The Scouts of Stonewall by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. On the Ridges
As they rode in the shadow of the Massanuttons Harry continued to wonder. The whole campaign in the valley had become to him an interminable maze. Stonewall Jackson might know what he intended to do, but he was not telling. Meanwhile they marched back and forth. There was incessant skirmishing between cavalry and pickets, but it did not seem to signify anything. Banks, sure of his overwhelming numbers, pressed forward, but always cautiously and slowly. He did not march into any trap. And Harry surmised that Jackson, much too weak to attack, was playing for time.
Sherburne and his troop paused at the very base of the Massanuttons and Harry, who happened to be with them, looked up again at the lofty summits standing out so boldly and majestically in the middle of the valley. The oaks and maples along their slopes were now blossoming into a green that matched the tint of the pines, but far up on the crests there was still a line of snow, and white mists beyond.
"Why not climb the highest summit?" he said to Sherburne. "You have powerful glasses and we could get a good view of what is going on up the valley."
"Most of those slopes are not slopes at all. They're perpendicular like the side of a house. The horses could never get up."
"But they can certainly go part of the way, and some of us can climb the rest on foot."
Sherburne's eyes sparkled. The spirit of adventure was strong within him. Moreover the task, if done, was worth while.
"Good for you, Harry," he exclaimed. "We'll try it! What do you say, St. Clair, you and Langdon?"
"I follow where you lead, and I hope that you lead to the top of the mountain," replied St. Clair.
"Likely it's cold up there," said Langdon, "but there are higher and colder mountains and I choose this one."
They had learned promptness and decision from Stonewall Jackson, and Sherburne at once gave the order to ascend. Several men in his troop were natives of that part of the valley, and they knew the Massanuttons well. They led and the whole troop composed of youths followed eagerly. Bye and bye they dismounted and led their horses over the trails which grew slippery with wet and snow as they rose higher.
When they paused at times to rest they would all look northward over the great valley, where a magnificent panorama had gradually risen into view. They saw a vast stretch of fields turning green, neat villages, dark belts of forest, the gleam of brooks and creeks, and now and then, the glitter from a Northern bayonet.
At length the chief guide, a youth named Wallace, announced that the horses could go no farther. Even in summer when the snow was all gone and the earth was dry they could not find a footing. Now it was certain death for them to try the icy steeps.
Sherburne ordered the main body of the troop to halt in a forested and sheltered glen in the side of the mountain, and, choosing Harry, St. Clair, Langdon, the guide Wallace, and six others, he advanced with them on foot. It was difficult climbing, and more than once they were bruised by falls, but they learned to regard such accidents as trifles, and ardent of spirit they pressed forward.
"I think we'll get a good view," said Sherburne. "See how brilliantly the sun is shining in the valley."
"Yes, and the mists on the crests are clearing away," said Harry.
"Then with the aid of the glasses we can get a sweep up the valley for many miles. Now boys, here we go! up! up!"
If it had not been for the bushes they could never have made the ascent, as they were now in the region of snow and ice and the slopes were like glass. Often they were compelled to crawl, and it was necessary, too, to exercise a good deal of care in crawling.
St. Clair groaned as he rose after climbing a rock, and brushed the knees of his fine gray trousers.
"Cheer up, Arthur," said Langdon, "it could have been worse. The sharp stones there might have cut holes through them."
But in spite of every difficulty and danger they went steadily toward the summit, and streamers of mist yet floating about the mountain often enclosed them in a damp shroud. Obviously, however, the clouds and vapors were thinning, and soon the last shred would float away.
"It ain't more'n a hundred feet more to the top," said Wallace, "an' it's shore that the sun will be shinin' there."
"Shining for us, of course," said Langdon. "It's a good omen."
"I wish I could always look for the best as you do, Tom," said St. Clair.
"I'm glad I can. Gay hearts are better than riches. As sure as I climb, Arthur, I see the top."
"Yes, there it is, the nice snowy bump above us."
They dragged themselves upon the loftiest crest, and, panting, stood there for a few minutes in several inches of snow. Then the wind caught up the last shreds and tatters of mist, and whipped them away southward. Every one of them drew a deep, sharp breath, as the great panorama of the valley to the northward and far below was unrolled before them.
The brilliant sunshine of early spring played over everything, but far down in the valley they seemed to see by contrast the true summer of the sunny south, which is often far from sunny. But seen from the top of the mountain the valley was full of golden rays. Now the roofs of the villages showed plainly and they saw with distinctness the long silver lines that marked the flowing of the rivers and creeks. To the east and to the west further than the eye could reach rose the long line of dim blue mountains that enclosed the valley.
