From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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But realization came quickly enough. The major's right leg was broken below the knee. He had received severe internal hurts and was dazed and sick, and Snipe and a "reb" between them were supporting him, when some officer shouted, "Get those prisoners to the rear! Here comes another charge." Two or three men strove to carry the crippled officer, who was in great pain, and Snipe was bidden to bear a hand, which of course he did; but their progress was slow, and in the midst of it somebody yelled, "Look out! Lie flat!" And down went everybody as a red volley flashed through the smoke veil from the west, and then, loudly cheering, another Union regiment, a big one, came charging across the plateau, and the "Johnnies" had to scramble to their feet and scurry out of the way. The regiment bounded right over them, it seemed to Snipe, and went on at the guns the rebs were dragging away, and presently it, too, was swallowed up in smoke and fire on every side, and wounded officers and men came drifting back. One of the former recognized Major Stark at once, and made some soldiers lift and carry him, and in this way they got back down behind the Henry house, where there were hundreds of stragglers, – hundreds, – and among them were a number of the Fire Zouaves, and Snipe caught sight of Keating, and the little sergeant joined them at once. "It's all up," said he. "We hain't got no discippline, or we'd a cleaned them fellers out quick as Forty could snuff out a fire." All the same he stood by Snipe and the party carrying Major Stark, and so made a way through groups of scattered soldiery until, somewhere ahead toward the Warrenton pike, they could see blue regiments still in solid line, and ambulances and wagons, and thither they bore their officer until at last they laid him behind the shelter of a stone wall; and there they found one of Burnside's regiments waiting orders, and its surgeon hurried to their aid, and slit up the major's trousers and knocked the lid of a cracker-box into splints, and deftly set and bandaged the fractured leg while the battle raged at the front. Sherman and Wilcox and Burnside still had unbroken and reliable regiments. The little detachment of regular cavalry was drawn up out there to the south on the heights near the Chinn house. The captured batteries might still be retaken if only some practised hand could put in a brigade or two together. But just as they were getting the major into an ambulance there came fierce, crashing volleys through the woods in the direction of the Junction, and a grand chorus of exultant cheers and yells. A fresh line of troops burst from the fringe of woods directly at the south and from the west of the Sudley Springs road. The regiments then advancing up the slope were struck in flank and rear. The cavalry came whirling down off the height with many a saddle empty, and everybody seemed to realize at once that more of Johnston's troops had arrived and turned the right of the line, and then everything seemed to melt away in earnest.
"Still," said the major, in telling of it later, "we could not realize we were badly whipped.We knew we must have punished them as hard as we were punished, all but the mishandling, perhaps, of those batteries, and all that seemed necessary was to fall back on the heights of Centreville and there stand our ground." But instead of going thither by the direct route along the pike, which would have held the commands together, through some further mischance the brigades, left finally to shift for themselves, drifted back the way they came, and this led to the further disaster to the north of Bull Run. No sooner had the retiring troops "uncovered" the stone bridge than Confederate guns and cavalry pushed forward, and one well-handled battery found a position from which it could easily command that suspension bridge over Cub Run, some two miles farther east. And then the fun began in earnest – for the rebs. That bridge was the sole means of escape of all Union batteries and a whole menagerie of draught animals, wagons, ambulances, and even buggies and carriages of sightseers from Washington, all surging back that way. A shell exploding on the bridge killed and wounded the mules of a heavy wagon, which was instantly overturned, completely blocking the passage for other wheels. More shells burst about the ears of the now demoralized drivers and teamsters, who cut their traces, mounted their animals, and rode madly away. As darkness fell gradually upon the scene, a dozen more splendid guns and several dozen wagon-loads of stores and supplies were left, and among the abandoned vehicles was the ambulance conveying the wounded major, watched over by faithful Snipe and Sergeant Keating.
But even now the lad did not despair. At the steep bank of Cub Run, half a mile north of the fatal bridge, a two-horse, two-seated open farm wagon had been left by its terror-stricken owners, who half waded, half swam, across and scurried up the opposite slope. A bright idea struck the boy. It was impossible to get across Cub Run with a wagon. But there were the open fields to the west of it. There were those wood roads that he had traversed the night before. Why not try that way? Somehow, between them, he and Keating got that team and wagon turned about. Then they "boosted" the major to the rear seat, where Keating supported him, while Snipe took the reins and, turning sharp to the north, with dozens of fugitives yelling caution, comment, or suggestion, he drove away from them all into the cool, dark woodland lanes that wound along east of the route the disordered column was following, and just about dusk, emerging on the other side, Snipe caught sight of the ridge and the farm-house, the scene of his exploit the night before. How changed were all conditions now! Away down on the lowlands near Bull Run, in long column of twos or fours, some regimental fragments were still strung out, trailing wearily from Sudley Ford. They still interposed, therefore, between the fugitives and the enemy. The major, though making no moan, was ashen with the agony caused by the jolting of the wagon. The sweat was starting in beads from his forehead, and Keating said they must give him rest. Huddled behind the farm-house they found the two trembling old negroes left there as caretakers. Though unnerved by the sound of battle, they had not dared desert their post. Snipe bade them bring out instantly a mattress and blankets. The seats were taken from the wagon. The mattress and blankets were spread upon the bottom. One of the old darkies cooked a substantial supper. The horses were watered and fed. Provisions, wine, and apple-jack were stowed in the wagon. The major, rested and partially revived, was lifted in. Then with Snipe and Keating trudging alongside, once more under the starlight they drove eastward on the road leading, as the old darkies said, right over to the turnpike.
But a sore trial awaited them. A mile or more they moved cautiously along, and then began the descent of a slope, at the bottom of which Snipe felt sure they would find Cub Run. There was the Run, placid, deep, steep-banked as ever, but the vitally important bridge was cut away. Grayson's troopers, to secure themselves against surprise, had destroyed it two days before. Farther in that direction they could not go. Here they could not stay. Any moment might bring the Black Horse Cavalry, of which so much had been said and so little seen, scouting around that flank of the retreating army. Away off to the southeast, about Centreville, they could hear the confused sounds of bugle calls. Away off to the south Blenker's reserve brigade was still in line of battle, covering the Union retreat. Every now and then the rising night wind would bear the distant crackle and crash of file firing, but the bigger guns were still, and here in the pitchy darkness, with a strange team, in a strange land, were Snipe and Keating, sole guardians of a precious life, – that of the wounded and suffering major. "It's of no use, boys," said Stark, faintly. "Drive slowly back to the house and leave me with the old darkies. Then you go and make the best of your way to Fairfax. You'll be safe there."
They did turn about and drive to the farm-house and "rout out" the darkies again, but only to make one of the old servitors come as a guide, for Snipe and the sergeant both declared no rebel should lug that Yankee major off to prison so long as wit or work could save him.
All night they plodded slowly on, twisting and turning through country lanes or bridle-tracks. Time and again they had to halt and scout, for the poor bewildered negro lost the way again and again, and when at last morning dawned, they were not nine miles on a bee-line north of Sudley church, but were hopelessly far from Fairfax. And now the rain that always follows a heavy battle began to fall. They hid in the thicket all the hours till darkness came again, drowsing by turns. They hitched in and again pushed northward at nightfall, but the stars were hidden. There was nothing to guide them. They groped into another thicket and hid another day, the rain still pouring steadily. Snipe "shinned" up a tree and took the bearings of the farm-houses within sight; took heart because he saw no signs of scouting cavalry, everything being now afar off to the eastward along the main roads to Washington, and, turning his jacket inside out, after brief conference with Keating he stole away through the dripping thickets, and lurked about the nearest farm until he succeeded in making a negro hear his cautious signals. Money was potent and the major had plenty. The darky brought grain for the horses, and chickens, eggs, and milk, and that night guided them through many a devious way until within an hour of dawn they were again hidden in the thick woods, still farther to the northwest and away from the travelled roads. The nearest village now seemed eight or ten miles away. Before the negro left them he hunted up a friend to take his place. Ten dollars for his night's work! It was a fortune, and eagerly his successor sought to earn as much.
And so, guided and fed by darkies, hiding by day and journeying occasionally by night, they kept on for nearly a week, heading for the Potomac about Edwards' Ferry, hoping to dodge all patrols meantime and to discover some way of slipping past the pickets as they neared the river. Nearer Washington every bridle-path they knew would be guarded. Through the relays of darkies they learned that General Beauregard's army had enveloped the defences of the capital on the south side of the Potomac, and that troops were passing to and fro all over the country between Leesburg and Alexandria. Major Stark said, therefore, their only chance was to lie in hiding somewhere until his leg had knit. Money he still fortunately had in sufficient quantity. Keating still had his rifle and revolver, though the major and Snipe had been bereft of their pistols. Their negro friend led them to a dense thicket in a deep ravine, far from the highways and byways. Wood and water were abundant. Shelter they made of boughs. Food and news the darkies brought them in quantities, and here they nursed their plucky major and studied the country toward the Potomac until at last the bone seemed knitting, and then, one starlit night, late in August, pushed cautiously on again, still taking their wagon, and with the dawn of the next day they were across the Leesburg road and deep in the woods toward the ferry. Here another stay became necessary. Southern pickets and patrols lined the banks of the stream, and a day or two later their new guide, a negro boy of eighteen, crept to them in terror to say he felt sure somebody must have "peached," for "cavalry gemmen" were inquiring at every house and hamlet. A whole company had ridden out from Vienna that very day, and they were asking if any one had seen a two-horse farm wagon, with a sick man in it, and two other men driving. Troopers were beating up the wood roads then. In half an hour the wagon was in ashes, the tires and iron work hidden in the brush, and with Stark astride one horse, Snipe and Keating alternating on the other, they pushed through the forest to another hiding-place, hearing the whoops and yells and signal shots of the cavalry every hour until dusk. Then, with their negro guide, they kept on all night long, halting and dodging every little while; hid in the woods within sound of the Southern bugles all another day; stole on southeastward all another night, until their guide said Lewinsville was not a mile away to the south, and the Yankee pickets in front of Chain Bridge only a mile or so to the northeast. That day proved most eventful of all. Hungry, thirsty, and weary, they were waiting the return of Brennus, as was the classic name of their guide, when about dark he reached them empty-handed. Not a moment was to be lost, said he. The cavalry had struck their trail and were following the horse-tracks through the woods. There was an abandoned hut, a woodman's, half a mile away, and thither Stark limped painfully, leaning hard upon his friends. They managed to reach it just in time, their horses being left to shift for themselves. They were now close to the Union lines, yet the gray pickets and patrols guarded every path. They could not hope to carry Stark through such a net-work, and he could only painfully limp and only occasionally bear a portion of his weight upon that leg. Nor could they hope to remain undiscovered another day. There was only one thing to be done. Get word through the lines to the Yankees, and beg for rescue.
Stark quickly pencilled the message on tissue-paper, torn from before a picture page in the little testament he always carried. "Major Stark, crippled, Sergeant Keating, and Corporal Lawton are hiding just south of the rebel outposts. One troop of cavalry the only force nearer than Lewinsville except usual reserves. Unless rescued to-night will surely be recaptured in the morning. The bearer can guide. If possible help." This he signed officially and rolled in "Solace" tin-foil. "Now, Brennus," said he, "crawl past the rebs; get that to the Lincoln soldiers, and it's your freedom and fifty dollars to boot."
We know the rest.
Far back along the wooded shores of the Potomac, where the mist is slowly creeping from the silent stream, the sentries are pacing the beaten path bounding each regimental camp. An odd custom, originating among the volunteers, has been the rule in several commands. Each sentry marched just fifty paces along his post in common time, then the cry "About!" would go ringing from post to post in every conceivable key and pitch, girdling one battalion with a chain of petulant yelps, another with a series of mournful groans. Fun for the sentries, and, for a time, for the camps, but a foe to soldier repose. The object was to cause the sentries to march in the same direction, and thereby prevent their turning their backs to each other, in which event there would be left unwatched a long stretch of sentry-post through which marauder might creep or roisterer escape. The custom lasted but a little while, proving more of a nuisance than a benefit. But there were three new regiments in which it obtained this lovely night, and they are brigaded with a veteran command that lords it over them because it has smelled powder and shed blood, which they have not. It is a ragged regiment, a rusty regiment, for it is still clad in the relics of the gray uniform in which its proud State sent it to the field three months before. It is saucy, and slouchy and independent, individually, as rag wearers are apt to be the world over. But it is wonderful to see that regiment brace up when it gets in line, and that is what it has done this night, without a sound beyond the low-voiced "Turn out here" of the sergeants, as they sped from tent to tent, – without confusion or even question. Ten minutes from the time the general's aide has "routed out" the colonel, he has routed out his captains and the sergeants are routing out the men. Twenty minutes, and these silent companies are elbow to elbow on the color line in front of camp. The colonel rides out on his sure-footed old charger. His field-officers join their wings. Such commands as are given are in low voice and passed down the line. "Right face! Right shoulder shift arms! Forward, march! Route step and keep your mouths shut!" Out along the winding road they go, aide and colonel riding in front, over six hundred stalwart ragamuffins swinging behind. Men murmur or whisper to each other "What's up?" Here and there a canteen clinks, and there is a dull sound of swift-moving feet. Out they go past the lines of their own sentries, some of whom shout for the corporal and want to be "relieved off post" and allowed to go with their companies. All around the wooded heights south of Chain Bridge a dozen other regiments are placidly sleeping. Maine, Vermont, New York, Indiana, and Wisconsin there are represented, but only one State or regiment appears in the stealthily marching column. On it goes down a winding slope, file-closers edging in between the sets of fours as the roadway narrows. Up the rise beyond where stand or squat wondering groups of the picket reserves. On – another quarter of a mile where they find the supports. On past outposts and pickets, and at last, after a sharp sprint of a mile, the word "Halt!" is muttered, and the rifle-butts are lowered to the foot, and the regiment stands among the whispering trees and waits. The leading company has not long to wonder. They hear and know the low voice of their general, giving brief directions to the little colonel. They hear the words "Open field – thin woods beyond. – Rebel pickets lining opposite skirt. – Supports, etc., along the road. Deploy your skirmish line. Drive in pickets. Capture all you can, but utter not a sound. Do not fire unless you have to. Push straight ahead along this wood road, swift as you can. We go with you."
A trembling negro boy crouches by the general's stirrup. Colonel Connor's horse almost treads on him in the dark. The colonel speaks a quiet word to the captain of the foremost company, and in low tone that officer orders, "'Tention, Company 'A!' Load at will! Load!" There is a sound of fumbling at heavy cartridge-boxes, of tearing paper, the whee-ep of the rammers springing from the pipes, a phosphorescent gleam of steel as they whirl in air, a muttered malediction as some fellow's cap is knocked off by an awkward neighbor. There is a dull pounding, as the heavy bullets are driven home, a clicking of gun-locks, as the little copper caps are thrust upon the cones; then the low thud of the iron-shod butts upon the ground and all is still. The lieutenant-colonel rides back along the column until he reaches the colors, each company in succession loading as silently. The left wing is bidden to remain where it is as a reserve, and to await orders. The leading company, with arms trailed, forms line at the edge of the wood. The second platoon steps back three paces as reserve. The first receives the low-toned command, "As skirmishers, by the right and left flanks take intervals," a thing at which these Bull Run veterans have been drilling since early in May, and can do in even thicker darkness. In a minute the long line of dispersed shadows is formed, facing southwest, and in two minutes, with officers close up to the line, the general and his aides only a few yards behind, and five companies following noiselessly along the roadway, out they go across the starlight open. Everybody seems to know the enemy's sentinels will be found along that opposite skirt of woods. Everybody listens with straining ears and thumping heart for the first challenge. Those young Southrons are no fools on picket, and even in the dark a cat-footed skirmish line cannot hope to crawl upon them unobserved. Half-way across goes the long jagged line, – two-thirds of the two hundred yards that interpose between the groves, – and now the centremost, those along the pathway, backed by half a dozen fellows from the reserve, make ready for a rush. Ten yards more, then some luckless skirmisher trips on some unseen root, stumbles forward, and swears under his breath. Instantly from the clump of trees nearest the road there comes the sharp order "Halt!" and the click of a lock, but before the challenge can follow, there is a swift rush of stooping foes along the roadway, a heavy blow, a struggle, a sharp report, a stifled cry, then "Forward! Forward! double quick!" everywhere along the column, and with the skirmishers leaping and crashing ahead through the timber, tumbling over the startled sentinels and pickets, with occasional crackling of rifle and shouting of warning and command, with officers darting along among the men, with the general and his aides and Colonel Connor spurring close after, with a dozen men swarming ahead along the dim pathway, and with the sturdy column still swiftly following at the double, the little command sweeps over the scattered outposts and reserves in front of it, the Southerners standing their ground like men, but being utterly overmatched, and finally, as the aroused and startled reserves, farther to the rear, fall slowly back toward their main body in the direction of Falls Church, the negro guide, bounding along with the foremost officers, leads the column farther to the southwest, past all infantry outposts and reserves until finally they go scrambling over a snake-fence on the edge of an open field, while away to the southeast guns are firing, bugles sounding the alarm, drums hoarsely rattling, and here as they stop to breathe and close up on the head of column, they are greeted by the stirring peal of a cavalry trumpet certainly not a half a mile away. It is the signal "To horse!" "Look out for those fellows, and give 'em a volley if they approach!" orders the colonel to his panting men. "Form a skirmish line fronting south, captain." And then, behind that living curtain, the rearmost companies come running up and forming battle line, while the general, with a dozen followers, rides into a little grove at the heels of their darky guide. There is a moment of gleeful shouting and out they come again, slowly, a dark cluster of forms, some apparently supporting an enfeebled man, others grouping about some shadowy companions. Around these a whole company is rallied as escort and bidden to retrace its steps, and then the general rides back, beaming, under cover of the little battle line, and he and Connor shake hands and listen for a moment to the distant uproar of the alarm. And now the Union lines have taken it up, and far back toward the Potomac some new arrivals, as yet untried, have turned loose their bugles and drums, and the general says, quietly, "Let the command fall back slowly, but keep an eye open for the cavalry." Three minutes more and Connor has four companies back on the narrow road, with the skirmishers still out toward the south, and then, with sudden storm and thunder of hoofs, with trumpets sounding a spirited charge, without so much as deigning to see what force might be in front of them, there comes dashing up the turfy woodroad, in slender column, following, fearless, the lead of a daring young Virginian captain, a troop of yelling horsemen, the very fellows, doubtless, who for two days past have been scouring the woods for our fugitives. "It is a mad-brained trick." What possible object is to be gained? All they know is that somewhere along that road is a body of Yankee troops, and they have been burning for a chance to get at them ever since Bull Run. They do not even seem to see – they do not heed – the thin skirmish line through which they bear resistless. The few scattering shots fired are answered by the wild crackle of revolvers. On they come, straight down the road, invisible as yet, but unmistakable. "Halt! Spread out there, men!" are Connor's orders. At least forty or fifty blue-coats line up quickly and solidly from fence to fence, every rifle at ready or aim, and none too soon. Five seconds more and out from the fire-spitting blackness at the south looms the charging column, and a blinding glare lights up the wood, a crashing volley wakes the echoes. Half a dozen horses come plunging, kicking and struggling, to the very feet of the stern array. Half a dozen gallant fellows are hurled to earth. The whole column is brought up standing, and then, realizing the peril of its position, breaks and turns and tears away, leaving two dead at the front and two or three more wounded, tumbling out of saddle as they rush back for the rear.
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