( Originally Published Early 1900's )
FOR ages and ages, water, ceaselessly streaming, ceaselessly seeping, through and over the calcareous silt, had furrowed the region until now there was a medley and labyrinth of narrow ravines and knife-blade ridges. Where the low grounds opened out it was apparently only that they might accommodate bayous, or some extension of a bayou, called by courtesy a lake. Along these the cane was thick, and backward from the cane rose trees and trees and trees, all draped with Spanish moss. It had been a rainy winter, a winter of broken banks and slow, flooding waters. Sloughs strayed through the forest; there was black mire around cypress and magnolia and oak. The growth in the ravines was dense, that upon the ridges only less so. From Vicksburg, northward for several miles, great clearings had recently been made. Here, from the Upper Batteries above the town to Haynes Bluff on the Yazoo, stretched grey field-works, connected by rifle-pits.
Chickasaw Bayou, sullen and swollen, curved away from the scarped hills and the strip of forest. On the other side of Chickasaw, and of that width of it known as McNutt's Lake, there was shaking ground level enough, but sodden, duskily overgrown, and difficult. This stretched to the Yazoo.
Down the Mississippi from Memphis came Sherman with thirty thousand blue infantry. They came in transports, in four flotillas, and in front went Porter's Gunboat Squadron. Grant had planned the campaign. With the forces which had been occupying south-western Tennessee, he himself was at Oxford. He would operate by land, overwhelming or holding in check Pemberton's eighteen thou-sand at Grenada. In the mean time Sherman, descending the Mississippi to the mouth of the Yazoo, some miles above Vicksburg and its river batteries, should ascend that stream, flowing as it did not far to the northward of the doomed town; ascend the Yazoo, disembark the thirty thousand, and with a sudden push take Vicksburg in the rear. It was known that there were but five thousand troops in the place.
The plan was a good plan, but Van Dorn disarranged it. Grant, his base of supplies at Holly Springs captured and all his stores destroyed, was compelled to fall back toward Memphis. He sent an order to Sherman, countermanding the river expedition, but Sher-man had started and was well down the vast yellow stream, the gunboats going ahead.
On the twenty-third of December these entered the Yazoo, to be followed, three days later, by four flotillas. There ensued several days of Federal reconnoitring. The Yazoo, not so tortuous as the great stream into which it flowed, was yet tortuous enough, and in places out of banks, while the woods and swamps on either side were confusing, wild, and dark. Necessary as it may have been, the procedure militated against taking a city by surprise. The grey had notice of the gunboats, and of the trail of flotillas.
Pemberton acted with promptness and judgment. Grant was not so far away that the forces at Grenada could be utterly weakened, but the brigades of Barton, Vaughn, and Gregg were detached at once for Vicksburg. There, on the line from the sandbar north of the town to Haynes Bluff, they joined the provisional division of Stephen D. Lee. The position was strong. The grey held the ridges crowned by field-works and rifle-pits. Before them spread the dark, marsh-ridden bottom land, crept through, slow and deep, by Chickasaw Bayou. They had greatly the advantage of position, but there were, on the strip between the Yazoo and the Walnut Hills, four men in blue to one in grey. At the last moment, in answer to a representation from General Martin Luther Smith, commanding the defences at Vicksburg, an additional regiment was despatched from Grenada. It chanced to be the -th Virginia Infantry.
The night was cold, very dark, and pouring rain. Vicksburg had been reached at dusk. There seemed no soldiers here. "Everybody 's out toward McNutt's Lake. Reckon you're wanted there, too!" The th Virginia found at last the man to report to, upon the heels of which event, without having tasted supper or experienced warmth, it discovered itself on the road to Chickasaw Bayou. "On the road" is merely a figure of speech. The regiment concluded that some time in the Bronze Age there might have been a road, but that since then it had been washed away. This was the Mud Age.
In the pitchy dark, the chill, arrowy rain, the men stumbled along. Except for an occasional order, an occasional exclamation, impatient groan, long-drawn sigh, there was silence. They had some miles to go. To keep step was out of the question.
Edward Cary, closing his file, moved with a practised, light steadiness. His body was very supple, fine, with long clean lines. From head to heel he was in order, like a Greek runner. Spare and worn and tired like all the rest, he kept at all times a certain lift and poise as though there were wings upon his cap.
