The invasion began at midnight.
It was not truly an invasion, just a heavy raid on a rebel encampment that a patrol had spotted among the thick woods that crowned the high bluffs on the Virginia side of the river, but to the two thousand men who waited to cross the bleak slate-gray swirl of the Potomac River this night's exertions seemed more momentous than a mere raid. This fight across the river was their opportunity to prove their critics wrong. Nursery soldiers, one newspaper had called them; wonderfully trained and beautifully drilled, but much too precious to be dirtied in battle. Yet tonight the despised nursery soldiers would fight. Tonight the Army of the Potomac would carry fire and steel to a rebel encampment and if all went well they would march on to occupy the town of Leesburg, which lay two miles beyond the enemy camp. The expectant soldiers imagined the shamefaced citizens of the Virginia town waking to see the Stars and Stripes flying over their community again, and then they imagined themselves marching south, ever farther south, until the rebellion was crushed and America was reunited in peace and brotherhood.
"You bastard!" a voice shouted loudly from the river's edge where a work party had been launching a boat carried from the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. One of the work party had slipped in the clay, dropping the boat's stem onto a sergeant's foot. "You no-good son of a bitch goddamn bastard!" The Sergeant hopped away from the boat.
"Sorry," the man said nervously.
"I'll give you sorry, you bastard!"
"Silence! Keep it quiet now!" An officer, resplendent in a new gray overcoat that was handsomely lined in red, clambered down the steep bank and helped lift the skiff toward the river's gray water from which a small mist crept to hide the lower slopes of the far bank. They labored beneath a high moon, no clouds, and a spread of stars so bright and clean they seemed like an augury of success. It was October, the fragrant month when the air smelt of apples and woodsmoke, and when the sweltering dog days of summer gave way to clear sharp weather that held just enough promise of winter to persuade the troops to wear their fine new overcoats that were the same color as the river's drifting mist.
The first boats pushed clumsily off the bank. The oars clattered in the oarlocks, then dipped and splashed as the boats receded into the mist. The men, who a moment before had been cursing and cumbersome creatures clambering down the clay bank into the clumsy boats, were mysteriously transformed into warrior silhouettes, spiky with weapons, who glided silent and noble through the vaporous night toward the misted shadows of the enemy shore. The officer who had remonstrated with the Sergeant stared wistfully across the water. "I suppose," he said softly to the men around him, "that this was how Washington felt on the night he crossed the Delaware?"
"A much colder night, that one, I think," a second officer, a young student from Boston, replied.
"It'll be cold enough here soon," the first officer, a major, said. "There's only two months till Christmas." When the Major had marched to war, newspapers had promised that the rebellion would be over by fall, but now the Major was wondering whether he would be home with his wife and three children for the family rituals of Christmas. On Christmas Eve they sang carols on Boston Common, the children's faces lit by lanterns hung on poles, and afterward there were warm punch and slivers of cooked goose in the church vestry. Then on Christmas Day they went to his wife's parents' farm in Stoughton, where they harnessed the horses and the children laughed in delight as they trotted down country roads in a cloud of...