The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter X. The Great Assault
The light from the door that was always open illumined the room. The rising sun must have struck full upon it, because it was almost as bright as day there. Slade was in his butternut uniform, and his rifle leaned against the wall. Now that he had made the slight opening Dick could understand their words.
"There are spies within Vicksburg, sir," said Slade. "Colonel Dustin detected one last night, but in the darkness he escaped down this ravine. The alarm was spread and he could not have got outside our lines. I must catch him. It will be a credit to me to do so. I was under your command, and, although not in active service owing to your wound, your word will go far. I want you to get me an order to search every house or place in which he could hide."
"Not too much zeal, my worthy Slade. Talleyrand said that, but you never heard of him. Excessive suspicion is not a good thing. It was your chief fault as an overseer, although I willingly pay tribute to your energy and attention to detail. This business of hunting spies is greatly overdone. The fate of Vicksburg will be settled by the cannon and the rifles."
"But, sir, they can do us great harm."
"Listen to that, my good Slade."
The deep booming note of the distant cannon entered the cave.
"That is the sound of Grant's guns. He can fight better with those weapons than with spies."
But Slade persisted, and Colonel Woodville, with an occasional word from his daughter, fenced with him, always using a light bantering tone, while the lad who lay so near listened, his pulses beating hard in his temples and throat.
"Your vigilance is to be commended, my good Slade," Dick heard Colonel Woodville say, "but to-day at least I cannot secure such a commission for you from General Pemberton. We hear that Grant is massing his troops for a grand attack, and there is little time to thresh up all our own quarters for spies. We must think more of our battle line. To-morrow we may have a plan. Come back to me then, and we will talk further on these matters."
"But think, sir, what a day may cost us!"
"You show impatience, not to say haste, Slade, and little is ever achieved by thoughtless haste. The enemy is closing in upon us, and it must be our chief effort to break his iron ring. Ah, here is my nephew! He may give us further news on these grave matters."
Dick saw the entrance darken for a moment, then lighten again, and that gallant youth, Victor Woodville, with whom he had fought so good a fight, stood in the room. He was still pale and he carried his left arm in a sling, but it was evident that his recovery from his wound had been rapid. Dick saw the stern face of the old colonel brighten a bit, while the tender smile curved again about the thin lips of the spinster.
Young Woodville gave a warm greeting to his uncle and elderly cousin, and nodded to Slade. Dick believed from his gesture that he did not like the guerilla leader, or at least he hoped so.
"Victor," said the colonel, "what word do you bring?"
"Grant is advancing his batteries, and they seem to be massing for attack. It will surely come in a day or two."
"As I thought. Then we shall need all our energies for immediate battle. And now, Mr. Slade, as I said before, I will see you again to-morrow about the matter of which we were speaking. I am old, wounded, and I grow weary. I would rest."
Slade rose to go. He was not a pleasant sight. His clothes were soiled and stained, and his face was covered with ragged beard. The eyes were full of venom and malice.
"Good day, Colonel Woodville," he said, "but I feel that I must bring the matter up again. As a scout and leader of irregulars for the Confederacy. I must be active in order to cope with the enemy's own scouts and spies. I shall return early to-morrow morning."
Colonel Woodville waved his hand and Slade, bowing, withdrew.
"Why was he so persistent, Uncle Charles?" asked Victor. "He seemed to have some underlying motive."
"He always has such a motive, Victor. He is a man who suspects everybody because he knows everybody has a right to suspect him. He may even have been suspecting me, his old, and, I fear, too generous employer. He has a mania about a spy hidden somewhere in Vicksburg."
Young Victor Woodville laughed gayly.
"What folly," he said, "for your old overseer, a man of Northern origin to boot, to suspect you, of all men, of helping a Yankee in any way. Why, Uncle Charles, everybody knows that you'd annihilate 'em if you could, and that you were making good progress with the task until you got that wound."
Colonel Woodville drew his great, white eyebrows together in his characteristic way.
"I admit, Victor, that I'm the prince of Yankee haters," he said. "They've ruined me, and if they succeed they'll ruin our state and the whole South, too. We've fled for refuge to a hole in the ground, and yet they come thundering at the door of so poor an abode. Listen!"
They heard plainly the far rumble of the cannon. The intensity of the fire increased with the growing day. Shells and bombs were falling rapidly on Vicksburg. The face of Colonel Woodville darkened and the eyes under the white thatch burned.
"Nevertheless, Victor," he said, "hate the Yankees as I do, and I hate them with all my heart and soul, there are some things a gentleman cannot do."
"What for instance, Uncle?"
"He cannot break faith. He cannot do evil to those who have done good to him. He must repay benefits with benefits. He cannot permit the burden of obligation to remain upon him. Go to the door, Victor, and see if any one is lurking there."
Young Woodville went to the entrance and returned with word that no one was near.
"Victor," resumed Colonel Woodville, "this man Slade, who was so preposterously wrong, this common overseer from the hostile section which seeks with force to put us down, this miserable fellow who had the presumption to suspect me, lying here with a wound, received in the defense of the Confederacy, was nevertheless right."
Victor stared, not understanding, and Colonel Woodville raised himself a little higher on his pillows.
"Since when," he asked of all the world, "has a Woodville refused to pay his debts? Since when has a Woodville refused asylum to one who protected him and his in the hour of danger? Margaret, lift the blanket and invite our young friend in."
Dick was on his feet in an instant, and came into the chamber, uttering thanks to the man who, in spite of so much bitterness against his cause, could yet shelter him.
Young Woodville exclaimed in surprise.
"The Yankee with whom I fought at Bellevue!" he said.
"And the one who ignored your presence at Jackson," said Miss Woodville.
The two lads shook hands.
"And now," said Colonel Woodville, his old sharpness returning, "we shall be on even terms, young sir. Your uniform bears a faint resemblance to that of your own army, and Slade, cunning and cruel, may have had you shot as a spy. You would be taken within our lines and this is no time for long examinations."
"I know how much I owe you, sir," said Dick, "and I know how much danger my presence here brings upon you. I will leave as soon as the ravine is clear. The gathering of the troops for battle will give me a chance."
"You will do nothing of the kind. Having begun the task we will carry it through. Our cave home rambles. There is a little apartment belonging to Victor, in which you may put yourself in shape. I advise you to lie quiet here for a day or two, and then if I am still able to put my hand on you I may turn you over with full explanations to the authorities."
Dick noted the significance of the words, "if I am still able to put my hand on you," but he merely spoke of his gratitude and went with young Woodville into the little apartment. It was on the right side of the hall, and a round shutterless hole opened into the ravine, admitting light and air. The "window," which was not more than a foot in diameter faced toward the east and gave a view of earthworks, and the region beyond, where the Union army stood.
The room itself contained but little, a cot, some blankets, clothing, and articles of the toilet.
"Mason," said Woodville, "make yourself as comfortable as you can here. I did not know until I escaped from Jackson that it was you who ignored my presence there. You seem in some manner to have won the good opinion of my uncle, and, in any event, he could not bear to remain in debt to a Yankee. If you're careful you're safe here for the day, although you may be lonesome. I must go at once to our lines. Cousin Margaret will bring you something to eat."
They shook hands again.
"I can't do much fighting," said Woodville, "owing to this wounded arm of mine, but I can carry messages, and the line is so long many are to be taken."
He went out and Miss Woodville came soon with food on a tray. Dick suspected that they could ill spare it, but he must eat and he feared to offer pay. It embarrassed him, too, that she should wait upon him, but, in their situation, it was absolutely necessary that she do so, even were there a servant somewhere, which he doubted. But she left the tray, and when she returned for it an hour later she had only a few words to say.
Dick stood at the round hole that served as a window. There were bushes about it, and, at that point, the cliff seemed to be almost perpendicular. He was safe from observation and he looked over a vast expanse of country. The morning was dazzlingly clear, and he saw sections of the Confederate earthworks with their men and guns, and far beyond them other earthworks and other guns, which he knew were those of his own people.
While he stood there alone, free from the tension that had lasted while Slade was present, he realized the great volume of fire that the Northern cannon were pouring without ceasing upon Vicksburg. The deep rumble was continually in his ears, and at times his imagination made the earth shake. He saw two shells burst in the air, and a shattering explosion told that a third struck near by. To the eastward smoke was always drifting. The Southern cannon seldom replied.
He resolved to attempt escape during the coming night. It hurt him to bring danger upon the Woodvilles and he wished, too, to fulfill his mission. Others, beyond question, would reach the fleet with the message, but he wished to reach it also.
Yet nothing new occurred during all the long day. Miss Woodville brought him more food at noon, but scarcely spoke. Then he returned to the hole in the cliff, and remained there until twilight. Young Woodville came, and he gathered from his manner that there had been no important movement of the armies, that all as yet was preparation. But he inferred that the storm was coming, and he told Victor that he meant to leave that night.
He was opposed vehemently. The line of Southern sentinels watched everywhere. Slade was most vigilant. He might come at any time into the ravine. No, he must wait. The next night, perhaps, but in any event he must remain a while.
Nor did he depart the next night either. Instead, two or three days passed, and he was still in the house dug in the hillside, a guest and yet a captive. The bombardment had gone on, his food was still brought to him by Miss Woodville, and once or twice Victor came, but Dick, as he was in honor bound, asked him no question about the armies.
The waiting, the loneliness and the suspense were terrible to one so young, and so ambitious. And yet he had fared better than he had a right to expect, a fact, however, that did not relieve his situation.
Another night came, and he went to sleep in his lonely cell in the wall, but he was awakened while it was yet intensely dark by a cannonade far surpassing in violence any that had gone before. He rushed to the hole, but he could see nothing in the ravine. Yet the whole plateau seemed to shake with the violence of the concussions and the crash of exploding shells.
The fire came from all sides, from the river as well as the land. The boom of the huge mortars on the boats there sounded above everything. Dick knew absolutely now that the message he was to carry had been delivered by somebody else.
He heard under the continued thunder of the guns sharp commands, and the tread of many troops moving. He knew that the Southern forces were going into position, and he felt himself that the tremendous fire was the prelude to a great attack. His excitement grew. He strained his eyes, but he could see nothing in the dark ravine, or out there where the cannon roared, save the rapid, red flashes under the dim horizon. He had his watch and he had kept it running. Now he was able to make out that it was only three o'clock in the morning. A long time until day and he must wait until then to know what such a furious convulsion would achieve.
The slow time passed, and there was no decrease of the fire. Once or twice he came away from the window and listened at the entrance to his little room, but he could hear nothing stirring in the larger chamber. Yet it was incredible that Colonel Woodville and his daughter should not be awake. They would certainly be listening with an anxiety and suspense not less than his.
Dawn came after painful ages, and slowly the region out there where the Union army lay rose into the light. But it was a red dawn, a dawn in flame and smoke. Scores of guns crashed in front, and behind the heavy booming of the mortars on the boats formed the overnote of the storm.
The opening was not large, but it afforded the lad a good view, and he thrust his head out as far as he could, every nerve in him leaping at the deep roar of the cannonade. He had no doubt that the assault was about to be made. He was wild with eagerness to see it, and it was a cruel hurt to his spirit that he was held there, and could not take a part in it.
He thought of rushing from the place, and of seeking a way through the lines to his own army, but a little reflection showed him that it would be folly. He must merely be a witness, while Colonel Winchester, Warner, Pennington, the sergeant, Colonel Hertford, all whom he knew and the tens of thousands whom he did not know, fought the battle.
A tremendous sound, distant and steady, would not blot out much smaller sounds nearby, and now he heard noises in the larger chamber. The voice of Colonel Woodville was raised in sharp command.
"Lift me up!" he said, "I must see! Must I lie here, eating my soul out, when a great battle is going on! Help me up, I say! Wound or no wound, I will go to the door!"
Then the voice of Miss Woodville attempting to soothe was heard, but the colonel broke forth more furiously than ever, not at her, but at his unhappy fate.
Dick, spurred by impulse, left his alcove and entered the room.
"Sir," he said respectfully to Colonel Woodville, "you are eager to see, and so am I. May I help you?"
Colonel Woodville turned a red eye upon him.
"Young man," he said, "you have shown before a sense of fitness, and your appearance now is most welcome. You shall help me to the door, and I will lean upon you. Together we will see what is going to happen, although I wish for one result, and you for another. No, Margaret, it is not worth while to protest any further. My young Yankee and I will manage it very well between us."
Miss Woodville stepped aside and smiled wanly.
"I think it is best, Miss Woodville," Dick said in a low tone.
"Perhaps," she replied.
Colonel Woodville impatiently threw off the cover. He wore a long purple dressing gown, and his wound was in the leg, but it was partly healed. Dick helped him out of the bed and then supported him with his arm under his shoulder. Within that singular abode the roar of the guns was a steady and sinister mutter, but beneath it now appeared another note.
Colonel Woodville had begun to swear. It was not the torrent of loud imprecation that Dick had heard in Jackson, but subdued, and all the more fierce because it was so like the ferocious whine of a powerful and hurt wild animal. Swearing was common enough among the older men of the South, even among the educated, but Colonel Woodville now surpassed them all.
Dick heard oaths, ripe and rich, entirely new to him, and he heard the old ones in new arrangements and with new inflections. And yet there was no blasphemy about it. It seemed a part of time and place, and, what was more, it seemed natural coming from the lips of the old colonel.
They reached the door, the cut in the side of the ravine, and at once a wide portion of the battlefield sprang into the light, while the roar of the guns was redoubled. Dick would have stepped back now, but Colonel Woodville's hand rested on his shoulder and his support was needed.
"My glasses, Margaret!" said the colonel. "I must see! I will see! If I am but an old hound, lying here while the pack is in full cry, I will nevertheless see the chase! And even if I am an old hound I could run with the best of them if that infernal Yankee bullet had not taken me in the leg!"
Miss Woodville brought him the glasses, a powerful pair, and he glued them instantly to his eyes. Dick saw only the field of battle, dark lines and blurs, the red flare of cannon and rifle fire, and towers and banks of smoke, but the colonel saw individual human beings, and, with his trained military eye, he knew what the movements meant. Dick felt the hand upon his shoulder trembling with excitement. He was excited himself. Miss Woodville stood just behind them, and a faint tinge of color appeared in her pale face.
"The Yankees are getting ready to charge," said the colonel. "At the point we see they will not yet rush forward. They will, of course, wait for a preconcerted signal, and then their whole army will attack at once. But the woods and ravines are filled with their skirmishers, trying to clear the way. I can see them in hundreds and hundreds, and their rifles make sheets of flame. All the time the cannon are firing over their heads. Heavens, what a bombardment! I've never before listened to its like!"
"What are our troops doing, father?" asked Miss Woodville.
"Very little yet, and they should do little. Pemberton is showing more judgment than I expected of him. The defense should hold its fire until the enemy is well within range and that's what we're doing!"
The colonel leaned a little more heavily upon him, but Dick steadied himself. The old man still kept the glasses to his eyes, and swept them back and forth in as wide an arc as their position permitted. The hills shook with the thunder of the cannon, and the brilliant sun, piercing through the smoke, lighted up the vast battle line.
"The attack of the skirmishers grows hotter," said the old man. "The thickets blaze with the fire of their rifles. Heavy masses of infantry are moving forward. Now they stop and lie on their arms. They are awaiting the word from other parts of the field, and it shows with certainty that a grand attack is coming. Two batteries of eight guns each have come nearer. I did not think it possible for the fire of their cannon to increase, but it has done so. Young sir, would you care to look through the glasses?"
"I believe not, Colonel. I will trust to the naked eye and your report."
It was an odd feeling that made Dick decline the glasses. If he looked he must tell to the others what he saw, and he wished to show neither exultation nor depression. The colonel, the duty of courtesy discharged, resumed his own position of witness and herald.
"The columns of infantry are getting up again," he said. "I see a man in what I take to be a general's uniform riding along their front. He must be making a speech. No doubt he knows the desperate nature of the attack, and would inspire them. Now he is gone and other officers, colonels and majors are moving about."
"What are the skirmishers doing, Colonel?"
"Their fire is not so hot. They must be drawing back. They have made the prelude, and the importance of their role has passed. The masses of infantry are drawing together again. Now I see men on horseback with trumpets to their lips. Yes, the charge is coming. Ah-h! That burnt them!"
There was a terrific crash much nearer, and Dick knew that it was the Southern batteries opening fire. The shoulder upon which the colonel's hand rested shook a little, but it was from excitement. He said nothing and Colonel Woodville continued:
"The smoke is so heavy I can't see what damage was done! Now it has cleared away! There are gaps in the Yankee lines, but the men have closed up, and they come on at the double quick with their cannon still firing over their heads!"
In his excitement he took his hand off Dick's shoulder and leaned forward a little farther, supporting himself now against the earthen wall. Dick stood just behind him, shielded from the sight of any one who might be passing in the ravine, although there was little danger now from searchers with a great battle going on. Meanwhile he watched the combat with an eagerness fully equal to that of the old colonel.
The mighty crash of cannon and rifles together continued, but for a little while the smoke banked up in front so densely that the whole combat was hidden from them. Then a wind slowly rolled the smoke away. The figures of the men began to appear like shadowy tracery, and then emerged, distinct and separate from the haze.
"They are nearer now," said the Colonel. "I can plainly see their long lines moving and their light guns coming with them. But our batteries are raking them horribly. Their men are falling by the scores and hundreds."
Miss Woodville uttered a deep sigh and turned her face away. But she looked again in a few moments. The terrible spell was upon her, too.
Dick's nerves were quivering. His heart was with the assailants and theirs with the assailed, but he would not speak aloud against the hopes of Colonel Woodville and his daughter, since he was in their house, such as it was, and, in a measure, under their protection.
"Their charge is splendid," continued the colonel, "and I hope Pemberton has made full use of the ground for defense! He will need all the help he can get! Oh, to be out of the battle on such a day! The smoke is in the way again and I can see nothing. Now it has passed and the enemy is still advancing, but our fire grows hotter and hotter! The shells and the grape and the canister and the bullets are smashing through them. They cannot live under it! They must go back!"
Nevertheless the blue lines came steadily toward the Southern earthworks. Dick saw officers, some ahorse, and some afoot, rushing about and encouraging the men, and he saw many fall and lie still while the regiments passed on.
"They are in the nearer thickets," cried the colonel, "and now they're climbing the slopes! Ah, you riflemen, your target is there!"
The Northern army was so near now that the Southern rifle fire was beating upon it like a storm. Never flinching, the men of the west and northwest hurled themselves upon the powerful fortified positions. Some reached shelves of the plateau almost at the mouths of the guns and hung there, their comrades falling dead or dying around them, but now the rebel yell began to swell along the vast line, and reached the ears of those in the ravine.
"The omen of victory!" exclaimed the colonel exultantly. "Our brave lads feel that they're about to triumph! Grant can't break through our line! Why doesn't he call off his men? It's slaughter!"
Dick's heart sank. He knew that the colonel's words were true. The Southern army, posted in its defenses, was breaking the ring of steel that sought to crush it to death. Groups of men in blue who had seized ground in the very front of the defenses either died there or were gradually driven back. The inner ring along its front of miles thundered incessantly on the outer ring, and repelled every attempt to crush it.
"They yield," said the colonel, after a long time. "The Northern fire has sunk at many points, and there! and there! they're retreating! The attack has failed and the South has won a victory!"
"But Grant will come again," said Dick, speaking his opinion for the first time.
"No doubt of it," said Colonel Woodville, "but likely he will come to the same fate."
He spoke wholly without animosity. The battle now died fast. The men in gray had been invincible. Their cannon and rifles had made an impenetrable barrier of fire, and Grant, despite the valor of his troops, had been forced to draw off. Many thousands had fallen and the Southern generals were exultant. Johnston would come up, and Grant, having such heavy losses, would be unable to withstand the united Confederate armies.
But Grant, as Colonel Woodville foresaw, had no idea of retreating. Fresh troops were pouring down the great river for him, and while he would not again attempt to storm Vicksburg, the ring of steel around it would be made so broad and strong that Pemberton could not get out nor could Johnston get in.
When the last cannon shot echoed over the far hills Colonel Woodville turned away from the door of his hillside home.
"I must ask your shoulder again, young sir," he said to Dick. "What I have seen rejoices me greatly, but I do not say it to taunt you. In war if one wins the other must lose, and bear in mind that you are the invader."
"May I help you back to your bed, sir?" asked Dick.
"You may. You are a good young man. I'm glad I saved you from that scoundrel, Slade. As the score between us is even I wish that you were out of Vicksburg and with your own people."
"I was thinking, too, sir, that I ought to go. I may take a quick departure."
"Then if you do go I wish you a speedy and safe journey, but I tell you to beware of one, Slade, who has a malicious heart and a long memory."
Dick withdrew to his own cell, as he called it, and he passed bitter hours there. The repulse had struck him a hard blow. Was it possible that Grant could not win? And if he could not win what terrible risks he would run in the heart of the Confederacy, with perhaps two armies to fight! He felt that only the Mississippi, that life-line connecting him with the North, could save him.
But as dusk came gradually in the ravine he resolved that he would go. His supper, as usual, was brought to him by Miss Woodville. She was as taciturn as ever, speaking scarcely a half-dozen words. When he asked her if Victor had gone through the battle unharmed she merely nodded, and presently he was alone again, with the dusk deepening in the great gully.
Dick was confident that nobody but Colonel Woodville, his daughter, and himself were in the cave-home. It was but a small place, and new callous places on her hands indicated that she was doing the cooking and all other work. His resolve to risk everything and go was strengthened.
He waited patiently until the full night had come and only the usual sounds of an army in camp arose. Then he made ready. He had surrendered his holster and pistols to Colonel Woodville, and so he must issue forth unarmed, but it could not be helped. He had several ten dollar gold pieces in his pocket, and he put one of them on the tiny table in his cell. He knew that it would be most welcome, and he could not calculate how many hundreds in Confederacy currency it was worth. He was glad that he could repay a little at least.
Then he stepped lightly toward the larger chamber in which Colonel Woodville lay. The usual candle was burning on the table near his bed, but the great bald head lay motionless on the pillow, and the heavy white eyebrows drooped over closed lids. Sound asleep! Dick was glad of it. The colonel, with his strong loyalty to the South, might seek to hold him, at least as his personal prisoner, and now the trouble was avoided.
He moved gently across the floor, and then passed toward the open door. How good that puff of fresh air and freedom felt on his face! He did not know that Colonel Woodville raised his head on the pillow, glanced after him, and then let his head sink back and his eyes close again. A low sigh came between the colonel's lips, and it would have been difficult to say whether it was relief or regret.
Dick stepped into the narrow path cut in the side of the ravine and inhaled more draughts of the fresh air. How sweet and strong it was! How it filled one's lungs and brought with it life, courage and confidence! One had to live in a hole in a hill before he could appreciate fully the blessed winds that blew about the world. He knew that the path ran in front of other hollows dug in the earth, and he felt sorry for the people who were compelled to burrow in them. He felt sorry, in truth, for all Vicksburg, because now that he was outside his fears for Grant disappeared, and he knew that he must win.
While he remained in the path a deep boom came from the direction of the Union army and a huge shell burst over the town. It was followed in a moment by another and then by many others. While the besieged rejoiced in victory the besiegers had begun anew the terrible bombardment, sending a warning that the iron ring still held.
Dick paused no longer, but ran rapidly along the path until he emerged upon the open plateau and proceeded toward the center of the town. He judged that in the hours following a great battle, while there was yet much confusion, he would find his best chance.
He had reckoned rightly. There was a great passing to and fro in Vicksburg, but its lights were dim. Oil and candles alike were scarce, and there was little but the moon's rays to disclose a town to the eye. The rejoicings over the victory had brought more people than usual into the streets, but the same exultation made them unsuspicious, and Dick glided among them in the dusk, almost without fear.
He had concluded that "the longest way around was the shortest way through," and he directed his steps toward the river. He had formed a clear plan at last, and he believed that it would succeed. Twisting and turning, always keeping in the shadows, he made good progress, descended the bluff, and at last stood behind the ruins of an old warehouse near the stream.
Southern batteries were not far away from him and he heard the men talking. Then, strengthening his resolution, he came from behind the ruins, flung himself almost flat on the ground, and crawled toward the river, pushing in front of him a board, which some Northern gun had shot from the warehouse.
He knew that his task was difficult and dangerous, though in the last resort he could rush to the water and spring in. But he was almost at the edge before any sentinel saw the black shadow passing over the ground.
A hail came, and Dick flattened himself against the ground and lay perfectly still. Evidently the sentinel was satisfied that his fancy had been making merry with him, as he did not look further at the shadow, and Dick, after waiting two or three minutes, resumed his slow creeping.
He reached the edge, shoved the board into it, and dropped gently into the water beside it, submerged to the head. Then, pushing his support before him, he struck out for the middle of the stream.