The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter IX. On the March.
"He smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the Captains and the shouting." -- Job.
The weary weeks in Camp of Instruction ended with the Summer. September had come, and Nature was hanging out crimson battle-flags every-where--on the swaying poppy and the heavy-odored geranium. The sumach and the sassafras wore crimson signals of defiance, and the maples blazed with the gaudy red, yellow and orange of warlike pomp.
The regiment made its first step on Kentucky soil with a little bit of pardonable ostentation. Every one looked upon it as the real beginning of its military career. When the transport was securely tied up at the wharf, the Colonel mounted his horse, drew his sword, placed himself at the head of the regiment, and gave the command "Forward." Eleven hundred superb young fellows, marching four abrest, with bayonets fixed, and muskets at "right shoulder shift," strode up the bank after him and went into line of battle at the top, where he made a short soldierly speech, the drums rolled, the colors dipped, the men cheered, and the band played "Star-spangled Banner" and "Dixie."
Three years later the two hundred survivors of this number returning from their "Veteran furlough," without a band and with their tattered colors carefully cased, came off a transport at the same place, without uttering a word other than a little grumbling at the trouble of disposing of some baggage, marched swiftly and silently up the bank, and disappeared before any one fairly realized that they were there. So much had Time and War taught them.
"Now our work may be said to be fairly begun." said the Colonel, turning from the contemplation of his regiment, and scanning anxiously the tops of the distant line of encircling hills, as if he expected to see there signs of the Rebels in strong force. All the rest imitated his example, and studied the horizon solicitously. "And I expect we shall have plenty of it!" continued the Colonel.
"No doubt of that," answered the Major. "They say the Rebels are filling Kentucky with troops, and gonig to fight for every foot of the Old Dark and Bloody Ground. I think we will have to earn all we get of it."
"To-day's papers report," joined in Surgeon Denslow, "that General sherman says it will take two hundred thousand troops to redeem Kentucky."
"Yes," broke in the Colonel testily, "and the same papers agree in pronouncing Sherman crazy. But no matter how many or how few it takes, that's none of our affair. We've got eleven hundred good men in ranks, and we're going to do all that eleven hundred good men can do. God Almighty and Abe Lincoln have got to take care of the rest."
It will be seen that the Colonel was a very practical soldier.
"First think we know, the Colonel will be trying to make us 'leven hundred clean out 'leven thousand Rebs," growled Abe Bolton.
"Suppose the Colonel should imagine himself another Leonidas, and us his Spartan band, and want us to die around him, and start another Thermopylae down her in the mountains, some place," suggested Kent Edwards, "you would cheerfully pass in your checks along with the rest, so as to make the thing an entire success, wouldn't you?"
"The day I'm sent below, I'll take a pile of Rebs along to keep me company," answered Abe, surlily.
Glen, standing in the rear of his company in his place as file-closer, listened to these words, and saw in the dim distance and on the darkling heights the throngs of fierce enemies and avalanches of impeding dangers as are likely to oppress the imagination of a young soldier at such unfavorable moments. The conflict and carnage seemed so imminent that he half expected it to begin that very night, and he stiffened his sinews for the shock.
Lieutenant Alspaugh also heard, studied over the unwelcome possibilities shrouded in the gathering gloom of the distance, and regretted that he had not, before crossing the Ohio, called the Surgeon's attention to some premonitory symptoms of rheumatism, which he felt he might desire to develop into an acute attack in the event of danger assuming an unpleasant proximity.
But as no Rebels appeared on the sweeping semi-circle of hills that shut in Convington on the south, he concluded to hold his disability in abeyance, by a strong effort of the will, until the regiment had penetrated farther into the enemy's country.
For days the regiment marched steadily on through the wonderfully lovely Blue Grass Region, toward the interior of the State, without coming into the neighborhood of any organized body of the Rebels.
Glen's first tremors upon crossing the Ohio subsided so as to permit him to thoroughly enjoy the beauties of the scenery, and the pleasures of out-door life in a region so attractive at that season of the year.
The turnpike, hard and smooth as a city pavement, wound over and around romantic hills--hills crowned with cedar and evergreen laurel, and scarred with cliffs and caverns. It passed through forests, aromatic with ripening nuts and changing leaves, and glorious in the colors of early Autumn. Then its course would traverse farms of gracefully undulating acres, bounded by substantial stone-walls, marked by winding streams of pure spring water, centering around great roomy houses, with huge outside chimneys, and broad piazzas, and with a train of humble negro cabins in the rear. The horses were proud stepping thoroughbreds, the women comely and spirited, the men dignified and athletic, and all seemed well-fed and comfortable. The names of the places along the route recalled to Harry's memory all he had ever read of the desperate battles and massacres and single-handed encounters of Daniel Boone and his associates, with the Indians in the early history of the country.
"This certainly seems an ideal pastoral land--a place where one would naturally locate a charming idyl or bucolic love-story!" he said one evening, to Surgeon Paul Denslow, after descanting at length upon the beauties of the country which they were "redeeming" from the hands of the Rebels.
"Yes, answered Dr. Denslow, "and it's as dull and sleepy and non-progressive as all those places are where they locate what you call your idyls and pastorals! These people haven't got an idea belonging to this century, nor do they want one. They know how to raise handsome girls, distil good whisky, and breed fast horses. This they esteem the end of all human knowledge and understanding. Anything moer is to them vanity and useless vexation of spirit."
At last the regiment halted under the grand old beeches and hickories of teh famous Camp Dick Robinson, in the heart of the Blue Grass Region. In this most picturesque part of the lovely Kentucky River Valley they spent the bright days of October very delightfully.
Nature is as kindly and gracious in Central Kentucky as in any part of the globe upon which her sun shines, and she seemed to be on her best behavior, that she might duly impress the Northern visitors.
The orchards were loaded with fruit, and the forest trees showered nuts upon the ground. In every field were groups of persimmon trees, their branches bendingunder a burden of luscious fruit, which the frost had coated with sheeny purple outside, and made sweeter than fine wine within. Over all bent softly brilliant skies, and the bland, bracing air was charged with the electricity of life and happiness.
It was the very poetry of soldiering, and Harry began to forget the miseries of life in a Camp of Instruction, and to believe that there was much to be enjoyed, even in the life of an enlisted man.
"This here air or the apple-jack seems to have a wonderfully improving effect on Jake Alspaugh's chronic rheumatics," sneered Abe Bolton.
It was a sunny afternoon. Bolton and Kent Edwards were just ouside of the camp lines, in the shade of a grand old black walnut, and had re-seated themselves to finsih devouring a bucketful of lush persimmons, after having reluctantly risen from that delightful occupation to salute Lieutenant Alspaugh, as he passed outward in imposing blue and gold stalwarthood.
"I've been remarking that myself," said Kent, taking out a handful of the shining fruit, and deliberately picking the stems and dead leaves from the sticky sides, preparatory to swallowing it. "He hasn't had an attack since we thought those negroes and teams on the hills beyond Cynthiana was John Morgan's Rebel cavalry."
"Yes," continued Abe, helping himself also the mellow date-plums, "his legs are so sound now that he is able to go to every frolic in the country for miles around, and dance all night. He's going to the Quartermaster's now, to get a horse to ride to a dance and candy-pulling at that double log-house four miles down the Harrodsburg Pike. I heard him talking to some other fellows about it when I went up with the squad to bring the rations down to the company."
"Seems to em, come to think of it, that I have heard of some rheumatic symptoms recently. Remember that a couple of weeks ago Pete Sanford got a bullet through his blouse, that scraped his ribs, don't you?"
"Yes," said Abe, spitting the seeds out from a mouthful of honeyed pulp.
"Well, the boys say that Jake went to a candy-pulling frolic down in the Cranston settlement, and got into a killing flirtation with the prettiest girl there. She was taken with his brass buttons, and his circus-horse style generally, but she had another fellow that it didn't suit so well. He showed his disapproval in a way that seems to be the fashion down here; that is, he 'laid for' Jake behind a big rock with a six-foot deer rifle, but mistook Pete Sanford for him."
"The dunderhead's as poor a judge of men as he's marksman. He's a disgrace to Kentucky."
"At all events it served as a hint, which Alspaugh did not fail to take. Since that time there has been two or three dances at Cranston's, but every time Jake has had such twinges of his rheumatism that he did not think it best to 'expose himself to the night air,' and go with the boys."
"O!---ouw!---wh-i-s-s-s-sh!" sputtered Abe, spitting the contents of his mouth out explosively, while his face was contorted as if every nerve and muscle was being twisted violently.
"Why, what is the matter, Abe?" asked Kent, in real alarm. "Have you swallowed a centipede or has the cramp-colic griped you?"
"No! I hain't swallowed no centerboard, nor have I the belly-ache--blast your chucklehead," roared Abe, as he sprang to his feet, rushed to the brook, scooped up some water in his hands, and rinsed his mouth out energetically.
"Well, what can it be, then? You surely ain't doing all that for fun."
"No, I ain't doing it for fun," shouted Abe, angrier still; "and nobody but a double-and twisted idiot would ask such a fool question. I was paying so much attention to your dumbed story that I chewed up a green persimmon--one that hadn't been touched by the frost. It's puckered my mouth so that I will never get it straight again. It's worse than a pound of alum and a gallon of tanbark juice mixed together. O, laugh, if you want to--that's just what I'd expect from you. That's about all the sense you've got."
There was enough excitement in camp to prevent any danger of ennui. The probability of battle gave the daily drills an interest that they never could gain in Ohio. The native Rebels were numerous and defiant, and kept up such demonstrations as led to continual apprehensions of an attack. New regiments came in constantly, and were received with enthusiasm. Kentucky and East Tennessee Loyalists, tall, gaunt, long-haired and quaint-spoken, but burning with enthusiasm for the Government of their fathers, flocked to the camp, doffed their butternut garb, assumed the glue, and enrolled themselves to defend the Union.
At length it became evident that the Rebel "Army of Liberation" was really about crossing the Cumberland Mountains to drive out the "Yankees" and recover possession of Kentucky for the Southern Confederacy.
Outposts were thrown out in all directions to gain the earlies possible intelligence of the progress of the movement, and to make such resistance to it as might be possible. One of these outposts was stationed at Wildcat Gap, an inexpressibly wild and desolate region, sixty miles from Camp Dick Robinson, where the road entering Kentucky from Tennessee at Cumberland Gap crosses the Wildcat range of mountains.
One day the startling news reached camp that an overwhelming Rebel force under Gen. Zollicoffer was on the eve of attacking the slender garrison of Wildcat Gap. The "assembly" was sounded, and the regiment, hastily provided with rations and ammunition, was hurried forward to aid in the defense of the threatened outpost.
Nature, as if in sympathy with the gathering storm of war, ceased her smiling. The blue, bending skies were transformed intoa scowling, leaden-visaged canopy, from which fell a chill incessant rain.
When the order to prepare for the march came, Glen, following the example of his comrades, packed three days' cooked rations in his haversack, made his blankets into a roll, tieing their ends together, threw them scarf-fashion over his shoulder, and took his accustomed place as file-closer in the rear of his company. He was conscious all the time, though he suffered no outward sign to betray the fact, that he was closely watched by the boys who had been with him in Western Virginia, and who were eager to see how he would demean himself in this new emergency.
He was shortly ordered to assist in the inspection of cartridge-boxes and the issuing of cartridges, adn the grim nature of the errand they were about to start upon duly impressed itself upon his mind as he walked down the lines in the melancholy rains, examined each box, and gave the owner the quantity of cartridges required to make up the quota of forty rounds per man.
Those who scrutinized his face as he passed slowly by, saw underneath the dripping eaves of his broad-brimmed hat firm-set lines about his mouth, and a little more luminous light in his eyes.
"Harry Glen's screwing his courage to the sticking point. He's bound to go through this time," said Kent Edwards.
"The more fool he," answered Abe Bolton, adjusting his poncho so as to better protect his cartridges and rations from the rain. "If he wanted to play the warrior all so bold why didn't he improve his opportunities in West Virginia, when it was fine weather and he only had three months to do it in? Now that he's in for three years it will be almighty strange if he can't find a pleasanter time to make his little strut on the field of battle than in this infernal soak."
"I have seen better days than this, as the tramp remarked who had once been a bank cashier," murmured kent, tightening the tompion in his musket-muzzle with a piece of paper, the better to exclude the moisture, and wrapping a part of the poncho around the lock for the same purpose. "Where is that canteen?"
"It's where it'll do you no good until you need it much worse'n you do now. O, I know you of old, Mr. Kent Edwards," continued Abe, with that deep sarcasm, which was his nearest approach to humor. "I may say that I've had the advantages of an intimate acquaintance with you for years, and when I trust you with a full canteen of apple-jack at the beginning of such a march as this'll be, I'll be ready to enlist in the permanent garrison of a lunatic asylum, I will. This canteen ony holds three pints; that's great deal less'n you do. It's full now, and you're empty. Fill up some place else, and tomorrow or next day, when you'd give a farm for a nip, this'll come in mighty handy."
The Hospital Steward approached, and said:
"Captain, the Surgeon presents his compliments and requests that you send four men to convey your First Lieutenant Alspaugh to comfortable quarters which have been prepared for him in the hospital barracks. His rheumatic trouble has suddenly assumed an acute form--brought on doubtless by the change in the weather--and he is suffering greatly. Please instruct the men to be very careful carrying him, so as to avoid all unnecessary pain, and also all exposure to the rain. He will have a good room in the hospital, with a fire in it, and every attention, so that you need have no fears concerning him."
"I never had," said Kent, loud enough to be heard all over the right wing of the company.
"I have," said Abe. "There's every danger in the world that he'll get well."
Away the regiment marched, through the dismal rain, giong as fast as the heavily laden men could be spurred onward by the knowledge of their comrades' imminent need.
It was fearful hard work even so long as the pike lasted, and they had a firm, even foundation for their feet to tread upon. But the pike ended at Crab Orchard, and then they plunged into the worst roads that the South at any time offered to resist the progress of the Union armies. Narrow, tortuous, unworked substitutes for highways wound around and over steep, rocky hills, through miry creek bottoms, and over bridgeless streams, now so swollen as to be absolutely unfordable by less determined men, starting on a less urgent errand.
For three weary, discouraging days they pressed onward through the dispiriting rain and over all the exhausting obstacles. On the morning of the fourth they reached the foot of the range in which Wildcat Gap is situated. They were marching slowly up the steep mountain side, their soaked garments clinging about their weary limbs and clogging their footsteps. Suddenly a sullen boom rolled out of the mist that hung over the distant mountain tops.
Every one stopped, held their breaths, and tried to check the beating of their hearts, that they might hear more.
They needed not. There was no difficulty about hearing the succeeding reports, which became every instant more distinct.
"By God, that's cannon!" said the Colonel. "They're attacking our boys. Throw off everything, boys, and hurry forward!"
Overcoats, blankets, haversacks and knapsacks were hastily pied, and the two most exhausted men in each company placed on guard over them.
Kent and Abe did not contribute their canteen to the company pile. But then its weight was much less of an impediment than when they left Camp Dick Robinson.
They employed the very brief halt of the regiment in swabbing out the barrels of their muskets very carefully, and removing the last traces of moisture from the nipples and hammers.
"At last I stand a show of getting some return from this old piece of gas-tube for the trouble it's been to me," said Kent Edwards, as he ran a pin into the nipple to make assurance doubly sure that it was entirely free. "Think of the transportation charges I have against it, for the time I have lugged it around over Ohio and Kentucky, to say nothing of the manual labor and the mental strain of learning and prectising 'present arms,' 'carry arms,' 'support arms,' and such military monkey-shines under the hot sun of last Summer!"
He pulled off the woolen rag he had twisted around the head of the rammer for a swab, wiped the rammer clean and bright and dropped it into the gun. It fell with a clear ring. Another dextrous movement of the gun sent it flying into the air. Kent caught it as it came down and scrutinized its bright head. He found no smirch of dirt or dampness. "Clean and clear as a whistle inside," he said, approvingly. "She'll make music that our Secession friends will pay attention to, though it may not be as sweet to their ears as 'The Bonnie Blue Flag.'"
"More likely kick the whole northwest quarter section of your shoulder off when you try to shoot it," growled Abe, who had been paying similar close attention to his gun. "If we'd had anybody but a lot of mullet-heads for officers we'd a'been sent up here last week, when the weather and the roads were good, and when we could've done something. Now our boys'll be licked before we can get where we can help 'em."
Glen leaned on his musket, and listening to the deepening roar of battle, was shaken by the surge of emotions natural to the occasion. It seemed as if no one could live through the incessant firing the sound of which rolled down to them. To go up into it was to deliberately venture into certain destruction. Memory made a vehement protest. He recalled all the pleasant things that life had in store for him; all that he could enjoy and accomplish; all that he might be to others; all that others might be to him. Every enjoyment of the past, every happy possibility of the future took on a more entrancing roseatenesss.
Could he give all this up, and die there on the mountain top, in this dull, brutal, unheroic fashion, in the filthy mud and dreary rain, with no one to note or care whether he acted courageously or otherwise?
It did not seem that he was expected to fling his life away like a dumb brute entering the reeking shambles. His youth and abilities had been given him for some other purpose. Again palsying fear and ignoble selfishness tugged at his heart-strings, and he felt all his carefully cultivated resolutions weakening.
"A Sergeant must be left in command of the men guarding this property," said the Colonel. The Captain of Company A will detail one for that duty."
Captain Bennett glanced from one to another of his five Sergeants. Harry's heart gave a swift leap, with hope that he might be ordered to remain behind. Then the blood crimsoned his cheeks, for the first time since the sound of the firing struck his ears; he felt that every eye in the Company was upon him, and that his ignoble desire had been read by all in his look of expectancy. Shame came to spur up his faltering will. He set his teeth firmly, pulled the tompion out of his gun, and flung it away disdainfully as if he would never need it again, blew into the muzzle to see if the tube was clear, and wiped off the lock with a fine white handkerchief--one of the relics of his by-gone elegance--which he drew from the breast of his blouse.
"Sergeant Glan--Sergeant Glancey will remain," said the Captain peremptorily. Glancey, the Captain knew, was the only son and support of a widowed mother.
"Now, boys," said the Colonel in tones that rang like bugle notes, "the time has come for us to strike a blow for the Union, and for the fame of the dear old Buckeye State. I need not exhort you to do your duty like men; I know you too well to think that any such words of mine are at all necessary. Forward! Quick time! March!"
The mountain sides rang with the answering cheers from a thousand throats.
The noise of the battle on the distant crest was at first in separate bursts of sound, as regiment after regiment came into position and opened fire. The intervals between these bursts had disappeared, and it had now become a steady roar.
A wild mob came rushing backward from the front.
"My God, our men are whipped!" exclaimed the young Adjutant in tones of Anguish.
"No, no," said Captain Bennett, with cheerful confidence. "These are only the camp riff-raff, who run whenever so much as a cap is burst near them."
So it proved to be. There were teamsters upon their wheel-mules, cooks, officers' servants, both black and white, and civilian employees, mingled with many men in uniform, skulking from their companies. Those were mounted who could seize a mule anywhere, and those who could not were endeavoring to keep up on foot with the panic-stricken riders.
All seemed wild with one idea: To get as far as possible from the terrors raging around the mountain top. They rushed through the regiment and disordered its ranks.
"Who are you a-shovin', young fellow--say?" demanded Abe Bolton, roughly collaring a strapping hulk of a youth, who, hatless, and with his fat cheeks white with fear came plunging against him like a frightened steer.
"O boys, let me pass, and don't go up there! Don't! You'll all be killed. I know it, I'm all the one of my company that got away--I am, really. All the rest are killed."
"Heavens! what a wretched remnant, as the dry-goods man said, when the clerk brought him a piece of selvage as all that the burglars had left of his stock of broadcloth," said Kent Edwards. "It's too bad that you were allowed to get away, either. You're not a proper selection for a relic at all, and you give a bad impression of your company. You ought to have thought of this, and staid up there and got killed, and let some better-looking man got away, that would have done the company credit. Why didn't you think of this?"
"Git!" said Abe, sententiously, with a twist in the coward's collar, that, with the help of an opportune kick by Kent, sent him sprawling down the bank.
"Captain Bennett," shouted the Colonel angrily, "Fix bayonets there in front, and drive these hounds off, or we'll never get there."
A show of savage-looking steel sent the skulkers down a side-path through the woods.
The tumult of the battle heightened with every step the regiment advanced. A turn in the winding road brought them to an opening in the woods which extended clear to the summit. Through this the torrent of noise poured as when a powerful band passes the head of a street. Down this avenue came rolling the crash of thousands of muskets fired with the intense energy of men in mortal combat, the deeper pulsations of the artillery, and even the firece yells of the fighters, as charges were made or repulsed.
Glen felt the blood settle around his heart anew.
"Get out of the road and let the artillery pass! Open up for the artillery!" shouted voices from the rear. Everybody sprang to the side of the road.
There came a sound of blows rained upon horses bodies--of shouts and oaths from exited drivers and eager officers--of rushing wheels and of ironed hoofs striking fire from the grindng stones. Six long-bodied, strong-limbed horses, their hides reeking with sweat, and their nostrils distended with intense effort, tore past, snatching after them, as if it were a toy, a gleaming brass cannon, surrounded by galloping cannoneers, who goaded the draft horses on with blows with the flats of their drawn sabers. Another gun, with its straining horses and galloping attendants, and another, and another, until six great, grim pieces, with their scres of desperately eager men and horses, had rushed by toward the front.
It was a sight to stir the coldest blood. The excited infantry boys, wrought up to the last pitch by the spectacle, sprang back into the road, cheered vociferously, and rushed on after the battery.
Hardly had the echoes of their voices died away, when they heard the battery join its thunders to the din of the fight.
Then wounded men, powder-stained, came straggling back--men with shattered arms and gashed faces and garments soaked with blood from bleeding wounds.
"Hurrah, boys!" each shouted with weakened voice, as his eyes lighted up at sight of the regiment, "We're whipping them; but hurry forward! You're needed."
"If you ain't pretty quick," piped one girl-faced boy, with a pensive smile, as he sat weakly down on a stone and pressed a delicate hand over a round red spot that had just appeared on the breast of his blouse, "you'll miss all the fun. We've about licked 'em already. Oh!--"
Abe and Kent sprang forward to catch him, but he was dead almost before they could reach him. They laid him back tenderly on the brown dead leaves, and ran to regain their places in the ranks.
The regiment was now sweeping around the last curve between it and the line of battle. The smell of burning powder that filled the air, the sight of flowing blood, the shouts of teh fighting men, had awakened every bosom that deep-lying killing instinct inherited from our savage ancestry, which slumbers--generally wholly unsuspected--in even the gentlest man's bosom, until some accident gives it a terrible arousing.
Now the slaying fever burned in every soul. They were marching with long, quick strides, but well-closed ranks, elbow touching elbow, and every movement made with the even more than the accuracy of a parade. Harry felt himself swept forward by a current as resistless as that which sets over Niagara.
They came around the little hill, and saw a bank of smoke indicating where the line of battle was.
"Let's finish the canteen now," said Kent. "It may get bored by a bullet and all run out, and you know I hate to waste."
"I suppose we might as well drink it," assented Abe--the first time in the history of the regiment, that he agreed with anybody. "We mayn't be able to do it in ten minutes, and it would be too bad to 've lugged that all the way here, just for some one else to drink."
An Aide, powder-grimed, but radiant with joy, dashed up. "Colonel," he said, "you had better go into line over in that vacant space there, and wait for orders; but I don't think you will have anything to do, for the General believes that the victory is on, and the Rebels are in full retreat."
As he spoke, a mighty cheer rolled around the line of battle, and a band stationed upon a rock which formed the highest part of the mountain, burst forth with the grand strains of "Star-spangled Banner."
The artillery continued to hurl screaming shot and shell down into the narrow gorge, through which the defeated Rebels were flying with mad haste.