The deserted farmhouse had been home to a family once, witness to their joys and sorrows, meals and squabbles. All had a place within the walls of this home.
The walls were bare now, some riddled with holes from the battle that the opposing armies had waged through the property a few months before. The family had scattered most likely, taken their treasured belongings and fled, planning perhaps to return someday.
When the war was over.
Today, the men that gathered here had little purpose beyond an order to appear and the insistence of commanding officers or in one case military escort. A table, cobbled together from remnant boards and shored up with bricks at its feet, sat in the middle of the near barren space. Chairs, some little more than a bucket upended and left on the floor, were spattered about the room.
This was not a place of comfort or hospitality. It would, however, become a war room over the next few hours, nothing grand in stature or decoration, but grand in purpose.
Looking at the orders in his hand Captain Healy felt the press of both his duty and the victory he longed for sitting heavily on his shoulders. The plan was merely a spark of innovation and a spark, as he knew first hand, could start a fire that might consume him as well as light the way.
He was the first to enter the room, take his bearings of the random spill of furniture, and set his will to see the matter through. A soft rap of sound on one of the inner doors caught his attention, turned him toward the immediate future, the task at hand. “Enter.”
The door swung open, held in place by some nameless private that Healy had never bothered to ask for his name. Three men entered the room, uneasy by the looks of their expressions, and unsure of their purpose they assembled. No one indicated that they take a chair but it seemed ‘expected’ and fulfilling that expectation had been ingrained into their lives. Each picked a chair and left one unclaimed, the head of the table was his.
“Take a seat, gentlemen.”
The request startled one of the men. He had expected an order from the Captain as any subordinate soldier would. He was the last to lower himself into his seat.
He was also the first man that the Captain addressed. “Lieutenant Morris, you made good time from the coast. I am sorry that you had to leave your work.”
Grey nodded, a stiff movement that gave away little of his true feelings. “There are those who can continue my work before I return. We can’t afford to lose time in any event.”
There was a subtle rebuke in his words, but Healy wasn’t looking for a confrontation and so he ignored it. “Lieutenant Morris is part of our submarine corps. He and his men are making vast improvements in our fleet, hoping to punch an irrevocable hole in the Union Navy.”
The other men murmured in agreement, the hopeful sentiment was one they shared.
“And you, Donnelly.” The Captain acknowledged the man to his left, quiet in manner and pale in color. “Your specialty is ordinance.”
“And I didn’t want to have anything to do with the military, but here I am.” Burke’s gruff interjection was not a shock to Healy, but the other two showed their surprise openly.
“You have skills that will be pertinent to this conversation, Mr. Burke.” Healy offered a hospitable smile, or as close as he could approximate one. “Your connection to this group will be revealed in due course.”
“I don’t see how we have much of anything for the lot of us to talk about together.” He leaned back in his chair. “I have other duties to perform.” With that he began to rise from his chair.
“You have a duty here, Burke.” The captain’s tone cut into atmosphere of the room, stilling Burke’s actions. “I’ll thank you to have a seat so that we may begin.” Looking about the table, Healy saw the expectant and curious looks of the assembled group. It was, he agreed, an odd assemblage, but it was the only configuration that he could imagine that could make this feat possible. “We’re looking to create a warship. The likes of which will stagger the Union in their tracks.”
“Ship?” Morris’s shock sputtered from his lips. “The war for superiority is on the ground, Captain. What good is another ship when we’ve already bested the Union at sea numerous times? At this juncture, it is merely a matter of out-producing them; putting boats out to sea and bringing down the Union fleet.”
The captain listened to the words and gave them their due, but neither his expression nor his resolve changed. He had expected a good deal of complications and was prepared to overcome them. “The Army has the battle well in hand and the ship that we’ve been tasked to build is one meant to ride the air, not the sea.”
The room was stunned into utter silence; the captain’s worn boots the only sound as he stepped to a side board and retrieved a large sheet of paper and a pencil sharpened just for the occasion. Smoothing the paper out on the table, he felt the scars of the old wood through the sheet and removed any remnants of dust from the surface. Satisfied that the canvas he used was suitable for his purpose he began to draw a round shape, a bit longer in height than a circle but his repeated tracings blurred the image somewhat. “The body of the ship will be light, held aloft with hydrogen gas in the same manner as a balloon.”
That had Burke’s attention and his derision. “Ride the air, hmm?” He looked at the other men at the table in turn. “We’re tethered to a base,” he explained, “we can be towed by train, wagon or barge, but it won’t fly. Not the way I think you’re meaning.”
Healy barely acknowledged the argument, addressing it only with a pointed look. His hand outlined the round body and added gored panels running from top to bottom. “We’d fill it with tankers that we’ve captured from the Union. They will provide a reliable source of gas and travel with the ship; a dock, but one that we could mobilize.”
Donnelly shook his head. “How does that answer Mr. Burke’s challenge? The restriction of a balloon stems from the fact that it needs a connection to the ground, a pull to move it along and give it direction. There is little use for such a craft in active war.”
“Exactly.” The Captain allowed himself a moment to gather his thoughts, softening the deeply etched lines about the corners of his eyes. “That is part of the problem.”
Morris ventured a query. “Then you’ve an idea to sort it out… to make it move from one place to another on its own?” He sounded more hopeful than his expression alluded. “Forgive me, but that sounds like quite a flight of the imagination, Captain.”
