The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XI. A Family Affair
Two days after the battle of Antietam, Dick went with Colonel Winchester to Washington on official duty. His nerves, shaken so severely by that awful battle, were not yet fully restored and he was glad of the little respite, and change of scene. The sights of the city and the talk of men were a restorative to him.
The capital was undoubtedly gay. The deep depression and fear that had hung over it a few weeks ago were gone. Men had believed after the Second Manassas that Lee might take Washington and this fear was not decreased when he passed into Maryland on what seemed to be an invasion. Many had begun to believe that he was invincible, that every Northern commander whoever he might be, would be beaten by him, but Antietam, although there were bitter complaints that Lee might have been destroyed instead of merely being checked, had changed a sky of steel into a sky of blue.
Washington was not only gay, it was brilliant. Life flowed fast and it was astonishingly vivid. A restless society, always seeking something new flitted from house to house. Dick, young and impressionable, would have been glad to share a little in it, but his time was too short. He went once with Colonel Winchester to the theatre, and the boy who had thrice seen a hundred and fifty thousand men in deadly action hung breathless over the mimic struggles of a few men and women on a painted stage.
The second day after his arrival he received a letter from his mother that had been awaiting him there. It had come by the way of Louisville through the Northern lines, and it was long and full of news. Pendleton, she said, was a sad town in these days. All of the older boys and young men had gone away to the armies, and many of them had been killed already, or had died in hospitals. Here she gave names and Dick's heart grew heavy, because in this fatal list were old friends of his.
It was not alone the boys and young men who had gone, wrote Mrs. Mason, but the middle-aged men, too. Dr. Russell had kept the Pendleton Academy open, but he had no pupil over sixteen years of age. There were no trustees, because they had all gone to the war. Senator Culver had been killed in the fighting in Tennessee, but she heard that Colonel Kenton was alive and well and with Bragg's army.
The affairs of the Union, she continued, were not going well in Tennessee and Kentucky. The terrible Confederate cavalryman Forrest had suddenly raided Murfreesborough in Tennessee, where Union regiments were stationed, and had destroyed or captured them all. Throughout the west the Southerners were raising their heads again. General Bragg, it was said, was advancing with a strong army, and was already farther north than the army of General Buell, which was in Tennessee. It was said that Louisville, one of the largest and richest of the border cities, would surely fall into the hands of the South.
Dick read the letter with changing and strong emotions. Amid the terrible struggles in the east, the west was almost blotted out of his mind. The Second Manassas and Antietam had great power to absorb attention wholly upon themselves. He had wholly forgotten for the time about Pendleton, the people whom he knew, and even his mother. Now they returned with increased strength. His memory was flooded with recollections of the little town, every house and face of which he knew.
And so the Confederates were coming north again with a great army. Shiloh had been far from crushing them in the west. The letter had been written before the Second Manassas, and that and Lee's great fight against odds at Antietam would certainly arouse in them the wish for like achievements. He inferred that since the armies in the east were exhausted, the great field for action would be for a while, in the west, and he was seized with an intense longing for that region which was his own.
It was not coincidence, but the need for men that made Dick's wish come true almost at once. A few hours after he received his letter Colonel Winchester found him sitting in the lobby of the hotel in which Dick had twice talked with the contractor. But the boy was alone this time, and as Colonel Winchester sat down beside him he said:
"Dick, the capital has received alarming news from Kentucky. Buoyed up by their successes in the east the Confederacy is going to make an effort to secure that state. Bragg with a powerful force is already on his way toward Louisville, and we fear that he has slipped away from Buell."
"So I've heard. I found here a letter from my mother, and she told me all the reports from that section."
"And is Mrs. Mason well? She has not been troubled by guerillas, or in any other way?"
"Not at all. Mother's health is always good, and she has not been molested."
"Dick, it's possible that we may see Kentucky again soon."
"Can that be true, and how is it so, sir?"
"The administration is greatly alarmed about Kentucky and the west. This movement of Bragg's army is formidable, and it would be a great blow for us if he took Louisville. Dispatches have been sent east for help. My regiment and several others that really belong in the west have been asked for, and we are to start in three days. Dick, do you know how many men of the Winchester regiment are left? We shall be able to start with only one hundred and five men, and when we attacked at Donelson we were a thousand strong."
"And the end of the war, sir, seems as far off as ever."
"So it does, Dick, but we'll go, and we'll do our best. Starting from Washington we can reach Louisville in two days by train. Bragg, no matter what progress he may make across the state, cannot be there then. If any big battle is to be fought we're likely to be in it."
The scanty remainder of the regiment was brought to Washington and two days later they were in Louisville, which they found full of alarm. The famous Southern partisan leader, John Morgan, had been roaming everywhere over the state, capturing towns, taking prisoners and throwing all the Union communications into confusion by means of false dispatches.
People told with mingled amusement and apprehension of Morgan's telegrapher, Ellsworth, who cut the wires, attached his own instrument, and replied to the Union messages and sent answers as his general pleased. It was said that Bragg was already approaching Munfordville where there was a Northern fort and garrison. And it was said that Buell on another line was endeavoring to march past Bragg and get between him and Louisville.
But Dick found that the western states across the Ohio were responding as usual. Hardy volunteers from the prairies and plains were pouring into Louisville. While Dick waited there the news came that Bragg had captured the entire Northern garrison of four thousand men at Munfordville, the crossing of Green River, and was continuing his steady advance.
But there was yet hope that the rapid march of Buell and the gathering force at Louisville would cause Bragg to turn aside.
At last the welcome news came. Bragg had suddenly turned to the east, and then Buell arrived in Louisville. With his own force, the army already gathered there and a division sent by Grant from his station at Corinth, in Mississippi, he was at the head of a hundred thousand men, and Bragg could not muster more than half as many.
So rapid had been the passage of events that Dick found himself a member of Buell's reorganized army, and ready to march, only thirteen days after the sun set on the bloody field of Antietam, seven hundred miles away. Bragg, they said, was at Lexington, in the heart of the state, and the Union army was in motion to punish him for his temerity in venturing out of the far south.
Dick felt a great elation as he rode once more over the soil of his native state. He beheld again many of the officers whom he had seen at Donelson, and also he spoke to General Buell, who although as taciturn and somber as ever, remembered him.
Warner and Pennington were by his side, the colonel rode before, and the Winchester regiment marched behind. Volunteers from Kentucky and other states had raised it to about three hundred men, and the new lads listened with amazement, while the unbearded veterans told them of Shiloh, the Second Manassas and Antietam.
"Good country, this of yours, Dick," said Warner, as they rode through the rich lands east of Louisville. "Worth saving. I'm glad the doctor ordered me west for my health."
"He didn't order you west for your health," said Pennington. "He ordered you west to get killed for your country."
"Well, at any rate, I'm here, and as I said, this looks like a land worth saving."
"It's still finer when you get eastward into the Bluegrass," said Dick, "but it isn't showing at its best. I never before saw the ground looking so burnt and parched. They say it's the dryest summer known since the country was settled eighty or ninety years ago."
Dick hoped that their line of march would take them near Pendleton, and as it soon dropped southward he saw that his hope had come true. They would pass within twenty miles of his mother's home, and at Dick's urgent and repeated request, Colonel Winchester strained a point and allowed him to go. He was permitted to select a horse of unusual power and speed, and he departed just before sundown.
"Remember that you're to rejoin us to-morrow," said Colonel Winchester. "Beware of guerillas. I hope you'll find your mother well."
"I feel sure of it, and I shall tell her how very kind and helpful you've been to me, sir."
"Thank you, Dick."
Dick, in his haste to be off did not notice that the colonel's voice quivered and that his face flushed as he uttered the emphatic "thank you." A few minutes later he was riding swiftly southward over a road that he knew well. His start was made at six o'clock and he was sure that by ten o'clock he would be in Pendleton.
