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The Wilderness

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IT might have been guessed from the first," said Cleave. "Only, fortunately or unfortunately, mankind never makes such guesses. Given, with all our talk to the contrary, North and South, a common stock, with common qualities, common intensities of purpose; then given the division of the whole into two parts, two thirds of the mass on that side of the line, one third on this; then, in addition, push to the larger side manufacturing towns and the control of the sea — and it ought not to have taken an eagle's vision to see on which side the dice would fall."

Allan pondered it. "There have been times from the beginning — from First Manassas on — when we lacked little of winning. A very little more several times and they would have cried, Peace ! "

"That is true. It was n't impossible, impossible as it looked. It only was n't at all probable."

"And it is less probable now ?"

"It is not at all probable now."

The two moved on in silence, Cleave riding Dundee, Allan walking beside him. They were in one of the glades of the Wilderness, the Sixty-fifth bivouacking at hand, Cleave going to brigade head-quarters and the scout joining him from some by-path. It was sun-set, and a pink light touched the Wilderness. "We have come to a definite turn," said Cleave, "or rather, we came to it at Gettysburg, — Gettysburg and Vicksburg." He looked about him. "A year ago, we were in this Wilderness. I had a cloud upon me that I did not know would ever be lifted — a cloud upon me and a sore heart." He lifted his hat and rode bareheaded. "But the light upon this Wilderness was more rosy then than now."

Night fell. Far and wide rolled the Wilderness. An odour rose from the dwarf pine and oak and sweet gum and cedar, from the earth and its carpet of the leaves of old years, from the dogwood, the pink azalea, and the purple judas-tree, from rotting logs and orange and red fungi, from small marshy bottoms where the frogs were croaking, from the dry, out-worn "poison fields," from dust and from mould, — a subtle odour, new as to-day, old as sandal-wood cut in the East ten thousand years ago. Far and wide stretched the Wilderness. Its ravines were not deep, its hills were not high, but it had a vastness as of the desert, where, neither, are the ravines deep nor the hills high. The stars rimmed it, and a low whispering wind went from cedar covert to sweet-gum copse, from pine to oak, from dogwood to judas-tree. It lifted the dust from the narrow, trampled, hidden roads and powdered with it the wayside growth. It murmured past the Tabernacle Church, and the burned house of Chancellorsville, and Dowdall's Tavern and the old Wilderness Tavern, by Catherine Furnace and along the old Turnpike and the Plank Road. It bore with it the usual sounds of the Wilderness by night and it bore also, this May as last May, the hum of great armies, not roused yet, not furiously battling, but murmurous — a dreamy, not unrestful sound adding itself to the region's natural voice.

A group of officers, sitting by the embers of a camp-fire, listened to the two voices, and watched the pale light along the northern horizon. "It's like the lights of a distant city over there."

"A hundred and forty thousand men make a city. . . . Not so distant either."

"Grant! I never met him in the old Mexican days, — nor after-wards. He went pretty far down. But I have met a man or two who knew him, and they liked him — a bulldog, reticent, tenacious kind of person —"

"Very good soldierly qualities — especially when backed by one hundred and forty thousand men with promise of all reinforcements needed! — Heigho!"

"He had a kind of rough chivalry, also, — consideration, simplicity. Sincere, too —" He stirred the embers with his scabbard point. "Well! we've got a job before us now."

"We've won, once before, in this place."

"The fourth of May! Last fourth of May it was Stonewall Jack-son — lying over there by Dowdall's Tavern — with just a week to live. Stuart —"

"It's come to a question of figures. If they can keep on doubling us in number, if they can add and add reinforcements and we can-not, if they have made up their minds to stand all the killing necessary, then, with a determined general, it is not impossible that after years of trying they may get between us and Richmond."

"They may eventually. I don't think they will do it this campaign."

