The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIV. The Rock of Chickamauga
Dick, after eating the cold food which was served to him, sank into a state which was neither sleep nor stupor. It was a mystic region between the conscious and the unconscious, in which all things were out of proportion, and some abnormal.
He saw before him a vast stretch of dead blackness which he knew nevertheless was peopled by armed hosts ready to spring upon them at dawn. The darkness and silence were more oppressive than sound and light, even made by foes, would have been. It numbed him to think there was so little of stirring life, where nearly two hundred thousand men had fought.
Then a voice arose that made him shiver. But it was only the cold wind from the mountains whistling a dirge. Nevertheless it seemed human to Dick. It was at once a lament and a rebuke. He edged over a little and touched Warner.
"Is that you, Dick?" asked the Vermonter.
"What's left of me. I've one or two wounds, mere scratches, George, but I feel all pumped out. I'm like one of those empty wine-skins that you read about, empty, all dried up, and ready to be thrown away."
"Something of the same feeling myself, Dick. I'm empty and dried up, too, but I'm not ready to be thrown away. Nor are you. We'll fill up in the night. Our hearts will pump all our veins full of blood again, and we'll be ready to go out in the morning, and try once more to get killed."
"I don't see how you and Pennington and I, all three of us, came out of it alive to-day."
"That question is bothering me, too, Dick. A million bullets were fired at each of us, not to count thousands of pieces of shell, shrapnel, canister, grape, and slashes of swords. Take any ratio of percentage you please and something should have got us. According to every rule of algebra, not more than one of us three should be alive now. Yet here we are."
"Maybe your algebra is wrong?"
"Impossible. Algebra is the most exact of all sciences. It does not admit of error. Both by algebra and by the immutable law of averages at least two of us are dead."
"But we don't know which two."
"That's true. Nevertheless it's certain that those two, whoever they may be, are here on borrowed time. What do your wounds amount to, Dick?"
"Nothing, I had forgotten 'em. I've lost a little blood, but what does it amount to on a day like this, when blood is shed in rivers?"
"That's true. My own skin has been broken, but just barely, four times by bullets. I've a notion that those bullets were coming straight for some vital part of me, but seeing who it was, and knowing that such a noble character ought not to be slain, they turned aside as quickly as possible, but not so quickly that they could avoid grazing my skin."
Dick and Pennington laughed. Warner's fooling amused them and relieved the painful tension of their minds.
"But, George," said Pennington, "suppose one of the bullets failed to turn aside and killed you. What could we say then for you?"
"That it was a silly, ignorant bullet not knowing whence it came, or where it was going. Ah, there's light in the darkness! Look across the hill and see that shining flame!"
Dick rose and then the three walked to the brow of the hill, where Colonel Winchester stood, using his glasses as well as he could in the dusk.
"It's the pine forest on fire in places," he said. "The shells did it, and it's been burning for some time, spreading until it has now come into our own sight."
But they were detached fires, and they did not fuse into a general mass at any time. Clumps of trees burnt steadily like vast torches and sent up high flames. Bands of men from either side worked silently, removing as many of the wounded as they could. It was a spontaneous movement, as happened so often in this war, and Dick and his comrades took a part in it.
North and South met in friendliness in the darkness or by the light of the burning pines, and talked freely as they lifted up their wounded. Dick asked often about Colonel Kenton, meeting at last some Kentuckians, who told him that the colonel had gone through the day without a wound, and was with Buckner. Then Dick asked if any Mississippians were along the line.
"What do you want with 'em?" asked a long, lank man with a bilious yellow face.
"I've got a friend among 'em. Woodville is his name, and he's about my own age."
"I've heard of the Woodvilles. Big an' rich family in Missip. 'Roun' Vicksburg and Jackson mostly. I'm from the Yazoo valley myself, an' if I hear of the young fellow I'll send him down this way. But I can't stay out long, 'cause it'll soon be time for me to have my chill. Comes every other night reg'lar. But I'll be all right for battle to-morrow, when we lick you Yankees out of the other boot, having licked you out of one to-day."
"All right, old Yazoo," laughed Dick. "Go on and have your chill, but if you see Woodville tell him Mason is waiting down here by the wood."
"I'll shorely do it, if the chill don't git me fust," said the yellow Mississippian as he strolled away, and Dick knew that he would keep his word.
The lad lingered at the spot where he had met the man, hoping that by some lucky chance Woodville might come, and fortune gave him his wish. A slender figure emerged from the dark, and a voice called softly:
"Is that you, Mason?"
"Nobody else," replied Dick gladly, stepping forward and offering his hand, which young Woodville shook warmly. "I was hoping that I might meet you, and I see, too, that you can't be hurt much, if at all."
"I haven't been touched. It's my lucky day, I suppose."
"Where's your uncle? I hope he's in some safe place, recovering from his wound."
Victor Woodville laughed softly.
"Uncle Charles is recovering from his wound perhaps faster than you hope," he said, "but he's not in a safe place. Far from it."
"I don't understand."
"His wound is so much better that he can walk, though with a hop, and he's right here in the thick of this battle, leading his own Mississippi regiment. His horse was killed under him early this morning, and he's fought all day on foot, swearing in the strange and melodious fashion that you know. It's hop! swear! hop! swear! in beautiful alternation!"
"Good old colonel!"
"That's what he is, and he's also one of the bravest men that ever lived, if he is my uncle. His regiment did prodigies to-day and they'll do greater prodigies to-morrow. The Woodvilles are well represented here. My father is present, leading his regiment, and there are a dozen Woodville cousins of mine whom you've never met."
"And I hope I won't meet 'em on this field. What about your aunt?"
"She's well, and in a safe place."
"I'm glad of that. Now, tell me, Victor, how did you happen to be with Slade on that raid? Of course it's no business of mine, but I was surprised."
"I don't mind answering. I suppose it was a taste for adventure, and a desire to serve our cause. After I got up the bank and climbed into the bushes, I looked back, and I think, Mason, that you may have saved me from a bullet. I don't know, but I think so."
Dick said nothing, but despite the dusk Woodville read the truth in his eyes.
"I shan't forget," said the young Mississippian as he moved away.
Dick turned back to his own group. They had noticed him talking to the lad in gray, but they paid no attention, nor thought it anything unusual. It was common enough in the great battles of the American civil war, most of which lasted more than one day, for the opposing soldiers to become friendly in the nights between.
"I think, sir," said Sergeant Whitley, "that we won't be able to get any more of our wounded to-night. Now, pardon me for saying it, Lieutenant, but we ought to have some rest, because when day comes there's going to be the most awful attack you ever saw. Some of our spies say that Longstreet and the last of the Virginians did not come until night or nearly night and that Longstreet himself will lead the attack on us."
"Do you think, Sergeant, that it will be made first on our own corps?"
"I don't know, Mr. Mason. We've stood firmest, and them rebel generals are no fools. They'll crash in where we've shown the most weakness."
The sergeant walked on, carrying the corner of a litter. Warner, who had stood by, whispered to Dick:
"There goes a general, but he'll never have the title. He's got a general's head on his shoulders, and he thinks and talks like a general, but he hasn't any education, and men with much poorer brains go past him. Let it be a lesson to you, Dick, my son. After this war, go to school, and learn something."
"Good advice, George, and I'll take it," laughed Dick. "But he isn't so badly off. I wonder if those fires in the pine forest are going to burn all night?"
"Several of 'em will. The big one on our left will be blazing when day comes, and I'm glad of it since no wounded are now in its way. The night's cold. That's a sharp and searching wind, and the sight of flames makes one feel warm even if they are far away."
It would not be long until day now, and the axes ceased to ring in the forest. A long and formidable line of abattis had been made, but the men were compelled to seek some rest. Despite the cold they suffered from a burning thirst, and they could reach no water, not even the red stream of the Chickamauga. Dick suffered like the rest, but he was philosophical.
"I fancy that after sunrise we won't have time to think about water," he said.
But Dick was not destined to sleep. He lay down for a while, and he saw hundreds of others around him lying motionless as if dead. Warner and Pennington were among them, but he could not close his own eyes. His brain was still hot and excited, and to calm himself if possible he walked along the slope until he saw a faint light in the valley behind it. A tall figure, which he recognized as that of Colonel Winchester, was going toward the light.
Dick, being on such good terms with his colonel, would have followed him, but when he came to the edge of the glade he drew back. General Thomas was sitting on the huge, upthrust root of an oak, and he was writing dispatches by the light of a flickering candle held by an aide. Officers of high rank, one of whom Dick recognized as the young general, Garfield, stood around him. Colonel Winchester joined the group, and stood waiting in silence to receive orders, too, Dick supposed.
The lad withdrew hastily, but driven by an overmastering curiosity, and knowing that he was doing no harm, he turned back and watched for a little space beside a bush.
The flame of the candle wavered under the wind, and sometimes the light shone full upon the face of Thomas. It was the same face that Dick had first beheld when he carried the dispatches to him in Kentucky. He was calm, inscrutable at this, the most desperate crisis the Union cause ever knew in the west. Dick could not see that his hand trembled a particle as he wrote, although lieutenant and general alike knew that they would soon be attacked by a superior force, flushed with all the high enthusiasm of victory. And lieutenant and general alike also knew that their supreme commander, Rosecrans, was no genius like Lee or Jackson, who could set numbers at naught, and choose time and place to suit themselves. Only stubborn courage to fight and die could avail.
But Dick drew courage from the strong, thick figure sitting there so impassively and apparently impervious to alarm. When he quit writing and began to give verbal orders, he spoke in even tones, in which no one could detect a trace of excitement. When the name, "The Rock of Chickamauga," became general, Dick remembered that night and knew how well it was deserved.
Thomas gave his last order and his generals went to their commands. Dick slipped back to his regiment, and lay down, but again could not sleep.
He waited in painful anxiety for the day. He had never before been in such a highly nervous state, not at Shiloh, nor Stone River, nor anywhere else. In those battles the chances were with the Union, but here they were against it. He recognized that once more, save for Thomas, the North had been outgeneraled. The army of Rosecrans had marched from Chattanooga directly upon the positions chosen by Bragg, where he was awaiting them with superior numbers. And the Confederate government in the East had been quick enough to seize the opportunity and quick enough to send the stalwart fighter, Longstreet, and his corps to help close down the trap.
He wondered with many a painful throbbing of the heart what the dawn would bring, and, unable to keep still any longer, he rose and went to the brow of the low hill, behind which they lay. Colonel Winchester was there walking through the scrub and trying to pick out something in the opposing forest with his glasses. The cold wind still blew from the mountains, and there were three high but distant torches, where the clumps of pines still burned.
"Restless, Dick?" said the Colonel. "Well, so am I."
"We have cause to be so, sir."
"So we have, my lad. We thought the danger to the Union had passed with Vicksburg and Gettysburg, but the day so soon to come may shatter all our hopes. They must have a hundred thousand men out there, and they've chosen time and place. What's more, they've succeeded so far. I don't hesitate to talk to you in this way, Dick, but you mustn't repeat what I say."
"I shouldn't dream of doing so, sir."
"I know you would not, but General Thomas apprehends a tremendous and terrible attack. Whatever happens, we have not long to wait for it. I think I feel the touch of the dawn in the wind."
"It's coming, sir. I can see a faint tinge of gray in that cleft between the hills toward the east."
"You have a good eye, Dick. I see it now, too. It's growing and turning to the color of silver. But I think we'll have time to get our breakfasts. General Thomas does not believe the first attack will be made upon our wing."
The wind was freshening, as if it brought the dawn upon its edge. The night had been uncommonly cold for the time of the year in that latitude, and there was no sun yet to give warmth. But the men of Thomas were being awakened, and, as no fires were allowed, cold food was served to them.
"What's happened, Dick, while I was asleep?" asked Pennington.
"Nothing. The two armies are ready, and I think to-day will decide it."
"I hope so. Two days are enough for any battle."
Pennington's tone was jocular, but his words were not. His face was grave as he regarded the opposing forest. He had the feeling of youth that others might be killed, but not he. Nevertheless he was already mourning many a good comrade who would be lost before the night came again.
"There are the wasps!" said Warner, bending a listening ear. "You can always hear them as they begin to sting. I wonder if skirmishers ever sleep?"
The shots were on the right, but they came from points far away. In front of them the forest and hills were silent.
"It's just as General Thomas thought," said Dick. "The main volume of their attack will be on our right and center. They know that Thomas stands here and that he's a mighty rock, hard to move. They expect to shatter all the rest of the line, and then whirl and annihilate us."
"Let 'em come!" exclaimed Warner, with heightening color. "Who's afraid?"
The dawn was spreading. The heavy mists that hung over the Chickamauga floated away. All the east was silver, and the darkness rolled back like a blanket. The west became silver in its turn, and the sun burned red fire in the east. The wind still blew fresh and cool off the mountains. The faint sound of trumpets came from far points on the Southern line. The crackling fire of the skirmishers increased.
"It's a wait for us," said Colonel Winchester, standing amid his youthful staff. "I can see them advancing in great columns against our right and center. Now their artillery opens!"
Dick put up his glasses and he, too, saw the mighty Southern army advancing. Their guns were already clearing the way for the advance, and the valleys echoed with the great concussion. Longstreet and Hill, anxious to show what the veterans of the East could do, were pouring them forward alive with all the fire and courage that had distinguished them in the Army of Northern Virginia.
The battle swelled fast. It seemed to the waiting veterans of Thomas that it had burst forth suddenly like a volcano. They saw the vast clouds of smoke gather again off there where their comrades stood, and, knowing the immense weight about to be hurled upon them, they feared for those men who had fought so often by their side.
Yet Thomas had been confident that the first attack would be made upon his own part of the line, that Bragg with an overwhelming force would seek to roll up his left. Nor had he reckoned wrong. The lingering of the bishop-general, Polk, over a late breakfast saved him from the first shock, and upset the plans of the Southern commander, who had given him strict orders to advance.
Dawn was long past, and to Bragg's great astonishment Polk had not moved. It seems incredible that the fate of great events can turn upon such trifles, and yet one wonders what would have happened had not Polk eaten breakfast so late the morning of the second day of Chickamauga. But when he did advance he attacked with the energy and vigor of those great churchmen of the Middle Ages, who were at once princes and warriors, leading their hosts to battle.
Portions of the men of Thomas were now coming into the combat, but the Winchesters were not yet engaged. They were lying down just behind the crest of their low hill and many murmurs were running through the ranks. It was the hardest of all things to wait, while shells now and then struck among them. They saw to their right the vast volume of fire and smoke, while the roaring of the cannon and rifles was like the continued sweep of a storm.
The youthful soldier may be nervous and excited, or he may be calm. This was one of Dick's calm moments, and, while he watched and listened and tried to measure all that he saw and heard, he noted that the crash of the battle was moving slowly backward. He knew then that the Southern advance was succeeding, succeeding so far at least. He was quite sure now that the attack upon Thomas would be made soon and that it would come with the greatest violence.
He rose and rejoined Colonel Winchester again, and the two looked with awe at the gigantic combat, raging in a vast canopy of smoke, rent continuously by flashes of fire. Dick observed that the colonel was depressed and he knew the reason.
"Our men are being driven back," he said.
"So they are," said the colonel, "and I fear that there is confusion among them, too."
"But we'll hold fast here as we did yesterday!"
"I hope so. Yes, I know so, Dick. I've seen General Thomas twice this morning, and I know that this corps will never be routed. He's made up his mind to hold on or die. He's the Rock of Chickamauga."
It was a name that Dick was to hear often afterward, and he repeated under his breath: "The Rock of Chickamauga! The Rock of Chickamauga!" It rolled resoundingly off the tongue, and he liked it.
Then came a beat of hoofs and a cavalry regiment galloped into open ground beside them. It was Colonel Hertford's, numbering about three hundred men, some of whom were wounded. Their leader was excited, and, springing to the ground, he ran to Colonel Winchester. The two talked in quick, short sentences.
"Colonel," exclaimed Hertford, "we've just had a sharp brush with that demon, Forrest, and we've left some good men back there. But I've come both to help and to warn you. We're being driven back everywhere else, and now they're gathering an immense mass of troops for a gigantic attack on Thomas!"
Dick heard and his breath came fast. Colonel Hertford would bring no false news, and he could see with his own eyes that the storm was curving toward them. The two men hurried to Thomas, but in a few minutes returned. Colonel Hertford sprang into the saddle and formed his cavalry on the flank as a screen against the dreaded sweep of Forrest.
There was a lull for a moment in the tremendous uproar, and, Colonel Winchester walking back and forth before his men, spoke to them briefly. He was erect, pale and handsome, and his words came without a quiver. Dick had never admired him more.
"Men," he said, "you have never been beaten in battle, but your greatest test is now at hand. Within a few minutes you will be attacked by a force outnumbering you more than two to one. But these are the odds we love. We would not have them less. I tell you, speaking as a man to men who understand and fear not, that the fate of the day may rest with you. Many gallant comrades of ours have gone already to the far shore, and if we must go, too, to-day, let our journey be not less gallant than theirs. We can die but once, and if we must die, let us die here where we can serve our country most."
His manner was quiet, but his words were thrilling, and the men of the regiment, springing to their feet, uttered a deep, full-throated cheer. Then sinking down again at the motion of his hand, they turned their faces to the enemy. The time had come.
The vast Southern front rushed from the wood, and the gray horsemen of Forrest, careless of death, swept down. It was a terrifying sight, that army coming on amid the thunder and lightning of battle, tens of thousands of rifle muzzles, tens of thousands of fierce brown faces showing through the smoke, and the tremendous battle yell of the South swelling over everything.
Dick felt a quiver, and then his body stiffened, as if it were about to receive a physical shock. The whole regiment fired as one man, and a gap appeared in the charging Southern column. Hertford and his horse charged upon the hostile cavalry, and all the brigades of Thomas met the Southern attack with a fire so heavy and deadly that the army of Bragg reeled back.
Then ensued the most tremendous scene through which Dick had yet passed. The Southern army came again. Bragg, Breckinridge, Buckner, Longstreet, Hill, Cleburne and the others urged on the attacks. They had been victors everywhere else and they knew that they must drive back Thomas or the triumph would not be complete. They struck and spared not, least of all their own men. They poured them, Kentuckians, Tennesseeans, Georgians, Mississippians and all the rest upon Thomas without regard to life.
Kentuckians on the opposing sides met once again face to face. Dick did not know it then, but a regiment drawn from neighboring counties charged the Winchesters thrice and left their dead almost at his feet. He had little time to notice or measure anything amid the awful din and the continued shock of battle in which thousands of men were falling.
The clouds of smoke enveloped them at times, and at other times floated away. New clumps of pines, set on fire by the shells, burned brightly like torches, lighting the way to death. Smoke, thick with the odors of burned gunpowder clogged eye, nose and throat. Dick and the lads around him gasped for breath, but they fired so fast into the dense Southern masses that their rifle barrels grew hot to the touch.
The South was making her supreme effort. Her western sons were performing prodigies of valor, and Longstreet and the Virginians were fighting with all the courage that had distinguished them in the East.
But however violent the charge, and however tremendous the fire of cannon and rifles, the Rock of Chickamauga merely sank deeper in the soil, and nothing could drive him from his base. The Union dead heaped up, regiments were shattered by the Southern fire, but Thomas, calm, and, inspiring courage as on the day before, passed here and there, strengthening the weak points, and sending many great guns to the crest of Missionary Ridge, whence they swept the front of the enemy with a devastating fire.
The hail of death from the heights enabled the infantry and cavalry below to gather breath and strength for the new attacks of the enemy. They knew, too, that their cannon were now giving them more help than before, and defiant cheers swept along the line in answer to the mighty battle cry of the South. The Rock of Chickamauga had not moved a foot.
Dick caught gleams of the sun through the smoky canopy, but he did not know how far the day had advanced. He seemed to have been in battle many hours, but in such moments one had little knowledge of time. He was aware that the battle had been lost in the center and on the right, but he had sublime faith in Thomas. The left would stand, and while it stood the South could win but a barren triumph.
The peril was imminent and deadly. A strong Southern force, having cut through another portion of the line, was endeavoring to take Thomas on the flank. Rosecrans, seeing the danger and almost in despair, sent Thomas orders which his stern lieutenant fortunately could not obey. The rock did not move.
Bragg, an able leader, increased the attack upon Thomas. His generals gathered around him, and seconded his efforts. Their view was better than that of the Union commanders, and they knew it was vital to them to move the rock from their path. Brigades, already victorious on other parts of the field, came up, and were hurled, shouting their triumphant battle cry against Thomas, only to be hurled back again.
The resolution of the defenders increased with their success. A sort of fever seized upon them all. Death had become a little thing, or it was forgotten. The blood in their veins was fire, and, transported out of themselves, they rained shells and bullets upon men whom in their calm moments they did not hate at all.
Dick's regiment had suffered with the rest, but Pennington and Warner and the colonel were alive, and he caught a few glimpses of Hertford with his gallant horsemen beating back every attack upon their flank. But nothing stood out with sharp precision. The whole was a huge turmoil of fire, smoke, confusion and death. The weight upon them seemed at last to become overwhelming. In spite of courage the most heroic, and dreadful losses, the right of Thomas was driven back, his center was compelled to wheel about, but his left where the Winchester regiment stood with others held on. Thomas himself was there among them, still cool and impassive in face of threatened ruin.
About twenty thousand men were around Thomas, and they alone stood between the Union army and destruction. At all other points it had been not only defeated, but routed. Vast masses of fugitives were fleeing toward Chattanooga. Rosecrans himself withdrew, and, now wholly in despair, telegraphed at four o'clock in the afternoon to Washington: "My army has been whipped and routed."
But Thomas was neither routed nor whipped. Many of the brave generals elsewhere refused to flee with the troops, but gathering as many soldiers as possible joined Thomas. Among them was young Sheridan, destined to so great a fame, who brought almost all his own division and stood beside the Rock of Chickamauga, refusing to yield any further to the terrible pressure.
The line of Thomas' army was now almost a semicircle. Polk was leading violent attacks upon his left and center. Longstreet, used to victory, was upon his right and behind him, and the veterans from the Army of Northern Virginia had never fought better.
Dick saw the enemy all around him, and he began to lose hope. How could they stand against such numbers? And if they tried to retreat there was Longstreet to cut off the way. He bumped against Sergeant Whitley in the smoke and gasped out:
"We're done for, Sergeant! We're done for!"
"No, we're not!" shouted the sergeant, firing into the advancing mass. "We'll beat 'em back. They can't run over us!"
The sergeant, usually so cool, was a little mad. He was wounded in the head, and the blood had run down over his face, dyeing it scarlet. His brain was hot as with fire, and he hurled epithets at the enemy. His life on the plains came back to him, and, for the time, he was like a hurt Sioux chief who defies his foes. He called them names. He dared them to come on. He mocked them. He told them how they had attacked in vain all day long. He counted the number of their repulses and then exaggerated them. He reminded them it was yet a long time until dark, and asked them why they hesitated, why they did not come forward and meet the death that was ready for them.
Dick gazed at him in astonishment. He heard many of his words through the roar of the guns, and he saw his ensanguined face, through which his eyes burned like two red-hot coals. Was this the quiet and kindly Sergeant Whitley whom he had known so long? No, it was a raging tiger. Still waters run deep, and, enveloped, at last, with the fury of battle the sergeant welcomed wounds, death or anything else it might bring.
He shouted and fired his rifle again. Then he fell like a log. Dick rushed to him at once, but he saw that he had only fainted from loss of blood. He bound up the sergeant's head as best he could, and, easing him against a bank, returned to the battle front.
A shout suddenly arose. Officers had seen through their glasses a column of dust rising far behind them. It was so vast that it could only be made by a great body of marching troops. But who were the men that were making it? In all the frightful din and excitement of the battle the question ran through the army of Thomas. If fresh enemies were coming upon their rear they were lost! If friends there was yet hope!
But they could not watch the tower of dust long. The enemy in front gave them no chance. Polk was still beating upon them, and Longstreet, having seized a ridge, was pouring an increased fire from his advanced position.
"If that cloud of dust encloses gray uniforms we're lost!" shouted Warner in Dick's ear.
"But it mustn't enclose 'em," Dick shouted back. "Fate wouldn't play us such an awful trick! We can't lose, after having done and suffered so much!"
Fate would not say which. They could not send men to see, but as they fought they watched the cloud coming nearer and nearer, and Dick, whose lips had been moving for some time, realized suddenly that he was praying. "O God, save us! save us!" he was saying over and over. "Send the help to us who need it so sorely. Make us strong, O God, to meet our enemies!"
He and all his comrades wore masks of dust and burned gunpowder, often stained with scarlet. Their clothing was torn by bullets and reddened by dripping wounds. When they shouted to one another their voices came strained and husky from painful throats. Half the time they were blinded by the smoke and blaze of the firing. The crash did not seem so loud to them now, because they were partly deafened for the time by a cannonade of such violence and length.
Dick looked back once more at the great cloud of dust which was now much nearer, but there was nothing yet to indicate what it bore within, the bayonets of the North or those of the South. His anxiety became almost intolerable.
Thomas himself stood at that moment entirely alone in a clump of trees on the elevation called Horseshoe Ridge, watching the battle, seeing the enemy in overpowering numbers on both his flanks and even in his rear. Apparently everything was lost. Taciturn, he never described his feelings then, but in his soul he must have admired the magnificent courage with which his troops stood around him, and repelled the desperate assaults of a foe resolved to win. Although his face grew grimmer and his teeth set hard, he, too, must have watched the approaching cloud of dust with the most terrible anxiety. If it bore enemies in its bosom, then in very truth everything would be lost.
Down a road some miles from the battlefield a force of eight thousand men had been left as a reserve for one of the armies. They had long heard the terrific cannonade which was sending shattering echoes through the mountains, and both their chief and his second in command were eager to rush to the titanic combat. They could not obtain orders from their commander, but, at last, they marched swiftly to the field, all the eight thousand on fire with zeal to do their part.
It was the eight thousand who were making the great cloud of dust, and, as they came nearer and nearer, the suspense of Thomas' shattered brigades grew more terrible. Dick, reckless of shell and bullets, tried to pierce the cloud with his eyes. He caught a glimpse of a flag and uttered a wild shout of joy. It was the stars and stripes. The eight thousand were eight thousand of the North! He danced up and down on the stump, and shouted at the top of his voice:
"They're our own men! Help is here! Help is here!"
A vast shout of relief rose from Thomas' army as the eight thousand still coming swiftly joined them. Granger was their leader, but Steedman, his lieutenant, galloped at once to Thomas, who still stood in the clump of trees, and asked him what he wanted him to do. The general, calm and taciturn as ever, pointed toward a long hill that flamed with the enemy's guns, and said three words:
"Take that ridge!"
Steedman galloped back and the eight thousand charged at once. The battle in front sank a little, as if the others wished to watch the new combat. Dick had been dragged down from the stump by Warner, but the two stood erect with Pennington, their eyes turned toward the ridge. Colonel Winchester was near them, his attention fixed upon the same place.
The eight thousand firing their rifles and supported by artillery charged at a great pace. The whole ridge blazed with fire, and the dead and wounded went down in sheaves. But Dick could not see that they faltered. Hoarse shouts came again from his dry and blackened lips:
"They will take it! they will take it! Look how they face the guns!" he was crying.
"So they will!" said Warner. "See what a splendid charge! Now they're hidden! What a column of smoke! It floats aside, and, look, our men are still going on! Nothing can stop them! They must have lost thousands, but they reach the slope, and as sure as there's a sun in the heavens they're going up it!"
That tremendous cheer burst again from the beleaguered Union army. Granger and Steedman, with their fresh troops, were rushing up the slopes of the formidable ridge, and though three thousand of the eight thousand fell, they took it, hurling back the advancing columns of the South, and securing the rear of Thomas.
Then the Winchester men and others about them went wild with joy. They leaped, they danced, they sang, until they were commanded to make ready for a new attack. Rosecrans in Chattanooga, with the most of his army there also in wild confusion, had sent word to Thomas to retire, to which Thomas had replied tersely: "It will ruin the army to withdraw it now; this position must be held till night."
And he made good his resolve. The Southern masses attacked once more with frightful violence, and once more Thomas withstood them. The field was now darkening in the twilight, and, having saved the Union army from rout and wreck, Thomas, impervious to attack, fell back slowly to Chattanooga.
The greatest battle of the West, one of the most desperate ever fought, came to a close. Thirty-five thousand men, killed or wounded, had fallen upon the field. The South had won a great but barren victory. She had not been able to reap the fruits of so much skill and courage, because Thomas and his men, like the Spartans at Thermopylae, had stood in the way. Never had a man more thoroughly earned the title of honor that he bore throughout the rest of his life, "The Rock of Chickamauga."
Chickamauga, though, was a sinister word to the North. Gettysburg and Vicksburg had stemmed the high tide of the Confederacy, and many had thought the end in sight. But the news from "The River of Death" told them that the road to crowning success was still long and terrible.