The Guns of Bull Run by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XV. Battle's Eve
Harry found little change in the Southern army, except that more troops had come up from Richmond. It still rested upon Bull Run. The country here was old, having been cropped for many generations, the soil mostly clay and cut in deep ruts. There were many ravines and water courses, and hillocks were numerous. Colonel Talbot had told Harry a month before that it was not a bad place for a battle ground, and he remembered it now as he came back to it. He had not taken the time to return to the charcoal burner's hut for his uniform, and, when he approached his own lines he still wore the Sunday best of Perkins.
The sentinel who hailed him first doubted his claim that he was a member of the Invincibles, but he insisted so urgently, and called all its officers by name so readily that he was passed on. He dismounted, gave his horse to an orderly, and walked toward a clump of trees where he saw Colonel Talbot writing at a small table in the open. The colonel, engrossed in his work, did not look up, as the boy's footsteps made little sound on the turf. When Harry stood before him he saluted and said:
"I have returned to make my report, Colonel Talbot."
The colonel looked up, uttered a cry of pleasure and seized Harry by both hands.
"Thank God, you've come back, my boy!" he said. "I hesitated to send your father's son on such an errand, but I thought that you would succeed. You have seen the enemy's forces?"
"I've been in Washington, itself," said Harry, some pride showing in his voice.
"Then we'll go at once to General Beauregard. He is in his tent now, conferring with some of his chief officers."
A great marquee stood in the shade of a grove, only two or three hundred yards away. Its sides were open, as the heat was great, and Harry saw the commander-in-chief within, talking earnestly with men in the uniform of generals. Longstreet, Early, Hill and others were there. Harry was somewhat abashed, but he had the moral support of Colonel Talbot, and, after the first few moments of embarrassment, he told his story in a direct and incisive manner. The officers listened with attention.
"It confirms the other reports," said Beauregard.
"It goes further," said Longstreet. "Our young friend here is obviously a lad of intelligence and discernment and what he saw in Washington shows that the North is resolved to crush us. The battle that we are going to fight will not be the last battle by any means."
"Each side is too sanguine," said Hill.
"You have done well, Lieutenant Kenton," said Beauregard, "and now you can rejoin your regiment. You are to receive a promotion of one grade."
Harry was glad to leave the marquee and hurry toward the camp of the Invincibles. The first of his friends whom he saw was Happy Tom Langdon, bathing his face in a little stream that flowed into Young's Branch. He walked up and smote him joyously on the back. Langdon sprang to his feet in anger and exclaimed:
"Hey, you fellow, what do you mean by that?"
He saw before him a tall, gawky youth in ill-fitting clothes, his face a mask of dust. But this same dusty youth grinned and replied:
"I hit you once, and if you don't speak to me more politely I'll hit you twice."
Langdon stared. Then recognition came.
"Harry Kenton, by all that's wonderful!" he exclaimed. "And so you've come back! I was afraid you never would! What have you been doing, Harry?"
"I've been pretty busy. I drove in the right wing of the Yankee army, put to flight a couple of brigades in their center, then I went on to Washington and had a talk with Lincoln. I told him the North would have me to reckon with if he kept on with this war, but he said he believed he'd go ahead anyhow. I even mentioned your name to him, but the menace did no good."
Langdon called to St. Clair and soon Harry was surrounded by friends who gave him the warmest of greetings and who insisted upon the tale of his adventures, a part of which he was free to tell. Then a new uniform was brought to him, and, after a long and refreshing bath in a deep pool of the stream, he put it on. He felt now as if he had been entirely made over, and, as he strolled back to camp, a tall, thin man, black of hair and pallid of face, hailed him.
Harry took two glances before he recognized Arthur Travers in the Southern uniform. Then he grasped his hand eagerly and asked him when he had come.
"Only two days ago," replied Travers. "I'm in another regiment farther along Bull Run. I merely came over here to tell you that your father was well when I last heard from him. He is with the Western forces that are to be under Albert Sidney Johnston."
Harry did not care greatly for Travers, but it was pleasant to see anybody from the old home, and they talked some time. But Harry did not see him again soon, as the bonds of discipline were now tightened. Regiments were kept in ranks and the men were not permitted to wander from their places. Northern bands were continually in their front, and it was reported daily that the great army at Washington was about to move.
Yet the days passed, and no important event occurred. July advanced. The heat became more intense. The fields were bare, the vegetation trodden out by armies, and, when the wind rose, clouds of dust beat upon them. It was lucky for them that the country was cut by so many streams.
The Invincibles were moved about several times, but they stopped at last at a little plateau where a branch railroad joined the main stem, giving to the place the name Manassas Junction. Bull Run was near, flowing between high banks, but with crossings at two fords and two bridges. Beauregard had thrown up earthworks at the station, and strong batteries were hidden in the foliage at the fords. The Southern army, weary of waiting, was eager for battle. The Northern people, also weary of waiting, demanded that their own troops advance.
