The Star of Gettysburg by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter V. Fredericksburg
Before night the Union army had three bridges across the Rappahannock, and before morning it had six. The regiment that had crossed held the right bank of the river, that is, the side of the South, and the boats moved freely back and forth in the stream.
Yet the main army itself did not yet begin the crossing. Harry slept a few hours before and after midnight, lying in the lee of a little ridge and wrapped in a pair of heavy blankets, but as he wakened from time to time he heard little from the river. There were no sounds to indicate that great streams of armed men with their cannon were pouring over the bridges. After the tremendous cannonade of the afternoon the night seemed very quiet and peaceful.
Fires were burning here and there, but they were not many. The Confederate generals did not care to furnish beacons for the enemy. When Harry stood up he could catch glimpses of the river, the color of steel again, but the farther bank, where the great army of the foe yet lay, was buried in darkness. He wondered why Burnside was not using every hour of the night for crossing, but he remembered how the same general had delayed so long at Antietam that Lee and Jackson were able to save themselves.
He became conscious that it was growing much colder again. The zero weather of a few days since was returning. Every light puff of wind was like the stab of an icicle. He was glad that he had a pair of blankets and that they were heavy ones, too. But he did not ask anything more. It was remarkable how fast the youth of both North and South became inured to every form of privation. They lived almost like the primitive man, and many thrived on it.
When he last awoke, about four o'clock in the morning, he did not lie down to sleep again; he walked to the edge of the slope and stared once more toward the river and the Union camp. He found Dalton already there, closely examining the river and the shores with his glasses.
"What do you see, George?" Harry asked.
"Not much; they've got all the bridges now they need, but they're not using them. Why, Harry, the battle's won already. Lee and Jackson don't merely fight. Plenty of generals are good fighters, but our leaders measure and weigh the generals who are coming against them, look right inside of them, and read their minds better than those generals can read them themselves."
"I believe you're right, George. And since Burnside is not crossing to-night, he can't attack in the morning."
"Of course not. Lee and Jackson knew all the time that he'd waste a day. They knew it by the way he delayed at Antietam, and they've been reading his mind all the time he's been sitting here on the banks of the Rappahannock. They knew just where he'd attack, just when, too, and they'll have everything ready at the right point and at the right time."
"Of course they will."
They were but boys, and the great tactics and brilliant victories of Lee and Jackson had overwhelmed the imaginations of both. In their minds all things seemed possible to their leaders, and they had not the least fear about the coming battle.
They walked back toward their general's tent and saw him sitting on a log outside. The night was not so dark as the one before. A fair moon and clusters of modest stars furnished some light. The general was gazing toward Stafford Heights, tapping his bootleg at times with a little switch. But he turned his gaze upon the two boys as they came forward and saluted respectfully.
"Well, lads," he said in a voice of uncommon gentleness, "what have you seen?"
"Nothing, sir, but the river and the dark shore beyond," replied Dalton.
"But the enemy will cross to-morrow, and they say they will annihilate us."
"I think, sir, that they will recross the Rappahannock as fast as they will cross it."
Dalton spoke boldly, because he saw that Jackson was leading him on.
"The right spirit," said Jackson quietly. "I see it throughout the army, and so long as it prevails we cannot lose."
Then he turned his glasses again toward the river and paid them no further attention. Officers of greater age and much higher rank came near, but he ignored them also. His whole soul seemed to be absorbed in the searching examination that he was making of the river and the opposite shore. Harry and Dalton watched him a little while and then went back to the shelter of the ridge, where, sitting with their backs against the earth, they, too, took up the task of watching.
The earth was frozen hard now, but toward morning they saw the fog rising again.
"It will cover the river, the far shore, and what's left of the town," said Dalton, "but what do we care? They'll be protected by it as they advance on the bridges, but they wouldn't dare move through it to attack us here on the heights."
"Here's the dawn again," said Harry. "I can see the ghost of the sun over there trying to break through, but as there's no wind now the fog's going to hang heavy and long."
Breakfast was served once more to the waiting army on the heights, and then the youths in gray saw that the Union army, having let the night pass, was beginning to cross the river. When the dawn finally came many regiments were already over and the wheels of the heavy cannon were thundering on the bridges. But the Confederate army lay quiet on the heights, although before morning it had drawn itself in somewhat, shortening the lines and making itself more compact.
