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Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 8608

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"Whole theatre of action."

The figure had sounded apt to Anna on that Sunday evening when the Doctor employed it; apt enough--until the outburst of that great and dreadful news whose inseparable implications and forebodings robbed her of all sleep that night and made her the first one astir at daybreak. But thenceforward, and now for half a week or more, the aptness seemed quite to have passed. Strange was the theatre whose play was all and only a frightful reality; whose swarming, thundering, smoking stage had its audience, its New Orleans audience, wholly behind it, and whose curtain of distance, however thin, mocked every bodily sense and compelled all to be seen and heard by the soul's eye and ear, with all the joy and woe of its actuality and all its suspense, terror, triumph, heartbreak, and despair.

Yet here was that theatre, and the Doctor's metaphor was still good enough for the unexacting taste of the two Valcour ladies, to whom Anna had quoted it. And here, sprinkled through the vast audience of that theatre, with as keen a greed for its play as any, were all the various non-combatants with whom we are here concerned, though not easily to be singled out, such mere units were they of the impassioned multitude every mere unit of which, to loved and loving ones, counted for more than we can tell.

However, our favourites might be glimpsed now and then. On a certain midday of that awful half-week the Callenders, driving, took up Victorine at her gate and Flora at her door and sped up-town to the newspaper offices in Camp street to rein in against a countless surge of old men in fine dress, their precious dignity thrown to the dogs, each now but one of the common herd, and each against all, shouldering, sweating, and brandishing wide hands to be the first purchaser and reader of the list, the long, ever-lengthening list of the killed and wounded. Much had been learned of the great two-days' battle, and many an infantry sister, and many a battery sister besides Anna, was second-sighted enough to see, night and day, night and day, the muddy labyrinth of roads and by-roads that braided and traversed the wide, unbroken reaches of dense timber--with their deep ravines, their long ridges, and their creek-bottom marshes and sloughs--in the day's journey from Corinth to the bluffs of the Tennessee. They saw them, not empty, nor fearlessly crossed by the quail, the wild turkey, the fox, or the unhunted deer, nor travelled alone by the homespun "citizen" or by scouts or foragers, but slowly overflowed by a great gray, silent, tangled, armed host--cavalry, infantry, ordnance trains, batteries, battery wagons and ambulances: Saw Hilary Kincaid and all his heroes and their guns, and all the "big generals" and their smart escorts and busy staffs: Saw the various columns impeding each other, taking wrong ways and losing priceless hours while thousands of inexperienced boys, footsore, drenched and shivering yet keen for the fight, ate their five-days' food in one, or threw it away to lighten the march, and toiled on in hunger, mud, cold and rain, without the note of a horn or drum or the distant eye of one blue scout to tell of their oncoming.

They saw, did Anna and those sisters (and many and many a wife and mother from Callender House to Carrollton), the vast, stealthy, fireless bivouac at fall of night, in ear-shot of the enemy's tattoo, unsheltered from the midnight storm save by raked-up leaves: Saw, just in the bivouac's tortuous front, softly reddening the low wet sky, that huge, rude semicircle of camps in the dark ridged and gullied forests about Shiloh's log meeting-house, where the victorious Grant's ten-thousands--from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, as new to arms as their foe, yet a band of lions in lair--lay dry-tented, full fed and fast asleep, safely flanked by swollen streams, their gunboats behind them and Buell coming, but without one mounted outpost, a scratch of entrenchment or a whisper of warning.

Amid the eager carriage talk, in which Anna kept her part, her mind's eye still saw the farther scene as it changed again and the gray dawn and gray host furtively rose together and together silently spread through the deep woods. She watched the day increase and n

oon soar up and sink away while the legions of Hardee, Bragg, Polk and Breckinridge slowly writhed out of their perplexed folds and set themselves, still undetected in their three successive lines of battle. She beheld the sun set calm and clear, the two hosts lie down once more, one in its tents, the other on its arms, the leafy night hang over them resplendent with stars, its watches near by, the Southern lines reawaken in recovered strength, spring up and press forward exultantly to the awful issue, and the Sabbath dawn brighten into a faultless day with the boom of the opening gun.

As the ladies drew up behind the throng and across the throat of Commercial Alley the dire List began to flutter from the Picayune office in greedy palms and over and among dishevelled heads like a feeding swarm of white pigeons. News there was as well as names, but every eye devoured the names first and then--unless some name struck lightning in the heart, as Anna saw it do every here and there and for that poor old man over yonder--after the names the news.

"Nan, we needn't stay if you--"

"Oh, Miranda, isn't all this ours?"

The bulletin boards were already telling in outline, ahead of the list, thrilling things about the Orleans Guards, the whirlwind onset of whose maiden bayonets had captured double its share of the first camp taken from the amazed, unbreakfasted enemy, and who again and again, hour by hour, by the half-mile and mile, had splendidly helped to drive him--while he hammered back with a deadly stubbornness all but a match for their fury. Through forests, across clearings, over streams and bogs and into and out of ravines and thickets they had swept, seizing transiently a whole field battery, permanently hundreds of prisoners, and covering the strife's broad wake with even more appalling numbers of their own dead and wounded than of the foe's: wailing wounded, ghastly, grimy dead, who but yesterday were brothers, cousins and playmates of these very men snatching and searching the list. They told, those boards, of the Washington Artillery (fifth company, never before under fire) being thanked on the field by one of the "big generals," their chests and wheels shot half to splinters but no gun lost. They told of all those Louisiana commands whose indomitable lines charged and melted, charged and withered, over and over the torn and bloody ground in that long, horrible struggle that finally smoked out the "Hornets' Nest." They told of the Crescent Regiment, known and loved on all these sidewalks and away up to and beyond their Bishop-General Polk's Trinity Church, whose desperate gallantry had saved that same Washington Artillery three of its pieces, and to whose thinned and bleeding ranks swarms of the huddled Western farm boys, as shattered and gory as their captors and as glorious, had at last laid down their arms. And they told of Kincaid's Battery, Captain Kincaid commanding; how, having early lost in the dense oak woods and hickory brush the brigade--Brodnax's--whose way they had shelled open for a victorious charge, they had followed their galloping leader, the boys running beside the wheels, from position to position, from ridge to ridge, in rampant obedience of an order to "go in wherever they heard the hottest firing", how for a time they had fought hub to hub beside the Washington Artillery; how two of their guns, detached for a special hazard and sweeping into fresh action on a flank of the "Hornets' Nest," had lost every horse at a single volley of the ambushed foe, yet had instantly replied with slaughterous vengeance; and how, for an hour thereafter, so wrapped in their own smoke that they could be pointed only by the wheel-ruts of their recoil, they had been worked by their depleted gunners on hands and knees with Kincaid and Villeneuve themselves at the trails and with fuses cut to one second. So, in scant outline said the boards, or more in detail read one man aloud to another as they hurried by the carriage.

"But," said Anna, while Flora enjoyed her pallor, "all that is about the first day's fight!"

"No," cried Constance, "it's the second day's, that Beauregard calls 'a great and glorious victory!'"

"Yes," interposed Flora, "but writing from behind his fortification' at Corinth, yes!"

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