The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XVI. Spottsylvania
Harry secured a little sleep toward morning, and, although his nervous tension had been very great, when he lay down, he felt greatly strengthened in body and mind. He awakened Dalton in turn, and the two, securing a hasty breakfast, sat near the older members of the staff, awaiting orders. The commander-in-chief was at the edge of the little glade, talking earnestly with Hill, and several other important generals.
Harry often saw through the medium of his own feelings, and the rim of the sun, beginning to show over the eastern edge of the Wilderness, was blood red. The same crimson and sinister tinge showed through the west which was yet in the dusk. But in east and west there were certain areas of light, where the forest fires yet smoldered.
Both sides had thrown up hasty breastworks of earth or timber, but the two armies were unusually silent. A space of perhaps a mile and a half lay between them, but as the light increased neither moved. There was no crackle of rifle fire along their fronts. The skirmishers, usually so active, seemed to be exhausted, and the big guns were at rest. The fierce and tremendous fighting of the two days before seemed to have taken all the life out of both North and South.
Harry, inured to war, understood the reasons for silence and lack of movement. Grant had been drawn into a region that he did not like, where he could not use his superior numbers to advantage, and he must be shuddering at the huge losses he had suffered already. He would seek better ground. Lee too, was in no condition to take advantage of his successful defense. The old days when he could send Jackson on a great turning movement, to fall with all the crushing impact of a surprise upon the Northern flank, were gone forever. Stuart, the brilliant cavalryman, was there, but his men were not numerous enough, and, however brilliant, he was not Jackson.
The sun rose higher. Midmorning came, and the two armies still lay close. Harry grew stronger in his opinion that they would not fight again that day, although he watched, like the others, for any sign of movement in the Northern camp.
Noon came, and the same dead silence. The fires had burned themselves out now and the dusk that had reigned over the Wilderness, before the battle, recovered its ground, thickened still further by the vast quantities of smoke still hanging low under a cloudy sky. But the aspect of the Wilderness itself was more mournful than ever. Coals smoldered in the burned areas, and now and then puffs of wind picked up the hot ashes and sent them in the faces of the soldiers. Thickets and bushes had been cut down by bullets and cannon balls, and lay heaped together in tangled confusion. Back of the lines, the surgeons, with aching backs, toiled over the wounded, as they had toiled through the night.
Harry saw nearly the whole Southern front. The members of Lee's staff were busy that day, carrying orders to all his generals to rectify their lines, and to be prepared, to the last detail, for another tremendous assault. It was not until the afternoon that he was able to look up the Invincibles again. The two colonels and the two lieutenants were doing well, and the colonels were happy.
"We've already been notified," said Colonel Talbot, "that we're to retain our organization as a regiment. We're to have about a hundred new men now, the fragments of destroyed regiments. Of course, they won't be like the veterans of the Invincibles, but a half-dozen battles like that of yesterday should lick them into shape."
"I should think so," said Harry.
"Do you believe that Grant is retreating?" asked Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire.
"Our scouts don't say so."
"Then he is merely putting off the evil day. The sooner he withdraws the more men he will save. No Yankee general can ever get by General Lee. Keep that in your mind, Harry Kenton."
Harry was silent, but rejoicing to find that his friends would soon recover from their wounds, he went back to his place, and saw all the afternoon pass, without any movement indicating battle.
Night came again and the scouts reported to Lee that the Union army was breaking camp, evidently with the intention of getting out of the Wilderness and marching to Fredericksburg. Harry was with the general when he received the news, and he saw him think over it long. Other scouts brought in the same evidence.
Harry did not know what the general thought, but as for himself, although he was too young to say anything, it was incredible that Grant should retreat. It was not at all in accordance with his character, now tested on many fields, and his resources also were too great for withdrawal.
But the night was very dark and no definite knowledge yet came out of it. Lee stayed by his little campfire and received reports. Far after dusk Harry saw the look of doubt disappear from his eyes, and then he began to send out messengers. It was evident that he had formed his opinion, and intended to act upon it at once.
He beckoned to Harry and Dalton, and bade them go together with written instructions to General Anderson, who had taken the place of General Longstreet.
"You will stay with General Anderson subject to his orders," he said, as Harry and Dalton, saluting, rode toward Anderson's command.
