The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XV. Stone River
Dick awoke at sunrise of the last day of the year, and Warner and Pennington were up a moment later. There was no fog. The sun hung a low, red ball in the steel blue sky of winter. No fires had been lighted, cold food being served.
He heard far off to right a steady tattoo like the rapid beat of many small drums. A quiver ran through the lads who were now gathering in the wood and at its edge. But Dick knew that the fire was distant. The other wing had opened the battle, and it might be a long time before their own division was drawn into the conflict.
He stood there as the sound grew louder, a continuous crash of rifles, accompanied by the heavy boom of cannon, and far off he saw a great cloud of smoke gathering over the forest. But no shouting reached his ears, nor could he see the men in combat. Colonel Winchester, who was standing beside him, shrugged his shoulders.
"They're engaged heavily, or they will be very soon," he said.
"And it looks as if we'd have to wait," said Dick.
"Things point that way. The general thinks so, too. It seems that Bragg has moved his forces in the night, and that the portion of the enemy in front of us is some distance off."
Dick soon confided this news to Warner and Pennington, who looked discontented.
"If we've got to fight, I'd rather do it now and get it over," said Pennington. "If I'm going to be killed the difference between morning and afternoon won't matter, but if I'm not going to be killed it'll be worth a lot to get this weight off my mind."
"And if we're far away from the enemy it's easy enough for us to go up close to him," said Warner. "I take it that we're not here to keep out of his way, and, if our brethren are pounding now, oughtn't we to go in and help them pound? Remember how we divided our strength at Antietam."
Dick shrugged his shoulders. His feelings were too bitter for him to make a reply save to say: "I don't know anything about it."
Meanwhile the distant combat roared and deepened. It was obvious that a great battle was going on, but the division lay quiet obeying its orders. The sun rose higher in the cold, steely blue heavens and then Dick, who was watching a forest opposite them, uttered a loud cry. He had seen many bayonets flashing among the leafless trees.
The cry was taken up by others who saw also, and suddenly a long Southern line, less than half a mile away, emerged into the open and advanced upon them in silence, but with resolution, a bristling and terrific front of steel. After all their watching and waiting the Northern division had been surprised. Many of the officers and soldiers, too, were in tents that had been set against the cold and damp. The horses that drew the artillery were being taken to water.
It was an awful moment and Dick's heart missed more than one beat, but in that crisis the American, often impatient of discipline, showed his power of initiative and his resolute courage. While that bristling front of steel came on the soldiers formed themselves into line without waiting for the commands of the officers. The artillerymen rushed to their guns.
"Kneel, men! Kneel!" shouted Colonel Winchester to his own regiment. He and all his officers were on foot, their horses having been left in the rear the night before.
His men threw themselves down at his command, and, all along the Northern line formed so hastily, the rifles began to crackle, sending forth a sheet of fire and bullets.
The Northern cannon, handled as always with skill and courage, were at work now, too, and their shells and shot lashed the Southern ranks through and through. But Dick saw no pause in the advance of the men in gray. They did not even falter. Without a particle of shelter they came on through the rain of death, their ranks closing up over the slain, their front line always presenting that bristling line of steel.
It seemed to Dick now that the points of the bayonets shone almost in his face, gleaming through the smoke that hung between them and the foe, a gap that continually grew narrower as the Southern line never ceased to come.
"Stand firm, lads; steady for God's sake, steady!" shouted Colonel Winchester, and then Dick heard no single voice, because the roar of the battle broke over them like the sudden rush of a storm. He was conscious only that the tips of the bayonets had reached them, and behind them he saw the eyes in the brown faces gleaming.
Then he did not even see the brown faces, because there was such a storm of fire and smoke pouring forth bullets like hail, and the tumult of shouts and of the crash of cannon and rifles was so awful that it blended into one general sound like the roaring of the infernal regions.
Dick felt himself borne back. It seemed to him that their line had cracked like a bow bent too much. It was not anything that he saw but a sense of the general result, and he was right. The Northern line which had not found time to form properly, was hurled back. Neither cannon nor rifles could stop the three Southern brigades which were charging them.
The South struck like a tornado, and despite a resistance made with all the fury and rage of despair, the Northern division was driven from its position, and its line broken in many places. A Northern general was taken prisoner. The guns which could not be carried, because the horses were gone, were taken by the triumphant Southerners, and over all the roar and tumult of the frightful battle Dick heard that piercing and triumphant rebel yell, poured forth by thousands of throats and swelling over everything, in a fierce, dominant note.
Dick bumped against Warner as they were borne back in the smoke. He saw the Vermonter's blackened lips move, and his own moved in the same way, but neither heard what the other said. Nevertheless Dick read the words in his comrade's eyes, and they said:
"Surprised again, Dick! Good God, surprised!"
Yet the young troops fought with a courage worthy of the toughest veterans. They gave ground, because the rush against them was overpowering, but they maintained a terrible fire which strewed the earth in front of them with dead and wounded.
"Behind those trees! Behind those trees!" suddenly called Colonel Winchester as they continued their sullen and fighting retreat, and he and the remnants of his regiment darted into a little wood just in time. There was a sudden rush of hoofbeats on their flank, and a cloud of Southern cavalry swept down, shearing away the entire side of the Northern division as if it had been cleft with the slash of a mighty sword. Besides the fallen a thousand prisoners and seven cannon fell into the hands of the cavalrymen, who rushed on in search of fresh triumphs.
Dick shuddered with horror, but he saw that all his own immediate friends were safe in the wood. A swarm of fugitives poured in after them, and then came colonels and generals making desperate efforts to reform their line of battle. But the Southern brigades gave them no chance. Their leaders continually urged on the pursuit. The broken regiments fell back still loading and firing, and they would soon be on the banks of the creek again.
After a time that seemed almost infinite, Dick heard the roar of shells over their heads. In their retreat the regiments had come upon another Northern division which opposed a strong resistance to the Southern advance. Winchester's men welcomed their friends joyfully. But the fresh troops could not stop the advance. The fire of the Southern cannon and rifles was so deadly that nearly all the Northern artillerymen were killed around their guns.
The North again gave ground, seeking point after point for fresh resistance. They rallied strongly around a building used as a hospital, and filled it with riflemen. But they were driven from that, too, although they inflicted terrible losses on their enemy.
"We've got to stop this backward slide somewhere," gasped Pennington.
"Yes, but where?" cried Dick.
Whether Warner made any reply he did not know, because he lost him then in the flame and the smoke. An instant or two later the charging swarms of infantry and cavalry drove them into one of the woods of red cedars, where they lay shattered and gasping. The smoke lifted a little, and Dick saw the field which he already regarded as lost. Then there was a renewed burst of firing and cheering, as a regiment of veteran regulars galloped into the open space and drove off the Southern cavalry which was just about to seize the ammunition wagons and more cannon.
Encouraged by the charge of the regulars, the men in the cedar wood rose and began to reform for battle. Now chance, or rather watchfulness, interposed to save Dick and his comrades from destruction. Rosecrans, at another point, confident that McCook could hold out against all attacks, listened with amazement to the roar of battle coming nearer and nearer. His officers called his attention to the fact that save at the opening there was no cannon fire. All that approaching crash was made by rifles. They judged from it that their cannon had been taken, but they did not know that the rush of the Southern troops had been so fast that their own batteries were not able to keep up.
Rosecrans read the signs with them and his alarm was great and justified. Then a dispatch came from McCook telling him that his right wing was routed and he took an instant resolve.
Many regiments were marching to another point in the line, and the commander at once changed their course. He meant to save his right wing, but at the same moment a tremendous attack was begun upon the center of his army. He struck his horse smartly and galloped straight toward the rolling flame.
Dick and his friends, driven from the defense around the hospital, lost touch with the rest of the troops. Colonel Winchester held together what was left of his regiment, and presently they found themselves in the woods with the troops of the young officer, Sheridan, who had saved the battle of Perryville. Here they took their stand, and when Dick saw the quick and warlike glance of Sheridan that embraced everything he believed they were not going to retreat.
He heard cheers all around him, men shouting to one another to stand firm. They refused to take alarm from the fugitives pouring back upon them, and sent volley after volley into the advancing gray lines. The artillery, too, handled with splendid skill and daring, poured a storm along the whole gray front. The combat deepened to an almost incredible degree. The cannon were compelled to cease firing because the men were now face to face. Regiments lost half their numbers and more, but Sheridan still held his ground and the South still attacked.
Dick began to shout with joy. He saw that the indomitable stand of Sheridan was saving the whole Northern army from rout. The South must continually turn aside troops to attack Sheridan, and they dared not advance too far leaving him unbeaten in their rear. Rosecrans in the center was urging his troops to a great resistance and the battle flamed high there. It now thundered along the whole front. Nearly every man and cannon were in action.
Dick was glad that chance had thrown his regiment with Sheridan, when he saw the splendid resistance made by the young general. Sheridan massed all his guns at the vital point and backed them up with riflemen. Nothing broke through his line. Nothing was able to move him.
"He'll have to retreat later on," Colonel Winchester shouted in Dick's ear, "because our lines are giving way elsewhere, but his courage and that of his men has saved us from an awful defeat."
The battle in front of Sheridan increased in violence. The Confederates were continually pouring fresh troops upon him, and it became apparent that even he, with all his courage and quickness of eye at the vital moment, could not withstand all day long the fierce attacks that were being made upon him. The Southern fire from cannon and rifles grew more terrible. Sheridan had three brigades and the commanders of all three of them were killed. The Confederate attack had been repulsed three times, but it was coming again, stronger and fiercer than ever.
Dick, aghast, gazed at Colonel Winchester and somehow through the thunder of the battle he heard the colonel's reply:
"Yes, we'll have to give up this position, but we have saved so much time that the army itself is saved. Rosecrans is forming a new line behind us."
Rosecrans, no genius, but a brave and resolute fighter, had indeed brought up fresh troops and made a new line. Sheridan, having that greatest of all gifts of the general, the eye to see amid the terrible tumult of battle the time to do a thing, and the courage to do it then, sounded the trumpet. Nearly all his wagons had been captured by the Southern cavalry, and his ammunition was beginning to fail. Around him lay two thousand of his best men, dead or wounded. Rosecrans and the fresh troops were appearing just in time.
Yet the retreat of Sheridan was made with the greatest difficulty. A part of his troops were cut off and captured. Others drove back the Confederate flankers with a bayonet charge, and then the remnant retreated, the new lines opening to let them through. Dick, as he passed through the gap, saw that he was among countrymen. That is, a Kentucky regiment, fighting for the Union was standing as a shield to let his comrades and himself through, and the people of the state were related so closely that in the flare of the battle he saw among these new men at least a half dozen faces that he knew.
It was this Kentucky regiment, led by its colonel, Shepherd, that now formed itself in the very apex of the battle. The remains of the Winchester regiment, forming behind it, saw a terrible sight. Some of the regiments crushed earlier in the action had entirely disbanded. The woods and the bushes were filled with fugitives, soldiers seeking the rear. Vast clouds of smoke drifted everywhere, the air was filled with the odors of exploded gunpowder, cannon were piled in inextricable heaps in the road, and horses, killed by shells or bullets, lay on the guns or between the wheels.
Dick had never beheld a more terrible sight. Their army was defeated so far, the dead and the wounded were heaped everywhere, terrified fugitives were pouring to the rear, and the enemy, wild with triumph, and shouting his terrible battle yell, was coming on with an onset that seemed invincible.
Colonel Winchester darted among the fugitives and with stinging words and the flat of his sword beat many of them back into line. Dick, Warner, Pennington and other young officers did likewise. More Kentucky troops bringing artillery came up and joined those who were standing so sternly. It became obvious to all that they must hold the ground here or the battle indeed was lost once and for all.
Thomas, the silent and resolute Virginian, had arrived also, and had joined Rosecrans. Dick observed them both. Rosecrans, tremendously excited, and reckless of death from the flying shells and bullets, galloped from point to point, urging on his soldiers, telling them to die rather than yield. Thomas, cool, and showing no trace of excitement also directed the troops. Both by their courage and resolution inspired the men. The beaten became the unbeaten. Dick felt rather than saw the stiffening of the lines, and the return of a great courage.
The new line of battle was formed directly under the fire of a victorious and charging enemy. Three batteries were gathered on a height overlooking a railroad cut, where they could sweep the front of the foe.
Just as they were in battle order Dick saw the faces of the Southerners coming through the woods, led by Hardee in person. Then he saw, too, the value of presence of mind and of a courage that would not yield. The three batteries planted by the Kentuckian, Rousseau, on the railway embankment suddenly opened a terrible enfilading fire upon the Southern advance. The Kentucky regiment standing so firmly in the breach also opened with every rifle firing directly into the ranks of their brother Kentuckians, who were advancing in the vanguard of the South. Here again people of the same state and even of the same county fought one another.
The Confederates pursuing a defeated and apparently disorganized enemy were astounded by such a sudden and fierce fire. One of their generals was killed almost instantly, and a part of their line was hurled back with great violence. Thomas pushed forward with a portion of the troops, and after a desperate assault the Southern line reeled and then stopped in the wood. Courage and presence of mind had saved a battle for the time being, at least.
At that point the combat sank for a while, and Dick, unwounded but exhausted, dropped upon the ground. Around him lay his friends, and they, too, were unwounded. It was with a sort of grim humor that he remembered a conversation they had held before the battle.
"Well, Frank," he said, "you've escaped."
"So far only," said Warner. "The hurricane has softened down a lot here, but not everywhere else. Listen!"
He pointed through the woods toward the left where another battle was swelling with a mighty uproar. Bragg having driven in the Union right was now seeking to shatter the Union left, but at this point there was a Northern commander, Hazen, who was no less indomitable than Sheridan. Sheltering themselves along the railway embankment his men, always encouraged by their commander, and his officers, resisted every effort to drive them back. Noon came and found them still holding tenaciously to their positions. For a while now the whole battle sank through sheer exhaustion on both sides. Each commander reformed his line, disentangled his guns, brought forward fresh ammunition and prepared for the great combat which he knew was coming. Bragg, as he noticed the advance of the short winter day, resolved upon the utmost effort to crush his enemy. Victory had seemed wholly in his grasp in the morning, but he had been checked at the last moment. He would make good the defeat in the afternoon.
The armies had disentangled themselves from the woods and bushes. They were now in the open and face to face on a long line. The Winchester regiment had risen to its feet again, and stood directly behind and almost mingled with the Kentucky regiment that had saved it.
"They're coming!" exclaimed Warner in quick, excited tones. "Look, there on the flank!"
It was the division of Cleburne, in the hottest of the battle all through the morning advancing to a fresh attack upon the Union lines, but it was received with such a powerful fire that it was driven back in disorder into some woods.
Dick, however, did not have a chance to see this as the Southerners, reinforced by fresh troops from Breckinridge's division, were charging in the center with great violence. So terrible was the fire that received them that some of the regiments lost half their numbers in five minutes. Yet the remainder, upheld by their cannon, returned a fire almost as deadly. Rosecrans, absolutely fearless, stood in the very front where the danger was greatest. A cannon ball blew off the head of his chief of staff who stood by his side. "Many a brave fellow must fall!" cried Rosecrans, a devoted Catholic. "Cross yourselves, and fire low and fast!"
Many a brave fellow did fall, but his men fired low and fast, and, while the Southern troops charged again and again to the very mouths of the cannon they were unable to break down the last desperate stand of the Northern army. They had driven it back, but they had not driven it back far enough. Then the sun set as it had set so often before on an undecisive battle, terrible in its long list of the slain, but leaving everything to be fought over again.
"They didn't beat us," said Dick as the firing ceased.
"No," said Colonel Winchester, "nor have we won a victory, but we're saved. Thank God for the night!"
"They'll attack again to-morrow, sir," said Sergeant Whitley.
"Undoubtedly so," said Colonel Winchester, who felt at this moment not as if he were speaking as colonel to sergeant, but as man to man, "and I hope that our artillery will be ready again. It is what has saved us. We have always been superior in that arm."
The colonel had spoken the truth, and the fact was also recognized by Rosecrans, Thomas and the other generals. While they rectified their lines in the darkness, the great batteries were posted in good positions, and fresh gunners took the place of those who had been killed. Both Rosecrans and Thomas were made of stern stuff. Afraid of no enemy, and, despite their great losses of the day and the fact that they had been driven back, they would be ready to fight on the morrow. Sheridan, Crittenden, McCook, Van Cleve and the others were equally ready.
Food was brought from the rear and the exhausted combatants sank down to rest. Dick was in such an apathy from sheer overtasking of the body and spirit that he did not think of anything. He lay like an animal that has escaped from a long chase. Silence had settled down with the darkness and the Confederate army had become invisible.
Dick revived later. He talked more freely with those about him, and he gathered from the gossip which travels fast, much of what had happened. The Union army, so confident in the morning, was in a dangerous position at night. Nearly thirty of its guns were taken. Three thousand unwounded and many wounded men were prisoners in the hands of the South. Arms and ammunition by the wholesale had been captured. The Southern cavalry under Fighting Joe Wheeler had gone behind Rosecrans' whole army and had cut his communications with his base at Nashville, at the same time raiding his wagon trains. Another body of cavalry under Wharton had taken all the wagons of McCook's corps, and still a third under Pegram had captured many prisoners on the Nashville road in the rear of the Northern army.
Dick became aware of a great, an intense anxiety among the leaders. The army was isolated. The raiding Southern cavalry kept it from receiving fresh supplies of either food or ammunition, unless it retreated.
"We're stripped of everything but our arms," said Warner.
"Then we've really lost nothing," said the valiant Pennington, "because with our arms we'll recover everything."
They had a commander of like spirit. At that moment Rosecrans, gathering his generals in a tent pitched hastily for him, was saying to them, "Gentlemen, we will conquer or die here." Short and strong, but every word meant. There was no need to say more. The generals animated by the same spirit went forth to their commands, and first among them was the grim and silent Thomas, who had the bulldog grip of Grant. Perhaps it was this indomitable tenacity and resolution that made the Northern generals so much more successful in the west than they were in the east during the early years of the war.
But there was exultation in the Confederate camp. Bragg and Polk and Hardee and Breckinridge and the others felt now that Rosecrans would retreat in the night after losing so many men and one-third of his artillery. Great then was their astonishment when the rising sun of New Year's day showed him sitting there, grimly waiting, with his back to Stone River, a formidable foe despite his losses. Above all the Southern generals saw the heavily massed artillery, which they had such good reason to fear.
Dick, who had slept soundly through the night, was up like all the others at dawn and he beheld the Southern army before them, yet not moving, as if uncertain what to do. He felt again that thrill of courage and resolution, and, born of it, was the belief that despite the first day's defeat the chances were yet even. These western youths were of a tough and enduring stock, as he had seen at Shiloh and Perryville, and the battle was not always to him who won the first day. A long time passed and there was no firing.
"Not so eager to rush us as they were," said Warner. "It's a mathematical certainty that an army that's not running away is not whipped, and that certainty is patent to our Southern friends also. But to descend from mathematics to poetry, a great poet says that he who runs away will live to fight another day. I will transpose and otherwise change that, making it to read: He who does not run away may make the other fellow unable to fight another day."
"You talk too much like a schoolmaster, George," said Pennington.
"The most important business of a school teacher is to teach the young idea how to shoot, and lately I've had ample chances to give such instruction."
It was not that they were frivolous, but like most other lads in the army, they had grown into the habit of teasing one another, which was often a relief to teaser as well as teased.
"I think, sir," said Dick to Colonel Winchester, "that some of our troops are moving."
He was looking through his glasses toward the left, where he saw a strong Union force, with banners waving, advancing toward Bragg's right.
"Ah, that is well done!" exclaimed Colonel Winchester. "If our men break through there we'll cut Bragg off from Murfreesborough and his ammunition and supplies."
They did not break through, but they maintained a long and vigorous battle, while the centers and other wings of the two armies did not stir. But it became evident to Dick later in the afternoon that a mighty movement was about to begin. His glasses told him so, and the thrill of expectation confirmed it.
Bragg was preparing to hurl his full strength upon Rosecrans. Breckinridge, who would have been the President of the United States, had not the Democrats divided, was to lead it. This division of five brigades had formed under cover of a wood. On its flank was a battery of ten guns and two thousand of the fierce riders of the South under Wharton and Pegram. Dick felt instinctively that Colonel Kenton with his regiment was there in the very thick of it.
Dick's regiment with Negley's strong Kentucky brigade, which had stopped the panic and rout the day before, had now recrossed Stone River and were posted strongly behind it. Ahead of them were two small brigades with some cannon, and Rosecrans himself was with this force just as Breckinridge's powerful division emerged into the open and began its advance upon the Union lines.
"Now, lads, stand firm!" exclaimed Colonel Winchester. "This is the crisis."
The colonel had measured the situation with a cool eye and brain. He knew that the regiments on the other side of the river were worn down by the day's fighting and would not stand long. But he believed that the Kentuckians around him, and the men from beyond the Ohio would not yield an inch. They were largely Kentuckians also coming against them.
The rolling fire burst from the Southern front, and the cannon on their flanks crashed heavily. Then their infantry came forward fast, and with a wild shout and rush the two thousand cavalry on their flanks charged. As Colonel Winchester had expected, the two weak brigades, although Rosecrans in person was among them, gave way, retreated rapidly to the little river and crossed it.
The Confederates came on in swift pursuit, but Negley's Kentuckians and the other Union men, standing fast, received them with a tremendous volley. It was at short range, and their bullets crashed through the crowded Southern ranks. The Winchesters were on the flank of the defenders, where they could get a better view, and although they also were firing as fast as they could reload and pull the trigger, they saw the great column pause and then reel.
Rosecrans, who had fallen back with the retreating brigades, instantly noted the opportunity. Here, a general who received too little reward from the nation, and to whom popular esteem did not pay enough tribute, rushed two brigades across Stone River and hurled them with all their weight upon the Southern flank. Sixty cannon posted on the hillocks just behind the river poured an awful fire upon the Southern column. The fire from front and flank was so tremendous that the Southerners, veterans as they were, gave way. The men who had held victory in their hands felt it slipping from their grasp.
"They waver! They retreat!" shouted Colonel Winchester. "Up, boys, and at 'em!"
The whole Union force, led by its heroic generals, rushed forward, crossed the river and joined in the charge. The two thousand Southern cavalry were driven off by a fire that no horsemen could withstand. The division of Breckinridge, although fighting with furious courage, was gradually driven back, and the day closed with the Union army in possession of most of the territory it had lost the day before.
As they lay that night in the damp woods, Dick and his comrades, all of whom had been fortunate enough to escape this time without injury, discussed the battle. For a while they claimed that it was a victory, but they finally agreed that it was a draw. The losses were enormous. Each side had lost about one third of its force.
Rosecrans, raging like a wounded lion, talked of attacking again, but the rains had been so heavy, the roads were so soft and deep in mud that the cannon and the wagons could not be pushed forward.
Bragg retreated four days later from Murfreesborough, and Dick and his comrades therefore claimed a victory, but as the winter was now shutting down cold and hard, Rosecrans remained on the line of Murfreesborough and Nashville.
The Winchester regiment was sent back to Nashville to recuperate and seek recruits for its ranks. Dick and Warner and Pennington felt that their army had done well in the west, but their hopes for the Union were clouded by the news from the east. Lee and Jackson had triumphed again. Burnside, in midwinter, had hurled the gallant Army of the Potomac in vain against the heights of Fredericksburg, and twelve thousand men had fallen for nothing.
"We need a man, a man in the east, even more than in the west," said Warner.
"He'll come. I'm sure he'll come," said Dick.