The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. Orders No. 191
When the Union army, defeated at the Second Manassas fell back on Washington, Dick was detached for a few days from the regiment by Colonel Winchester, partly that he might have a day or two of leave, and partly that he might watch over Warner, who was making good progress.
Warner was in a wagon that contained half a dozen other wounded men, or rather boys, and they were all silent like stoics as they passed over the bridge to a hospital in Washington. His side and shoulder pained him, and he had recurrent periods of fever, but he was making fine progress.
Dick found his comrade on a small cot among dozens of others in a great room. But George's cot was near a window and the pleasant sunshine poured in. It was now the opening of September, and the hot days were passing. There was a new sparkle and crispness in the air, and Warner, wounded as he was, felt it.
"We're back in the capital to enjoy ourselves a while," he said lightly to Dick, "and I'm glad to see that the weather will be fine for sight-seeing."
"Yes, here we are," said Dick. "The Johnnies beat us this time. They didn't outfight us, but they had the best generals. As soon as you're well, George, we'll start out again and lick 'em."
"I'm glad you told 'em to wait for me, Dick. That's what you ought to do. I hear that McClellan is at the head of things again."
"Yes, the Army of the Potomac is to the front once more, and it's taken over the Army of Virginia. We hear that Pope is going out to the northwest to fight Indians."
"McClellan is not likely to be trapped as Pope was, but he's so tremendously cautious that he'll never trap anything himself. Now, which kind of a general would you choose, Dick?"
"As between those two I'll take McClellan. The soldiers at least like him and believe in him. And George, our man in the east hasn't come yet. The generals we've had don't hammer. They don't concentrate, rush right in and rain blows on the enemy."
"Do you think you know the right man, Dick?"
"I'm making a guess. It's Grant. We saw him at Donelson and Shiloh. Surprised at both places, he won anyhow. He wouldn't be beat. That's the kind of man we want here in the east."
"You may be right, Dick, but the politicians in this part of the country all run him down. Halleck has been transferred to Washington as a sort of general commander and adviser to the President, and they say he doesn't like Grant."
Further talk was cut short by a young army surgeon, and Dick left George, saying that he would come back the next day. The streets of Washington were full of sunshine, but not of hope and cheerfulness. The most terrible suspense reigned there. Never before or since was Washington in such alarm. A hostile and victorious army was within a day's march. Pope almost to the last had talked of victory. Then came a telegram, asking if the capital could be defended in case his army was destroyed. Next came the army preceded by thousands of stragglers and heralds of disaster.
The people were dropped from the golden clouds of hope to the hard earth of despair. They strained their eyes toward Manassas, where the flag of the Union had twice gone down in disaster. It was said, and there was ample cause for the saying of it, that Lee and Jackson with their victorious veterans would appear any moment before the capital. There were rumors that the government was packing up in order to flee northward to Philadelphia or even New York.
But Dick believed none of these rumors. In fact, he was not greatly alarmed by any of them. He was sure that McClellan, although without genius, would restore the stamina of the troops, if indeed it were ever lost, which he doubted very much. He had seen how splendidly they fought at the Second Manassas, and he knew that there was no panic among them. Moreover, the North was an inexhaustible storehouse of men and material, and whenever one soldier fell two grew in his place.
So he strode through the crowded streets, calm of face and manner, and took his way once more to the hotel, where he had sat and listened to the talk before the Second Manassas. The lobby was packed with men, and there was but one topic, the military situation. Would Lee and Jackson advance, hot upon the heels of their victory? Would Washington fall? Would McClellan be able to save them? Why weren't the generals of the North as good as those of the South?
Dick listened to the talk which was for all who might choose to hear. He did not assume any superior frame of mind, merely because he had fought in many battles and these men had fought in none. He retained the natural modesty of youth, and knowing that one who looked on might sometimes be a better judge of what was happening than the one who took part, he weighed carefully what they said.
He was in a comfortable chair by the wall, and while he sat there a heavy man of middle age, whom he remembered well, approached and stood before him, regarding him with a keen and measuring eye.
"Good morning, Mr. Watson," said Dick politely.
"Ah, it is you, Lieutenant Mason!" said the contractor. "I thought so, but I was not sure, as you are thinner than you were when I last saw you. I'll just take this seat beside you."
