Charles King.

From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days



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CHAPTER XIX

Back again through the starlit night, through dew-dripping aisles of shrubbery, through dark, leafy groves, with the glint of the picket's rifle ever before his eyes, the cautious yet excited challenge falling constantly upon his alert ear, time and again had Snipe to dismount and account for himself before he reached the outposts along the pathway to the north, and finally, after finding its junction with the wood road along which Upton had led the battalion at dusk, the lad came upon officers and sentries who were obdurate. Oh, yes; they believed him to be the young feller that twice had gone through the lines, once with the major and Lieutenant Upton and once with prisoners; but now he was alone, and how'd they know he wasn't going with information to the enemy, or going to be a deserter? Snipe argued and pleaded. Major Stark was waiting for him away out toward Sudley Ford. General McDowell himself and General Burnside told him he might rejoin his command. Then why didn't they give him a pass through the lines? was the question. The countersign didn't amount to shucks out along the pickets, said they. Anybody could get the countersign, – which wasn't altogether an exaggeration, – and, well, he might be all right, and then again he might be all wrong. It was now nearly two o'clock, the hour Upton said they might expect the head of column at the farm bridge, and Snipe, whose heart was full of glory and elation an hour before, found himself compelled either to wait there or retrace his weary way past all those inner posts again to the now crowded turnpike.

He chose the latter, and after an almost perilous ride, for more than one raw sentinel took him for a rebel army and wanted to shoot, he reached the broad thoroughfare about a quarter of three, to find it still blocked by troops of the same general who had made the mistaken move on Blackburn's Ford, who was ordered to have his division on the road to the stone bridge and well out of the way two hours before, – the same fellows that "broke ranks at every blackberry-bush and spring and well along the route from Washington," and before the first crash of the shells on Thursday afternoon. Now they seemed to be lost in the darkness when routed out at midnight, and not until long after the proper time – three hours at least – could the guns of Hunter's division get the road; not until nearly dawn did they cross that old suspension bridge across Cub Run and then, turning to the right, march off into the fields along that guarded wood path. Not until broad daylight did the head of column reach the farm bridge. Then, as the sun came up hot and strong, and Snipe, after a long night in saddle, was able to rejoin his anxiously waiting major, and Stark's battalion fell in once more with the left wing of the New-Englanders and followed in the wake of Burnside's Rhode Island battery, the long column moved on, snake-like, through fields wherein the dew too soon gave way to dust, and not until nine o'clock, heated, weary, hungry, after nine hours of exasperating delays, of alternate halt and march, were the leading files plashing through Sudley Ford.

There stood the little church, and this was Sunday morning, and these silent, solemn fellows who came plodding up the southern bank on the trail of the gun-wheels were of the old Puritan stock, but there was no halt or time for worship. McDowell himself, commander of the army, had accompanied the turning column that by this long, circuitous path had essayed to make safe crossing of Bull Run and bear down on the rebel left, while the rest of the army waited in front of the stone bridge. Only twenty-eight thousand men all told, with twenty-nine guns and a single battalion of cavalry, had the Union general with which to assault in their chosen position thirty-two thousand enthusiastic Southerners with fifty-seven guns.

