MoboReader> Literature > Westways

   Chapter 24 No.24

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 25671

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was near to seven when he went down to his parked guns, seeing as he went that the ways were kept clear, and finding ready hot coffee and broiled chicken.

"Where did you get this, Josiah?" he asked.

"Kind of came in, sir-know'd he was wanted-laid two eggs." The colonel laughed and asked no further questions.

"Pull off my boots. Horses all right?"

"Yes, sir."

Without-undressing he fell on his camp-bed and, towards dusk thinking with grim humour of his wife and the Penhallow guns, fell asleep. About four in the morning the mad clamour of battle awakened him. He got up and went out of the tent. The night air was hot and oppressive. Far to our right there was the rattle of musketry and the occasional upward flare of cannon flashes against low-lying clouds. From the farthest side of the Taneytown road at the rear he heard the rattle of ambulances arriving from the field of fight to leave the wounded in tent hospitals. They came slowly, marked by their flickering lanterns, and were away again more swiftly. He gave some vague thought to the wounded and to the surgeons, for whom the night was as the day. At sunrise he went up past the already busy headquarters and came to the bush-hidden lines, where six thousand men of the Second Corps along a half mile of the irregular far-stretched Crest were up and busy. Fires were lighted, coffee boiled and biscuits munched. An air of confidence and gaiety among the men pleased him as he paused to give a sergeant a pipe light and divided his tobacco among a thankful group of ragged soldiers. All was quiet. An outpost skirmish on the right, as a man said, "was petering out." He paused here and there to talk to the men, and was interested to hear them discussing with intelligence the advantage of our short line. Now and then the guns far to left or right quarrelled, but at eleven in the morning this third of July all was quiet except the murmurous noise of thousands of men who talked or lay at rest in the bushes or contrived a refuge from the sun under shelter of a canvas hung on ramrods.

Generals Gibbon and Webb, coming near, promised him a late breakfast, and he went with them to the little peach orchard near the headquarters on the Taneytown road. They sat down on mess-chests or cracker-boxes, and to Penhallow's amusement Josiah appeared with John, the servant of Gibbon, for Josiah was, as he said, on easy terms with every black servant in the line. Presently Hancock rode up with Meade. Generals Newton and Pleasanton also appeared, and with their aides joined them. These men were officially Penhallow's superiors, and although Hancock and Gibbon were his friends, he made no effort to take part in the discussion in regard to what the passing day would bring. He had his own opinion, but no one asked for it and he smoked in an undisturbed private council of war.

At last, as he rose, Newton said, "You knew John Reynolds well, Penhallow. A moment before he fell, his aide had begged him to fall back to a less dangerous position."

"He was my friend-a soldier of the best."

"The Pennsylvanians are in force to-day-you and I and-"

"Oh, colonels don't count," laughed Penhallow; "but there are Meade,

Hancock, Gregg, Humphreys, Hays, Gibbon, Geary, Crawford-"

Hancock said, "We Pennsylvanians hold the lowest and weakest point of our line-all Pennsylvanians on their own soil."

"Yes, but they will not attack here," said Newton.

"Oh, do you think so?" said Hancock. "Wait a little."

The headquarters' ambulance drove up with further supplies. The chickens were of mature age, but every one was hungry. Cigars and pipes were lighted, and Newton chaffed Gibbon as the arrogant young brigadier in command for the time of Hancock's Corps. The talk soon fell again upon the probabilities of the day. Penhallow listened. Meade grave and silent sat on a cracker-box and ate in an absent way, or scribbled orders, and at last directed that the picked body of men, the provost's guards, should join their regimental commands. About a quarter to noon the generals one by one rode away.

Having no especial duty, Penhallow walked to where on the Crest the eighteen guns were drawn up. The sky was clear as yet, a windless, hot day. Gibbon joined him.

"What next?" said Gibbon, as Penhallow clambered up and stood a tall figure on the limber of one of Cushing's guns, his field glass searching the valley and the enemy's position. "Isn't it like a big chess-board?"

"Yes-their skirmishers look like grey posts, and our own blue. They seem uneasy."

"Aren't they just like pawns in the game!" remarked Captain Haskell of the Staff.

Penhallow, intent, hardly heard them, but said presently, "There are guidons moving fast to their right."

"Oh, artillery taking position. We shall hear from them," returned Gibbon. "Hancock thinks that being beaten on both flanks, Lee will attack our centre, and this is the lowest point."

