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The Sword of Antietam
by Joseph A. Altsheler
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Colonel Winchester darted among the fugitives and with stinging words and the flat of his sword beat many of them back into line. Dick, Warner, Pennington and other young officers did likewise. More Kentucky troops bringing artillery came up and joined those who were standing so sternly. It became obvious to all that they must hold the ground here or the battle indeed was lost once and for all.

Thomas, the silent and resolute Virginian, had arrived also, and had joined Rosecrans. Dick observed them both. Rosecrans, tremendously excited, and reckless of death from the flying shells and bullets, galloped from point to point, urging on his soldiers, telling them to die rather than yield. Thomas, cool, and showing no trace of excitement also directed the troops. Both by their courage and resolution inspired the men. The beaten became the unbeaten. Dick felt rather than saw the stiffening of the lines, and the return of a great courage.

The new line of battle was formed directly under the fire of a victorious and charging enemy. Three batteries were gathered on a height overlooking a railroad cut, where they could sweep the front of the foe.

Just as they were in battle order Dick saw the faces of the Southerners coming through the woods, led by Hardee in person. Then he saw, too, the value of presence of mind and of a courage that would not yield. The three batteries planted by the Kentuckian, Rousseau, on the railway embankment suddenly opened a terrible enfilading fire upon the Southern advance. The Kentucky regiment standing so firmly in the breach also opened with every rifle firing directly into the ranks of their brother Kentuckians, who were advancing in the vanguard of the South. Here again people of the same state and even of the same county fought one another.

The Confederates pursuing a defeated and apparently disorganized enemy were astounded by such a sudden and fierce fire. One of their generals was killed almost instantly, and a part of their line was hurled back with great violence. Thomas pushed forward with a portion of the troops, and after a desperate assault the Southern line reeled and then stopped in the wood. Courage and presence of mind had saved a battle for the time being, at least.

At that point the combat sank for a while, and Dick, unwounded but exhausted, dropped upon the ground. Around him lay his friends, and they, too, were unwounded. It was with a sort of grim humor that he remembered a conversation they had held before the battle.

"Well, Frank," he said, "you've escaped."

"So far only," said Warner. "The hurricane has softened down a lot here, but not everywhere else. Listen!"

He pointed through the woods toward the left where another battle was swelling with a mighty uproar. Bragg having driven in the Union right was now seeking to shatter the Union left, but at this point there was a Northern commander, Hazen, who was no less indomitable than Sheridan. Sheltering themselves along the railway embankment his men, always encouraged by their commander, and his officers, resisted every effort to drive them back. Noon came and found them still holding tenaciously to their positions. For a while now the whole battle sank through sheer exhaustion on both sides. Each commander reformed his line, disentangled his guns, brought forward fresh ammunition and prepared for the great combat which he knew was coming. Bragg, as he noticed the advance of the short winter day, resolved upon the utmost effort to crush his enemy. Victory had seemed wholly in his grasp in the morning, but he had been checked at the last moment. He would make good the defeat in the afternoon.

The armies had disentangled themselves from the woods and bushes. They were now in the open and face to face on a long line. The Winchester regiment had risen to its feet again, and stood directly behind and almost mingled with the Kentucky regiment that had saved it.

"They're coming!" exclaimed Warner in quick, excited tones. "Look, there on the flank!"

It was the division of Cleburne, in the hottest of the battle all through the morning advancing to a fresh attack upon the Union lines, but it was received with such a powerful fire that it was driven back in disorder into some woods.

Dick, however, did not have a chance to see this as the Southerners, reinforced by fresh troops from Breckinridge's division, were charging in the center with great violence. So terrible was the fire that received them that some of the regiments lost half their numbers in five minutes. Yet the remainder, upheld by their cannon, returned a fire almost as deadly. Rosecrans, absolutely fearless, stood in the very front where the danger was greatest. A cannon ball blew off the head of his chief of staff who stood by his side. "Many a brave fellow must fall!" cried Rosecrans, a devoted Catholic. "Cross yourselves, and fire low and fast!"

Many a brave fellow did fall, but his men fired low and fast, and, while the Southern troops charged again and again to the very mouths of the cannon they were unable to break down the last desperate stand of the Northern army. They had driven it back, but they had not driven it back far enough. Then the sun set as it had set so often before on an undecisive battle, terrible in its long list of the slain, but leaving everything to be fought over again.

"They didn't beat us," said Dick as the firing ceased.

"No," said Colonel Winchester, "nor have we won a victory, but we're saved. Thank God for the night!"

"They'll attack again to-morrow, sir," said Sergeant Whitley.

"Undoubtedly so," said Colonel Winchester, who felt at this moment not as if he were speaking as colonel to sergeant, but as man to man, "and I hope that our artillery will be ready again. It is what has saved us. We have always been superior in that arm."

