The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VIII. Champion Hill
Dick on that momentous morning did not appreciate the full magnitude of the event about to occur, nor did he until long afterward. He knew it was of high importance, and yet it might have ranked as one of the decisive battles of history. There were no such numbers as at Shiloh and Chancellorsville, but the results were infinitely greater.
Nor was it likely that such thoughts would float through the head of a lad who had ridden far, and who at dawn was looking for an enemy.
The scouts had already brought word that the Southerners were in strong force, and that they occupied Champion Hill, the crest of which was bare, but with sides dark with forests and thickets. They were riding at present through forests themselves, and they felt that their ignorance of the country might take them at any moment into an ambush.
"We know what army we're going against, don't we?" asked Pennington.
"Why, Pemberton's, of course," replied Dick.
"I'm glad of that. I'd rather fight him than Joe Johnston."
"They've been trying to unite, but we hear they haven't succeeded."
Pemberton, in truth, had been suffering from the most painful doubt. Having failed to do what Johnston had expected of him, he had got himself into a more dangerous position than ever. Then, after listening to a divided council of his generals, he had undertaken a movement which brought him within striking distance of Grant, while Johnston was yet too far away to help him.
Dick did not know how much fortune was favoring the daring that morning, but he and his comrades were sanguine. They felt all the time the strong hand over them. Like the soldiers, they had acquired the utmost confidence in Grant. He might make mistakes, but he would not doubt and hesitate and draw back. Where he led the enemy could not win anything without having to fight hard for it.
The early summer dawn had deepened, bright and hot, and the sun was now clear of the trees, turning the green of the forests to gold. Coffee and warm food were served to them during a momentary stop among the trees, and then the Winchester regiment moved forward again toward Champion Hill.
Rifle shots were now heard ahead of them. They were scattered, but the lads knew that the hostile skirmishers had come in contact. Presently the reports increased and through the woods they saw puffs of smoke. Trumpets to right and left were calling up the brigades.
"Open up for the guns!" cried an aide, and a battery lumbered through, the men swearing at their panting horses. But the Southern cannon were already at work. From the bare crest of Champion Hill they were sending shells which crashed in the ranks of the advancing foe. Two or three of the Winchesters were hit, and a wounded horse, losing its rider, ran screaming through the wood.
The forest and thickets now grew so dense that the officers dismounted, giving their horses to an orderly, and led on foot. The country before them was most difficult. Besides the trees and brush it was seared with ravines. A swarm of skirmishers in front whom they could not see now poured bullets among them, and the shells, curving over the heads of the ambushed sharpshooters, fell in the Union ranks. On either flank the battle opened and swelled rapidly.
"We may have got Pemberton trapped," said Pennington, "but he's got so many bristles that we can't reach in a hand and pull out our captive. My God, Dick, are you killed?"
He was pulling Dick to his feet and examining him anxiously.
"I'm all right," said Dick in a moment. "It was the wind of a big round shot that knocked me down. Just now I'm thanking God it was the wind and not the shot."
"I wish we could get through these thickets!" exclaimed Warner. "Our comrades must be engaged much more heavily than we are. What an uproar!"
The combat swelled to great proportions. The Southern army, being compelled to fight, fought now with all its might. The crest of the long hill blazed with fire. The men in gray used every advantage of position. Cannon and rifles raked the woods and thickets, and at many points the Union attack was driven back. The sun rose slowly and they still held the hill, fighting with all the fire and valor characteristic of the South. They were cheered at times by the expectation of victory, but the stubborn Grant brought up his remaining forces and continually pressed the battle.
The Winchester regiment crossed a ravine and knelt among the thickets. Its losses had not yet been heavy, as most of the cannon fire was passing over their heads. Grape and canister were whistling among the woods, and Dick was devoutly grateful that these deadly missiles were going so high. Yet if they did not hurt they made one shiver, and it was not worth while to recall that when he heard the sound the shot had passed already. One shivered anyhow.