He was not like Richard Cleave. He had little innate feeling for War, intuitive understanding of all its phases. Being with all his people plunged deep, deep within it, he played his part there bravely enough. He served his native land, and her need and woe dwelt with him as it dwelt with all his world, both men and women. Much of him, perforce, was busy with the vast and mournful stage. But he found himself not truly at home with the war-drums and the wailing, with smell of blood and smoke, weight of shot-riddled banners, trampled faces. He was born for beauty and her worship, for spacious order and large harmony, and for months now there had been war and agony and smell of blood and sight of pale, twisted faces for long months only that. And then somehow, accidentally it seemed, he had rubbed the lamp. Only ten days ago oh, light and warmth and harmony! Oh, the strange and sweet in combination! Oh, serene spaces for the mind! Oh, golden piping and beckoning to emotions not stern! Oh, the deepest, oldest wine! Oh, by the oddest, simplest chance, sudden as a wind from Heaven, intimacy warm and fragrant with the Only-Dreamed-Of, the Never-Found-Before! Oh, in a word, the love of Dιsirιe Gaillard!
He was marching through the dark night, the mire, the cold, the wet. Certain centres of consciousness, no doubt, knew them all, knew hunger, cold, weariness. But the overman, the Lover, moved through rose-scented dusk, through intricate, sweet thoughts, in some imaged Vale of Cashmere. Only not at all, not at all could he banish anxiety as to the Beloved's well-being.
About him, in the night, was the tramp, tramp of other weary feet, the dim sight and sound of other weary bodies, cold, wet, thinly clad. Most of these men in the darkness thought, perhaps, of beings far away from these labyrinthine ridges and hollows. Many a soldier warmed his heart by the fires of home, dreamed as he marched of lover, wife, or child. But the thoughts were shot with pain and the dreams were bitter sweet. No man in a Southern army could take comfort in the thought that whatever of want and strain and boding might obtain where he moved, ragged, through the darkness, all was well at home comfort there, warmth and food there, ease of heart there! Many knew that at home there was immediate suffering; others, that while the board was spread to-night, yet the dark sail of privation grew larger and larger. All knew that there was little, little ease of heart. Marching through the rainy night they carried with them, heavier than musket and haversack, the ache of all at home, as, upon this night, all at home felt cold and gaunt with the marching, marching armies. Yet the South at home managed to keep a high head and a ready smile, and the South in the field managed a jest, a laugh, a song. At home and in the field vast need and stress lifted the man, lifted the woman, lifted the child. Some one in the Virginia, moving out to Chickasaw Bayou, began to sing jerkily
"Old Dan Tucker!
The regiment climbed another of the innumerable mole-hills, all stumps of recently felled trees, and between, tenacious and horrible mud. The far side was worse than the near, and the bottom land, when finally they slipped and slid and wavered down upon it, proved mere quagmire. Here they found, deeply mired, two sections of artillery, bound as they were bound and struggling with the night. Gun wheels were sunken above the axle-tree; it seemed a mud burial, a question of never getting out. One heard straining gun teams, chattering negro drivers. There were torches, saffron blurs of light, hissed against by the rain, moving up and down like dejected will-o'-the-wisps.
Infantry came up. "Halfway to China, aren't you ? Want us to lend a hand ?"
"Thank you, boys! William, tell those mules to pull harder."
" What are you doing with mules ? Has it come to mule artillery? " "Well, it's coming to so many things! We're Army of Tennessee Stevenson's division come down to help hold the Mississippi River. Right big eel, isn't it ? Rushed through two sections, Anderson's battery from Jackson. Horses yet on the road. Impressed mules. Lieutenant Norgrove, tell those darkies there's a watermelon field in front of them and `paterollers' behind! Pull there ! pull!"
The howitzer came slowly up from halfway to China, the Napoleon followed, infantry encouraging. "You've trained your mules quick! That gun came from the Tredegar, did n't it ? Artillery 's a mighty no-account arm, but you sort of somehow grow fond of it "
"Aren't you all Virginia ?"
"Yes; Virginia. Are n't you all "
"Of course we are! Botetourt. Anderson's battery. What's the matter, Plecker ?"
"Firing ahead, sir, and those negroes are getting ready to stampede "
There broke and increased a wild night-time sputter of minies. Panic took the chance medley of negroes. They sprang from the horses, paid no heed to appeal or threat, twisted themselves from clutching hands, and vanished into darkness. Artillery, infantry helping, got the guns on somehow. Amid a zip zip zip of minies both arms came to a grey breastwork where Stephen D. Lee was walking up and down behind a battery already placed.
