The Scouts of Stonewall by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter V. The Northern Advance
Harry flattened himself against the wall and all his training and inherited instincts came promptly to his service. He knew that he, too, would be in the shadow there, where it was not likely that the sentinels could see him owing to the darkness of the night. Then he moved cautiously toward the window where he had seen the outline.
The cold rain beat on his face and he saw the figures of the sentinels moving back and forth, but, black against the black wall, he was confident that he could not be seen by them. Half way to the window, his eyes now having gotten used to the darkness, he knelt down and examined the earth, made soft by the rains. He distinctly saw footprints, undoubtedly those of a man, leading by the edge of the wall, and now he knew that he had not been mistaken.
Harry came to the window himself, and, glancing in, he saw that the merriment was going on unabated. He continued his search, following the revealing foot prints. He went nearly all the way around the house and then lost them among heavy shrubbery. He surmised that at this point the spy--he was sure that it was a spy and sure, too, that it was Shepard-- had left the place, passing between the sentinels in the rainy dark.
He spoke to the sentinels, who knew him well, and they were quite confident that nobody had come within their lines. But Harry, while keeping his own counsel, held another opinion and he was equally positive about it. He was returning to the house, when he heard the tread of hoofs, and then a horseman spoke with the sentinels. He looked back and recognized Sherburne.
The young captain was holding himself erect in the saddle, but his horse and his uniform were covered with red mud. There were heavy black lines under his eyes and his face, despite his will, showed strong signs of weariness. Sure that his mission was important, Harry went to him at once.
"Is General Jackson inside?" asked Sherburne.
"Yes, and he has not yet gone to bed," replied Harry, looking at the lighted windows.
"Then ask him if I can see him at once. He sent my troop and me on a scout toward Romney this morning. I have news, news that cannot wait."
"Of course, he'll see you. Come inside."
Sherburne slipped from his horse. Harry noticed that it was not his usual elastic spring. He seemed almost to fall to the ground, and the horse, no hand on the reins, still stood motionless, his head drooping. It was evident that Sherburne was in the last stages of exhaustion, and now that he came nearer his face showed great anxiety as well as weariness.
Harry opened the door promptly and pushed him inside. Then he helped him off with his wet and muddy overcoat, pushed him into a chair, and said:
"I'll announce you to General Jackson, and he'll see you at once."
Harry knew that Jackson would not linger a second, when a messenger of importance came, and he went into the library where the minister and the general stood talking. General Jackson held in one hand a large leather-covered volume, and with the forefinger of the other hand he was pointing to a paragraph in it. The minister was saying something that Harry did not catch, but he believed that they were arguing some disputed point of Presbyterian doctrine.
When Jackson saw Harry he closed the book instantly, and put it on the shelf. He had seen in the eyes of his aide that he was coming with no common message.
"Captain Sherburne is in the hall, sir," said the boy. "He has come back from the scout toward Romney."
"Bring him in."
The minister quietly slipped out, as Sherburne entered, but Jackson bade Harry remain, saying that he might have orders for him to carry.
"What have you to tell me, Captain Sherburne?" asked Jackson.
"We saw the patrols of the enemy, and we took two prisoners. We learned that McClellan's army is showing signs of moving, and we saw with our own eyes that Banks and Shields are preparing for the same. They threaten us here in Winchester."
"What force do you think Banks has?"
"He must have forty thousand men."
"A good guess. The figures of my spies say thirty-eight thousand, and we can muster scarcely five thousand here. We must move."
Jackson spoke without emotion. His words were cold and dry, even formal. Harry's heart sank. If eight times their numbers were advancing upon them, then they must abandon Winchester. They must leave to the enemy this pleasant little city, so warmly devoted to the Southern cause and confess weakness and defeat to these friends who had done so much for them during their stay.
He felt the full bitterness of the blow. The people of the South--little immigration had gone there--were knit together more closely by ties of kinship than those of the North. Harry through the maternal line was, like most Kentuckians, of Virginia descent, and even here in Winchester he had found cousins, more or less removed it was true, but it was kinship, nevertheless, and they had made the most of it. It would have been easier for him were strangers instead of friends to see their retreat.
"Captain Sherburne, you will go to your quarters and sleep. It is obvious that you need rest," said Jackson. "Mr. Kenton, you will wait and take the orders that I am going to write."
Sherburne saluted and withdrew promptly. Jackson turned to a shelf of the library on which lay pen, ink and paper, and standing before it rapidly wrote several notes. It was his favorite attitude--habit of his West Point days--to write or read standing.