As well as Dick could judge from the volume of sound the battle seemed to be concentrated directly upon the hill. He knew that Grant expected to make a general attack in full force, and he surmised that one of the commanders under him was not pushing forward with the expected zeal. His surmise was correct. A general with fifteen thousand men was standing almost passive in front of a much smaller force, but other generals were showing great fire and energy.
The Winchester regiment contained many excellent riflemen and they were so close now that they could use the weapons for which the Kentuckians were famous. Firing deliberately, they began to cut gaps in the first ranks of the defenders on the slope. Then they rose and with other regiments pushed forward again.
But they came to a road in the side of the hill defended powerfully by infantry and artillery, and a heavy fire, killing and wounding many, was poured upon them. They sought to cross the road and attack the defenders with the bayonet, but they were driven back and their losses were so heavy that they were compelled to take cover in the nearest thickets.
The men, gasping with heat and exhaustion, threw themselves down, a sleet of shells and bullets passing over their heads. Dick had a sense of failure, but it lasted only a moment or two. From both left and right came the fierce crash of battle, and he knew that, if they had been driven back before the road, their comrades were maintaining the combat elsewhere.
"It's merely a delay. We pause to make a stronger attack," said Colonel Winchester, as if he were apologizing to himself. "Are you all right, Dick?"
"Unhurt, sir, and so are Warner and Pennington, who are lying here beside me."
"Unhurt, but uneasy," said Warner. "I don't like the way twigs and leaves are raining down on me. It shows that if they were to depress their fire they would be shearing limbs off of us instead of boughs off the trees."
The sun was high and brilliant now, but it could not dispel the clouds of smoke gathering in the thickets. It floated everywhere, and Dick felt it stinging his mouth and throat. Murmurs began to run along the lines. They did not like being held there. They wanted to charge again. They were still confident of victory.
Dick was sent toward another part of the army for orders, and he saw that all along the hill the battle was raging fiercely. But Grant could not yet hear the roar of guns which should indicate the advance of McClernand and his fifteen thousand. The silent leader was filled with anger, but he reserved the expression of it for a later time.
Dick saw the fiery and impetuous Logan, noticeable for his long coal-black hair, lead a headlong and successful charge, which carried the Union troops higher up the hill. But another general was driven back, losing cannon, although he retook them in a second and desperate charge. Still no news from McClernand and his fifteen thousand! There was silence where his guns ought to have been thundering, and Grant burned with silent anger.
It was noon, and a half-hour past. The Union plans, made with so much care and judgment, and the movements begun with so much skill and daring seemed to be going awry. Yet Grant with the tenacity, rather than lightning intuition, that made him a great general, held on. His lieutenants clung to their ground and prepared anew for attack.
Dick hurried back to his own regiment, which was still lying in the thickets, bearing an order for its advance in full strength. Colonel Winchester, who was standing erect, walking among his men and encouraging them, received it with joy. Word was speedily passed to all that the time to win or lose had come. Above the cannon and rifles the music of the calling trumpets sounded. The fire of both sides suddenly doubled and tripled in volume.
"Now, boys," shouted Colonel Winchester, waving his sword, "up the hill and beat 'em!"
Uttering a deep-throated roar the Winchesters rushed forward, firing as they charged. Dick was carried on the top wave of enthusiasm. He discharged his pistol into the bank of fire and smoke in front of them and shouted incessantly. He heard the bullets and every form of missile from the cannon whining all about them. Leaves and twigs fell upon him. Many men went down under the deadly fire, but the rush of the regiment was not checked for an instant.
They passed out of the thicket, swept across the road, and drove the defenders up the hill. Along the whole line the Union army, fired with the prospect of success, rushed to the attack. Grant threw every man possible into the charge.
The Southern army was borne back by the weight of its enemy. All of the front lines were driven in and the divisions were cut apart. There was lack of coordination among the generals, who were often unable to communicate with one another, and Pemberton gave the order to retreat. The battle was lost to the South, and with it the chance to crush Grant between two forces.
