Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 39
My regiment left New York by night in a flare of torch and rocket. The streets were lined with crowds now hardened to the sound of fife and drum and the pomp of military preparation. I had a very high and mighty feeling in me that wore away in the discomfort of travel. For hours after the train started we sang and told stories, and ate peanuts and pulled and hauled at each other in a cloud of tobacco smoke. The train was sidetracked here and there, and dragged along at a slow pace.
Young men with no appreciation, as it seemed to me, of the sad business we were off upon, went roistering up and down the aisles, drinking out of bottles and chasing around the train as it halted. These revellers grew quiet as the night wore on. The boys began to dose their eyes and lie back for rest. Some lay in the aisle. their heads upon their knapsacks. The air grew chilly and soon I could hear them snoring all about me and the chatter of frogs in the near marshes. I closed my eyes and vainly courted sleep. A great sadness had lain hold of me. I had already given up my life for my country - I was only going away now to get as dear a price for it as possible in the hood of its enemies. When and where would it be taken? I wondered. The fear had mostly gone out of me in days and nights of solemn thinking. The feeling I had, with its flavour of religion, is what has made the volunteer the mighty soldier he has ever been, I take it, since Naseby and Marston Moor. The soul is the great Captain, and with a just quarrel it will warm its sword in the enemy, however he may be trained to thrust and parry. In my sacrifice there was but one reservation - I hoped I should not be horribly cut with a sword or a bayonet. I had written a long letter to Hope, who was yet at Leipzig. I wondered if she would care what became of me. I got a sense of comfort thinking I would show her that I was no coward, with all my littleness. I had not been able to write to Uncle Eb or to my father or mother in any serious tone of my feeling in this enterprise. I had treated it as a kind of holiday from which I should return shortly to visit them.
All about me seemed to be sleeping - some of them were talking in their dreams. As it grew light, one after another rose and stretched himself, rousing his seat companion. The train halted, a man shot a musket voice in at the car door. It was loaded with the many syllables of 'Annapolis Junction . We were pouring out of the train shortly, to bivouac for breakfastin the depot yard. So I began the life of a soldier, and how it ended with me many have read in better books than this, but my story of it is here and only here.
We went into camp there on the lonely flats of east Maryland for a day or two, as we supposed, but really for quite two weeks. In the long delay that followed, my way traversed the dead levels of routine. When Southern sympathy had ceased to wreak its wrath upon the railroads about Baltimore we pushed on to Washington. There I got letters from Uncle Eb and Elizabeth Brower. The former I have now in my box of treasures - a torn and faded remnant of that dark period.
DEAR SIR'pen in hand to hat you know that we are all wel. also that we was sorry you could not come horn. They took on terribul. Hope she wrote a letter. Said she had not herd from you. also that somebody wrote to her you was goin to be married. You had oughter write her a letter, Bill. Looks to me so you hain't used her right. Shes a comm horn in July. Sowed corn to day in the gardin. David is off byin catul. I hope God will take care uv you, boy, so goodbye from yours truly
I wrote immediately to Uncle Eb and told him of the letters I had sent to Hope, and of my effort to see her.
Late in May, after Virginia had seceded, some thirty thousand of us were sent over to the south side of the Potomac, where for weeks we tore the flowery fields, lining the shore with long entrenchments.
Meantime I wrote three letters to Mr Greeley, and had the satisfaction of seeing them in the Tribune. I took much interest in the camp drill, and before we crossed the river I had been raised to the rank of first lieutenant. Every day we were looking for the big army of Beauregard, camping below Centreville, some thirty miles south.
Almost every night a nervous picket set the camp in uproar by challenging a phantom of his imagination. We were all impatient as hounds in leash. Since they would not come up and give us battle we wanted to be off and have it out with them. And the people were tired of delay. The cry of 'ste'boy!'was ringing all over the north. They wanted to cut us loose and be through with dallying.
Well, one night the order came; we were to go south in the morning - thirty thousand of us, and put an end to the war. We did not get away until afternoon - it was the 6th of July. When we were off, horse and foot, so that I could see miles of the blue column before and behind me, I felt sorry for the mistaken South. On the evening of the i8th our camp-fires on either side of the pike at Centreville glowed like the lights of a city. We knew the enemy was near, and began to feel a tightening of the nerves. I wrote a letter to the folks at home for post mortem delivery, and put it into my trousers'pocket. A friend in my company called me aside after mess.
'Feel of that,'he said, laying his hand on a full breast.
'Feathers!'he whispered significantly. 'Balls can't go through 'em, ye know. Better n a steel breastplate! Want some?
'Don't know but I do,'said I.
We went into his tent, where he had a little sack full, and put a good wad of them between my two shirts.
'I hate the idee o'bein'hit 'n the heart,'he said. 'That's too awful.
I nodded my assent.
'Shouldn't like t'have a ball in my lungs, either,'he added. ' 'Tain't necessary fer a man t'die if he can only breathe. If a man gits his leg shot off an'don't lose his head an'keeps drawin'his breath right along smooth an even, I don't see why he can't live.
Taps sounded. We went asleep with our boots on, but nothing happened.
Three days and nights we waited. Some called it a farce, some swore, some talked of going home. I went about quietly, my bosom under its pad of feathers. The third day an order came from headquarters. We were to break camp at one-thirty in the morning and go down the pike after Beauregard. In the dead of the night the drums sounded. I rose, half-asleep, and heard the long roll far and near. I shivered in the cold night air as I made ready, the boys about me buckled on knapsacks, shouldered their rifles, and fell into line. Muffled in darkness there was an odd silence in the great caravan forming rapidly and waiting for the word to move. At each command to move forward I could hear only the rub of leather, the click, click of rifle rings, the stir of the stubble, the snorting of horses. When we had marched an hour or so I could hear the faint rumble of wagons far in the rear. As I came high on a hill top, in the bending column, the moonlight fell upon a league of bayonets shining above a cloud of dust in the valley - a splendid picture, fading into darkness and mystery. At dawn we passed a bridge and halted some three minutes for a bite. After a little march we left the turnpike, with Hunter's column bearing westward on a crossroad that led us into thick woods. As the sunlight sank in the high tree-tops the first great battle of the war began. Away to the left of us a cannon shook the earth, hurling its boom into the still air. The sound rushed over us, rattling in the timber like a fall of rocks. Something went quivering in me. It seemed as if my vitals had gone into a big lump of jelly that trembled every step I took. We quickened our pace; we fretted, we complained. The weariness went out of our legs; some wanted to run. Before and behind us men were shouting hotly, 'Run, boys! run!'The cannon roar was now continuous. We could feel the quake of it. When we came over a low ridge, in the open, we could see the smoke of battle in the valley. Flashes of fire and hoods of smoke leaped out of the far thickets, left of us, as cannon roared. Going at double quick we began loosening blankets and haversacks, tossing them into heaps along the line of march, without halting. In half an hour we stood waiting in battalions, the left flank of the enemy in front. We were to charge at a run. Half-way across the valley we were to break into companies and, advancing, spread into platoons and squads, and at last into line of skirmishers, lying down for cover between rushes.
'Forward!'was the order, and we were off, cheering as we ran. O, it was a grand sight! our colours flying, our whole front moving, like a blue wave on a green, immeasurable sea. And it had a voice like that of many waters. Out of the woods ahead of us came a lightning flash. A ring of smoke reeled upward. Then came a deafening crash of thunders - one upon another, and the scream of shells overhead. Something stabbed into our column right beside me. Many went headlong, crying out as they fell. Suddenly the colours seemed to halt and sway like a tree-top in the wind. Then down they went! - squad and colours - and we spread to pass them. At the order we halted and laid down and fired volley after volley at the grey coats in the edge of the thicket A bullet struck in the grass ahead of me, throwing a bit of dirt into my eyes. Another brushed my hat off and I heard a wailing death yell behind me. The colonel rode up waving a sword.
'Get up an' charge!'he shouted.
On we went, cheering loudly, firing as we ran, Bullets went by me hissing in my ears, and I kept trying to dodge them. We dropped again flat on our faces.
A squadron of black-horse cavalry came rushing out of the woods at us, the riders yelling as they waved their swords. Fortunately we had not time to rise. A man near me tried to get up.
'Stay down!'I shouted.
In a moment I learned something new about horses. They went over us like a flash. I do not think a man was trampled. Our own cavalry kept them busy as soon as they had passed.
Of the many who had started there was only a ragged remnant near me. We fired a dozen volleys lying there. The man at my elbow rolled upon me, writhing like a worm in the fire.
'We shall all be killed!'a man shouted. 'Where is the colonel?
'Better retreat,'said a third.
'Charge!'I shouted as loudly as ever I could, jumping to my feet and waving my sabre as I rushed forward. 'Charge!
It was the one thing needed - they followed me. In a moment we had hurled ourselves upon the grey line thrusting with sword and bayonet.
They broke before us - some running, some fighting desperately.
A man threw a long knife at inc out of a sling. Instinctively I caught the weapon as if it had been a ball hot off the bat. In doing so I dropped my sabre and was cut across the fingers. He came at me fiercely, clubbing his gun - a raw-boned, swarthy giant, broad as a barn door. I caught the barrel as it came down. He tried to wrench it away, but I held firmly. Then he began to push up to me. I let him come, and in a moment we were grappling hip and thigh. He was a powerful man, but that was my kind of warfare. It gave me comfort when I felt the grip of his hands. I let him tug a jiffy, and then caught him with the old hiplock, and he went under me so hard I could hear the crack of his bones. Our support came then. We made him prisoner, with some two hundred other men. Reserves came also and took away the captured guns. My comrades gathered about me, cheering, but I had no suspicion of what they meant. I thought it a tribute to my wrestling. Men lay thick there back of the guns - some dead, some caffing faintly for help. The red puddles about them were covered with ffies; ants were crawling over their faces. I felt a kind of sickness and turned away.
