The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIII. The Coming of Grant
The little dinner ended. Despite his disapproval of General Early's swearing, General Lee laughed heartily at further details of the strange Yankee spy's exploits. But it was well known that in this particular General Early was the champion of the East. Harry did not know that in the person of Colonel Charles Woodville, his cousin, Dick Mason, had encountered one of equal ability in the Southwest.
Presently General Lee and his two young aides mounted their horses for the return. The commander-in-chief seemed gayer than usual. He was always very fond of Stuart, whose high spirits pleased him, and before his departure he thanked him for his thoughtfulness.
"Whenever we get any particularly choice shipments from the North I shall always be pleased to notify you, General, and send you your share," said Stuart, sweeping the air in front of him again with his great plumed hat. With his fine, heroic face and his gorgeous uniform he had never looked more a knight of the Middle Ages.
General Lee smiled and thanked him again, and then rode soberly back, followed at a short distance by his two young aides. Although the view of hills and mountains and valleys and river and brooks was now magnificent, the sumach burning in red and the leaves vivid in many colors, Lee, deeply sensitive, like all his rural forbears, to rural beauty, nevertheless seemed not to notice it, and soon sank into deep thought.
It is believed by many that Lee knew then that the Confederacy had already received a mortal blow. It was not alone sufficient for the South to win victories. She must keep on winning them, and the failure at Gettysburg and the defeat at Vicksburg had put her on the defensive everywhere. Fewer blockade runners were getting through. Above all, there was less human material upon which to draw. But he roused himself presently and said to Harry:
"There was something humorous in the exploits of the man who held up General Early's messengers, but the fellow is dangerous, exceedingly dangerous at such a time."
"I've an idea who he is, sir," said Harry.
"Indeed! What do you know?"
Then Harry told nearly all that he knew about Shepard, but not all-- that struggle in the river, and his sparing of the spy and the filching of the map at the Curtis house, for instance--and the commander-in-chief listened with great attention.
"A bold man, uncommonly bold, and it appears uncommonly skilled, too. We must send out a general alarm, that is, we must have all our own scouts and spies watching for him."
Harry said nothing, but he did not believe that anybody would catch Shepard. The man's achievements had been so startling that they had created the spell of invincibility. His old belief that he was worth ten thousand men on the Northern battle line returned. No movement of the Army of Northern Virginia could escape him, and no lone messenger could ever be safe from him.
Lee returned to his camp on Clarke's Mountain, and, a great revival meeting being in progress, he joined it, sitting with a group of officers. Fitzhugh Lee, W. H. F. Lee, Jones, Rosser, Wickham, Munford, Young, Wade Hampton and a dozen others were there. Taylor and Marshall and Peyton of his staff were also in the company.
The preacher was a man of singular power and earnestness, and after the sermon he led the singing himself, in which often thirty or forty thousand voices joined. It was a moving sight to Harry, all these men, lads, mostly, but veterans of many fields, united in a chorus mightier than any other that he had ever heard. It would have pleased Stonewall Jackson to his inmost soul, and once more, as always, a tear rose to his eye as he thought of his lost hero.
Harry and Dalton left their horses with an orderly and came back to the edge of the great grove, in which the meeting was being held. They had expected to find St. Clair and Happy Tom there, but not seeing them, wandered on and finally drifted apart. Harry stood alone for a while on the outskirts of the throng. They were all singing again, and the mighty volume of sound rolled through the wood. It was not only a singular, it was a majestic scene also to Harry. How like unto little children young soldiers were! and how varied and perplexing were the problems of human nature! They were singing with the utmost fervor of Him who had preached continuously of peace, who was willing to turn one cheek when the other was smitten, and because of their religious zeal they would rush the very next day into battle, if need be, with increased fire and zeal.
He saw a heavily built, powerful man on the outskirts, but some distance away, singing in a deep rolling voice, but something vaguely familiar in the figure drew his glance again. He looked long and well and then began to edge quietly toward the singer, who was clothed in the faded butternut uniform that so many of the Confederate soldiers wore.
The fervor of the singer did not decrease, but Harry noticed that he too was moving, moving slowly toward the eastern end of the grove, the same direction that Harry was pursuing. Now he was sure. He would have called out, but his voice would not have been heard above the vast volume of sound. He might have pointed out the singer to others, but, although he felt sure, he did not wish to be laughed at in case of mistake. But strongest of all was the feeling that it had become a duel between Shepard and himself.
He walked slowly on, keeping the man in view, but Shepard, although he never ceased singing, moved away at about the same pace. Harry inferred at once that Shepard had seen him and was taking precautions. The temptation to cry out at the top of his voice that the most dangerous of all spies was among them was almost irresistible, but it would only create an uproar in which Shepard could escape easily, leaving to him a load of ridicule.
He continued his singular pursuit. Shepard was about a hundred yards away, and they had made half the circuit of this huge congregation. Then the spy passed into a narrow belt of pines, and when Harry moved forward to see him emerge on the other side he failed to reappear. He hastened to the pines, which led some distance down a little gully, and he was sure that Shepard had gone that way. He followed fast, but he could discover no sign. He had vanished utterly, like thin smoke swept away by a breeze.
He returned deeply stirred by the appearance and disappearance--easy, alike--of Shepard. His sense of the man's uncanny powers and of his danger to the Confederacy was increased. He seemed to come and go absolutely as he pleased. It was true that in the American Civil War the opportunities for spies were great. All men spoke the same language, and all looked very much alike. It was not such a hard task to enter the opposing lines, but Shepard had shown a daring and success beyond all comparison. He seemed to have both the seven league boots and the invisible cloak of very young childhood. He came as he pleased, and when pursuit came he vanished in thin air.
Harry bit his lips in chagrin. He felt that Shepard had scored on him again. It was true that he had been victorious in that fight in the river, when victory meant so much, but since then Shepard had triumphed, and it was bitter. He hardened his determination, and resolved that he would always be on the watch for him. He even felt a certain glow, because he was one of two in such a conflict of skill and courage.
The meeting having been finished, he went down one of the streets of tents to the camp of the Invincibles. Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire were not playing chess. Instead they were sitting on a pine log with Happy Tom and St. Clair and other officers, listening to young Julien de Langeais, who sat on another log, playing a violin with surpassing skill. Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, knowing his prowess as a violinist, had asked him to come and play for the Invincibles. Now he was playing for them and for several thousand more who were gathered in the pine woods.
Young de Langeais sat on a low stump, and the great crowd made a solid mass around him. But he did not see them, nor the pine woods nor the heavy cannon sitting on the ridges. He looked instead into a region of fancy, where the colors were brilliant or gay or tender as he imagined them. Harry, with no technical knowledge of music but with a great love of it, recognized at once the touch of a master, and what was more, the soul of one.
To him the violin was not great, unless the player was great, but when the player was great it was the greatest musical instrument of all. He watched de Langeais' wrapt face, and for him too the thousands of soldiers, the pines and the cannon on the ridges melted away. He did not know what the young musician was playing, probably some old French air or a great lyric outburst of the fiery Verdi, whose music had already spread through America.
"A great artist," whispered Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire in his ear. "He studied at the schools in New Orleans and then for two years in Paris. But he came back to fight. Nothing could keep Julien from the army, but he brought his violin with him. We Latins, or at least we who are called Latins, steep our souls in music. It's not merely intellectual with us. It's passion, fire, abandonment, triumph and all the great primitive emotions of the human race."
Harry's feelings differed somewhat from those of Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire--in character but not in power--and as young de Langeais played on he began to think what a loss a stray bullet could make. Why should a great artist be allowed to come on the battle line? There were hundreds of thousands of common men. One could replace another, but nobody could replace the genius, a genius in which the whole world shared. It was not possible for either drill or training to do it, and yet a little bullet might take away his life as easily as it would that of a plowboy. They were all alike to the bullets and the shells.
De Langeais finished, and a great shout of applause arose. The cheering became so insistent that he was compelled to play again.
"His family is well-to-do," said Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire just before he began playing once more, "and they'll see that he goes back to Paris for study as soon as the war is over. If they didn't I would."
It did not seem to occur to Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire that young de Langeais could be killed, and Harry began to share his confidence. De Langeais now played the simple songs of the old South, and there was many a tear in the eyes of war-hardened youth. The sun was setting in a sea of fire, and the pine forests turned red in its blaze. In the distance the waters of the Rapidan were crimson, too, and a light wind out of the west sighed among the pines, forming a subdued chorus to the violin.
De Langeais began to play a famous old song of home, and Harry's mind traveled back on its lingering note to his father's beautiful house and grounds, close by Pendleton, and all the fine country about it, in which he and Dick Mason and the boys of their age had roamed. He remembered all the brooks and ponds and the groves that produced the best hickory nuts. When should he see them again and would his father be there, and Dick, and all the other boys of their age! Not all! Certainly not all, because some were gone already. And yet this plaintive note of the homes they had left behind, while it brought a tear to many an eye, made no decrease in martial determination. It merely hardened their resolution to win the victory all the sooner, and bring the homecoming march nearer.
De Langeais ended on a wailing note that died like a faint sigh in the pine forest. Then he came back to earth, sprang up, and put his violin in its case. Applause spread out and swelled in a low, thunderous note, but de Langeais, who was as modest as he was talented, quickly hid himself among his friends.
The sun sank behind the blue mountains, and twilight came readily over the pine and cedar forests. Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, who had a large tent together, invited the youths to stay awhile with them as their guests and talk. All the soldiers dispersed to their own portions of the great camp, and there would be an hour of quiet and rest, until the camp cooks served supper.
It had been a lively day for Harry, his emotions had been much stirred, and now he was glad to sit in the peace of the evening on a stone near the entrance of the tent, and listen to his friends. War drew comrades together in closer bonds than those of peace. He was quite sure that St. Clair, Dalton and Happy Tom were his friends for life, as he was theirs, and the two colonels seemed to have the same quality of youth. Simple men, of high faith and honor, they were often childlike in the ways of the world, their horizons sometimes not so wide as those of the lads who now sat with them.
"As I told Harry," said Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire to Julien, "you shall have that talent of yours cultivated further after the war. Two years more of study and you will be among the greatest. You must know, lads, that for us who are of French descent, Paris is the world's capital in the arts."
"And for many of English blood, too," said Colonel Talbot.
Then they talked of more immediate things, of the war, the armies and the prospect of the campaigns. Harry, after an hour or so, returned to headquarters and he found soldiers making a bed for the commander-in- chief under the largest of the pines. Lee in his campaigns always preferred to sleep in the open air, when he could, and it required severe weather to drive him to a tent. Meanwhile he sat by a small fire-- the October nights were growing cold--and talked with Peyton and other members of his staff.
Harry and Dalton decided to imitate his example and sleep between the blankets under the pines. Harry found a soft place, spread his blankets and in a few minutes slept soundly. In fact, the whole Army of Northern Virginia was a great family that retired early, slept well and rose early.
The next morning there was frost on the grass, but the lads were so hardy that they took no harm. The autumn deepened. The leaves blazed for a while in their most vivid colors and then began to fall under the strong west winds. Brown and wrinkled, they often whirled past in clouds. The air had a bite in it, and the soldiers built more and larger fires.
The Army of Northern Virginia never before had been quiescent so long. The Army of the Potomac was not such a tremendous distance away, but it seemed that neither side was willing to attack, and as the autumn advanced and began to merge into winter the minds of all turned toward the Southwest.
For the valiant soldiers encamped on the Virginia hills the news was not good. Grant, grim and inflexible, was deserving the great name that was gradually coming to him. He had gathered together all the broken parts of the army defeated at Chickamauga and was turning Union defeat into Union victory.
Winter closed in with the knowledge that Grant had defeated the South disastrously on Lookout Mountain and all around Chattanooga. Chickamauga had gone for nothing, the whole flank of the Confederacy was turned and the Army of Northern Virginia remained the one great barrier against the invading legions of the North. Yet the confidence of the men in that army remained undimmed. They felt that on their own ground, and under such a man as Lee, they were invincible.
In the course of these months Harry, as a messenger and often as a secretary, was very close to Lee. He wrote a swift and clear hand, and took many dispatches. Almost daily messages were sent in one direction or another and Harry read from them the thoughts of his leader, which he kept locked in his breast. He knew perhaps better than many an older officer the precarious condition of the Confederacy. These letters, which he took from dictation, and the letters from Richmond that he read to his chief, told him too plainly that the limits of the Confederacy were shrinking. Its money declined steadily. Happy Tom said that he had to "swap it pound for pound now to the sutlers for groceries." Yet it is the historical truth that the heart of the Army of Northern Virginia never beat with more fearless pride, as the famous and "bloody" year of '63 was drawing to its close.
The news arrived that Grant, the Sledge Hammer of the West, had been put by Lincoln in command of all the armies of the Union, and would come east to lead the Army of the Potomac in person, with Meade still as its nominal chief, but subject, like all the others, to his command.
Harry heard the report with a thrill. He knew now that decisive action would come soon enough. He had always felt that Meade in front of them was a wavering foe, and perhaps too cautious. But Grant was of another kind. He was a pounder. Defeats did not daunt him. He would attack and then attack again and again, and the diminishing forces of the Confederacy were ill fitted to stand up against the continued blows of the hammer. Harry's thrill was partly of apprehension, but whenever he looked at the steadfast face of his chief his confidence returned.
Winter passed without much activity and spring began to show its first buds. The earth was drying, after melting snows and icy rains, and Harry knew that action would not be delayed much longer. Grant was in the East now. He had gone in January to St. Louis to visit his daughter, who lay there very ill, and then, after military delays, he had reached Washington.
Harry afterward heard the circumstances of his arrival, so characteristic of plain and republican America. He came into Washington by train as a simple passenger, accompanied only by his son, who was but fourteen years of age. They were not recognized, and arriving at a hotel, valise in hand, with a crowd of passengers, he registered in his turn: "U. S. Grant and son, Galena, Ill." The clerk, not noticing the name, assigned the modest arrival and his boy to a small room on the fifth floor. Then they moved away, a porter carrying the valise. But the clerk happened to look again at the register, and when he saw more clearly he rushed after them with a thousand apologies. He did not expect the victor of great battles, the lieutenant-general commanding all the armies of the Union, a battle front of more than a million men, to come so modestly.
When Harry heard the story he liked it. It seemed to him to be the same simple and manly quality that he found in Lee, both worthy of republican institutions. But he did not have time to think about it long. The signs were multiplying that the advance would soon come. The North had never ceased to resound with preparations, and Grant would march with veterans. All the spies and scouts brought in the same report. Butler would move up from Fortress Monroe toward Richmond with thirty thousand men and Grant with a hundred and fifty thousand would cross the Rapidan, moving by the right flank of Lee until they could unite and destroy the Confederacy. Such was the plan, said the scouts and spies in gray.
Longstreet with his corps had returned from the West and Lee gathered his force of about sixty thousand men to meet the mighty onslaught--he alone perhaps divined how mighty it would be--and when he was faced by the greatest of his adversaries his genius perhaps never shone more brightly.
May and the full spring came. It was the third day of the month, and the camp of the Army of Northern Virginia was as usual. Many of the young soldiers played games among the trees. Here and there they lay in groups on the new grass, singing their favorite songs. The cooks were preparing their suppers over the big fires. Several bands were playing. Had it not been for the presence of so many weapons the whole might have been taken for one vast picnic, but Harry, who sat in the tent of the commander-in-chief, was writing as fast as he could dispatch after dispatch that the Southern leader was dictating to him. He knew perfectly well, of course, that the commander-in-chief was gathering his forces and that they would move quickly for battle. He knew, too, how inadequate was the equipment of the army. Only a short time before he had taken from the dictation of his chief a letter to the President of the Confederacy a part of which ran:
My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together and might force a retreat into North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops to-day and to-morrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report.
Harry had thought long over this letter and he knew from his own observation its absolute truth. The depleted South was no longer able to feed its troops well. The abundance of the preceding autumn had quickly passed, and in winter they were mostly on half rations.
Lee, better than any other man in the whole South, had understood what lay before them, and his foes both of the battlefield and of the spirit have long since done him justice. Less than a week before this eve of mighty events he had written to a young woman in Virginia, a relative:
I dislike to send letters within reach of the enemy, as they might serve, if captured, to bring distress on others. But you must sometimes cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia, and never forget it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it His Almighty arms and drive its enemies before it.
Harry had seen this letter before its sending, and he was not surprised now when Lee was sending messengers to all parts of his army. With all the hero-worshiping quality of youth he was once more deeply grateful that he should have served on the staffs and been brought into close personal relations with two men, Stonewall Jackson and Lee, who seemed to him so great. As he saw it, it was not alone military greatness but greatness of the soul, which was greater. Both were deeply religious-- Lee, the Episcopalian, and Jackson, the Presbyterian, and it was a piety that contained no trace of cant.
Harry felt that the crisis of the great Civil War was at hand. It had been in the air all that day, and news had come that Grant had broken up his camps and was crossing the Rapidan with a huge force. He knew how small in comparison was the army that Lee could bring against him, and yet he had supreme confidence in the military genius of his chief.
He had written a letter with which an aide had galloped away, and then he sat at the little table in the great tent, pen in hand and ink and paper before him, but Lee was silent. He was dressed as usual with great neatness and care, though without ostentation. His face had its usual serious cast, but tinged now with melancholy. Harry knew that he no longer saw the tent and those around him. His mind dwelled for a few moments upon his own family and the ancient home that he had loved so well.
The interval was very brief. He was back in the present, and the principal generals for whom he had sent were entering the tent. Hill, Longstreet, Ewell, Stuart and others came, but they did not stay long. They talked earnestly with their leader for a little while, and then every one departed to lead his brigades.
The secretaries put away pen, ink and paper. Twilight was advancing in the east and night suddenly fell outside. The songs ceased, the bands played no more, and there was only the deep rumble of marching men and moving cannon.
"We'll ride now, gentlemen," said Lee to his staff.
Traveller, saddled and bridled, was waiting and the commander-in-chief sprang into the saddle with all the agility of a young man. The others mounted, too, Harry and Dalton as usual taking their places modestly in the rear.
A regiment, small in numbers but famous throughout the army for valor, was just passing, and its colonel and its lieutenant-colonel, erect men, riding splendidly, but gray like Lee, drew their swords and gave the proud and flashing salute of the saber as they went by. Lee and his staff almost with involuntary impulse returned the salute in like fashion. Then the Invincibles passed on, and were lost from view in the depths of the forest.
Harry felt a sudden constriction of the heart. He knew that he might never see Colonel Leonidas Talbot nor Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire again, nor St. Clair, nor Happy Tom either.
But his friends could not remain long in his mind at such a time. They were marching, marching swiftly, the presence of the man on the great white horse seeming to urge them on to greater speed. As the stars came out Lee's brow, which had been seamed by thought, cleared. His plan which he had formed in the day was moving well. His three corps were bearing away toward the old battlefield of Chancellorsville. Grant would be drawn into the thickets of the Wilderness as Hooker had been the year before, although a greater than Hooker was now leading the Army of the Potomac.
Harry, who foresaw it all, thrilled and shuddered at the remembrance. It was in there that the great Jackson had fallen in the hour of supreme triumph. Not far away were the heights of Fredericksburg, where Burnside had led the bravest of the brave to unavailing slaughter. As Belgium had been for centuries the cockpit of Europe, so the wild and sterile region in Virginia that men call the Wilderness became the cockpit of North America.
While Lee and his army were turning into the Wilderness Grant and the greatest force that the Union had yet assembled were seeking him. It was composed of men who had tasted alike of victory and defeat, veterans skilled in all the wiles and stratagems of war, and with hearts to endure anything. In this host was a veteran regiment that had come East to serve under Grant as it had served under him so valiantly in the West. Colonel Winchester rode at its head and beside him rode his favorite aide, young Richard Mason. Not far away was Colonel Hertford, with a numerous troop of splendid cavalry.
Grant, alert and resolved to win, carried in his pocket a letter which he had received from Lincoln, saying:
Not expecting to see you before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant, and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster or the capture of our men in great numbers should be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it. And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.
A noble letter, breathing the loftiest spirit, and showing that moral grandeur which has been so characteristic of America's greatest men. He had put all in Grant's hands and he had given to him an army, the like of which had never been seen until now on the American continent. Never before had the North poured forth its wealth and energy in such abundance.
Four thousand wagons loaded with food and ammunition followed the army, and there was a perfect system by which a wagon emptied of its contents was sent back to a depot to be refilled, while a loaded wagon took its place at the front. Complete telegram equipments, poles, wires, instruments and all were carried with every division. The wires could be strung easily and the lieutenant-general could talk to every part of his army. There were, also, staffs of signalmen, in case the wires should fail at any time. Grant held in his hand all the resources of the North, and if he could not win no one could.
All through the night the hostile armies marched, and before them went the spies and scouts.