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   Chapter 57 GATES OF HELL AND GLORY

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9028

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The next sun rose fair over the green, rolling, open land, rich in half-grown crops of cotton and corn between fence-rows of persimmon and sassafras. Before it was high the eager Callenders were out on a main road. Their Mobile boy had left them and given the reins to an old man, a disabled and paroled soldier bound homeward into Vicksburg. Delays plagued them on every turn. At a cross-road they were compelled to wait for a large body of infantry, followed by its ordnance wagons, to sweep across their path with the long, swift stride of men who had marched for two years and which changed to a double-quick as they went over a hill-top. Or next they had to draw wildly aside into the zigzags of a worm-fence for a column of galloping cavalry and shroud their heads from its stifling dust while their driver hung to his mules' heads by the bits. More than once they caught from some gentle rise a backward glimpse of long thin lines puffing and crackling at each other; oftener and more and more they heard the far resound of artillery, the shuffling, clattering flight of shell, and their final peal as they reported back to the guns that had sent them; and once, when the ladies asked if a certain human note, rarefied by distance, was not the hurrahing of boys on a school-ground, the old man said no, it was "the Yanks charging." But never, moving or standing from aides or couriers spurring to front or flank, or from hobbling wounded men or unhurt stragglers footing to the rear, could they gather a word as to Brodnax's brigade or Kincaid's Battery.

"Kincaid's Battery hell! You get those ladies out o' this as fast as them mules can skedaddle."

By and by ambulances and then open wagons began to jolt and tilt past them full of ragged, grimy, bloody men wailing and groaning, no one heeding the entreaties of the three ladies to be taken in as nurses. Near a cross-road before them they saw on a fair farmhouse the yellow flag, and a vehicle or two at its door, yet no load of wounded turned that way. Out of it, instead, excited men were hurrying, some lamely, feebly, afoot, others at better speed on rude litters, but all rearward across the plowed land. Two women stepped out into a light trap and vanished behind a lane hedge before Constance could call the attention of her companions.

"Why, Nan, if we didn't know she was in New Orleans I'd stand the world down that that was Flora!"

There was no time for debate. All at once, in plain sight, right at hand, along a mask of young willows in the near left angle of the two roads, from a double line of gray infantry whose sudden apparition had startled Anna and Miranda, rang a long volley. From a fringe of woods on the far opposite border the foe's artillery pealed, and while the Callenders' mules went into agonies of fright the Federal shells began to stream and scream across the space and to burst before and over the gray line lying flat in the furrows and darting back fire and death. With their quaking equipage hugging the farther side of the way the veiled ladies leaned out to see, but drew in as a six-mule wagon coming from the front at wild speed jounced and tottered by them. It had nearly passed when with just a touch of hubs it tossed them clear off the road, smashing one of their wheels for good and all. Some one sprang and held their terrified mules and they alighted on a roadside bank counting themselves already captured.

"Look out, everybody," cried a voice, "here come our own guns, six of 'em, like hell to split!" and in a moment the way was cleared.

A minute before this, down the cross-road, southward a quarter of a mile or so, barely out of sight behind fence-rows, the half of a battalion of artillery had halted in column, awaiting orders. With two or three lesser officers a general, galloping by it from behind, had drawn up on a slight rise at the southwest corner of the fire-swept field, taken one glance across it and said, "Hilary, can your ladies' men waltz into action in the face of those guns?"

"They can dance the figure, General."

"Take them in."

Bartleson, watching, had mounted drivers and cannoneers before Kincaid could spur near enough to call, "Column, forward!" and turn again toward the General and the uproar beyond. The column had barely stretched out when, looking back on it as he quickened pace, Hilary's cry was, "Battery, trot, march!" So the six guns had come by the general: first Hilary, sword out, pistols in belt; then his adjutant; then bugler and

guidon, and then Bartleson and the boys; horses striding out--ah, there were the Callenders' own span!--whips cracking, carriages thumping and rumbling, guns powder-blackened and brown, their wheels, trails, and limbers chipped and bitten, and their own bronze pock-pitted by the flying iron and lead of other fights, and the heroes in saddle and on chests--with faces as war-worn as the wood and metal and brute life under them--cheering as they passed. Six clouds of dust in one was all the limping straggler had seen when he called his glad warning, for a tall hedge lined half the cross-road up which the whirlwind came; but a hundred yards or so short of the main way the whole battery, still shunning the field because of spongy ground, swept into full view at a furious gallop. Yet only as a single mass was it observed, and despite all its thunder of wheels was seen only, not heard. Around the Callenders was a blindfold of dust and vehicles, of shouting and smoke, and out in the field the roar of musketry and howling and bursting of shell. Even Flora, in her ambulance close beyond both roads, watching for the return of a galloping messenger and seeing Hilary swing round into the highway, low bent over his charger at full run, knew him only as he vanished down it hidden by the tempest of hoofs, wheels, and bronze that whirled after him.

At Anna's side among the rearing, trembling teams a mounted officer, a surgeon, Flora's messenger, was commanding and imploring her to follow Constance and Miranda into the wagon which had wrecked their conveyance. And so, alas! all but trampling her down, yet unseeing and unseen though with her in every leap of his heart, he who despite her own prayers was more to her than a country's cause or a city's deliverance flashed by, while in the dust and thunder of the human avalanche that followed she stood asking whose battery was this and with drowned voice crying, as she stared spell-bound, "Oh, God! is it only Bartleson's? Oh, God of mercy! where is Hilary Kincaid?" A storm of shell burst directly overhead. Men and beasts in the whirling battery, and men and beasts close about her wailed, groaned, fell. Anna was tossed into the wagon, the plunging guns, dragging their stricken horses, swept out across the field, the riot of teams, many with traces cut, whipped madly away, and still, thrown about furiously in the flying wagon, she gazed from her knees and mutely prayed, but saw no Hilary because while she looked for a rider his horse lay fallen.

Never again came there to that band of New Orleans boys such an hour of glory as this at Champion's Hill. For two years more, by the waning light of a doomed cause, they fought on, won fame and honor; but for blazing splendor--of daring, skill, fortitude, loss and achievement which this purblind world still sees plainest in fraternal slaughter--that was the mightiest hour, the mightiest ten minutes, ever spent, from 'Sixty-one to 'Sixty-five, by Kincaid's Battery.

Right into the face of death's hurricane sprang the ladies' man, swept the ladies' men. "Battery, trot, walk. Forward into battery! Action front!" It was at that word that Kincaid's horse went down; but while the pieces trotted round and unlimbered and the Federal guns vomited their fire point-blank and blue skirmishers crackled and the gray line crackled back, and while lead and iron whined and whistled, and chips, sand and splinters flew, and a dozen boys dropped, the steady voice of Bartleson gave directions to each piece by number, for "solid shot," or "case" or "double canister." Only one great blast the foe's artillery got in while their opponents loaded, and then, with roar and smoke as if the earth had burst, Kincaid's Battery answered like the sweep of a scythe. Ah, what a harvest! Instantly the guns were wrapped in their own white cloud, but, as at Shiloh, they were pointed again, again and again by the ruts of their recoil, Kincaid and Bartleson each pointing one as its nine men dwindled to five and to four, and in ten minutes nothing more was to be done but let the gray line through with fixed bayonets while Charlie, using one of Hilary's worn-out quips, stood on Roaring Betsy's trunnion-plates and cursed out to the shattered foe, "Bricks, lime and sand always on hand!--,--,--!"

Yet this was but a small part of the day's fight, and Champion's Hill was a lost battle. Next day the carnage was on Baker's Creek and at Big Black Bridge, and on the next Vicksburg was invested.

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