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The Colonel Of The Sixty-fifth

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THROUGH the cool October sunlight three grey regiments and a battery of horse artillery were marching upon a road that led from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock. They were coming up from Orange Court-House and their destination was the main army now encamped below Kelly's Ford.

The air was like wine and the troops were in spirits. There were huge jokes, laughter, singing, and when at noon the column halted in a coloured wood for dinner, the men frisked among the trees like young lambs or very fauns of Pan. They were ragged, and they did n't have much for dinner, but gaiety was in their gift and a quite superb "make the best of it." They were filled with quips and cranks; they guffawed with laughter. They lay upon the earth,, hands beneath their heads, one knee crossed above the other, and sang to the red oak leaves on the topmost branch.

"I dreamed a dream the other night,
When everything was still; — ;
I dreamed I saw Susannah
Come running down the hill... .

" 0 Susannah, don't you weep,
Nor mourn too long for me —
I'se gwine to Alabama,
With my banjo on my knee!"

"Old Grimes is dead, that good old man,
Whom we shall see no more —"

The Sixty-fifth Virginia's spirits flew in feathers. The Sixty-fifth was, for this period of the war and on the Southern side, a full regiment. It carried nearly five hundred muskets. It was practically half as large as it had been on the day of First Manassas. It had passed through three years of deadly war, but as a regiment it possessed skill as well as courage, and — with one exception — it. had had fair luck. And then it had gathered recruits. It was a good regiment to belong to — a steady, fine regiment.

Officers' mess spread its table on the golden, fallen leaves of a hickory beside a sliding, ice-cool rivulet. The four hundred and odd men were scattered, in perhaps fifty messes, through the grove. The smoke of their fires rose straight and blue. The metal of the stacked muskets reflected a thousand little saffron flames. The leaves drifted down. The day was ineffably sweet, cool, and fragrant. Caw ! caw I went the crows in a neighbouring field.

The Sixty-fifth believed in friendship. It believed in cousins. It believed in the tie of the County. The river, winding between willow and sycamore from croft to croft, — the chain of little valleys, the end of one touching the beginning of another, — the linked hills, each with its homestead, — the mountains with their mountain cabins, — all was so much framework in and over and about which flowed the mutual life. In its consciousness hill called to hill and. stream to stream — Thunder Run to other runs and creeks — other mountains to Thunder Run Mountain. The Sixty-fifth experienced a profound unity — a unity bred of many things. Physical contiguity played its part, a common range of ideas, a general standard of conduct, a shared way of seeing, hearing, tasting. Upon all was the stamp of community in effort, community in danger, community in event. It was not to the erection of separateness that brothers, cousins, friends, acquaintances, even in a minor degree enemies, shared heat and cold, the burning sun or the midnight, stumbling ,darkness of the road, storm and fatigue and waking through the night, hunger, thirst, marchings and battles and the sight of battle-fields, that their hearts together failed, shrivelled, darkened, or expanded, rose and shouted. So deeply alike now was their environment and the face of their days that their own faces were grown strangely alike. Sometimes the members of the Sixty-fifth differed in opinion, sometimes they squabbled, sometimes they waxed sarcastic, sometimes they remarked that the world was too small for such or such a comrade and themselves. Then came the battle — and when in the morning light they saw such or such an one, it was "Hello, Jim — or Jack — or Tom! I'm right down glad you were n't killed! Fuss at you sometimes, but I'd have missed you, all the same ! "

The Sixty-fifth sat cross-legged in the coloured wood near Rappahannock, and ate its diminutive corn-pone and diminutive rasher of bacon. No Confederate soldier ever felt drowsily heavy after dinner Where there was so little to digest, the process accomplished itself in the turn of a hand. There was little, too, to smoke, now — worse hick! But there was always — except in the very worst straits — there was always something out of which might be gotten a certain whimsical amusement.

The Sixty-fifth had had an easy march, and was going to have another one. The Sixty-fifth knew this country like a book, having fought over most steps of it. It had a pleasant feeling of familiarity with this very wood and the shining stretch of road narrowing toward a dark wood and the Rappahannock. The Sixty-fifth had every confidence in Marse Robert, commanding all; in Old Dick, commanding the Second Corps, in Alleghany Johnson, commanding the division; in Walker, commanding the Stonewall; in Colonel Erskine, commanding the Sixty-fifth. Its confidence in the Sixty-fifth itself was considerable. Dinner done, it fell, lying beneath the trees, now to jokes and now to easy speculation.

"What is Marse Robert moving us for?"

"Meade's walking again. Stalking up and down north side of Rappahannock. Same as Burnside last year. Marse Robert's bringing us and the th and —th, over from Orange, to lay the ghost. — Oh, and I forgot the horse artillery! "

"Horse artillery's all right, down there by that sumach patch,. eating parched corn. . . . This is what you might call golden. weather. Listen to the crows. Caw I caw ! caw I Just like old Botetourt."

