The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XV. The Wilderness
When night settled down over the Wilderness the two armies lay almost face to face on a long line. The preliminary battle, on the whole, had favored the Confederacy. Hill had held his ground and Ewell had gained, but Grant had immense forces, and, though naturally kind of heart, he had made up his mind to strike and keep on striking, no matter what the loss. He could afford to lose two men where the Confederacy lost one.
Harry, like many others, felt that this would be the great Northern general's plan. To-morrow's battle might end in Southern success, but Grant would be there to fight the following day with undiminished resolution. He was as sure of this as he was sure that the day would come.
The night itself was somber and sinister, the heavens dusky and a raw chill in the air. Heavy vapors rose from the marshes, and clouds of smoke from the afternoon's battle floated about over the thickets, poisoning the air as if with gas, and making the men cough as they breathed it. It made Harry's heart beat harder than usual, and his head felt as if it were swollen. Everything seemed clothed in a black mist with a slightly reddish tint.
A small fire had been built in a sheltered place for the commander-in- chief and his staff, and the cooks were preparing the supper, which was of the simplest kind. While they ate the food and drank their coffee, the darkness increased, with the faint lights of other fires showing here and there through it. Around the muddy places frogs croaked in defiance of armies, and, from distant points, came the crackling fire of skirmishers prowling in the dusk.
Harry's horse, saddled and bridled, was tied to a bush not far away. He knew that it was to be no night of rest for him, or any other member of the staff. Lee would be sending messages continually. Longstreet, although he had been marching hard, was not yet up on the right, and he and his veterans must be present when the shock of Grant's mighty attack came in the morning.
Hill, thin and pale, yet suffering from the effects of his wounds, but burning as usual with the fire of battle, rode up and consulted long and earnestly with Lee. Presently he went back to his own place nearer the center, and then Lee began to send away his staff one by one with messages. Harry was among the last to go, but he bore a dispatch to Longstreet.
He had heard that Longstreet had criticized Lee for ordering Pickett's famous charge at Gettysburg, but if so, Lee had taken no notice of it, and Longstreet had proved himself the same stalwart fighter as of old. He and the prompt arrival of his veterans had enabled Bragg to win Chickamauga, and it was not Longstreet's fault that the advantage gained there was lost afterward. Now Harry knew that he would be up in time with his seasoned veterans.
As the young lieutenant rode away he saw General Lee walking back and forth before the low fire, his hands clasped behind him, and his eyes as serious as those of any human being could be. Harry appreciated the immensity of his task, and in his heart was a sincere pity for the man who bore so great a burden. He was familiar with the statement that to Lee had been offered the command of the Northern armies at the beginning of the war, but believing his first duty was to his State he had gone with Virginia when Virginia reluctantly went out of the Union. Truly no one could regret the war more than he, and yet he had struck giant blows for its success.
A moment more and the tall figure standing beside the low fire was lost to sight. Then Harry rode among the thickets in the rear of the Confederate line and it was a weird and ghastly ride. Now and then his horse's feet sank in mud, and the frogs still dared to croak around the pools, making on such a night the most ominous of all sounds. It seemed a sort of funeral dirge for both North and South, a croak telling of the ruin and death that were to come on the morrow.
Damp boughs swept across his face, and the vapors, rising from the earth and mingled with the battle smoke, were still bitter to the tongue and poisonous to the breath. Rotten logs crushed beneath his horse's feet and Harry felt a shiver as if the hoofs had cut through a body of the dead. Riflemen rose out of the thickets, but he always gave them the password, and rode on without stopping.
Then came a space where he met no human being, the gap between Hill and Longstreet, and now the Wilderness became incredibly lonely and dreary. Harry felt that if ever a region was haunted by ghosts it was this. The dead of last year's battle might be lying everywhere, and as the breeze sprang up the melancholy thickets waved over them.
He was two-thirds of the way toward the point where he expected to find Longstreet when he heard the sough of a hoof in the mud behind him.
Harry listened and hearing the hoof again he was instantly on his guard. He did not know it, but the character of the night and the wild aspect of the Wilderness were bringing out all the primeval and elemental qualities in his nature. He was the great borderer, Henry Ware, in the Indian- haunted forest, feeling with a sixth sense, even a seventh sense, the presence of danger.