"Look how they pour over the bridges!" said Harry, who stood glass to eye. "They come in thousands and thousands, regiments, brigades and whole divisions. Why, George, it looks as if the whole North were swarming down upon us!"
"They're a hundred and twenty thousand strong. We know that positively, and they're as brave as anybody. But we're eighty thousand strong, just sitting here on the heights and waiting. Harry, they'll cross that river again soon, and when they go back they'll be far less than a hundred and twenty thousand!"
He spoke with no sign of exultation. Instead it was the boding tone of an old prophet, rather than the sanguine voice of youth.
The fog deepened for a little while, and then some of the marching columns were hidden. Out of the mists and gloom came the quick music of many bands, playing the Northern brigades on to death. Then the fog lifted again, and along the heights ran the blaze of the Southern cannon as they sent shot and shell into the black masses of the Union troops crowding by Fredericksburg.
But as the echoes of the shots died away, Harry heard again the bands playing, and from the great Northern army below came mighty rolling cheers.
"The battle is here now, Harry," said Dalton, "and this is the biggest army we've ever faced."
The Union brigades, black in the somber winter dawn, seemed endless to Harry. From the point where he stood the advancing columns as they crossed the river looked almost solid. He knew that men must be falling, dead or wounded, beneath the fire of the Southern guns, but the living closed up so fast that he could not see any break in the lines.
"You can't see any sign of hesitation there," said Dalton. "The Northern generals may doubt and linger, but the men don't when once they get the word. What a tremendous and thrilling sight! It may be wicked in me, Harry, but since there is a war and battles are being fought, I'm glad I'm here to see it."
"So am I," said Harry. "It's something to feel that you're at the heart of the biggest things going on in the world. Now we've lost 'em!"
His sudden exclamation was due to a shift of the wind, bringing back the fog again and covering the river, the town and the advancing Union army. The Confederate cannon then ceased firing, but Harry heard distinctly the sounds made by scores of thousands of men marching, that measured tread of countless feet, the beat of hoofs, the rumbling of cannon wheels over roads now frozen hard, and the music of many bands still playing. The thrill was all the keener when the great army became invisible in the fog, although the mighty hum and murmur of varied sounds proved that it was still marching there.
Jackson was on the right of Lee's line. He would be, as usual, in the thick of it. His fighting line ran through deep woods, and he was protected, moreover, by the slope up which the Union troops would have to come, if they got near enough. Fourteen guns, guarded by two regiments, were on Prospect Hill at his extreme right, and on his left the ravine called Deep Run divided him from the command of Longstreet, which spread away toward Marye's Hill.
Jackson's own line was a mile and a half long and he had thirty thousand men, while Longstreet and the others had fifty thousand more. Lee himself, directing the whole, rode along the lines on his white horse, and whenever the men saw him cheers rolled up and down. But Lee had little to say. All that needed to be said had been said already.
Harry saw the great commander riding along that morning as calmly as if he were going to church. Lee, grave, imperturbable, was the last man to show emotion, but Harry thought once that he caught a gleam from the blue eye as he spoke a word or two with Jackson and went on. As he passed near them, Harry, Dalton and all the other young officers took off their hats, saluted and stood in silence. General Lee raised his own hat in return, and rode back toward the division of Longstreet.
Harry glanced toward General Jackson, who was also mounted. But he did not move and the reins lay loose on the animal's neck. Once the horse dropped his head and nuzzled under some leaves for a few blades of sheltered grass that had escaped the winter. But the general took no notice. He kept his glasses to his eyes and watched every movement of the enemy, when the fog lifted enough for him to see. Presently he beckoned to Harry.
"Ride over to General Stuart," he said, "and see if he has made any change in his lines. It is important that our formation be preserved intact and that no gaps be left."
Then General Jackson himself rode to another elevation for a different view, and the soldiers, from whom he had been hidden before by the fog, gazed at him in amazement. The gorgeous uniform that Stuart had sent him, worn only once before, and which they had thought discarded forever, had been put on again. The old slouch hat was gone, and another, magnificent with gold braid, looped and tasseled, was in its place. Instead of the faithful pony, Little Sorrel, he rode a big charger.
Usually cheers ran along the line whenever he appeared upon the eve of battle, but for a little space there was silence as the men gazed at him, many of them not even knowing him. Jackson flushed and looked down apologetically at the rich cloth and gold braid he wore. His eyes seemed to say, "Boys, I've merely put these on in honor of the victory we're going to win. But I won't do it again."