The road was deserted. This was a well-peopled country, and he saw many houses, but nearly always the doors and shutters of the windows were closed. The men were away, and the women and children were shutting out the bands that robbed in the name of either army.
The night came down, and Dick still sped southward with no one appearing to stop him. He did not know just where the Southern army lay, but he did not believe that he would come in contact with any of its flankers. His horse was so good and true, that earlier than he had hoped, he was approaching Pendleton. The moon was up now, and every foot of the ground was familiar. He crossed brooks in which he and Harry Kenton and other boys of his age had waded--but he had never seen them so low before-- and he marked the tree in which he had shot his first squirrel.
It had not been so many months since he had been in Pendleton, and yet it seemed years and years. Three great battles in which seventy or eighty thousand men had fallen were enough to make anybody older.
Dick paused on the crest of a little hill and looked toward the place where his mother's house stood. He had come just in this way in the winter, and he looked forward to another meeting as happy. The moonlight was very clear now and he saw no smoke rising from the chimneys, but this was summer, and of course they would not have a fire burning at such an hour.
He rode on a little further and paused again at the crest of another hill. His view of Pendleton here was still better. He could see more roofs, and walls, but he noticed that no smoke rose from any house. Pendleton lay very still in its hollow. On the far side he saw the white walls of Colonel Kenton's house shining in the moonlight. Something leaped in his brain. He seemed to have been looking upon such white walls only yesterday, white walls that stood out in a fiery haze, white walls that he could never forget though he lived to be a hundred.
Then he remembered. The white walls were those of the Dunkard church at Antietam, around which the blue and the gray had piled their bodies in masses. The vast battlefield ranged past him like a moving panorama, and then he was merely looking at Pendleton lying there below, so still.
Dick was sensitive and his affections were strong. He loved his mother with a remarkable devotion, and his friends were for all time. Highly imaginative, he felt a powerful stirring of the heart, at his second return to Pendleton since his departure for the war. Yet he was chilled somewhat by the strange silence hanging over the little town that he loved so well. It was night, it was true, but not even a dog barked at his coming, and there was not the faintest trail of smoke across the sky. A brilliant moon shone, and white stars unnumbered glittered and danced, yet they showed no movement of man in the town below.
He shook off the feeling, believing that it was merely a sensitiveness born of time and place, and rode straight for his mother's house. Then he dismounted, tied his horse to one of the pines, and ran up the walk to the front door, where he knocked softly at first, and then more loudly.
No answer came and Dick's heart sank within him like a plummet in a pool. He went to the edge of the walk, gathered up some gravel and threw it against a window in his mother's room on the second floor. That would arouse her, because he knew that she slept lightly in these times, when her son was off to the wars. But the window was not raised, and he could hear no sound of movement in the room.
Alarmed, he went back to the front door, and he noticed that while the door was locked the keyhole was empty. Then his mother was gone away. The sign was almost infallible. Had any one been at home the key would have been on the inside.
His heart grew lighter. There had been no violence. No roving band had come there to plunder. He whistled and shouted through the keyhole, although he did not want anyone who might possibly be passing in the road to hear him, as this town was almost wholly Southern in its sympathies.
There was still no answer, and leading his horse behind one of the pine trees on the lawn, where it would not be observed, he went to the rear of the house, and taking a stick pried open a kitchen window. He had learned this trick when he was a young boy, and climbing lightly inside he closed the window behind him and fastened the catch.
He knew of course every hall and room of the house, but the moment he entered it he felt that it was deserted. The air was close and heavy, showing that no fresh breeze had blown through it for days. It was impossible that his mother or the faithful colored woman could have lived there so long a time with closed doors and shuttered windows.