The Union army uttered a great shout of victory, and Grant urged forward the pursuit. Bowen, one of the South's bravest generals, was the last to give way. The Winchester regiment was a part of the force that followed him, both fighting hard. Dick found himself with his comrades, wading a creek, and they plunged into the woods and thickets which blazed with the fire of South and North. A Confederate general was killed here, but the brave Bowen still kept his division in order, and made the pursuit pay a heavy cost for all its gain.
Dick saw besides the Confederate column many irregulars in the woods, skilled sharpshooters, who began to sting them on the flank and bring down many a good soldier. He caught a glimpse of a man who was urging on the riflemen and who seemed to be their leader. He recognized Slade, and, without a moment's hesitation, fired at him with his pistol. But the man was unhurt and Slade's return bullet clipped a lock of Dick's hair.
Then they lost each other in the smoke and turmoil of the battle, and, despite the energy of the pursuit by the Union leaders, they could not break up the command of Bowen. The valiant Southerner not only made good his retreat, but broke down behind him the bridge over a deep river, thus saving for a time the fragments of Pemberton's army.
The Winchester regiment marched back to the battlefield, and Dick saw that the victory had been overwhelming. Nearly a third of the Southern army had been lost and thirty cannon were the trophies of Grant. Yet the fighting had been desperate. The dead and wounded were so numerous that the veteran soldiers who had been at Shiloh and Stone River called it "The Hill of Death."
Dick saw Grant walking over the field and he wondered what his feelings were. Although its full result was beyond him he knew, nevertheless, that Champion Hill was a great victory. At one stroke of his sword Grant had cut apart the circle of his foes.
Dick came back from the pursuit with Colonel Winchester. He had lost sight of Warner and Pennington in the turmoil, but he believed that they would reappear unhurt. They had passed through so many battles now that it did not occur to him that any of the three would be killed. They might be wounded, of course, as they had been already, but fate would play them no such scurvy trick as to slay them.
"What will be the next step, Colonel?" asked Dick, as they stood together upon the victorious hill.
"Depends upon what Johnston and Pemberton do. Pemberton, I'm sure, will retreat to Vicksburg, but Johnston, if he can prevent it, won't let his army be shut up there. Still, they may not be able to communicate, and if they should Pemberton may disobey the far abler Johnston and stay in Vicksburg anyhow. At any rate, I think we're sure to march at once on Vicksburg."
A figure approaching in the dusk greeted Dick with a shout of delight. Another just behind repeated the shout with equal fervor. Warner and Pennington had come, unharmed as he had expected, and they were exultant over the victory.
"Come over here," said Warner to Dick. "Sergeant Whitley has cooked a glorious supper and we're waiting for you."
Dick joined them eagerly, and the sergeant received them with his benevolent smile. They were commissioned officers, and he gave them all the respect due to rank, but in his mind they were only his boys, whom he must watch and protect.
While the fires sprang up about them and they ate and talked of the victory, Washington was knowing its darkest moments. Lee had already been marching thirteen days toward Gettysburg, and he seemed unbeatable. Grant, who had won for the North about all the real success of which it could yet boast, was lost somewhere in the Southern wilderness. The messages seeking him ran to the end of the telegraph wires and no answer came back. The click of the key could not reach him. Many a spirit, bold at most times, despaired of the Union.
But the old and hackneyed saying about the darkest hour just before the dawn was never more true. The flame of success was already lighted in the far South, and Lincoln was soon to receive the message, telling him that Grant had not disappeared in the wilderness for nothing. Thereafter he was to trust the silent and tenacious general through everything.
They were up and away at dawn. Dick was glad enough to leave the hill, on which many of the dead yet lay unburied, and he was eager for the new field of conflict, which he was sure would be before Vicksburg. Warner and Pennington were as sanguine as he. Grant was now inspiring in them the confidence that Lee and Jackson inspired in their young officers.
