hair falling loose to his shoulders, his large hooked nose thrusting forth from his face. His lips are a thin line, almost hidden by the hair on his face. He might well have no lips at all, and when his mouth parts to speak, I see his uneven, tobacco-stained teeth. There is something fierce and animal-like about his mouth and teeth, about the sharp, wide-spaced yellow fangs.

“What difference so long as we stop?”

“This ain't a place to stop. You don't have to be a general to know this ain't a fit place to stop.” He waves a lean arm to indicate our open, unprotected position.

We are in a great flat space, with a roll of hills to the north of us. The hills mean shelter. We think of what it would be for six miles of army to be caught in this open space. But not too much thinking, because most of us don't care.

I sat down at the side of the road, sighing, stretching my feet, calculating how long I could stay that way, rest without my feet freezing. It was a cold day; half an hour, and my feet would freeze.

Next to me and around me were the men of my regiment. There were eight men besides myself who made up the regiment. We had no officers. You don't need officers for nine men. We had a shred of flag until Ely Jackson covered his feet with it. We were the Fourth New York Regiment. There were three hundred of us at one time, Major Anton, of White Plains; he died at White Plains near his own house. Eeden Sage had been a captain, dead. Lieutenant Ferrel died of dysentery. Now, some day in December in seventeen seventy-seven, we had no officers. I don't know what day it was. When you retreat, the days blend themselves together. Maybe it was the thirteenth of December, or the fourteenth. The thirteenth and Friday, perhaps, which is a rare black day. Charley Green had a song about Friday thirteenth, about witches dancing on Boston Common——

The army spilled off the road onto the fields, a haphazard sort of bivouac. I remember that there was one house, a stone building set back against a fringe of forest. The windows were shuttered; no light and no smoke. We were in a country that hated the rebels.

We climbed off the road, a sunken road. We climbed up to the flat of the meadow. Ely Jackson stopped to fix the cloths on his feet; his feet were always bleeding. A pet staff officer rode by us, a boy in a blue uniform. Jacob Eagen stopped him.

“Tell us, son,” Jacob said. “We camp here?”

Jacob Eagen, bearded, filthy, a fringe of ice around his mouth, was not nice to look at. None of us was. The boy shook loose his reins.

“We encamp tomorrow. We're resting the troops.”

“That's damn nice of you and the General,” Jacob said bitterly.

The boy spurred away, and Jacob laughed. Jacob hated officers. God knows, none of us loved them, but there was something of madness in Jacob's hatred. He was a rare man for feeling the revolution, not the way the rest of us felt it, hunger and cold, but as a living, burning thing made by the people. He would argue of the officers, If they're of the revolution, they're of us. It's a war of man by man. I'll call God my superior, but no damned man on a horse. Talking that way now, but we didn't listen. Talk of Jacob's was like wind sighing; we had listened until the words meant nothing—only the bitter growl of his voice. We walked on. We buried ourselves in the troops. There was no army left now, only five or six miles of rabble strung out over the countryside. It was better to be inside than on the outskirts.

We passed the Pennsylvania line. Their general, Wayne, held them in some kind of order. They were camped in brigades and putting out sentries. A sentry stopped us, a tall southland farm boy. We laughed in his face and pushed past him.

He said: “Who the hell are you? What call you got pushing through Pennsylvania land?”

Edward Flagg said gently: “This land deeded to you?” He was a slow man, Edward, a big farmer, slow to anger, but long-burning when his ire was roused.

“We don't want fights,” I told the boy. “We're a New York regiment.” We walked on. He called after us, “You're a lousy-low regiment, all right.”

We got off the Pennsylvania land; we didn't want trouble. You give men guns and drive them mad, then there's hell to pay. “I'll tell you 'bout this war,” Kenton Brenner said. “It'll be north fighting south, and east fighting west. I don't hold with no low German Pennsylvania sonovabitch. I don't hold with no German who takes a gun when it ain't no more use. Where, I reckon, they been at Breed's Hill and White Plains?”

“You hold on, Kenton,” Moss said. Moss was just a boy. He was eighteen years old, and next on the list. The list was an idea of Moss'. That we were named off to die. Sometimes he would sit for hours, trying to recall the names on the regiment's first muster. A long list, and there was no moving the names. Anyway, he talked about it so much that we got to believe him. You only had to look at Moss to know he was next. He had a cough that kept flecking his lips with blood. When he said something, we all looked at him. Now we were quiet.

