A Distant Flame

A Distant Flame

Philip Lee Williams
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Distant Flame
    Book Description:

    A young Confederate sharpshooter, Charlie Merrill, has already suffered many losses in his life, but he must find a way to endure-and to grow-if he is to survive the battles he and his fellow soldiers face in July 1864 at the gates of Atlanta. From the opening salvos on Rocky Face Ridge in northwest Georgia through the trials of Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain, Charlie faces the overwhelming force of the Union army and a growing uncertainty about his place in the war. Framed by a story that finds the elderly Charlie giving a speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, A Distant Flame portrays love, violence, and regret about wrong paths taken. With an attention to historical detail that brings the past powerfully to the present, Philip Lee Williams reveals Charlie's journey of redemption from the Civil War's fields of fire to the slow steps of old age.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3962-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[xii])
  2. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    Blood spilled down the man’s neck in crimson runnels, and Charlie prayed, kneeling beneath the murderous flight of lead, that the convulsions and fear would end soon. The twelve-pounder Napoleons on both sides gnawed the air into tatters. The dying man blinked, coughed twice, spoke in bright red syllables. Charlie leaned close, heard nothing but Enfields and artillery. He looked around helplessly for aid.

    “Don’t move!” Charlie screamed, but his own voice might have been the silence of graves. His fingers felt swollen from the heat. A stench drifted across the field—horses and men, sweat, fear, gunpowder, blood, bone,...

  3. Winter, 1864 Near Dalton, Georgia
    (pp. 9-15)

    Merrill’s brigade of the Eastern Army stood at the flank and stamped with cold, breath feathering the sharp blue March sky. Not far ahead, the Western Army waited, newly armed, for the assault. Snow lay on the ground in a thick, icy shroud, and even the sunlight did little to melt it. If Merrill’s Brigade could turn the right flank, they might send the Western Army back into the center of the lines where Johnston’s men waited. Jaws of a winter-spun trap.

    “Ah, Charlie, it’s pretty,” said Duncan McGregor. “It’s the first damned movement that’s felt good since Chickamauga.”


  4. July 9, 1861
    (pp. 16-20)

    Limping, Jack Dockery came into the firelight carrying a half-rotted tree limb. One end had dissolved into a crumbling ruin. The other held the shape of an old break. Wind-cracked during a storm, Charlie thought, or perhaps a simple snap from age.

    “It’s worse,” said Charlie, “I mean it’s hurting worse today. Aren’t you still using Dr. Sartain’s ointments and pills?”

    “They don’t do any good,” said Jack. “I’m all right, stumbled in the outhouse doorway this morning. Stupid thing, really. You reckon this is gonna burn? I’m thinking it will go all smoldery for a bit then catch on.”...

  5. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 21-25)

    The sun streaked rose and silver along the rails. Charlie stood in the window of his bedroom again, reading from Rowena. He smiled and closed the book, set it back on the table. The novel was poor, but if anyone read half a sentence from it, he could likely finish it. He thought: She will not come. She has not responded to the advertisements. I know she will not come.

    Barrington Avery would be in five places at once, planning for the interviews and the photographs of the old soldiers’ return today, the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta....

  6. April 19, 1864 Dalton
    (pp. 26-35)

    The snow melted in Cleburne’s winter camp nine miles north of Dalton, and Charlie Merrill exulted in the warmth of late April, feeling strong, easy on his feet. Officers drilled the men, tightened discipline, worked them hard. The trees shot out green, and horses regained weight on forage as it grew. Spring was the season for sun-warmed amnesia, a time for men to deny the death rattle of winter limbs, to plant and pretend their escape was permanent and irreversible. A religious revival threatened to sweep the army, though it didn’t quite get to Charlie’s regiment. At night, the men...

  7. July 26, 1861
    (pp. 36-42)

    A heavy rain spilled off the roof of Grace House, dripping clear strands down the siding. Charlie sat at a third-floor window and watched the pecan trees wave and float in the strong wind. He had awakened the night before and heard the rain coming, like a distant army marching, thunder and wind, and suddenly, his room’s curtains had been sucked into the frame, then blown back outward into the room. Since then, the rain had come hard, and Betsy Clark Merrill had brought Martha to the ballroom on the third floor to play with dolls and sew. Charlie was...

  8. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 43-46)

    Charlie stood in the the library of Grace House looking at the names along the spines of books, familiar and leather-struck, gilt shining in the sharp morning light. These were his last and best friends, foxed pages, steel engravings, volumes that marked the passage of his days. He took out a black volume and opened it: The Life, Speeches and Public Services of James A. Garfield … The title wandered on for another seventeen words. Published in Boston by B. B. Russell. The flyleaf had grown the brown speckles of an old man’s hands. President Garfield, in his engraved portrait,...

  9. April 20–May 8, 1864 Dalton
    (pp. 47-58)

    Charlie and Duncan stood high on Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, staring across the green-bearded mountain at a plank seventeen-hundred yards away that Duncan had emblazoned with a large X. Charlie gauged the heft and displacement of the Whitworth rifle after he’d loaded it, ramming the cartridge down the long hexagonally rifled barrel. It was heavy, but there was a certainty about it, its solidity a promise of accuracy. The day had risen lovely and fair, and a soft warmth filled the sky high above Dalton. Drilling had increased, but Charlie and Duncan no longer marched or performed camp duties....

  10. July 27, 1861
    (pp. 59-62)

    Reverend Merrill, I’d like you to meet my niece from Boston, Miss Sarah Pierce. She was visiting with us when all this began, and we have thought discretion the better part of valor in her return. We are presuming that she will be able to return soon, but we shan’t be happy to lose such a decorative part of our lives.”

    Dr. Sawyer Pierce, fat and fifty-seven, stood not far from the piano in Grace House and curved his arm around a thin girl with blue-gray eyes and blond hair. She smiled once, but the smile was a gesture that...

  11. July 28, 1861
    (pp. 63-67)

    An urgency: voices.

    Charlie rolled over in bed and looked out the window, and the sun was just up, and he could hear his father’s righteous ebb and flow below them, mixed with cries and excited sobbing. Stunned and knowing, he slipped from his nightgown into clothes and came down the stairs in a morning dream. They were in the front parlor. His mother was still in her nightclothes, and Reverend Merrill’s unstrung suspenders hung down his trouser legs. He walked back and forth with a sheet of unfolded paper in one hand, running the other over his face.


  12. May 8–13, 1864 Dalton to Resaca
    (pp. 68-82)

    Sunday morning. the day rose warmly in a blanket of still, shimmering air on Rocky Face Ridge and below in Dalton. Rumors had roiled the ranks, and long before daylight the sharpshooters were roused and sent to emplacements on the ridge, a crenellation that ran for several miles north to south on the west side of Dalton. Charlie had been close enough to Division headquarters to hear the first guesses of Sherman’s movements, which would surely begin soon. Word was that Johnston believed the enemy would attack in force at Dalton while sending a flank toward Rome. Everyone knew the...

  13. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 83-87)

    Heat blistered the streets, though it was not yet ten o’clock. Charlie Merrill, sixty-seven years old and feeling an ache in his groin, sat upright in the Buick.

    He said to his young friend Tyrone Awtry, “My idea being that I just want to see what the dais looks like and how far I will have to project and what have you.”

    “Say again?” The motor seemed badly timed, firing oddly in a clanking arrhythmia. Awtry was thirty-six and wore his hair greased with a part sharp as a carpenter’s line. He had been slender until his late twenties when...

  14. August–September, 1861
    (pp. 88-96)

    For two days, Charlie lay death still. His illness had taken him again that summer. Dr. Merrill lifted him, carried him upward to his bedroom, where he lay in sunny disarray with his eyes closed. Betsy tenderly bathed him, helped him urinate into a jar. She was startled by the size of him, the crop of black hair, but she knew a body must function to live, and there was no shame in a mother’s love, no matter how intimate. Reverend Merrill sat beside Charlie and spoke to him, then went to prowl the telegraph and post offices for word...

  15. May 14–19, 1864 Resaca to Cassville
    (pp. 97-115)

    Just after sunrise, Charlie shot a Yankee artilleryman in the arm. Skimishers and sharpshooters had been firing for half an hour when the field pieces opened on both sides along the battle lines, which bristled, face to face, near the small north Georgia town of Resaca. Charlie and Duncan McGregor had strayed to the left flank of the Confederate army and were in a stand of oaks. Charlie had climbed to a sturdy oak branch and stood upon it, fifteen feet into the under canopy, and from there he could almost enfilade the Federal artillery ranks with an invisible cross...

  16. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 116-122)

    Tyrone Awtry dropped Charlie off at Grace House, and Charlie kept thinking of Merguns Flensvan and wondering who he might be. Someone who clearly didn’t live in Branton—a mistake no doubt. Harris at the post office would send it off somewhere else. Mrs. Knight had not yet started cooking his noontime meal, so he went into his library and sat at his desk, Belle behind him. Mrs. Knight despaired when he let the dog wander in the house, but he didn’t care. Belle flopped near Charlie’s globe, sneezed once, and fell asleep on the cool floor.

    The anniversary program...

  17. October–December 1861
    (pp. 123-130)

    On Sarah Pierce’s third visit, when she squeezed his hand as she had done each time before, Charlie, whose illness had been worse, felt his hand squeeze back into hers. He had already begun eating solid food, though he had rarely opened his sore eyes and spoken only a little. Martha performed skits, doing all the voices. His mother read aloud from the Bible and from Bill Arp, and Charlie lay like a corpse, with his will whittling at the silence. The town wept in grief and anger when little Ezra Atkinson had to be buried near Charlotte, North Carolina,...

  18. January–March, 1862
    (pp. 131-139)

    In dreams, lines of battle formed, battles came. Summer sweat formed on Charlie as he thrashed and awoke to the crystal trails of frost on his bedroom windows. Then he would doze again, and he would be in some dusty trench in Virginia, rising to fire at a bristling blue line that moved up a slope through the forest toward his position. Reverend Merrill, softly and without energy, read Charlie the political news from the Atlanta Intelligencer, the movements of armies and suppositions for the coming spring. Then he would leave for the church and his duties, watching as membership...

  19. May 22–31, 1864 Allatoona to Dallas
    (pp. 140-165)

    Each time Charlie thought he was awakening, a gray, crowding cloud would descend upon him, elemental and roaring, full of voices and horses, hail on a shingled roof, artillery caissons creaking on bridge slats. Once he thought he smelled apricots, rich and tart. Someone said, “Bloody flux,” and another said, “Crack in the cascabel.” Then he was descending again, frayed, awkward as a spring colt. The sound of water ran close beneath him on a swaying bridge, pouring like an open wound across the countryside, but there were also insect sounds, so they moved in silence, in darkness.

    Charlie awoke...

  20. May 16, 1862
    (pp. 166-171)

    Charlie awoke to the sound of a single drumbeat. He sat up in bed, weak and disoriented, and saw that morning had barely rubbed the sun upon his windows. From down the hall, he heard his mother saying Charles? Charles? Charlie sat up and looked out the window, and far below in the silent pecan grove, a figure lay peaceably in the swath of grass.

    Oh, my God, thought Charlie. He threw his legs over the edge of the bed and felt a strength spill from his face down his body and into them. He stood, and his legs felt...

  21. June 2–26, 1864 Dallas to Kennesaw Mountain
    (pp. 172-190)

    Early that morning, rain began to spread over them in the trenches and rifle pits, a heavy, thick-clouded rain, drops sharp as ice, and a wind came with it, blowing off their forage caps and straw hats, forcing the water down their necks, soaking their coats and blouses until both sides seemed the same color of darkness. Charlie and Duncan moved through the rain, having left their company to scout. They came on through the small town of Dallas and found themselves near a hospital, and Charlie veered toward it.

    “For the love of God, don’t go there,” said Duncan....

  22. Summer and Fall, 1862
    (pp. 191-199)

    Jack Dockery’s foot grew worse in early June, and for a time amputation seemed likely, but the infection finally abated, and he was able to ride to Grace House on his horse, Sal. Charlie and Sarah were sitting on a blanket in the pecan-leaf shade when Jack dismounted and came over, a single crutch under his right arm. He perspired freely but smiled with such warmth that Charlie stood and waved. He and Sarah had been playing chess, and Sarah was resigned to loss.

    Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign in Virginia had been a glorious success, according to the newspapers, but...

  23. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 200-204)

    Charlie had barely touched his meal, and Mrs. Knight cleared his plate away with a snort. A brief storm cleared rapidly after it struck, and a rainbow, so sharp he thought he could almost hear it chime, stretched north from Branton toward Athens. He walked upstairs to his bedroom, slow on the stairs, trying to focus on his life and the singular Battle of Atlanta, not the falling back from Dalton but the engagement half a century before, when the air had been saturated with death. Afterward, he wondered if corn could grow in blood.

    He was considering a nap...

  24. Winter, 1862–1863
    (pp. 205-216)

    Beyond the house there was an apple orchard and past that a fallow cotton field. Fingers of apple limbs climbed the cold sky toward a cluster of stratocumulus clouds. The day, which had been reasonably warm, though edged with an irritated wind, was turning bitter as the sun fell apart toward Atlanta sixty miles west. Charlie stood and watched the twin chimneys of the small house begin to cough out smoke, thinking of his father and brother, considering the many chambered vaults of heaven and wondering how the dead found their families. Was love deathless, after all? What if you...

  25. June 27, 1864 Kennesaw Mountain
    (pp. 217-225)

    In the clear, star-washed night, Southern men improved their trenchworks on the slopes of Kennesaw Mountain and to its east and west, and Northern men watched the slopes and prayed. Now, not long before dawn, most of them slept, the Confederates in a great arc, with Hood’s Corps on the left, Hardee’s Corps in the center, and Loring’s on the right. In Hardee’s Corps, Cheatham’s Division was on the left flank, followed in order by Cleburne, Bate, and Walker. In Loring’s Corps, French’s Division came first, then General Walthall’s and General Featherston’s.

    Charlie had slept for three hours and awakened...

  26. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 226-233)

    Charlie sat on the screened back porch of Grace House intensely reading from the single sheet of paper. He had placed it as an advertisement in seven Boston and New York newspapers. Belle snored at his feet as he rocked. The earth seemed to smoke, steam braising the grass and bare spots beneath the pecan trees. The heat was oppressive after the storm, and in the early afternoon sunlight, the yard before him seemed stunned, breathless with surrender, and insects hummed against the screen, a distant melody perhaps, like an unremarkable memory.

    He closed his eyes, but sleep would not...

  27. July 21–22, 1864 Atlanta
    (pp. 234-250)

    Before dawn, Cleburne’s Division began moving south from the Georgia Railroad. Not three miles from the center of Atlanta now, they huffed in the wet air, not knowing where they were going or when they would take their place in line. Granbury’s Texans were on the far right, and they finally settled, dug rifle pits, and waited. The day would not break for a while yet.

    Charlie knew that in the next day or two Atlanta could fall finally, and the Confederacy split apart. Already the Federals were east of them and had cut the Georgia Railroad to Augusta—the...

