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   Chapter 36 MALVERN HILL

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 29431

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Star by star the heavens paled. The dawn came faintly and mournfully up from the east. Beneath it the battlefield of Frayser's Farm lay hushed and motionless, like the sad canvas of a painter, the tragic dream of a poet. It was far flung over broken ground and strewn with wrecks of war. Dead men and dying-very many of them, for the fighting had been heavy-lay stretched in the ghostly light, and beside them dead and dying horses. Eighteen Federal guns had been taken. They rested on ridged earth, black against the cold, grey sky. Stark and silent, far and wide, rolled the field beneath the cold, mysterious, changing light. Beside the dead men there were sleeping troops, regiments lying on their arms, fallen last night where they were halted, slumbering heavily through the dew-drenched summer night. As the sky grew purple and the last star went out, the bugles began to blow. The living men rose. If the others heard a reveille, it was in far countries.

Edward Cary, lying down in the darkness near one of the guns, had put out a hand and touched a bedfellow. The soldier seemed asleep, and Edward slept too, weary enough to have slept in Hades. Now, as the bugles called, he sat up and looked at his companion-who did not rise. "I thought you lay very still," said Edward. He sat a moment, on the dank earth, beside the still, grey figure. The gun stood a little above him; through a wheel as through a rose window he saw the flush of dawn. The dead soldier's eyes were open; they, too, stared through the gun-wheel at the dawn. Edward closed them. "I never could take death seriously," he said; "which is fortunate, I suppose."

Two hours later his regiment, moving down the Quaker road, came to a halt before a small, pillared, country church. A group of officers sat their horses near the portico. Lee was in front, quiet and grand. Out of the cluster Warwick Cary pushed his horse across to the halted regiment. Father and son were presently holding converse beneath a dusty roadside cedar. "I am thankful to see you!" said Edward. "We heard of the great charge you made. Please take better care of yourself, father!"

"The past week has been like a dream," answered the other; "one of those dreams in which, over and over, some undertaking, vital to you and tremendous, is about to march. Then, over and over, comes some pettiest obstacle, and the whole vast matter is turned awry."

"Yesterday should have been ours."

"Yes. General Lee had planned as he always plans. We should have crushed McClellan. Instead, we fought alone-and we lost four thousand men; and though we made the enemy lose as many, he has again drawn himself out of our grasp and is before us. I think that to-day we will have a fearful fight."

"Jackson is over at last."

"Yes, close behind us. Whiting is leading; I saw him a moment. There's a report that one of the Stonewall regiments crossed and was cut in pieces late yesterday afternoon-"

"I hope it wasn't Richard's!"

"I hope not. I have a curious, boding feeling about it.-There beat your drums! Good-bye, again-"

He leaned from his saddle and kissed his son, then backed his horse across the road to the generals by the pillared church. The regiment marched away, and as it passed it cheered General Lee. He lifted his hat. "Thank you, men. Do your best to-day-do your best."

"We'll mind you, Marse Robert, we'll mind you!" cried the troops, and went by shouting.

Somewhere down the Quaker Road the word "Malvern Hill" seemed to drop from the skies. "Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill. They're all massed on Malvern Hill. Three hundred and forty guns. And on the James the gunboats. Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill."

A man in line with Edward described the place. "My last year at William and Mary I spent Christmas at Westover. We hunted over all Malvern Hill. It rises one hundred and fifty feet, and the top's a mile across. About the base there are thick forests and swamps, and Turkey Creek goes winding, winding to the James. You see the James-the wide, old, yellow river, with the birds going screaming overhead. There were no gunboats on it that day, no Monitors, or Galenas, or Maritanzas, and if you'd told us up there on Malvern Hill that the next time we climbed it-! At Westover, after supper, they told Indian stories and stories of Tarleton's troopers, and in the night we listened for the tap of Evelyn Byrd's slipper on the stair. We said we heard it-anyhow, we didn't hear gunboats and three hundred thirty-two pounders!"

"'When only Beauty's eyes did rake us fore and aft,

When only Beaux used powder, and Cupid's was the shaft-'"

sang Edward,

"'Most fatal was the war and pleasant to be slain-'"

Malvern Hill, beat out the marching feet. Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill.

There was a deep wood, out from which ran like spurs shallow ravines, clad with briar and bush and young trees; there was a stretch of rail fence; and there was a wheat field, where the grain stood in shocks. Because of the smoke, however, nothing could be seen plainly; and because of the most awful sound, few orders were distinctly heard. Evidently officers were shouting; in the rents of the veil one saw waved arms, open mouths, gesticulations with swords. But the loud-mouthed guns spoke by the score, and the blast bore the human voice away. The regiment in which was Edward Cary divined an order and ceased firing, lying flat in sedge and sassafras, while a brigade from the rear roared by. Edward looked at his fingers. "Barrel burn them?" asked a neighbour. "Reckon they use red-hot muskets in hell? Wish you could see your lips, Edward! Round black O. Biting cartridges for a living-and it used to be when you read Plutarch that you were all for the peaceful heroes! You haven't a lady-love that would look at you now!

"'Take, oh, take those lips away

That so blackly are enshrined-'

Here comes a lamp-post-a lamp-post-a lamp-post!"

The gunboats on the river threw the "lamp-posts." The long and horrible shells arrived with a noise that was indescribable. A thousand shrieking rockets, perhaps, with at the end an explosion and a rain of fragments like rocks from Vesuvius. They had a peculiar faculty for getting on the nerves. The men watched their coming with something like shrinking, with raised arms and narrowed eyes. "Look out for the lamp-post-look out for the lamp-post-look out-Aaahhhh!"

Before long the regiment was moved a hundred yards nearer the wheat-field. Here it became entangled in the ebb of a charge-the brigade which had rushed by coming back, piecemeal, broken and driven by an iron flail. It would reform and charge again, but now there was confusion. All the field was confused, dismal and dreadful, beneath the orange-tinted smoke. The smoke rolled and billowed, a curtain of strange texture, now parting, now closing, and when it parted disclosing immemorial Death and Wounds with some attendant martial pageantry. The commands were split as by wedges, the uneven ground driving them asunder, and the belching guns. They went up to hell mouth, brigade by brigade, even regiment by regiment, and in the breaking and reforming and twilight of the smoke, through the falling of officers and the surging to and fro, the troops became interwoven, warp of one division, woof of another. The sound was shocking; when, now and then there fell a briefest interval it was as though the world had stopped, had fallen into a gulf of silence.

Edward Cary found beside him a man from another regiment, a small, slight fellow, young and simple. A shock of wheat gave both a moment's protection. "Hot work!" said Edward, with his fine camaraderie. "You made a beautiful charge. We almost thought you would take them."

The other looked at him vacantly. "I added up figures in the old warehouse," he said, in a high, thin voice. "I added up figures in the old warehouse, and when I went home at night I used to read plays. I added up figures in the old warehouse-Don't you remember Hotspur? I always liked him, and that part-

'To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon;

Or dive into the bottom of the deep-'"

He stood up. Edward rose to his knees and put out a hand to draw him down. "It's enough to make you crazy, I'll confess-but you mustn't stand up like that!"

The downward drawing hand was too late. There were blue sharpshooters in a wood in front. A ball entered the clerk's breast and he sank down behind the wheat. "I added up figures in the old warehouse," he again told Cary, "and when I went home at night I read plays-"

The figure stiffened in Edward's grasp. He laid it down, and from behind the wheat shock watched a grey battery in process of being knocked to pieces. It had arrived in this quarter of the field in a wild gallop, and with a happy insouciance had unlimbered and run up the guns back of a little crest topped with sumach, taking pains meanwhile to assure the infantry that now it was safe. The infantry had grinned. "Like you first-rate, artillery! Willing to bet on the gunners, but the guns are a leetle small and few. Don't know that we feel so awful safe!"

The grey began. Four shells flew up the long slope and burst among the iron rows that made a great triple crown for Malvern Hill. The grey gunners cheered, and the appreciative infantry cheered, and the first began to reload while the second, flat in scrub and behind the wheat, condescended to praise. "Artillery does just about as well as can be expected! Awful old-fashioned arm-but well-meaning.... Look out-look ... Eeehhh!"

The iron crown that had been blazing toward other points of the compass now blazed toward this. Adversity came to the insouciant grey battery, adversity quickening to disaster. The first thunder blast thickened to a howling storm of shrapnel, grape, and canister.

At the first gun gunner No. 1, ramming home a charge, was blown into fragments; at the second the arm holding the sponge staff was severed from gunner No. 3's shoulder. A great shell, bursting directly over the third, killed two men and horribly mangled others; the carriage of the fourth was crushed and set on fire. This in the beginning of the storm; as it swelled, total destruction threatened from the murk. The captain went up and down. "Try it a little longer, men. Try it a little longer, men. We've got to make up in quality, you know. We've got to make up in quality, you know. Marse Robert's looking-I see him over there! Try it a little longer-try it a little longer."

An aide arrived. "For God's sake, take what you've got left away! Yes, it's an order. Your being massacred won't help. Look out-Look-"

No one in battle ever took account of time or saw any especial reason for being, now here, and now in quite a different place, or ever knew exactly how the places had been exchanged. Edward was practically certain that he had taken part in a charge, that his brigade had driven a body of blue infantry from a piece of woods. At any rate they were no longer in the wheat field, but in a shady wood, where severed twigs and branches floated pleasantly down. Lying flat, chin on hand, he watched a regiment storm and take a thick abattis-felled trees filled with sharpshooters-masking a hastily thrown up earthwork. The regiment was reserving its fire and losing heavily. An elderly man led it, riding a large old steady horse. "That's Ex-Governor Smith," said the regiment in the wood. "That's Extra Billy! He's a corker! Next time he runs he's going to get all the votes-"

The regiment tried twice to pass the abattis, but each time fell back. The brigadier had ordered it not to fire until it was past the trees; it obeyed, but sulkily enough. Men were dropping; the colour-bearer went down. There was an outcry. "Colonel! we can't stand this! We'll all get killed before we fire a shot! The general don't know how we're fixed-" Extra Billy agreed with them. He rose in his stirrups, turned and nodded vigorous assent. "Of course you can't stand it, boys! You oughtn't to be expected to. It's all this infernal tactics and West P'int tomfoolery! Damn it, fire! and flush the game!"

Edward laughed. From the fuss it was apparent that the abattis and earthwork had succumbed. At any rate, the old governor and his regiment were gone. He was of the colour-guard, and all the colour-guard were laughing. "Didn't you ever see him go into battle with his old blue umbrella up! Trotting along same as to a caucus-whole constituency following! Fine old political Roman! Look out, Yedward! Whole pine tree coming down."

The scene changed again, and it was the side of a ravine, with a fine view of the river and with Morell and Couch blazing somewhere above. The shells went overhead, bellowing monsters charging a grey battery on a hillock and a distant line of troops. "That's Pegram-that battery," said some one. "He does well." "Has any one any idea of the time?" asked another. "Sun's so hidden there's no guessing. Don't believe we'll ever see his blessed light again."

A fisherman from the Eastern Shore stated that it was nearly five o'clock. "Fogs can't fool me. Day's drawing down, and tide's going out-"

The lieutenant-colonel appeared. "Somebody with an order has been shot, coming through the cornfield toward us. Three volunteers to bring him in!"

Edward and the Eastern Shore man and a lean and dry and middle-aged lawyer from King and Queen bent their heads beneath their shoulders and plunged into the corn. All the field was like a miniature abattis, stalk and blade shot down and crossed and recrossed in the wildest tangle. To make way over it was difficult enough, and before the three had gone ten feet the minies took a hand. The wounded courier lay beneath his horse, and the horse screamed twice, the sound rising above the roar of the guns. A ball pierced Edward's cap, another drew blood from the lawyer's hand. The fisherman was a tall and wiry man; as he ran he swayed like a mast in storm. The three reached the courier, dragged him from beneath the horse, and found both legs crushed. He looked at them with lustreless eyes. "You can't do anything for me, boys. The general says please try to take those three guns up there. He's going to charge the line beyond, and they are in the way."

"All right, we will," said the lawyer. "Now you put one arm round Cary's neck and one round mine-"

But the courier shook his head. "You leave me here. I'm awful tired. You go take the guns instead. Ain't no use, I tell you. I'd like to see the children, but-"

In the act of speaking, as they lifted him, a ball went through his throat. The three laid the body down, and, heads bent between should

ers, ran over and through the corn toward the ravine. Two thirds of the way across, the fisherman was shot. He came to his knees and, in falling, clutched Edward. "Mast's overboard," he cried, in a rattling voice. "Cut her loose, damn you!-I'll take the helm-" He, too, died. Cary and the lawyer got back to the gully and gave the order.

The taking of those guns was no simple matter. It resembled child's play only in the single-mindedness and close attention which went to its accomplishment. The regiment that reached them at last and took them, and took what was left of the blue gunners, was not much more than half a regiment. The murk up here on this semi-height was thick to choking; the odour and taste of the battle poisoned brass on the tongue, the colour that of a sand storm, the heat like that of a battleship in action, and all the place shook from the thunder and recoil of the tiers of great guns beyond, untaken, not to be taken. A regiment rushed out of the rolling smoke, by the half regiment. "Mississippi! Mississippi!-Well, even Mississippi isn't going to do the impossible!" As the line went by, tall and swinging and yelling itself hoarse, the colonel was wounded and fell. The charge went on while the officer-he was an old man, very stately looking-dragged himself aside, and sitting in the sedge tied a large bright handkerchief above a wound in his leg. The charge dashed itself against the hillside, and the tier of guns flamed a death's sickle and mowed it down. Breathless, broken, the regiment fell back. When it reached the old man with the bright handkerchief, it would have lifted him and carried him with it to the rear. He would not go. He said, "Tell the 21st they can't get me till they take those guns!"

The 21st mended its gaps and charged again. The old man set his hat on his sword, waved it in the air, and cheered his men as they passed. They passed him but to return. To go up against those lines of bellowing guns was mere heroic madness. Bleeding, exhausted, the men put out their hands for the old man. He drew his revolver. "I'll shoot anybody who touches me! Tell the 21st they can't get their colonel till they take those guns!"

The 21st charged a third time, in vain. It came back-a part of it came back. The old man had fainted, and his men lifted and bore him away.

From the platform where he lay in the shadow of the three guns Edward Cary looked out over Malvern Hill, the encompassing lowland, marsh and forest and fields, the winding Turkey Creek and Western Creek, and to the south the James. A wind had sprung up and was blowing the battle smoke hither and yon. Here it hung heavily, and here a long lane was opened. The sun was low and red behind a filmy veil, dark and ragged like torn crape. He saw four gunboats on the river; they were throwing the long, howling shells. The Monitor was there, an old foe-the cheese box on a shingle. Edward shut his eyes and saw again Hampton Roads, and how the Monitor had looked, darting from behind the Minnesota. The old turtle, the old Merrimac ... and now she lay, a charred hull, far, far beneath the James, by Craney Island.

The private on his right was a learned man. Edward addressed him. "Have you ever thought, doctor, how fearfully dramatic is this world?"

"Yes. It's one of those facts that are too colossal to be seen. Shakespeare says all the world's a stage. That's only a half-truth. The world's a player, like the rest of us."

Below this niche stretched the grey battle-lines; above it, on the hilltop, by the cannon and over half the slope beneath, spread the blue. A forest stood behind the grey; out of it came the troops to the charge, the flags tossing in front. The upward reaching fingers of coppice and brush had their occupants, fragments of commands under cover, bands of sharpshooters. And everywhere over the open, raked by the guns, were dead and dying men. They lay thickly. Now and again the noise of the torment of the wounded made itself heard-a most doleful and ghostly sound coming up like a wail from the Inferno. There were, too, many dead or dying horses. Others, still unhurt, galloped from end to end of the field of death. In the wheat-field there were several of the old, four-footed warriors, who stood and ate of the shocked grain. There arrived a hush over the battlefield, one of those pauses which occur between exhaustion and renewed effort, effort at its height. The guns fell silent, the musketry died away, the gunboats ceased to throw those great shells. By contrast with the clangour that had prevailed, the stillness seemed that of a desert waste, a dead world. Over toward a cross-road there could be made out three figures on horseback. The captain of Edward's company was an old college mate; lying down with his men, he now drew himself over the ground and loaned Cary his field-glass. "It's General Lee and General Jackson and General D. H. Hill."

A body of grey troops came to occupy a finger of woods below the three captured guns. "That's Cary's Legion," said the captain. "Here comes the colonel now!"

The two commands were but a few yards apart. Fauquier Cary, dismounting, walked up the sedgy slope and asked to speak to his nephew. The latter left the ranks, and the two found a trampled space beside one of the great thirty-two pounders. A dead man or two lay in the parched grass, but there was nothing else to disturb. The quiet yet held over North and South and the earth that gave them standing room. "I have but a moment," said the elder man. "This is but the hush before the final storm. We came by Jackson's troops, and one of his officers whom I knew at the Point rode beside me a little way. They all crossed White Oak Swamp by starlight this morning, and apparently Jackson is again the Jackson of the Valley. It was a curious eclipse. The force of the man is such that, while his officers acknowledge the eclipse, it makes no difference to them. He is Stonewall Jackson-and that suffices. But that is not what I have to tell-"

"I saw father a moment this morning. He said there was a rumour about one of the Stonewall regiments-"

"Yes. It was the 65th."

"Cut to pieces?"

"Yes."

"Richard-Richard was not killed?"

"No. But many were. Hairston Breckinridge was killed-and some of the Thunder Run men-and very many others. Almost destroyed, Carlton said. They crossed at sunset. There were a swamp and a wood and a hollow commanded by hills. The enemy was in force behind the hill, and there was beside a considerable command in ambush, concealed in the woods by the swamp. These had a gun or two. All opened on the 65th. It was cut to pieces in the swamp and in a little marshy meadow. Only a remnant got back to the northern side of the creek. Richard is under arrest."

"He was acting under orders!"

"So Carlton says he says. But General Jackson says there was no such order; that he disobeyed the order that was given, and now tries to screen himself. Carlton says Jackson is more steel-like than usual, and we know how it fared with Garnett and with others. There will be a court-martial. I am very anxious."

"I am not," said Edward stoutly. "There will be an honourable acquittal. We must write and tell Judith that she's not to worry! Richard Cleave did nothing that he should not have done."

"Of course, we know that. But Carlton says that, on the face of it, it's an ugly affair. And General Jackson-Well, we can only await developments."

"Poor Judith!-and his sister and mother.... Poor women!"

The other made a gesture of assent and sorrow. "Well, I must go back. Take care of yourself, Edward. There will be the devil's own work presently."

He went, and Edward returned to his fellows. The silence yet held over the field; the westering sun glowed dull red behind the smoke; the three figures rested still by the cross-roads; the mass of frowning metal topped Malvern Hill like a giant, smoke-wreathed chevaux de frise. Out of the brushwood to the left of the regiment, straight by it, upward towards the guns, and then at a tangent off through the fields to the woods, sped a rabbit. Legs to earth, it hurried with all its might. The regiment was glad of a diversion-the waiting was growing so intolerable. The men cheered the rabbit. "Go it, Molly Cottontail!-Go it, Molly!-Go it, Molly!-Hi! Don't go that-away! Them's Yankees! They'll cut your head off! Go t'other way-that's it! Go it, Molly! Damn! If't wasn't for my character, I'd go with you!"

The rabbit disappeared. The regiment settled back to waiting, a very intolerable employment. The sun dipped lower and lower. The hush grew portentous. The guns looked old, mailed, dead warriors; the gunboats sleeping forms; the grey troops battle-lines in a great war picture, the three horsemen by the cross-roads a significant group in the same; the dead and wounded over all the fields, upon the slope, in the woods, by the marshes, the jetsam, still and heavy, of war at its worst. For a moment longer the wide and dreary stretch rested so, then with a wild suddenness sound and furious motion rushed upon the scene. The gunboats recommenced with their long and horrible shells. A grey battery opened on Berdan's sharpshooters strung in a line of trees below the great crown of guns. The crown flamed toward the battery, scorched and mangled it. By the cross-roads the three figures separated, going in different directions. Presently galloping horses-aides, couriers-crossed the plane of vision. They went from D. H. Hill in the centre to Jackson's brigades on the left and Magruder's on the right. They had a mile of open to cross, and the iron crown and the sharpshooters flamed against them. Some galloped on and gave the orders. Some threw up their arms and fell, or, crashing to earth with a wounded horse, disentangled themselves and stumbled on through the iron rain. The sun drew close to the vast and melancholy forests across the river. Through a rift in the smoke, there came a long and crimson shaft. It reddened the river, then struck across the shallows to Malvern Hill, suffused with a bloody tinge wood and field and the marshes by the creeks, then splintered against the hilltop and made a hundred guns to gleam. The wind heightened, lifting the smoke and driving it northward. It bared to the last red light the wild and dreary battlefield.

From the centre rose the Confederate yell. Rodes's brigade, led by Gordon, charged. It had half a mile of open to cross, and it was caught at once in the storm that howled from the crest of Malvern Hill. Every regiment suffered great loss; the 3d Alabama saw half its number slain or wounded. The men yelled again, and sprang on in the teeth of the storm. They reached the slope, almost below the guns. Gordon looked behind for the supporting troops which Hill had promised. They were coming, that grim fighter leading them, but they were coming far off, under clanging difficulties, through a hell of shrapnel. Rodes's brigade alone could not wrest that triple crown from the hilltop-no, not if the men had been giants, sons of Anak! They were halted; they lay down, put muskets to shoulder and fired steadily and fired again on the blue infantry.

It grew darker on the plain. Brigades were coming from the left, the right, the centre. There had been orders for a general advance. Perhaps the aides carrying them were among the slain, perhaps this, perhaps that. The event was that brigades charged singly-sometimes even regiments crossed, with a cry, the twilight, groaning plain and charged Malvern Hill unsupported. The place flamed death and destruction. Hill's ten thousand men pressed forward with the order of a review. The shot and shell met them like a tornado. The men fell by hundreds. The lines closed, rushed on. The Federal infantry joined the artillery. Musketry and cannon, the din became a prolonged and fearful roar of battle.

The sun disappeared. There sprang out in the western sky three long red bands of clouds. On the darkening slope and plain Hill was crushed back, before and among his lines a horror of exploding shells. Jackson threw forward Lawton and Whiting, Winder and the Louisiana troops, while on the right, brigade after brigade, Magruder hurled across the plain nine brigades. After Hill, Magruder's troops bore the brunt of the last fearful fighting.

They stormed across the plain in twilight that was lit by the red flashes from the guns. The clouds of smoke were red-bosomed; the red bars stayed in the west. The guns never ceased their thundering, the musketry to roll. Death swung a wide scythe in the twilight of that first day of July. Anderson and Armistead, Barksdale, Semmes and Kershaw, Wright and Toombs and Mahone, rushed along the slope of Malvern Hill, as Ripley and Garland and Gordon and all the brigadiers of D. H. Hill had rushed before them. Death, issuing from that great power of artillery, laid the soldiers in swathes. The ranks closed, again and again the ranks closed; with diminished numbers but no slackening of courage, the grey soldiers again dashed themselves against Malvern Hill. The red bars in the west faded slowly to a deep purple; above them, in a clear space of sky, showed the silver Venus. Upon her cooling globe, in a day to come, intelligent life might rend itself as here-the old horror, the old tragedy, the old stained sublimity over again! All the drifting smoke was now red lit, and beneath it lay in their blood elderly men, and men in their prime, and young men-very many, oh, very many young men! As the night deepened there sprang, beneath the thunder, over all the field a sound like wind in reeds. It was a sighing sound, a low and grievous sound. The blue lost heavily, for the charges were wildly heroic; but the guns were never disabled, and the loss of the grey was the heaviest. Brigade by brigade, the grey faced the storm and were beaten back, only again to reel forward upon the slope where Death stood and swung his scythe. The last light dwelt on their colours, on the deep red of their battle-flags; then the western sky became no warmer than the eastern. The stars were out in troops; the battle stopped.

D. H. Hill, an iron fighter with a mania for personal valour, standing where he had been standing for an hour, in a pleasantly exposed spot, clapped on his hat and beckoned for his horse. The ground about him showed furrowed as for planting, and a neighbouring oak tree was so riddled with bullets that the weight of a man might have sent it crashing down. D. H. Hill, drawing long breath, spoke half to his staff, half to the stars: "Give me Federal artillery and Confederate infantry, and I'd whip the world!"

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