The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIII. The River of Death
Dick knew that he had saved young Woodville's life, but his conscience was quite dear. If he had the same chance he would do it over again, but he was sorry they had not caught Slade. He felt no hostility toward the regular soldiers of the Confederacy, but he knew there were guerillas on their side, as well as his own, who would stop at nothing. He remembered Skelly, who, claiming to be a Union partisan, nevertheless robbed and even killed those of either party whenever he felt it safe to do so. Slade was his Southern complement, and he would surely get together a new force as venomous as the old.
But Colonel Winchester and the commander of the Ohio regiment were full of pride in their exploit, as they had a right to be. They had destroyed a swarm of wasps which had been buzzing and stinging almost beyond endurance, and they were still prouder when they received the thanks of General Thomas.
The corps moved forward the next day, and soon the whole army was united under Rosecrans. It was a powerful force, about ninety thousand men, the staunch fighters of the West, veterans of great battles and victories, and to the young officers it appeared invincible. Their feeling that it was marching to another triumph was confirmed by the news that Bragg was retreating.
Yet the two armies were so close to each other that the Northern vanguard skirmished with the Southern rearguard as they passed through the mountains. At one point in a gap of the Cumberland Mountains the Southerners made a sharp resistance, but they were quickly driven from their position and the Union mass rolled slowly on. Exultation among the troops increased.
"We'll drive Bragg away down into the South against Grant," said Ohio to Dick, "and we'll crush him between the two arms of the vise. That will finish everything in the West."
While Dick was exultant, too, he had certain reservations. He had seen a like confidence carried to disaster in the East, although it did not seem possible that the result here could be similar.
"I don't think they'll keep on retreating forever, Ohio," he said. "All our supplies are coming from Nashville, and we are getting farther away from our base every day."
But Ohio laughed.
"Our chief task is to catch Bragg," he said. "They said he was going to occupy Chattanooga and wait for us. He's been in Chattanooga, but he didn't wait for us there. He's left it already and gone on, anxious to reach the Gulf before winter, I suppose."
The Union army in its turn entered Chattanooga, a little town of which Dick had seldom heard before, although he greatly admired its situation. The country about it was bold and romantic. It stood in a sharp curve of the great river, the Tennessee. Not far away was the lofty uplift of Lookout Mountain, a half-mile high, and there were long ridges between which creeks or little rivers flowed down to the Tennessee.
One of these streams was the Chickamauga, which in the language of the Cherokee Indians who had once owned this region means "the river of death." Why they called it so no one knew, but the name was soon to have a terrible fitness. Chattanooga itself meant in the Cherokee tongue "the hawk's nest," and anybody could see the aptness of the term.
While Lookout Mountain was the loftiest summit, some of the other ridges rose almost as high, through the gaps of which the Northern army must pass if it continued the pursuit of Bragg.
September had now come and the winds were growing crisper in the high country. The feel of autumn was in the air, and the coolness made the marching brisker. The division to which Dick belonged was advancing slowly. He often saw Thomas, and his admiration for the grave, silent man grew. It was said that Thomas was slow, but that he never made mistakes. Now the rumor was spreading that he had warned Rosecrans to be cautious, that Bragg had a powerful army and when he reached favorable positions, would certainly turn and fight.
Not many were impressed by these reports. They merely said it was "Pap" Thomas' way of looking at the dark side of things first. Hadn't they driven Bragg through the Cumberland Mountains and out of Chattanooga, and now they would soon be on his heels deep down in Georgia. But Dick, noticing Colonel Winchester's serious face, surmised that he at least shared the opinion of his chief. And when the lad looked up at the great coils and ridges he felt that, in truth, they might go too far. If the Northern men were veterans, so were the Southern, and neither had taken much change of the other at Shiloh, Perryville and Stone River.
The Winchester regiment was thrown forward as the vanguard of the infantry, and the face of the colonel grew more serious than ever, when the best scouts rode in with reports that the Southern retreat was now very slow. There was news, too, that Slade had a new band much larger than before, and they formed a rear guard of skirmishers which made every moment of a Northern scout's life a moment of danger. The Winchester regiment itself was often fired upon from ambush, and there were vacant places in the ranks.
Dick did not know whether it was his own intuition or the influence that flowed from the opinions of Thomas and Winchester, but much of his high exultation was abated. He regarded the lofty ridges and the deep gaps with apprehension. It was a difficult country and the Southern leaders must know that the Northern army was extended over a long line, with Thomas holding the left.
His premonitions had ample cause. Bragg as he fell back slowly had gathered new forces. Rosecrans did not yet know it, but the army before him was the most powerful that the South ever assembled in the West. Polk and Cleburne and Breckinridge and Forrest and Fighting Joe Wheeler and a whole long roll of famous Southern generals were there. Nor had the vigilant eyes of the Confederacy in the East failed to note the situation.
Just as the armies were coming into touch a division of the Army of Northern Virginia was passing by train over the mountains. It was led by a thick-bearded, powerful man, no less a general than the renowned Longstreet, sent to help Bragg. The veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia would swell Bragg's ranks, and the great army, turning a sanguine face northward, was eager for Rosecrans to come on. The Southern force would number more than ninety thousand men, more numerous than ever before or afterward in the West.
It was now late in September, the eve of the eighteenth, and Dick and his comrades lay near the little creek with the rhythmical name, Chickamauga. It was the very night that a portion of the Army of Northern Virginia had arrived in Bragg's camp. The preceding days had been full of detached fighting, and the night had come heavy with omens and presages. The least intelligent knew now that Bragg had stopped, but they did not know that Longstreet was to be with him.
Dick and his comrades sat by a smothered fire, and the vast tangle of mountains and passes, of valleys and streams looked sinister to them. There had been skirmishing throughout the day, and as the darkness closed down they still heard occasional rifle shots on the slopes and ridges.
"Don't these mountains make you think of your native Vermont, George?" asked Dick.
"In a way, yes," replied Warner, "but my hills are not bristling with steel as these are."
"No, you New Englanders are fortunate. The war will never be carried on on your soil. You shed your blood, but, after all, the states that are trodden under foot by the armies suffer most."
"There are lights winking on the mountains again," said Pennington.
"Let 'em wink," said Dick. "Their signals can't amount to much now. We know that Bragg is before us, and a great battle can't be delayed long. Fellows, I'm not so sure about the result."
"Come! Come, Dick!" said Warner. "It's not often you're downhearted. What's struck you?"
"Nothing, George, but, between you and me and the gate post, I wish that our old 'Pap' Thomas commanded all the army, instead of the left merely. I've learned a few things to-day. The enemy is spreading out, trying to enfold us on both wings."
"What of it?"
"It means that they are sanguine of victory, and they want to stand between us and Chattanooga, so they can cut off our retreat, after we're beaten, as they think we surely will be. But their main force is not far from us now, so a scout told me. It's massed heavily along the right bank of the Chickamauga."
"And if there's a battle to-morrow we're likely to receive the first attack?"
"Could it come any better than at the place where Thomas stands?"
They sat long by the fire and Dick could not rest. Shiloh, his capture, and his knowledge of the secret Southern advance, of which he could give no warning, came back to him with uncommon vividness. He knew that no such surprise could occur here, but they seemed to be lost in the wilderness. The mountains and forests oppressed him.
"Well, Dick," said Warner, "we're posted strongly. We've rows of sentinels as thick as hedges, and I've the colonel's permission to go to sleep. I'll be slumbering in ten minutes, and I'd advise you to do the same."
He lay on a blanket and soon slept. Pennington followed him to slumberland, but Dick lingered. He saw lights still flashing on the mountains, and he heard now and then reports from the rifles of the skirmishers, who yet sought each other despite the darkness. But he yielded at last and he, too, slept until the dawn, which should bring nearly two hundred thousand men face to face in mortal combat.
Dick was awake early. The September morning came, crisp and clear, the sun showing red gleams over the mountains. He heard already the sound of distant rifle shots in front, and, through his glasses, he saw far away faint puffs of smoke. But it was a familiar sound in this mighty war, and he found himself singularly calm. He never knew how he was going to feel on the eve of battle. Sometimes the constriction at his heart was painful, and sometimes its beat was smooth and regular.
