The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter III. Grant Moves
The Winchester regiment had not suffered greatly. A dozen men who had fallen were given speedy burial, and all the wounded were taken away on horseback by their friends. Dick rejoiced greatly at their escape from Forrest, and the daring and skill of Grierson. He felt anew that he was in stronger hands in the West than he had been in the East. In the East things seemed to go wrong nearly always, and the West they seemed to go right nearly always. It could not be chance continued so long. He believed in his soul that it was Grant, the heroic Thomas, and the great fighting powers of the western men, used to all the roughness of life out-of-doors and on the border.
They turned their course toward the Mississippi and that afternoon they met a Union scout who told them that Grant, now in the very heart of the far South, was gathering his forces for a daring attack upon Grand Gulf, a Confederate fortress on the Mississippi. In the North and at Washington his venture was regarded with alarm. There was a telegram to him to stop, but it was sent too late. He had disappeared in the Southern wilderness.
But Dick understood. He had both knowledge and intuition. Colonel Winchester on his long and daring scout had learned that the Confederate forces in the South were scattered and their leaders in doubt. Grant, taking a daring offensive and hiding his movements, had put them on the defensive, and there were so many points to defend that they did not know which to choose. Joe Johnston, just recovered from his wound at Fair Oaks the year before, and a general of the first rank, was coming, but he was not yet here.
Meanwhile Pemberton held the chief command, but he seemed to lack energy and decision. There were forces under other generals scattered along the river, including eight thousand commanded by Bowen, who held Grand Gulf, but concert of action did not exist among them.
This knowledge was not Dick's alone. It extended to every man in the regiment, and when the colonel urged them to greater speed they responded gladly.
"If we don't ride faster," he said, "we won't be up in time for the taking of Grand Gulf."
No greater spur was needed and the Winchester regiment went forward as fast as horses could carry them.
"I take it that Grant means to scoop in the Johnnies in detail," said Warner.
"It seems so," said Pennington. "This is a big country down here, and we can fight one Confederate army while another is mired up a hundred miles away.
"That's General Grant's plan. He doesn't look like any hero of romance, but he acts like one. He plunges into the middle of the enemy, and if he gets licked he's up and at 'em again right away."
Night closed in, and they stopped at an abandoned plantation--it seemed to Dick that the houses were abandoned everywhere--where they spent the night. The troopers would have willingly pushed on through the darkness, but the horses were so near exhaustion that another hour or two would have broken them down permanently. Moreover, Colonel Winchester did not feel much apprehension of an attack now. Forrest had certainly turned in another direction, and they were too close to the Union lines to be attacked by any other foe.
The house on this plantation was not by any means so large and fine as Bellevue, but, like the other, it had broad piazzas all about it, and Dick, in view of his strenuous experience, was allowed to take his saddle as a pillow and his blankets and go to sleep soon after dark in a comfortable place against the wall.
Never was slumber quicker or sweeter. There was not an unhealthy tissue in his body, and most of his nerves had disappeared in a life amid battles, scoutings, and marchings. He slept heavily all through the night, inhaling new strength and vitality with every breath of the crisp, fresh air. There was no interruption this time, and early in the morning the regiment was up and away.
They descended now into lower grounds near the Mississippi. All around them was a vast and luxuriant vegetation, cut by sluggish streams and bayous. But the same desolation reigned everywhere. The people had fled before the advance of the armies. Late in the afternoon they saw pickets in blue, then the Mississippi, and a little later they rode into a Union camp.
"Dick," said Colonel Winchester, "I shall want you to go with the senior officers and myself to report to General Grant on the other side of the Mississippi. You rode on that mission to Grierson and he may want to ask you questions."
Dick was glad to go with them. He was eager to see once more the man who had taken Henry and Donelson and who had hung on at Shiloh until Buell came. The general's tent was in a grove on a bit of high ground, and he was sitting before it on a little camp stool, smoking a short cigar, and gazing reflectively in the direction of Grand Gulf.
