The Scouts of Stonewall by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VIII. The Mountain Battle
General Jackson and several of his senior officers were examining the valley with glasses, but Harry, with eyes trained to the open air and long distances, could see clearly nearly all that was going on below. He saw movement among the masses of men in blue, and he saw officers on horseback, galloping along the banks of the river. Then he saw cannon in trenches with their muzzles elevated toward the heights, and he knew that the Union troops must have had warning of Jackson's coming. And he saw, too, that the officers below also had glasses through which they were looking.
There was a sudden blaze from the mouth of one of the cannon. A shell shot upward, whistling and shrieking, and burst far above their heads. Harry heard pieces of falling metal striking on the rocks behind them. The mountains sent back the cannon's roar in a sinister echo.
A second gun flashed and again the shell curved over their heads. But Jackson paid no heed. He was still watching intently through his glasses.
"The enemy is up and alert," whispered St. Clair to Harry. "I judge that these are Western men used to sleeping with their eyes open."
"Like as not a lot of them are mountain West Virginians," said Harry. "They are strong for the North, and it's likely, too, that they're the men who have discovered Jackson's advance."
"And they mean to make it warm for us. Listen to those guns! It's hard shooting aiming at men on heights, but it shows what they could do on level ground."
Jackson presently retired with his officers, and Harry, parting from his friends of the Invincibles, went with him. Back among the ridges all the troops were under arms, the weary ones having risen from their blankets which were now tied in rolls on their backs. They had not yet been able to bring the artillery up the steeps. Harry saw that the faces of all were eager as they heard the thunder of the guns in the valley below. Among the most eager was a regiment of Georgians arrived but recently with the reinforcements.
Many of the men, speaking from the obscurity of the crowded ranks, did not scorn to hurl questions at their officers.
"Are we goin' to fight the Yankees at last?"
"I'd rather take my chances with the bullets than march any more."
"Lead us down an' give us a chance at 'em."
Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire were among the officers who had gone with Jackson to the verge of the cliff, and now when they heard the impertinent but eager questions from the massed ranks they looked at each other and smiled. It was not according to West Point, but these were recruits and here was enthusiasm which was a pearl beyond price.
General Jackson beckoned to Harry and three other young staff officers.
"Take glasses," he said, "go back to the verge of the cliff, and watch for movements on the part of the enemy. If any is made be sure that you see it, and report it to me at once."
The words were abrupt, sharp, admitting of no question or delay, and the four fairly ran. Harry and his comrades lay down at the edge of the cliff and swept the valley with their glasses. The great guns were still firing at intervals of about a minute. The gunners could not see the Southern troops drawn back behind the ridges, but Harry believed that they might be guided by signals from men on opposite slopes. But if signalmen were there they were hidden by the forest even from his glasses.
The smoke from the cannon was gathering heavily in the narrow valley, so heavily that it began to obscure what was passing there in the Northern army. But the four, remembering the injunction of Jackson, a man who must be obeyed to the last and minutest detail, still sought to pierce through the smoke both with the naked eye and with glasses. As a rift appeared Harry saw a moving mass of men in blue. It was a great body of troops and the sun shining through the rift glittered over bayonets and rifle barrels. They were marching straight toward a slope which led at a rather easy grade up the side of the mountain.
"They're not waiting to be attacked! They're attacking!" cried Harry, springing to his feet and running to the point where he knew Jackson stood. Jackson received his news, looked for himself, and then began to push on the troops. A shout arose as the army pressed forward to meet the enemy who were coming so boldly.
"We ought to beat 'em, as we have the advantage of the heights," exclaimed Sherburne, who was now on foot.
But the advantage was the other way. Those were staunch troops who were advancing, men of Ohio and West Virginia, and while they were yet on the lower slopes their cannon, firing over their heads, swept the crest with shot and shell. The eager Southern youths, as invariably happens with those firing downward, shot too high. The Northern regiments now opening with their rifles and taking better aim came on in splendid order.
"What a magnificent charge!" Harry heard Sherburne exclaim.