"No. I reckon not —"

The group fell silent, looking out upon the waves of wooded land and the light on the horizon. "I was through, here," said one at last, "ten years ago. I was riding with a farmer — a young man — and I remember that I said it was like a region that had gone to sleep in its cradle and never waked up, and he said that that was what was the matter with it — that nothing ever happened here! I wonder —"

"Don't wonder. What 's the use?"

"It's a strange world!"

"Strange! That's the thing about the universe I think of most at night — how queer it is ! "

"Unity! That's what they teach — all the philosophers! And yet a unity that tears its own flesh —"

"Sometimes unity does that very thing. I've seen a man do it." "Yes, when he was distraught!"

"That's what I say. You can nearly go mad at night, thinking how mad we all are!"

"Don't think. At least not now. You can't afford it."

"I agree with Cary. There's a time to think and a time not to think. The less the soldier thinks the better."

"Think!" said Fauquier Cary. "No one ever thinks in war. The soldier looks at his enemy, and then he looks at his murdering piece, and then instinctively he discovers the best position — or what seems to him the best position — from which to fire it. And then he reloads, and he looks again at the enemy, and instinct does the job for him once more — and so on, ad infinitum. But he never thinks." He rose and stood, warming his one hand. "If he did that, you know, there'd be no war!"

"And would that be a good thing ? "

"It depends," said Cary, "on what you call a good thing. — Listen! Jeb Stuart and his cavalry, moving on the old Turnpike —"

The grey soldiers, too, had their camp-fires. The light of these flared, to the eyes of the blue, on the southern horizon. Here like-wise was the effect of the lights of a city — a smaller city, a city of sixty thousand. But when you were actually back of the pickets, in the camps, it was not like a city. It was only dusky lights here and there in the midst of shadows, only camp-fires in the Wilderness. The grey men scattered around them, resting after rapid marching, were in an eve-of-battle mood. Eve-of-battle mood meant tenseness, sudden jocularity, sudden silences, a kind of added affectionateness between brothers and intimates, often masked by brusqueness, a surreptitious consideration, a curious, involuntary "in honour preferring one another." Even among the still at this hour very busy people, the generals cogitating orders, the aides and couriers standing waiting or setting out with their messages, the ordnance train people, the movers of guns from one point to another, the ambulance folk, the drivers of belated wagons, the cavalry patrols, eve-of-battle feeling was apparent. But it was most in force in the resting army. Eve-of-battle mood had many ingredients. Among them was to be found in the cup of many the ingredient of fear. Men hid it, but it was there. It fell on the heart at intervals, fell like a cold finger tap, like the icy drop of water falling at intervals, hour after hour, on the brow of the tortured in an old dungeon. When the battle was here it would disappear; always the amount of it lessened in constant ratio to the approach of the firing. The first volley — except in the case of the coward — dissipated it quite. With some the drop was heavier and more insistent than with others, but there were few, indeed, who had not at some time felt that cold and penetrating touch. It was only a thing of intervals; it came and went, and between its comings one was gay enough. There had long ago ceased the fear of what it could do to one. It was not pleasant — neither was sea-sickness — but the voyage would be made. The Army of Northern Virginia knew that it was going to fight. The world knows that it fought as have fought few armies.

A company lying upon the earth in a field of cedars began to sing.

"We're tenting to-night on the old campground!
Give us a song to cheer —"

"That's too mournful!" said a neighbouring company. "Tell the Louisianians to sing the `Marseillaise.'"

"Many are the hearts that are weary tonight! Wishing for the war to cease; Many are the hearts that are looking for the right, To see the dawn of peace.

"Tenting to-night, tenting tonight,
Tenting on the old camp-ground.

As always, eve-of-battle, there was going on a certain redding up. Those who had haversacks plunged deep within them, gathered certain trifles together and tied them into a small bundle with a pencilled direction. Diaries were brought up very neatly and care-fully to date. Entries closed with "Battle tomorrow!" or with This time to-morrow night much will have happened "; or some-times with such things as "Made up my quarrel with Wilson to-day"; or "Returned the book I borrowed from Selden"; or "Read a psalm and a chapter to-day"; or "Wrote home." Eve-of-battle saw many letters written. There was a habit, too, of destroying letters received and garnered. Here and there a man sat upon a log and tore into little bits old, treasured sheets. The flecks lay like snow upon the earth of the Wilderness.

"We're tired of war on the old camp-ground
Many are dead and gone. . . .

"We're tenting tonight on the old camp-ground,
Tenting tonight, tenting tonight.
Tenting tonight on the old camp-ground."

All the spirit of this army was graver than it had been a year ago, than it had been six months ago. During the past winter a strong religious fervour had swept it. This evening, in the Wilderness, in many a command there was prayer and singing of hymns. Swaths of earth, black copses of cedar and gum, divided one congregation from another. One was singing while another prayed; the hymns were different, but the wide night had room for all — for the hymns and for "Tenting to-night," and for the "Marseillaise" which now Hays's Louisianians were singing. All blended into some-thing piteous, something old and touching, and of a dim nobility. The pickets out in the deep night listened.

"Just as I am, without one plea
Save that thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!"

A soldier, standing picket and hearing the singing behind a dusky wave of earth, had his doubts. "If we really come to him—if the Yankees over there really came to him — if we both came, why, — there would n't be any battle to-morrow. . . . Seeing that he said, `Love your enemy' — which if everybody did presently there'd be no enemy — no more than an icicle in the sun." He sighed and shifted his musket. "They think they mean what they're singing, but they don't —"

Relieved, he sought his mess and the corner of leaves and boughs in which they meant to sleep. Before lying down he spoke to the man next him. " John, I've got a letter and a little bit of package here that I want you to keep. I am going to be killed to-morrow."

"No, you ain't!"

"Yes, I am. I am positively certain of it. I am going to be killed about noon."

"You've just got one of those darned presentiments, and half the time they don't come to nothing!"

"This one will. You take the letter and the little bit of pack-age. I am going to be killed tomorrow, about noon." And he was killed.

Night grew old. The flare of the cities sank away; tattoo beat, then, after a little, taps. The Wilderness lay awake. She communed with her own heart. But the men whom she harboured slept. Night passed, the stars paled, pure and cool and fresh came on the dawn — wild roses in the east, in a field of forget-me-not blue. Shrill and sweet, near and remote, a thousand bugles blew reveille in the Wilderness.

Ewell and A. P. Hill moved westward, deeper into the Wilderness. Longstreet, marching from the south side of the James, was not yet up, though known to be approaching. About breakfast time an artillery officer came upon a small fire, and bending over it, stiffly, being wooden-legged, General Ewell, a first-rate cook and proud of it. He insisted on giving the other a cup of coffee.

"Is there any objection, sir," said the officer, after drinking, "to our knowing what are orders ? "

"No, sir, — none at all, — just the orders I like! To go right down the Plank Road and strike the enemy wherever I find him!"

He found him, in the person of the Fifth Corps, near Locust Grove, at the noon hour. The battle of the Wilderness began, — a vast infantry battle, fought in thick woods, woods so thick that in those coverts of dwarf pine and oak artillery could not be used, so thick that an officer could not see his whole line, so thick that the approach of troops was often known only by the noise of their movement through the scrub, or, as night came down, by the light from the mouths of the muskets. This was the battle of the first day, and it was long and sanguinary and indecisive. Corps of Ewell and Hill — corps of Hancock and Warren and Sedgwick fought it. Ewell gained and held an advantage, but Wilcox and Heth of Hill's had a desperate, exhausting struggle with Hancock's men. Poague's battalion of artillery strove to help, but artillery in the Wilderness could do little. Six divisions charged Heth and Wilcox. They held their own, but they barely held it. When darkness fell and the thunders were stilled there came a promise that during the night they should be relieved. Resting upon it, they built a rude breastwork, and then, worn out, dropped upon the earth and slept.

