The Battle of Higo Plains, March 1867
Cold steel pierces flesh...
a moment of clarity...
death is not the end...
-Japanese death poem
The Kumamoto army had arrived at dawn, and it was hard to miss the campfires that spread amongst the valley floor, denoted by the small pillars of smoke twisting into the orange sky. The men of Satsuma were anxious at having their first crack at the Shogunate troops, many of the levies were nervously giving their minie rifles a final check, while blood thirsty samurai in full armor, Yari Dachi, sharpened their swords and spears in anticipation. Officers were ordering the men into positions, two battalions of line infantry, the closest thing Satsuma had to professional western trained troops, were marching out to deploy in column. Their dark blue uniforms reminding Longstreet of the Union troops he faced time and time again, and at one point, commanded. The dark blue flag with white cross insignia of the Satsuma domain flew high above each of the formations, while the spear levies and sword and spear samurai wore their own standards at their backs, so that it looked like a wave of flags fluttering in the breeze. It made for an amazing sight, swordsmen and spear levies that would have served centuries ago, mixed in with rifle-armed peasant levies and professional line infantry. It served as a reminder that this army was very much like the country itself. With one foot in the past, the other in the future. Hell of a way to fight this war.
Longstreet gave a nod to the officers and NCOs as they passed. The two line regiments were the only ones in the army manned by white NCOs. While the vast majority of the army were still being led by the Daimyo's bannermen, who did nothing to hide their resentful glares as they passed him by. The men in the ranks, the levies and line infantry however, recognized him from the weeks of training on the parade grounds. A few even bowed their heads slightly as they passed, which gave Longstreet uncomfortable memories.
No. Don't get attached to them. He thought. It won't end well. It never does. As for some of the samurai, those who weren't peasants. He understood their hostility, didn't blame them. He was told that for centuries, fighting was the exclusive occupation of these men, these Samurai. And now, here he was. Training them in the use of modern rifles and introducing line regiments conscripted from peasants, making them obsolete. He didn't blame them, but he didn't let it bother him either. Compared to the hostility he faced from back home, against not just the reconstructionists but also his own comrades, it was like a walk in the park. He was here to be a professional and get paid handsomely doing it as well.
"A good morning to you General Longstreet." A British officer, an atheletic middle-aged man with a clean shaven chin, saluted to Pete as he passed by him in camp. With the alignment of the Shogunate with French and German interests, it was only natural that the British reached out to the Imperialists. Seth Patrick was one of these, brought on to help the Imperialist domains modernize their army.
"A fine day for whipping some rebels is it not? Seth chuckled politely, allowing himself the little inside joke. Though officially allied with the emperor, the Satsuma made no secret of their intention to oppose the ruling Shogun.
"Yes, it seems I have a talent for it." Pete casually reached into his pocket for a cigar, extending it to the British officer. It was an old habit of his from his army days. One that he had no intention of kicking off. It brought him a brief moment of relaxation during the chaos of war.
Seth obliged, lighting one himself.
"How is the training going?" Longstreet queried, having heard the Seth was charged with training gun crews in the newly purchased Parrott guns that had just been unloaded off Kagoshima. Three batteries, enough to arm a small army.
"Well enough." Seth replied. "The natives seem to have a grasp of the fundamentals, it's a shame we couldn't deploy any today."
"By the time you drag those guns here this issue would have been settled." Longstreet offered. "I think you'll get your chance yet."
"Perhaps, maybe this whole thing will end tomorrow when the Shogun agrees to deal with us fairly, instead of giving favored nation status to those damned frogs and krauts."
That made Longstreet raise an eyebrow. "I'd imagine Lord Shimazu would have issue with that.
The officer merely shrugged at this rebuke. "The British Empire deals fairly with all parties. We have no permanent enemies, just permanent interests."
"No permanent friends either." Longstreet remarked casually.
"At the top, you find very few true friends." Seth replied, blowing smoke rings with his cigar before casually tossing it aside, "At the very least we can count on your hospitality General Longstreet." The British colonel allowed himself a slight smirk, noticing that Captain Takeda was approaching on his horse. "In any case, it seems the mighty Lord Satsuma has dealt me the glorious duty of overseeing the rearguard regiments. It has been a pleasure and an honor to finally meet you sir. I wish you the joys of the day." Seth saluted.
"Take care of yourself colonel." Pete returned it, before bringing his attention to Takeda as Colonel Patrick fell in with his own regiment. Despite the doubts he harboured with these peasant soldiers, they at least had no illusions about what was in store for them, compared to the volunteers back home. They were like little boys, too caught up in the color, the pageantry, and the glory of war, only to discover what it really meant in the trenches, the mud, and the bloodshed.
"Taisho Longstreet-san. Good morning." Takeda bowed low in the saddle, respectfully.
"I suppose Lord Shimazu is waiting on me?"
The captain nodded, dismounting as he led Pete towards the command tent of the Satsuma army.
Lord Shimazu Hisamitsu, Daiymo of the Satsuma domain, the most wealthy and populous of Kyushu island, watched with interest as the formations were laid out in front of him on the map. He took a small sip of tea, a small comfort during the campaign that he had come to enjoy. His retainers sat quietly in front of him, all dressed in traditional samurai armor. His own guards, an elite samurai unit armed with traditional katanas, stood stoically at the edges of the room.
"Sire." A messenger popped through the canvas of the tent, bowing low in apology at having disturbed his Daimyo. "My apologies, but you've ordered me to inform you when the Gai-Jin general is here."
General Saigo, himself in jet black samurai armor of the Katana Kachi corps, grunted slightly as he heard this. His distaste for foreigners was well known, having been an early devotee to sonnoi-joi. In his youth he dreamed of the day when the foreigners, the Christians, traders, diplomats, all of them would be expelled from the country. It sickened him, the empire was being defiled by the foreign contagion, and it was only because of his supreme devotion to his liege lord, the previous Satsuma leader Lord Nariakia and his fascination of all things western, and his successor, that he would even tolerate the presence of this Gai Jin.
The General, this... Longstreet, was a stout man, with a heavy beard that reminded Saigo of an unkempt animal. His eyes seemed world weary, as though he had already lived enough for several past lives, and although the man seemed strong enough, it was obvious he was carrying many burdens. He watched uneasily as Lord Daimyo Hisamitsu gestured for the foreigner to kneel down with the rest of his retainers. The captain, the man known as Takeda, bowed low, before joining the barbarian as his translator.
"Sire." Saigo whispered to his master as he knelt behind him. "I urge you to be cautious towards this man. Who knows what falsehoods the Ingerish will repeat to us, through him."
Shimazu Hitsamitsu nodded as he stroked his chin in contemplation, taking another sip of his tea. Longstreet was agreed upon by both the Daimyo and the British to be as close to a neutral party as can be found. The Americans were known throughout the world for their military prowess in their civil war that had torn their great continent into two, and as far as Satsuma was concerned, they did not have the same grand ambitions over Japan as the British and French did. That alone made them bearable.
Captain Takeda, himself hearing the small talk, sat uneasily as he overheard the exchange, but Lord Hitsamitsu had already ordered him to translate what was relevant.
"Why else is he here sire?" Saigo pressed the charge in a low voice. "But for money and profit, it is not because of duty or loyalty to you, or to the Emperor."
"He is a mercenary." Hisamitsu agreed, a low growl of distaste in his mouth at the word as he gauged his guest. "It is their custom."
"He is shamed in defeat." Saigo said, "Did the Ingerish not say he was part of the rebellion in his homeland. Against their sovereign lord? They should have executed him, or at the very least, have him commit sepukku." Even Saigo however, doubted that the Barbarian would know something as civilized as that.
Lord Hitsamitsu chuckled softly.
"Yet they didn't, and that is our gain. It is always wise to learn from defeat, as it is more instructive than victory. Especially if another man bears the shame of that defeat." Lord Hisamitsu smiled, giving Saigo a few moments to collect his calm, before proceeding with the interview.
Pete Longstreet meanwhile, watched the exchange tersely, knowing full well that they were talking about him, and even more anxious about the fact that the eyes of every retainer in the room were upon him. It was nothing like being in command in the Confederacy, where everything was out in the open, somewhat informal. Not like this enclosed, rigid environment, where everything interaction seemed to be dictated by a set or rules.
"Please be patient Longstreet-san. I will act as your interpreter with Lord Shimazu." Takeda bowed towards Pete. "Please answer only when spoken to, and to no one else."