He greeted the three officers quietly but with warmth and then he listened to Colonel Winchester's detailed account of what he had seen and learned in his raid toward Jackson. It was a long narrative, showing how the Southern forces were scattered, and, as he listened, Grant's face began to show satisfaction.
But he seldom interrupted.
"And you think they have no large force at Jackson?" he said.
"I'm quite sure of it," replied Colonel Winchester.
Grant chewed his cigar a little while and then said:
"Grierson is doing well. It was an achievement for you and him to beat off Forrest. It will raise the prestige of our cavalry, which needs it. I believe it was you, Lieutenant Mason, who brought Grierson."
"It was chiefly, sir, a sergeant named Whitley. I rode with him and outranked him, but he is a veteran of the plains, and it was he who did the real work."
The general's stern features were lightened by a smile.
"I'm glad you give the sergeant credit," he said. "Not many officers would do it."
He listened a while longer and then the three were permitted to withdraw to their regiment, which was posted back of Grand Gulf, and which had quickly become a part of an army flushed with victory and eager for further action.
Before sunset Dick, Warner, and Pennington looked at Grand Gulf, a little village standing on high cliffs overlooking the Mississippi, just below the point where the dark stream known as the Big Black River empties into the Father of Waters. Around the crown of the heights was a ring of batteries and lower down, enclosing the town, was another ring.
Far off on the Mississippi the three saw puffing black smoke marking the presence of a Union fleet, which never for one instant in the whole course of the war relaxed its grip of steel upon the Confederacy. Dick's heart thrilled at the sight of the brave ships. He felt then, as most of us have felt since, that whatever happened the American navy would never fail.
"I hear the ships are going to bombard," said Warner.
"I heard so, too," said Pennington, "and I heard also that they will have to do it under the most difficult circumstances. The water in front of Grand Gulf is so deep that the ships can't anchor. It has a swift current, too, making at that point more than six knots an hour. There are powerful eddies, too, and the batteries crowning the cliffs are so high that the cannon of the gunboats will have trouble in reaching them."
"Still, Mr. Pessimist," said Dick, "remember what the gunboats did at Fort Henry. You'll find the same kind of men here."
"I wasn't trying to discourage you. I was merely telling the worst first. We're going to win. We nearly always win here in the West, but it seems to me the country is against us now. This doesn't look much like the plains, Dick, with its big, deep rivers, its high bluffs along the banks, and its miles and miles of swamp or wet lowlands. How wide would you say the Mississippi is here?"
"Somewhere between a mile and a mile and a half."
"And they say it's two or three hundred feet deep. Look at the steamers, boys. How many are there?"
"I count seven pyramids of smoke," said Warner, "four in one group and three in another. All the pyramids are becoming a little faint as the twilight is advancing. Dick, you call me a cold mathematical person, but this vast river flowing in its deep channel, the dark bluffs up there, and the vast forests would make me feel mighty lonely if you fellows were not here. It's a long way to Vermont."
"Fifteen hundred or maybe two thousand miles," said Dick, "but look how fast the dark is coming. I was wrong in saying it's coming. It just drops down. The smoke of the steamers has melted into the night, and you don't see them any more. The surface of the river has turned black as ink, the bluffs of Grand Gulf have gone, and we've turned back three or four hundred years."
"What do you mean by going back three or four hundred years?" asked Warner, looking curiously at Dick.
"Why, don't you see them out there?"
"See them out there? See what?"
"Why, the queer little ships with the high sides and prows! On my soul, George, they're the caravels of Spain! Look, they're stopping! Now they lower something in black over the side of the first caravel. I see a man in a black robe like a priest, holding a cross in his hand and standing at the ship's edge saying something. I think he's praying, boys. Now sailors cut the ropes that hold the dark object. It falls into the river and disappears. It's the burial of De Soto in the Father of Waters which he discovered!"
"Dick, you're dreaming," exclaimed Pennington.
"Yes, I know, but once there was a Chinaman who dreamed that he was a lily. When he woke up he didn't know whether he was a Chinaman who had dreamed he was a lily or a lily now dreaming he was a Chinaman."