Their way led through torn, tangled and burned thickets. Sometimes a horse sprang violently to one side and neighed in pain. His hoof had come down on earth, yet so hot that it scorched like fire. Now and then sparks fell upon them, but they pursued their way, disregarding all obstacles, and delivered their sealed orders to General Anderson, who at once gathered up his full force, and marched away from the heart of the Wilderness toward Spottsylvania Court House.
Harry surmised that Grant was attempting some great turning movement, and Lee, divining it, was sending Anderson to meet his advance. He never knew whether it was positive knowledge or a happy guess.
But he was quite sure that the night's ride was one of the most singular and sinister ever made by an army. If any troops ever marched through the infernal regions it was they. In this part of the Wilderness the fires had been of the worst. Trees still smoldered. In the hollows, where the bushes had grown thickest, were great beds of coals. The smoke which the low heavy skies kept close to the earth was thick and hot. Gusts of wind sent showers of sparks flying, and, despite the greatest care to protect the ammunition, they marched in constant danger of explosion.
Harry thought at one time that General Anderson intended to camp in the Wilderness for the night, but he soon saw that it was impossible. One could not camp on hot ground in a smoldering forest.
"I believe it's a march till day," he said to Dalton. "It's bound to be. If a man were to lie down here, he'd find himself a mass of cinders in the morning, and it will take us till daylight and maybe past to get out of the Wilderness."
"If he didn't burn to death he'd choke to death. I never breathed such smoke before."
"That's because it's mixed with ashes and the fumes of burned gunpowder. A villainous compound like this can't be called air. How long is it until dawn?"
"About three hours, I think."
"You remember those old Greek stories about somebody or other going down to Hades, and then having a hard climb out again. We're the modern imitators. If this isn't Hades then I don't know what it is."
"It surely is. Phew, but that hurt!"
"I brushed my hand against a burning bush. The result was not happy. Don't imitate me."
Dalton's horse leaped to one side, and he had difficulty in keeping the saddle. His hoof had been planted squarely in the midst of a mass of hot twigs.
"The sooner I get out of this Inferno or Hades of a place the happier I'll be!" said Dalton.
"I've never seen the like," said Harry, "but there's one thing about it that makes me glad."
"And what's the saving grace?"
"That it's in Virginia and not in Kentucky, though for the matter of that it couldn't be in Kentucky."
"And why couldn't it be in Kentucky?"
"Because there's no such God-forsaken region in all that state of mine."
"It certainly gets upon one's soul," said Dalton, looking at the gloomy region, so terribly torn by battle.
"But if we keep going we're bound to come out of it some time or other."
"And we're not stopping. A man can't make his bed on a mass of coals, and there'll be no rest for us until we're clear out of the Wilderness."
They marched on a long time, and, as day dawned, hundreds of voices united in a shout of gladness. Behind them were the shades of the Wilderness, that dismal region reeking with slaughter and ruin, and before them lay firm soil, and green fields, in all the flush of a brilliant May morning.
"Well, we did come out of Hades, Harry," said Dalton.
"And it does look like Heaven, but the trouble with our Hades, George, is that the inmates will follow us. Put your glasses to your eyes and look off there."
"Horsemen as sure as we're sitting in our own saddles."
"And Northern horsemen, too. Their uniforms are new enough for me to tell their color. I take it that Grant's vanguard has moved by our right flank and has come out of the Wilderness."
"And our surmises that we were to meet it are right. Spottsylvania Court House is not far away, and maybe we are bound for it."
"And maybe the Yankees are too."
Harry's words were caused by the sound of a distant and scattering fire. In obedience to an order from Anderson, he and Dalton galloped forward, and, from a ridge, saw through their glasses a formidable Union column advancing toward Spottsylvania. As they looked they saw many men fall and they also saw flashes of flame from bushes and fences not far from its flank.
"Our sharpshooters are there," said Harry. And he was right. While the Union force was advancing in the night Stuart had dismounted many of his men and using them as skirmishers had incessantly harassed the march of Grant's vanguard led by Warren.
"Each army has been trying to catch the other napping," said Dalton.
"And neither has succeeded," said Harry.
"Now we make a race for the Spottsylvania ridge," said Dalton. "You see if we don't! I know this country. It's a strong position there, and both generals want it."
