The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. The Little Capital
Dick was bent down in his saddle, trying to protect himself a little from the driving rain which beat in his eyes and soaked through his clothing. Warner and Pennington beside him were in the same condition, and he saw just before him the bent back of Colonel Winchester, with his left arm raised as a shield for his face. Hoofs and wheels made a heavy, sticky sound as they sank in the mud, and were then pulled out again.
"Do you see any signs of daylight, Dick?" asked Pennington.
"Not a sign. I see only a part of our regiment, trees on either side of us bending before the wind, and rain, and mud, mud everywhere. I'll be glad when it's over."
"So will I," said Warner. "I wonder what kind of hotels they have in Jackson. I'd like to have a bath, good room and a big breakfast."
"The Johnnies are holding breakfast for you," said Pennington. "Their first course is gunpowder, their second bullets, their third shells and shrapnel, and their fourth bayonets."
"They'll have to serve a lot at every course," said Dick, "because General Grant is advancing with fifty thousand men, and so many need a lot of satisfying."
The storm increased in violence. The rain, falling in a deluge, was driven by a wind like a hurricane. The horses strove to turn their heads from it, and confusion arose among the cavalry. The infantry mixed in the mud swore heavily. Staff officers had the utmost difficulty in keeping the regiments together. It was time for the sun, but it did not appear. Everything was veiled in clouds and driving rain.
Dick looked at his watch, and saw that it was seven o'clock. They had intended to attack at this hour, but further advance was impossible for the time, and, bending their heads, they sought to protect their ammunition. Presently they started again and toiled along slowly and painfully for more than two hours. Then, just as they saw the enemy ahead of them, the storm seemed to reach the very zenith of its fury.
Dick, in the vanguard, beheld earthworks, cannon and troops before Jackson, but the storm still drove so hard that the Union forces could not advance to the assault.
"This is certainly a most unusual situation," said Colonel Winchester, with an effort at cheerfulness. "Here we are, ready to attack, and the Southerners are ready to defend, but a storm holds us both fast in our tracks. Our duty to protect our cartridges is even greater than our duty to attack the enemy."
"The biggest rain must come to an end," said Dick.
But it was nearly noon before they could advance. Then, as the storm decreased rapidly the trumpets sounded the charge, and horse, foot and artillery, they pressed forward eagerly through the mud.
The sun broke through the clouds, and Dick saw before them a wood, a ravine full of thickets, and the road commanded by strong artillery. The Northern skirmishers were already stealing forward through the wet bushes and grass, and soon their rifles were crackling. But the Southern sharpshooters in the thickets were in stronger force, and their rapid and accurate fire drove back the Northern men. Then their artillery opened and swept the road, while the Northern batteries were making frantic efforts to get up through the deep, sticky mud.
But the trumpets were still calling. The Winchester regiment and others, eager for battle and victory, swept forward. Dick felt once more the fierce thrill of combat, and, waving his revolver high above his head, he shouted with the others as they rushed on. The stream of bullets from the ravine thickened, and the cannon were crashing fast. But the Union masses did not check their rush for an instant. Although many fell they charged into the ravine, driving out the enemy, and pursued him on the other side.
But the Southern cannon, manned by daring gunners, still held the field and, aided by the thick mud which held back charging feet, they repulsed every attack. The Winchester regiment was forced to cover, and then Dick heard the booming of cannon in another direction. He knew that Grant and Sherman were coming up there, and he expected they would rush at once into Jackson, but it was a long time before the distant thunder came any nearer.
Johnston, whose astuteness they feared, was proving himself worthy of their opinion. Knowing that his forces were far too small to defend Jackson, he had sent away the archives of the state and most of the army. Only a small force and seventeen cannon were left to fight and cover his retreat. But so bold and skillful were they that it was far beyond noon before Grant and Sherman found that practically nothing was in front of them.
But where Dick and his comrades rode the fighting was severe for a while. Then everything seemed to melt away before them. The fire of the Southern cannon ceased suddenly, and Colonel Winchester exclaimed that their works had been abandoned. They charged forward, seized the cannon, and now rode without resistance into the capital of the state, from which the President of the Confederacy hailed, though by birth a Kentuckian.
Dick and his comrades were among the first to enter the town, and not until then did they know that Johnston and all but a few hundreds of his army were gone.
"We've got the shell only," Dick said.
"Still we've struck a blow by taking the capital of the state," said Colonel Winchester.
Dick looked with much curiosity at the little city into which they were riding as conquerors. It was too small and new to be imposing. Yet there were some handsome houses, standing back on large lawns, and surrounded by foliage. The doors and shutters of all of them were closed tightly. Dick knew that their owners had gone away or were sitting, hearts full of bitterness, in their sealed houses.
