From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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But just as the young officer turned away a thought occurred to him. "The general will be anxiously awaiting my report, and I must hurry. If it weren't for that I'd find out what's going on where that light is up yonder. Good-night again. Look for us along about two o'clock."
The muffled sound of the hoof-beats died away across the open field. The men close at hand unrolled their blankets and stretched themselves upon the turf. No fires were allowed, but many a pipe was lighted well within the shelter of the trees, and, too excited to sleep, they lay chatting in low tones. Several of the officers grouping about had heard the young regular's closing words. "That light can't be more'n a mile off," said Captain Flint. "I would like to know what's going on there myself."
The major had dismounted, and by the gleam of a little folding lantern was jotting down some memoranda at the moment in the note-book he always carried. Method was second nature to Stark. Not until he had finished his writing did he reply. Then, even while glancing over his lines, he quietly said, —
"You shall. Bring twenty men and come along."
Quarter of an hour later, with the senior captain left in command at the bridge, Major Stark, Lawton as ever riding close behind him, was leading slowly and cautiously out of the shadows and across an open field that sloped gradually toward a low ridge against the northern sky. Behind them, treading softly, came Flint, a lieutenant, and twenty men. The latter had fixed bayonets and discarded anything about their equipment that would rattle. The north star gleamed right over what seemed to be a little grove along the ridge, and on the edge of the dark patch stood, against the sky, regular and square in outline, an object like a house. Not five minutes back a light was shining in the midst of it, but now that was gone. Slowly, cautiously, the little party continued its silent move, rising gradually with every rod, and at last the leader came to another snake-fence, and three or four stout fellows sprang forward and threw down a panel or two. While this was being done the major looked back, and there, shining over the low ground from the distant heights beyond Bull Run, that clear, steady light was gleaming again, powerful, almost, as the head-light of a locomotive. Away to the southeast, grouped about Centreville, the camp-fires of the Union troops were blazing, and from along this ridge their position was plainly visible. No wonder Virginia sympathizers chose the spot from which to signal! Now what message might they not be sending two hours later when the army began to move? It was after ten o'clock, and that house had been dark for over ten minutes, yet Stark felt confident their stealthy approach was unsuspected. Then comes the stifled cry, "Ha! there it is again! – the light in the upper window, well under the eaves!" Snipe's heart bounds almost into his throat in his excitement, for now it is barely long pistol-shot away, and he is the proud possessor of a new Colt's revolver, much handier, he thinks, than the long, cumbrous musket.And now it's out again; and now, five seconds later, shines anew, and so it goes, – darkness alternating with light three times, then all is black and unbroken. A sergeant is somewhere ahead looking for the next fence. The little party scrambles on up the steeper slope. If only there are no dogs about! Hear them baying over there toward Centreville? and over there yonder to the west toward Sudley Church? Surely if there are dogs here they would be out and baying their reply. Bigger and blacker looms the house ahead, and still no challenge from dog or man. Can it be that the farm folk have deserted it, and that only lurking scouts or spies are here?
And now they come upon a dilapidated picket-fence; beyond it a row of bushes. The sergeant in advance turns back and tells the major there's a wide open gateway at the east, and into this he cautiously rides, Snipe still following. But, oh, how the boy heart is thumping! The roadway is soft Virginia earth, and the hoofs strike no pebbles. Presently the major dismounts, and, handing his reins up to Snipe, bids him wait there in a little open space. Then, noiselessly, he and Flint lead on with the men, and Snipe feels, rather than sees, that they are surrounding the house and stationing soldiers at every door and under every window. All these now are dark save two on the lower floor in front. There are thick shades within, but they show a dull light, as from a table-lamp. Not a sound beyond a creaking of a shoe or plank is heard. The men move like kittens, but it is their first experience of the kind, and most of them are excited, even nervous. As for Snipe, he rages to see how he is trembling.
And then all of a sudden the major's horse, rejoicing that the weight is gone, gives himself a thorough shake, rattling housing and stirrups and accompanying the shake with a loud b'r-r-r-r of satisfaction. All too late Snipe springs from saddle and seizes both horses by the nostrils. Almost instantly booted heels are heard within, and manly, ringing voices. Somebody comes striding to the door and throws it open. A tall, slender, shapely fellow is outlined against the dim light within, and a voice hails cordially, —
"Hullo! What brings you back? Anything the matter over yawnduh?" And that "yawnduh" betrays the Virginian.
"Nothing," is the answer, in Stark's quiet tone. "But your house is surrounded by the troops of the United States and I'll trouble you to come out."
