Ulysses Grant sighed and wished for an old-fashioned battle instead of the impending discussion. The wily ways of politics were more guerilla warfare than a good clean fight. Washington never let you get off a good shot. Washington was all duck and weave, attack and run.
Still he'd made a promise to Major General Abner Doubleday to help him investigate a matter of utmost importance to the Major General. No doubt that the rest of the nation wouldn't find it equally pressing, but like a fly on a horse, he'd become somewhat intolerable about the matter.
Grant knocked on the Major General's door and waited. Doubleday turned around and motioned to Grant from where he sat at his desk. Hardly proper protocol in addressing a senior officer, but Grant let it pass.
Doubleday stood and saluted. Grant noted the ream of paper on the desk and winced. It seemed to be a mixture of battle reports and invoices. The story going around the War office was that Doubleday had been engaged in writing a battle report of Gettysburg since the end of the battle. He'd disagreed with Meade's assessment of the battle, particularly where it came to rating Doubleday's performance in the three-day clash. Meade had taken away his status as the senior officer and left him with the nickname of “Forty-Eight Hour Doubleday”. Meade had not shown the proper appreciation of Doubleday's ego and here sat a General writing a report for months on end.
Still, other generals gave Doubleday a wide berth in his behavior. Not only was he a braggart regarding his own abilities in the heat of battle, he had a knack for taking credit for the work of others. He actively promoted himself as the soldier who had fired the first shot for the Federals at Fort Sumter. Doubleday had participated in the first skirmish of the war, but no one could verify his story, which left him free to promote his own version of events.
“So what is so all-fire important?” Grant looked at the man, trying to mask his impatience under his beard. Hannah Grant had raised her son to not take credit for his accomplishments. He had no truck with those who did.
“Sir, it's come to my attention that a soldier exists who can verify my account of Gettysburg. Sir, I wanted you to accompany to meet him, so that we can get this behind us once and for all.”
Grant didn't see that there was anything to get behind. To his mind, the matter had been settled long ago. Meade was now with the Army of the Potomac and Doubleday was free to pen his three-book account of Gettysburg. By chance, Doubleday had arrived at the Pennsylvania battlefield just minutes before a bullet had felled Major General Reynolds. At that point, Doubleday became the senior officer and had taken command of the troops. He fought well from what Grant had heard, but Meade had replaced him on the third day of the battle. The humiliation had been too much for Doubleday who had come back to Washington to pen a rebuttal since those July days of the previous year.
Instead of voicing that opinion, Grant merely nodded and tried to look sage. The war had moved forward to Virginia. No one would remember that battle in Pennsylvania past the end of the war. He wished that Doubleday would do the same.
“Where did you find this man?”
“He found me, sir. Apparently, he knows what happened at Gettysburg and is willing to share this information.”
Grant shook his head in wonder. Where had this mystery man been for the last year while Doubleday had sat in his room and written about the battle? He had few official duties despite his rank. He had offered to pitch in to review some quartermaster reports.
“It's a miracle that he ever found me, sir. I consider myself fortunate for this opportunity.”
“Have you met face to face?” Grant saw this coming. This witness had been coached on what to say to the officers. Doubleday could train the man to recite facts and figures better than a player on stage. Grant couldn't possibly refute anyone’s details when he was 1000 miles away in Vicksburg at the time.
“No sir. I have received correspondence from him. He asked me to meet him twice before, but each time, he was detained. He has assured me that such would not be the case today with an important personage like yourself in attendance.”
Grant snorted, ignoring the obvious attempts to butter him up. He'd shoveled enough horse manure at his father’s tannery to recognize it when he saw it. Doubleday wanted something more from him, but Grant couldn't quite determine what it was. Perhaps he wanted a command in Washington. Washington was rife with leaders who battled the constant annoyance of Jubal Early’s threats.
Doubleday motioned the General on and pressed forward towards the Capitol building. The dome had finally been added to the structure so that the hot air could no longer leak out as quickly. Grant sighed, knowing that nothing good came from that nest of vipers.
“General, this man declares that he has information. I wanted to have an independent source with me when I met him. So as not to let people think that I prejudiced the witness.”
They strolled through the rotunda of the Capitol and moved into the hallway. Doubleday rounded the corner with speed and came to a solid wood door. He knocked with the fury of a man who has waited a year for vindication.