But it was the glitter of the bayonets in the valley that caused the hearts of the Virginians to beat most fiercely. Banners and guidons, clusters of white tents, and dark swarms of men marked where the foot of the invading stranger trod their soil. The Virginians loved the great valley. Enclosed between the blue mountains it was the richest and most beautiful part of all their state. It hurt them terribly to see the overwhelming forces of the North occupying its towns and villages and encamped in its fields.
Harry, not a Virginian himself, but a brother by association, understood and shared their feeling. He saw Sherburne's lips moving and he knew that he was saying hard words between his teeth. But Sherburne's eyes were at the glasses, and he looked a long time, moving them slowly from side to side. After a while he handed them to Harry.
The boy raised the glasses and the great panorama of the valley sprang up to his eyes. It seemed to him that he could almost count the soldiers in the camps. There was a troop of cavalry riding to the southward, and further to the left was another. Directly to the north was their battlefield of Kernstown, and not far beyond it lay Winchester. He saw such masses of the enemy's troops and so many signs of activity among them that he felt some movement must be impending.
"What do you think of it, Harry?" said Sherburne.
"Banks must be getting ready to move forward."
"I think so, too. I wish we had his numbers."
"More men are coming for us. We'll have Ewell's corps soon, and General Jackson himself is worth ten thousand men."
"That's so, Harry, but ten thousand men are far too few. McDowell's whole corps is available, and with it the Yankees can now turn more than seventy thousand men into the valley."
"And they can fight, too, as we saw at Kernstown," said St. Clair.
"That's so, and I'm thinking they'll get their stomachs full of it pretty soon," said Langdon. "Yesterday about dusk I went out in some bushes after firewood, and I saw a man kneeling. It struck me as curious, and I went up closer. What do you think? It was Old Jack praying. Not any mock prayer, but praying to his Lord with all his heart and soul. I'm not much on praying myself, but I felt pretty solemn then, and I slid away from there as quick and quiet as you please. And I tell you, fellows, that when Stonewall Jackson prays it's time for the Yankees to weep."
"You're probably right, Langdon," said Captain Sherburne, "but it's time for us to be going back, and we'll tell what we've seen to General Jackson."
As they turned away a crunching in the snow on the other slope caused them to stop. The faces of men and then their figures appeared through the bushes. They were eight or ten in number and all wore blue uniforms. Harry saw the leader, and instantly he recognized Shepard. It came to him, too, in a flash of prescience, that Shepard was just the man whom he would meet there.
Sherburne, who had seen the blue uniforms, raised a pistol and fired. Two shots were fired by the Union men at the same instant, and then both parties dropped back from the crest, each on its own side.
Sherburne's men were untouched and Harry was confident that Shepard's had been equally lucky--the shots had been too hasty--but it was nervous and uncomfortable work, lying there in the snow, and waiting for the head of an enemy to appear over the crest.
Harry was near Captain Sherburne, and he whispered to him:
"I know the man whose face appeared first through the bushes."
"Who is he?"
"His name is Shepard. He's a spy and scout for the North, and he is brave and dangerous. He was in Montgomery when President Davis was inaugurated. I saw him in Washington when I was there as a spy myself. I saw him again in Winchester just before the battle of Kernstown, and now here he is once more."
"Must be a Wandering Jew sort of a fellow."
"He wanders with purpose. He has certainly come up here to spy us out."
"In which he is no more guilty than we are."
"That's true, but what are we going to do about it, captain?"
"Blessed if I know. Wait till I take a look."
Captain Sherburne raised himself a little, in order to peep over the crest of the ridge. A rifle cracked on the other side, a bullet clipped the top of his cap, and he dropped back in the snow, unhurt but startled.
"This man, Shepard, is fully as dangerous as you claim him to be," he said to Harry.
"Can you see anything of them?" asked St. Clair.
"Not a thing," said Harry.
"If we show they shoot, and if they show we shoot," said Langdon. "Seems to me it's about the most beautiful case of checkmate that I've known."
"Perhaps we can stalk them," said St. Clair.
"And perhaps they can stalk us," said Langdon. "But I think both sides are afraid to try it."
"You're right, Langdon," said Captain Sherburne, "It's a case of checkmate. I confess that I don't know what to do."
"We could wait here while they waited too, and if we waited long enough it would get so dark we couldn't see each other. But captain, you are a kind-hearted and sympathetic man, do you see any fun in sitting in the snow on top of a mountain, waiting to kill men whom you don't want to kill or to be killed by men who don't want to kill you?"
"No, Tom, I don't," replied Captain Sherburne with a laugh, "and you're talking mighty sound sense. This is not like a regular battle. We've nothing to gain by shooting those men, and they've nothing to gain by shooting us. The Massanuttons extend a long distance and there's nothing to keep scouts and spies from climbing them at other places. We'll go away from here."
He gave the order. They rose and crept as softly as they could through the snow and bushes down the side of the mountain. Harry looked back occasionally, but he saw no faces appear on the crest. Soon he heard Langdon who was beside him laughing softly to himself.
"What's the matter, Tom?" he asked.
"Harry, if I could take my pistol and shoot straight through this mountain the bullet when it came out on the other side would hit a soldier in blue clothes, going at the same rate of speed down the mountain."
"More than likely you're right, Tom, if they're sensible, and that man Shepard certainly is."
Further down they met some of their own men climbing up. The troop had heard the shots and was on the way to rescue, if rescue were needed. Captain Sherburne explained briefly and they continued the descent, leading their horses all the way, and breathing deep relief, when they stood at last in the plain.
"I'll remember that climb," said Langdon to Harry as he sprang into the saddle, "and I won't do it again when there's snow up there, unless General Jackson himself forces me up with the point of a bayonet."
"The view was fine."
"So it was, but the shooting was bad. Not a Yank, not a Reb fell, and I'm not unhappy over it. A curious thing has happened to me, Harry. While I'm ready to fight the Yankee at the drop of the hat I don't seem to hate 'em as much as I did when the war began."
"Same here. The war ought not to have happened, but we're in it, and to my way of thinking we're going to be in it mighty deep and long."
Langdon was silent for a little while, but nothing could depress him long. He was soon chattering away as merrily as ever while the troop rode back to General Jackson. Harry regarded him with some envy. A temperament that could rejoice under any circumstances was truly worth having.
Sherburne reported to Ashby who in return sent him to the commander, Harry going with him to resume his place on the staff. Jackson heard the report without comment and his face expressed nothing. Harry could not see that he had changed much since he had come to join him. A little thinner, a little more worn, perhaps, but he was the same quiet, self-contained man, whose blue eyes often looked over and beyond the one to whom he was talking, as if he were maturing plans far ahead.
Harry occupied a tent for the time with two or three other young officers, and being permitted a few hours off duty he visited his friends of the Invincibles, Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire. The two old comrades already had heard the results of the scout from St. Clair and Langdon, but they gave Harry a welcome because they liked him. They also gave him a camp stool, no small luxury in an army that marches and fights hard, using more gunpowder than anything else.
Harry put the stool against a tree, sat on it and leaned back against the trunk, feeling a great sense of luxury. The two men regarded him with a benevolent eye. They, too, were enjoying luxuries, cigars which a cavalry detail had captured from the enemy. It struck Harry at the moment that although one was of British descent and the other of French they were very much alike. South Carolina had bred them and then West Point had cast them in her unbreakable mold. Neat, precise, they sat rigidly erect, and smoked their cigars.
"Do you like it on the staff of General Jackson, Harry," asked Colonel Talbot.
"I felt regrets at leaving the Invincibles," replied Harry truthfully, "but I like it. I think it a privilege to be so near to General Jackson."
"A leader who has fought only one battle in independent command and who lost that," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, thoughtfully--he knew that Harry would repeat nothing, "and who nevertheless has the utmost confidence of his men. He does not joke with them as the young Napoleon did with his soldiers. He has none of the quality that we call magnetic charm, and yet his troops are eager to follow him anywhere. He has won no victories, but his men believe him capable of many. He takes none of his officers into his confidence, but all have it. Incredible, but true. Why is it?"
He put his cigar back in his mouth and puffed meditatively. Colonel Leonidas Talbot, who also had been puffing meditatively while Lieutenant- Colonel Hector St. Hilaire was speaking, now took his cigar from his mouth, blew away the delicate rings of smoke, and said in an equally thoughtful tone:
"It occurs to me, Hector, that it is the power of intellect. Stonewall Jackson has impressed the whole army down to the last and least little drummer with a sense of his mental force. I tell you, sir, that he is a thinker, and thinkers are rare, much more rare than people generally believe. There is only one man out of ten thousand who does not act wholly according to precedent and experience. Habit is so powerful that when we think we are thinking we are not thinking at all, we are merely recalling the experiences of ourselves or somebody else. And of the rare individuals who leave the well-trod paths of thought to think new thoughts, only a minutely small percentage think right. This minutely small fraction represents genius, the one man in a million or rather ten million, or, to be more accurate, the one man in a hundred million."
Colonel Leonidas Talbot put the cigar back in his mouth and puffed with regularity and smoothness. Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, in his turn, took his cigar from his mouth once more, blew away the fine white rings of smoke and said:
"Leonidas, it appears to me that you have hit upon the truth, or as our legal friends would say, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I am in the middle of life and I realize suddenly that in all the years I have lived I have met but few thinkers, certainly not more than half a dozen, perhaps not more than three or four."
He put his cigar back in his mouth and the two puffed simultaneously and with precision, blowing out the fine, delicate rings of smoke at exactly the same time. Gentlemen of the old school they were, even then, but Harry recognized, too, that Colonel Leonidas Talbot had spoken the weighty truth. Stonewall Jackson was a thinker, and thinkers are never numerous in the world. He resolved to think more for himself if he could, and he sat there trying to think, while he absently regarded the two colonels.
Colonel Leonidas Talbot, after two minutes perhaps, took the cigar from his mouth once more and said to Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire:
"Fine cigars the Yankees make, Hector."
"Quite true, Leonidas. One of the best I have ever smoked."
"Not more than a dozen left."
"Then we must get more."
"Stonewall Jackson will think of a way."
Harry, despite his respect for them, was compelled to laugh. But the two colonels laughed with him.
"The words of my friend Leonidas have been proved true within a few minutes," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire. "In doubt we turned at once and with involuntary impulse to Stonewall Jackson to think of a way. He has impressed us, as he has impressed the privates, with his intellectual power."
Harry sat with them nearly an hour. He had not only respect but affection also for them. Old-fashioned they might be in some ways, but they were able military men, thoroughly alert, and he knew that he could learn much from them. When he left them he returned to General Jackson and a few more days of waiting followed.
Winter was now wholly gone and spring, treacherous at first, was becoming real and reliable. Reports heavy and ominous were coming from McClellan. He would disembark and march up the peninsula on Richmond with a vast and irresistible force. Jackson might be drawn off from the valley to help Johnston in the defense of the capital. But Banks with his great army would then march down it as if on parade.
Harry heard one morning that a new man was put in command of the Southern forces in Northern Virginia. Robert Edward Lee was his name, and it was a good name, too. He was the son of that famous Light Horse Harry Lee who was a favorite of Washington in the Revolution. Already an elderly man, he was sober and quiet, but the old West Pointers passed the word through Jackson's army that he was full of courage and daring.
Harry felt the stimulus almost at once. A fresh wind seemed to be blowing down the Valley of Virginia. Lee had sent word to Jackson that he might do what he could, and that he might draw to his help also a large division under Ewell. The news spread through the army and there was a great buzzing. Young Virginia was eager to march against any odds, and Harry was with them, heart and soul.
Nor were they kept waiting now. The news had scarcely spread through the army when they heard the crack of carbines in their front. The cavalry of Ashby, increased by many recruits, was already skirmishing with the vanguard of Banks. It was the last day of April and Harry, sent to the front, saw Ashby drive in all the Northern cavalry. When he returned with the news Jackson instantly lifted up his whole division and marched by the flank through the hills, leaving Ewell with his men to occupy Banks in front. The mind of the "thinker" was working, and Harry knew it as he rode behind him. He did not know what this movement meant, but he had full confidence in the man who led them.
Yet the marching, like all the other marching they had done, was of the hardest. The ground, torn by hoofs, cannon wheels and the feet of marching men, was a continuous quagmire. Ponds made newly by the rains stood everywhere. Often it required many horses and men to drag a cannon out of the mud. The junior officers, and finally those of the highest rank, leaped from their horses and gave aid. Jackson himself carried boughs and stones to help make a road.
Despite the utmost possible exertions the army could make only five miles in a single day and at the approach of night it flung itself upon the ground exhausted.
"I call this the Great Muddy Army," said St. Clair, ruefully to Harry, as he surveyed his fine uniform, now smeared over with brown liquid paste.
"It might have been worse," said Langdon. "Suppose we had fallen in a quicksand and had been swallowed up utterly. 'Tis better to live muddy than not to live at all."
"It would be better to call it the Great Tired Army just now," said Harry. "To keep on pulling your feet all day long out of mud half a yard deep is the most exhausting thing I know or ever heard of."
"Where are we going?" asked St. Clair.
"Blessed if I know," replied Harry, "nor does anybody else save one. It's all hid under General Jackson's hat."
"I guess it's Staunton," said Langdon. "That's a fine town, as good as Winchester. I've got kinsfolk there. I came up once from South Carolina and made them a visit."
But it was not Staunton, although Staunton, hearing of the march, had been joyfully expecting Jackson's men. The fine morning came, warm and brilliant with sunshine, raising the spirits of the troops. The roads began to dry out fast and marching would be much easier. But Jackson, leading somberly on Little Sorrel, turned his back on Staunton.
The Virginians stared in amazement when the heads of columns turned away from that trim and hospitable little city, which they knew was so fervently attached to their cause. Before them rose the long line of the Blue Ridge and they were marching straight toward it.
They marched a while in silence, and then a groan ran through the ranks. It was such a compound of dismay and grief that it made Harry shiver. The Virginians were leaving their beloved and beautiful valley, leaving it all to the invader, leaving the pretty little places, Winchester and Staunton and Harrisonburg and Strasburg and Front Royal, and all the towns and villages in which their families and relatives lived. Every one of the Virginians had blood kin everywhere through the valley.
The men began to whisper to one another, but the order of silence was passed sternly along the line. They marched on, sullen and gloomy, but after a while their natural courage and their confidence in their commander returned. Their spirits did not desert them, even when they left the valley behind them and began to climb the Blue Ridge.
Up, up, they went through dense forests. Harry remembered their ascent of the Massanuttons, but the snows were gone now. They pressed on until they reached the crest of the ridges and there the whole army paused, high up in the air, while they looked with eager interest at the rolling Virginia country stretching toward the east until it sank under the horizon.
Harry saw smoke that marked the passing of trains, and he believed that they were now on their way to Richmond to help defend the capital against McClellan. He glanced at Jackson, but the commander was as tight-lipped as ever. Whatever was under that hat remained the secret of its owner.
They descended the mountains and came to a railway station, where many cars were waiting. Troops were hurried aboard expecting to start for Richmond, and then a sudden roar burst from them. The trains did not move toward Richmond, but back, through defiles that would lead them again into their beloved valley. Cheers one after another rolled through the trains, and Harry, who was in a forward car with the Invincibles, joined in as joyfully as the best Virginian of them all.
The boy was so much exhausted that he fell into a doze on a seat. But afterward he dimly remembered that he heard the two colonels talking. They were trying to probe into the depths of Jackson's mind. They surmised that this march over the mountains had been made partly to delude Banks. They were right, at least as far as the delusion of Banks went. He had been telegraphing that the army of Jackson was gone, on its way to Richmond, and that there was nothing in front of him save a few skirmishers.
The Virginians left their trains in the valley again, waited for their wagons and artillery, and then marched on to Staunton, that neat little city that was so dear to so many of them. But the mystery of what was under Jackson's hat remained a mystery. They passed through Staunton, amid the cheering people, women and children waving hats, scarfs and handkerchiefs to their champions. But the terrible Stonewall gave them no chance to dally in that pleasant place. Staunton was left far behind and they never stopped until they went into camp on the side of another range of mountains.
Here in a great forest they built a few fires, more not being allowed, and after a hasty supper most of the men lay down in their blankets to rest. But the young officers did not sleep. A small tent for Jackson had been raised by the side of the Invincibles, and Harry, sitting on a log, talked in low tones with Langdon and St. Clair. The three were of the opinion that some blow was about to be struck, but what it was they did not know.
"The Yankees must have lost us entirely," said Langdon. "To tell you the truth, boys, I've lost myself. I've been marching about so much that I don't know east from west and north from south. I'm sure that this is the Southern army about us, but whether we're still in Virginia or not is beyond me. What do you say, Arthur?"
"It's Virginia still, Tom, but we've undoubtedly done a lot of marching."
"A lot of it! 'Lot' is a feeble word! We've marched a million miles in the last few days. I've checked 'em off by the bunions on the soles of my feet."
"Look out, boys," said St. Clair. "Here comes the general!"
General Jackson was walking toward them. His face had the usual intense, preoccupied look, but he smiled slightly when he saw the three lads.
"Come, young gentlemen," he said, "we're going to take a look at the enemy."
A group of older officers joined him, and the three lads followed modestly. They reached a towering crag and from it Harry saw a deep valley fringed with woods, a river rushing down its center and further on a village. Both banks of the river were thick with troops, men in blue. Over and beyond the valley was a great mass of mountains, ridge on ridge and peak on peak, covered with black forest, and cut by defiles and ravines so narrow that it was always dark within them.
Harry felt a strange, indescribable thrill. The presence of the enemy and the wild setting of the mountains filled him with a kind of awe.
"It's a Northern army under Milroy," whispered St. Clair, who now heard Jackson talking to the older officers.
"Then there's going to be a battle," said Harry.