"Gods! Could I but paint a dying groan——."
And how the keen eye of West would have turned from the reeking cockpit of the Victory, or the tomb of the Dead Man Restored, to this old barn, peopled with horrors. I rambled in and out, learning to look at death, studying the manifestations of pain,—quivering and sickening at times, but plying my avocation, and jotting the names for my column of mortalities.
At eleven o'clock there was music along the high-road, and a general rushing from camps. The victorious regiments were returning from Hanover, under escort, and all the bands were pealing national airs. As they turned down the fields towards their old encampments, the several brigades stood under arms to welcome them, and the cheers were many and vigorous. But the solemn ambulances still followed after, and the red flag of the hospitals flaunted bloodily in the blue midnight.
Both the prisoners and the wounded were removed between midnight and morning to White House, and as I had despatches to forward by the mail-boat, I rode down in an ambulance, that contained six wounded men besides. The wounded were to be consigned to hospital boats, and forwarded to hospitals in northern cities, and the prisoners were to be placed in a transport, under guard, and conveyed to Fort Delaware, near Philadelphia.
Ambulances, it may be said, incidentally, are either two-wheeled or four-wheeled. Two-wheeled ambulances are commonly called "hop, step, and jumps." They are so constructed that the forepart is either very high or very low, and may be both at intervals. The wounded occupants may be compelled to ride for hours in these carriages, with their heels elevated above their heads, and may finally be shaken out, or have their bones broken by the terrible jolting. The four-wheeled ambulances are built in shelves, or compartments, but the wounded are in danger of being smothered in them. It was in one of these latter that I rode, sitting with the driver. We had four horses, but were thrice "swamped" on the road, and had to take out the wounded men once, till we could start the wheels. Two of these men were wounded in the face, one of them having his nose completely severed, and the other having a fragment of his jaw knocked out. A third had received a ball among the thews and muscles behind his knee, and his whole body appeared to be paralyzed. Two were wounded in the shoulders, and the sixth was shot in the breast, and was believed to be injured inwardly, as he spat blood, and suffered almost the pain of death. The ride with these men, over twenty miles of hilly, woody country, was like one of Dante's excursions into the Shades. In the awful stillness of the dark pines, their screams frightened the hooting owls, and the whirring insects in the leaves and tree-tops quieted their songs. They heard the gurgle of the rills, and called aloud for water to quench their insatiate thirst. One of them sang a shrill, fierce, fiendish ballad, in an interval of relief, but plunged, at a sudden relapse, in prayers and curses. We heard them groaning to themselves, as we sat in front, and one man, it seemed, was quite out of his mind. These were the outward manifestations; but what chords trembled and smarted within, we could only guess. What regrets for good resolves unfulfilled, and remorse for years misspent, made hideous these sore and panting hearts? The moonlight pierced through the thick foliage of the wood, and streamed into our faces, like invitations to a better life. But the crippled and bleeding could not see or feel it,—buried in the shelves of the ambulance.
Some days ago, as I was sitting in Central Park, under a tree no bigger than Jonah's gourd, broiling nicely brown, and seasoning the process by reading what the lesser weeklies said about me, I saw at the Park gate a great phantasm, like a distended sausage, swaying to and fro as if striving to burst, and directly the horrible thing blew upwards, spilling all the stuffing from the case.
I saw in a moment that the apparition was a balloon, and that the aeronaut was only emptying ballast.
Straight toward me the floating vessel came, so close to the ground that I could hear the silk crackle and the ropes creak, till, directly, a man leaned over the side and shouted—
"Is that you, Townsend?"
"I want you to get on your feet and be spry about it: we have a literary party here, and wish you to write it up. I'll let one bag of ballast go, as we touch the grass, and you must leap in simultaneously. Thump!"
Here the car collided with the ground, and in another instant, I found quantities of dirt spilled down my back, and two or three people lying beneath me. The world slid away, and the clouds opened to receive me. Lowe was opening a bottle of Heidsick, and three or four gentlemen with heads sick were unclosing the petals of their lips to get the afternoon dew.
These were the various critics and fugitive writers of the weekly and daily press. They looked as if they wanted to put each other over the side of the car, but smothered their invective at my advent, as if I were so much pearl-ash.
It was just seven o'clock, and the Park lay like a veined and mottled blood-stone in the red sunset. The city wilted to the littleness of a rare mosaic pin, its glittering point parting the blue scarf of the bay, and the white bosom of the ocean swelling afar, all draped with purple clouds like golden hair, in which the entangled gems were the sails of the white ships.
I said this aloud, and all the party drew their lead pencils. They forgot the occasion in my eloquence, and wanted to report me.
Just here, I drew a field-glass from the aeronaut, and reconnoitred the streets of the city. To my dismay there was nobody visible on Broadway but gentlemen. I called everybody's attention to the fact, and it was accounted for on the supposition that the late bank forgeries and defalcations, growing out of the extravagance of womankind, had prompted all the husbands to make of their homes nunneries.
We observed, however, close by every gentleman, something that resembled a black dog with his tail curled over his back.
"Stuff!" said one, "they're hay wagons."
"No!" cried Lowe, "they're nothing of the sort; they are waterfalls, and the ladies are, of course, invisible under them."
We accepted the explanation, and thought the trip very melancholy. No landscape is complete without a woman. Very soon we struck the great polar current, and passed Harlem river; the foliage of the trees, by some strange anomaly, began to ascend towards us, but Lowe caught two or three of the supposed leaves, and they proved to be greenbacks.
There was at once a tremendous sensation in the car; we knew that we were on the track of Ketchum and his carpet-bag of bank-notes.
"Is there any reward out?" cried Lowe.
"Then we won't pursue him."
As we slowly drifted to the left, the Hudson shone through the trees, and before dusk we swept across Lake Mahopec. I heard a voice singing to the dip of oars, and had to be held down by five men to restrain an involuntary impulse to quit my company.
"Townsend," said Lowe, "have you the copy of that matter you printed about me in England? This is the time to call you to account for it. We are two or three miles above terra firma, and I might like to drop you for a parachute."
I felt Lowe's muscle, and knew myself secure. Then I unrolled the pages, which I fortunately carried with me, and told him the following news about himself:—
The aeronaut of the Army of the Potomac was Mr. S. T. C. Lowe; he had made seven thousand ascensions, and his army companion was invariably either an artist, a correspondent, or a telegrapher.
A minute insulated wire reached from the car to headquarters, and McClellan was thus informed of all that could be seen within the Confederate works. Sometimes they remained aloft for hours, making observations with powerful glasses, and once or twice the enemy tested their distance with shell.
On the 13th of April, the Confederates sent up a balloon, the first they had employed, at which Lowe was infinitely amused. He said that it had neither shape nor buoyancy, and predicted that it would burst or fall apart after a week. It certainly occurred that, after a few fitful appearances, the stranger was seen no more, till, on the 28th of June, it floated, like a thing of omen, over the spires of Richmond. At that time the Federals were in full retreat, and all the acres were covered with their dead.
On the 11th of April, at five o'clock, an event at once amusing and thrilling occurred at our quarters. The commander-in-chief had appointed his personal and confidential friend, General Fitz John Porter, to conduct the siege of Yorktown. Porter was a polite, soldierly gentleman, and a native of New Hampshire, who had been in the regular army since early manhood. He fought gallantly in the Mexican war, being thrice promoted and once seriously wounded, and he was now forty years of age,—handsome, enthusiastic, ambitious, and popular. He made frequent ascensions with Lowe, and learned to go aloft alone. One day he ascended thrice, and finally seemed as cosily at home in the firmament as upon the solid earth. It is needless to say that he grew careless, and on this particular morning leaped into the car and demanded the cables to be let out with all speed. I saw with some surprise that the flurried assistants were sending up the great straining canvas with a single rope attached. The enormous bag was only partially inflated, and the loose folds opened and shut with a crack like that of a musket. Noisily, fitfully, the yellow mass rose into the sky, the basket rocking like a leather in the zephyr; and just as I turned aside to speak to a comrade, a sound came from overhead, like the explosion of a shell, and something striking me across the face laid me flat upon the ground.
Half blind and stunned, I staggered to my feet, but the air seemed full of cries and curses. Opening my eyes ruefully, I saw all faces turned upwards, and when I looked above,—the balloon was adrift.
The treacherous cable, rotted with vitriol, had snapped in twain; one fragment had been the cause of my downfall, and the other trailed, like a great entrail, from the receding car, where Fitz John Porter was bounding upward upon a Pegasus that he could neither check nor direct.
The whole army was agitated by the unwonted occurrence. From battery No. 1, on the brink of the York, to the mouth of Warwick river, every soldier and officer was absorbed. Far within the Confederate lines the confusion extended. We heard the enemy's alarm-guns, and directly the signal flags were waving up and down our front.
The General appeared directly over the edge of the car. He was tossing his hands frightenedly, and shouting something that we could not comprehend.
"O—pen—the—valve!" called Lowe, in his shrill tones; "climb—to—the—netting—and—reach—the—valve—rope."
"The valve!—the valve!" repeated a multitude of tongues, and all gazed with thrilling interest at the retreating hulk that still kept straight upward, swerving neither to the east nor the west.
It was a weird spectacle,—that frail, fading oval, gliding against the sky, floating in the serene azure, the little vessel swinging silently beneath, and a hundred thousand martial men watching the loss of their brother in arms, but powerless to relieve or recover him. Had Fitz John Porter been drifting down the rapids of Niagara, he could not have been so far from human assistance. But we saw him directly, no bigger than a child's toy, clambering up the netting and reaching for the cord.
"He can't do it," muttered a man beside me; "the wind blows the valve-rope to and fro, and only a spry, cool-headed fellow can catch it."
We saw the General descend, and appearing again over the edge of the basket, he seemed to be motioning to the breathless hordes below, the story of his failure. Then he dropped out of sight, and when we next saw him, he was reconnoitring the Confederate works through a long black spy-glass. A great laugh went up and down the lines as this cool procedure was observed, and then a cheer of applause ran from group to group. For a moment it was doubtful that the balloon would float in either direction; it seemed to falter, like an irresolute being, and moved reluctantly southeastward, towards Fortress Monroe. A huzza, half uttered, quivered on every lip. All eyes glistened, and some were dim with tears of joy. But the wayward canvas now turned due westward, and was blown rapidly toward the Confederate works. Its course was fitfully direct, and the wind seemed to veer often, as if contrary currents, conscious of the opportunity, were struggling for the possession of the daring navigator. The south wind held mastery for awhile, and the balloon passed the Federal front amid a howl of despair from the soldiery. It kept right on, over sharpshooters, rifle-pits, and outworks, and finally passed, as if to deliver up its freight, directly over the heights of Yorktown. The cool courage, either of heroism or despair, had seized upon Fitz John Porter. He turned his black glass upon the ramparts and masked cannon below, upon the remote camps, upon the beleaguered town, upon the guns of Gloucester Point, and upon distant Norfolk. Had he been reconnoitring from a secure perch at the tip of the moon, he could not have been more vigilant, and the Confederates probably thought this some Yankee device to peer into their sanctuary in despite of ball or shell. None of their great guns could be brought to bear upon the balloon; but there were some discharges of musketry that appeared to have no effect, and finally even these demonstrations ceased. Both armies in solemn silence were gazing aloft, while the imperturbable mariner continued to spy out the land.
The sun was now rising behind us, and roseate rays struggled up to the zenith, like the arcs made by showery bombs. They threw a hazy atmosphere upon the balloon, and the light shone through the network like the sun through the ribs of the skeleton ship in the Ancient Mariner. Then, as all looked agape, the air-craft "plunged, and tacked, and veered," and drifted rapidly toward the Federal lines again.
The allelujah that now went up shook the spheres, and when he had regained our camp limits, the General was seen clambering up again to clutch the valve-rope. This time he was successful, and the balloon fell like a stone, so that all hearts once more leaped up, and the cheers were hushed. Cavalry rode pell-mell from several directions, to reach the place of descent, and the General's personal staff galloped past me like the wind, to be the first at his debarkation. I followed the throng of soldiery with due haste, and came up to the horsemen in a few minutes. The balloon had struck a canvas tent with great violence, felling it as by a bolt, and the General, unharmed, had disentangled himself from innumerable folds of oiled canvas, and was now the cynosure of an immense group of people. While the officers shook his hands, the rabble bawled their satisfaction in hurrahs, and a band of music marching up directly, the throng on foot and horse gave him a vociferous escort to his quarters.
Five miles east of Richmond, in the middle of May, we found the balloon already partially inflated, resting behind a ploughed hill that formed one of a ridge or chain of hills, bordering the Chickahominy. The stream was only a half-mile distant, but the balloon was sheltered from observation by reason of its position in the hollow.
Heretofore the ascensions had been made from remote places, for there was good reason to believe that batteries lined the opposite hills; but now, for the first time, Lowe intended to make an ascent whereby he could look into Richmond, count the forts encircling it, and note the number and position of the camps that intervened. The balloon was named the "Constitution," and looked like a semi-distended boa-constrictor, as it flapped with a jerking sound, and shook its oiled and painted folds. It was anchored to the ground by stout ropes affixed to stakes, and also by sand-bags which hooked to its netting. The basket lay alongside; the generators were contained in blue wooden wagons, marked "U. S.;" and the gas was fed to the balloon through rubber and metallic pipes. A tent or two, a quantity of vitriol in green and wicker carboys, some horses and transportation teams, and several men that assisted the inflation, were the only objects to be remarked. As some time was to transpire before the arrangements were completed, I resorted to one of the tents and took a comfortable nap. The "Professor" aroused me at three o'clock, when I found the canvas straining its bonds, and emitting a hollow sound, as of escaping gas. The basket was made fast directly, the telescopes tossed into place; the Professor climbed to the side, holding by the network; and I coiled up in a rope at the bottom.
"Stand by your cables," he said, and the bags of ballast were at once cut away. Twelve men took each a rope in hand, and played out slowly, letting us glide gently upward. The earth seemed to be falling away, and we poised motionless in the blue ether. The tree-tops sank downward, the hills dropped noiselessly through space, and directly the Chickahominy was visible beyond us, winding like a ribbon of silver through the ridgy landscape.
Far and wide stretched the Federal camps. We saw faces turned upwards gazing at our ascent, and heard clearly, as in a vacuum, the voices of soldiers. At every second the prospect widened, the belt of horizon enlarged, remote farmhouses came in view; the earth was like a perfectly flat surface, painted with blue woods, and streaked with pictures of roads, fields, fences, and streams. As we climbed higher, the river seemed directly beneath us, the farms on the opposite bank were plainly discernible, and Richmond lay only a little way off, enthroned on its many hills, with the James stretching white and sinuous from its feet to the horizon. We could see the streets, the suburbs, the bridges, the outlaying roads, nay, the moving masses of people. The Capitol sat white and colossal on Shockoe Hill, the dingy buildings of the Tredegar works blackened the river-side above, the hovels of rockets clustered at the hither limits, and one by one we made out familiar hotels, public edifices, and vicinities. The fortifications were revealed in part only, for they took the hue of the soil, and blended with it; but many camps were plainly discernible, and by means of the glasses we separated tent from tent, and hut from hut. The Confederates were seen running to the cover of the woods, that we might not discover their numbers, but we knew the location of their camp-fires by the smoke that curled toward us.
A panorama so beautiful would have been rare at any time, but this was thrice interesting from its past and coming associations. Across those plains the hordes at our feet were either to advance victoriously, or be driven eastward with dusty banners and dripping hands. Those white farm-houses were to be receptacles for the groaning and the mangled; thousands were to be received beneath the turf of those pasture fields; and no rod of ground on any side, should not, sooner or later, smoke with the blood of the slain.
"Guess I got 'em now, jest where I want 'em," said Lowe, with a gratified laugh; "jest keep still as you mind to, and squint your eye through my glass, while I make a sketch of the roads and the country. Hold hard there, and anchor fast!" he screamed to the people below. Then he fell imperturbably to work, sweeping the country with his hawk-eye, and escaping nothing that could contribute to the completeness of his jotting.
We had been but a few minutes thus poised, when close below, from the edge of a timber stretch, puffed a volume of white smoke. A second afterward, the air quivered with the peal of a cannon. A third, and we heard the splitting shriek of a shell, that passed a little to our left, but in exact range, and burst beyond us in the ploughed field, heaving up the clay as it exploded.
"Ha!" said Lowe, "they have got us foul! Haul in the cables—quick!" he shouted, in a fierce tone.
At the same instant, the puff, the report, and the shriek were repeated; but this time the shell burst to our right in mid-air, and scattered fragments around and below us.
"Another shot will do our business," said Lowe, between his teeth; "it isn't a mile, and they have got the range."
Again the puff and the whizzing shock. I closed my eyes, and held my breath hard. The explosion was so close, that the pieces of shell seemed driven across my face, and my ears quivered with the sound. I looked at Lowe, to see if he was struck. He had sprung to his feet, and clutched the cordage frantically.
"Are you pulling in there, you men?" he bellowed, with a loud imprecation.
"Puff! bang! whiz-z-z-z! splutter!" broke a third shell, and my heart was wedged in my throat.
I saw at a glimpse the whole bright landscape again. I hoard the voices of soldiers below, and saw them running across fields, fences, and ditches, to reach our anchorage. I saw some drummer-boys digging in the field beneath for one of the buried shells. I saw the waving of signal flags, the commotion through the camps,—officers galloping their horses, teamsters whipping their mules, regiments turning out, drums beaten, and batteries limbered up. I remarked, last of all, the site of the battery that alarmed us, and, by a strange sharpness of sight and sense, believed that I saw the gunners swabbing, ramming, and aiming the pieces.
"Puff! bang! whiz-z-z-z! splutter! crash!"
"Puff! bang! whiz-z-z-z! splutter! crash!"
"My God!" said Lowe, hissing the words slowly and terribly, "they have opened upon us from another battery!"
The scene seemed to dissolve. A cold dew broke from my forehead. I grew blind and deaf. I had fainted.
"Pitch some water in his face," said somebody. "He ain't used to it. Hallo! there he comes to."
I staggered to my feet. There must have been a thousand men about us. They were looking curiously at the aeronaut and me. The balloon lay fuming and struggling on the clods.
"Three cheers for the Union bal-loon!" called a little fellow at my side.
"Hip, hip—hoorooar! hoorooar! hoorooar!"
SEVEN PINES AND FAIROAKS.
Returning from White House on Saturday, May 29, I heard the cannon of "Seven Pines." The roar of artillery came faintly upon the ear in the dells and woods, but in the open stretches of country, or from cleared hill-tops, I could hear also the volleys of musketry. It was the battle sound that assured me of bloody work; for the musket, as I had learned by experience, was the only certain signification of battle. It is seldom brought into requisition but at close quarters, when results are intended; whereas, cannon may peal for a fortnight, and involve no other destruction than that of shell and powder. I do not think that any throb of my heart was unattended by some volley or discharge. Dull, hoarse, uninterrupted, the whole afternoon was shaken by the sound. It was with a shudder that I thought how every peal announced flesh and bone riven asunder. The country people, on the way, stood in their side yards, anxiously listening. Riders or teamsters coming from the field, were beset with inquiries; but in the main they knew nothing. As I stopped at Daker's for dinner, the concussion of the battle rattled our plates, and the girls entirely lost their appetites, so that Glumley, who listened and speculated, observed that the baby face was losing all the lines of art, and was quite flat and faded in color. Resuming our way, we encountered a sallow, shabby person, driving a covered wagon, who recognized me at once. It was the "Doctor" who had lightened the journey down the Chesapeake, by a discourse upon embalming. He pointed toward the field with a long bony finger, and called aloud, with a smirk upon his face—
"I have the apparatus here, you see. They will need me out yonder, you know. There's opportunity there for the development of the 'system.'"
I did not reach my own camp at Gaines's Farm, till late in the day. The firing had almost entirely ceased, but occasional discharges still broke the repose of evening, and at night signal rockets hissed and showered in every direction. Next day the contest recommenced; but although not farther in a direct line, than seven miles, from our encampment, I could not cross the Chickahominy, and was compelled to lie in my tent all day.
These two battles were offered by the Confederates, in the hope of capturing that portion of the Federal army that lay upon the Richmond side of the river. Some days previously, McClellan had ordered Keyes's corps, consisting of perhaps twelve thousand men, to cross Bottom Bridge, eight miles down the Chickahominy, and occupy an advanced position on the York River railroad, six miles east of Richmond. Keyes's two divisions, commanded by Generals Couch and Casey, were thus encamped in a belt of woods remote from the body of the army, and little more than a mile from the enemy's line. Heintzelman's corps was lying at the Bridge, several miles in their rear, and the three finest corps in the army were separated from them by a broad, rapid river, which could be crossed at two places only. The troops of Keyes were mainly inexperienced, undisciplined volunteers from the Middle States. When their adversaries advanced, therefore, in force, on the twenty-ninth instant, they made a fitful, irregular resistance, and at evening retired in panic and disorder. The victorious enemy followed them so closely, that many of the Federals were slain in their tents. During that night, the Chickahominy, swollen by rains, overflowed its banks, and swept away the bridges. The beaten and disorganized relic of the fight of "Seven Pines," was thus completely isolated, and apparently to be annihilated at daybreak. But during the night, twenty thousand fresh men of Sumner's corps, forded the river, carrying their artillery, piece by piece across, and at dawn they assumed the offensive, seconded by the encouraged columns of Keyes. The fight was one of desperation; at night the Federals reoccupied their old ground at Fairoaks, and the Confederates retired, leaving their dead and wounded on the field. They lost, among their prisoners, General Pettigrew, of South Carolina, who was severely wounded, and with whom I talked as he lay in bed at Gaines's Mansion. He appeared to be a chivalrous, gossipy old gentleman, and said that he was the last South Carolinian to stand by the Union.
On the succeeding day, Monday, June 2, I rode to "Grape-Vine Bridge," and attempted to force my horse through the swamp and stream; but the drowned mules that momentarily floated down the current, admonished me of the folly of the hazard. The bridge itself was a swimming mass of poles and logs, that yielded with every pressure; yet I saw many wounded men, who waded through the water, or stepped lightly from log to log, and so gained the shore, wet from head to foot. Long lines of supply teams and ambulances were wedged in the depth of the thick wood, bordering the river; but so narrow were the corduroy approaches to the bridge, and so fathomless the swamp on either hand, that they could neither go forward, nor return. The straggling troops brought the unwelcome intelligence, that their comrades on the other side were starving, as they had crossed with a single ration of food, and had long ago eaten their last morsels. While I was standing close by the bridge, General McClellan, and staff, rode through the swamp, and attempted to make the passage. The "young Napoleon," urged his horse upon the floating timber, and at once sank over neck and saddle. His staff dashed after him, floundering in the same way; and when they had splashed and shouted, till I believed them all drowned, they turned and came to shore, dripping and discomfited. There was another Napoleon, who, I am informed, slid down the Alps into Italy; the present descendant did not slide so far, and he shook himself, after the manner of a dog. I remarked with some surprise, that he was growing obese; whereas, the active labors of the campaign had reduced the dimensions of most of the Generals.
I secured my horse, and placed a drummer-boy beside him, to prevent abduction or mistake; then stripping from top to toe, and holding my garments above my head, I essayed the difficult passage; as a commencement, I dropped my watch, but the guard-hook caught in a log and held it fast. Afterward, I slipped from the smooth butt of a tree, and thoroughly soused myself and clothing; a lumber-man from Maine, beheld my ill luck, and kindly took my burden to the other side. An estuary of the Chickahominy again intervened, but a rough scow floated upon it, which the Captain of Engineers sent for me, with a soldier to man the oars. I neglected to "trim boat," I am sorry to add, although admonished to that effect repeatedly by the mariner; and we swamped in four feet of water. I resembled a being of one of the antediluvian eras, when I came to land, finally, and might have been taken for a slimy Iguanodon. I sacrificed some of my under clothing to the process of cleansing and drying, and so started with soaking boots, and a deficiency of dress, in the direction of Savage's. Passing the "bottom," or swamp-land, I ascended a hill, and following a lane, stopped after a half hour at a frame-mansion, unpainted, with some barns and negro-quarters contiguous, and a fine grove of young oaks, shading the porch. An elderly gentleman sat in the porch, sipping a julep, with his feet upon the railing, and conversing with a stout, ruddy officer, of decidedly Milesian physiognomy. When I approached, the latter hurriedly placed a chair between himself and me, and said, with a stare—
"Bloodanowns! And where have ye been? Among the hogs, I think?" I assured him that I did not intend to come to close quarters, and that it would be no object on my part to contaminate him. The old gentleman called for "William," a tall, consumptive servant, whose walk reminded me of a stubborn convict's, in the treadmill, and ordered him to scrape me, which was done, accordingly, with a case-knife. The young officer proposed to dip me in the well and wring me well out, but I demurred, mainly on the ground that some time would be so consumed, and that my horse was waiting on the other side. He at once said that he would send for it, and called "Pat," a civilian servant, in military blue, who was nursing a negro baby with an eye, it seemed, to obtain favor with the mother. The willingness of the man surprised me, but he said that it was a short cut of four miles to the railroad bridge, which had been repaired and floored, and that he could readily recover the animal and return at three o'clock. My benefactor, the officer, then mixed a julep, which brought a comfortable glow to my face, and said, without parley—
"You're a reporter, on the——"
He said further, that he had been Coroner's Surgeon in New York for many years, and had learned to know the representatives of newspapers, one from the other, by generic manner and appearance. Three correspondents rode by at the time, neither of whom he knew personally, but designated them promptly, with their precise connections. In short, we became familiar directly, and he told me that his name was O'Gamlon, Quartermaster of Meagher's Irish brigade, Sumner's corps. He was established with the elderly gentleman,—whose name was Michie,—and had two horses in the stable, at hand. He proposed to send me to the field, with a note of introduction to the General, and another to Colonel Baker, of the New York 88th (Irish), who could show me the lines and relics of battle, and give me the lists of killed, wounded, and missing. I repaired to his room, and arrayed myself in a fatigue officer's suit, with clean underclothing, after which, descending, I climbed into his saddle, and dashed off, with a mettlesome, dapper pony. The railroad track was about a mile from the house, and the whole country, hereabout, was sappy, dank, and almost barren. Scrub pines covered much of the soil, and the cleared fields were dotted with charred stumps. The houses were small and rude; the wild pigs ran like deer through the bushes and across my path; vultures sailed by hundreds between me and the sky; the lane was slippery and wound about slimy pools; the tree-tops, in many places, were splintered by ball and shell. I crossed the railroad, cut by a high bridge, and saw below the depot, at Savage's, now the head-quarters of General Heintzelman. Above, in full view, were the commands at Peach Orchard and Fairoaks, and to the south, a few furlongs distant, the Williamsburg and Richmond turnpike ran, parallel with the railway, toward the field of Seven Pines. The latter site, was simply the junction of the turnpike with a roundabout way to Richmond, called the "Nine Mile Road," and Fairoaks was the junction of the diverging road with the railroad. Toward the latter I proceeded, and soon came to the Irish brigade, located on both sides of the way, at Peach Orchard.
They occupied the site of the most desperate fighting.
A small farm hollowed in the swampy thicket and wood, was here divided by the track, and a little farm-house, with a barn, granary, and a couple of cabins, lay on the left side. In a hut to the right General Thomas Francis Meagher made his head-quarters, and a little beyond, in the edges of the swamp timber, lay his four regiments, under arms.
A guard admonished me, in curt, lithe speech, that my horse must come no further; for the brigade held the advance post, and I was even now within easy musket range of the imperceptible enemy. An Irish boy volunteered to hold the rein, while I paid my respects to the Commander. I encountered him on the threshold of the hut, and he welcomed me in the richest and most musical of brogues. Large, corpulent, and powerful of body; plump and ruddy—or as some would say, bloated—of face; with resolute mouth and heavy animal jaws; expressive nose, and piercing blue-eyes; brown hair, mustache, and eyebrows; a fair forehead, and short sinewy neck, a man of apparently thirty years of age, stood in the doorway, smoking a cigar, and trotting his sword fretfully in the scabbard. He wore the regulation blue cap, but trimmed plentifully with gold lace, and his sleeves were slashed in the same manner. A star glistened in his oblong shoulder-bar; a delicate gold cord seamed his breeches from his Hessian boots to his red tasselled sword-sash; a seal-ring shone from the hand with which he grasped his gauntlets, and his spurs were set upon small aristocratic feet.
A tolerable physiognomist would have resolved his temperament to an intense sanguine. He was fitfully impulsive, as all his movements attested, and liable to fluctuations of peevishness, melancholy, and enthusiasm. This was "Meagher of the Sword," the stripling who made issue with the renowned O'Connell, and divided his applauses; the "revolutionist," who had outlived exile to become the darling of the "Young Ireland" populace in his adopted country; the partisan, whose fierce, impassioned oratory had wheeled his factious element of the Democracy into the war cause; and the soldier, whose gallant bearing at Bull Run had won him a brigadiership. He was, to my mind, a realization of the Knight of Gwynne, or any of the rash, impolitic, poetic personages in Lever and Griffin. Ambitious without a name; an adventurer without a definite cause; an orator without policy; a General without caution or experience, he had led the Irish brigade through the hottest battles, and associated them with the most brilliant episodes of the war.
Every adjunct of the place was strictly Hibernian. The emerald green standard entwined with the red, white, and blue; the gilt eagles on the flag-poles held the Shamrock sprig in their beaks; the soldiers lounging on guard, had "69" or "88" the numbers of their regiments, stamped on a green hat-band; the brogue of every county from Down to Wexford fell upon the ear; one might have supposed that the "year '98" had been revived, and that these brawny Celts were again afield against their Saxon countrymen. The class of lads upon the staff of Meagher, was an odd contrast to the mass of staff officers in the "Grand Army." Fox-hunters they all seemed to me, and there was one, who wore a long, twisted, pomatumed moustache, who talked of steeple chases, all the while, and wanted to have "a healthy dash" of some kind. A class of Irish exquisites, they appeared to be,—good for a fight, a card-party, or a hurdle jumping,—but entirely too Quixotic for the sober requirements of Yankee warfare. When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish brigade was called upon. But, ordinarily, they were regarded, as a party of mad fellows, more ornamental than useful, and entirely too clannish and factious to be entrusted with power. Meagher himself seemed to be less erratic than his subordinates; for he had married a New York lady, and had learned, by observation, the superiority of the pelfish, plodding native before his own fitful, impracticable race. His address was infatuating: but there was a certain airiness, indicative of vanity, that revealed his great characteristic. He loved applause, and to obtain it had frittered away his fine abilities, upon petty, splendid, momentary triumphs. He was generous to folly, and, I have no doubt, maintained his whole staff.
When I requested to be shown the field, and its relics, Meagher said, in his musical brogue, that I need only look around.
"From the edge of that wood," he said, "the Irish brigade charged across this field, and fell upon their faces in the railway cutting below. A regiment of Alabamians lay in the timber beyond, with other Southerners in their rear, and on both flanks. They thought that we were charging bayonets, and reserved their fire till we should approach within butchering distance. On the contrary, I ordered the boys to lie down, and load and fire at will. In the end, sir, we cut them to pieces, and five hundred of them were left along the swamp fence, that you see. There isn't fifty killed and wounded in the whole Irish brigade."
A young staff officer took me over the field. We visited first the cottage and barns across the road, and found the house occupied by some thirty wounded Federals. They lay in their blankets upon the floors,—pale, helpless, hollow-eyed, making low moans at every breath. Two or three were feverishly sleeping, and, as the flies revelled upon their gashes, they stirred uneasily and moved their hands to and fro. By the flatness of the covering at the extremities, I could see that several had only stumps of legs. They had lost the sweet enjoyment of walking afield, and were but fragments of men, to limp forever through a painful life. Such wrecks of power I never beheld. Broad, brawny, buoyant, a few hours ago, the loss of blood, and the nervous shock, attendant upon amputation, has wellnigh drained them to the last drop. Their faces were as white as the tidy ceiling; they were whining like babies; and only their rolling eyes distinguished them from mutilated corpses. Some seemed quite broken in spirit, and one, who could speak, observing my pitiful glances toward his severed thigh, drew up his mouth and chin, and wept as if with the loss of comeliness all his ambitions were frustrated. A few attendants were brushing off the insects with boughs of cedar, laving the sores, or administering cooling draughts. The second story of the dwelling was likewise occupied by wounded, but in a corner clustered the terrified farmer and his family, vainly attempting to turn their eyes from the horrible spectacle. The farmer's wife had a baby at her breast, and its little blue eyes were straying over the room, half wonderingly, half delightedly. I thought, with a shudder, of babyhood thus surrounded, and how, in the long future, its first recollections of existence should be of booming guns and dying soldiers! The cow-shed contained seven corpses, scarcely yet cold, lying upon their backs, in a row, and fast losing all resemblance to man. The farthest removed, seemed to be a diminutive boy, and I thought if he had a mother, that she might sometime like to speak with me. When I took their names, I thought what terrible agencies I was fulfilling. Beyond my record, falsely spelled, perhaps, they would have no history. And people call such deaths glorious!
Upon a pile of lumber and some heaps of fence-rails, close by, sat some dozens of wounded men, mainly Federals, with bandaged arms and faces, and torn clothing. There was one, shot in the foot, who howled at every effort to remove his boot; the blood leaked from a rent in the side, and at last, the leather was cut, piecemeal from the flesh. These ate voraciously, though in pain and fear; for a little soup and meat was being doled out to them.
The most horrible of all these scenes—which I have described perhaps too circumstantially—was presented in the stable or barn, on the premises, where a bare dingy floor—the planks of which tilted and shook, as one made his way over them—was strewn with suffering people. Just at the entrance sat a boy, totally blind, both eyes having been torn out by a minnie-ball, and the entire bridge of the nose shot away. He crouched against the gable, in darkness and agony, tremulously fingering his knees. Near at hand, sat another, who had been shot through the middle of the forehead, but singular to relate, he still lived, though lunatic, and evidently beyond hope. Death had drawn blue and yellow circles beneath his eyes, and he muttered incomprehensibly, wagging his head. Two men, perfectly naked, lay in the middle of the place, wounded in bowels and loins; and at a niche in the weather-boarding, where some pale light peeped in, four mutilated wretches were gaming with cards. I was now led a little way down the railroad, to see the Confederates. The rain began to fall at this time, and the poor fellows shut their eyes to avoid the pelting of the drops. There was no shelter for them within a mile, and the mud absolutely reached half way up their bodies. Nearly one third had suffered amputation above the knee. There were about thirty at this spot, and I was told that they were being taken to Meadow Station on hand cars. As soon as the locomotive could pass the Chickahominy, they would be removed to White House, and comfortably quartered in the Sanitary and hospital boats. Some of them were fine, athletic, and youthful, and I was directed to one who had been married only three days before.
"Doctor," said one, feebly, "I feel very cold: do you think that this is death? It seems to be creeping to my heart. I have no feeling, in my feet, and my thighs are numb."
A Federal soldier came along with a bucket of soup, and proceeded to fill the canteens and plates. He appeared to be a relative of Mark Tapley, and possessed much of that estimable person's jollity—
"Come, pardner," he said, "drink yer sup! now, old boy, this'ill warm ye; sock it down and ye'll see yer sweetheart soon. You dead, Ally-bammy? Go way, now. You'll live a hundred years, you will. That's wot you'll do. Won't he, lad? What? Not any? Get out! You'll be slap on your legs next week and hev another shot at me the week a'ter that. You know you will! Oh! you Rebil! You, with the butternut trousers! Say! Wake up and take some o' this. Hello! lad, pardner. Wake up!"
He stirred him gently with his foot; he bent down to touch his face. A grimness came over his merriment. The man was stiff and dumb.
Colonel Baker, commanding the 88th New York, was a tall, martial Irishman, who opened his heart and bottle at the same welcome, and took me into the woods, where some of the slain still remained. He had slept not longer than an hour, continuously, for seventy hours, and during the past night had been called up by eight alarums. His men lay in the dark thickets, without fires or blankets, as they had crossed the Chickahominy in light marching order.
"Many a lad," said he, "will escape the bullet for a lingering consumption."
We had proceeded but a very little way, when we came to a trodden place beneath the pines, where a scalp lay in the leaves, and the imprint of a body was plainly visible. The bayonet scabbard lay at one side, the canteen at the other. We saw no corpses, however, as fatigue parties had been burying the slain, and the whole wood was dotted with heaps of clay, where the dead slept below in the oozy trenches. Quantities of cartridges were scattered here and there, dropped by the retreating Confederates. Some of the cartridge-pouches that I examined were completely filled, showing that their possessors had not fired a single round; others had but one cartridge missing. There were fragments of clothing, hair, blankets, murderous bowie and dirk knives, spurs, flasks, caps, and plumes, dropped all the way through the thicket, and the trees on every hand were riddled with balls. I came upon a squirrel, unwittingly shot during the fight. Not those alone who make the war must feel the war! At one of the mounds the burying party had just completed their work, and the men were throwing the last clods upon the remains. They had dug pits of not more than two feet depth, and dragged the bodies heedlessly to the edges, whence they were toppled down and scantily covered. Much of the interring had been done by night, and the flare of lanterns upon the discolored faces and dead eyes must have been hideously effective. The grave-diggers, however, were practical personages, and had probably little care for dramatic effects. They leaned upon their spades, when the rites were finished, and a large, dry person, who appeared to be privileged upon all occasions, said, grinningly—
"Colonel, your honor, them boys 'ill niver stand forninst the Irish brigade again. If they'd ha' known it was us, sur, begorra! they 'ud ha' brought coffins wid 'em."
"No, niver!" "They got their ticket for soup!" "We kivered them, fait', will inough!" shouted the other grave-diggers.
"Do ye belave, Colonel," said the dry person, again, "that thim ribals'll lave us a chance to catch them. Be me sowl! I'm jist wishin to war-rum me hands wid rifle practice."
The others echoed loudly, that they were anxious to be ordered up, and some said that "Little Mac'll give 'em his big whack now." The presence of death seemed to have added no fear of death to these people. Having tasted blood, they now thirsted for it, and I asked myself, forebodingly, if a return to civil life would find them less ferocious.
I dined with Colonel Owen of the 69th Pennsylvania (Irish) volunteers. He had been a Philadelphia lawyer, and was, by all odds, the most consistent and intelligent soldier in the brigade. He had been also a schoolmaster for many years, but appeared to be in his element at the head of a regiment, and was generally admitted to be an efficient officer. He shared the prevailing antipathy to West Point graduates; for at this time the arrogance of the regular officers, and the pride of the volunteers, had embittered each against the other. His theory of military education was, the establishment of State institutions, and the reorganization of citizenship upon a strict militia basis. After dinner, I rode to "Seven Pines," and examined some of the rifle pits used during the engagement. A portion of this ground only had been retaken, and I was warned to keep under cover; for sharpshooters lay close by, in the underbrush. A visit to the graves of some Federal soldiers completed the inspection. Some of the regiments had interred their dead in trenches; but the New Englanders were all buried separately, and smooth slabs were driven at the heads of the mounds, whereon were inscribed the names and ages of the deceased. Some of the graves were freshly sodded, and enclosed by rails and logs. They evidenced the orderly, religious habits of the sons of the Puritans; for, with all his hardness of manner and selfishness of purpose, I am inclined to think that the Yankee is the best manifestation of Northern character. He loves his home, at least, and he reveres his deceased comrades.
When I returned to Michie's, at six o'clock, the man "Pat," with a glowing face, came out to the gate.
"That's a splendid baste of yours, sur," he said,—"and sich a boi to gallop."
"My horse doesn't generally gallop," I returned, doubtfully.
When I passed to the barn in the rear, I found to my astonishment, a sorrel stallion, magnificently accoutred. He thrust his foot at me savagely, as I stood behind him, and neighed till he frightened the spiders.
"Pat," said I, wrathfully, "you have stolen some Colonel's nag, and I shall be hanged for the theft."
"Fait, sur," said Pat, "my ligs was gone intirely, wid long walkin', and I sazed the furst iligant baste I come to."
The old Chickahominy bridges were soon repaired, and the whole of Franklin's corps crossed to the south side. McClellan moved his head-quarters to Dr. Trent's farm, a half-mile from Michie's, and the latter gentleman's fields and lawn were made white with tents. Among others, the Chief of Cavalry, Stoneman, pitched his canopy under the young oaks, and the whole reserve artillery was parked in the woods, close to the house. The engineer brigade encamped in the adjacent peach-orchard and corn-field, and the wheat was trampled by battery and team-horses. Smith's division now occupied the hills on the south side of the Chickahominy, and the Federal line stretched southeastward, through Fairoaks, to White Oak Swamp, seven miles away. Porter's corps still lay between Mechanicsville and New Bridge, on the north bank of the river, and my old acquaintances, the Pennsylvania Reserves, had joined the army, and now formed its extreme right wing. This odd arrangement of forces was a subject of frequent comment: for the right was thus four miles, and the left fourteen miles, from Richmond. The four corps at once commenced to entrench, and from Smith's redoubt on the river bluffs, to Casey's entrenched hill at White Oak, a continuous line of moderately strong earthworks extended. But Porter and the Reserves were not entrenched at all, and only a few horsemen were picketed across the long reach of country from Meadow Bridge to Hanover Court House. Both flanks, in fact, were open, and the left was a day's march from the right. We were, meantime, drawing our supplies from White House, twenty miles in the rear; there were no railroad guards along the entire line, and about five companies protected the grand depot. Two gunboats lay in the river, however, and as the teams still went to and fro, a second depot was established at a place called Putney's or "Garlic," five miles above White House. I went often, and at all hours of the day and night, over this exposed and lonely route. My horse had been, meantime, returned to the Provost Quarters, and the rightful owner had obtained his stallion in exchange. I rode the said stallion but once, when he proceeded to walk sideways, and several times rivalled the renowned Pegasus in his aerial flights. The man named "Pat" essayed to show his paces one day, but the stallion took him straight into Stoneman's wall-tent, and that officer shook the Irishman blind. My little bob-tailed brownie was thrice endeared to me by our separation; but I warned the man "Pat" to keep clear of him thereafter. The man "Pat" was a very eccentric person, who slept on the porch at Michie's, and used to wake up the house in the small hours, with the story that somebody was taking the chickens and the horses. He was the most impulsive person that I ever knew, and when I entrusted despatches to him once, he put them on the hospital boat by mistake, and they got to New York at the close of the campaign.
Michie's soon became a correspondents' rendezvous, and we have had at one time, at dinner, twelve representatives of five journals. The Hon. Henry J. Raymond, Ex-Lieutenant Governor of New York, and proprietor of the Times newspaper, was one of our family for several weeks. He had been a New Hampshire lad, and, strolling to New York, took to journalism at the age of nineteen years. His industry and probity obtained him both means and credit, and, also, what few young journalists obtain, social position. He was the founder of Harper's Magazine, one of the most successful serials in America, and many English authors are indebted to him for a trans-Atlantic recognition of their works. He edited an American edition of Jane Eyre before it had attracted attention in England, and conducted the Courier and Enquirer with great success for many years. The Times is now the most reputable of the great New York dailies, and Mr. Raymond has made it influential both at home and abroad. He has retained, amidst his social and political successes, a predilection for "Bohemia," and became an indefatigable correspondent. I rode out with him sometimes, and heard, with interest, his accounts of the Italian war, whither he also went in furtherance of journalism. Among our quill cavalry-men was a fat gentleman from Philadelphia, who had great fear of death, and who used to "tear" to White House, if the man "Pat" shot a duck in the garden. He was a hearty, humorous person, however, and an adept at searching for news.
O'Ganlon rode with me several times to White House, and we have crossed the railroad bridge together, a hundred feet in the air, when the planks were slippery, the sides sloping, and the way so narrow that two horses could not pass abreast. He was a true Irishman, and leaped barricades and ditches without regard to his neck. He had, also, a partiality for by-roads that led through swamps and close timber. He discovered one day a cow-path between Daker's and an old Mill at Grapevine Bridge. The long arms of oaks and beech trees reached across it, and young Absalom might have been ensnared by the locks at every rod therein. Through this devious and dangerous way, O'Ganlon used to dash, whooping, guiding his horse with marvellous dexterity, and bantering me to follow. I so far forgot myself generally, as to behave quite as irrationally, and once returned to Michie's with a bump above my right eye, that rivalled my head in size. At other times I rode alone, and my favorite route was an unfrequented lane called the "Quaker Road," that extended from Despatch Station, on the line of rail, to Daker's, on the New Bridge Road. Much of this way was shut in by thick woods and dreary pine barrens; but the road was hard and light, and a few quiet farms lay by the roadside. There was a mill, also, three miles from Daker's, where a turbulent creek crossed the route, and at an oak-wood, near by, I used to frighten the squirrels, so that they started up by pairs and families; I have chased them in this way a full mile, and they seemed to know me after a time. We used to be on the best of terms, and they would, at length, stand their ground saucily, and chatter, the one with the other, flourishing their bushy appendages, like so many straggling "Bucktails." When I turned from the beaten road, where the ruts were like a ditch and parapet, and dead horses blackened the fields; where teams went creaking day and night, and squads of sabremen drove pale, barefooted prisoners to and fro like swine or cattle, the silence and solitude of this by-lane were beautiful as sleep. Many of the old people living in this direction had not seen even a soldier or a sutler, save some mounted scouts that vanished in clouds of dust; but they had listened with awe to the music of cannon, though they did not know either the place or the result of the fighting. If fate has ordained me to survive the Rebellion, I shall some day revisit these localities; they are stamped legibly upon my mind, and I know almost every old couple in New Kent or Hanover counties. I have lunched at all the little springs on the road, and eaten corn-bread and bacon at most of the cabins. I have swam the Pamunkey at dozens of places, and when my finances were low, and my nag hungry, have organized myself into a company of foragers, and broken into the good people's granaries. I do not know any position that admitted of as much adventure and variety. There was always enough danger to make my journeys precariously pleasant, and, when wearied of the saddle, my friends at Daker's and Michie's had a savory julep and a comfortable bed always prepared. I had more liberty than General McClellan, and a great deal more comfort.
Mrs. Michie was a warm-hearted, impulsive Virginia lady, with almost New England industry, and from very scanty materials she contrived to spread a bountiful table. Her coffee was bubbling with rich cream, and her "yellow pone" was overrunning with butter. A cleanly black girl shook a fly-brush over our shoulders as we ate, and the curious custom was maintained of sending a julep to our bedrooms before we rose in the mornings. Our hostess was too hospitable to be a bitter partisan, and during five weeks of tenure at her residence, we never held an hour's controversy. She had troubles, but she endured them patiently. She saw, one by one, articles of property sacrificed or stolen; she heard the servants speaking impudently; and her daughters and son were in a remote part of the State. The young man was a Confederate Surgeon at Lynchburg, and the young ladies had taken refuge in Rockbridge County. The latter were, from all accounts, pretty and intelligent, and one day, as I examined some parcels of books in the parlors, I found a volume of amateur poems that some laboring bard had dedicated to the youngest of them. Mr. Michie was a fine old Virginia gentleman, who remembered Thomas Jefferson well, as he had been reared in that great statesman's village, Charlottesville. He told me many anecdotes of Patrick Henry, John Randolph, and other distinguished patriots.
I wrote in one of the absent daughter's albums the following lines:—
Alas! for the pleasant peace we knew, In the happy summers of long ago, When the rivers were bright, and the skies were blue, By the homes of Henrico: We dreamed of wars that were far away, And read, as in fable, of blood that ran, Where the James and Chickahominy stray, Through the groves of Powhattan.
'Tis a dream come true; for the afternoons Blow bugles of war, by our fields of grain, And the sabres clink, as the dark dragoons Come galloping up the lane; The pigeons have flown from the eves and tiles, The oat-blades have grown to blades of steel, And the Huns swarm down the leafy aisles Of the grand old Commonweal.
They have torn the Indian fisher's nets, Where flows Pamunkey toward the sea, And blood runs red in the rivulets, That babbled and brawled in glee; The corpses are strewn in Fairoak glades, The hoarse guns thunder from Drury's Ridge, The fishes that played in the cove, deep shades, Are frightened from Bottom Bridge.
I would that the year were blotted away, And the strawberry grew in the hedge again; That the scythe might swing in the tangled hay, And the squirrel romp in the glen; The walnut sprinkle the clover slopes, Where graze the sheep and the spotted steer; And the winter restore the golden hopes, That were trampled in a year.
On Friday, June 13, I made one of my customary trips to White House, in the company of O'Ganlon. The latter individual, in the course of a "healthy dash" that he made down the railroad ties,—whereby two shoes shied from his mare's hoofs,—reined into a quicksand that threatened to swallow his steed. He afterward left his sword at Summit Station, and I, obligingly, rode back three miles to recover it. We dined at Daker's, where Glumley sat beside the baby-face, pursuant to his art-duties, and the plump, red-cheeked miss sat beside me. O'Ganlon was entertained by the talkative daughter, who drove him quite mad; so that, when we resumed our horses, he insisted upon a second "healthy dash," and disappeared through a strip of woods. I followed, rationally, and had come to a blacksmith's shop, at the corner of a diverging road, when I was made aware of some startling occurrence in my rear. A mounted officer dashed past me, shouting some unintelligible tidings, and he was followed in quick succession by a dozen cavalry-men, who rode as if the foul fiend was at their heels. Then came a teamster, bare-backed, whose rent harness trailed in the road, and directly some wagons that were halted before the blacksmith's, wheeled smartly, and rattled off towards White House.
"What is the matter, my man?" I said to one of these lunatics, hurriedly.
"The Rebels are behind!" he screamed, with white lips, and vanished.
I thought that it might be as well to take some other road, and so struck off, at a dapper pace, in the direction of the new landing at Putney's or "Garlic." At the same instant I heard the crack of carbines behind, and they had a magical influence upon my speed. I rode along a stretch of chestnut and oak wood, attached to the famous Webb estate, and when I came to a rill that passed by a little bridge, under the way, turned up its sandy bed and buried myself in the under-brush. A few breathless moments only had intervened, when the roadway seemed shaken by a hundred hoofs. The imperceptible horsemen yelled like a war-party of Camanches, and when they had passed, the carbines rang ahead, as if some bloody work was being done at every rod.
I remained a full hour under cover; but as no fresh approaches added to my mystery and fear, I sallied forth, and kept the route to Putney's, with ears erect and expectant pulses. I had gone but a quarter of a mile, when I discerned, through the gathering gloom, a black, misshapen object, standing in the middle of the road. As it seemed motionless, I ventured closer, when the thing resolved to a sutler's wagon, charred and broken, and still smoking from the incendiaries' torch. Further on, more of these burned wagons littered the way, and in one place two slain horses marked the roadside. When I emerged upon the Hanover road, sounds of shrieks and shot issued from the landing at "Garlic," and, in a moment, flames rose from the woody shores and reddened the evening. I knew by the gliding blaze that vessels had been fired and set adrift, and from my place could see the devouring element climbing rope and shroud. In a twinkling, a second light appeared behind the woods to my right, and the intelligence dawned upon me that the cars and houses at Tunstall's Station had been burned. By the fitful illumination, I rode tremulously to the old head-quarters at Black Creek, and as I conjectured, the depot and train were luridly consuming. The vicinity was marked by wrecked sutler's stores, the embers of wagons, and toppled steeds. Below Black Creek the ruin did not extend: but when I came to White House the greatest confusion existed. Sutlers were taking down their booths, transports were slipping their cables, steamers moving down the stream. Stuart had made the circuit of the Grand Army to show Lee where the infantry could follow.
FEVER DREAMS IN WAR.
A subtle enemy had of late joined the Confederate cause against the invaders. He was known as Pestilence, and his footsteps were so soft that neither scout nor picket could bar his entrance. His paths were subterranean,—through the tepid swamp water, the shallow graves of the dead; and aerial,—through the stench of rotting animals, the nightly miasms of bog and fen. His victims were not pierced, or crushed, or mangled, but their deaths were not less terrible, because more lingering. They seemed to wither and shrivel away; their eyes became at first very bright, and afterward lustreless; their skins grew hard and sallow; their lips faded to a dry whiteness; all the fluids of the body were consumed; and they crumbled to corruption before life had fairly gone from them.
This visitation has been, by common consent, dubbed "the Chickahominy fever," and some have called it the typhus fever. The troops called it the "camp fever," and it was frequently aggravated by affections of the bowels and throat. The number of persons that died with it was fabulous. Some have gone so far as to say that the army could have better afforded the slaughter of twenty thousand men, than the delay on the Chickahominy. The embalmers were now enjoying their millennium, and a steam coffin manufactory was erected at White House, where twenty men worked day and night, turning out hundreds of pine boxes. I had, occasion, in one of my visits to the depot, to repair to the tent of one of the embalmers. He was a sedate, grave person, and when I saw him, standing over the nude, hard corpse, he reminded me of the implacable vulture, looking into the eyes of Prometheus. His battery and tube were pulsing, like one's heart and lungs, and the subject was being drained at the neck. I compared the discolored body with the figure of Ianthe, as revealed in Queen Mab, but failed to see the beautifulness of death.
"If you could only make him breathe, Professor," said an officer standing by.
The dry skin of the embalmer broke into chalky dimples, and he grinned very much as a corpse might do:—
"Ah!" he said, "then there would be money made."
To hear these embalmers converse with each other was like listening to the witch sayings in Macbeth. It appeared that the arch-fiend of embalming was a Frenchman named Sonca, or something of that kind, and all these worthies professed to have purchased his "system." They told grisly anecdotes of "operations," and experimented with chemicals, and congratulated each other upon the fever. They would, I think, have piled the whole earth with catacombs of stony corpses, and we should have no more green graves, but keep our dead with us as household ornaments.
The negroes did not suffer with the fever, although their quarters were close and filthy. Their Elysium had come; there was no more work. They slept and danced and grinned, and these three actions made up the sum of their existence. Such people to increase and multiply I never beheld. There were scores of new babies every day; they appeared to be born by twins and triplets; they learned to walk in twenty-four hours; and their mothers were strong and hearty in less time. Such soulless, lost, degraded men and women did nowhere else exist. The divinity they never had; the human they had forgotten; they did no great wrongs,—thieving, quarrelling, deceiving,—but they failed to do any rights, and their worship was animal, and almost profane. They sang incongruous mixtures of hymns and field songs:—
"Oh! bruddern, watch an' pray, watch an' pray! De harvest am a ripenin' our Lord an' Marser say! Oh! ho! yo! dat ole coon, de serpent, ho! oh! Watch an' pray!"
I have heard them sing such medleys with tears in their eyes, apparently fervid and rapt. A very gray old man would lead off, keeping time to the words with his head and hands; the mass joining in at intervals, and raising a screaming alleluja. Directly they would all rise, link hands, and proceed to dance the accompaniment. The motion would be slow at first, and the method of singing maintained; after a time they would move more rapidly, shouting the lines together; and suddenly becoming convulsed with strange excitement, they would toss up their arms, leap, fall, groan, and, seemingly, lose consciousness. Their prayers were earnest and vehement, but often degenerated to mere howls and noises. Some of both sexes had grand voices, that rang like bugles, and the very impropriety of their music made it fascinating. It used to seem to me that any of the great composers might have borrowed advantageously some of those original negro airs. In many cases, their owners came within the lines, registered their allegiance, and recovered the negroes. These were often veritable Shylocks, that claimed their pounds of flesh, with unblushing reference to the law. The poor Africs went back cowed and tearful, and it is probable that they were afterward sent to the far South, that terrible terra incognita to a border slave.
Among the houses to which I resorted was that of a Mr. Hill, one mile from White House. He had a thousand acres of land and a valuable fishery on the Pamunkey. The latter was worth, in good seasons, two thousand dollars a year. He had fished and farmed with negroes; but these had leagued to run away, and he sent them across the river to a second farm that he owned in King William County. It was at Hill's house that the widow Custis was visiting when young Washington reined at the gate, on his road to Williamsburg. With reverent feelings I used to regard the old place, and Hill frequently stole away from his formidable military household, to talk with me on the front porch. Perhaps in the same moonlights, with the river shimmering at their feet, and the grapevine shadowing the creaky corners,—their voices softened, their chairs drawn very close, their hands touching with a thrill,—the young soldier and his affianced had made their courtship. I sometimes sat breathless, thinking that their figures had come back, and that I heard them whispering.
Hill was a Virginian,—large, hospitable, severe, proud,—and once I ventured to speak upon the policy of slavery, with a view to develop his own relation to the "institution." He said, with the swaggering manner of his class, that slavery was a "domestic" institution, and that therefore no political law could reach it. I insinuated, quietly, that no political law should therefore sustain it, and took exception to the idea that what was domestic was therefore without the province of legislation. When I exampled polygamy, Hill became passionate, and asked if I was an abolitionist. I opined that I was not, and he so far relented as to say that slavery was sanctioned by divine and human laws; that it was ultimately to be embraced by all white nationalities, and that the Caucasian was certain, in the end, to subjugate and possess every other race. He pointed, with some shrewdness, to the condition of the Chinese in California and Australia, and epitomized the gradual enslaving of the Mongol and Malay in various quarters of the world.
"As to our treatment of niggers," he said, curtly, "I never prevaricate, as some masters do, in that respect. I whip my niggers when they want it! If they are saucy, or careless, or lazy, I have 'em flogged. About twice a year every nigger has to be punished. If they ain't roped over twice a year, they take on airs and want to be gentlemen. A nigger is bound by no sentiment of duty or affection. You must keep him in trim by fear."
Among the victims of the swamp fever, were Major Larrabee, and Lieutenant-Colonel Emory, of the Fifth Wisconsin regiment; I had been indebted to them for many a meal and draught of spirits. I had talked with each of them, when the camps were darkened and the soldiery asleep. Larrabee was a soldier by nature,—adventurous, energetic, intrepid, aggressive. He had been a country Judge in Wisconsin, and afterwards a member of Congress. When the war commenced, he enlisted as a common soldier, but public sentiment forced the State Government to make him a Major. Emory was a mild, reflective, unimpassioned gentleman,—too modest to be eminent, too scrupulous to be ambitious. The men were opposites, but both capital companions, and they were seized with the fever about the same time. The Major was removed to White House, and I visited him one day in the hospital quarters. Surgeon General Watson, hospital commandant, took me through the quarters; there was quite a town of sick men; they lay in wall-tents—about twenty in a tent,—and there were daily deaths; those that caught the fever, were afterwards unfit for duty, as they took relapses on resuming the field. The tents were pitched in a damp cornfield; for the Federals so reverenced their national shrines, that they forbade White House and lawn to be used for hospital purposes. Under the best circumstances, a field hospital is a comfortless place; but here the sun shone like a furnace upon the tents, and the rains drowned out the inmates. If a man can possibly avoid it, let him never go to the hospital: for he will be called a "skulker," or a "shyster," that desires to escape the impending battle. Twenty hot, feverish, tossing men, confined in a small tent, like an oven, and exposed to contumely and bad food, should get a wholesome horror of war and glory.
So far as I could observe and learn, the authorities at White House carried high heads, and covetous hands. In brief, they lived like princes, and behaved like knaves. There was one—whose conduct has never been investigated—who furnished one of the deserted mansions near by, and brought a lady from the North to keep it in order. He drove a span that rivalled anything in Broadway, and his wines were luscious. His establishment reminded me of that of Napoleon III. in the late Italian war, and yet, this man was receiving merely a Colonel's pay. My impression is that everybody at White House robbed the Government, and in the end, to cover their delinquencies, these scoundrels set fire to an immense quantity of stores, and squared their accounts thus: "Burned on the Pamunkey, June 28, commissary, quartermaster's, and hospital stores, one million dollars."
The time was now drawing to a close that I should pass amid the familiar scenes of this region. The good people at Daker's were still kindly; but having climbed into the great bed one night, I found my legs aching, my brain violently throbbing, my chest full of pain and my eyes weak. When I woke in the morning my lips were fevered, I could eat nothing, and when I reached my saddle, it seemed that I should faint. In a word, the Chickahominy fever had seized upon me. My ride to New Bridge was marked by great agony, and during much of the time I was quite blind. I turned off, at Gaines's Mill, to rest at Captain Kingwalt's; but the old gentleman was in the grip of the ague, and I forebore to trouble him with a statement of my grievances. Skyhiski made me a cup of tea, which I could not drink, and Fogg made me lie on his "poncho." It was like old times come back, to hear them all speak cheerfully, and the man Clover said that if there "warn't" a battle soon, he knew what he'd do, he did! he'd go home, straight as a buck!
"Becoz," said the man Clover, flourishing his hands, "I volunteered to fight. To fight, sir! not to dig and drive team. Here we air, sir, stuck in the mud, burnin' with fever, livin' on hardtack. And thair's Richmond! Just thair! You can chuck a stone at it, if you mind to. A'ter awhile them rebbils'll pop out, and fix us. Why ain't we led up, sa-a-y?"
The man Clover represented common sentiment among the troops at this time; but I told him that in all probability he would soon be gratified with a battle. My prediction was so far correct, that when I met the man Clover on the James River, a week afterward, he said, with a rueful countenance—
"Sa-a-a-y! It never rains but it pours, does it?"
As I rode from the camp of the Pennsylvania Reserves, at noon, on the 21st of June, I seemed to feel a gloomy premonition of the calamities that were shortly to fall upon the "Army of the Potomac." I passed in front of Hogan house; through the wood above the mill; along Gaines's Lane, between his mansion and his barn; across a creek, tributary to the Chickahominy; and up the ploughed hills by a military road, toward Grapevine Bridge. Lieutenant-Colonel Heath, of the Fifth Maine Regiment, was riding with me, and we stopped at the tip of an elevated field to look back upon the scene. I was very sick and weary, and I lay my head upon the mane of my nag, while Heath threw a leg across his saddle pommel, and straightened his slight figure; we both gazed earnestly.
The river lay in the hollow or ravine to the left, and a few farm-houses sat among the trees on the hill-tops beyond. A battery was planted at each house, and we could see the lines of red-clay parapets marking the sites. From the roof of one of the houses floated a speck of canvas,—the revolutionary flag. A horseman or two moved shadow-like across a slope of yellow grain. Before and back the woods belted the landscape, and some pickets of both sides paced the river brink: they did not fire upon each other.
Our side of the Chickahominy was not less peaceful. A couple of batteries lay below us, in the meadows; but the horses were dozing in the harness, and the gunners, standing bolt upright at the breech, seemed parts of their pieces; the teamsters lay grouped in the long grass. Immediately in front, Gaines's Mansion and outhouses spotted a hillside, and we could note beyond a few white tents shining through the trees. The roof of the old mill crouched between a medley of wavy fields and woods, to our right, and just at our feet a tiny rill divided Gaines's Mill from our own. Behind us, over the wilderness of swamp and bog-timber, rose Smith's redoubt, with the Federal flag flaunting from the rampart.
"Townsend," said Heath, as he swept the whole country with his keen eye, "do you know that we are standing upon historic ground?"
He had been a poet and an orator, and he seemed to feel the solemnity of the place.
"It may become historic to-morrow," I replied.
"It is so to-day," he said, earnestly; "not from battle as yet; that may or may not happen; but in the pause before the storm there is something grand; and this is the pause."
He took his soft beaver in his hand, and his short red hair stood pugnaciously back from his fine forehead.
"The men that have been here already," he added, "consecrated the place; young McClellan, and bluff, bull-headed Franklin; the one-armed devil, Kearney, and handsome Joe Hooker; gray, gristly Heintzelman; white-bearded, insane Sumner; Stuart, Lee, Johnston, the Hills——"
"Why not," said I, laughingly, "Eric the red,—the redoubtable Heath!"
"Why not?" he said, with a flourish; "Fate may have something in store for me, as well as for these."
I have thought, since, how terribly our light conversation found verification in fact. If I had said to Heath, that, at the very moment, Jefferson Davis and his Commander-in-chief were sitting in the dwelling opposite, reconnoitring and consulting; that, even now, their telescopes were directed upon us; that the effect of their counsel was to be manifest in less than a week; that one of the bloodiest battles of modern times was to be fought beside and around us; that six days of the most terrible fighting known in history were to ensue; that my friend and comrade was standing upon the same clods which would be reddened, at his next coming, with his heart's blood; and that the trenches were to yawn beneath his hoofs, to swallow himself and his steed,—if I had foretold these things as they were to occur, I wonder if the "pause before the storm" would have been less awful, and our ride campward less sedate. Poor Heath! Gallant New Englander! he called at my bedside, the sixth day following, as I lay full of pain, fear, and fever, and after he bade me good by, I heard his horse's hoofs ringing down the lane. Ten minutes afterward he was shot through the head.
When I reached Michie's, at three o'clock, I had to be helped from the saddle, and the fever was raging in my whole body before nightfall. My hands were flushed, my face hot, but my feet were quite cold, and I was seized with chills that seemed to shake my teeth from my head. Mrs. Michie made me a bowl of scorching tea, and one of the black-girls bathed my limbs in boiling water. The fever dreams came to me that night, in snatches of burning sleep, and toward morning I lay restlessly awake, moving from side to side, famishing for drink, but rejecting it, when they brought it to my lips. The next day, my kind hostess gave me some nourishing soup, but after a vain effort to partake of it, I was compelled to put it aside. O'Ganlon procured some pickled fruit and vegetables from a sutler, which I ate voraciously, quaffing the vinegar like wine. Some of my regimental friends heard of my illness, and they sent me quiet luxuries, which gladdened me, though I did not eat. During the day I had some moments of ease, when I tried to read. There was a copy of Wordsworth's poems in the house, and I used to repeat stanzas from "Peter Bell," till they rang, in eddies of rhyme, through my weak brain, and continued to scan and jangle far into the nights. Some of these fever-dreams were like delusions in delirium: peopled with monsters, that grinned and growled. Little black globules used to leer from corners, and after a time they began to revolve toward me, increasing as they came, and at length rolling like mountains of surge. I frequently woke with a scream, and found my body in profuse perspiration. There were fiery snakes, also, that, at first, moved slowly around me, and I followed them with red and terrified eyes. After awhile they flashed in circles of lightning, and hissed showers of sparks, until I became quite crazed with fear. The most horrible apparitions used to come to my bedside, and if I dropped to sleep with any thought half formed or half developed, the odd half of that thought became impregnated, somehow, and straightway loomed up a goblin, or a giant, or a grotesque something, that proceeded to torture me, like a sort of Frankenstein, for having made it. Amid all these ghastly things, there came beautiful glimpses of form, scene, and sensation, that straightway changed to horrors. I remember, for example, that I was gliding down a stream, where the boughs overhead were as shady as the waters, and there were holy eyes that seemed to cool my fever; but suddenly the stream became choked with corpses, that entangled their dead limbs with mine, until I strangled and called aloud,—waking up O'Ganlon and some reporters who proposed to give me morphine, that I might not alarm the house.
How the poor soldiers fared, in the hot hospitals, I shudder to think; but a more merciful decree spared my life, and kind treatment met me at every hand. Otherwise, I believe, I should not be alive to-day to write this story; for the fever had seized me in its severest form, and I had almost tutored myself to look upon my end, far from my home and on the very eve of my manhood.
O'Ganlon, at last, resolved to send me to White House, and started thither one day, to obtain a berth for me upon a Sanitary steamer. The next day an ambulance came to the door. I tried to sit up in bed, and succeeded; I feebly robed myself and staggered to the stairs. I crawled, rather than walked, to the hall below; but when I took a chair, and felt the cool breeze from the oaks fanning my hair, I seemed to know that I should get well.
"Boom! Boom! Boom!" pealed some cannon at the moment, and all the windows shook with the concussion.
Directly we heard volleys of musketry, and then the camps were astir. Horses went hither and thither; signal flags flashed to-and-fro; a battery of the Reserve Artillery dashed down the lane.
I felt my strength coming back with the excitement; I even smiled feebly as the guns thundered past.
"Take away your ambulance, old fellow," I said, "I shan't go home till I see a battle."
TWO DAYS OF BATTLE.
The Confederates had been waiting two months for McClellan's advance. Emboldened by his delay they had gathered the whole of their available strength from remote Tennessee, from the Mississippi, and from the coast, until, confident and powerful, they crossed Meadow Bridge on the 26th of June, 1862, and drove in our right wing at Mechanicsville. The reserves of Gen. McCall were stationed here; they made a wavering resistance,—wherein four companies of Bucktails were captured bodily,—and fell back at nightfall upon Porter's Corps, at Gaines's Mill. Fitz John Porter commanded the brigades of Gens. Sykes and Morrell,—the former made up solely of regulars. He appeared to have been ignorant of the strength of the attacking party, and he telegraphed to McClellan, early on Thursday evening, that he required no reinforcements, and that he could hold his ground. The next morning he was attacked in front and flank; Stewart's cavalry fell on his right, and turned it at Old Church. He formed at noon in new line of battle, from Gaines's House, along the Mill Road to New Coal Harbor; but stubbornly persisted in the belief that he could not be beaten. By three o'clock he had been driven back two miles, and all his energies were unavailing to recover a foot of ground. He hurled lancers and cavalry upon the masses of Jackson and the Hills, but the butternut infantry formed impenetrable squares, hemmed in with rods of steel, and as the horsemen galloped around them, searching for previous points, they were swept from their saddles with volleys of musketry. He directed the terrible fire of his artillery upon them, but though the gray footmen fell in heaps, they steadily advanced, closing up the gaps, and their lines were like long stretches of blaze and ball. Their fire never slackened nor abated. They loaded and moved forward, column on column, like so many immortals that could not be vanquished. The scene from the balloon, as Lowe informed me, was awful beyond all comparison,—of puffing shells and shrieking shrapnel, with volleys that shattered the hills and filled the air with deathly whispers. Infantry, artillery, and horse turned the Federal right from time to time, and to preserve their order of battle the whole line fell back toward Grapevine Bridge. At five o'clock Slocum's Division of volunteers crossed the creek from the south side, and made a desperate dash upon the solid columns of the Confederates. At the same time Toombs's Georgia Brigade charged Smith's redoubt from the south side, and there was a probability of the whole of both armies engaging before dark.
My fever of body had so much relinquished to my fever of mind, that at three o'clock I called for my horse, and determined to cross the bridge, that I might witness the battle.
It was with difficulty that I could make my way along the narrow corduroy, for hundreds of wounded were limping from the field to the safe side, and ammunition wagons were passing the other way, driven by reckless drivers who should have been blown up momentarily. Before I had reached the north side of the creek, an immense throng of panic-stricken people came surging down the slippery bridge. A few carried muskets, but I saw several wantonly throw their pieces into the flood, and as the mass were unarmed, I inferred that they had made similar dispositions. Fear, anguish, cowardice, despair, disgust, were the predominant expressions of the upturned faces. The gaunt trees, towering from the current, cast a solemn shadow upon the moving throng, and as the evening dimness was falling around them, it almost seemed that they were engulfed in some cataract. I reined my horse close to the side of a team, that I might not be borne backward by the crowd; but some of the lawless fugitives seized him by the bridle, and others attempted to pull me from the saddle.
"Gi' up that hoss!" said one, "what business you got wi' a hoss?"
"That's my critter, and I am in for a ride; so you get off!" said another.
I spurred my pony vigorously with the left foot, and with the right struck the man at the bridle under the chin. The thick column parted left and right, and though a howl of hate pursued me, I kept straight to the bank, cleared the swamp, and took the military route parallel with the creek, toward the nearest eminence. At every step of the way I met wounded persons. A horseman rode past me, leaning over his pommel, with blood streaming from his mouth and hanging in gouts from his saturated beard. The day had been intensely hot and black boys were besetting the wounded with buckets of cool lemonade. It was a common occurrence for the couples that carried the wounded on stretchers to stop on the way, purchase a glass of the beverage, and drink it. Sometimes the blankets on the stretchers were closely folded, and then I knew that the man within was dead. A little fellow, who used his sword for a cane, stopped me on the road, and said—