"Of course." Pete replied patiently, his legs already aching painfully from sitting in the traditional Japanese manner. Even sitting in the saddle for days on end during his campaigning days didn't seem so troublesome!
Captain Takeda bow politely as Pete heard Lord Shimazu ask the first question. "Lord Shimazu asks of your opinion of today's battle. Will we win?"
Longstreet himself, expecting questions on the general welfare of the troops, such as training, found himself caught off guard. He didn't expect to play any part in the war councils. "Will anything I say even be relevant to the Daimyo's decision?"
Takeda translated this almost simultaneously, and Lord Shimazu gave a low growl of the reply.
"It does not matter what you wish sir, simply that Lord Shimazu wishes to know. Please answer the question. directly."
Pete nodded, taking a deep breath. It had been weeks since he met the Daimyo in this formal a setting, and he reminded himself for the thousandth time how differently they did things here.
"I believe there is a chance. Always a fighting chance." Longstreet decided to be more specific. "I believe our riflemen will serve quite well for your majesty. My officers have trained them as hard as any of our recruits back home, and you will find them as good as any."
Lord Shimazu spoke again, and Captain Takeda translated. "Enough to send against French Trained troops?"
Pete quietly contemplated what he meant, and the implication of an eventual showdown with the Shogunate, and shook his head.
"Not yet sire. As of this moment, what you have are still effectively conscripts. If i had to take a guess, i'd say close to eighty percent of our men are considered levies. If you give me three months, i can make them as good as any line infantry."
"So you think my army is not ready?" Takeda translated this from Shimazu.
Pete took a long time to reply, not wanting to give offense. He learned during his time here that this was a dangerous land, where the slightest provocation or insult, intended or otherwise, often left a man dismissedm, or worse, decapitated.
"No sire, but the majority still need training. I have no doubt they can stand toe to toe with the enemy close to our home base, but to ask these men to undertake a campaign of the scale you are describing, we need more time. We have a saying back home: to send untrained men into battle is sending them to their deaths."
Lord Shimazu contemplated this quietly.
"But it would be a good death nonetheless. You think I am throwing my army away? The enemy outnumber us."
"Against the army in front of you sire, I would say we are more than ready." Pete nodded in emphasis, knowing full well the quality of the Shogunal troops in Kyushu were probably not as strong as the ones near the capital. "General Lee used to say the same thing, it is not the big armies that win battles. But the good ones."
As this was translated, Longstreet kept an eye on the Samurai general advising Hisamitsu. The man did little to hide his hostility, and to Pete it looked as though his very presence was causing him to quiver in rage. He wisely ignored it.
As Lord Hitsamitsu heard the translation, he let out a soft laugh.
Captain Takeda bowed, then translated.
"Yes, very true Taisho Longstreet-san, very true. We will talk more about your Master. This General Lee, another time. But for now, My lord asks that you observe. We will break the enemy and crush the Kumamoto. Your help is very much appreciated. Thank you."
The last sentence was spoken with a note of dismissal, and Longstreet nodded, bowing once again before being led out of the room.
Kumamoto castle and the city of Higo, the greatest bastion of Kyushu, was ripe for the picking. With the Kumamoto army out challenging the Satsuma, it was undefended for the first time, and with it, the rich mines of the province that could fund more armies, and purchase more Gai Jin guns and cannon, would be all but naked before his liege lord. All that remained was to fight.
Yes, General Saigo thought, it all began today. He would show the Kumamoto the price of being disloyal to their liege lords. Maybe one day a poet would write a sad line describing their downfall here today.
The formations of line infantry and levies poured into the plains, while behind them, thousands of Samurai and spear levy were deploying into deep compact columns. It was all done with mechanical precision, the dark blue ranks of the Satsuma infantry forming into a long thin line, two ranks deep. Officers and sergeants yelled and cursed, getting the peasant levies into formation while in front of them, the Kumamoto army was advancing, their own rifle armed levies taking the forefront, screening the advance of their main force, over five thousand spearmen and Yari Samurai. The levies watched on nervously as they saw the clouds of dust kicked up behind the enemy infantry, denoting even more men behind them.
Three thousand Satsuma infantry were deployed on the right, while the left wing of the army contained the elite line infantry, and the massed samurai regiments of Saigo.
"Saigo-Sama," A messenger from Shimazu Daimyo, one of his samurai retainers, bowed low in the saddle as he approached. The Yari samurai, in their heavy jet black armor and blue banners, were still deploying.
"Report Captain." Saigo replied, his gaze still on the enemy formations closing in on them in the distance.
"Shimazu-Sama wishes to inform you that he is mobilizing his own levies and line infantry to advance, with the lake on his flank. He will hold position for you to strike. You are free to move on the left wing."
"Very well, we will advance." He turned to his own retainer.
"Have our sword and pike regiments ready. I want our rifle regiments to advance as we've trained." Although Saigo detested the arrival of the foreign weapons, he appreciated the power they brought, as well as the precision and deadliness of an elite regiment trained to act as one. Their firepower would be useful today.
"At once Saigo-sama"
"And the barbarian?"
"He is confined to the rear, as Lord Shimazu ordered."
Good. Saigo thought, let the Gai Jin watch from there, we will show them how real warriors do battle.
The regiments of Kumamoto levies burst from the wood, running at the double quick, followed by another line of rifle regiments behind them. To his surprise, the enemy even employed his own regiments of Matchlock samurai, still armed with the old Portugese guns from centuries past, as well as wearing the traditional samurai armor. Hitsamitsu smiled as he observed the sight, enjoying the pristine formations and quietly commending his rivals for the training of his men. His own blue coated regiments, formed and ready to fire, were quiet, steeling themselves for the storm of fire and steel that would soon come. At this moment, he wished he had artillery to deal a deadly blow to the enemy, but the guns he had purchased were still miles away, being unloaded from the docks of Kagoshima.
It seemed the enemy was focusing all his efforts on dislodging his right flank, which was anchored to the lake beside them. To his surprise, there were no spear or katana regiments with them, meaning that the enemy was planning a similar action. Holding a flank to the lake while their own right flank would wheel about and flank the Satsuma lines, eventually wheeling inwards to pin and crush them against the lake.
Saigo would enjoy that then, Hitsamitsu thought. A straight up fight.
The distinct 'crack' of a rifle sounded in the distance, and to his side, Hitsamitsu noticed one of his retainers in full body armor suddenly fall, a bullet exploding through his skull. The horses whinnied in terror, and many of his escorts were sweating nervously beneath their armor.
Lord Shimazu did not even flinch.
"Regiments! Make ready!"
The command was echoed throughout the line, rippling through like a wave.
A steel wave of rifles rippled down into firing position. By now, he could see the front ranks of the opposing lines rushing in, as well as make out the distinct faces of the enemy levies, sweat and black powder covering their faces.
Suddenly, the enemy line vanished as the entire Satsuma line roared in a sea of flame and smoke. Followed by thousands of punctuated slaps as the bullets whistled into the Kumamoto lines. Men were scythed down, musket stocks shattered, armor plastered, as the next rank of Satsuma levies aimed and fired. "Fire at will!" The officers shouted, and it was a furious race now, individuals loading and firing on their own time while minie bullets whistled around them. A heavy fog of war descended on the front lines as more rifles cracked, sending more Satsuma men off their saddles while the next blue coated levies fired, pouring more into the chaotic battle lines.
"That's the signal, men of Satsuma, for Lord Shimazu, ATTACK!." Saigo shouted as he spurred his own bodyguard on. The two regiments of line infantry, followed by two thousand samurai and levies, advanced. The line regiments advancing at the double quick. His own samurai gave a furious cheer, thirsty for the blood of the peasants who dared usurp their rightful place as defenders of the empire with their foreign guns. Saigo would use that anger when he led them straight into the enemy lines.
The line regiments made contact, and in his front, the two ranks exploded into a puff of smoke and flame, followed by the distant screams of the enemy and the hollow whistling of the musket balls. Several slapped into the armor breastplates of one of his retainers, and the man fell out of his saddle without so much as a whisper, blood froathing in his mouth.
As much as I hate it, i will ask for a brief blessing from the kami of the guns, to protect my men and myself.
The Katana Kachi, followed by the spear levies had formed up in their lines, three solid columns of heavy infantry and two more of the levels. They marched onwards, screened from the enemy fire by the two line regiments he had deployed.
"Saigo-sama." One of the colonels of the line regiments, a samurai, bowed in the saddle as he approached him.
