The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIV. Seeking Bragg
They took Dick to the house of his relatives, the Careys, in Danville, and in a few days he learned the sequel of that sudden and terrible storm of death at Perryville. Buell had gathered all his forces in the night, and in the morning had intended to attack again, but the Confederate army was gone, carrying with it vast stores of supplies that it had gathered on the way.
The rains, too, had come. They had begun the morning after the battle, and they poured for days. In the southeast, among the mountains toward which Bragg had turned the head of his army, the roads were quagmires. Nevertheless he had toiled on and was passing through Cumberland Gap. Buell had gone in the other direction toward the southwest, and then came the news that he was relieved of his command, and that Rosecrans would take his place.
Dick felt the call of the trumpet. He knew that his comrades were now down there in Tennessee with the army under Rosecrans, and he felt that he must join them. His mother begged him to stay. He had done enough for his country. He had fought in great battles, and he had narrowly escaped a mortal wound. He should come home, and stay safely at Pendleton until the war was over.
But Dick, though grieving with her, felt that he must go. He would stay with the army until the end, and he departed for Lexington, where he took the train for Louisville. Thence he went southward directly by rail to Bowling Green, where the Northern army was encamped, with lines stretching as far south as Nashville, and where he received the heartiest of greetings from his comrades.
"I knew you'd come," said Warner. "Perhaps a man with a mother like yours ought to stay at home, and again he ought to come. So there you are, and here you are!"
Dick was familiar with the country about Bowling Green. It was a part of the state in which he had relatives, and he had visited it more than once. He also saw the camps left by Buckner's men nearly a year ago, when they were marching southward to be taken by Grant at Donelson. Since he had come back to this region it seemed to him that they were always fighting their battles over again. Grant and Rosecrans had fought a terrible but victorious battle at Corinth in Mississippi, and now Rosecrans had come north while Grant remained in the further south. He was sorry it was not Grant who commanded on that line. He would have been glad to be under his command again, to feel that strong and sure hand on the reins once more.
Dick stayed a while in Bowling Green, and he saw all his relatives in the little city. They were mostly on the other side, but they could not resist an ingenuous youth like Dick, and he passed some pleasant hours with them. For his sake they also made Warner and Pennington welcome, but they freely predicted a great disaster for the North. Bragg would come out of East Tennessee with his veterans, and they would give Rosecrans the defeat that he deserved. The boys held good natured arguments with them on this point, but all finally agreed to leave it to the decision of the war itself.
The great dryness had now passed so completely that it seemed impossible such a thing ever could have been. The rains had been heavy and almost continuous, and the earth soaked in water. But despite chill winds and chill rains rumors of Southern activity came to them, and in the last month of the year Rosecrans gathered his forces at Nashville in Tennessee.
Dick and his comrades enjoyed a few bright days here. The city was crowded with an army and those who supply it and live by it, and it was a center of vivid activity. Dick had letters from his mother and he also heard in a roundabout way that Colonel Kenton had gone through the battle of Perryville uninjured and was now with Bragg at Chattanooga.
But the boys soon heard that despite the winter there was great activity in the Southern camp. Undismayed by their loss of Kentucky, the Southern generals meant to fight Rosecrans in Tennessee. The Confederacy had not been cheered by Lee's withdrawal at Antietam and Bragg's retreat at Perryville, and meant to strike a heavy blow for new prestige. The whole Confederate army, they soon heard, had moved forward to Murfreesborough, where it was waiting, while Forrest and Morgan, the famous cavalry leaders, were off on great raids.
It was this absence of Forrest and Morgan with the best of the cavalry that put it into the mind of Rosecrans to attack at once. The thousands of lads in the army who were celebrating Christmas received that night the news that they were to march in the morning.
"I've fought three great battles this year," said Warner, "and I don't think they ought to ask any more of me."
"Be comforted," said Dick. "We start to-morrow, the 26th, which leaves five days of the year, and I don't think we can arrange a battle in that time. You'll not have to whip Bragg before the New Year, George."
"Well, I'm glad of it. You can have too many battles in one year. I didn't get rest enough after my wound at the Second Manassas before I had to go in and save our army at Antietam, and then it was but a little time before we fought at Perryville. That wasn't as big a battle as some of the others, but Dick, for those mad three hours it seemed that all the demons of death were turned loose."
"It certainly looked like it, George, you stiff old Vermonter, and I don't forget that you came to save me."
"Shut up about that, or I'll hit you over the head with the butt of my pistol. I merely paid back, though I only paid about half of what I was owing to you. The chance luckily came sooner than I had hoped. But, Dick, what a morning to follow Christmas."