Dalton was right. A small Union force had already occupied Spottsylvania, but the heavy Southern division crossing the narrow, but deep, river Po, drove it out and seized the defensive position.
Here they rested, while the masses of the two armies swung toward them, as if preparing for a new battlefield, one that Harry surveyed with great interest. They were in a land of numerous and deep rivers. Here were four spreading out, like the fingers of a human hand, without the thumb, and uniting at the wrist. The fingers were the Mat, the Ta, the Po, and the Nye, and the unit when they united was called the Mattopony.
Lee's army was gathering behind the Po. A large Union force crossed it on his flank, but, recognizing the danger of such a position, withdrew. Lee himself came in time. Hill, overcome by illness and old wounds, was compelled to give up the command of his division, and Early took his place. Longstreet also was still suffering severely from his injuries. Lee had but few of the able and daring generals who had served him in so many fields. But Stuart, the gay and brilliant, the medieval knight who had such a strong place in the commander-in-chief's affections, was there. Nor was his plumage one bit less splendid. The yellow feather stood in his hat. There was no speck or stain on the broad yellow sash and his undimmed courage was contagious.
But Harry with his sensitive and imaginative mind, that leaped ahead, knew their situation to be desperate. His opinion of Grant had proved to be correct. Although he had found in Lee an opponent far superior to any other that he had ever faced, the Union general, undaunted by his repulse and tremendous losses in the Wilderness, was preparing for a new battle, before the fire from the other had grown cold.
He knew too that another strong Union army was operating far to the south of them, in order to cut them off from Richmond, and scouts had brought word that a powerful force of cavalry was about to circle upon their flank. The Confederacy was propped up alone by the Army of Northern Virginia, which having just fought one great battle was about to begin another, and by its dauntless commander.
The Southern admiration for Lee, both as the general and as the man, can never be shaken. How much greater then was the effect that he created in the mind of impressionable youth, looking upon him with youth's own eyes in his moments of supreme danger! He was in very truth to Harry another Hannibal as great, and better. The long list of his triumphs, as youth counted them, was indeed superior to those of the great Carthaginian, and he believed that Lee would repel this new danger.
Nearly all that day the two armies constructed breastworks which stood for many years afterward, but neither made any attempt at serious work, although there was incessant firing by the skirmishers and an occasional cannon shot. Harry, whether carrying an order or not, had ample chance to see, and he noted with increasing alarm the growing masses of the Union army, as they gathered along the Spottsylvania front.
"Can we beat them?" "Can we beat them?" was the question that he continually asked himself. He wondered too where the Winchester regiment and Dick Mason lay, and where the spy, Shepard, was. But Shepard was not likely to remain long in one place. Skill and courage such as his would be used to the utmost in a time like this. Doubtless he was somewhere in the Confederate lines, discovering for Grant the relatively small size of the army that opposed him.
Near dusk and having the time he followed his custom and sought the Invincibles. Both colonels had recovered considerable strength, and, although one of them could not walk, he would be helped upon his horse whenever the battle began, and would ride into the thick of it. But the faces of St. Clair and Happy Tom glowed and their wounds apparently were forgotten.
"Lieutenant Arthur St. Clair and Lieutenant Thomas Langdon are gone forever," said Colonel Talbot. "In their places we have Major Arthur St. Clair and Captain Thomas Langdon. All our majors and captains have been killed, and with our reduced numbers these two will fill their places, as best they can; and that they can do so most worthily we all know. They received their promotions this afternoon."
Harry congratulated them both with the greatest warmth. They were very young for such rank, but in this war the toll of officers was so great that men sometimes became generals when they were but little older.
"Is it to be to-morrow?" asked Colonel Talbot.
"I think it likely that we'll fight again then," said Harry.
"And Grant has not yet had enough. He wants a little more of the same, does he!"
"It would appear so, sir."
"Then I take it without consulting General Lee that he is ready to deal with the Yankees as he dealt with them in the Wilderness."
"I hope so. Good night."
"Good night!" they called to him, and Harry returned to the staff. Taylor, the adjutant general, told him and Dalton to lie down and seek a little sleep. Harry was not at all averse, as he was completely exhausted again after the tremendous excitement of the battle, and the long hours of strain and danger. But his nerves were so much on edge that he could not yet sleep. His eyes were red and smarting from the smoke and burned powder, and he felt as if accumulated smoke and dust encased him like a suit of armor.
"I'd give a hundred dollars for a good long drink, just as long as I liked to make it," he groaned, "and I mean a drink of pure cold water, too."
"Confederate paper or money?" said Dalton.
"I mean real money, but at the same time you oughtn't to make invidious comparisons."
"Then the money's mine, but you can pay me whenever you feel like it, which I suppose will be never. There's a spring in the thick woods just back of your quarters. It flows out from under rocks, at the distance of several yards makes a deep pool, and then the overflow of the pool goes on through the forest to the Po. Come on, Harry! We'll luxuriate and then tell the others."
Harry found that it was a most glorious spring, indeed; clear and cold. He and Dalton drank slowly at first, and then deeply.
"I didn't know I could hold so much," said Dalton.
"Nor I," said Harry.
"Let's take another."
"I'm with you."
"Let's make it two more."
"I still follow you."
"Horace wrote about his old Falernian, and the other wines which he enjoyed, as he and the leading Roman sports sat around the fountain, flirting with the girls," said Dalton, "but I don't believe any wine ever brewed in Latium was the equal of this water."
"I've always had an idea that Horace wasn't as gay as he pretended to be, else he wouldn't have written so much about Chloe and her comrades. I imagine that an old Roman boy would keep pretty quiet about his dancing and singing, and not publish it to the public."
"Well, let him be. He's dead and the Romans are dead, and the Americans are doing their best to kill off one another, but let's forget it for a few minutes. That pool there is about four feet deep, the water is clear and the bottom is firm ground; now do you know what I'm going to do?"
"Yes, and I'm going to do the same. Bet you even that I beat you into the water."
They threw off their clothes rapidly, but the splashes were simultaneous as their bodies struck the water. Although the limits of the pool were narrow they splashed and paddled there for a while, and it was a long time since they had known such a luxury. Then they walked out, dried themselves and spread the good news. All night long the pool was filled with the bathers, following one another in turn.
The water taken internally and externally soothed Harry's nerves. His excitement was gone. A great army with which they were sure to fight on the morrow was not far away, but for the time he was indifferent. The morrow could take care of itself. It was night, and he had permission to go to sleep. Hence he slumbered fifteen minutes later.
He slept almost through the night, and, when he was awakened shortly before dawn, he found that his strength and elasticity had returned. He and Dalton went down to the spring again, drank many times, and then ate breakfast with the older members of the staff, a breakfast that differed very little from that of the common soldiers.
Then a day or two of waiting, and watching, and of confused but terrible fighting ensued. The forests were again set on fire by the bursting shells and they were not able to rescue many of the wounded from the flames. Vast clouds again floated over the whole region, drawing a veil of dusk between the soldiers and the sun. But neither army was willing to attack the other in full force.
Grant commanding all the armies of the East was moving meanwhile. A powerful cavalry division, he heard, had got behind Beauregard, who was to protect Richmond, and was tearing up an important railway line used by the Confederacy. The daring Sheridan with another great division of cavalry had gone around Lee's left and was wrecking another railway, and with it the rations and medical supplies so necessary to the Confederates. Grant, recognizing his antagonist's skill and courage and knowing that to succeed he must destroy the main Southern army, resolved to attack again with his whole force.
The day had been comparatively quiet and the Army of Northern Virginia had devoted nearly the whole time to fortifying with earthworks and breastworks of logs. The young aides, as they rode on their missions, could easily see the Northern lines through their glasses. Harry's heart sank as he observed their extent. The Southern army was sadly reduced in numbers, and Grant could get reinforcement continually.
But such is the saving grace of human nature that even in these moments of suspense, with one terrible battle just over and another about to begin, soldiers of the Blue and Gray would speak to one another in friendly fashion in the bushes or across the Po. It was on the banks of this narrow river that Harry at last saw Shepard once more. He happened to be on foot that time, the slope being too densely wooded for his horse, and Shepard hailed him from the other side.
"Good day, Mr. Kenton. Don't fire! I want to talk," he said, holding up both hands as a sign of peace.
"A curious place for talking," Harry could not keep from saying.
"So it is, but we're not observed here. It was almost inevitable while the armies remained face to face that we should meet in time. I want to tell you that I've met your cousin, Richard Mason, here, and his commanding officer, Colonel Winchester. Oh, I know much more about you and your relationships than you think."
"How is Dick?"
"He has not been hurt, nor has Colonel Winchester. Mr. Mason has received a letter from his home and your home in Pendleton in Kentucky. The outlaws to the eastward are troublesome, but the town is occupied by an efficient Union garrison and is in no danger. His mother and all of his and your old friends, who did not go to the war, are in good health. He thought that in my various capacities as ranger, scout and spy I might meet you, and he asked me, if it so happened, to tell these things to you."
"I thank you," said Harry very earnestly, "and I'm truly sorry, Mr. Shepard, that you and I are on different sides."
"I suppose it's too late for you to come over to the Union and the true cause."
"You know, Mr. Shepard, there are no traitors in this war."
"I know it. I was merely jesting."
He slipped into the underbrush and disappeared. Harry confessed to himself once more that he liked Shepard, but he felt more strongly than ever that it had become a personal duel between them, and they would meet yet again in violence.
That night he had little to do. It was a typical May night in Virginia, clear and beautiful with an air that would have been a tonic to the nerves, had it not been for the bitter smoke and odors that yet lingered from the battle of the Wilderness.
Before dawn the scouts brought in a rumor that there was a heavy movement of Federal troops, although they did not know its meaning. It might portend another flank march by Grant, but a mist that had begun to rise after midnight hid much from them. The mist deepened into a fog, which made it harder for the Southern leaders to learn the meaning of the Northern movement.
Just as the dawn was beginning to show a little through the fog, Hancock and Burnside, with many more generals, led a tremendous attack upon the Southern right center. They had come so silently through the thickets that for once the Southern leaders were surprised. The Union veterans, rushing forward in dense columns, stormed and took the breastworks with the bayonet.
Many of the Southern troops, sound asleep, awoke to find themselves in the enemy's hands. Others, having no time to fire them, fought with clubbed rifles.
Harry, dozing, was awakened by the terrific uproar. Even before the dawn had fairly come the battle was raging on a long front. The center of Lee's army was broken, and the Union troops were pouring into the gap. Grant had already taken many guns and thousands of prisoners, and the bulldog of Shiloh and Vicksburg and Chattanooga was hurrying fresh divisions into the combat to extend and insure his victory. Through the forests swelled the deep Northern cry of triumph.
Harry had never before seen the Southern army in such danger, and he looked at General Lee, who had now mounted Traveller. The turmoil and confusion in front of them was frightful and indescribable. The Union troops had occupied an entire Confederate salient, and their generals, feeling that the moment was theirs, led them on, reckless of life, and swept everything before them.
Harry never took his eyes from Lee. The rising sun shot golden beams through the smoke and disclosed him clearly. His face was calm and his voice did not shake as he issued his orders with rapidity and precision. The lion at bay was never more the lion.
A new line of battle was formed, and the fugitives formed up with it. Then the Southern troops, uttering once more the fierce rebel yell, charged directly upon their enemy and under the eye of the great chief whom they almost worshiped.
Now Harry for the first time saw his general show excitement. Lee galloped to the head of one of the Virginia regiments, and ranging his horse beside the colors snatched off his hat and pointed it at the enemy. It was a picture which with all the hero worship of youth he never forgot. It did not even grow dim in his memory--the great leader on horseback, his hat in his hand, his eyes fiery, his face flushed, his hand pointing the way to victory or death.
It was an occasion, too, when the personal presence of a leader meant everything. Every man knew Lee and tremendous rolling cheers greeted his arrival, cheers that could be heard above the thunder of cannon and rifles. It infused new courage into them and they gathered themselves for the rush upon their victorious foe.
Gordon of Georgia, spurring through the smoke, seized Lee's horse by the bridle. He did not mean to have their commander-in-chief sacrificed in a charge.
"This is no place for you, General Lee!" he cried. "Go to the rear!"
Lee did not yet turn, and Gordon shouted:
"These men are Virginians and Georgians who have never failed. Go back, I entreat you!"
Then Gordon turned to the troops and cried, as he rose on his toes in his stirrups:
"Men, you will not fail now!"
Back came the answering shout:
"No! No!" and the whole mass of troops burst into one thunderous, echoing cry:
"Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!"
Nor would they move until Lee turned and rode back. Then, led by Gordon, they charged straight upon their foe, who met them with an equal valor. All day long the battle of Spottsylvania, equal in fierceness and desperation to that of the Wilderness, swayed to and fro. To Harry as he remembered them they were much alike. Charge and defense, defense and charge. Here they gained a little, and there they lost a little. Now they were stumbling through sanguinary thickets, and then they rushed across little streams that ran red.
The firing was rapid and furious to an extraordinary degree. The air rained shell and bullets. Areas of forest between the two armies were mowed down. More than one large tree was cut through entirely by rifle bullets. Other trees here, as in the Wilderness, caught fire and flamed high.
Midnight put an end to the battle, with neither gaining the victory and both claiming it. Harry had lost another horse, killed under him, and now he walked almost dazed over the terrible field of Spottsylvania, where nearly thirty thousand men had fallen, and nothing had yet been decided.
Yet in Harry's heart the fear of the grim and silent Grant was growing. The Northern general had fought within a few days two battles, each the equal of Waterloo, and Harry felt sure that he was preparing for a third. The combat of the giants was not over, and with an anxious soul he waited the next dawn. They remained some days longer in the Wilderness, or the country adjacent to it, and there was much skirmishing and firing of heavy artillery, but the third great pitched battle did not come quite as soon as Harry expected. Even Grant, appalled by the slaughter, hesitated and began to maneuver again by the flank to get past Lee. Then the fighting between the skirmishers and heavy detached parties became continuous.
During the days that immediately followed Harry was much with Sherburne. The brave colonel was one of Stuart's most trusted officers. Despite the forests and thickets there was much work for the cavalry to do, while the two armies circled and circled, each seeking to get the advantage of the other.
Sheridan, they heard, was trying to curve about with his horsemen and reach Richmond, and Stuart, with his cavalry, including Sherburne's, was sent to intercept him, Harry riding by Sherburne's side. It was near the close of May, but the air was cool and pleasant, a delight to breathe after the awful Wilderness.
Stuart, despite his small numbers, was in his gayest spirits, and when he overtook the enemy at a little place called Yellow Tavern he attacked with all his customary fire and vigor. In the height of the charge, Harry saw him sink suddenly from his horse, shot through the body. He died not long afterward and the greatest and most brilliant horseman of the South passed away to join Jackson and so many who had gone before. Harry was one of the little group who carried the news to Lee, and he saw how deeply the great leader was affected. So many of his brave generals had fallen that he was like the head of a family, bereft.
Nevertheless the lion still at bay was great and terrible to strike. It was barely two weeks after Spottsylvania when Lee took up a strong position at Cold Harbor, and Grant, confident in his numbers and powerful artillery, attacked straightaway at dawn.
Harry was in front during that half-hour, the most terrible ever seen on the American continent, when Northern brigade after brigade charged to certain death. Lee's men, behind their earthworks, swept the field with a fire in which nothing could live. The charging columns fairly melted away before them and when the half-hour was over more than twelve thousand men in blue lay upon the red field.
Grant himself was appalled, and the North, which had begun to anticipate a quick and victorious end of the war, concealed its disappointment as best it could, and prepared for another campaign.
Grant and Lee, facing each other, went into trenches along the lines of Cold Harbor, and the hopes of the young Southern soldiers after the victory there rose anew. But Harry was not too sanguine, although he kept his thoughts to himself.
The officers of the Invincibles had recovered from their wounds, and Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, sitting in a trench, resumed their game of chess.
Colonel Talbot took a pawn, the first man captured by either since early spring.
"That was quite a victory," he said.
"Not important! Not important, Leonidas!"
"And why not, Hector?"
"Because you've left the way to your king easier. I shall promptly move along that road."
"As Grant moved through the Wilderness."
"Don't depreciate Grant, Leonidas. He never stops pounding. We've fought two great battles with him in the Wilderness and a third at Cold Harbor, but he's still out there facing us. Can't you see the Yankees with your glasses, Harry?"
"Yes, sir, quite clearly. They're about to fire a shot from a big gun in a wood. There it goes!"
The deep note of the cannon came to them, passed on, and then rolled back in echoes like a threat.