The Scouts of Stonewall by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. Kernstown
The long winding lines of the two armies spread over a maze of fields, woods and thickets, with here and there a stone wall and scattered low hills, which could be used as points of strength. Jackson's men, led by able officers, were pushing forward with all their might. The woods, the thickets and the mud nullified to some extent the superior power of the Northern artillery, but the rifles were pouring forth shattering volleys, many at close range.
Harry felt his horse stagger just after he reached the crest of the hill, but he took no notice of it until a few minutes later, when the animal began to shiver. He leaped clear just in time, for when the shiver ceased, the horse plunged forward, fell on his side and lay dead. As Harry straightened himself on his feet a bullet went through the brim of his cap, and another clipped his epaulet.
"Those must be western men shooting at you, Harry," said a voice beside him. "But it could have been worse. You're merely grazed, when you could have been hit and hit deep."
It was Langdon, cool and imperturbable, who was speaking. He was regarding Harry rather quizzically, as the boy mechanically brushed the mud from his clothes.
"Force of habit," said Langdon, and then he suddenly grasped Harry and pulled him to his knees. There was a tremendous crash in front of them, and a storm of bullets swept over their heads.
"I saw a Yankee officer give the word, and then a million riflemen rose from the bushes and fired straight at us!" shouted Langdon. "You stay here! See the Invincibles are all about you!"
Harry saw that he had in truth fallen among the Invincibles. There was St. Clair, immaculate, a blazing red spot in either cheek, gazing at the great swarms of riflemen in front. Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, those veteran West Pointers, were stalking up and down in front of their lines, fiercely bidding their men to lie down. But Harry knew that his duty was elsewhere.
"I belong to the general!" he exclaimed. "I must join him!"
Casting one glance of regret at the fallen horse that had served him so well he rushed toward General Jackson, who with the rest of his staff had dismounted. The general, showing no emotion or anxiety, was watching the doubtful combat.
Along the whole line the battle was deepening. The able West Pointers on the Northern side were hurrying forward fresh troops. Shields himself was coming with new battalions. The men from Ohio and the states further west, expert like the Southerners in the use of the rifle, and confident of victory, were pouring a heavy and unbroken fire upon the thinner Southern lines. They, too, knew the value of cover and, cool enough to think about it, they used every thicket, and grove and ridge that they could reach.
The roar of the battle was heard plainly in Winchester, and the people of the town, although it was now held by the North, wished openly for the success of the South. The Northern troops, as it happened, nearly all through the war, were surrounded by people who were against them. The women at the windows and on the house tops looked eagerly for the red flare in the South which should betoken the victorious advance of Jackson, sweeping his enemies before him.
But Jackson was not advancing. All the valor and courage of the South so far had been in vain. Harry, standing near his commander, and awaiting any order that might be given him, saw new masses of the enemy advancing along every road and through the fields. The Union colors, held aloft in front of the regiments, snapped defiantly in the wind. And those western riflemen, from their cover, never ceased to pour showers of bullets upon the Southern lines. They had already cut a swath of dead, and many wounded were dragging themselves to the rear.
It seemed to Harry, looking over the field, that the battle was lost. The Northern troops were displaying more tenacity than the Southern officers had expected. Moreover, they were two to one, in strong positions, and with a much superior artillery. As he looked he saw one of the Virginia regiments reel back before the attack of much greater numbers and retreat in some disorder. The victors came on, shouting in triumph, but in a few minutes their officers rallied them, another Virginia regiment rushed to their relief, and the two, united, hurled themselves upon the advancing enemy. The Union troops were driven back with great loss, and Harry noticed that the fire from their two great batteries was weakening. He could not keep from shouting in joy, but he was glad that the sound of his voice was drowned in the thunder of the battle.
General Jackson had no orders for him at present, and Harry watched with extraordinary fascination the battle which was unrolling itself in film after film before him. He saw a stone fence running down the center of a field, and then he saw beyond it a great mass of Northern infantry advancing with bayonets shining and colors waving. From his own side a regiment was running toward it.
Who would reach the fence first? The pulses in Harry's temple beat so hard that they hurt. He could not take his eyes from that terrible race, a race of human beings, a race of life and death. The sun blazed down on the rival forces as they sped across the field. But the Southerners reached the wall first. Not in vain had Jackson trained his foot cavalry to march faster anywhere than any other troops in the world.
Harry saw the Virginians sink down behind the fence, the crest of which a moment later blazed with fire for a long distance. He saw the whole front line of the Northern troops disappear, while those behind were thrown into confusion. The Southerners poured in a second volley before they could recover and the whole force broke and retreated. Other troops were brought up but in the face of everything the Virginians held the fence.
But Shields was an able officer. Moreover he and Jackson had been thrown together in former years, and he knew him. He divined some of the qualities of Jackson's mind, and he felt that the Southern general, the field being what it was, was going to push hardest at the center. He accumulated his own forces there in masses that increased continually. He had suffered a wound the previous day in a skirmish, and he could not be at the very front, but he delivered his orders through Kimball, who was in immediate command upon the field. Five regiments in reserve were suddenly hurled forward and struck the Confederates a tremendous blow.
Harry saw these regiments emerge from the woods and thickets and he saw the gray lines reel before them. Jackson, pointing toward this new and furious conflict, said to Harry:
"Jump on the horse there and tell the officer in command that he must stand firm at all hazards!"
Harry sprang upon a horse not his own, and galloped away. The moment he came into view the western riflemen began to send bullets toward him. His horse was struck, but went on. Another bullet found him, and then a third, which was mortal. Harry leaped clear of the second horse that had been killed under him, and ran toward the officer in charge of the stricken troops. But they were retreating already. They moved slowly, but they moved backward.
Harry joined with the officers in their entreaties to the men to stand, but the pressure upon them was too great. General Garnett, the commander of the Stonewall Brigade, had given an order of his own accord to retreat, and all that part of the line was falling back. The Northern leader, seeing the breach, continually pushed forward fresh troops and more cannon, while the deadly riflemen in the thickets did more harm than the great guns.
The Southerners were compelled to fall back. One gun was lost. Jackson from the crest of the hill had seen with amazement the retreat of the famous Stonewall Brigade that he had once led in person. He galloped across the field, reckless of bullets, and fiercely bade Garnett turn and hold his ground. A drummer stood near and Jackson, grasping him by the shoulder with a firm right hand, fairly dragged him to the crest of a little hill, and bade him beat the rally.
While Jackson still held him he gave the call to stand and fight. But the Southerners could not. The men in blue, intoxicated with victory, pushed forward in thousands and thousands. Their heavy masses overbore all resistance. Jackson, Garnett, Harry and all the officers, young and old were swept from the field by that flood, crested with fire and steel. It was impossible to preserve order and cohesion. The broken regiments were swept back in a confused mass.
Jackson galloped about, trying to rally his men, and his staff gave all the help they could. Harry was on foot once more, waving the sword of which he was so proud. But nothing could stay the tremendous pressure of the Union army. Their commanders always pushed them forward and always fresh men were coming. Skilled cannoneers sent grape shot, shell and round shot whistling through the Southern ranks. The Northern cavalry whipped around the Southern flanks and despite the desperate efforts of Ashby, Sherburne, and the others, began to clip off its wings.
Harry often wondered afterward how his life was preserved. It seemed impossible that he could have escaped such a storm from rifle and cannon, but save for the slight scratches, sustained earlier in the action, he remained untouched. He did not think of it at the time, only of the avalanche that was driving them back. He saw before him a vast red flame, through which bayonets and faces of men showed, ever coming nearer.
Now the North was sure of victory. The shouts of joy ran up and down their whole front. The batteries were pushed nearer and nearer, and sent in terrible volleys at short range. The riflemen who had done such deadly work rose from the woods and thickets, and rushed forward, loading and firing as they came. The Southern force seemed to be nothing but a hopeless mass of fugitives.
Anyone save Jackson would have despaired even of saving his army. But he dreamed yet of victory. He galloped back for a strong detachment of Virginians who had not yet come upon the field, but could not get them up in time to strike a heavy blow.
It was apparent even to Harry and all the other young lieutenants that the battle was lost. He must have shed tears then, because afterward he found furrows in the mud and burned gunpowder on his face. The combat now was not for victory, but for existence. The Southerners fought to preserve the semblance of an army, and it was well for them that they were valiant Virginians led by a great genius, and dauntless officers.
Stonewall Jackson, in this the only defeat he ever sustained in independent command, never lost his head for a moment. By gigantic exertions he formed a new line at last. The fresher troops covered the shattered regiments. The retreating artillery was posted anew.
