Joseph A. (Joseph Alexander) Altsheler.

Before the dawn, a story of the fall of Richmond online

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Before the Dawn

A Story of the Fall of Richmond




Copyright, 1903, by
Doubleday, Page & Company
Published April, 1903


The Sun of Saratoga
A Soldier of Manhattan
A Herald of the West
The Last Rebel
In Circling Camps
In Hostile Red
The Wilderness Road
My Captive

For the rhyming pun, given by a member of The Mosaic Club, and quoted in
the third chapter of this book, the author is indebted to T. C. DeLeon's
"_Four Years in Rebel Capitals_."



I. A Woman in Brown 3

II. A Man's Mother 16

III. The Mosaic Club 25

IV. The Secretary Moves 40

V. An Elusive Face 52

VI. The Pursuit of a Woman 71

VII. The Cottage in the Side Street 83

VIII. The Pall of Winter 97

IX. Robert and Lucia 117

X. Feeding the Hungry 131

XI. Mr. Sefton Makes a Confidence 137

XII. A Flight by Two 150

XIII. Lucia's Farewell 162

XIV. Prescott's Ordeal 170

XV. The Great Rivals 181

XVI. The Great Revival 193

XVII. The Wilderness 204

XVIII. Day in the Wilderness 206

XIX. Night in the Wilderness 223

XX. The Secretary Looks On 236

XXI. A Delicate Situation 248

XXII. The Lone Sentinel 264

XXIII. Out of the Forest 269

XXIV. The Despatch Bearer 280

XXV. The Mountain General 292

XXVI. Calypso 300

XXVII. The Secretary and the Lady 323

XXVIII. The Way Out 334

XXIX. The Fall of Richmond 346

XXX. The Telegraph Station 360

XXXI. The Coin of Gold 370




A tall, well-favoured youth, coming from the farther South, boarded the
train for Richmond one raw, gusty morning. He carried his left arm
stiffly, his face was thin and brown, and his dingy uniform had holes in
it, some made by bullets; but his air and manner were happy, as if,
escaped from danger and hardships, he rode on his way to pleasure and

He sat for a time gazing out of the window at the gray, wintry landscape
that fled past, and then, having a youthful zest for new things, looked
at those who traveled with him in the car. The company seemed to him, on
the whole, to lack novelty and interest, being composed of farmers going
to the capital of the Confederacy to sell food; wounded soldiers like
himself, bound for the same place in search of cure; and one woman who
sat in a corner alone, neither speaking nor spoken to, her whole aspect
repelling any rash advance.

Prescott always had a keen eye for woman and beauty, and owing to his
long absence in armies, where both these desirable objects were scarce,
his vision had become acute; but he judged that this lone type of her
sex had no special charm. Tall she certainly was, and her figure might
be good, but no one with a fair face and taste would dress as plainly as
she, nor wrap herself so completely in a long, brown cloak that he could
not even tell the colour of her eyes. Beautiful women, as he knew them,
always had a touch of coquetry, and never hid their charms wholly.

Prescott's attention wandered again to the landscape rushing past, but
finding little of splendour or beauty, it came back, by and by, to the
lone woman. He wondered why she was going to Richmond and what was her
name. She, too, was now staring out of the window, and the long cloak
hiding her seemed so shapeless that he concluded her figure must be bad.
His interest declined at once, but rose again with her silence and
evident desire to be left alone.

As they were approaching Richmond a sudden jar of the train threw a
small package from her lap to the floor. Prescott sprang forward, picked
it up and handed it to her. She received it with a curt "Thanks," and
the noise of the train was so great that Prescott could tell nothing
about the quality of her voice. It might or might not be musical, but in
any event she was not polite and showed no gratitude. If he had thought
to use the incident as an opening for conversation, he dismissed the
idea, as she turned her face back to the window at once and resumed her
study of the gray fields.

"Probably old and plain," was Prescott's thought, and then he forgot her
in the approach to Richmond, the town where much of his youth had been
spent. The absence of his mother from the capital was the only regret in
this happy homecoming, but he had received a letter from her assuring
him of her arrival in the city in a day or two.

When they reached Richmond the woman in the brown cloak left the car
before him, but he saw her entering the office of the Provost-Marshal,
where all passes were examined with minute care, every one who came to
the capital in those times of war being considered an enemy until proved
a friend. Prescott saw then that she was not only tall, but very tall,
and that she walked with a strong, graceful step. "After all, her figure
may be good," he thought, revising his recent opinion.

Her pass was examined, found to be correct, and she left the office
before his own time came. He would have asked the name on her pass, but
aware that the officer would probably tell him to mind his own business,
he refrained, and then forgot her in the great event of his return home
after so long a time of terrible war. He took his way at once to
Franklin Street, where he saw outspread before him life as it was lived
in the capital of the Confederate States of America. It was to him a
spectacle, striking in its variety and refreshing in its brilliancy, as
he had come, though indirectly, from the Army of Northern Virginia,
where it was the custom to serve half-rations of food and double rations
of gunpowder. Therefore, being young, sound of heart and amply furnished
with hope, he looked about him and rejoiced.

Richmond was a snug little town, a capital of no great size even in a
region then lacking in city growth, but for the time more was said about
it and more eyes were turned upon it than upon any other place in the
world. Many thousands of men were dying in an attempt to reach this
small Virginia city, and many other thousands were dying in an equally
strenuous effort to keep them away.

Such thoughts, however, did not worry Prescott at this moment. His face
was set resolutely toward the bright side of life, which is really half
the battle, and neither the damp nor the cold was able to take from him
the good spirits that were his greatest treasure. Coming from the bare
life of a camp and the somber scenes of battlefields, he seemed to have
plunged into a very whirlwind of gaiety, and his eyes sparkled with
appreciation. He did not notice then that his captain's uniform was
stained and threadbare enough to make him a most disreputable figure in
a drawing-room, however gallant he might appear at the head of a forlorn

The street was crowded, the pressure of the armies having driven much of
the life of the country into the city, and Prescott saw men, women and
children passing, some in rich and some in poor attire. He saw ladies,
both young and old, bearing in their cheeks a faint, delicate bloom, the
mark of the South, and he heard them as they spoke to each other in
their soft, drawling voices, which reminded him of the waters of a
little brook falling over a precipice six inches high.

It is said that soldiers, after spending a year or two in the serious
business of slaying each other, look upon a woman as one would regard a
divinity - a being to be approached with awe and respect; and such
emotions sprang into the heart of Prescott when he glanced into feminine
faces, especially youthful ones. Becoming suddenly conscious of his
rusty apparel and appearance, he looked about him in alarm. Other
soldiers were passing, some fresh and trim, some rusty as himself, but a
great percentage of both had bandaged limbs or bodies, and he found no
consolation in such company, wishing to appear well, irrespective of

He noticed many red flags along the street and heard men calling upon
the people in loud, strident voices to come and buy. At other places the
grateful glow of coal fires shone from half-opened doorways, and the
faint but positive click of ivory chips told that games of chance were
in progress.

"Half the population is either buying something or losing something," he
said to himself.

A shout of laughter came from one of the open doorways beyond which men
were staking their money, and a voice, somewhat the worse for a liquid
not water, sang:

"Little McClellan sat eating a melon
The Chickahominy by;
He stuck in his spade,
Then a long while delayed,
And cried: 'What a brave general am I!'"

"I'll wager that you had nothing to do with driving back McClellan,"
thought Prescott, and then his mind turned to that worn army by the
Rapidan, fighting with such endurance, while others lived in fat ease
here in Richmond.

Half a dozen men, English in face and manner and rolling in their walk
like sailors, passed him. He recognized them at once as blockade runners
who had probably come up from Wilmington to sell their goods for a
better price at the capital. While wondering what they had brought, his
attention was distracted by one of the auctioneers, a large man with a
red face and tireless voice.

"Come buy! Come buy!" he cried. "See this beautiful new uniform of the
finest gray, a sample of a cargo made in England and brought over five
days ago on a blockade runner to Wilmington."

Looking around in search of a possible purchaser, his eye caught

"This will just suit you," he said. "A change of a strap or two and it
will do for either captain or lieutenant. What a figure you will be in
this uniform!" Then he leaned over and said persuasively: "Better buy
it, my boy. Take the advice of a man of experience. Clothes are half the
battle. They may not be so on the firing line, but they are here in

Prescott looked longingly at the uniform which in colour and texture was
all that the auctioneer claimed, and fingered a small package of gold in
his pocket. At that moment some one bid fifty dollars, and Prescott
surveyed him with interest.

The speaker was a man of his own age, but shorter and darker, with a
hawk-like face softened by black eyes with a faintly humourous twinkle
lurking in the corner of each. He seemed distinctly good-natured, but
competition stirred Prescott and he offered sixty dollars. The other man
hesitated, and the auctioneer, who seemed to know him, asked him to bid

"This uniform is worth a hundred dollars if it's worth a cent, Mr.
Talbot," he said.

"I'll give you seventy-five dollars cash or five hundred on a credit,"
said Talbot; "now which will you take?"

"If I had to take either I'd take the seventy-five dollars cash, and I'd
be mighty quick about making a choice," replied the auctioneer.

Talbot turned to Prescott and regarded him attentively for a moment or
two. Then he said:

"You look like a good fellow, and we're about the same size. Now, I
haven't a hundred dollars in gold, and I doubt whether you have. Suppose
we buy this uniform together, and take turns in wearing it."

Prescott laughed, but he saw that the proposition was made in entire
good faith, and he liked the face of the man whom the auctioneer had
called Talbot.

"I won't do that," he replied, "because I have more money than you
think. I'll buy this and I'll lend you enough to help you in buying

Friendships are quickly formed in war time, and the offer was accepted
at once. The uniforms were purchased and the two young men strolled on
together, each carrying a precious burden under his arm.

"My name is Talbot, Thomas Talbot," said the stranger. "I'm a lieutenant
and I've had more than two years' service in the West. I was in that
charge at Chickamauga when General Cheatham, leading us on, shouted:
'Boys, give 'em hell'; and General Polk, who had been a bishop and
couldn't swear, looked at us and said: 'Boys, do as General Cheatham
says!' Well, I got a bad wound in the shoulder there, and I've been
invalided since in Richmond, but I'm soon going to join the Army of
Northern Virginia."

Talbot talked on and Prescott found him entertaining, as he was a man
who saw the humourous side of things, and his speech, being spontaneous,
was interesting.

The day grew darker and colder. Heavy clouds shut out the sun and the
rain began to fall. The people fled from the streets, and the two
officers shivered in their uniforms. The wind rose and whipped the rain
into their faces. Its touch was like ice.

"Come in here and wait till the storm passes," said Talbot, taking his
new friend by the arm and pulling him through an open door. Prescott now
heard more distinctly than ever the light click of ivory chips, mingled
with the sound of many voices in a high or low key, and the soft
movement of feet on thick carpets. Without taking much thought, he
followed his new friend down a short and narrow hall, at the end of
which they entered a large, luxurious room, well lighted and filled with

"Yes, it's a gambling room - The Nonpareil - and there are plenty more
like it in Richmond, I can tell you," said Talbot. "Those who follow war
must have various kinds of excitement. Besides, nothing is so bad that
it does not have its redeeming point, and these places, without pay,
have cared for hundreds and hundreds of our wounded."

Prescott had another errand upon which his conscience bade him hasten,
but casting one glance through the window he saw the soaking streets and
the increasing rain, swept in wild gusts by the fierce wind. Then the
warmth and light of the place, the hum of talk and perhaps the spirit of
youth infolded him and he stayed.

There were thirty or forty men in the room, some civilians and others
soldiers, two bearing upon their shoulders the stripes of a general.
Four carried their arms in slings and three had crutches beside their
chairs. One of the generals was not over twenty-three years of age, but
this war furnished younger generals than he, men who won their rank by
sheer hard service on great battlefields.

The majority of the men were playing faro, roulette or keno, and the
others sat in softly upholstered chairs and talked. Liquors were served
from a bar in the corner, where dozens of brightly polished glasses of
all shapes and sizes glittered on marble and reflected the light of the
gas in vivid colours.

Prescott's mind traveled back to long, lonely watches in the dark forest
under snow and rain, in front of the enemy's outposts, and he admitted
that while the present might be very wicked it was also very pleasant.

He gave himself up for a little while to the indulgence of his physical
senses, and then began to examine those in the room, his eyes soon
resting upon the one who was most striking in appearance. It was a time
of young men, and this stranger was young like most of the others,
perhaps under twenty-five. He was of middle height, very thick and
broad, and his frame gave the impression of great muscular strength and
endurance. A powerful neck supported a great head surmounted by a crop
of hair like a lion's mane. His complexion was as delicate as a woman's,
but his pale blue eyes were bent close to the table as he wagered his
money with an almost painful intentness, and Prescott saw that the
gaming madness was upon him.

Talbot's eyes followed Prescott's and he smiled.

"I don't wonder that you are looking at Raymond," he said. "He is sure
to attract attention anywhere. You are beholding one of the most
remarkable men the South has produced."

Prescott recognized the name as that of the editor of the _Patriot_, a
little newspaper published on a press traveling in a wagon with the
Western army until a month since, when it had come over to the Army of
Northern Virginia. The _Patriot_ was "little" only in size. The wit,
humour, terseness, spontaneous power of expression, and above all of
phrase-making, which its youthful editor showed in its columns, already
had made Raymond a power in the Confederacy, as they were destined in
his maturity to win him fame in a reunited nation.

"He's a great gamester and thinks that he's a master of chance," said
Talbot, "but as a matter of fact he always loses. See how fast his pile
of money is diminishing. It will soon be gone, but he will find another
resource. You watch him."

Prescott did not need the advice, as his attention was already
concentrated on Raymond's broad, massive jaw and the aggressive curve of
his strong face. His movements were quick and nervous; face and figure
alike expressed the most absolute self-confidence. Prescott wondered if
this self-confidence did not lie at the basis of all success, military,
literary, mercantile or other, enabling one's triumphs to cover up his
failures and make the people remember only the former.

Raymond continued to lose, and presently, all his money being gone, he
began to feel in his pockets in an absent-minded way for more, but the
hand came forth empty from each pocket. He did not hesitate.

A man only two or three years older was sitting next to Raymond, and he,
too, was intent on the game. Beside him was a very respectable little
heap of gold and notes, and Raymond, reaching over, took half of the
money and without a word, putting it in front of himself, went on with
his wagers. The second man looked up in surprise, but seeing who had
robbed him, merely made a wry face and continued his game. Several who
had noticed the action laughed.

"It's Raymond's way," said Talbot. "I knew that he would do it. That's
why I told you to watch him. The other man is Winthrop. He's an editor,
too - one of our Richmond papers. He isn't a genius like Raymond, but
he's a slashing writer - loves to criticize anybody from the President
down, and he often does it. He belongs to the F. F. V.'s himself, but he
has no mercy on them - shows up all their faults. While you can say that
gambling is Raymond's amusement, you may say with equal truth that
dueling is Winthrop's."

"Dueling!" exclaimed Prescott in surprise. "Why, I never saw a milder

"Oh, he doesn't fight duels from choice," replied Talbot. "It's because
of his newspaper. He's always criticizing, and here when a man is
criticized in print he challenges the editor. And the funny thing about
it is, that although Winthrop can't shoot or fence at all, he's never
been hurt. Providence protects him, I suppose."

"Has he ever hit anybody?" asked Prescott.

"Only once," replied Talbot, "and that was his eleventh duel since the
war began. He shot his man in the shoulder and then jumped up and down
in his pride. 'I hit him! I hit him!' he cried. 'Yes, Winthrop,' said
his second, 'some one was bound to get in the way if you kept on
shooting long enough.'"

The place, with its rich colours, its lights shining from glasses and
mirrors, its mellow odours of liquids and its softened sounds began to
have a soporific effect upon Prescott, used so long to the open air and
untold hardships. His senses were pleasantly lulled, and the voice of
his friend, whom he seemed now to have known for a long time, came from
far away. He could have closed his eyes and gone to sleep, but Talbot
talked on.

"Here you see the back door of the Confederacy," he said. "You men at
the front know nothing. You are merely fighting to defend the main
entrance. But while you are getting yourselves shot to pieces without
knowing any special reason why, all sorts of people slip in at this back
door. It is true not only of this government, but also of all others."

A middle-aged, heavy-faced man in a general's uniform entered and began
to talk earnestly to one of the other generals.

"That is General Markham," said Talbot, "who is specially interesting
not because of himself, but on account of his wife. She is years younger
than he, and is said to be the most brilliant woman in Richmond. She has
plans for the General, but is too smart to say what they are. I doubt
whether the General himself knows."

Raymond and Winthrop presently stopped playing and Talbot promptly
introduced his new friend.

"We should know each other since we belong to the same army," said
Raymond. "You fight and I write, and I don't know which of us does the
more damage; but the truth is, I've but recently joined the Army of
Northern Virginia. I've been following the army in the West, but the
news didn't suit me there and I've come East."

"I hope that you have many victories to chronicle," said Prescott.

"It's been a long time since there's been a big battle," resumed the
editor, "and so I've come up to Richmond to see a little life."

He glanced about the room.

"And I see it here," he added. "I confess that the fleshpots of Richmond
are pleasant."

Then he began to talk of the life in the capital, the condition of the
army and the Confederate States, furnishing a continual surprise to
Prescott, who now saw that beneath the man's occasional frivolity and
epicurean tastes lay a mind of wonderful penetration, possessing that
precious quality generally known as insight. He revealed a minute
knowledge of the Confederacy and its chieftains, both civil and
military, but he never risked an opinion as to its ultimate chances of
success, although Prescott waited with interest to hear what he might
say upon this question, one that often troubled himself. But however
near Raymond might come to the point, he always turned gracefully away

They were sitting now in a cheerful corner as they talked, but at the
table nearest them was a man of forty, with immense square shoulders, a
heavy red face and an overbearing manner. He was playing faro and losing
steadily, but every time he lost he marked the moment with an angry
exclamation. The others, players and spectators alike, seemed to avoid
him, and Winthrop, who noticed Prescott's inquiring glance, said:

"That's Redfield, a member of our Congress," and he named the Gulf State
from which Redfield came. "He belonged to the Legislature of his State
before the war, which he advocated with all the might of his lungs - no
small power, I assure you - and he was leader in the shouting that one
Southern gentleman could whip five Yankees. I don't know whether he
means that he's the Southern gentleman, as he's never yet been on the
firing line, but he's distinguishing himself just now by attacking
General Lee for not driving all the Yankees back to Washington."

Redfield at length left the game, uttering with an oath his opinion that
fair play was impossible in the Nonpareil, and turned to the group
seated near him, regarding the Richmond editor with a lowering brow.

"I say, Winthrop," he cried, "I've got a bone to pick with you. You've
been hitting me pretty hard in that rag of yours. Do you know what a
public man down in the Gulf States does with an editor who attacks him!
Why, he goes around to his office and cowhides the miserable little
scamp until he can't lie down comfortably for a month."

A slight pink tint appeared in the cheeks of Winthrop.

"I am not well informed about the custom in the Gulf States, Mr.
Redfield," he said, "but here I am always at home to my enemies, as you
ought to know."

"Oh, nonsense!" exclaimed Raymond. "You two can't fight. We can't afford
to lose Redfield. He's going to lead a brigade against the Yankees, and
if he'll only make one of those fiery speeches of his it will scare all
the blue-backs out of Virginia."

Redfield's red face flushed to a deeper hue, and he regarded the speaker
with aversion, but said nothing in reply, fearing Raymond's sharp
tongue. Instead, he turned upon Prescott, who looked like a mild youth
fit to stand much hectoring.

"You don't introduce me to your new friend," he said to Talbot.

Online LibraryJoseph A. (Joseph Alexander) AltshelerBefore the dawn, a story of the fall of Richmond → online text (page 1 of 28)