Then the cheers burst forth, spontaneous and ringing, proving a devotion that few men have ever been able to command. Stern and unflinching as Jackson invariably was in inflicting punishment, his soldiers always regarded him as one of themselves, the best man among them, one fitted by nature to lead democratic equals. After the cheers were over they watched him as he looked through the glasses from his new position. But he stayed there only a minute or two, going back then to his old point of vantage.
Harry meanwhile had reached Stuart, who, mounted upon a magnificent horse and clad in a uniform that fairly glittered through the fog itself, was waiting restlessly. But he had not changed any part of his line. Everything remained exactly as Jackson had ordered. He now knew Harry well and always called him by his first name.
"Have you an order?" he exclaimed eagerly. "Does General Jackson want us to advance?"
"He has said nothing about an advance," replied Harry tactfully. "He merely wanted me to ride down the line and report to him on the spirit of the soldiers as far as I could judge. He knew that your men, General, would be hard to hold."
Stuart threw back his head, shook his long yellow hair and laughed in a pleased way.
"General Jackson was right about my men," he said. "It's hard to keep them from galloping into the battle, and my feelings are with them. Yet we'll have all the fighting we want. Look at the great masses of the Union army!"
The fog had lifted again and the Northern columns were still advancing, marching boldly against the intrenched foe, although nearly every one of their generals save Burnside himself knew that it was a hopeless task. In all the mighty events of the war that Harry witnessed few were as impressive to him as this solemn and steady march of the Union army, heads erect and bands playing, into the jaws of death.
He stayed only a few moments with Stuart, returning direct to Jackson. On his way he passed Sherburne, who, with his troop, was on Stuart's extreme left flank. Harry leaned over, shook hands with him, nothing more, and rode on. With the lifting of the fog the Southern guns were again sending shot and sell into the blue masses. Then, from the other side of the river, the great Union batteries left on Stafford Heights began to hurl showers of steel toward the hostile ridges a little more than a mile and a half away. It was long range for those days, but the Union gunners, always excellent, rained shot and shell upon the Southern position.
Harry, used now to such a fire, went calmly on until he rejoined Jackson, who accepted with a nod his report that Stuart had not changed his lines anywhere. The general signed to him and the rest of the staff as they rode toward the center of the Southern line. Harry did not know their errand, but he surmised that they were to meet General Lee for the final conference. The general said no word, but rode steadily on. Union skirmishers, under cover of the fog and bushes, had crept far in advance of their columns, and, as the fog continued to thin away and the day to brighten, they saw Jackson and his staff.
Harry heard bullets whistling sinister little threats in his ear as they passed, and he heard other bullets pattering on the trees or the earth. They alarmed him more than the huge cannon thundering away from the other side of the river. But the fog, although thin, was still enough to make the aim of the skirmishers bad, and General Jackson and his staff went on their way unhurt.
They reached a little hill near the middle of the Southern bent bow. It had no name then, but it is called Lee's Hill now, because at nine o'clock that morning General Lee, mounted on his white horse, was upon its crest awaiting his generals, to give them his last instructions. Longstreet was already there, and, just as Jackson came, the fog thinned away entirely and the sun began to blaze with a heat almost like that of summer, rapidly thawing the hard earth.
The young officers on the different staffs reined back, while their chiefs drew together. Yet for a few moments no one said anything. Harry always believed that the veteran generals were moved as he was by the sight below. The great banks of white fog were rolling away down the river before the light wind and the brilliant sun.
Now Harry saw the Army of the Potomac in its full majesty. On the wide plain that lay on the south bank of the Rappahannock nearly a hundred thousand men were still advancing in regular order, with scores and scores of cannon on their flanks or between the columns. The army which looked somber black in the misty dawn now looked blue in the brilliant sun. The stars and stripes, the most beautiful flag in the world, waved in hundreds over their heads. The bands were still playing, and the great batteries which they had left on Stafford Heights across the river continued that incessant roaring fire over their heads at the Southern army on its own heights. The smoke from the cannon, whitish in color, drifted away down the river with the fog, and the whole spectacle still remained in the brilliant sunlight.
Harry's respect for the Union artillery, already high, increased yet further. The field was now mostly open, where all could see, and the gunners not only saw their targets, but were able to take good aim. The storm of shot and shell from Stafford Heights was frightful. It seemed to Harry--again his imagination was alive--that the very air was darkened by the rush of steel. Despite their earthworks and other shelter the Southern troops began to suffer from that dreadful sleet, but the little conference on Lee's Hill went on.
