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The Siege

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

EIGHT gunboats held the river in front of, above, and below the doomed town. Under the leafy Louisiana shore the blue placed seven mortars. These kept up a steady fire upon the city and the river defences. At intervals the gunboats engaged the lower batteries. There was an abandoned line of works which was seized upon by a cloud of blue sharpshooters. These began to pick off men at the grey guns, and traverses had to be built against them. The grey had in the river batteries thirty-one siege guns, and a few pieces of light artillery. Even of these they had eventually to spare guns for, the land defences.

At dawn of the twenty-seventh of May began the engagement in which the Cincinnati was sunk. She had fourteen guns, and she opened furiously upon the upper batteries while four gunboats handled the lower. But the upper batteries sunk her; she went down not far from the shore in water that did not quite cover her decks. Her loss was heavy, from the grey shells and from the grey sharp-shooters who picked off her men at the portholes. Night after night blue craft gathered around her, trying to take away the fourteen guns, but night after night the upper batteries drove them away. She stayed there, the Cincinnati, heavy and mournful in the smoke-shrouded river. And day after day, and week after week, the seven mortars and all the gunboats launched their thunders against the water batteries and the town beyond.

Three fourths of a rough circle ran the landward defences. There were exterior ditches, eight and ten feet deep, with provision for the infantry, with embrasures and platforms for artillery. Before them were thrown abatis, palisades, entanglements of picket and telegraph wire. The ground was all ridge and hollow; redan and redoubt and lunette occupied the commanding points, and between them ran the rifle-pits. There was much digging yet to be done, and few men and no great supply of entrenching tools with which to do it.

Night after night fatigue parties were busy. Behind all the salients they made inner lines for time of need; they built traverses against enfilading fires. So fast did the blue sharpshooters pick off officers and men, as they passed from the works to the camps in the rear, that very soon the grey were forced to contrive covered ways. Through the hot nights laboured already wearied men. The five hundred picks and shovels were shared among the troops. Where they gave out, wooden shovels were contrived and bayonets were used as picks. In the night time the damage of the day must be somehow repaired. The damage of each day was very great.

The centre of the Confederate line, from the Jackson railroad to the Graveyard road, was held by Forney's division. General Martin Luther Smith held from the Graveyard road to the river on the north, and made the left. Carter L. Stevenson's division held from the railroad to the Warrenton road and the river south, and formed the right. Behind Forney lay in reserve Bowen with his Missourians and Waul's Texas Legion. Counting the three thousand and more in hospital, there were twenty-eight thousand men defending Vicksburg. They were all needed. Thrice the number would have found work to do.

Outside the Confederate line ran the Federal line of investment. At the beginning of the siege the two lines were some hundreds of yards apart; as the siege went on the blue drew nearer, nearer. They drew so near at last that, at night, the grey and blue pickets con-versed, so near that at places the several ramparts all but touched. Forty-three thousand had Grant at the formal opening of the siege; steadily as it progressed he brought across the river other thousands. By the middle of June he had seventy-five thousand, besides the fleet upon the river. Ninth Army Corps, Thirteenth Army Corps, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth Army Corps, — Grant drew his forces and to spare around the town and its all too meagre defences, its one hundred and two guns and small store of ammunition and its twenty-eight thousand combatants, three thousand of whom were in hospital. Besides the guns of the fleet, there were now two hundred and twenty blue guns in position. They never lacked for am-munition. Seven miles, from the river north of the town to the river south, ran the Confederate lines. Fifteen miles, from Haines's Bluff to Warrenton, enclosing the Confederate, ran the Federal lines.

Grant was strongly posted. He had wide, sheltered hollows in which to mass his men, and commanding ridge-tops on which to place his guns. His far-flung position was strong for offence, and equally strong, in case of an attack from without, for defence. All day and every day thundered the Federal artillery. All day and every day the grey lines and the grey town knew the rain of shells. Very early in the siege the blue prepared to mine.

At Jackson, fifty miles to the east, was Joseph E. Johnston, slowly gathering troops. At the last and best he had only twenty-four thousand troops. Between him and the beleaguered place lay an army of seventy-five thousand men, strongly posted, and strong — where the grey were weakest — in artillery; with, also, a blue fleet in the background. At long intervals Pemberton got out a messenger to him; at long intervals one of his own got into Vicksburg.

Within all these lines Vicksburg herself crouched and waited. All her people who might dwelled now in caves. They came out in the night or during the infrequent silences of the day and returned to the houses that were not injured. They grew careless about exposure, or rather they grew fatalistic after the manner of courageous, besieged places. They passed through the streets even when the shells were raining, or they wandered out toward the lines, or they sat under some already splintered tree and counted the gunboats on the dusky river. Courage stayed with them, and even at times gaiety, though she had a hectic cheek.

