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Beginning Of The End

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In this February the grey Congress at Richmond created the office of Commander-in-Chief of all the Confederate Armies, and appointed to it Robert Edward Lee. On the twenty-third Lee telegraphed to Johnston, then at Lincolnton, North Carolina:


Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in the Department of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Assign General Beauregard to duty under you as you may select. Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.

R. E. LEE."

"All available forces" were not many, indeed they were very few, but such as they were Johnston drew them together, and with them, the middle of March, faced Sherman at Bentonville. "Drive back Sherman?" Once that might have deen done, with the old Army of Tennessee. It could not be done now with the handful that was left of that army. On the first of April General Sherman's effective strength is given for all three arms, as something over eighty-one thousand men. Infantry and artillery the grey had on this date sixteen thousand and fourteen men, with a little above four thousand cavalry. Bentonville saw, grey and blue, an almost equal loss. After Bentonville came some days of calm, the grey encamped at Smithfield, the blue at Goldsboro.

But through the pause came always the tolling of the bells, ringing loud and louder —

Early in February Lee at Petersburg wrote to the Secretary of War as follows. "All the disposable force of the right wing of the Army has been operating against the enemy beyond Hatcher's Run since Sunday. Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, the men had to be retained in line of battle, having been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet. . . . The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment. Our cavalry had to be dispersed for want of forage. Fitz Lee's and Lomax's divisions are scattered because supplies cannot be transported where their services are required. I had to bring W. H. F. Lee's division forty miles Sunday night to get him into position. Taking these facts in consideration with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us." Bad in February, it was no better in March.

Back to the trenches before Petersburg came, because they were needed, sundry troops that had fought in the Valley. Back came what was left of the Golden Brigade, and what was left of the Sixty-fifth Virginia. But November and December and January, well-nigh all of that winter, Richard Cleave, carried across the mountains after Cedar Creek, lay at Greenwood, a desperately wounded soldier. In February he began to gather strength, but the latter half of that month found him still a prisoner in a large, high, quiet room, firelit and still.

On a grey afternoon, with a few flakes of snow in the air, turning from the window toward the fire, he found that Unity was his nurse for this twilight hour. She lifted her bright face from her hands. "That was a very sad sigh, Richard!"

He smiled. "Unity, I was thinking. . . . I have not been a very fortunate soldier. And I used — long ago — to think that I would be."

"Is there such a thing as a fortunate soldier?"

He smiled again. "That depends. — Is there such a thing as a fortunate war? I don't know."

His mother entered the room. "It 's Cousin William, Richard. He wants to come in and talk a little while."

Cousin William appeared — seventy, and ruddy yet, with a gouty limb and an indomitable spirit. "Ha, Richard! that's more like! You're getting colour, and some flesh on your bones! When are you going back to the front ?"

"Next week, sir."

Cousin William laughed. "Well, call it the week after that!" He sat by the couch in the winged chair. The firelight played through the room, lit the two women sitting by the hearth, and the two or three old pictures on the walls. Outside the snow fell slowly, in large, quiet flakes. "Have you had any letters ? " asked Cousin William.

Unity answered. "One from Fauquier yesterday. None from Edward for some days. The last was just a line from Columbia written before the troops left the place and Sherman came and burned it. We can't but feel very anxious."

But Cousin William could not endure to see Greenwood down-cast. "I think you may be certain they are safe. — What did Fauquier say?"

"Just that since Hatcher's Run there had been comparative inaction. He said that the misery in the trenches was very great, and that day by day the army was dwindling. He said we must be prepared now for the worst."

Cousin William flushed, leaned forward, and became violently optimistic. "You tell Fauquier — or I'll write to him and tell him myself — that that is no way to talk! It is no way for his father's son to talk, or his grandfather's grandson to talk! I am sure, Richard, that you don't feel that way!"

"Yes, sir, I do feel that way. We are at the end."