No wonder there was anxiety in the wearied eyes of the Union leaders, as at last the little division of General Hunter deployed in the fields south of Sudley Ford and came cautiously feeling its way onward, Porter's brigade on the right of the road, Burnside's on the left, the Rhode Island battery jogging along the dirt track and watching for a chance to form forward into line. After the battery rode the grizzled old colonel of the New-Englanders, and after him trudged the long column of his silent men; and with the left wing rode Major Stark, and ever at his heels rode Snipe. How slow seemed the advance! how tedious the incessant halts and waits while somebody reconnoitred! and at last, issuing from the woods, they saw before them a long ridge running east and west between the road on which they were marching and the winding stream away off to the east, and out in the intervening open were two of Burnside's regiments in line of battle, slowly moving southward, and on the west side Porter's infantry was filing into the fields, and in regimental succession facing south and following the general move. Nearly a mile ahead, until lost behind that ridge, they could see the trees and walls and fences bordering a straight line across their front that they knew must be the turnpike they had quit a mile or so west of Centreville, and now, having left it behind them there, here they were facing it again with four regiments, at least, in battle line parallel with its general direction. Off to the right front it gently rose and was lost among groves and trees. Directly ahead it dipped into a sort of hollow where a little stream came purling out from the wooded uplands farther on. "Young's Branch, they call that," Snipe heard the major say to Captain Flint. There were a few farm-houses and enclosures down near the crossing of the pike. Then the road they had been following could be seen red and dry rising toward the south, running straight away for Manassas Junction, until it disappeared over the wooded crest another mile beyond the pike. East of this road the ground rose abruptly to a broad open plateau, skirted east, southeast, and south by a semi-circular fringe of thick woods. At the edge of the plateau, and near the bold, bluff-like slopes leading up to it, were two roomy houses of brick and stone, surrounded by fruit-trees and gardens, – one away up almost overhanging the pike, the other well down to the south, closer to the wood road they had been following from Sudley Springs, – the first the Robinson, the other the Henry house. From which of these were they signalling last night? was the question that went from lip to lip. Eleven o'clock, and though there had been some sound of musketry down toward the stone bridge, and the big thirty-pounder gun had let drive a shell or two into the woods, and there had been some popping of rifles among the skirmishers well ahead, not a uniformed force of rebels had the New-Englanders seen, unless some scattering horsemen galloping through distant lanes could be so regarded. Out in front of Burnside's ranks a long thin line of skirmishers was now making for the curtaining ridge in front of the pike, and all on a sudden a pale blue smoke-cloud, like a long string of cotton wool, flew along that crest as though the command fire was given from the far right, and the nervous, waiting fingers pulled trigger as the order came, borne on the hot, sluggish, summer air. Snipe's heart gave a great leap as he saw the dust fly up in a hundred places just back of the distant skirmish line and the skirmishers themselves, with much alacrity, come sprinting back to the line, and then there was prodigious waving of swords and shouting of orders and galloping furiously about on part of field-officers who had never before smelled powder, much unnecessary exciting of their men, much whoop and hurrah on part of the advanced line, despite the efforts of the few veterans to set the example of calm and quiet. The instant the skirmishers came ducking in out of the way the long battle line opened a rattling fire upon the ridge, doing tremendous havoc along the hill-side, if one could judge by the rising dust, but finding no lodgment among its hidden defenders. Then a field-gun banged somewhere over east of the ridge, and a shell, whizzing overhead, burst with a puff and crash among the trees back of Burnside's reserve, and hundreds of men crouched instinctively and sprang back laughing loud and nervously. And then another gun, over by the pike, west of the ridge, barked angry challenge, and sent its shell whistling over among Porter's men, and the battle lines broke anew into rattling, crashing fusillade, known as the "fire at will," and then, instead of pushing straight onward as they would be doing another year, the two brigades halted short and took to long-range shooting. Then Snipe saw the battery ahead of them beginning to joggle, and the next thing "Forward, double quick," was repeated along the column, and off to the left front across the fields the snorting teams went galloping, the guns bounding, the cannoneers racing after them, and the adjutant came running back afoot to shout something to Major Stark, who still rode, grim and silent, along the advancing column. Up to this moment the only thing Snipe had heard him say since the first volley was. "Steady, men. Keep quiet. Listen for orders." Now he turned round. "Ride back, Lawton; find the ammunition-wagon and bring it up. It's the colonel's order."

They are half across the field at the moment. The air is ringing with the blare of battery bugles and the sputter of file-firing. Smoke is drifting across the eager column of New-Englanders, and there are queer whistlings on the wind as Snipe, digging spurs into his tired horse's ribs, whirls about and goes darting back to the Sudley road. But there he has to draw rein. The narrow track is blocked. With set faces, but flashing eyes, a battalion of regulars is hastening forward. Then, with cracking whips and straining traces, strong, mettlesome horses prancing in the fulness of their strength and spirit, Griffin's West Point battery comes tearing through the lane. Wagons, either of ammunition or rations, or even ambulances, are cut off somewhere far to the rear. Able only to move at the trot, halted every now and then, and forced aside, sometimes even compelled by over-zealous officers to halt and explain why he is going to the rear, Snipe is full half an hour passing the batteries and battalions of Heintzelman's division pressing forward into action. Well-nigh another half-hour is he in finding the needed wagon and compelling its reluctant negro drivers to whip their startled mules out into the track. It is after one o'clock when at last he comes spurring out upon the open field again, and now, what a change in the picture! General Hunter has been borne to the rear, wounded, but the thin line of the rebels has fallen back to the plateau beyond the Robinson place, the splendid regular batteries are far over on an open field near the Dogan house, to the north of the turnpike, hurling shell upon the retiring rebel lines. Some of Burnside's command, still halted, are apparently repairing damages, but one regiment has gone on, and with tumultuous cheers the Union men are pressing up the slopes at both the Robinson and Henry houses, the New-Englanders somewhere with them.