The streets were deep in mud, and at the corners little knots of negroes gathered and looked at them curiously.
"They don't seem to welcome us as deliverers," said Warner.
"They don't yet know what to think of us," said Dick. "There's the Capitol ahead of us, and some of our troops are going into it."
"Others have gone into it already," said Pennington. "Look!"
They saw the flag of the Union break out above its dome, the beautiful stars and stripes, waving gently in the light breeze. A spontaneous cheer burst from the Union soldiers, and the bitter hearts in the sealed houses grew more bitter.
The army was now pouring in by every road and Colonel Winchester and his staff sought quarters. They were on the verge of exhaustion. All their clothing was wet and they were discolored with mud. They felt that they were bound to have rest and cleanliness.
The victorious troops were making their camp, wherever they could find dry ground, and soon they were building the fires for cooking. But many of the officers were assigned to the residences, and Colonel Winchester and his staff were directed by the general to take quarters in a large colonial house, standing on a broad lawn, amid the finest magnolias and live oaks that Dick had ever seen.
Remembering an earlier experience during the Shiloh campaign Colonel Winchester and his young officers approached the house with some reluctance. In ordinary times it must have been brilliant with life. Two little fountains were playing on either side of the graveled walk that led to the front door. After the old fashion, three or four marble statues stood in the shrubbery. Everything indicated wealth. Probably the town house of a great planter, reflected Dick. In Mississippi a man sometimes owned as many as a thousand slaves, and lived like a prince.
The house offered them no welcome. Its doors and windows were closed, but Dick had seen thin smoke rising from a chimney in the rear. He expected that they would have to force the door, but at the first knock it was thrown open by a tall, thin woman of middle years. The look she gave them was full of bitter hatred--Dick sometimes thought that women could hate better than men--but her manner and bearing showed distinction. He, as well as his comrades, took her to be the lady of the house.
"We ask your pardon, madame, for this intrusion," said Colonel Winchester, "but we are compelled to occupy your house a while. We promise you as little trouble as possible."
"We ask no consideration of any kind from men who have come to despoil our country and ruin its people," she said icily.
Colonel Winchester flushed.
"But madame," he protested, "we do not come to destroy."
"I do not care to argue with you about it," she said in the same lofty tone, "and also you need not address me as madame. I am Miss Woodville."
"Does this house belong to Colonel John Woodville?" he asked.
"It does not," she replied crisply, "but it belongs to his elder brother, Charles Woodville, who is also a colonel, and who is my father. What do you know of Colonel John Woodville?"
"I met his son once," replied Dick briefly.
She glanced at him sharply. Dick thought for a moment that he saw alarm in her look, but he concluded that it was only anger.
They stood confronting each other, the little group of officers and the woman, and Colonel Winchester, embarrassed, but knowing that he must do something, went forward and pushed back a door opening into the hall. Dick automatically followed him, and then stepped back, startled.
A roar like that of a lion met them. An old man, with a high, bald and extremely red forehead lay in a huge bed by a window. It was a great head, and eyes, set deep, blazed under thick, white lashes. His body was covered to the chin.
Dick saw that the man's anger was that of the caged wild beast, and there was something splendid and terrible about it.
"You infernal Yankees!" he cried, and his voice again rumbled like that of a lion.
"Colonel Charles Woodville, I presume?" said Colonel Winchester politely.
"Yes, Colonel Charles Woodville," thundered the man, "fastened here in bed by a bullet from one of your cursed vessels in the Mississippi, while you rob and destroy!"
And then he began to curse. He drew one hand from under the cover and shook his clenched fist at them in a kind of rhythmic beat while the oaths poured forth. To Dick it was not common swearing. There was nothing coarse and vulgar about it. It was denunciation, malediction, fulmination, anathema. It had a certain majesty and dignity. Its richness and variety were unequaled, and it was hurled forth by a voice deep, powerful and enduring.
Dick listened with amazement and then admiration. He had never heard its like, nor did he feel any offense. The daughter, too, stood by, pursing her prim lips, and evidently approving. Colonel Winchester was motionless like a statue, while the infuriated man shook his fist at him and launched imprecations. But his face had turned white and Dick saw that he was fiercely angry.
When the old man ceased at last from exhaustion Colonel Winchester said quietly:
"If you had spoken to me in the proper manner we might have gone away and found quarters elsewhere. But we intend to stay here and we will repay your abuse with good manners."
Dick saw the daughter flush, but the old man said:
"Then it will be the first time that good manners were ever brought from the country north of the Mason and Dixon line."