All the officers of the Winchester regiment were dismounted owing to the rough nature of the country in which they were stationed. They held the most uneven part of the center, where thickets and ravines were many. Hot food and coffee were served to them, and new warmth and courage flowed through their bodies.
The distant fire increased, and, standing on a hillock, Dick looked long through his glasses. A faint haze which had hung in the south was clearing away. The rays of the sun were intensely bright. The brown of autumn glowed like gold, and the red splashes here and there burned scarlet. He saw pink dots appearing on a long line and he knew that the skirmishers were active and wary.
"There can be no doubt of the advance!" he said to Warner. "A strong body of our cavalry disclosed their forward movement, and there are the skirmishers signaling that Bragg is near. Wonderful fellows, those sharpshooters! They're the eyes of the army. We stand in mass and fight together, but every one of them individually takes his life in his own hands. The firing is coming nearer. I think we'll be attacked first."
After a little pause Warner said:
"I'm sorry our line is extended so much. What if they should cut through and get behind us?"
"They'll never do it while General Thomas is here. I believe they called him 'Old Slow Top' at West Point, but if he's slow in advance he's still slower in retreat. I'd rather have him commanding us just now than any other general in the world."
"I think you're right, and here he comes! Listen to the cheering!"
General Thomas rode slowly along his line, inspecting the position of every regiment and making some changes. He showed no trace of excitement. The face was calm and the heavy jaw was set firmly. If Grant was a bulldog Thomas was another. The men knew him. They had seen him stand like a rock before, and the thrill of confidence and courage which help so much to win ran through them all.
Dick saw the general speak to Colonel Winchester and then ride on and out of sight. All the men in the regiment were lying down, but the officers walked back and forth in front of the line. It was the especial pride of the younger ones to appear unconcerned, and some were able to make a brave pretense.
But all the while the battle was rolling nearer. It was no longer an affair of scouting parties. The skirmishers were driven in on either side and the mighty Southern advance was coming forward in full battle array. Shells began to shriek and fall among the Northern masses, and the fire of cannon and rifles mingled in a sinister crash. But the Union regiments, although not yet replying, remained steady, although the shower of steel that was beginning to beat upon them found many a mark. Vast columns of smoke pierced by fire rose in front.
It seemed to Dick's vivid fancy that the earth was shaking with the tread of the advancing brigades and the thunder of their artillery. But he was still able to preserve his air of indifference, although his heart was now beating hard and fast. Now and then when the smoke eddied or the banks of it broke apart he raised his glasses and with their powerful vision saw the long and deep Southern columns advancing, the field batteries in the intervals pouring a storm of death.
It was a sinister and terrible sight. The South presented here an army outnumbering its force at Shiloh two to one, and they were veterans now, led by veteran commanders. Moreover, they had Longstreet and his matchless fighters from Lee's army to bear them up.
"What do you see, Dick?" asked Pennington, his voice distinctly audible through the steady roar.
"Johnnies! Johnnies! Johnnies! Thousands and thousands of them and then many thousands more. They're going to strike full upon us here!"
"Let 'em come. We're taking root, growing deep into the ground and old 'Pap' Thomas has grown deepest of us all! It'll be impossible to move us!"
"I hope so. There go our own cannon, too, and it's a welcome sound! I can see the gaps smashed in their ranks by our fire, and ah, I see, too--"
He stopped short in amazed surprise, and Pennington in wonder asked:
"What is it you see, Dick?"
"There's a heavy cavalry force on their flank, and I caught a glimpse of a man on a great horse leading it. I know him. He's Colonel George Kenton, father of Harry Kenton, that cousin of mine, of whom I've spoken to you so often."
"And here he comes charging you! But it's happened hundreds and hundreds of times in this war that relatives have come face to face in battle, and it'll happen hundreds of times more. Are they within rifle shot, Dick?"
"Not yet, but they soon will be."
He slung the glasses back over his shoulder. The eye alone was sufficient now to watch the charging columns. All the artillery on both sides was coming into action, and the ripping crash of so many cannon became so great that the officers could no longer hear one another unless they shouted. The gorges and hills caught up the sound and gave it back in increased volume.
Dick heard a new note in the thunder. It was made by the swift beat of hoofs, thousands of them, and the hair on his neck prickled at the roots. Forrest and the wild cavalry of the South were charging on their flanks. He felt a sudden horror lest he be trampled under the hoofs of horses. By some curious twist of the mind his dread of such a fate was far more acute at that moment than his fear of shells and bullets.
Colonel Winchester, shouting imperiously, ordered him and all the other young officers to step back now and lie down. Dick obeyed, and he crouched by the side of Warner and Pennington. The great bank of fire and smoke was rolling nearer and yet nearer, and the cannon were fighting one another with all the speed and power of the gunners. Off on the flank the ominous tread of Southern horsemen was coming fast.
Bullets began now to rain among them. The regiment would have been swept away bodily had the men not been lying down. But their time to wait and hold their fire was at an end. The colonel gave the word, and a sheet of light leaped from the mouths of their rifles. A vast gap appeared in the Southern line before them, but in a minute or two it closed up, and the Southern masses came on again, as menacing as ever. Again Dick's regiment poured its shattering fire upon the Southern columns and their front lines were blown away. Colonel Winchester at once wheeled his men into a new position to meet the mass of Forrest's cavalry rushing down upon their flank. He was just in time to help other troops, not in numbers enough to withstand the shock.
There were few moments in the lives of these lads as terrifying as those when they turned to face the fierce Forrest, the uneducated mountaineer who had intuitively mastered Napoleon's chief maxim of war, to pour the greatest force upon the enemy's weakest point.
The hurricane sweeping down upon them sent a chill to their hearts. Dick saw a long line of foaming mouths, the lips drawn back from the cruel white teeth, and manes flying wildly. Above them rose the faces of the riders, their own eyes bloodshot, their sabers held aloft for the deadly sweep. And the thunder of galloping hoofs was more menacing than that of the cannon.
Dick looked around him and saw faces turning pale. His own might be whiter than any of theirs for all he knew, but he shouted with the other officers:
"Steady! Steady! Now pour it into 'em!"
It was well that most of the men in the regiment had become sharpshooters, and that despite the thumping of their hearts, they were able to stand firm. Their sleet of bullets emptied a hundred saddles, and slipping in the cartridges they fired again at close range. The cavalry charge seemed to stop dead in its tracks, and in an instant a scene of terrible confusion occurred. Wounded horses screaming in pain rushed wildly back upon their own comrades or through the ranks of the foe. Injured men, shot from their saddles, were seeking to crawl out of the way. Whirling eddies of smoke alternately hid and disclosed enemies, and from both left and right came the continuous and deafening crash of infantry in battle.
But Forrest's men paused only a moment or two. A great mass of them galloped out of the smoke, over the bodies of their dead comrades and directly into the Winchester regiment, shouting and slashing with their great sabers. It was well for the men that their leader had so wisely chosen ground rough and covered with bushes. Using every inch of protection, they fired at horses and riders and thrust at them with their bayonets.
The battle became wild and confused, a turmoil of mingled horse and foot, of firing and shouting and of glittering swords and bayonets. A man on a huge horse made a great sweep at Dick's head with a red saber. The boy dropped to his knees, and felt the broad blade whistle where his head had been.
The swordsman was borne on by the impetus of his horse, and Dick caught one horrified glimpse of his face. It was Colonel Kenton, but Dick knew that he did not know, nor did he ever know. It was never in the lad's heart to tell his uncle how near he had come unwittingly to shearing off the head of his own nephew.
The charge of the cavalrymen carried them clear through the Winchester regiment, but a regiment coming up to the relief drove them back, and the great mass turning aside a little attacked anew and elsewhere. A few moments of rest were permitted Dick and his comrades, although the mighty battle wheeled and thundered all about them.
But their regiment was a melancholy sight. A third of its numbers were killed or wounded. The ground was torn and trampled, as if it had been swept by a hurricane of wind and red rain. Dick had one slight wound on his shoulder and another on his arm, but he did not feel them. Pennington and Warner both had scratches, but the colonel was unharmed.
"My God," exclaimed Warner, "how did we happen to survive it!"
"I live to boast that I've been ridden over by old Forrest himself," said Pennington.
"How do you know it was Forrest?"
"Because his horse was eight feet high and his sword was ten feet long. He slashed at me with it a hundred times. I counted the strokes."
Then Pennington stopped and laughed hysterically, Dick seized him by the arm and shook him roughly.
"Stop it, Frank! Stop it!" he cried. "You're yourself, and you're all right!"
Pennington shook his body, brushed his hands over his eyes and said:
"Thanks, Dick, old man; you've brought me back to myself."
"Get ready!" exclaimed Warner. "The cavalry have sheered off, but the infantry are coming, a million strong! I can hear their tread shaking the earth!"
The broken regiment reloaded, drew its lines together and faced the enemy anew. It seemed to their bloodshot eyes that the whole Southern army was bearing down upon them. The Southern generals, skillful and daring, were resolved to break through the Northern left, and the attack attained all the violence of a convulsion.
The great Southern line, blazing with fire and steel, advanced, never stopping for a moment, while the fire of their cannon beat incessantly upon the devoted brigades. It was well for the Northern army, well for the Union that here was the Rock of Chickamauga. Amid all the terrible uproar and the yet more terrible danger, Thomas never lost his courage and presence of mind for a moment. Dick saw him more than once, and he knew how he doubly and triply earned the famous name which that day and the next were to give him.
But the weight was so tremendous that they began to give ground. They went back slowly, but they went back. Dick felt as if the whole weight were pressing upon his own chest, and when he tried to shout no words would come.
Back they went, inch by inch, leaving the ground covered with their dead. Dick was conscious only of a vast roar and shouting and the continuous blaze of cannon and rifles in his very face. But he understood the immensity of the crisis. By a huge victory in the West the Confederacy would redress the loss of Gettysburg in the East. And now it seemed that they were gaining it. For the first and only time in the war they had the larger numbers in a great battle, and the ground was of their own choosing.
Elated over success gained and greater success hoped, the Southern leaders poured their troops continually upon Thomas. If they could break that wing, cut it off in fact, and rush in at the gap, they would be between Rosecrans and Chattanooga and the Northern army would be doomed. They made gigantic efforts. The cavalry charged again and again. Huge masses of infantry hurled themselves upon the brigades of Thomas, and every gun that could be brought into action poured shot and shell into his lines.
Many of the young as well as the old officers in Thomas' corps felt the terrible nature of the crisis. Dick knew despite the hideous turmoil that Thomas was the chief target of the Southern army. He divined that the fortunes of the Union were swinging in the balance there among those Tennessee hills and valleys. If Thomas were shattered the turn of Grant farther south would come next. Vicksburg would have been won in vain and the Union would be broken in the West.
Order and cohesion were lost among many of the regiments, but the men stood firm. The superb, democratic soldier fought for himself and he, too, understood the crisis. They re-formed without orders and fought continuously against overwhelming might. Ground and guns were lost, but they made their enemy pay high for everything, and the slow retreat never became a panic.
"We're going back," shouted Warner in Dick's ear. "Yes, we're going back, but we'll come forward again. They'll never crush the old man."
Yet the pressure upon them never ceased. Bragg and his staff had the right idea. Had anyone but Thomas stood before them they would have shattered the Union left long since, but his slow, calm mind rose to its greatest heights in the greatest danger. He understood everything and he was resolved that his wing should not be broken. Wherever the line seemed weakest he thrust in a veteran regiment, and he went quickly back and forth, observing with a measuring eye every shift and change of the battle.
The Winchester regiment in its new position was still among the gullies and bushes, and they were thankful for such shelter. Although veterans now, most were lads, and they did not scorn to take cover whenever they could. For a little while they did not reply to the enemy's fire, but lay waiting and seeking to get back the breath which seemed to be driven from their bodies by the very violence of the concussion. Shrapnel, grape and canister whistled incessantly over their heads, and on either flank the thunder of the battle swelled rapidly.
The Southern attack was spreading along the whole front, and it was made with unexampled vigor. It even excelled the fiery rush at Stone River, and the generals on both sides were largely the same that had fought the earlier great battle. Polk, the bishop-general, still led one wing for the South, Buckner massed Kentuckians who faced Kentuckians on the other side, and Longstreet and Hill were to play their great part for the South. Resolved to win a victory, the veteran generals spared nothing, and the little Chickamauga, so singularly named by the Indians "the river of death," was running red.
Dick crouched lower as the storm of shells swept over him. Despite all his experience impulse made him bow his head while the whistling death passed by. He felt a little shame that he, an officer, should seek protection, but when he stole a look he saw that all the others, Colonel Winchester included, were doing the same. Sergeant Whitley had sunk down the lowest of them all, and, catching Dick's glance, he said in clear, low tones audible under the storm:
"Pardon me for saying it to you, an officer, Mr. Mason, but it's our business not to get killed when it's not needed, so we can save ourselves to be killed when it is needed."
"I suppose you're right, Sergeant. At any rate I'm glad enough to keep under cover, but do you see anything in those woods over there? We're on the extreme left flank here, and maybe they're trying to overlap us."
"I think I do. Men with rifles are in there. I'll speak to the colonel."
He crawled to Colonel Winchester, who was crouched a dozen feet away, and pointed to the wood, or rather thicket of scrub. But Dick meanwhile saw increasing numbers of men there. They were beyond the line of battle and were not obscured by the clouds of smoke. As he stared he saw a weazened figure under an enormous, broad-brimmed hat, and, although he could not discern the face at the distance, he knew that it was Slade, come with a new and perhaps larger body of riflemen to burn away the extreme left flank of the Union force.
As the colonel and the sergeant crawled back Dick told them what he had seen, and they recognized at once the imminence of the danger. Colonel Winchester looked at the great columns of fire and smoke in front of him. He did not know when the main attack would sweep down upon them again, but he took his resolution at once.
He ordered his men to wheel about, and, using Slade's own tactics, to creep forward with their rifles. Most of his men were sharpshooters and he felt that they would be a match for those whom the guerrilla led. Sergeant Whitley kept by his side, and out of a vast experience in border warfare advised him.
Dick, Warner and Pennington armed themselves with rifles of the fallen, and they felt fierce thrills of joy as they crept forward. Burning with the battle fever, and enraged against this man Slade, Dick put all his soul in the man-hunt. He merely hoped that Victor Woodville was not there. He would fire willingly at any of the rest.
Before they had gone far Slade and his riflemen began to fire. Bullets pattered all about them, clipping twigs and leaves and striking sparks from stones.
Had the fire been unexpected it would have done deadly damage, but all of the Winchesters, as they liked to call themselves, had kept under cover, and were advancing Indian fashion. And now a consuming rage seized them all. They felt as if an advantage had been taken of them. While they were fighting a great battle in front a sly foe sought to ambush them. They did not hate the Southern army which charged directly upon them, but they did hate this band of sharpshooters which had come creeping through the woods to pick them off, and they hated them collectively and individually.
It was Dick's single and fierce desire at that moment to catch sight of Slade, whom he would shoot without hesitation if the chance came. He looked for him continually as he crept from bush to bush, and he withheld his fire until fortune might bring into his view the flaps of that enormous hat. The whole vast battle of Chickamauga passed from his mind. He was concentrated, heart and soul, upon this affair of outposts in the thickets.
Men around him were firing, and the bullets in return were knocking up the leaves about him, but Dick's finger did not yet press the trigger. The great hat was still hidden from view, but he heard Slade's whistle calling to his men. Sergeant Whitley was by the lad's side, and he glanced at him now and then. The wise sergeant read the youth's face, and he knew that he was upon a quest, a deadly one.
"Is it Slade you're looking for, Mr. Mason?" he asked.
"Yes, I want him!"
"Well, if we see him, and you miss him, I think I'll take a shot at him myself."
But Slade, crafty and cunning, kept himself well hidden. The two bands fighting this Indian combat, while the great battle raged so near them, were now very near to each other, but as they had both thickets and a rocky outcrop for refuge, they fought from hiding. Nevertheless many fell. Dick, the ferocity of the man-hunt continuing to burn his brain, sought everywhere for Slade. Often he heard his silver whistle directing his troop, but the man himself remained invisible. In his eagerness the lad rose too high, but the sergeant pulled him down in time, a bullet whistling a second later through the air where his head had been.
"Careful, Mr. Mason! Careful!" said Sergeant Whitley. "It won't do you much good for one of his men to get you while you are trying to get him!"
Dick became more cautious. At last he caught a glimpse of the great hat that he could not mistake, and, aiming very carefully, he fired. Then he uttered an angry cry. He had missed, and when the sergeant was ready to pull the trigger also Slade was gone.
Now, the colonel called to his men, and rising they charged into the wood. It was evidently no part of Slade's plan to risk destruction as he blew a long high call on his whistle, and then he and all his men save the dead melted away like shadows. The Winchesters stood among the trees, gasping and staunching their wounds, but victorious.
Now they had only a few moments for rest. Bugles called and they rushed back to their old position just as the Southern cavalry, sabers circling aloft swept down upon them again. They went once more through that terrible turmoil of fire and flashing steel, and a second time the Winchesters were victorious. But they could have stood no more, and Thomas watching everything hurried to their relief a regiment, which formed up before them to give them breathing time.
The young soldiers threw themselves panting upon the ground, and were assailed by a burning thirst. The canteens were soon emptied, and still their lips and throats were parched. Exhausted by their tremendous exertions, many of them sank into a stupor, although the battle was at its zenith and the earth shook with the crash of the heavy batteries.
"General Thomas has had news that we're driven in elsewhere," said Dick.
"And we've yielded ground here, too," said Warner.
"But so slowly that it's been only a glacial movement. We've made 'em pay such a high price that I think old 'Pap' can boast he has held his ground."
Dick did not know it then nor did the general himself, but 'Pap' Thomas could boast of far more than having held his ground. His long and stubborn resistance, his skill in moving his troops from point to point at the right time, his coolness and judgment in weighing and measuring everything right, in all the vast turmoil, confusion and uncertainty of a great battle, had saved the Northern army from destruction.
Now, as the Winchester men lay gasping behind the fresh regiment, Thomas, who continually passed along the line of battle, came among them. He was a soldier's soldier, a soldier's general, and he spoke encouraging words, most of which they could not hear amid the roar of the battle, but his calm face told their import, and fresh courage came into their hearts.
The news spread gradually that Thomas only was holding fast, but now his men instead of being discouraged were filled with pride. It was they and they alone whom the Southerners could not overwhelm, and Thomas and his generals inspired them with the belief that they were invincible. Charge after charge broke against them. More ground was yielded, but at the same immense price, and the corps, sullen, indomitable, maintained its order, always presenting a front to the foe, blazing with death.
Thomas stood all day, while the Southern masses, flushed by victory everywhere else, pressed harder. Terrible reports of defeat and destruction came to him continually, but he did not flinch. He turned the same calm face to everything, and said to the generals that whatever happened they would keep their own front unbroken.
The day closed with the men of Thomas still grim and defiant. The dead lay in heaps along their front, but as the darkness settled down on the unfinished battle they meant to fight with equal valor and tenacity on the morrow. The first day had favored the South, had favored it largely, but on the Union left hope still flamed high.
Darkness swept over the sanguinary field. A cold wind of autumn blew off the hills and mountains, and the men shivered as they lay on the ground, but Thomas allowed no fires to be lighted. Food was brought in the darkness, and those who could find them wrapped themselves in blankets. Between the two armies lay the hecatombs of dead and the thousands of wounded.
Dick, his comrades and the rest of the regiment sat together in a little open space behind a thicket. It was to be their position for the fighting next day. Thomas, passing by, had merely given them an approving look, and then had gone on to re-form his lines elsewhere. Dick knew that all through the night he would be conferring with his commander, Rosecrans, McCook and the others, and he knew, too, that many of the Union soldiers would be at work, fortifying, throwing up earthworks, and cutting down trees for abattis. He heard already the ring of the axes.
But the Winchester men rested for the present. Nature had made their own position strong with a low hill, and a thicket in front. They lay upon the ground, sheltering themselves from the cold wind, which cut through bodies relaxed and almost bloodless after such vast physical exertions and excitement so tremendous.