The road is blocked in front, the fields are strewn here and there with little groups hanging about prostrate soldiers, killed or wounded, and Snipe nibbles at a hardtack to still that queer feeling of faintness that again assails him when he recognizes among the pallid wounded a lieutenant of his own company. Before he can find words to speak he hears the voice of the adjutant, and that young officer has a handkerchief bound about his head and blood is trickling down his neck. "Ride forward," he says. "The regiment is straight ahead over that first ridge, and the major needs his horse. Yonder lies the other. I'll bring up the wagon."

There is a lull in the fight as Snipe goes riding along in rear of the battle line, seeking the New-Englanders. Other brigades have crossed the run, and now the Fire Zouaves are marching in column toward the regular batteries, and right at the edge of the pike Snipe finds his old regiment, with Stark in rear of the right wing. Lieutenant-Colonel Proctor is gone, shot dead, say the rearmost men, as they were crossing the ridge behind them, though that, happily, turns out later to be untrue. The major, however, has secured his late superior's horse, and gravely bids his orderly welcome with the other. Far over along that semicircular fringe of woods to the southeast an exultant chorus of yells is rising, and a staff-officer, riding by, says something about the rebs trying to keep their spirits up. But the dust is rolling in heavy clouds along the Manassas road, and the captured wounded, and prisoners overhauled during the triumphant forward movement of the Union line, long delayed though it was, say that they are of Johnston's army from the Shenandoah. Then all Beauregard's must be yet to come. Are they the ones now doing all this cheering? Snipe, dismounted and holding both drooping horses, stands watching the faces of his gray-haired colonel and his beloved major, now in earnest, low-voiced conference, and it is plain to see, if not to hear, that the former is far from satisfied at the way things have gone. Over an hour passes without another forward movement, although long columns continue arriving from the direction of the fords just above Bull Run, the fords discovered by General Sherman. Many of the regiments right and left are tossing caps and hats in air, cheering like mad, and demanding the word to advance and finish up the rebels. The steady cannonade of the Union guns has been stopped. The batteries suddenly limber up and move deliberately out upon the pike, then turn southward into that road leading toward Manassas, and next are seen breasting the slopes to their left, marching up the height, Ricketts well in front, Griffin some distance in rear, and when they disappear over the edge of the plateau south of the Henry house, the Zouaves and some other regiment following rather slowly in support, the colonel ventures to say that those batteries will be in mischief before they are quarter of an hour older. Twenty minutes more and they are heard again, reopening in fury upon the enemy unseen by the halted battalions here under the Robinson bluff. And now it is after two, long after, and brigades from Tyler's first division, fording the run above the stone bridge, are strengthening the attack. Sherman, Howard, Wilcox, all are there. Victory seems assured if only the line may advance, crown those heights, sweep the plateau where now the batteries stand almost alone, and drive the yelling rebels from the woods. A dense smoke-cloud rises over the thundering guns. Who can withstand so fierce a cannonade? Snipe, too, wants to toss his cap in air and cheer, but the anxiety in his colonel's face forbids. Thicker grows that shrouding smoke-cloud, heavier the thunder, but louder, clearer, and nearer the crash of musketry, the chorus of exultant yells. Surely there should be an infantry division, at least, to line that crest and support those guns, say veteran soldiers, and all too late the order comes. Out from the woods to the right of the twin batteries issues a long, well-ordered line of troops, commanded by a general who knows his trade. Straight, swift, and silent, in through the hanging smoke, he drives them. Instantly at sight of them the nearest battery commander whirls his muzzles around to deluge them with canister. Instantly from his misguided senior comes the order, "Don't fire. Those are our friends." Quick the reply, "They are Confederates! As sure as the world, they are Confederates!" But Griffin, certain as he is, can but obey when Barry sternly says, "They are our own supports. You must not fire!" Already half of Ricketts's horses and many of his men are down when that menacing line suddenly halts, aims, and at short range pours in one fearful volley that rips through the batteries like a flash of lightning. Down go dozens more, – officers, gunners, drivers, cannoneers, horses, – and then, in wild panic, what are left of the poor, affrighted beasts turn short about, and, snorting with terror, despite every effort of the drivers, come tearing down the slopes, limbers and caissons bounding after them, straight through the ranks of the startled supports; the precious, priceless guns, the stricken wounded, the heroic dead, the gallant officers, abandoned to their fate. Brave as they were in face of fire at home, this was something the Zouaves had never dreamed of. No Ellsworth raged among them now, holding them to their duty. One wild volley they fire, mostly in the air, and down, too, they come, streaming like sheep along the hill-side, leaping the stone wall and scattering for shelter. The panic of Bull Run has begun. Down among the scary mules of the wagons tear the riderless battery horses, and away go darky drivers, mules, and all. Vain the dash of generals to the front, ordering regiments and brigades to charge and retake the guns, now being dragged to the woods. The rebel lines are mad with joy, drunk with triumph, invincible against the half-hearted assaults that follow. No longer is there any concerted effort on the Northern side. Some Union regiments, indeed, charge home, only to find themselves isolated, abandoned right and left by less disciplined comrades. Twice the New-Englanders breast that fire-flashing slope, their gray-haired old colonel cheering them on. Twice they come drifting back, bringing their scores of wounded with them; but when, at last, with tears coursing down his powder-blackened cheeks, Burnside tells them all is over, and to follow the retreat, it is the old Covenanter, Flint, who leads the remnant from the field. Their colonel, limp and senseless from loss of blood, is borne away on the muskets of a squad of wearied men. The major, pinned under his dying horse close to the Henry house, is surrounded by a throng of rebels when the right gives way. If not dead, he and Snipe are prisoners, for the last seen of the youngster he is trying to drag the major out and get him on another horse, even while the rebels are swarming all about them.

