Chapter XXXIV. A Sham Battle at West Point

Burt did his best to keep things lively, and a few days after Webb's departure said: "I've heard that there is to be a sham battle at West Point this afternoon. Suppose we go and see it."

The heavy guns from the river batteries had been awakening deep echoes among the mountains every afternoon for some time past, reminding the Cliffords that the June examinations were taking place at the Military Academy, and that there was much of interest occurring near them. Not only did Amy assent to Burt's proposition, but Leonard also resolved to go and take Maggie and the children. In the afternoon a steam-yacht bore them and many other excursionists to their destination, and they were soon skirting the grassy plain on which the military evolutions were to take place.

The scene was full of novelty and interest for Amy. Thousands of people were there, representing every walk and condition of life. Plain farmers with their wives and children, awkward country fellows with their sweethearts, dapper clerks with bleached hands and faces, were passing to and fro among ladies in Parisian toilets and with the unmistakable air of the metropolis. There were officers with stars upon their shoulders, and others, quite as important in their bearing, decorated with the insignia of a second lieutenant. Plain-looking men were pointed out as senators, and elegantly dressed men were, at a glance, seen to be nobodies. Scarcely a type was wanting among those who came to see how the nation's wards were drilled and prepared to defend the nation's honor and maintain peace at the point of the bayonet. On the piazzas of the officers' quarters were groups of favored people whose relations or distinguished claims were such as to give them this advantage over those who must stand where they could to see the pageant. The cadets in their gray uniforms were conspicuously absent, but the band was upon the plain discoursing lively music. From the inclosure within the barracks came the long roll of a drum, and all eyes turned thitherward expectantly. Soon from under the arched sally-port two companies of cadets were seen issuing on the double-quick. They crossed the plain with the perfect time and precision of a single mechanism, and passed down into a depression of the ground toward the river. After an interval the other two companies came out in like manner, and halted on the plain within a few hundred yards of this depression, their bayonets scintillating in the unclouded afternoon sun. Both parties were accompanied by mounted cadet officers. The body on the plain threw out pickets, stacked arms, and lounged at their ease. Suddenly a shot was fired to the eastward, then another, and in that direction the pickets were seen running in. With marvellous celerity the loungers on the plain seized their muskets, formed ranks, and faced toward the point from which the attack was threatened. A skirmish line was thrown out, and this soon met a similar line advancing from the depression, sloping eastward. Behind the skirmishers came a compact line of battle, and it advanced steadily until within fair musket range, when the firing became general. While the attacking party appeared to fight resolutely, it was soon observed that they made no further effort to advance, but sought only to occupy the attention of the party to which they were opposed.

The Cliffords stood on the northwestern edge of the plain near the statue of General Sedgwick, and from this point they could also see what was occurring in the depression toward the river. "Turn, Amy, quick, and see what's coming," cried Burt. Stealing up the hillside in solid column was another body of cadets. A moment later they passed near on the double-quick, went into battle formation on the run, and with loud shouts charged the flank and rear of the cadets on the plain, who from the first had sustained the attack. These seemed thrown into confusion, for they were now between two fires. After a moment of apparent indecision they gave way rapidly in seeming defeat and rout, and the two attacking parties drew together in pursuit. When they had united, the pursued, who a moment before had seemed a crowd of fugitives, became almost instantly a steady line of battle. The order, "Charge!" rang out, and, with fixed bayonets, they rushed upon their assailants, and steadily drove them back over the plain, and down into their original position. It was all carried out with a far degree of life-like reality. The "sing" of minie bullets was wanting, but abundance of noise and sulphurous smoke can be made with blank cartridges; and as the party attacked plucked victory from seeming defeat, the people's acclamations were loud and long.

At this point the horse of one of the cadet officers became unmanageable. They had all observed this rider during the battle, admiring the manner in which he restrained the vicious brute, but at last the animal's excitement or fear became so great that he rushed toward the crowded sidewalk and road in front of the officers' quarters. The people gave way to right and left. Burt had scarcely time to do more than encircle Amy with his arm and sweep her out of the path of the terrified beast. The cadet made heroic efforts, until it was evident that the horse would dash into the iron fence beyond the road, and then the young fellow was off and on his feet with the agility of a cat, but he still maintained his hold upon the bridle. A second later there was a heavy thud heard above the screams of women and children and the shouts of those vociferating advice. The horse fell heavily in his recoil from the fence, and in a moment or two was led limping and crestfallen away, while the cadet quietly returned to his comrades on the plain. Johnnie and little Ned were crying from fright, and both Amy and Maggie were pale and nervous; therefore Leonard led the way out of the crowd. From a more distant point they saw the party beneath the hill rally for a final and united charge, which this time proved successful, and the companies on the plain, after a stubborn resistance, were driven back to the barracks, and through the sally-port, followed by their opponents. The clouds of smoke rolled away, the band struck up a lively air, and the lines of people broke up into groups and streamed in all directions. Leonard decided that it would be best for them to return by the evening boat, and not wait for parade, since the little yacht would certainly be overcrowded at a later hour.