It took him less than five minutes to write the notes, and he handed them to Harry to deliver without delay to the brigade commanders. His tones were incisive and charged with energy. Harry felt the electric thrill pass to himself, and with a quick salute he was once more out in the rain.
Some of the brigadiers were asleep, and grumbled when Harry awoke them, but the orders soon sent the last remnants of sleep flying. The boy did not linger, but returned quickly to the manse, where General Jackson met him at the door. Other aides were coming or going, but all save one or two windows of the house were dark now, and the merrymaking was over.
"You have delivered the orders?" asked Jackson.
"Yes, sir, all of them."
Harry also told then of the face that he had seen at the window and his belief concerning its identity.
"Very likely," said Jackson, "but we cannot pursue him now. Now go to headquarters and sleep, but I shall want you at dawn."
Harry was ready before the first sunlight, and that day consternation spread through Winchester. The enemy was about to advance in overwhelming force, and Jackson was going to leave them. Johnston was retreating before McClellan, and Jackson in the valley must retreat before Banks.
There could be no doubt about the withdrawal of Jackson. The preparations were hurried forward with the utmost vigor. A train took the sick to Staunton, and in one of the coaches went Mrs. Jackson to her father's home. Town and camp were filled with talk of march and battle, and the younger rejoiced. They felt that a month of waiting had made them rusty.
Amid all the bustle Jackson found time to attend religious services, and also ordered every wagon that reached the camp with supplies to be searched. If liquor were found it was thrown at once upon the ground. The soldiers, even the recruits, knew that they were to follow a God-fearing man. Oliver Cromwell had come back to earth. But most of the soldiers were now disciplined thoroughly. The month they had spent at Winchester after the great raid had been devoted mostly to drill.
The day of departure came and the army, amid the good wishes of many friends in Winchester, filed out of the town. The great rains, which, it had seemed, would never cease, had ceased at last. There was a touch of spring in the air, and in sheltered places the grass was taking on deep tints of green.
During all the days of preparation Jackson had said nothing about his plan of retreat. The Virginians, lining the streets and watching so anxiously, did not know where he would seek refuge. And suddenly as they watched, a cheer, tremendous and involuntary, burst from them.
The heads of Jackson's columns were turned north. He was not marching away from the enemy. He was marching toward him. But the burst of elation was short. Even the civilians in Winchester knew that Jackson was hugely outnumbered.
Harry himself was astonished, and he gazed at his leader. What fathomless purpose lay beneath that stern, bearded face? Jackson's eyes expressed nothing. He and he alone knew what was in his mind.
But the troops asked no word from their leaders. The fact that their faces were turned toward the north was enough for them. They knew, too, of the heavy odds that were against them, but they were not afraid.
As Harry watched the young soldiers, many of whom sang as they marched, his own enthusiasm rose. He had seen companies in brilliant uniforms at Richmond, but no parade soldiers were here. There were few glimpses of color in the columns, but the men marched with a strong, elastic step. They had all been born upon the farms or in the little villages, and they were familiar with the hills and forests. They had been hunters, too, as soon as their arms were strong enough to hold rifle or shot gun. Most of them had killed deer or bear in the mountains, and all of them had known how to ride from earliest childhood. They had endured every hardship and they knew how to take care of themselves in any kind of country and in any kind of weather.
Harry smiled as he looked at their uniforms. How different they were from some of the gay young companies of Charleston! These uniforms had been spun for them and made for them by their own mothers and wives and sisters or sweethearts. They were all supposed to be gray, but there were many shades of gray, sometimes verging to a light blue, with butternut as the predominant color. They wore gray jackets, short of waist and single-breasted. Caps were giving way to soft felt hats, and boots had already been supplanted by broad, strong shoes, called brogans.
Many of the soldiers carried frying pans and skillets hung on the barrels of their rifles, simple kitchen utensils which constituted almost the whole of their cooking equipment. Their blankets and rubber sheets for sleeping were carried in light rolls on their backs. A toothbrush was stuck in a buttonhole. On their flanks or in front rode the cavalry, led by the redoubtable Turner Ashby, and there was in all their number scarcely a single horseman who did not ride like the Comanche Indian, as if he were born in the saddle. Ashby was a host in himself. He had often ridden as much as eighty miles a day to inspect his own pickets and those of the enemy, and it was told of him that he had once gone inside the Union lines in the disguise of a horse doctor.