A man in the next chair had moved and the contractor dropped into it. Then he crossed his legs, and smoothed the upper knee with a strong, fat hand.
"You've had quite a trip since I last saw you, Mr. Mason," he said.
"We didn't go so terribly far."
"It's not length that makes a trip. It's what you see and what happens."
"I saw a lot, and a hundred times more than what I saw happened."
The contractor took two fine cigars from his vest pocket and handed one to Dick.
"No, thank you," said the boy, "I've never learned to smoke."
"I suppose that's because you come from Kentucky, where they raise so much tobacco. When you see a thing so thick around you, you don't care for it. Well, we'll talk while I light mine and puff it. And so, young man, you ran against Lee and Jackson!"
"We did, or they ran against us, which comes to the same thing."
"And got well thrashed. There's no denying it."
"I'm not trying to do so."
"That's right. I thought from the first that you were a young man of sense. I'm glad to see that you didn't get yourself killed."
"A great many good men did."
"That's so, and a great many more will go the same way. You just listen to me. I don't wear any uniform, but I've got eyes to see and ears to hear. I suppose that more monumental foolishness has been hidden under cocked hats and gold lace than under anything else, since the world began. Easy now, I don't say that fools are not more numerous outside armies than in them--there are more people outside--but the mistakes of generals are more costly."
"I suppose our generals are doing the best they can. You will let me speak plainly, will you, Mr. Watson?"
"Of course, young man. Go ahead."
"Perhaps you feel badly over a disaster of your own. I saw the smoking fires at Bristoe Station. The rebels burned there several million dollars worth of stores belonging to us. Maybe a large part of them were your own goods."
The contractor rubbed his huge knee with one hand, took his cigar out of his mouth with the other hand, blew several rings of fine blue smoke from his nose, and watched them break against the ceiling.
"Young man," he said, "you're a good guesser, but you don't guess all. More than a million dollars worth of material that I supplied was burned or looted at Bristoe Station. But it had all been paid for by a perfectly solvent Union government. So, if I were to consider it from the purely material standpoint, which you imagine to be the only one I have, I should rejoice over the raids of the rebels because they make trade for contractors. I'm a patriot, even if I do not fight at the front. Besides my feelings have been hurt."
"In what way?"
The contractor drew from his pocket a coarse brown envelope, and he took from the envelope a letter, written on paper equally coarse and brown.
"I received this letter last night," he said. "It was addressed simply 'John Watson, Washington, D. C.,' and the post office people gave it to me at once. It came from somebody within the Confederate lines. You know how the Northern and Southern pickets exchange tobacco, newspapers and such things, when they're not fighting. I suppose the letter was passed on to me in that way. Listen."
"My dear sir: I have never met you, but certain circumstances have made me acquainted with your name. Believing therefore that you are a man of judgment and fairness I feel justified in making to you a complaint which I am sure you will agree with me is well-founded. At a little place called Bristoe Station I recently obtained a fine, blue uniform, the tint of which wind and rain will soon turn to our own excellent Confederate gray. I found your own name as maker stamped upon the neck band of both coat and vest.
"I ought to say however that after I had worn the coat only twice the seams ripped across both shoulders, I admit that the fit was a little tight, but work well done would not yield so quickly. I also picked out a pair of beautiful shoes, bearing your name stamped upon them. The leather cracked after the first day's use, and good leather will never crack so soon.
"Now, my dear Mr. Watson, I feel that you have treated me unfairly. I will not use any harsher word. We do not expect you to supply us with goods of this quality, and we certainly look for something better from you next time.
"Your obedient servant,
"Now, did you ever hear of another piece of impudence like that?" said Watson. "It has its humorous side, I admit, and you're justified in laughing, but it's impudence all the same."
"Yes, it is impudence, and do you know, Mr. Watson, I've met the writer of that letter. He is a South Carolinian, and from his standpoint he has a real grievance. I never knew anybody else as particular about his clothes, and it seems that the uniform and shoes you furnished him are not all right. He's a gentleman and he wouldn't lie. I met him at Cedar Run, when the burying parties were going over the field. He was introduced to me by my cousin, Harry Kenton, who is on the other side. Harry wouldn't associate with any fellow who isn't all right."
"All the same, if I ever catch that young jackanapes of a St. Clair-- it's an easy name to remember--I'll strip my uniform off him and turn him loose for his own comrades to laugh at."
