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   Chapter 25 ASHBY

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 22820

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Flournoy and Munford, transferred to Ashby's command, kept with him in the Confederate rear. The army marching from the Shenandoah left the cavalry behind in the wind and rain to burn the bridge and delay Frémont. Ashby, high on the eastern bank, watched the slow flames seize the timbers, fight with the wet, prevail and mount. The black stallion planted his fore feet, shook his head, snuffed the air. The wind blew out his rider's cloak. In the light from the burning bridge the scarlet lining glowed and gleamed like the battle-flag. The stallion neighed. Ashby's voice rose ringingly. "Chew, get the Blakeley ready! Wyndham's on the other side!"

The flames mounted high, a great pyre streaming up, reddening the night, the roaring Shenandoah, the wet and glistening woods. Out of the darkness to the north came Maury Stafford with a scouting party. He saluted. "There is a considerable force over there, sir, double-quicking through the woods to save the bridge. Cavalry in front-Wyndham, I suppose, still bent on 'bagging' you."

"Here they are!" said Ashby. "But you are too late, Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham!"

The blazing arch across the river threw a wine-red light up and down and showed cavalry massing beneath walnut, oak, and pine. There were trumpet signals and a great trampling of hoofs, but the roaring flames, the swollen torrent, the pattering rain, the flaws of wind somewhat dulled other sounds. A tall man with sash and sabre, thigh boots and marvellously long moustaches, sat his horse beneath a dripping, wind-tossed pine. He pointed to the grey troopers up and down the southern bank. "There's the quarry! Fire!"

Two could play at that game. The flash from the northern bank and the rattle of the carbines were met from the southern by as vivid a leaping spark, as loud a sound. With the New Jersey squadrons was a Parrott gun. It was brought up, placed and fired. The shell exploded as it touched the red-lit water. There was a Versailles fountain costing nothing. The Blakeley answered. The grey began to sing.

"If you want to have a good time-

If you want to have a good time-

If you want to catch the devil,

Jine the cavalry!"

A courier appeared beside Ashby. "General Jackson wants to know, sir, if they can cross?"

"Look at the bridge and tell him, No."

"Then he says to fall back. Ammunition's precious."

The cavalry leader put to his lips the fairy clarion slung from his shoulder and sounded the retreat. The flaming bridge lit all the place and showed the great black horse and him upon it. The English adventurer across the water had with him sharpshooters. In the light that wavered, leaped and died, and sprang again, these had striven in vain to reach that high-placed target. Now one succeeded.

The ball entered the black's side. He had stood like a rock, now he veered like a ship in a storm. Ashby dropped the bugle, threw his leg over the saddle, and sprang to the earth as the great horse sank. Those near him came about him. "No! I am not hurt, but Black Conrad is. My poor friend!" He stroked Black Conrad, kissed him between the eyes and drew his pistol. Chew fired the Blakeley again, drowning all lesser sound. Suddenly the supports of the bridge gave way. A great part of the roaring mass fell into the stream; the remainder, toward the southern shore, flamed higher and higher. The long rattle of the Federal carbines had an angry sound. They might have marched more swiftly after all, seeing that Stonewall Jackson would not march more slowly! Build a bridge! How could they build a bridge over the wide stream, angry itself, hoarsely and violently thrusting its way under an inky, tempestuous sky! They had no need to spare ammunition, and so they fired recklessly, cannon, carbine, and revolvers into the night after the grey, retiring squadrons.

Stafford, no great favourite with the mass of the men, but well liked by some, rode beside a fellow officer. This was a man genial and shrewd, who played the game of war as he played that of whist, eyes half closed and memory holding every card. He spoke cheerfully. "Shenandoah beautifully swollen! Don't believe Frémont has pontoons. He's out of the reckoning for at least a day and a night-probably longer. Nice for us all!"

"It has been a remarkable campaign."

"'Remarkable'! Tell you what it's like, Stafford. It's like 1796-Napoleon's Italian campaign."

"You think so? Well, it may be true. Hear the wind in the pines!"