Colonel Winchester flushed in his turn, but made no direct reply.
"If you will assign us rooms, Miss Woodville," he said, "we will go to them, otherwise we'll find them for ourselves, which may be less convenient for you. I repeat that we desire to give you as little trouble as possible."
"Do so, Margaret," interrupted Colonel Woodville, "because then I may get rid of them all the sooner."
Colonel Winchester bowed and turned toward the door. Miss Woodville, obedient to the command of her father, led the way. Dick was the last to go out, and he said to the old lion who lay wounded in the bed:
"Colonel Woodville, I've met your nephew, Victor."
He did not notice that the old man whitened and that the hand now lying upon the cover clenched suddenly.
"You have?" growled Colonel Woodville, "and how does it happen that you and my nephew have anything in common?"
"I could scarcely put it that way," replied Dick, refusing to be angered, "unless you call an encounter with fists something in common. He and I had a great fight at his father's plantation of Bellevue."
"He might have been in a better business, taking part in a common brawl with a common Yankee."
"But, sir, while I may be common, I'm not a Yankee. I was born and grew up south of the Ohio River in Kentucky."
"Then you're a traitor. All you Kentuckians ought to be fighting with us."
"Difference of opinion, but I hope your nephew is well."
The deep eyes under the thick white thatch glared in a manner that Dick considered wholly unnecessary. But Colonel Woodville made no reply, merely turning his face to the wall as if he were weary.
Dick hurried into the hall, closing the door gently behind him. The others, not missing him, were already some yards away, and he quickly rejoined Pennington and Warner. The younger men would have been glad to leave the house, but Colonel Winchester's blood was up, and he was resolved to stay. The little party was eight in number, and they were soon quartered in four rooms on the lower floor. Miss Woodville promptly disappeared, and one of the camp cooks arrived with supplies, which he took to the kitchen.
Dick and Warner were in one of the rooms, and, removing their belts and coats, they made themselves easy. It was a large bedroom with high ceilings and wicker furniture. There were several good paintings on the walls and a bookcase contained Walter Scott's novels and many of the eighteenth century classics.
"I think this must have been a guest chamber," said Dick, "but for us coming from the rain and mud it's a real palace."
"Then it's fulfilling its true function," said Warner, "because it has guests now. What a strange household! Did you ever see such a peppery pair as that swearing old colonel and his acid daughter?"
"I don't know that I blame them. I think, sometimes, George, that you New Englanders are the most selfish of people. You're too truly righteous. You're always denouncing the faults of others, but you never see any of your own. Away back in the Revolution when Boston called, the Southern provinces came to her help, but Boston and New England have spent a large part of their time since then denouncing the South."
"What's struck you, Dick? Are you weakening in the good cause?"
"Not for a moment. But suppose Mississippi troops walked into your own father's house in Vermont, and, as conquerors, demanded food and shelter! Would you rejoice over them, and ask them why they hadn't come sooner?"
"I suppose not, Dick. But, stop it, and come back to your normal temperature. I won't quarrel with you."
"I won't give you a chance, George. I'm through. But remember that while I'm red hot for the Union, I was born south of the Ohio River myself, and I have lots of sympathy for the people against whom I'm fighting."
"For the matter of that, so've I, Dick, and I was born north of the Ohio River. But I'm getting tremendously hungry. I hope that cook will hurry."
They were called soon, and eight officers sat at the table. The cook himself served them. Miss Woodville had vanished, and not a servant was visible about the great house. Despite their hunger and the good quality of the food the group felt constraint. The feeling that they were intruders, in a sense brigands, was forced upon them. Dick was sure that the old man with the great bald head was swearing fiercely and incessantly under his breath.
The dining-room was a large and splendid apartment, and the silver still lay upon the great mahogany sideboard. The little city, now the camp of an overwhelming army, had settled into silence, and the twilight was coming.
With the chill of unwelcome still upon them the officers said little. As the twilight deepened Warner lighted several candles. The silver glittered under the flame. Colonel Winchester presently ordered the cook to take a plate of the most delicate food to Colonel Woodville.
As the cook withdrew on his mission he left open the door of the dining-room and they heard the sound of a voice, uplifted in a thunderous roar. The cook hurried back, the untouched plate in his hand and his face a little pale.
"He cursed me, sir," he said to Colonel Winchester. "I was never cursed so before by anybody. He said he would not touch the food. He was sure that it had been poisoned by the Yankees, and even if it were not he'd rather die than accept anything from their hands."
Colonel Winchester laughed rather awkwardly.
"At any rate, we've tendered our good offices," he said. "I suppose his daughter will attend to his wants, and we'll not expose ourselves to further insults."