"If I were Allan Gold, I'd let that shoe alone. He can't mend it.'' "Whose shoe is it? Allan's?"

"No. It's Lieutenant Coffin's. He's had a pale blue letter, and it said that the young lady was visiting in Fredericksburg — and ain't we on the road to Fredericksburg?"

"I see—I see!"

"And of course lieutenant would like to have a whole shoe. You 'd like it yourself under the circumstances. Allan's mighty handy, and he told him he thought he could do it —"

"If I had a knife — Allan! Here's a scrap of good leather. Catch! — Ain't no pale blue letter in mine. Wish there was." Sergeant Billy Maydew, at the: head of a small reconnoitring party, appeared and reported to the colonel. " We went to the river, sir, and two miles up and two miles down. As far as could be seen, things air all quiet. We thought we saw a smoke across the river — back agin' the sky. We met a foraging party — cavalry. It said General Lee was at Kelly's Ford, and that it was understood the enemy meant to cross. That air all I have to report, sir."

The column took again the road. Of the three regiments, the Sixty-fifth came last. Behind it rumbled a small wagon train, and in rear of these the battery from the horse artillery. The battery was an acquisition of the morning. It had come out of the yellow and red woods in the direction of Culpeper, and had proceeded to "keep company." The Sixty-fifth liked the artillery very well, and now it fraternized as jovially as discipline would allow. "An old battery of Pelham's ? Pelham was a fighter! Saw him at Second Manassas with his arm up, commanding! Looked like one of those people in the old mythology book. — Glad to see you, old battery of Pelham's!"

The afternoon was a wonderful clear one of high lights and blue shadows, of crisply moving air. All vision was distinct, all sound sonorous. Even touch and taste and smell had a strange vigour. And, by way of consequence, all faculties were energized. Past and present and future came all together in the hands, in one wonderful spice apple. And then, just as life was most worth living, the column, the road bending, clashed against a considerable Federal force, that, crossing the Rappahannock at Beverly's Ford, had come down the river through the wonderful afternoon.

The Sixty-fifth fought from behind a brown swale of earth with a rail fence atop. The rails were all draped with travellers' joy; together they made a flimsy screen through which sang the bullets. Zipp ! zziipp ! zzzip ! went the minies, thick as locusts in Egypt. The two other regiments ahead were fighting, too; the wagons were scattered, the horses stampeded, the negro teamsters ashen with panic. The battery of horse artillery drove in thunder to the front, the guns leaping, the drivers shouting, the horses red-nostrilled, wide-eyed. Down sprang the gunners, into action roared the pieces; there was a bass now to answer the minies' snarling treble. But the blue had guns, too, more guns than the grey. They came pounding into the fight.

The Sixty-fifth fought with desperation. It saw Annihilation, and it strove against it through every fibre. The men fired kneeling. The flame had scarcely leapt ere the hand felt for the cartridge, the teeth tore at the paper, the musket flamed again. The metal scorched all fingers; powder grime and sweat marred every face. The men's lips moved rapidly, uttering a low monotone, or, after biting the cart ridge, they closed and made a straight line in each powder-darkened countenance. A shell tore away a length of the fence, killing or maiming a dozen. Through the smoke was seen the foe, gathering for a charge. The charge came and was repelled, but with loss. Two captains were down, a lieutenant, many men. A gun, back on a hillside, was splitting the fence into kindling wood. The grey battery — the old battery of Pelham's — silenced this gun, but others came. They bellowed from three different points. The grey battery began itself to suffer. Doggedly it poured its fire, but a gun was disabled, a. caisson exploded, horses and men dead or frightfully hurt. The two forward regiments had a better position or met a less massed and determined attack. They had come upon a hornet's nest, truly, but their fire at least kept the hornets at bay. But the Sixty-fifth was in the thick of it, and like to be overpowered. It had to get away from where it was in the cross-fire of the batteries — that was clear. Erskine dragged it back to a field covered with golden sedge. Out of the sheet of gold sprang small dark pines, and above the roar and the smoke was the transparent evening sky. Panting, devastated, powder-blackened, bleeding, the Sixty-fifth felt for its cartridges,, bit them, loaded, fired on a dark blue wedge coming out of a wood. The wedge expanded, formed a line, came on with hurrahs. At the same instant a monster cylindrical shell, whooping like a demon, hurled itself against the grey battery. A second gun was put out of the fight. The sky went in flashes of red, the air in toppling crashes as of buildings in earthquake. When the smoke cleared, the blue had gone back again, but dead or dying in the sedge were many grey men. Colonel Erskine, slight, fiery, stood out, his hand pressing his arm from which blood was streaming. "Sixty-fifth Virginia! You've got as splendid a record as is in this army! You can't run. There is n't anywhere to run to. - White flag? No — o ! You don't raise a white flag while I command! — Put your back to the wall and continue your record!"