For answer, out goes the light in the room, slam goes the door, and then there is dead silence just about five seconds. Then the order, "Break it in!"
Up the low steps spring a sergeant and two men. Crash goes the door before their heavy rifle-butts, and then, bayonets advanced, in they go. The major, following coolly, strikes a light, and holds aloft his little lantern. The candles on the table are still smoking, and are quickly again ablaze. "Come in here, three or four more of you," orders Stark, while Flint comes hurrying round to the front. There is a rush of feet on the upper floor, a back window is hurled open. "Head 'em off there!" shouts Flint, as again he runs back. There is a sound of sudden scuffle, and some stern order within. Then Snipe can stand it no longer and leads his excited horses closer to the house. He hears the rifle-butts go banging at the doors up-stairs and more men hurrying into the hall. He hears Flint repeat the cry, "Watch every window!" And now he shifts the bight of both reins into the left hand and whips out his revolver, still towing his suspicious and reluctant steeds, and just as he nears the front, almost at his feet, the doors of a cellarway, hitherto unseen and unsuspected, fly open. Two dark figures burst forth. He feels again, rather than sees, that a murderous blow is aimed at his head, and even as he ducks out of the way a revolver flashes and barks just at his ear, and, now instinctively, he pulls trigger. At the flash and bang of the pistols the startled horses both jerk back, pulling him with them. One rein is torn from his grasp, but the captor gains nothing, for before he can reach pommel or stirrup, two long-legged Yankees are on him, and he is dragged back into the light. A third stumbles over a prostrate form writhing in the road, as Snipe quickly finds his feet; and, as Major Stark comes striding out and brings his lantern to bear upon the scene, the lad, pale, breathing hard, but with flashing eyes and that revolver grasped in his clinching hand, is standing over his stricken prisoner, – first capture of the advancing arms of the Union, – a young Confederate officer, whose brand-new uniform is richly laced with gold, but whose face is now white as death as he swoons away.
War was a new, strange, and terrible thing to George Lawton. For a few minutes after his thrilling adventure, while the soldiers were binding with bed-cords the wrists of the three unscathed captives, and Stark and Flint were ministering to the wounded officer, Snipe leaned against a tree, the same feeling of nausea and faintness overcoming him now as it did one day when he saw the brutal beating of an Irish wagoner on Fourth Avenue. Others of the New England men were searching the premises from garret to cellar, finding no human beings but two trembling old negroes, who had never been allowed to regard themselves as possessed of any rights a white man was bound to respect. The prisoners, sullen, scowling, and very much amazed that such a thing could happen on the sacred soil of Virginia, refused to answer questions as to the owners of the place. The young officer was only just recovering from the swoon that followed upon the shock of his wound, but the darkies humbly told all they knew. They were household servants, – slaves, of course. The farm was owned by a wealthy resident of Alexandria. The farmer and his family had gone. The young officer was "Marse Grayson," a nephew of the owner. The other gentlemen belonged to his troop in the cavalry, and there were four more of them somewhere over toward Centreville. They had been round there for several days, and signalling to their comrades over where "Marse Henry" and "Marse Robinson" lived, on the heights beyond Bull Run. Up in the attic the New-Englanders found candles, a polished tin reflector, and a flat board screen that just fitted in the window. A fine telescope and smaller field-glass were also there. A bountiful spread was on the table in the dining-room. The larder and cellar were well stocked, and the men from the land of steady habits did not disdain to "sample" the fluid refreshment found in the cool depths below the house or the delicacies in the pantry. Out in a wooden shed were four fine horses, with new saddles and bridles. Opulence was the rule in the Confederacy the first few months of the war; and now the sergeant and half a dozen men moved out to the front gate to look for those four troopers who were supposed to interpose between their feasting comrades and the possibility of surprise from the direction of the Yankees, and who, so early in the war, had not dreamed of foemen coming from the south. Possibly they had heard the sound of shots at the farm-house and would come galloping back to ascertain the cause. The young officer was reviving. The flow of blood was stanched. He was laid upon a mattress and, with six men to carry him, was started down the slope toward the main body at the bridge. Stark then ordered the party to bring the horses, captives, arms, – everything that could be considered legitimate spoil of war, – and follow at once. The signal outfit was smashed, and Flint, a veteran of the old Covenanter type, was for burning the house, which Stark forbade, if for no other reason than that it would instantly bring patrols of Southern cavalry out to inquire the cause. Indeed, it was a problem with him what to do about the signals. Through the powerful glass he was able to see that the light still burned on the distant heights to the south, and at any moment it might brightly blaze again, asking some question and demanding reply. "Better let them waste time in endeavors to extract an answer than lose none in galloping over to investigate a fire," he reasoned, and then turned to where his young orderly stood, again silently holding the reins of the horses.
"We will push ahead," he said, as he mounted. A few minutes of search and they found the gap in the rail-fence, and overtook the party carrying the wounded Confederate. His youth and gentle breeding had both impressed the taciturn major, and now the fortitude which enabled him without a moan to bear the pain of this swaying motion roused the major's admiration. "Gently, men. There's no hurry. We'll have a surgeon for you in a short time, lieutenant," he said, encouragingly, then spurred on to rejoin his battalion at the bridge. Sharp and clear came the "Halt! Who goes there?" of the northernmost sentry, and Stark reined back instantly as he answered, "Friends, – Major Stark and orderly." "Dismount, both," was the order, as from a dew-dripping clump of blackberry-bushes the rifle-barrel glinted in the starlight. A dark form came running up from the rear, bayonet advanced, and peered searchingly into the major's face. They had no countersign, but those lads had learned their duty from a veteran colonel who had practised it before the Seminoles, the Sioux, and Mexicans, too, and Stark could not forbear a word of praise to both sentry and corporal as he bade the latter summon the officer of the guard. In ten minutes the entire detachment, with its prisoners, was safe within the wakeful lines, and the whole battalion roused up as one man to welcome and rejoice. A year later the incident would have been too trivial to stir a man from sleep. Now it was of tremendous importance. Eagerly Flint's men were detailing their share in the exploit, some of them, exhilarated both by the event and the potent apple-jack, telling rather more than their share. Gently the bearers laid the young officer under the trees. Stark motioned back the inquisitive circle that promptly formed, gave his patient a long pull at a flask and another of cool spring water from a canteen, and then gently asked him which he would prefer, – to be carried into Centreville or wait there until a surgeon could come out.
"I do not care," said the wounded boy, with a sigh. "Can't you suppress this somehow?"
"The bleeding?" asked Stark, anxiously. "Why, I thought I had."
"No, – the whole business. I don't want mother to know I'm hurt."
Stark scratched a match and looked at his watch. Just twenty-five minutes past eleven. In half an hour, as Upton said, the army would be astir and moving. There would be many another name added to the list before the setting of another sun. Already, North and South, the papers were ablaze with tidings of that misguided "reconnoissance in force" toward Blackburn's Ford, which had felled some sixty men on each side, sent Tyler's men back to Centreville disgusted, and inspired those of Longstreet and Ewell with a craze of undeserved triumph. By two o'clock in the morning the column of Hunter and Heintzelman would be crossing that guarded bridge on the way to the upper ford, but they would not wish to be burdened with wounded and prisoners when going into action. The battalion would undoubtedly be ordered to join its own regiment as it came tramping along. The general might extract from these prisoners information which would be of value. Stark's mind was made up quickly. A lieutenant and half a dozen men were selected as guards, another six to carry the mattress and wounded prisoner. Lieutenant Payne was given his choice of the captured horses while Stark wrote brief report of the affair. In ten minutes everybody was ready. Still bound with bed-cords, the three silent rebs were bidden to fall in, and then for the first time did Stark open his lips to his orderly since the brief words at the farm. In the hearing of half his little command, the major turned to where the latter stood, silent and a trifle awed and wearied.
"Lawton," said he, "I send you back to the general with this party for two reasons: first, because you know the way and can guide them; second, because you made to-night the most important capture of the campaign thus far, and I mean that you shall have full credit."
For a minute there wasn't a sound. Snipe felt dizzy with the sense of instant elation, following as it did the languor and depression of the moment before. Then some sympathetic soul among the listeners began a soft clapping of the hands. The example was contagious. Before a repressing word could be heard, the New-Englanders gave vent to their feelings in a volley of hearty, if suppressed applause. The major had to order silence and caution. Then handing a folded paper to his orderly, with a grim smile and a friendly pat on the shoulder, bade him mount and be off, and like a boy in some wild dream, incredulous, unrealizing, yet with a heart throbbing with thankfulness, George Lawton remounted and rode out into the starlight, over the echoing bridge, and took the front of the little detachment, his cheeks, so pale awhile ago, burning now with pride and hope, his thoughts drifting back to mother and the boys. What wouldn't Shorty give to be in his place this night?
An hour later a knot of newspaper correspondents, orderlies, stragglers, and servants clustered about the party as it rested in the starlight in front of an old Virginia homestead. On a bed in the rear room the surgeons had laid the wounded Confederate. In the main room, with two or three of his staff and half a dozen correspondents pencil-driving about him, sat the commanding general. Before him, silent and respectful, stood brown-eyed, long-legged Snipe. The camp lanterns burned brightly on mantel and table. The sound of many voices, low-toned but impatient, came from without. Something had blocked the road in front, and the march of the rear divisions was stayed. The general was vexed, as all could see, – impatient and indignant. But as he read the pencilled lines, handed him by the adjutant-general, something like pleasure shone on his florid, soldierly face.
"You chose the right man, Burnside," he suddenly exclaimed, as he turned to a stalwart, heavily whiskered officer who entered at the moment, clad in a pleated flannel blouse, with heavy riding-boots and breeches. "Look at this," he added, handing up the brief despatch. "I wish I could inject as much sense into some – generals." Then he turned on Snipe, his stern face relaxing:
"You have done admirably, my lad. How old are you?"
For a moment the light went out of Lawton's eyes, giving way to trouble and embarrassment. He twisted his forage-cap in his trembling fingers. At last, huskily, but with reviving hope, he answered.
"I told them I was eighteen. To-night I tried to prove I was as good as my word."
A smile went round the room. The general beamed.
"You answer well, sir, and you do well. Major Stark probably can't spare you or you should join my head-quarters' party and wear the chevrons of a sergeant. Look after this young gentleman, captain, and see that he has coffee and supper before he starts back," he said to one of his aides, who had been silently gazing at the orderly's face. "Your regiment's time expires next week. Perhaps you would like to come to me then. If so, there'll be a place for you, and meanwhile the home people will be proud when they read in Monday's papers how their boy captured the first rebel officer at Bull Run."
And with these words ringing in his ears, the lad was marched away to a shed outside where aides and officers of every rank were snatching a hurried bite from a camp-table, and here he was regaled with sandwiches and coffee, and plied with questions by men whose pencils sped like mad over their pads of paper, and they noted instantly his embarrassment when they asked him about home and parents.
"I have no home," he said, simply. "My father has been dead some years. My mother remarried. I've been making my own way, and that's all there is to it." But more they would have. His name, of course, was known. "George Lawton, private, Company 'C,' First New England, orderly to Major Stark," and at last the lad said his mother lived in Rhinebeck, her name was Park, and then he broke away in search of the young captain to whose care the general had committed him. There was something oddly familiar about that officer's face as he greeted Snipe again.
"Come in here," said he, leading the way within the hall, and thence to a little bedroom. Then he turned and faced the wondering lad. "Haven't I seen you at the Primes' in Fourteenth Street," said he, "and aren't you Regy Prime's – Shorty's – chum whom they called Snipe?"
There was no answer for a moment, but out came both the young captain's hands in cordial clasp. "Why, of course you are! I was sure I had seen your face before. I'm one of Pop's old boys myself, and there are more of them round here. Shorty's uncle isn't a mile away at this minute. Lots more of the tribe are somewhere with the army. Why, your teacher, Beach, is with General Wilcox. He was a classmate of mine, and we're all proud of you, Snipe. Now you've got to get back to your major to-night, and I suppose all of us will be fighting to-morrow. However, don't you forget what the general said. Come to him when your regiment goes home next week it you want to stay in service, and go on to Richmond with us."
Alas for soldier hope and projects! Long before the midnight hour came again all the general's army, some of it in mad panic, was rolling back on Washington. The Monday morning papers, indeed, gave thrilling account of the heroism of Private George Lawton in capturing at the risk of his life a daring young rebel officer of the famous Black Horse Cavalry. Then there were details of Lawton's prospective promotion, and of the general's complimentary remarks, and Monday morning's papers teemed, too, with tremendous tales of battle, and all Gotham cheered itself hoarse over the vivid reports of the annihilation of the rebel cavalry by the terrific fighters of the Fire Zouaves. But by noon came other tidings and a turn in the tide, – by afternoon details of fell disaster. "The Fire Zouaves annihilated by the cavalry!" was the way it read now. "Our splendid batteries swallowed up and gone." "Our army cut to pieces." Many generals, colonels, and captains killed. Hosts of gallant soldiers slain, and at last, when full reports – authentic reports – were published a long week later, among the wounded and missing were the names of Major James Stark and Corporal George Lawton, of the First New England, and Sergeant Keating, of the famous Fire Zouaves.
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