The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IV. Springing the Trap
Lying close in the bushes the little party watched the Southerners making themselves ready for the night. The cottages were prepared for the higher officers, but the men stacked arms in the open ground all about. As well as they could judge by the light of the low fires, soldiers were still crossing the river to strengthen the force already on the Union side.
Colonel Winchester suppressed a groan. Dick noticed that his face was pallid in the uncertain shadows, and he understood the agony of spirit that the brave man must suffer when he saw that they had been outflanked by their enemy.
Sergeant Whitley, moving forward a little, touched the colonel on the arm.
"All the clouds that we saw a little further back," he said, "have gathered together, an' the storm is about to bust. See, sir, how fast the Johnnies are spreadin' their tents an' runnin' to shelter."
"It's so, sergeant," said Colonel Winchester. "I was so much absorbed in watching those men that I thank you for reminding me. We've seen enough anyway and we'd better get back as fast as we can."
They hurried through the trees and bushes toward their horses, taking no particular pains now to deaden their footsteps, since the Southerners themselves were making a good deal of noise as they took refuge.
But the storm was upon them before they could reach their horses. The last star was gone and the somber clouds covered the whole heavens. The wind ceased to moan and the air was heavy with apprehension. Deep and sullen thunder began to mutter on the southwestern horizon. Then came a mighty crash and a great blaze of lightning seemed to cleave the sky straight down the center.
The lightning and thunder made Dick jump, and for a few moments he was blinded by the electric glare. He heard a heavy sound of something falling, and exclaimed:
"Are any of you hurt?"
"No," said Warner, who alone heard him, "but we're scared half to death. When a drought breaks up I wish it wouldn't break up with such a terrible fuss. Listen to that thunder again, won't you!"
There was another terrible crash of thunder and the whole sky blazed with lightning. Despite himself Dick shrank again. The first bolt had struck a tree which had fallen within thirty feet of them, but the second left this bit of the woods unscathed.
A third and a fourth bolt struck somewhere, and then came the rush and roar of the rain, driven on by a fierce wind out of the southwest. The close, dense heat was swept away, and the first blasts of the rain were as cold as ice. The little party was drenched in an instant, and every one was shivering through and through with combined wet and cold.
The cessation of the lightning was succeeded by pitchy darkness, and the roaring of the wind and rain was so great that they called loudly to one another lest they lose touch in the blackness. Dick heard Warner on his right, and he followed the sound of his voice. But before he went much further his foot struck a trailing vine, and he fell so hard, his head striking the trunk of a tree, that he lay unconscious.
The cold rain drove so fiercely on the fallen boy's face and body that he revived in two or three minutes, and stood up. He clapped his hand to the left side of his head, and felt there a big bump and a sharp ache. His weapons were still in his belt and he knew that his injuries were not serious, but he heard nothing save the drive and roar of the wind and rain. There was no calling of voices and no beat of footsteps.
He divined at once that his comrades, wholly unaware of his fall, when no one could either see or hear it, had gone on without missing him. They might also mount their horses and gallop away wholly ignorant that he was not among them.
Although he was a little dazed, Dick had a good idea of direction and he plunged through the mud which was now growing deep toward the little ravine in which they had hitched their horses. All were gone, including his own mount, and he had no doubt that the horse had broken or slipped the bridle in the darkness and followed the others.
He stood a while behind the trunk of a great tree, trying to shelter himself a little from the rain, and listened. But he could hear neither his friends leaving nor any foes approaching. The storm was of uncommon fury. He had never seen one fiercer, and knowing that he had little to dread from the Southerners while it raged he knew also that he must make his way on foot, and as best he could, to his own people.
Making a calculation of the direction and remembering that one might wander in a curve in the darkness, he set off down the stream. He meant to keep close to the banks of the Rappahannock, and if he persisted he would surely come in time to Pope's army. The rain did not abate. Both armies were flooded that night, but they could find some measure of protection. To the scouts and skirmishers and to Dick, wandering through the forest, nature was an unmitigated foe.
But nothing could stop the boy. He was resolved to get back to the army with the news that a heavy Southern force was across the Rappahannock. Others might get there first with the fact, but one never knew. A hundred might fall by the wayside, leaving it to him alone to bear the message.
