The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VIII. The Duel in the Pass
Dick carried the news to Pennington who danced with delight.
"We've got 'em! we've got 'em!" he cried over and over again.
"So we have," said Dick, "we'll be marching in a half hour and then the trap will shut down so tight on Robert Lee that he'll never raise the lid again."
It was nearly noon, and they expected every moment the order to start, but it did not come. Dick began to be tormented by an astonished impatience, and he saw that Colonel Winchester suffered in the same way. The army showed no signs of moving. Was it possible that McClellan would not advance at once on Lee, whom the scouts had now located definitely? The hot afternoon hours grew long as they passed one by one, and many a brave man ate his heart out with anger at the delay. Dick saw Sergeant Whitley walking up and down, and he was eager to hear his opinion.
"What is it, sergeant?" he asked. "Why do we sit here, twiddling our thumbs when there is an army waiting to be taken by us?"
"You're a commissioned officer, sir, and I'm only a private."
"Never mind about that. You're a veteran of many years and many fights, and I know but little. Why do we sit still in the dust and fail to take the great prize that's offered to us?"
"The men of an army, sir, do the fighting, but its generals are its brains. It is for the brains to judge, to see and to command. The generals cannot win without the men, and the men cannot win without the generals. Now, in this case, sir, you can see--"
He stopped and shrugged his shoulders, as if it were not for him to say any more.
"I see," said Dick bitterly. "You needn't say it, sergeant, but I'll say it for you. General McClellan has been overcome by caution again, and he sees two Johnnies where but one stands."
Sergeant Whitley shrugged his shoulders again, but said nothing. Dick was about to turn away, when he saw a tall, thin figure approaching.
"Mr. Warner," said Sergeant Whitley.
"So it is," exclaimed Dick. "It's really good old George come to help us!"
He rushed forward and shook hands with Warner who although thin and pale was as cool and apparently almost as strong as ever.
"Here I am, Dick," he said, "and the great battle hasn't been fought. I knew they couldn't fight it without me. The hospital at Washington dismissed me in disgrace because I got well so fast. 'What's the use,' said one of the doctors, 'in getting up and running away to the army to get killed? You could die much more comfortably here in bed.' 'Not at all,' I replied. 'I don't get killed when I'm with the army. I merely get nearly killed. Then I lie unconscious on the field, in the rain, until some good friend comes along, takes me away on his back and puts me in a warm bed. It's a lot safer than staying in your hospital all the time.'"
"Oh, shut up, George! Come and see the boys. They'll be glad to know you're back--what's left of 'em."
Warner's welcome was in truth warm. He seemed more phlegmatic than ever, but he opened his eyes wide when they told him of the dispatch that had been lost and found.
"General McClellan must have been waiting for me," he said. "Tell him I've come."
But General McClellan did not yet move. The last long hour of the day passed. The sun set in red and gold behind the western mountains, and the Army of the Potomac still rested in its camp, although privates even knew that precious hours were being lost, and that booming cannon might already be telling the defenders of Harper's Ferry that Jackson was at hand.
Nor were they far wrong. While McClellan lingered on through the night, never moving from his camp, Jackson and his generals were pushing forward with fiery energy and at dawn the next day had surrounded Harper's Ferry and its doomed garrison of more than twelve thousand men.
But these were things that Dick could not guess that night. One small detachment had been sent ahead by McClellan, chiefly for scouting purposes, and in the darkness the boy who had gone a little distance forward with Colonel Winchester heard the booming of cannon. It was a faint sound but unmistakable, and Dick glanced at his chief.
"That detachment has come into contact with the rebels somewhere there in the mountains," he said, "and the ridges and valleys are bringing us the echoes. Oh, why in Heaven's name are we delayed here through all the precious moments! Every hour's delay will cost the lives of ten thousand good men!"
And it is likely that in the end Colonel Winchester's reckoning was too moderate. He and Dick gazed long in the direction in which Harper's Ferry lay, and they listened, too, to the faint mutter of the guns among the hills. Before dawn, scouts came in, saying that there had been hard fighting off toward Harper's Ferry, and that Lee with the other division of the Southern army was retreating into a peninsula formed by the junction of the river Antietam with the Potomac, where he would await the coming of Jackson, after taking Harper's Ferry.
"Jackson hasn't taken Harper's Ferry yet," said Dick, when he heard the news. "Many of Banks' veterans of the valley are there, and, our men instead of being crushed by defeat, are always improved by it."
"Still, I wish we'd march," said Warner. "I didn't come here merely to go into camp. I might as well have stayed in the hospital."
Nevertheless they moved at daylight. McClellan had made up his mind at last, and the army advanced joyfully to shut down the trap on Lee. Dick's spirits rose with the sun and the advance of the troops. They had delayed, but they would get Lee yet. There was nothing to tell them that Harper's Ferry had fallen, and Jackson's force must still be detained there far away. They ought to strike Lee on the morrow and destroy him, and then they would destroy Jackson. Oh, Lee and Jackson had been reckless generals to venture beyond the seceding states!
They marched fast now, and the fiery Hooker soon to be called Fighting Joe led the advance. He was eager to get at Lee, who some said did not now have more than twenty thousand men with him, although McClellan insisted on doubling or tripling his numbers and those of Jackson. Scouts and skirmishers came in fast now. Yes, Lee was between the Antietam and the Potomac and they ought to strike him on the morrow. The spirits of the Army of the Potomac continually rose.
Dick remained in a joyous mood. He had been greatly uplifted by the return of his comrade, Warner, for whom he had formed a strong attachment, and he could not keep down the thought that they would now be able to trap Lee and end the war. The terrible field of the Second Manassas was behind him and forgotten for the time. They rode now to a new battle and to victory.
Another great cloud of dust like that at Manassas rolled slowly on toward the little river or creek of Antietam, but the heat was not so great now. A pleasant breeze blew from the distant western mountains and cooled the faces of the soldiers. The country through which they were passing was old for America. They saw a carefully cultivated soil, good roads and stone bridges.
None of the lads and young men around Colonel Winchester rejoiced more than Warner. Released from the hospital and with his tried comrades once more he felt as if he were the dead come back. He was in time, too, for the great battle which was to end the war. The cool wind that blew upon his face tingled with life and made his pulses leap. Beneath the granite of his nature and a phlegmatic exterior, he concealed a warm heart that always beat steadfastly for his friends and his country.
"Dick," he said, "have they heard anything directly from Harper's Ferry?"
"Not a word, at least none that I've heard about, but it's quite sure that Jackson hasn't taken the place yet. Why should he? We have there twelve or thirteen thousand good men, most of whom have proven their worth in the valley. Why, they ought to beat him off entirely."
"And while they're doing that we ought to be taking Mr. Lee and a lot of well-known Confederate gentlemen. I've made a close calculation, Dick, and I figure that the chances are at least eighty per cent in favor of our taking or destroying Lee's army."
"I wish we had started sooner," said Pennington. "We've lost a whole day, one of the most precious days the world has ever known."
"You're right, Frank, and I've allowed that fact to figure importantly in my reckoning. If it were not for the lost day I'd figure our chance of making the finishing stroke at ninety-five per cent. But boys, it's glorious to be back with you. Once, I thought when we were marching back and forth so much that if I could only lie down and rest for a week or two I'd be the happiest fellow on earth. But it became awful as I lay there, day after day. I had suddenly left the world. All the great events were going on without me. North or South might win, while I lay stretched on a hospital bed. It was beyond endurance. If I hadn't got well so fast that they could let me go, I'd have climbed out of the window with what strength I had, and have made for the army anyhow. Did you ever feel a finer wind than this? What a beautiful country! It must be the most magnificent in the world!"
Dick and Pennington laughed. Old George was growing gushy. But they understood that he saw with the eyes of the released prisoner.
"It is beautiful," said Dick, "and it's a pity that it should be ripped up by war. Listen, boys, there's the call that's growing mighty familiar to us all!"
Far in front behind the hills they heard the low grumbling of cannon. And further away to the west they heard the same sinister mutter. The Confederates were scattered widely, and the fateful Orders No. 191 might cause their total destruction, but they were on guard, nevertheless. Jackson, foreseeing the possible advance of McClellan, had sent back Hill with a division to help Lee, and to delay the Northern army until he himself should come with all his force.
In this desperate crisis of the Confederacy, more desperate than any of the Southern generals yet realized, the brain under the old slouch hat never worked with more precision, clearness and brilliancy. He would not only do his own task, but he would help his chief while doing it. When McClellan began his march after a delay of a day he was nearer to Lee than Jackson was and every chance was his, save those that lightning perception and unyielding courage win.
The lads heard the mutter of the cannon grow louder, and rise to a distant thunder. Far ahead of them, where high hills thick with forest rose, they saw smoke and flashes of fire. A young Maryland cavalry officer, riding near, explained to them that the point from which the cannonade came was a gap in South Mountain, although it was as yet invisible, owing to the forest.
"We heard that Lee's army was much further away," said Warner to Dick. "What can it mean? What force is there fighting our vanguard?"
It was Shepard, the spy, who brought them the facts. He had already reported to General McClellan, when he approached Colonel Winchester. His face was worn and drawn, and he was black under the eyes. His clothes were covered with dust. His body was weary almost unto death, but his eyes burned with the fire of an undying spirit.
"I've been all the night and all this morning in the mountains and hills," he said. "Harper's Ferry is not yet taken, but I think it will fall. But Hill, McLaws and Longstreet are all in this pass or the other which leads through the mountain. They mean to hold us as long as they can, and then hang on to the flank of our army."
He passed on and the little regiment advanced more rapidly. Dick saw Colonel Winchester's eyes sparkling and he knew he was anxious to be in the thick of it. Other and heavier forces were deploying upon the same point, but Winchester's regiment led.
As they approached a deadly fire swept the plain and the hills. Rifle bullets crashed among them and shell and shrapnel came whining and shrieking. Once more the Winchester regiment, as it had come to be called, was smitten with a bitter and deadly hail. Men fell all around Dick but the survivors pressed on, still leading the way for the heavy brigades which they heard thundering behind them.
The mouth of the pass poured forth fire and missiles like a volcano, but Dick heard Colonel Winchester still shouting to his men to come on, and he charged with the rest. The fire became so hot that the vanguard could not live in it without shelter, and the colonel, shouting to the officers to dismount, ordered them all to take cover behind trees and rocks.
Dick who had been carried a little ahead of the rest, sprang down, still holding his horse, and made for a great rock which he saw on one side just within the mouth of the pass. His frightened horse reared and jerked so violently that he tore the bridle from the lad's hand and ran away.
Dick stood for a moment, scarcely knowing what to do, and then, as a half dozen bullets whistled by his head, urging him to do something, he finished his dash for the rock, throwing himself down behind it just as a half a dozen more bullets striking on the stone told him that he had done the right thing in the very nick of time.
He carried with him a light rifle of a fine improved make, a number of which had been captured at the Second Manassas, and which some of the younger officers had been allowed to take. He did not drop it in his rush for the rock, holding on to it mechanically.
He lay for at least a minute or two flat upon the ground behind the great stone, while the perspiration rolled from his face and his hair prickled at the roots. He could never learn to be unconcerned when a dozen or fifteen riflemen were shooting at him.
When he raised his head a little he saw that the Winchester regiment had fallen back, and that, in truth, the entire advance had stopped until it could make an attack in full force upon the enemy.
Dick recognized with a certain grim humor that he was isolated. He was just a little Federal island in a Confederate sea. Up the gap he saw cannon and masses of gray infantry. Gathered on a comparatively level spot was a troop of cavalry. He saw all the signs of a desperate defense, and, while he watched, the great guns of the South began to fire again, their missiles flying far over his head toward the Northern army.
Dick was puzzled, but for the present he did not feel great alarm about himself. He lay almost midway between the hostile forces, but it was likely that they would take no notice of him.
With a judgment born of a clear mind, he lay quite still, while the hostile forces massed themselves for attack and defense. Each was feeling out the other with cannon, but every missile passed well over his head, and he did not take the trouble to bow to them as they sailed on their errands. Yet he lay close behind that splendid and friendly rock.
He knew that the Southerners would have sharpshooters and skirmishers ahead of their main force. They would lie behind stones, trees and brush and at any moment one of them might pick him off. The Confederate force seemed to incline to the side of the valley, opposite the slope on which he lay, and he was hopeful that the fact would keep him hidden until the masses of his own people could charge into the gap.
It was painful work to flatten his body out behind a stone and lie there. No trees or bushes grew near enough to give him shade, and the afternoon sun began to send down upon him direct rays that burned. He wondered how long it would be until the Union brigades came. It seemed to him that they were doing a tremendous amount of waiting. Nothing was to be gained by this long range cannon fire. They must charge home with the bayonet.
He raised himself a little in order that he might peep over the stone and see if the charge were coming, and then with a little cry he dropped back, a fine gray powder stinging his face. A rifle had been fired across the valley and a bullet chipping the top of the rock sheltering Dick warned him that he was not the only sharpshooter who lay in an ambush.
Peeping again from the side of the rock, he saw curls of blue smoke rising from a point behind a stone just like his own on the other side of the valley. It was enough to tell him that a Southern sharpshooter lay there and had marked him for prey.
Dick's anger rose. Why should anyone seek his life, trying to pick him off as if he were a beast of prey? He had been keeping quiet, disturbing nobody, merely seeking a chance to escape, when this ruthless rebel had seen him. He became in his turn hot and fiercely ready to give bullet for bullet. Smoke floating through the pass and the flash of the cannon, made him more eager to hit the sharpshooter who was seeking so hard to hit him.
Watching intently he caught a glimpse of a gray cap showing above the rock across the valley, and, raising his light rifle, he fired, quick as a flash. The return shot came at once, and chipped the rock as before, but he dropped back unhurt, and peeping from the side he could see nothing. He might or might not have slain his enemy. The gray cap was no longer visible, and he watched to see if it would reappear.
He heard the sound of a great cannonade before the mouth of the pass, and he saw his own people advancing in force, their lines extending far to the left and right, with several batteries showing at intervals. Then came the rebel yell from the pass and as the Union lines advanced the Southerners poured upon them a vast concentrated fire.
Dick, watching through the smoke and forgetful of his enemy across the valley, saw the Union charge rolled back. But he also saw the men out of range gathering themselves for a new attack. Within the pass preparations were going on to repel it a second time. Then he glanced toward the opposite rock and dropped down just in time. He had seen a rifle barrel protruding above it, and a second later the bullet whistled where his head had been.
He grew angrier than ever. He had left that sharpshooter alone for at least ten minutes, while he watched charge and repulse, and he expected to be treated with the same consideration. He would pay him for such ferocity, and seeing an edge of gray shoulder, he fired.
No sign came from the rock, and Dick was quite sure that he had missed. The blood mounted to his head and surcharged his brain. A thousand little pulses that he had never heard of before began to beat in his head, and he was devoured by a consuming anger. He vowed to get that fellow yet.
Lying flat upon his stomach he drew himself around the edge of the rock and watched. There was a great deal of covering smoke from the artillery in the pass now, and he believed that it would serve his purpose.
But when he got a little distance away from the rock the bank of smoke lifted suddenly, and it was only by quickly flattening himself down behind a little ridge of stone that he saved his life. The sharpshooter's bullet passed so close to his head that Dick felt as if he had received a complete hair cut, all in a flash.
He fairly sprang back to the cover of his rock. What a fine rock that was! How big and thick! And it was so protective! In a spirit of defiance he fired at the top of the other stone and saw the gray dust shoot up from it. Quick came the answering shot, and a little piece of his coat flew with it. That was certainly a great sharpshooter across the valley! Dick gave him full credit for his skill.
Then he heard the rolling of drums and the mellow call of trumpets in front of the pass. Taking care to keep well under cover he looked back. The Union army was advancing in great force now, its front tipped with a long line of bayonets and the mouths of fifty cannon turned to the pass. In front of them swarmed the skirmishers, eager, active fellows leaping from rock to rock and from tree to tree.
Dick foresaw that the second charge would not fail. Its numbers were so great that it would at least enter the pass and hold the mouth of it. Already a mighty cannonade was pouring a storm of death over the heads of the skirmishers toward the defenders, and the brigades came on steadily and splendidly to the continued rolling of the drums.
Dick rose up again, watching now for his enemy who, he knew, could not remain much longer behind the rock, as he would soon be within range of the Northern skirmishers advancing on that side.
He fancied that he could hear the massive tread of the thousands coming toward the pass, and the roll of the drums, distinct amid the roar of the cannon, told him that his comrades would soon be at hand, driving everything before them. But his eyes were for that big rock on the other side of the valley. Now was his time for revenge upon the sharpshooter who had sought his life with such savage persistence. The Northern skirmishers were drawing nearer and the fellow must flee or die.
Suddenly the sharpshooter sprang from the rock, and up flew Dick's rifle as he drew a bead straight upon his heart. Then he dropped the weapon with a cry of horror. Across the valley and through the smoke he recognized Harry Kenton, and Harry Kenton looking toward his enemy recognized him also.
Each threw up his hand in a gesture of friendliness and farewell--the roar of the battle was so loud now that no voice could have been heard at the distance--and then they disappeared in the smoke, each returning to his own, each heart thrilling with a great joy, because its owner had always missed the sharpshooter behind the stone.
The impression of that vivid encounter in the pass was dimmed for a while for Dick by the fierceness of the fighting that followed. The defense had the advantage of the narrow pass and the rocky slopes, and numbers could not be put to the most account. Nevertheless, the Confederates were pressed back along the gap, and when night came the Union army was in full possession of its summit.
But at the other gap the North had not achieved equal success. Longstreet, marching thirteen miles that day, had come upon the field in time, and when darkness fell the Southern troops still held their ground there. But later in the night Hill and Longstreet, through fear of being cut off, abandoned their positions and marched to join Lee.
Dick and his comrades who did not lie down until after midnight had come, felt that a great success had been gained. McClellan had been slow to march, but, now that he was marching, he was sweeping the enemy out of his way.
The whole Army of the Potomac felt that it was winning and McClellan himself was exultant. Early the next morning he reported to his superior at Washington that the enemy was fleeing in panic and that General Lee admitted that he had been "shockingly whipped."
Full of confidence, the army advanced to destroy Lee, who lay between the peninsula of the Antietam and the Potomac, but just about the time McClellan was writing his dispatch, the white flag was hoisted at Harper's Ferry, the whole garrison surrendered, and messengers were on their way to Lee with the news that Stonewall Jackson was coming.