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Port Gibson

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE twenty-eight guns sent out continuously shot and shell against the blue ironclads, the gunboats, the transports. The blue returned the fire with fervency. Not before had the shores rocked to such sound, the heavens been filled with such a display. The firing was furious, the long shriek and explosion of crossing shells, bluff and river screaming like demons. All the sky was lit. The massed smoke hung huge and copper red, while high and low sprang the intense brightness of the exploding bomb. The grey guns set on fire several transports. These burned fiercely, the coal barges, the cotton bales that made their shields betraying them now, burning high and burning hard. The village of De Soto was aflame. The Mississippi River showed as light as day, a strange red daylight, stuffed with infernal sound. Through it steadily, steadily, the blue fleet pushed down the river, running the gauntlet of the batteries. All the boats were struck, most were injured. A transport was burning to the water's edge, coal barges were scattered and sunk. Firing as it went, each ironclad a moving broadside, the fleet kept its way. The twenty-eight did mightily, the gunners, powder.. grimed automata, the servers of ammunition, the officers, the sharpshooters along the shore — all strove with desperation. Up and down and across, the night roared and flamed like a Vulcan furnace. The town shook, and the bluffs of the river; the Mississippi might have borne to the sea a memory of thunders. Less a sunken transport, less one burning low, less scattered and lost small craft, the fleet — scarred and injured though it was — the fleet passed! It ran the gauntlet, and at dawn there was a reason the less for holding Vicksburg.

Two nights later other ironclads got by. Grant had now a fleet at New Carthage, on the Louisiana shore, halfway between Vicksburg and Grand Gulf. He proceeded to use it and the transports that had passed. The sky over the grey darkened rapidly; there came a feeling of oppression, of sultry waiting, of a storm gathering afar, but moving. Sherman again threatened to approach by the Yazoo, but that was not felt to be the head of the storm. From La Grange, in Tennessee, southward, Grierson was ruining railroads and burning depots of supplies, but that was but a raid to be avenged by a raid. In the cloud down the river was forging the true lightning, the breath of destruction and the iron hail. Vicksburg held its breath and looked sideways at small noises, then recovered itself, smiled, and talked of sieges in history successfully stood by small towns. On the twenty-ninth, Porter's squadron opened fire on the Confederate batteries at Grand Gulf, and that night, under a fierce bombardment, ironclads, gunboats, and transports ran this defence also of the Mississippi. At dawn there was another reason the less for confining few troops in small places.

On the thirtieth of April, Grant began to ferry his army across from the Louisiana shore. Brigade by brigade, he landed it at Bruinsburg, nine miles below Grand Gulf, sixty below Vicksburg. At Grand Gulf was Bowen with five thousand grey soldiers with which to delay Grant's northward march. Between Bruinsburg and Grand Gulf ran Bayou Pierre, wide and at this season much swollen, but with an available bridge at Port Gibson. Bowen's three brigades took the road to the last-named place, and Bowen telegraphed to Pemberton at Vicksburg for reinforcements. Pemberton sent Tracy's Alabama brigade of Stevenson's division, and with it Anderson's Battery, Botetourt Artillery. The —th Virginia, figuring in this story, marched also.

They broke camp at dusk. "Night march !" quoth —th Virginia. "Double time! Old Jack must have come down from Virginia!"

The colonel heard. "Old Jack and Marse Robert are looking after Fighting Joe Hooker to-day. I saw the telegram. They're moving toward the Wilderness."

" Well, we wish we were, too," said the men. "Though the Mississippi is mighty important, we know!"

There existed a road, of course, only it had not been in condition for a year. No roads were kept up nowadays, though occasionally some engineer corps momentarily bettered matters in some selected place in order that troops might pass. Troops had gone up and down this road, and the feet of men and horses, the wheels of wagons and gun-carriages had added force to neglect, making the road very bad, indeed. It was narrow and bad, even for Southern roads in wartime. To the aid of neglect and the usage of hoof and wheel had come the obliterating rains. Bayous, too, had no hesitation in flinging an arm across. It was a season when firm ground changed into marsh and marsh into lake and ordinary fords grew too deep for fording. Miles of the miserable road ran through forest — no open, park-like wood whereon one might travel on turf at the sides of the way, but a far Southern forest, impenetrable, violent, resenting the road, giving it not an inch on either hand, making raids and forays of its own. Where it could it flung poisoned creepers, shot out arms in thorn-mail, laid its own dead across that narrow track. It could also blot out the light, keep off the air.

At midnight the Big Black River was reached. Oh, the reinforcements for Bowen were tired and worn! The night was inky, damp, and hot. The —th Virginia, closing Tracy's column, must wait and wait for its turn at the crossing. There was a long, old-type ferryboat, and many men and horses swam the stream, but it took time, time to get the whole brigade across! Broken and decaying wood was gathered and a tall fire made. Burning at the water's edge, it murkily crimsoned landing and stream, the crowded boat slow passing from shore to shore, and the swimming, mounted men. Above it, on the north side, the waiting regiments threw themselves down on the steaming earth, in the rank and wild growth. The —th Virginia, far back on the road, had a fire of its own. Behind it yet were the guns accompanying Tracy.

As the fire flamed up Artillery drew near, drawn by the genial glow. "May we? Thank you! If you fellows are as wet as we are, you are wet, indeed. That last bayou was a holy terror!"

"In our opinion this entire night 's a holy terror. Have n't we met you before? Are n't you the Botetourt Artillery?"

"Yes. We've met a lot of people in this war, some that we liked and some that we did n't! You look right likable. Where "

"Going out to Chickasaw Bayou. Pitch black night like this, only it was raining and cold. Your mules could n't pull —"

"Oh, now we remember!" said Artillery. "You're the —th Virginia that helped us all it could! Glad to meet you again. Glad to meet anything Virginian."

"You've been out of Virginia a long time?"

"Out of it a weary year. Tennessee, Cumberland Gap, Kentucky, and so forth. We sing 'most everything in this army, but the Botetourt Artillery can't sing `Carry me back to Old Virginny'! It chokes up. — What's your county?"

Company by company, regiment by regiment, Tracy's brigade got over the Big Black. Foot by foot the troops in the rear came nearer the stream; minute by minute the dragging night went by. Half seated, half lying on the fallen trunk of a gum, Edward Cary watched the snail-like crossing. When one dead tree burned down, they fired another. There was light enough, a red pulsing in the darkness through which the troops moved down the sloping bank to the ferryboat. The bank was all scored and trampled, and crested by palmetto scrub and tall trees draped with vines. The men stumbled as they went, they were so stiff with fatigue. Their feet were sore and torn. There was delay enough. Each man as he passed out of the shadow down to the boat had his moment of red light, a transitory centre of the stage.

Cary watched them broodingly, his elbow on the log, his hand covering his mouth. "A bronze frieze of the Destined. Leaves of the life tree and a high wind and frost at hand." An old man stood his moment in the light, the hollows in his cheeks plain, plain the thin and whitened hair beneath a torn boy's cap. He passed. The barrel of his musket gleamed for an instant, then sank like a star below the verge. A young man took his place, gaunt, with deep circles about his eyes. The hand on the musket stock was long and thin and white. "Fever," thought Edward. "Disease, that walks with War." The fever-stricken passed, and another took his place. This was a boy, certainly not more than fifteen, and his eyes were dancing. He had had something to eat, Edward thought, perhaps even a mouthful of whiskey, he carried himself with such an impish glee. "Is it such fun? I wonder —I wonder! You represent, I think, the past of the human species. Step aside, honourable young savage, and let the mind of the world grow beyond fifteen!"

On and down went the column, young, old, and in between. Two years earlier a good observer, watching it, would have been able fairly to ascribe to each unit his place in life before the drum beat. "A farmer—another—a great landowner, a planter — surely a blacksmith — a clerk — a town-bred man, perhaps a banker — another farmer — a professional man — a student — Dick from the plough —" and so on. Now it was different. You could have divided the columns, perhaps, into educated men and uneducated men, rough men and refined men, as you could have divided it into young men and old men, tall men and men not so tall. But the old stamp had greatly worn away, and the new had had two years in which to bite deep. It was a column of Confederate soldiers, poorly clad and shod, and, to-night, hungry and very tired. Soldier by soldier, squad, company, regiment, on they stumbled through prickly and matted growth down to the water of the Big Black and the one boat. The night wore on. One and two and three o'clock went by before the last of the —th Virginia was over. Edward, standing in the end of the boat, marked the Botetourt Artillery move forward and down to the stream. There was a moment when the guns were drawn sharply against the pallor of the morning sky. There came into his mind an awakening at dawn on the battle-field of Frayser's Farm, and the pale pink heaven behind the guns. But, indeed, he had seen them often, drawn against the sky at daybreak. There was growing in this war, as in all wars, a sense of endless re-petition. The gamut was not extensive, the spectrum held but few colours. Over and over and over again sounded the notes, old as the ages, monotonous as the desert wind. War was still war, and all music was military. Edward and his comrades touched the southern shore of the Big Black, and the boat went back for the Botetourt Artillery.