"I like that story, Dick, but you've got too much imagination. The tale of the death and burial of De Soto has always been so vivid to you that you just stood there and re-created the scene for yourself."
"Of course that's it," said Pennington, "but why can't a fellow create things with his mind, when things that don't exist jump right up before his eyes? I've often seen the mirage, generally about dark, far out on the western plains. I've seen a beautiful lake and green gardens where there was nothing but the brown swells rolling on."
"I concede all you say," said Dick readily. "I have flashes sometimes, and so does Harry Kenton and others I know."
"Flashes! What do you mean?" asked Warner.
"Why, a sort of lightning stroke out of the past. Something that lasts only a second, but in which you have a share. Boys, one day I saw myself a Carthaginian soldier following Hannibal over the Alps."
"Maybe," said Pennington, "we have lived other lives on this earth, and sometimes a faint glimpse of them comes to us. It's just a guess."
"That's so," said Warner, "and we'd better be getting back to the regiment. Grand Gulf defended by Bowen and eight thousand good men is really enough for us. I think we're going to see some lively fighting here."
The heavy boom of a cannon from the upper circle of batteries swept over the vast sheet of water flowing so swiftly toward the Gulf. The sound came back in dying echoes, and then there was complete silence among besieged and besiegers.
The Winchesters had found a good solid place, a little hill among the marshes, and they were encamped there with their horses. Dick had no messages to carry, but he remained awake, while his comrades slept soundly. He had slept so much the night before that he had no desire for sleep now.
From his position he could see the Confederate bluffs and a few lights moving there, but otherwise the two armies were under a blanket of darkness. He again felt deeply the sense of isolation and loneliness, not for himself alone, but for the whole army. Grant had certainly shown supreme daring in pushing far into the South, and the government at Washington had cause for alarm lest he be reckless. If there were any strong hand to draw together the forces of the Confederacy they could surely crush him. But he had already learned in this war that those who struck swift and hard were sure to win. That was Stonewall Jackson's way, and it seemed to be Grant's way, too.
Still unable to sleep, he walked to a better position, where he could see the shimmering dark of the river and the misty heights with their two circles of cannon. A tall figure standing there turned at his tread and he recognized Colonel Winchester.
"Uneasy at our position, Dick?" said the colonel, fathoming his mind at once.
"A little, sir, but I think General Grant will pull us through."
"He will, Dick, and he'll take this fort, too. Grant's the hammer we've been looking for. Look at his record. He's had backsets, but in the end he's succeeded in everything he's tried. The Confederate government and leaders have made a mess of their affairs in the West and Southwest, and General Grant is taking full advantage of it."
"Do we attack in the morning, sir?"
"We do, Dick, though not by land. Porter, with his seven gunboats, is going to open on the fort, but it will be a hazardous undertaking."
"Because of the nature of the river, sir?"
"That's it. They can't anchor, and with full steam up, caught in all the violent eddies that the river makes rounding the point, they'll have to fire as best they can."
"But the gunboats did great work at Fort Henry, sir."
"So they did, Dick, and we've come a long way South since then, which means that we're making progress and a lot of it here in the West. Well, we'll see to-morrow."
They walked back to their own camp and sleep came to Dick at last. But he awoke early and found that the thrill of expectation was running through the whole army. Their position did not yet enable them to attack on land, but far out on the river they saw the gunboats moving. Porter, the commander, divided them into two groups. Four of the gunboats were to attack the lower circle of batteries and three were to pour their fire upon the upper ring.
Dick by day even more than by night recognized the difficulty of the task. Before them flowed the vast swift current of the Mississippi, gleaming now in the sunshine, and beyond were the frowning bluffs, crested and ringed with cannon. Grant had with him twenty thousand men and his seven gunboats, and Bowen, eight thousand troops. But if the affair lasted long other Southern armies would surely come.
Dick and his comrades had little to do but watch and thousands watched with them. When the sun was fully risen the seven boats steamed out in two groups, four farther down the river in order to attack the lower batteries, while the other three up the stream would launch their fire against those on the summit.
