The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VIII. The Crossing
Harry left the wagon at midnight and overtook the staff, an orderly providing him with a good horse. Dalton, who had also been sleeping in a wagon, came an hour or two later, and the two, as became modest young officers, rode in the rear of the group that surrounded General Lee.
Although the darkness had come fully, the Army of Northern Virginia had not yet stopped. The infantry flanked by cavalry, and, having no fear of the enemy, marched steadily on. Harry closely observed General Lee, and although he was well into his fifties he could discern no weakness, either physical or mental, in the man who had directed the fortunes of the South in the terrific and unsuccessful three days at Gettysburg and who had now led his army for nearly a week in a retreat, threatened, at any moment, with an attack by a veteran force superior in numbers. All the other generals looked worn and weary, but he alone sat erect, his hair and beard trimmed neatly, his grave eye showing no sign of apprehension.
He seemed once more to Harry--youth is a hero-worshiper--omniscient and omnipotent. The invasion of the North had failed, and there had been a terrible loss of good men, officers and soldiers, but, with Lee standing on the defensive at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, in Virginia, the South would be invincible. He had always won there, and he always would win there.
Harry sighed, nevertheless. He had two heroes, but one of them was gone. He thought again if only Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg. Lee's terrible striking arm would have smitten with the hammer of Thor. He would have pushed home the attack on the first day, when the Union vanguard was defeated and demoralized. He would have crushed the enemy on the second day, leaving no need for that fatal and terrific charge of Pickett on the third day.
"You reached the general first," said Dalton, "but I tried my best to beat you."
"But I started first, George, old fellow. That gave me the advantage over you."
"It's fine of you to say it. The army has quickened its pace since we came. A part of it, at least, ought to arrive at the river to-morrow, though their cavalry are skirmishing continually on our flanks. Don't you hear the rifles?"
Harry heard them far away to right and left, like the faint buzzing of wasps, but he had heard the same sound so much that it made no impression upon him.
"Let 'em buzz," he said. "They're too distant to reach any of us, and the Army of Northern Virginia is passing on."
Those were precious hours. Harry knew much, but he did not divine the full depths of the suspense, suffered by the people beyond the veil that clothed the two armies. Lincoln had been continually urging Meade to pursue and destroy his opponent, and Meade, knowing how formidable Lee was, and how it had been a matter of touch and go at Gettysburg, pursued, but not with all the ardor of one sure of triumph. Yet the man at the White House hoped continually for victory, and the Southern people feared that his hopes would come true.
It became sure the next day that they would reach the Potomac before Meade could attack them in flank, but the scouts brought word that the Potomac was still a deep and swollen river, impossible to be crossed unless they could rebuild the bridges.
Finally the whole army came against the Potomac and it seemed to Harry that its yellow flood had not diminished one particle since he left. But Lee acted with energy. Men were set to work at once building a new bridge near Falling Waters, parts of the ruined pontoon bridges were recovered, and new boats were built in haste. But while the workmen toiled the army went into strong positions along the river between Williamsport and Hagerstown.
Harry found himself with all of his friends again, and he was proud of the army's defiant attitude. Meade and the Army of the Potomac were not far away, it was said, but the youthful veterans of the South were entirely willing to fight again. The older men, however, knew their danger. The disproportion of forces would be much greater than at Gettysburg, and even if they fought a successful defensive action with their back to the river the Army of the Potomac could bide its time and await reinforcements. The North would pour forth its numbers without stint.
Harry rode to Sherburne with a message of congratulation from General Lee, who told him that he had selected the possible crossing well, and that he had shown great skill and valor in holding it until the army came up. Sherburne's flush of pride showed under his deep tan.
"I did my best," he said to Harry, who knew the contents of the letter, "and that's all any of us can do."
"But General Lee has a way of inspiring us to do our best."
"It's so, and it's one of the reasons why he's such a great general. Watch those bridge builders work, Harry! They're certainly putting their souls and strength into it."
