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Columbia

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE bells of the South had been melted and run into cannon, and yet there seemed a tolling of bells. Everywhere they tolled — louder and louder! — tolled the siege of Savannah, tolled Hatcher's Run in Virginia, tolled Fort Fisher in North Carolina and the blue bombarding ships — tolled solemnly and loudly, "The End is come!"

Forrest guarding, the haggard remnant of the Army of Tennessee crossed the river on the twenty-seventh of December. There was a council of war. Where to go to rest — recoup — reorganize? Southwest into Mississippi? Southwest they marched and on the tenth of January came to Tupelo. Hood asked to be relieved from command and was relieved, A. P. Stewart succeeding him. Later the army, now a small, war-worn force, went to fight in North Carolina. But Stevenson's division and a few other troops were sent into South Carolina to Hardee who, with less than fifteen thousand men, mostly in garrison at Charleston, was facing Sher-man and his sixty thousand, flushed from that March to the Sea which is described as "one long, glorious picnic," from the capture of Savannah, from the plaudits of the Northern press and the praise of Government. Now the idea that he should join Grant at Peters-burg having been laid aside, Sherman proposed to march northward through South Carolina.

The bells tolled loud in the South, tolled for the women in the night-time, tolled for the shrunken armies, tolled for the cities that waited, a vision before their eyes of New Orleans, Atlanta, Savannah, tolled for the beleaguered places where men watched in the trenches, tolled for the burned farmhouses, the burned villages, the lonely, blackened country with the gaunt chimneys standing up, tolled for famine, tolled for death, tolled for the broken-hearted, tolled for human passions let loose, tolled for anger, greed and lust, tolled for the shrunken good, tolled for the mounting ill, tolled for war! Through the South they tolled and tolled.

Beauregard took command in South Carolina. It was not known whether Sherman would move north and west upon Augusta, just over the Georgia line, or east to Charleston, or almost due north to Columbia. Late in January he moved from Savannah in ruins, crossed the flooded Savannah River by pontoon, entered South Carolina, and marched northward toward Columbia the capital of that state. It being a rainy season, and swamp and river out of bounds, he made not more than ten miles a day.

At this time one of his staff officers writes, "The actual invasion of South Carolina has begun. The well-known sight of columns of black smoke meets our gaze again." And another Federal officer, "There can be no doubt of the assertion that the feeling among the troops was one of extreme bitterness toward the people of South Carolina. It was freely expressed as the column hurried over the bridge at Sister's Ferry, eager to commence the punishment of the original Secessionists. Threatening words were heard from soldiers who prided themselves on conservatism in house-burning while in Georgia, and officers openly confessed their fears that the coming campaign would be a wicked one. Just or unjust as this feeling was toward the country people in South Carolina, it was universal. I first saw its fruits at Purisburg, where two or three piles of blackened bricks and an acre or so of dying embers marked the site of an old, Revolutionary town; and this before the column had fairly got its hand in. . . . The army might safely march the darkest night, the crackling pine woods shooting up their columns of flame, and the burning houses along the way would light it on. . . As for the wholesale burnings, pillage, devastation, committed in South Carolina, magnify all I have said of Georgia some fifty-fold, and then throw in an occasional murder, `just to bring an old hard-fisted cuss to his senses,' and you have a pretty good idea of the whole thing."

General Sherman testifies that "the whole army is burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance on South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate."

And one of his captains remarks of the situation several weeks later. "It was sad to see this wanton destruction of property which was the work of `bummers' who were marauding through the country committing every sort of outrage. There was no restraint except with the column or the regular foraging parties. We had no communications and could have no safeguards. The country was necessarily left to take care of itself, and became a howling waste. The `Coffee-coolers' of the Army of the Potomac were archangels compared to our `bummers' who often fell to the tender mercies of Wheeler's cavalry, and were never heard of again, earning a fate richly deserved."

Winter is not truly winter in South Carolina, but in the winter of '65 it rained and rained and rained. All swamps and streams were out, low-lying plantations were under water, the country looked like a flooded rice-field. The water-oaks and live-oaks and magnolias stood up, shining and dark, beneath the streaming sky; where the road was corduroyed it was hard to travel, and where it was not wheels sank and sank. All the world was wet, and the canes in the marshes made no rustling. When it did not rain the sky remained grey, a calm grey pall keeping out the sun, but leaving a quiet grey-pearl light, like a dream that is neither sad nor glad.

"It is," said Désirée, "the air of Cape Jessamine that winter you came."