He stumbled on. He was able to keep his cartridges dry in his pouch, but that was all. His wet, cold clothes flapped around him and he shivered to the bone. He could see only the loom of the black forest before him, and sometimes he slipped to the waist in swollen brooks. Then the wind shifted and drove the sheets of rain, sprinkled with hail, directly in his face. He was compelled to stop a while and take refuge behind a big oak. While he shivered in the shelter of the tree the only things that he thought of spontaneously were dry clothes, hot food, a fire and a warm bed. The Union and its fate, gigantic as they were, slipped away from his mind, and it took an effort of the will to bring them back.
But his will made the effort, and recalling his mission he struggled on again. He had the river on his right, and it now became an unfailing guide. It had probably been raining much earlier in the mountains along the headwaters and the flood was already pouring down. The river swished high against its banks and once or twice, when he caught dim glimpses of it through the trees, he saw a yellow torrent bearing much brushwood upon its bosom.
He had very little idea of his progress. It was impossible to judge of pace under such circumstances. The army might be ten miles further on or it might be only two. Then he found himself sliding down a muddy and slippery bank. He grasped at weeds and bushes, but they slipped through his hands. Then he shot into a creek, swollen by the flood, and went over his head.
He came up, gasping, struck out and reached the further shore. Here he found bushes more friendly than the others and pulled himself upon the bank. But he had lost everything. His belt had broken in his struggles, and pistols, small sword and ammunition were gone. He would be helpless against an enemy. Then he laughed at the idea. Surely enemies would not be in search of him at such a time and such a place.
Nevertheless when he saw an open space in front of him he paused at its edge. He could see well enough here to notice a file of dim figures riding slowly by. At first his heart leaped up with the belief that they were Colonel Winchester and his own people, but they were going in the wrong direction, and then he was able to discern the bedraggled and faded Confederate gray.
The horsemen were about fifty in number and most of them rode with the reins hanging loose on their horses' necks. They were wrapped in cloaks, but cloaks and uniforms alike were sodden. A stream of water ran from every stirrup to the ground.
Dick looked at them attentively. Near the head of the column but on one side rode a soldierly figure, apparently that of a young man of twenty-three or four. Just behind came three youths, and Dick's heart fairly leaped when he saw the last of the three. He could not mistake the figure, and a turning of the head caused him to catch a faint glimpse of the face. Then he knew beyond all shadow of doubt. It was Harry and he surmised that the other two were his comrades, St. Clair and Langdon, whom he had met when they were burying the dead.
Dick was so sodden and cold and wretched that he was tempted to call out to them--the sight of Harry was like a light in the darkness--but the temptation was gone in an instant. His way lay in another direction. What they wished he did not wish, and while they fought for the triumph of the South it was his business to endure and struggle on that he might do his own little part for the Union.
But despite the storm and his sufferings, he drew courage from nature itself. While a portion of the Southern army was across it must be a minor portion, and certainly the major part could not span such a flood and attack. The storm and time allied were now fighting for Pope.
He wandered away a little into the open fields in order to find easier going, but he came back presently to the forest lining the bank of the river, for fear he should lose his direction. The yellow torrent of the Rappahannock was now his only sure guide and he stuck to it. He wondered why the rain and wind did not die down. It was not usual for a storm so furious to last so long, but he could not see any abatement of either.
He became conscious after a while of a growing weakness, but he had recalled all the powers of his will and it was triumphant over his body. He trudged on on feet that were unconscious of sensation, and his face as if the flesh were paralyzed no longer felt the beat of the rain.
A mile or two further and in the swish of the storm he heard hoofbeats again. Looking forth from the bushes he saw another line of horsemen, but now they were going in the direction of Pope's army. Dick recognized these figures. Shapeless as he might appear on his horse that was Colonel Winchester, and there were the broad shoulders of Sergeant Whitley and the figures of the others.
He rushed through the dripping forest and shouted in a tone that could be heard above the shriek of wind and rain. Colonel Winchester recognized the voice, but the light was so dim that he did not recognize him from whom it came. Certainly the figure that emerged from the forest did not look human.
"Colonel," cried Dick, "it is I, Richard Mason, whom you left behind!"
"So it is," said Sergeant Whitley, keener of eye than the others.
The whole troop set up a shout as Dick came forward, taking off his dripping cap.
"Why, Dick, it is you!" exclaimed Colonel Winchester in a tone of immeasurable relief. "We missed you and your horse and hoped that you were somewhere ahead. Your horse must have broken loose in the storm. But here, you look as if you were nearly dead! Jump up behind me!"
Dick made an effort, but his strength failed and he slipped back to the ground. He had not realized that he was walking on his spirit and courage and that his strength was gone, so powerful had been the buffets of the wind and rain.
The colonel reached down, gave him a hand and a strong pull, and with a second effort Dick landed astride the horse behind the rider. Then Colonel Winchester gave the word and the sodden file wound on again.
"Dick," said the colonel, looking back over his shoulder, "you come as near being a wreck as anything that I've seen in a long time. It's lucky we found you."
"It is, sir, and I not only look like a wreck but I feel like one. But I had made up my mind to reach General Pope's camp, with the news of the Confederates crossing, and I think I'd have done it."
"I know you would. But what a night! What a night! Not many men can be abroad at such a time. We have seen nothing."
"But I have, sir."
"You have! What did you see?"
"A mile or two back I passed a line of Southern horsemen, just as wet and bedraggled as ours."
"Might they not have been our own men? It would be hard to tell blue and gray apart on such a night."
"One could make such a mistake, but in this case it was not possible. I saw my own cousin, Harry Kenton, riding with them. I recognized them perfectly."
"Then that settles it. The Confederate scouts and cavalry are abroad to-night also, and on our side of the river. But they must be few who dare to ride in such a storm."
"That's surely true, sir."
But both Dick and his commanding officer were mistaken. They still underrated the daring and resolution of the Confederate leaders, the extraordinary group of men who were the very bloom and flower of Virginia's military glory, the equal of whom--two at least being in the very first rank in the world's history--no other country with so small a population has produced in so short a time.
Earlier in the day Stuart, full of enterprise, and almost insensible to fatigue, had crossed the Rappahannock much higher up and at the head of a formidable body of his horsemen, unseen by scouts and spies, was riding around the Union right. They galloped into Warrenton where the people, red hot as usual for the South, crowded around them cheering and laughing and many of the women crying with joy. It was like Jackson and Stuart to drop from the clouds this way and to tell them, although the land had been occupied by the enemy, that their brave soldiers would come in time.
News, where a Northern force could not have obtained a word, was poured out for the South. They told Stuart that none of the Northern cavalry was about, and that Pope's vast supply train was gathered at a little point only ten miles to the southeast. Stuart shook his plumed head until his long golden hair flew about his neck. Then he laughed aloud and calling to his equally fiery young officers, told them of the great spoil that waited upon quickness and daring.
The whole force galloped away for the supply train, but before it reached it the storm fell in all its violence upon Stuart and his men. Despite rain and darkness Stuart pushed on. He said afterward that it was the darkest night he had ever seen. A captured negro guided them on the final stage of the gallop and just when Dick was riding back to camp behind Colonel Winchester, Stuart fell like a thunderbolt upon the supply train and its guard.
Stuart could not drive wholly away the Northern guard, which though surprised, fought with great courage, but he burned the supply train, then galloped off with prisoners, and Pope's own uniform, horses, treasure chest and dispatch book. He found in the dispatch book minute information about the movements of all the Union troops, and Pope's belief that he ought to retreat from the river on Washington. Doubtless the Confederate horseman shook his head again and again and laughed aloud, when he put this book, more precious than jewels, inside his gold braided tunic, to be taken to Lee and Jackson.
But these things were all hidden from the little group of weary men who rode into Pope's camp. Colonel Winchester carried the news of the crossing--Early had made it--to the commander, and the rest sought the best shelter to be found. Dick was lucky enough to be taken into a tent that was thoroughly dry, and the sergeant who had followed him managed to obtain a supply of dry clothing which would be ready for him when he awoke.
Dick did not revive as usual. He threw all of his clothing aside and water flew where it fell, put on dry undergarments and crept between warm blankets. Nevertheless he still felt cold, and he was amazed at his own lack of interest in everything. He might have perished out there in the stream, but what did it matter? He would probably be killed in some battle anyway. Besides, their information about the crossing of the rebels was of no importance either. The rebels might stay on their side of the Rappahannock, or they might go back. It was all the same either way. All things seemed, for the moment, useless to him.