"Well," said Haskell, "it would be madness-can Lee remember Malvern

Hill?"

"I wonder what Grant is doing?" remarked Gibbon. At that time, seated under an oak, watched at a distance by John Penhallow and a group of officers, he was dictating to unlucky Pemberton the terms of Vicksburg's surrender.

Penhallow got down from his perch and wandered among the other guns, talking to the men who were lying on the sod, or interested in the battery horses behind the shelter of trees quietly munching the thin grasses. He returned to Cushing's guns, and being in the mental attitude of intense attention to things he would not usually have noticed, he was struck with the young captain's manly build, and then with his delicacy of feature, something girl-like and gentle in his ways.

Penhallow remarked that the guns so hot already from the sun would be too easily overheated when they were put to use. "Ah," returned Cushing, "but will they be asked to talk today?" The innocent looking smile and the quick flash of wide-opened eyes told of his wish to send messages across the vale.

"Yes, I think so," said the colonel; "I think so,"-and again observant he saw the slight figure straighten and a quite other look of tender sadness come upon his face.

"How quiet they are-how very quiet!" Then he laughed merrily. "See that dog on the Emmitsburg road. He doesn't know which side he's on."

Penhallow looked at his watch. "It is one o'clock." Then his glass was up. "Ah!" he exclaimed, as he closed it, "now we shall catch it. I thought as much."

A mile away, far on Lee's right, on the low ridge in front of his position, a flash of light was seen. As the round ring of smoke shot out from the cannon, the colonel remembered the little Leila's delight when he blew smoke rings as they sat on the porch. Instantly a second gun spoke. The two shells flew over our line and lit far to the rear, while at once along Lee's position a hundred and fifty guns rang out and were instantly answered by our own artillery from Round Top to Cemetery Hill. General Hunt beside him replying to the quick questions he put, said, "We could not place over seventy-five guns-not room enough."

"Is that all? They are distributing their favours along our whole front."

At once a vast shroud of smoke rose and hid both lines, while out of it flew countless shell and roundshot. At first most of the Confederate missiles flew high and fell far behind our Crest. The two officers were coolly critical as they stood between the batteries.

"He must think our men are back of the guns like his own. The wall and bushes hide them."

"The fuses are too long," said Hunt quietly. "That's better and worse," he added, as a shell exploded near by and one of Woodruff's guns went out of action and the ground was strewn with the dead and wounded. "We shall want some of your guns."

Penhallow went in haste to the rear. What he saw was terrible. The iron hail of shells fell fast around him on the wide open space or even as far away as the hospital tents. On or near the Taneytown road terror-stricken wagon-drivers were flying, ammunition mules were torn to pieces or lying mangled; a shell exploded in a wagon,-driver, horses and a load of bread were gone. Horses lay about, dead or horribly torn; one horse hitched to a tree went on cropping grass. Penhallow missed nothing. He was in the mood peril always brought. Men said he was a slow, sure thinker, and missed seeing things which did not interest him. Now he was gay, tuned to the highest pitch of automatic watchfulness, as this far-sent storm of bursting shells went over and past the troops it was meant to destroy. Hurrying through it he saw the wide slope clear rapidly of what was left of active life. He laughed as a round shot knocked a knapsack off a man's back. The man unhurt did not stay to look for it. Once the colonel dropped as a shell lit near him. It did not explode. He ejaculated, "Pshaw," and went on. He came near the Taneytown road to find that his artillery had suffered. A score of harnessed horses lay dead or horribly mangled. His quick orders sent up to the front a dozen guns. Some were horsed, some were pulled with ropes by the cheering, eager cannoneers. Their way was up the deserted slope, "well cleared by the enemy," thought Penhallow with a smile. Once he looked back and saw the far flight of a shell end in or near an ambulance of the wounded beyond the Taneytown road.

During his absence gun after gun had been disabled and a caisson exploded; the gun crews lay dead or wounded. What more horribly disturbed Penhallow was the hideous screams of the battery horses. "Ah! the pity of it. They had no cause to die for-no duty-no choice." As he assisted in replacing the wreckage of the guns, he still heard the cries of the animals who so dumb in peace found in torture voices of anguish unheard before-unnatural, strange. The appalling tempest of shells screamed on and on, while the most of them fell beyond the Crest. Penhallow looked up to note their flight. They darted overhead shrill-voiced or hissing. There was a white puff of smoke, a red flash, and an explosion.

General Gibbon, coming back from the long line of his corps, said, "My men have suffered very little, but the headquarters behind them are in ruin. Meade has moved back." As he spoke the shells began to fall on the Crest.

"They seem to be more attentive to us," said the battery Captain

Woodruff. "Thought we'd catch it!"

"Horrible!-Those horses, Gibbon," said Penhallow.

At last there seemed to be more concentrated firing on the Crest. Many shells fell near the imperfect wall-shelter of the crouching men, while others exploded among the lines to left or right in the bushes.

"They are doing better now, confound them!" said the young general coolly. "Our men at the wall seem disturbed.

"Come with me," he said to Penhallow and Haskell of the Staff, who had just joined them.

They went down in front of the guns to where behind the low wall lay the two thin lines of the Pennsylvania regiments. He spoke to the Colonel of the 71st, who with other officers was afoot encouraging the men.

"Keep cool, boys," said Gibbon.

The men laughed. "Oh, we're all right, General, but we ain't cool."

Gibbon laughed. "Let us go over the wall and try to see a little better," said Penhallow.

A hundred yards beyond the lines they sat down. The ceaseless rain of shot and shell from both sides went over them, the canopy of smoke being so high above that the interspace between the lines was now more or less visible. Far beyond them our skirmish outposts were still motionless on guard; and yet further farms and houses, some smoking in ruin, lay among the green fields along the Emmitsburg Pike.

"It is pretty safe here," said the Corps Commander, while far above them the shells sang their war notes.

Penhallow looked back. "They've got the range-there goes one of the guns-oh! and another."

"Let's go back," said Gibbon, rising, "we are too safe here."

They laughed at his reason and followed him, Haskell remarking on the lessening of the fire. As they moved about the forty-foot spaces between the disabled batteries, the last cannon-ball rolled by them and bounded down the slope harmless. At once there was movement,-quick orders, officers busy, as fresh cannon replaced the wrecked pieces. Many of the unhurt cannoneers lay down utterly exhausted. The dead were drawn aside, while the wounded crawled away or were cared for by the stretcher-bearers and surgeons. Meanwhile the dense, hot, smoke-pall rose slowly and drifted away. The field-glasses were at once in use.

"It is half-past two," said General Hunt; "what next? Oh! our skirmishers are falling back."

"They are going to attack," said Haskell, "and can they mean our whole line-or where?"

The cannonee

rs were called to their pieces, and silently expectant the little group waited on the fateful hour, while the orderly quiet of discipline was to be seen on the Crest. The field-glasses of the officers were searching with intense interest the more and more visible vale.

"Pretty plain now, Gibbon," said Hunt.

"Yes, we are in for it."

"They are forming," said Penhallow. A line appeared from the low swell of ground in front of Lee's position-then a second and a third. Muskets and bayonets flashed in the sun.

"Can you make out their flags?" asked Gibbon, "or their numbers?"

"Not the flags." He waited intent, watchful. No one spoke-minute after minute went by. At last Penhallow answered. "A long line-a good half mile-quite twelve thousand-oh, more-more. Now they are advancing en échelon."

To left, to right, along our lines was heard the thud, thud, of the ramrods, and percussion-cap boxes were slid around the waist to be handy. Penhallow and others drew their pistols. The cannon were now fully replaced, the regimental flags unrolled, and on the front line, long motionless, the trefoil guidons of the two divisions of the Second Corps fluttered feebly. The long row of skirmishers firing fell back more and more rapidly, and came at last into our lines.

Penhallow said, turning to Gibbon, "They have-I think-they have no supporting batteries-that is strange." Haskell and Gibbon had gone as he spoke and the low crest was free at this point of all but the artillery force. To left, the projecting clump of trees and the lines of the Second Corps-all he could see-were ominously quiet.

Gibbon came back to the crest. He said, "We may need backing if they concentrate on us; here our line is too thin." And still the orderly grey columns came on silently, without their usual charging-yell.

"Ah!" exclaimed Penhallow without lowering his glass, as he gazed to our left. The clamour of cannon broke out from little Round Top.

"Rifles!" exclaimed Gibbon. "Good!" Their left made no reply, but seemed to draw away from the fire.

"I can see no more," said the Colonel, "but they stopped at the

Emmitsburg road."

The acrid odour of musketry drifted across the field as he turned to gaze at the left wing of the fast coming onset. Far to our right they came under the fire of Cemetery Hill and of an advanced Massachusetts regiment. He saw the blue flags of Virginia sway, fall, and rise no more, while scattered and broken the Confederates fled or fell under the fury of the death messages from above the long-buried dead of the village graves. "Now then, Cushing!" cried Hunt, and the guns on the Crest opened fire.

It was plain that the long Confederate lines, frayed on each flank, had crowded together making a vast wedge of attack. Then all along our miles of troops a crackle of musketry broke out, the big guns bellowing. The field was mostly lost to view in the dense smoke, under which the charging-force halted and steadily returned the fire.

"I can't see," cried Cushing near by.

"Quite three hundred yards or more," said the colonel, "and you are hurt,

Cushing. Go to the rear." The blood was streaming down his leg.

"Not I-it is nothing. Hang those fellows!" A New York battery gallantly run in between disabled guns crowded Cushing's cannon. He cried, "Section one to the front, by hand!"

He was instantly obeyed. As he went with it to the front near to the wall, followed by Penhallow, he said, "It is my last canister, colonel. I can't see well."

Dimly seen figures in the dense smoke were visible here and there some two hundred yards away, with flutter of reeling battle-flags in the smoke, while more and more swiftly the wedge of men came on, losing terribly by the fire of the men at the wall along the lines.

Cushing stood with the lanyard of the percussion trigger in his hand. It seems inconceivable, but the two men smiled. Then he cried, "My God!"-his figure swayed, he held his left hand over a ghastly wound in his side, and as he reeled pulled the lanyard. He may have seen the red flash, and then with a bullet through the open mouth fell dead across the trail of his gun.

For a moment Penhallow was the only officer of rank near the silent battery. Where Cushing's two guns came too near the wall, the men moved away to the sides leaving an unguarded space. Checked everywhere to right and left, the assailants crowded on to the clump of trees and to where the Pennsylvania line held the stone wall. Ignorant of the ruin behind them, the grey mass came on with a rush through the smoke. The men in blue, losing terribly, fell back from a part of the wall in confusion-a mere mob-sweeping Webb, Penhallow and others with them, swearing and furious. Two or three hundred feet back they stopped, a confused mass. General Webb, Haskell and other officers rallied them. The red flags gathered thicker, where the small units of many commands stood fast under the shelter of a portion of the lost wall. Penhallow looked back and saw the Massachusetts flags-our centre alone had given way. The flanks of the broken regiments still held the wall and poured in a murderous fire where the splendid courage of the onset halted, unwilling to fly, unable to go on.

Webb, furious, rallied his men, while Penhallow, Haskell and Gibbon vainly urged an advance. A colour-sergeant ran forward and fell dead. A corporal caught up the flag and dropped. A Confederate general leaped over the deserted wall and laid a hand on Cushing's gun. He fell instantly at the side of the dead captain, as with a sudden roar of fury the broken Pennsylvanians rolled in a disordered mass of men and officers against the disorganized valour which held the wall.

The smoke held-still holds, the secret of how many met the Northern men at the wall; how long they fought among Cushing's guns, on and over the wall, no man who came out of it could tell. Penhallow emptied his revolver and seizing a musket fought the brute battle with the men who used fists, stones, gun-rammers-a howling mob of blue and grey. And so the swaying flags fell down under trampling men and the lost wall was won. The fight was over. Men fell in scores, asking quarter. The flanking fires had been merciless, and the slope was populous with dead and wounded men, while far away the smoke half hid the sullen retreat of the survivors. The prearranged mechanism of war became active. Thousands of prisoners were being ordered to the rear. Men stood still, gasping, breathless or dazed. As Penhallow stood breathing hard, from the right wing, among the long silent dead of Cemetery Hill, arose a wild hurrah. It gathered volume, rolled down the long line of corps after corps, and died away among the echoes of the Pennsylvania hills. He looked about him trying to recover interest. Some one said that Hancock and Gibbon were wounded. The rush of the mêlée had carried him far down the track of the charge, and having no instant duty he sat down, his clothes in tatters. As he recovered strength, he was aware of General Meade on horseback with an aide. The general, white and grave, said to Haskell, "How has it gone here?"

An officer cried, "They are beaten," showing two flags he held.

Meade said sharply: "Damn the flags! Are the men gone?"

"Yes, sir, the attack is over."

He uncovered, said only, "Thank God!" gave some rapid orders and rode away beside the death-swath, careful, as Penhallow saw, to keep his horse off of the thirty scattered flags, many lying under or over the brave who had fought and lost in this memorable charge.