  28. July 23–September 1, 1864
    (pp. 251-264)

    In the rainlight, Charlie’s eyelashes held beads of water. The brief shower was moving east, and he groaned awake on a stone and felt as if his bones were shod in ice. The wound under his arm oozed blood, and his head throbbed. He was in a glen, and water ran near him in a muddy trickle. He sat up, and he knew that the thunder he heard was shelling in Atlanta, some miles away now. He had quit the war, and Branton was to the northeast, perhaps fifty miles through forests and brambles. He stood and fell to his...

  29. July 22, 1914
    (pp. 265-270)

    No one had entered the ballroom on the third floor of Grace House since the death of Charlie’s wife, for it had been her sanctuary and aerie. A walled-off attic space had been added at one end two decades before. Charlie had risen slowly up the stairs and now stood in the ballroom and saw the sewing machine, dress forms, half-filled scrapbooks, stacks of photographs, clothes trunks, dusty bolts of fabric. The heat was oppressive, but Charlie did not notice or think of it.

    “Amy,” Charlie whispered. “Amy.” He remembered how he first realized he cared for her as he...

  30. July 22, 1914, 5:00–5:30 P.M.
    (pp. 271-275)

    Charlie felt grotesque, a circus fool. He lay on his bed and listened for the late afternoon train on the Georgia Railroad tracks, which would come any time, rattling the windows, purring through its heated groove toward Augusta. The idea that Sarah had seen the advertisement, was even still alive—that she would rail south to be with him on the day of a speech he could not even give properly now—was preposterous. An hour before, in a damp wall of heat behind Grace House, he had burned the pages he had written earlier in the day, turned their...

  31. July 22, 1914, 5:45–6:30 P.M.
    (pp. 276-283)

    Dressed, shaved clean, Charlie sat in the parlor of Grace House holding in his lap two letters, each blood- and water-stained, brittle with age and handling. Mrs. Knight was gone already. The first he only glanced upon, for he knew the shape of each letter as he knew the spike of his own pulse. He had shed his blood upon Sarah’s writing, and this is all he would know of her in this life. The other was worse somehow, for he had promised to mail it for Duncan, but it had come into Charlie’s keeping with no address. After the...

  32. July 22, 1914, 6:30–9:30 P.M.
    (pp. 284-296)

    Catherine, Charlie’s daughter, sat in the front seat of the landau, Lewis by her side, and her husband, Richard Phillips, driving the disciplined pair of chestnut roans. Charlie, black-coated and formal, sat behind them in the seat opposite his granddaughter, Marianne, whose hair floated golden and dense around her shoulders. The coach had been Catherine’s idea, a gentle glance back to what a few were already calling simpler times.

    “Granddaddy, what does it feel like?” asked Marianne, who was eleven. She wore a lovely blue dress and white gloves and had her Grandmother Amy’s deep blue eyes.

    “What does what...

  33. July 22, 1914 9:30–Midnight
    (pp. 297-300)

    Charlie’s son-in-law pulled the carriage to a stop in front of Grace House. Far behind, they could hear the pop and hiss of fireworks in Ezra Atkinson Park. Richard had lit the landau’s lamps, and they threw a pleasant glow on the street. Catherine and both her children were in the coach proper now, and Richard sat alone on the driver’s seat.

    “Did you mean to leave the lights on?” asked Catherine. “I worry about you. Don’t you want to come spend the night with us tonight, Daddy?”

    “Stop fussing over me,” said Charlie. “I’m fine. And yes, I left...

  34. November 1918
    (pp. 301-304)

    I should have called the old woman to stoke the fire when I woke two hours ago, but there is sanctity in these sheets that should hold me alone, as in my dreams. Through the tall windows I can see the softness of a sky lowering for flurries. Church bells rang deep into the night, and I know another war has ended, though blood will run from it for years to come. My gown is bunched around my knees, but I shall not move to straighten it, not yet. Soon, I will rise and walk to the window and look...

  35. Author’s Note
    (pp. 305-309)