A chilly rain was pouring down. A cold fog was rising from the Cumberland, wrapping the town in mists. It was certainly a dreary time in which to march to battle, and the young soldiers rising in the gloom of the dawn and starting amid such weather were depressed.
"Pennington," said Warner, "will you help me in a request to our Kentucky friend to join us in three cheers for the Sunny South, the edge of which he has the good fortune to inhabit? I haven't seen the real sun for about a month, and I suppose that's why they call it sunny, and I'm informed that this big river, the Cumberland, often freezes over, which I suppose is the reason why they call it Southern. I hear, too, that people often freeze to death in North Georgia, which is further south than this. After this bit of business is over I'm going to forbid winter campaigns in the south."
"It does get mighty cold," said Dick. "You see we're not really a southern people. We just lie south of the northern states and in Kentucky, at least, we have a lot of cold weather. Why, I've seen it twenty-three degrees below zero in the southern part of the state, and it certainly can get cold in Tennessee, too."
"I believe I'd rather have it than this awful rain," said Pennington. "I don't seem to get used to these cold soakings."
"Good-bye, Nashville," said Dick, turning about. "I don't know when we will have to come back, and if we do I don't know what will have happened before then. Good-bye, Nashville. I regret your roofs and your solid walls, and your dry tents and floors."
"But we're going forth to fight. Don't forget that, Dick. Remember how in Virginia we pined for battle, and the use of our superior numbers. Anyhow Rosecrans is going out to look for the enemy, but all the same, and between you and me, Dick, I wish it was Grant who was leading us. I saw a copy of the New York Times a while back, and some lines in it are haunting me. Here they are:
"Back from the trebly crimsoned field Terrible woods are thunder-tost: Full of the wrath that will not yield, Full of revenge for battles lost: Hark to their echo as it crost The capital making faces wan: End this murderous holocaust; Abraham Lincoln give us a man."
"Sounds good," said Dick, "and, George, you and Frank and I know that what we want is a man. We've lost big battles, because we didn't have a big man, who could see at once and think like lightning, to lead us. But we'll get him sooner or later! We'll get him. Did any other troops ever bear up like ours under defeats and drawn battles? Listen to 'em now!"
Slow and deep and sung by many thousand men rose the rolling chorus:
"The army is gathering from near and from far; The trumpet is sounding the call for the war; Old Rosey's our leader, he's gallant and strong; We'll gird on our armor and be marching along."
"Now," cried Warner, "all together." And the thundering chorus rose:
"Marching, we are marching along, Gird on the armor and be marching along; Old Rosey's our leader, he's gallant and strong; For God and our country we are marching along."
As the mighty chorus, sung by fifty thousand men, rose and throbbed through the cold and rain, Dick felt his own heart throbbing in unison. Rosecrans might or might not be a great general, but he certainly was not permitting the enemy to rest easy in winter quarters at Murfreesborough. Dick had no doubt that they were about to meet the foe of Perryville face to face again.
The enemies were largely the same as those of other battles in the west. The Northern army advanced in three divisions toward Murfreesborough. McCook, whose division contained the Winchester regiment, was in the center, General Thomas led the right wing on the Franklin road, and General Crittenden led the left wing. Bragg who was before them had nearly the same generals as at Shiloh, Hardee, Breckinridge, and the others.
Dick knew that the advance of the Northern army would be seen at once. This was the country of the enemy. The forces of the Union held only the ground on which they were camped. Thousands of hostile eyes were watching Rosecrans, and, even if Bragg himself were lax, any movement by the army from Nashville would be reported at once to the army in Murfreesborough. But they had a vigilant foe, they knew, and they expected to encounter his pickets soon.
"They're probably watching us now through the fog and rain," said Colonel Winchester to Dick as they left the last house of Nashville behind. "They know every inch of these hills and valleys."
It was not a great distance to Murfreesborough, but they found the marching slow. The feet of the horses sank deep in the mud and the cannon and wagons were almost mired. But despite mud and rain and cold, the army pressed bravely on. They were the same lads and their like who had marched forward so hopefully to Donelson and Shiloh. Through the rain and the soughing of wheels in the mud rolled their battle songs, sung with all the spirit and fire of youth.
Colonel Winchester and all the officers helped with the cannon and wagons and soon they were covered with mud. The Winchester regiment was in the lead, and Sergeant Whitley suddenly pointing with a thick forefinger, said:
"There are the Johnnies! Their pickets are waiting for us!"
