Road To Washington
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
STEVE had had no intention whatever of rejoining the army. And yet here he was, embodied again in the Sixty-fifth, and moving, ordinary time, on Staunton! How it had happened he could hardly have related. Weariness of life on Thunder Run, where of late he had begun to dislike even Christianna Maydew, uncertainty as to whether the Yankees might not return and sweep it clean, in which case his skin might be endangered, a kind of craving hunger for company and variety and small adventure, coupled with memories of much of the same, a certain pale home-sickness, after all, for the regiment, a conviction that battles were some distance off, probably clear to the other end of the Val-ley, and that straggling before such an event was only a matter of watching your opportunity, all this and a ragged underweb of emotionalism brought Steve again to follow the drum. It is doubtful, however, if anything would have done so had he not by purest accident encountered his sometime colonel.
Cleave, riding along the forming brigade in the first light, reached the Sixty-fifth. The regiment cheered him. He lifted his hat and came on down the line, an aide behind him. Steve, on the rim of a camp-fire built by recruits of this year who knew not the Sixty-fifth of the past, tried to duck, but his general saw him. He spoke to the aide. "Tell that man to come here."
Steve limped forward with scared eyes, a cold dew upon hands and forehead. And after all, all that the general said was, "You are nettle and dock and burr by nature and anger has no meaning in dealing with you! Are you coming again with the Sixty-fifth?"
"Gawd, General! not if you think I'd better not, sir,"
"I?" said Cleave, "I will speak to your colonel about you. For the rest you can fire a musket." He smiled grimly. "Still that sore foot? Has it been sore all this time?"
"General, it's been sorer!'n' if you'd tell the men that they shan't act some of them so cold 'n' some of them so hot toward me?'n' I saved the life of them all only day before yesterday," Steve whimpered, "'n' yours, too, General."
"Thank you," said Cleave with gravity. "Fall in, nowand remember that your Captain's eye will be on you."
Fall in ! Fall in ! Fall in ! . . . Column forward !
Down the Valley Pike marched the Second Corps. Lexington Staunton Harrisonburg on and on upon the old, familiar road. "Howdy, Valley Pike," said the Second Corps. "Howdy, Old Lady! Missed us, have n't you ? We've missed you. We've thought of you thought of you in all kinds of tight places!
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang sync "'
"Don't seem to us you're looking well ragged and lonely and burned up and hewed down cheer up!
" `We'll take a cup of kindness yet '
Miles and miles and miles of old-time heat and dust and thirst ! Tramp, tramp! Tramp, tramp! Miles and miles. " There never were enough springs and streams on this road and old Miss War's done drunk 'those up! O Lord, for a river of buttermilk! "
The dust weighted down pokeberry and stickweed, alder, black-berry and milkweed. The old trim walls bounding the Valley Pike were now mere ruinous heaps of stones. The thousands of marching feet, the wheels, the hoofs furred these with dust. There were no wooden fences now of any description; there were few wayside trees, few wayside buildings. There were holes where the fence posts had been, and there were stumps of trees and there were blackened foundations where houses had been, and all these were yellowed and softened with dust. A long, thick, and moving wall, the dust accompanied the Second Corps.
The Second Corps was used to it, used to it in its eyes, its throat, down its neck, in its shoes, all over. The Second Corps was used to poor shoes and to half shoes used to uniforms whose best day was somewhere in past ages used to hunger used to thirst, thirst, thirst used to twenty miles, twenty miles in heat and glare, or in mud and rain, or in ice or snow used to the dust cloud, used to the storm, used to marching and marching, used to battling, used to a desperate war in a desperate land, used to singing, used to joking, used to despairing, used to hoping used to dusty marches! It was a long time since the dusty march by Ashby's Gap across to First Manassas. New Market, Mount Jackson, Edenburg, Wood-stock, Strasburg, Middletown, Kernstown on the second of July they came to Winchester. Sigel was at Martinsburg beyond.
Winchester was haggard, grey, and war-worn. How many times she had changed hands, passed from grey lover to blue master, it would be hard to tell. They were very many. Winchester had two faces, a proud and joyful and a depressed and sorrowful face. Today she wore the first.
On through Winchester, out upon the Pike to Martinsburg! There was skirmishing and Sigel quit the place, leaving behind him a deal of stores. That night he retired across the Potomac, to Mary-land Heights by Harper's Ferry, and the next day he burned the railroad and pontoon bridges at that place. The fifth and sixth of July the Second Corps crossed the river at Shepherdstown, crossed with loud singing.
"Come! 'T is the red dawn of the day, Maryland!"