The reinforcements for Bowen made no stop for breakfast for men or for horses, but pushed on toward Grand Gulf. The day was warm, the forest heavily scented, the air languid. All the bourgeoning and blossoming, the running sap, the upward and outward flow, was only for the world of root and stem, leaf and bud. The very riot and life therein seemed to draw and drain the strength from the veins of men. It was as though there were not life enough for both worlds, and the vegetable world was forcing itself uppermost. All day Tracy's column moved forward in a forced march. The men went hungry and without sleep; all day they broke with a dull impatience thorn and briar and impeding cane, or forded waist-deep and muddy bayous, or sought in swamps for the lost road. They were now in a region of ridge and ravine, waves of land and the trough between, and all covered with a difficult scrub and a maze of vines.

A courier from Grand Gulf met the head of the column. "General Bowen says, sir, you'll have to cross Bayou Pierre at Port Gibson. The bridge is there. Yes, sir, make a détour — yonder's the road."

"That turkey track?"

"Yes, sir. General Bowen says he surely will be obliged if you'll come right on."

Sundown and Bayou Pierre were reached together. At the mouth of the bridge at Port Gibson waited an aide on horseback. "General Tracy?"

"Yes, sir."

"General, we're in line of battle across the Bruinsburg road, several miles from here! McClernand's corps is in front of us and he's got at least four divisions. General Bowen says he knows your men are tired and he's sorry, but you must move right out. They'll attack at dawn at latest. We are n't but five thousand."

The reinforcements from Vicksburg moved out. At ten o'clock they got into line of battle — a hot, still, dark night, and the soft blurred stars swimming before the men's eyes. When the order was given, the troops dropped down where they stood, lay on their arms, and slept like the dead.

At two in the morning of the first of May the pickets began firing. Up rose the reinforcements. They looked for breakfast, but break-fast was scant indeed, a stopgap of the slightest description. Presently came the order, "Move to the left and support General Green."

Missouri formed Bowen's left, and Missouri fought bravely at Port Gibson. It had to face treble its numbers, artillery and infantry. It faced them so stubbornly that for a time it bade fair to outface them. On that hot May day, on that steaming Southern battle-field, occurred strong fighting, grey and blue at grips, Victory shouting now here, now there, Defeat uncertain yet into which colour finally to let fly the deadly arrow. The battle smoke settled heavily. The bright colours, the singing-birds fled the trees and bushes, the perfume of flowers was smothered and vanished.

Artillery on both sides became heavily engaged. The Virginia, during one of those sudden and mysterious lulls coming suddenly in battle as in other commotions of the elements, found itself, after hard fighting, with nothing to do but to watch that corner of the fight immediately before it. The corner was but a small, smoke-shrouded one. Only general officers, aides, and couriers ever really saw a battle-field. The th Virginia gazed with feverish interest on what it could see and guessed that which it could not. It could guess well enough that for the grey the struggle was growing desperate.

All this field was up and down, low ridge and shallow ravine. The Virginia held a ridge. Over against it was a blue battery, and beyond the battery there might be divined a gathering mass of infantry. The th Virginia looked to its cartridge boxes. " Wish we had some guns! There won't be much of this left — What's that? Praise the Lord!" At a gallop, out of the smoke to the right, came a section of a grey battery, the guns leaping and thundering. Rednostrilled, with blood-shot eyes up strained the horses. At the ridge-top, with an iron clang, all stopped. At once the gunners, grey wraiths in grey smoke, were busy; busy also at once the shapes upon the opposite ridge, blue wraiths in grey smoke. There was shouting, gesturing, then the flare and shriek of crossing shells. The —th Virginia, still in possession of its spare moment, watched with an interest intense and critical. "Hello!" it said. "That's the homesick battery! That's the Botetourt Artillery!"

Out of the haze in front, above the opposing crest, came a glint of bayonets, the blue infantry, coveting the grey ridge, moving for-ward under artillery support. The Virginia handled its rifles. Ready — take aim — fire/ The blue failed to acquire the coveted ridge. The th Virginia, at rest once again in its corner of the field, looked sideways to see what the homesick battery was doing. There was a silence; then, " Give them a cheer, men ! " said the colonel. "They're dying fast, and it always was a brave county!"

The shells from the many blue cannon came many and fast. It was necessary to clear the ridge of that grey section which stood in the way of a general advance. The gunners fell, the gunners fell, the officers, the horses. Dim in the universal cloud, from the left, a force was seen approaching. "Grey, I think," said the lieutenant commanding this section of the Botetourt Artillery. "J. J. Smith, climb up on the roof of that cabin, and see what you can see!"