Longstreet, sitting his horse steadily, looked long at the dense masses below.
"General," he said to General Jackson, "doesn't that myriad of Yankees frighten you?"
"It won't be long before we see whether we shall frighten them," replied Jackson.
General Lee said a few words, and then Jackson and Longstreet returned to their respective divisions, Jackson, as Harry noted, showing not the least excitement, although the resolute Union general, Franklin, with nearly sixty thousand men and one hundred and twenty guns, was marching directly against his own position.
But Harry felt excitement, and much of it. In front of Jackson in a great line of battle, a mile and a half long, they were moving forward, still in perfect array. But there was something wanting in that huge army. It was the lack of a great animating spirit. There was no flaming flag, like the soul of Jackson, to wave in the front of a fiery rush that could not be stopped.
The blue mass hesitated and stopped. Out of it came three Pennsylvania brigades led by Meade, who was to be the Meade of Gettysburg, and less than five thousand strong they advanced against Jackson. Harry was amazed. Could it be possible that they did not know that Jackson with his full force was there?
The Pennsylvanians charged gallantly. The young General Pelham, who had been sent forward with two pieces of artillery, opened on them fiercely, but the heavy batteries covering the advance of the Pennsylvanians drove Pelham out of action, although he held the whole force at bay for half an hour. In his retreat he lost one of his own guns, and then Franklin brought up more batteries to protect the further advance of Meade and the Pennsylvanians. The batteries across the river helped them also, never ceasing to send a rain of steel over their troops upon the Southern army.
But Jackson's men still lay close in the woods and behind their breastworks. Nearly all that rain of steel flew over their heads. A shower of twigs and boughs fell on them, but so long as they stayed close the great artillery fire created terror rather than damage. The men were panting with eagerness, but not one was allowed to pull trigger, nor was a cannon fired.
"Burnside must think there's but a small force here," said Dalton, "or he wouldn't send so few men against us. Harry, when I look down at those brigades of Yankees I think of the old Roman salute--it was that of the gladiators, wasn't it?--'Morituri salutamus.'"
"They're doomed," said Harry.
Jackson, like the others, had dismounted, and he walked forward with a single aide to observe more closely the Union advance. A Northern sharpshooter suddenly rose out of high weeds, not far in front, and fired directly at them. The bullet whistled between Jackson and his aide. Jackson turned to the young man and said:
"Suppose you go to the rear. You might get shot."
The young man, of course, did not go, and Harry, who was not far behind them in an earthwork, watched them with painful anxiety. He had seen the sudden uprising of the Northern skirmisher in the weeds and the flame from the muzzle. The man might not have known that it was Jackson, but he must have surmised from the gorgeous uniform that it was a general of importance.
Harry, with the trained eye of a country boy, saw a rippling movement running among the weeds. The sharpshooter would reload and fire upon his general from another point. The second bullet might not miss.
But the second shot did not come. The marksman, doubtless thinking that another shot was too dangerous a hazard, had retreated into the plain. General Jackson walked on calmly, inspecting the whole Northern advance, and then returning took up his station on Prospect Hill, where he waited with the singular calmness that was always his, for the fit time to open fire.
The leader of the Army of the Potomac was watching from the other side of the Rappahannock with a terrible eagerness. The man who had not wished the command of the splendid Union army, who had deemed himself unequal to the task, was now proving the correctness of his own intuitions. He had taken up his headquarters in a fine colonial residence on one of the highest points of the bank. He was surrounded there by numerous artillery, and the officers of his staff crowded the porches, many of them already sad of heart, although they would not let their faces show it.
But Burnside, now that his men had forced the river in such daring fashion, began to glow with hope. Such magnificent troops as he had, having crossed the deep, tidal Rappahannock in the face of an able and daring foe, were bound to win. He swept every point of the field with his glasses, and from his elevated position he and his officers could see what the troops in the plain below could not see, the long lines of the Confederates waiting in the trenches or in the woods, their cannon posted at frequent intervals.
But Burnside hoped. Who would not have hoped with such troops as his? Never did an army, and with full knowledge of it, too, advance more boldly to a superhuman task. He saw the gallant advance of the Pennsylvanians and he saw them drive off Pelham. Hope swelled into confidence. With an anxiety beyond describing he watched the further advance of Meade and his Pennsylvanians.
Stonewall Jackson also was watching from his convenient hill, and his small staff, mostly of very young men, clustered close behind him. Jackson no longer used his glasses, as Burnside was doing. Meade and his Pennsylvanians were coming close to him now. The great Union batteries on Stafford Heights must soon cease firing or their shells and shot would be crashing into the blue ranks.
"It cannot be much longer," said Harry.
"No, not much longer," said Dalton. "We'll unmask mighty soon. How far away would you say they are now, Harry?"
"About a thousand yards."
"Over a half mile. Then I'll say that when they come within a half mile Old Jack will give the word to the artillery to loosen up."
Harry and George, in their intense absorption, had forgotten about the other parts of the line. In their minds, for the present at least, Jackson was fighting the battle alone. Longstreet was forgotten, and even Lee, for a space, remained unremembered. They were staring at the brigades which were coming on so gallantly, when the jaws of death were already opened so wide to receive them.
"They're at the half mile," said Dalton, who had a wonderful eye for distance, "and still Old Jack does not give the word."
"The closer the better," said Harry. Glancing up and down the lines he saw the men bending over their guns and the riflemen in line after line rising slowly to their feet and looking to their arms. In spite of himself, in spite of all the hard usage of war through which he had been, Harry shuddered. He did not hate any of those men out there who were coming toward them so boldly; no, there was not in all those brigades, nor in all the Union army, nor in all the North a single person whom he wished to hurt. Yet he knew that he would soon fight against them with all the weapons and all the power he could gather.
"Eight hundred yards," said Dalton.
"Fire!" was the word that ran like an electric blaze along the whole Southern front; and Jackson's fifty cannon, suddenly pushing forward from the forest, poured a storm of steel upon the devoted Pennsylvanians. Harry felt the earth rocking beneath him, and his ears were stunned by the roaring and crashing of the cannon all about him.
The Union officers on the porches of the colonial mansion across the river saw that terrible blaze leap from the Confederate line, and their hearts sank within them like lead. Alarmed as they had been before, they were in consternation now. Some had said that Jackson was not there, that it was merely a detachment guarding the woods, but now they knew their mistake.
Harry and Dalton stayed close to their general. Shells and shot from the batteries below on the plain were crashing along the trees, but, like those from the great guns on Stafford Heights, they passed mostly over their heads. The two youths at that moment had little to do but watch the battle. The Southern riflemen crept forward in the woods, and now their bullets in sheets were crashing into the hostile ranks. The Union division commander hurried up reinforcements, and the Pennsylvanians, despite their frightful losses and shattered ranks, still held fast. But the Southern batteries never ceased for a moment to pour upon them a storm of death. With red battle before him and the fever in his blood running high, Harry now forgot all about wounds and death. He had eye and thought only for the tremendous panorama passing before him, where everything was clear and visible, as if it were an act in some old Roman circus, magnified manifold.
Then came a message from Jackson to hurry to the left with an order for a brigadier who lay next to Longstreet. As he ran through the trees, he heard now the roar of the battle in the center, where the stalwart Longstreet was holding Marye's Hill and the adjacent heights. A mighty Union division was attacking there, and out of the south from the embers of Fredericksburg came another great division in column after column.
Harry heard the fire of Jackson slackening behind him, and he knew it was because Meade had been stopped or was retreating, and he stayed a little with the brigadier to see how Longstreet received the enemy. The hill and all the ridges about it seemed to be in one red blaze, and every few minutes the triumphant rebel yell, something like the Indian war-whoop, but poured from thirty thousand throats, swelled above the roar of the cannon and the crash of the rifles and made Harry's pulses beat so hard that he felt absolute physical pain.
He hurried to Jackson, where the battle, which had died for a little space, was swelling again. As the Pennsylvanians were compelled to draw back, leaving the ground covered with their dead, the Union batteries on Stafford Heights reopened, firing again over the heads of the men in blue. The Southern batteries, weaker and less numerous, replied with all their energy. A far-flung shot from their greatest gun, at the extreme southern end of the line, killed the brave Union general, Bayard, as he was sitting under a tree watching his troops.
Gregg, one of the best of the Southern generals, was mortally wounded. A great body of the Pennsylvanians, charging again, reached the shelter of the woods and burst through the Southern line. At another point, Hancock, always cool and brilliant on the field of battle, rallied shattered brigades and led them forward in person to new attacks. Hooker, who had shown such courage at Antietam, equally brave on this occasion, rushed forward with his men at another point. Franklin, Sumner, Doubleday and many other of the best Union generals showed themselves reckless of death, cheering on their men, galloping up and down the lines when they were mounted, and waving their swords aloft after their horses were killed, but always leading.
