Joseph A. Altsheler.

The Shades of the Wilderness A Story of Lee's Great Stand online

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sought them out.

"I can see at least twenty men creeping about among the bushes, and
seeking chances for shots," whispered Harry.

"I knew that you would see them."

It was Harry's turn to give a look of curiosity.

"What do you mean, Captain?" he asked.

"I knew that you had good eyes and I believed that with the aid of the
glasses you would be able to trace figures, despite the shelter of the
bushes. Study the undergrowth again, will you, Harry, and tell me what
more you can see there?"

"I don't need to study it. I can tell at one look that they're
gathering a force. Maybe they mean to rush the creek at a shallow
place."

"Is that force moving in any direction?"

"Yes, it's going down the creek."

"Then we'll go down the creek with it. We mustn't be lacking in
hospitality."

Sherburne drew a whistle from his pocket and blew a low call upon it.
Scores of shadowy figures rose from the undergrowth, and followed his
lead down the stream. Harry was still able to see that the force on
the other side was increasing largely in numbers, but Sherburne
reminded him that his duties, as far as the coming skirmish was
concerned, were over.

"General Lee didn't send you here to get killed," he said. "He wants
you instead to report how many of us get killed. You know that while
the general is a kind man he can be stern, too, and you're not to take
the risk. The orderly is behind that hill with your horse and mine."

Harry, with a sigh, fell back toward the hill. But he did not yet go
behind it, where the orderly stood. Instead he lay down among the
trees on the slope, where he could watch what was going forward, and
once more his face turned to the likeness of the great Indian fighter.

He saw Sherburne's dismounted troop and others, perhaps five hundred in
all, moving slowly among the bushes parallel with the stream, and he
saw a force which he surmised to be of about equal size, creeping along
in the undergrowth on the other side. He followed both bodies with his
glasses. With long looking everything became clearer and clearer. The
moonlight had to him almost the brilliancy of day.

His eyes followed the Union force, until it came to a point where the
creek ran shallow over pebbles. Then the Union leader raised his
sword, uttered a cry of command, and the whole force dashed at the
ford. The cry met its response in an order from Sherburne, and the
thickets flamed with the Southern rifles.

The advantage was wholly with the South, standing on the defense in
dark undergrowth, and the Union troop, despite its desperate attempts
at the ford, was beaten back with great loss.

Harry waited until the result was sure, and then he walked slowly over
the hill toward the point, where the orderly was waiting with the
horses. The man, who knew him, handed him the reins of his mount,
saying at the same time:

"I've a note for you, sir."

"For me?"

"Yes, sir. It was handed to me about fifteen minutes ago by a large
man in our uniform, whom I didn't know."

"Probably a dispatch that I'm to carry to General Lee."

"No, sir. It's addressed to you."

The note was written in pencil on a piece of coarse gray paper, folded
several times, but with a face large enough to show Harry's name upon
it. He wondered, but said nothing to the sentinel, and did not look at
the note again, until he had ridden some distance.

He stopped in a little glade where the moonlight fell clearly. He
still heard scattered firing behind him, but he knew that the skirmish
was in reality over, and he concluded that no further attempt by Union
detachments to advance would be made in the face of such vigilance. He
could report to General Lee that the rear of his army was safe. So he
would delay and look at the letter that had come to him out of the
mysterious darkness.

The superscription was in a large, bold hand, and read:


LIEUTENANT HARRY KENTON,
STAFF OF GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE, C. S. A.,
COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF,
ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA.


He felt instinctively that something uncommon was coming, and, as most
people do when they are puzzled at the appearance of a letter, he
looked at it some seconds before opening it. Then he read:

MR. KENTON:

I have warned you twice before, once when Jefferson Davis was
inaugurated at Montgomery, and once again in Virginia. I told you that
the South could never win. I told you that she might achieve brilliant
victories, and she may achieve them even yet, but they will avail her
nothing. Victories permit her to maintain her position for the time
being, but they do not enable her to advance. A single defeat causes
her to lose ground that she can never regain.

I tell you this as a warning. Although your enemy, I have seen you
more than once and talked with you. I like you and would save your
life if I could. I would induce you, if I could, to leave the army and
return to your home, but that I know to be impossible. So, I merely
tell you that you are fighting for a cause now lost. Perhaps it is
pride on my part to remind you that my early predictions have come
true, and perhaps it is a wish that the thought I may plant in your
mind will spread to others. You have lost at Gettysburg a hope and an
offensive that you can never regain, and Grant at Vicksburg has given a
death blow to the Western half of the Confederacy.

As for you, I wish you well.

WILLIAM J. SHEPARD.


Harry stared in amazement at this extraordinary communication, and read
it over two or three times. He was not surprised that Shepard should
be near, and that he should have been inside the Confederate lines, but
that he should leave a letter, and such a letter, for him was uncanny.
His first feeling, wonder, was succeeded by anger. Did Shepard really
think that he could influence him in such a way, that he could plant in
his mind a thought that would spread to others of his age and rank and
weaken the cause for which he fought? It was a singular idea, but
Shepard was a singular man.

But perhaps pride in recalling the prediction that he had made long ago
was Shepard's stronger motive, and Harry took fire at that also. The
Confederacy was not beaten. A single defeat - no, it was not a defeat,
merely a failure to win - was not mortal, and as for the West, the
Confederacy would gather itself together there and overwhelm Grant!

Then came a new emotion, a kind of gratitude to Shepard. The man was
really a friend, and would do him a service, if it could be done,
without injuring his own cause! He could not feel any doubt of it,
else the spy would not have taken the risk to send him such a letter.
He read it for the last time, then tore it into little pieces which he
entrusted to the winds.

The firing behind him had died completely, and there was no sound but
the rustle of dry leaves in the light wind, nothing to tell that there
had been sharp fighting along the creek, and that men lay dead in the
forest. The moon and the stars clothed everything in a whitish light,
that seemed surcharged with a powerful essence, and this essence was
danger.

The spirit of the great forest ranger descended upon him once more, and
he read the omens, all of which were sinister. He foresaw terrible
campaigns, mighty battles in the forest, and a roll of the dead so long
that it seemed to stretch away into infinity.

Then he shook himself violently, cast off the spell, and rode rapidly
back with his report. Lee had risen and was standing under a tree. He
was fully dressed and his uniform was trim and unwrinkled. Harry
thought anew as he rode up, what a magnificent figure he was. He was
the only great man he ever saw who really looked his greatness.
Nothing could stir that calm. Nothing could break down that loftiness
of manner. Harry was destined to feel then, as he felt many times
afterward, that without him the South had never a chance. And the
choking came in his throat again, as he thought of him who was gone, of
him who had been the right arm of victory, the hammer of Thor.

But he hid all these feelings as he quickly dismounted and saluted the
commander-in-chief.

"What have you seen, Lieutenant Kenton?" asked Lee.

"A considerable detachment of the enemy tried to force the passage of
the creek in our right rear. They were met by Captain Sherburne's
troop dismounted, and three companies of infantry, and were driven back
after a sharp fight."

"Very good. Captain Sherburne is an alert officer."

He turned away, and Harry, giving his horse to an orderly, again
resumed his old position under a tree, out of hearing of the generals,
but in sight. Dalton was not there, but he knew that skirmishing had
occurred in other directions, and doubtless the Virginian had been sent
on an errand like his own.

He had a sense of rest and realization as he leaned back against the
tree. But it was mental tension, not physical, for which relief came,
and Shepard, much more than the battle at the creek, was in his
thoughts.

The strong personality of the spy and his seeming omniscience oppressed
him again. Apparently he was able to go anywhere, and nothing could be
hidden from him. He might be somewhere in the circling shadows at that
very moment, watching Lee and his lieutenants. His pulses leaped.
Shepard had achieved an extraordinary influence over him, and he was
prepared to believe the impossible.

He stood up and stared into the bushes, but sentinels stood there, and
no human being could pass their ring unseen. Presently Dalton came,
made a brief report to General Lee and joined his comrade. Harry was
glad of his arrival. The presence of a comrade brought him back to
earth and earth's realities. The sinister shadows that oppressed him
melted away and he saw only the ordinary darkness of a summer night.

The two sat side by side. Dalton perhaps drew as much strength as
Harry from the comradeship, and they watched other messengers arrive
with dispatches, some of whom rolled themselves in their blankets at
once, and went to sleep, although three, who had evidently slept in the
day, joined Harry and Dalton in their vigil.

Harry saw that the commander-in-chief was holding a council at that
hour, nearer morning than midnight. A general kicked some of the
pieces of burned wood together and fanned them into a light flame,
enough to take away the slight chill that was coming with the morning.
The men stood around it, and talked a long time, although it seemed to
Harry that Lee said least. Nevertheless his tall figure dominated them
all. Now and then Harry saw his face in the starshine, and it bore its
habitual grave and impassive look.

The youth did not hear a word that was said, but his imaginative power
enabled him to put himself in the place of the commander-in-chief. He
knew that no man, however great his courage, could fail to appreciate
his position in the heart of a hostile country, with a lost field
behind him, and with superior numbers hovering somewhere in his rear or
on his flank. He realized then to the full the critical nature of
their position and what a mighty task Lee had to save the army.

One of his young comrades whispered to him that the Potomac, the
barrier between North and South, was rising, flooded by heavy rains in
both mountains and lowlands, and that a body of Northern cavalry had
already destroyed a pontoon bridge built by the South across it. They
might be hemmed in, with their backs to an unfordable river, and an
enemy two or three times as numerous in front.

"Don't you worry," whispered Dalton, with sublime confidence. "The
general will take us to Virginia."

Harry projected his imagination once more. He sought to put himself in
the place of Lee, receiving all the reports and studying them, trying
to measure space that could not be measured, and to weigh a total that
could not be weighed. Greatness and responsibility were compelled to
pay thrice over for themselves, and he was glad that he was only a
young lieutenant, the chief business of whom was to fetch and carry
orders.

Shafts of sunlight were piercing the eastern foliage when the council
broke up, and shortly after daylight the Southern army was again on the
march, with Northern cavalry and riflemen hanging on its flanks and
rear. Harry was permitted to rejoin, for a while, his friends of the
Invincibles and he found Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel
Hector St. Hilaire riding very erect, a fine color in their faces.

"You come from headquarters, Harry, and therefore you are omniscient,"
said Colonel Talbot. "We heard firing in the night. What did it mean?"

"Only skirmishers, Colonel. I think they wanted to annoy us, but they
paid the price."

"Inevitably. Our general is as dangerous in retreat as in advance. I
fancy that General Meade will not bring up his lagging forces until we
near the Potomac."

"They say it's rising, sir, and that it will be very hard to cross."

"That creates a difficulty but not an impossibility. Ordinary men
yield to difficulties, men like our commander-in-chief are overcome
only by impossibilities. But the further we go, Harry, the more
reconciled I grow to our withdrawal. I have seen scarcely a friendly
face among the population. I would not have us thrust ourselves upon
people who do not like us. It would go very hard with our kindly
Southern nature to have to rule by force over people who are in fact
our brethren. Defensive wars are the just wars, and perhaps it will be
really better for us to retire to Virginia and protect its sacred soil
from the tread of the invader. Eh, Hector?"

"Right, as usual, Leonidas. The reasons for our retirement are most
excellent. We have already spoken of the fact that Philadelphia might
prove a Capua for our young troops, and now we are relieved from the
chance of appearing as oppressors. It can never be said of us by the
people of Pennsylvania that we were tyrants. It's an invidious task to
rule over the unwilling, even when one rules with justice and wisdom.
It's strange, perhaps, Leonidas, but it's a universal truth, that
people would rather be ruled by themselves in a second rate manner than
by the foreigner in a first rate manner. Now, the government of our
states is attacked by Northern critics, but such as it is, it is ours
and it's our first choice. Do we bore you, Harry?"

"Not at all, sir. I never listen to either you or Colonel Talbot
without learning something."

The two colonels bowed politely.

"I have wished for some time to speak to you about a certain matter,
Hector," said Colonel Talbot.

"What is it, Leonidas?"

"During the height of that tremendous artillery fire from Little Round
Top I was at a spot where I could see the artillerymen very well
whenever the smoke lifted. Several times, I noticed an officer
directing the fire of the guns, and I don't think I could have been
mistaken in his identity."

"No, Leonidas, you were not. I too observed him, and we could not
possibly be mistaken. It was John Carrington, of course."

"Dear old John Carrington, who was with us at West Point, the greatest
artilleryman in the world. And he was facing us, when the fortunes of
the South were turning on a hair. If any other man had been there,
directing those guns, we might have taken Cemetery Hill."

"That's true, Leonidas, but it was not possible for any other man to be
in such a place at such a time. Granting that such a crisis should
arise and that it should arise at Gettysburg you and I would have known
long before that John would be there with the guns to stop us. Why, we
saw that quality in him all the years we were with him at West Point.
The world has never seen and never will see another such artilleryman
as John Carrington."

"Good old John. I hope he wasn't killed."

"And I hope so too, from the bottom of my heart. But we'll know before
many days."

"How will you find out?" asked Harry curiously.

Both colonels laughed genially.

"Because he will send us signs, unmistakable signs," replied Colonel
Talbot.

"I don't understand, sir."

"His signs will be shells, shrapnel and solid shot. We may not have a
battle this week or next week, but a big one is bound to come some time
or other and then if any section of the Northern artillery shows
uncommon deadliness and precision we'll know that Carrington is there.
Why, we can recognize his presence as readily as the deer scents the
hunter. We'll have many notes to compare with him when the war is over."

Harry sincerely hoped that the three would meet in friendship around
some festive table, and he was moved by the affection and admiration
the two colonels held for Carrington. Doubtless the great
artilleryman's feelings toward them were the same.

They went into camp once more that night in a pleasant rolling country
of high hills, rich valleys, scattered forests, and swift streams of
clear water. Harry liked this Northern land, which was yet not so far
from the South. It was not more beautiful than his own Kentucky, but
it was much trimmer and neater than the states toward the Gulf. He saw
all about him the evidences of free labor, the proof that man worked
more readily, and with better results, when success or failure were all
his own.

He was too young to spend much time in concentrated thinking, but as he
looked upon the neat Pennsylvania houses and farms and the cultivated
fields he felt the curse of black slavery in the South, but he felt
also that it was for the South itself to abolish it, and not for the
armed hand of the outsider, an outsider to whom its removal meant no
financial loss and dislocation.

Despite himself his mind dwelt upon these things longer than before. He
disliked slavery, his father disliked it, and nearly all their friends
and relatives, and here they were fighting for it, as one of the two
great reasons of the Civil War. He felt anew how strangely things come
about, and that even the wisest cannot always choose their own courses
as they wish them.

A fire, chiefly for cooking purposes, had been built for the general
and his staff in a cove surrounded by trees. A small cold spring
gushed from the side of a hill, flowed down the center of the cove, and
then made its way through the trees into the wider world beyond. It
was a fine little spring, and before the general came, the younger
members of the staff knelt and drank deeply at it. It brought thoughts
of home to all these young rovers of the woods, who had drunk a
thousand times before at just such springs as this.

Soon Lee and his generals sat there on the stones or on the moss.
Longstreet, Stuart, Pickett, Alexander, Ewell, Early, Hill and many
others, some suffering from wounds, were with their commander, while
the young officers who were to fetch and carry sat on the fringe in the
woods, or stretched themselves on the turf.

Harry was in the group, but except in extreme emergency he would not be
on duty that night, as he had already been twenty-four hours in the
saddle. Nevertheless he was not yet sleepy, and lying on his blanket,
he watched the leaders confer, as they had conferred every other night
since the Battle of Gettysburg. He was aware, too, that the air was
heavy with suspense and anxiety. He breathed it in at every breath.
Cruel doubt was not shown by words or actions, but it was an atmosphere
which one could not mistake.

Word had been brought in the afternoon by hard riders of Stuart that
the Potomac was still rising. It could not be forded and the active
Northern cavalry was in between, keeping advanced parties of the
Southern army from laying pontoons. Every day made the situation more
desperate, and it could not be hidden from the soldiers, who,
nevertheless, marched cheerfully on, in the sublime faith that Lee
would carry them through.

Harry knew that if the Army of the Potomac was not active in pursuit
its cavalrymen and skirmishers were. As on the night before, he heard
the faint report of shots, and he knew that rough work was going
forward along the doubtful line, where the fringes of the two armies
almost met. But hardened so much was he that he fell asleep while the
generals were still in anxious council, and the fitful firing continued
in the distant dark.




CHAPTER III

THE FLOODED RIVER


Harry and Dalton were aroused before daylight by Colonel Peyton of
Lee's staff, with instructions to mount at once, and join a strong
detachment, ready to go ahead and clear a way. Sherburne's troop would
lead. The Invincibles, for whom mounts had been obtained, would follow.
There were fragments of other regiments, the whole force amounting to
about fifteen hundred men, under the command of Sherburne, who had been
raised the preceding afternoon to the rank of Colonel, and whose skill
and valor were so well known that such veterans as Colonel Talbot and
Lieutenant Colonel St. Hilaire were glad to serve under him. Harry and
Dalton would represent the commander-in-chief, and would return
whenever Colonel Sherburne thought fit to report to him.

Harry was glad to go. While he had his periods of intense thought, and
his character was serious, he was like his great ancestor, essentially
a creature of action. His blood flowed more swiftly with the beat of
his horse's hoofs, and his spirits rose as the free air of the fields
and forests rushed past him. Moreover he was extremely anxious to see
what lay ahead. If barriers were there he wanted to look upon them. If
the Union cavalry were trying to keep them from laying bridges across
the Potomac he wanted to help drive them away.

Harry and Dalton had a right as aides and messengers of Lee to ride
with Sherburne, but before they joined him they rode among the
Invincibles, who were in great feather, because they too, for the time
being, rode, and toiled in neither dust nor mud.

"Colonel Sherburne may think a good deal of his own immediate troop,"
said St. Clair to Harry, "but if the men of the Invincibles could
achieve so much on foot they'll truly deserve their name on horseback.
Where is this enemy of ours? Lead us to him."

"You'll find him soon enough," said Harry. "You South Carolina talkers
have learned many times that the Yankees will fight."

"Yes, Harry, I admit it freely. But you must admit on your part that
the South Carolinians will fight as well as talk, although at present
most of the South Carolinians in this regiment are Virginians."

"But not our colonel and lieutenant-colonel," said Happy Tom. "Real
old South Carolina still leads."

"May they always lead!" said Harry heartily, looking at the two gray
figures.

"Tell Colonel Sherburne," said Happy Tom, who was in splendid spirits,
"that we congratulate him on his promotion and are ready to obey him
without question."

"All right. He'll be glad to know that he has your approval."

"He might have the approval of worse men. I feel surging within me the
talents of a great general, but I'm too young to get 'em recognized."

"You'll have to wait until the sections are not fighting each other,
but are united against a common foe. But meanwhile I'll tell Colonel
Sherburne that if he gets into a tight pinch not to lose heart as you
are here."

Saluting Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, Harry and
Dalton rode to the head of the column, where Sherburne led. They ate
their breakfast on horseback, and went swiftly down a valley in the
general direction of the Potomac. The dawn had broadened into full
morning, clear and bright, save for a small cloud that hung low in the
southwest, which Sherburne noticed with a frown.

"That's a little cloud and it looks innocent," he said to Harry, "but I
don't like it."

"Why not?"

"Because in the ten minutes that I've been watching it I've been able
to notice growth. I'm weather-wise and we may have more rain. More
rain means a higher Potomac. A higher Potomac means more difficulty in
crossing it. More difficulty in crossing it means more danger of our
destruction, and our destruction would mean the end of the Confederacy."

He spoke with deadly earnestness as he continued to look at the tiny
dusky spot on the western sky. Harry had a feeling of awe. Again he
realized that such mighty issues could turn upon a single hair. The
increase or decrease of that black splotch might mean the death or life
of the Confederacy. As he rode he watched it.

His heart sank slowly. The little baby cloud, looking so harmless, was
growing. He said to himself in anger that it was not, but he knew that


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Online LibraryJoseph A. AltshelerThe Shades of the Wilderness A Story of Lee's Great Stand → online text (page 3 of 21)