Burke wasn’t about to make it easy. “Have a few trained pigeons up your sleeve, Captain?” He sat back in his chair, one booted foot sliding out a bit and under the table. “Can’t see how you’d make it work otherwise.” He looked about, waiting for someone to agree with him, to understand his meaning. “Up in the air you’ve got the wind buffeting the balloon around, not much you can use up there to steer.”
Captain Healy turned his sanguine gaze on another man at the table. “That’s where you come in, Morris.” Using his pencil he drew a shape beside the balloon. One that was easily recognizable to the sailor. “Moving through the water is harder than moving through the air,” he drew a hasty sketch at the back,” blades cut through the water, propelling the ship through it. Wouldn’t the same concept work in the sky… rudders and-”
“A submarine in the air?” Burke banged his fist on the table top before him. “It’s not the same thing.” He leaned forward with a measuring gaze on the captain. “The weight alone would drag it down! You’ve brought us here on some fool’s errand, Captain, I’m done.” Folding his arms across his chest he stared at the wall, his ruddy complexion darkening. “Stuff and nonsense.”
Perhaps it was a vague expression on Morris’s face or the silent working of his lips that gave Healy some measure of hope. When Morris finally spoke it was as if he was caught in a daydream. “Wind has a current, like the ocean. The submarine must stay afloat even in the midst of water, but a balloon-” He looked to Burke for assistance and received a grudging response.
“Stays aloft with lift. Lighter than air is the way we keep it up above the trees.” He shifted in his chair uneasy at how quickly he was drawn back in. “I doubt you could make one big enough to support the weight of rudders of any kind.”
“Not size then,” the Captain conceded, “perhaps number? Placement? A single alteration or-”
“Or a number of changes along different disciplines.” Morris shook his head desolately, his slim frame wavering. “How much time would it take? How much time would we have?”
“And what good would it do?” argued Burke. “We’d move faster, venture farther, but fat lot that would do for us now. Keeping an eye on the Union Blue won’t be enough.”
Donnelly lifted his hand and caught the Captain’s attention. “I don’t think we’ve been shown the whole picture. Or at least I believe I am about to enter into it.”
The captain’s quiet acknowledgement continued into the explanation. “The lift of the balloon, the maneuverability of the submarine and lastly,” he turned to Donnelly, “perhaps you will be so kind as to bring in our acquisition.”
Rising from his chair, the man brushed at the ever-present dust discoloring his dark coat. He made his way around the table and opened the door. Two soldiers took the opportunity to enter the breach carrying in a small structure, the top of which was shrouded with an oilcloth. They set the object down beside Donnelly and exited without a word. Lifting the corner of the cloth he let it fall to the floor at his feet.
“What is that?” Morris half stood from his chair and stared at the complicated mass of metal perched on the wooden stand.
Donnelly touched the cool iron of the barrel, his hand gentle, and the hushed tone of his voice reverent. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘coffee mill’ guns that the boys of Pennsylvania have used on our troops. This gun was recently brought to our attention by a Dr. Gatling from North Carolina.”
Indicating the barrel of the weapon, Donnelly pointed out that it had six barrels that “rotate and fire a continuous spray of bullets operated by a single gunner.“
Burke turned up his nose at the mention. “Heard he offered it to the Union as well.”
“Yes,” Captain Healy accepted the truth of the statement, “he admitted as much, but that, as he says, is the prerogative of a businessmen.”
“He’s a Carolina boy,” Grey took up the argument, “he should be loyal.”
Holding up his hands in surrender, Donnelly ventured forward with a thought. “However it came to be, we have acquired a dozen of the guns and I believe Captain Healy has asked me here because he’d like to add these to this ‘ship’ of his.”
Healy nodded his assent. “You have me dead to rights on that score, Donnelly.”
Morris leaned over the diagram on the table. “It’s crazy, what you have in mind here.” His fingers traced the pencil lines, smudging a bit here and there. “Even if we could find a way to put something like this up in the air,” he sighed, a long suffering exhale of air from his lips, “adding a gun… is pure madness!”
Burke, who they would learn could always be counted on for a prediction of dire consequences, added in his own assessment. “Madness, truly. This isn’t as simple as forge-welding something together. There’s gas involved and ordinance.” His laughter shook his shoulders and his middle but the darkness of his narrowed gaze was imperious. “A spark could send the whole thing up in flames! Then the Union would make a mockery of our innovation.”
“Not to mention,” Grey continued the thought, “if the Union were to bring it down, capture it for their own use.”
The three began to argue at once, at times with each other and then against as they began to out-shout opposing viewpoints with their questions and declarations. These men, all three intelligent and well educated in regards to their own specialties seemed to find no shortage of opinions about the proposal.
The pencil, given over by the Captain during the ensuing debate, passed from hand to hand to hand as they scratched out possible configurations and then crossed them out in turn.
Healy could only stand back and watch in amazement at the wild conjectures of their imaginations and the demanding press of their viewpoints on the subject at hand. He thought, given the obvious discord surrounding the table, that they would never see eye-to-eye on the project.
He was wrong.
It was Donnelly that finally cut through the ragged cacophony of noise with his pronouncement. “We all agree.” He looked at the Captain, his gaze steady even as his hands shook slightly with nerves. “It’s impossible, but we’d all like to try.”