The dull light and rattle of skirmishes in the night died away. With it died, too, the rain. The dawn came spectrally, with a mist over McNutt's Lake. One of Sherman's division commanders had received orders to bridge this water during the night. Over the mournful, water-logged land the pontoons were brought from the Yazoo. Standing in the chill water, under the sweep of rain the blue engineers and their men worked courageously away, but when dawn came the pale light discovered the fact that they had not bridged the lake at all, but merely a dim, Briareus arm of the bayou, wandering off into the forest. They took up the pontoons, moved down the shore to the widening of the water, and tried again. But now the water was too wide. There were not boats enough, and while they were making a raft, the wood across McNutt's filled with men, grey as the dawn. Tawny-red broke the flames from the sharpshooters' rifles. A well-placed Confederate battery began, too, to talk, and the lake was not bridged.
Barton's brigade had come down to occupy the wood. When the bridge builders were driven away, it fell back to the high ground crested with slight works, seamed with rifle-pits, where were Vaughn and Gregg and Stephen D. Lee. Across the bayou the blue began to mass. There was a strip of corduroy road, a meagre bridge spanning the main bayou, then a narrow encumbered front, muck and mire and cypress stumps, and all the felled trees thrown into a grey abatis. The blue had as many divisions as the grey had brigades, but the grey position was very strong. On came the dull, December day, - raw, cold, with a lowering sky.
The blue, assaulting force, the blue reserves, the division commanders, drew shoulders together, brows together, and looked across and upward doubtfully enough at the bluffs they were expected to take. Wade the bayou, break through the cane, cross that narrow front of brush and morass, attack at the apex of a triangle whose base and sides were held by an unknown number of desperate Rebels defending Vicksburg, a place that had got the name for obstinacy! the blue troops and their generals, however hard they tried, could not at all visualize success. All the prospect, the opposite height and the small grey batteries, the turbid, winding waters and the woods so strange to Northern eyes, - all was hostile, lowering. Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa drew uneasy breath, it was so sinister a place!
An officer came from Sherman to the senior division commander. "General Sherman says, sir, that you will order the assault." "It 's a bad place "
"Yes. He says we will lose five thousand men before we take Vicksburg and that we might as well lose them here as anywhere."
"All right. We'll lose them all right. Tell him I'll give the signal."
A grey rifle-pit, dug along the face of the hill, had received since dawn the attention of blue sharpshooters stationed in a distant mw of moss-draped trees. The bottom of the long trench was all slippery mud, the sides were mud, the out-thrown, heaped earth atop was mud. Rest a rifle barrel upon it and the metal sank as into water. The screen of scrub along the forward rim was drenched, broken, insufficient. Through it the men in the pit looked out on a sodden world. They saw a shoulder of the hill where, in the early light, the caisson of an isolated gun had been exploded by a Federal shell. Horses and men lay beside it, mangled. Farther away yet, and earlier yet, they had seen a reconnoitring party enter a finger of land crooking toward the Federal lines, and beyond the cover of the grey guns. The blue, too, had seen, and thrusting forward a regiment cut off the grey party. The bulk of the latter hewed its way through, back to the shelter of the grey Parrotts, but there were officers and men left wounded in the wood. The day was gloomy, gloomy! The smoke from Stephen Lee's guns and from the answering Federal batteries hung clogged and indiffusible, dark and hard.
"Somebody's going to get hurt this day," said the men in the rifle-pits. "There ain't any joke about this place."
"Do you know I think they're going to charge us? Just as brave as they are foolish!"
"I don't think much of Sherman's capacities as a general. Grant 's the better man."
"They're getting ready. Well, I always did hate waste, what-ever colour it was dressed in!"
"My God! Even their bugles don't sound cheerful!
Chickasaw Chickasaw Bayou
Edward Cary, loading his rifle, had the cartridge knocked from between his fingers by the swaying against him of the man on the right. He moved, and the corpse slid softly down upon the miry bottom of the pit.
The man on the left began to talk, a slow, quiet discourse not at all interfering with eye or hand. "Western troops, I reckon! They've always the best sharpshooters. Is he dead? I'm sorry. I liked Abner. He had an application in for furlough. Wife ill after the baby was born, and the doctor writing that there might be a chance to save her mind if she could see Abner. Told me last night he was sure he'd get the furlough. Can you see for those damned bushes? There's a perfectly hellish fuss down there."
" The guns echo so. Here they come! And God knows I am sorry for them for Abner here and Abner there! Martin, I hate War."
"It ain't exactly Christian, and it's so damned avoidable. The baby died, and I reckon his wife and she was a sweet, pretty girl 'U go to the Asylum at Williamsburg "
"Here they come! Here they come! Here they come!" .. . Fire !
At last the dreadful repulse was over. Shattered, disorganized, in sullen and horrible confusion, Sherman's brigades, the four that had charged, sank downward and back, a torn and beaten blue wave, into the dark forest beyond the bayou, the bayou whence they had come. In the water, in the mire and marsh and swamp, beside the sloughs in the forest, through the wild tangle of the abatis, over the narrow cleared ground, at the foot of the bluffs they had tried to storm, lay thick the dead and wounded. They did not number Sherman's "five thousand," but then neither was Vicksburg taken. The blue had charged without order, all formation broken, forced together in a narrow space, and they had rolled, a broken flood, back upon the dark bayou. As the rain had fallen in the night-time, so now fell the grey shot and shell, and they were beaten down like wheat beneath hail. The chill air was filled with whistling. The pall of the smoke added itself to the pall of the clouds. It was like fighting under a great and dingy tent with the stark cypress trees for tent poles. By the closing-down of day the desperately defeated had rolled back toward the Yazoo. Their dead and dying strewed the tent floor.
If there was relief and exultation on the heights it found no strenuous voice. The dreariness of the day and place, the streaming wet and sighing wind somehow forbade. The grey loss was slight enough two hundred men, perhaps, in killed and wounded. Some lay within or below the rude works, some upon the hillside and the low ground where there had been a countercharge, some down by the abatis, fallen before the pursuit was recalled. It had been idle really to pursue. Sherman had thirty thousand, and the gunboats. A detachment or two streamed down, over the fatal and difficult ground, dislodging from a momentary shelter some fragment of the blue wave, cutting off and taking prisoner. Occasional thunder came from a battery, or a crack of rifles shook the clinging gloom. But the atmosphere deadened the sound, and the rain came down again fine and cold, and though the grey soldiers had reason for cheer and tried their best, it was but a makeshift glee. They had known hot joy in battle and would know it again, but it did not haunt the fight of Chickasaw Bayou.
There were yet the wounded that the reconnoitring party had left behind in the twilight wood. Volunteers were called for to bring them in. The wood crooked toward the enemy's lines, might at any moment be overflowed by the blue. Edward was among those who stood forward. The lieutenant of the other night beside the Yallabusha raised his brows. "Don't volunteer too often," he said. "There's no promotion in a trench with a hundred others! Fur-loughs can be too long."
In the dusk the platoon went zigzagging down into the wood by the bayou. It went through the zone of Federal wounded. "Oh, you people! take us up; take us out of this! 0 God God0 God! Water!" To the last cry neither grey nor blue in this war failed to answer when they could. Despite all need for haste and caution there were halts now, canteen or cup held to thirsty lips, here or there a man helped nearer to muddy pool or stream. "Take us up take us out of this!"
The grey shook their heads. "Can't do that, Yanks. We would if we could, but we're sent to get our own. Reckon your side 'll be sending a flag of truce directly and gather you up. Oh, yes, they will! We would if we could. You charged like hell and fought first-rate!"
"Silence, men! Get on!"
It was dusk enough in the wood which they finally reached. The bayou went through it crookedly, and from the other side of the water came the hum of Sherman's troubled, recriminatory thou-sands. They were so close that orders might be heard and the tread of the sentries. The men in grey broke rank, moved, two and two, cautiously through the cane looking for the wounded. The cane grew thick, and for all it was so sodden wet might be trusted here or there for a crackling sound. The trees grew up straight from black mud. They were immensely tall and from their branches hung yards and yards of moss, like tatters of old sails or like shrivelled banners in a cathedral roof. Large birds sat, too, upon the higher limbs, watching. Beneath lay killed and wounded, a score or so of forms half sunk in the universal swamp. The searchers left the dead, but where there was life in a figure they laid hold of it, head and feet, and bore it, swiftly and silently as might be, out of the wood, back to the rising, protected ground.
Edward and the man with him found an officer lying between huge knees of cypress. The cane walled him in, a hand and arm hung Ianguid in the dark water. Kneeling, Edward felt the heart. "He's far and far away, but there's a chance, perhaps. Take the feet."
Half an hour later, by a great camp-fire behind a battery, surgeons and helpers took these wounded from the hands of the men who had gone after them.
Stephen D. Lee and General Seth Barton were standing by. "Thank God," said the former, "for a small field hospital! After Sharpsburg ugh!"
A major of Wither's brigade walked slowly between the rows. "It was the -th Louisiana cut off in the wood. There's an officer or two missing -"
"This is an officer, sir," said Edward. "He was living when we lifted him "
General Barton came across. "He is not living now. A handsome man! ... He lies there so stately. . . . A captain."
Edward held out his hand in it an envelope. "This fell from his coat, sir. The bullet went through it " The movement brought hand and letter into the ruddy light. Involuntarily he uttered an exclamation. "It is addressed to me!"
The major rose from his knees. "Quite dead. . . . And you would have called him Fortune's favorite. It is Louis Gaillard from down the river Cape Jessamine."