GORDON set off, moving by the left flank, with his own and Robert D. Johnston’s North Carolina brigade, and, after making a détour through the woods, brought his men up as rapidly and noiselessly as possible on Shaler’s flank. Pausing till Johnston should gain the rear of Shaler’s brigade, and then, when all was ready, with a single volley, and the usual wild, screaming yells, he rushed right on to the surprised and bewildered lines, which broke convulsively, only to meet Johnston. Seymour’s right is struck, panic sets in, and the men are fleeing down the lines to the left, and hundreds, if not thousands, back to the Flat Run and Germanna Roads. When those following the breastworks reach Neil’s steadfast brigade, Colonel Smith of the Sixty-first Pennsylvania gives the command, “By the right flank, file right, double-quick, march!” This brings him right across the retreating masses, and he tells his men to stop the stampede as best they can ; but the disorganized men sweep through them in the gathering darkness, the Confederates on their heels. But, meanwhile, Morris and Upton had come to Smith’s aid, and between them they stopped Gordon; not, however, without losing a number of men and prisoners, among whom was F. L. Blair of Pittsburg, a member of the Sixty-first Pennsylvania, to whom I am indebted for a vivid account of what happened. Shaler and Seymour, trying to rally their men, were both taken prisoners.
As soon as the break occurred, Sedgwick threw himself among his veterans, crying, “Stand! stand, men! Remember you belong to the Sixth Corps!” On hearing his voice in the darkness, they rally. Meanwhile the panic is at its height, and several of his staff fly to Meade’s headquarters, —Meade at that time was over at Grant’s, — telling Humphreys that the right was turned, the Sixth Corps had been smashed to pieces, and that the enemy were coming up the road. Humphreys, with that promptness and cool-headedness which never deserted him, let the situation be as appalling as it might, at once made dispositions to meet this unexpected onslaught, calling on Hunt, the provost guard, and Warren, all of whom responded briskly. Lyman says in his notes, “About 7.30 P. M. ordered to take over a statement of the case to General Grant in the hollow hard by. He seemed more disturbed than Meade about it, and they afterwards consulted together. In truth, they [the enemy] had no idea of their success.” Meade then returned to his headquarters, Grant going with him.
On hearing some of the panicky reports from Sedgwick’s aides, Meade turned to one of them and asked fiercely, “ Do you mean to tell me that the Sixth Corps is to do no more fighting this campaign?” “I am fearful not, sir,” quoth—. I think I can see and hear Meade, and I cannot help smiling, for it reminds me of a little interview I had with him myself a few days later, the first morning at Spottsylvania. I happened to be in the yard of the Hart house, gazing across the valley of the sleepy Po at a long Confederate wagontrain hastening southward amid a cloud of dust, when he rode up. I ventured to say to him that a battery would easily reach that train. He gave me a most deploring look and said, “Yes! and what good would you do? scare a few niggers and old mules!” That was the only suggestion I made to him for the management of his campaign. Well, Sedgwick, having thrown himself into the breach, rallied his men, and the danger was soon over; for Gordon’s troops were in utter confusion, swallowed up by the Wilderness, as ours had been in every one of their attacks; and he was mighty glad, and so were his men, to get back to their lines.
Gordon’s attack, brilliant as it was and thoroughly in keeping with his exploits on so many fields, fields whose sod I am sure cherishes his memory fondly, has never seemed to me to have had the importance that he, in his frank, trumpet-breathing reminiscences, attached to it. He contends that, if he had been allowed to make the attack earlier in the day, it would inevitably have brought complete victory. But how easy for him, how natural for us all, to be deceived by retrospection! for Chance sows her seed of Possibility in the upturned earth of every critical hour of our lives, the mist of years quickens them, and in due time their clambering, blossoming vines are over the face of Failure, hiding its stony, inexorable stare. The past of every one, of armies and empires, as history tells us well, is dotted with patches of this blooming posy, and I can readily see how Gordon’s reveriedreaming eye, floating over the sad fate of the Confederacy which he loved so well, should fall on that day in the Wilderness; and how at once Possibility reversed the failure beneath the lacework of this apparently so real, so comforting and illusive bloom.