The officers' tents were rising, dotting the brown, frozen fields. The brigades were scattered all over the fields, no order, and some of the last ones to march up were set right on the road. You could see brigades sprawled on the hard ground as far as the edge of the woods, and north and south until the fields touched the horizon.

“A lot of men,” Jacob said.

“Ten, eleven thousand,” I nodded.

“They'll go.”

“I'm tired,” Moss said simply. “I been thinking of going along home.”

We came to where there were a few fruit trees, and no brigades nearer than thirty paces. We dropped our packs and slumped down on the earth. Kenton Brenner began to stack the muskets, working automatically and moving slowly. We watched him with quiet curiosity. We were very tired.

The kind of weariness that comes from too little food and no real rest. It goes into every joint and every limb of the body. It eats deep. It saturates and brings a vision into the mind, and the vision persists above everything else. That's a vision of a bed, a broad down bed. The down would take you into itself and eat the weariness out of your bones. Sometimes, too, you think of a trundle bed, a child in a trundle bed. Or a hot Dutch oven with bread cooking. Things of home.

We stretched and crouched on the cold ground. Someone would have to start the fire. We looked at each other, but nobody moved. Then Charley Green got up and walked away. We followed him with our eyes, but didn't call him back. I stood up, took a hand axe out of my pack, and began to hack at the fruit tree. It was an apple or plum tree; I don't remember. It was hard wood.

They watched me with deep, significant pain in their eyes, pain that understood the decades of anticipation that made up the growing of the tree. Someone had planted it and watched it grow. Someone had picked the ripe fruit in the heat of Indian summer.

Clark opened his mouth to speak, then stopped himself. They waited until I leaned on the branch and tore it down. Then Ely Jackson stood up and began to break it apart.

“I call to mind the wonderful fruit of a summer,” Moss whispered.

I paused; I was hacking on a second branch. I filled myself with the single impulse that every man in the army had. One more summer. Only one more summer with hot sun to make the sweat pour from you. Only one more summer with the juice of fruit bursting its skin.

Then I beat the branch down.

Ely was working with flint and steel. Ely was the oldest, older than Jacob even, and Jacob was a man past forty. Ely was our voice, when a soft voice was needed. Ely was water on fire when we fought in anger among ourselves, and God knows we fought enough of late. He had a loose fleshless body and big hands. I watched the hands now, their sure, tireless motion. Tinder was rare and precious. Kenton shredded it from the inside of his hat. I looked at them and told myself that I had probed deep. I was twenty-one years old. But there were eight men whose souls I knew and whose bodies I knew.

An officer galloped up, reined in his horse, and told me to leave off the tree.

“No pillage,” he said. I thought I recognized him. He was bearded and wore no uniform. I thought I recognized him as an aide of Washington. He spoke with the slur of a Virginian.

Eagen got up. He walked over to the stacked muskets. The rest of us rose. We stood in a circle round the officer. Our clothes were filthy and torn. We were all bearded, even Moss Fuller who was only eighteen and whose beard was a patched map on his face. We were filthy, and lean, our feet bound in sacking. The sacking on Ely Jackson's feet was a mass of caked blood. There was something wrong with his feet, and they wouldn't heal. They bled all the time, draining the lifeblood out of him.

“Who's in command here? What brigade?”

“Fourth New York.”

Kenton Brenner took his musket. Jacob too. There was sullen light in Jacob's eyes. The officer noticed that, and he said to Jacob:

“You're in command? Where is the rest of your regiment?”

“We're all,” Jacob said. “No officers.”

He leaned over his saddle, pointed to the tree. “You're killing that tree.”

We laughed at him. I raised my axe. The officer drew his pistol, aimed it at my head. “There'll be no pillage,” he said.

I brought down the axe. I didn't think he would fire. Maybe I didn't care. As in a dream, I heard the pistol roar, and it tore off my hat. I walked forward, the axe in my hand, but Jacob was ahead of me. He struck the pistol down with the barrel of his musket and tore the man from his horse. I saw Jacob's clenched fist lash into the officer's face.

The officer lay on the ground, and we stood there, watching him, not speaking, but just looking at one another. There were Boston men camped near us. They came over, attracted by the shot. They made a crowd around him, and they didn't love officers, not southern officers.

“Oughta killed the swine,” one of them said.

“You oughta killed the dirty slave-driving bastard.”

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