"How big is this city of Vicksburg?" asked Pennington.
"Not big at all," replied Warner. "There are no big cities in the South except New Orleans, but it's big as a fortress. It's surrounded by earthworks, Frank, from which the Johnnies can pot you any time."
"Well, at any rate, I'll be glad to see it--from a safe distance. I wouldn't mind sitting down before a town. There's too much wet country around here to suit me."
"It's likely that you'll have a chance to sit for a long time. We won't take Vicksburg easily."
But the time for sitting down had not yet come. The confidence of the soldiers in their leader was justified continually. He advanced rapidly toward Vicksburg, and in pursuit of Pemberton's defeated men. The victory at Champion Hill had been so complete that the Southern army was broken into detached fragments, and the Southern generals were now having the greatest difficulty in getting them together again.
Grant, with his loyal subordinate, Sherman, continued to push upon the enemy with the greatest vigor. Sherman had not believed in the success of the campaign, had even filed his written protest, but when Grant insisted he had cooperated with skill and energy. He and Grant stood together on a hill looking toward the future field of conflict, and he told Grant now that he expected continued success.
It was the fortune of the young officers of the Winchester regiment sitting near on their horses to see the two generals who were in such earnest consultation, and who examined the whole circle of the country so long and so carefully through powerful glasses.
The effects of the victory deep in the South were growing hourly in Dick's mind, and the two figures standing there on the hill were full of significance to him. He had a premonition that they were the men more than any others who would achieve the success of the Union, if it were achieved at all. They had dismounted and stood side by side, the figure of Grant short, thick and sturdy, that of Sherman, taller and more slender. They spoke only at intervals, and few words then, but nothing in the country about them escaped their attention.
Dick had glasses of his own, and he, too, began to look. He saw a region much wooded and cut by deep streams. Before them lay the sluggish waters of Chickasaw Bayou, where Sherman had sustained a severe defeat at an earlier time, and farther away flowed the deep, muddy Yazoo.
"See the smoke, George, rising above that line of trees along the river?" said Dick.
"Yes, Dick," replied Warner, "and I notice that the smoke rises in puffs."
"It has a right to go up that way, because it's expelled violently from the smoke-stacks of steamers. And those steamers are ours, George, our warships. Our navy in this war hasn't much chance to do the spectacular, but we can never give it enough credit."
"That's right, Dick. It keeps the enemy surrounded and cuts off his supplies, while our army fights him on land. Whatever happens the waters are ours."
"And the Mississippi has become a Union river, splitting apart the Confederacy."
"Right you are, Dick, and we're already in touch with our fleet there. The boats do more than fight for us. They're unloading supplies in vast quantities from Chickasaw Bayou. We'll have good food, blankets, tents to shelter us from the rain, and unlimited ammunition to batter the enemy's works."
The investment of Vicksburg had been so rapid and complete that Johnston, the man whom Grant had the most cause to fear, could not unite with Pemberton, and he had retired toward Jackson, hoping to form a new army. Only three days after Champion Hill Grant had drawn his semicircle of steel around Vicksburg and its thirty thousand men, and the navy in the rivers completed the dead line.
Dick rode with Colonel Winchester and took the best view they could get of Vicksburg, the little city which had suddenly become of such vast military importance.
Now and then on the long, lower course of the Mississippi, bluffs rise, although at far intervals. Memphis stands on one group and hundreds of miles south Vicksburg stands on another. The Vicksburg plateau runs southward to the Big Bayou, which curves around them on the south and east, and the eastern slope of the uplift has been cut and gulleyed by many torrents. So strong has been the effect of the rushing water upon the soft soil that these cuts have become deep winding ravines, often with perpendicular banks. One of the ravines is ten miles long. Another cuts the plateau itself for six miles, and a permanent stream flows through it.
The colonel and Dick saw everywhere rivers, brooks, bayous, hills, marshes and thickets, the whole turned by the Southern engineers into a vast and most difficult line of intrenchments. Grant now had forty thousand men for the attack or siege, but he and his generals did not yet know that most of the scattered Confederate army had gathered together again, and was inside. They believed that Vicksburg was held by fifteen thousand men at the utmost.
"What do you think of it, Colonel?" asked Dick, as they sat horseback on one of the highest hills.
"It will be hard to take, despite the help of the navy. Did you ever see another country cut up so much by nature and offering such natural help to defenders?"
"I've heard a lot of Vicksburg. I remember, Colonel, that, despite its smallness, it is one of the great river towns of the South."
"So it is, Dick. I was here once, when I was a boy before the Mexican war. Down on the bar, the low place between the bluffs and the river, was the dueling ground, and it was also the place for sudden fights. It and Natchez, I suppose, were rivals for the wild and violent life of the great river."
"Well, sir, it has a bigger fight on its hands now than was ever dreamed of by any of those men."
"I think you're right, Dick, but the general means to attack at once. We may carry it by storm."
Dick looked again at the vast entanglement of creeks, bayous, ravines, forests and thickets. Like other young officers, he had his opinion, but he had the good sense to keep it to himself. He and the colonel rejoined the regiment, and presently the trumpets were calling again for battle. The men of Champion Hill, sanguine of success, marched straight upon Vicksburg. All the officers of the Winchester regiment were dismounted, as their portion of the line was too difficult for horses.
Their advance, as at Champion Hill, was over ground wooded heavily and they soon heard the reports of the rifles before them. Bullets began to cut the leaves and twigs, carrying away the bushes, scarring the trees and now and then taking human life. The Winchester men fired whenever they saw an enemy, and with them it was largely an affair of sharpshooters, but on both left and right the battle rolled more heavily. The Southerners, behind their powerful fortifications at the heads of the ravines and on the plateau, beat back every attack.
Before long the trumpets sounded the recall and the short battle ceased. Grant had discovered that he could not carry Vicksburg by a sudden rush and he recoiled for a greater effort. He discovered, too, from the resistance and the news brought later by his scouts that an army almost as numerous as his own was in the town.
The Winchester regiment made camp on a solid, dry piece of ground beyond the range of the Southern works, and the men, veterans now, prepared for their comfort. The comrades ate supper to the slow booming of great guns, where the advanced cannon of either side engaged in desultory duel.
The distant reports did not disturb Dick. They were rather soothing. He was glad enough to rest after so much exertion and so much danger and excitement.
"I feel as if I were an empty shell," he said, "and I've got to wait until nature comes along and fills up the shell again with a human being."
"In my school in Vermont," said Warner, "they'd call that a considerable abuse of metaphor, but all metaphors are fair in war. Besides, it's just the way I feel, too. Do you think, Dick, we'll settle down to a regular siege?"
"Knowing General Grant as we do, not from what he tells us, since he hasn't taken Pennington and you and me into his confidence as he ought to, but from our observation of his works, I should say that he would soon attack again in full force."
"I agree with you, Knight of the Penetrating Mind, but meanwhile I'm going to enjoy myself."
"What do you mean, George?"
"A mail has come through by means of the river, and my good father and mother--God bless 'em--have sent me what they knew I would value most, something which is at once an intellectual exercise, an entertainment, and a consolation in bereavement."
Dick and Pennington sat up. Warner's words were earnest and portentous. Besides, they were very long, which indicated that he was not jesting.
"Go ahead, George. Show us what it is!" said Dick eagerly.
Warner drew from the inside pocket of his waist coat a worn volume which he handled lovingly.
"This," he said, "is the algebra, with which I won the highest honors in our academy. I have missed it many and many a time since I came into this war. It is filled with the most beautiful problems, Dick, questions which will take many a good man a whole night to solve. When I think of the joyous hours I've spent over it some of the tenderest chords in my nature are touched."
Pennington uttered a deep groan and buried his face in the grass. Then he raised it again and said mournfully:
"Let's make a solemn agreement, Dick, to watch over our poor comrade. I always knew that something was wrong with his mind, although he means well, and his heart is in the right place. As for me, as soon as I finished my algebra I sold it, and took a solemn oath never to look inside one again. That I call the finest proof of sanity anybody could give. Oh, look at him, Dick! He's studying his blessed algebra and doesn't hear a word I say!"
Warner was buried deep in the pages of a plus b and x minus y, and Dick and Pennington, rising solemnly, walked noiselessly from the presence around to the other side of the little opening where they lay down again. The bit of nonsense relieved them, but it was far from being nonsense to Warner. His soul was alight. As he dived into the intricate problems memories came with them. Lying there in the Southern thickets in the close damp heat of summer he saw again his Vermont mountains with their slopes deep in green and their crests covered with snow. The sharp air of the northern winter blew down upon him, and he saw the clear waters of the little rivers, cold as ice, foaming over the stones. That air was sharp and vital, but, after a while, he came back to himself and closed his book with a sigh.
"Pardon me for inattention, boys," he said, "but while I was enjoying my algebra I was also thinking of old times back there in Vermont, when nobody was shooting at anybody else."
Dick and Pennington walked solemnly back and sat down beside him again.
"Returned to his right mind. Quite sane now," said Pennington. "But don't you think, Dick, we ought to take that exciting book away from him? The mind of youth in its tender formative state can be inflamed easily by light literature."
Warner smiled and put his beloved book in his pocket.
"No, boys," he said, "you won't take it away from me, but as soon as this war is over I shall advance from it to studies of a somewhat similar nature, but much higher in character, and so difficult that solving them will afford a pleasure keener and more penetrating than anything else I know."
"What is your greatest ambition, Warner?" asked Pennington. "Do you, like all the rest of us, want to be President of the United States?"
"Not for a moment. I've already been in training several years to be president of Harvard University. What higher place could mortal ask? None, because there is none to ask for."
"I can understand you, George," said Dick. "My great-grandfather became the finest scholar ever known in the West. There was something of the poet in him too. He had a wonderful feeling for nature and the forest. He had a remarkable chance for observation as he grew up on the border, and was the close comrade in the long years of Indian fighting of Henry Ware, who was the greatest governor of Kentucky. As I think I've told you fellows, Harry Kenton, Governor Ware's great-grandson and my comrade, is fighting on the other side."
"I knew of the great Dr. Cotter long before I met you, Dick," replied Warner. "I read his book on the Indians of the Northern Mississippi Valley. Not merely their history and habits, but their legends, their folk lore, and the wonderful poetic glow so rich and fine that he threw over everything. There was something almost Homeric in his description of the great young Wyandot chieftain Timmendiquas or White Lightning, whom he acclaimed as the finest type of savage man the age had known."
"He and Henry Ware fought Timmendiquas for years, and after the great peace they were friends throughout their long lives."
"And I've studied, too, his wonderful book on the Birds and Mammals of North America," continued Warner with growing enthusiasm. "What marvelous stores of observation and memory! Ah, Dick, those were exciting days, and a man had opportunities for real and vital experiences!"
Dick and Pennington laughed.
"What about Vicksburg, old praiser of past times?" asked Frank. "Don't you think we'll have some lively experiences trying to take it? And wasn't there something real and vital about Bull Run and Shiloh and Perryville and Stone River and all the rest? Don't you worry, George. You're living in exciting times yourself."
"That's so," said Warner calmly. "I had forgotten it for the moment. We've been readers of history and now we're makers of it. It's funny-- and maybe it isn't funny--but the makers of history often know little about what they're making. The people who come along long afterward put them in their places and size up what they have done."
"They can give all the reasons they please why I won this war," said Pennington, "but even history-makers are entitled to a rest. Since there's no order to the contrary I mean to stretch out and go to sleep. Dick, you and George can discuss your problems all night."
But they went to sleep also.