"Yes. The road to Vidalia! We passed at nightfall a piece of water with a bit of bridge. I helped push a gun upon it, and the howitzer knocked me on the head for my pains. I fell down, down into deep water, forty fathoms at the least, and blacker than ebony at midnight. . . . And then I waked up in Rasmus's cabin, and we had supper, and water came under the door, and we circumvented the bayou, and went to the Gaillard place which was called Cape Jessamine. And there I found a queen in a russet gown and a soldier's cloak. The wind blew the cloak out and made a canopy of it in the light of torches and bonfires. She stood upon the levee and bitted and bridled the Mississippi River — and I fell in love, deep, deep, forty thousand fathoms deep —"

"Two years. . . . You were so ragged and splashed with mud — And my heart beat like that! and said to me `Who is this that comes winged and crowned?' — Listen!"

They were on a road somewhat to the southeast of Columbia, Désirée in an open wagon driven by a negro boy, Edward — major now of the th Virginia —riding beside her on a grey horse. Ahead, at some distance, they just saw the regiment, marching through a gloomy wood, bound for a post on the Edisto. The sound of its going and the voices of the men came faintly back through the damp and quiet air. But what they heard was nearer, a passionate weeping amid the trees at across-road. Coming to this opening they found a spacious family carriage drawn by two ancient plough horses, a cart with a mule attached, and two or three negro pedestrians. The whole had stopped the moment before and with reason. A white-haired lady, stretched upon the cushions of the carriage laid cross-wise, had just breathed her last. The weeping was her daughter's, a dark, handsome girl of twenty. Two negro women lamented also, while the coachman had gotten down from the box and stood staring, with a working face. There were some bags and pillows and things of little account heaped in the cart, and on these a small negro boy was. profoundly sleeping.

Edward dismounted and Désirée stepped down from the wagon. "What could they do? How sad it was! — Was there any help?—" Désirée lifted the girl from her mother's form, drew her away to a roadside log, and sitting there, held her close and let her weep. Edward saw the oldest negro woman, murmuring constantly to her-self, close the eyes of the dead mistress, straighten her limbs and fold her hands. The other woman sat on the earth and rocked herself. The plough horses and the mule lowered their heads and cropped what green bush and grass there was. The little black boy slept on and on. Edward talked with the coachman. "Yaas, marster, dat so! — 'Bout thirty miles south from here, sah. Bienvenu - er Lauren's place. En de Yankees come hollerin' en firm' en hits daid of night en old Marster en young Marster wif Gineral Lee. — One officer, he say git away quick! en he give me er guard en I hitches up, en we lif' of Mistis out of her bed where she's had pneumonia, en Miss Fanny en her mammy en Julia dar wif her boy, we teks de road."

Désirée and Edward saw the forlorn cortège proceed on its way with hopes of a village or some country house. They stood a moment watching it disappear, then Désirée rested her hand upon his arm and mounted again into the wagon, and he sprang upon his horse that was named Damon, and the negro boy touched the mule drawing the wagon with his whip, and they all went on after the regiment. They found it at twilight, encamped in the hospitable houses and the one street of a tiny rain-soaked hamlet. Head-quarters was the parsonage and here was a room ready for the Major's wife. From colonel to cook the —th Virginia loved the Major's wife. Romance dwelled with her, and a queenliness that was never vanquished. Her presence never wearied; she knew when to withdraw, to disappear, how not to give trouble, and how, when she gave it, to make it seem a high guerdon, a princess's favour. Sometimes the regiment did not see her for weeks or even months on end, and then she came like a rose in summer, a more golden light on the fields, a deeper blue in the sky. She made mystics of men.

Now the parson's wife made her welcome, and after a small supper sat with her in a clean bedroom before a fire. The parson's wife was full of sighs, and "Ah, my dears!:' and ominous shakings of the head. "South Carolina's bound down," she said, "and going to be tormented. What you tell me about that dead woman and her daughter is but the beginning. It's but a leaf be-fore the storm. We're going to hear of many whirled and trodden leaves."

"Yes," said Désirée, her eyes upon the fantastic shapes in the hollow of the fire. " Whirled and trodden leaves."

"I have a sister," said the parson's wife, "in Georgia. She got away, but will you listen to some of the things she writes ?"

She got the letter and read. Désirée, listening, put her hands over her eyes and shivered a little for all the room was warm. "I should not have said such things could happen in a Christian land," she said.

"They happen," said the parson's wife. "War is a horror, and a horror to women. It has always been so and always will be so. And now I must go see that there is covering enough on the beds."

At cock-crow the regiment was up and away. Still the same pearly sky, the same quietude, the same stretches of water crept under the trees, the same heavy road, and halts and going on. The regiment took dinner beneath live oaks on a little rise of ground beside a swamp become a lake. Officers' mess dined a little to one side beneath a monster tree. All wood was wet and the fires smoked, but soldiers grow skilful and at last a blaze was got. Sherman was yet to the southward; this strip of country not yet overrun and provisions to be had. Officers' mess to-day sat down under the live oaks to what, compared to many and many a time in its existence, appeared a feast for kings. There were roasted ducks and sweet potatoes, rice and milk and butter. Officers' mess said grace devoutly.

