Estuary for Young Readers #12

Tales of a Connecticut River Ferryman’s Son
Story and illustrations by Leslie Tryon

Chapter 12: Map It

At the same instant the tree limb went crashing to the ground, the hot-air balloon broke loose and shot up so fast that in seconds I found myself clinging for dear life to the safe end of the limb and looking up at the bottom of the basket. “Thanks for sawing off that limb, soldier!” one man shouted down at me, leaning over the side of the basket. “Sorry, but we won’t be able to give you that ride after all.”

“Oh, that’s fine, sir!” I yelled. “I climbed up this tree; I can climb down!”

I made my way back down the tree. When I was just a few feet from the bottom, I jumped to the ground when I heard—


I ducked. “Spit! Was that cannon fire?” I said out loud. I looked around the area until I made eye contact with the Lieutenant. He looked pretty steady, so I straightened myself up and tried to look confident, too.

Lieutenant Dunbar, and us soldiers, waited around almost an hour until finally the five-man ground crew started reeling in the ropes, slowly lowering the hot air balloon until it sat firmly on the ground in the middle of the clearing. When the flame was extinguished, the balloon collapsed.

The two mapmakers quickly climbed out of the basket. They introduced themselves to all of us—Carl and Dermott—spread one map out on a table set up at the edge of the clearing, and invited us all to gather around. They explained they were cartographers. “Just a fancy word for mapmakers,” Dermott said.


“Sorry to say, Lieutenant,” Carl said, “we could see the whole area from up there, and it’s not good news for you and your Union soldiers.” He rested his finger on the map alongside the south side of the river and said, “The Rebels have a big camp not far from here, and a fort. The Confederate Army is well established all along the south side of the Rappahannock.”

The Lieutenant moved in beside him to study the map. “And I see, this is Kelly’s Ford,” the Lieutenant said, pointing at the map.

“The very same,” Carl said. “No trees around the river at that spot, and flatland, south of the swamp. The Rebels can see anything that’s headed their way. They’ve built another abatis, this time north of the river, in Union territory.”

“And what are these?” The Lieutenant asked, pointing to three black circles on the map with an “X” inside.

“I just added those,” Dermott said. “Three cannon positions.”


“Those cannons—” Carl said, “I hear tell the Rebels call that spot ‘The Dare Mark Line.’ They’re saying, ‘We dare you Yanks to attack.’”

“Whether you’re a soldier on foot or on horseback, you won’t be crossing the river at that point without risking your life,” Dermott said. “They’re firing booming blanks right now, warning shots for any Yanks that might be close enough to hear, but soon enough we’ll smell the deadly sulfur of war.”

Lieutenant Dunbar said, “We have to find a way to cross to the south side of the river and weaken that position, meet them on their own ground, and take away their advantage.”

The Lieutenant pointed to another spot on the Rappahannock a little upstream from Kelly’s Ford. “How about up here? There must be a bridge.”

“Kelly’s bridge. Destroyed,” Dermott said. “This map shows Kelly’s mill. I spotted another destroyed bridge and two Rebel camps. Lots of manpower. You’ll have a tough time finding a safe place to cross.”

“Critical position,” the Lieutenant said, shaking his head. “We have to get across that river and disarm those cannons to make it safe for the Cavalry.”

Dermott rolled up the big map to clear a spot on the table. Carl set a box in that spot, took the lid off, and said, “I got a little souvenir for you fellows.” He handed each of us a map, folded up small enough to fit in a fellow’s pocket. “A little something for you soldiers here, and enough to take back to your unit, it’s a map from a printer in Philadelphia.” He unfolded one of the maps, flattened it smooth with his hands, and read from the fancy writing up in the left corner: “‘Pocket Map Showing the Probable Theater of The War.’ The fellow who crafted this map assumed the war would be fought and won in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Printed these maps less than a month after the first musket was fired at Fort Sumpter,” he said. “They rushed it to press hoping they’d be the first to print up a map for you soldiers to send along to your folks back home, figuring family could read your whereabouts in your letters and follow along. The Rappahannock barely makes an appearance. Businessmen! Always looking for a way to get into a man’s change purse, even in wartime. Imagine.”


Even though the Rappahannock and Kelly’s Ford were still half-mile away from the clearing, the wind now carried the stench of sulfur from the cannon fire to where we stood, delivering the reality of those cannons and this war to our feet.

“Sulphur,” the Lieutenant said, sniffing the air. “They’ve switched to live ammunition.”

Those cannon blasts have rendered us volunteers stone silent and a bundle of raw nerve ends. We fell in behind the Lieutenant—“Left…Left…Left-Right-Left”—heading back to camp where the rest of our unit waited for us. We’re marching along, and the Lieutenant starts a verse, out loud, like it was the most natural thing:

Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
We’ll rally once again,

“Come on, soldiers. Say it along with me,” he says, and starts over again:

Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
We’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom,
We will gather from the hillside,
We’ll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.

The words fell into rhythm with the Left-Right-left cadence. Next he added a tune to go along with the words. I figured the Lieutenant had maybe gone a little barmy, singing and all. I sing in church, but only because Mum will give me the sideways look if I don’t.

The Lieutenant came to an abrupt stop, turned to face us, and said, “Halt! You misunderstand me, men, that was NOT an invitation—That was an ORDER. Now, repeat after me; ‘Yes, we’ll rally…’”

I choked out the words, feeling like a darn fool.

“It’s a marching song. I want you to learn it and say it with me. Now!”

Then it occurred to me. All at once I could see just what the Lieutenant was trying to do; my parents used to do it all the time. If they thought I was sick or scared they’d try to distract me. Well, that’s what the Lieutenant was doing, and it worked. After he ordered us to memorize the words and we had repeated them two or three times we were feeling pretty clever, and the words sounded even better when we added the tune, the way it all fit with our marching cadence.

“All right, men, you’re ready to learn the chorus,” the Lieutenant said as he marched ahead of us and sang. This time we repeated every line after him:

The Union forever,
Hurrah! Boys, Hurrah!
Down with the traitors,
Up with the stars;
While we rally round the flag boys,
Rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.

That night I rolled up my jacket and put it under my head, wrapped my bedroll around me, closed my eyes, and imagined I was walking around Saybrook in my mind. I could commit it all to paper if a fellow should ask me to. I could sketch out a map, hand it to a stranger, and that person would be able to make their way to my house, the school, to Squire’s house, with its forest of whirlygigs in the front yard, to the Town Hall on Main Street, down to Ferry Road and our ferry at the dock, ready to take you across the river to Old Lyme. That’s my home, where I was born, Saybrook, on the banks of the Connecticut River where everybody knows my name. Now I’m thinking about the actual possibility that my days could end on the banks of the Rappahannock River in a place called Kelly’s Ford, where nobody, outside of these men around me, knows my name. This isn’t why I signed up. Three months seemed like nothing when I mustered in with the Connecticut Three Month Volunteers. Now I’m supposing that my Springfield 58-caliber rifle, fine as it is, is no match for a cannon, and three months leaves plenty of time for me to end up dead.

“Spit!” I said into the night, surrounded by bedrolls and sleeping soldiers.

“Shush! We’re trying to sleep,” came a chorus of whispers back at me.


Historical Notes

Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River, just 25 miles north of Fredericksburg, would become the most fought-over river crossing during the entire Civil War.
The Rappahannock River marked the dividing line between the North and the South from 1862–1863.

(Song/Jody Call) The Battle Cry of Freedom—Composed in a single day in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers to fill the shrinking ranks of the Union Army. The song was soon heard in camps and on the march and the field of battle. More than a half-million copies were produced.

Abatis—A man-made barricade, the sharpened branches of felled trees, meant to stop the advancing enemy in its path.

My thanks to the Old Saybrook Historical Society for their work in gathering material used in this series

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