He watched the crest of the cliffs. He saw plainly through his glasses the muzzles of cannon and men moving about the batteries. Then there was a sudden blaze of fire and column of smoke and a shell struck in the water near one of the gunboats. The boat replied and its comrades also sent shot and shell toward the frowning summit. Then the batteries, both lower and upper, replied with full vigor and all the cliffs were wrapped in fire and smoke.
The boats steamed in closer and closer, pouring an incessant fire from their heavy guns, and both rings of batteries on the cliffs responded. The water of the river spouted up in innumerable little geysers and now and then a boat was struck. Over both cliffs and river a great cloud of smoke lowered. It grew so dense that Dick and his comrades, watching with eagerness, were unable to tell much of what was happening.
Yet as the smoke lifted or was shot through with the blaze of cannon fire they saw that their prophecies were coming true. The boats in water too deep for anchorage were caught in the powerful eddies and their captains had to show their best seamanship while they steamed back and forth.
The battle between ship and shore went on for a long time. It seemed at last to the watching Union soldiers that the fire from the lower line of batteries was diminishing.
"We're making some way," said Warner.
"It looks like it," said Dick. "Their lower batteries are not so well protected as the upper."
"If we were only over there, helping with our own guns."
"But there's a big river in between, and we've got to leave it to the boats for to-day, anyhow."
"Look again at those lower batteries. Their fire is certainly decreasing. I can see it die down."
"Yes, and now it's stopped entirely. The boats have done good work!"
A tremendous cheer burst from the troops on the west shore as they saw how much their gallant little gunboats had achieved. Every gun in the lower batteries was silent now, but the top of the cliffs was still alive with flame. The batteries there were far from silent. Instead their fire was increasing in volume and power.
The four gunboats that had silenced the lower batteries now moved up to the aid of their comrades, and the seven made a united effort, steaming forward in a sort of half-moon, and raining shot and shell upon the summits. But the guns there, well-sheltered and having every advantage over rocking steamers, maintained an accurate and deadly fire. The decks of the gunboats were swept more than once. Many men were killed or wounded. Heavy shot crashed through their sides, and Dick expected every instant to see some one of them sunk by a huge exploding shell.
"They can't win! They can't win!" he exclaimed. "They'd better draw off before they're sunk!"
"So they had," said Warner sadly. "Boats are at a disadvantage fighting batteries. The old darky was right when he preferred a train wreck to a boat wreck, 'ef the train's smashed, thar you are on the solid ground, but ef the boat blows up, whar is you?' That's sense. The boats are retiring! It's sad, but it's sense. A boat that steams away will live to fight another day."
Dick was dejected. He fancied he could hear the cheering of their foes at what looked like a Union defeat, but he recalled that Grant, the bulldog, led them. He would never think of retiring, and he was sure to be ready with some new attempt.
The gunboats drew off to the far western shore and lay there, puffing smoke defiantly. Their fight with the batteries had lasted five hours and they had suffered severely. It seemed strange to Dick that none of them had been sunk, and in fact it was strange. All had been hit many times, and one had been pierced by nearly fifty shot or shell. Their killed or wounded were numerous, but their commanders and crews were still resolute, and ready to go into action whenever General Grant wished.
"Spunky little fellows," said Pennington. "We don't have many boats out where I live, but I must hand a bunch of laurel to the navy every time."
"And you can bind wreaths around the hair of those navy fellows, too," said Warner, "and sing songs in their honor whether they win or lose."
"Now I wonder what's next," said Dick.
To their surprise the gunboats opened fire again just before sundown, and the batteries replied fiercely. Rolling clouds of smoke mingled with the advancing twilight, and the great guns from either side flashed through the coming darkness. Then from a stray word or two dropped by Colonel Winchester Dick surmised the reason of this new and rather distant cannonade.
He knew that General Grant had transports up the river above Grand Gulf, and he believed that they were now coming down the stream under cover of the bombardment and the darkness. He confided his belief to Warner, who agreed with him. Presently they saw new coils of smoke in the darkness and knew they were right. The transports, steaming swiftly, were soon beyond the range of the batteries, and then the gun boats, drawing off, dropped down the river with them.