But the refusal had affected the spirits of them all, and as soon as their hunger was satisfied they withdrew. The soldier who had acted as cook was directed to put the dining-room back in order and then he might sleep in a room near the kitchen.
Dick and Warner returned to their own apartment. Neither had much to say, and Warner, lying down on the bed, was soon fast asleep. Dick sat by the window. The town was now almost lost in the obscurity. The exhausted army slept, and the occasional glitter from the bayonet of a sentinel was almost the only thing that told of its presence.
Dick was troubled. In spite of will and reason, his conscience hurt him. Theory was beautiful, but it was often shivered by practice. His sympathies were strongly with the old colonel who had cursed him so violently and the grim old maid who had given them only harsh words. Besides, he had pleasant memories of Victor Woodville, and these were his uncle and cousin.
He sat for a long time at the window. The house was absolutely quiet, and he was sure that everybody was asleep. There could be no doubt about Warner, because he slumbered audibly. But Dick was still wide awake. There was some tension of mind or muscle that kept sleep far from him. So he remained at the window, casting up the events of the day and those that might come.
The evening was well advanced when he was quite sure that he heard a light step in the hall. He would have paid little attention to it at an ordinary time, but, in all that silence and desolation, it called him like a drum-beat. Only a light step, and yet it filled him with suspicion and alarm. He was in the heart of a great and victorious Union army, but at the moment he felt that anything could happen in this strange house.
Slipping his pistol from his belt, he opened the door on noiseless hinges and stepped into the hall. A figure was disappearing in its dim space, but, as he saw clearly, it was that of a woman. He was sure that it was Miss Woodville and he stepped forward. He had no intention of following her, but his foot creaked on the floor, and, stopping instantly, she faced about. Then he saw that she carried a tray of food.
"Are we to have our house occupied and to be spied upon also?" she asked.
Dick flushed. Few people had ever spoken to him in such a manner, and it was hard to remember that she was a woman.
"I heard a footstep in the hall, and it was my duty to see who was passing," he said.
"I have prepared food and I am taking it to my father. He would not accept it from Yankee hands."
"Colonel Woodville sups late. I should think a wounded man would be asleep at this hour, if he could."
She gave him a glance full of venom.
"What does it matter?" she said.
Dick refused to be insulted.
"Let me take the tray for you," he said, "at least to the door. Your father need not know that my hands have touched it."
She shrank back and her eyes blazed.
"Let us alone!" she exclaimed. "Go back to your room! Isn't it sufficient that this house shelters you?"
She seemed to Dick to show a heat and hate out of all proportion to the occasion, but he did not repeat the offer.
"I meant well," he said, "but, since you do not care for my help, I'll return to my room and go to sleep. Believe me, I'm sincere when I say I hope your father will recover quickly from his wound."
"He will," she replied briefly.
Dick bowed with politeness and turned toward his own room. Nevertheless his curiosity did not keep him from standing a moment or two in the dark against the wall and looking back at the woman who bore the tray. He drew a long breath of astonishment when he saw her pass Colonel Woodville's door, and hurry forward now with footsteps that made no sound.
The suspicion which had lain deep in his mind sprang at once into life. Keeping close to the wall, he followed swiftly and saw her disappear up a stairway. There he let the pursuit end and returned thoughtfully to his room.
Dick was much troubled. An ethical question had presented itself to him. He believed that he had divined everything. The solution had come to him with such suddenness and force that he was as fully convinced as if he had seen with his own eyes. Military duty demanded that he invade the second floor of the Woodville house. But there were feelings of humanity and mercy, moral issues not less powerful than military duty, and maybe more so.
He was pulled back and forth with great mental violence. He was sorry that he had seen Miss Woodville with the tray. And then he wasn't. Nevertheless, he stayed in his own room, and Warner, waking for a moment, regarded him with wonder as he sat outlined against the window which they had left unshuttered and opened to admit air.
"What's the matter, Dick? Have you got a fever?" he asked. "Why haven't you gone to bed?"
"I'm going to do so right away. Don't bother yourself about me, George. My nerves have been strained pretty hard, and I had to wait until they were quiet until I could go to sleep."
"Don't have nerves," said Warner, as he turned back on his side and returned to slumber.
Dick undressed and got into bed. It was the first time in many nights that he had not slept in his clothes, and beds had been unknown for many weeks. It was a luxury so penetrating and powerful that it affected him like an opiate. Such questions as military and moral duty floated swiftly away, and he slept the sleep of youth and a good heart.
Breakfast was almost a repetition of supper. The army cook prepared and served it, and the Woodvilles remained invisible. Colonel Winchester informed the young officers that they would remain in Jackson two or three days, and then great events might be expected. All felt sure that he was predicting aright. Pemberton must be approaching with the Vicksburg army. The wary and skillful Johnston had another army, and he could not be far away. Moreover, this was the heart of the Confederacy and other unknown forces might be gathering.
They felt the greatness of the hour, Grant's daring stroke, and the possibility that he might yet be surrounded and overwhelmed. Their minds were attuned, too, to other and yet mightier deeds, but they were glad, nevertheless, of a little rest. The Woodville house was a splendid place, and in the morning they did not feel so much the chill of embarrassment that had been created for them the night before.
Dick went straight to the room of Colonel Woodville, opened the door without knocking, and closed it behind him quickly but noiselessly.
The colonel was propped up in his bed and a tray bearing light and delicate food lay on a chair. His daughter stood beside the bed, speechless with anger at this intrusion. Dick lifted his hand, and the look upon his face checked one of the mightiest oaths that had ever welled up from the throat of Colonel Charles Woodville, king of swearers.
"Stop!" said Dick in a voice not loud, but sharp with command.
"Can't we at least have privacy in the room of an old and wounded man?" asked Miss Woodville.
"You can hereafter," replied Dick quietly. "I shall not come again, but I tell you now to get him out of the house to-night, unless he's too badly hurt to be moved."
"Why should my father be taken away?" demanded Miss Woodville.
"I'm not speaking of your father."
"Of whom, then?"
Dick did not answer, but he met her gaze steadily, and her face fell. Then he turned, walked out of the room without a word, and again closed the door behind him. When he went out on the piazza he saw excitement among his comrades. The moment for great action was coming even sooner than Colonel Winchester had expected.
"Johnston is communicating with Pemberton," said Warner, "and he has ordered Pemberton to unite with him. Then they will attack us. He sent the same order by three messengers, but one of them was in reality a spy of ours, and he came straight to General Grant with it. We're forewarned, and the trap can't shut down on us, because General Grant means to go at once for Pemberton."
Dick understood the situation, which was both critical and thrilling. Grant was still in the heart of the Confederacy, and its forces were converging fast upon him. But the grim and silent man, instead of merely trying to escape, intended to strike a blow that would make escape unnecessary. All the young officers saw the plan and their hearts leaped.
Dick, in the excitement of the day, forgot about the Woodville house and its inmates. Troops were already marching out of Jackson to meet the enemy, but the Winchester regiment would not leave until early the next morning. They were to spend a second night, or at least a part of it, in Colonel Woodville's house.
It was the same group that ate supper there and the same army cook served them. They did not go to the bedrooms afterward, but strolled about, belted, expecting to receive the marching call at any moment.
Dick went into the library, where a single candle burned, and while he was there Miss Woodville appeared at the door and beckoned to him. She had abated her severity of manner so much that he was astonished, but he followed without a word.
She saw that the hall was clear and then she led quickly into her father's room. Colonel Woodville was propped up against the pillows, and there was color in his face.
"Young man," he said, "come here. You can afford to obey me, although I'm a prisoner, because I'm so much older than you are. You have a heart and breeding, young sir, and I wish to shake your hand."
He thrust a large hand from the cover, and Dick shook it warmly.
"I wouldn't have shaken it if you had been born north of the Ohio River," said Colonel Woodville.
"My chief purpose in having you brought here," said Colonel Woodville, "was to relate to you an incident, of which I heard once. Did I read about it, or was it told to me, Margaret?"
"I think, sir, that some one told you of it."
"Ah, well, it doesn't matter. A few words will tell it. In an old, forgotten war a young soldier quartered in the house of his defeated enemy--but defeated only for the time, remember--saw something which made him believe that a wounded nephew of the house was hid in an upper room. But he was generous and he did not search further. The second night, while the young officer and his comrades were at supper, the nephew, who was not hurt badly, was slipped out of the house and escaped from the city in the darkness. It's not apropos of anything, and I don't know why I'm relating it to you, but I suppose this terrible war we are fighting is responsible for an old man's whim."
"I've found it very interesting, sir," said Dick, "and I think it's relevant, because it shows that even in war men may remain Christian human beings."
"Perhaps you're right, and I trust, young sir, that you will not be killed in this defeat to which you are surely marching."
Dick bowed to both, and left them to their fears and hopes. The glow was still about his heart when he rode forth with the Winchester regiment after midnight. But, owing to the need of horses for the regular cavalry, it had become an infantry regiment once more. Only the officers rode.
At dawn they were with Grant approaching a ridge called Champion Hill.