The colonel had spoken the truth, and the fact was also recognized by Rosecrans, Thomas and the other generals. While they rectified their lines in the darkness, the great batteries were posted in good positions, and fresh gunners took the place of those who had been killed. Both Rosecrans and Thomas were made of stern stuff. Afraid of no enemy, and, despite their great losses of the day and the fact that they had been driven back, they would be ready to fight on the morrow. Sheridan, Crittenden, McCook, Van Cleve and the others were equally ready.

Food was brought from the rear and the exhausted combatants sank down to rest. Dick was in such an apathy from sheer overtasking of the body and spirit that he did not think of anything. He lay like an animal that has escaped from a long chase. Silence had settled down with the darkness and the Confederate army had become invisible.

Dick revived later. He talked more freely with those about him, and he gathered from the gossip which travels fast, much of what had happened. The Union army, so confident in the morning, was in a dangerous position at night. Nearly thirty of its guns were taken. Three thousand unwounded and many wounded men were prisoners in the hands of the South. Arms and ammunition by the wholesale had been captured. The Southern cavalry under Fighting Joe Wheeler had gone behind Rosecrans' whole army and had cut his communications with his base at Nashville, at the same time raiding his wagon trains. Another body of cavalry under Wharton had taken all the wagons of McCook's corps, and still a third under Pegram had captured many prisoners on the Nashville road in the rear of the Northern army.

Dick became aware of a great, an intense anxiety among the leaders. The army was isolated. The raiding Southern cavalry kept it from receiving fresh supplies of either food or ammunition, unless it retreated.

"We're stripped of everything but our arms," said Warner.

"Then we've really lost nothing," said the valiant Pennington, "because with our arms we'll recover everything."

They had a commander of like spirit. At that moment Rosecrans, gathering his generals in a tent pitched hastily for him, was saying to them, "Gentlemen, we will conquer or die here." Short and strong, but every word meant. There was no need to say more. The generals animated by the same spirit went forth to their commands, and first among them was the grim and silent Thomas, who had the bulldog grip of Grant. Perhaps it was this indomitable tenacity and resolution that made the Northern generals so much more successful in the west than they were in the east during the early years of the war.

But there was exultation in the Confederate camp. Bragg and Polk and Hardee and Breckinridge and the others felt now that Rosecrans would retreat in the night after losing so many men and one-third of his artillery. Great then was their astonishment when the rising sun of New Year's day showed him sitting there, grimly waiting, with his back to Stone River, a formidable foe despite his losses. Above all the Southern generals saw the heavily massed artillery, which they had such good reason to fear.

Dick, who had slept soundly through the night, was up like all the others at dawn and he beheld the Southern army before them, yet not moving, as if uncertain what to do. He felt again that thrill of courage and resolution, and, born of it, was the belief that despite the first day's defeat the chances were yet even. These western youths were of a tough and enduring stock, as he had seen at Shiloh and Perryville, and the battle was not always to him who won the first day. A long time passed and there was no firing.

"Not so eager to rush us as they were," said Warner. "It's a mathematical certainty that an army that's not running away is not whipped, and that certainty is patent to our Southern friends also. But to descend from mathematics to poetry, a great poet says that he who runs away will live to fight another day. I will transpose and otherwise change that, making it to read: He who does not run away may make the other fellow unable to fight another day."

"You talk too much like a schoolmaster, George," said Pennington.

"The most important business of a school teacher is to teach the young idea how to shoot, and lately I've had ample chances to give such instruction."

It was not that they were frivolous, but like most other lads in the army, they had grown into the habit of teasing one another, which was often a relief to teaser as well as teased.

"I think, sir," said Dick to Colonel Winchester, "that some of our troops are moving."

He was looking through his glasses toward the left, where he saw a strong Union force, with banners waving, advancing toward Bragg's right.

"Ah, that is well done!" exclaimed Colonel Winchester. "If our men break through there we'll cut Bragg off from Murfreesborough and his ammunition and supplies."

They did not break through, but they maintained a long and vigorous battle, while the centers and other wings of the two armies did not stir. But it became evident to Dick later in the afternoon that a mighty movement was about to begin. His glasses told him so, and the thrill of expectation confirmed it.

Bragg was preparing to hurl his full strength upon Rosecrans. Breckinridge, who would have been the President of the United States, had not the Democrats divided, was to lead it. This division of five brigades had formed under cover of a wood. On its flank was a battery of ten guns and two thousand of the fierce riders of the South under Wharton and Pegram. Dick felt instinctively that Colonel Kenton with his regiment was there in the very thick of it.

Dick's regiment with Negley's strong Kentucky brigade, which had stopped the panic and rout the day before, had now recrossed Stone River and were posted strongly behind it. Ahead of them were two small brigades with some cannon, and Rosecrans himself was with this force just as Breckinridge's powerful division emerged into the open and began its advance upon the Union lines.

"Now, lads, stand firm!" exclaimed Colonel Winchester. "This is the crisis."

The colonel had measured the situation with a cool eye and brain. He knew that the regiments on the other side of the river were worn down by the day's fighting and would not stand long. But he believed that the Kentuckians around him, and the men from beyond the Ohio would not yield an inch. They were largely Kentuckians also coming against them.

The rolling fire burst from the Southern front, and the cannon on their flanks crashed heavily. Then their infantry came forward fast, and with a wild shout and rush the two thousand cavalry on their flanks charged. As Colonel Winchester had expected, the two weak brigades, although Rosecrans in person was among them, gave way, retreated rapidly to the little river and crossed it.

The Confederates came on in swift pursuit, but Negley's Kentuckians and the other Union men, standing fast, received them with a tremendous volley. It was at short range, and their bullets crashed through the crowded Southern ranks. The Winchesters were on the flank of the defenders, where they could get a better view, and although they also were firing as fast as they could reload and pull the trigger, they saw the great column pause and then reel.

Rosecrans, who had fallen back with the retreating brigades, instantly noted the opportunity. Here, a general who received too little reward from the nation, and to whom popular esteem did not pay enough tribute, rushed two brigades across Stone River and hurled them with all their weight upon the Southern flank. Sixty cannon posted on the hillocks just behind the river poured an awful fire upon the Southern column. The fire from front and flank was so tremendous that the Southerners, veterans as they were, gave way. The men who had held victory in their hands felt it slipping from their grasp.

"They waver! They retreat!" shouted Colonel Winchester. "Up, boys, and at 'em!"

The whole Union force, led by its heroic generals, rushed forward, crossed the river and joined in the charge. The two thousand Southern cavalry were driven off by a fire that no horsemen could withstand. The division of Breckinridge, although fighting with furious courage, was gradually driven back, and the day closed with the Union army in possession of most of the territory it had lost the day before.

As they lay that night in the damp woods, Dick and his comrades, all of whom had been fortunate enough to escape this time without injury, discussed the battle. For a while they claimed that it was a victory, but they finally agreed that it was a draw. The losses were enormous. Each side had lost about one third of its force.

Rosecrans, raging like a wounded lion, talked of attacking again, but the rains had been so heavy, the roads were so soft and deep in mud that the cannon and the wagons could not be pushed forward.

Bragg retreated four days later from Murfreesborough, and Dick and his comrades therefore claimed a victory, but as the winter was now shutting down cold and hard, Rosecrans remained on the line of Murfreesborough and Nashville.

The Winchester regiment was sent back to Nashville to recuperate and seek recruits for its ranks. Dick and Warner and Pennington felt that their army had done well in the west, but their hopes for the Union were clouded by the news from the east. Lee and Jackson had triumphed again. Burnside, in midwinter, had hurled the gallant Army of the Potomac in vain against the heights of Fredericksburg, and twelve thousand men had fallen for nothing.

"We need a man, a man in the east, even more than in the west," said Warner.

"He'll come. I'm sure he'll come," said Dick.



Appendix: Transcription notes:

This ebook was transcribed from a volume of the 16th printing

Despite the fact that this is a fictional work, I myself find it inappropriate that our fictional hero, Dick Mason, is credited with discovering the "lost" copy of Lee's General Order No. 191. In fact, Sergeant Bloss and Corporal Mitchell, of the 27th Indiana Infantry, found the envelope containing the order, along with the three cigars, in a field of clover on the morning of 09/13/1862.

The following modifications were applied while transcribing the printed book to ebook:

Chapter 2 Page 31, para 4, add missing close-quotes Page 51, para 3, add missing comma Page 51, para 6, fix typo ("Pennigton") Page 52, para 7, add missing open-quotes

Chapter 3 Page 68, para 4, changed "it" to "its"

Chapter 4 Page 83, para 3, added a missing comma (In these books, I am often tempted to add/move/remove commas, but I generally avoid doing so. In this case, an additional comma was sorely needed.)

Chapter 5 Page 105, para 3, add missing open-quotes Page 107, para 2, add missing open-quotes Page 118, para 5, changed "he know not" to "he knew not"

Chapter 6 Page 142, para 11, add missing open-quotes

Chapter 7 Page 157, para 2, add missing open-quotes

Chapter 9 Page 191, para 6, add missing comma Page 196, para 2 and 3, fix closing quotation marks Page 197, para 1, add missing close-quote

Chapter 10 Page 210, para 1, fix typo ("Pennigton")

Chapter 13 Page 276, para 1, change "a" to "as" Page 281, para 2, add missing close-quotes Page 283, para 8, change "in" to "is" Page 288, para 4, fix typo ("seeemd") Page 293, para 4, add missing close-quotes Page 297, para 2, closing double-quote should be single-quote

Limitations imposed by converting to plain ASCII:

- The word "marquee" in chapter 3 was presented in the printed book with an accented "e"

I did not change:

- Inconsistent spelling/presentation in the printed book: "rearguard" and "rear guard", "guerrilla" and "guerilla", "round-about" and "roundabout", "to-morrow" and "tomorrow"

- "bowlder" in chapter 10

THE END

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