Yet, as a matter of fact, there was only one hour in the day of the 6th, as I view it, when his attack would have been determining. But that hour, fortunately for the country, never came : namely, when Longstreet should have overwhelmed Hancock, which, as I believe upon my soul, he would have done had not Fate intervened. In that case, Hancock’s troops falling back routed among the huddled and agonized t tains,—what a time they would have had trying to extricate themselves from the tangled woods! and Hancock would probably have met the end of Wadsworth, inasmuch as he never would have left that key of the battle without pledging his life over and over again, — I say, had Gordon struck at that hour, nothing, I think, could have saved the Army of the Potomac. But so long as we held the Brock Road, I doubt very much if it would have been attended with any results more serious than it was.
But let that be as it may, by halfpast nine the tumult died down and the Wilderness resumed her large, deep silence. So great was the confusion, and so keen was the consciousness that a great disaster had just been escaped, that it was decided to establish a new line for Sedgwick; and accordingly the engineers proceeded in the darkness to lay one. Starting on the right of the Fifth Corps, they swung the new line back along the ridge south of Caton’s Run, resting its right across the Germanna Road, thus giving up all north of Caton’s Run, including the Flat Run Road. It was near midnight when Sedgwick’s men began to move into their new retrograde and obviously defensive position.
This acknowledged attitude of repulse, together with the dismaying experiences of Warren and Hancock, threw the shadow of impending disaster, which found expression far and wide that night in sullenly muttered predictions that the army would recross the Rapidan within the next twenty-four hours. And what should be more natural? For two days of conflict with the Army of Northern Virginia south of the Rapidan and Rappahannock had marked hitherto the limit of the Army of the Potomac’s bloody stay. The two days were up, the losses very, very heavy, — between sixteen and seventeen thousand killed and wounded, — the fighting in some respects more desperate than ever, and as a climax, the right flank crushed, as in Hooker’s case!
Was history to repeat itself? Three long years of it? When will this thing end? Must we go back defeated, and then try it over again? No, sorely and oft-tested veterans, you have crossed the Rapidan for the last time. At this hour to-morrow night you will be on the march toward Richmond; for, dark as it looks to you and to us all, the Rapidan will never hear your tread again till you are marching home from Appomattox. And I am sure the river will ask you, as you are on your way across it then, “What has become of Lee’s bugles that we used to hear on still nights? and of the singers of the hymns, and the voices of those who prayed in such humility for peace, for their firesides, and their Confederacy, — it is almost a year since we have heard them. What has become of them all?” And I think I can hear you reply tenderly, “We overcame them at Appomattox, have given them the best terms we could, have shared our rations and parted with them, hoping that God would comfort them and at last bless the Southland.” And so He has. O Hate, where was thy victory? O Defeat, where was thy sting?
To revert to Gordon’s attack: the rumor was started that night — my friend, “Charley” McConnell of the Fifth Artillery, heard it and reported it to Sheridan — that Meade was ready to take the back track. Later in the campaign, when the burdens were lying heavy on his shoulders, and everybody should have stood by him, for the awful slaughter of Cold Harbor had just occurred, unscrupulous staff officers and newspaper correspondents whom he had offended declared the rumor to be a fact. Meade’s temper! How much it cost him, and how long it kept the story going! His one great trouble was that he always made illbreeding, shrewdness, and presuming mediocrity, uncomfortable. If Fortune had hung a censer on his sword-hilt, and he could have swung the odor of sweet spices and fragrant gums under the nostrils of his fellow-men, including cabinet officers, — then, oh, then, his star would not be shining, as now, alone and so far below Sheridan’s and Sherman’s!
But as for his taking the back track, on the contrary he is reported to have exclaimed, “By God! the army is across now, and it has got to stay across.” If the oath were uttered, heard and recorded, then when the book shall be opened and his name be called, “ George Gordon Meade! ” and he shall rise and, uncovering, answer in his richly modulated voice “Here!” I believe, as the old fellow stands there at the bar of judgment, bleak his heart but unfaltering his eye, he will look so like an honest gentleman in bearing, that the Judge, after gazing at his furrowed face awhile, will say with smothered emotion, “Blot out the oath and pass him in.” I really hope at the bottom of my heart, Reader, that he will include you and me, and the bulk of the old Army of the Potomac. And, to tell the honest truth, I shall be unhappy if we do not find the old Army of Northern Virginia there, too.
Well, the second day of Lee’s and Grant’s mighty struggle for mastery in the Wilderness is over; the losses of each have been appalling; and great majestic night has fallen again. From Maine to the far-away Missouri, for Sherman was moving also, there was not a neighborhood or a city where awe and anxiety were not deep. The newspapers have proclaimed the armies in motion, and the thousands of letters written just as camp was breaking to start on the campaign have reached home, and been read aloud to the assembled family; and I have no doubt that fathers’ voices trembled as they read them, and that mothers with uplifted apron dried their tears, saying, “Perhaps our Tom will be spared; perhaps he will be.” “Do not give way, mother; do not cry. Old Grant will win at last,” exclaims the husband, as he puts the letter back into the envelope and passes a loving hand over his wife’s bended brow. But let Hope and Affection be as consoling and confident as might be, they could not drown the memory of the long train of consuming and depressing vicissitudes of the Army of the Potomac, which, with the other armies in Virginia, up to this time had lost, in killed, wounded, and missing, the awful aggregate of 143,925 men, the majority of them under twenty-two. What a pall for Affection and Hope to bleach!
Two days of awful suspense have gone by, and city is calling to city; in fact, all over the North breaks the inquiry, What news from Grant? The hour is midnight, and not a word from him; the lights have all gone out in the scattered farmhouses, the deep hum of the streets has died away, and the night editors of the great dailies in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago are holding back their issues, hoping that the next click of the fast operating telegraph will bring tidings, glad tidings of victory from the old Army of the Potomac. Mr. Lincoln cannot sleep, and at midnight, unable to stand the uncertainty any longer, asks Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, to go down and see Grant and find out how it is going.
At that very hour his staff and all about headquarters, save a newspaper man, were asleep, and Grant with the collar of his coat upturned was sitting alone, with clouded face, looking into a little dying-down camp-fire, nervously shifting his legs over each other. Of all the tides in the remarkable career of this modest, quiet man, that of this midnight hour in the Wilderness is easily the highest in dramatic interest. What was the outlook, and what were the natural reflections, as he sat there alone at that still, solemn hour?
Two days of deadly encounter; every man who can bear a musket has been put in; the left wing repulsed and now on the defensive behind breastworks, the cavalry drawn back, the trains seeking safety beyond the Rapidan; Sedgwick routed, thousands and thousands of killed and wounded, — he can almost hear the latter’s cry, so hushed is the night, — and the army pervaded with a lurking feeling of being face to face with disaster. What is the matter with the Army of the Potomac? Is an evil, dooming spirit cradled with it, which no righteous zeal or courage can appease? And, if this thought entered his mind in his rapid turning-over of the day’s fortunes, would it not account for his uneasiness of position?
