Various.

Stories by American Authors, Volume 8 online

. (page 2 of 12)
Online LibraryVariousStories by American Authors, Volume 8 → online text (page 2 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


commanders at once. I want them to understand my plan fully."

In a few minutes Gahogan, of the Tenth; Gildersleeve, of the
Fourteenth; Peck, of the First; Thomas, of the Seventh; Taylor, of
the Eighth, and Colburn, of the Fifth, were gathered around their
commander. There, too, was Bradley, the boyish, red-cheeked chief of
the artillery; and Stilton, the rough, old, bearded regular, who
headed the cavalry. The staff was at hand, also, including Fitz Hugh,
who sat his horse a little apart, downcast and sombre and silent, but
nevertheless keenly interested. It is worthy of remark, by the way,
that Waldron took no special note of him, and did not seem conscious
of any disturbing presence. Evil as the man may have been, he was a
thoroughly good soldier, and just now he thought but of his duties.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I want you to see your field of battle. The
enemy occupy that long ridge. How shall we reach it?"

"I think, if we go at it straight from here, we shan't miss it,"
promptly judged Old Grumps, his red-oak countenance admirably cheerful
and hopeful, and his jealousy all dissolved in the interest of
approaching combat.

"Nor they won't miss us nuther," laughed Major Gahogan. "Betther slide
our infantree into thim wuds, push up our skirmishers, play away wid
our guns for an hour, an' thin rowl in a couple o' col'ms."

There was a general murmur of approval. The limits of volunteer
invention in tactics had been reached by Gahogan. The other regimental
commanders looked upon him as their superior in the art of war.

"That would be well, Major, if we could do nothing better," said
Waldron. "But I do not feel obliged to attack the front seriously
at all. The rebels have been thoughtless enough to leave that long
semicircle of wooded knolls unoccupied, even by scouts. It stretches
from the front of their centre clear around their right flank. I shall
use it as a veil to cover us while we get into position. I shall throw
out a regiment, a battery, and five companies of cavalry, to make a
feint against their centre and left. With the remainder of the brigade
I shall skirt the woods, double around the right of the position, and
close in upon it front and rear."

"Loike scissors blades upon a snip o' paper," shouted Gahogan, in
delight. Then he turned to Fitz Hugh, who happened to be nearest him,
and added, "I tell ye he's got the God o' War in um. He's the burrnin'
bussh of humanity, wid a God o' Battles inside on't."

"But how if they come down on our thin right wing?" asked a cautious
officer, Taylor, of the Eighth. "They might smash it and seize our
line of retreat."

"Men who have taken up a strong position, a position obviously chosen
for defense, rarely quit it promptly for an attack," replied Waldron.
"There is not one chance in ten that these gentlemen will make a
considerable forward movement early in the fight. Only the greatest
geniuses jump from the defensive to the offensive. Besides, we must
hold the wood. So long as we hold the wood in front of their centre we
save the road."

Then came personal and detailed instructions. Each regimental
commander was told whither he should march, the point where he should
halt to form line, and the direction by which he should attack. The
mass of the command was to advance in marching column toward a knoll
where the highway entered and traversed the wood. Some time before
reaching it Taylor was to deploy the Eighth to the right, throw out a
strong skirmish line and open fire on the enemy's centre and left,
supported by the battery of Parrotts, and, if pushed, by five
companies of cavalry. The remaining troops would reach the knoll, file
to the left under cover of the forest, skirt it for a mile as rapidly
as possible, enfold the right of the Confederate position, and then
move upon it concentrically. Counting from the left, the Tenth, the
Seventh, and the Fourteenth were to constitute the first line of
battle, while five companies of cavalry, then the First, and then the
Fifth formed the second line. Not until Gahogan might have time to
wind into the enemy's right rear should Gildersleeve move out of the
wood and commence the real attack.

"You will go straight at the front of their right," said Waldron,
with a gay smile, to this latter Colonel. "Send up two companies as
skirmishers. The moment they are clearly checked, lead up the other
eight in line. It will be rough work. But keep pushing. You won't have
fifteen minutes of it before Thomas, on your left, will be climbing
the end of the ridge to take the rebels in flank. In fifteen minutes
more Gahogan will be running in on their backs. Of course they will
try to change front and meet us. But they have extended their line a
long way in order to cover the whole ridge. They will not be quick
enough. We shall get hold of their right, and we shall roll them up.
Then, Colonel Stilton, I shall expect to see the troopers jumping into
the gaps and making prisoners."

"All right, Colonel," answered Stilton in that hoarse growl which is
apt to mark the old cavalry officer. "Where shall we find you if we
want a fresh order?"

"I shall be with Colburn, in rear of Gildersleeve. That is our centre.
But never mind me; you know what the battle is to be, and you know how
to fight it. The whole point with the infantry is to fold around the
enemy's right, go in upon it concentrically, smash it, and roll up
their line. The cavalry will watch against the infantry being flanked,
and when the latter have seized the hill, will charge for prisoners.
The artillery will reply to the enemy's guns with shell, and fire
grape at any offensive demonstration. You all know your duties, now,
gentlemen. Go to your commands, and march!"

The Colonels saluted and started off at a gallop. In a few minutes
twenty-five hundred men were in simultaneous movement. Five companies
of cavalry wheeled into column of companies, and advanced at a trot
through the fields, seeking to gain the shelter of the forest. The six
infantry regiments slid up alongside of each other, and pushed on in
six parallel columns of march, two on the right of the road and four
on the left. The artillery, which alone left the highway, followed at
a distance of two or three hundred yards. The remaining cavalry made a
wide detour to the right, as if to flank the enemy's left.

It was a mile and a quarter - it was a march of fully twenty
minutes - to the edge of the woodland, the proposed cover of the
column. Ten minutes before this point was reached a tiny puff of smoke
showed on the brow of the hostile ridge; then, at an interval of
several seconds, followed the sound of a distant explosion; then,
almost immediately, came the screech of a rifled shell. Every man who
heard it swiftly asked himself, "Will it strike _me_?" But even as the
words were thought out it had passed, high in air, clean to the rear,
and burst harmlessly. A few faces turned upward and a few eyes glanced
backward, as if to see the invisible enemy. But there was no pause in
the column; it flowed onward quietly, eagerly, and with business-like
precision; it gave forth no sound but the trampling of feet and the
muttering of the officers, "Steady, men! Forward, men."

The Confederates, however, had got their range. A half minute later
four puffs of smoke dotted the ridge, and a flight of hoarse humming
shrieks tore the air. A little aureole cracked and splintered over
the First, followed by loud cries of anguish and a brief, slight
confusion. The voice of an officer rose sharply out of the flurry,
"Close up, Company A! Forward, men!" The battalion column resumed its
even formation in an instant, and tramped unitedly onward, leaving
behind it two quivering corpses and a wounded man who tottered
rearward.

Then came more screeches, and a shell exploded over the high road,
knocking a gunner lifeless from his carriage. The brigade commander
glanced anxiously along his batteries, and addressed a few words to
his chief of artillery. Presently the four Napoleons set forward at a
gallop for the wood, while the four Parrotts wheeled to the right,
deployed, and advanced across the fields, inclining toward the left of
the enemy. Next, Taylor's regiment (the Eighth) halted, fronted, faced
to the right, and filed off in column of march at a double-quick until
it had gained the rear of the Parrotts, when it fronted again, and
pushed on in support. A quarter of a mile further on these guns went
into battery behind the brow of a little knoll, and opened fire. Four
companies of the Eighth spread out to the right as skirmishers, and
commenced stealing toward the ridge, from time to time measuring the
distance with rifle-balls. The remainder of the regiment lay down in
line between the Parrotts and the forest. Far away to the right,
five companies of cavalry showed themselves, maneuvering as if they
proposed to turn the left flank of the Southerners. The attack on this
side was in form and in operation.

Meantime the Confederate fire had divided. Two guns pounded away at
Taylor's feint, while two shelled the main column. The latter was
struck repeatedly; more than twenty men dropped silent or groaning out
of the hurrying files; but the survivors pushed on without faltering,
and without even caring for the wounded. At last a broad belt of green
branches rose between the regiments and the ridge; and the rebel
gunners, unable to see their foe, dropped suddenly into silence.

Here it appeared that the road divided. The highway traversed the
forest, mounted the slope beyond and dissected the enemy's position,
while a branch road turned to the left and skirted the exterior of the
long curve of wooded hillocks. At the fork the battery of Napoleons
had halted, and there it was ordered to remain for the present in
quiet. There, too, the Fourteenth filed in among the dense greenery,
threw out two companies of skirmishers toward the ridge, and pushed
slowly after them into the shadows.

"Get sight of the enemy at once!" was Waldron's last word to
Gildersleeve. "If they move down the slope, drive them back. But don't
commence your attack under half an hour."

Next he filed the Fifth into the thickets, saying to Colburn, "I want
you to halt a hundred yards to the left and rear of Gildersleeve.
Cover his flank if he is attacked; but otherwise lie quiet. As soon as
he charges, move forward to the edge of the wood, and be ready to
support him. But make no assault yourself until further orders."

The two next regiments - the Seventh and First - he placed in _├ęchelon_,
in like manner, a quarter of a mile further along. Then he galloped
forward to the cavalry, and had a last word with Stilton. "You and
Gahogan must take care of yourselves. Push on four or five hundred
yards, and then face to the right. Whatever Gahogan finds let him go
at it. If he can't shake it, help him. You two _must_ reach the top of
the ridge. Only, look out for your left flank. Keep a squadron or two
in reserve on that side."

"Currnell, if we don't raich the top of the hill, it'll be because it
hasn't got wan," answered Gahogan. Stilton only laughed and rode
forward.

Waldron now returned toward the fork of the road. On the way he sent a
staff officer to the Seventh with renewed orders to attack as soon as
possible after Gildersleeve. Then another staff officer was hurried
forward to Taylor with directions to push his feint strongly, and
drive his skirmishers as far up the slope as they could get. A third
staff officer set the Parrotts in rear of Taylor to firing with all
their might. By the time that the commandant had returned to Colburn's
ambushed ranks, no one was with him but his enemy, Fitz Hugh.

"You don't seem to trust me with duty, Colonel," said the young man.

"I shall use you only in case of extremity, Captain," replied Waldron.
"We have business to settle to-morrow."

"I ask no favors on that account. I hope you will offer me none."

"In case of need I shall spare no one," declared Waldron.

Then he took out his watch, looked at it impatiently, put it to his
ear, restored it to his pocket, and felt into an attitude of deep
attention. Evidently his whole mind was on his battle, and he was
waiting, watching, yearning for its outburst.

"If he wins this fight," thought Fitz Hugh, "how can I do him a harm?
And yet," he added, "how can I help it?"

Minutes passed. Fitz Hugh tried to think of his injury, and to steel
himself against his chief. But the roar of battle on the right, and
the suspense and imminence of battle on the left, absorbed the
attention of even this wounded and angry spirit, as, indeed, they
might have absorbed that of any being not more or less than human. A
private wrong, insupportable though it might be, seemed so small amid
that deadly clamor and awful expectation! Moreover, the intellect
which worked so calmly and vigorously by his side, and which alone of
all things near appeared able to rule the coming crisis, began to
dominate him, in spite of his sense of injury. A thought crossed him
to the effect that the great among men are too valuable to be punished
for their evil deeds. He turned to the absorbed brigade commander, now
not only his ruler but even his protector, with a feeling that he must
accord him a word of peace, a proffer in some form of possible
forgiveness and friendship. But the man's face was clouded and stern
with responsibility and authority. He seemed at that moment too lofty
to be approached with a message of pardon. Fitz Hugh gazed at him with
a mixture of profound respect and smothered hate. He gazed, turned
away, and remained silent.

Minutes more passed. Then a mounted orderly dashed up at full speed,
with the words, "Colonel Major Gahogan has fronted."

"Has he?" answered Waldron, with a smile which thanked the trooper and
made him happy. "Ride on through the thicket here, my man, and tell
Colonel Gildersleeve to push up his skirmishers."

With a thud of hoofs and a rustling of parting foliage the cavalryman
disappeared amid the underwood. A minute or two later a thin, dropping
rattle of musketry, five hundred yards or so to the front, announced
that the sharpshooters of the Fourteenth were at work. Almost
immediately there was an angry response, full of the threatenings and
execution of death. Through the lofty leafage tore the screech of a
shell, bursting with a sharp crash as it passed overhead, and
scattering in humming slivers. Then came another, and another, and
many more, chasing each other with hoarse hissings through the
trembling air, a succession of flying serpents. The enemy doubtless
believed that nearly the whole attacking force was massed in the wood
around the road, and they had brought at least four guns to bear upon
that point, and were working them with the utmost possible rapidity.
Presently a large chestnut, not fifty yards from Fitz Hugh, was struck
by a shot. The solid trunk, nearly three feet in diameter, parted
asunder as if it were the brittlest of vegetable matter. The upper
portion started aside with a monstrous groan, dropped in a standing
posture to the earth, and then toppled slowly, sublimely prostrate,
its branches crashing and all its leaves wailing. Ere long, a little
further to the front, another Anak of the forest went down; and,
mingled with the noise of its sylvan agony, there arose sharp cries of
human suffering. Then Colonel Colburn, a broad-chested and ruddy man
of thirty-five, with a look of indignant anxiety in his iron-gray
eyes, rode up to the brigade commander.

"This is very annoying, Colonel," he said. "I am losing my men without
using them. That last tree fell into my command."

"Are they firing toward our left?" asked Waldron.

"Not a shot."

"Very good," said the chief, with a sigh of contentment. "If we can
only keep them occupied in this direction! By the way, let your men
lie down under the fallen tree, as far as it will go. It will protect
them from others."

Colburn rode back to his regiment. Waldron looked impatiently at his
watch. At that moment a fierce burst of line firing arose in front,
followed and almost overborne by a long-drawn yell, the scream of
charging men. Waldron put up his watch, glanced excitedly at Fitz
Hugh, and smiled.

"I must forgive or forget," the latter could not help saying to
himself. "All the rest of life is nothing compared with this."

"Captain," said Waldron, "ride off to the left at full speed. As soon
as you hear firing at the shoulder of the ridge, return instantly and
let me know."

Fitz Hugh dashed away. Three minutes carried him into perfect peace,
beyond the whistling of ball or the screeching of shell. On the right
was a tranquil, wide waving of foliage, and on the left a serene
landscape of cultivated fields, with here and there an embowered
farm-house. Only for the clamor of artillery and musketry far behind
him, he could not have believed in the near presence of battle, of
blood and suffering and triumphant death. But suddenly he heard to his
right, assaulting and slaughtering the tranquillity of nature, a
tumultuous outbreak of file-firing, mingled with savage yells. He
wheeled, drove spurs into his horse, and flew back to Waldron. As he
re-entered the wood he met wounded men streaming through it, a few
marching alertly upright, many more crouching and groaning, some
clinging to their less injured comrades, but all haggard in face and
ghastly.

"Are we winning?" he hastily asked of one man who held up a hand with
three fingers gone and the bones projecting in sharp spikes through
mangled flesh.

"All right, Sir; sailing in," was the answer.

"Is the brigade commander all right?" he inquired of another who was
winding a bloody handkerchief around his arm.

"Straight ahead, Sir; hurrah for Waldron!" responded the soldier, and
almost in the same instant fell lifeless with a fresh ball through his
head.

"Hurrah for him!" Fitz Hugh answered frantically, plunging on through
the underwood. He found Waldron with Colburn, the two conversing
tranquilly in their saddles amid hissing bullets and dropping
branches.

"Move your regiment forward now," the brigade commander was saying;
"but halt it in the edge of the wood."

"Shan't I relieve Gildersleeve if he gets beaten?" asked the
subordinate officer eagerly.

"No. The regiments on the left will help him out. I want your men and
Peck's for the fight on top of the hill. Of course the rebels will try
to retake it; then I shall call for you."

Fitz Hugh now approached and said, "Colonel, the Seventh has attacked
in force."

"Good!" answered Waldron, with that sweet smile of his which thanked
people who brought him pleasant news. "I thought I heard his fire.
Gahogan will be on their right rear in ten minutes. Then we shall get
the ridge. Ride back now to Major Bradley, and tell him to bring his
Napoleons through the wood, and set two of them to shelling the
enemy's centre. Tell him my idea is to amuse them, and keep them from
changing front."

Again Fitz Hugh galloped off as before on a comfortably safe errand,
safer at all events than many errands of that day. "This man is
sparing my life," he said to himself. "Would to God I knew how to
spare his!"

He found Bradley lunching on a gun caisson, and delivered his orders.
"Something to do at last, eh?" laughed the rosy-cheeked youngster.
"The smallest favors thankfully received. Won't you take a bite of
rebel chicken, Captain? This rebellion must be put down. No? Well,
tell the Colonel I am moving on, and John Brown's soul not far ahead."

When Fitz Hugh returned to Waldron he found him outside of the wood,
at the base of the long incline which rose into the rebel position.
About the slope were scattered prostrate forms, most numerous near the
bottom, some crawling slowly rearward, some quiescent. Under the brow
of the ridge, decimated and broken into a mere skirmish line sheltered
in knots and, singly, behind rocks and knolls and bushes, lay the
Fourteenth Regiment, keeping up a steady, slow fire. From the edge
above, smokily dim against a pure, blue heaven, answered another
rattle of musketry, incessant, obstinate, and spiteful. The combatants
on both sides were lying down; otherwise neither party could have
lasted ten minutes. From Fitz Hugh's point of view not a Confederate
uniform could be seen. But the smoke of their rifles made a long gray
line, which was disagreeably visible and permanent; and the sharp
_whit! whit!_ of their bullets continually passed him, and cheeped
away in the leafage behind.

"Our men can't get on another inch," he ventured to say to his
commander. "Wouldn't it be well for me to ride up and say a cheering
word?"

"Every battle consists largely in waiting," replied Waldron
thoughtfully. "They have undoubtedly brought up a reserve to face
Thomas. But when Gahogan strikes the flank of the reserve, we shall
win."

"I wish you would take shelter," begged Fitz Hugh. "Everything depends
on your life."

"My life has been both a help and a hurt to my fellow-creatures,"
sighed the brigade commander. "Let come what will to it."

He glanced upward with an expression of profound emotion; he was
evidently fighting two battles, an outward and an inward one.

Presently he added, "I think the musketry is increasing on the left.
Does it strike you so?"

He was all eagerness again, leaning forward with an air of earnest
listening, his face deeply flushed and his eye brilliant. Of a sudden
the combat above rose and swelled into higher violence. There was a
clamor far away - it seemed nearly a mile away - over the hill. Then the
nearer musketry, first Thomas' on the shoulder of the ridge, next
Gildersleeve's in front, caught fire and raged with new fury.

Waldron laughed outright. "Gahogan has reached them," he said to one
of his staff who had just rejoined him. "We shall all be up there in
five minutes. Tell Colburn to bring on his regiment slowly."

Then, turning to Fitz Hugh, he added, "Captain, we will ride forward."

They set off at a walk, now watching the smoking brow of the eminence,
now picking their way among dead and wounded. Suddenly there was a
shout above them and a sudden diminution of the firing; and looking
upward, they saw the men of the Fourteenth running confusedly toward
the summit. Without a word the brigade commander struck spurs into his
horse and dashed up the long slope at a run, closely followed by his
enemy and aid. What they saw when they overtook the straggling,
running, panting, screaming pell-mell of the Fourteenth was victory!

The entire right wing of the Confederates, attacked on three sides at
once, placed at enormous disadvantage, completely outgeneraled, had
given way in confusion, was retreating, breaking, and flying. There
were lines yet of dirty gray or butternut; but they were few, meagre,
fluctuating, and recoiling, and there were scattered and scurrying
men in hundreds. Three veteran and gallant regiments had gone
all to wreck under the shock of three similar regiments far more
intelligently directed. A strong position had been lost because the
heroes who held it could not perform the impossible feat of forming
successively two fresh fronts under a concentric fire of musketry. The
inferior brain power had confessed the superiority of the stronger
one.

On the victorious side there was wild, clamorous, fierce exultation.
The hurrying, shouting, firing soldiers, who noted their commander
riding among them, swung their rifles or their tattered hats at him,
and screamed "Hurrah!" No one thought of the Confederate dead under
foot, nor of the Union dead who dotted the slope behind. "What are you
here for, Colonel?" shouted rough old Gildersleeve, one leg of his
trousers dripping blood. "We can do it alone."

"It is a battle won," laughed Fitz Hugh, almost worshipping the man
whom he had come to slay.

"It is a battle won, but not used," answered Waldron. "We haven't a
gun yet, nor a flag. Where is the cavalry? Why isn't Stilton here? He
must have got afoul of the enemy's horse, and been obliged to beat it
off. Can anybody hear anything of Stilton?"

"Let him go," roared old Grumps. "The infantry don't want any help."

"Your regiment has suffered, Colonel," answered Waldron, glancing at
the scattered files of the Fourteenth. "Halt it and reorganize it, and
let it fall in with the right of the First when Peck comes up. I shall
replace you with the Fifth. Send your Adjutant back to Colburn and
tell him to hurry along. Those fellows are making a new front over
there," he added, pointing to the centre of the hill. "I want the
Fifth, Seventh, and Tenth in _├ęchelon_ as quickly as possible. And I


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryVariousStories by American Authors, Volume 8 → online text (page 2 of 12)