He was following a path, scarcely traceable, used by charcoal burners and wood-cutters, but when he heard the hoof a second time he turned aside into the deepest of the thickets and halted there. The hoofbeat came a third time, a little nearer, and then no more. Evidently the horseman behind him knew that he had turned aside, and was waiting and watching. He was surely an enemy of great skill and boldness, and it was equally sure that he was Shepard. Harry never felt a doubt that he was pursued by the formidable Union spy, and he felt too that he had never been in greater danger, as Shepard at such a moment would not spare his best friend.
But he was not afraid. Danger had become so common that one looked upon it merely as a risk. Moreover, he was never cooler or more ample of resource. He dismounted softly, standing beside his horse's head, holding the reins with one hand and a heavy pistol with the other. He suspected that Shepard would do the same, but he believed that his eyes and ears were the keener. The man must have been inside the Confederate lines all the afternoon. Probably he had seen Harry riding away, and, deftly appropriating a horse, had followed him. There was no end to Shepard's ingenuity and daring.
Harry's horse was trained to stand still indefinitely, and the young man, with the heavy pistol, who held the reins was also immovable. The silence about him was so deep that Harry could hear the frogs croaking at a distant pool.
He waited a full five minutes, and now, like the wild animals, he relied more upon ear than eye. He had learned the faculty of concentration and he bent all his powers upon his hearing. Not the slightest sound could escape the tightly drawn drums of his ears.
He was motionless a full ten minutes. Nor did the horse beside him stir. It was a test of human endurance, the capacity to keep himself absolutely silent, but with every nerve attuned, while he waited for an invisible danger. And those minutes were precious, too. The value of not a single one of them could have been measured or weighed. It was his duty to reach Longstreet at speed, because the general and his veterans must be in line in the morning, when the battle was joined. Yet the incessant duel between Shepard and himself was at its height again, and he did not yet see how he could end it.
Harry felt that it must be essentially a struggle of patience, but when he waited a few minutes longer, the idea to wait with ears close to the earth, one of the oldest devices of primitive man, occurred to him. It was fairly dry in the bushes, and he lay down, pressing his ear to the soil. Then he heard a faint sound, as if some one crawling through the grass, like a wild animal stalking its prey. It was Shepard, of course, and then Harry planned his campaign. Shepard had left his horse, and was endeavoring to reach him by stealth.
Leaving his own horse, he crept a little to the right, and then rising carefully in another thicket he picked out every dark spot in the gloom. He made out presently the figure of a riderless horse, standing partly behind the trunk of an oak, larger than most of those that grew in the Wilderness.
Harry knew that it was Shepard's mount and that Shepard himself was some distance in front of it creeping toward the thicket which he supposed sheltered his foe. There was barely enough light for Harry to see the horse's head and regretfully he raised his heavy pistol. But it had to be done, and when his aim was true he pulled the trigger.
The report of the pistol was almost like the roar of a cannon in the desolate Wilderness and made Harry himself jump. Then he promptly threw himself flat upon his face. Shepard's answering fire came from a point about thirty yards in front of the horse, and the bullet passed very close over Harry's head. It was a marvelous shot to be made merely at the place from which a sound had come. It all passed in a flash, and the next moment Harry heard the sound of a horse falling and kicking a little. Then it too was still.
He remained only a half minute in the grass. Then he began to creep back, curving a little in his course, toward his own horse. He did not believe that Shepard's faculty of hearing was as keen as his own, and he moved with the greatest deftness. He relied upon the fact that Shepard had not yet located the horse, and if Harry could reach it quickly it would not be hard for him, a mounted man, to leave behind Shepard, dismounted. It might be possible, too, that Shepard had gone back to see about his own horse, not knowing that it was slain.
He saw the dusky outline of his horse, and, rising, made two or three jumps. Then he snatched the rein loose, sprang upon his back, and lying down upon his neck to avoid bullets, crashed away, reckless of bushes and briars. He heard one bullet flying near him, but he laughed in delight and relief as his horse sped on toward Longstreet.
He did not diminish his speed until he had gone two or three miles, and then, knowing that Shepard had been left hopelessly behind, even if he had attempted pursuit, he brought his horse down to a walk, and laughed. There was a bit of nervous excitement in the laugh. He had outwitted Shepard again. He had never seen the man, but it did not enter his mind that it was not he. Each had scored largely over the other from time to time, but Harry believed that he was at least even.
