From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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The Doctor's wisdom had prevailed. The scare that followed Shorty's disappearance was short as he. Ellsworth was organizing the Fire Zouaves at the time, and the lad, in longing and misery and in envy of Snipe's inches, had stolen away to the old haunt at "40's" house down in Elm Street to beg the boys to tell their enthusiastic young colonel how well he could drum and how mad he was to go. He was home again by midnight, and late to school and lax in conduct and lessons the following day. It was all settled within a week, and as the Doctor had advised, and almost crazy with joy the youngster was hurried on to the capital to join his soldier kindred, was welcomed and set to work to teach other and bigger boys the army calls and beats for the snare-drum, and then, along in August, the general, for whom he had run many an errand and delivered many a message, ordered him to duty at head-quarters and set him in saddle.
Then presently McClellan found himself strong enough to risk a slight forward movement, and two brigades crossed the Potomac one night in face of the pickets at Chain Bridge, and, hardly waiting for dawn, began tossing up earthworks on the heights beyond, and here the saucy rebels came and "felt" the pickets and, riding through the wood lanes, made some effort to dislodge them, but there was evidently heavy force behind those strong picket-posts, and though rifles and revolvers were popping day and night all along the guarded lines from the Potomac below Alexandria to the Potomac above Chain Bridge, no real attempt was made by the "Johnnies" to push through at any point. Night after night, at first, gay young gallants from the Southern lines would mount their horses and ride out ahead just to "stir up the Yanks," and then there would be no end of a bobbery along the front, picket firing in every direction and the long roll in every camp, and everybody would turn out under arms and form line on the designated parade-ground, and stand and shiver and say unpublishable and improper things for an hour or more, and then go back to bed disgusted. After a week or so at this the colonels would no longer form line, but let the companies muster in their respective streets in camp, and the long waits were reduced to an hour, and then to a half, and in course of a fortnight it became difficult even to rouse a drummer when the long roll was actually ordered. And when the sputter and crackle of musketry began far out at the picket-posts in the dead hours of the night, men in camp would roll over and grunt something to the effect that those fellows were making dashed fools of themselves again. And so by the end of August it became a sign of "scare" or "nerves" when pickets began firing at night, and when Shorty's brigade took post along those densely wooded heights and had got fairly shaken down to business, matters at the front, out toward the hamlet of Lewinsville and the lanes to Vienna and Ball's Cross-Roads, became almost professionally placid and disciplined, and the lad was in a sort of military seventh heaven, trotting about with orders and despatches, recognized and passed without check at almost all the posts of the main guards, where even officers below certain grades had to show their permits, welcomed at every regimental camp for the news and gossip he could bring, – ay, and it must be owned, for items much more stimulating than even the latest rumors from the War Department, for Shorty was many a time the bearer of despatches to McClellan's head-quarters or the office of some high dignitary in the city, and his saddle-bags were never inspected by provost-marshals and patrols, and, now that the sutlers were forbidden to sell the fiery liquids of the first weeks of the war, many a flask of forbidden "commissary" found its way to some favored tent among the brigade lines, and in return, when Sergeant This or Corporal That was out on picket, the lad was sure of friends at court when he strove for a peep outside the lines, and one of his absorbing crazes was to ascertain what might be going on around that mysterious hamlet, nearly two miles out there in the lovely Virginia slopes beyond the pickets.
The fact is that Shorty was consumed with ambition to "do something" like Snipe.He envied his former chum the distinction of that capture of Lieutenant Grayson infinitely more than he envied "Little Mac" the command of the army. Just to think that the first Confederate officer caught in front of Washington should turn out to be a first cousin of the very Graysons who were with them at school! Just to think that it should be Snipe of all others – Snipe, a First Latin boy – to make the capture! Just to think that Snipe should have been all through Bull Run, while he, Shorty, was far to the rear where he could only hear the thunder of the guns and the tales of the stragglers! Just to think that the old men in the reorganized New-Englanders declared that Snipe was the best soldier in the ranks of Company "C" if he was the youngest! – Snipe who couldn't shoot a gun six months ago without shutting his eyes, and who would rather fish all day or figure out equations than follow the band of the Seventh itself! Just to think that the old colonel's written report of Bull Run should include among the few names of those deserving especial credit and commendation that of Corporal George Lawton, Company "C," "who sacrificed himself in the heroic effort to save Major Stark from death or capture, and was last seen fighting hard over his prostrate body," – Snipe who used to turn sick at sight of a fist fight, even though he was the "bulliest" first baseman the Uncas ever had.