No one answered the door. Doubleday turned to face Grant with pleading in his eyes. They both knew that the Commander of the Federal Army didn't have the time to go on wild goose chases. Doubleday's shoulders slumped as he realized that he'd missed his last chance to clear his name.
Grant cleared his throat and started to turn. He was rather glad that the man hadn't been available. Such a turn of events could cause problems in the war effort. If he had to talk to Meade about his decisions at Gettysburg, then no telling what would happen to morale in Virginia.
Doubleday leaned against the doorframe as Grant started to leave, and Grant noticed that the door swung open an inch. So much for a quick exit. Doubleday beamed as he thrust the door open.
Grant took his time in arriving at the doorway, but by then, Doubleday had beaten a hasty retreat from the room. The man's skin had turned a pallid shade that nearly matched the white walls of the Capitol. He stepped back again and almost trod on Grant's foot. For someone who was supposed to have wanted this meeting, he seemed to be doing a fast retreat.
Grant looked in the room and understood. The room was only a closet. The walls, which had once been whitewashed, were rusty brown. The body of a soldier rested on the floor, head tilted back and throat slit. Grant didn't recognize what was left of him. The man had a solid dark beard that covered most of his face. His cheeks and forehead had started the slow decay of the summer’s heat. A tiny chunk of his flesh was missing. He was a tall, rail-thin sort with limbs splayed all over. He took up most of the space in the tiny room.
“Is the man who contacted you?” Grant took Doubleday's arm and hustled him back to the closet.
“Sir, I wouldn't know. I never met the gentleman.”
The victim had been a man of money from his looks. Grant noticed the starched dress blues with a high-collared white shirt. The blues were marred by a single hole in the breast pocket. Grant suspected that the man might be a deserter; that would explain a man who would buck his commanding officer to help Doubleday. The corpse’s black shoes were freshly polished. The soles were not worn from walking the miles in Washington’s sludge. The nation's Capitol area was known for its mud and filth.
Grant moved a few steps closer to investigate the wounds. He noticed that Doubleday had moved back into the hallway. The general's behavior made it clear that he was unlikely to have been the killer. He had no motive to kill a man he wanted to clear his name. Doubleday lived for the recognition due a good general.
The man's throat had been cut with a good-sized blade. Grant shivered a bit to look at the gaping wound, fresh and clean. It was a larger blade than the bayonets on the battlefield, for sure. He figured it for a hunting knife or something larger.
One of the man's arms was arranged in front of him, cut and scratched as if he'd been defending himself. The other arm hung down by his side. Grant noticed the balled fist at the end of the arm and opened the man's hand. He wasn’t stiff like the dead get after time, so Grant assumed that the man was recently dead. A gold coin rested in the man's palm. Not exactly coins for Charon, but Grant knew that gold greased wheels in this town.
Grant left the room and pulled the door shut behind him. The door didn't lock, so there was no way to secure the scene until the military police could arrive. Grant had no desire to stick around the Capitol until MPs arrived. The guards would try to question him with deference, a feat like juggling with gloves on.
He and Doubleday headed back towards Doubleday’s office. Grant had no desire to see his own staff and report this matter to the authorities until he had answers. Otherwise, this would be yet another distraction from winning the war. “Doubleday, you must tell me more about how you located this informant.”
Doubleday looked pained as he continued in lock step with Grant. The man’s ego had been subjugated for the moment. “Well, sir, there’s not much to tell. This man was anonymous to me and wished to remain so. He contacted me with information about the battle. He knew enough of Gettysburg that I could see he’d been there.”
“So you did meet him?”
“No sir, this was all done as written communications. I never saw his face or his person.”
Grant stroked his beard. “That didn’t strike you as suspicious? It’s almost as if he had something to hide.”
“Apparently so,” Doubleday said with a snort. The general had recovered his color -and his tongue.
Grant held out the coin from the dead man. “I found this on the body. Any ideas where gold coin might have come from?”
“None whatsoever.” Doubleday’s eyes grew wide and his face flushed slightly above his beard. He seemed to be telling the truth.
The two men completed the walk in silence. Grant ran through what he knew of the crime, but he could come to no conclusions. The fog was too thick.
Doubleday snatched a note off the door of his office, and crumpled it up as soon as it was read. “Damnation. I forgot the meeting with the quartermaster with all this skullduggery going on.”