As Harry sat with his friends one hot night the word was passed that the Northern army was coming at last. The Southern scouts had reported that McDowell's whole force was already on the march and was drawing near. It would attempt the passage of Bull Run. A murmur ran through the camp of the Invincibles, but there was little talk. They had already tasted of battle at the fort in the valley, and it was not a thing to be taken lightly.
Harry resolved that he would sleep if he could, but there was no rest for the Invincibles just then. An order came from Beauregard, and, with Colonel Talbot at their head, they took up their arms, marching to one of the fords of Bull Run, where they lay down among trees near a battery. They were forbidden to talk, but they whispered, nevertheless. The ford before them was Blackburn's, and the heavy attack of the Northern army would be made there in the morning.
Harry and the Invincibles were at the very edge of the river. They had been under heavy fire before, but, nevertheless, everything they now saw or heard played upon their nerves. The murmur of the little river was multiplied thrice. Every time a bayonet or a saber rattled it smote with sharpness upon the ear. The neigh of a horse became a fierce, lingering note, and out of the darkness that covered the rolling country in front of them came many sounds, but few of which were real.
For a long time there was movement on their own side of the stream. Troops were continually coming up in the night and taking position. It required no acute mind to perceive that the Southern commander expected the main attack to be made here, and was massing his troops in force to receive it. Except at the ford itself the banks of the river were high, but those on the Northern side were higher. A skirt of forest lined the Southern bank, and Harry saw Longstreet and his men march into it, and lie there on their arms. Nearer to him among the trees were the powerful batteries of artillery. Beauregard himself had come and he now had with him seven brigades eager for the attack.
The night was hot and windless, save at distant intervals, when a slight breeze blew from the North. Then it brought dust with it, and Harry believed that it came from the dry soil, trod to powder by the marching feet of a great army, and the wheels of many cannon.
Comparative silence came after a while on his own side of the river. There was no sharp sound, only a low and almost continuous murmur made by the whispering, and restless movements which so many thousands of men could not avoid. But the sound was so steady that they heard above it the croak of frogs at the edge of the stream, and then another sound which Harry at first did not understand.
"What is it?" he whispered to St. Clair, who lay a little higher than he.
"It's a lot of our men crossing the ford. Raise up and you can see them walking in the water. I take it that the general is going to put a force in the bushes and trees on the other bank to sting the Northern army good and hard before it pushes home the main attack."
Standing up Harry saw men wading Bull Run in a long file, every one carrying a rifle on his shoulder. In the hot dim night they looked like lines of Indians advancing through the water to choose an ambush. They were crossing for half an hour, and then they melted away. He could not see one of the figures again, nor did any sound come from them, but he knew that the riflemen lay there in the bushes, and that many a man would fall before they waded Bull Run again.
"Do you think the attack is really coming this time?" whispered Langdon.
"I feel sure of it," replied Harry. "All the scouts have said so and you may laugh at me, Tom, but I tell you that when the wind blows our way I feel the dust raised by thirty thousand men marching toward us."
"I'm not laughing at you, Harry. Sometimes that instinct of yours tells when things are coming long before you can see or hear 'em. But while I'm no such wonder myself I can hear those bullfrogs croaking down there at the edge of the water. Think of their cheek, calmly singing their night songs between two armies of twenty or thirty thousand men each, who are going to fight tomorrow."
"But it's not their fight," said St. Clair, "and maybe they are croaking for a lot of us."
"Shut up, you bird of ill omen, you raven, you," said Happy Tom. "Everything is going to happen for the best, we are going to win the victory, and we three are going to come out of the battle all right."
St. Clair did not answer him. His was a serious nature and he foresaw a great struggle which would waver long in doubt. Harry had lain down on his blanket and was seeking sleep again.
"Stop talking," he said to the other two. "We've got to go to sleep if it's only for the sake of our nerves. We must be fresh and steady when we go into the battle in the morning."
"I suppose you are right," said Happy Tom, "but I find this overtaking slumber a long chase. Maybe you can form a habit of sleeping well before big battles, but I haven't had the chance to do so yet."
Harry did fall asleep after a while, but he awoke before dawn to find that there was already bustle and movement in the army about him. Fires were lighted further back, and an early but plentiful breakfast was cooked. All were up and ready when the sun rose over the Virginia fields.
"Another hot day," said Happy Tom. "See, the sun is as red as fire! And look how it burns on the water there."
"Yes, hot it will be," Harry said to himself. They had eaten their breakfast and lay once more among the trees. Harry searched with his eyes the bushes and thickets on the other side for their riflemen, but most of them were still invisible in the day. Then the Southern brigades were ordered to lie down, but after they lay there some time Harry felt that the film of dust on the edge of the wind was growing stronger, and presently they saw a great cloud of it rising above hills and trees and moving toward them.