What was left of my regiment formed in fours to join the advancing column. Horses were galloping riderless, rein and stirrup flying, some horribly wounded. One hobbled near me, a front leg gone at the knee.
Shells were flying overhead; cannonballs were ricocheting over the level valley, throwing turf in the air, tossing the dead and wounded that lay thick and helpless.
Some were crumpled like a rag, as if the pain of death had withered them in their clothes; some swollen to the girth of horses; some bent backward, with anns outreaching like one trying an odd trick, some lay as if listening eagerly, an ear close to the ground; some like a sleeper, their heads upon their arms; one shrieked loudly, gesturing with bloody hands, 'Lord God Almighty, have mercy on me!
I had come suddenly to a new world, where the lives of men were cheaper than blind puppies. I was a new sort of creature, and reckless of what came, careless of all I saw and heard.
A staff officer stepped up to me as we joined the main body.
'You ve been shot, young man,'he said, pointing to my left hand.
Before he could turn I felt a rush of air and saw him fly into pieces, some of which hit me as I fell backward. I did not know what had happened; I know not now more than that I have written. I remember feeling something under me, like a stick of wood, bearing hard upon my ribs. I tried to roll off it, but somehow, it was tied to me and kept hurting. I put my hand over my hip and felt it there behind me - my own arm! The hand was like that of a dead man - cold and senseless. I pulled it from under me and it lay helpless; it could not lift itself. I knew now that I, too, had become one of the bloody horrors of the battle.
I struggled to my feet, weak and trembling, and sick with nausea. I must have been lying there a long time. The firing was now at a distance: the sun had gone half down the sky. They were picking up the wounded in the near field. A man stood looking at me. 'Good God!'he shouted, and then ran away like one afraid. There was a great mass of our men back of me some twenty rods. I staggered toward them, my knees quivering.
'I can never get there,'I heard myself whisper.
I thought of my little flask of whiskey, and, pulling the cork with my teeth, drank the half of it. That steadied me and I made better headway. I could hear the soldiers talking as I neared them.
'Look a there!'I heard many saying. 'See 'em come! My God! Look at 'em on the hill there!
The words went quicidy from mouth to mouth. In a moment I could hear the murmur of thousands. I turned to see what they were looking at. Across the valley there was a long ridge, and back of it the main position of the Southern army. A grey host was pouring over it - thousand upon thousand - in close order, debouching into the valley.
A big force of our men lay between us and them. As I looked I could see a mighty stir in it. Every man of them seemed to be jumping up in the air. From afar came the sound of bugles calling 'retreat , the shouting of men, the rumbling of wagons. It grew louder. An officer rode by me hatless, and halted, shading his eyes. Then he rode back hurriedly.
'Hell has broke loose!'he shouted, as he passed me.
The blue-coated host was rushing towards us like a flood' artillery, cavalry, infantry, wagon train. There was a mighty uproar in the men behind me - a quick stir of feet. Terror spread over them like the travelling of fire. It shook their tongues. The crowd began caving at the edge and jamming at the centre. Then it spread like a swarm of bees shaken off a bush.
'Run! Run for your lives!'was a cry that rose to heaven.
'Halt, you cowards!'an officer shouted.
It was now past three o clock.
The raw army had been on its feet since midnight. For hours it had been fighting hunger, a pain in the legs, a quivering sickness at the stomach, a stubborn foe. It had turned the flank of Beauregard; victory was in sight. But lo! a new enemy was coming to the fray, innumerable, unwearied, eager for battle. The long slope bristled with his bayonets. Our army looked and cursed and began letting go. The men near me were pausing on the brink of awful rout In a moment they were off, pell-mell, like a flock of sheep. The earth shook under them. Officers rode around them, cursing, gesticulating, threatening, but nothing could stop them. Half a dozen trees had stood in the centre of the roaring mass. Now a few men clung to them - a remnant of the monster that had torn away. But the greater host was now coming. The thunder of its many feet was near me; a cloud of dust hung over it. A squadron of cavalry came rushing by and broke into the fleeing mass. Heavy horses, cut free from artillery, came galloping after them, straps flying over foamy flanks. Two riders clung to the back of each, lashing with whip and rein. The nick of wagons came after them, wheels rattling, horses running, voices shrilling in a wild hoot of terror. It makes me tremble even now, as I think of it, though it is muffled under the cover of nearly forty years! I saw they would go over me. Reeling as if drunk, I ran to save myself. Zigzagging over the field I came upon a grey-bearded soldier lying in the grass and fell headlong. I struggled madly, but could not rise to my feet. I lay, my face upon the ground, weeping like a woman. Save I be lost in hell, I shall never know again the bitter pang of that moment. I thought of my country. I saw its splendid capital in ruins; its people surrendered to God's enemies.