Let there be no mistake: Grant had reached the verge of the steepest crisis in his life; and I think under the circumstances he would not have been human if, as he looked down into its chasm, the past had not come back. From obscurity and shadow he had risen, had gained victory after victory which had lifted him to the chief command, and his countrymen had pinned their last hopes on his star. And now was he to follow in the steps of McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Hooker, and Burnside, and land at last in his old home in Galena, a military failure? He had done his best, he was conscious of no harm in thought or deed to any of his fellow men in his upward flight. He had loved his country as boy and man. The tide of feeling was up. At last he leaves the slumbering camp-fire for his tent, and I am told by one to whom it was confided, one of his very close aides, that he threw himself on the cot-bed, and something like stifled, subdued sobs were heard. But before dawn broke, the cloud that had settled on him had risen, and, when his attached friend, General Wilson, who was a member of his military family while at Vicksburg, disturbed over rumors, rode to his headquarters at an early hour, Grant, sitting before the door of his tent, said calmly as Wilson, having dismounted some paces away, started towards him, with anxious face, “It’s all right, Wilson; the Army of the Potomac will go forward to-night.” And at 6.30 A. M. he sent the following order to Meade: —
GENERAL: — Make all preparations during the day for a night march, to take position at Spottsylvania Court House with one army corps; at Todd’s Tavern with one; and another near the intersection of Piney Branch and Spottsylvania Railroad with the road from Alsop’s to Old Court House. If this move should be made, the trains should be thrown forward early in the morning to the Ny River. I think it would be advisable in making this change to leave Hancock where he is until Warren passes him. He could then follow and become the right of the new line. Burnside will move to Piney Branch Church. Sedgwick can move along the Pike to Chancellorsville, thence to Piney Branch Church, and on to his destination. Burnside will move on the Plank Road, then follow Sedgwick to his place of destination. All vehicles should be got off quietly. It is more than probable the enemy will concentrate for a heavy attack on Hancock this afternoon. In case they do, we must be prepared to resist them and follow up any success we may gain with our whole force. Such a result would necessarily modify these instructions. All the hospitals should be moved to-day to Chancellorsville.
U. S. GRANT,
To take up the thread of my return with the despatches. Impressed by Mrs. Allen’s story and ominous satisfaction, I left the escort with directions to come on at its own marching gait, and hastened to Germanna Ford, crossed the river on the pontoon bridge, and, having gained the bluff, gave my horse the bit. He bore me speedily along the densely wood-bordered road, spotted by cast-away blankets and deserted now, save where here and there lay prone a sick or completely exhausted Negro soldier of Ferrero’s overmarched colored division. They were not ordinary stragglers, and I remember no more pleading objects. Most of them had lately been slaves, and across the years their hollow cheeks and plaintive sympathy-imploring eyes are still the lonesome roadside’s bas-reliefs. The dewy morning air was steeped with the odor of burning woods, and the fire, although it had run its mad course, was still smoking faintly from stumps and fallen trees. This side of Flat Run it had come out of the woods and laid a crisp black mantle on the shoulders of an old field.
Beyond the run (no one can cross it now without pausing, for, standing in gray clumps, its large, umbrella-topped water-birches will capture the eye with their ghostly vistas) suddenly and much to my surprise I came squarely against a freshly-spaded line of entrenchments with troops of the Sixth Corps behind it; and in less time than it takes to tell, I was in the presence of General Sedgwick and his staff. The rather stubby, kindly-faced general was dismounted, and with several of his aides was sitting on the pine-needle-strewn bank of the road. His left cheek-bone bore a long, black smudge which I suspect had been rubbed on during the night by coming in contact with a charred limb while he was rallying his men. From Beaumont or Kent of his staff, or possibly from “ Charity ” Andrews of Wilson’s class (for I remember distinctly having a short talk with him either then or later on the way to Meade’s headquarters), I got an account of what had happened.
In a few minutes I was approaching Grant’s headquarters; the fog and smoke were so deep one could barely see the Lacy house. Meade was standing beside Seth Williams, the adjutantgeneral, when I handed the latter the despatches, saying that I had received his orders to return with them and that I had not been able to make telegraphic connection with Washington. Meade asked, “Where did you cross the Rapidan this morning?” I replied, “At Germanna Ford, on the pontoon bridge.” “Is that bridge still down?” he demanded sharply. “Yes, at least it was when I crossed only a little while ago.” Whereupon he turned and in a gritty, authoritative tone of command called out, “Duane!”
Duane was eight or ten feet away, talking with some one. I had noticed him particularly, for his back was literally plastered with fresh mud, his horse having reared and fallen backward with him. On his approaching, Meade, looking fiercer than an eagle, wanted to know why the bridge was still down, orders having been given at half-past eleven the night before for its immediate removal to Ely’s Ford. I was mighty glad that I was not in Duane’s shoes, for Meade did not spare him. I dare say that, in the confusion due to Gordon’s attack, Duane’s orders had miscarried.
Having returned the letters — they had filled my breast-pocket — to their respective writers, I got a little something to eat, then went to Edie’s tent and was soon fast asleep.
From early dawn on this third day the armies were alert, each ready behind its strengthened entrenchments, with heavy skirmish lines in front, waiting for the other, both confident of their ability to repulse direct attack. But so far as the Army of the Potomac was concerned, Grant’s eventful order of 6.30 A. M. to Meade clearly indicated it was to be a day of pause. Lee’s career, however, left no reason for neglectful indifference, and much less for a belief that he would retreat. The Army of the Potomac remembered well that he had waited defiantly a day after Antietam and a like time after Gettysburg, inviting assault. No, he was not given to abandoning fields, and the men knew it; so the army, crouching, confronted its dangerous adversary with vigilance unrelaxed, prepared to meet a lunge as a tiger which had felt another’s teeth and claws.
Meanwhile the rear of both armies contrasted sharply with their fronts. Scattered over the dulled, impoverished fields, amid flooding sunshine, — for after the smoke and fog had broken up and gone, it was a beautiful, serenely smiling day, — lay the Reserve Artillery and the multitudinous trains, animals, harnessed and hitched, dozing where they stood. Men and drivers lounged in groups near their guns and teams, some sound asleep, and here and there, by one of them, a bohemian dog that had been picked up and adopted, curled down, nose on paws and eyes half-closed, but out for what was going on. Yes, a battlefield has a wide compass, very human and interesting; but let us return to the military activities of the day.
That morning Sheridan had, on his own initiative, pushed Custer back along the Furnace Road to the Brock; and at noon, having gained the import of Grant’s order to Meade, sent Gregg and Merritt to drive the enemy from Piney Branch Church and Todd’s Tavern so as to clear the way for Warren and the trains. This was not accomplished till after sundown, and only by the hardest and most resolute kind of fighting. But at last he won the hotly contested field, Stuart leaving, among his dead, Collins, colonel of the Fifteenth Virginia Cavalry.
Out of a tender memory of Collins’s fate, — he had been our tall, lighthaired, modest, pink-cheeked adjutant at West Point, — while my horses were crunching their dinner of corn on the ear, I walked over the ground last May where he fell. It had lately been raggedly ploughed; and catching sight of a couple of daisies in bloom, I went to them. And now if those to whom sentiment in prose is unpleasing — and there are many such in the world, and too often have I offended them already — will excuse me, I ’ll say that as I stood over the daisies, a gentle wind came along, waving them softly, and with a heart full of auld lang syne I said, “For the sake of my West Point fellow-cadet, wave and bloom on, Daisies!”
Could Sheridan have made his attack with all of his cavalry (Wilson had gone with a part of his division to look after Sedgwick’s right), it might have put links of an entirely different character in the chain of events.
Burnside sent word to Grant at an early hour that his officers in command of pickets (it will be remembered that they joined Hancock’s right) had reported that Lee’s wagons and troops were moving briskly during the night, southward, as they thought. Whereupon Meade urged Hancock to push out his skirmishers and find where the enemy were and what they were about. Accordingly he sent Miles along the unfinished railway, and Birney up the Plank Road. Miles executed his orders with his usual vigor, and located Lee’s right about five hundred yards south of the railway. I overheard Hancock say at Meade’s headquarters sometime during the previous winter that the best man in his corps on the skirmish line was Miles. Birney found Field behind strong entrenchments this side of the Widow Tapp’s field, practically on the spot where he went into bivouac after his unsuccessful assault the evening before. Both Miles and Birney, in pushing their lines hard up against the enemy, met with considerable losses.
As early as 7.40 A. M. Warren notified Humphreys that he had no doubt the enemy was moving a strong force along his line, and that if the whole army lay quiet and Lee concentrated on him he might be driven back, and in that case, on account of the fog and smoke, would be unable to re-form short of the ridge east of Wilderness Run. He suggested therefore the establishment of a provisional line at that point, and further proposed that in view of the enemy withdrawing from Hancock’s front, Hancock make a determined attack, adding that Humphreys knew how much more important our right flank was than our left. Here we have another instance of Warren’s tendency to put his finger in the pie. In accordance with his suggestions Comstock, with artillery officers, was sent to select a line on the elevated ground east of the run; and Warren, to make sure of getting back to it if compelled to do so, set some of the engineer battalions and detachments of the Fifteenth New York Engineer Regiment to making bridges across the run. But from all we can learn, his anxiety was wholly unfounded; there is no evidence that Lee at any time during the day entertained a thought of attacking. The fact is, Lee had shot his bolt, and so had Grant. Nor is it at all likely that during the day Lee seriously considered making a strategic move; his disparity of numbers was too great for risking wide manœuvring. Moreover, he knew that in the nature of things Grant would have to choose within the next twenty-four hours between renewed assault, retreat, and advance, and hoping he might choose retreat, he left the door of the Rapidan wide open behind him. But, as illustrative of how the Army of the Potomac credited his fighting spirit, Wilson, before the sun was very high, was directed by Sheridan to send a brigade toward Sedgwick’s right and find out if the enemy had made any movement in that direction. He went far enough with McIntosh’s brigade to satisfy himself that the Germanna Ford Road was clear, and then, to be doubly sure, sent McIntosh to the ford itself.
Meade became restless on not getting word promptly from the cavalry, and at 8.45 A. M. said in a despatch to Sedgwick, “I cannot understand the non-receipt of intelligence from your cavalry. Single horsemen are constantly arriving from the ford signifying the Plank Road is open.” I was doubtless one of the single horsemen referred to. At 9.30 he informed Sheridan that the cavalry along the Germanna Ford Road reported no indications of the enemy within a mile of it, adding, “Still the gap from the Sixth Corps to the river is open and should be watched.” At a quarter to one McIntosh in a despatch to Sedgwick from Germanna Ford reported, “The road is all open. One battalion of the Fifth New York Cavalry crossed the ford this morning at 7 A. M. They came from Rappahannock Station and left that station at 2.30 this morning.” This, of course, was my escort.
And now, a strange thing happened. Just after McIntosh’s despatch, announcing a clear road, was received, one came to hand from Colonel S. T. Crooks, of the Twenty-second New York, picketing between Flat Run and the ford, saying that the enemy’s pickets were on the road, and that a short distance down the Rapidan large columns of dust could be seen, McIntosh meanwhile having moved to Ely’s Ford. Thereupon Meade grew furious, and sent this message to poor Crooks: “You will consider yourself under arrest for having sent false information in relation to the enemy. You will turn your command over to the next in rank, directing that officer to report to Colonel Hammond commanding Fifth New York Cavalry for orders.”
What were the facts? General A. L. Long, chief of artillery of Ewell’s corps and late biographer of Lee, says, “I was directed by General Ewell to make a reconnaissance in the direction of Germanna Ford. Taking one brigade of infantry and two battalions of artillery, I advanced to the Germanna Road, striking it about a mile from the ford. Two or three regiments of cavalry were occupying the road at this point. They were soon driven away by a couple of well-directed shots. It was discovered that the enemy had almost entirely abandoned the ford and road. It was evident that they were leaving our front.” I do not know what ever became of Colonel Crooks, but I hope he was righted at last.
Meanwhile orders had been issued for the wounded to be loaded in trains, and, under an escort of thirteen hundred cavalry, taken across the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford and on to Rappahannock Station, there to meet cars that were to be sent out from Alexandria. The wounded were divided into three classes, those who could walk, those able to ride in the wagons, and, third, the most severely wounded, including those suffering from fractures, or from some recent amputation, and, most unfortunate of all, those whose wounds had penetrated the breast or abdominal cavities. The wagons, having assembled at the various hospitals (there were 325 of them and 488 ambulances), were thickly bedded with evergreen boughs on which shelter tents and blankets were spread. Dalton was put in charge of the train, Winne and other corps inspectors aiding at the respective hospitals in getting the necessary supplies together, and selecting and loading the wounded. It was approaching midnight before the train, with its seven thousand souls, either on foot or being carried, was ready to move; nearly a thousand had to be left on account of lack of transportation. No one can appreciate, unless he has been witness of such scenes, the strain upon the surgeons that night. I have often thought that they never received a full measure of recognition for their humane services.
Let us not follow the train in the darkness, for almost every wagon is a hive of moans, and we should hear horrible cries of agony breaking from the men as the wheels grind on boulders or jounce across roots, the piercing shrieks mingling with the shouts of drivers and clanking of trace-chains. Before Dalton got to the ford, orders came to countermarch and proceed to Fredericksburg with the poor fellows. Whenever an unrighteous war shall be urged upon our country by the unscrupulously ambitious or thoughtless, I wish that the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor would lay bare all that they remember.
In this connection here is what Keifer says: “On my arrival at hospital about 2 P. M. I was carried through an entrance to a large tent, on each side of which lay human legs and arms, resembling piles of stove wood, the blood only excepted. All around were dead and wounded men, many of the latter dying. The surgeons, with gleaming, sometimes bloody, knives and instruments, were busy at their work. I soon was laid on the rough-board operating-table and chloroformed.”
Notwithstanding this frightful record, I think I can hear the Wilderness, proud in being the field on which Heaven had joined great issues, exclaim with holy exultation, “Deep as the horrors were, the battles that were fought in my heart were made glorious by the principles at stake: I cherish every drop of the gallant blood, and I am glad it is my trees which breathe a requiem.”
I do not recall seeing Grant during the day, but he is reported by one who was near him to have been deeply absorbed, and to have visited the line between Burnside and Warren, his eyes resting on the Chewning farm on the Parker’s Store road. As to his antagonist, Lee, Gordon says he invited him early in the forenoon to ride with him over the ground of his movement of the night before. While on the ride, Lee expressed his conviction that if he could check Grant, such a crisis in public affairs in the North would arise as might lead to an armistice; and I am almost sure he was right. Gordon says he referred to the rumors that Grant was retreating, and that Lee gave them no credit, predicting on the contrary that he would move toward Spottsylvania. In harmony with this view were his orders to Stuart and to Pendleton, his chief of artillery. The former was thoroughly to acquaint himself with the roads on the right, which the army would have to follow should Grant undertake to move,as he though the might, toward Spottsylvania; and the latter, to cut a path through the woods to facilitate the infantry’s march in reaching the Catharpin Road. The filing of the ammunition and headquarter trains past the Wilderness Tavern in the forenoon, preliminary to clearing the way for Warren and the general movement, and visible from Lee’s lines, made the source of these precautions plain. Lee established his headquarters for the night at Parker’s Store, and between sundown and dark directed Anderson, whom he had assigned to Longstreet’s command, to go to Spottsylvania either by Todd’s Tavern or Shady Grove Church, and Ewell to conform his movements to those of the troops on his right; and if at daylight he found no large force in his front, to follow Anderson toward Spottsylvania. It is obvious from these orders that Lee was not fully informed of the situation, for at that very hour Sheridan was in full possession of Todd’s Tavern, and “Charley” McConnell of Pittsburg was probably burying Collins, the friend of his youth. It may interest some readers to know that he cut off a lock of Collins’s hair before he laid him in his narrow bed, and that that lock at last reached loving hands and is preserved.
Meade’s orders for the movement were issued at 3 P. M., and like all those written by Humphreys, are models of explicitness. Sedgwick was to move at 8.30 by way of the Pike and Chancellorsville and thence to Piney Branch Church; Warren was to set off for Spottsylvania by way of the Brock Road. Their pickets were to be withdrawn at 1 A. M. Burnside was to follow Sedgwick, and Hancock was to stand fast. The sun was just above the treetops when Warren with his staff left the Lacy House. For some reason that I do not know, instead of following the Germanna Road to the Brock, he took the Pike, and just as we gained the brow of the hill at the old Wilderness Tavern there was borne from the enemy’s lines on the still evening air the sound of distant cheering. I halted and turned my horse’s head in their direction, that is, to the right and up the run; the sun was then halfway lodged in the treetops, and looked like a great, red copper ball. I think I can hear that Confederate line cheering yet. At the time I supposed that, seeing us on the move, they thought that we had had enough of it, and were seeking safety at Fredericksburg. It seems, however, to have been unpremeditated and to have been started by some North Carolina regiment in the right of their line cheering Lee who happened to go by them. Assuming that it was a cry of defiance, the adjacent brigade took it up, and, like a wave on the beach, it broke continuously along their entire line. And after dying away, from their right beyond the unfinished railway to their extreme left resting on Flat Run, it was followed by two more like surges.
Cheers never broke on a stiller evening. There is not a breath of air, the flushing west is fading fast, the world is on the verge of twilight, and trees, roads, fields, and distances are dimming as they clothe themselves in its pensive mystery. Where now are the scenes and the sounds of only three evenings ago? Where are all the men who were singing in their bivouacs along Wilderness Run? Where are Wadsworth, Hays, Jenkins, Jones, Stafford, McElwain, Campbell Brown, Griswold, and “Little” Abbott? And where are the hopes and plans of Grant and Lee when the sun went down on the 4th? Well! well! and all will be well! The Pike to Chancellorsville is packed with moving trains. The resolute batteries that stood on the slope, where the little chapel stands now, have pulled out, crossed the run, and their heavy wheels are rolling over and muttering their rumbling jars; they will hear no buglecalls for taps to-night, nor will three thousand dead. The sunset flush has ebbed from the west, the lone, still trees are growing dark, and the overhead dome vaulting the old fields of the Lacy plantation is filling with a wan, hushed light. Wilderness Run now utters its first soft gurgling for the night, and weary day is closing her eyes. Grant’s and Meade’s headquarter tents are struck, the orderlies have their horses ready, the men are waiting behind the entrenchments in the already dark woods for the word silently to withdraw. A few minutes more and the Lacy farm will be hidden. Now it is gone; and here comes the head of Warren’s corps with banners afloat. What calm serenity, what unquenchable spirit, are in the battle-flags! On they go. Good-by, old fields, deep woods, and lonesome roads. And murmuring runs, Wilderness, and Caton’s, you too farewell.
The head of Warren’s column has reached the Brock Road, and is turning south. At once the men catch what it means. The Old Army of the Potomac is not retreating, and in the dusky light as Grant and Meade pass by, they give them a high, ringing cheer. And now we are passing Hancock’s lines, and never, never shall I forget the scene. Dimly visible but almost within reach from our horses, the gallant men of the Second Corps are resting against the bitterly defended breastworks from which they hurled Field. Here and there is a weird little fire, groups of mounted officers stand undistinguishable in the darkness, and up in the towering treetops of the thick woods beyond the entrenchments tongues of yellow flames are pulsing from dead limbs lapping the black face of night. All is deathly still. We pass on, cross the unfinished railway, then Poplar Run, and then up a shouldered hill. Our horses are walking slowly. We are in dismal pine woods, the habitation of thousands of whip-poor-wills uttering their desolate notes unceasingly. Close behind us the men are toiling on.
It is midnight. Todd’s Tavern is two or three miles away. Deep, deep is the silence. Jehovah reigns; Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor are waiting for us; and here we end.