Steve was with the Sixty-fifth still. He had meant to leave before they got to Martinsburg, but the occasion did not arise and the Sixty-fifth swept him on. He had meant to hide in Martinsburg and soberly wait until the Second Corps had disappeared in the direction of the Potomac, when he would emerge and turn his face home-ward. But in Martinsburg were the stores that Sigel had abandoned. Coffee, sugar, canned goods, wheat bread Steve supped with the regiment on the fat of the land. But it was his intention not to be present at roll-call next morning, and in pursuance of it he rolled, in the dark hour before dawn, out of the immediate encampment of the Sixty-fifth, down a little rocky lane and under the high-built porch of a small house of whitewashed stone. Here he lay until the first light. . . . It showed through the lattice of his hiding-place an overturned sutler's wagon. Steve, creeping out, crept across and with his arms that were lean and long, felt in the straw. The wagon had been looted and the tears nearly came to his eyes on finding it so. And then he came upon a bottle fallen from a case that had been taken away. It was champagne.
Reveille sounding, the Sixty-fifth rose in the dim light and while making its cursory toilette thought of breakfast with coffee with coffee with coffee ! Mess-fires burst into saffron bloom, the good smell of the coffee and of the sizzling bacon permeated the air, the Sixty-fifth came most cheerfully to breakfast. It sat down on the dewy earth around the fires, pleasant at this hour of the morning, it lifted its tin cups, blew upon the scalding coffee, sipped and sipped and agreed that life was good. Everybody was cheerful; at roll-call which immediately followed, everybody was present, in a full, firm tone of voice. Steve Dagg, filled with French courage, was most present.
French courage was still unevaporated when the column moved forward. Then, with a shock, it was too late he could n't get away they were crossing the Potomac
"I hear the distant thunder-hum, Maryland!
"Gawd! " thought Steve. "They got me at last! I can't get away I can't get back 'cross the river! Why 'd I drink that stuff that was like cider 'n' whistled me back jest as easy? Why 'd I leave Thunder Run ? They got me in a trap "
Maryland Heights was strongly fortified, too strongly for Breckinridge and Gordon, demonstrating against it, to drive out the blue forces. After a day Early swept on through the passes of South Mountain, toward Frederick, east and south of which town runs the Monocacy. On this stream there formed to meet the grey a portion of the blue Eighth Army Corps and Rickett's division of the Sixteenth Corps, six thousand men under General Lew Wallace.
There were earthworks and two blockhouses and they over-frowned the two bridges that crossed the Monocacy. Beyond these and on either side the blue lines, strongly seen in the clear, hot fore-noon, were fields with board fences and straw stacks, much stout fencing and many and closely ranged straw stacks. Through these fields ran the clear road to Washington, blocked now at the river by Wallace and his men.
Jubal Early sent McCausland across, who dismounted his cavalrymen and with them fell so furiously on the enemy's left flank that it broke. It gathered again and pushed McCausland back, where-upon Early sent across by the same ford Breckinridge with Gordon's division, Ramseur in the mean time skirmishing on the western bank with the blue's advanced front. Gordon attacked with his usual gallantry, King's and Nelson's artillery supporting. The blue centre broke and rolled back from the banks of Monocacy. Ramseur and Rodes now crossed with a shout, and at a double all grey troops swept forward.
Steve crossed Monocacy because he must, and climbed several fences because he saw that if he did n't he would be trampled. But in the straw field he fell, groaning. "Hit ?" asked the man beside him and was immediately gone, the regiment rushing forward.
Steve drew himself well behind a great straw stack, splitting the advance like a spongy Gibraltar. Here he found a more or less like-minded private from one of the Georgia regiments. This one had quite deeply burrowed, and Steve, noting the completeness of his retirement, tore out for himself a like cavern in the straw. Outside was shouting and confusion and smoke; in here was space at least in which to have a vision of the clear security of Thunder Run Mountain. "You wounded, too ?" proffered from behind a straw partition his fellow retirer.
"Yaas," answered Steve. "In the foot."
"I got hurt in the hip," said the other. "It's an old strain, and sometimes, when we're double-quicking, I'm liable to give out. The boys all know about it and make allowance. They all know I fight like the devil up to that point."
"Same here," said Steve. "I fight like a tiger, but now 'n' then comes along a time when a man 's under a moral necessity not to. When your foot gives under you you can't go on charging not if Napoleon Cζsar himself was there shoutin' about duty!"
"Them's my sentiments," said the other. "We're going to win this battle. I see it the way we looked going in. How do you feel about going on to Washington?"
"I've had my doubts," said Steve. "How do you feel ?"
"It's powerful rich and full of things to eat and drink and wear. But there'd be awful fighting getting in."
"That's the way I feel," said Steve. "Awful fightin' 'n' I don't "
An officer's sword invaded their dwelling-place. " Get out of here! What are you doing hiding here? Tie you in this rick and set fire to it, you damned skulkers! Get out and march ahead!" The flat of the sword descended vigorously.