Long before the boats reached a point level with Grant's camp the army was being formed in line for embarkation on the gunboats and transports. The horses were to be placed on one or two of the transports and the men filled all the other vessels.
"You can't down Grant," said Pennington. "A failure with him merely means that he's going to try again."
"But don't forget the navy and the Father of Waters," said Dick, as their transports swung from the shore upon the dark surface of the river. "The mighty rivers help us. Look how we went up the Cumberland and the Tennessee and now we've harnessed a flowing ocean for our service."
"Getting poetical, Dick," said Warner.
"I feel it and so do you. You can't see the bluffs any more. There's nothing in sight, but the lights of the steamers and the transports. We must be somewhere near the middle of the stream, because I can't make out either shore."
There were two regiments aboard the transport, the Winchester and one from Ohio, which had fought by their side at both Perryville and Stone River. Usually these boys chattered much, but now they were silent, permeated by the same feelings that had overwhelmed Dick. In the darkness--all lights were concealed as much as possible--with both banks of the vast river hidden from them, they felt that they were in very truth afloat upon a flowing ocean.
They knew little about their journey, except that they were destined for the eastern shore, the same upon which Grand Gulf stood, but they did not worry about this lack of knowledge. They were willing to trust to Grant, and most of them were already asleep, upon the decks, in the cabins, or in any place in which a human body could secure a position.
Dick did not sleep. The feeling of mystery and might made by the tremendous river remained longer in his sensitive and imaginative nature. His mind, too, looked backward. He knew that the great grandfathers of Harry Kenton and himself, the famous Henry Ware and the famous Paul Cotter, had passed up and down this monarch of streams. He knew of their adventures. How often had he and his cousin, who now, alas! was on the other side, listened to the stories of those mighty days as they were handed from father to son! Those lads had floated in little boats and he was on a steamer, but it seemed to him that the river with its mighty depths took no account of either, steamer or canoe being all the same to its vast volume of water.
He was standing by the rail looking over, when happening to glance back he saw by the ship's lantern what he thought was a familiar face. A second glance and he was sure. He remembered that fair-haired Ohio lad, and, smiling, he said:
"You're one of those Ohio boys who, marching southward from its mouth in the Ohio, drank the tributary river dry clear to its source, the mightiest achievement in quenching thirst the world has ever known. You're the boy, too, who told about it."
The youth moved forward, gazed at him and said:
"Now I remember you, too. You're Dick Mason of the Winchester regiment. I heard the Winchesters were on board, but I haven't had time to look around. It was hot when we drank up the river, but it was hotter that afternoon at Perryville. God! what a battle! And again at Stone River, when the Johnnies surprised us and took us in flank. It was you Kentuckians then who saved us."
"Just as you would have saved us, if it had been the other way."
"I hope so. But, Mason, we left a lot of the boys behind. A big crowd stopped forever at Perryville, and a bigger at Stone River."
"And we left many of ours, too. I suppose we'll land soon, won't we, and then take these Grand Gulf forts with troops."
"Yes, that's the ticket, but I hear, Mason, it's hard to find a landing on the east side. The banks are low there and the river spreads out to a vast distance. After the boats go as far as they can we'll have to get off in water up to our waists and wade through treacherous floods."
The question of landing was worrying Grant at that time and worrying him terribly. The water spread far out over the sunken lands and he might have to drop down the river many miles before he could find a landing on solid ground, a fact which would scatter his army along a long line, and expose it to defeat by the Southern land forces. But his anxieties were relieved early in the morning when a colored man taken aboard from a canoe told him of a bayou not five miles below Grand Gulf up which his gunboats and transports could go and find a landing for the troops on solid ground.
Dick was asleep when the boats entered the bayou, but he was soon awakened by the noise of landing. It was then that most of the Winchester and of the Ohio regiment discovered that they were comrades, thrown together again by the chances of war, and there was a mighty welcome and shaking of hands. But it did not interfere with the rapidity of the landing. The Winchester regiment was promptly ordered forward and, advancing on solid ground, took a little village without firing a shot.