"Tell you what you lack, Stafford. You lack interest in the war. You are too damned perfunctory. You take orders like an automaton, and you go execute them like an automaton. I don't say that they're not beautifully executed; they are. But the soul's not there. The other day at Tom's Brook I watched you walk your horse up to the muzzle of that fellow Wyndham's guns, and, by God! I don't believe you knew any more than an automaton that the guns were there!"

"Yes, I did-"

"Well, you may have known it with one half of your brain. You didn't with the other half. To a certain extent, I can read your hand. You've got a big war of your own, in a country of your own-eh?"

"Perhaps you are not altogether wrong. Such things happen sometimes."

"Yes, they do. But I think it a pity! This war"-he jerked his head toward the environing night-"is big enough, with horribly big stakes. If I were you, I'd drum the individual out of camp."

"Think only of the general? I wish I could!"

"Well, can't you?"

"No, not yet."

"There are only two things-barring disease-which can so split the brain in two-send the biggest part off, knight-errant or Saracen, into some No-Man's Country, and keep the other piece here in Virginia to crack invaders' skulls! One's love and one's hate-"

"Never both?"

"Knight-errant and Saracen in one? That's difficult."

"Nothing is so difficult as life, nor so strange. And, perhaps, love and hate are both illnesses. Sometimes I think so."

"A happy recovery then! You are too good a fellow-"

"I am not a good fellow."

"You are not at least an amiable one to-night! Don't let the fever get too high!"

"Will you listen," said Stafford, "to the wind in the pines? and did you ever see the automatic chess-player?"

Two days later, Frémont, having bridged the Shenandoah, crossed, and pushed his cavalry with an infantry support southward by the pike. About three in the afternoon of the sixth, Ashby's horses were grazing in the green fields south of Harrisonburg, on the Port Republic road. To the west stretched a belt of woodland, eastward rose a low ridge clad with beech and oak. The green valley lay between. The air, to-day, was soft and sweet, the long billows of the Blue Ridge seen dreamily, through an amethyst haze. The men lay among dandelions. Some watched the horses; others read letters from home, or, haversack for desk, wrote some vivid, short-sentenced scrawl. A number were engaged by the rim of the clear pool. Naked to the waist, they knelt like washerwomen, and rubbed the soapless linen against smooth stones, or wrung it wrathfully, or turning, spread it, grey-white, upon the grass to dry. Four played poker beneath a tree, one read a Greek New Testament, six had found a small turtle, and with the happy importance of boys were preparing a brushwood fire and the camp kettle. Others slept, head pillowed on arm, soft felt hat drawn over eyes. The rolling woodland toward Harrisonburg and Frémont was heavily picketed. A man rose from beside the pool, straightened himself, and holding up the shirt he had been washing looked at it critically. Apparently it passed muster, for he painstakingly stretched it upon the grass and taking a pair of cotton drawers turned again to the water. A blue-eyed Loudoun youth whistling "Swanee River" brought a brimming bucket from the stream that made the pool and poured it gleefully into the kettle. A Prince Edward man, lying chest downward, blew the fire, another lifted the turtle. The horses moved toward what seemed lusher grass, one of the poker players said "Damn!" the reader turned a leaf of the Greek Testament. One of the sleepers sat up. "I thought I heard a shot-"

Perhaps he had heard one; at any rate he now heard many. Down the road and out from under the great trees of the forest in front burst the pickets driven in by a sudden, well-directed onslaught of blue cavalry-Frémont's advance with a brigade of infantry behind. In a moment all was haste and noise in the green vale. Men leaped to their feet, left their washing, left the turtle simmering in the pot, the gay cards upon the greensward, put up the Greek Testament, the home letters, snatched belt and carbine, caught the horses, saddled them with speed, swung themselves up, and trotted into line, eyes front-Ashby's men.

The pickets had their tale to tell. "Burst out of the wood-the damned Briton again, sir, with his squadrons from New Jersey! Rode us down-John Ferrar killed-Gilbert captured-You can see from the hilltop there. They are forming for a charge. There's infantry behind-Blinker's Dutch from the looks of them!"