When he passed into the main part of his home, and touched a door or chair, a fine dust grated slightly under his fingers. Here was confirmation, if further confirmation was needed. Dust on chairs and tables and sofas in the house in which his mother was present. Impossible! Such a thing could not occur with her there. It was not the white dust of the road or fields, but the black dust that gathers in closed chambers.
He went up to his mother's room, and, opening one of the shutters a few inches, let in a little light. It was in perfect order. Everything was in its place. Upon the dresser was a little vase containing some shrivelled flowers. The water in the vase had dried up days ago, and the flowers had dried up with it.
In this room and in all the others everything was arranged with order and method, as if one were going away for a long time. Dick drew a chair near the window, that he had opened slightly, and sat down. Much of his fear for his mother disappeared. It was obvious that she and her faithful attendant, Juliana, had gone, probably to be out of the track of the armies or to escape plundering bands like Skelly's.
He wondered where she had gone, whether northward or southward. There were many places that would gladly receive her. Nearly all the people in this part of the state were more or less related, and with them the tie of kinship was strong. It was probable that she would go north, or east. She might have gone to Lexington, or Winchester, or Richmond, or even in the hills to Somerset.
Well, he could not solve it. He was deeply disappointed because he had not found her there, but he was relieved from his first fear that the guerillas had come. He closed and fastened the window again, and then walked all through the house once more. His eyes had now grown so used to the darkness that he could see everything dimly. He went into his own room. A picture of himself that used to hang on the wall now stood on the dresser. He knew very well why, and he knew, too, that his mother often passed hours in that room.
Below stairs everything was neatness and in order. He went into the parlor, of which he had stood in so much awe, when he was a little child. The floor was covered with an imported carpet, mingled brown and red. A great Bible lay upon a small marble-topped table in the center of the room. Two larger tables stood against the wall. Upon them lay volumes of the English classics, and a cluster of wax flowers under a glass cover, that had seemed wonderful to Dick in his childhood.
But the room awed him no more, and he turned at once to the great squares of light that faced each other from wall to wall.
A famous portrait painter had arisen at Lexington when the canebrake was scarcely yet cleared away from the heart of Kentucky. His work was astonishing to have come out of a country yet a wilderness, and a century later he is ranked among the great painters. But it is said that the best work he ever did is the pair of portraits that face each other in the Mason home, and the other pair, the exact duplicates that face each other in the same manner in the Kenton house.
Dick opened a shutter entirely, and the light of the white moon, white like marble, streamed in. The sudden inpouring illuminated the room so vividly that Dick's heart missed a beat. It seemed, for a minute, that the two men in the portraits were stepping from the wall. Then his heart beat steadily again and the color returned to his face. They had always been there, those two portraits. Men had never lived more intensely than they, and the artist, at the instant his genius was burning brightest, had caught them in the moment of extraordinary concentration. Their souls had looked through their eyes and his own soul looking through his had met theirs.
Dick gazed at one and then at the other. There was his great grandfather, Paul Cotter, a man of vision and inspiration, the greatest scholar the west had ever produced, and there facing him was his comrade of a long life-time, Henry Ware, the famous borderer, afterward the great governor of the state. They had been painted in hunting suits of deerskin, with the fringed borders and beaded moccasins, and raccoon skin caps.
These were men, Dick's great grandfather and Harry's. An immense pride that he was the great-grandson of one of them suddenly swelled up in his bosom, and he was proud, too, that the descendants of the borderers, and of the earlier borderers in the east, should show the same spirit and stamina. No one could look upon the fields of Shiloh, and Manassas and Antietam and say that any braver men ever lived.
He drew his chair into the middle of the room and sat and looked at them a long time. His steady gazing and his own imaginative brain, keyed to the point of excitement, brought back into the portraits that singular quality of intense life. Had they moved he would not have been surprised, and the eyes certainly looked down at him in full and ample recognition.
What did they say? He gazed straight into the eyes of one and then straight into the eyes of the other, and over and over again. But the expression there was Delphic. He must choose for himself, as they had chosen for themselves, and remembering that he was lingering, when he should not linger, he closed and fastened the window, slipped out at the kitchen window and returned to his horse.
He remounted in the road and rode a few paces nearer to Pendleton, which still lay silent in the white moonlight. He had no doubt now that many of the people had fled like his mother. Most of the houses must be closed and shuttered like hers. That was why the town was so silent. He would have been glad to see Dr. Russell and old Judge Kendrick and others again, but it would have been risky to go into the center of the place, and it would have been a breach, too, of the faith that Colonel Winchester had put in him.
He crushed the wish and turned away. Then he saw the white walls of Colonel Kenton's house shining upon a hill among the pines beyond the town. He was quite sure that it would be deserted, and there was no harm in passing it. He knew it as well as his own home. He and Harry had played in every part of it, and it was, in truth, a second home to him.
He rode slowly along the road which led to the quiet house. Colonel Kenton had all the instincts so strong in the Kentuckians and Virginians of his type. A portion of his wealth had been devoted to decoration and beauty. The white, sanded road led upward through a great park, splendid with oak and beech and maple, and elms of great size. Nearer the house he came to the cedars and clipped pines, like those surrounding his mother's own home.
He opened the iron gate that led to the house, and tied his horse inside. Here was the same desolation and silence that he had beheld at his own home. The grass on the lawn, although withered and dry from the intense drought that had prevailed in Kentucky that summer, was long and showed signs of neglect. The great stone pillars of the portico, from the shelter of which Harry and his father and their friends had fought Skelly and his mountaineers, were stained, and around their bases were dirty from the sand and earth blown against them. The lawn and even the portico were littered with autumn leaves.
Dick felt the chill settling down on him again. War, not war with armies, but war in its results, had swept over his uncle's home as truly as it had swept over his mother's. There was no sign of a human being. Doubtless the colored servants had fled to the Union armies, and to the freedom which they as yet knew so little how to use. He felt a sudden access of anger against them, because they had deserted a master so kind and just, forgetting, for the moment that he was fighting to free them from that very master.
All the windows were dark, but he walked upon the portico and the dry autumn leaves rustled under his feet. He would have turned away, but he noticed that the front door stood ajar six or eight inches. The fact amazed him. If a servant was about, he would not leave it open, and if robbers were in the house, they would close it in order not to attract attention. It was a great door of massive and magnificent oak, highly polished, with heavy bands of glittering bronze running across it. But it was so lightly poised on its hinges, that, despite its great weight, a child could have swung it back and forth with his little finger. Henry Ware, who built the house after his term as governor was over, was always proud of this door.
Dick ran his hand along one of the polished bronze bars as he had often done when he was a boy, enjoying the cool touch of the metal. Then he put his thumb against the edge of the door, and pushed it a little further open. Something was wrong here, and he meant to see what it was. He had no scruples about entering. He did not consider himself in the least an intruder. This was his uncle's house, and his uncle and his cousin were far away.
The door made no sound as it swung back, and soundless, too, was Dick as he stepped within. It was dark in the big hall, but as he stood there, listening, he became conscious of a light. It proceeded from one of the rooms opening into the hall on the right, and a door nearly closed only allowed a narrow band of it to fall upon the hall floor.
Dick, believing now that a robber had indeed come, drew a pistol from his pocket, stepped lightly across the hall and looked in at the door.
He checked a cry, and it was his first thought to go away as quietly as he had come. He had seen a man in the uniform of a Confederate colonel, sitting in a chair, and staring out at one of the little side windows which Dick could not see from the front, and which was now open. It was his own uncle, Colonel George Kenton, C. S. A., his gold braided cap on the window sill, and his sword in its scabbard lying across his knees.
But Dick changed his mind. His uncle was a colonel on one side, and he was a lieutenant on the other, and from one point of view it was almost high treason for them to meet there and talk quietly together, but from another it was the most natural thing in the world, commanded alike by duty and affection.
He pushed open the door a little further and stepped inside.