The Pennsylvanians who had cut into the Southern line were attacked in flank, but they held on to their positions. Jackson did not yet know of Meade's success. He still stood on Prospect Hill with his staff, which Harry had rejoined. The forest and vast clouds of smoke hid from his view the battle, save in his front. Harry saw a messenger coming at a gallop toward the summit of the hill, and he knew by his pale face and bloodshot eyes that he brought bad news.
Jackson turned toward the messenger, expectant but calm.
"What is it?" he asked.
"The enemy have broken through General Archer's division, and he directed me to say to you that unless help is sent, both his position and that of General Gregg will be lost."
Jackson showed no excitement. His calm and composure in the face of disaster always inspired his men with fresh courage.
"Ride back to General Archer," he said, "and tell him that the division of Early and the Stonewall Brigade are coming at once."
He turned his horse as if he would go with the relief, but in a moment he checked himself, put his field glasses back to his eyes, and continued to watch heavy masses of the enemy who were coming up in another quarter.
Harry did not see what happened when Early and Taliaferro, who now led the Stonewall Brigade, fell upon the Pennsylvanians, but the Invincibles were in the charge and St. Clair told him about it afterward. The Union men had penetrated so far that they were entangled in the forest and thickets, and nobody had come up to support them. They were much scattered, and as their officers were seeking to gather them together the men in gray fell upon them in overpowering force and drove them back in broken fragments. Wild with triumph, the Southern riflemen rushed after them and also hurled back other riflemen that were coming up to their support. But on the plain they encountered the matchless Northern artillery. A battery of sixteen heavy guns met their advancing line with a storm of canister, before which they were compelled to retreat, leaving many dead and wounded behind.
Yet the entire Union attack on Jackson had been driven back, the Northern troops suffering terrible losses. The watchers on the Phillips porch on the other side of the river saw the repulse, and again their hearts sank like lead.
The watchers turned their field glasses anew to the Southern center and left, where the battle raged with undiminished ferocity. Marye's Hill was a formidable position and along its slope ran a heavy stone wall. Behind it the Southern sharpshooters were packed in thousands, and every battery was well placed.
Hancock, following Burnside's orders, led the attack upon the ensanguined slopes. Forty thousand men, almost the flower of the Union army, charged again and again up those awful slopes, and again and again they were hurled back. The top of the hill was a leaping mass of flame and the stone wall was always crested with living fire. No troops ever showed greater courage as they returned after every repulse to the hopeless charge.
At last they could go forward no longer. They had not made the slightest impression upon Marye's Hill and the slopes were strewn with many thousands of their dead and wounded, including officers of all ranks, from generals down. The Union army was now divided into two portions, each in the face of an insuperable task.
But Burnside, burning with chagrin, was unwilling to draw off his army. The reserve troops, left on the other side of the river, were sent across, and Fighting Joe Hooker was ordered to lead them to a new attack. Hooker, talking with Hancock, saw that it merely meant another slaughter, and sent such word to his commander-in-chief. But Burnside would not be moved from his purpose. The attack must he made, and Hooker--whose courage no one could question--still trying to prevent it, crossed the river himself, went to Burnside and remonstrated.
Men who were present have told vivid stories of that scene at the Phillips House. Hooker, his face covered with dust and sweat, galloping up, leaping from his horse, and rushing to Burnside; the commander-in- chief striding up and down, looking toward Marye's Hill, enveloped in smoke, and repeating to himself, as if he were scarcely conscious of what he was saying: "That height must be taken! That height must be taken! We must take it!"
He turned to Hooker with the same words, "That height must be taken to-day," repeating it over and over again, changing the words perhaps, but not the sense. The gallant but unfortunate man had not wanted to be commander-in-chief, foreseeing his own inadequacy, and now in his agony at seeing so many of his men fall in vain he was scarcely responsible.
Hooker, his heart full of despair, but resolved to obey, galloped back and prepared for the last desperate charge up Marye's Hill. The advancing mists in the east were showing that the short winter day would soon draw to a close. He planted his batteries and opened a heavy fire, intending to batter down the stone wall. But the wall, supported by an earthwork, did not give, and Longstreet's riflemen lay behind it waiting.