"Blinker's Dutch," said the troopers. "'Hooney,' 'Nix furstay,' 'Bag Jackson,' 'Kiss und steal,' 'Hide under bed,' 'Rifle bureau drawers,' 'Take lockets und rings'-Blinker's Dutch! We should have dog whips!"

To the rear was the little ridge clothed with beech and oak. The road wound up and over it. Ashby's bugle sounded. "Right face. Trot! March!" The road went gently up, grass on either side with here and there a clump of small pines. Butterflies fluttered; all was gay and sweet in the June sunshine. Ashby rode before on the bay stallion. The Horse Artillery came also from the meadow where it had been camped-Captain Chew, aged nineteen, and his three guns and his threescore men, four of them among the best gunners in the whole army. All mounted the ridge, halted and deployed. The guns were posted advantageously, the 6th, the 7th, and the 2d Virginia Cavalry in two ranks along the ridge. Wide-spreading beech boughs, growing low, small oak scrub and branchy dogwood made a screen of the best; they looked down, hidden, upon a gentle slope and the Port Republic road. Ashby's post was in front of the silver bole of a great beech. With one gauntleted hand he held the bay stallion quiet, with the other he shaded his eyes and gazed at the westerly wood into which ran the road. Chew, to his right, touched the Blakeley lovingly. Gunner number 1 handed the powder. Number 2 rammed it home, took the shell from Number 1 and put it in. All along the ridge the horsemen handled their carbines, spoke each in a quiet, genial tone to his horse. Sound of the approaching force made itself heard and increased.

"About a thousand, shouldn't you think, sir?" asked an aide.

"No. Between seven and eight hundred. Do you remember in 'Ivanhoe'-"

Out of the western wood, in order of charge, issued a body of horse. It was yet a little distant, horses at a trot, the declining sun making a stirring picture. Rapidly crescent to eye and ear, they came on. Their colours flew, the sound of their bugles raised the blood. Their pace changed to a gallop. The thundering hoofs, the braying trumpets, shook the air. Colours and guidons grew large.

"By God, sir, Wyndham is coming to eat you up! This time he knows he's caught the hare."

"Do all John Bulls ride like that? Shades of

the Revolution! did we all ride like that before we came to Virginia?"

"God! what a noise!"

Ashby spoke. "Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes."

The charge began to swallow up the gentle slope, the sunny road, the green grass to either hand. The bugles blew at height, the sabres gleamed, the tall man in front rode rising in his stirrups, his sabre overhead. "Huzzah! huzzah! huzzah!" shouted the blue cavalry.

"Are you ready, Captain Chew?" demanded Ashby. "Very well, then, let them have it!"

The Blakeley and the two Parrott guns spoke in one breath. While the echoes were yet thundering, burst a fierce volley from all the Confederate short rifles. Down went the Federal colour-bearer, down went other troopers in the front rank, down went the great gaunt horse beneath the Englishman! Those behind could not at once check their headlong gallop; they surged upon and over the fallen. The Blakeley blazed again and the grey carbines rang. The Englishman was on his feet, had a trooper's horse and was shouting like a savage, urging the squadrons on and up. For the third time the woods flamed and rang. The blue lines wavered. Some horsemen turned. "Damn you! On!" raged Wyndham.

Ashby put his bugle to his lips. Clear and sweet rose the notes, a silver tempest. "Ashby! Ashby!" shouted the grey lines and charged. "Ashby! Ashby!" Out of the woods and down the hill they came like undyked waters. The two tides met and clashed. There followed a wild mêlée, a shouting, an unconscious putting forth of great muscular energy, a seeing as through red glasses besmirched with powder smoke, a poisonous odour, a sense of cotton in the mouth, a feeling as of struggle on a turret, far, far up, with empty space around and below. The grey prevailed, the blue turned and fled. For a moment it seemed as though they were flying through the air, falling, falling! the grey had a sense of dizziness as they struck spur in flank and pursued headlong. All seemed to be sinking through the air, then, suddenly, they felt ground, exhaled breath, and went thundering up the Port Republic road, toward Harrisonburg. In front strained the blue, presently reaching the wood. A gun boomed from a slope beyond. Ashby checked the pursuit and listened to the report of a vedette. "Frémont pushing forward. Horse and guns and the German division. Hm!" He sat the bay stallion, looking about him, then, "Cuninghame, you go back to General Ewell. Rear guard can't be more than three miles away. Tell General Ewell about the Germans and ask him to give me a little infantry. Hurry now, and if he gives them, bring them up quickly!"

