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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XI CEDAR CREEK
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 The Winchester Regiment and the rest of the cavalry returned to the union army, and, on the memorable night of the eighteenth of October, they were north of Cedar Creek with the Eighth Corps, most of the men being then comfortably asleep in tents. A courier had brought word to General Wright that all was quiet in front, and the same word was sent to Sheridan, who, returning, had come as far as Winchester where he slept that night, expecting to rejoin his command the next day.  
But there were men of lower rank than Wright and Sheridan who were uneasy, and particularly so Sergeant Daniel Whitley, veteran of the plains, and of Indian ambush and battle. None of the Winchester officers had sought sleep either in the tents or elsewhere, and, in the night, Dick stood beside the suspicious sergeant and peered into the fog.
"I don't like it," said the veteran. "Fogs ain't to be taken lightly. I wish this one hadn't come at this time. I'm generally scared of most of the things I can't see."
"But what have we to be afraid of?" asked Dick. "We're here in strong force, and the enemy is too weak to attack."
"The Johnnies are never too weak to attack. Rec'lect, too, that this is their country, and they know every inch of it. I wish Mr. Shepard was here."
"I think he was detailed for some scout duty off toward the Blue Ridge."
"I don't know who sent him, but I make bold to say, Mr. Mason, that he could do a lot more good out there in the fog on the other side of Cedar Creek, a-spyin' and a-spyin', a-lookin' and a-lookin', a-listenin' and a-listenin'."
"And perhaps he would neither see nor hear anything"
"Maybe, sir, but if I may make bold again, I think you're wrong. Why, I just fairly smell danger."
"It's the fog and your fear of it, sergeant."
"No, sir; it's not that. It's my five senses working all together and telling me the truth."
"But the pickets have brought in no word."
"In this fog, pickets can't see more'n a few yards beyond their beats. What time is it, Mr. Mason?"
"A little past one in the morning, sergeant."
"Enough of the night left yet for a lot of mischief. I'm glad, sir, if I may make bold once more, that the Winchester men stay out of the tents and keep awake."
Warner joined them, and reported that fresh messengers from the front had given renewed assurances of quiet. Absolutely nothing was stirring along Cedar Creek, but Sergeant Daniel Whitley was still dissatisfied.
"It's always where nothin' is stirrin' that most is doin', sir," he said to Dick.
"You're epigrammatic, sergeant."
"I'm what, sir? I was never called that before."
"It doesn't depreciate you. It's a flattering adjective, but you've set my own nerves to tingling and I don't feel like sleeping."
"It never hurts, sir, to watch in war, even when nothing happens. I remember once when we were in a blizzard west of the Missouri, only a hundred of us. It was in the country of the Northern Cheyennes, an' no greater fighters ever lived than them red demons. We got into a kind of dip, surrounded by trees, an' managed to build a fire. We was so busy tryin' to keep from freezin' to death that we never gave a thought to Indians, that is 'ceptin' one, the guide, Jim Palmer, who knowed them Cheyennes, an' who kept dodgin' about in the blizzard, facin' the icy blast an' the whirlin' snow, an' always lookin' an' listenin'. I owe my life to him, an' so does every other one of the hundred. Shore enough the Cheyennes come, ridin' right on the edge of the blizzard, an' in all that terrible storm they tried to rush us. But we'd been warned by Palmer an' we beat 'em off at last, though a lot of good men bit the snow. I say again, sir, that you can't ever be too careful in war. Do everything you can think of, and then think of some more. I wish Mr. Shepard would come!"
They continued to walk back and forth, in front of the lines, and, at times, they were accompanied by Colonel Winchester or Warner or Pennington. The colonel fully shared the sergeant's anxieties. The fact that most of the union army was asleep in the tents alarmed him, and the great fog added to his uneasiness. It came now in heavy drifts like clouds sweeping down the valley, and he did not know what was in the heart of it. The pickets had been sent far forward, but the vast moving column of heavy whitish vapor hid everything from their eyes, too, save a circle of a few yards about them.
Toward morning Dick, the colonel and the sergeant stood together, trying to pierce the veil of vapor in front of them. The colonel did not hesitate to speak his thought to the two.
"I wish that General Sheridan was here," he said.
"But he's at Winchester," said Dick. "He'll join us at noon."
"I wish he was here now, and I wish, too, that this fog would lift, and the day would come. Hark, what was that?"
"It was a rifle shot, sir," said the sergeant.
"And there are more," exclaimed Dick. "Listen!"
There was a sudden crackle of firing, and in front of them pink dots appeared through the fog.
"Here comes the Southern army!" said Sergeant Whitley.
Out of the fog rose a tremendous swelling cry from thousands of throats, fierce, long-drawn, and full of menace. It was the rebel yell, and from another point above the rising thunder of cannon and rifles came the same yell in reply, like a signal. The surprise was complete. Gordon had hurled himself upon the union flank and at the same moment Early, according to his plan, drove with all his might at the center.
Dick was horrified, and, for a moment or two, the blood was ice in his veins.
"Back!" cried Colonel Winchester to him and the sergeant, and then after shouting, "Up men! Up!" he blew long and loud upon his whistle. All of his men were on their feet in an instant, and they were first to return the Southern fire, but it had little effect upon the torrent that was now pouring down upon them. Other troops, so rudely aroused from sleep, rushed from their tents, still dazed, and firing wildly in the fog.
