From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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Then, of course, she wrote, and so did Shorty. Both letters begged Snipe to return, but by this time Mr. Park himself had come to New York to persuade his wife to go back to her home and to promise that he himself would seek and find the wandering boy and fetch him to her arms, – the worst piece of strategy that could have been adopted, as Shorty, boy that he was, could have told her and would have told Park. Left to his mother and to his chum, the lad's heart might have relented and his stubborn pride dissolved, but there are men sublimely gifted with the faith that they alone are competent to deal with affairs, either public or personal, – that without their aid and guidance everything is sure to go amiss. Park sped away to the Massasoit on the heels of the letters, and when George Lawton drove in with the hope of finding the longed-for messages from home, and went from the stable where they had put up the sleigh straight and eager to the Massasoit, there, with his back to the huge, red-hot stove and facing the office desk, as though to guard that package of letters, there, grim, unbending, repellent as ever, stood George Lawton's step-father, and the lad, scenting treachery, turned and fled.
When the school assembled for the eventful year of '61, the First Latin found itself reduced to twenty-five. Hoover, it was announced, would spend some months in Mobile with a private tutor and rejoin after Easter. From Snipe Lawton there came neither message, missive, nor token. A rumor flew from lip to lip one April morning that a lad answering every description of the missing boy had fallen from the steps of a New Haven train through a gap between the beams of the Harlem bridge and was lost in the murky waters. The brakeman who saw the accident was well known to members of the school who lived at New Rochelle, and so impressed the Doctor with his story that reward was offered for the body, and men dragged the river for several days. "What you need," said one of the wiseacres of the First Latin, "is to fire cannon over the stream, and that'll bring him up if anything will," and the words were recalled when, within another day, the guns of Sumter boomed from shore to shore, rousing a nation from its lethargy, bringing many a man and boy to vivid life and action such as they had never known or dreamed before.
The great city had gone wild. Not a month before many of Pop's boys had ridiculed the lads of a rival school who had employed a drill-master from the Ninth Regiment and met two evenings a week. But Shorty, after vainly trying to start a rival company among his own mates, had gone over and enlisted in the ranks at Mulholland's. As a drum-boy he was not allowed to handle a musket and "fall in" with the famous regiment to which he was attached. Indeed, he would have had to stand on a step-ladder to load "according to tactics" the long, glistening musket with which the troops were at that time armed. Mulholland's boys had hired a lot of old-fashioned cadet musquetoons, heavy and cumbrous, but they were marvellous weapons in the eyes of the lads.Officers on duty at Governor's Island were frequent visitors at the Primes' at Fourteenth Street, and Shorty could not but hear of the preparations at the arsenal, the effort to send reinforcements and provisions to Major Anderson at Fort Sumter. All the world knew at this time how the "Star of the West" was fired on and forced to put back to sea, but still not one man in five would admit there should be war, and, in the great Democratic community, hundreds and hundreds of people and not a few papers almost openly took sides with the South. Two lads at Pop's actually came to school wearing the colors of South Carolina in their waistcoats, and in the First Latin the Ballous, whose father had embarked his capital in steamships trading with Charleston and Savannah, and Seymour, whose relatives were nearly all Southern, and the Graysons, who were Northerners by birth, but had many kindred in Virginia and Alabama, were all openly "secesh" in their talk. And still lessons went on, and the boys even had time to talk of Snipe and wish him back, and of Hoover and wish him in Jericho. Long ere this, now that there were two absent and Briggs had not a friend or a believer left in the school, all the First Latin had swung round into the conviction that poor Snipe was the victim of circumstances and conspiracy, and that Hoover was the cause of all his woes. The story of the hundred-dollar stealing had begun to be accepted as a fact, though Pop and his assistants could never be got to admit it. The further fact that Hoover and those notorious scamps, the Hulkers, had not been seen in New York since the Christmas holidays had set afloat a story that they had been discovered to be connected in many a piece of rascality. Everything missing at school for over a year was now attributed to Hoover. He had been able, said the boys, to dispose of his plunder through those Hulker fellows, who, despite the money lavished on them by their foolish mother, had debts in many a bar-, billiard-, and pool-room, and were known to have pawned valuable jewelry from time to time. She was with them somewhere in the South, and the gloomy old house in Twenty-first Street was cared for by the servants, who were glad enough to have their young masters away and suspicion attaching to themselves at last removed. But still that watch of Joy's and certain valuables of Aunt Lawrence's remained unaccounted for. Still the police were baffled. Still there came no news as to Snipe's whereabouts, and his mother, deeply distressed, had gone home to Rhinebeck and had to be content with receiving once a month a few lines saying her boy was well, working, and would return to her one of these days when he had earned enough to make him independent. Those letters bore only the date, which often differed by three days from that of the post-mark, but the post-mark helped them not at all. One letter was posted in New York, another in Boston, a third in Philadelphia. It was evident that Snipe was determined to give his step-father no further chance to find him. Once he wrote to Shorty, upbraiding him gently for being instrumental in putting "old Park" on his track, but that was all. Shorty felt it keenly, but with that poor mother and the Doctor and his home people all importuning him and telling him what was his duty, the boy had weakened and given the clue, with the result that they had gained nothing and he had lost his friend. There was little comfort in the assertions of the one whom he referred to as his "Sunday-school aunt," that he ought to be thankful to be rid of so undutiful and undesirable a companion. Shorty, to use the vernacular of the day, "couldn't see it," and fell from grace for saying so. But now the thrilling days of suspense were on the nation, and, while everybody who knew the South knew well the South meant fight, the baa lambs of the pulpit and the braying leaders of the press kept on preaching about the ties of brotherly love, the right of the people to assemble peaceably ("even when under arms"), and the wrong of interference or intimidation, so "Let the erring sisters go in peace." As late as the 8th of April, one night when the boys were drilling in the big gymnasium on the upper floor of Mulholland's school, and quite a number of people were looking on, a venerable patron of the school stepped forward during the rest and proceeded to address them.
"Cease all this waste of time, boys. Put away your cruel weapons. Abandon this senseless strutting and marching. War is a relic of the dark ages, – of barbarism. The world has grown wise with years, and of the enlightened nations of the earth America stands foremost. Trust to the broad views of our statesmen and the good sense of the people. They will ever stand between us and the horrors of a civil war."
There was much applause among certain mothers and sisters sitting along among the spectators, but Mulholland and the boys did not join. It was significant of what the drill sergeant thought that the moment the handclapping subsided he commanded attention and then "Fix bayonet!" Within the week that followed, the broad views of many a Southern statesman were manifest in the shotted guns trained on Sumter. The good sense of the people, so far from "standing between us and the horrors of civil war," boiled over in a genuine Anglo-Saxon exuberance of battle fervor. The news that the stars and stripes were lowered in Charleston Harbor sent them to the peak of every staff throughout the North, and men, women, and children swarmed upon the streets, decked with the badges of red, white, and blue. All Gotham had caught the war fever. The President's call for the services of the State militia to defend the capital until the volunteers could be enrolled sent the Sixth Massachusetts through the city the very next morning, the famous New York Seventh following by special train late the following day, and the Eighth Massachusetts marched down Fifth Avenue the same evening the Seventh went away. The best blood and brawn of the metropolis and of the Bay State were the first to respond. The Sixty-ninth, Seventy-first, and Seventy-ninth, Irish, American, and Scotch regiments of the great city, followed within the week, the jaunty Frenchmen of the Fifty-fifth, the Grays of the Eighth, the Blues of the Twelfth were promptly under arms. Every able-bodied man of the tribe of Prime was in uniform and away to the front before the month of May was ushered in, and Shorty, with breaking heart, had shut himself in his room and sobbed himself sick because he was forbidden to even think of going. He listened to the thrilling strains of the Seventh's splendid band until the last sound of their favorite "Skyrockets" was drowned in the hoarse cheers of the crowds that saw them off. He went to school as ordered and got "flunked" in every lesson. He sat on the mourners' bench in utter misery and despond all through the week that followed the going of the city troops, after having deliberately absented himself from every session during which a regiment happened to be marching away, and in all the two weeks that followed the coming of the news from Sumter only once had there come into his life a moment of joy and comfort, and that was the day following the departure of the Seventy-first (red-jacketed drum corps and all, – all except poor Shorty), when, as the First Latin bustled out into the street at recess, and Shorty, last of all, came drearily down with his hands in his pockets, ordered out, in fact, by Mr. Beach, he was greeted on the sidewalk by a jeering laugh and Briggs's taunting, sneering words. "Hullo, drummer! So you thought you'd better stay home where there wasn't going to be any show of fighting, did you?" and Briggs might have known what would happen. Just as before, in a sudden whirl of fury, the youngster flew at him, landed both fists on the freckled "mug" before Briggs could either dodge or guard; bore him backward in the full force of the instant attack; the carroty head banged on the curb and knocked him stupid, and then the peace-makers really might have been less deliberate in pulling Shorty off. Briggs was a wreck when his raging assailant was dragged away, and Halsey, wild-eyed, came rushing out to stop the fray. "Prime, Prime!" he said, as he held him by the collar. "You've tried the rector's patience to the utmost this last week, and I fear this will end it all."
"I don't care if it does!" panted Shorty. "I'd rather be killed than kept here any longer. I hope he will expel me. Then perhaps they'll let me go where I belong!" And in a torrent of wrath the youngster's swelling heart burst over all bounds, and he was led sobbing away.
Still dazed, half blind, and bleeding, Briggs was lifted to his feet. "It served you right, you hulking coward," said Joy, as he and Bertram led the battered object to the horse-trough in the stable. "You couldn't have insulted him more brutally."
"It's of no use," said the Doctor that evening, gravely, to a gray-haired grandsire, who was himself burning with longing to go to the front. "That boy can't study now. You see he was regularly enlisted as a drummer. He fully believed that when his regiment was called out that nothing could keep him back, and, boy-like, he has said so among his fellows, – probably bragged of it a little. He who had been so boastfully confident now has to stay and face the sneers of the school, while big boys of eighteen and nineteen like Dix and Julian have gone with the Seventh. It breaks his heart, my friend. There's no likelihood of fighting just now. The rebels won't be fools enough to attack Washington. Send him down there to his uncle. Let him have a taste of camp life. The city troops will come home as soon as the volunteers begin to arrive. In fact, if you don't there'll be incessant war right here at school."
"But there's his examination for college," said the head of the Primes, himself a don of Columbia.
"Well, didn't you assure Dix and Julian that Columbia would admit them without examination whenever they knocked at the doors? Didn't you at faculty meeting say that three seniors, who never could have got their diplomas in the world, should have their degrees without further question, despite the fact that they have dragged along at the foot of their class for the last two years, all just because of the fact that they have gone to the front with their regiments?"
"But then he's so small for his years," was the next objection.
"All the better soldier! Those big, long giants break down. Those stocky little fellows are the stayers. Besides," says Pop, with a twinkle in his eyes, "size doesn't seem to count for much. You – ought to have seen Briggs."
"Was he well pounded?" asked the head of the house, with interest ill becoming his years and station. Perhaps he is thinking of old, old days at "Harrow on the Hill," when he, too, had been under the ban for more than one forbidden fight.
"Halsey says he looked as though he'd been mauled by a wildcat;" and to save his reputation the Doctor cannot repress a grim smile.
"The young rascal!" says the head of the house.
Shorty, meantime, remanded to his room to cool off and meditate on his sins, has done neither. The drum which was his joy and the jaunty uniform are gone. To his unspeakable grief, there had come an order for them from the adjutant the day before the regiment marched. Another boy had been accepted in his place, a bigger boy, who could hardly squeeze into either jacket or trousers, but, of course, did not return them. They were regimental property, and yet Shorty felt a sense of personal indignity that, even when he couldn't go, the adjutant should permit any other one to take his place. Of his misery when, clinging to his perch on a lamp-post above the cheering throngs, he saw those twenty red-jacketed lads, led by the drum-major, coming proudly trudging down Broadway at the head of the splendid command, it would be impossible to tell; and now, twitted and insulted at school because he was bound to obey the decree of his grandparents, virtually suspended for resenting the insult, and, last of all, practically a prisoner in his room, poor Shorty's cup was full.
There came a step in the hallway without, a knock at the door, and the butler's boy, a stanch friend, ally, and fellow-fireman, stood and waited. There was no answer, and he stooped and hailed through the keyhole.
"Mr. Shorty, father sent me up with some dinner, – and there's a letter, looks like Mr. Snipe's writin'."
The door flew open and the letter was seized.
That night, late, it occurred to some one that it might be well to go up and see Shorty and try to reason with him and comfort him, or "do something," as it was vaguely expressed. The room door was wide open, the dinner stood untasted on the tray, the tray was on the bed, and Shorty was gone.
It was a starlit summer night following a day of moist, debilitating heat. It had rained at dawn, and then, as the clouds of heaven broke away and went sailing off towards the distant heights on the western horizon, the sun had poured hotly down on open fields and sodden red roads and long rows of wet, white tentage, veiling the landscape with miniature clouds from the teeming earth. All day long soldiers innumerable lolled about the camps and thronged the sentry-posts that lined the roadway, chaffing the passers-by or dickering with darky vendors of fruit, cakes, and pies, – amateur soldiers were these, as any veteran could tell at a glance, some in gayly trimmed regimentals, some in antiquated tail-coats, more in fancy jackets, few in serviceable garb, and nearly all with their hands in their pockets. A bored, jaded, time-killing lot they looked. The ground was too wet and muddy for drill. The first flush of patriotic fervor had worn away. They had rushed to the front at the earliest call, expectant of tremendous doings, and, except the street-fight of the Sixth Massachusetts in Baltimore and a few shots heard at the picket-posts, there had been no taste of battle. They were the three-months men, mainly State militia, hurried down to hold Washington against attack, while the volunteers, the "three-years men" of the war, were organizing and drilling behind them. Their three months had nearly expired, and most of them were eager to go home so long as there was nothing going on at the front. Some, indeed, were ready to go anyhow, many with the promise of commissions in the volunteers, many with the resolve to re-enlist for the war, but all anxious to visit home and friends and families and get a more deliberate start than that initial impulse which sent them forward the latter part of April, burdened with knapsacks they knew not how to pack or wear and guns that they had never shot.
And here, along the main pike to Fairfax and Centreville, one on each side of the way, a New York and a New England regiment of militia had been swapping comments and criticisms most of the afternoon, badgering each other when there came no one else to bear the brunt of their shafts, and mischievously turning with one accord on passers-by whose lack of rank or escort suggested improbability of effective resentment.
But as the day wore on and the mud thickened in the middle of the road, and staff-officers, orderlies, and ambulances passing by began to veer out to right and left and encroach on the sentry-posts and the grinning groups that lay just back of them, "the boys" waxed more savage and sarcastic. They had occupied those camps full six weeks, and thought they owned the neighborhood. Back towards Washington, on every rising ground, the red embankments showed where earthworks had been thrown up to defend the front. Along the beautifully wooded slopes to the north and west the fair contours were scarred and defaced with freshly spaded parapets, and through gaping embrasures here and there frowned the black muzzles of the Union guns. Over a rounded knoll half a mile to the northwest of the camp of the New-Yorkers the stars and stripes hung lazily from a white staff, and there were the quarters of a division commander, whose aides and orderlies had been oddly busy all day long, responding, according to rank, with a frown of annoyance or a grin of amusement, to the hail of comment or question from the loungers along the line. But at four in the afternoon a whole squadron of regular cavalry, with high-collared, yellow-trimmed jackets and jaunty forage-caps, came silently squashing by, taking the mud and the middle of the road as a matter of course, and the chaff and comment as of no consequence whatever. Hardly had their flapping silken guidons disappeared around a bend of the pike three hundred yards farther to the west than there came jogging into view from the rear a long column of horses, gun-carriages, and caissons, the cannoneers sitting motionless on the chests, the drivers carefully guiding their powerful teams. A wiry captain, followed by his bugler, came trotting forward, surveyed the mud that interposed along the defile between the two camps, nodded cheerily to the "Going out ahead, Cap?" sung out to him by the nearest New-Yorkers, and signalled with gauntleted hand to the leading chief of section to incline to the right and take the turf at the roadside; and so they, too, went clinking steadily by, twelve long teams of six horses each, hauling six bronze "Napoleon" guns, heavy fellows, and six loaded caissons. Behind them came their forge and battery wagon, a mule-drawn baggage-wagon or two, and one of the famous light batteries of the regular army had passed through the thronging lines of the State militia, who emptied their tents to see the procession and to hurl question after question as to the meaning of it all. And this was only a beginning, for right behind it came the flaunting red silk guidon of another battery, differing from the first only in that the men wore red-trimmed jackets instead of dark-blue blouses, and that the cannoneers were skipping along the roadside or squashing through the mud, their captain holding sternly, even on a short march, to one of the rules of the light artillery, that the horses should have to pull as little weight as possible. And no sooner was he fairly by and his men well within the lane of the militia camps than the storm of fun and chaff rose to uproar, silenced only when the tail of the column had passed beyond. By this time, too, the officers were coming out to take a look. Then there rose a burst of martial music and a sound of cheering up the roadway, and, preceded by a band, there rode into sight some mounted officers, behind whom gleamed the sloping barrels of the arms of a battalion of infantry; and now New York and New England dropped cards, checkers, or chat, and the last laggards of both regiments come streaming to line the roadway and scan these bold invaders. Even the colonels mount their horses and ride in among their men, and as the music ceases and the regiment picks its way gingerly through the mud, the cry goes up from the eastward skirts of camp, "The Fire Zouaves!" and that cry is taken up and passed from lip to lip, and order and discipline, even of these primitive war days, all are forgotten, and as the long column comes winding down the gentle slope in the afternoon sunshine, and bright bits of scarlet glow through the sombre tone of gray, and the old familiar fire shirts are recognized, as one man the New-Yorkers set up the welcoming fireman chorus of the streets of Gotham, and the welkin rings with shouts of "Hi, hi, hi!" mingled with rapturous cheers. Prompt comes the answer from a thousand lusty throats. Caps and hats are tossed in air, ay, and, as the column and the colors mingle, canteens, tossed from bystanders to marchers, are pressed to thirsty lips and passed from hand to hand. Officers and men alike, militia and volunteers, the soldiers of Manhattan are shouting greeting and rejoicing, and the next moment, despite all efforts of the senior officers to stop it, the Zouaves are forcibly seized and dragged from the marching ranks, hugged and hauled and slapped on arm and chest and leg and shoulder, wherever knapsack, blanket, and cartridge-box do not interpose below the neck, and men come running with more canteens, and Zouaves are lugged bodily away to the neighboring sutler's tent, and when, finally, the last unmolested files of the Fire Zouaves have gone, cap-waving and cheering, on in the trail of the batteries, the camp of their fellow-townsmen is filled with stragglers who are only recovered an hour later through the medium of strong patrols.
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