The rout of wagons had gone by I could now hear the heavy tramp of thousands passing me, the shrill voices of terror. I worked to a sitting posture somehow - the effort nearly smothered me. A mass of cavalry was bearing down upon me. They were coming so thick I saw they would trample me into jelly. In a flash I thought of what Uncle Eb had told me once. I took my hat and covered my face quiddy, and then uncovered it as they came near. They sheared away as I felt the foam of their nostrils. I had split them as a rock may split the torrent. The last of them went over me - their tails whipping my face. I shall not soon forget the look of their bellies or the smell of their wet flanks. They had no sooner passed than I fell back and rolled half over like a log. I could feel a warm flow of blood trickling down my left arm. A shell, shot at the retreating army, passed high above me, whining as it flew. Then my mind went free of its trouble. The rain brought me to as it came pelting down upon the side of my face. I wondered what it might be, for I knew not where I had come. I lifted my head and looked to see a new dawn - possibly the city of God itself. It was dark - so dark I felt as if I had no eyes. Away in the distance I could hear the beating of a drum. It rang in a great silence - I have never known the like of it. I could hear the fall and trickle of the rain, but it seemed only to deepen the silence. I felt the wet grass under my face and hands. Then I knew it was night and the battlefield where I had fallen. I was alive and might see another day - thank God! I felt something move under my feet I heard a whisper at my shoulder.
'Thought you were dead long ago,'it said.
'No, no,'I answered, 'I m alive - I know I m alive - this is the battlefield.
''Fraid I ain't goin't'live,'he said. 'Got a terrible wound. Wish it was morning.
'Dark long?'I asked.
'For hours,'he answered. 'Dunno how many.
He began to groan and utter short prayers.
'O, my soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning,'I heard him cry in a loud, despairing voice.
Then there was a bit of silence, in which I could hear him whispering of his home and people.
Presently he began to sing:
'Guide me, O thou great Jehovah! Pilgrim through this barren land
I am weak but thou art mighty'
Ills voice broke and trembled and sank into silence.
I had business of my own to look after - perhaps I had no time to lose - and I went about it calmly. I had no strength to move and began to feel the nearing of my time. The rain was falling faster. It chilled me to the marrow as I felt it trickling over my back. I called to the man who lay beside me - again and again I called to him - but got no answer. Then I knew that he was dead and I alone. Long after that in the far distance I heard a voice calling. It rang like a trumpet in the still air. It grew plainer as I listened. My own name! William Brower? It was certainly calling to me, and I answered with a feeble cry. In a moment I could hear the tramp of someone coming. He was sitting beside me presently, whoever it might be. I could not see him for the dark. His tongue went clucking as if he pitied me.
'Who are you?'I remember asking, but got no answer.
At first I was glad, then I began to feel a mighty horror of him.
In a moment he had picked me up and was making off. The jolt of his step seemed to be breaking my arms at the shoulder. As I groaned he ran. I could see nothing in the darkness, but he went ahead, never stopping, save for a moment, now and then, to rest I wondered where he was taking me and what it all meant. I called again, 'Who are you?
but he seemed not to hear me. 'My God!'I whispered to myself, 'this is no man - this is Death severing the soul from the body. The voice was that of the good God.'Then I heard a man hailing near by.
'Help, Help!'I shouted faintly.
'Where are you?'caine the answer, now further away. 'Can't see you.'My mysterious bearer was now running. My heels were dragging upon the ground; my hands were brushing the grass tops. I groaned with pain.
'Halt! Who comes there?'a picket called. Then I could hear voices.
'Did you hear that noise?'said one. 'Somebody passed me. So dark can't see my hand before me.
'Darker than hell!'said another voice.
It must be a giant, I thought, who can pick me up and carry me as if I were no bigger than a house cat. That was what I was thinking when I swooned.
From then till I came to myself in the little church at Centreville I remember nothing. Groaning men lay all about me; others stood between them with lanterns. A woman was bending over me. I felt the gentle touch of her hand upon my face and heard her speak to me so tenderly I cannot think of it, even now, without thanking God for good women. I clung to her hand, clung with the energy of one drowning, while I suffered the merciful torture of the probe, the knife and the needle. And when it was all over and the lantern lights grew pale in the dawn I fell asleep.
But enough of blood and horror. War is no holiday, my merry people, who know not the mighty blessing of peace. Counting the cost, let us have war, if necessary, but peace, peace if possible.