Time and again the general's diminutive orderly would ride to Colonel Flint to inquire if any news had been heard, and to talk with the old men of Company "C" about his chum. There were two drawbacks to this. It began to bore Flint, who felt a trifle jealous of the praises sung of Stark, and it gave the New-Englanders abundant opportunity to chaff the lad about his old friends, the Fire Zouaves, whose conduct or misconduct at Bull Run was the subject of the derision of the "steady" regiments of the army. It wasn't that the "b'hoys" lacked nerve, stamina, courage. They had lost their soldierly little colonel, shot dead by a fanatic the very day they entered Alexandria. There was no one to discipline them, with Ellsworth gone, and the bravest men in the world are of no account in battle except when acting in disciplined unison. Other regiments ran down that hill as hard as did the Fire Zouaves, and without half the provocation; but everybody pitched on the red shirts and made them the scapegoats because they had come with such a tremendous swagger and had boasted so much. Shorty believed in his old friends and stood up for them, and lost his temper and said things to the New-Englanders in turn that they didn't like. "How came it that you could stand and see your major down with a dozen rebs around him and make no effort at rescue?" he demanded, and this was a home thrust that made many men wince, and at last it leaked out somehow, as such things will, that none of the left wing saw or heard of it until too late. The smoke was thick. They were falling back as ordered, but the senior captain had been wounded and sent to the rear. Flint was acting as wing commander, and when two companies on the right begged their officers, after the confusion, to let them rush back and bring off the major, Flint himself refused. "We have lost far more now than our share," he said, "and the general orders us back."
And still there lived among the New-Englanders that abiding faith that the honored major was not dead and would yet be heard from. "And when he is," said Shorty, "you can bet your buttons Snipe and Sergeant Keating will prove to be the ones that pulled him out, and they were firemen."
The fact of the matter is that Shorty was getting "too big for his boots," as Colonel Flint began to say. He was indulged and spoiled to such an extent by guards and sentries around Chain Bridge, greeted so cordially by generals and colonels, and hailed with such confident familiarity by the line, that the youngster's head was probably not a little inflated. He was getting "cheeky," said a spectacled adjutant-general of a neighboring brigade. "He talks too much," said staff-officers about their own head-quarters. "He'll run up against somebody some day that'll take the shine off him if he isn't more careful with that big horse of his," said a certain few, who hated a horseman on general principles; and this proved a true prediction.
The big bay ridden by Shorty had a very hard mouth, and when once he got going it was a most difficult thing to stop him. Galloping about the neighborhood of Chain Bridge, where almost everybody knew the youngster as the general's orderly, it made little difference (although an irate Green Mountain boy of Baldy Smith's brigade did threaten to bayonet him if he ever galloped over his post again); so, too, on the road to Washington, where permanent guards were placed at different points. But, to put an end to straggling and visiting town without authority, the provost-marshal had taken to sending patrols here, there, and everywhere in Georgetown and Washington with orders to halt every soldier and examine his pass. The regular infantry, now recruited to a war footing, were assigned, much to their disgust, to patrol duty. A number of new regiments of regulars were being raised. A number of the New York Seventh and other crack regiments of the militia reappeared at the front with the uniforms and commissions of lieutenants in the regular army. It even happened that not a few young fellows who had never even served in the militia, and who knew nothing whatever of duty or discipline of any kind, had secured through family or political influence, which the administration was glad to cultivate, commissions denied to better men, and these young fellows were now wearing their first swords, sashes, and shoulder-straps in the onerous duty of running down the merry-makers from surrounding camps, who, dodging the guards, had managed to make a way to town.
One night there came a heavy storm, and down went the telegraph line. Morning broke, radiant after the deluge. The Potomac had risen in its might and swept away some bridge and crib work as well as certain pontoons. The general wrote a despatch to army head-quarters, and called up Shorty. "Gallop with that," said he, "and don't stop for anything."
What the general meant was, don't stop for breakfast or nonsense, but the lad took it literally. He and "Badger" were a sight to behold when they came tearing into the main street of Georgetown about eight o'clock. Badger was blowing a bit, after laboring through nearly five miles of thick mud, but, once he struck the cobble-stones and sent the last lumps of clay flying behind him, he took a new grip on the bit and lunged ahead as though on a race for his life, Shorty sitting him close and riding "hands down" and head too, his uniform besmeared, but his grit and wind untouched.
"Come down aff the top o' dthat harrse!" shouted a Milesian veteran who knew his trade.
"Despatches for General McClellan! Most important!" panted Shorty. "Ordered not to lose a minute – "
"Ah-h-h! none av yer guff! Who'd be sendin' anything 'portant by the likes av you? Tumble off, Tom Thumb!" and the sergeant had seized the official envelope and was trying to lug it away.
"Don't you dare touch that!" almost screamed the lad. "I tell you, I'm a general's orderly!"
But for answer the sergeant thrust a brawny hand under the hooded stirrup, and with sudden hoist sent Shorty tumbling over to the other side. Furious at the indignity, he grasped the mane and let drive a skilful and well-aimed kick at the Irishman's head, which the latter ducked and dodged only in the nick of time. More patrolmen came running to the spot, – corporals and sergeants whose orders had been defied, – and in less than a minute the bumptious youngster was dragged from his horse and led fuming to the sidewalk, just as there appeared at the doorway of the corner building the spruce and dapper figure of the youthful officer of the guard, his uniform spick and span, his sash and sword and gloves of the daintiest make.
"Now, then, you young tarrier, make yer manners an' tell yer lies to yer betthers!" said the big sergeant, half grinning as he spoke, his hand on Shorty's collar all the time. The throng of soldiers gave way right and left, their white-gloved left hands striking the promptly shouldered muskets in salute to their young superior, and then, covered with mud, flushed with wrath and the sense of his wrongs, writhing in the grasp of his captor, Shorty Prime stood staring into the pallid features, the shifting, beady eyes, the twitching, bluish lips of the butt of the First Latin and the whole school, – Polyblasphemous in the garb of a second lieutenant of the regular infantry.
Dead silence for a moment, then, —
"Put him in the cell," said Hoover, and turned loftily away.
There is not room in this brief chronicle to tell the story of Shorty Prime's sensations this eventful day. Wrath, amazement, burning shame, and indignation, all were struggling for utterance, but, above all, at the moment the youngster felt the importance of the despatch of which he was bearer, the need for its immediate forwarding to general head-quarters. His steaming, hard-panting horse had been led one way and he himself, to his unspeakable rage, had been hustled, protesting, through a grimy hall, past groups of grinning soldiery, a burly sergeant fairly rushing him into the square court beyond, never loosing his hold on the collar, and then, as Shorty still kicked, struggled, and protested, reinforcing that grasp by nipping the boy's left ear with thumb and forefinger of the other hand. The precious despatch had been torn from his grasp, despite his stout resistance. Even in his rage he had sense enough to refrain from any denunciation of the lieutenant, but against the laughing Irishman who had dared to address him as Tom Thumb Shorty launched a torrent of threat and invective. It was only with the utmost difficulty that he could repress the flood of passionate tears that a year before would have overcome him. The storm of sobs that seemed imminent would only have made him ridiculous and rejoiced his captors the more, so with all his strength he fought against it. He demanded his release. He declared again that he had only obeyed his orders. He gave his name and that of his general, and insisted that every man who had treated him with indignity would suffer for it. At first they only laughed the more, as he was led across the stone-flagged, sunlit court, on three sides of which were heavily barred and latticed "cells," or rather alcoves, many of them occupied by disconsolate stragglers. But, even as a corporal was unlocking one of these and throwing open the gate, there came stalking majestically over from a little office on the east side a tall man whose upper lip, chin, and cheeks were shaved after the fashion of the Mexican war days, who still wore the high black leather stock at the throat, whose buttons glistened, every one in its place, and whose sleeves were decorated with the chevrons of a first sergeant.
"Let go that ear," he said, in quiet tone, and jeer and laughter ceased. "Who ordered this?" he asked.
"The lieutenant, sir," answered Shorty's conductor, obeying instantly, and speaking with a deference much exceeding that which he had shown to the suckling subaltern commanding the guard.
"Who did you say you were?" asked the veteran regular, professionally grave, his steely blue eyes seeming to penetrate beneath the mud with which Shorty's face and dress were smeared.
"Mounted orderly at brigade head-quarters, Chain Bridge," came Shorty's quick answer, as he stifled his rising sobs. "Ordered to get my despatches to General McClellan and stop for nothing. The river's washed away the pontoons – "
"Where is the despatch? Let go that collar, Sergeant Hanley," and Shorty stood released.
"Stolen from me by these – " And Shorty gulps. Even now he knows it won't do to call names. "I told them my orders. I begged them, and the officer of the guard, to let me – "
"What did you do with them?" interrupted the sergeant, glowering at Hanley.
"Sure I don't know, sergeant. The lootenent ordered him into the cells. He was sassin' everybody."
"I never said a wrong word to the lieutenant," burst in Shorty, indignant that he should be accused of disrespectful language to an officer, no matter how much contempt he might feel for the individual.
"What became of the despatch, I say?" demanded the first sergeant, frowning around upon the now silent circle.
"Corcoran took it, sir," ventured a young soldier, presently.
"Go you and fetch Corcoran," were the sergeant's instant orders to Hanley, and the big Irishman lunged away. Here was a power indeed! the majesty of the discipline of the old army as exemplified in the first sergeant of thirty years' service. "Bring that bench, and water, soap, and towel," was the next order, short and crisp, and two young recruits jumped to obey. In a minute the bench, with a tin basin, a bucket with fresh water, and towel and soap were placed before the bedraggled lad.
"Wash," said the sergeant, and Shorty pulled off his jacket and flannel shirt and tossed them, with his natty cap, to the pavement. "Pick those up and clean 'em," said the sergeant, and a soldier whipped them off the flags, while the lad buried his hot face in the brimming bowl. It cooled and steadied him and gave him time to think, – time to recover breath and wits and self-control. Corporal Corcoran was marched in by Hanley, looking queer. The tall sergeant gazed about at the circle of listening private soldiers. Non-commissioned officers, said the regulations, must never be rebuked in presence of the men. It weakens their authority. "Get you out of this, all of you!" was his order, and they stood not on the order of their going, but were gone in less time than it takes to tell it.
"Where's the papers you took from this – young man?"
"Sure I put 'em on the officer of the guard's table, sir."
"Gone to breakfast, sir."
If the sergeant had then and there ordered Corcoran to "go and fetch the lieutenant," Corcoran would have gone and tried, and it wouldn't have surprised Shorty. "Fetch me my cap," he said instead; then turning to the prisoner, now rubbing hard with the towel, he continued in the same crisp, curt tones.
"Obey orders. Sit in there," and he pointed to the open cage, "till I come back. I'll see to the despatches."
And though still raging over his misfortunes, measurably relieved, Shorty saw him stride away through the dark hall, saw how the soldiers' eyes followed him, how at the outer gate the loungers stood up as he passed by. Then, without a word to the Irishmen or another word from them, Shorty stepped into the wooden-barred cage and sat him down upon the wooden bench, still rubbing with the now grimy towel. A change had come over the situation. Corcoran presently slipped away and speedily reappeared with a clean towel, which he handed to Shorty with a queer mingling of anxiety and bravado in his manner, and as silently took the soiled one away. Hanley, after a minute's perturbed pondering over the matter, scratched his head and slunk – there is no other word for it – into the neighboring barrack-room. Over in one of the other cells a drunken soldier had set up a maudlin song, and it was a relief to the big sergeant's soul to stop and tell him to shut up. Four or five other prisoners, each in his own barred cage on the west side, were standing or sitting and peering out into the court, curious spectators of the scene. The cages or cells to Shorty's right seemed to be empty. But presently there came a soft knocking and scratching on the boards that separated him from the occupant of the one on his right. Lumber was bought in a hurry that summer, much of it only half seasoned. The planks had warped and shrunk. There was a wide crack, and at that crack appeared an eye, and through that crack came the whisper of "Shorty, Shorty. Don't ye know me?"
Some of our brigade, thought the lad, as he edged up to the wooden wall. Some poor fellow overstaying pass. "Who is it?" he asked.
"Don't ye remember Desmond, 28's Engine?"
"Desmond! Of course. Why, what brought you here?"
"The same squint-eyed, pasty-faced pup that did you, I s'pose. Sa-ay, Shorty, you're all right. They can't keep you 'soon as they know who you are. The officer of the day comes at nine o'clock and you'll be let off all right. But I'm in a hole. Say a good word for me. Help me out, and I can tell you things about that school you'd give a heap to know. Remember the day of the fire in Twenty-fifth Street? – the day the peeler wasn't going to let you pass, and I pulled you through?"
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