Grant winced to think that Doubleday had shirked his duties to pursue vanity.
“I’ll have to reschedule it after I return from New York next month.” Doubleday looked a bit sheepish at having neglected his responsibilities, but not overly so. He managed to sit down behind his desk with a little stumble over the chair.
Grant tried to focus on the matter at hand. He’d only become annoyed if he thought about the waste of a general behind a desk in the military offices. Ironically, Doubleday’s nemesis, General Meade, was stationed in the same building. The two men would have to see each other constantly.
“So who might have known about this meeting?” Grant approached the matter logically, hoping for a quick resolution.
“I was told to mention it to no one, sir, and I am a man of my word.” Doubleday sat rail straight and looked Grant in the eye. Either the man was an excellent liar or he told the truth. “So then either someone overheard you make the meeting or the mystery man told someone. How was the message delivered?”
“I found a note under my door, offering proof that I had done an admirable job at Gettysburg. The messenger wanted to meet at the Capitol building just inside the East front and receive the information.” Doubleday turned away, not facing Grant’s interrogation. Grant wondered what the man was hiding.
“Did they mention what information might be offered?” Doubleday was merely a major general who had been relieved of duty. The man’s desire to vindicate his own behavior bordered on the mutinous.
“Papers, sir. Papers proving that Meade wanted to retreat after the second day and that a council of war overruled him. I’d been present at that assembly, but I had no hard proof to offer before now.”
Grant paused, trying to determine what difference the information would make at this point. It was too late to change the past. Why couldn’t the man just move forward? A war still tore this country apart, and Grant preferred to concentrate on defeating Lee to mediating battles between his own generals. “The man had no papers on him today. I searched his pockets.” Grant had no qualms about dealing with the dead after three years of battle. The man hadn’t carried any papers, most curious unless the killer wanted no way to identify the soldier.
“Then the murderer must have taken them. It’s obvious that whoever did this wicked deed didn’t want me to learn the truth.”
Grant doubted that theory. Speculation circled Gettysburg like vultures. Too many generals wanted a post-war political career and thought of the war as a jumping off point for their aspirations. Doubts and rumors wouldn’t do for them.
“Are you here everyday, sir?” Grant hoped that the man bothered to take on clerical tasks to ease the duties of the men who really fought this war. The thousands of men had lost their lives on the battlefield while Doubleday sat comfortably ensconced in his office, feeding his vanity. The decaying corpses of the dead made Grant remember a detail.
“Without fail, General. I wouldn’t dream of shirking my responsibilities.”
“And you lock up when you leave each night?”
“Most assuredly and it looks like I had good reason. Look what happened to that poor man who wanted to share the truth with me.” Doubleday shot a look around the room as if he could only be right.
“Indeed.” Grant figured that the man’s battle report would exceed the inevitable memoirs that would come from the end of the war. No words were ever that precious. “And your other duties here?”
“When I’m not writing my battle report, I’ve been working with the quartermasters to find an improved method of supplying the army of Virginia.”
Grant knew the problems of supplying an Army. He’d been a quartermaster in the war with Mexico and had dealt with furnishing rations to an invading army. The headaches from the paperwork were worse than his occasional migraines. Grant saw the outlines of a solution through the haze of this situation.
“Doubleday, I think you’ve been played the fool.”
“Sir, why would someone tell me that they have information if they have none? What purpose would it serve?”
“Well, I think you’ll find the answer to that riddle in your neglected quartermaster reports. The only way to prevent you from reviewing these invoices in a timely manner was to lead you out of your office and away from your desk. In doing so, you would have no chance to find out about the irregularities in their department.”
“But sir, the man…”
“He’s been dead a long time, perhaps a few days. He hadn’t contacted you about Gettysburg. His clothes weren’t bloodstained from the slashed neck. He had a small hole in his jacket. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he was one of our troops who had been defending Washington.”
“And the assertions that he had proof?”
“All hogwash from what I can tell. A man has his soft spots. They merely applied the pressure to one of yours in an attempt to break through your lines. You should be happy to know that it hasn’t worked.”
Doubleday looked crestfallen, but didn’t speak. Grant left without speaking again. Political soldiers were like a gunshot in an open field, a lot of noise with no effect.