Désirée said grace with her friends, for they had sent back to urge her wagon forward and to say they had a feast and to beg her company. She sat with Edward over against the Colonel, and the captains and lieutenants sat to either side the board. They made a happy dinner, jesting and laughing, while off in the grove of oaks was heard the laughter of their grey men. When dinner was over, and half an hour of sweet rest was over, into column came all, and took again the swampy road.

That evening headquarters was a fine old pillared house, set in a noble garden, surrounded in its turn by the fields and woods of a great plantation. Here there was a large family, an old man and his married daughters and their daughters and little sons. These made the men welcome where they camped beside fires out under the great trees of the place, and the grey officers welcome indoors, and Désirée welcome and gave her and Edward a room with mirrors and chintz curtains and a great four-poster bed and a light-wood fire. A little after the regiment, came up also a small troop of grey cavalry returning from a reconnoissance to the southward. Infantry and the plantation alike were eager for Cavalry's news. Its news was ravage and ruin, the locusts of Egypt and a grudge against the land. There were sixty thousand of the foe and it seemed determined now that Sherman meant Columbia.

"What are the troops at Columbia?"

"Stevenson's twenty-six hundred men, a few other scattering commands, Wheeler's cavalry — say five thousand in all."

"Could not General Beauregard bring troops from Charleston?"

"General Hampton thinks he might. — Evacuate Charleston — concentrate before Columbia. But I don't know —I don't know! There are not many thousands even at Charleston."

"It's the end."

"Yes. I suppose so. But fight on till the warder drops!"

There were the young girls and young married women in the great old house. There was a polished floor, and negro fiddlers had not left the plantation. Cavalry and infantry officers were, with some exceptions, young men — and this was South Carolina. "Yes, dance!" said the old gentleman, the head of the house. "Tomorrow you may have neither fiddlers nor floor."

They danced till almost midnight, and at the last they danced the Virginia Reel. The women were not in silks or fine muslins, they were in homespun. The men were not dressed like the young bloods, the University students, the dandies of five years back. Their grey uniforms were clean, but very worn. Bars upon the collar, or sash and star took the place of the old elaboration of velvet waistcoat and fine neckcloth. Spurs that would have caught in filmy laces did not harm the women's skirts of linsey. The fiddlers fiddled, the lights burned. Up and down and up again, and around and around... .

Edward and Désirée, resting by a window, regarded the room, at once vivid and dreamy. "We were dancing," he said, "the Virginia Reel at Greenwood the night there came news of the secession of Virginia."

"Much has happened since then."

"Much."

The fiddlers played, the lights burned, they took their places. At midnight the revel closed, and they slept in the chamber with the mirrors and the fire, until the winter day showed, smoked-pearl, without the windows. At breakfast-time came a courier from Columbia, ordering the th Virginia back to that place.

The weather cleared and grew colder. The roads drying, the regiment made good pace. But for all the patches of bright sky there seemed to hang a pall over the land. The wind in the woods blew with a long, mournful, rushing sound. Désirée sat in the wagon with bowed head, her hands in her lap. Edward was ahead, to-day, with the regiment. The wagon went heavily on, the wind rushed on either side like goblin horsemen. At intervals during the morning the negro boy was moved to speech. "Yass'm. All de ghostes are loose in de graveyards. Dey tel' erbout hit in de kitchen las' night. Dey been to er voodoo woman, en she say all de ghostes loose, high en low, out, er ebery graveyard, en she ain't got no red pepper what kin lay them. She say time past she had ernough, but she ain't got ernough now."

"What are they doing — the ghosts?"

"Dey're linin' up in long lines like de poplars, en wavin' dere arms en sayin','De end's come! De end's come!' En den dey rises from de ground en goes erroun' de plantation in er ring, 'twel you almos' think hits jus' er ring ob mist. But dey keep er-sayin', `De end 's come! De end 's come!' Yass'm, dey're all out, en dere ain't nothin' what kin lay them! "

Moving now as they were on a main road to Columbia they this day passed or overtook numbers of people, all going their way. These people looked distracted. " What was happening to the south-ward ?" "Ruin!" they answered. Some talked quickly and feverishly as long as they might to the soldiers; others dealt in mono-syllables, shook their heads and went on with fixed gaze. Shortly before this time General Sherman had written to General Halleck: "This war differs from European wars in this particular — we are not only fighting hostile armies but a hostile people; and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of want, as well as their organized armies." These on the road to Columbia were the unorganized — the old and very young and the sick and a great number of women.

The soldiers were troubled. "Sherman 's surely coming to Columbia, and how will five thousand men hold it against sixty thousand? You poor people ought n't to go there!"

"Then where should we go?"

"God knows!"

"We are from Purisburg. There is n't a house standing."

"We are from Barnwell. It was burning when we left. Our home was burned."

"I am from toward Pocotaligo. It is all a waste. All black and burned."

On they streamed, the refugees. The regiment gave what help, what lifts upon the way it could. As for Désirée, coming on in her wagon, she took into it so many, that presently she found no room for herself, but walked beside the horse. And so, at last, on a dull, soft day, they came into Columbia.

It was the sixteenth of February. The Capital of South Carolina was by nature a pleasant, bowery town, though now it was so heavy of heart and filled with forebodings. Of the five thousand who formed its sole defence some portion was in the town itself, but the greater part lay outside, on picket, up and down the Congaree. The th Virginia, coming in, was quartered in the town until it was known what was to be done. Orangeburg was not many miles below Columbia, and the head of Sherman's column had reached Orangeburg. There was a track of fire drawn across the country; Columbia saw doom coming like a prairie-fire.

Edward found a room for Désirée and he came to her here an hour before dusk. They stood together by a window looking down into the street. "They are leaving home," she said. "I have seen women and children going all afternoon. I have seen such sad things in this pretty street."

"Sad enough!" he answered. "Désirée, I think that you must go too."

"No, no!" she said. "No, no! There is nowhere to go."

"There is Camden and the villages in the northern part of the State. It is possible that Sherman means when he has done his worst here, to turn back toward Charleston. There is no knowing, but it is possible. If he does that, Camden and those other places may escape."

"And you ?"

"There are no orders yet. We may stay or we may march away. O God, what a play is Life!"

"Those women who are parting down there — saying good-bye to all they love they do not at all know that they are going into safety, and those who are parting from them do not know. It might be better for them to stay in this large town. They are going away in the dark night, and the enemy may have parties out where they are going. I had rather stay here. I think that it is safer."

"Désirée, Désirée! If a man could see but ever so little of the road before him ! If we are marched away in haste as we may be, you cannot go with us this time. Then to leave you here alone —"

"There is an Ursuline convent here," she said. "They will not burn that. If you leave me and evil comes near I will go there."

"You promise that ?"

"Yes, I promise it."

It was in the scroll of their fate that he should leave her and that evil should come nigh. She waked in a strange red dawn to hear the tramp of feet in the street below. Instantly she was at the window. Grey soldiers were passing below — a column. In the south broke suddenly a sound of cannon. She saw a shell, sent from the other side of the river, explode in the red air above the city roofs. There came a feeling of Vicksburg again.

A hand was at her door. She opened it and Edward took her in his arms. "I have but an instant," he said. "If we go it may be better for this city than if we stayed. The mayor will surrender it peaceably, and it may be spared destruction. For you, Désirée — for you — God bless you, God keep. you till we meet again!"

She smiled back at him. "That will be shortly."

"No man can tell, nor no woman. You will go to the Ursuline convent ? "

"Yes, I will go."

He strained her to him; they kissed and parted. The soldiers went by in the red dawn, out of the town, toward Winnsboro' to the northward. This day also Charleston was evacuated, Hardee with his men moving north to Cheraw on the Pedee. At Columbia the mayor and aldermen went out between eight and nine in the morning and, meeting the Federal advance, surrendered the town, and asked for protection for the non-combatants within its walls. How it was given let history tell. Several days later Sherman writes to Kilpatrick: "Let the whole people know that war is now against them, because their armies flee before us and do not defend their country or frontier as they should. It is pretty nonsense for Wheeler and Beauregard and such vain heroes to talk of our warring against women and children. If they claim to be men they should defend their women and children and prevent us reaching their homes."

Perhaps Wheeler and Beauregard and the other vain heroes would have prevented it if they could. Since, however, it lay in their hard fortune that they could not, there remained in General Sherman's mind no single reason for consideration.

Désirée went truly to the Ursuline convent, passing swiftly through the windy streets on a windy day, choosing small back streets because the principal ones were now crowded with soldiers, keeping close to the walls of the houses and drawing a scarf she wore more fully about head and face, for even through the side streets there were now echoing drunken voices. She came to the convent door, rang, and greeting the sister who came told how alone she was in the city. The door opened to admit her of course, and she only wished that Edward might see her in the convent garden or in the little room where the nuns said she might sleep that night.

But no one slept in the convent that night. It was burned. The nuns and the young girls, their pupils, and the women who had come for refuge stayed the night in the churchyard. It was cold and there was a high wind. The leafless branches of the trees clattered in it, and below, on their knees, the nuns murmured prayers, their half-frozen hands fingering their rosaries. The young girls drew together for warmth, and the Mother Superior stood, counselling and comforting. And the convent burned and the city burned, with a roaring and crackling of flames and a shouting of men.

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