"And they have need to do so. The scouts say that the Army of the Potomac will be before us to-morrow. Don't you think the river has fallen somewhat, Colonel?"
"A little but look at those clouds over there, Harry. As surely as we sit here it's going to rain. The rivers were low that we might cross them on our march into the North, just smoothing our way to Gettysburg, and now that Gettysburg has happened they're high so we can't get back to the South. It looks as if luck were against us."
"But luck has a habit of changing."
Harry rode back to headquarters, whence he was sent with another dispatch, to Colonel Talbot, whom he found posted well in advance with the Invincibles.
"This note," said the colonel, "bids us to watch thoroughly. General Meade and his army are expected on our front in the morning, and there must be no chance for a surprise in the night, say a dash by their cavalry which would cut up our rear guard or vanguard--upon my soul I don't know which to call it. Harry, as you can see by the note itself, you're to remain with us until about midnight, and then make a full report of all that you and I and the rest of us may have observed upon this portion of the front or rear, whichever it may be. Meanwhile we share with you our humble rations."
Harry was pleased. He was always glad when chance or purpose brought him again into the company of the Invincibles. St. Clair and Langdon were his oldest comrades of the war, and they were like brothers to him. His affection for the two colonels was genuine and deep. If the two lads were like brothers to him, the colonels were like uncles.
"Is the Northern vanguard anywhere near?" asked Harry.
"Skirmishing is going on only four or five miles away," replied Colonel Leonidas Talbot. "It is likely that the sharp shooters will be picking off one another all through the night, but it will not disturb us. That is a great curse of war. It hardens one so for the time being. I'm a soldier, and I've been one all my life, and I suppose soldiers are necessary, but I can't get over this feeling. Isn't it the same way with you, Hector?"
"Exactly the same, Leonidas," replied Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire. "You and I fought together in Mexico, Leonidas, then on the plains, and now in this gigantic struggle, but under whatever guise and, wherever it may be, I find its visage always hideous. I don't think we soldiers are to blame. We don't make the wars although we have to fight 'em."
"Increasing years, Hector, have not dimmed those perceptive faculties of yours, which I may justly call brilliant."
"Thanks, Leonidas, you and I have always had a proper conception of the worth of each other."
"If you will pardon me for speaking, sir," said St. Clair, "there is one man I'd like to find, when this war is over."
"'What is the appearance of this man, Arthur?" asked Colonel Talbot.
"I don't know exactly how he looks, sir, though I've heard of him often, and I shall certainly know him when I meet him. You understand, sir, that, while I've not seen him, he has very remarkable characteristics of manner."
"And what may those be, Arthur? Are they so salient that you would recognize them at once?"
"Certainly, sir. He has an uncommonly loud voice, which he uses nearly all the time and without restraint. Words fairly pour from his tongue. Facts he scorns. He soars aloft on the wings of fancy. Many people who have listened to him have felt persuaded by his talk, but he is perhaps not so popular now."
"An extraordinary person, Arthur. But why are you so anxious to find him?"
"Because I wish, sir, to lay upon him the hands of violence. I would thrash him and beat him until he yelled for mercy, and then I would thrash him and beat him again. I should want the original pair of seven-leagued boots, not that I might make such fast time, but that I might kick him at a single kick from one county to another, and back, and then over and over past counting. I'd duck him in a river until he gasped for breath, I'd drag him naked through a briar patch, and then I'd tar and feather him, and ride him on a rail."
"Heavens, Arthur! I didn't dream that your nature contained so much cruelty! Who is this person over whose torture you would gloat like a red Indian?"
"It is the man who first said that one Southerner could whip five Yankees."
"Arthur," said Colonel Talbot, "your anger is just and becomes you. When the war is over, if we all are spared we'll form a group and hunt this fellow until we find him. And then, please God, if the gallows of Haman is still in existence, we'll hang him on it with promptness and dispatch. I believe in the due and orderly process of the law, but in this case lynching is not only justifiable, but it's an honor to the country."
"Well spoken, Leonidas! Well spoken!" said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire. "I'm glad that Arthur mentioned the matter, and we'll bear it in mind. You can count upon me."
"And here is coffee," said Happy Tom. "I made this myself, the camp cook liking me and giving me a chance. I'd really be a wonderful cook if I had the proper training, and I may come to it, if we lose the war. Still, the chance even then is slight, because my father, when red war showed its edge over the horizon, put all his money in the best British securities. So we could do no more than lose the plantation."
"Happy," said Colonel Talbot, gravely rebuking, "I am surprised at your father. I thought he was a patriot."
"He is, sir, but he's a financier first, and I may be thankful for it some day. I'll venture the prediction right now that if we lose this war not a single Confederate bill will be in the possession of Thomas Langdon, Sr. Others may have bales of it, worth less per pound than cotton, but not your humble servant's father, who, I sometimes think, has lots more sense than your humble servant's father's son."
Colonel Leonidas Talbot shook his head slowly.
"Finance is a mystery to me," he said. "In the dear old South that I have always known, the law, the army and the church were and are considered the high callings. To speak in fine, rounded periods was considered the great gift. In my young days, Harry, I went with my father by stage coach to your own State, Kentucky, to hear that sublime orator, the great Henry Clay."
"What was he speaking about, sir?" asked Harry.
"I don't remember. That's not important. But surely he was the noblest orator God ever created in His likeness. His words flowing like music and to be heard by everybody, even those farthest from the speaker, made my pulse beat hard, and the blood leap in my veins. I was heart and soul for his cause, whatever it was, and, yet I fear me, though I do not wish to hurt your feelings, Harry, that the state to which he was such ornament, has not gone for the South with the whole spirit that she should have shown. She has not even seceded. I fear sometimes that you Kentuckians are not altogether Southern. You border upon the North, and stretching as you do a long distance from east to west and a comparatively short distance from north to south, you thus face three Northern States across the Ohio--Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and the pull of three against one is strong. You see your position, don't you? Three Yankee states facing you from the north and only one Southern state, Tennessee, lying across your whole southern border, that is three against one. I fear that these odds have had their effect, because if Kentucky had sent all of her troops to the South, instead of two-thirds of them to the North, the war would have been won by us ere this."
"I admit it," said Harry regretfully. "My own cousin, who was more like a brother to me, is fighting on the other side. Kentucky troops on the Union side have kept us from winning great victories, and many of the Union generals are Kentuckians. I grieve over it, sir, as much as you do."
"But you and your people should not take too much blame to yourselves, Harry," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, who had a very soft heart. "Think of the many influences to which you were exposed daily. Think of those three Yankee states sitting there on the other side of the Ohio--Ohio, Indiana and Illinois--and staring at you so long and so steadily that, in a way, they exerted a certain hypnotic force upon you. No, my boy, don't feel badly about it, because the fault, in a way, is not so much yours as it is that of your neighbors."
"At any rate," said Happy Tom, with his customary boldness and frankness, "we're bound to admit that the Yankees beat us at making money."
"Which may be more to our credit than theirs," said Colonel Talbot, with dignity. "I have found it more conducive to integrity and a lofty mind to serve as an officer at a modest salary in the army rather than to gain riches in trade."
"But somebody has to pay the army, sir."
"Thomas, I regret to tell you that inquiry can be pushed to the point of vulgarity. I have been content with things as they were, and so should you be. Ah, there are our brave boys singing that noble battle song of the South! Listen how it swells! It shows a spirit unconquerable!"
Along the great battle front swelled the mighty chorus:
"Come brothers! Rally for the right! The bravest of the brave Sends forth her ringing battle cry Beside the Atlantic wave! She leads the way in honor's path; Come brothers, near and far, Come rally round the bonnie blue flag That bears a single star."
"A fine song! A fine song most truly," said Colonel Talbot. "It heartens one gloriously!"
But Harry, usually so quick to respond, strangely enough felt depression. He felt suddenly in all its truth that they had not only failed in their invasion, but the escape of the army was yet a matter of great doubt. The mood was only momentary, however, and he joined with all his heart as the mighty chorus rolled out another verse:
"Now Georgia marches to the front And beside her come Her sisters by the Mexique sea With pealing trump and drum, Till answering back from hill and glen The rallying cry afar, A Nation hoists the bonnie blue flag That bears a single star!"
They sang it all through, and over again, and then, after a little silence, came the notes of a trumpet from a far-distant point. It was played by powerful lungs and the wind was blowing their way but they heard it distinctly. It was a quaint syncopated tune, but not one of the Invincibles had any doubt that it came from some daring detachment of the Union Army. The notes with their odd lilt seemed to swell through the forest, but it was strange to both of the colonels.
"Do any of you know it?" asked Colonel Talbot.
All shook their heads except Harry.
"What is it, Harry?" asked Talbot.
"It's a famous poem, sir, the music of which has not often been heard, but I can translate from music into words the verse that has just been played:
"In their ragged regimentals Stood the old Continentals Yielding not, When the grenadiers were lunging And like hail fell the plunging Cannon shot; When the files of the isles From the smoky night encampment Bore the banner of the rampant Unicorn And grummer, grummer, Rolled the roll of the drummer, Through the morn!"
The bugler played on. It was the same tune, curious, syncopated and piercing the night shrilly. Whole brigades of the South stood in silence to listen.
"What do you think is its meaning?" asked Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire.
"It's in answer to our song and at the same time a reproach," replied Harry, who had jumped at once to the right conclusion. "The bugler intends to remind us that the old Continentals who stood so well were from both North and South, and perhaps he means, too, that we should stand together again instead of fighting each other."
"Then let the North give up at once," snapped Colonel Talbot.
"But in the trumpeter's opinion that means we should be apart forever."
"Then let him play on to ears that will not heed."
But the bugler was riding away. The music came faintly, and then died in one last sighing note. It left Harry grave and troubled, and he began to ask himself new questions. If the South succeeded in forcing a separation, what then? But the talk of his comrades drove the thought from his mind. Colonel Talbot sent St. Clair, Langdon and a small party of horsemen forward to see what the close approach of the daring bugler meant. Harry went with them.
Scouts in the brushwood quickly told them that a troop of Union cavalry had appeared in a meadow some distance ahead of them, and that it was one of their number who had played the song on the bugle. Should they stalk the detachment and open fire? St. Clair, who was in command, shook his head.
"It would mean nothing now," he said, and rode on with his men, knowing that the watchful Southern sharpshooters were on their flanks. It was night now, and a bright moon was coming out, enabling them to use their glasses with effect.
"There they are!" exclaimed Harry, pointing to the strip of forest on the far side of the opening, "and there is the bugler, too."
He was studying the party intently. The brilliant moonlight, and the strength of his glasses made everything sharp and clear and his gaze concentrated upon the bugler. He knew that man, his powerful chest and shoulders, and the well-shaped head on its strong neck. Nor did he deny to himself that he had a feeling of gladness when he recognized him.
"It's none other," he said aloud.
"None other what?" asked St. Clair.
"Our warning bugler was Shepard, the Union spy. I can make him out clearly on his horse with his bugle in his hand. You'll remember my telling you how I had that fight with him in the river."
"And perhaps it would have been better for us all if you had finished him off then."
"I couldn't have done it, Arthur, nor could you, if you had been in my place."
"No, I suppose not, but these Yankees are coming up pretty close. It's sure proof that Meade's whole army will be here in the morning, and the bridge won't be built."
"It may be built, but, if Meade chooses a battle, a battle there will be. Heavy forces must be very near. You can see them now signaling to one another from hill to hill."
"So I do, and this is as far as we ought to go. A hundred yards or two farther and we'll be in the territory of the enemy's sharpshooters instead of our own."
They remained for a while among some bushes, and secured positive knowledge that the bulk of the Army of the Potomac was drawing near. Toward midnight Harry returned to his commander-in-chief and found him awake and in consultation with his generals, under some trees near the Potomac. Longstreet, Rhodes, Pickett, Early, Anderson, Pender and a dozen others were there, all of them scarred and tanned by battle, and most of them bearing wounds.
Harry stood back, hesitating to invade this circle, even when he came with dispatches, but the commander-in-chief, catching sight of him, beckoned. Then, taking off his cap, he walked forward and presented a note from Colonel Talbot. It was brief, stating that the enemy was near, and Lee read it aloud to his council.
"And what were your own observations, Lieutenant Kenton?" asked the commander-in-chief.
"As well as I could judge, sir, the enemy will appear on our whole front soon after daybreak."
"And will be in great enough force to defeat us."
"Not while you lead us, sir."
"A courtier! truly a courtier!" exclaimed Stuart, smoothing the great feather of his gorgeous hat, which lay upon his knee.
"It may have had that look," he said, "but I meant my words."
"Don't tease the lad," said the crippled Ewell. "I knew him well on Jackson's staff, and he was one of our bravest and best."
"A jest only," said Stuart. "Don't I know him as well as you, Ewell? The first time I saw him he was riding alone among many dangers to bring relief to a beleaguered force of ours."
"And you furnished that relief, sir," said Harry.
"Well, so I did, but it was my luck, not merit."
"Be assured that you have no better friend than General Stuart," said General Lee, smiling. "You have done your duty well, Lieutenant Kenton, and as these have been arduous days for you you may withdraw, and join your young comrades of the staff."
Harry saluted and retired. Before he was out of ear shot the generals resumed their eager talk, but they knew, even as Harry himself, that there was but one thing to do, stand with their backs to the river and fight, if Meade chose to offer battle.
He slept heavily, and when he awoke the next day Dalton, who was up before him, informed him that the Northern army was at hand. Snatching breakfast, he and Dalton, riding close behind the commander-in-chief, advanced a little distance and standing upon a knoll surveyed the thrilling spectacle before them. Far along the front stretched the Army of the Potomac, horse, foot and guns, come up with its enemy again. Harry was sure that Meade was there, and with him Hancock and Buford and Warren and all the other valiant leaders whom they had met at Gettysburg. It was nine days since the close of the great battle, and doubtless the North had poured forward many reinforcements, while the South had none to send.
Harry appreciated the full danger of their situation, with the larger army in front of them, and the deep and swollen torrent of the Potomac behind them. But he did not believe that Meade would attack. Lee had lost at Gettysburg, but in losing he had inflicted such losses upon his opponent, that most generals would hesitate to force another battle. The one who would not have hesitated was consolidating his great triumph at Vicksburg. Harry often thought afterward what would have happened had Grant faced Lee that day on the wrong side of the Potomac.
His opinion that Meade would not attack came from a feeling that might have been called atmospheric, an atmosphere created by the lack of initiative on the Union side, no clouds of skirmishers, no attacks of cavalry, very little rifle firing of any kind, merely generals and soldiers looking at one another. Harry saw, too, that his own opinion was that of his superior officer. Watching the commander-in-chief intently he saw a trace of satisfaction in the blue eyes. Presently all of them rode back.
Thus that day passed and then another wore on. Harry and Dalton had little to do. The whole Army of Northern Virginia was in position, defiant, challenging even, and the Army of the Potomac made no movement forward. Harry watched the strange spectacle with an excitement that he did not allow to appear on his face. It was like many of those periods in the great battles in which he had taken a part, when the combat died, though the lull was merely the omen of a struggle, soon to come more frightful than ever.
But here the struggle did not come. The hours of the afternoon fell peacefully away, and the general and soldiers still looked at one another.
"They're working on the bridge like mad," said Dalton, who had been away with a message, "and it will surely be ready in the morning. Besides, the Potomac is falling fast. You can already see the muddy lines that it's leaving on its banks."
"And Meade's chance is slipping, slipping away!" said Harry exultingly. "In three hours it will be sunset. They can't attack in the night and to-morrow we'll be gone. Meade has delayed like McClellan at Antietam, and, doubtless as McClellan did, he thinks our army much larger than it really is."
"It's so," said Dalton. "We're to be delivered, and we're to be delivered without a battle, a battle that we could ill afford, even if we won it."
Both were in a state of intense anxiety and they looked many times at the sun and their watches. Then they searched the hostile army with their glasses. But nothing of moment was stirring there. Lower and lower sank the sun, and a great thrill ran through the Army of Northern Virginia. In both armies the soldiers were intelligent men--not mere creatures of drill--who thought for themselves, and while those in the Army of Northern Virginia were ready, even eager to fight if it were pushed upon them, they knew the great danger of their position. Now the word ran along the whole line that if they fought at all it would be on their side of the river.
Harry and Dalton did not sleep that night. They could not have done so had the chance been offered. They like others rode all through the darkness carrying messages to the different commands, insuring exact cooperation. As the hours of the night passed the aspect of everything grew better. The river had fallen so fast that it would be fordable before morning.
But after midnight the clouds gathered, thunder crashed, lightning played and the violent rain of a summer storm enveloped them again. Harry viewed it at first with dismay, and then he found consolation. The darkness and the storm would cover their retreat, as it had covered the retreat of their enemy, Hooker, after Chancellorsville.
Harry and Dalton rode close behind Lee, who sat erect on his white horse, supervising the first movement of troops over the new and shaking bridge. Harry noted with amazement that despite his enormous exertions, physical and mental, and an intense anxiety, continuous for many days, he did not yet show signs of fatigue. Word had come that a part of the army was already fording the river, near Williamsport, but this bridge near Falling Waters was the most important point. General Lee and his staff sat there on their horses a long time, while the rain beat unheeded upon them.
Few scenes are engraved more vividly upon the mind of Harry Kenton than those dusky hours before the dawn, the flashes of lightning, the almost incessant rumble of thunder, the turbid and yellow river across which stretched the bridge, a mere black thread in the darkness, swaying and dipping and rising and creaking as horse and foot, and batteries and ammunition wagons passed upon it.
There were torches, but they flared and smoked in the rain and cast a light so weak and fitful that Harry could not see the farther shore. The Army of Northern Virginia marched out upon a shaking bridge and disappeared in the black gulf beyond. Only the lack of an alarm coming back showed that it was reaching the farther shore.
"Dawn will soon be here," said Dalton.
"So it will," said Harry, "and most of the troops are across. Ah, there go the Invincibles! Look how they ride!"
Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire at the head of their scanty band were just passing. They took off their hats, and swept a low bow to the great chief who sat silently on his white horse within a few yards of them. Then, side by side, they rode upon the shaking bridge, followed by Langdon, St. Clair and their brave comrades, and disappeared, where the bridge disappeared, in the rain and mist.
"Brave men!" murmured Lee.
Harry, always watching his commander-in-chief, saw now for the first time signs of fatigue and nervousness. The tremendous strain was wearing him down. But while the rain still poured and ran in streams from his gray hair and gray beard, the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia passed upon the bridge, and Stuart, all his plumes bedraggled, rode up to his chief, a smoking cup of coffee in his hand.
"Drink this, General, won't you?" he said.
He seized it, drank all of the coffee eagerly, and then handing back the cup, said:
"I never before in my life drank anything that refreshed me so much."
Then he, with his staff, Stuart and some other generals rode over the bridge, disappearing in their turn into the darkness and mist that had swallowed up the others, but emerging, as the others had done, into the safety of the Southern shore.
Meade and his generals had held a council the night before but nearly all the officers advised against attack. This night he made up his mind to move against Lee anyhow, and was ready at dawn, only to find the whole Southern army gone.