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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER VII SHERIDAN'S ATTACK
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 More days passed and the army of Sheridan lay waiting at the head of the valley, apparently without any aim in view. But Dick knew that if Little Phil delayed it was with good cause. As Colonel Winchester was high in the general's confidence Dick saw the commander every day. He soon learned that he was of an intensely energetic and active nature, and that he must put a powerful rein upon himself to hold back, when he had such a fine army to lead.  
Many of the younger officers expressed impatience and Dick saw by the newspapers that the North too was chafing at the delay. Newspapers from the great cities, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, reached their camp and they always read them eagerly. Criticisms were leveled at Sheridan, and from the appearance of things they had warrant, but Dick had faith in their leader. Yet another period of depression had come in the North. The loss of life in Grant's campaign through the Wilderness had been tremendous, and now he seemed to be held indefinitely by Lee in the trenches before Petersburg. The Confederacy, after so many great battles, and such a prodigious roll of killed and wounded, was still a nut uncracked, and Sheridan, who was expected to go up the valley and turn the Southern flank, was resting quietly in his camp.
Such was the face of matters, but Dick knew that, beneath, great plans were in the making and that the armies would soon stir. The more he saw of Sheridan the more he was impressed by him. He might prove to be the Stonewall Jackson of the North. Young, eager, brave, he never fell into the fault some of the other union commanders had of overestimating the enemy. He always had a cheery word for his young officers, and when he was not poring over the maps with his lieutenant of engineers, Meigs, he was inspecting his troops, and seeing that their equipment and discipline were carried to the highest pitch. He was the very essence of activity and the army, although not yet moving, felt at all times the tonic of his presence.
Cavalry detachments were sent out on a wider circle. Slade and his men had no opportunity to come so close again, but Shepard informed Dick that he was in the mountains hemming in the valley on the west, and that the statement of his having formed a junction with a band under Skelly from the Alleghanies was true. He had seen the big man and the little man together and they had several hundred followers.
Shepard in these days showed an almost superhuman activity. He would leave the camp, disguised as a civilian, and after covering a great distance and risking his life a dozen times he would return with precious information. A few hours of rest and he was gone again on a like errand. He seemed to be burning with an inward fire, not a fire that consumed him, but a fire of triumph. Dick, who had formed a great friendship with him and who saw him often, had never known him to speak more sanguine words. Always cautious and reserved in his opinions, he talked now of the certainty of victory. He told them that the South was not only failing in men, having none to fill up its shattered ranks, but that food also was failing. The time would come, with the steel belt of the Northern navy about it and the Northern armies pressing in on every side, when the South would face starvation.
But a day arrived when there were signs of impending movements in the great Northern camp. Long columns of wagons were made ready and orders were issued for the vanguard of cavalry to start at an appointed time. Then, to the intense disappointment of the valiant young troops, the orders were countermanded and the whole army settled back into its quarters. Dick, who persistently refused to be a grumbler, knew that a cause must exist for such an action, but before he could wonder about it long Colonel Winchester told him, Warner and Pennington to have their horses saddled, and be ready to ride at a moment's notice.
"We're to be a part of General Sheridan's escort," he said, "and we're to go to a little place called Charlestown."
The three were delighted. They were eager to move, and above all in the train of Sheridan. The mission must be of great importance or the commander himself would not ride upon it. Hence they saddled up in five minutes, hoping that the call would come in the next five.
"Did Colonel Winchester tell you why we were going to ride?" asked Warner of Dick.
"Then perhaps we're going to receive the surrender of Early and all his men."
Dick laughed.
"I've heard that old Jube Early is one of the hardest swearers in the Southern army," he said, "and I've heard, too, that he's just as hard a fighter. I don't think he'll be handing us his surrender on a silver platter at Charlestown or anywhere else."
"I know it," said Warner. "I was only joking, but I'm wondering why we go."
In ten minutes an orderly came with a message for them and they were in the saddle as quickly as if they intended to ride to a charge. Sheridan himself and his staff and escort were as swift as they, and the whole troop swept away with a thunder of hoofs and the blood leaping in their veins. It was now almost the middle of September, and the wind that blew down from the crest of the mountains had a cool breath. It fanned Dick's face and the great pulse in his throat leaped. He felt that this ride must portend some important movement. Sheridan would not gallop away from his main camp, except on a vital issue.
It was not a long distance to Charlestown, and when they arrived there they dismounted and waited. Dick saw Colonel Winchester's face express great expectancy and he must know why they waited, but the youth did not ask him any questions, although his own curiosity increased.
An hour passed, and then a short, thickset, bearded man, accompanied by a small staff, appeared. Dick drew a deep breath. It was General Grant, Commander-in-Chief of all the armies of the union, and Sheridan hastened forward to meet him. Then the two, with several of the senior officers, went into a house, while the younger men remained outside, and on guard.
"I knew that we were waiting for somebody of importance," said Warner, "but I didn't dream that it was the biggest man we've got in the field."
"Didn't your algebra give you any hint of it?" asked Dick.
"No. An algebra reasons. It doesn't talk and waste its time in idle chatter."
The young officers with their horses walked back and forth a long time, while Grant and Sheridan talked. Dick, surprised that Grant had left the trenches before Petersburg and had come so far to meet his lieutenant, felt that the meeting must be momentous. But it was even more crowded with the beginnings of great events than he thought. Grant, as he wrote long afterward, had come prepared with a plan of campaign for Sheridan, but, as he wrote, "seeing that he was so clear and so positive in his views I said nothing about this and did not take it out of my pocket." It was a quality of Grant's greatness, like that of Lee, to listen to a lieutenant, and when he thought his plan was better than his own to adopt the lieutenant's and put his own away.
In that memorable interview, from which such stirring campaigns dated, Grant was impressed more and more by the earnestness and clearness of the famous Little Phil, and, when they parted, he gave him a free rein and an open road. Sheridan, when they rode away from the conference, was sober and thoughtful. He was to carry out his own plan, but the full weight of the responsibility would be his, and it was very great for a young man who was not much more than thirty.
But Dick and his comrades felt exultation, and did not try to hide it. Now that Grant himself had come to see Sheridan the army was bound to move. Pennington looked toward the South and waved his hand.
"You've been waiting for us a long time, old Jube," he said, "but we're coming. And you'll see and hear our resistless tread."
"But don't forget, Frank," said Warner soberly, "that we'll have a big bill of lives to pay. We don't ride unhurt over the Johnnies."
"Don't I know it?" said Pennington. "Haven't I been learning it every day for three years?"
Action was prompt as the young officers had hoped. The very next day after the meeting with his superior, Sheridan prepared to march, and the hopes of Dick and his friends rose very high. They did not know that daring Southern spies had learned of the meeting of Grant and Sheridan, and Early, judging that it portended a great movement against him, was already consolidating his forces and preparing to meet it. And Jubal Early was an able and valiant general.
Dick did not sleep that night. All had received orders to hold themselves in readiness for an instant march, and his blood tingled with expectancy. At midnight the Winchester regiment rode off to the left to join the cavalry under Wilson which was to lead the advance, moving along a pike road and then crossing the little river Opequan.
Dick rode close behind Colonel Winchester and Warner and Pennington were on either side of him. Not far away from them was Sergeant Whitley, ready for use as a scout. Shepard had disappeared already in the darkness. They joined Wilson's command and waited in silence. At three o'clock in the morning the word to advance was given and the whole division marched forward in the starlight.
They had not gone far before Shepard rode back telling them that the crossing of the Opequan was guarded by Confederate troops. The cavalry increased their speed. After the long period of inaction they were anxious to come to grips with their foe. Dick still rode knee to knee with Warner and Pennington, as they went on at a rapid pace in the starlight, the fields and strips of forest gliding past. Men on horseback talk less at night than in the day and moreover these had little to say. Their part was action, and they were waiting to see what the little Opequan would disclose to them.