Lee sent a courier on a swift horse to meet Longstreet and order a night march. At one o'clock of a starlit night the latter took the road, and at daylight of the sixth he came to Parker's Store, on the edge of the Wilderness, three miles behind Hill's line of battle, and as he came he heard the roar of battle upon this front.

Hancock fell in the grey light on Heth and Wilcox. The Wilderness echoed the musketry and the shouting. It was a furious onslaught, for a time a furious answer — and then Wilcox's line, exhausted, decimated, broke and rolled in confusion down the Orange Plank Road. When the men reached Poague's artillery they made a wavering stand. The guns, crashing into battle, did what they might to help. But Hancock's shouting lines came on. A furious musketry fire burst in the face of the guns, a leaden rain hard pelting from just across the road, the drops falling thick and fast among the guns and the gunners and a company of mounted officers behind. The grey infantry, exposed to volley after volley, broke again; all the place became a troubled grey sea, cross-waves and confusion.

Lee rode out from the group of officers. "Rally, men, rally!" he cried. "General Longstreet is coming!

" O Marse Robert ! O Marse Robert !"

The boisterous rain came and came again from the coverts of the Wilderness. Hancock's men shouted loudly. They saw the grey overthrow. "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" they shouted.

Lee rose in his stirrups. "Rally, Army of Northern Virginia! —"

"Longstreet ! Longstreet!"

Double-column and double-time, Longstreet came down the Plank Road. Deploying, Kershaw came into line under fire to the right. Deploying, Field swung across on the left. "Charge, Kershaw!" ordered Longstreet. Kershaw charged, and flung back the shouting blue advance; Field, on the left, advancing at a run, swept past the smoking guns and Lee, sitting Traveller. Gregg's Texans were in front. "General Lee! General Lee!" they shouted. Lee lifted his hat, and then he spurred grey Traveller and kept beside the Texans.

"He's going in with them!" exclaimed an aide. "He mustn't do that!"

Gregg turned his head. "General Lee, you must n't go with us! We can't allow that, sir!"

Now the men saw, too. "Do you mean — No, no! that won't do! General Lee to the rear!"

"But, men —"

There rose a cry. "We won't go on unless you go back! General Lee to the rear ! "

A man took hold of Traveller's bridle and turned him.

On dashed the Texans — eight hundred of them. They went now through open field, now through pines. They struck Webb's brigade of Hancock's corps. Blue and grey, there sprang a roar of musketry. Four hundred of the eight hundred fell, lay dead or wounded; then with a loud and long cry there swept to the aid of Gregg, Benning's Texans, Georgia, and Alabama. Law and Benning and Gregg pushed back the blue.

For hours it was the tug of war. Blue and grey they swayed and swung and the Wilderness howled with the conflict. Smoke mounted. The firing waxed until sound was no more discrete but continuous. Although it was not night the Wilderness grew dark. And beneath the solid roof of smoke and sound men lay gasping on mother earth, dyeing the grass with their blood, plucking with their fingers at strengthless stems, putting out their tongues where there was no moisture, biting the dust. In the sick brain, to and fro, went the words "This is the end," and "Why? 0 God, why?

The blue left rested south of the Plank Road. With four brigades under Mahone, Longstreet began a turning movement. It succeeded. Mahone struck the blue, flank and rear, while Longstreet hurled other troops against their front. The blue line crumpled up, surged in confusion back upon the Brock Road. The noise grew heavier, the Wilderness darker.

And then occurred one of those things called coincidences. One year ago a very great general had been given death in the WiIderness by a mistaken volley from his own men. Now on this day in the Wilderness a general, not so great, but able, and necessary that day to the grey fortunes, rode with a brigade which he was about to place in line, through the wood alongside the Plank Road. The wood was thick and the road wound. Longstreet, with him Generals Jenkins and Kershaw, pressed forward through the oak scrub, torn and veiled with smoke, and now in many places afire. All the air was now so thick, it was hard in that wild place to tell friend from foe. As had done Lane's North Carolinians last year, so this year did Mahone's men. They saw or felt the approach of a column, whose colour they could not see; some command parallel with the moving troops chanced just then to deliver fire; Mahone's men thought that the shots came from the approaching body, hardly outlined as it was in the murk. They answered with a volley. Jenkins was killed, and Longstreet severely wounded.