He steadied his nerves now and rode calmly toward Longstreet, coming soon upon his scouts, who informed him that the heavy columns were not far behind, marching with stalwart step to their appointed place in the line. But it was Harry's business to see Longstreet himself, and he continued his way toward the center of the division, where they told him the general could be found.
He rode forward and in the moonlight recognized Longstreet at once, a heavy-set, bearded man, mounted on a strong bay horse. He had a very small staff, and he was first to notice the young lieutenant advancing. He knew Harry well, having seen him with Lee at Gettysburg and with Jackson before. He stopped and said abruptly:
"You come from the commander-in-chief, do you not?"
"Yes, sir," replied Harry, "and I've been coming as fast as I could."
He did not deem it necessary to say anything about his encounter with Shepard.
"There has been heavy fighting. What are his orders?"
Harry told him, also giving him a written message, which the general read by the light of a torch an aide held.
"You can tell General Lee that all my men will be in position for battle before dawn," said the Georgian crisply.
Even as he spoke, Harry heard the heavy, regular tread of the brigades marching forward through the Wilderness. He saluted General Longstreet.
"I shall return at once with your message," he said.
But Harry, having had one such experience, was resolved not to risk another. He would make a wider circuit in the rear of the army. Shepard, on foot, and anxious to avenge his defeat, might be waiting for him, but he would go around him. So when he started back he made a wide curve, and soon was in the darkness and silence again.
He had a good horse and his idea of direction being very clear he rode swiftly in the direction he had chosen. But his curve was so great that when he reached the center of it he was so far in the rear of the army that no sound came from it. If the skirmishers were still firing the reports of their rifles were lost in the distance. Where he rode the only noises were those made by the wild animals that inhabited the Wilderness, creatures that had settled back into their usual haunts after the armies had passed beyond.
Once a startled deer sprang from a clump of bushes and crashed away through the thickets. Rabbits darted from his path, and an owl, wondering what all the disturbance was about, hooted mournfully from a bough.
Long before dawn Harry reached the Southern sentinels in the center and was then passed to General Lee, who remained at the same camp, sitting on a log by some smothered coals. Several other members of his staff had returned already, and the general, looking up when Harry came forward, merely said:
"I have seen General Longstreet, sir," said Harry, "and he bids me tell you that he and his men will be in position before dawn. He was nearly up when I left, and he has also sent you this note."
He handed the note to General Lee, who, bending low over the coals, read it.
"Everything goes well," he said with satisfaction. "We shall be ready for them. What time is it, Peyton?"
"Five minutes past four o'clock, sir."
"Then I think the attack should come within an hour."
"Perhaps before daybreak, sir."
"Perhaps. And even after the sun begins to rise it will be like twilight in this gloomy place."
Grant, in truth, prompt and ready as always, had ordered the advance to be begun at half-past four, but Meade, asking more time for arrangements and requesting that it be delayed until six, he had consented to a postponement until five o'clock and no more.
Harry had one more message to carry, a short distance only, and on his return he found the Invincibles posted on the commander-in-chief's right, and not more than two hundred yards away.
"You must be a body guard for the general," he said to Colonel Leonidas Talbot.
"There could be no greater honor for the Invincibles, nor could General Lee have a better guard."
"I'm sure of that, sir."
"What's happening, Harry? Tell us what's been going on in the night!"
"Our line of battle has been formed. General Longstreet and his men on the right are soon to be in touch with General Hill. I returned from him a little while ago. I can't yet smell the dawn, but I think the battle will come before then."
Harry rode back and resumed his place beside Dalton. The troops everywhere were on their feet, cannon and rifles ready, because it was a certainty that the two armies would meet very early.
In fact, the Army of Northern Virginia began to slide slowly forward. It was not the habit of these troops to await attack. Lee nearly always had taken the offensive, and the motion of his men was involuntary. They felt that the enemy was there and they must go to meet him.
"What time is it now?" whispered Dalton.
Harry was barely able to discern the face of his watch.
"Ten minutes to five," he replied.
"And the dawn comes early. It won't be long before Grant comes poking his nose through the Wilderness."
Harry was silent. A few minutes more, and there was a sudden crackle of rifles in front of them.
"The dawn isn't here, but Grant is," said Harry.