"Do you think they'll have a big force at the river?" asked Pennington.
"No," replied Dick. "I fancy from what we've heard of Early's army that he won't have the men to spare."
"But we can look for a brush there," said Warner.
The night began to darken as a premonition of the coming dawn, a veil of vapor was drawn before the stars, trees blended together and the air became chill. Then the vapor was pierced in the east by a lance of light. The rift widened, and the pale light of the first dawn appeared over the hills. Dick, using his glasses, saw a flash which he knew was the Opequan. And with that silvery gleam of water came other flashes of red and rapid crackling reports. The Southern sharpshooters along the stream were already opening fire.
A great shout went up from the cavalry. All the forces restrained so long in these young men burst forth. The dawn was now deepening rapidly, its pallor turning to silver, and the river, for a long length, lay clear to view before them. Trumpets to right and left and in the center sounded the charge, the mellow notes coming back in many echoes.
The horsemen firing their own carbines and swinging aloft their sabers, galloped forward in a mighty rush. The beat of hundreds of hoofs made a steady sound, insistent and threatening. The yellow light of the sun, replacing the silver of the first dawn, gilded them with gold, glittering on the upraised blades and tense faces. The bullets of the Southern sharpshooters, in the bushes and trees along the Opequan, crashed among them, and horses and men went down, but the mighty sweep of the mass was not delayed for an instant.
Dick was flourishing the cavalry saber that he now carried and was shouting with the rest. Nearer and nearer came the belt of clear water, and the fire of the Southern skirmishers increased in volume and accuracy. No great Southern force was there, but the men were full of courage and activity. Their rifle fire emptied many of the Northern saddles. A bullet went through the sleeve of Dick's tunic and grazed the skin, but he only felt a slight burning touch and then soon forgot it.
Then the whole column started together, as they swept into the Opequan, driving before them through sheer weight of mass the skirmishers and sharpshooters, who were hidden among the trees and thickets. The water itself proved but little obstacle. It was churned to foam by hundreds of trampling hoofs, and Dick felt it falling upon him like rain, but the drops were cool and refreshing.
Still at a gallop, they emerged from the river, wet and dripping, so much water had been dashed up by the beating hoofs, and charged straight on, driving the scattered Southern riflemen before them. Dick's exultation swelled, and so did that of Warner and Pennington. The young Nebraskan was compelled to give voice to his.
"Hurrah!" he shouted. "We'll gallop the whole length of the valley! Nothing can stop us!"
But Warner, naturally cautious, despite his rejoicings, would not go so far.
"Not the whole length of the valley, Frank!" he exclaimed. "Only half of it!"
"All or nothing!" shouted Pennington, carried away by his enthusiasm. "Hurrah! Hurrah!"
Before them now lay a small earthwork, from which field pieces began to send ugly gusts of fire, but so great was the sweep of the cavalry that they charged directly upon it. The defenders, too few to hold it, withdrew and retreated in haste, and in a few minutes the Northern cavalry were in possession.
"Didn't I tell you," exclaimed Pennington, "that we were going to gallop the whole length of the valley! We've taken a fort with horsemen!"
"Yes," said Warner, "but we'll stop here a while. Listen to the trumpets sounding the halt, and yonder you can see the main lines of the Johnnies."
It was obvious that it was unwise to go farther until the whole army came up, as they heard other trumpets calling now, and they were not their own but those of their enemies. Early had not been caught napping. The dark lines of his infantry were advancing to retake the little fort. The cavalry was reduced in an instant from the offensive to the defensive, and dismounting and sending their horses to the rear, where they were held by every tenth man, they waited with carbines ready, the masses of men in gray bearing down upon them. Dick wondered if the Invincibles were there before him. Second thought told him that it was unlikely, as the advancing troops were infantry, and he knew that the Invincibles were now mounted.
"Now, lads," said Colonel Winchester, going down the ranks, "ready with your rifles!"
The Southern infantry came on to the steady beating of a drum somewhere, but as they drew near the fort a sheet of bullets poured upon them, and drove them back, leaving the ground sprinkled with the fallen. Again and again they reformed and returned to the charge always to meet the same fate.
"Brave fellows!" exclaimed Warner, "but they can't retake this fort from us!"
After the last repulse Colonel Winchester drew out his men, mounted them, and charging the infantry in flank sent them far down the road toward Winchester, where heavy columns came to their support. But the Winchester men had time to breathe, and also to exult, as they had suffered but little loss. While they remained at the captured fort, awaiting further orders, they watched the battle elsewhere, flaring in a long irregular line across the valley.
The rifle fire was heavy and the big guns of Early were sweeping the roads with shell and grapeshot. As well as Dick could see through his glasses, the only success yet achieved was that of the cavalry at the fort. Sheridan himself had not yet appeared, and the hopes of the three sank a little. They had seen so many triumphs nearly achieved and then lost that they could believe in nothing until it was done.
But the morning was yet very young. While the east had long been full of light, the golden glow was just enveloping the west. The rifles crashed incessantly and the heavy thunder of the cannon gave the steady sound a deeper note. The fire of the defending Southern force made a red stream across the hills and fields.
"It's too early to have a battle," said Warner, looking at the sun, which was not yet far above the horizon.
"Too early for us or too early for the Johnnies?" said Pennington. "I think, Dick, I see those rebel friends of yours. Turn your glasses to the right, and look at that regiment of horses by the edge of the grove. I see at the head of it two men with longish hair. Apparently they are elderly, and they must be Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant Colonel St. Hilaire."
Dick turned his glasses eagerly and the officers of the Invincibles were at once recognizable to his more familiar eye. He could not mistake Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, both of whom were watching the progress of the battle through glasses, and he knew that the four young men who sat their horses just behind them were Harry, St. Clair, Dalton and Langdon.
As no further attack was made on the fort, and Colonel Winchester's troop remained stationary for the time, Dick kept his glasses bearing continually upon the Invincibles. The glasses were powerful and they told him much. He inferred from the manner in which the men were drawn up that they would charge soon. Near them a battery of four Confederate guns was planted on a hill, and it was firing rapidly and effectively, sending shell and shrapnel into advancing lines of blue infantry.
A singular feeling took hold of him, one of which he was not then conscious. He knew six of the officers who sat in the front of the Invincibles, and one of them was his own cousin, almost his brother. He did not know a soul in the blue columns advancing upon them, and his hopes and fears centered suddenly around that little group of six.
The wood was filled with Southern infantry, as it was now spouting flame, and the battery continued to thunder as fast as the men could reload and fire. The Invincibles who carried short rifles, much like the carbines of the North, raised them and pulled the triggers. Many in the blue column fell, but the others went on without faltering.
Dick knew from long experience what would follow, and he watched it alike with the eye and the mind that divines. Either his eye or his fancy saw the Invincibles lean forward a little, fasten their rifles, shake loose the reins with one hand, and drop the other hand to the hilt of the saber. It was certain that in the next minute they would charge.
He saw a trumpeter raise a trumpet to his lips and blow, loud and shrill. Then the column of the Invincibles leaped forward, the necks of the horses outstretched, the men raising their sabers and flashing them above their heads. Dick drew deep breaths and his pulses beat painfully. Had he realized what his wishes were then he would have considered himself a traitor. In those swift moments his heart was with the Invincibles and not with the blue columns that stood up against them.
He saw the gray horsemen sweep forward into a cloud of fire and smoke, in which he caught the occasional flash of a saber. The combat behind the veil lasted only a minute or two, though it seemed an hour to Dick, and then he saw the blue infantry reeling back, their advance checked by the charge of the Invincibles. A cheer rose in Dick's throat, but he checked it, and then, remembering, he trembled in a brief chill, as if shaken by the knowledge that for a few moments at least he had not been true to the cause for which he fought.
"A gallant charge those Johnnies made," said Warner, "and it's been effective, too. Our men are falling back, while the Johnnies are returning to their place near the wood."
Dick was strai............
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