On the twenty-second of May the town rocked under the first assault. Four ironclads and a wooden gunboat — thirty-two guns — opened upon the river batteries. From the land the artillery began as well, a great force of artillery sending shot and shell against the Confederate centre and right and into the town beyond. At one o'clock came the first of three Federal charges, directed against the line of Stephen D. Lee. The assault was desperate, the repulse as determined. The grey guns did not spare today grape and canister. The grey musketry poured from the trenches volley after volley in the face of the foe. A blue storming party, Illinois and Ohio and Missouri, charged a redoubt in which the cannon had made a breach. They crossed the ditch, they mounted the earthen wall, they fixed two flags upon the parapet. They hurrahed in triumph. This angle was uncommanded by any grey work. The flags could be dislodged only by a countercharge and hand-to-hand fighting. Volunteers were called for, and there went a band of Waul's Texans, led by Colonel Pettus of the Twentieth Alabama. The blue artillery opened upon them; there fell a fearful hail. The bullets of the sharpshooters, too, came against them like bees armed each with a mortal sting. The grey rushed on. They dislodged the blue from the fort, then fought them in the ditch below. They used shells like hand grenades, flinging them from the rampart. They took the flags, waved them on high, then sent them back to their colonel, who sent them to, Stephen Lee. They beat back the blue storming party. . . . The grey beat back the whole wide, three blue charges, hurled them back upon their lines like torn waves from an iron coast. When dusk came and sullenly the firing ceased, the Federal dead and wounded lay thick, thick, up and down before the Confederate line, by ditch and wall, perhaps two thousand dead and wounded. In the night-time some were taken away, but very, very many were left. The weather was deadly hot.

Dead and wounded lay there so long that it became frightful. The grey did not love the crying on their front, the gasping voices, the faint, dry, Water! Water! Water! — dry and shrill like insects in the grass. The dead became offensive, horrible. The grey sent a flag of truce: General Pemberton's request to General Grant that hostilities be suspended for several hours while the Federal dead were buried and the wounded relieved. It was then the twenty-fifth. Grant, his cigar between his teeth, sitting before his tent out near the Graveyard road, nodded assent. All that afternoon they buried the dead, and removed the yet living. A thunder-shower came down and did something to wash away the stains. In the silence and re-spite from the shells, Vicksburg left its caves and hurried through trampled gardens back to the homes it loved. Here and there was ruin. The shell might have exploded in the porch, bearing down the white pillars, or in the parlour, shivering the mirrors and the crystal chandeliers, or upon the stair, or in a bedroom. Here and there was wholly ruin. A gaunt framework lifted itself among the roses, or the white magnolias stared at a heap of charred timbers. . . . The truce lasted less than three hours.

There was one cave quite out of town, quite near the lines. It belonged to an old country-house with a fair garden, and it was digged at the time of the bombardment the past summer. Now the house had been burned and the people occupying it had gone into the crowded town. The cave stood empty. It had been made in the side of a tall, vine-draped bank. Dark cedars with heavy and twisted roots overhung it, and on either side there was ivy and honeysuckle. It was a large cave, clean and dry. The family that had moved away had left within it a low bed and a small old dressing-table and other furniture and a little china and tinware. At no great distance trickled and gurgled the spring belonging to the house. One heard it in the night-time, but all day long it was lost in the thunder. Désirée went to it for water only after dark.

The house which had given her refuge had been one of the first demolished. She looked at all the warrens that had been dug in the earth, and then, one rosy evening, she walked out toward the lines. She took the direction of the redan where Edward was stationed, and just on the townward side of the line of sentries she found this ruined house in its ruined garden and the empty cave. The next day in she moved.

Lieutenant Edward Cary got her message, brought him by his commanding officer. "Cary, I was riding by the ruined house, and a very beautiful woman came out of a cave in the hill and said she was your wife, and that she was making her home there, and would you come to Cape Jessamine when you could."

It was two days before he could go to Cape Jessamine. The evening of the truce he went, through the great fresh coolness after the storm. There was yet in the sky a dark blur of cloud with a sweep below it of ragged, crêpe-like filaments, but the lightning and thunder had ceased and the rain was over. Moist fragrance rose from the desolated garden. After all the heat and turmoil there was a silence that seemed divine. Just by the mouth of the cave, half buried in the trailing ivy, Désirée had placed a bench. Here, the first rapture of meeting over, they sat in the evening light, the storm rolling away, an odour coming to them of mignonette.