The rifles by thousands were at work, and the unceasing crash sent echoes far through the mountains. The Southerners at the edge of the cliff were cut down by the fire of their enemy from below. Their loss was now far greater than that of the North, and their officers sought to draw them back from the verge, to a ridge where they could receive the charge, just as it reached the crest and pour into them their full fire. The eager young regiment from Georgia refused to obey.
"Have we come all these hundreds of miles from Georgia to run before Yankees?" they cried, and stood there pulling trigger at the enemy, while their own men fell fast before the bitter Northern hail.
Harry, too, was forced to admire the great resolution and courage with which the Northern troops came upward, but he turned away to be ready for any command that Jackson might give him. The general stood by a rock attentively watching the fierce battle that was going on, but not yet giving any order. But Harry fancied that he saw his eyes glisten as he beheld the ardor of his troops.
A detachment of Virginians, posted in the rear, seeing a break in the first line, rushed forward without orders, filled the gap and came face to face with the men in blue. Harry thought he saw Jackson's eyes glisten again, but he was not sure.
The crash of the battle increased fast. The Southern troops had no artillery, but as the Northern charge came nearer the crest their bullets ceased to fly over the heads of their enemies, but struck now in the ranks. The ridges were enveloped in fire and smoke. A fresh Southern regiment was thrown in and the valiant Northern charge broke. The brave men of Ohio and West Virginia, although they fought desperately and encouraged one another to stand fast, were forced slowly back down the slope.
Harry and a half dozen others beside him heard Jackson say, apparently to himself, "The battle will soon be over." Harry knew instinctively that it was true. He had got into the habit of believing every thing Jackson said. The end came in fifteen minutes more, and with it came the night.
The soldiers in their ardor had not noticed that the long shadows were creeping over the mountains. The sun had already sunk in a blood-red blur behind the ridges, and as the men in blue slowly yielded the last slope darkness which was already heavy in the defiles and ravines swept down over the valley.
Jackson had won, but his men had suffered heavily and moreover he had stood on the defense. He could not descend into the valley in the face of the Northern resistance which was sure to be fierce and enduring. The Northern cannon were beginning to send curving shells again over the cliffs, sinister warnings of what the Virginians might expect if they came down to attack. Harry and the other staff officers peering over the crest saw many fires burning along the banks of the river. Milroy seemed to be still bidding Jackson defiance.
Harry saw no preparations for a return assault. Jackson was inspecting the ground, but his men were going over the field gathering up the wounded and burying the dead. The Georgians had suffered terribly--most of all--for their rash bravery, and the whole army was subdued. There was less of exuberant youth, and more of grim and silent resolve.
Harry worked far into the night carrying orders here and there. The moon came out and clothed the strange and weird battlefield in a robe of silver. The heavens were sown with starshine, but it all seemed mystic and unreal to the excited nerves of the boy. The mountains rose to two, three times their real height, and the valley in which the Northern fires burned became a mighty chasm.
It was one o'clock in the morning before Jackson himself left the field and went to his headquarters at a little farmhouse on the plateau. His faithful colored servant was waiting for him with food. He had not touched any the whole day, but he declined it saying that he needed nothing but sleep. He flung himself booted and clothed upon a bed and was sound asleep in five minutes.
There was a little porch on one side of the house, and here Harry, who had received no instructions from his general, camped. He rolled himself in his cavalry cloak, lay down on the hard floor which was not hard to him, and slept like a little child.
He was awakened at dawn as one often is by a presence, even though that presence be noiseless. He felt a great unwillingness to get up. That was a good floor on which he slept, and the cavalry cloak wrapped around him was the finest and warmest that he had ever felt. He did not wish to abandon either. But will triumphed. He opened his eyes and sprang quickly to his feet.
Stonewall Jackson was standing beside him looking intently toward the valley. The edge of a blazing sun barely showed in the east, and in the west all the peaks and ridges were yet in the dusk. Morning was coming in silence. There was no sound of battle or of the voices of men.
"I beg your pardon. I fear that I have overslept myself!" exclaimed Harry.
"Not at all," said Jackson with a slight smile. "The others of the staff are yet asleep. You might have come inside. A little room was left on the floor there."
"I never had a better bed and I never slept better." The general smiled again and gave Harry an approving glance.