"They're coming," said St. Clair. "In less than a half hour they'll be at the ford."
"But I doubt if they know what is waiting for them," said Harry.
The cloud of dust rapidly came nearer, and now they heard the beat of horses' feet and the clank of artillery. Harry began to breathe hard, and he and the other young officers walked up and down the lines of their company. All the Invincibles clearly saw that great plume of dust, and heard the ominous sounds that came with it. It was very near now, but suddenly the fringe of forest on the far side of the river burst into flame. The hidden riflemen had opened fire and were burning the front of the advancing army.
But the Northern men came steadily on, rousing the riflemen out of the bushes, and then they appeared among the trees on the north side of Bull Run--a New York brigade led by Tyler. The moment their faces showed there was a tremendous discharge from the Southern batteries masked in the wood. The crash was appalling, and Harry shut his eyes for a moment, in horror, as he saw the entire front rank of the Northern force go down. Then the Southern sharpshooters in hundreds, who lined the water's edge, opened with the rifle, and a storm of lead crashed into the ranks of the hapless New Yorkers.
"Up, Invincibles!" cried Colonel Talbot, and they began to fire, and load, and fire again into the attacking force which had walked into what was almost an ambush.
"They'll never reach the ford!" shouted Happy Tom.
"Never!" Harry shouted back.
The Southern generals, already trained in battles, pushed their advantages. A great force of Southern sharpshooters crossed the river and took the Northern brigade in flank. The New Yorkers, unable to stand the tremendous artillery and rifle fire in their front, and the new rifle fire on their side also, broke and retreated. But another brigade came up to their relief and they advanced again, sending a heavy return fire from their rifles, while the artillery on their flank replied to that of the South.
The combat now became fierce. The Invincibles in the very thick of it advanced to the water's edge, and fired as fast as they could load and reload. Huge volumes of smoke gathered over both sides of Bull Run, and men fell fast. There was also a rain of twigs and boughs as the bullets and shells cut them through, and the dense, heated air, shot through with smoke, burned the throats of blue and gray.
But the South had the advantage of position and numbers. Moreover, those riflemen on the flanks of the Northern troops burned them terribly and they were weary, too, with long marching in dust and heat. As the artillery and rifle fire converged upon them and became heavier and heavier they were forced to give way. They yielded ground slowly, until they were beyond range of the cannon, and then, brushing off the fierce swarm of sharpshooters on their flank, they retreated all the way back to the village, whence they had come.
The firing on the Southern side of Bull Run ceased suddenly, and the smoke began to drift away. The Invincibles, save those who had fallen to stay, stood up and shouted. They had won the greatest victory in the world, and they flung taunts in the direction of the retreating foe.
"Stop that!" shouted Colonel Talbot, striding up and down the line. "This is only a beginning. Wait until we have a real battle."
"This has happened for the best," said Happy Tom, "but I'd like to know what the colonel calls a real battle. The fire was so loud I couldn't hear myself speak, and I know at least a million men were engaged. Arthur, how can you be cool enough to bathe your face in that water?"
"It's to make it cool," replied St. Clair, who had stooped over Bull Run, and was laving his face. "I feel that dust and burned gunpowder are thick all over me."
He stood up, his face now clean, and began to arrange his uniform. Then he carefully dusted his coat and trousers.
"Hope you are all ready for another battle, Arthur," said Tom.
"Not yet," replied St. Clair laughing. "That will do me for quite a while."
St. Clair had his wish. The enemy seemed to have enough for the time. The hot, breathless day passed without any further advance. Now and then they heard the Northern bugles, and the scouts reported that the foe was still gathering heavily not far away, but the Invincibles, from their camp, saw nothing.
"I suppose the colonel was right," said Happy Tom, "and this must have been a sort of prologue. But if the prologue was so hot what's the play going to be?"
"Something hotter," said Harry.
"A vague but true answer," said Langdon.
Yet the delay was long. They lay all that day and all that night along the banks of Bull Run, and a hundred conflicting reports ran up and down their ranks. The Northern army would retreat, it would attack within a few hours; the Southern army would retreat, it would hold its present position; both sides would receive reinforcements, neither would receive any fresh troops. Every statement was immediately denied.
"I refuse to believe anything until it happens," said Harry, when night came. "I'm getting hardened to this sort of thing, and as soon as my time off duty comes I'm going to sleep."
