( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IF he who ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city, Robert E. Lee was a general doubly great. The gallantry of the three days' fighting at Gettysburg he left like a golden light, like a laurel wreath, with his men. The responsibility for Gettysburg, its strategy and its tactics, he laid with quietness upon his own shoulders and kept it there. In the last hour of the third day, after the last great charge, after Pickett's charge, when the remnant that was left was streaming back, he rode into the midst of that thin grey current. He sat Traveller, in the red light, in the murk and sorrow of the lost battle, and called upon the men to re-form. Pickett came by, his sword out, his long auburn hair dank with sweat. "Get your men together, General," said Lee. "They did nobly. It is all my fault."
If the boyishness in Jeb Stuart, his dear love of dancing meteors, had swept him in the past weeks too far from his proper base, he was now fully and to the end by his general's side. He kept his gaiety, his panache, but he put on the full man. He was the Stuart of Chancellorsville, throwing a steady dart, swinging a great shield. Long-street, the "old war horse"; A. P. Hill, red-shirted, a noble fighter; "Dear Dick Ewell" each rose, elastic, from the disastrous field and played the man. That slow retreat from Gettysburg to the Potomac, through a hostile country, with a victorious, larger army hovering, willing to strike if only it could find the unguarded place, was masterly planned, masterly done. The Army of Northern Virginia retired grudgingly, with backward turnings, foot planted and spear brandished. It had with it pain and agony, for it carried its wounded; it had with it appalling knowledge that Vicksburg was fallen, that the battle behind them, hard-fought for three days, was lost, that the campaign was lost, that across the river the South was mourning, mourning, that at last all were at the death-grapple. It knew it all, but it went steadily, with lips that could yet manage a smile. For all its freight of wounded, for all the mourning of its banners, it went ably; a long, masterly retreat, with effective stands and threatenings. But how the wounded suffered, only the wounded knew.
The rain came down as it usually did after the prolonged cannonadings of these great battles. It came down in sullen torrents, unfriendly, cold, deepening the deep reaction after the fever of the fight. It fell in showers from a sky leaden all the day, inky all the night. At twilight on the fourth, A. P. Hill and the Third Corps swung in silence out upon the Fountain Dale and Monterey road. They marched away in the rain and darkness. All night Longstreet and the First stayed in position at the Peach Orchard. But the foe did not attack, and at dawn Longstreet and the First followed A. P. Hill. When the dawn broke, grey and wet, Ewell and the Second Corps alone were there by Seminary Ridge. Again the blue they also gathering their wounded, they also mourning their dead made no movement to attack. Ewell and the Second followed the First.
The rain came down, the rain came down rain and wind and low-hanging clouds. Forty thousand men marched in a silence which, now and then, it was felt, must be broken. Men broke it, with song that had somehow a sob in it, with laughter more strained than jovial. Then came down the silence again, leaden with the leaden rain. But march in silence, or march in mirth, the Army of Northern Virginia marched with its morale unbroken. Tramp, tramp! through the shifting sheets of rain, through the wind that bent the tree-tops. . . . With Hood's division marched four thou-sand and more of Federal prisoners. With these, too, the silence was heavy.
But there was not silence when it came to the fearful train of the wounded. Fifteen miles, along the Chambersburg Pike, stretched the train of the wounded and of ordnance and supply wagons, with its escort of cavalry and a score of guns. The convoy was in the charge of Imboden, and he was doing the best he could with those long leagues of hideous woe. The road was rough; the night dark, with wind and rain. "Woe!" cried the wind. "Woe, woe! Pain and woe ! "
Ambulances, carts, wagons, crowded with the wounded, went joltingly, under orders to use all speed. Cavalry rode before, cavalry guarded the rear, but few were the actual guards in among or along-side the wagons. Vanguard and rear guard needed every unhurt man. For miles there were, in sum, only the wounded, the jaded wagon horses, the wagon drivers with drawn faces. Orders were for no pausing, no halts. If a wagon became disabled, draw it out of the road and leave it! There must be rapid travelling through the night. Even so, if the blue were alert, the blue might strike the train before day. Rapid motion and no halting "On! " beneath the blackness, in the teeth of wind and rain. "Woe!" cried the wind. "Woe, woe! Pain and woe!"
The wagons were springless. In many there was no straw. Numbers of the wounded lay upon bare boards, placed there, in some cases, hours even before the convoy could start. Many had had no food for long hours, no water. Their rough clothing, stiff with dried blood, abraded and inflamed their wounds. The surgeons had done what bandaging was possible, but many a ghastly hurt went unbound, unlooked to. With others the bandages slipped, or were torn aside by pain-maddened hands. There was blood upon the bed of all the wagons, blood and human refuse. Upon the boards lay men with their eyes gone, with their jaws shot through and crushed, with their arms, their legs mangled, with their thighs pierced, their bowels pierced, with tormenting stomach wounds, with a foot gone, a hand gone. There were men with fever and a horrible thirst, and men who shook in a death chill. There were men who were dead. And on them all poured the rain, for the canvas wagon covers, flapping in the wind, could not keep it out. And the road, cut by countless wheels and now washed into ridge and hollow, would have been rough for well folk, in cushioned vehicles. "On! On! No halting for any one! Good God, man! Don't I know they are suffering? Don't I hear them? Do you reckon I like to hear them? But if I'm going to save General Lee's trains I've got to get on! Get on, there!" "Woe!" cried the wind. "Woe, woe! pain and woe."
"Oh, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!"
"Just let me die, O God! just let me die!"
"If there 's anybody at all outside, won't they stop this wagon? If there 's anybody driving, won't you stop this wagon? Please! You don't know how it hurts Please! . . Ah ! Aaahh ! A aahhh I "
"Curse you! Curse war! Curse living and dying! Curse God! Ah ! Ahhh ! Aaahhh !"
"For God's sake! just lift us out and let us die lying still, on the roadside. . . . 0 God! O God!"
"O God! O God!"
"I am dying! I am dying! . . . Mary, Mary, Mary! Lift me up ! "
"We are dying! We are dying!"
"O Jesus of Nazareth "
"During this one night," says Imboden, "I realized more of the horrors of war than I had in all the two preceding years."
The Second Corps, marching by the Fairfield road, marched in rain and wind and weariness. Ewell, wooden-legged now, irascible, heroic, sighing for "Old Jackson," handling his corps as "Old Jackson " would have approved, rode in front. Jubal Early, strange compound but admirable fighter, Juba] Early guarded the rear with the brigades of Hoke and Smith and Gordon and Harry Hays. Between were Rodes's division Iverson and Daniels, Dole, Ramseur and O'Neal and "Alleghany" Johnson's division Steuart and Jones and Nicholls and the Stonewall Brigade. With each division heavily moved upon the road its artillery Charlottesville Artillery, Staunton Artillery, Louisiana Guard Artillery, Courtney Artillery, King William Artillery, Orange Artillery, Morris Artillery, Jeff Davis Artillery, Chesapeake Artillery, Alleghany Artillery, First Maryland Battery, Lee Battery, Powhatan Artillery, Salem Artillery, Rockhridge Artillery, Third Richmond Howitzers, Second Richmond Howitzers, Amherst Artillery, Fluvanna Artillery, Mil-ledge's Georgia Battery.
The Stonewall Brigade bent its head and took the blast. The rain streamed from the slanted forest of rifle barrels; the wind blew out the officer's capes; the colours had to be furled against it. All the colours were smoke-darkened, shot-riddled. The Stonewall was a veteran brigade. It had an idea that it had been engaged in war since the rains first came upon the earth. Walker; its general, a good and gallant man, plodded at its head, his hat brim streaming wet, his horse's breath making a little cloud. Tramp ! tramp I be-hind him marched the Stonewall a long, swinging gait, a "foot cavalry" gait.