He began to shiver, but after a while he became so hot that he wanted to throw off all the cover. But he retained enough knowledge and will not to do so, and he sank soon into a feverish doze from which he was awakened by the light of a lantern shining in his face.
He saw Colonel Winchester and another man, a stranger, who held a small leather case in his hand. But Dick was in such a dull and apathetic state that he had no curiosity about them and he shut his eyes to keep out the light of the lantern.
"What is it, doctor?" he heard Colonel Winchester asking.
"Chill and a little fever, brought on by exposure and exhaustion. But he's a hardy youth. Look what a chest and shoulders! With the aid of these little white pills of mine he'll be all right in the morning. Colonel, Napoleon said that an army fights on its stomach, which I suppose is true, but in our heavily watered and but partly settled country, it must fight sometimes on a stomach charged with quinine."
"I was afraid it might be worse. A dose or two then will bring him around?"
"Wish I could be so sure of a quick cure in every case. Here, my lad, take two of these. A big start is often a good one."
Dick raised his head obediently and took the two quinine pills. Soon he sank into a condition which was as near stupor as sleep. But before he passed into unconsciousness he heard the doctor say:
"Wake him soon enough in the morning, Colonel, to take two more. What a wonderful thing for our armies that we can get all the quinine we want! The rebel supply, I know, is exhausted. With General Quinine on our side we're bound to win."
"But that isn't the only reason, doctor. Now--" Their voices trailed away as Dick sank into oblivion. He had a dim memory of being awakened the next morning and of swallowing two more pills, but in a minute or two he sank back into a sleep which was neither feverish nor troubled. When he awoke the dark had come a second time. The fever was wholly gone, and his head had ceased to ache.
Dick felt weak, but angry at himself for having broken down at such a time, he sat up and began to put on the dry uniform that lay in the tent. Then he was astonished to find how great his weakness really was, but he persevered, and as he slipped on the tunic Warner came into the tent.
"You've been asleep a long time," he said, looking at Dick critically.
"I know it. I suppose I slept all through the night as well as the day."
"And the great battle was fought without you."
Dick started, and looked at his comrade, but Warner's eyes were twinkling.
"There's been no battle, and you know it," Dick said.
"No, there hasn't been any; there won't be any for several days at least. That whopping big rain last night did us a service after all. It was Early who crossed the river, and now he is in a way cut off from the rest of the Southern army. We hear that he'll go back to the other side. But Stuart has curved about us, raided our supply train and destroyed it. And he's done more than that. He's captured General Pope's important papers."
"What does it mean for us?"
"A delay, but I don't know anything more. I suppose that whatever is going to happen will happen in its own good time. You feel like a man again, don't you Dick? And you can have the consolation of knowing that nothing has happened all day long when you slept."
Dick finished his dressing, rejoined his regiment and ate supper with the other officers around a fine camp fire. He found that he had a good appetite, and as he ate strength flowed rapidly back into his veins. He gathered from the talk of the older officers that they were still hoping for a junction with McClellan before Lee and Jackson could attack. They expected at the very least to have one hundred and fifty thousand men in line, most of them veterans.
But Dick saw Shepard again that evening. He had come from a long journey and he reported great activity in the Southern camp. When Dick said that Lee and Jackson would have to fight both Pope and McClellan the spy merely replied:
"Yes, if Pope and McClellan hurry."
But Dick learned that night that Pope was not discouraged. He had an army full of fighting power, and eager to meet its enemy. He began the next day to move up the river in order that he might face Lee's whole force as it attempted to cross at the upper fords. Their spirits increased as they learned that Early, through fear of being cut off, was going back to join the main Southern army.
The ground had now dried up after the great storm, but the refreshed earth took on a greener tinge, and the air was full of sparkle and life. Dick had not seen such elasticity among the troops in a long time. As they marched they spoke confidently of victory. One regiment took up a song which had appeared in print just after the fall of Sumter:
"Men of the North and West, Wake in your might. Prepare as the rebels have done For the fight. You cannot shrink from the test; Rise! Men of the North and West."
Another regiment took up the song, and soon many thousands were singing it; those who did not know the words following the others. Dick felt his heart beat and his courage mount high, as he sang with Warner and Pennington the last verse:
"Not with words; they laugh them to scorn, And tears they despise. But with swords in your hands And death in your eyes! Strike home! Leave to God all the rest; Strike! Men of the North and West!"
The song sung by so many men rolled off across the fields, and the woods and the hills gave back the echo.
"We will strike home!" exclaimed Dick, putting great emphasis on the "will." "Our time for victory is at hand."
"The other side may think they're striking home; too," said Warner, speaking according to the directness of his dry mathematical mind. "Then I suppose it will be a case of victory for the one that strikes the harder for home."
"That's a fine old mind of yours. Don't you ever feel any enthusiasm?"
"I do, when the figures warrant it. But I must reckon everything with care before I permit myself to feel joy."
"I'm glad I'm not like you, Mr. Arithmetic, Mr. Algebra, Mr. Geometry and Mr. Trigonometry."
"You mustn't make fun of such serious matters, Dick. It would be a noble thing to be the greatest professor of mathematics in the world."
"Of course, George, but we wouldn't need him at this minute. But here we are back at those cottages in which I saw the Southern officers sheltering themselves. Well, they're ours again and I take it as a good omen."
"Yes, here we rest, as the French general said, but I don't know that I care about resting much more. I've had about all I want of it."
Nevertheless they spent the day quietly at the Sulphur Springs, and lay down in peace that night. But the storm cloud, the blackest storm cloud of the whole war so far, was gathering.
Lee, knowing the danger of the junction between Pope and McClellan had resolved to hazard all on a single stroke. He would divide his army. Jackson, so well called "the striking arm," would pass far around through the maze of hills and mountains and fall like a thunderbolt upon Pope's flank. At the sound of his guns Lee himself would attack in front.
As Dick and his young comrades lay down to sleep this march, the greatest of Stonewall Jackson's famous turning movements, had begun already. Jackson was on his horse, Little Sorrel, his old slouch hat drawn down over his eyes, his head bent forward a little, and the great brain thinking, always thinking. His face was turned to the North.
Just a little behind Jackson rode one of his most trusted aides, Harry Kenton, a mere youth in years, but already a veteran in service. Not far away was the gallant young Sherburne at the head of his troop of cavalry, and in the first brigade was the regiment of the Invincibles led by Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant Colonel Hector St. Hilaire. Never had the two colonels seemed more prim and precise, and not even in youth had the fire of battle ever burned more brightly in their bosoms.
Jackson meant to pass around his enemy's right, crossing the Bull Run Mountain at Thoroughfare Gap, then strike the railway in Pope's rear. Longstreet, one of the heaviest hitters of the South, meanwhile was to worry Pope incessantly along the line of the Rappahannock, and when Jackson attacked they were to drive him toward the northeast and away from McClellan.
The hot August night was one of the most momentous in American history, and the next few days were to see the Union in greater danger than it has ever stood either before or since. Perhaps it was not given to the actors in the drama to know it then, but the retrospect shows it now. The North had not attained its full fighting strength, and the genius of the two great Southern commanders was at the zenith, while behind them stood a group of generals, full of talent and fearless of death.
Jackson had been directly before Sulphur Springs where Dick lay with the division to which he belonged. But Jackson, under cover of the darkness, had slipped away and the division of Longstreet had taken its place so quietly that the Union scouts and spies, including Shepard himself, did not know the difference.
Jackson's army marched swiftly and silently, while that of Pope slept. The plan of Lee was complicated and delicate to the last degree, but Jackson, the mainspring in this organism, never doubted that he could carry it out. His division soon left the rest of the army far behind, as they marched steadily on over the hills, the fate of the nation almost in the hollow of their hands.
The foot cavalry of Jackson were proud of their ability that night. They carried only three days' rations, expecting to feed off the enemy at the end of that time. Near midnight they lay down and slept a while, but long before dawn they were in line again marching over the hills and across the mountains. There were skirmishers in advance on either side, but they met no Union scouts. The march of Jackson's great fighting column was still unseen and unsuspected. A single Union scout or a message carried by a woman or child might destroy the whole plan, as a grain of dust stops all the wheels and levers of a watch, but neither the scout, the woman nor the child appeared.
Toward dawn the marching Southerners heard far behind them the thunder of guns along the Rappahannock. They knew that Longstreet had opened with his batteries across the river, and that those of Pope were replying. The men looked at one another. There was a deep feeling of excitement and suspense among them. They did not know what all this marching meant, but they had learned to trust the man who led them. He had led them only to victory, and they did not doubt that he was doing so again.
The march never paused for an instant. On they went, and the sound of the great guns behind them grew fainter and fainter until it faded away. Where were they going? Was it a raid on Washington? Were they to hurl themselves upon Pope's rear, or was there some new army that they were to destroy?
Up swept the sun and the coolness left by the storm disappeared. The August day began to blaze again with fierce burning heat, but there was no complaint among Jackson's men. They knew now that they were on one of his great turning movements, on a far greater scale than any hitherto, and full of confidence, they followed in the wake of Little Sorrel.
In the daylight now Jackson had scouts and skirmishers far in front and on either flank. They were to blaze the way for the army and they made a far out-flung line, through which no hostile scout could pass and see the marching army within. At the close of the day they were still marching, and when the sun was setting Jackson stood by the dusty roadside and watched his men as they passed. For the first time in that long march they broke through restraint and thundering cheers swept along the whole line as they took off their caps to the man whom they deemed at once their friend and a very god of war. The stern Jackson giving way so seldom to emotion was heard to say to himself:
"Who can fail to win battles with such men as these?"
Jackson's column did not stop until midnight. They had been more than twenty-four hours on the march, and they had not seen a hostile soldier. Harry Kenton himself did not know where they were going. But he lay down and gratefully, like the others, took the rest that was allowed to him. But a few hours only and they were marching again under a starry sky. Morning showed the forest lining the slopes of the mountains and then all the men seemed to realize suddenly which way they were going.
This was the road that led to Pope. It was not Washington, or Winchester, or some unknown army, but their foe on the Rappahannock that they were going to strike. A deep murmur of joy ran through the ranks, and the men who had now been marching thirty hours, with but little rest, suddenly increased their speed. Knowledge had brought them new strength.
They entered the forest and passed into Thoroughfare Gap, which leads through Bull Run Mountain. The files narrowed now and stretched out in a longer line. This was a deep gorge, pines and bushes lining the summits and crests. The confined air here was closer and hotter than ever, but the men pressed on with undiminished speed.
Harry Kenton felt a certain awe as he rode behind Jackson, and looked up at the lofty cliffs that enclosed them. The pines along the summit on either side were like long, green ribbons, and he half feared to see men in blue appear there and open fire on those in the gorge below. But reason told him that there was no such danger. No Northern force could be on Bull Run Mountain.
Harry had not asked a question during all that march. He had not known where they were going, but like all the soldiers he had supreme confidence in Jackson. He might be going to any of a number of places, but the place to which he was going was sure to be the right place. Now as he rode in the pass he knew that they were bound for the rear of Pope's army. Well, that would be bad for Pope! Harry had no doubt of it.
They passed out of the gap, leaving the mountain behind them, and swept on through two little villages, and over the famous plateau of Manassas Junction which many of them had seen before in the fire and smoke of the war's first terrible day. Here were the fields and hills over which they had fought and won the victory. Harry recognized at once the places which had been burned so vividly into his memory, and he considered it a good omen.
Not so far away was Washington, and so strongly was Harry's imagination impressed that he believed he could have seen through powerful glasses and from the crest of some tall hill that they passed, the dome of the Capitol shining in the August sun. He wondered why there was no attack, nor even any alarm. The cloud of dust that so many thousands of marching men made could be seen for miles. He did not know that Sherburne and the fastest of the rough riders were now far in front, seizing every Union scout or sentinel, and enabling Jackson's army to march on its great turning movement wholly unknown to any officer or soldier of the North. Soon he would stand squarely between Pope and Washington.
Before noon, Stuart and his wild horsemen joined them and their spirits surged yet higher. All through the afternoon the march continued, and at night Jackson fell upon Pope's vast store of supplies, surprising and routing the guard. Taking what he could use he set fire to the rest and the vast conflagration filled the sky.
Night came with Jackson standing directly in the rear of Pope. The trap had been shut down, and it was to be seen whether Pope was strong enough to break from it.