Again that terrible yell arose, more distinct than ever with menace and triumph, and so great was the rush of the men in gray that they swept everything before them, their rifles and cannon raking the union camp with a withering fire. The Winchesters, despite their quickness to form in proper order, were driven back with the others, and the whole corps, assailed with frightful force on the flank also, was compelled continually to give ground, and to leave long rows of dead and wounded.
"Keep close to me!" shouted Colonel Winchester to his young officers, and then he added to the sergeant, who stood beside him: "Whitley, you were right!"
"I'm sorry to say I was, sir," replied the sergeant. "It was a great ambush, and it's succeeding so far."
"But we must hold them! We must find some way to hold them!" cried the colonel.
He said more, but it was lost in the tremendous uproar of the firing and the shouting. All the officers were dismounted—their horses already had been taken by the enemy—and now, waving their swords, they walked up and down in front of the lines, seeking to encourage their own troops. Despite the surprise and the attack from two sides, the men in blue sustained their courage and made a stubborn fight. Nevertheless the attack in both front and flank was fatal. Again and again they sought to hold a position, but always they were driven from it, leaving behind more dead and wounded and more prisoners.
Dick's heart sank. It was bitter to see a defeat, after so many victories. Perhaps the fortunes of the South had not passed the zenith after all! If Sheridan were defeated and driven from the valley, and Lee's flank left protected, Grant might sit forever before him at Petersburg and not be able to force his trenches. All these thoughts and fears swept before him, vague, disconnected, and swift.
But he saw that Warner, Pennington and the colonel were still unhurt, and that the Winchesters, despite their exposed position, had not suffered as much loss as some of the other regiments. General Wright in the absence of Sheridan retained his head, and formed a strong core of resistance which, although it could not yet hold the ground, might give promise of doing so, if help arrived.
Dawn came, driving the fog away, and casting a red glow over the field of battle. The ground where the union troops had slept the night before was now left far behind, and the Southern army, full of fire and the swell of victory, was pushing on with undiminished energy, its whole front blazing with the rapid discharge of cannon and rifles.
The terrible retreat lasted a long time, and the whole union army was driven back a full five miles before it could make a permanent stand. Then, far in the morning, the regiments reformed, held their ground, and Dick, for the first time, took a long free breath.
"We've been defeated but not destroyed," he said.
"No, we haven't," said a voice beside him, "but the fact that the Johnnies were so hungry has saved us a lot."
It was Shepard, who seemed to have risen from the ground.
"I've got back from places farther north," he said. "Chance kept me away from here last night."
"What do you mean about the Southern hunger helping us?" asked Dick.
"I've been on the flank, and I saw that when they drove us out of our camps the temptation was too great for many of their men. They scattered, seizing our good food and devouring it. It was impossible for their officers to restrain them. They've suffered losses too, and they can drive us no farther."
Then Shepard spoke briefly with Colonel Winchester, and disappeared again. The fire had now died somewhat and the banks of smoke were rising, enabling Dick to see the field with a degree of clearness. union batteries and regiments were in line, but behind them a mass of fugitives, who had not yet recovered from the surprise and who thought the defeat complete, were pouring along the turnpike toward Winchester. When Dick saw their numbers his fears were renewed. He believed that if the Southern army could gather up all its forces and attack once more it would win another success.
But while he looked at the long line of fire in front of them a sudden roar of cheering rose from the union ranks. It became a shout, tremendous and thrilling. Dick turned in excitement and he was about to ask what it meant, when he distinguished a name thundered again and again:
"Sheridan! Sheridan! Sheridan!"
Then before them galloped their own Little Phil, seeming to bring strength, courage and victory with him. His hat was thrown back, his face flushed, and his eyes sparkling. Everywhere the men rallied to his call and the shouts: "Sheridan! Sheridan!" rolled up and down. The fugitives too came pouring back to swell the line of battle. Dick caught the enthusiasm at once, and felt his own pulses leaping. He and Pennington and Warner joined in the shouts: "Sheridan! Sheridan!" and snatching off their caps waved them with all their vigor.
It was an amazing transformation. A beaten and dispirited army, holding on from a sense of duty, suddenly became alive with zeal, and asked only to be led against the enemy by the general they trusted. One man alone had worked the miracle and as his enemies had truly said his presence was worth ten thousand men.
His coming had been dramatic. He had spent the night quietly at Winchester, but, early in the morning, he had heard the sounds of firing which steadily grew louder. Apprehensive, he rode at once toward the distant field, and, before he had gone two miles, he met the first stragglers, bringing wild tales that the army had been routed, and that the Southerners were hot on their heels. Sheridan rode rapidly now. He met thicker streams of fugitives, but turned them back toward the enemy, and when he finally came upon the field itself he brought with him all the retreating regiments.
Dick never beheld a more thrilling and inspiring sight than that which occurred when Sheridan galloped among them, swinging his hat in his hand.
"What troops are these?" he had asked.
"The Sixth Corps!" hundreds of voices shouted in reply.
"We are all right! We'll win!" cried Sheridan.
And then, as he galloped along the line he added:
"Never mind, boys, we'll whip 'em yet! We'll whip 'em yet! We'll sleep in their quarters tonight!"
The roar of cheering swept up a............
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