"What are you doing? What are you doing?" shouted Kershaw; and at last grey understood that it was grey.

Says the artillery officer, Robert Stiles, who has been quoted before: "I observed an excited gathering some distance back of the lines, and, pressing toward it, I heard that General Longstreet had just been shot down and was being put into an ambulance. I could not learn anything definite as to the character of his wound, but only that it was serious — some said that he was dead. When the ambulance moved off, I followed it for a little way. . . . The members of his staff surrounded the vehicle, some riding in front, some on one side and some on the other, and some behind. One, I remember, stood upon the rear step of the ambulance, seeming to desire to be as near him as possible. I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen more deeply distressed. They were literally bowed down with grief. All of them were in tears. One, by whose side I rode for some distance, was himself severely hurt, but he made no allusion to his wound, and I do not believe that he felt it. . . . I rode up to the ambulance and looked in. They had taken off Longstreet's hat and coat and boots. The blood had paled out of his face, and its somewhat gross aspect was gone. I noticed how white and dome-like his great fore-head looked and, with scarcely less reverent admiration, how spot-less white his socks, and his fine gauze undervest, save where the black red gore from his breast and shoulder had stained it. . . . His eyelids frayed apart till I could see a delicate line of blue between them, and then he very quietly moved his unwounded arm, and with his thumb and two fingers carefully lifted the saturated undershirt from his chest, holding it up a moment, and heaved a deep sigh."

The grey attack, disorganized by Longstreet's fall, hung in the wind, until Lee came up and led it on. But time had been lost, and though much was done, it was not that which might have been done. The blue were behind long lines of log breastworks on the Brock Road. Again and again the grey beat against these. At times they took this work or that, but could not hold it. Along the front of one command the breastwork caught fire. The blue fought to put it out, but could not; flame and smoke made a barrier alike to grey or blue. On the Plank Road, Burnside fell upon Law's Alabamians and a Florida brigade, but Heth came up and with Alabama and Florida thrust back Burnside. At sunset, though the sun could not be seen in the Wilderness, Ewell flung Gordon with Pegram and Hays against the Federal right. The assault was well planned and deter-mined to desperation. The blue right was driven as had been the blue left in the morning. The sun sank, black night came, and the battle closed. There lay in the Wilderness perhaps two thousand dead in grey and five thousand wounded. There lay in the Wilderness more than two thousand dead in blue and twelve thousand wounded. There were three thousand in blue captured or missing. There were fifteen hundred grey prisoners.

Night was not so black in all parts of the Wilderness. In parts it was fearfully red. The Wilderness was afire. Pine and oak scrub and the dry leaves beneath and the sedge in open places, — they flared like tow. They flared where the battle had been fought; they flared where were the wounded. Here and there in the Wilderness arose a horrible crying. Volunteers and volunteers, blue and grey, companies of volunteers, plunged into the smoke, among the red tongues. They did what the fire would let them do. They brought out many and many and many. But an unknown number of hundreds were burned to death.

All day the seventh they skirmished. The night of the seventh the blue, weary of the Wilderness, moved with swiftness southeast toward Spottsylvania Court-House. "Get so between him and Richmond," said Grant, as at Dalton Sherman was saying, "Get so between him and Atlanta." But as Johnston moved on inner lines and with more swiftness than Sherman, so Lee moved on inner lines and with more swiftness than Grant. Flexible as a Toledo blade was the grey army. With the noise of the blue column on the Brock Road sprang almost simultaneously the sound of the grey column moving cross-country and then by the Shady Grove Road. Grant, bent on "swinging past" Lee, came to Spottsylvania in the bright morning light of the eighth of May, to find Jeb Stuart drawn across the Brock Road; behind him the First Corps.

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