Sleep he did in the shot-torn woods, and it was the heavy sleep of exhaustion. Nerves did not trouble him, as he slept without dreams and rose to another windless, burning day. The hours dragged on again, but in the night there was a tremendous shouting. Johnston, with eight thousand men, had slipped away from Patterson in the mountains, and the infantry had come by train directly to the plateau of Manassas, where they were now leaving the cars and taking their place in the line of battle. The artillery and cavalry were coming on behind over the dirt road. The Southern generals were already showing the energy and decision for which they were so remarkable in the first years of the war. Johnston was the senior, but since Beauregard had made the battlefield, he left him in command.
The Invincibles were moved off to the left along Bull Run, and were posted in front of a stone bridge, where other troops gathered, until twelve or thirteen thousand men were there. But Harry and his comrades were nearest to the bridge, and it seemed to him that the situation was almost exactly as it had been three nights before. Again they faced Bull Run and again they expected an attack in the morning. There was no change save the difference between a ford and a bridge. But the Invincibles, hardened by the three days of skirmishing and waiting, took things more easily now.
They lay in the woods near the steep banks, and the batteries commanded the entrance to the bridge. The night was once more hot and windless and they were so quiet that they could hear the murmur of the waters. Far across Bull Run they saw dim lights moving, and they knew that they were those of the Northern army.
"I think things have changed a lot in the last three days," said Harry. "Then the Yankees didn't know much about us. They charged almost blindfolded into our ambush. Now we don't know much about them. We don't know by any means where the attack is coming. It is they who are keeping us guessing."
"But there are only two fords and two bridges across Bull Run," said Langdon, "and they have got to choose one out of the lot."
"Which means that we've got to accumulate our forces at some one of four places, one guess out of four."
Harry did not speak at all in a tone of discouragement, but his intelligent mind saw that the Northern leaders had profited by their mistakes and that the Southern general did not really know where the great impact would come. The Northern scouts and skirmishers swarmed on the other side of Bull Run, and even in the darkness this cloud of wasps was so dense that Beauregard's own scouts could not get beyond them and tell what the greater mass behind was doing. Harry was summoned at midnight by Colonel Talbot. Behind a clump of trees some distance back of the bridge, Beauregard, Johnston, Evans, who was in direct command at the ford, Early, and several other important officers were in anxious consultation. Colonel Talbot told Harry that he would be wanted presently as a messenger, and he stood on one side while the others talked. It was then that he first heard Jubal Early swear with a richness, a spontaneity and an unction that raised it almost to the dignity of a rite.
Harry gathered that they could not agree as to the point at which the Northern attack would be delivered, but the balance of opinion inclined to the bridge, before which the command of Evans was encamped. Hence he was sent farther down the stream, with a message for a North Carolina regiment to move up and join Evans.
The regiment lay about a mile away, but Harry walked almost the whole distance among sleeping men. They lay on the grass by thousands, and exhausted by the movement and marching of recent days they slept heavily. In the moonlight they looked as if they were dead. It was so quiet now that some night birds in the trees uttered strange moaning cries. But far across Bull Run lights still moved and Harry had no doubt that the great battle, delayed so long, was really coming in the morning.
The North Carolina regiment rose sleepily and marched with him to the bridge, where it was incorporated into the force of Evans. Beauregard, Johnston and Early had gone to other points, and Harry knew that they were still anxious and of divided opinions. Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, to whom he had to report, and who moved their own regiment down near Evans, did not conceal the fact from him.
"Harry," said the colonel, "we're all sure that we'll have to fight on the morrow, and it looks as if the battle would come in the greatest weight here at the bridge, but the Invincibles must be prepared for anything. You lads are fit and trim, and I hope that all of you will do your duty tomorrow. Remember that we have brave foes before us, and I know most of their officers. All who are of our age have been the comrades of Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire and myself."
"It is true, and it is a melancholy phase of this war," said Hector St. Hilaire.
They walked away together and Harry rejoined those of his own age near the banks of Bull Run. But Langdon and St. Clair were sound asleep on their blankets, and so were all the rest of the Invincibles, save those who had been posted as sentinels. But Harry did not sleep that night. It was past midnight now, but he was never more awake in his life, and he felt that he must watch until day.
He had no duties to do, and he sat down with his back to a tree and waited. Far in his front, three or four miles, perhaps, he thought he saw lights signaling to each other, but he had no idea what they meant, and he watched them merely with an idle curiosity. Once he thought he heard the distant call of a trumpet, but he was not sure. Woods and fields were flooded with the brightness of moon and stars, but if anything was passing on the other side of Bull Run, it was too well hidden for him to see it. His senses were soothed and he sank into a state of peace and rest. In reality it was a physical relaxation coming after so much tension and activity, and the bodily ease became mental also.
Resting thus, motionless against the trunk of the tree, time passed easily for him. The warm air of the night blew now and then against his face and only soothed him to deeper rest. The last light far across Bull Run went out and the darker hours came. Nothing stirred now in the woods until the hot dawn came again, and the brazen sun leaped up in the sky.