The Northern cavalry, unused to the saddle, compared very badly with those of the South in the early years of the war. Ashby's men, moreover, rode over country that they had known all their lives. There was no forest footpath, no train among the hills hidden from them. But the cannon of Jackson's army was inferior. Here the mechanical genius of the North showed supreme.
Such was the little army of Jackson, somber to see, which marched forth upon a campaign unrivalled in the history of war. The men whom they were to meet were of staunch stock and spirit themselves. Banks, their commander, had worked in his youth as a common laborer in a cotton mill, and had forced himself up by vigor and energy, but Shields was a veteran of the Mexican War. Most of the troops had come from the west, and they, too, were used to every kind of privation and hardship.
Harry's duties carried him back and forth with the marching columns, but he lingered longest beside the Invincibles, only a regiment now, and that regiment composed almost wholly of Virginians. St. Clair was still in the smartest of uniforms, a contrast to the others, and as he nodded to Harry he told him that the troops expected to meet the enemy before night.
"I don't know how they got that belief," he said, "but I know it extends to all our men. What about it, Harry?"
"Stonewall Jackson alone knows, and he's not telling."
"They say that Banks is coming with ten to one!" said Langdon, "but it might be worse than that. It might be a hundred to one."
"It's hardly as bad as ten to one, Tom," said Harry with a laugh. "Ashby's men say it's only eight to one, and they know."
"It's all right, then," said Langdon, squaring his shoulders, and looking ferocious. "Ten to one would be a little rough on us, but I don't mind eight to one at all! at all! They say that the army of Banks is not many miles away. Is it so, Harry?"
"I suppose so. That's the news the cavalry bring in."
Harry rode on, saluting Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire as he passed. They returned the salutes, but said nothing, and in a few minutes he was with General Jackson again.
It was now March, and the spring was making headway in the great valley. The first flush of green was over everything. The snows were gone, the rains that followed were gone, too, and the earth was drying rapidly under the mild winds that blew from the mountains. It was evident to all that the forces of war were unloosed with the departure of winter.
The day was filled with excitement for Harry. The great Federal army was now so near that the rival pickets were almost constantly in touch. Only stern orders from Jackson kept his fiery cavalry from making attacks which might have done damage, but not damage enough. Banks, the Union leader, eminent through politics rather than war, having been Governor of Massachusetts, showed the utmost caution. Feeling secure in his numbers he resolved to risk nothing until he gained his main object--Winchester-- and the efforts of Turner Ashby and his brilliant young lieutenants like Sherburne, could not lead him into any trap.
Night came and the Southern army stopped for supper and rest. The Northern army was then only four miles from Winchester, and within a half hour hostile pickets had been firing at one another. Yet the men ate calmly and lay down under the trees. Jackson called a council in a little grove. General Garnett, the commander of the Stonewall Brigade, all the colonels of the regiments, and the most trusted young officers of his staff were present. A little fire of fallen wood lighted up the anxious and earnest faces.
Jackson spoke rapidly. Harry had never before seen him show so much emotion and outward fire. He wanted to bring up all his men and attack the Union army at once. He believed that the surprise and the immense dash of the Southern troops would overcome the great odds. But the other officers shook their heads sadly. There had been a confusion of orders. Their own troops had been scattered and their supply trains were far away. If they attacked they would surely fall.
Jackson reluctantly gave up his plan and walked gloomily away. But he turned presently and beckoned to Harry and others of his staff. His eyes were shining. Some strange mood seemed to possess him.
"Mount at once, gentlemen," he said, "and ride with me. I'm going to Winchester."
One or two of the officers opened their mouths to protest, but checked the words when they saw Jackson's stern face. They sprang into the saddle, and scorning possible attack or capture by roving Union cavalry, galloped to the town.
Jackson drew rein before the manse, where Dr. Graham was already standing at the open door to meet him, runners from the town carrying ahead the news that Jackson was returning with his staff. It seemed that something the general had said to the minister the day before troubled him. Harry inferred from the words he heard that Jackson had promised the minister too much and now he was stung by conscience. Doubtless he had told Dr. Graham that he would never let the Federals take Winchester, and he had come to apologize for his mistake. Harry was not at all surprised. In fact, as he came to know him thoroughly, he was never surprised at anything this strange man and genius did.