"All right, sir," said the Sixty-fifth. "All right — Oh, the colonel! — oh, the colonel —"

The colonel fell, pierced through the brain. A captain took his place, but the captains, too, were falling.. .

Billy Maydew and Allan Gold saw each other through a rift in the smoke. They were close together.

"Billy," said Allan, "I wish you were' out of this."

"I reckon it's the end," said Billy, loading. "You look all kind of shining and bright, Allan. — Don't you reckon Heaven 'll be something like Thunder Run ?"

"Yes, I do. Sairy and Tom, and the flowers and Christianna —" "And all the boys," said Billy, "and the colonel — Here air the darn Yanks again —"

A short-range engagement changed into hand-to-hand fighting. Already the aiding battery had suffered horribly. Now with a shout the blue pushed against it, seizing and silencing one of the two remaining guns. The grey infantry thrust back by the same onset, the grey artillerymen beaten from the guns, were now as one — four hundred grey men, perhaps, in a death clutch with twice their number. Down the road broke out a wilder noise of fighting — it would seem, somehow, that there was an access of forces. . . . The blue, immediate swarm was somehow pushed back. Another was seen detaching itself. The ranking officer was now a captain. He hurried along the front of the torn and panting line. "Don't let's fail, men ! — Don't let's fail ! Everybody at home — everybody at home knows we could n't — Give them as good as we take! Here they come! — Now — now! —"

There was, however, a wavering. The thing was hopeless and the Sixty-fifth was deadly tired. With the fall of Erskine the trumpets had ceased to call. The Sixty-fifth looked at the loud and wide approach of the enemy, and then it looked sideways. Its lips worked, its eyelids twitched. The field of sedge expanded to a limitless plain, heaped all with the dead and dying. The air no longer went in waves .of red; the air was sinking to a greenish pallor, with a sickness trembling through it. Here was the swarm of the enemy. . . . The Sixty-fifth knew in its heart that there was some uncertainty as to whether it would continue to stand. The day was dead somehow, the heart beating slow and hard... .

The blue overpassed the ruined, almost obliterated line of the rail fence, came on over the sedge. "Don't let's fail, men!" cried the captain. "Don't let's fail! We've never done it — Stand your ground!" — A minie ball entered his side. A man caught him, eased him down upon the earth. "Stand it out, men! stand it out!" he gasped.

"Sixty-fifth Virginia ! Front! Fix bayonets ! Forward ! Charge ! "

The Sixty-fifth Virginia obeyed. It wheeled, it fixed bayonets, it charged. It charged with a shout. As by magic, even to itself, its aspect changed. It was as though a full regiment, determined, clothed in the habit of victory, vowed to and protected by War himself, sprang across the sedge, struck against, broke and drove the blue. All the pallor went out of the atmosphere, all the faintness out of life. Every hue came strong, every line came clear, life was buoyant as a rubber ball.

And now at last, as the blue fell back, as there came a shouting from down the road, as a mounted aide appeared, — "Hold your own! Hold your own! Stuart 's coming — horse and guns! Hold your own!" — as the smoke cleared, in the shaft of light that the westering sun sent across the field, the Sixty-fifth recognized why it had charged. In its ranks were men who had come in during the past year as recruits, or who had been transferred from other regiments. To these the Sixty-fifth apparently had charged, changing rout into victory, because a gunner from the disabled battery — the old battery of Pelham's — had sprung forward, faced for an instant the Sixty-fifth, then with a waved arm and a great magnetic voice had ordered the charge and led it. But most of the men of the Sixty-fifth were men of the old Sixty-fifth. Now, in the face of another and violent rush of the foe, the Sixty-fifth burst into a shout. "Richard Cleave!" it shouted; "Richard Cleave!"

Twenty-four hours later, a great red sun going down behind the pines, Cleave found himself summoned to the tent of the Commander of the Army. He went, still in the guise of Philip Deaderick. Lee sat at a table. Standing behind him were several officers, among them Fauquier Cary, now General Cary. Beyond these was another shadowy group.

Lee acknowledged the gunner's salute. "You have been known as Philip Deaderick, gunner in 's battery ?"

"Yes, sir."

"But you are Richard Cleave, colonel of the Sixty-fifth ?"

"I am Richard Cleave, sir. I was colonel of the Sixty-fifth."

Lee moved his head. The tent was filled with shadows. A negro servant, bringing a lamp, set it on the table. In at the tent flap came the multitudinous hushed sound of the gathering night. "Major Stafford!" said Lee.

Stafford came out of the dusk and stood before the table. There were five feet of earth between him and Cleave. The latter drew a quickened breath and held high his head.

"When," asked Lee, watching him, "when did you last see the officer whom I have just called?"

"Sir, I saw him at Chantilly, in the dusk and the rain—" "You knew that he was taken at Sharpsburg ?"

"Yes."

"He has been in prison ever since — until the other day when he broke prison. He has been, I think, in another and worse prison — the prison of untruth. Now he breaks that prison, too. — Major Stafford, you will repeat to Colonel Cleave what you have written in these letters" — he touched them where they lay upon the table — "and what you have to-day told to me."

Stafford's controlled, slow speech ceased its vibration in the tent. It had lasted several minutes, and it had been addressed to a man who, after the first few words, stood with lowered eyes. It was a detailed explanation of what had occurred at White Oak Swamp in '62, and it was given with a certain determined calm, with literalness, and with an absence of any beating of the breast. When it was ended there was a defined pause, then through the tent, from the great general at the table to the aide standing by the door, there ran a sound like a sigh. The man most deeply concerned stood straight and quiet. He stood as though lost in a brown study, like one who has attention only for the inward procession of events.

Lee spoke. "As quickly as possible there shall be a public reversal of the first decision." He paused, then rested his grave eyes upon Stafford. "As for you," he said, "you will consider yourself under arrest, pending the judgment of the court which I shall appoint.

You have done a great wrong. It is well that at last, with your own eyes, you see it for what it is." He withdrew his gaze, rose, and going over to Cleave, took his hand. "You have gone through bitter waters," he said. "Well, it is over! and we welcome back among us a brave man and a gallant gentleman! Forget the past in thought for the future! The Sixty-fifth Virginia is yours again, Colonel Cleave. Indeed, I think that after yesterday we could not get it to belong to any one else!"

"Colonel Erskine, sir, —"

From the shadow hard-by came Fauquier Cary's moved voice. "Erskine would have rejoiced with the rest of us, Richard. He never believed —"

"Come, General Cary," said Lee, "and you, too, gentlemen, — come and give your hands to Colonel Cleave. Then we will say good night."

The little ceremony was over, the kindly words were spoken. One by one the officers saluted and left the tent, Fauquier Cary tarrying in obedience to a sign from Lee. When all were gone, the General spoke to Cleave whom he had been watching. "You would like a word alone with —" His eyes indicated Stafford.

"Yes, General, if I may —"

"I am going across for a moment to General Stuart's. I will leave you here until I return."

He moved toward the tent opening. "Richard," said Cary, — "Richard, I have no words —" He dropped his kinsman's hands; then, in following Lee, passed within a few feet of Stafford. He made a gesture of indignation and grief, then went by with closed lips and eyelids that drooped. Stafford felt the scorn like a breath from hot iron.

The tent was empty now save for the two. "We cannot stop here," said Cleave. "I must go farther. Why have you changed ? Or are we still wearing masks ?"

"If there is any mask I do not know it," said the other. "What is change, and why do we change? We have not found that out. But there is a fact somewhere, and I have — changed. I will answer what you will not ask. I love her, yes! — love her so well now that I would have her happy. I have written to her, and in my letter I said farewell. She will show it to you if you wish."

"I do not wish —"

"No," said Stafford. "I believe that you do not. Richard Cleave, I have not somehow much feeling left in me, but . . . You remember the evening of Chantilly, when I came to Pelham's guns? In the darkness I felt you threatening me."

"Yes."

"Well, I did all that you knew of me, and I was all, I suppose, that you thought me. . . . There is never any real replacement, any real atonement. To my mind there is something childish in all our glib asking for forgiveness. I do not know that I ask you for your forgiveness. I wish you to know, however, that the old inexcusable hatred is dead in my soul. If ever the time arrives when you shall say to yourself `I forgive him' —"

"I could say it for myself. I could not say it — not yet — for the regiment."

Stafford flung out his hand. "I, no more than you, foresaw that ambush beyond the swamp! I meant to procure what should seem your disobedience to General Jackson's orders. I saw nothing else, thought of nothing else -"

"If you had seen it —"

The silence held a moment; then said the other painfully, "Yes. You are perhaps right. In what a gulf and hollow man's being is rooted! . . . I will not ask again for what I see would be difficult for any man to give — Here is General Lee."

Cleave slept that night in the tent of Fauquier Cary. When, in the dusk of the morning, reveille sounding clearly through the woods by Rappahannock, he rose, and presently came out into the autumn world, an orderly met him. "There's a negro and a horse here, sir, asking for you. He says he comes from your county."

From under the misty trees, out upon the misty road before the tent, came Tullius and Dundee. "Yaas, Marse Dick," said Tullius. "Miss Margaret, she done sont us. She say she know all erbout hit, en' that Three Oaks is er happy place t "

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