"At the end!" ejaculated Cousin William. "Absurd! We have held Grant eight months at Petersburg! — Well, say that General Lee eventually determines to withdraw from Petersburg! What will follow ? Lee in Virginia and Johnston in Carolina have the inner lines. Lee will march south, Johnston will march north, they will join armies, first crush Sherman, then turn and destroy Grant! Richmond ? Well, say that Richmond is given up, temporarily, sir — temporarily! We will take it again when we want it, and if they burn it we will rebuild it! Nothing can keep it from being our capital. The President and the Cabinet and offices can remove for a time. Who knows but what it may be very well to be free and foot-loose of defended cities ? Play the guerilla if need be! Make our capital at mountain hamlet after mountain hamlet, go from court-house to court-house — A capital! The Confederacy has a capital in every single Southern heart —" Cousin William dashed his hand across his eyes. "I'm ashamed to hear you speak so, Richard! — But you're a sick man — you're a sick man!"

"God knows what should be done!" said Cleave. "I am not an easy giver-up, sir. But we have fought until there is little breath in us with which to fight any more. We have fought to a standstill-And it is the country that is sick, sick to death!"

"Any day England or France —"

"Oh, the old, old dream —"

"Say then it 's a dream!" cried Cousin William angrily. "Say that is a dream and any outer dependence is a dream! The spirit of man is no dream! What have we got for dependence ? We have got, sir, the spirit of the men and women of the South! We've got the unconquerable and imperishable! We've got the spiritual might!"

But Richard shook his head. "A fire burns undoubtedly and a spirit holds, but day by day and night by night for four years death has come and death has come! Half the bright coals have been swept from the hearth. And against what is left, sir, wind and rain and sleet and tempest are beating hard — beating against the armies, in the field and against the country in the field. They are beating hard, and they will beat us down. They have beaten us down. It is but the recognition now."

"Then may I die," said Cousin William, "before I hear Virginia say, `I am conquered! "' His eyes sparkled, his frame trembled. "Do. you think they will let it rest there, sir! No! In one year I have seen vindictiveness come into this struggle — yes, I'll grant you vindictiveness on both sides — but you say that theirs is the winning side! Then I tell you that they will be not less but more vindictive! For ten years to come they will make us drink the water of bitterness and eat the bread of humiliation! Virginia! And that second war will be worse than the first!"

He rose. "I can't stay here and hear you talk like this! I suppose you know what you're talking about, but you people in the field get a jaundiced view of things! I 'm going to see Noel. Noel and I worked it all out last night. — General Lee to cut loose from the trenches at Petersburg, Johnston to strike north, then, having the inner lines —" And so on.

When he was gone Richard laughed. Unity, the log in her hands with which she was about to replenish the fire, looked over her shoulder. "That's sadder than sighing!" she said. "Don't!"

"What shall we do ?" he asked. " Go like pieces of wood for a twelvemonth — sans care, sans thinking, sans feeling, sans heart, sans — no, not sans courage!"

"No — not sans courage."

"I am not sad," he said, "for myself. It would be strange if I were, would it not, to-day ? I have a great, personal happiness. And even this afternoon, Unity — I am saying good-bye, as one of the generality, to despair, and pain, and wounded pride, and fore-boding, and unhappiness. I have been looking it in the face. Such and so it is going to be in the South, and perhaps worse than we know — and yet the South is neither going to die nor despair! — And now if there is any broth I surely could take it!"

Going downstairs Cousin William found the library and Miss Lucy. "I got too angry, I suppose, with Richard — but to lie there talking of surrender! Surrender! I tell you, Lucy,— but there! I can't talk about it. Better not begin."

"Richard is a strong man, William. He 's not the weakly despairing kind."

"I know, Lucy, I know! But it's not so bad as he thinks. I look for a big victory any day now. . . . Well! let 's talk of the wedding. When's it to be ?"

"In three days. The doctor says he may come downstairs to-morrow. Corbin Wood will marry them, here in the parlour. Then, in a few days, Richard will go back to the front. . . . Oh, the sad and strange and happy so blended together. . . . We are so desperate, William, that the road has turned because we could n't travel it so any longer and live! There 's a strange kind of calm, and you could say that a quiet music was coming back into life. . .

If only we could hear from Edward!"