Dick saw through the mist and rain a considerable body of men down the road, most of them on horseback. He knew at once that they were Southern pickets, and the eager lads around him, seeing them, knew it, too. Not waiting for command they set up a shout and charged down the road. Rifles instantly flashed through the rain and a sharp fire met them. Men fell, but others pressed on with all the more zeal, seeing just beyond the Southern pickets the roofs of a little town. Cannon shot also whizzed among them, indicating that the Southern pickets were in strong force.
But the Northern troops, full of vigor and zeal, swept back the pickets and charged directly upon a larger force in the town beyond. A short and fierce battle for the possession of the village ensued, but this was only a Southern outpost, and it was not strong enough to withstand the rush of the Ohio men and Winchester's regiment. Fighting at every step they retreated through the village and into the forest beyond, leaving one of their cannon in the hands of the Union troops.
"An omen of victory," exclaimed Dick, when he saw the captured cannon.
"Careful, Dick! Careful!" said Warner. "Remember that you're not strong on omens. You're always seeing sure signs of success just before we go into a big battle."
"If Dick sees visions, and they're visions of the right kind, then he's right," said Pennington. "I'd a good deal rather go into battle with Dick by my side singing a song of victory, than croaking of defeat."
"That's good as a general proposition," said Warner, "but I was merely cautioning him not to be too enthusiastic. What kind of a country, Dick, is this into which we are going?"
"Hilly, lots of forests, particularly of cedar, and brooks, creeks and rivers. Murfreesborough itself is right on Lytle's Creek. Bragg will meet us at the line of Stone River."
"Maybe they'll retreat and go eastward to Chattanooga," said Pennington.
"I think we'd better dismiss that 'maybe,'" said Dick. "You haven't heard of the rebels running away from battles, have you?"
"What I've generally seen, in the beginning at least," said Warner, "is the rebels running toward us, jumping out of the woods and yelling like Indians. I have seldom found it a pleasant sight. I'm glad, too, Dick, that Stonewall Jackson isn't here. Do you see that big cedar forest over there on the hillside? Suppose he should come rushing out of it with twenty or twenty-five thousand men."
"Stop," said Pennington. "You give me the shivers, talking about Stonewall Jackson swooping down on us with an army corps, when happily he's four or five hundred miles away. I'm seeing enough unfriendly faces as it is. Look how the people in this village are glaring at us. Fellows, I've decided after due consideration that they don't love us here in Tennessee. If you were to ask me I'd say that blue was not their favorite color."
"At any rate we don't stay long. Good-bye, friends, good-bye," said Warner, waving his hand toward two or three men who stood in the door of an old blacksmith shop.
"You laugh, young feller," said a gnarled and knotted old man past eighty, "an' mebbe it's as well for you to laugh while you have the time to do it in. Mebbe you'll never come back from Stone River, an' if you do, an' if you win everywhere, remember that we, too, will yet win everywhere."
"What do you mean by that?"
"All the Yankees, whether they win or not, will have to go back north, except them that are dead, an' we'll be here right on top of the lan', livin' on it, an' runnin' it, same as we've always done."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Warner soberly.
"There's a power of things the young don't think of," said the ancient man. "Mebbe the South can be whipped, but she can't be moved. She'll always be here. People hev made a war. I don't know who started it. I reckon there's been some powerful mean an' hot talk on both sides. I knowed great men that seed this very thing comin' long ago an' tried to stop it. I went over in Kentucky more than once an' heard Henry Clay speak. I don't believe there was ever another such a talker as he was. He had sense an' knowledge as well as voice. He done his best to smooth over this quarrel between North and South that others was eggin' on all the time, but he couldn't, and I reckon when Henry Clay, the greatest man God ever made, failed, it wasn't worth while for anybody else to try. Ride on, young fellers, an' get yourselves killed. You ain't twenty, an' I'm over eighty, but I guess I'll be lookin' at the green trees when you're under the ground. Ride on in the rain an' the cold, an' I'll go inside the shop an' warm myself by the forge fire."
The three boys rode on in sober silence. The words of the ancient philosopher were soaking in with the rain.
"Suppose we don't come back from Stone River," said Pennington.
"We take our chances, of course," said Dick.
"And suppose what he said about the South should prove true," said Warner, thoughtfully. "One part of it, at least, is bound to come true. That phrase of his sticks in my mind: 'Mebbe the South can be whipped, but she can't be moved.' The Southern states, as he says, will be here just the same after the war is over, no matter who wins."
But such thoughts as these could not endure long in minds so young. They passed through the village and soon were in the forests of red cedar. The rain ceased, but in its place came a thick and heavy fog. The mud grew deeper than ever. Progress became very slow. It was difficult in the great foggy veil for the regiments to keep in touch with one another, and occasional shots in front warned them that the enemy was active and watchful. The division barely crept along.
Dick and his comrades were mounted again, and they kept close to Colonel Winchester, who, however, had few orders to send. The command of the corps rested with General McCook, and it behooved him as any private could see, to exercise the utmost caution. They were strangers in the land and the Confederates were not.
Dick had thought that morning that they would get into touch with heavy forces of the enemy before night, but the fog and the mud rendered their advance so slow that at sunset they went into camp in a vast forest of red cedar, still a good distance from Stone River. The fog had lifted somewhat, but the night was heavy, damp and dark. There was an abundance of fallen wood, and the veterans soon built long rows of fires which contributed wonderfully to their cheerfulness.
"There's nothing like a fine fire on a cold, dark night," said Sergeant Whitley, holding his hands over the flames. "Out on the plains when there was only a hundred or so of us, an' nothin' on any side five hundred miles away 'xcept hostile Indians, an' a blizzard whistlin' an' roarin', with the mercury thirty degrees below zero, it was glorious to have a big fire lighted in a hollow or a dip an' bend over the coals, until the warmth went right through you."
"It was the power of contrast," said Warner sagely. "The real comfort from the fire was fifty per cent and the howling of the icy gale, in which you might have frozen to death, but didn't, was fifty per cent more. That's why I'm feeling so good now, although I'd say that those red cedars and their dark background are none too cheerful."
"I've got two good blankets," said Pennington, who was returning from a trip further down the line, "and I'm going to sleep. Haven't you fellows learned that all your foolish talking before a battle never changes the result? I can tell you this. Our three divisions that are marching toward Murfreesborough are in touch. We've put out swarms of scouts and they all tell us so. They know exactly where the enemy is, too, and he's too far away to surprise us to-night. So it's sleep, my boys, sleep. Sleep will recover for you so much strength that it will be much harder for you to get killed on the morrow."
Dick had dried himself very thoroughly before one of the fires, and wrapping himself in his two blankets he slept soundly and heavily. There was fog again the next morning, but they reached a little village called Triune and all through the day they heard the sounds of scattered firing. One of the scouts told Colonel Winchester that the whole Southern army would be concentrated the next day on the line of Stone River, but that it would be inferior to the Union army in numbers by ten thousand men. Bragg's force, however, had the advantage of experience, being composed almost wholly of veterans.
It was on the afternoon of this day that Dick came into personal contact with General Thomas again. He had been sent through the cedar forest with dispatches to him from General McCook, and after the general had read them he glanced at the messenger.
"You reached General Buell safely with my letter, Lieutenant Mason," he said, "and I'm very glad to see you here with us again."
"Thank you, sir," said Dick, feeling an immense pride because this man, whom he admired so much, remembered him.
"It was a difficult duty and you did it well. I found that you got through safely. I made inquiries about you and I traced you as far as Shiloh, but I could get no further."
"I was at Shiloh," said Dick proudly. "I was captured just before it began, but I escaped while it was at its height and fought until the close."
"And after that?"
"My regiment was sent east, sir. I went with it through the Second Manassas and Antietam. Then we came back west to help General Buell. I was at Perryville and was wounded there, but I soon got well."
"Perryville was a terrible battle. It was short, but it is incredible with what fury the troops fought. We should do better here."
Dick saw that the last sentence which was spoken in a low tone was not addressed to him. It was merely a murmured expression of the general's own thoughts, and he remained silent.
"You can go now, Lieutenant Mason," said General Thomas, after a few moments, "and let us together wish for the best."
"Thank you, sir," said Dick, highly flattered again. Then he saluted and retired.
He rode back somewhat slowly through the cedars, but he kept a wary eye. The enemy's cavalry was daring, and he might be rushed by them at any time or be ambushed by sharpshooters on foot. His watch for the enemy also enabled him to examine the country closely. He saw many hills and hollows covered mostly with forests, with the red cedar and its dark green boughs predominating. He also saw the flash of many waters, and, where the roads cut through the soil, a deep red clay was exposed to view. He knew that it would be difficult for the armies to get into line for battle, because of the heavy, sticky nature of the ground, upon which so much rain had fallen.
He made his way safely back to the camp of his corps, although he saw hostile cavalry galloping in the valleys in the direction of Stone River, and all through the afternoon he heard the crackle of rifle shots in the same direction. The skirmishers were continually in touch and they were busy.
The corps moved up a little, but Dick thought it likely that there would be no battle the next day either. Rosecrans could not afford to attack until his full force, with all its artillery, was up, and marching was slow and exhausting in the sea of sticky mud.
Dick was right. The Northern army was practically united the next day, but so great was the exhaustion of the troops that Rosecrans did not deem it wise yet to attack his foe. He was fully aware of the quality of the Southern soldiers. He remembered how they had turned suddenly at Perryville and with inferior numbers had fought a draw. Now on the defensive, and in such a deep and sticky soil, they would have a great advantage and his generals agreed with him in waiting.
Dick spent much of this day in riding with Colonel Winchester along their lines. There was some talk about Bragg retreating, but the boy, a veteran in everything but years, knew the ominous signs. Bragg had no notion of retreating.
In the night that followed Colonel Winchester himself and some of his young officers, accompanied by the brave and skillful Sergeant Whitley, scouted toward Stone River. In the darkness and with great care, in order to avoid any sound of splashing, they waded a deep creek and came out upon a plateau, rolling slightly in character, and with a deep clay soil, very muddy from the heavy rains. A part of the plateau was cleared of forest, but here and there were groves, chiefly of the red cedar, and thickets, some of them so dense that a man would have difficulty in forcing his way through.
Colonel Winchester and his little group paused at the edge of the creek, and then dived promptly into a thicket. They saw further up the plateau many fires and the figures of men walking before them and they saw nearer by sentinels marching back and forth. They were even able to make out cannon in batteries, and they knew that it was not worth while to go any further. The Confederate army was there, and they would merely walk directly into its arms.
They returned with even greater caution than they had come, but the next day the whole division crossed the creek at another point, and as it cautiously felt its way forward it encountered another formidable body of Southern pickets hidden in the woods. There was sharp firing for a quarter of an hour, and many of the Ohio men fell, but the pickets were finally swept back, and at sunset the half circle that Rosecrans had intended to form for the attack upon the Southern army was complete.
All the movements and delays brought them up to the night before the last day in the year. The Winchester regiment with the Ohio division lay in a region of little hills and rocks, covered with forest, with which its officers and men were not familiar. On the other hand the Southern army would know every inch of it, and the inhabitants were ready and eager to give it information.
Dick could not keep from regarding the dark forests with apprehension. He had seen the Northern generals lose so much through ignorance of the ground and uncertain movements that he feared for them again. He soon learned that Rosecrans himself shared this fear. He had come to the division and recommended its closer concentration.
But the young Ohio troops were not afraid. They said that if they were attacked they would hold their ground long enough for the rest of the Northern army to beat the Southern, and McCook himself was confident.
Meanwhile, Bragg, after delaying, had suddenly decided to make the attack himself, and throughout the day he had been gathering his whole army for the spring. All his generals, Hardee, Breckinridge, Polk, Cleburne and the rest were in position and the cavalry was led by Wheeler, a youthful rough rider, destined to become famous as Fighting Joe Wheeler.
Each general was ready to attack in the morning, but neither knew the willingness of the other. Yet everybody was aware that a great battle was soon to come. They had felt it in both armies, and for two or three days the firing of the skirmishers had been almost continuous. Scouts kept each side well informed.
Dick, Warner and Pennington, before they lay down in their blankets, listened to the faint reports of rifles. They could see little owing to the deep woods in which they lay, but the sound of the shots came clearly.
"A part of our army is to cross the fords of Stone River in the morning by daylight or before," said Warner, "and we're to surprise the enemy and rush him. I wonder if we'll do it."
"We will not," said Pennington with emphasis. "We may beat the enemy, but we will not surprise him. We never do. Why should we surprise him? He is here in his own country. If the whole Southern army were sound asleep, a thousand of the natives would wake up their generals and tell them that the Yankee army was advancing."
"Their sentinels are watching, anyhow," said Dick, "but I imagine that we'd gain something if the first rush was ours and not theirs."
"We'll hope for the best," said Warner, "I wonder whose time this will be to get wounded. It was mine at Antietam, yours, Dick, at Perryville, and only you are left Pennington, so it's bound to be you."
"No, it won't be me," said Pennington stoutly. "I've been wounded in two or three battles already, not bad wounds, just scratches and bruises, but as there were so many of 'em you can lump 'em together, and make one big wound. That lets me out."
The Winchester regiment lay in the very thickest of the forest and in order not to indicate to the enemy their precise position no fires were lighted. The earth was still soaked deep with the heavy rains and their feet sank at every step. But they did not make many steps. They had learned enough to lie quiet, seek what rest and sleep they could find, and await the dawn.