"But we won't catch either him or his comrades for a long time."
"That's so, but in the end we'll catch 'em. Now, Mr. Mason, you don't agree with me about many things, but you're only a boy and you'll know better later on. Anyway, I like you, and if you need help at any time and can reach me, come."
"I'll do so, and I thank you now," said Dick, who saw that the contractor's tone was sincere.
"That's right, good-bye. I see a senator whom I need."
They shook hands and Watson hurried away with great lightness and agility for so large a man.
Dick stayed two days longer in Washington, visiting Warner twice a day and seeing with gladness his rapid improvement. When he was with him the last time, and told him he was going to join the Army of the Potomac, Warner said:
"Dick, old man, I haven't spoken before of the way you brought me in from that last battlefield. Pennington has told me about it--but if I didn't it was not because I wasn't grateful. Up in Vermont we're not much on words--our training I suppose, though I don't say it is the best training. It's quite sure that I'd have died if you hadn't found me."
"Why, George, I looked for you as a matter of course. You'd have done exactly the same for me."
"That's just it, but I didn't get the chance. Now, Dick, there's going to be another big battle before long, and I shall be up in time for it. You'll be there, too. Couldn't you get yourself shot late in the afternoon, lie on the ground, feverish and delirious until far in the night, when I'd come for you. Then I could pay you back."
Dick laughed. He knew that at the bottom of Warner's jest lay a resolve to match the score, whenever the chance should come.
"Good-bye, George," he said. "I'll look for you in two weeks."
"Make it only ten days. McClellan will need me by that time."
But it seemed to Dick that McClellan would need him and every other man at once. Lee was marching. Passing by the capital he had advanced into Maryland, a Southern state, but one that had never seceded. The Southerners expected to find many reinforcements here among their kindred. The regiments in gray, flushed with victory, advanced singing:
"The despot's heel is on thy shore, Maryland! His torch is at thy temple door, Maryland! Avenge the patriotic gore That flecked the streets of Baltimore And be the battle queen of yore, Maryland, my Maryland!"
Dick knew that the South expected much of Maryland. Her people were Southerners. Their valor in the Revolution was unsurpassed. People still talked of the Maryland line and its great deeds. Many of the Marylanders had already come to Lee and Jackson, and now that the Southern army, led by its famous leaders and crowned with victories, was on their soil, it was expected that they would pour forward in thousands, relieved from the fear of Northern armies.
Alarm, deep and intense, spread all through the North. McClellan, as usual, doubled Lee's numbers but he organized with all speed to meet him. Dick heard that Lee was already at Frederick, giving his troops a few days' repose before meeting any enemy who might come. The utmost confidence reigned in the South.
McClellan marched, but he advanced slowly. The old mystery and uncertainty about the Southern army returned. It suddenly disappeared from Frederick, and McClellan became extremely cautious. He had nearly a hundred thousand men, veterans now, but he believed that Lee had two hundred thousand.
Colonel Winchester again complained bitterly to Dick, who was a comrade as well as an aide.
"What we need," he said, "is a general who doesn't see double, and we haven't got him yet. We must spend less time counting the rebels and more hammering them."
"A civilian in Washington told me that," said Dick. "I believed then that he was right, and I believe it yet. If General Grant were here he'd attack instead of waiting to be attacked."
But the Army of the Potomac continued to march forward in a slow and hesitating fashion. Dick, despite his impatience, appreciated the position of General McClellan. No one in the Union army or in the North knew the plans of Lee and Jackson. Lee had not even consulted the President of the Confederacy but had merely notified him that he was going into Maryland.
Now Lee and Jackson had melted away again in the mist that so often overhung their movements. McClellan could not be absolutely sure they intended an important invasion of Maryland. They might be planning to fall upon the capital from another direction. The Union commander must protect Washington and at the same time look for his enemy.
The army marched near the Potomac, and Dick, as he rode with his regiment, saw McClellan several times. It had not been many months since he took his great army by sea for what seemed to be the certain capture of Richmond, but McClellan, although a very young man for so high a position, had already changed much. His face was thinner, and it seemed to Dick that he had lost something of his confident look. The awful Seven Days and his bitter disappointment had left their imprint. Nevertheless he was trim, neat and upright, and always wore a splendid uniform. An unfailing favorite with the soldiers, they cheered him as he passed, and he would raise his hat, a flush of pride showing through the tan of his cheeks.
"If a general, after being defeated, can still retain the confidence of his army he must have great qualities of some kind," said Dick to Colonel Winchester.
"That's true, Dick. McClellan lost at the Seven Days, and he has just taken over an army that was trapped and beaten under Pope, but behold the spirits of the men, although the Second Manassas is only a few days away. McClellan looks after the private soldier, and if he could only look after an army in the way that he organizes it this war would soon be over."
Dick noticed that the colonel put emphasis on the "if" and his heart sank a little. But it soon rose again. The Army of the Potomac was now a veteran body. It had been tested in the fire of defeat, and it had emerged stronger and braver than ever.
But Dick did not like the mystery about Lee and Jackson. They had an extraordinary ability to drop out of sight, to draw a veil before them so completely that no Union scout or skirmisher could penetrate it. And these disappearances were always full of sinister omens, portending a terrible attack from an unknown quarter. But when Dick looked upon the great and brave Army of the Potomac, nearly a hundred thousand strong, his apprehensions disappeared. The Army of the Potomac could not be beaten, and since Lee and Jackson were venturing so far from their base, they might be destroyed. He confided his faith to Pennington who rode beside him.
"I tell you, Frank, old man," he said, "the Southern army may never get back into Virginia."
"Not if we light a prairie fire behind it and set another in front. Then we'll have 'em trapped same as they trapped us at Manassas. Wouldn't it be funny if we'd turn their own trick on 'em, and end the war right away?"
"It would he more than funny. It would be grand, superb, splendid, magnificent. But I wish old George was here. Why did he want to get in the way of that bullet? I hate to think of ending the war without him."
"Maybe he'll get up in time yet, Dick. I saw him a few hours before we started. The doctors said that youth, clean blood and clean living counted for a lot--I guess George would put it at ninety per cent, and that his wound, the bullet having gone through, would heal at a record rate."
"Then we'll see him soon. When he's strong enough to ride a horse, nothing can hold him back."
"That's so. I see houses ahead. What place is it, Dick?"
"It must be Frederick. We had reports that the Johnnies were about here, but they must have vanished, since no bullets meet us. The colonel is looking through his glasses, and, as he does not check his horse, it is evident that the enemy is not there."
"But maybe he has been there, and if he has we'll just take his place. I like the looks of these Maryland towns, Frank, and they're not so hostile to us."
Colonel Winchester's skeleton regiment, now not amounting to more than three hundred men, was in the vanguard and it rode forward rapidly. The people received them without either enthusiasm or marked hostility. Yet the Union vanguard obtained news. Lee had been there with his army, but he had gone away! Where! They could not say. The Southern officers had been silent and the soldiers had not known. None of the people of Frederick had been allowed to follow. A cloud of cavalry covered the Southern movements.
"Not so definite after all," said Dick. "We know that the Southern army has been here, but we don't know where it has gone."
"At any rate," said Pennington, "we're on the trail, and we're bound to find it sooner or later. I learned from the hunters in Nebraska that when you strike the trail of a buffalo herd, all you had to do was to keep on and you'd strike the herd itself."
It was not yet noon and McClellan's army began to go into camp at Frederick. Dick and Pennington got a chance to stroll about a little, and they picked up much gossip. Young women, with strong Southern proclivities, looked with frowning eyes upon their blue uniforms, but the frank and pleasant smiles of the two lads disarmed them. Older women of the same proclivities did not melt so easily, but continued to regard them with a hard and burning gaze.
But there were men strongly for the Union, and the two friendly lads picked up many details from them. They showed them a grove in which Lee, Jackson, Longstreet and D. H. Hill had all been camped at once. People had gone there daily for a glimpse of these famous men.
They also showed the boys the very spot where Stonewall Jackson had come near to making an ignominious end of his great career. His faithful horse, Little Sorrel, had been worn out by incessant marchings and must rest for a while. The people gave him a splendid horse, but one that had not been broken well. The first time he mounted it a band happened to begin playing, the horse sprang wildly, the saddle girth broke and Jackson was thrown heavily to the ground.
"You'd better believe there was excitement then," said the narrator, a clerk in one of the stores. "Everybody ran forward to pick up the general. He had been thrown so hard that he was stunned and had big bruises. That horse did him more damage than all the armies of the North have done. I can tell you there was alarm for a while among the Johnnies, but they say he was all over it before he left."
They wandered back toward their own command and the obliging guide pointed out to them a house which the Confederate generals had made their headquarters. They saw Colonel Winchester entering it, and thanking the clerk, followed him.
Union officers were already in the house looking with curiosity at the chairs and tables that Jackson and Lee and Longstreet had occupied. Dick caught sight of a small package lying on one of the tables, but another man picked it up first. As he did so he looked at Dick and said in triumph:
"Three good cigars that the rebels have left behind. Have one, Mason?"
"Thanks, but I don't smoke."
"All right, I'll find someone else who does."
He pulled off a piece of paper wrapped around them, threw it on the floor and put the cigars in his pocket. Dick was about to turn away when he happened to glance at the wrapping lying on the floor.
His eyes were caught by the words written in large letters:
HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF NORTH--
Something seemed to shoot through his brain. It was like a flash of warning or command and he obeyed at once. He picked up the paper and smoothed it out in his hand. The full line read like the headline in a newspaper:
HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA. September 9, 1862.
Then with eyes bulging in his head he read:
HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA. September 9, 1862. Special Orders, No. 191.
The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson's command will form the advance, and after passing Middletown with such portions as he may select, take their route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harper's Ferry.
General Longstreet's command will pursue the main road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt with the reserve supply and baggage train of the army.
General McLaws with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harper's Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harper's Ferry and vicinity.
Dick stopped a moment and gasped.
"Come on," called the man with the cigars, "there is nothing more to be seen here."
"Wait a moment," said Dick.
Perhaps it was his duty to rush at once with it to a superior officer, but the spell was too strong. He read on:
General Walker with his division, after accomplishing the object on which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Sundown Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key's Grove on his left, and the road between the end of the mountains and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, co-operate with General McLaws and General Jackson, and intercept the retreat of the enemy.
General D. H. Hill's division will form the rear-guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordinance and supply trains, etc., will precede General Hill.
Dick gasped and he heard someone calling again to him to come, but he read on:
General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson and McLaws, and with the main body of the cavalry will cover the route of the army, bringing up all the stragglers that may have been left behind.
The commands of General Jackson, McLaws and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.
Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood, etc.
R. H. CHILTON,
Dick clutched the paper in his hands and for the moment his throat seemed to contract so tightly that he could not breathe. Then he felt a burst of wild joy.
One of the most extraordinary incidents in the whole history of war had occurred. He knew in an instant that this was Lee's general orders to his army, and that at such a time nothing could be more important. Evidently copies of it had been sent to all his division commanders, and this one by some singular chance either had not reached its destination, or had been tossed carelessly aside after reading. Found by those who needed it most wrapped around three cigars! It was a miracle! Nothing short of it! How could the Union army be defeated after such an omen?
It was the copy intended for the Southern general, D. H. Hill--he denied that he ever received it--but it did not matter to Dick then for whom it was intended. He saw at once all the possibilities. Lee and Jackson had divided their army again. Emboldened by the splendid success of their daring maneuver at Manassas they were going to repeat it.
He looked again at the date on the order. September 9th! And this was the 13th! Jackson was to march on the 10th. He had been gone three days with the half, perhaps, of Lee's army, and Lee himself must be somewhere near at hand. The Union scouts could quickly find him and the ninety thousand veterans of the Army of the Potomac could crush him to powder in a day. What a chance! No, it was not a chance. It was a miracle. The key had been put in McClellan's hand and it would take but one turn of his wrist to unlock the door upon dazzling success.
Dick saw the war finished in a month. Lee could not have more than twenty or twenty-five thousand men with him, and Jackson was three or four days' march away. He clutched the order in his hand and ran toward Colonel Winchester.
"Here, take it, sir! Take it!" he exclaimed.
"Look! Look! See what it is!"
Colonel Winchester took one glance at it, and then he, too, became excited. He hurried with it to General McClellan, and that day the commander-in-chief telegraphed to the anxious President at Washington:
"I have all the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in my own trap, if my men are equal to the emergency."
The shrewd Lincoln took notice of the qualifying clause, "if my men are equal to the emergency," and sighed a little. Already this general, so bold in design and so great in preparation was making excuses for possible failure in action--if he failed his men and not he would be to blame.