Jackson galloped back and forth on Little Sorrel. Everywhere his courage and presence of mind brought the men back from despair to hope. Once anew was proved the truth of Napoleon's famous maxim that men are nothing, a man everything. The soldiers on the Northern side were as brave as those on the Southern but they were not led by one of those flashing spirits of war which emerge but seldom in the ages, men who in all the turmoil and confusion of battle can see what ought to be done and who do it.
The beaten Southern army, but a few thousands, now was formed anew for a last stand. A portion of them seized a stone fence, and others took position in thick timber. The cavalry of Turner Ashby raged back and forth, seeking to protect the flanks, and in the east, coming shadows showed that the twilight might yet protect the South from the last blow.
Harry, in the thick of furious battle, had become separated from his commander. He was still on foot and his sword had been broken at the hilt by a bullet, but he did not yet know it. Chance threw him once more among the Invincibles. He plunged through the smoke almost into the arms of Langdon.
"And here is our Harry again!" shouted the irrepressible South Carolinian. "Stonewall Jackson has lost a battle, but he hasn't lost an army. Night and our courage will save us! Here, take this rifle!"
He picked up a loaded rifle which some falling soldier had dropped and thrust it into Harry's hand.
The boy took the rifle and began mechanically to fire and load and fire again at the advancing blue masses. He resolved himself for a minute into a private soldier, and shouted and fired with the rest. The twilight deepened and darkened in the east, but the battle did not cease. The Northern leaders, grim and determined men, seeing their victory sought to press it to the utmost, and always hurried forward infantry, cavalry and artillery. Had the Southern army been commanded by any other than Jackson it would have been destroyed utterly.
Jackson, resourceful and unconquerable, never ceased his exertions. Wherever he appeared he infused new courage into his men. Harry had seized a riderless horse and was once more in the saddle, following his leader, taking orders and helping him whenever he could. The Virginians who had seized the stone fence and the wood held fast. The eye of Jackson was on them, and they could do nothing else. An Ohio and a Virginia regiment on either side lost and retook their colors six times each. One of the flags had sixty bullets through it. An Indiana regiment gave way, but reinforced by another from the state rallied and returned anew to the attack. A Virginia regiment also retreated but was brought back by its colonel, and fought with fresh courage.
The numerous Northern cavalry forced its way around the Southern flanks, and cut in on the rear, taking many prisoners. Then the horsemen appeared in a great mass on the Southern left, and had not time and chance intervened at the last moment Stonewall Jackson might have passed into obscurity.
The increasing twilight was now just merging into night, and a wood stretched between the Northern cavalry and the Southern flank. The Northern horsemen hesitated, not wishing to become entangled among trees and brush in the dark, and in a few minutes the Southern infantry, falling back swiftly after beating off the attacks on their front, passed out of the trap. Sherburne and Funsten, two of Ashby's most valiant cavalry leaders, came up with their squadrons, and covered the retreat, fighting off the Northern horsemen as Jackson and his army disappeared in the woods, and night came over the lost field.
The Southern army retired, beaten, but sullen and defiant. It did not go far, but stopped at a point where the supply train had been placed. Fires were built and some of the men ate, but others were so much exhausted that without waiting for food they threw themselves upon the ground, and in an instant were fast asleep.
Harry, for the moment, a prey to black despair, followed his general. Only one other officer, a major, was with him. Harry watched him closely, but he did not see him show any emotion. Little Sorrel like his master, although he had been under fire a hundred times, had passed through the battle without a scratch. Now he walked forward slowly, the reins lying loose upon his neck.
Harry was not conscious of weariness. He had made immense exertions, but his system was keyed so high by excitement that the tension held firmly yet a little longer. The night had come on heavy and dark. Behind him he could hear the fitful sounds of the Northern and Southern cavalry still skirmishing with each other. Before him he saw dimly the Southern regiments, retreating in ragged lines. It was almost more than he could stand, and his feelings suddenly found vent in an angry cry.
General Jackson heard him and understood.
"Don't be grieved, my boy," he said quietly. "This is only the first battle."
The calm, unboastful courage strengthened Harry anew. If he should grieve how much more should the general who had led in the lost battle, and upon whom everybody would hasten to put the blame! He felt once more that flow of courage and fire from Jackson to himself, and he felt also his splendid fortune in being associated with a man whose acts showed all the marks of greatness. Like so many other young officers, mere boys, he was fast maturing in the furnace of a vast war.
The general ceased to follow the troops, but turned aside into what seemed to be a thin stretch of forest. But Harry saw that the trees grew in rows and he exclaimed:
It seemed to strike Jackson's fancy.
"Well," he said, "an orchard is a good place to sleep in. Can't we make a fire here? I fear that we shall have to burn some fence rails tonight."
Harry and the major--Hawks was his name--hitched the horses, and gathered a heap of dry fence rails. The major set fire to splinters with matches and, in a few minutes a fine fire was crackling and blazing, taking away the sharp chill of the March night.
Harry saw other fires spring up in the orchard, and he went over to one of them, where some soldiers were cooking food.
"Give me a piece of meat and bread," he said to a long Virginian.
"Set, Sonny, an' eat with us!"
"I don't want it for myself."
"Then who in nation are you beggin' fur?"
"For General Jackson. He's sitting over there."
"Thunderation! The gen'ral himself! Here, boy!"
Bearing a big piece of meat in one hand and a big piece of bread in the other Harry returned to Jackson, who had not yet tasted food that day. The general ate heartily, but almost unconsciously. He seemed to be in a deep study. Harry surmised that his thoughts were on the morrow. He had learned already that Stonewall Jackson always looked forward.
Harry foraged and obtained more food for himself, and other officers of the staff who were coming up, some bearing slight wounds that they concealed. He also secured the general's cloak, which was strapped to his saddle and insisted upon his putting it on.
The fire was surrounded presently by officers. Major Hawks had laid together and as evenly as possible a number of fence rails upon which Jackson was to sleep, but as yet no one was disposed to slumber. They had finished eating, but they remained in a silent and somber circle about the fire.
Jackson stood up presently and his figure, wrapped in the long cloak was all dark. The light did not fall upon his face. All the others looked at him. Among them was one of Ashby's young troopers, a bold and reckless spirit. It was a time, too, when the distinction between officers and privates in the great citizen armies was not yet sharply defined. And this young trooper, some spirit of mockery urging him on, stood up and said to his general:
"The Yankees didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave Winchester, did they, general?"
Harry drew a quick, sharp breath, and there was a murmur among the officers, but Stonewall Jackson merely turned a tranquil look upon the presumptuous youth. Then he turned it back to the bed of coals and said in even tones:
"Winchester is a pleasant town to stay in, sir."
The young cavalryman, not abashed at all, continued:
"We heard the Yankees were retreating, but I guess they're retreating after us."
Harry half rose and so did several of the older officers, but Jackson replied quietly:
"I think I may tell you, young sir, that I am satisfied with the result."
The audacity of the youthful trooper could not carry him further. He caught threatening looks from the officers and slipped away in the darkness. Silence fell anew around the fire, and Jackson still stood, gazing into the coals. Soon, he turned abruptly, strode away into the darkness, but came back after a while, lay down on the fence rails and slept soundly.
Harry put four or five rails side by side to protect his body from the cold ground, lay down upon them and threw a cloak over himself. Now he relaxed or rather collapsed completely. The tension that had kept him up so long was gone, and he felt that he could not have risen from the rails had he wished. He saw wavering fires and dusky figures beside them, but sleep came in a few minutes to soothe and heal.
Bye and bye all the army, save the sentinels, slept and the victorious Northern army only two or three miles away also slept, feeling that it had done enough for one day.
Shields that night was sending messages to the North announcing his victory, but he was cherishing no illusions. He told how fierce had been the attack, and with what difficulty it had been beaten off, and in Washington, reading well between the lines they felt that another attack and yet others might come from the same source.
Harry sleeping on his bed of fence rails did not dream of the extraordinary things that the little army of Jackson, beaten at Kernstown was yet to do. McClellan was just ready to start his great army by sea for the attack on Richmond, when suddenly the forgotten or negligible Jackson sprang out of the dark and fixed himself on his flank.
The capital, despite victory, was filled with alarm and the President shared it. The veteran Shields knew this man who had led the attack, and he did not seek to hide the danger. The figure of Stonewall Jackson, gigantic and menacing, showed suddenly through the mists. If McClellan went on to Richmond with the full Northern strength he might launch himself on Washington.
The great scheme of invasion was put out of joint. Shields, although victorious for the time, could not believe that Jackson would attack with so small an army unless he expected reinforcements, and he sent swift expresses to bring back a division of 8,000 men which was marching to cover Washington. Banks, his superior officer, on the way to Washington, too, heard the news at Harper's Ferry and halted there, and Lincoln, detaching a whole corps of nearly 40,000 men from McClellan's army, ordered them to remain at Manassas to protect the capital against Jackson. A dispatch was sent to Banks ordering him to push the valley campaign with his whole strength.
But when Harry rose the next morning from his fence rails he knew nothing of these things. Nor did anyone else in the Southern army, unless it was Stonewall Jackson who perhaps half-divined them. Harry thought afterward that he had foreseen much when he said to the impudent cavalryman that he was satisfied with the result at Kernstown.
They lingered there a little and then began a retreat, unharrassed by pursuit. Scouts of the enemy were seen by Ashby's cavalry, who hung like a curtain between them and the army, but no force strong enough to do any harm came in sight. Harry had secured another horse and most of his duty was at the rear, where he was often sent by the general to get the latest news from Ashby.
He quickly met Sherburne over whose dress difficulties had triumphed at last. His fine cloak, rent in many places, was stained with mud and there was one large dark spot made by his own blood. His face was lined deeply by exhaustion and deep disappointment.
"They were too much for us this time, Harry," he said bitterly. "We can't beat two to one all the time. How does the general take it?"
"As if it were nothing. He'll be ready to fight again in a few days, and we must have struck a hard blow anyhow. The enemy are not pursuing."
"That's true," said Sherburne more cheerfully. "Your argument is a good one."
The army came to a ridge called Rude's Hill and stopped there. Harry was already soldier enough to see that it was a strong position. Before it flowed a creek which the melting snows in the mountains had swollen to a depth of eight or ten feet, and on another side was a fork of the Shenandoah, also swollen. Here the soldiers began to fortify and prepare for a longer stay while Jackson sent for aid.
Harry was not among the messengers for help. Jackson had learned his great ability as a scout, and now he often sent him on missions of observation, particularly with Captain Sherburne, to whom St. Clair and Langdon were also loaned by Colonel Talbot. Thus the three were together when they rode with Sherburne and a hundred men a few days after their arrival at the ridge.
They were well wrapped in great coats, because the weather, after deceiving for a while with the appearance of spring, had turned cold again. The enemy's scouts and spies were keeping back, where they could blow on their cold fingers or walk a while to restore the circulation to their half frozen legs.
Sherburne was his neat and orderly self again and St. Clair was fully his equal. Langdon openly boasted that he was going to have a dressing contest between them for large stakes as soon as the war was over. But all the young Southerners were in good spirits now. They had learned of the alarm caused in the North by Kernstown, and that a third of McClellan's army had been detached to guard against them. Nor had Banks and Shields yet dared to attack them.
"There's what troubles Banks," said Sherburne, pointing with his saber to a towering mass of mountains which rose somber and dark in the very center of the Shenandoah Valley. "He doesn't know which side of the Massanuttons to take."
Harry looked up at these peaks and ridges, famous now in the minds of all Virginians, towering a half mile in the air, clothed from base to summit with dense forest of oak and pine, although today the crests were wrapped in snowy mists. They cut the Shenandoah valley into two smaller valleys, the wider and more nearly level one on the west. Only a single road by which troops could pass crossed the Massanuttons, and that road was held by the cavalry of Ashby.
"If Banks comes one way and he proves too strong for us we can cross over to the other," said Sherburne. "If he divides his force, marching into both valleys, we may beat one part of his army, then pass the mountain and beat the other."
Sherburne had divined aright. It was the mighty mass of the Massanuttons that weighed upon Banks. As he looked up at the dark ridges and misty crests his mind was torn by doubts. His own forces, great in number though they were, were scattered. Fremont to his right on the slopes of the Alleghanies had 25,000 men; there were other strong detachments under Milroy and Schenck, and he had 17,000 men under his own eye. So he was hesitating while the days were passing and Jackson growing stronger.
"I suppose the nature of the country helps us a lot," said Harry as he looked up at the Massanuttons, following Sherburne's pointing saber.
"It does, and we need help," said Sherburne. "Even as it is they would have been pushing upon us if it hadn't been for the cavalry and the artillery. Every time a detachment advanced we'd open up on it with a masked battery from the woods, and if pickets showed their noses too close horsemen were after them in a second. We've had them worried to death for days and days, and when they do come in force Old Jack will have something up his sleeve."
"I wonder," said Harry.