All that day troops came up and Grant's army, after having gone away from Grand Gulf in darkness, was coming back to it in daylight.
"They say that Pemberton at Vicksburg could gather together fifty thousand men and strike us, while we've only twenty thousand here," said Pennington.
"But he isn't going to do it," said Warner. "How do I know? No, I'm not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. There's nothing mysterious about it. This man Grant who leads us knows the value of time. He makes up his mind fast and he acts fast. The Confederate commander doesn't do either. So Grant is bound to win. Let z equal resolution and y equal speed and we have z plus y which equals resolution and speed, that is victory."
"I hope it will work out that way," said Dick, "but war isn't altogether mathematics."
"Not altogether, but that beautiful study plays a great part in every campaign. People are apt to abuse mathematics, when they don't know what they're talking about. The science of mathematics is the very basis of music, divine melody, heaven's harmony."
"You needn't tell me," said Pennington, "that a plus b and z minus y lie at the basis of 'Home, Sweet Home' and the 'Star Spangled Banner.' I accept a lot of your tales because you come from an old state like Vermont, but there's a limit, George."
Warner looked at him pityingly.
"Frank," he said, "I'm not arguing with you. I'm telling you. Haven't you known me long enough to accept whatever I say as a fact, and to accept it at once and without question? Not to do so is an insult to me and to the truth. Now say over slowly with me: 'The basis of music is mathematics.'"
They said slowly together:
"The basis of music is mathematics."
"Now I accept your apologies," said Warner loftily.
"You're a queer fellow, George," he said. "When this war is over and I receive my general's uniform I'm coming up into the Vermont mountains and look your people over. Will it be safe?"
"Of course, if you learn to read and write by then, and don't come wearing your buffalo robe. We're strong on education and manners."
"Why, George," said Pennington in the same light tone, "I could read when I was two years old, and, as for writing, I wrote a lot of text-books for the Vermont schools before I came to the war."
"Shut up, you two," said Dick. "Don't you know that this is a war and not a talking match?"
"It's not a war just now, or at least there are a few moments between battles," retorted Warner, "and the best way I can use them is in instructing our ignorant young friend from Nebraska."
Their conversation was interrupted by Colonel Winchester, who ordered the regiment to move to a new point. General Grant had decided to attack a little town called Port Gibson, which commanded the various approaches to Grand Gulf. If he could take that he might shut up Bowen and his force in Grand Gulf. On the other hand, if he failed he might be shut in himself by Confederate armies gathering from Jackson, Vicksburg, and elsewhere. The region, moreover, was complicated for both armies by the mighty Mississippi and the Big Black River, itself a large stream, and there were deep and often unfordable bayous.
But Grant showed great qualities, and Dick, who was experienced enough now to see and know, admired him more than ever. He pushed forward with the utmost resolution and courage. His vanguard, led by McClernand, and including the Winchester regiment, seized solid ground near Port Gibson, but found themselves confronted by a formidable Southern force. Bowen, who commanded in Grand Gulf, was brave and able. Seeing the Union army marching toward his rear, and knowing that if Grant took it he would be surrounded, both on land and water, by a force outnumbering his nearly three to one, he marched out at once and took station two miles in front of Port Gibson.
Dick was by the side of Colonel Winchester as he rode forward. The faint echo of shots from the skirmishers far in front showed that they had roused up an enemy. Glasses were put in use at once.
"The Confederates are before us," said Colonel Winchester.
"So they are, and we're going to have hard fighting," said a major. "Look what a position!"
Dick said nothing, but he was using his glasses, too. He saw before him rough ground, thickly sown with underbrush. There was also a deep ravine or rather marsh choked with vines, bushes, reeds, and trees that like a watery soil. The narrow road divided and went around either end of the long work, where the two divisions united again on a ridge, on which Bowen had placed his fine troops and artillery.
"I don't see their men yet, except a few skirmishers," said Dick.
"No, but we'll find them in some good place beyond it," replied Colonel Winchester, divining Bowen's plan.
