The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIV. The Ghostly Ride
Harry and Dalton kept close together during the long hours of the ghostly ride. Just ahead of them were Taylor and Marshall and Peyton, and in front Lee rode in silence. Now and then they passed regiments, and at other times they would halt and let regiments pass them. Then the troops, seeing the man sitting on the white horse, would start to cheer, but always their officers promptly subdued it, and they marched on feeling more confident than ever that their general was leading them to victory.
Many hours passed and still the army marched through the forests. The trees, however, were dwindling in size and even in the night they saw that the earth was growing red and sterile. Dense thickets grew everywhere, and the marching became more difficult. Harry felt a sudden thrill of awe.
"George," he whispered, "do you know the country into which we're riding?"
"I think I do, Harry. It's the Wilderness."
"It can't be anything else, George, because I see the ghosts."
"What are you talking about, Harry? What ghosts?"
"The thousands and thousands who have fallen in that waste. Why the Wilderness is so full of dead men that they must walk at night to give one another room. I only hope that the ghost of Old Jack will ride before us and show us the way."
"I almost feel like that, too," admitted Dalton, who, however, was of a less imaginative mind than Harry. "As sure as I'm sitting in the saddle we're bound for the Wilderness. Now, what is the day going to give us?"
"Marching mostly, I think, and with the next noon will come battle. Grant doesn't hesitate and hold back. We know that, George."
"No, it's not his character."
Morning came and found them still in the forests, seeking the deep thickets of the Wilderness, and Grant, warned by his scouts and spies, and most earnestly by one whose skill, daring and judgment were unequaled, turned from his chosen line of march to meet his enemy. Once more Lee had selected the field of battle, where his inferiority in numbers would not count so much against him.
It was nearly morning when the march ceased, and officers and troops, save those on guard, lay down in the forest for rest. Harry, a seasoned veteran, could sleep under any conditions and with a blanket over him and a saddle for a pillow closed his eyes almost immediately. Lee and his older aides, Taylor and Peyton and Marshall, slept also. Around them the brigades, too, lay sleeping.
A while before dawn a large man in Confederate uniform, using the soft, lingering speech of the South, appeared almost in the center of the army of Northern Virginia. He knew all the pass words and told the officers commanding the watch that the wing under Ewell was advancing more rapidly than any of the others. Inside the line he could go about almost as he chose, and one could see little of him, save that he was large of figure and deeply tanned, like all the rest.
He approached the little opening in which Lee and his staff lay, although he kept back from the sentinels who watched over the sleeping leader. But Shepard knew that it was the great Confederate chieftain who lay in the shadow of the oak and he could identify him by the glances of the sentinels so often directed toward the figure.
There were wild thoughts for a moment or two in the mind of Shepard. A single bullet fired by an unerring hand would take from the Confederacy its arm and brain, and then what happened to himself afterward would not matter at all. And the war would be over in a month or two. But he put the thought fiercely from him. A spy he was and in his heart proud of his calling, but no such secret bullet could be fired by him.
He turned away from the little opening, wandered an hour through the camp and then, diving into the deep bushes, vanished like a shadow through the Confederate lines, and was gone to Grant to report that Lee's army was advancing swiftly to attack, and that the command of Ewell would come in touch with him first.
Not long after dawn Harry was again on the march, riding behind his general. From time to time Lee sent messengers to the various divisions of his army, four in number, commanded by Longstreet, Early, Hill and Stuart, the front or Stuart's composed of cavalry. Harry's own time came, when he received a dispatch of the utmost importance to take to Ewell. He memorized it first, and, if capture seemed probable, he was to tear it into bits and throw it away. Harry was glad he was to go to Ewell. In the great campaign in the valley he had been second to Jackson, his right arm, as Jackson had been Lee's right arm. Ewell had lost a leg since then, and his soldiers had to strap him in the saddle when he led them into battle, but he was as daring and cheerful as ever, trusted implicitly by Lee.
Harry with a salute to his chief rode away. Part of the country was familiar to him and in addition his directions were so explicit that he could not miss the way.
The four divisions of the army were in fairly close touch, but in a country of forests and many waters Northern scouts might come between, and he rode with caution, his hand ever near the pistol in his belt. The midday sun however clouded as the afternoon passed on. The thickets and forests grew more dense. From the distance came now and then the faint, sweet call of a trumpet, but everything was hidden from sight by the dense tangle of the Wilderness, a wilderness as wild and dangerous as any in which Henry Ware had ever fought. How it all came back to him! Almost exactly a year ago he had ridden into it with Jackson and here the armies were gathering again.
Imagination, fancy, always so strong in him, leaped into vivid life. The year had not passed and he was riding to meet Stonewall Jackson, who was somewhere ahead, preparing for his great curve about Hooker and the lightning stroke at Chancellorsville. Rabbits sprang out of the undergrowth and fled away before his horse's hoofs. In the lonely wilderness, which nevertheless had little to offer to the hunter, birds chattered from every tree. Small streams flowed slowly between dense walls of bushes. Here and there in the protection of the thickets wild flowers were in early bloom.
It was spring, fresh spring everywhere, but the bushes and the grass alike were tinged with red for Harry. The strange mental illusion that he was riding to Chancellorsville remained with him and he did not seek to shake it off. He almost expected to see Old Jack ahead on a hill, bent over a little, and sitting on Little Sorrel, with the old slouch hat drawn over his eyes. They had talked of the ghost of Jackson leading them in the Wilderness. He shivered. Could it be so? All the time he knew it was an illusion, but he permitted it to cast its spell over him, as one who dreams knowingly.
And Harry was dreaming back. Old Jack, the earlier of his two heroes, was leading them. He foresaw the long march through the thickets of the Wilderness, Stonewall forming the line of battle in the deep roads late in the evening, almost in sight of Hooker's camp, the sudden rush of his brigades and then the terrible battle far into the night.
He shook himself. It was uncanny. The past was the past. Dreams were thin and vanished stuff. Once more he was in the present and saw clearly. Old Jack was gone to take his place with the great heroes of the past, but the Army of Northern Virginia was there, with Lee leading them, and the most formidable of all the Northern chiefs with the most formidable of all the Northern armies was before them.
He heard the distant thud of hoofs and with instinctive caution drew back into a dense clump of bushes. A half-dozen horsemen were near and their eager looks in every direction told Harry that they were scouts. There was little difference then between a well worn uniform of blue or gray, and they were very close before Harry was able to tell that they belonged to Grant's army.
He was devoutly glad that his horse was trained thoroughly and stood quite still while the Northern scouts passed. A movement of the bushes would have attracted their attention, and he did not wish to be captured at any time, least of all on the certain eve of a great battle. After a battle he always felt an extra regret for those who had fallen, because they would never know whether they had won or lost.
They were alert, keen and vigorous men, or lads rather, as young as himself, and they rode as if they had been Southern youths almost born in the saddle. Harry was not the only one to notice how the Northern cavalry under the whip hand of defeat had improved so fast that it was now a match, man for man, for that of the South.
The young riders rode on and the tread of their hoofs died in the undergrowth. Then Harry emerged from his own kindly clump of bushes and increased his speed, anxious to reach Ewell, without any more of those encounters. He made good progress through the thickets, and soon after sundown saw a glow which he took to be that of campfires. He advanced cautiously, met the Southern sentinels and knew that he was right.
The very first of these sentinels was an old soldier of Jackson, who knew him well.
"Mr. Kenton!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, Thorn! It's you!" said Harry without hesitation.
The soldier was pleased that he should be recognized thus in the dusk, and he was still more pleased when the young aide leaned down and shook his hand.
"I might have known, Thorn, that I'd find you here, rifle on your arm, watching," he said.
"Thank you, Mr. Kenton. You'll find the general over there on a log by the fire."
Harry dismounted, gave his horse to a soldier and walked into the glade. Ewell sat alone, his crutch under his arms, his one foot kicking back the coals, his bald head a white disc in the glow.
"General Ewell, sir," said Harry.
General Ewell turned about and when he saw Harry his face clearly showed gladness. He could not rise easily, but he stretched out a welcoming hand.
"Ah! Kenton," he said, "you're a pleasant sight to tired eyes like mine. You bring back the glorious old days in the valley. So it's a message from the commander-in-chief?"
"Yes, sir. Here it is."
Ewell read it rapidly by the firelight and smiled.
"He tells us we're nearest to the enemy," he said, "and to hold fast, if we're attacked. You're to remain with us and report what happens, but doubtless you knew all this."
"Yes, I had to commit it to memory before I started."
"Then stay here with me. I may want to report to General Lee at any time. The enemy is in our front only three or four miles away. He knows we're here and it was a villainous surprise to him to find us in his way. They say this man Grant is a pounder. So is Lee, when the time comes to pound, but he's that and far more. I tell you, young man, that General Lee has had to trim a lot of Northern generals. McClellan and Pope and Burnside and Hooker and Meade have been going to school to him, and now Grant is qualifying for his class."
"But Grant is a great general. So our men in the West themselves say."
"He may be, but Lee is greater, greatest. And, Harry, you and I, who knew him and loved him, wish that another who alone was fit to ride by his side was here with him."
"I wish it from the bottom of my heart," said Harry.
"Well, well, regrets are useless. Help me up, Harry. I'm only part of a man, but I can still fight."
"We saw you do that at Gettysburg," said Harry, as he put his arm under Ewell's shoulder. Then Ewell took his crutch and they walked to the far side of the glade, where several officers of his staff gathered around him.
"Lieutenant Kenton, whom you all know," said General Ewell, "has brought a message from the commander-in-chief that we will be attacked first, and to be on guard. We consider it an honor, do we not, my lads?"
"Yes, let them come," they said.
"Harry, you may want to see the enemy. Clayton, you and Campbell take him forward through the pickets. But don't go too far. We don't want to lose three perfectly good young officers before the battle begins. After that it may be your business to get yourselves shot."
The two rode nearly two miles to the crest of a hill and then, using their strong glasses in the moonlight, they were able to see the lights of a vast camp.
"We hear that it is Warren's corps," said Clayton. "As General Ewell doubtless has told you, the enemy know that we're in front, but I don't believe they know our exact location. I believe we'll be in battle with those men in the morning."
Harry thought so too. In truth, it was inevitable. Warren would advance and Ewell would stand in his way. Yet he slept soundly when he went back to camp, although he was awakened long before dawn the next day. Then he ate breakfast, mounted and sat his horse not far away from Ewell, whom two soldiers had strapped into his saddle, and who was watching with eager eyes for the sunrise.
Harry, listening intently, heard no sound in front of them, save the wind rippling through the dwarfed forests of the Wilderness, and he knew that no battle had yet begun elsewhere. Sound would come far on that placid May morning, and it was a certainty that Ewell was nearest to contact with the enemy.
But Ewell did not yet move. All his men had been served with early breakfast, such as it was, and remained in silent masses, partly hidden by the forest and thickets. The dawn was cold, and Harry felt a little chill, but it soon passed, as the red edge of the sun showed over the eastern border of the Wilderness. Then the light spread toward the zenith, but the golden glow failed to penetrate the somber thickets.
"It's going to be a good day," said Harry to an aide.
"A good day for a battle."
"We'll hear from the Yankees soon. They can't fail to discover our exact location by sunrise, and they'll fight. Be sure of that."
It was now nearly six o'clock, and General Ewell, growing impatient, rode forward a little. Harry followed with his staff. A half-dozen Southern sharpshooters rose suddenly out of the thickets, and one of them dared to lay his hands on the reins of the general's horse. But Ewell was not offended. He looked down at the man and said:
"What is it, Strother?"
"Riflemen of the enemy are not more than three or four hundred yards away. If you go much farther, General, they will certainly see you and fire upon you."
"Thanks, Strother. So they've located us?"
"They're about to do it. They're feeling around. We've seen 'em in the bushes. We ask you not to go on, General. We wouldn't know what to do without you. There, sir! They're firing on our pickets!"
A half-dozen shots came from the front, and then a half-dozen or so in reply. Harry saw pink flashes, and then spirals of smoke rising. More shots were fired presently on their right, and then others on their left. The Northern riflemen were evidently on a long line, and intended to make a thorough test of their enemy's strength. Harry had no doubt that Shepard was there. He would surely come to the point where his enemy was nearest, and his eyes and ears would be the keenest of all.
The little skirmish continued for a few minutes, extending along a winding line of nearly a mile through the thickets. Only two or three were wounded and nobody killed on the Southern side. Harry understood thoroughly, as Ewell had said, that the sharpshooters of the enemy were merely feeling for them. They wanted to know if a strong force was there, and now they knew.
The firing ceased, not in dying shots, but abruptly. The Wilderness in front of them returned to silence, broken only by the rippling leaves. Harry knew that the Northern sharpshooters had discovered all they wanted, and were now returning to their leaders.
Ewell turned his horse and rode back toward the main camp, his staff following. The cooking fires had been put out, the lines were formed and every gun was in position. As little noise as possible was allowed, while they waited for Grant; not for Grant himself, but for one of his lieutenants, pushed forward by his master hand.
Harry and most of the staff officers dismounted, holding their horses by the bridle. The young lieutenant often searched the thickets with his glasses, but he saw nothing. Nevertheless he knew that the enemy would come. Grant having set out to find his foe, would never draw back when he found him.
A much longer period of silence than he had expected passed. The sun, flaming red, was moving on toward the zenith, and no sounds of battle came from either right or left. The suspense became acute, almost unbearable, and it was made all the more trying by the blindness of that terrible forest. Harry felt at times as if he would rather fight in the open fields; but he knew that his commander-in-chief was right when he drew Grant into the shades of the Wilderness.
When the suspense became so great that heavy weights seemed to be pressing upon his nerves, rifle shots were fired in front, and skirmishers uttered the long, shrill rebel yell. Then above both shots and shouts rose the far, clear call of a bugle.
"Here they come!" Harry heard Ewell say to himself, and the next moment the sound of human voices was drowned in the thunder of great guns and the crash of fifty thousand rifles. The battle was so sudden and the charge so swift that it seemed to leap into full volume in an instant. Warren, a resolute and daring general, led the Northern column and it struck with such weight and force that the Southern division was driven back. Harry felt it yielding, as if the ground were sliding under his feet.
There was so much flame and smoke that he could not see well, but the sensation of slipping was distinct. General Ewell was near him, shouting orders. His hat had fallen off, and his round, bald head had turned red, either from the rush of blood or the cannon's glare. It shone like a red dome, but Harry knew that there was no better man in such a crisis than this veteran lieutenant of Stonewall Jackson.
The Wilderness, usually so silent, was an inferno now. The battle, despite its tremendous beginning, increased in violence and fury. Although Grant himself was not there, the spirit that had animated him at Shiloh and Vicksburg was. He had communicated it to his generals, and Warren brought every ounce of his strength into action. The long line of his bayonets gleamed through the thickets and the Northern artillery, superb as usual, rained shells upon the Southern army.
Ewell's men, fighting with all the courage and desperation that they had shown on so many a field, were driven back further and further. Ewell, strapped in his saddle, flourishing his sword, his round, bald head glowing, rode among them, bidding them to stand, that help would soon come. They continued to go backward, but those veterans of so many campaigns never lost cohesion nor showed sign of panic. Their own artillery and rifles replied in full volume. The heads of the charging columns were blown away, but other men took their places, and Warren's force came on with undiminished fire and strength.
Harry wondered if the attack at other points had been made with such impetuosity, but there was such a roar and crash about him that it was impossible to hear sounds of battle elsewhere. Men were falling very fast, but the general was unharmed, and neither the young lieutenant nor his horse was touched.
A sudden shout arose, and it was immediately followed by the piercing rebel yell, swelling wild and fierce above the tumult of the battle. Help was coming. Regiments in gray were charging down the paths and on the left flank rose the thunder of hoofs as a formidable body of cavalry under Sherburne, sabers aloft, swept down on the Northern flank.
Ewell's entire division stopped its retreat and, reinforced by the new men, charged directly upon the Northern bayonets. Men met almost face to face. The saplings and bushes were mown down by cannon and rifles and the air was full of bursting shells. From time to time Ewell's men uttered their fierce, defiant yell, and with a great bound of the heart Harry saw that they were gaining. Warren was being driven back. Two of his cannon were captured already, and the Southern men, feeling the glow of the advance after retreat, charged again and again, reckless of death. But Harry soon saw that ultimate victory here would rest with the South. The troops of Warren, exhausted by their early rush, were driven from one position to another by the seasoned veterans who faced them. The Confederates retained the captured cannon and thrust harder and harder. It became obvious that Warren must soon fall back to the main Northern line, and though the battle was still raging with great fury Ewell beckoned Harry to him.
"Don't stay here any longer," he shouted in his ear. "Ride to General Lee and tell him we're victorious at this point for the day at least!"
Harry saluted and galloped away through the thickets. Behind him the battle still roared and thundered. A stray shell burst just in front of him, and another just behind him, but he and his horse were untouched. Once or twice he glanced back and it looked as if the Wilderness were on fire, but he knew that it was instead the blaze of battle. He saw also that Ewell was still moving forward, winning more ground, and his heart swelled with gladness.
How proud Jackson would have been had he been able to see the valor and skill of his old lieutenant! Perhaps his ghost did really hover over the Wilderness, where a year before he had fallen in the moment of his greatest triumph! Harry urged his horse into a gallop. All his faculties now became acute. He was beyond the zone of fire, but the roar of the battle behind him seemed as loud as ever. Yet it was steadily moving back on the main Union lines, and there could be no doubt of Ewell's continued success.
The curves of the low hills and the thick bushes hid everything from Harry's sight, as he rode swiftly through the winding paths of the Wilderness. When the tumult sank at last he heard a new thunder in front of him, and now he knew that the Southern center under Hill had been attacked also, and with the greatest fierceness.
As Harry approached, the roar of the second battle became terrific. Uncertain where General Lee would now be, he rode through the sleet of steel, and found Hill engaged with the very flower of the Northern army. Hancock, the hero of Gettysburg, was making desperate exertions to crush him, pouring in brigade after brigade, while Sheridan, regardless of thickets, made charge after charge with his numerous cavalry.
Harry remained in the rear on his horse, watching this furious struggle. The day had become much darker, either from clouds or the vast volume of smoke, and the thickets were so dense that the officers often could not see their enemy at all, only their own men who stood close to them. The struggle was vast, confused, carried on under appalling conditions. The charging horsemen were sometimes swept from the saddle by bushes and not by bullets. Infantrymen stepped into a dark ooze left by spring rains, and pulling themselves out, charged, black to the waist with mud. Sometimes the field pieces became mired, and men and horses together dragged them to firmer ground.
Grant here, as before Ewell, continually reinforced his veterans, but Hill, although he was not able to advance, held fast. The difficult nature of the ground that Lee had chosen helped him. In marsh and thickets it was impossible for the more numerous enemy to outflank him. Harry saw Hill twice, a slender man, who had suffered severe wounds but one of the greatest fighters in the Southern army. He had been ordered to hold the center, and Harry knew now that he would do it, for the day at least. Night was not very far away, and Grant was making no progress.
He rode on in search of Lee and before he was yet beyond the range of fire he met Dalton, mounted and emerging from the smoke.
"The commander-in-chief, where is he?" asked Harry.
"On a little hill not far from here, watching the battle. I'm just returning with a dispatch from Hill."
"I saw that Hill was holding his ground."
"So my dispatch says, and it says also that he will continue to hold it. You come from Ewell?"
"Yes, and he has done more than stand fast. He was driven back at first, but when reinforcements came he drove Warren back in his turn, and took guns and prisoners."
"The chief will be glad to hear it. We'll ride together. Look out for your horse! He may go knee deep into mire at any time. Harry, the Wilderness looks even more somber to me than it did a year ago when we fought Chancellorsville."
"I feel the same way about it. But see, George, how they're fighting! General Hill is making a great resistance!"
"Never better. But if you look over those low bushes you can see General Lee on the hill."
Harry made out the figure of Lee on Traveller, outlined against the sky, with about a dozen men sitting on their horses behind him. He hurried forward as fast as he could. The commander-in-chief was reading a dispatch, while the fierce struggle in the thickets was going on, but when Harry saluted and Marshall told him that he had come to report the general put away the dispatch and said:
"What news from General Ewell?"
"General Ewell was at first borne back by the enemy's numbers, but when help came he returned to the charge, and has been victorious. He has gained much ground."
A gleam of triumph shot from Lee's eyes, usually so calm.
"Well done, Ewell!" he said. "The loss of a leg has not dimmed his ardor or judgment. I truly believe that if he were to lose the other one also he would still have himself strapped into the saddle and lead his men to victory. We thank you for the news you have brought, Lieutenant Kenton."
He put his glasses to his eyes and Harry and Dalton as usual withdrew to the rear of the staff. But they used their glasses also, bringing nearer to them the different phases of the battle, which now raged through the Wilderness. They saw at some points the continuous blaze of guns, and the acrid powder smoke, lying low, was floating through all the thickets.
But Harry now knew that the combat, however violent and fierce, was only a prelude. The sun was already setting, and they could not fight at night in those wild thickets, where men and guns would become mired and tangled beyond extrication. The great struggle, with both leaders hurling in their full forces, would come on the morrow.
The sun already hung very low, and in the twilight and smoke the savagery of the Wilderness became fiercer than ever. The dusk gathered around Lee, but his erect figure and white horse still showed distinctly through it. Harry, his spirit touched by the tremendous scenes in the very center of which he stood, regarded him with a fresh measure of respect and admiration. He was the bulwark of the Confederacy, and he did not doubt that on the morrow he would stop Grant as he had stopped the others.
The darkness increased, sweeping down like a great black pall over the Wilderness. The battle in the center and on the left died. Lee and his staff dismounting, prepared for the labors of the night.