The vedette galloped eastward. Ashby and his men rode back to the ridge, the Horse Artillery, the dead, the wounded, and the prisoners. The latter numbered four officers and forty men. They were all in a group in the sunshine, which lay with softness upon the short grass and the little pine trees. The dead lay huddled, while over them flitted the butterflies. Ashby's surgeons were busy with the wounded. A man with a shattered jaw was making signs, deliberately talking in the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, which perhaps he had learned for some friend or relative's sake. A younger man, his hand clenched over a wound in the breast, said monotonously, over and over again, "I am from Trenton, New Jersey, I am from Trenton, New Jersey." A third with glazing eyes made the sign of the cross, drew himself out of the sun, under one of the little pine trees, and died. Some of the prisoners were silent. Others talked with bravado to their captors. "Salisbury, North Carolina! That's not far. Five hundred miles not far-Besides, Frémont will make a rescue presently. And if he doesn't, Shields will to-morrow! Then off you fellows go to Johnson's Island!" The officer who had led the charge sat on a bank above the road. In the onset he had raged like a Berserker, now he sat imperturbable, ruddy and stolid, an English philosopher on a fallen pine. Ashby came back to the road, dismounting, and leading the bay stallion, advanced. "Good-day, Colonel Wyndham."

"Good-day, General Ashby. War's a game. Somebody's got to lose. Only way to stop loss is to stop war. You held the trumps-Damn me! You played them well, too." His sword lay across his knees. He took it up and held it out. Ashby made a gesture of refusal. "No. I don't want it. I am about to send you to the rear. If there is anything I can do for you-"

"Thank you, general, there is nothing. Soldier of fortune. Fortune of war. Bad place for a charge. Ought to have been more wary. Served me right. You've got Bob Wheat with you? Know Bob Wheat. Find him in the rear?"

"Yes. With General Ewell. And now as I am somewhat in haste-"

"You must bid me good-day! See you are caring for my wounded. Much obliged. Dead will take care of themselves. Pretty little place! Flowers, butterflies-large bronze one on your hat.-This our escort? Perfectly true you'll have a fight presently. There's the New York cavalry as well as the New Jersey-plenty of infantry-Pennsylvania Bucktails and so forth. Wish I could see the scrimmage! Curious world! Can't wish you good luck. Must wish you ill. However, good luck's wrapped up in all kinds of curious bundles. Ready, men! General Ashby, may I present Major Markham, Captain Bondurant, Captain Schmidt, Lieutenant Colter? They will wish to remember having met you.-Now, gentlemen, at your service!"

Prisoners and escort vanished over the hill. Ashby, remounting, proceeded to make his dispositions, beginning with the Horse Artillery which he posted on a rise of ground, behind a mask of black thorn and dogwood. From the east arose the strains of fife and drum. "Maryland Line," said the 6th, the 7th, and the 2d Virginia Cavalry.

I hear the distant thunder hum,

Maryland!

The old line bugle, fife and drum,

Maryland!

She breathes! She burns! she'll come! she'll come-

"Oh! here's the 58th, too! Give them a cheer, boys! Hurrah! 58th Virginia! Hurrah! The Maryland Line!"

The two infantry regiments came forward at a double-quick, bright and brisk, rifle barrels and bayonets gleaming in the now late sunshine, their regimental flags azure and white, and beside them streaming the red battle-flag with the blue cross. As they approached there also began to show, at the edge of the forest which cut the western horizon, the Federal horse and foot. Before these was a space of rolling fields, then a ragged line of timber, a straggling copse of underbrush and tall trees cresting a wave of earth. A body of blue cavalry started out of the wood, across the field. At once Chew opened with the Blakeley and the two Parrotts. There ensued confusion and the horse fell back. A blue infantry regiment issued at a run, crossed the open and attained the cover of the coppice which commanded the road and the eastern stretch of fields. A second prepared to follow. The Maryland Line swung through the woods with orders to flank this movement. Ashby galloped to the 58th. "Forward, 58th, and clear that wood!" He rode on to Munford at the head of the squadrons. "I am going to dislodge them from that cover. The moment they leave it sound the charge!"

