Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XVI THE CLOSING DAYS
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 Within the Southern lines and just beyond the range of the Northern guns, two men sat playing chess. They were elderly, gray and thin, but never had the faces of the two colonels been more defiant. With the Confederacy crumbling about them it was characteristic of both that they should show no despair, if in truth they felt it. Their confidence in Lee was sublime. He could still move mountains, although he had no tools with which to move them, and the younger officers, mere boys many of them, would come back to them again and again for encouragement. Spies had brought word that Grant, after nine months of waiting, and with Sheridan and a huge cavalry force on his flank, was about to make his great attack. But the dauntless souls of Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant Colonel Hector St. Hilaire remained unmoved.  
"I'm glad the rains are apparently about to cease, Hector," said Colonel Talbot. "When the ground grows firmer it will give General Lee a chance to make one of his great circling swoops, and rout the Yankee army."
"So it will, Leonidas. We've been waiting for it a long time, but the chance is here at last. We've had enough of the trenches. It's a monotonous life at best. Ah, I take your pawn, the one for which I've been lying in ambush more than a month."
"But that pawn dies in a good cause, Hector. When he fell, he uncovered the path to your remaining knight, as a dozen more moves will show you. What is it, Harry?"
Harry Kenton, thin, but hardy and strong, saluted.
"We have news, sir," he replied, "that the portion of the union army under General Sheridan is moving. I bring you a dispatch from General Lee to march and meet them. Other regiments, of course, will go with you."
They put away the chessmen and with St. Clair and Langdon marshaled the troops in line of battle. Harry felt a sinking of the heart when he saw how thin their ranks were, but the valiant colonels made no complaint. Then he went back to General Lee, whose manner was calm in face of the storm that was so obviously impending. The information had come that Grant and the bulk of his army were marching to the attack on the White Oak road, and, if he broke through there, nothing could save the Army of Northern Virginia.
Harry, after taking the dispatch to the Invincibles, carried orders to another regiment, while Dalton was engaged on similar errands. It was obvious to him that Lee was gathering his men for a great effort, and his heart sank. There was not much to gather. Throughout all that long autumn and winter the Army of Northern Virginia had disintegrated steadily. Nobody came to take the place of the slain, the wounded and the sick. All the regiments were skeletons. Many of them could not muster a hundred men apiece.
But Harry saw no sign of discouragement on the face of the chief whom he respected and admired so much. Lee was thinner and his hair was whiter, but his figure was as erect and vigorous as ever, and his face retained its ruddy color. Yet he knew the odds against him. Grant outside his works mustered a hundred thousand trained fighters, not raw levies, and the seasoned Army of the Potomac, that had persisted alike through victory and defeat, and proof now against any adversity, saw its prize almost in its hand. And the worn veterans whom the Southern leader could marshal against Grant were not one third his numbers.
The orderly who usually brought Lee's horse was missing on another errand, and Harry himself was proud to bring Traveler. The general was absorbed in deep thought, and he did not notice until he was in the saddle who held the bridle.
"Ah, it is you, Lieutenant Kenton!" he said. "You are always where you are needed. You have been a good soldier."
Harry flushed deeply with pleasure at such a compliment from such a source.
"I've tried to do my best, sir," he replied modestly.
"No one can do any more. You and Mr. Dalton keep close to me. We must go and deal with those people, once more."
His calm, steady tones brought Harry's courage back. To the young hero-worshiper Lee himself was at least fifty thousand men, and even with his scanty numbers he would pluck victory from the very heart of defeat.
There could no longer be any possible doubt that Grant was about to attack, and Lee made his dispositions rapidly. While he led the bulk of his army in person to battle, Longstreet was left to face the army north of the James, while Gordon at the head of Ewell's old corps stood in front of Petersburg. Then Lee turned away to the right with less than twenty thousand men to meet Grant, and fortified himself along the White Oak Road. Here he waited for the union general, who had not yet brought up his masses, but Harry and Dalton felt quite sure that despite the disparity of numbers Lee was the one who would attack. It had been so all through the war, and they knew that in the offensive lay the best defensive. The event soon proved that they read their general's mind aright.
It was the last day of March when Lee suddenly gave the order for his gaunt veterans to advance, and they obeyed without faltering. The rains had ceased, a bright sun was shining, and the Southern trumpets sang the charge as bravely as at the Second Manassas or Chancellorsville. They had only two thousand cavalry on their flank, under Fitz Lee, but the veteran infantry advanced with steadiness and precision. Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant Colonel Hector St. Hilaire were on foot now, having lost their horses long since, but, waving their small swords, they walked dauntlessly at the head of their little regiment, St. Clair and Langdon, a bit farther back, showing equal courage.