The Sixty-fifth Virginia, Colonel Erskine, covered the way with a mountain stride. It was nearing now the pass of the South Mountain, and its road lay uphill. It had done good service at Gettysburg, and it had its wounded in that anguished column over on the Chambersburg Pike. It had left its dead upon the field. Now, climbing the long hills, colours slanted forward, keen, bronzed faces slanted forward, man and beast streaming rain and all battling with the gusty wind, the Sixty-fifth missed its dead, missed its wounded, knew that the army had suffered defeat, knew that the high hopes of this campaign lay in ashes, knew that these days formed a crisis in the war, knew that all the sky had darkened over the South, knew that before it lay grim struggle and a doubtful end. The units of the Sixty-fifth knew many things that in the old piping time of peace they had never thought to know.
The grain in the fields was all broken down, the woods clashed their branches, through flawed sheets of dull silver the distant mountain crests were just divined. The wind howled like a banshee, and for all that it was July the air was cold. The Sixty-fifth thought of other marches. Before McDowell Elk Run Valley that was bad. Elk Run Valley was bad. Before Mechanicsville coming down from Beaver Dam Station that was bad. Bath to Romney that was worst. . . . We've had plenty of bad marches plenty of marches plenty of heroic marches. We are used to marching used to marching . . . Marching and fighting marching and fighting.
Tall and lean and tanned, the Thunder Run men opposed the wind from the mountains. Allan Gold and Sergeant Billy Maydew exchanged observations.
"I would n't be tired," said Billy, "going up Thunder Run Mountain. I air not tired anyhow."
"No, there's no help in being tired. . . . I hope that Tom and Sairy are dry and warm "
"I don't mind wet," said Billy, " and I don't mind cold, and I can tighten my belt when I'm hungry, but the thing that air hard for me to stand air going without sleep. I tell my will to hold hard and I put tobacco in my eyes, but sleep sure air a hard thing for me to go without. I could sleep now I could sleep I could sleep . . . Yes; I hope all Thunder Run air dry and warm Mr. Cole and Mrs.
Cole and Mother and Christianna and Violetta and Rosalinda and the children and Grandpap and the dawgs and Steve Dagg No; I kinder hope Steve air wet and whimpering. . . . Thunder Run 's a long way off. I could go to sleep and sleep and sleep . . ."
"I'm not sleepy," said Allan. "But I wish I had a pitcher of milk "
The Sixty-fifth determined to try singing.
"O my Lawd, whar you gwine?
"The butcher had a little dog,
Toward four o'clock, as the head of the column neared Fairfield came from the rear a burst of firing musketry, then artillery. There was a halt, then the main body resumed the march. Early, in the rear, deployed Gordon's brigade and fought back the long skirmish line of the pursuing blue. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon there was fitful firing sound, water-logged like all else,, rising dully from the rear. Down came the night, dark as a bat's wing. The Second Corps bivouacked a mile from Fairfield, and, waking now and then in the wet and windy night, heard the rear guard repelling half-hearted attacks.
Reveille echoed among the hills. The Second rose beneath a still streaming sky. The Stonewall, camped on a hillside, sought for wood for its fires and found but little, and that too wet to burn. It was fortunate, perhaps, that there was so little to cook. The Sixty-fifth squatted around a dozen pin-points of light and did its best with the scrapings of its commissary. " Well, boys, the flesh pots of Egypt have given us the go-by! D' ye remember that breakfast at. Greencastle? Oohh ! Was n't it good? " . . . " Hold your hat over the fire or it'll go out!" . . . "I wish we had some coffee ..." "Listen at Gordon, way back there, popping away at Yanks! Did you hear about his men burning fence rails ? No ? well, 't was out beyond York. `Men!' says Marse Robert's General Order, `don't tech a thing!' `All right, Marse Robert!' says we, as you can testify. Gordon's as chivalrous as Young Lochinvar, or `A Chieftain to the Highlands Bound,' or Bayard, or any of them fellows. So he piles on an order, too. `Don't touch a thing! especially not the fences. Gather your wood where Nature has flung it! ' Well, those Georgia boys had to camp that night where Nature had n't flung any wood neither Cedar of Lebanon nor darned pawpaw bush! Just a nice bare field with rail fences our kind of fences. Nice, old, dry, seasoned rails. Come along Gordon, riding magnificently. `General, the most wood around here is musket stocks, and of course we ain't going to burn them! Can't we take just a few rails?' `Boys,' says Gordon, being like a young and handsome father to his men. `Boys, you can take the top rail. That will leave the fences high enough for the farmer's purposes. Now, mind me! don't lay your hand on anything but the top rail!' And off he goes, looking like a picture leaf of Round Table, or what not. Whereupon company by company marched up and each took in turn the top rail."
"Must have been an all-fired lasting top rail "
" And they had supper and went to bed cheered and comforted. And by and by, in the morning, just after reveille, comes Gordon, fresh as a daisy. And he looks at the boundaries of that field, and he colours up. `Men,' he says in a kind of grieved anger, `you have disobeyed orders!' Whereupon those innocents rose up and assured him that not a man had touched anything but a top rail! "
Fall in ! Fall in ! Column Forward !
It rained, and rained. You saw the column as through smoke, winding toward the pass of the South Mountain. From the rear came fitfully the sound of musketry. But there was no determined pursuit. Early kept the rear; Stuart, off in the rain and mist, lion-bold, and, throughout the long retreat to the fortress, greatly sagacious, guarded the flanks. A. P. Hill and Longstreet were now beyond the mountains, swinging southward by the Ringgold road. With the First and the Third rode Lee, grey on grey Traveller, in the grey rain, his face turned homeward, turned toward the fortress of the South, vast, mournful, thenceforth trebly endangered. It was the sixth of July. A year ago had been the Seven Days.
Back on the road of the wounded there was trouble. Imboden, having crossed the mountain, determined upon a short cut by a country road to Greencastle. On through the small town rode the vanguard, the Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry. Behind, as rapidly as might be, came the immense and painful train. On the outskirts of the place a band of civilians attacked a weakly guarded portion of the column. They had axes, and with these they hewed in two the wagon yokes or cut the spokes from the wheels. The wagon beds dropped heavily upon the earth. "Ahh!" groaned the wounded. "Ahhh ! Aaaahh !"
Back in wrath came a detachment of the Eighteenth, scattering or capturing the wielders of axes. The long train passed Greencastle. Before it lay the road to Williamsport, the road to the Potomac. The rain was streaming, the wind howling, and now the Federal cavalry made its appearance. All the rest of the day the train was subjected to small sudden attacks, descents now on this section, now on that. The grey escort, cavalry and artillery, beat them off like stinging bees; the grey wagoners plied their long whips, the exhausted horses strained forward yet again, under the wagon wheel was felt again the ridge and hollow of the storm-washed road. " Woe!" cried the wind. "Woe, woe! Pain and woe!"
There came a report that blue troops held Williamsport, but when late in a stormy afternoon the head of Imboden's column came to this place, so known by now, frontier, with only the moat of the river between the foe's territory and the fortress's territory, when the advance rode into town, there were found only peaceful Marylanders. The grey convoy occupied Williamsport. At last the torturing wagons stopped, at last the moaning hurt were lifted out, at last the surgeons could help, at last the dead were parted from the living. Imboden requisitioned all the kitchens of the place. There arose a semblance of warmth, a pale ghost of cheer. Here and there sounded even a weak laugh.
"Say, Doctor! after hell, purgatory seems kind of good to us! That was hell back there on the road hell if ever there was hell ... Ouch ! . . . Ooooghh ! Doctor ! "
"Doctor, do you reckon I'll live to get across? I want to see my wife I want to see her so badly. There's a boy, too, and I've never seen him "
"How air we going to get across ? Air there boats?"
"Who 's keeping the Yankees away? Jeb Stuart? That's good... .
Oh, Doctor, you ain't going to cut it off? Please, Doctor, please, sir, don't! No, it won't mortify I'm just as sure of that! Please just put it in splints. It ain't so badly hurt it ain't hurting me hardly any.... Doctor, Doctor! for God's sake! -- Why, I could n't walk any more! why, I'd have to leave the army! . . . Doctor, please don't please don't cut it off, sir...."
The rain came down, the rain came down, a drenching, sullen storm. Wide, yellow, and swollen rolled the Potomac before Williamsport. Imboden procured several flatboats, and proceeded to the ferrying across of those of the more slightly wounded who thought that once in Virginia they might somehow get to Winchester. In the midst of this work came news of the approach of a large force of Federal cavalry and artillery Buford and Kilpatrick's divisions hurrying down from Frederick.
Imboden posted every gun with him on the heights between the town and the river. Hart, Eshleman, McClanahan all faced the eighteen rifled guns with which presently the blue opened. A sharp artillery battle followed, each side firing with rapidity and some effect. Imboden had his cavalry and in addition seven hundred wagoners organized into companies and headed by commissaries, quartermasters, and several wounded officers. These wagoners did mightily. This fight was called afterwards "The Wagoners' Battle." Five blue cavalry regiments were thrown forward. The Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry and the Sixty-second Virginia Mounted Infantry met them with clangour in the rain-filled air. McNeill's Partisan Rangers came to the aid of the wagoners down by the river. Eshleman's eight Napoleons of the Washington Artillery, Hart's and McClanahan and Moore's batteries poured shot and shell from the heights. Through the dusk came at a gallop a courier from Fitzhugh Lee. "Hold out, General Imboden! We're close at hand!" From the direction of the Hagerstown road broke a clap of war thunder, rolling among the hills. "Horse Artillery!; Horse Artillery!" yelled Imboden's lines, the Eighteenth, the Sixty-second, the Partisan Rangers, and the Wagoners. Yaaaihh ! Yaaaaihh ! Yaaaaaaihhh ! Forward ! Charge !
July the seventh broke wet and stormy. The First and Third Corps were now at Hagerstown. Ewell and the Second nearer South Mountain, yet watchfully regarding the defiles through which might pour the pursuit. But Meade had hesitated, hesitated. It was only on the afternoon of the fifth that a move southward was begun in earnest. The Sixth Corps, on the same road with Ewell, struck now and again at the grey rear guard, but the rest of the great blue army hung uncertain. Only on the seventh did it pour southward, through the country between the Monocacy and the Antietam. In the dusk of this day Lee met Stuart and ordered an attack at dawn. Time must be gained while a bridge was built across the swollen river.
All day 'the eighth the heavy air carried draggingly the sound of cannon. So drowned with rain were the fields and meadows that manoeuvring there was manoeuvring in quagmires. The horsemen of both sides must keep to the roads, deep in mire as were these. Dismounted, they fought with carbines in all the sopping ways, while from every slight rise the metal duellists barked at one another. At last the Fifth Confederate Brigade drove the Federal left, and the running fight and the long wet day closed with one gleam of light in the west.
On July the ninth the Army of Northern Virginia occupied a ten-mile line from the Potomac at Mercersville to the Hagerstown and Williamsport road. A. P. Hill held the centre, Longstreet the right, Ewell the left, stretching toward Hagerstown. Forty thou-sand infantry and artillery stood ready. Stuart with eight thousand horsemen drew off to the north, watching like a falcon, ready for the pounce. The rain ceased to fall. A pale sunshine bathed the country, and in it gleamed the steel of the Army of Northern Virginia. The banners grew vivid.
All day Lee waited in line of battle, but Meade was yet hesitant. The tenth dawned, and Stuart sent word that the Army of the Potomac was advancing through the defiles of South Mountain. All this day the grey dug trenches and heaped breastworks. The sun shone, ill was forgotten; hope sprang, nourished by steadfastness. There were slight cavalry encounters. The night of the tenth was a warm and starry one. The grey slept and rose refreshed. Ewell and the Second now left Hagerstown. Each corps commanded one of the three roads glimmering eastward, and Stuart patrolled all the valley of the Antietam. Lee had laid his pontoon bridge across to Falling Waters. All night long there passed into Virginia the wounded and a great portion of the trains.
July twelfth was a day of cloud and mist. Still the grey waited; still Meade, with his sixty-five thousand infantry and artillery, his ten thousand cavalry, hung irresolute. Kelly at Hancock had eight thousand men. He could be trusted to flank the grey. And in the rear of the grey was the river, turbid, wide, deep, so swollen as hardly to be fordable. Halleck telegraphed Meade from Washing-ton peremptory orders to attack. But the twelfth passed with only slight encounters between reconnoitring parties.
On the thirteenth down came the rain again, a thick, cold, shifting veil of wet. Again Meade stayed in his tents. The Army of the Potomac understood that on the morrow it would attack. In the mean time reinforcements were at hand.
That night, in the rainy dusk, Stuart drew a cordon between the opposed forces. Behind the screen of horsemen, behind the impenetrable, rainy night, the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to re-cross the Potomac. Beneath the renewed rains the river was steadily rising; it was go now, or abide the onset of the sixty-five thousand along the Antietam and on the Sharpsburg Pike, with Kelly's eight thousand marching from Hancock, and other troops on the road from Chambersburg. Down came the rain and the night was Egyptian black.
The artillery and the balance of the trains must cross by the pontoon bridge. Bonfires were built on the northern and the southern bank, but all the wood was wet, and the flickering light proved deceitful as any darkness. The rolling smoke mounted and overhung the landings like genii from Arabian bottles. With sullen noise the guns crossed, hour after hour of sullen noise. The wagons with the wounded crossed. A heavy wagon, in which the badly hurt were laid thick, missed its way, and, with its horses, went blindly over the side into the rushing water, where all were drowned. After the guns and the wagons came the men of Longstreet's corps. Dawn found the First not yet over-passed, while the Third waited on the pebbly stretch between the water and the hills. In the mean time Ewell and the Second had undertaken the ford.
That which, a month before, had been a pleasant summer river, clear, wide, and tranquil, not deep, and well known by now to the Second Corps, was to-night a monster of the dark, a mill-race of the Titans. The heaped wood set afire on either bank lit the water but a few yards outward. Between the several glares was darkness shot with rain, shaken by wind. And always the bonfires showed thronging men, a broad moving ribbon running upwards and back from the water's edge, and between these two throngs a void and blackness. It was like a vision of the final river a great illustration out of "Pilgrim's Progress." Company by company went down into the river; company by company slowly mounted on the farther side, coming up from the water into strange light, beneath tall shadowy trees. The water was up to the armpits. It was cold and rushing water. The men tied their cartridge boxes around their necks; they held their muskets above their heads; now and again a short man was carried across upon the shoulders of a tall and strong man. Sergeant Billy Maydew carried Lieutenant Coffin across thus.
The Sixty-fifth kept its cartridges dry, held its muskets high. It had crossed into Maryland with song and joke and laughter, step-ping easily through water to the mid-thigh, clear water, sparkling in the sun. It returned into Virginia through a high and stormy water, beneath a midnight sky. The sky of its fortunes, too, was dark. There was no singing to-night; each man, breasting the flood, needed all his wits merely to cross. The red light beat upon the Sixty-fifth going down from the Maryland shore, rank after rank, entering the water in a column of three. Rank by rank, the darkness swallowed it up, officers and men, colonel, lieutenant-colonel, captains, lieutenants, the chaplain, the surgeons, the noncommissioned officers, all the men, Thunder Run men, men from the mountainous Upper Valley counties, all the Sixty-fifth, rank by rank dipped out of the light into the darkness. The darkness swallowed the regiment, then the darkness gave it again to the light on the Virginia shore. Up to the gate of the fortress, through the red flare of torches, came the Sixty-fifth. A man with a great rich, deep voice, broke into song in the night-time, in the wind and rain, as he came up beneath the sycamores. He sang "Dixie," and the Sixty-fifth sang it with him.
All night, endlessly across the river, out of light into darkness, then into light again, came the slowly unwinding ribbon of the regiments. All night the Second Corps was crossing by the ford as all night the First was crossing by the unstable bridge of boats. In the grey morning there crossed A. P. Hill and the Third. The last brigade was Lane's North Carolinians. It made the passage, and then Stuart drew his thousands steadily to the waterside. Meade's advance, Kilpatrick and Buford, saw from the hill-tops the river dark with swimming horsemen.