The crackling fire doubled and tripled, and then the fire of the Southern rifles replied in heavy volume. The lighter field guns opened with a crash, and the heavier batteries followed with rolling thunder. Leaves and twigs fell in showers, and men fell with them. The deep Northern cheer swelled through the Wilderness and the fierce rebel yell replied.
Gray dawn, rising as if with effort, over the sodden Wilderness found two hundred thousand men locked fast in battle. It might have been a bright sun elsewhere, but not here among the gloomy shades and the pine barrens. The firing was already so tremendous that the smoke hung low and thick, directly over the tops of the bushes, and the men, as they fought, breathed mixed and frightful vapors.
Both sides fought for a long time in a heavy, smoky dusk, that was practically night. Officers coming from far points, led, compass in hand, having no other guide save the roar of battle. As the Southern leaders had foreseen, Grant was throwing in the full strength of his powerful army, hoping with superior numbers and better equipment to crush Lee utterly that day.
The great Northern artillery was raking the whole Southern front. Hancock, the superb, was hurling the heavy Northern masses directly upon the main position of the South. He had half the Army of the Potomac, and at other points Warren, Wadsworth, Sedgwick and Burnside were advancing with equal energy and contempt of death. Fiercer and fiercer grew the conflict. Hancock, remembering how he had held the fatal hill at Gettysburg, and resolved to win a complete victory now, poured in regiment after regiment. But in all the fire and smoke and excitement and danger he did not neglect to keep a cool head. Hearing that a portion of Longstreet's corps was near, he sent a division and numerous heavy artillery to attack it, driving it back after a sanguinary struggle of more than an hour.
Then he redoubled his attack upon the Southern center, compelling it to give ground, though slowly. Harry felt that gliding movement backward and a chill ran through his blood. The heavy masses of Grant and his powerful artillery were prevailing. The strongest portion of the Southern army was being forced back, and a gap was cut between Hill and Longstreet. Had Hancock perceived the gap that he had made he might have severed the Southern army, inflicting irretrievable retreat, but the smoke and the dusk of the Wilderness hid it, and the moment passed into one of the great "Ifs" of history.
Harry, on horseback, witnessed this conflict, all the more terrible because of the theater in which it was fought. The batteries and the riflemen alike were frequently hidden by the thickets. The great banks of smoke hung low, only to be split apart incessantly by the flashes of fire from the big guns. But the bullets were more dangerous than the cannon balls and shells. They whistled and shrieked in thousands and countless thousands.
Lee sat on his horse impassive, watching as well as he could the tide of battle. Messengers covered with smoke and sweat had informed him of the gap between Hill and Longstreet, and he was dispatching fresh troops to close it up. Harry saw the Invincibles march by. The two colonels at their head beheld Lee on his white horse, and their swords flew from their scabbards as they made a salute in perfect unison. Close behind them rode St. Clair and Happy Tom, and they too saluted in like manner. Lee took off his hat in reply and Harry choked. "About to die, we salute thee," he murmured under his breath.
Then with a shout the Invincibles, their officers at their head, plunged into the fire and smoke, and were lost from Harry's view. But he could not stay there long and wonder at their fate. In a few minutes he was riding to Longstreet with a message for him to bear steadily toward Hill, that the gap might be closed entirely, and as soon as possible.
He galloped behind the lines, but bullets fell all around him, and often a shell tore the earth. The air had become more bitter and poisonous. Fumes from swamps seemed to mingle with the smoke and odors of burned gunpowder. His lips and his tongue were scorched. But he kept on, without exhaustion or mishap, and reached Longstreet, who had divined his message.
"The line will be solid in a few minutes," he said, and while the battle was still at its height on the long front he touched hands with Hill. Then both drove forward with all their might against Hancock, rushing to the charge, with the Southern fire and recklessness of death that had proved irresistible on so many fields. The advance, despite the most desperate efforts of Hancock and his generals, was stopped. Then he was driven back. All the ground gained at so much cost was lost and the Southern troops, shouting in exultation, pushed on, pouring in a terrible rifle fire. Longstreet, in his eagerness, rode a little ahead of his troops to see the result. Turning back, he was mistaken in the smoke by his own men for a Northern cavalryman, and they fired upon him, just as Jackson had been shot down by his own troops in the dusk at Chancellorsville.
The leader fell from his horse, wounded severely, and the troops advancing to victory became confused. The rumor spread that Longstreet had been killed. There was no one to give orders, and the charge stopped. Harry and a half-dozen others who had seen the accident or heard of it, galloped to Lee, who at once rode into the very thick of the command, giving personal orders and sending his aides right and left with others. The whole division was reformed under his eye, and he sent it anew to the attack.
The battle now closed in with the full strength of both armies. Hancock strove to keep his place. The valiant Wadsworth had been killed already. The dense thickets largely nullified Grant's superior numbers. Lee poured everything on Hancock, who was driven from every position. Fighting furiously behind a breastwork built the night before, he was driven from that too.
Often in the dense shades the soldiers met one another face to face and furious struggles hand-to-hand ensued. Bushes and trees, set on fire by the shells, burned slowly like torches put there to light up the ghastly scene of man's bravery and folly. Jenkins, a Confederate general, was killed and colonels and majors fell by the dozen. But neither side would yield, and Grant hurried help to his hard-pressed troops.
Harry had been grazed on the shoulder by a bullet, but his horse was unharmed, and he kept close to Lee, who continued to direct the battle personally. He knew that they were advancing. Once more the genius of the great Confederate leader was triumphing. Grant, the redoubtable and tenacious, despite his numbers, could set no trap for him! Instead he had been drawn into battle on a field of Lee's own choosing.
The conflict had now continued for a long time, and was terrible in all its aspects. It was far past noon, and for miles a dense cloud of smoke hung over the Wilderness, which was filled with the roar of cannon, the crash of rifles and the shouts of two hundred thousand men in deadly conflict. The first meeting of the two great protagonists of the war, Lee and Grant, was sanguinary and terrible, beyond all expectation.
Hundreds fell dead, their bodies lying hidden under the thickets. The forest burned fiercely here and there, casting circles of lurid light over the combatants, while the wind rained down charred leaves and twigs. The fires spread and joined, and at points swept wide areas of the forest, yet the fury of the battle was not diminished, the two armies forgetting everything else in their desire to crush each other.
Harry's horse was killed, as he sat near Lee, but he quickly obtained another, and not long afterward he was sent with a second message to Ewell. He rode on a long battle front, not far behind the lines, and he shuddered with awe as he looked upon the titanic struggle. The smoke was often so heavy and the bushes so thick that he could not see the combatants, except when the flame of the firing or the burning trees lighted up a segment of the circle.
Halfway to Ewell and he stopped when he saw two familiar figures, sitting on a log. They were elderly men in uniforms riddled by bullets. The right arm of one and the left leg of the other were tightly bandaged. Their faces were very white and it was obvious that they were sitting there, because they were not strong enough to stand.
Harry stopped. No message, no matter how important, could have kept him from stopping.
"Colonel Talbot! Colonel St. Hilaire!" he cried.
"Yes, here we are, Harry," replied Colonel Leonidas Talbot in a voice, thin but full of courage. "Hector has been shot through the leg and has lost much blood, but I have bound up his wound, and he has done as much for my arm, which has been bored through from side to side by a bullet, which must have been as large as my fist."
"And so for a few minutes," said Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, valiantly, "we must let General Lee conduct the victory alone."
"And the Invincibles!" exclaimed Harry, horrified. "Are they all gone but you?"
"Not at all," replied Colonel Talbot. "There is so much smoke about that you can't see much, but if it clears a little you will behold Lieutenant St. Clair and the youth rightly called Happy Tom and some three score others, lying among the bushes, not far ahead of you, giving thorough attention to the enemy."
"And is that all that's left of the Invincibles?"
"It's a wonder that they're so many. You were right about this man, Grant, Harry. He's a fighter, and their artillery is numerous and wonderful. John Carrington himself must be in front of us. We have not seen him, but the circumstantial evidence is conclusive. Nobody else in the world could have swept this portion of the Wilderness with shell and shrapnel in such a manner. Why, he has mowed down the bushes in long swathes as the scythe takes the grass and he has cut down our men with them. How does the battle go elsewhere?"
"We're succeeding. We're driving 'em back. I can stop only a moment now. I'm on my way to General Ewell."
"Then hurry. Don't be worried about us. I'll help Hector and Hector will help me. And do you curve further to the rear, Harry. The worst thing that a dispatch bearer can do is to get himself shot."
Waving his hand in farewell Harry galloped away. He knew that Colonel Talbot had given him sound advice, and he bore back from the front, coming once more into lonely thickets, although the flash of the battle was plainly visible in front of him, and its roar filled his ears. Yet when he rode alone he almost expected to see Shepard rise up before him, and bid him halt. His encounters with this man had been under such startling circumstances that it now seemed the rule, and not the exception, for him to appear at any moment.
But Shepard did not come. Instead Harry began to see the badly wounded of his own side drifting to the rear, helping one another as hurt soldiers learn to do. Two of them he allowed to hang on his stirrups a little while.
"They're fighting hard," said one, a long, gaunt Texan, "an' they're so many they might lap roun' us. This man of theirs, Grant, ain't much of a fellow to get scared, but I guess Marse Bob will take care of him just ez he has took care of the others who came into Virginia."
"They're led in the main attack by Hancock," said the other, a Virginian. "I caught a glimpse of him through the smoke, just as I had a view of him for a minute back there by the clump of trees on the ridge at Gettysburg."
"Are you one of Pickett's men?" asked Harry.
"I am, sir, one of the few that's left. I went clear to the clump of trees and how I got back I've never known. It was a sort of red dream, in which I couldn't pick out anything in particular, but I was back with the army, carrying three bullets that the doctors took away from me, and here I've gathered up two more they'll rob me of in just the same way."
He spoke quite cheerfully, and when Harry, curving again, was compelled to release them, both, although badly wounded, wished him good luck.
He found General Ewell in front, stamping back and forth on his crutches, watching the battle with excitement.
"And so you're here again, Harry. Well it's good news at present!" he cried. "It seems that their man, Grant, is going to school to Lee just like the others."
"But some pupils learn too fast, sir!"
"That's so, but, Harry, I wish I could see more of the field. An invisible battle like this shakes my nerves. Batteries that we can't see send tornadoes of shot and shell among us. Riflemen, by the thousands, hidden in the thickets rain bullets into our ranks. It's inhuman, wicked, and our only salvation lies in the fact that it's as bad for them as it is for us. If we can't see them they can't see us."
"You can hold your ground here?"
"Against anything and everything. Tell General Lee that we intend to eat our suppers on the enemy's ground."
"That's all he wants to know."
As Harry rode back he saw that the first fires were spreading, passing over new portions of the battlefield. Sparks flew in myriads and fine, thin ashes were mingled with the powder smoke. The small trees, burnt through, fell with a crash, and the flames ran as if they were alive up boughs. Other trees fell too, cut through by cannon balls, and some were actually mown down by sheets of bullets, as if they had been grass.
His way now led through human wreckage, made all the more appalling by an approaching twilight, heavy with fumes and smoke, and reddened with the cannon and rifle blaze. His frightened horse pulled wildly at the bit, and tried to run away, but Harry held him to the path, although he stepped more than once in hot ashes and sprang wildly. The dead were thick too and Harry was in horror lest the hoof of his horse be planted upon some unheeding face.
He knew that the day was waning fast and that the dark was due in some degree to the setting sun, and not wholly to the smoke and ashes. Yet the fury of the battle was sustained. The southern left maintained the ground that it had gained, and in the center and right it could not be driven back. It became obvious to Grant that Lee was not to be beaten in the Wilderness. His advance suffered from all kinds of disadvantages. In the swamps and thickets he could mass neither his guns nor his cannon. Communications were broken, the telegraph wires could be used but little and as the twilight darkened to night he let the attack die.
Harry was back with the commander-in-chief, when the great battle of the Wilderness, one of the fiercest ever fought, sank under cover of the night. It was not open and spectacular like Gettysburg, but it had a gloomy and savage grandeur all its own. Grant had learned, like the others before him, that he could not drive headlong over Lee, but sitting in silence by his campfire, chewing his cigar, he had no thought, unlike the others, of turning back. Nearly twenty thousand of his men had fallen, but huge resources and a President who supported him absolutely were behind him and he was merely planning a new method of attack.
In the Southern camp there was exultation, but it was qualified and rather grim. These men, veterans of many battles and able to judge for themselves, believed that they had won the victory, but they knew that it was by no means decisive. The numerous foe with his powerful artillery was still before them. They could see his campfires shining through the thickets, and their spies told them that, despite his great losses, there was no sign of retreat in Grant's camp.
An appalling night settled down on the Wilderness. The North American Continent never saw one more savage and terrible. Twenty thousand wounded were scattered through the thickets and dense shades, and spreading fires soon brought death to many whom the bullets had not killed at once. The smoke, the mists and vapors gathered into one dense cloud, that hung low and made everything clammy to the touch.
Lee stood under the boughs of an oak, and ate food that had been prepared for him hastily. But, as Harry saw, the act was purely mechanical. He was watching as well as he could what was going on in front, and he was giving orders in turns to his aides. Harry's time had not yet come, and he kept his eyes on his chief.
There was no exultation in the face of Lee. He had drawn Grant into the Wilderness and then he had held him fast in a battle of uncommon size and fierceness. But nothing was decided. He had studied the career of Grant, and he knew that he had a foe of great qualities with whom to deal. He would have to fight him again, and fight very soon. He heard too with a sorrow, hard to conceal, the reports of his own losses. They were heavy enough and the gaps now made could never be refilled. The Army of Northern Virginia, which had been such a powerful instrument in his hands, must fight with ever diminishing numbers.
Harry was sent to inquire into the condition of Longstreet, whom he found weak physically and suffering much pain. But the veteran was upborne by the success of the day and his belief in ultimate victory. He bade Harry tell the commander-in-chief that his men were fit to fight again and better than ever, at the first shoot of dawn.
Harry rode back in the night, the burning trees serving him for torches. Nearly all the soldiers were busy. Some were gathering up the wounded and others were building breastworks. His eyes were reddened by the powder-smoke, and often the heavy black masses of vapor were impenetrable, save where the forest burned. Now he came to a region where the dead and wounded were so thick that he dismounted and led his horse, lest a hoof be planted upon any one of them. But he noticed that here as in other battles the wounded made but little complaint. They suffered in silence, waiting for their comrades to take them away.
Then he passed around a section of forest that was burning fiercely. Here Southern and Union soldiers had met on terms of peace and were making desperate efforts to save their helpless comrades. Harry would have been glad to give aid himself, but he was too well trained now to turn aside when he rode for Lee.
He saw many dark figures passing before the flaming background, and as he walked more slowly than he thought, he saw one that looked remarkably familiar to him. It was impossible to see the face, but he knew the walk and the lift of the shoulders. Discipline gave way to impulse now, and he ran forward crying:
Dick Mason, who had just dragged a wounded man beyond the range of the flames, turned at the sound of the voice. Even had Harry seen his face at first he would not have known him nor would Dick have known Harry. Both were black with ashes, smoke and burned gunpowder. But Dick knew the voice in an instant. Once more were the two cousins to meet in peace on an unfinished battlefield.
Each driven by the same impulse stepped forward, and their hands met in the strong grasp of blood kindred and friendship, which war itself could not sever.
"You're alive, Harry!" said Dick. "It seems almost impossible after what has happened to-day."
"And you too are all right. Not harmed, I see, though your face is an African black."
"I should call your own color dark and smoky."
"I wasn't sure that you were in the East. When did you come?"
"With General Grant, and I knew that you were on General Lee's staff. I've a message to give him by you. Oh! you needn't laugh. It's a good straight talk."
"Go ahead then and say it to me."
"You say to General Lee that it's all over. Tell him to quit and send his soldiers home. If he doesn't he'll be crushed."
Harry laughed again and waved his finger at the somber battlefield, upon which he stood.
"Does this look like it?" he asked. "We're farther forward to-night than we were this morning. Wouldn't General Grant be glad if he could say as much?"
"It makes no difference. I know you don't believe me, but it's so. The North is prepared as it never was before. And Grant will hammer and hammer forever. We know what a man Lee is. The whole North admits it, but I tell you the sun of the South is setting."
"You're growing poetical and poetry is no argument."
"But unlimited men, unlimited cannon and rifles, unlimited ammunition and supplies and a general who is willing to use them, are. Of course I know that you can't carry any such message to General Lee, but I feel it to be the truth."
"We've a great general and a great army that say, no."
Nobody paid any attention to the two. It was merely another one of those occasions when men of the opposing sides stood together amid the dead and wounded, and talked in friendly fashion. But Harry knew that he could not delay long.
"I've got to go, Dick," he said. "And I've a message too, one that I want you to deliver to General Grant."
"What is it?"
"Tell him that we've more than held our own to-day, and that we'll thrash him like thunder to-morrow, and whenever and wherever he may choose, no matter what the odds are against us."
"I see that you won't believe even a little bit of what I tell you," he said "and maybe if I were in your place I wouldn't either. But it's true all the same. Good-by, Harry."
The two hands, covered with battle grime, met again in the strong grasp of blood kindred and friendship.
"Take care of yourself, old man!"
The words, exactly alike, were uttered by the two simultaneously.
Both were stirred deeply. Harry sprang on his horse, looked back once, waving his hand, and rode rapidly to General Lee. Later in the night, he received permission to hunt up the Invincibles, his heart full of fear that they had perished utterly in the gloomy pit called the Wilderness, lit now only by the fire of death.
He left his horse with an orderly and walked toward the point where he had last seen them. He passed thousands of soldiers, many wounded, but silent as usual, while the unhurt were sleeping where they had dropped. The Invincibles were not at the point where he had seen them last, and the colonels of several scattered regiments could not tell him what had become of them. But he continued to seek them although the fear was growing in his heart that the last man of the Invincibles had died under the Northern cannon.
His search led toward the enemy's lines. Almost unconsciously he went in that direction, however, his knowledge of the two colonels telling him that they would take the same course. He turned into a little cove, partly sheltered by the dwarfed trees and he heard a thin voice saying:
"Nonsense, Leonidas. I scarcely felt it, but yours, old friend, is pretty bad. You must let me attend to it. Keep still! I'll adjust the bandage."
"Hector, why do you make a fuss over me, when I'm only slightly hurt, and sacrifice yourself, a severely injured man!"
"With all due respect you'd better let me attend to you both," said a voice that Harry recognized as St. Clair's.
"And maybe I could help a little," said another that he knew to be Happy Tom's. But their voices, like those of the colonels, were weak. Still he had positive proof that they were alive, and, as his heart gave a joyful throb or two, he stepped into the glade. There was enough light for him to see Colonel Leonidas Talbot, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, sitting side by side on the grass with their backs against the earthly wall, very pale from loss of blood, but with heads erect and eyes shining with a certain pride. St. Clair and Langdon lay on the grass, one with an old handkerchief, blood-soaked, bound about his head and the other with a bandage tightly fastened over his left shoulder. Beyond them lay a group of soldiers.
"Good evening, heroes!" said Harry lightly as he stepped forward.
He was welcomed with an exclamation of joy from them all.
"We meet again, Harry," said Colonel Talbot, "and it is the second time since morning. I fancy that second meetings to-day have not been common. We have the taste of success in our mouths, but you'll excuse us for not rising to greet you. We are all more or less affected by the missiles of the enemy and for some hours at least neither walking nor standing will be good for us."
"Mohammed must come to all the mountains," said St. Clair, weakly holding out a hand.
Harry greeted them all in turn, and sat down with them. He was overflowing with sympathy, but it was not needed.
"A glorious day," said Colonel Leonidas Talbot.
"Truly," said Harry.
"A most glorious day," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.
"Most truly," said Harry.
"An especially glorious day for the Invincibles," said Colonel Talbot.
"The most glorious of all possible days for the Invincibles," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.
There was an especial emphasis to their words that aroused Harry's attention.
"The Invincibles have had many glorious days," he said. "Why should this be the most glorious of them all?"
"We went into battle one hundred and forty-seven strong," replied Colonel Talbot quietly, "and we came out with one hundred and forty-seven casualties, thirty-nine killed and one hundred and eight wounded. We lay no claim to valor, exceeding that of many other regiments in General Lee's glorious army, but we do think we've made a fairly excellent record. Do you see those men?"
He pointed to a silent group stretched upon the turf, and Harry nodded.
"Not one of them has escaped unhurt, but most of us will muster up strength enough to meet the enemy again to-morrow, when our great general calls."
Harry's throat contracted for a moment.
"I know it, Colonel Talbot," he said. "The Invincibles have proved themselves truly worthy of their name. General Lee shall hear of this."
"But in no boastful vein, Harry," said Colonel Talbot. "We would not have you to speak thus of your friends."
"I do not have to boast for you. The simple truth is enough. I shall see that a surgeon comes here at once to attend to your wounded. Good night, gentlemen."
"Good night," said the four together. Harry walked back toward General Lee's headquarters, full of pride in his old comrades.