Steve yelped and rubbed. "Gawd, Captain! don't do that! I got a hurt foot "
Much later, having been carried on the whole wagon train now crossing in a commissary wagon travelling light, he rejoined his brigade and regiment. He found the Sixty-fifth in a mood of jubilation bivouacked in the dusk Maryland countryside, with a glow yet in the west and the fireflies tinselling all the fields. Steve came in for supper, and between slow gulps of "real" coffee related an adventure in the straw field, marvellous as the "Three Turks' Heads." His mess was one of "left-overs," seven or eight of the stupid, the ne'er-do-weel or the slightly rascally sort, shaken together in the regiment's keen sifting of human nature. Totally incredulous, save for a deficient one or two, the mess yet found a place for Steve, if it were only the place of a torn leaf from a rather sorry jest-book. The ne'er-do-weel and the slightly rascally, most of whom were courageous enough, began to describe for his benefit the chevaux-de-frise of forts around Washington. They made Steve shiver. He went to bed frightened, and arose under the stars, still frightened.
This day, the tenth of July, the Second Corps marched twenty miles. The day was one of the hottest of a hot summer. Not the lightest zephyr lifted a leaf or dried the sweat on a soldier's brow. The dust of the Georgetown Pike rose thick and stifling until it made a broad and deep and thick and stifling cloud. There was little water to be had throughout the day. The Second Corps suffered profoundly. That night it lay in the fields by the roadside near Rockville. The night was smoking hot, and the men lay feverishly, moving their limbs and sighing, troubled with dreams. The bugles sounded under a copper dawn and they rose to an eleventh of July, hot, dust-clogged, and thirsty as had been the tenth.
There were sunstrokes this day, exhaustion from heat, a trail of involuntary stragglers, men limping in the rear, men sitting, head on knees, beneath the powdered wayside growth, men lying motionless in the ditch beside the road. Horses fell and died. There were many delays. But through all heat, great weariness, and suffering, Early, shrill-voiced and determined, urged the troops on upon the road to Washington. The troops responded. Something less than eight thousand muskets moved in the great dust of the pike, forty guns, and ahead, the four small cavalry brigades of McCausland, Imboden, W. L. Jackson, and Bradley Johnson. "- -!" said Early. "If we can't take it, at least we can give it a quaking fit! increase the peace clamour! It's worth while to see if we can get to the outer fortifications before they pour their - - numbers into them!"
The Second Corps marched fast, now by the Silver Spring Road, Imboden's cavalry ahead, Jackson's on the flank, full before them Fort Stevens, very visible in the distance, Washington. The men moistened their lips, talked, for all the dust in their throats, the blood beating in their temples, and the roaring in their ears. "Take it! Could we take it?" " By supernal luck a chance in a million if they were all asleep or dazed!" "Take it and end the war O God, if we could!" "Run up the Stars and Bars Play `Dixie' everywhere Live! at last live after four years of being born!" "Take Washington eight thousand of us and the cavalry and the twelve-pounder Napoleons " From the front broke out a long crackling fire. "Cavalry in touch cavalry in touch." Rodes's division, leading, came into line of battle. As it did so rose in the south between Fort Stevens and the city a great dust cloud. " - -!" said Early. "There is n't a plan or a cannon numbers won't spike! Skirmishers to the front!"
"Every prominent point," says a Federal officer, speaking of the Washington fortifications, - "every prominent point, at intervals of eight hundred to one thousand yards, was occupied by an enclosed field fort; every important approach or depression of ground, unseen from the forts, was swept by a battery for field-guns; and the whole connected by rifle trenches which were in fact lines of infantry parapets, furnishing emplacement for two ranks of men, and affording covered communication along the line, while roads were opened wherever necessary, so that troops and artillery could be moved rapidly from one point of the immense periphery to another, or under cover, from point to point along the line. The counterscarps were surrounded by abatis; bomb-proofs were provided in nearly all the forts; all guns, not solely intended for distant fire, placed in embrasures and well traversed. All commanding points on which an enemy would be likely to concentrate artillery . . . were subjected not only to the fire, direct and across, of many points along the line, but also from heavy rifled guns from points unattainable by the enemy's field-guns." There were twenty thousand blue troops, garrison and reserves, and in addition, at two o'clock of this day, began to arrive Ricketts's and Emory's divisions of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps, sent by Grant.
The eleventh and the twelfth there was heavy skirmishing. During these days the Second Corps saw that it could not take Washing-ton. The heat continued; now through quivering air, now through great dust clouds they saw the dome of the capitol. It was near, near! The Second Corps was closer to Washington than ever in this war had been the North to Richmond; it was very near, but there is the possible and there is the impossible, and it was not possible for the Second Corps to make entry. On the night of the twelfth it withdrew from before Washington and marching to the Potomac crossed by White's Ford into Loudoun County. Fifteen thousand blue troops pursued, but the grey crossed the river in safety. They crossed singing "Swanee River." It was the last sally of the beleaguered South forth upon the beleaguerer's ground. Henceforth, the battle thundered against the very inner keep of the fortress.
Marching through great dust and heat and glare and weariness back through Maryland to the Potomac, the Second Corps gathered up from the roadside and the byways and the hedges its stragglers, involuntary or otherwise. A dozen hours from Washington it gathered out of a cornfield Steve Dagg.