The sky was clear on Cleave's and Judith's wedding-day. The sun shone, the winds were quiet, there was a feeling in the air as of the coming spring. Her sisters cut from the house-plants flowers for Judith's hair; there fell over her worn white gown her mother's wedding-veil. The servants brought boughs of cedar and bright berries, and with them decked the large old parlour, where the shepherds and shepherdesses looked out from the rose wreaths on the wall as they had looked when Hamilton and Burr and Jefferson were alive. The guests were few, and all old friends and kinsfolk, and there were, beside, Mammy and Julius and Isham and Scipio and Esther and Car'line and the others, Tullius among them. A great fire warmed the room, shone in the window-panes and the prisms beneath the candles and the polished floor and the old gilt frames of the Cary portraits. Margaret Cleave sat with her hand shadowing her eyes. Her heart was here, but her heart was also with her other children, with Will and Miriam. Molly, who was Miriam's age, kept beside her, a loving hand on her dress. Cousin William gave away the bride. An artillery commander, himself just out of hospital, stood with Cleave. — Oh, the grey uniforms, so worn and weather-stained for a wedding party!

It was over — the guests were gone. The household, tremulous, between smiles and tears, went its several, accustomed ways. There was no wedding journey to be taken. All life was fitted now to a Doric simplicity, a grave acceptance of realities without filagree adornment. There was left a certain fair quietness, limpid sincerity, faith, and truth. . . . There was a quiet, cheerful supper, and after-wards a little talking together in the library, the reading of the Richmond papers, Unity singing to her guitar. Then at last good-nights were said. Judith and Cleave mounted the stairs together, entered hand in hand their room. The shutters were all opened; it lay, warmed by the glowing embers on the hearth, but yet in a flood of moonlight. His arm about her, they moved to the deep window-seat above the garden, knelt there and looked out. Valley and hill and distant mountains were all washed with silver.

" The moon shone so that April night — that night after you overtook the carriage upon the road — and at last we understood .. . I sat here all that night, in the moonlight."

"The garden where I said good-bye to you, a hundred years ago, the day after a tournament. . . . It does not look dead and cold and a winter night. It looks filled with lilies and roses and bright, waving trees — and if a bird is not singing down there, then it must be singing in my heart! It is singing somewhere! — Love is best."

"Love is best."

A week from this day he passed through Richmond on his way to the front. Richmond! Richmond looked to him like a prisoner doomed, and yet a quiet prisoner with a smile for children and the azure spaces in the winter sky. People were going in streams into the churches. The hospitals, they said, were very full. In all the departments, it was said, the important papers were kept packed in boxes, ready to be removed if there were need. No one any longer noticed the cannon to the south. They had been thundering there since June, and it was now March. There was very little to eat. Milk sold at four dollars a quart. And yet children played about the doors, and women smiled, and men and women went about the day's work with sufficient heroism. "Dear Dick Ewell" had charge of the defences of Richmond, the slightly manned ring of forts, the Local Brigade, Custis Lee's division at Chaffin's Bluff. In the high, clear March air, ragged grey soldiers passed, honoured, through the streets, bugles blew, or drums beat. One caught the air of Dixie.

Cleave rode out over Mayo's Bridge and south through the war-scored country to Petersburg and the grey lines, to division head-quarters and then to the Golden Brigade. The brigade and he met like tried friends, but the Sixty-fifth and he met like lovers.

The lines at Petersburg! — stretched and stretched from the Appomattox, east of the town, to Five Forks and the White Oak Road, stretched until now, in places, there was scarcely more than a skirmish line, stretched to the breaking-point! The trenches at Petersburg! — clay ditches where men were drenched by the winter rains, pierced by the winter sleet, where they huddled or burrowed, scooping shallow caves with bayonet and tin cup, where hands and feet were frozen, where at night they watched the mortar shells, and at all hours heard the minies keening, where the smoke hung heavy, where the earth all about was raw and pitted, where every muscle rebelled, so cramped and weary of the trenches! where there were double watches and a man could not sleep enough, where there were nakedness and hunger and every woe but heat, where the sharpshooters picked off men, and the minies came with a whistle and killed them, and the bombs with a shriek and worked red havoc, where men showed a thousand weaknesses and again a thousand heroisms! Oh, the labyrinth of trenches, forts, traverses, roads, approaches, raw red clay, and trampled herbage, hillock and hollow, scored, seamed, and pitted mother earth, and over all the smoke and noise, blown by the March wind! And Petersburg itself, that had been a pleasant town, was a place of ruined houses and deserted streets! A bitter havoc had been wrought.

The night of his return to the front Cleave stood with Fauquier Cary in an embrasure whence a gun had just been taken to strengthen another work, stood and looked first over the red wilderness of their own camp-fires, and then across a stripe of darkness to the long, deep, and vivid glow that marked the Federal lines. The night was cold but still, the stars extraordinarily bright. "For so long in that quiet room at Greenwood!" said Cleave. "And now this again! It has almost a novel look. There! What a great shell!"

"Fireworks at the end," answered Cary. "It is the end."

"Yes. It is evident."

"I have been," said Cary, "for a day or two to Richmond, and I was shown there certain papers, memoranda, and estimates. I wish you would listen to three or four statements out of many. — 'Amount needed for absolutely necessary construction and repair of railroads if they are to serve any military purpose $21,000,000.' —' The Commissary debt now exceeds $70,000,000.' — `The debt to various factories exceeds $5,000,000.' — `The Medical Department asks for $40,000,000, at least for the current year.' — `The Subsistence Bureau and the Nitre and Mining Bureau as well as other Departments are resorting to barter.' — `Requisitions by the War Department upon the Treasury since '6i amount to $1,737,746,121. Of the requisition for last year and this year, there is yet unfurnished $160,000,000. In addition the War Department has a further arrearage of say $200,000,000.' — This was a letter from one of the up-river counties patriotically proposing the use of cotton yarn or cloth as specie — thus reducing the necessity for the use of Treasury notes to the smallest possible limit! Let us see how it went. — First it proposed the removal of all factories to safe points near the mountains, where the water-power is abundant and approach by the enemy difficult. Next the establishment of small factories at various points of like character. Around these, as centres, it goes on to say, ` the women of our country who have been deprived of all and driven from their homes by the enemy should be collected, together with the wives and daughters of soldiers and others in indigent circumstances. There they would not be likely to be disturbed by the enemy. Thus distributed they could be more easily fed, and the country be greatly benefited by their labours, which would be light and highly remunerative to them, thereby lessening the suffering at home and the consequently increasing discontent in the army. Cotton would be near at hand, labour abundant, and the necessity of the transportation of food and material to and from great centres of trade greatly reduced. We would furnish the women of the country generally with yarns and a simple and cheap pattern of looms, taking pay for the same in cloth made by them —' et cζtera! . . . How desperate we are, Richard, to entertain ourselves with foolery like this! — But the act to use the negroes as soldiers will go through. We have come to that. The only thing is that the war will be ended before they can be mustered in."

They turned in the embrasure and looked far and wide. It seemed a world of camp-fires. Far to the east, in the direction of City Point, some river battery or gun-boat was sending up rockets. Westward a blue fort began a sullen cannonade and a grey fort nearly opposite at once took up the challenge. "Fort Gregg," said Cary, "dubbed by our men `Fort Hell,' and Fort Mahone called by theirs `Fort Damnation.'

For all that the night itself was so clear and the stars so high and splendid, there was a murk discernible everywhere a few feet above the earth, rising like a miasma, with a faint, distasteful odour. Through it all the fires lit by men shone blurred. The cannon continued to thunder, and above their salients gathered clouds of coppery smoke. A half brigade passed on its way to strengthen some menaced place, and a neighbouring fire showed in series its face and form. The men looked dead for sleep, hollow-eyed, hollowcheeked. They dragged their limbs, their heads drooped, their shoulders were bowed. They passed like dull and weary sheep. Fort Hell and Fort Damnation brought more guns into action.

Cleave passed his hand before his eyes. "It's not," he said, "the way to settle it."

"Precisely not," answered Cary. "It is not, and it never was, and it never will be. And that despite the glamour and the cry of `Necessity ! "

"Little enough glamour to-night!"

"I agree with you. The glamour is at the beginning. The necessity is to find a more heroic way."

The two went down from the embrasure and presently said good-night. Cleave rode on — not to the house in which he was quartered, but to the portion of the lines where, he was told, would be found a command for which he had made enquiry. He found it and its colonel, asked a question or two, and at once obtained the request which he made, this being that he might speak to a certain soldier in such a company.

The soldier came and faced Cleave where the latter waited for him beside a deserted camp-fire. The red light showed both their faces, worn and grave and self-contained. Off in the night and distance the two forts yet thundered, but all hereabouts was quiet, the fires dying down, the men sinking to rest. "Stafford," said Cleave, "I have been lying wounded for a long while, and I have had time to look at man's life, and the way we live it. It 's all a mystery, what we do, and what we do not do, and we stumble and stumble! . . ." He held out his hand. "Don't let us be enemies any longer ! "

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