"Soldiers, especially boys, learn quickly to endure any kind of hardship," he said. "Come, we'll see if the enemy is still there."
Harry fancied from his tone that he believed Milroy gone, but knowing better than to offer any opinion of his own he followed him toward the edge of the valley. The pickets saluted as the silent figures passed. The sun in the east was rising higher over the valley, and in the west the peaks and ridges were coming out of the dusk.
The general carried his glasses slung over his shoulder, but he did not need them. One glance into the valley and they saw that the army of Milroy was gone. It had disappeared, horse, foot and guns, and Harry now knew that the long row of camp fires in the night had been a show, but only a brave show, after all.
The whole Southern army awoke and poured down the slopes. Yes, Milroy, not believing that he was strong enough for another battle, had gone down the valley. He had fought one good battle, but he would reach Banks before he fought another.
The Southern troops felt that they had won the victory, and Jackson sent a message to Richmond announcing it. Never had news come at a more opportune time. The fortunes of the South seemed to be at the lowest ebb. Richmond had heard of the great battle of Shiloh, the failure to destroy Grant and the death of Albert Sidney Johnston. New Orleans, the largest and richest city in the Confederacy, had been taken by the Northern fleet--the North was always triumphant on the water--and the mighty army of McClellan had landed on the Peninsula of Virginia for the advance on Richmond.
It had seemed that the South was doomed, and the war yet scarcely a year old. But in the mountains the strange professor of mathematics had struck a blow and he might strike another. Both North and South realized anew that no one could ever tell where he was or what he might do. The great force, advancing by land to co-operate with McClellan, hesitated, and drew back.
But Jackson's troops knew nothing then of what was passing in the minds of men at Washington and Richmond. They were following Milroy and that commander, wily as well as brave, was pressing his men to the utmost in order that he might escape the enemy who, he was sure, would pursue with all his power. He knew that he had fought with Stonewall Jackson and he knew the character of the Southern leader.
Sherburne brought his horses through a defile into the valley and his men, now mounted, led the pursuit. Jackson in his eagerness rode with him and Harry was there, too. Behind them came the famous foot cavalry. Thus pursuer and pursued rolled down the valley, and Harry exulted when he looked at the path of the fleeing army. The traces were growing fresher and fresher. Jackson was gaining.
But there were shrewd minds in Milroy's command. The Western men knew many devices of battle and the trail, and Milroy was desperately bent upon saving his force, which he knew would be overwhelmed, if overtaken by Jackson's army. Now he had recourse to a singular device.
Harry, riding with Captain Sherburne, noticed that the trees were dry despite the recent rains. On the slopes of the mountains the water ran off fast, and the thickets were dry also. Then he saw a red light in the forest in front of them. General Jackson saw it at the same time.
"What is that?" he exclaimed.
"It looks like a forest fire, general," replied Sherburne.
"You're right, captain, and it's growing."
As they galloped forward they saw the red light expand rapidly and spread directly across their path. The whole forest was on fire. Great flames rose up the trunks of trees and leaped from bough to bough. Sparks flew in millions and vast clouds of smoke, picked up by the wind, were whirled in their faces.
The troop of cavalry was compelled to pause and General Jackson, brushing the smoke from his eyes, said:
"Clever! very clever! Milroy has put a fiery wall between us."
The device was a complete success. The pursuing men in gray could pass around the fire at points, and wait at other points for it to burn out, but they lost so much time that their cavalry were able only to skirmish with the Northern rear guard. Then when night came on Milroy escaped under cover of the thick and smoky darkness.
Harry slept on the ground that night, but the precious cloak was around him. He slept beyond the dawn as the pursuit was now abandoned, but when he arose smoke was still floating over the valley and the burned forests. He was stiff and sore, but the fierce hunger that assailed him made him forget the aching of his bones. He had eaten nothing for thirty-six hours. He had forgotten until then that there was such a thing as food. But the sight of Langdon holding a piece of frying bacon on a stick afflicted him with a raging desire.
"Give me that bacon, Tom," he cried, "or I'll set the rest of the forest on fire!"
"No need, you old war-horse. I was just bringing it to you. There's plenty more where this came from. The foot cavalry took it at McDowell, and like the wise boys they are brought it on with them. Come and join us. Your general is already riding a bit up the valley, and, as he didn't call you, it follows that he doesn't want you."
Harry followed him gladly. The Invincibles had found a good place, and were cooking a solid breakfast. They had bacon and ham and coffee and bread in abundance, and for a while there was a great eating and drinking.
To youth which had marched and fought without food it was not a breakfast. It was a banquet and a feast. Young frames which recover quickly responded at once. Now and then, the musical clatter of iron spoons and knives on iron cups and plates was broken by deep sighs of satisfaction. But they did not speak for a while. There was lost time to be made up, and they did not know when they would get another such chance--the odds were always against it.
"Enough is enough," said Langdon at last. "It took a lot to make enough, but it's enough. You have to be a soldier, Harry, to appreciate what it is to eat, sleep and rest. I'm willing to wager my uniform against a last winter's snowball that we don't get another such meal in a month. Old Jack won't let us."
"To my mind," said St. Clair, "we're going right into the middle of big things. We've chased the Yankees out of the mountains into the valley, and we'll follow hot on their heels. We've already learned enough of General Jackson to know that he doesn't linger."
"Linger!" exclaimed Langdon indignantly. "Even if there was no fighting to be done he'd march us from one end of the valley to the other just to keep us in practice. Hear that bugle! Off we go! Five minutes to get ready! Or maybe it is only three!"
It was more than five minutes, but not much more, when the whole army was on the march again, but the foot cavalry forgot to grumble when they came again into their beloved valley, across which, and up and down which, they had marched so much.
They threw back their shoulders, their gait became more jaunty and they burst into cheers, at the sight of the rich rolling country, now so beautiful in spring's heavy green. Far off the mountains rose, dark and blue, but they were only the setting for the gem and made it more precious.
"It's ours," said Sherburne proudly to Harry. "We left it to the Yankees for a little while, but we've come back to claim it, and if the unbidden tenant doesn't get out at once we'll put him out. Harry, haven't you got Virginia kinfolks? We want to adopt you and call you a Virginian."
"Lots of them. My great-grandfather, Governor Ware, was born in Maryland, but all the people on my mother's side were of Virginia origin."
"I might have known it. Kentucky is the daughter of Virginia though a large part of Kentucky takes sides with the Yankees. But that's not your fault. Remember, for the time being you're a Virginian, one of us by right of blood and deed."
"Count me among 'em at once," said Harry. He felt a certain pride in this off-hand but none the less real adoption, because he knew that it was a great army with which he marched, and it might immortalize itself.
"What's the news, Harry?" asked Sherburne. "You're always near Old Jack, and if he lets anything come from under that old hat of his, which isn't often, it's because he's willing for it to be known."
"He's said this, and he doesn't mean it to be any secret. Banks is at Strasburg with a big army, but he's fortified himself there and he doesn't know just what to do. He doesn't for the life of him know which way Jackson is coming, nor do I. But I do know that Ewell with his division is going to join us at last and we'll have a sizable army."
"And that means bigger things!" exclaimed Sherburne, joyously. "Between you and me, Harry, Banks won't sleep soundly again for many a night!"
As they marched on the valley people came out joyously to meet them. Even women and girls on horseback, galloping, reined in their horses to tell them where the Union forces lay. Always they had information for Jackson, never any for the North. Here scouts and spies were scarcely needed by the Southern army. Before night Stonewall Jackson knew as much of his enemy as any general needed to know.
They camped at dusk and Langdon, contrary to his prediction, enjoyed another ample meal and plenty of rest. Jackson allowed no tent to be set for himself. The night was warm and beautiful and the songs of birds came from the trees. The general had eaten sparingly, and now he sat on a log in deep thought. Presently he looked up and said:
"Lieutenant Kenton, do you and Lieutenant Dalton ride forward in that direction and meet General Ewell. He is coming, with his staff, to see me. Escort him to the camp."
He pointed out the direction and in an instant Harry and Dalton, also of the staff, were in the camp, following the line of that pointing finger. They had the password and as they passed a little beyond the pickets they saw a half dozen horsemen riding rapidly toward them in the dusk.
"General Ewell, is it not, sir?" said Harry, as he and Dalton gave the salute.
"I'm General Ewell," replied the foremost horseman. "Do you come from General Jackson?"
"Yes, sir. His camp is just before you. You can see the lights now. He has directed us to meet you and escort you."
"Then lead the way."
The two young lieutenants, guiding General Ewell and his staff, were soon inside Jackson's camp, but Harry had time to observe Ewell well. He had already heard of him as a man of great vigor and daring. He had made a name for judgment and dash in the Indian wars on the border. Men spoke of him as a soldier, prompt to obey his superior and ready to take responsibility if his superior were not there. Harry knew that Jackson expected much of him.
He saw a rather slender man with wonderfully bright eyes that smiled much, a prominent and pronounced nose and a strong chin. When he took off his hat at the meeting with Jackson he disclosed a round bald head, which he held on one side when he talked.
Jackson had risen from the log as Ewell rode up and leaped from his magnificent horse--his horses were always of the best--and he advanced, stretching out his hand. Ewell clasped it and the two talked. The staffs of the two generals had withdrawn out of ear shot, but Harry noticed that Ewell did much the greater part of the talking, his head cocked on one side in that queer, striking manner. But Harry knew, too, that the mind and will of Jackson were dominant, and that Ewell readily acknowledged them as so.
The conference did not last long. Then the two generals shook hands again and Ewell sprang upon his horse. Jackson beckoned to Harry.
"Lieutenant Kenton," he said, "ride with General Ewell to his camp. You will then know the way well, and he may wish to send me some quick dispatch."
Harry, nothing loath, was in the saddle in an instant, and at the wish of General Ewell rode by his side.
"You have been with him long?" said Ewell.
"From the beginning of the campaign here, sir."
"Then you were at both Kernstown and McDowell. A great general, young man."
"Yes, sir. He will march anywhere and fight anything."
"That's my own impression. We've heard that his men are the greatest marchers in the world. My own lads under him will acquire the same merit."
"We know, sir, that your men are good marchers already."
General Ewell laughed with satisfaction.
"It's true," he said. "When I told my second in command that we were going to march to join General Jackson he wanted to bring tents. I told him that would load us up with a lot of tent poles and that he must bring only a few, for the sick, perhaps. There must be no baggage, just food and ammunition. I told 'em that when we joined General Jackson we'd have nothing to do but eat and fight."
He seemed now to be speaking to himself rather than to Harry, and the boy said nothing. Ewell, relapsing into silence, urged his horse to a gallop and the staff perforce galloped, too. Such a pace soon brought them to the camp of the second army, and as they rode past the pickets Harry heard the sound of stringed music.
"The Cajuns," said one of the staff, a captain named Morton. Harry did not know what "Cajuns" meant, but he was soon to learn. Meanwhile the sound of the music was pleasant in his ear, and he saw that the camp, despite the lateness of the hour, was vivid with life.
General Ewell gave Harry into Captain Morton's care, and walked away to a small tent, where he was joined by several of his senior officers for a conference. But after they had tethered their horses for the night, Captain Morton took Harry through the camp.
Harry was full of eagerness and curiosity and he asked to see first the strange "Cajuns," those who made the music.
"They are Louisiana French," said Morton, "not the descendants or the original French settlers in that state, but the descendants of the French by the way of Nova Scotia."
"Oh, I see, the Acadians, the exiles."
"Yes, that's it. The name has been corrupted into Cajuns in Louisiana. They are not like the French of New Orleans and Baton Rouge and the other towns. They are rural and primitive. You'll like them. Few of them were ever more than a dozen miles from home before. They love music, and they've got a full regimental band with them. You ought to hear it play. Why, they'd play the heart right out of you."
"I like well enough the guitars and banjos that they're playing now. Seems to me that kind of music is always best at night."
They had now come within the rim of light thrown out by the fires of the Acadians, and Harry stood there looking for the first time at these dark, short people, brought a thousand miles from their homes.
They were wholly unlike Virginians and Kentuckians. They had black eyes and hair, and their naturally dark faces were burned yet darker by the sun of the Gulf. Yet the dark eyes were bright and gay, sparkling with kindliness and the love of pleasure. The guitars and banjos were playing some wailing tune, with a note of sadness in the core of it so keen and penetrating that it made the water come to Harry's eyes. But it changed suddenly to something that had all the sway and lilt of the rosy South. Men sprang to their feet and clasping arms about one another began to sway back and forth in the waltz and the polka.
Harry watched with mingled amazement and pleasure. Most of the South was religious and devout. The Virginians of the valley were nearly all staunch Presbyterians, and Stonewall Jackson, staunchest of them all, never wanted to fight on Sunday. The boy himself had been reared in a stern Methodist faith, and the lightness in this French blood of the South was new to him. But it pleased him to see them sing and dance, and he found no wrong in it, although he could not have done it himself.
Captain Morton noticed Harry's close attention and he read his mind.
"They surprised me, too, at first," he said, "but they're fine soldiers, and they've put cheer into this army many a time when it needed it most. Taylor, their commander, is a West Pointer and he's got them into wonderful trim. They're well clothed and well shod. They never straggle and they're just about the best marchers we have. They'll soon be rated high among Jackson's foot cavalry."
Harry left the Acadians with reluctance, and when he made the round of the camp General Ewell, who had finished the conference, told him that he would have no message to send that night to Jackson. He might go to sleep, but the whole division would march early in the morning. Harry wrapped himself again in his cloak, found a place soft with moss under a tree, and slept with the soft May wind playing over his face and lulling him to deeper slumber.
He rode the next morning with General Ewell and the whole division to join Jackson's army. It was a trim body of men, well clad, fresh and strong, and they marched swiftly along the turnpike, on both sides of which Jackson was encamped further on.
Harry felt a personal pride in being with Ewell when the junction was to be made. He felt that, in a sense, he was leading in this great reinforcement himself, and he looked back with intense satisfaction at the powerful column marching so swiftly along the turnpike.
They came late in the day to Jackson's pickets, and then they saw his army, scattered through the fields on either side of the road.
Harry rejoiced once more in the grand appearance of the new division. Every coat or tunic sat straight. Every shoe-lace was tied, and they marched with the beautiful, even step of soldiers on parade. They were to encamp beyond Jackson's old army, and as they passed along the turnpike it was lined on either side by Jackson's own men, cheering with vigor.
The colonel who was in immediate charge of the encampment, a man who had never seen General Jackson, asked Harry where he might find him. Harry pointed to a man sitting on the top rail of a fence beside the road.
"But I asked for General Jackson," said the colonel.
"That's General Jackson."
The colonel approached and saluted. General Jackson's clothes were soiled and dusty. His feet, encased in cavalry boots that reached beyond the knees, rested upon a lower rail of the fence. A worn cap with a dented visor almost covered his eyes. The rest of his face was concealed by a heavy, dark beard.
"General Jackson, I believe," said the officer, saluting.
"Yes. How far have those men marched?" The voice was kindly and approving.
"We've come twenty-six miles, sir."
"Good. And I see no stragglers."
"We allow no stragglers."
"Better still. I haven't been able to keep my own men from straggling, and you'll have to teach them."
At that moment the Acadian band began to play, and it played the merriest waltz it knew. Jackson gazed at it, took a lemon from his pocket and began to suck the juice from it meditatively. The officer stood before him in some embarrassment.
"Aren't they rather thoughtless for such serious work as war?" asked the Presbyterian general.
"I am confident, sir, that their natural gayety will not impair their value as soldiers."
Jackson put the end of the lemon back in his mouth and drew some juice from it. The colonel bowed and retired. Then Jackson beckoned to Harry, who stood by.
"Follow him and tell him," he said, "that the band can play as much as it likes. I noticed, too, that it plays well."
Jackson smiled and Harry hurried after the officer, who flushed with gratification, when the message was delivered to him.
"I'll tell it to the men," he said, "and they'll fight all the better for it."
That night it was a formidable army that slept in the fields on either side of the turnpike, and in the silence and the dark, Stonewall Jackson was preparing to launch the thunderbolt.