Captain Ezra Justice dove for cover just as the vanguard of General Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army rounded the bend, coming out of the small North Carolina town of Bentonville, headed northward toward Richmond. Lying on the ground, shrouded by a clump of bushes, Justice stiffened as he heard a sound behind him; his finger tightened on the trigger of his LaMat nine-shot revolver. From behind the bushes emerged a tall, muscular black man, dressed in a Union soldier’s uniform, complete with a blue kepi cap and perfectly tied dark blue bow tie. Crouching low, he made his way toward Ezra. Justice relaxed his grip on the LaMat.

Nathaniel York — “Big Nate,” as he’d been known most of his life and still was — flopped down on the grass next to Justice. “Everything’s in position, Cap’n,” he said. “We’re ready when you are.”

“OK, fine. Good work, Nate.”

“Shades of Washington all over again, huh?” Nate pointed down the hillside toward the long rows of Confederate infantry soldiers now coming into view, with the supply line behind them.

“Let’s hope so,” Justice said, raising his eyebrows slightly and nodding. 

Nate understood the look of concern on Ezra’s face. The scene below was reminiscent of General Joe Johnston’s forces coming to the aid of P. G. T. Beauregard’s Confederate army at Manassas in late July of 1861. Johnston’s army thwarted the Union forces advancing southward from Washington, not only beating them back but sending them on the run, forcing them to retreat all the way to the Capitol. Had it not been for a dispute between Johnston and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnston may have marched right into Washington and the war may have turned in an entirely different direction.

Davis’s badly timed intervention, combined with problems in the supply lines — caused mainly by covert attacks and diversions spawned by Ezra Justice and his band of marauders — stymied the Confederate’s offensive action toward Washington and gave the Federal army a much-needed opportunity to regroup and reposition its forces.

Now, more than three years later, with the South reeling from a series of devastating military blows, General Johnston’s battle-weary but undaunted troops were threatening to change the course of the war again. And Johnston believed he would succeed in his assignment at all costs.

Equally determined to stop Johnston’s army from reinforcing General Robert E. Lee’s was a quiet but courageous captain in the Union Army, Ezra Justice. General William T. Sherman had personally assigned Justice and his men — all six of them—to stand in Johnston’s way, to slow down an entire army, to do everything possible — anything possible — to interrupt Johnston’s northern progress.

MORE THAN ANY MAN ALIVE, Nathaniel York knew how to interpret the often understated expressions of his enigmatic leader, Ezra Justice. Nate raised a finger to his thin, neatly trimmed mustache as though contemplating some great philosophical truth. “Think we can pull this off, Ezra?”

Justice didn’t flinch at the sergeant’s familiarity. Most of the other men rarely referred to their leader by his first name, but Nathaniel York was not just a fellow soldier. He and Ezra were best friends, practically family. They’d grown up together on a large, prosperous Tennessee tobacco farm owned by Ezra’s parents. Nathaniel York, however, was a former slave, legally emancipated by Abraham Lincoln, but emancipated a long time before that by his friend Ezra Justice. Even as a boy, Ezra had believed that all men were created equals and had defied his family’s ironclad rules for relating to “darkies.” Against his parent’s objections, he had formed a strong bond of friendship with Nate. Now, with both men fighting for the North, that friendship remained intact.