"Report." The samurai general said sternly as he kept his focus on the battle ahead. He could already see a wave of enemy banners forming up behind the enemy infantry, as if the commander were massing his own men for a charge.
"Lord Shimazu says that the enemy is massing all his guns on the right flank. He is holding them for now but he requests that you pressure the enemy right flank now. Only then can both our wings converge."
"Tell Lord Shimazu my attack is proceeding now. i will meet him on the battlefield."
The colonel offered a quick salute, a western custom that Saigo was still getting used to. He bowed in the saddle, then turned to his samurai, a massive column of two thousand men.
"MEN of Satsuma," Saigo shouted, spurring his horse alongside the length of the column, the armored samurai cheering as he passed. "Now is your time! Now is the time to drive these traitorous rebels who dare defy us! For the glory of our Emperor! Attack!"
The samurai roared, lifting their swords and spears into the air, which was quickly shrouded in smoke and flame. "BANZAIIII!"
The wave of samurai attacked, charging straight into the smoke, passing the two line regiments who quickly parted before the swordsmen. Saigo himself followed the column in, caught in the ecstacy of the moment as a thousand swords rasped from their scabbards behind a forest of spears. The Tokugawa conquered Japan with such men, so why not Satsuma?
The first men began to drop in the front ranks, as more volleys from the enemy levies pierced through the smoke. The column visibily shook, then closed up, as the press of bodies advanced. Dozens of men dropped before even reaching the line, but the bloodlust was upon them and they would not be stopped. They were still advancing into the smoke, with no sighting of the enemy save for the flames of their volleys. Bodies lay crumpled in the field, now wet with blood. A few wounded men cried out to the column as they passed.
"mizu...mizu..." water...water. Dozens of corpses, some broken and shredded by bullets, littered the landscape.
Saigo ignored them, pressing on. He heard a snap behind him, another Samurai going down with a bullet in his head.
A few minutes had passed and still nothing but smog, more bullets slapped across the head of the column, and more levies went down. A few cowards turned and ran, only to be run through by the Katana Kachi behind, there would be no retreat, no weakness.
As if an answer to his prayers, the smog suddenly parted, and in front Saigo could see the ranks of the enemy levy infantry, furiously trying to load their muskets. A few had looks of terror on their faces as the Satsuma closed in.
The levies were completely unhinged at the sudden appearance of the column of massed samurai, who burst from the smog in a great wave like the force of a Tsunami.
The peasant soldiers panicked, a few firing their shots then fleeing, while several companies fired uncoordinated volleys. More samurai fell, but that only seemed to incense the Satsuma men more.
"Kill them all!" Saigo shouted once more.
The lines crashed.
The lucky ones in the front rank were instantly cut down, decapitated as the samurai ran them through. Spears impaled and eviserated torsos, whiles the heads of peasants were lopped off, spraying blood into the air. Those that tried to fight were or stayed to reload their rifles died where they stood. The entire levy line staggered back in the face of the column, like a thin reed bending in the middle.
Saigo charged in with his horsemen, and the line collapsed. The Kumamoto lord, seeing that this was the turning point of the battle, poured his remaining sword and spear kachi in, despite being flanked by the Satsuma line infantry, who redeployed to provide enfilading fire support for Saigo`s men, dropping dozens more as they shifted. The reserves met Saigo`s men head on, and soon five thousand men were now stuck in a melee on the bloodied plains.
Lord Shimazu, seeing the enemy pulling back to shift his levy regiments, ordered his line regiments to advance, pouring concentrated fire into the flanks of the Kumamoto men as they redeployed.
The enemy was wavering.
Saigo meanwhile, was lost in the moment, all tension leading up to the charge was gone, now it was simply a matter of fighting, killing the men in the mass of warriors as every man fought for himself. His horse had been shot down from under him, and his elite guard quickly surrounded him in the melee, protecting their master to the death. The sickening impact of steel on flesh and the screams and battlecriess that followed filled the air. One levy tried to run him through with a bayonet, but he parried it, slicing the man`s arm off and delivering another swift blow at the neck. A gunshot echoed near his ear, slapping into his arm and causing him to stagger back, he felt nothing, even as he saw his guard impale the man with a Naginata.
Another Kumamoto levy aimed a rifle at him, and for Saigo, the world suddenly devolved into just himself and this peasant, who had him dead to rights.
Before he could move, another blast erupted from the side, and the peasant`s skull was blown apart, a gaping bloody hole at where his ear used to be. The man simply dropped the musket and died. To his right, Saigo saw it was one of the Satsuma line infantry. He simply gave the man a nod before resuming the attack with his body guard.
Suddenly, as if out of no where, he spotted him. Another man dressed in the ceremonial battle armor of a general, the Kumamoto Daimyo, who was trying to encourage his own men to fight on. Saigo shouted for his own men, and a ragtag group of Satsuma levies, line infantry, samurai and his retainers came together, charging the enemy Daimyo. The enemy`s retainers saw the threat and threw themselves at Saigo`s men to protect their liege lord. The riflemen that came with Saigo responded first, and those that were loaded fired into the retainers. Bullets slapped through their chestplate armor, and a dozen dropped, but the strong willed ones kept advancing.
What a sad fate. To have brave men die in such a way. Bullets have no faces.
The retainers clashed with the Satsuma men, as both sides furiously hacked and parried each other. One of the Satsuma riflemen attempted to bayonet the enemy Daimyo, but the man was too nimble, too quick, sidestepping out of the way of the soldier and slicing through his neck at the same time, blood gushing from the soldier`s neck like a fountain as he fell.
Saigo himself, had impaled one of the Kumamoto retainers with a spear, now found himself face to face with the Kumamoto lord. Time slowing for a moment as he ignored the burning pain in his arm, all focused on this man who had started the bloodshed on Kyushu. Gunshots, steel blades parrying, screams, all sounds suddenly seemed distant as he closed in on his enemy. Saigo dropped the spear, unsheathing his sword and with a roar rushed the enemy general, who parried the blow. Both samurai were frozen as their swords met, their eyes locking only inches from their face. The Daimyo roared, kicking Saigo and pushing them apart, both men circling each other like lions. More minutes passed and both men closed in again, hacking and parrying several blows. Saigo felt the blood dripping down his arm from the last blow, while he saw that the Daimyo himself was wounded, blood dripping down the side of his faceplate.
The Kumamoto lord rushed, and Saigo saw his chance, landing a glancing blow against his chest armor and elbowing the man in his face. The combination of the two blows served to throw the man off balance, his arms swinging wildly in the air, and Saigo saw the opening he needed, his reaction instantaneous as grappled the man by the neck, using his other hand to plunge the katana underneath the armpit of his armor. A slight tension and resistance came from the lord as the blade cut through his arm, through the network of arteries into his heart. More blood gushing out from under him.
The man suddenly tensed, then relaxed, his last breath of life leaving him. Karma. Saigo withdrew his blade, letting the man`s corpse drop onto the ground, now steaming with blood.
The Kumamoto, seeing their lord go down, quickly broke. The news spreading across the battlefield like a dark plague. Riflemen dropped their guns and ran, while samurai and retainers fought to the death in memory of their lord. More Satsuma infantry rushed in, riflemen charging in with their bayonets to mop up the last fleeing enemy, while Lord Shimazu himself led the last cavalry charge into the peasant levies that broke after hours of volley fire. More enemy corpses littered the landscape, a field of blood and the screams of men mixing in with the light spring breeze, and the blooming sakura blossoms.
It was beautiful.
Longstreet watched the entire battle unfold from his vantage point at camp, chomping on his cigars as thousands of men slaughtered each other on the fields below. The other foreign observers watching and taking notes as to the performance of their line regiments. Pete however, could only marvel at how the Satsuma men just charged in recklessly into a volley of fire, losing hundreds more than they needed to in the process. The line regiments weren`t properly utilized and they were lucky the Kumamoto levies were not trained at the same level as line infantry. What a godawful waste.
As for the samurai general, that Saigo Takamori, Pete could only shake his head as he saw him lead that final charge into the enemy ranks, at the head of his column. Without a thought as to how the rest of his force was deployed, for he was sure the colonel of the line regiment only deployed to provide fire support on his own initiative.
It was no way to run a battle, let alone a war. That man was mad.
Commisar Danno: Thanks for the kind words sir! Yes this was a very challenging concept for me to put through in alternate history, but nothing like a good challenge. We`ll see more of what Pete Longstreet can do as we move along XD