He gathered her hands in his. "Désirée Gaillard, this is no place for you! They are driving an approach to the redan and are massing guns against it. The shells will fall in this garden. Go back to the town!"

"No; I will not. I like this better."

"The point is that you may be killed."

"No, I will not be. The shells fall, too, in the town. I will be careful."

"Dear heart, I mean it."

"Dear heart, I mean it, too. The danger is not greater than it is in town. Yesterday there a child's arm was torn away."

"Oh —"

"Yes. . . . It is so frightful. And they are burying the dead out there. A soldier told me."

"Yes. . . . How still it seems! And the mignonette . . ."

"It is as still as was the garden at Cape Jessamine. Look how the clouds are drifting by. . . ."

"Désirée, I brought you into the country of Danger. If you had gone to the Fusilier place —"

"I should be dead by now. The country of Danger is a happy country to-night. I fear it no more than you. Indeed, I love it — since you are here. We are not children travelling, you and I. Look at the light trembling up from the west!"

"That night upon the levee. . . . You were the heart of the red light. Now you sit here, heart of the gold light. . . . I love you." "I love you."

The clouds drifted away, the sun went down clear. The evening star was shining like a silver lamp when the two unlocked their arms, kissed, and rose. All the ruined garden was filled with fireflies, and there stole upward the odour of the mignonette. She went with him to the fallen old brick gateposts. There they embraced and parted. Going down toward the trenches he looked back and saw her standing, the fireflies about her like stars, behind her tall shadowy trees, and, like a hieroglyphic against the sky, the charred rafters of the ruined house.

At dawn the cannonading began anew and lasted all day. Musketry, too, volleyed and rolled. The Federal ammunition never lacked, but the grey were in no position to spend with freedom. Every ridge of the besieging line belched saffron flame, thick smoke, and thunder; every point of vantage sent its stream of minies, horribly singing. On this day the blue began sap after sap. In the night-time the grey sent a detachment from Stevenson's right out upon the river flats, their errand the constructing of an abatis against a possible blue approach that way. A Federal party came against them and there was a bitter skirmish. The gunboats, excitedly waking, thrust a duel upon the river batteries. The night flamed and roared. The grey won out upon the flats and returned with a hundred prisoners. The morning saw the river fight and the sinking of the Cincinnati.

May shook and thundered toward its sulphurous close. The twenty-ninth, thirtieth, and thirty-first were marked by a continuous, frightful bombardment. By now the blue parallels were close, close to every main grey work. They were very close, indeed, to the Third Louisiana Redan. All night the grey engineers and their haggard men dug, dug to repair the daytime breaches, to make inner lines. On the first day of June fire broke out in the town. There threatened a general conflagration, but soldiers and civilians conquered the flames before there was disaster irretrievable. The weather was deadly hot. Fever became epidemic.

There arrived a question of musket caps. Imperatively needed, they must be had. If it were possible for a few daring men to get down the river and across, behind the enemy, to Jackson, General Johnston would send the caps. There were volunteers. Captain Saunders, Lamar Fontaine, a courier named Walker, were the first chosen; later, a noted scout and Lieutenant Edward Cary. At mid-night they drifted down the river on logs. The battery under whose shadow they had set out listened for a shout, looked for a leaping flame from some one of the gunboats they must pass. But the gunboats lay silent. There was always driftwood upon the rushing river.

At dawn the mortars on the Louisiana side began to shell the batteries and the town beyond. Later the gunboats took a hand. Six days in succession this bombardment opened with the first light in the east and closed with the latest in the west. Vicksburg lost the last semblance of old times. The bombs ripped houses open as they ripped bodies. The blue began to drive double saps against the principal redans. The grey began to countermine. All the torn, sunbaked line knew that from now on it would stand over volcanoes.

Désirée went into the town and to the hospitals, but when she found there were nurses enough she was glad — though, had there been need, she like all the rest would have worked there until she dropped.

At the door of one of the hospitals she spoke to a surgeon. "There is no yellow fever?"

"No, thank God! Not yet. — I'll strike on wood."

They watched a shell burst in the air above an empty garden. "Well, if they'd only keep that spot for a target! But they won't. . . . When we stopped counting a week ago the hospitals had been struck twenty-one times. It's hard on wounded men to be rewounded. — There's another!"

The shell ploughed a trench across the street, burst against the corner of a brick wall, and brought it down in ruin.

"You can't blame them for getting unnerved, lying there and listening," pursued the surgeon. "Then they don't get well quickly and conditions are unfavourable for amputations and operations. And I've never seen worse wounds than we're getting in this siege. — There's another! "

Désirée went on to a row of caves in a parched hillside. Here were certain of her old friends, and here was a kind of central storeroom from which she with others drew her slender rations. The basket which she had brought she partly filled, then sat upon a stone and asked and answered questions. It was not for long; she was not happy away from Cape Jessamine. They begged her to stay; they represented that a moderate risk was all right, — they ran it here, — but that so near the lines she was in actual danger. She laughed with her beautiful eyes and went her way.

A little farther down the line she paused for a moment beside a young woman in black sitting in the cave mouth, a slate and pencil on her knee and beside her a boy and girl. "You are keeping school, Miss Lily ? "

"It isn't exactly school," said Miss Lily, "but one must entertain the children. It is hard on them being penned up like this."

"We're drawing funny pictures," explained the boy. "This is General Grant."

"And this," chimed in the girl, "is General Sherman! Does n't he look fierce?"

"And this is Yankee Doodle! Look at his feather — all over the slate!"

Miss Lily leaned a little forward, her thin hands clasped about her knees, her luminous dark eyes upon the murky sky. She had a voice of liquid sweetness, all shot with little lights and shadows. "I had such a vivid dream last night. I thought that suddenly all the shells, instead of coming this way,were going that way,and somebody said it would be because General Johnston was coming with a great army and that the enemy's cannon were turned against them. All the sky grew clear red instead of blue, and in it I saw the army coming. It was like the pictures of the Judgment Day. And the flag was in front, and there were clouds and thunders. And the enemy was swept off the face of the earth." She sighed. "And then I woke up, and the shells were coming this way."

"I dreamed, too," said the little girl; "I dreamed about Christmas."

Désirée went back to Cape Jessamine. On the way she walked for a while beside an old negro woman. "Yass, 'm, yass, 'ml De debbil âm rainin' fire an' brimstone! En now ef de Lawd 'd only send de manna an' de quails ! "

"Are you hungry ?" asked Désirée. "You look hungry."

" Well, 'm, dar wuz de chillern. I done hab my ration en dey done hab theirs, but de Lawd Jesus knows growin' chillern need six rations! I could n't give 'em six, but I giv 'em mine. — I ben lookin' at de berries in de patch ober dar, but Lawd! de bloom ain't much moh'n fallen!"

Désirée uncovered the basket and shared with her her loaf of bread. The other took it with glistening eyes and profuse thanks. They parted, and Désirée went on to the cave below the cedars in the ruined garden. The day was hot, hot! and the air was thick; and there was always smell of burned powder, and dull, continual noise. But the cave itself was dark and cool. She had drawn the ivy so that it fell like a curtain across the entrance. She drank a cup of water, ate a piece of bread, then lay down upon her pallet. She lay very straight, her hands clasped upon her breast, her dark eyes fixed upon the veil of ivy. The light came in, cool and green like emerald water. The booming of the cannon grew rhythmic like great waves against a cliff. Edward! Edward! They beat in her brain —Edward! Edward!

She knew that he was gone with the others for the musket caps. Day by day soldiers in numbers passed her garden. She had come to know the faces of many and had made friends with them. Sometimes they asked for water. Sometimes the wounded rested here. An officer, mortally wounded, had been laid upon this pallet and had died here, upheld for the last labouring breath in her arms. The colonel commanding the troops in the redan and trenches at this point stopped occasionally in coming or going. He was a chivalrous, grey-mustached hero who paid her compliments three-piled. It was he who told her of the volunteers for dangerous service, but it was a smoke-grimed, tattered private who brought her a line from Edward, pencilled just at starting. . . . Five days ago.

She lay perfectly still, breathing lightly but deeply. Her mind, like a bird, flew now into this landscape, now into that. Cape Jessamine — Cape Jessamine — and the river rolling over what had been home and life. Her room — the river rolling over :her room — the balcony with the yellow rose and the silken dresses in the carved ward-robe. . . . She was in New Orleans. — Mardigras — Rex passing — Louis as Rex — flowers down raining. All the masks — the ball. . . . France — an old house in Southern France with poplars and a still stream. . . . Her eyelids closed. Green water falling, and the cypresses of Cape Jessamine. . . . She turned on her side — Edward! Edward!

The great waves continued to break against the cliffs, then arose a deafening crash as of down-ruining land. Désirée sprang to her feet and went and pushed aside the ivy. Thick smoke hung over a salient some distance to the right; she saw men running. Though she had never seen a mine exploded, she knew it for what it was. She watched the thickest of the smoke lift and drift aside, she saw that the flag. still waved from the salient and she gathered from the steadiness of the world in general and the rhythmic pursuance of the cannonading that the mine had not been large, or had failed of its full intent. She knew, however, that in the salient there had been moments of destruction and anguish.

Sleep was driven from her eyes. She sat down upon the bench without the door. It was the blazing afternoon. She saw the air upquivering from the baked earth, the ruined wall. The neglected garden looked dead with sultriness. Beyond, in the heat, she saw the camps, tents, huts of dried boughs, small wooden structures. From them to the front ran strange geometric lines that were the covered ways. She saw the sentries, small, metallic-looking figures. Then came trenches, breastworks, redan. Smoke was over them, but here and there it gave and let through the red points of flags, or a vision of soldiers. The horizon all around stood a wall of murk torn by red flashes. That the air rocked with sound was now a matter of course. The ear was accustomed to it, as to the roar of a familiar cataract, or as mechanics and mill-hands might be to the roar of machinery. Distracting sound ceased to be distracting. The attention went where it was needed, as in the silence of the desert. Désirée sat with her hands in her lap, staring into the heat and light. She sat with a certain look of the Sphinx, accepting the spectator's place, since the ages had fixed her there, and yet with a dim and inner query that raised the corners of her lips.

A squad of soldiers came by, paused and asked if they might get water. When they came back from the spring she stopped them with her eyes.

"Did the mine do much harm ?"

"No, 'm, mighty little, considering. It hurt a dozen men and gave us some digging and mending to do to-night. Good for us, I reckon! We all are so awful lazy — serving only twenty out of twenty-four . hours!"

"Yes," said Désirée. "I've observed how lazy you are. There never were soldiers who did better than you are doing. — Is there any news?"

"They've got their sap rollers within a hundred feet of us. I've got an idea that I'm going to give the captain. If you'd soak wads of cotton in turpentine, and wrap them in pieces of match and fire them from an old large-bore gun into them rollers, you might burn the darned things up!"

"Two of the men who went of ter caps got in at dawn this morning." "Two —?"

Yes, 'm. Captain Saunders and Walker. They brought two hundred thousand caps between them. They had a lively time getting out, and a livelier getting in."

"The others — ?"

"They have n't been heard from. It was n't an easy job! I reckon if we get two back — and that many caps — it 's as good as we could expect."

The day declined. The sun went down like a red cannon ball. The cannonading ceased; the minies ceased. Slowly the smoke drifted away and let the stars be seen. The silence after sound oppressed, oppressed! Désirée sat still upon the bench. The moon rose, round and white, mounted and made the world spectral. At last she stood up. She raised and opened her arms, then closed them on each other and wrung her hands. Then she went out of the night without to that within the cave. The moon came strongly in. When, presently, she lay down upon the pallet, she drew her eyes and forehead out of the pool of silver. Edward ! Edward !

Between the dead night and the first dawn, an hour before the sharpshooters would begin, she suddenly sat up, then rose to her feet. The moonlight was gone from the floor; there was only the unearthly hush and ebb of the hour. She moved to the entrance, pushed aside the ivy, and stood with held breath. Though she could not see him, she knew when he turned in at the ruined gate. A moment and his voice was in her ears. "Désirée!" — another, and they were clasped in each other's arms. "I got in an hour ago — with the caps. I have till dawn."

Throughout the seventh and eighth of June the firing from the mortars was very heavy and the Federal digging, digging continued. The grey private's device was adopted and a number of sap rollers were set afire and destroyed, exposing the sappers behind and compelling fresh beginnings. On the Jackson road, before Hébert's lines, the blue were using for screen cotton bales piled high upon a flatcar. This shield also was fired by musket balls wrapped in turpentine and tow. Bales and car went up in flames. The grey began new rifle-pits, and in the redans they collected thundering barrels and loaded shells. There was a feeling of impending assault. Now, too, began night sallies — Federal attacks upon the picket lines, Confederate repulses. Sentinel duty, heavy from the first, grew ever more heavy. Men fought during the day, and the same men watched at night. Day and night the trenches must be manned. The lines were long, and by now there were barely eighteen thousand grey effectives. They lived perforce in the trenches; they had no relief from the narrow ditches. The sun of a Southern June blistered and baked; then came torrential rains and soaked all things; then the sun shone again and the heavens became an inverted bowl of brass. On the twelfth of June the troops were put on half-rations; a little later, these, too, were reduced. The water grew low and very impure. There were so many dead bodies — men and animals. Fever appeared in every main work, and in every trench. Men lifted their muskets with shaking hands.

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