Penhallow could have known of the battle only what he had seen, but a few words from an officer told him that nowhere except at this part of the line of the Second Corps had the attack been at all fortunate.

On the wide field of attack our ambulance corps was rescuing the hundreds of wounded Confederates, many of them buried, helpless, beneath the bodies of the motionless dead. Two soldiers stood near him derisively flaunting flags.

"Quit that," cried the Colonel, "drop them!" The men obeyed.

"Death captured them-not we," said Penhallow, and saw that he was speaking to a boyish Confederate lieutenant, who had just dragged himself limping out of the ghastly heap of dead.

Touching his forehead in salute, he said, "Thank you, sir. Where shall I go?"

"Up there," replied the colonel. "You will be cared for."

The man limped away followed by Penhallow, who glanced at the torn Confederate banners lying blood-stained about the wall and beyond it. He read their labels-Manassas, Chancellorsville, Sharpsburg. One marked Fredericksburg lay gripped in the hand of a dead sergeant. He crossed the wall to look for the body of the captain of the battery; men were lifting it. "My God!-Poor boy!" murmured the colonel, as he looked on the white face of death. He asked who was the Rebel general who had fallen beside Cushing.

"General Armistead," said an officer-"mortally wounded, they say."

Penhallow turned and went down the slope again. Far away, widely scattered, he caught glimpses of this rash and gallant attack. He was aware of that strange complex odour which rises from a battlefield. It affected him as horrible and as unlike any other unpleasant smell. Feeling better, he busied himself directing those who were aiding the wounded. A general officer he did not know said to him, "Stop the firing from that regiment."

A number of still excited men of one of the flanking brigades on our right were firing uselessly at the dimly seen and remote mass of the enemy. Penhallow went quickly to the right, and as he drew near shouted, "Stop those men-quit firing!" He raised his hand to call attention to his order. The firing lessened, and seeing that he was understood he turned away. At the moment he was not fifty feet from the flanking line, and had moved far down the slope as one of the final shots rang out. He felt something like a blow on his right temple, and as he staggered was aware of the gush of blood down his face. "What fool did that?" he exclaimed as he reeled and fell. He rose, fell, rose again, and managed to tie a handkerchief around his head. He stumbled to the wall and lay down, his head aching. He could go no further. "Queer, that," he murmured; "they might have seen." He sat up; things around him were doubled to his view.

"Are you hit?" said Haskell, who was directing stretcher-bearers and sending prisoners to the rear.

"Not badly." He was giddy and in great pain. Then he was aware of the anxious face of Josiah.

"My God! you hurt, sir? Come to look for you-can you ride? I fetched

Dixy-mare's killed."

"I am not badly hurt. Tighten this handkerchief and give me your arm-I can't ride,"

He arose, and amazed at his weakness, dragged himself down the slope, through the reforming lines, the thousands of prisoners, the reinforcing cannon and the wreckage of the hillside. He fell on his couch, and more at ease began to think, with some difficulty in controlling his thoughts. At last he said, "I shall be up to-morrow," and lay still, seeing, as the late afternoon went by, Grey Pine and Ann Penhallow. Then he was aware of Captain Haskell and a surgeon, who dressed his wound and said, "It was mere shock-there is no fracture. The ball cut the artery and tore the scalp. You'll be all right in a day or two."

Penhallow said, "Please to direct my servant to the Sanitary Commission.

I think my friend, the Rev. Mark Rivers, is with them."

He slept none. It was early dawn when Rivers came in anxious and troubled. For the first time in years of acquaintance he found Penhallow depressed, and amazed because so small a wound made him weak and unable to think clearly or to give orders. "And it was some stupid boy from our line," he said.

His incapacity made Rivers uneasy, and although Penhallow broke out to his surprise in angry remonstrance, he convinced him at last that he must return to Grey Pine on sick leave. He asked no question about the army. Insisting that he was too well to give up his command, nevertheless he talked much of headache and lack of bodily power. He was, as Rivers saw, no longer the good-humoured, quiet gentleman, with no thought of self. In a week he was stronger, but as his watchful friend realized, there was something mysteriously wrong with his mental and moral mechanism.

On the day after the battle Penhallow asked to have his wife telegraphed that he was slightly wounded, and that she must not come to him. Rivers wrote also a brief and guarded letter to Leila of their early return to Grey Pine.

In a vain effort to interest the colonel, he told him of the surrender of Vicksburg.-He asked where it was and wasn't John there, but somewhat later became more clear-minded and eager to go home.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares