Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
In less than an hour Graham was in the parlor, looking, it is true, somewhat battered, but cheerful and resolute. His friends found him installed in a great armchair, with his bruised foot on a cushion, his arm in a sling, and a few pieces of court-plaster distributed rather promiscuously over his face and head. He greeted Hilland and his wife so heartily, and assured the major so genially that he should now divide with him his honors as a veteran, that they were reassured, and the rather tragic mood in which they had started on the visit was dispelled.
"I must admit, though," he added to his old friend, who was also made comfortable in his chair, which Hilland had brought over, "that in my fall on the field of glory I made a sorry figure. I was held down by my horse and trampled on as if I had been a part of the 'sacred soil.'"
"'Field of glory,' indeed!" exclaimed Hilland, contemptuously.
"I did not know that you had become a soldier," said Grace, with surprise.
"I was about as much of a soldier as the majority, from the generals down," was the laughing reply.
"I don't see how you could have been a worse one, if you had tried," was his friend's rejoinder. "I may do no better; but I should be less than a man if I did not make an effort to wipe out the disgrace as soon as possible. No reflection on you, Graham. Your wounds exonerate you; and I know you did not get them in running away."
"Yes, I did--two of them, at least--these in my arm. As to 'wiping out this disgrace as soon as possible,' I think that is a very secondary matter."
"Well! I don't understand it at all," was Hilland's almost savage answer. "But I can tell you from the start you need not enter on your old prudent counsels that I should serve the government as a stay-at- home quartermaster and general supply agent. In my opinion, what the government needs is men--men who at least won't run away. I now have Grace's permission to go--dear, brave girl!--and go I shall. To stay at home because I am rich seems to me the very snobbishness of wealth; and the kind of work I have been doing graybeards can do just as well, and better."
Graham turned a grave look of inquiry upon the wife. She answered it by saying with a pallid face: "I had better perish a thousand times than destroy Warren's self-respect."
"What right have you to preach caution," continued Hilland, "when you went far enough to be struck by half a dozen bullets?"
"The right of a retreat which scarcely slackened until I was under my aunt's roof."
"Come, Graham, you are tantalizing us," said Hilland, impatiently. "There, forgive me, old fellow. I fear you are still a little out of your head," he added, with a slight return of his old good-humor. "Do give us, then, if you can, some account of your impetuous advance on Washington, instead of Richmond."
"Yes, Mr. Graham," added the major, "if you are able to give me some reason for not blushing that I am a Northern man, I shall be glad to hear it."
"Mrs. Hilland," said Graham, with a smiling glance at the young wife's troubled face, "you have the advantage of us all. You can proudly say, 'I'm a Southerner.' Hilland and I are nothing but 'low-down Yankees.' Come, good friends, I have seen enough tragedy of late; and if, I have to describe a little to-night, let us look at matters philosophically. If I received some hard knocks from your kin, Mrs. Hilland--"
"Don't say 'Mrs. Hilland,'" interrupted his friend. "As I've told you before, my wife is 'Grace' to you."
"So be it then. The hard knocks from your kin have materially added to my small stock of sense; and I think the entire North will be wiser as well as sadder before many days pass. We have been taught that taking Richmond and marching through the South will be no holiday picnic. Major St. John has been right from the start. We must encounter brave, determined men; and, whatever may be true of the leaders, the people are as sincere in their patriotism as we are. They don't even dream that they are fighting in a bad cause. The majority will stand up for it as stoutly and conscientiously as your husband for ours. Have I not done justice to your kin, Grace?"
"Yes," she replied, with a faint smile.
"Then forgive me if I say that until four o'clock last Sunday afternoon, and in a fair, stand-up fight between a Northern mob and a Southern mob, we whipped them."
"But I thought the men of the North prided themselves on their 'staying power.'"
"They had no 'staying power' when they found fresh regiments and batteries pouring in on their flank and rear. I believe that retreat was then the proper thing. The wild panic that ensued resulted naturally from the condition of the men and officers, and especially from the presence of a lot of nondescript people that came to see the thing as a spectacle, a sort of gladiatorial combat, upon which they could look at a safe distance. Two most excellent results have been attained: I don't believe we shall ever send out another mob of soldiers; and I am sure that a mob of men and women from Washington will never follow it to see the fun."
"I wish Beauregard had corralled them all--the mob of sight-seers, I mean," growled the major. "I must say, Mr. Graham, that the hard knocks you and others have received may result in infinite good. I think I take your meaning, and that we shall agree very nearly before you are through. You know that I was ever bitterly opposed to the mad 'On to Richmond' cry; and now the cursed insanity of the thing is clearly proved."
"I agree with you that it was all wrong--that it involved risks that never should have been taken at this stage of the war; and I am told that General Scott and other veteran officers disapproved of the measure. Nevertheless, it came wonderfully near being successful. We should have gained the battle if the attack had been made earlier, or if that old muff, Patterson, had done his duty."
"If you are not too tired, give us the whole movement, just as you saw it," said Hilland, his eyes glowing with excitement.
"Oh, I feel well enough for another retreat tonight. My trouble was chiefly fatigue and lack of sleep."
"Because you make light of wounds, we do not," said Grace.
"Hilland knows that the loss of a little blood as pale and watery as mine would be of small account," was Graham's laughing response.
"Well, to begin at the beginning, I followed Patterson till convinced that his chief impulse was to get away from the enemy. I then hastened to Washington only to learn that McDowell had already had a heavy skirmish which was not particularly to our advantage. This was Saturday morning, and the impression was that a general engagement would be fought almost immediately. The fact that our army had met little opposition thus far created a false confidence. I did not care to risk my pet horse, Mayburn. You must know, aunty, I've rechristened Firebrand in your honor," said Graham. "I tried to get another mount, but could not obtain one for love or money. Every beast and conveyance in the city seemed already engaged for the coming spectacle. The majority of these civilians did not leave till early on Sunday morning, but I had plenty of company on Saturday, when with my good horse I went in a rather leisurely way to Centerville; for as a correspondent I had fairly accurate information of what was taking place, and had heard that there would be no battle that day.
"I reached Centerville in the evening, and soon learned that the forward movement would take place in the night. Having put my horse in thorough condition for the morrow, and made an enormous supper through the hospitality of some staff-officers, I sought a quiet knoll on which to sleep in soldier fashion under the sky, but found the scene too novel and beautiful for such prosaic oblivion. I was on the highest ground I could find, and beneath and on either side of me were the camp-fires of an army. Around the nearest of these could be seen the forms of the soldiers in every picturesque attitude; some still cooking and making their rude suppers, others executing double- shuffles like war-dances, more discussing earnestly and excitedly the prospects of the coming day, and not a few looking pensively into the flames as if they saw pictures of the homes and friends they might never see again. In the main, however, animation and jollity prevailed; and from far and near came the sound of song, and laughter, and chaffing. Far down the long slope toward the dark, wooded valley of Bull Run, the light of the fires shaded off into such obscurity as the full moon permitted, while beyond the stream in the far distance a long, irregular line of luminous haze marked the encampments of the enemy.
"As the night advanced the army grew quiet; near and distant sounds died away; the canvas tents were like mounds of snow; and by the flickering, dying flames were multitudes of quiet forms. At midnight few scenes could be more calm and beautiful, so tenderly did the light of the moon soften and etherealize everything. Even the parked artillery lost much of its grim aspect, and all nature seemed to breathe peace and rest.
"It was rumored that McDowell wished to make part of the march in the evening, and it would have been well if he had done so. A little past midnight a general stir and bustle ran through the sleeping army. Figures were seen moving hurriedly, men forming into lines, and there was a general commotion. But there was no promptness of action. The soldiers stood around, sat down, and at last lay on their arms and slept again. Mounting my horse, with saddle-bags well stuffed with such rations as I could obtain, I sought the centres of information. It appeared that the division under General Tyler was slow in starting, and blocked the march of the Second and the Third Division. As I picked my way around, only a horse's sagacity kept me from crushing some sleeping fellow's leg or arm, for a horse won't step on a man unless excited.
"Well, Tyler's men got out of the way at last in a haphazard fashion, and the Second and Third Divisions were also steadily moving, but hours behind time. Such marching! It reminded one of countrymen streaming along a road to a Fourth of July celebration.
"My main policy was to keep near the commander-in-chief, for thus I hoped to obtain from the staff some idea of the plan of battle and where its brunt would fall. I confess that I was disgusted at first, for the general was said to be ill, and he followed his columns in a carriage. It seemed an odd way of leading an army. But he came out all right; and he did his duty as a soldier and a general, although every one is cursing him to-day. He was the first man on the real battlefield, and by no means the first to leave it.
"Of course I came and went along the line of march, or of straggling rather, as I pleased; but I kept my eye on the general and his staff. I soon observed that he decided to make his headquarters at the point where a road leading from the great Warrenton Turnpike passed to the north through what is known as the 'Big Woods.' Tyler's command continued westward down the turnpike to what is known as the Stone Bridge, a single substantial arch at which the enemy were said to be in force. It now became clear that the first fighting would be there, and that it was McDowell's plan to send his main force under Hunter and Heintzelman further north through the woods to cross at some point above. I therefore followed Tyler's column, as that must soon become engaged.
"The movements had all been so mortally slow that any chance for surprise was lost. As we approached the bridge it was as lovely a summer morning as you would wish to see. I had ridden ahead with the scouts. Thrushes, robins, and other birds were singing in the trees. Startled rabbits, and a mother-bird with a brood of quails, scurried across the road, and all seemed as still and peaceful as any Sunday that had ever dawned on the scene. It was hard to persuade one's self that in front and rear were the forces of deadly war.
"We soon reached an eminence from which we saw what dispelled at once the illusion of sylvan solitude. The sun had been shining an hour or two, and the bridge before us and the road beyond were defended by abatis and other obstructions. On the further bank a line of infantry was in full view with batteries in position prepared to receive us. I confess it sent a thrill through every nerve when I first saw the ranks of the foe we must encounter in no mere pageant of war.
"In a few moments our forces came up, and at first one brigade deployed on the left and another on the right of the pike. At last I witnessed a scene that had the aspect of war. A great thirty-pound Parrot gun unlimbered in the centre of the pike, and looked like a surly mastiff. In a moment an officer, who understood his business, sighted it. There was a flash, bright even in the July sunlight, a grand report awakening the first echoes of a battle whose thunder was heard even in Washington; and a second later we saw the shell explode directly over the line of Confederate infantry. Their ranks broke and melted away as if by magic."
"Good shot, well aimed. Oh heavens! what would I not give to be thirty years younger! Go on, Graham, go on;" for the young man had stopped to take a sip of wine.
"Yes, Graham," cried Hilland, springing to his feet; "what next?"
"I fear we are doing Mr. Graham much wrong," Grace interrupted. "He must be going far beyond his strength."
The young man had addressed his words almost solely to the major, not only out of courtesy, but also for a reason that Grace partially surmised. He now turned and smiled into her flushed, troubled face, and said, "I fear you find these details of war dull and wearisome."
"On the contrary, you are so vivid a raconteur that I fear Warren will start for the front before you are through."
"When I am through you will think differently."
"But you are going beyond your strength."
"I assure you I am not; though I thank you for your thoughtfulness. I never felt better in my life; and it gives me a kind of pleasure to make you all realize things as I saw them."
"And it gives us great pleasure to listen," cried Hilland. "Even Mrs. Mayburn there is knitting as if her needles were bayonets; and Grace has the flush of a soldier's daughter on her cheeks."
"Oh, stop your chatter, and let Graham go on," said the major--"that is, if it's prudent for him," he added from a severe sense of duty. "What followed that blessed shell?"
"A lame and impotent conclusion in the form of many other shells that evoked no reply; and beyond his feeble demonstration Tyler did nothing. It seemed to me that a determined dash at the bridge would have carried it. I was fretting and fuming about when a staff-officer gave me a hint that nothing was to be done at present--that it was all only a feint, and that the columns that had gone northward through the woods would begin the real work. His words were scarcely spoken before I was making my way to the rear. I soon reached McDowell's carriage at the intersection of the roads, and found it empty. Learning that the general, in his impatience, had taken horse and galloped off to see what had become of his tardy commanders, I followed at full speed.
"It was a wild, rough road, scarcely more than a lane through the woods; but Mayburn was equal to it, and like a bird carried me through its gloomy shades, where I observed not a few skulkers cowering in the brush as I sped by. I overtook Heintzelman's command as it was crossing the run at Sudley's Ford; and such a scene of confusion I hope never to witness again. The men were emptying their canteens and refilling them, laving their hands and faces, and refreshing themselves generally. It was really quite a picnic. Officers were storming and ordering 'the boys'--and boys they seemed, indeed--to move on; and by dint of much profanity, and the pressure of those following, regiment after regiment at last straggled up the further bank, went into brigade formation, and shambled forward."
"The cursed mob!" muttered the major.
"Well, poor fellows! they soon won my respect; and yet, as I saw them then, stopping to pick blackberries along the road, I did feel like riding them down. I suppose my horse and I lowered the stream somewhat as we drank, for the day had grown sultry and the sun's rays intensely hot. Then I hastened on to find the general. It seemed as if we should never get out of the woods, as if the army had lost itself in an interminable forest. Wild birds and game fled before us; and I heard one soldier call out to another that it was 'a regular Virginia coon- hunt.' As I reached the head of the column the timber grew thinner, and I was told that McDowell was reconnoitring in advance. Galloping out into the open fields, I saw him far beyond me, already the target of Rebel bullets. His staff and a company of cavalry were with him; and as I approached he seemed rapidly taking in the topographical features of the field. Having apparently satisfied himself, he galloped to the rear; and at the same time Hunter's troops came pouring out of the woods.
"There was now a prospect of warm work and plenty of it. For the life of me I can't tell you how the battle began. Our men came forward in an irregular manner, rushing onward impetuously, halting unnecessarily, with no master mind directing. It seemed at first as if the mere momentum of the march carried us under the enemy's fire; and then there was foolish delay. By the aid of my powerful glass I was convinced that we might have walked right over the first thin Rebel line on the ridge nearest us.
"The artillery exchanged shots awhile. Regiments under the command of General Burnside deployed in the fields to the left of the road down which we had come; skirmishers were thrown out rapidly and began their irregular firing at an absurd distance from the enemy. There was hesitancy, delay; and the awkwardness of troops unaccustomed to act together in large bodies was enhanced by the excitement inseparable from their first experience of real war.
"In spite of all this the battlefield began to present grand and inspiring effects. The troops were debouching rapidly from the woods, their bayonets gleaming here and there through the dust raised by their hurrying feet, and burning in serried lines when they were ranged under the cloudless sun. In every movement made by every soldier the metal points in his accoutrements flashed and scintillated. Again there was something very spirited in the appearance of a battery rushed into position at a gallop--the almost instantaneous unlimbering, the caissons moving to the rear, and the guns at the same moment thundering their defiance, while the smoke, lifting slowly on the heavy air, rises and blends with that of the other side, and hangs like a pall to leeward of the field. The grandest thing of all, however, was the change in the men. The uncouth, coarsely jesting, blackberry-picking fellows that lagged and straggled to the battle became soldiers in their instincts and rising excitement and courage, if not in machine-like discipline and coolness. As I rode here and there I could see that they were erect, eager, and that their eyes began to glow like coals from their dusty, sunburned visages. If there were occasional evidences of fear, there were more of resolution and desire for the fray.
"The aspect of affairs on the ridge, where the enemy awaited us, did not grow encouraging. With my glass I could see re-inforcements coming up rapidly during our delay. New guns were seeking position, which was scarcely taken before there was a puff of smoke and their iron message. Heavens! what a vicious sound those shells had! something between a whiz and a shriek. Even the horses would cringe and shudder when one passed over them, and the men would duck their heads, though the missile was thirty feet in the air. I suppose there was some awfully wild firing on both sides; but I saw several of our men carried to the rear. But all this detail is an old, old story to you, Major."
"Yes, an old story, but one that can never lose its fierce charm. I see it all as you describe it. Go on, and omit nothing you can remember of the scene. Mrs. Mayburn looks as grim as one of your cannon; and Grace, my child, you won't flinch, will you?"
"That's my brave wife's child. She often said, 'Tell me all. I wish to know just what you have passed through.'"
A brief glance assured Graham that her father's spirit was then supreme, and that she looked with woman's admiration on a scene replete with the manhood woman most admires.
"I cannot describe to you the battle, as such," continued Graham. "I can only outline faintly the picture I saw dimly through dust and smoke from my own standpoint. Being under no one's orders, I could go where I pleased, and I tried to find the vital points. Of course, there was much heavy fighting that I saw nothing of, movements unknown to me or caught but imperfectly. During the preliminary conflict I remained on the right of Burnside's command near the Sudley Road by which our army had reached the field.
"When at last his troops began to press forward, their advance was decided and courageous; but the enemy held their own stubbornly. The fighting was severe and deadly, for we were now within easy musket range. At one time I trembled for Burnside's lines, and I saw one of his aides gallop furiously to the rear for help. It came almost immediately in the form of a fine body of regulars under Major Sykes; and our wavering lines were rendered firm and more aggressive than ever. At the same time it was evident that our forces were going into action off to the right of the Sudley Road, and that another battery had opened on the enemy. I afterward learned that they were Rickett's guns. Under this increasing and relentless pressure the enemy's lines were seen to waver. Wild cheers went up from our ranks; and such is the power of the human voice--the echo direct from the heart--that these shouts rose above the roar of the cannon, the crash of musketry, and thrilled every nerve and fibre. Onward pressed our men; the Rebel lines yielded, broke, and our foes retreated down the hill, but at a dogged, stubborn pace, fighting as they went. Seeing the direction they were taking, I dashed into the Sudley Road near which I had kept as the centre of operations. At the intersection of this road with the Warrenton Turnpike was a stone house, and behind this the enemy rallied as if determined to retreat no further. I had scarcely observed this fact when I saw a body of men forming in the road just above me. In a few moments they were in motion. On they came, a resistless human torrent with a roar of hoarse shouts and cries. I was carried along with them; but before we reached the stone house the enemy broke and fled, and the whole Rebel line was swept back half a mile or more.
"Thus you see that in the first severe conflict of the day, and when pitted against numbers comparatively equal, we won a decided victory."
Both the major and Hilland drew a long breath of relief; and the former said: "I have been hasty and unjust in my censure. If that raw militia could be made to fight at all, it can in time be made to fight well. Mr. Graham, you have deeply gratified an old soldier to-night by describing scenes that carry me back to the grand era of my life. I believe I was born to be a soldier; and my old campaigns stand out in memory like sun-lighted mountain-tops. Forgive such high-flown talk--I know it's not like me--but I've had to-night some of my old battle excitement. I never thought to feel it again. We'll hear the rest of your story to-morrow. I outrank you all, by age at least; and I now order 'taps.'"
Graham was not sorry, for in strong reaction a sudden sense of almost mortal weakness overcame him. Even the presence of Grace, for whose sake, after all, he had unconsciously told his story, could not sustain him any longer, and he sank back looking very white.
"You have overexerted yourself," she said gently, coming, to his side. "You should have stopped when I cautioned you; or rather, we should have been more thoughtful."
"Perhaps I have overrated my strength--it's a fault of mine," was his smiling reply, "I shall be perfectly well after a night's rest."
He had looked up at her as he spoke; and in that moment of weakness there was a wistful, hungry look in his eyes that smote her heart.
A shallow, silly woman, or an intensely selfish one, would have exulted. Here was a man, cool, strong, and masterful among other men-- a man who had gone to the other side of the globe to escape her power --one who within the last few days had witnessed a battle with the quiet poise that enabled him to study it as an artist or a tactician; and yet he could not keep his eyes from betraying the truth that there was something within his heart stronger than himself.
Did Grace Hilland lay this flattering unction to her soul? No. She went away inexpressibly sad. She felt that two battle scenes had been presented to her mind; and the conflict that had been waged silently, patiently, and unceasingly in a strong man's soul had to her the higher elements of heroism. It was another of those wretched problems offered by this imperfect world for which there seems no remedy.
When Hilland hastened over to see his friend and add a few hearty words to those he had already spoken, he was told that he was sleeping.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.