At a signal the Union cannon ceased firing and the bugles blew the charge. The Union brigades swarmed forward and then rushed up the slopes. The volume of fire poured upon them was unequalled until Pickett led the matchless charge at Gettysburg. Pickett himself was here among the defenders, having just been sent to help the men on Marye's Hill.
Up went the men through the winter twilight, lighted now by the blaze of so many cannon and rifles pouring down upon them a storm of lead and steel, through which no human beings could pass. They came near to the stone wall, but as their lines were now melting away like snow before the sun, they were compelled to yield and retreat again down the slopes, which were strewed already with the bodies of so many of those who had gone up in the other attacks.
Every charge had broken in vain on the fronts of Jackson and Longstreet, and the Union losses were appalling. Harry knew that the battle was won and that it had been won more easily than any of the other great battles that he had seen. He wondered what Jackson would do. Would he follow up the grand division of Franklin that he had defeated and which still lay in front of them?
But he ceased to ask the question, because when the last charge, shattered to pieces, rolled back down Marye's Hill, the magnificent Northern artillery seemed to Harry to go mad. The thirty guns of the heaviest weight that had been left on Stafford Heights, and which had ceased firing only when the Northern men charged, now reopened in a perfect excess of fury. Harry believed that they must be throwing tons of metal every minute.
Nor was Franklin slack. Hovering with his great division in the plain below and knowing that he was beaten, he nevertheless turned one hundred and sixteen cannon that he carried with him upon Jackson's front and swept all the woods and ridges everywhere. The Union army was beaten because it had undertaken the impossible, but despite its immense losses it was still superior in numbers to Lee's force, and above all it had that matchless artillery which in defeat could protect the Union army, and which in victory helped it to win.
Now all these mighty cannon were turned loose in one huge effort. Along the vast battle front and from both sides of the river they roared and crashed defiance. And the Army of the Potomac, which had wasted so much valor, crept back under the shelter of that thundering line of fire. It had much to regret, but nothing of which to be ashamed. Sent against positions impregnable when held by such men as Lee, Jackson and Longstreet, it had never ceased to attack so long as the faintest chance remained. Its commander had been unequal to the task, but the long roll of generals under him had shown unsurpassed courage and daring.
Harry thought once that General Jackson was going to attack in turn, but after a long look at the roaring plain he shrugged his shoulders and gave no orders. The beaten Army of the Potomac preserved its order, it had lost no guns, the brigadiers and the major-generals were full of courage, and it was too formidable to be attacked. Three hundred cannon of the first class on either side of the river were roaring and crashing, and the moment the Southern troops emerged for the charge all would be sure to pour upon them a fire that no troops could withstand.
General Lee presently appeared riding along the line. The cheers which always rose where he came rolled far, and he was compelled to lift his hat more than once. He conferred with Jackson, and the two, going toward the left, met Longstreet, with whom they also talked. Then they separated and Jackson returned to his own position. Harry, who had followed his general at the proper distance, never heard what they said, but he believed that they had discussed the possibility of a night attack and then had decided in the negative.
When Jackson returned to his own force the twilight was thickening into night, and as darkness sank down over the field the appalling fire of the Union artillery ceased. Thirteen thousand dead or wounded Union soldiers had fallen, and the Southern loss was much less than half.
All of Harry's comrades and friends had escaped this battle uninjured, yet many of them believed that another battle would be fought on the morrow. Harry, however, was not one of these. He remembered some words that had been spoken by Jackson in his presence:
"We can defeat the enemy here at Fredericksburg, but we cannot destroy him, because he will escape over his bridges, while we are unable to follow."
Nevertheless the young men and boys were exultant. They did not look so far ahead as Jackson, and they had never before won so great a victory with so little loss. Harry, sent on a message beyond Deep Run, found the Invincibles cooking their suppers on a spot that they had held throughout the day. They had several cheerful fires burning and they saluted Harry gladly.
"A great victory, Harry," said Happy Tom.
"Yes, a great victory," interrupted Colonel Leonidas Talbot; "but, my friends, what else could you have expected? They walked straight into our trap. But I have learned this day to have a deep respect for the valor of the Yankees. The way they charged up Marye's Hill in the face of certain death was worthy of the finest troops that South Carolina herself ever produced."
"That is saying a great deal, Leonidas," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, "but it is true."
Harry talked a little with the two colonels, and also with Langdon and St. Clair. Then he returned to his own headquarters. Both armies, making ready for battle to-morrow, if it should come, slept on their arms, while the dead and the wounded yet lay thick in the forest and on the slopes and plain.
But Harry was not among those who slept, at least not until after midnight. He and Dalton sat at the door of Jackson's tent, awaiting possible orders. Jackson knew that Burnside, with a hundred thousand men yet in line and no artillery lost, was planning another attack on the morrow, despite his frightful losses of the day.
The news of it had been sent to him by Lee, and Lee in turn had learned it from a captured orderly bearing Burnside's dispatches. But neither Harry nor Dalton knew anything of Burnside's plans. They were merely waiting for any errand upon which Jackson should choose to send them. Several other staff officers were present, and as Jackson wrote his orders, he gave them in turn to be taken to those for whom they were intended.
Harry, after three such trips of his own, sat down again near the door of the tent and watched his great leader. Jackson sat at a little table, on a cane-bottomed chair, and he wrote by the light of a single candle. His clothing was all awry and he had tossed away the gold-braided cap. His face was worn and drawn, but his eyes showed no signs of weariness. The body might have been weak, but the spirit of Jackson was never stronger.
Harry knew that Jackson after victory wasted no time exulting, but was always preparing for the next battle. The soldiers, both in his own division and elsewhere, were awakened by turns, and willing thousands strengthened the Southern position. More and deeper trenches were constructed. New abatis were built and the stone wall was strengthened yet further. Formidable as the Southern line had been to-day, Burnside would find it more so on the morrow.
After midnight, Jackson, still in his gorgeous uniform and with boots and spurs on, too, lay down on his bed and slept about three hours. Then he aroused himself, lighted his candle and wrote an hour longer. Then he went to the bedside of the dying Gregg and sat a while with him, the staff remaining at a respectful distance.
When they rode back--they were mounted again--they passed along the battle front, and the sadness which was so apparent on Jackson's face affected them. It was far toward morning now and the enemy was lighting his fires on the plain below. The dead lay where they had fallen, and no help had yet been given to those wounded too seriously to move. It had been a tremendous holocaust, and with no result. Harry knew now that the North would never cease to fight disunion. The South could win separation only at the price of practical annihilation for both.
The night was very raw and chill, and not less so now that morning was approaching. The mists and fogs, which as usual rose from the Rappahannock, made Harry shiver at their touch. In the hollows of the ridges, which the wintry sun seldom reached, great masses of ice were packed, and the plain below, cut up the day before by wheels and hoofs and footsteps, was now like a frozen field of ploughed land.
The staff heard enough through the fogs and mists to know that the Army of the Potomac was awake and stirring. The Southern army also arose, lighted its fires, cooked and ate its food and waited for the enemy. Before it was yet light Harry, on a message to Stuart, rode to the top of Prospect Hill with him, and, as they sat there on their horses, the sun cleared away the fog and mist, and they saw the Army of the Potomac drawn up in line of battle, defiant and challenging, ready to attack or to be attacked.
Harry felt a thrill of admiration that he did not wish to check. After all, the Yankees were their own people, bone of their bone, and their courage must be admired. The Army of the Potomac, too, was learning to fight without able chiefs. The young colonels and majors and captains could lead them, and there they were, after their most terrible defeat, grim and ready.
"The lion's wounded, but he isn't dead, by any means," said Harry to Stuart.
"Not by a great deal," said Stuart.
There was much hot firing by skirmishers that day and artillery duels at long range, but the Northern army, which had fortified on the plain, would not come out of its intrenchments, and the Southern soldiers also stuck to theirs. Burnside, who had crossed the river to join his men, had been persuaded at last that a second attack was bound to end like the first.
The next day Burnside sent in a flag of truce, and they buried the dead. The following night Harry, wrapped to the eyes in his great cloak, stood upon Prospect Hill and watched one of the fiercest storms that he had ever seen rage up and down the valley of the Rappahannock. Many of the Southern pickets were driven to shelter. While the whole Southern army sought protection from the deluge, the Army of the Potomac, still a hundred thousand strong, and carrying all its guns, marched in perfect order over the six bridges it had built, breaking the bridges down behind it, and camping in safety on the other side. The river was rising fast under the tremendous rain, and the Southern army could find no fords, even though it marched far up the stream.
Fredericksburg was won, but the two armies, resolute and defiant, gathered themselves anew for other battles as great or greater.