The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. A Bold Attack
Dick was the first to awake. The sergeant had not slept the night before at all, and, despite his enormous endurance, he was overpowered. Having fallen once into slumber he remained there long.
It was not yet morning and the rain was yet falling steadily. Its sweep upon the roof was still so pleasant and soothing that Dick resolved to go to sleep again, after he had looked about a little. He had grown used to dusk and he could see just a little. The sergeant, buried all but his head among the corn shucks, was breathing deeply and peacefully.
He looked out at one of the cracks, but he saw only rain sweeping by in misty sheets. The road that ran by the field was invisible. He gave devout thanks that this tight little corn crib had put itself in their way. Then he returned to his slumbers, and when he awoke again the sergeant was sitting by one of the cracks smoothing his thick hair with a small comb.
"I always try to keep as neat as I can, Mr. Mason," he said, apologizing for such weakness. "It gives you more courage, and if I get killed I want to make a decent body. Here's your breakfast, sir. There's enough left for the two of us, and I've divided it equally."
Cold ham, bacon and crackers were laid out on clean shucks, and they ate until nothing was left. It was now full daylight, and the rain was dying away to a sprinkle. The farmer might come out at any time to his crib, and they felt that they must be up and away.
They bade farewell to their pleasant shelter of a night, and, after pulling through the deep mud of the field, entered again the forest, which was now soaking wet.
"If Colonel Hertford is near where we reckon he is we ought to meet him by nightfall," said Sergeant Whitley.
"We're sure to reach him before then," said Dick joyously.
"Colonel Hertford is a mighty good man, and if he says he's going to be at a certain place at a certain time I reckon he'll be there, Mr. Mason."
"And then we'll bring him back and join General Grant. What do you think of our General, Sergeant?"
Dick spoke with all the freedom then so prevalent in the American armies, where officer and man were often on nearly a common footing, and the sergeant replied with equal freedom.
"General Grant hits and hammers, and I guess that's what war is," he said. "On the plains we had a colonel who didn't know much about tactics. He said the only way to put down hostile Indians was to find 'em, and beat 'em, and I guess that plan will work in any war, big or little."
"I heard before I left the army that Washington was getting scared, afraid that he was taking too big a risk here in the heart of the Confederacy, and that his operations might be checked by orders from the capital."
Sergeant Whitley smiled a wise smile.
"We sergeants learn to know the officers," he said, "and I've had the chance to look at General Grant a lot. He doesn't say much, but I guess he's doing a powerful lot of thinking, while he's chawing on the end of his cigar. You notice, Mr. Mason, that he takes risks."
"He took a big one at Shiloh, and came mighty near being nipped."
"But he wasn't nipped after all, and now, if I can judge by the signs, he's going to take another chance here. I wouldn't be surprised if he turned and marched away from the Mississippi, say toward Jackson."
"But that wouldn't be taking Vicksburg."
"No, but he might whip an army of the Johnnies coming to relieve Vicksburg, and I've a sneaking idea that the General has another daring thought in mind."
"What is it, Sergeant?"
"When he turns eastward he'll be away from the telegraph. Maybe he doesn't want to receive any orders from the capital just now."
"I believe you've hit it, Sergeant. At least I hope so, and anyway we want to reach Colonel Hertford right away."
Still following the map and also consulting their own judgment, they advanced now at a good rate. But as they came into a more thickly populated country they were compelled to be exceedingly wary. Once a farmer insisted on questioning them, but they threatened him with their rifles and then plunged into a wood, lest he bring a force in pursuit.
In the afternoon, lying among some bushes, they saw a large Confederate force, with four cannon, pass on the road toward Jackson.
"Colonel Hertford might do them a lot of damage if he could fall on them with his cavalry," said the sergeant thoughtfully.
"So he could," said Dick, "but I imagine that General Grant wants the colonel to come at once."
They turned northward now and an hour later found numerous hoofprints in a narrow road.
"All these were made by well-shod horses," said the sergeant, after examining the tracks critically. "Now, we've plenty of horseshoes and the Johnnies haven't. That's one sign."
"What's the other?"
"I calculate that about six hundred men have passed here, and that's pretty close to the number Colonel Hertford has, unless he's been in a hot fight."
"Good reasoning, Sergeant, and I'll add a third. Those men are riding directly toward the place where, according to our maps and information, we ought to meet Colonel Hertford."
"All these things make me sure our men have passed here, Mr. Mason. Suppose we follow on as hard as we can?"
Cheered by the belief that they were approaching the end of their quest they advanced at such a rate that the great trail rapidly grew fresher.
"Their horses are tired now," said the sergeant, "and likely we're going as fast as they are. They're our men sure. Look at this old canteen that one of 'em has thrown away. It's the kind they make in the North. He ought to have been punished for leaving such a sign."
"I judge, Sergeant, from the looks of this road, that they can't now be more than a mile away."
"Less than that, Mr. Mason. When we reach the top of the hill yonder I think we'll see 'em."
The sergeant's judgment was vindicated again. From the crest they saw a numerous body of muddy horsemen riding slowly ahead. Only the brilliant sunlight made their uniforms distinguishable, but they were, beyond a doubt, the troops of the Union. Dick uttered a little cry of joy and the sergeant's face glowed.
"We've found 'em," said the sergeant.
"And soon we ride," said Dick.
They hurried forward, shouted and waved their rifles.
The column stopped, and two men, one of whom was Colonel Hertford himself, rode back, looking curiously at the haggard and stained faces of the two who walked forward, still swinging their rifles.
"Colonel Hertford," said Dick joyfully, "we've come with a message for you from General Grant."
"And who may you be?" asked Hertford in surprise.
"Why, Colonel, don't you know me? I'm Lieutenant Richard Mason of Colonel Winchester's regiment, and this is Sergeant Daniel Whitley of the same regiment."
The colonel broke into a hearty laugh, and then extended his hand to Dick.
"I should have known your voice, my boy," he said, "but it's certainly impossible to recognize any one who is as thickly covered with dry Mississippi mud as you are. What's your news, Dick?"
Dick told him and the sergeant repeated the same tale. He knew them both to be absolutely trustworthy, and their coming on such an errand through so many dangers carried its own proof.
"We've several spare horses, bearing provisions and arms," said Colonel Hertford. "Two can be unloaded and be made ready for you and the sergeant. I fancy that you don't care to keep on walking, Dick?"
"I've had enough to last me for years, Colonel."
They were mounted in a few minutes, and rode with the colonel. The world had now changed for Dick. Astride a good horse and in a column of six hundred men he was no longer the hunted. These troopers and he were hunters now.
The column turned presently into another road and advanced with speed in the direction of Grant. Colonel Hertford asked Dick many questions about Slade.
"I've been hearing of him since we were on this raid," he said. "He's more of a guerilla than a regular soldier, but he may be able to gather a considerable force. I wish we could cut him off."
"So do I," said Dick, but his feeling was prompted chiefly by Slade's determined attempts upon his life.
Colonel Hertford now pushed forward his men. He, too, was filled with ambitions. He began to have an idea of Grant's great plans, in which all the Union leaders must cooperate, and he meant that his own little command should be there, whenever the great deed, whatever it might be, was done. He talked about it with Dick, who he knew was a trusted young staff officer, and the two, the lad and the older man, fed the enthusiasm of each other.
This attack deep into the flank of the Confederacy appealed to them with its boldness, and created a certain romantic glow that seemed to clothe the efforts of a general so far from the great line of battle in the East. They talked, too, of the navy which had run past forts on the Mississippi, and which had shown anew all its ancient skill and courage.
As they talked, twilight came, and the road led once more through the deep woods, where the shade turned the twilight into the darkness of night. Then rifles flashed suddenly in the thickets, and a half-dozen horsemen fell. The whole column was thrown for an instant or two into disorder, frightened horses rearing and stamping, and, before their riders could regain control, another volley came, emptying a half-dozen saddles.
Colonel Hertford gave rapid commands. Then, shouting and waving his saber he galloped boldly into the forest, reckless of trees and bushes, and Dick, the sergeant, and the whole troop followed. The lad was nearly swept from his horse by a bough, but he recovered himself in time to see the figures of men on foot fleeing rapidly through the dusk.
Bullets pattered on bark and leaves, and the angry horsemen, after discharging their carbines, swept forward with circling sabers. But the irregulars who had ambushed them, save a few fallen before the bullets, escaped easily in the dense woods, and under cover of the darkness which was now coming down, thick and fast.
A trumpet sounded the recall and the cavalrymen, sore and angry, drew back into the road. They had lost a dozen good men, but Colonel Hertford felt that they could not delay for vengeance. Grant's orders were to come at once; and he intended to obey them.
"I'd wager a year's pay against a Confederate five-dollar note," said Sergeant Whitley to Dick, "that the man who laid that ambush was Slade. He'll keep watch on us all the way to Grant, and he'll tell the Southern leaders everything the general is doing. Oh, he's a good scout and spy."
"He's proved it," said Dick, "and I'd like to get a fair shot at him."
They rode nearly all night and most of the next day, and, in the afternoon, they met other men in blue who told them that a heavy Union force was advancing. They had no doubt now that Grant's great plan was already working and in a short time they reached McPherson, advancing with Logan's division. Hertford reported at once to McPherson, who was glad enough to have his cavalry, and who warmly praised Dick and the sergeant for the dangerous service they had done so well. As it would have been unwise for them to attempt to reach Grant then he kept them with him in the march on Jackson.
Dick slept that night under the stars, but thousands of Union men were around him and he felt neither the weight of responsibility, nor the presence of danger. He missed Warner and Pennington, but he and the sergeant were happy. Beyond a doubt now Grant was going to strike hard, and all the men were full of anticipation and hope. His force in different divisions was advancing on Jackson, leaving Vicksburg behind him and the Southern army under Pemberton on one side.
Dick heard, too, that the redoubtable Joe Johnston was coming to take command of the Southern garrison in Jackson, and a leader less bold than Grant might have shrunk from such a circle of enemies, but Grant's own courage increased the spirit of his men, and they were full of faith.
"I expect they're alarmed in Washington," said the sergeant, as they sat on their blankets. "There ain't any telegraph station nearer than Memphis. They've heard in the capital that the general has begun to move toward Jackson, but they won't know for days what will happen."
"I don't blame the President for being disturbed," said Dick. "After all the army is to serve the nation and fights under the supreme civilian authority. The armies don't govern."
"That's so, but there come times when the general who has to do the fighting can judge best how it ought to be done."
Dick lay down on one blanket and put another over him. It was well into May, which meant hot weather in Mississippi, but, if he could, he always protected himself at night. He was not a vain lad, but he felt proud over his success. Hertford's six hundred horse were a welcome addition to any army.
He lay back soon with a knapsack as a pillow under his head and listened to the noises of the camp, blended now into a rather musical note. Several cooking fires still burned here and there and figures passed before them. Dick observed them sleepily, taking no particular note, until one, small and weazened, came. The figure was about fifty yards away, and there was a Union cap instead of a great flap-brimmed hat on the head, but Dick sprang to his feet at once, snatched a pistol from his belt and rushed toward it.
The evil figure melted away like a shadow, and two astonished soldiers seized the youth, who seemed to be running amuck in the camp, pistol in hand.
"Let go!" exclaimed Dick. "I've seen a man whom I know to be a spy, and a most dangerous one, too."
They could find no trace of Slade. Dick returned crestfallen to his blanket, but he recalled something now definitely and clearly. Slade was the little man whom he had seen carrying the log the morning he left General Grant's camp, on his mission.
The sergeant, who had never stirred from his own blanket, sat up when Dick returned.
"Who was he, Mr. Mason?" he asked.
"Slade himself. He must have seen me jump up, because he vanished like a ghost. But I gained something. I know now that I saw him here in our uniform just before I started to find Colonel Hertford. That was why I was followed."
"The cunning of an Indian. Well, we'll be on the watch for him now, but I imagine he's already on the way to Jackson with the news of our advance and an estimate of our numbers. We can't do anything to head him off."
On the second day after joining the column Dick was ahead with the cavalry, riding beside Colonel Hertford, and listening to occasional shots in their front on the Jackson road. Both believed they would soon be in touch with the enemy. Sergeant Whitley, acting now as a scout, had gone forward through a field and in a few minutes galloped back.
"The enemy is not far away," he said. "They're posted along a creek, with high banks and in a wood. They've got a strong artillery too, and I think they about equal us in numbers."
Dick carried the report to the commander of the column, and soon the trumpets were calling the men to battle. The crackle of rifle shots ahead increased rapidly. The skirmishers were already pulling trigger, and, as Dick galloped back to Hertford he saw many puffs of white smoke down the road and in the fields and woods on either side. The Union men began to cheer. In the West they had suffered no such defeats as their brethren in the East, and every pulse beat with confidence. As the whole line moved forward the Southern cannon began to crash and their shells swept the road.
The cavalry were advancing in a field, but they were yet held back to a slow walk. Dick heard many impatient exclamations, but he knew the restraint was right. He saw the accuracy of the Southern gunners. They were driving the Northern infantry from the road. Their fire was rapid and deadly, and, for a while, the Union army was checked.
Hertford was calmly examining the Southern position through his glasses, while he restrained his eager men. The volume of Southern fire was growing fast. Shells and shrapnel rained death over a wide area, and the air was filled with whistling bullets. It was certain destruction for any force to charge down the road in face of the Southern cannon, and the Northern army began to spread out, wheeling toward either flank.
An aide arrived with an order to Hertford, and then he loosed his eager cavalry. Turning to one side they galloped toward the creek. Some of the Southern gunners, seeing them, sent shells toward them, and a swarm of riflemen in a wood showered them with bullets. But they passed so rapidly that not many saddles were emptied, and the trumpeter blew a mellow note that urged on spirits already willing enough.
The sweep of the cavalry charge exhilarated Dick. The thought of danger passed away for the moment. He saw all around him the eager faces of men, and horses that seemed just as eager. Dust and dirt flew beneath the thudding hoofs, and the dust and floating smoke together made a grimy cloud through which they galloped.
They passed around still further on the flank. They seemed, for a few minutes, to be leaving the battle, which was now at its height, the Southern artillery still holding the road and presenting an unbroken front.
Dick saw a flash of water and then the whole troop thundered into the creek, almost without slackened rein. Up the bank they went, and with a wild shout charged upon the Southern infantry. On the other flank another Northern force which also had crossed the creek attacked with fire and spirit.
But the battle still swayed back and forth. Hertford and his cavalry were thrown off, merely to return anew to the charge. A portion of the Northern force was driven back on the creek. The strong Southern batteries poured forth death. Dick felt that they might yet lose, but they suddenly heard a tremendous cheer, and a fresh force coming up at the double quick enabled them to sweep the field. Before sunset the Southern army retreated toward Jackson, leaving the field to the men in blue.
Dick dismounted and, examining himself carefully, found that he had suffered no wound. Colonel Hertford and the sergeant had also taken no hurt. But the lad and his elder comrade secured but little rest. They were bidden to ride across the country at once to General Sherman with the news of the victory. Sherman was at the head of another column, and Grant was farther away with the main body.
Dick and the sergeant, with the battle smoke still in their eyes, were eager for the service.
"When you're with Grant you don't stay idle, that's certain," said Dick as they rode across the darkening fields.
"No, you don't," said the sergeant, "and I'm thinking that we've just begun. I know from the feel of it that big things are going to happen fast. Sheer away from the woods there, Mr. Mason. We don't want to be picked off by sharpshooters."
They arrived after dark in Sherman's camp and he received them himself. Dick remembered how he had seen this thin, dry man holding fast with his command at Shiloh, and he saluted him with the deepest respect. He knew that here was a bold and tenacious spirit, kin to that of Grant. Sherman had heard already of the battle, but he wished more and definite news.
"You say that our victory was complete?" he asked tersely.
"It was, sir," replied Dick. "The entire force of the enemy retired rapidly toward Jackson, and our men are eager to advance on that city."
"It would be a great stroke to take the capital of Mississippi," said Sherman musingly. Then he added in his crisp manner:
"Are you tired?"
"Not if you wish me to do anything," replied Dick quickly.
"The right spirit," he said. "I wish you and your comrade to ride at once with this news to General Grant. He may hear it from other sources, but I want to send a letter by you."
In ten minutes Dick and the sergeant were riding proudly away on another mission, and, passing through all the dangers of Southern scouts and skirmishers, they reached General Grant, to whom they delivered the letter from Sherman. Grant, who had recently been in doubt owing to the threat of Pemberton on his flank, hesitated no longer when he heard of the victory, and resolved at once upon the capture of Jackson.
Dick, after his battle and two rides, went to sleep in a wagon, while an orderly took his horse. When he awoke unknown hours afterward he found that he was moving. He knew at once that the army was advancing. Before him and behind him he heard all the noises of the march, the beat of horses' hoofs, the grinding of wheels, the clanking of cannon, the cracking of whips and the sounds of many voices.
He was wonderfully comfortable where he lay and he had the satisfaction and pride of much duty done. He felt that he was entitled to rest, and, turning on his side, he went to sleep again. After another unknown time his second awakening came and he remained awake.
He quietly slipped out at the tail of the wagon, and stood for a few moments, dazzled by the blazing sunlight. Then a loud, cheery voice called out:
"Well, if it isn't our own Lucky Dick come back again, safe and well to the people to whom he belongs!"
"If z equals Dick and y equals his presence then we have z plus y, as Dick is certainly present," called out another voice not quite so loud, but equally cheery. "Luck, Frank, is only a minor factor in life. What we usually call luck is the result of foresight, skill and courage. There are facts that I wouldn't have you to forget, even if it is a hot day far down in Mississippi."
Warner and Pennington sprang from their horses and greeted Dick warmly. They had returned a day or two before from their own less perilous errands, but they were in great anxiety about their comrade. They were glad too, when they heard that the sergeant had joined him and that he had come back safe.
"I suppose it means a battle at Jackson," said Warner. "We're surely on the move, and we're going to keep the Johnnies busy for quite a spell."
"Looks like it," said Dick.
Colonel Winchester came soon, and his face showed great relief when he shook hands with Dick.
"It was a dangerous errand, Dick, my lad," he said, "but I felt that you would succeed and you have. It was highly important that we gather all our forces for a great stroke."
Dick resumed at once his old place in the Winchester regiment, with Warner, Pennington and his other comrades around him. Refreshed by abundant sleep and good food he was in the highest of spirits. They were embarked upon a great adventure and he believed that it would be successful. His confidence was shared by all those about him. Meanwhile the army advanced in diverging columns upon the Mississippi capital.
Jackson, on Pearl River, had suddenly assumed a vast importance in Dick's mind, and yet it was but a tiny place, not more than three or four thousand inhabitants. The South was almost wholly agricultural, and cities, great in a political and military sense, were in reality but towns. Richmond, itself the capital of the Confederacy, around which so much centered, had only forty thousand people.
The Winchester regiment was detached that afternoon and sent to join the column under McPherson, which was expected to reach Jackson first. Dick was mounted again, and he rode with Warner and Pennington on either side of him. They speculated much on what they would find when they approached Jackson.
"If Joe Johnston is there," said Warner, "I think we'll have a hard fight. You'll remember that he did great work against us in Virginia, until he was wounded."
"And they'll know, of course, just when to expect us and in what force," said Dick. "Slade will tell them that. He probably has a large body of spies and scouts working under him. But I don't think he'll come inside our camp again."
"Not likely since he's been recognized," said Warner, thoughtfully. "But I don't think General Grant is afraid of anything ahead. That's why he made the separation from our own world so complete, and our men are out cutting down the telegraph lines, so the Johnnies in Jackson can't communicate with their own government either. It's important to us that we take Jackson before Pemberton with his army can come up."
Warner had estimated the plan correctly. Grant, besides cutting himself off from his own superiors at Washington, was also destroying communication between the garrison of Jackson and Pemberton's army of Vicksburg, which was not far away. The two united might beat him, but he meant to defeat them separately, and then besiege Vicksburg. It was a complicated plan, depending upon quickness, courage and continued success. Yet the mind of Grant, though operating afterward on fields of greater numbers, was never clearer or more vigorous.
They went into camp again after dark, knowing that Jackson was but a short distance away, and they expected to attack early in the morning. Dick carried another dispatch to Sherman, who was only a little more than two miles from them, and on his way back he joined Colonel Winchester, who, with Warner, Pennington and a hundred infantry, had come out for a scout. The dismounted men were chosen because they wished to beat up a difficult piece of wooded country.
They went directly toward Jackson, advancing very cautiously through the forest, the mounted officers riding slowly. The night was hot and dark, moon and stars obscured by drifting clouds. Pennington, who was an expert on weather, announced that another storm was coming.
"I can feel a dampness in the air," he said. "I'm willing to risk my reputation as a prophet and say that the dawn will come with rain."
"I hope it won't be a big rain," said Colonel Winchester, "because if it is it will surely delay our attack. Our supply of cartridges is small, and we can't risk wetting them."
Pennington persisted that a storm was at hand. His father had taught him, he said, always to observe the weather signs on the great Nebraska plains. They were nearly always hoping for rain there, and he had learned to smell it before it came. He could smell it now in the same way here in Mississippi.
His opinion did not waver, when the clouds floated away for a while, disclosing a faint moon and a few stars. They were now on the banks of a brook, flowing through the wood, and Colonel Winchester thought he saw a movement in the forest beyond it. It was altogether likely that so skillful a leader as Joe Johnston would have out bodies of scouts, and he stopped, bidding his men to take cover.
Dick sat on his horse by the colonel's side under the thick boughs of a great tree, and studied the thickets before them. He, too, had noticed a movement, and he was confident that the Southern sharpshooters were there. At the command of the colonel all of the officers dismounted, and orderlies took the horses to the rear. On foot they continued their examination of the thickets, and the colonel sent for Sergeant Whitley, who confirmed his opinion that the enemy was before them. At his suggestion the Union force was spread out, lest it be flanked and annihilated in the thickets.
Just as the movement was completed rifles began to crack in front and on both flanks, and the piercing yell of the South arose.
It was impossible to tell the size of the force that assailed them, but the Winchester men were veterans now, and they were not afraid. Standing among the bushes or sheltered by the trees they held their fire until they saw dusky figures in the thickets.
It had all the aspects of an old Indian battle in the depths of the great forest. Darkness, the ambush and the caution of sharpshooters were there. Dick carried a rifle, but he did not use it. He merely watched the pink beads of flame among the bushes, while he stayed by the side of his colonel and observed the combat.
It soon became apparent to him that it would have no definite result. Each side was merely feeling out its foe that night, and would not force the issue. Yet the Southern line approached and some bullets whistled near him. He moved a little to one side, and watched for an enemy. It was annoying to have bullets come so close, and since they were shooting at him he might as well shoot at them.
While he was absorbed in watching, the colonel moved in the other direction, and Dick stood alone behind a bush. The fire in front had increased somewhat, although at no time was it violent. Occasional shots from his own side replied. The clouds that had drifted away were now drifting back, and he believed that darkness alone would soon end the combat.
Then he saw a bush only a dozen yards in his front move a little, and a face peered through its branches. There was yet enough light for him to see that the face was youthful, eager and handsome. It was familiar, too, and then with a shock he remembered. Woodville, the lad with whom he had fought such a good fight, nature's weapons used, was before him.
Dick raised his rifle. Young Woodville was an easy target. But the motion was only a physical impulse. He knew in his heart that he had no intention of shooting the young Southerner, and he did not feel the slightest tinge of remorse because he evaded this part of a soldier's work.
Yet Woodville, seeing nobody and hearing nothing, would come on. Dick, holding his rifle in the crook of his left arm, drew a pistol and fired it over the lad's head. At the same moment he dropped almost flat upon the ground. The bullet cut the leaves above Woodville and he sprang back, startled. A half-dozen Southern skirmishers fired at the flash of Dick's pistol, but he, too, lying on the ground, heard them cutting leaves over his head.
Dick saw the face of Woodville disappear from the bush, and then he crept away, rejoining Colonel Winchester and his comrades. Five minutes later the skirmish ceased by mutual consent, and each band fell back on its own army, convinced that both were on the watch.
They were to advance at four o'clock in the morning, but Pennington's prediction came true. After midnight, flashes of lightning cut the sky and the thunder rolled heavily. Then the rain came, not any fugitive shower, but hard, cold and steady, promising to last many hours.
It was still pouring when the advance began before dawn, but Grant's plans were complete. He had drawn up his forces on the chessboard, and they were converging closely upon Jackson. They must keep their cartridges dry and advance at all costs.
The Winchesters were in the van in a muddy road. Dick, Warner and Pennington were in the saddle, and they were wet through and through. The rain and dusk were so heavy that they could not see fifty feet, and they shivered with cold. But their souls were eager and high, and they were glad when the army toiled slowly forward to battle.