CHAPTER XX

In the month that followed the panic and disaster of Bull Run the nation seemed to realize at last what was before it. "Little Mac," the idol of the soldiery, had been summoned to Washington to organize and command the rapidly arriving regiments of volunteers, – splendid regiments from all over the Northland, and though the flag of rebellion waved on Munson's Hill, in full view of the unfinished dome of the Capitol, and every afternoon the Southern bands played "Dixie," in full hearing of the guards to the approaches of the Long Bridge, the Southern generals were wise and refrained from farther advance.

Within that month, too, almost all the officers and many of the men reported missing after the battle were accounted for. Many turned up safe and sound, if much "demoralized." Many were heard of as at Libby and Belle Isle, the Richmond prisons, but not one word of any kind came from Major Stark, not a thing could be learned of his devoted orderly, appointed corporal, said the survivors of Stark's battalion, the very morning of the battle. The New-Englanders had gone home with the thanks of the President and Secretary of War for their gallant conduct at the battle, and their faithful service days after their time had expired. The gray-haired colonel, though still unable to remount and take command in the field, had been made a brigadier-general. Flint reappeared at the front as lieutenant-colonel of the reorganized regiment. Everybody said that Major Stark would have been made its colonel had he survived.

In Gotham there was grief in many a household, but there was trouble in the Lawrences'. Poor Mrs. Park, as was to be expected, could give them little peace. "Everybody" now knew that the youthful captor, so lauded in the papers, of the young Confederate cavalryman was the George Lawton who had fled from Aunt Lawrence's roof rather than listen to more upbraidings. Mrs. Park had first gone wild with pride, exultation, and delight when the Monday morning Herald reached her, – and then to New York and Aunt Lawrence the very next day. And there she learned the later news, and stayed a dreadful fortnight, dreadful for herself and everybody else. One thing, at least, was comfort to the younger sister, and comfort she certainly needed now, – the mother steadfastly refused to believe her boy was dead. What she wished to do and what perhaps she would have done, but that her husband came and forbade, was to go to Washington and lay siege to the War Department. Mrs. Park could see no just reason why the government should not send forth a strong column to scour and scourge Virginia until "the Mother of the Presidents" surrendered her boy. School was closed for the summer. The First Latin had passed its examinations, matriculated at Columbia, and was to start as freshmen in the fall, minus two members at least, Hoover, who had apparently abandoned his academic career, and had not been seen around New York, and Briggs, ignominiously "flunked" at the examination. Two others of its list were spoken of as duly admitted should they return to the fold in time to enter with the class, – Snipe Lawton and Shorty Prime. Where the first was no one could conjecture. Where the second was everybody knew, as Shorty took good care they should, if letters could accomplish it. There wasn't a happier lad in all the lines around Washington as August wore on, and the army "got its second wind" – and reinforcements. Short and small as he was, he rode as big a horse as anybody, and had reached almost the pinnacle of his boyish ambitions. He had been made mounted orderly at brigade head-quarters, and could ask no more, except that Snipe should know, and Snipe should turn up safe and sound.



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