It was night when the army in two divisions, one turning to the right and the other to the left, began the circuit of the great marshy ravine. Dick noticed that the troops who had struggled so long in mud and water were eager. Here, west of the Alleghanies, the men in blue were always expecting to win.
The sky was sown with stars, casting a filmy light over the marching columns. Dick was with the troops passing to the right, and he observed again their springy and eager tread.
Nor was the night without a lively note. Skirmishers, eager riflemen prowling among the bushes, fired often at one another, and now and then a Union cannon sent a shell screaming into some thick clump of forest, lest a foe be lurking there for ambush.
The reports of the rifles and cannon kept every one alert and watchful. Early in the night while it was yet clear Dick often saw the flashes from the firing, but, as the morning hours approached, heavy mists began to rise from that region of damp earth and great waters. He shivered more than once, and on the advice of Sergeant Whitley wrapped his cavalry cloak about him.
"Chills and fever," said the sergeant sententiously. "So much water and marsh it's hard to escape it. The sooner we fight the better."
"Well, that's what General Grant thinks already," said Dick; "so I suppose he doesn't need chills and fever to drive him on. All the same, Sergeant, I'll wrap up as you say."
All the men in the Winchester regiment were soon doing the same. The mists of the Mississippi, the Big Black and the bayous were raw and cold, although it would be hot later on. But the period of coldness did not last long. Soon the low sun showed in the east and the warm daylight came. In the new light they saw the Confederate forces strongly posted on the ridge where the halves of the road rejoined. As the Union column came into view a cannon boomed and a shell burst in the road so near that dirt was thrown upon them as it exploded and one man was wounded. At the same time the column on the left under Osterhaus appeared, having performed its semicircle about the marsh, and the whole Union army, weary of body but eager of soul, pressed forward. The Winchester regiment and the Ohio regiment beside it charged hotly, but were received with a fire of great volume and accuracy that swept them from the road. Another battery on their far left also raked them with a cross fire, and so terrible was their reception that they were compelled to abandon some of their own cannon and seek shelter.
The Winchester regiment, except the officers, were not mounted in this march, as Grant would not wait for their horses, which were on another transport. The very fact saved from death many who would have made a more shining target. Dick's own horse was killed at the first fire, and as he leaped clear to escape he went down to his waist in a marsh, another fact which saved his life a second time as the new volleys swept over his head. The horses of other officers also were killed, and the remainder, finding themselves such conspicuous targets, sprang to the ground. The frightened animals, tearing the reins from their hands, raced through the thickets or fell into the marsh.
All the time Dick heard the shells and bullets shrieking and whining over his head. But, regaining his courage and presence of mind, he slowly pulled himself out of the marsh, taking shelter behind a huge cypress that grew at its very edge. As he dashed the mud out of his eyes he heard a voice saying:
"Don't push! There's room enough here for the three of us. In fact, there's room enough behind the big trees for all the officers."
It was Warner who was speaking with such grim irony, and Pennington by his side was hugging the tree. Shells and shot shrieked over their heads and countless bullets hummed about them. The soldiers also had taken shelter behind the trees, and Warner's jest about the officers was a jest only. Nevertheless the Southern fire was great in volume and accuracy. Bowen was an able commander with excellent men, and from his position that covered the meeting of the roads he swept both Union columns with a continuous hail of death.
"We must get out of this somehow," said Dick. "If we're held here in these swamps and thickets any longer the Johnnies can shoot us down at their leisure."
"But we won't be held!" exclaimed Pennington. "Look! One of our brigades is through, and it's charging the enemy on the right!"
It was Hovey who had forced his way through a thicket, supposed to be impenetrable, and who now, with a full brigade behind him, was rushing upon Bowen's flank. Then, while the Southern defense was diverted to this new attack, the Winchester and the Ohio regiment attacked in front, shouting with triumph.
Hovey's rush was overpowering. He drove in the Southern flank, taking four cannon and hundreds of prisoners, but the dauntless Confederate commander, withdrawing his men in perfect order, retreated to a second ridge, where he took up a stronger position than the first.
Resolute and dangerous, the men in gray turned their faces anew to the enemy and sent back a withering fire that burned away the front ranks of the Union army. Osterhaus, in spite of every effort, was driven back, and the Winchesters and their Ohio friends were compelled to give ground too. It seemed that the utmost of human effort and defiance of death could not force the narrow passage.
But a new man, a host in himself, came upon the field. Grant, who had been on foot for two days, endeavoring to get his army through the thickets and morasses, heard the booming of the cannon and he knew that the vanguards had clashed. He borrowed a cavalry horse and, galloping toward the sound of the guns, reached the field at mid-morning. Grant was not impressive in either figure or manner, but the soldiers had learned to believe in him as they always believe in one who leads them to victory.
A tremendous shout greeted his coming and the men, snatching off their hats and caps, waved them aloft. Grant took no notice but rapidly disposed his troops for a new and heavier battle. Dick felt the strong and sure hand over them. The Union fire grew in might and rapidity. McPherson arrived with two brigades to help Osterhaus, and the strengthened division was able to send a brigade across a ravine, where it passed further around Bowen's flank and assailed him with fury.
Dick felt that their own division under McClernand was also making progress. Although many men were falling they pressed slowly forward, and Grant brought up help for them too. For a long time the struggle was carried on. It was one of the little battles of the war, but its results were important and few were fought with more courage and resolution. Bowen, with only eight thousand against twenty thousand, held fast throughout all the long hot hours of the afternoon. Grant, owing to the nature of the field, was unable to get all his numbers into battle at once.
But when the twilight began to show Dick believed that victory was at hand. They had not yet driven Bowen out, but they were pressing him so close and hard, and Grant was securing so many new positions of advantage, that the Southern leader could not make another such fight against superior numbers in the morning.
Twilight turned into night and Bowen and his men, who had shown so much heroism, retreated in the dark, leaving six guns and many prisoners as trophies of the victors.
It was night when the battle ceased. Cannon and rifles flashed at fitful intervals, warning skirmishers to keep away, but after a while they too ceased and the Union army, exhausted by the long march of the night before and the battle of the day, threw itself panting upon the ground. The officers posted the sentinels in triple force, but let the remainder of the men rest.
As Dick lay down in the long grass two or three bullets dropped from his clothes and he became conscious, too, that a bullet had grazed his shoulder. But these trifles did not disturb him. It was so sweet to rest! Nothing could be more heavenly than merely to lie there in the long, soft grass and gaze up at the luminous sky, into which the stars now stole to twinkle down at him peacefully.
"Don't go to sleep, Dick," said a voice near him. "I admit the temptation is strong. I feel it myself, but General Grant may have to send you and me forward to-night to win another battle."
"George, I'm glad to hear your preachy voice over there. Hurt any?"
"No. A million cannon balls brushed my right cheek and another million brushed my left cheek, but they didn't touch me. They scared me to death, but in the last few minutes I've begun to come back to life. In a quarter of an hour I'll be just as much alive as I ever was."
"Do you know anything of Pennington?"
"Yes. The rascal is lying about six feet beyond me, sound asleep. In spite of all I could do he wouldn't stay awake. I've punched him all over to see if he was wounded, but as he didn't groan at a single punch, he's all right."
"That being the case, I'm going to follow Pennington's example. You may lecture me as much as you please, George, but you'll lecture only the night, because I'll be far away from here in a land of sweet dreams."
"All right, if you're going to do it, I will too. You'll hear my snore before I hear yours."
Both sank in a few minutes into a deep slumber, and when they awoke the next morning they found that Bowen had abandoned Port Gibson and had retreated into Grand Gulf again. There was great elation among the lads and Dick began to feel that the position of the Union army in the far South was strengthened immeasurably. He heard that Sherman, who had stood so staunchly at Shiloh, was on his way to join Grant. Their united forces would press the siege of Grand Gulf and would also turn to strike at any foe who might approach from the rear.
Never since the war began had Dick felt so elated as he did that morning. When he saw the short, thick-set figure of Grant riding by he believed that the Union, in the West at least, had found its man at last.