The 58th advanced steadily over the open. When it was almost upon the coppice it fired, then fixed bayonets. The discharge had been aimed at the wood merely. The shadows were lengthening, the undergrowth was thick; they could not see their opponents. Suddenly the coppice blazed, a well-directed and fatal volley. The regiment that held this wood had a good record and meant to-day to better it. Its target was visible enough, and close, full before it in the last golden light. A grey officer fell, the sword that he had brandished described a shining curve before it plunged into a clump of sumach. Five men lay upon the earth; the colour-bearer reeled, then pitched forward. The man behind him caught the colours. The 58th fired again, then, desperately, continued its advance. Smoke and flame burst again from the coppice. A voice of Stentor was heard. "Now Pennsylvania Bucktails, you're making history! Do your durndest!"

"Close ranks!" shouted the officer of the 58th. "Close ranks! Forward!" There came a withering volley. The second colour-bearer sank; a third seized the standard. Another officer was down; there were gaps in the ranks and under feet the wounded. The regiment wavered.

From the left came a bay stallion, devouring the earth, legs and head one tawny line, distended nostril and red-lit eye. The rider loosened from his shoulders a scarlet-lined cloak, lifted and shook it in the air. It flared out with the wind of his coming, like a banner, or a torch. He sent his voice before him, "Charge, men, charge!"

Spasmodically the 58th started forward. The copse, all dim and smoky, flowered again, three hundred red points of fire. The sound was crushing, startling, beating at the ear drum. The Bucktails were shouting, "Come on, Johnny Reb! Go back, Johnny Reb! Don't know what you want to do, do you, Johnny Reb?"

Ashby and the bay reached the front of the regiment. There was disorder, wavering, from underfoot groans and cries. So wrapped in smoke was the scene, so dusk, with the ragged and mournful woods hiding the low sun, that it was hard to distinguish the wounded. It seemed as though it was the earth herself complaining.

"On, on, men!" cried Ashby. "Help's coming-the Maryland Line!" There was a wavering answer, half cheer, half-wailing cry, "Ashby! Ashby!" Two balls pierced the bay stallion. He reared, screamed loudly, and fell backward. Before he touched the earth the great horseman of the Valley was clear of him. In the smoke and din Ashby leaped forward, waving the red-lined cloak above his head. "Charge, men!" he cried. "For God's sake, charge!" A bullet found his heart. He fell without a groan, his hand and arm wrapped in the red folds.

From rank to rank there passed something like a sobbing cry. The 58th charged. Bradley Johnson with the Maryland Line dislodged the Bucktails, captured their colonel and many others, killed and wounded many. The coppice, from soaked mould to smoky treetop, hung in the twilight like a wood in Hades. It was full dusk when Frémont's advance drew back, retreating sullenly to its camp at Harrisonburg. The stars were all out when, having placed the body on a litter, Ashby's men carried Ashby to Port Republic.

He lay at midnight in a room of an old house of the place. They had laid him upon a narrow bed, an old, single four-poster, with tester and valance. The white canopy above, the fall of the white below had an effect of sculptured stone. The whole looked like an old tomb in some dim abbey. The room was half in light, half in darkness. The village women had brought flowers; of these there was no lack. All the blossoms of June were heaped about him. He lay in uniform, upon the red-lined cloak, his plumed hat beside him, his sword in his hand. His staff watched in the room, seated with bowed heads beside the open window. An hour before dawn some one spoke to the sentry without the door, then gently turned the handle and entered the chamber. The watchers arose, stood at salute. "Kindly leave General Ashby and me alone together for a little while, gentlemen," said the visitor. The officers filed out. The last one turning softly to close the door saw Jackson kneel.

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