J. J. Smith climbed. "Lieutenant Norgrove! Lieutenant Nor. grove! they 're damn-Yankees —"

Out of the smoke came a yellow light and a volley of lead. Gunner Number 8, J. J. Smith, fell from the roof of the cabin, desperately wounded. "Double canister!" shouted Norgrove.

An orderly came up the back side of the ridge. The —th Virginia was needed to cover a break in the line to the right. Off per-force went the regiment, with one backward look at the homesick battery, left without infantry support. An aide dashed up, rose in his stirrups, and shouted, Move your guns to the ridge in your rear!" He was gone; Botetourt looked and shook its head. The horses were all killed. "Put your hands to them, men!" ordered Norgrove — and they tried. But the scrub was thick, the ground rough; there burst a frightful fire, shell and musketry, and on came the blue wave hurrahing. "All right! We can't!" shouted Norgrove. "Load! This hill's Botetourt County — Take aim! — and we don't propose to emigrate! Fire!"

The blue guns threw death. Deep, many-atomed, resistless, up roared the blue wave. It struck and went over Botetourt County, and, taking the two guns, turned them on the Botetourt men. There were few Botetourt men now, Botetourt was become again the wilderness. Norgrove jerked the trail from a gun, a man in blue calling on him all the time to surrender. He made at the man, who lifted his rifle and fired. Norgrove fell, mortally wounded, fell by the side of J. J. Smith. He put his arms about the gunner, "Come on! Come on!" he cried. . . . The wave swept over Botetourt County, the dead and the dying.

The Virginia, fighting strongly in another quarter of the field, came in mid-afternoon to a stand between charges. All knew now that the day was going against them. The smoke hung thick, a dark velvet in the air, torn in places by the lightning from the guns. Grey and blue — all was dimly seen. The flags looked small and distant, mere riddled and blood-stained rags. The voice of War was deep and loud. The Virginia, looking up from a hollow between the hills, saw two grey guns, stolid in the midst of wreck and ruin. The plateau around had a nightmare look, it was so weighted and cumbered with destruction. There was an exploded caisson, a wreck of gun-carriages. Not a horse had been spared. The agony of them was ghastly, sunk in the scrub, up and down and on the crest of the ridge. . . . A few grey gunners yet served the grey guns.

A captain, young, with a strong face and good brown eyes, stood out, higher than the rest, careless of the keening minies, the stream of shells. "A habit is a habit, men! This battery's got a habit of being steadfast ! Keep it up — keep it up!"

"Captain Johnston Captain Johnston! They've killed Lieu-tenant Douthatt —"

"Lay him in the scrub and fight on. How many rounds, Peters?—Two ? — All right! You can do a good deal with two rounds —"

"It's the rest of the homesick battery," said the —th Virginia, "Botetourt Artillery! Botetourt Artillery!"

There rushed a blue, an overpowering, a tidal wave — out of the smoke and din, bearing with it its own smoke and din, overmasteringly strong, McClernand's general advance. At the same moment, on the left, struck McPherson. When the roar that followed the impact died, the blue had won the field of Port Gibson; the grey had lost.

At sunset, Bowen's retreating regiments re-crossed Bayou Pierre. The exhaustion of the troops was extreme. There was no food; the men sank down and slept, in the whispering Southern night, in the remote light of other worlds. At dawn began the slow falling-back upon Vicksburg.

Lieutenant-General Pemberton telegraphed the situation to General Johnston in Tennessee, adding, "I should have large reinforcements."

In Tennessee, Rosecrans lay menacingly before Bragg. Johnston telegraphed to Pemberton, "Reinforcements cannot be sent from here without giving up Tennessee. Unite all your forces to meet Grant. Success will give you back what you abandoned to win it."

Pemberton, personally a brave and good man, looked out south and east from Vicksburg over the sparsely settled, tangled country. He looked west, indeed; but it was too late now to gather to him the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. His mind agreed that perhaps it should have been done in December . . . The troops in Vicksburg and north of Vicksburg, the troops at Jackson, the troops falling back from Grand Gulf — leaving out the garrison at Port Hudson, one might count, perhaps, thirty thousand effectives. Unite all these, but not at Vicksburg . . . move out from Vicksburg, manoeuvre here and manoeuvre there, and at last take Grant somewhere at disadvantage. . . . General Johnston's plan as against the President's. . . . Leave Vicksburg defenceless, to be taken by some detached force, by Sherman, by the Federal men-of-war that could now march up and down the Mississippi.... Pemberton looked out at the batteries that had been built, all the field-works, all the trenches. Most useless of all considerations moved him, the consideration of the pity, of the waste of all these. He looked at the very gallant town; he thought of the spirit of an old gentleman and prominent citizen to whom he had talked yesterday. "Before God," said Pemberton, "I am not going to give up Vicksburg!"

The third day after Port Gibson the Virginiae came again to its old camp above the river, just without the town. Here, the next morning, Edward Cary received an order to report to his colonel. He found the latter at Headquarters and saluted — the colonel being an old schoolmate and hopelessly in love with his sister Unity. "Cary," said the colonel, "we're poorer than the Ragged Mountains, but apparently we are considered highly presentable, a real crack command, dandies and so forth! The War Department wants a word-of-mouth description of Mississippi conditions. In short, there 's an embassy going to Richmond. The general came down and asked if my uniform was whole and if I could muster two or three men in decent apparel. Said I thought I could, and that there was a patch, but I did n't think it would show. I am going to take you as my orderly. The train for Jackson leaves at midday."

"Yes, sir. It is ten now. May I have the two hours ?"

"Yes. I'll take you on now. Tell your captain."

Outside he heard the news of the battle of Chancellorsville.

"It was a victory!" said the men, sore from Port Gibson. "A big victory! We're having them straight along in Virginia." "It ain't a victory to have Stonewall Jackson wounded." "Telegram said he'd get well. Old Jack is n't going to leave us.

God! We 'd miss him awful!"

Edward and Désirée had one hour together. They spent it in the garden, sitting beneath a flowering tree.

"How soon are you corning back ? Oh, how soon are you coming back ? "

"As soon as we may. It must be soon, for the fighting will begin now. Port Gibson was but the opening gun."

"We have been making the cave for this house larger. A siege. . ."

"I do not believe that we should pen ourselves up here. Grant can bring, if needed, a hundred thousand men. He is a dogged, earnest man. I think that we should concentrate as rapidly as possible and move from behind these walls. The odds are not much greater than they were in the Valley, or during the Seven Days."

"We have not General Jackson and General Lee."

"No, but the Government should give General Johnston free hand. He is the third."

"Oh, War! — When will it end and how ?"

"When we have fought to a stand-still. There is a Trojan feel to it all. . . . How beautiful you are! — fighter of floods, keeper of home! warrior and sufferer more than I am warrior and sufferer! I do not know how to say good-bye."

He had in Virginia three days. There was no time nor leave for Greenwood. His father was upon the Rappahannock, but in Richmond he saw Fauquier Cary. He had in Richmond two days.

The town lay in May sunshine, in bloom of the earliest roses. They mantled the old porches, the iron balconies, while above the magnolias opened their white chalices. The town breathed gladness for the victory in the Wilderness, and bitter grief for the many dead, and bitter grief for Stonewall Jackson. Edward heard in Richmond the Dead March for Jackson and watched him borne through the sighing streets. He heard the minute guns, and the tolling bells, and the slow, heroic music, and the sobbing of the people. He saw the coffin, borne by generals, carried into the Capitol, upward and between the great white Doric columns, into the Hall of the Lower House, where it rested before the Speaker's chair. He was among the thousands who passed before the dead chieftain, lying in state among lilies and roses, shrouded in the flag of Virginia, in the starry banner of the Confederate States. All day he heard the tolling of the bells, the firing of the minute guns.

On the morrow began the return journey to the Mississippi, long and slow on the creeping, outworn train, over the road that was so seldom mended. On the train crept, for many hundred miles, until just within the boundaries of Mississippi, at a crowded station, the passengers heard grave news. Jackson, the capital of the State, was in Federal hands!—there had been a desperate and disastrous battle at Baker's Creek, as desperate and more disastrous than Port Gibson ! — there had been a Confederate rout at Big Black Bridge. . . . The colonel of the th Virginia, and the three or four officers and men with him, left the train, impressed horses, struck north, and then west and south. After three days they came upon a grey picket line, passed, and entered Vicksburg, where they found Pemberton with something over twenty thousand effectives, — the troops that had met defeat at Baker's Creek, with others not engaged, — all under orders from Richmond to hold Vicksburg at all hazards.

On the eighteenth, the Federal forces appeared on the Jackson and Grapevine road, east of the town. The two following days were spent by the blue in making their lines of circumvallation. The grey and the blue lines were about eight hundred yards apart. On the twenty-second, the ironclads came up the river from Grand Gulf. When they opened fire on the town and its defences, which they did almost immediately, the siege of Vicksburg was formally begun.

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