"Uncle George," he said.
Colonel Kenton sprang to his feet, and his sword clattered upon the floor.
"Good God!" he cried. "You, Dick! Here! To-night!"
"Yes, Uncle George, it's no other."
"And I suppose you have Yankees without to take me."
"Those are hard words, sir, and you don't mean them. I'm all alone, just as you were. I galloped south, sir, to see my mother, whom I found gone, where, I don't know, and then I couldn't resist the temptation to come by here and see your house and Harry's, which, as you know, sir, has been almost a home to me, too."
"Thank God you came, Dick," said the colonel putting his arms around Dick's shoulders, and giving him an affectionate hug. "You were right. I did not mean what I said. There is only one other in the world whom I'd rather see than you. Dick, I didn't know whether you were dead or alive, until I saw your face there in the doorway."
It was obvious to Dick that his uncle's emotions were deeply stirred. He felt the strong hands upon his shoulders trembling, but the veteran soldier soon steadied his nerves, and asked Dick to sit down in a chair which he drew close beside his own at the window.
"I thank God again that the notion took you to come by the house," he said. "It's pleasant and cool here at the window, isn't it, Dick, boy?"
Dick knew that he was thinking nothing about the window and the pleasant coolness of the night. He knew equally well the question that was trembling on his lips but which he could not muster the courage to ask. But he had one of his own to ask first.
"My mother?" he asked. "Do you know where she has gone?"
"Yes, Dick, I came here in secret, but I've seen two men, Judge Kendrick and Dr. Russell. The armies are passing so close to this place, and the guerillas from the mountains have become so troublesome, that she has gone to Danville to stay a while with her relatives. Nearly everybody else has gone, too. That's why the town is so silent. There were not many left anyway, except old people and children. But, Dick, I have ridden as far as you have to-night, and I came to ask a question which I thought Judge Kendrick or Dr. Russell might answer--news of those who leave a town often comes back to it--but neither of them could tell me what I wanted to hear. Dick, I have not heard a word of Harry since spring. His army has fought since then two great battles and many smaller ones! It was for this, to get some word of him, that I risked everything in leaving our army to come to Pendleton!"
He turned upon Dick a face distorted with pain and anxiety, and the boy quickly said:
"Uncle George, I have every reason to believe that Harry is alive and well."
"What do you know? What have you heard about him?"
"I have not merely heard. I have seen him and talked with him. It was after the Second Manassas, when we were both with burial parties, and met on the field. I was at Antietam, and he, of course, was there, too, as he is with Stonewall Jackson. I did not see him in that battle, but I learned from a prisoner who knew him that he had escaped unwounded, and had gone with Lee's army into Virginia."
"I thank God once more, Dick, that you were moved to come by my house. To know that both Harry and you are alive and well is joy enough for one man."
"But it is likely, sir, that we'll soon meet in battle," said Dick.
"So it would seem."
And that was all that either said about his army. There was no attempt to obtain information by direct or indirect methods. This was a family meeting.
"You have a horse, of course," said Colonel Kenton.
"Yes, sir. He is on the lawn, tied to your fence. His hoofs may now be in a flower bed."
"It doesn't matter, Dick. People are not thinking much of flower beds nowadays. My own horse is further down the lawn between the pines, and as he is an impatient beast it is probable that he has already dug up a square yard or two of turf with his hoofs. How did you get in, Dick?"
"You forgot about the front door, sir, and left it open six or seven inches. I thought some plunderer was within and entered, to find you."
"I must have been watched over to-night when forgetfulness was rewarded so well. Dick, we've found out what we came for and neither should linger here. Do you need anything?"
"Nothing at all, sir."
"Then we'll go."
Colonel Kenton carefully closed and fastened the window and door again and the two mounted their horses, which they led into the road.
"Dick," said the colonel, "you and I are on opposing sides, but we can never be enemies."
Then, after a strong handclasp, they rode away by different roads, each riding with a lighter heart.