Harry's surmise was right. Jackson was torn with emotion at being compelled to abandon Winchester, and he wanted to explain how it was to the friend whom he liked so well. He had thoughts even yet of striking the enemy that night and driving him away. Looking the minister steadily in the face, but not seeing him, seeing instead a field of battle, he said slowly, biting each word:
"I--will--yet--carry--out--this plan. I--will--think. It--must be done."
The minister said nothing, standing and staring at the general like one fascinated. He had never seen Jackson that way before. His face was lined with thought and his eyes burned like coals of fire. His hand fiercely clinched the hilt of his sword. He, who showed emotion so rarely, was overcome by it now.
But the fire in his eyes died, his head sank, and his hand fell from his sword.
"No, no," he said sadly. "I must not try it. Too many of my brave men would fall. I must withdraw, and await a better time."
Saying good-by to his friend he mounted and rode in silence from Winchester again, and silently the people saw him go. His staff followed without a word. When they reached a high hill overlooking the town Jackson paused and the others paused with him. All turned as if by one accord and looked at Winchester.
The skies were clear and a silver light shone over the town. It was a beautiful, luminous light and it heightened the beauty of spire, roof, and wall. Jackson looked at it a long time, the place where he had spent such a happy month, and then, his eye blazing again, he lifted his hand and exclaimed with fierce energy:
"That is the last council of war I will ever hold!"
Harry understood him. He knew that Jackson now felt that the council had been too slow and too timid. Henceforth he would be the sole judge of attack and retreat. But the general's emotion was quickly suppressed. Taking a last look at the little city that he loved so well, he rode rapidly away, and his staff followed closely at his heels.
That was a busy and melancholy night. The young troops, after all, were not to fight the enemy, but were falling back. Youth takes less account than age of odds, and they did not wish to retreat. Harry who had seen that look upon Jackson's face, when he gazed back at Winchester, felt that he would strike some mighty counter-blow, but he did not know how or when.
The army withdrew slowly toward Strasburg, twenty-five miles away, and the next morning the Union forces in overwhelming numbers occupied Winchester. Meantime the North was urging McClellan with his mighty army to advance on Richmond, and Stonewall Jackson and his few thousands who had been driven out of Winchester were forgotten. The right flank of McClellan, defended by Banks and forty thousand men, would be secure.
There was full warrant for the belief of McClellan. It seemed to Harry as they retreated up the valley that they were in a hopeless checkmate. What could a few thousand men, no matter how brave and hardy, do against an army as large as that of Banks? But he was cheered somewhat by the boldness and activity of the cavalry under Ashby. These daring horsemen skirmished continually with the enemy, and Harry, as he passed back and forth with orders, saw much of it.
Once he drew up with the Invincibles, now a Virginia instead of a South Carolina regiment, and sitting on horseback with his old friends, watched the puffs of smoke to the rear, where Ashby's men kept back the persistent skirmishers of the North.
"Colonel," said Harry to Colonel Talbot, "what do you think of it? Shall we ever make headway against such a force? Or shall we be compelled to retreat until we make a junction with the main army under General Johnston?"
Colonel Talbot glanced back at the puffs of white smoke, and suddenly his eyes seemed to flash with the fire that Harry had seen in Jackson's when he looked upon the Winchester that he must leave.
"No, Harry, I don't believe we'll keep on retreating," he replied. "I was with General Taylor when he fell back before the Mexican forces under Santa Anna which outnumbered him five to one. But at Buena Vista he stopped falling back, and everybody knows the glorious victory we won there over overwhelming odds. The Yankees are not Mexicans. Far from it. They are as brave as anybody. But Stonewall Jackson is a far greater general than Zachary Taylor."
"I'm hoping for the best," said Harry.
"We'll all wait and see," said the colonel.
They stopped falling back at Mount Jackson, twenty-five miles from Winchester, and the army occupied a strong position. Harry felt instinctively that they would fall back no more, and his spirits began to rise again. But the facts upon which his hopes were based were small. Jackson had less than five thousand men, and in the North he was wiped off the map. It was no longer necessary for cabinet members and generals to take him into consideration.
Jackson now out of the way, the main portion of the army under Banks was directed to march eastward to Manassas, while a heavy detachment still more than double Jackson's in numbers remained in the valley. Meanwhile McClellan, with his right flank clear, was going by sea to Richmond, goaded to action at last by the incessant demands of a people which had a right to expect much of his great and splendidly equipped army.
Harry was with Stonewall Jackson when the news of these movements reached them, brought by Philip Sherburne, who, emulating his commander, Turner Ashby, seemed never to rest or grow weary.
"General Banks is moving eastward to cover the eastern approaches to Washington," said the young captain, "while General Shields with 12,000 men is between us and Winchester."
"So," said Jackson. Sherburne looked at him earnestly, but he gave no sign.
"Ride back to your chief and tell him I thank him for his vigilance and to report to me promptly everything that he may discover," said Jackson. "You may ride with him also, Mr. Kenton, and return to me in an hour with such news as you may have."
Harry went gladly. Sometimes he longed to be at the front with Turner Ashby, there where the rifles were often crackling.
"What will he do? Will he turn now?" said Sherburne anxiously to Harry.
"I heard General Jackson say that he would never hold another council of war, and he's keeping his word. Nobody knows his plans, but I think he'll attack. I feel quite sure of it, captain."
They came soon to a field in which Turner Ashby was sitting on a horse, examining points further down the valley with a pair of powerful glasses. Sherburne reported briefly and Ashby nodded, but did not take the glasses from his eyes. Harry also looked down the valley and his strong sight enabled him to detect tiny, moving figures which he knew were those of Union scouts and skirmishers.
Despite his youth and the ardor of battle in his nostrils, Harry felt the tragedy of war in this pleasant country. It was a noble landscape, that of the valley between the blue mountains. Before him stretched low hills, covered here and there with fine groups of oak or pine without undergrowth. Houses of red brick, with porticoes and green shutters, stood in wide grounds. Most of them were inhabited yet, and their owners always brought information to the soldiers of the South, never to those of the North.
The earth had not yet dried fully from the great rains, and horses and cannon wheels sank deep in the mud, whenever they left the turnpike running down the center of the valley and across which a Northern army under Shields lay. The men in blue occupied a wide stretch of grassy fields on the east, and on the west a low hill, with a small grove growing on the crest. Dominating the whole were the lofty cliffs of North Mountain on the west. The main force of the North, strengthened with cannon, lay to the east of the turnpike. But on the hill to the west were two strong batteries and near it were lines of skirmishers. Shields, a veteran of the Mexican war himself, was not present at this moment, but Kimball, commanding in his absence, was alert and did not share the general belief that Stonewall Jackson might be considered non-existent.
Harry, things coming into better view, the longer he looked, saw much of the Union position, and Turner Ashby presently handed him the glasses. Then he plainly discerned the guns and a great mass of infantry, with the colors waving above them in the gentle breeze.
"They're there," said Turner Ashby, dryly. "If we want to attack they're waiting."
Harry rode back to Jackson, and told him that the whole Union force was in position in front, and then the boy knew at once that a battle was coming. The bearded, silent man showed no excitement, but sent orders thick and fast to the different parts of his army. The cavalry led by Ashby began to press the enemy hard in front of a little village called Kernstown. A regiment with two guns led the advance on the west of the turnpike, and the heavier mass of infantry marched across the fields on the left.
Harry, as his duty bade him, kept beside his general, who was riding near the head of the infantry. The feet of men and horses alike sank deep in the soft earth of the fields, but they went forward at a good pace, nevertheless. Their blood was hot and leaping. There was an end to retreats. They saw the enemy and they were eager to rush upon him.
The pulses in Harry's temples were beating hard. He already considered himself a veteran of battle, but he could not see it near without feeling excitement. A long line of fire had extended across the valley. White puffs of smoke arose like innumerable jets of steam. The crackle of the rifles was incessant and at the distance sounded like the ripping of heavy cloth.
Then came a deep heavy crash that made the earth tremble. The two batteries on the hill had opened at a range of a mile on Jackson's infantry. Those men of the North were good gunners and Harry heard the shells and solid shot screaming and hissing around. Despite his will he could not keep from trembling for a while, but presently it ceased, although the fire was growing heavier.
But the Southern infantry were so far away that the artillery fire did not harm. Ever urged on by Jackson, they pressed through fields and marshy ground, their destination a low ridge from which, as a place of advantage, they could reply to the Union batteries. From the east and from a point near a church called the Opequon came the thunder of their own guns advancing up the other side of the turnpike.
Now the great marching qualities of Jackson's men were shown. Not in vain had they learned to be foot cavalry. They pressed forward through the deep mud and always the roar of the increasing fire called them on. Before them stretched the ridge and Harry was in fear lest the enemy spring forward and seize it first.
But no foe appeared in front of them in the fields, and then with a rush they were at the foot of the ridge. Another rush and they had climbed it. Harry from its crest saw the wide field of combat and he knew that the greater battle had just begun.