From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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"The horses? Yes, sir, they'll be through feeding in ten minutes."
"Very well. I'm to go forward with four companies at dusk. You needn't, if you wish to write – or anything."
But when the major led that silent detachment into the winding bridle-path through the trees, following the lead of a young staff-officer who rode jauntily ahead, Snipe Lawton followed close at his commander's heels.
In more than a dozen regiments of raw soldiery camping in the fields about Centreville that hot July evening were lads no older than George Lawton. Among the seasoned regulars, few as they were, serving either as fifers or drummers in the infantry and marines, buglers in the batteries or trumpeters in the cavalry, were some who were even younger, – boys born in the army far out on the frontier, perhaps, or at the few garrisoned forts on the Atlantic coast, – sons of soldiers who knew no other life and who would have felt awkward in any dress but the uniform. But there were few who did not at first feel, as Snipe felt, a nervous tremor about the knees at sound of those swift banging guns. Veteran soldiers soon learn that cannon may boom all day and little damage be done, and that the real sound that tells of deadly battle is the sustained crackle and crash of musketry. All through the excited army the news had gone that there had been a "meeting" Thursday down at Blackburn's Ford to the left front, "a reconnoissance in force," a staff-officer described it to silent, serious Major Stark, "merely to develop the enemy." But that reconnoissance had developed something else, – the fact that some of the raw regiments, bursting with eagerness to march to Richmond ten days earlier, couldn't stand fire to-day, for the moment the screaming shells from the Confederate guns on the southern bank of Bull Run came crashing through the timber on the north side, a new volunteer command, shoved in there to support a battery, scurried out of it in most undignified haste. Others, no older in service, but better led, stood their ground like men, despite their pale, anxious faces, and roundly jeered the "salt-workers." One thing was settled to the satisfaction of General McDowell, commanding the Union force, and that was that the routes to Manassas Junction, either by way of the Stone Bridge straight ahead on the broad pike, or more directly by the several fords farther down-stream, were vigilantly guarded, so that "the longest way round" would probably be the shortest way to that centre of rebel activity. There at Manassas the railways from the South and from the Shenandoah joined. There were the stores and supplies. There was the strategic point, and scattered along the wooded bluffs that hemmed the stream on the southern side, all along for nearly eight miles were stationed the Southern brigades. With Manassas at their backs five miles away, with Bull Run directly in their front, with only one broad road and four or five bridle-paths or wagon-tracks leading down to it, the Southern general felt well assured in his position and equally confident of his men.
On the other hand, the Union leader was schooled in strategy and grand tactics and quick to see his opportunities.Bull Run was as "crooked as a ram's horn," said the staff-officers sent forward to reconnoitre, but its general course below the Stone Bridge was southeastward, despite its deep bends and twists, while above the bridge, within four miles or so, from the neighborhood of Sudley Springs, it had three sharp elbows, and flowed alternately east and south. Below the bridge the woods were thick on both banks; above it, toward Sudley Church, were many open fields and patches. All Friday and Saturday the Union troops were closing up on Centreville, bringing with them, worse luck, a gang of curious spectators in carriages and buggies, – people coming out the twenty-five miles from Washington as though to a picnic, – and all this motley crowd was scattered through the fields and orchards and shady groves and swarming through the farm enclosures about the once placid, sleepy little Virginia village this still Saturday afternoon that preceded the momentous Sunday of the first real battle of the civil war.
It was seven o'clock by the major's watch as the rear of his silent column swung clear of the bivouac where comrade soldiers stood and longed to cheer them off, but for the caution of their officers passed company by company down the line of stacked rifles. There had been a brief conference between the gray-haired, shrill-voiced colonel and his junior field-officer. The latter had received his orders direct from the commanding general. That accomplished soldier had keenly looked the major over, and, as the latter remounted and rode silently away, had turned to his adjutant-general with the comprehensive remark, "He'll do!" And now, as the twilight deepened and the stars began to twinkle in the eastern skies, through a winding wood-path the column moved, snake-like, swiftly, confidently, yet noiselessly, on. There was barely a farm-wagon track along the springy turf. Each man carried his knapsack, blanket, and his forty rounds. Light marching order would have been welcome after the heat and heavy burdens of the past few days. Route step was the command when clear of the sentry lines, but silence the caution. Quarter of a mile out, and in a little grove, the leaders came upon a company of infantry clustered about their stacked rifles. The wood road forked here, one branch going straight on north, the other bearing farther to the west. A word from the young lieutenant of regulars, riding side by side with Major Stark, and the commander of the picket reserves stood back, and, without a moment's pause, the battalion swung steadily on, taking the right-hand path. A few hundred yards and there was momentary check. A subaltern officer and some twenty or thirty soldiers stood under arms at a bend in the path, and now the light was so dim that the stars directly overhead were beginning to peep down at the drowsing world beneath. The two lieutenants, the professional of the staff, the volunteer of the infantry, held brief parley, while Major Stark looked back toward his coming battalion, signalled to the foremost captain marching sturdily by the side of his first sergeant, and that officer stepped out a yard or two, faced back toward the long column, and, first waving his sword aloft to attract attention, took it in both hands, the left near the point, held it horizontally over his head an instant, and then suddenly lowered it; whereat, without a sound, all who saw as quickly halted short, softly placing the shod butts of the rifles on the ground, and all others almost instantly followed the example. It was part of a silent drill the New-Englanders had been taught for just such emergencies.
With beating heart Snipe listened to the low-toned colloquy. The lieutenant of the picket-guard, a trifle excitedly, was dictating some report just received from the outposts.
"No, I didn't see 'em myself," he replied, in answer to question, "but Sergeant Holman says he couldn't be mistaken. The outermost sentries, three of them, all say the same. There were at least twenty-five horsemen. They forded the Run right down here to the southwest of us, and rode northward so as to cross this slanting path, if they kept on in the same direction, just about a mile from here. Holman's with the outposts now, sir."
The staff-officer turned to Major Stark. "They may have been sent to destroy the very bridge we are ordered to guard," said he, in low tone. "It isn't two miles ahead."
"Then the sooner we get there the better," was the prompt answer, and, glancing over his shoulder, the major signalled again, his right hand high in air at first, then pointing to the front, but in the gathering darkness the gesture was not fully understood. "Ride back, Lawton, and tell Captain Flint to follow with the battalion," and the two mounted officers rode rapidly ahead, and in a moment were lost to sight among the shadowy trees.
It was Snipe's first mission as an orderly, and well he remembered it. Whirling his horse about, he trotted back to where the head of the column stood silently with ordered arms, the men leaning on their muskets. "Major Stark says to follow with the battalion, sir," he promptly announced to the alert captain, using as nearly as possible, as he had read was the duty of staff-officers and messengers, the exact words of the commander; and then, seeing the column instantly obeying, he again turned, rode sharply past the silent picket-post, and, straining his eyes for a sight of his major, while threading the dim vista of the wood path, he soon overtook the two again, halted once more and in earnest converse with a bearded, sturdy-looking sergeant, who, with a little squad of dark-uniformed infantry, formed the outpost.
"The sentinels are not a hundred yards beyond us," he heard him say. "All three saw them. The ground slopes gradually to the south and west. It's quite open. They crossed the Run down yonder, and rode straight away northward," and the sergeant pointed to a distant ridge. "None of 'em came within range. They didn't seem to think anybody would be out here at all."
The staff-officer sat listening quietly and attentively until the sergeant finished. Then he turned to the major. "I chose this ground myself," he said. "The sentries are hidden by bushes from the front, and have a clear view for nearly a mile, by day at least, and looking back you could see the roofs of Centreville on the high ground to the east. I reconnoitred all through here yesterday and came across that bridge about three o'clock. There's a deep wide ditch, marshy in places, wet and miry everywhere for a mile either way, and the banks are steep. Foot troops and cavalry can cross all right, but we've got to keep that bridge for the guns, especially that big thirty-pound Parrott General Hunter's to bring along. I wish we'd been sent out earlier, though of course we might have been seen crossing the open fields. Look!" and Lieutenant Upton led a few paces to the edge of the scattered trees, and there the whole westward firmament was visible, even down to the black lines of the Bull Run Mountains, just setting its own "sentinel stars" for the long night-watch.
"I wish so, too," said the major. "Lawton, ride back and guide the column. It may lose the way."
Again the lad turned and trotted away, but before he had gone a hundred yards he could see the faint gleam of steel come dancing through the glade, and almost instantly there followed the stern, sharp, low-voiced challenge. "It's Lawton," he answered quickly. "The major feared you might lose the way, and told me to guide you."
The men were panting a little now, for Flint was forcing the pace. Something told them there was work ahead. "Know what's up, orderly?" muttered the captain.
"No, sir. The pickets say some rebel cavalry crossed the front just before dark, somewhere about two dozen of 'em." And as Snipe now rode along, with over three hundred stalwart fellows trudging at his back, despite all the excitement of the moment his thoughts went back to the school-days and the First Latin, and he wondered what the fellows would think to see him now, guiding a whole battalion to its post of duty, perhaps to its place in battle. He wondered with clinching teeth and quickening breath who could have made those fellows he had so sworn by believe that he, Snipe Lawton, was a common thief. Was that the reason Shorty never wrote again? Was that why no one now seemed to care where he was or what had become of him? The boy's wounded heart beat vehemently in protest and in indignation, and there in the darkness of that 'cross country wood path his lips murmured a prayer for guidance and protection, that he might live to give the lie to that slander, – might so live as to win honor and credit for the name his enemies had besmirched. Two nights before, following his major through a dark lane when visiting sentries, the boy's heart had bounded uncontrollably, and his knees had trembled so hard that his horse, too, seemed to shake, all because a nervous raw recruit had fancied he saw a rebel stealing on him through the blackness of the night, and after vainly challenging a wandering mule, had roused the whole division and nearly killed his major with a single wildly aimed shot. To-night as Snipe thought of the story he had wrung from the unwilling lips of Sergeant Keating, of the Fire Zouaves, one of 40's old "bunkers," the sense of pride and indignation bore down all thought of fear, and Snipe Lawton, who the year before hated drill and wouldn't be a soldier for anything, even now in the dark, where Napoleon himself had said most men were cowards, was praying that the rebels might be there at the bridge, and that he might be foremost in the dash upon them.
On past the peering, shadowy knots of soldiers of Sergeant Holman's party he led them, the hard-breathing, swift-striding Yankees swinging along behind. Out over the starlit open to where, well across the field, he could dimly descry the forms of two horsemen. "Well done, orderly," muttered the regular. "You've lost not a second. Now, major, we'll push ahead. Better caution them not to make a sound."
"They won't," said Stark, in answer, and resumed the northward way. Five minutes and they were skirting an old snake-fence, well out beyond the hail of the last sentry or vedette of the Union lines. Any moment now they might meet scouting parties of the rebel horse, and here Lieutenant Upton warned the major to keep with his command, while he himself, bending low on his horse's neck, pushed out ahead. Ten minutes more they went without halt of any kind, but now Stark noted how hard the men were breathing, and ordered Flint to take it easy. "Soldiers need their wind if it comes to fighting," said he. Fifteen minutes, and there was a long fringe of timber ahead, and farther off to the north a light was shining, like a candle, in a farm-house window, but still the dim cart-track led on, and the young staff-officer kept out ahead. Little by little they drew closer to the trees, and eyes and ears were strained for sight or sound. The major, too, was bending low by this time, and eagerly, anxiously, scanning the shadowy line ahead. Presently he drew rein and muttered a call to Snipe, and the lad spurred up alongside. Both horses were pricking up their ears. "This horse acts as though there were others ahead there," whispered Stark. "It may be only the lieutenant's. Here he comes now!"
It was Lieutenant Upton, riding cautiously back. "Major," he muttered, "that bridge is just across the next field, and I could hear voices and the sound of horses' hoofs on the planks. If it's that patrol, we've got 'em. We can't deploy yet. We must creep through these woods and deploy beyond them. I know the ground."
The column had not even halted, for the moment the staff-officer joined the leader he reined about and rode on, talking eagerly in low tone as he rode, then once more pushed cautiously ahead, the hoof-beats hardly audible on the springy turf, and was soon lost among the trees. Five minutes more and the major and his faithful orderly emerged again under the open starlight, and there they found their alert guide. "Let them halt in the timber a moment," whispered Upton. "Look at that light." And while the head of column abruptly ordered arms, and each succeeding set of fours almost bumped up against that which preceded it before it could do likewise, the aide-de-camp pointed southward.
Upon some dark height full three miles away toward the Junction, and evidently some distance beyond the stream, a bright light, as of a lantern with brilliant reflector at its back, was shining steadily. "There was another a mile to the north of us as we crossed the last open common," said Stark. "Why, look! There it is again, yet it was dark just now."
And then, suddenly as that northern light appeared, it was extinguished or hidden. Then, before any one could speak, again it flamed. Again it disappeared, and the explanation occurred to all three at the same instant. "Signalling, of course," muttered Upton. "Now get two companies into line, facing west; then we'll leave our horses with them and creep out toward the bridge."
Another moment, and while Flint was noiselessly leading the foremost two into line, the major and the staff-officer had dismounted, handed their reins to silent Snipe, and out they went, crouching low, into the westward darkness, while every man breathed hard and listened. Then the southern light began to flash and disappear alternately. "We are far out to the west of Centreville," murmured Flint. "Those windows are hidden from that point. They doubtless think no one can see them here."
Five minutes, and still no sound came from their venturesome scouts. They had had time to go all the way across if need be. "What d'you s'pose they signal for?" whispered a young soldier in the leading set, whereupon the sergeant turned and muttered, "Hush!" and men began to realize that it was a time to listen – not to talk.
All of a sudden, low, clear, and distinct, a whistle was sounded not four hundred yards away. The first thought to strike every man was, the major! but the major had gone straight to the west; this sound came from across the wide field well to the northward of the supposed position of the bridge. Before there was time to comment the answer was given straight out ahead, soft, yet just as distinct. Then all three horses left with Snipe pricked up their ears and whirled toward the northwest, for from that quarter came the sound of hoof-beats, the low thud and rumble of horses moving at lively lope. Swift, invisible, they swooped down from the northward across the front. Then came sudden check, then silence, then the next minute the hollow sound of iron-shod hoofs upon resounding boards. First one horse, at a walk, then two, three, half a dozen together, and then silence again.
Two minutes later, back from the front, running, came the major. "Forward, just as you are!" he muttered to Flint. "The bridge is safe," and, swinging into saddle and bidding Snipe come on with the lieutenant's horse, he sped swiftly away across the field. At its western limit, at the edge of a deep, black trench that stretched away southward toward Bull Run, they found the staff-officer, standing at the old wooden bridge.
"They've left it intact," murmured Upton, gleefully, "and they've been scouting around our right flank for indication of any attack from this direction, and have missed us entirely. Now let 'em come back and get it if they can!"
In ten minutes three of Stark's strong companies had stacked arms among the timber to the west of the clumsy yet precious structure. The fourth was chosen for guard and picket duty, and, under the guidance of the energetic young staff-officer, every approach was covered. Wary sentries were stationed five hundred yards away, up and down the unsightly trough and well out toward the winding run, with supports and small reserves intervening between them and the main body. Even the open field to the east was guarded, for Major Stark meant that no enemy should come upon him unawares. Finally, deep in the shelter of the grove, they struck a light and consulted their watches. "Just half-past nine," said Upton, "and at midnight the move begins. Now I'll ride back and report. What splendid luck thus far!"
"You have no orderly, lieutenant," said Major Stark. "Let Lawton ride back with you until you reach our lines. I'd be better satisfied."
"There is no need, thank you, major. There is no likelihood of my meeting rebel patrols between this and our pickets. Those fellows are back across Bull Run by this time and riding away to tell Beauregard the Yanks have no idea of reaching round him this way."
Snipe, listening in silence, hoped, despite the brave resolution of the earlier evening, that nothing would happen to change the lieutenant's mind. It wasn't the riding back with him that he dreaded to think of, it was the solitary trot to rejoin the major after seeing Upton safely to the lines. There on the distant heights the lights around Centreville were twinkling, and, even while the officers were consulting a moment before, the lad noted that while they could no longer see the gleam on the high ground south of the Run, the men were again whispering together about that signal to the north of them.
Then the staff-officer held out his hand. "Good-night, Major Stark. I shall take pleasure in telling the general how prompt and soldierly your command has been. After all the go-as-you-please business I have had to note on the march it is good to see a regiment behave like regulars. Good-night to you, too, my lad. If I ever get a regiment I'd like to have a hundred young fellows of your calibre," said he, and to Snipe's surprise and delight Lieutenant Upton was grasping his hand too.
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