The speed of the Southern charge increased and they were met at first by only a scattering fire. The Northern generals, not expecting Lee to move out of his works, were surprised. Before they could take the proper precautions Lee was upon them and once more the rebel yell that had swelled in victory on so many fields rang out in triumph. The front lines of the men in blue were driven in, then whole brigades were thrown back, and Harry felt a wild thrill of delight when he beheld success where success had not seemed possible.
He saw near him the Invincibles charging home, and the two colonels still waving their swords as they led them, and he saw also the worn faces of the veterans about him suffused once more with the fire of battle. He watched with glowing eyes as the fierce charge drove the Northern masses back farther and farther.
But the union leaders, though taken by surprise, did not permit themselves and their troops to fall into a panic. They had come too far and had fought too many battles to lose the prize at the very last moment. Their own trumpets sounded on a long line, calling back the regiments and brigades. Although the South had gained much ground Harry saw that the resistance was hardening rapidly. Grant and Sheridan were pouring in their masses. Heavy columns of infantry gathered in their front, and Sheridan's numerous and powerful cavalry began to cut away their flanks. The Southern advance became slow and then ceased entirely.
Harry felt again that dreadful sinking of the heart. Leadership, valor and sacrifice were of no avail, when they were faced by leadership, valor and sacrifice also added to overwhelming numbers.
The battle was long and fierce, the men in gray throwing away their lives freely in charge after charge, but they were gradually borne back. Lee showed all his old skill and generalship, marshaling his men with coolness and precision, but Grant and Sheridan would not be denied. They too were cool and skillful, and when night came the Southern army was driven back at all points, although it had displayed a valor never surpassed in any of the great battles of the war. But Lee's face had not yet shown any signs of despair, when he gathered his men again in his old works.
It was to Harry, however, one of the gloomiest nights that he had ever known. As a staff officer, he knew the desperate position of the Southern force, and his heart was very heavy within him. He saw across the swamps and fields the innumerable Northern campfires, and he heard the Northern bugles calling to one another in the dusk. But as the night advanced and he had duties to do his courage rose once more. Since their great commander-in-chief was steady and calm he would try to be so too.
The opposing sentinels were very close to one another in the dark and as usual they often talked. Harry, as he went on one errand or another, heard them sometimes, but he never interfered, knowing that nothing was to be gained by stopping them. Deep in the night, when he was passing through a small wood very close to the union lines, a figure rose up before him. It was so dark that he did not know the man at first, but at the second look he recognized him.
"Shepard!" he exclaimed. "You here!"
"Yes, Mr. Kenton," replied the spy, "it's Shepard, and you will not try to harm me. Why should you at such a moment? I am within the Confederate lines for the last time."
"So, you mean to give up your trade?"
"It's going to give me up. Chance has made you and me antagonists, Mr. Kenton, but our own little war, as well as the great war in which we both fight, is about over. I will not come within the Southern lines again because there is no need for me to do so. In a few days there will be no Southern lines. Don't think that I'm trying to exult over you, but remember what I told you four years ago in Montgomery. The South has made a great and wonderful fight, but it was never possible for her to win."
"We are not beaten yet, Mr. Shepard."
"No, but you will be. I suppose you'll fight to the last, but the end is sure as the rising of tomorrow's sun. We have generals now who can't be driven back."
Harry was silent because he had no answer to make, and Shepard resumed:
"I'm willing to tell you, Mr. Kenton, that your cousin, Mr. Mason, a captain now, is here with General Sheridan, and that he went through today's battle uninjured."
"I'm glad at any rate that Dick is now a captain."
"He has earned the rank. He is my good friend, as I hope you will be after the war."
"I see no reason why we shouldn't. You've served the North in your own way and I've served the South in mine. I want to say to you, Mr. Shepard, that if in our long personal struggle I held any malice against you it's all gone now, and I hope that you hold none against me."
"I never felt any. Good-by!"
Shepard was gone so quickly and with so little noise that he seemed to vanish in the air, and Harry turned back to his work, resolved not to believe the man's assertion that the war was over. He slept a little, and so did Dalton, but both were awake, when a red dawn came alive with the crash of cannon and rifles.
Shepard had spoken truly, when he said that the North now had generals who would not be driven back. Nor would they cease to attack. As soon as the light was sufficient, Grant and Sheridan began to press Lee with all their might. Pickett, who had led the great charge at Gettysburg, and Johnson, who held a place called Five Forks, were assailed fiercely by overpowering numbers, and, despite a long and desperate resistance, their command was cut in pieces and the fragments scattered, leaving Lee's right flank uncovered.
The day, like the one before it, ended in defeat and confusion, and, at the next dawn............
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved